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Short story

Vocation

A series of loosely linked vignettes engaging with alienation. This story was featured in The Right-Eyed Deer.

This short story was initially featured in The RightEyed Deer.

“…has created a gap between the worker and his work.  This gap is called mass production…”

He’s a bit taller than I.  I think the beard is to hide his bad skin.  I wonder if he keeps his hands fisted in his pockets because they’re always cold, or because he’s nervous around young women.

Someday I will grow used to thinking of myself as a young woman.  Maybe the day I start working: a real job, not from-home part-time minimal wage labour.  If everyone called me by my last name, I’d probably have been a young woman by now, fitting instinctively into the world outside the classroom, the world without cushions.

“…alienation of the worker from his work…”

That’s Bisi Bele Bath.  Nothing else from the canteen can project its scent three lecture-halls away.  Can this little man sit me in a room with an endless supply of paper and Bisi Bele Bath and show me how to live on alienation of the worker from his work?

I don’t even try to rush.  It’s so undignified, and it makes hardly a difference.  Mount Carmel women in the canteen are like traffic on metropolitan roads: they keep coming, coming, their source inexhaustible because it is also their destination.  The world is round.

The fight to the front, to the counter is invigorating.  There is a scientific way to do it, and relentless against the press of thighs and upper arms I perfect that technique.  My foot, bold in its sneaker, gropes around and grips a spot between other mostly slipper-clad feet.  I anchor myself behind a girl whose fickle arm follows one then another hassled figure behind the counter: “Auntie, one sambhar rice.  Uncle, one sambhar rice.  Auntie.”  Two bills with the crispness clasped out of them are held aloft, cigarette-like, failing to tempt Uncle and Auntie.

Humanity is weighing on my lungs, but I’m absorbed watching them.  The haggard pairs of eyes make brief contact with eyes in dark faces, eyes in less dark faces, eyes in sallow faces, eyes dim behind the glare on glasses.  Sometimes they take three, four orders together.  I wait for Uncle or Auntie to pour sambhar on tomato rice or bring the lunch with chapatti to the wrong customer.  It doesn’t happen.  The half-second of eye contact, the order once given, suffices Uncle and Auntie.

“Yes ma?”

My turn?  Lunch with chapatti.

They give me three teaspoons of the curry and three chapattis.  This is not the proportion we grew up with at home.  With one chapatti still on the plate I take it back for more curry.  The first time they were quick to oblige a new customer.  The second time the eye-contact was a bit longer than necessary.  This third time a portly Uncle emits a small sound of annoyance as he pours on another spoonful and shoves the plate at me.

They remember faces!

I know I’ve seen this text before.  Haven’t I rewritten it already?  I have to search for it with Ctrl+F.  Yes, I have rewritten it – two paragraphss ago.  Assemblée Nationale and Rue Moufetard.  These things have names, of course.  I note down the error to report to the co-coordinator.

The co-coordinator is Mr. Kaushik.  Kaushik – what?  I call my brother by his first name.  My brother has seen my soul.  But Kaushik – I could walk past a hundred Kaushiks and not know the person to whom I send my work.  Yet he calls me “Hi Tulli” and calls himself “Regards, Kaushik.”  Informality has become just another form.

My molars withstand a pressure of 1000 pounds per square inch.  My new denim satchel is tearing at the seams because I carry two one-liter bottles in it everyday.  Not Aquafina.  Aquafina is a Pepsi project, supposed to be their prime earner by 2010.  I’d rather get a kidney stone than carry a Aquafina bottle.

“He won’t charge you more than four rupees,” one of my classmates, one of his satisfied customers had told me.

The sun is behind his little green shop-box, and the shadow of his shop falls six inches short of the edge of the pavement.  I open the flap of my satchel and hand it to him.  Then I stand back, my back in the sun, and let pedestrians pass between us in the shade.

He unzips the front pocket and his knobby fingers, slightly trembling, feel the inside of the zipper where the denim has come unstitched.  His right hand reaches for a tool and sees it on a ledge above, his eyes on my satchel.  He uses the tool, an iron triangle on a handle, to nudge the loose cloth back into the wedge of the zipper, and smooth it inside.  He holds one end of a length of black twine inside the unzipped front pocket and draws it out with the end of a long iron needle, as thick as a knitting-needle and with a tapering bent end.

I haven’t bothered to take my purse and cell-phone out of the pocket, so I’m obliged to watch him.  I glance up at the noon sky.  A vague promise of sun has now drowned behind thin oceans of cloud.  Beneath my thick cotton salwar the needled warmth of my skin is gathering into beads.  On the dusty road the air is almost still but beneath the hair at the nape of my neck a little breeze cools my skin.

