Down in the Dirt / Scars literary magazine (Vol. 186, August 2021) published my flash story “The Hours”.
This is a very old website — they’ve kept publishing issues, but haven’t updated the site’s mechanics — so it’s slightly tricky to navigate. Click on this link; then, navigate down the alphabetised list of authors’ names in the left-hand panel; once you’ve found “Amita Basu,” click on my name. Then, scroll back up to the top of the page, and click on “The Hours” to read the story. The print book will be on Amazon this August.
1321. Lunchtime. But this P2WM5 is due 1500.
No time for a sit-down. J1N1 sends in sandwiches.
I doff my heels, unbutton my collar, and eat at my picture-window.
My last promotion, they were surprised when I chose this 5th-floor office. A non-corner-office; furniture outmoded; and so low! I said: ‘I have acrophobia.’
I couldn’t say: ‘I want to look, one last year, out of the eyes of the beast.’ This picture-window looks into the slum across the road.
The men are coming home for lunch. From where? From that corner. Beyond that corner my picture-window doesn’t see. The men are mostly autorickshaw-drivers.
Some of the young men, who’ve acquired broken English, work as shop-assistants. They don’t come home for lunch.
The children trip down the potholed lanes to welcome their fathers home. Excited! As if they’ve been parted all fiscal quarter.
The women, to cook lunch, rushed home, earlier. I watched them streaming in, 1236-1249. From where? From that corner. The women are mostly household help.
Some of the young women, who’ve put themselves through college, work in government-offices. They don’t come home for lunch.
The slum-people have no collars to unbutton. No heels to kick off. At work and at home, they’re slipper-shod. (Except the children. They’re barefoot.) At work, the autorickshaw-drivers’ khaki shirts are already half-unbuttoned. The women keep their work-saris on to cook, eat, sleep.
I suppose, when you can’t afford work-clothes separate from live-clothes, you cope.
They haven’t clocks, either. How do they know when it’s lunchtime?
They know because other people come home for lunch.
But how do those people know?
Their stomachs know. Slum-people haven’t disciplined their stomachs. That’s why they’re slum-people.
Alarm. Must finish the P2WM5. J1N1 sends in more coffee.
1432. I’ve had so much coffee I’m half-nauseous, half-scatterbrained. Still I can’t focus.
I’ve tried caffeine-pills, stretch-breaks, and Tim Ferris’s prod-max insp-playlist.
I jump up for another picture-window-break.
The women sit together, making – some kind of sweets. They’ve established an assembly-line! Clever. One woman stirs a cauldron; another spreads the contents out to cool; some roll the contents into balls; others press the balls into moulds.
So: some festival’s approaching. Which?
What’s today’s date?
J1N1 says: 12-11-20.
Are we on US date format, or Indian? Is today 12 Nov, or Dec 11?
I don’t track what date it is. J1N1 tells me: ‘Parimeeta, do this next.’
The women sit under – some kind of tree. For shade?
What’s today’s temperature? I lean against the windowpane. The glass feels the same cool as always. Temperature optimised for productivity. Held constant.
Constancy optimises productivity.
An assembly-line has one drawback. Doing their own work, alone, everyone seeks shortcuts. Minus a supervisor, when something miscarries, whom d’you fire?
Alarm. End of sightseeing-break.
They’ve revamped the intranet dashboard. How do I submit my P2WM5? I remember this morning’s memo from Technical – I flagged it to read later. Shit, which button do I press?
I want to email Technical: ‘Why keep changing a dashboard that works fine?’
I don’t. Designing the dashboard is their job. My job is using it. I read the memo. I archive it.
1554. The TX2KR, greenlit 10-11-20, has come through Redesign, for review. I have till – J1N1 highlights Parimeeta’s Calendar to show how long Parimeeta has. I have.
Ah: so today’s Friday.
I used to tell the day by coffee. Each office had a coffee-machine. I was going through one 200g pouch/week, rubbishing the packet every – that’s when I knew it was – Friday. Now, J1N1 sends in coffee-cups every hour. So, now, I can’t tell the day by coffee. But, now, I can tell the hour.
Well: I can tell that another hour has passed.
How much coffee do I go through a week now?
J1N1 knows. J1N1 measures my hours.
How much coffee do the slum-people drink?
Nilambita texts: ‘Prithak confirmed for drinks. 1930, Yavolter’s?’
I reply: ‘Seeya there.’
Nilambita’s my classmate from Std. XI-XII. Prithak’s my batchmate from McCann’s, ’04-’06. They’re here, in Bangalore, doing – something.
We’re just friends. We unbutton our collars, drink, and discuss anything but work.
I don’t even know what Mom does for work. Or Viyukt.
I know they work in corner-offices. Cheered on by coffee, alarms, and J1N1s. Temperature and lighting optimised.
1813. Picture-window. Don’t worry: I’m working, in my head, on the TX2KR.
The men are coming home again. The children are tripping out again.
Some children take their fathers’ hands and ask how their day went.
Isn’t every day the same?
Other children hush, and hide, until their fathers pass.
The children approach their family vehicles. Auto-rickshaws, delivery-vans, secondhand motor-scooters, water-tankers. The water-tankers correct shortages in the civic water-supply. Apparently there’s a drought on. On the other side of my picture-window.
In garish polyester lace-and-net finery, brandishing garish plastic streamers – still barefoot – the children decorate their family vehicles.
I remember, from when I was a child – occasionally unoccupied – some festival where some Indians decorate some implements.
So: this vehicle-decorating, sweet-making festival, is in – Month#11, or #12? And it’s called – what?
If my picture-window were openable, the slum-people’s voices would float, across the street, up to me. I’d catch the festival’s name. I’d smell those bucket-shaped scarlet flowers, those spray-shaped ivory flowers, that blossom this time of year. I’d feel how hot it is, this time of day. 1851 12-11-20.
They’re sightseeing life. Meal-times. Festival-times. They’ll never be anyone.
I’m sightseeing them.
1900. Alarm. End of workday.
The slum-people drink no coffee. They’ve got other things to keep them up.
Bosses shouting. Children screaming all in one room. Hunger-pangs at midnight. The seasons, which they tell without calendars. Flowers, and festivals, whose names they know.
I’m graduating from coffee to something stronger. I’m graduating out of all contact with the hours of the day.
Approaching: another promotion. I’ll choose a windowless office. Move into the belly of the beast. Commit to my future.
For us, this rite-of-passage. I blind my picture-window. I stride away. Behind me, my office auto-darkens.