'At forty,' says Mohammed Ashraf, delicately picking
at the joint's smouldering cherry, 'a man starts to fear
'At twenty, he is cautious; at thirty he is wary, suspicious by thirty-five, but fear? Fear starts at forty.'
'Accha bhai, now pass.'
Mohammed Ashraf looks up with an air of enquiry in his bloodshot eyes. Our circle of huddled figures stares back hungrily. He takes another hit from the joint. 'At forty his arms weaken. His shoulders sag a bit, his moustache droops. His voice might cracklike a phata hua harmonium. His friends, if he still has any '
'Pass, Ashraf bhai. Pass.' Muffled, yet insistent, a voice has emerged from somewhere in our midst. For a quarter of an hour we have sat in silence as Ashraf has extolled the virtues of ticketless train travel, counted the blessings of being in jail, and, with a rolled-up shirt in one hand and a slender paintbrush in the other, demonstrated the proper technique for skinning chicken. We have stifled our yawns, crossed and uncrossed our legs, and swatted away squadrons of mosquitoes as Ashraf has pulled and sucked and ashed at the joint wedged firmly between his fingers.
'Sorry, does someone want this?'
The crowd shuffles. In our circle, the joint has moderated conversation; microphone-like, it singles out its holder as the speaker. Tranquillized by the ganja, exhausted by a long day of work, Ashraf is nonetheless invigorated by the ease with which he has commanded the undivided attention of all present. We've stared fixedly as he's brought the joint to his lips and taken deep, satisfying drags; we've inhaled as he's inhaled, winced as he's choked on the sharp, bitter smoke; we've held our breath to allow the weed to exert its mystical powers, and exhaled as he's expelled smoke from his lungs.
'Arre, pass, Ashraf bhai?' Rehaan asks again. They look at each other for the briefest of instants, wondering if the impoliteness of hurrying someone's hit is outweighed by that of holding the joint too long. Ashraf knows that he can hold off passing the joint for only as long as he can keep us immersed in his tale, and we have finally run out of patience. It was an interesting story, but a timer has finally gone off in someone's head. I can hear it; it sounds like the tapping of a screwdriver against an empty tea glass. It's Lalloo.
Lalloo has finished his whisky, Rehaan has smoked his beedi down to his fingertips, and I? I have maintained a firm grip on the edge of the concrete stair, and am happy to report that I haven't fallen over.
The joint has passed on: Rehaan, its newest custodian, is desperately peddling a tale of rutting pigs, fighting mynahs, and the sorrow of the Ranikhet disease, scourge of poultry farmers. He knows he's on borrowed time headed inexorably for that moment when someone sitting to his left shall look up at him and, almost inaudibly, mutter, 'Pass?'
If I could speak, I would urge Rehaan to take his time and savour it. But the whisky has thickened my tongue and the beedis have scorched my throat; I fear the joint might kill me. Lean back, Rehaan, and tell us the longest, juiciest story you know. Let it start from when you were two years old, scrabbling around in a sunny yard in a village in Uttar Pradesh, and stretch right up to today, twenty years later: when you have lost your virginity, started smoking, stopped speaking to your mother, fallen out with your brother, and fallen in with this lot outside this shuttered shopfront at this crossing at seven in the evening in Sadar Bazaar.
But I can't speak for fear of puking up the raw paneer and freshly boiled eggs that I ate fifteen minutes ago. Hopefully by the time Rehaan finishes his story, the pillar with the surveillance cameras will stop spinning, my seat will stop swaying, the light from the street lamps will no longer crash against my eyelashes and shatter into a thousand luminous fragments, and I may just contemplate a hit of that jointnot because I want to, no sir, but because I have to. This joint, like everything else that follows, shall be for research purposes only.
Reprinted from A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi. Copyright © 2011 by Aman Sehti. First American edition 2012. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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