Hunger alters perception. So does hope. Both are present, one imagines, in the long queue before any ration shop. The proportion is impossible to pin down: hunger accretes till sated; hope, a fickle thing, can see crests and troughs inside a split second. Comparison is difficult, too: it’s possible to ask “Is there more hunger in the line today than hope?” but the inverse is close to being meaningless, not to mention vulgar.
The only certain thing in the context is altered perception. In Jerry Pyrtuh’s A Brief History of Waiting, this alteration is conveyed through a strangeness in the language. Told in first-person plural, the story never divulges the identities of the individuals behind its narrative voice. They don’t care for the numerous papers that give them ‘name father country’ — the ration card is the only priority today. Nobody, in fact, has a ‘name father country’ in the story. The ration shop is called ‘the house of distribution.’ The lone nurse in the local dispensary seeks a transfer out, but the only plausible path before her is to sell ‘her democracy’ to a powerful man. We wonder what this sellable democracy is, and how it is connected to lines so long they have forgotten they are lines.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
A Brief History of Waiting
The line calls. We wake before the purple fades from the sky and begin a rummage through the house. Everything must come out to the open. Shoes, textbooks, rags, egg cartons we collect to smoke out mosquitoes. Somewhere in that mess, there is a jute sack big enough for thirty kilos of rice. We drag it, beat the mold into a light fog and welcome the first blink of the sun. We take the little light through the windows and send it to a world beneath the mattress. All sorts of papers run through our fingers. Report cards, electrical bills, a palm-sized picture of the pope, unused revenue stamps, a polythene with the certificates of our lives. Papers that give us name father country. Things we do not know or care for. For now, only the ration card.
In the kitchen, the pla iew sits beside the cabinets. When the neighbors offered us the potatoes they harvested from the monsoon soil, we accepted them in the mouth of the pla. We have eaten potatoes for weeks. Raw potatoes, boiled potatoes, potatoes barbequed over a wood fire. The pla iew multiplies whatever is inside it. Of all the things the ancients blessed, this bag must have been one of them. That is why when we carry the pla, we carry it on the surface of our foreheads- all that abundance can only be lifted by the place where the divine hand touched us when it called our bodies to life. We empty out the bag and set aside the potatoes. Today we will use it for coarse sugar. What we get, the pla will multiply into enough sweetness for a month.
Now that we have the bags, we count our money. When it is not enough, we peel out pockets into flowers and hope the bloom will hand out a coin or two. This is the blessing of forgetting. There is money that is spent as soon as it falls in the folds of our palms, then there is money so small that it hides from our memory. Some lost things can only return when desperation brims. Without a money god, we have learnt only to rely on luck. Not the kind of luck that changes silver hair to gold nor the gambling kind that changes fates overnight. We get little luck, pinched luck, luck so humble we can barely do anything with it. Today, it is a luck that is just enough to fill the begging of our hands.
After the gathering of materials, Mei sends us off.
Go before the crowd swells, she says.
She does not worry about us waiting for too long. As it has always been before, today too, Mei worries over the return of empty bags.
We leave for the house of distribution right away. We do not brush or wash our faces. Who has the time to clean off sleep when hunger is in a hurry? Let its smell remain in our breaths. Let it stay in the tangle of our hair. Let it be written on our faces. Let our dry saliva proclaim the message of our bellies.
Our footsteps drum out daylight. We arrive at our destination when the world is at work. The crowd is gathered into a ball of yarn. We dive to the center, bowing our heads as adults call us beastly and ask, Whose children are they? Some familiar faces smile or nod or stare long enough as though somewhere in a garden of spirits, we hold our suffering together. We wait in the center of impatience before someone solves the tangle and arranges us into a line. Who came before whom? Fingers point us to the furthest end. No matter how early our arrival, we are always too late.
As we begin the waiting, a serpent of people grows behind us. A relative takes her place nearby. She complains that her daughters refused to come.
No one wants to come to the line willingly, we think.