The cobbler knots the twine on the inside, where it will not damage the frail beauty of my satchel.  He snaps the twine, or the twine snaps in his hand.  He prods the edge of the cloth back into the wedge of the zipper and strokes the zipper closed.

I sling the satchel on my shoulder and my hand slips into the healed front pocket for my wallet.

“How much?”

“Five rupees,” he says, quickly almost glancing up then looking down for something to busy his hands.

I hand him the coin and walk away without waiting for him to look up.

“I told you not to get me anything!”

“Yea, but I was passing by Jute Cottage and just thought of getting you something.”

“May I open it?”  My fingers are already sliding under the tape where it bridges the two layers of paper, and edging it up to peel it off without damaging the upper film of the wrapping-paper.

It is a chic, sturdy-looking cloth satchel.  Yes, this will be very useful.  Thank you, Raj!

“So, what else are you doing these days.  Busy with the Literary Association?”

“Not much.  Hardly anyone shows up for meetings.  I’ve started a blog but no one’s put anything up.”

“Why don’t you put something of yours up.”

“No, you know I’ve stopped writing.  I mean creative writing.  I’m doing a part-time job, my neighbour at the paying-guest told me about it.  Their company’s doing a guide to all the big cities in the world, and I’m rewriting some content for that.  This kind of writing – ”

“Are you enjoying it?  How’s the work?”

“It’s straightforward, and a bit creative too.  Of course the pay is abysmal – ”

He tells me that doesn’t matter if I enjoy it and earn some experience.  I tell him it looks as though the content has been lifted off existing websites.  Probably without the authors’ consent, because Mr. Kaushik’s instructions say I’m to change the structure and use different words wherever possible.  I have a part-time job as an underpaid disguiser of plagiarism for an American multinational company.  My little world quakes suddenly.  Maybe with my own laughter.

“Oo!  Tulli is plagiarising!”

We laugh.

I walk slowly – the afternoon sun is out.  The blood fills up under my skin: my cells prepare to manufacture Vitamin D.  When I reach her stall I stand out of its shadow and observe the papayas.  They’ve been plucked prematurely; some of them have not even been allowed to lighten out their greens.

The old woman lifts her brows and hairline to ask What.  I approach and her thin lips part over the brown-edged wedges of her pan-worn teeth and draw back.  I return her senile smile and point to the purple-skinned grapes.  They contrast beautifully with the dewdrop-like green grapes and hunger wets the roof of my mouth.

She mutters a Kannada word and I raise my eyebrows and lean closer.  She holds up four fingers.  This is our ritual.  She imagines I might suddenly understand Kannada and I imagine the price of these delicious grapes might sink.

“Half K.G.  Auntie – ”  As she bends heavily to fish out a plastic bag I hand her one from my satchel.

The scales are almost even: my grapes hover above the weight.  She drops in a stem with ten grapes and the scales are perfectly even.  She does not let me admire the perfectness and empties the grapes into my bag.  She squints up at me with her purse-like, practically toothless mouth.  I frown down at the unevenly coloured mangoes.

“One K.G.  On the raw side.”

Her fingers and palm are already picking out mangoes exactly in the state I want them, firm and easy to peel, tart and not yet full of fibres.  I trust her judgment.  She gave me mangoes rotten at the core the first time I bought from her, and she’s given me perfect mangoes ever since she realised I am a regular customer.

“How much?”

Twenty-five.

“Aunty, last time they were twenty?”

She waves her hand above her head.  Prices have climbed.  I know that: the mango carts have become infrequent.

“Aunty, twenty?”

I pay her and she accepts.  Not only that, she looks up and meets my eyes and smiles her decrepit, worn-toothed smile.

Ulysses was first printed by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co.  I know that from one of the documents I rewrote.  Researching James Joyce on Wikipedia, I see an image of the Shakespeare & Co. cover of Ulysses and blush with pleasure.  I’d actually learned something from this!

Back in my room this incident breathes a little blood into my fingers as I type.  But only a little.  Tulli is plagiarising.  If I do it well, the persons from whose websites the material has been lifted will never know.  Their name will never appear.  My name will never appear.

I’m running out of flattering words.  “There is a beautiful view from Place Vendome on Eiffel Tower.”  A breathtaking view.  A majestic panorama.  Surely someone’s written a very simple programme that can do this.  Why do you need Tulli to pick synonyms from MS Word’s Thesaurus?

