Fear and Loathing in Munirka
By Abhimanyu Singh
Manik told me that he did not have to apply anywhere or appear for an interview for his first job. While cooling his heels at home, he recorded the part of Eliza Doolittle’s dad from the play My Fair Lady for a cultural function at his former school. A family friend who owned a call centre was visiting when Manik made the recording. He liked what he heard – Manik had to put on a fake English accent, the kind of thing he was always good at, being a natural singer – and offered him a job.
Like all other call centres in Calcutta, his office was in Sector Five in Salt Lake. Manik moved to Calcutta from the small town he lived in with his mother. His alcoholic father, also a gambler, had deserted the family a long time ago. Manik hardly remembered anything about him since he was very little when he left. But he once told me that his father sang very well.
Every day, he would take the train from Dum-Dum where he lived in a flat he shared with three others, and go till Bidhannagar station. From there, he took a bus. It was a sales job. Manik worked the night shift. He and his colleagues had to call up people in the United States and get them to buy a satellite TV connection. Manik never had any success but a trick he used to hard sell the offer worked for his colleagues. He would call and tell people that they were on air, as participants in a nation-wide quiz contest. All they had to do was to answer three simple questions. Upon getting the answers right, one could win stuff worth five hundred dollars. This made the unsuspecting ‘contestants’ excited and they would demand to know the questions. Manik would ask simple questions: the name of the city in the US famous for the auto-mobile industry, and suchlike. Getting it wrong was not a problem, for Manik always told them their answers were right. After the question-answer session, Manik would congratulate them for winning the free satellite TV connection which came with a free set-top box, to be installed, again, for free. The catch was in the channel packages, which had to be paid for. These were of two types, for Spanish and English customers, the former catering to the immigrant Hispanic market in the US. When his manager heard about his calls, he called all of Manik’s colleagues for a meeting. He exhorted them to use Manik’s technique. They did and it worked fine. They ended up selling lots of connections while Manik could not sell even one.
Somewhere around this time, Sanjeev landed in Calcutta. He was an old junk mate of ours from the university. In Calcutta, he had a job to do: interpretation, from Chinese to English, for a couple of Chinese businessmen. They had provided him with a fully furnished flat. All he had to do was to accompany these businessmen as they went about their business in the city.
Sanjeev, true to form, found out where to score junk from in the city and devoted himself to it almost immediately. Naturally, his work began to suffer. Suspecting something amiss, his bosses paid him a surprise visit on one of the days when he had pleaded to being unwell, which was becoming more and more frequent. Caught red-handed inhaling the fumes from an aluminium foil, Sanjeev claimed it was some kind of herbal medicine for his lung infection. But you cannot fool the Chinese with opium.
Fired on the spot, Sanjeev called Manik, who was in office, around 3 am. Manik told him to reach his flat and wait there – one of his room-mates was in, having finished his shift at another call-centre earlier. Next day, they began an orgy of drugs and booze which lasted till Manik left for office in the evening. In no condition for any work, he was advised by his group-leader to get himself a coffee. While he was sitting in the conference room doing that, one of his bosses saw him. “You are stoned, aren’t you?” he asked. Manik said yes. He was asked to leave immediately. “Don’t show me your face ever again,” his boss said as he walked out.
This did not dampen his spirit one bit. They left for Digha after Sanjeev expressed a desire for fornication and ruled out Shonagachi for being too low-brow. The non-stop debauchery continued for a couple of days more.
Soon afterwards, Manik was back in Delhi. He first stayed at Roy’s room in Chandrabhaga. Roy had got admission that year in one of the language courses.
Manik got another job in a call-center in Delhi. He shifted to a one-bedroom apartment in the deep innards of Munirka : sewer lines running open, apartments hemmed in by others all around so that not even a bit of sunlight ever came in. The ambience was made liveable only with junk. Manik would come back from office early every morning. We would be up already from running lines all night. Nights suited us as junk is enjoyed best with as little noise around you as possible: especially the infernal din that humanity makes all day. We ran the stuff in toilets, pantries, class-rooms, stairs to the admin-block – all available to us for uninterrupted use with no one around. Sometimes we did it in the open-air theatre, with our shirts over our heads to prevent the stuff from being blown away, with the Ethiopian junkie, the Yamuna-Par junkie, the staff-quarters’ limping leather-jacket and boots wearing Nepali junkie, the murderer junkie, the tramp junkie who lived at the open-air theatre in a room like an angry hermit intent on degrading himself, the stranger junkie, with whoever, wherever we wanted, feeling the rush of honey in our veins pumping like the molten sun.
When Manik would get tired, he would give us the money, so Robi and I would go and score. Later, Robi also took a place next to Manik, since he had no real place to stay, apart from my hostel room.
This was a really weird phase. Manik seemed to have found some sort of a plateau of his depression over being thrown out of college and busted at home for doing smack which is why he had left in the first place. Robi, also a drop-out, did nothing in particular. I think he had sold off his computer. So he had some money for a while but it ran out quick. Soon, the relationship between Robi and Manik started to deteriorate. Manik resented the dependence on Robi for scoring the stuff. Robi had developed contacts with the peddlers in Old Delhi and knew the area better than us. They started fighting over small things, like a pair of knickers once.
