‘Inner-city life’

  Pervasive heat, with an all-embracing humidity. Speedy sex for silent sale, juxtaposed with  clogged open drains, odorous in their opulence. Shouted market calls unabated, amidst the clatter of cooking, both private and public. The scents of spices pervade the noisy chatter of a multi-ethnic populace. The clutter of the street blends with the ebb and flow of a multitude of poor people.

The perennial search for sustenance by beggars seeking merely to survive is circumscribed by sly shopkeepers soliciting a sale. Haggling about prices is a necessity; else opportunistic sellers might be offended. Night is turned into day by vendors of victuals, with spivs and security agents lurking in the shadows. This is the inner city into which I have been thrust – as jetsam in a harbour of flotsam.

The pathos of poverty, the plight of the ever-present poor, pervades the spectrum of the sounds of sexual congress. These shade into the wails of women being beaten by men angry with themselves. The cries of hungry children provide a heart-wrenching background. Under the engulfing atmospheric envelope of unrelenting uncertainty, the people go about their business busily.

There is limited scope for mentally sighting a stable future. In their state of existence on a knife-edge, all is observed, yet nothing might be seen. Prayer, for sustenance, for good health, for any kind of a rewarding future, prevails powerfully; yet the gods do not seem to respond. I am now an intrinsic but unthankful part of this scenario.

The rains come in a rumbustious roar. Wondrous cracks of lightning enable us to look into the heart of the huge raindrops. Rumbling explosions of thunder weave in and out of the walls of rain. The heavens remind one and all most ferociously that human existence is precarious – as if we do not know that. We have lived with this burden all our lives.

I need a job urgently, for I am destitute. An Indian acquaintance finds me one. A month later, he brings me my pay. It is pitifully small. I need to be even more frugal. At my request, my boss agrees to pay me directly in the future. The first month’s pay was, however, reduced by the cut taken by the go-between. This is the Asian way.

I share a house with a chatty white British air force sergeant born and bred in Jamaica and his ill-educated, snooty wife with the accent of a catarrh-ridden fishing village somewhere in the south of England. She is paid as much as a newly graduated Asian doctor. He is paid twice that amount! This is the British way, in a colonial outpost.

The woman and I share a dislike –  for each other. She is typical of the ‘upstarts’ sent to teach us how to govern ourselves, although we have been known to be civilised and cultured for thousands of years. In spite of the barriers of skin colour and caste, the sergeant and I converse nightly about matters of serious import.

Another room in our home is occupied by a Sri Lankan with his Anglo-Australian wife. Each night, they come home in a taxi. Each night, I see him remove his hand from under his wife’s bra before they disembark. The foreplay has already begun. “ … … and twice on Sunday” is his theme song. Quietude sought by us is sprung by his creaky springs. I am forced to take my little friend in hand from time to time; but we cause no creaks. The English couple is silent; perhaps they are just being British!


(Fiction by Ratnam, suggestive of colonial Singapore)