Some of the text boxes are small.  I always do the small boxes first.  This wastes a lot of time, going back and forth.  I know it’s more efficient to go in order.  It doesn’t matter.  No one will reward me for my efficiency.  No one will know how I did it.  No one will even know who did it.  Except Mr. Kaushik.  And he doesn’t know me.

And if I don’t find enough synonyms, if there is a plagiarism lawsuit, I will never hear about it.  Just as if a bottle of Aquafina poisons me, I must not shout at the department storekeeper.  I must contact Consumer Helpline 1800-180-2356.  And speak to a machine?

She must be over seventy.  Her shop is open before seven and she’s there into the night except when she goes for lunch.  For how many years has she been arranging her pile of undersized blemished mangoes in perfect rows?  No Solitaire breaks for the fruit-vendor.  Blemished greens are more interesting to the eye than black on white. 

She’s late.  The shutter is down and on the brick-red steps where her humble cornucopia should be spread, the men from the slot-sized news-shop next door are tying up piles of morning papers.  I return later – when the sun has dried up, and hideous noisy scooters have pressed into the grain of the roads, the steamy dawn-libations of cows.  She’s still not there.

Over the plain shutter and red steps I notice for the first time the rusted white board with faded blue lettering: M. Lakshmi Shop.  What is M for?  Mother.  Mother of wealth, in her sari whose original colour rains of sweat and detergent have permanently hushed.  Mother of wealth, who owns each unripe papaya and sun-softened grape that passes through her hands into the battered scales.

One day I’m happy to see her again.  Happy, because the mango season is in it last breath and the cart-pushers have wandered away from the neighbourhood.  But she, perhaps, will stack the season’s last unripe, shrivelled mangoes on her shelf – tomorrow, perhaps.  She’s hanging up hands of bananas, helped by a young man.  They’re discussing something in inaudible mutters and abrupt gestures.  I wait.  There’s nothing much laid out to look at yet.  Over my shoulder piled outside a shop across the road I see oranges.  I turn back around and finally signal the vendor’s attention.

“Aunty, bananas?”

She wrinkles her gray, eroded eyebrows and jerks her neck upwards.  I repeat.

She shows me her hand, the little finger folded.  This gesture also said Wait because she resumes slinging up bananas and her conversation with her son.  I turn away and start crossing the road.  Immediately her hoarse voice calls after me.

Now I have her attention.  I buy bananas – mangoes are officially over.

How can she treat customers so casually?  There are so many competitors in sight.  But she’s right.  Her filmy eyes see the dust of my feet lead me in familiarity to her shop.  That other shop across the road draws other dusty feet: like yet unlike mine.

She’s given me good bananas – my attempted escape was a reaffirmation of my status as her loyal customer.

“Raj!  I got my first paycheck!”

“You must be excited.  I remember when I got my stipend, it was just 900 bucks, but even now when I’m earning much more I can never get that thrill again.”

“Yay!  This weekend when we run you must let me treat you, for once!”

“Haha.  Have you cashed the check?”

“Yes.  But I’ll show you the letter it came with.”

An A4 sheet, folded in thirds.  The company’s letterhead, actually bearing the scribble of some third person.  I don’t get to see Mr. Kaushik’s scribble.  Typed,

Dear Tulli, Enter Thank you for being part of (our company).  Enter Please find enclosed check for Rs. (= No. of words/800 *75).  Enter (Scribbled signature of third person).

Yay!

Textbooks have displaced one of the two bottles from my satchel.  Usually I carry the single bottle in my hand.  Still, the zipper is again coming unstitched – at a place far from the first time (I cannot blame the cobbler).

Again I stand outside his shop.

I’ve just cashed my cheque, but I release myself from the obligation to watch him.  I look at him: his head bent, his grizzled eyebrows furrowed.  (This time I have allowed the tear to  gape before I brought it to him.)

Some readers like open endings.  Me they irritate like a censored pair of open legs.  ‘I have an ending for the story in my mind; I didn’t want to spoil it for my readers.  Everybody can finish it as they like.’  But I don’t like; I want you to tell me.  Maybe ending stories has become unfashionable.  Like the Fictitious Consumer, the end of the story of the chain.  The air-conditioned incubator of ideation – the drafter’s table – the assembly line with X/Y – Z pairs of eyes blinking over it – the trucks obesely panting smoke – the shops with crowded aisles – (the Fictitious Consumer).

He’s prodding the cloth back inside the zipper with a hooked instrument.