In our history of the lines, the daughters have always been there. We remember their bird necks, their clean feet, and their hair, reeking with the fragrance of almond oil. There are those of us who have learnt to revel in the surplus of waiting. The daughters too have learnt this. They discovered, the surplus can smile with the beautiful face of desire. In the gaps of the line, their hearts reached for some forsaken sons of the village. The lines made us their witness. We watched their flirting transformed to love transformed to raging bulls transformed to love again. When the daughters’ eyes found ours, they warned us from revealing what we had seen. The only refuge for young love is in a secret. We obeyed. We had no one to tell to. Even if we did, the words in our mouths were not tightened enough to be believed. In their absence now, we imagine something must have happened to their affairs.
Today, they must have chosen grief, chosen the melancholy that takes us away from the order of living.
The bounty of the line comes only with sacrifice.
There is a perverse logic here. We are all burdened by the whales of our survival. Some things in the stomach, some things in the soul, some things in the matter of the world. We wait and we learn the price of receiving. What do we pay when we come to the line?
It is not the little money we exchange for the grains but the shame of declaring to each other the scarcities of our lives. We can hear Kong Heh say she would never eat the sour rice of cheap ration, only the best-polished rice for her. She comes because it would be a waste to not take it. What she gets, she says, she will feed to the pigs and to the chickens, and the rest she will sell at a two rupees profit to those without a ration card. Some draw a veil to protect from the shame of not having. The rest of us do not have the gift of these abilities. We, the unthought, congregate at the line to climb from the pits of forgottenness. We raise our shame and call it, birthright.
Bamboos shudder in the morning breeze. The line is stretched so long, it begins to curve into a frown.
The noise of people grows. It awakens the distributor. He lifts the lace curtains of his window, and the blackness of his eyes shines at us through the glass. The contours announce at once his disgust at our overestimated right to be there. But we stand nevertheless, large in our smallness. Our bodies project up to the realm of birds with the audacity to say, We will not be moved. We have known this man for a long while now. He has inspected the back of our ears and deemed us unworthy. Once when we were twelve rupees short, he held our bags hostage and chased us out. We cursed him with our spit. Mei borrowed from the neighbors to retrieve our belongings. We, who arrive at the line, may be alike but not all of us, are equal. To his chosen others, the man opens the purse of his palms. They kiss his hand when he drops an extra fistful of grains or when he forgives the rupee they do not have.
The house of distribution thunders with his footsteps. The man begins his morning ritual. A faint smell of toothpaste hovers in the outside air. Our tongues move through the assembly of our teeth. We pick the twig of a blue hibiscus to scrape the debris in our own mouths. The outside swells with the noise of him pulling the spit from his throat. Splashes of water follow.
His young grandson comes running to the congregation. A muffled information scatters.
We follow with an anxious symphony of, What did he say?
Tectonic plates shift within the internal chambers of our bodies. We did not wait this long only to be sent away. Did the government fail to deliver the grains? This would not be the first time. Is the man too eager to get rid of us? He must have looked at the crowd and grown displeased. Our feet are firmed, they plant roots in the soil we stand on. We will not cut them off. We will wait until we are given what we are here for. Fill our plates. Fill our cups. Fill the hungry rooms of our mouths. The emptyness is a cave that will not go quiet.
He. Said. To. Wait. While. The. Man. Has. His. Tea, a voice shouts from the front of the line.
Upon hearing this, the tremors in our bodies settle with relief. It is not that we fear the waiting, only that the waiting must not be unfruitful. We send the message to the others behind us and they to those further behind.
The line snails out of the gate, stretching its soft tissue onto the street. Our relative complains, This will take the whole day.
Members of the line are growing tired. There are bodies folded on the ground, bodies drowning into the pool of their own hips, bodies melting onto other bodies. Some mark their spot and move around in search of company. There are those who look for the familiar and those who look for the new. People find reunion or make new friends. Talking remedies the waiting. Something about a family selling off their land. This economy will make us do just about anything. Something about young fruits rotting from the inside. It must be the radiation from mobile towers. Something about sickness, how the divines sent it as a punishment for marrying into a related clan. Something about flowers, how they bloom all year long in someone’s garden. It must be the goodness in their hand. We listen. We, who without the speaking, closely tuned in with our ears.