I shared Robi’s growing dislike of Manik, who had become cocky for being the only person earning in our small group. Or probably, we felt threatened by his increasing assertiveness. Maybe, we could not handle the new Manik since we were used to him being mostly docile. Manik felt isolated. His behaviour towards us changed in response to the cold vibes we gave him, almost against our own will. He started to interact with us less often and kept to himself, working the night shifts and sleeping during the day, waking up barely before the office cab came to pick him up. He began to score on his own and ran the stuff alone. This affected us because we did not have enough money to sustain our habits. Our parental allowances were barely enough to cover other costs of living. We needed Manik’s money to shore up our addiction.
I tried getting a job in the call centre Manik worked at but they rejected me, possibly due to my Bihari inflections, as Manik would later tell me. Robi never tried because he had a very thick Bengali accent and he knew that they would never take him. His foreign language skills too were not good enough despite studying at least two of them in the university. My Spanish was OK and I got some work as an interpreter sometimes but it was rarely enough.
Then Manik and Robi stopped talking to each-other. It took only a few months for things to reach this stage. I would still occasionally speak to him but Manik knew I sided with Robi.
One day, Manik came back from work as usual. It must have been around 4 am. Robi and I had not run any stuff at all in the last couple of days. We were actually waiting for Manik because we knew he took his cab to Minto Road first, being the last passenger and score before he returned. For some reason, we hoped he would take pity on us and throw some smack our way although we had not run stuff together for weeks.
Our minds were completely addled without the rush of smack charging our brain cells. Our bodies felt like broken utensils, turning and tossing, endlessly in pain. Joints ached; we had cramps all over; every physical movement was made difficult. The usual withdrawal drill. We needed smack to lubricate the insides of our bodies again, to make it functional.
The door to our room was slightly open. We heard him climb up the stairs to the first floor on which we lived in adjacent rooms, his being the corner most one. There were only two rooms in that wing, with a common toilet next to our room. He crossed our room but kept his head straight without looking in on us. We heard him fumble for his key in the semi-darkness outside his room.
He went in and closed the door. We heard him through the thin wall that separated us: sitting down on the rust-iron, creaking bed facing it, the rustle of the aluminium foil being straightened, the lighting of the match sticks one after another, a little more frequently than we were used to, for Manik could never learn to run the stuff properly on his own. We used to run it for him while he inhaled from the pipe.
For half an hour or so, we listened to the constant flickering of matchsticks and other sounds coming out from his room. Our insides retched at the emetic bait. Knowing that Manik was doing it in the next room was the worst affliction we could suffer at that moment, considering that he did not really seem to wish to share any. After a while he came out and stood in the balcony, smoking, drawing deep puffs typical of the smack high, with your lungs functioning as smoothly as the engine of a Mercedes-Benz. He peered inside our room but said nothing. There was something about his leering face, flush with the ecstasy of junk in his blood, which seemed to mock our pathetic helplessness or may be, I just imagined it in the state that I was.
I came out, pulled Manik by his collar and dragged him inside, throwing him on the ground. He fell next to the dirty mattress lying on the floor, his spectacles falling next to him. Little pieces of broken glass stuck to his callow skin that looked paler in the small patch of jaundiced light that the solitary bulb produced. I grabbed and pulled him up to a standing position.
“Where is the stuff?” I bellowed at him.
Manik mumbled that he would give us some of it if we came with him to his room.
I let go of him. He walked out slightly ahead, unsteady from the sudden assault and without his glasses, while we followed. As soon as we reached, he tried to get inside his room first and lock it from inside. But Robi caught hold of him.
Manik dropped down at the threshold of his room, wriggling to break free of Robi’s strong, muscular arms and screamed like a pig being slaughtered. Robi gave him a kick in his shins and ordered him to get up.
Scared of the neighbours dropping by, we went about our task quickly. Robi cupped Manik’s mouth and held him while I went in and looked in his wallet for the pudiyas of smack.
Manik did not scream again when Robi removed his hand. He had started to sob. We went to our room and ran the stuff. We felt no guilt for having so callously manhandled our best friend. Smack had dulled such feelings in us. All that mattered was to get high and get over the withdrawal. It was like we had to appease the demon inside us and for that we were ready to sacrifice everything we had earlier held dear. Being good or just had no meaning for us because we never cared for anything beyond the sensual delights of the day. We actively sought the degradation of the spirit and rejoiced in the squalor of the soul.
Soon after Manik packed up and left for home again. I came back one day to see a family with kids living in his room. Robi too had not seen him leave. The landlord later said that he had not paid the full rent and tried to get us to pay for him but we refused. Robi told him that Manik was no friend of ours.
Abhimanyu Singh is a 31 year old journalist working on the political beat with a weekly newspaper in Delhi. His poems and fiction have appeared in several journals.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.