What a waste of time!  The chain is too busy ideating, drafting, assembling, shipping, shopping – no one has ended the story.  Who is the Fictitious Consumer.  My denim satchel was made for him.  He doesn’t carry water in his satchel – not even one bottle.  He doesn’t carry a binder – a normal-sized binder does not fit into the bag either way.  He doesn’t carry books – without a binder backing them, books become spineless, sliding into one another’s pages.  He doesn’t carry a cell-phone in the absurd little cell-phone pocket – the phone could be lifted, even if the pocket had a flap.  He doesn’t carry an ID card, library card, pens, a comb in the front compartment – fishing for it, I fish everything else out first.

The cobbler’s sewing now.  With great care, as though mending a first wound. 

What does the Fictitious Consumer carry in my denim satchel?  He carries the satchel taut with straw on the wide neon-lit streets.

How many sips in an Aquafina bottle?  X and a half.  X varies, the odd half stays.  It lasts one exam of three hours – except the last seven minutes.  When I’m filling my bottles, all of them have the odd dregs left which I drink then.  In the middle of the night I have to grope for a new bottle.  It’s too light for a dumbbell, but carrying it in my hand is a bother – I need something to carry it in.  I am not the Fictitious Consumer.  The Fictitious Consumer smartly snaps the seal of an Aquafina bottle, tilts his head back with the toned V-muscles of his neck, and allows a stream to sparkle past his lips and down his throat – and the bottle is seen, but used no more.

The cobbler zips the pocket and hands my satchel back.  Behind the binder jutting out, I slip my hand into the back pocket.  Next to the smooth lining material, crisp banknotes are already sponging the moistness of the cloud-heavy weather.

“How much, Uncle?”

“Five rupees.”  His eyelids come together and part before blinking.

From the mended pocket I produce a fat coin and hold it out.  He has to reach for it, and my eyes catch his.  My lips smile, his eyes smile.

I am in the rut.  Now the important thing is to not think.  To not be outraged by sentences that begin in the middle of a saga and end on the beach of a volcano-shattered island.  To not spend time stretching my imagination with the brand-new words the rewriters have invented.  Everyone thinks they can write.  Shockingly, everyone is also making money by their writing.

I no longer first scan a 10% view for the small boxes of text.  I go in order.  I make only the minimum changes necessary for bare comprehension.  I mass-replace typos with Ctrl+F.  My Solitaire breaks are terse, purposeful.  My fingers systematically cycle synonyms.  A breathtaking view, amazing, panoramic, breathtaking, stunning, amazing.  I leave the formatting changes for the last minutes, when my eyelids are falling in love and my brain has folded its wings for the night.

I’ve been promoted from rewriter to editor.  Per page I’m paid less and work longer – or used to, until deciding to get into the rut.  If you get in trouble because your rewriter can’t write, don’t blame the underpaid editor.

Page three, twelve rupees.    No looking back. 

Every first week I’ll get money – good for papayas and bus-fare.  Someday I’ll get credentials from Mr. Kaushik, certifying my work.  Maybe someday I’ll sue them for plagiarising.  Someday when the rung of this part-time job can rot, because I’ll never step on it again.

Buy me a lunch with chapatti too?  I only have a fifty.

Agreeing, my friend pushes through.  I stand behind her, a barrier to other bodies pressing forward to edge her out.

“Uncle!  One chapatti and a pulao.”

“Ten rupees deposit, ma!”

“Damn.  Do you have a ten?”

I show her my fifty.

“You must return the plate, ma.”

Tell him no chutney.  I only want the curry.

“As though I’m going to eat the plate!”

Let’s go outside.

“You should ask for more curry.”

I manoeuvre back to the counter.  Auntie, more curry.  This time I get a whole dollop.

They’ve given me four chapattis instead of three!  The system is not infallible!  They don’t always remember!

“Let’s return the plates.  Hey – ?  If they return the deposit for both plates – ”

Of course we keep it.

My friend giggles.

We get back the deposit for both plates: two soggy ten rupee notes. 

My friend giggles.

Here’s for my lunch – I return my spoils.

“O wow!” giggles my friend.

My lunch paid for itself.  The system is not infallible!  I’m going to start eating here, regularly, again.

Imagine the little man at the head of a march.  The skin of his hands would scrape on the wood of the banner; the fine muscles between his thumb and forefinger would tighten, then loosen.  He wouldn’t hold the banner high; his voice would drown. 

How powerful his voice is here, though the canteen is now making biryani, and the sun is bright on the peach walls, and his voice with the harsh dental ts and ds is threading in and out of the rustle of female voices!

And when you’ve finished mass production, I’ll tell you about the lichen growth of small business on the face of mass production.  The old man’s stitches on my satchel are almost seamless.  I’ll always bring my species of dust to his shop, though there is another cobbler closer, right on my block.

Hurry up – no, take your time! and I’ll tell you about the Fictitious Consumer.

END

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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