All sorts of things come to the line. We reach here with pockets of rumors and the wisdom of tending to them, with dreams and the tenderness of believing, with the aching and kitchen recipes for a cure. Praise the magic of mustard oil.
Illness stumbles into us at the line. It reaches by the rain, by the cold, by the dancing sun, by the gravity that curls the human back. The oil treats it – oil scent, oil potion, oil balm massaged inward through the epidermis. We swear by it.
Only when the oil fails to work will we run to the dispensary. Another line will await us there. There is no doctor for us to meet, only a nurse who is stationed unwillingly. No one knows when the nurse came to these parts, only that she has always been around. Without the wonders of decorated relationships, she cannot leave the confines of a village employment. The office of health buries stacks of her letters. Every request for a transfer marked DENIED. If she could kiss the hands of a man with power and sell to him her democracy, she would have been given crane feet long enough to reach the city hospital. She too could have received a good position, a reward for her long dedicated service. This is the dream that lives in the motion of her hands as they fill up our empty glass bottles with diluted syrups. Every patient of the dispensary is cursed with seeing this dream and the inability to grant it. We will thank her instead with a hard-earned coin and regret she was human.
At the ration line, we start to forget the reasons for being there. Two bodies fly across our gathering and land at the distributor’s door. They knock and call his name. Someone from the inside receives them with a big embrace. The door is quickly locked again. Unlike us, their visitation is a gift. From the outside, we listen to their chatter. We hear too, the sound of a kitchen at work. We imagine tea brewing over the fire. Someone gently pours it into white ceramic cups. Metal spoons stir the red beverage- whirlpool in a cup. Hypnosis for more waiting. Behind the doors, the clock overlooks the length of their conversation. Outside, the sun proclaims that we are late for the duties of living.
One of the men has had enough. We watch him explode into a flood of anger.
This is too much! Open up already, he demanded.
Our stomachs decide to join in the protest. There is no leaving empty-handed. If Mei has taught us anything, it is the virtue of waiting.
The wings of the door open.
The man comes out and says, If you want to wait, wait. If you cannot wait, go ahead and leave.
Soon after the message, he disappears back into the folded wings. The line is shaken with disbelief, but we carry on waiting. Some who reach the line at this hour still decide to join it. Together we make a black thread stitched on the flag of the disregard. Others contest with the idea of abandoning the wait. The line has grown so long it has forgotten it is a line.
Perhaps tomorrow, they say.
If tomorrow comes with a little luck, they may not have to settle for broken rice or stale grains. This is the choice they must make. May the flower of fulfilment find a way to the hollows of all our lives. May we, who know so often the distress of hunger, also find the calmness of a full stomach.
Those who are at the back calculate the ratio of time to heads. Naïve mathematics turn the line into a place of negotiation.
Elders guilt the young into trading their spots. Young people can afford to wait, they say. The sick too ask the healthy. Please have some sympathy, they say.
Those with some extra money use it to buy a plot somewhere at the front. Oh! the temptation of a little coin of joy.
Meanwhile, some choose the risk of leaving.
The line shakes and re-assembles, again and again. Shuffled bodies pretend that life is not about waiting. The rest of us who are firmed in our positions turn into stones. The roots of our feet had nothing better to do but harden. This is our metamorphosis. Everything deprived becomes a stone. In Sohra, the basket of the giant Ramhah waits for its dead master until it hardens. The memories of our ancestors too wait for us in stones. A heart that suffers from unrequited love. All the squishy matter of longing and needing curls up into the stiffness of a stone.
We throw our lives into every line that calls our names. The line is a measure of the everyday. We wait for water, for fuel, for government schemes, for blankets, for a thousand rupees and the trickeries of the voted member of legislation. This is the economy of our existence. The more we wait, the more we forget the soft life of humans. All stones must have been human once. If they have not forgotten this, it is possible to find some stones with a heartbeat. Some stones with tears so frequent they build an ocean of possibilities around them. Some stones with a mouth so hungry, they can eat up the whole world.
We, the stones of this earth, rise before the house of distribution. Waiting. Waiting.
Jerry Pyrtuh is a student of Psychology. He reads and writes between Shillong and Massachusetts. Some works have appeared on Raiot and the Sunflower Collective.