I am that kid on a grubby, dirt street in Bihar. Where rats scamper in sheets of blackness along channels of moss laden ditches. Where throngs of decrepit, wooden stalls, not more than a foot away from these nostril-filling canals, populate the air with–quite paradoxically–aromatic street food.
Litti accompanied by a side dish of roasted vegetable is the most popular snack. Almost every vendor who sells food sells Litti. Small balls of dough stuffed with sattu, coriander leaves, green chilies, ginger, and pickled masala are cooked over cow shit serving as fuel (well, at least in the olden days). The taste is now, as I presume it was then, like the splendid crackling of Dahlia fireworks.
I am the kid behind a multitude of other boys and girls running and waving outstretched arms like demented stringed puppets as your tourist van speeds off. In truth, we are all the same kid. Same ragged clothing. Same ash smattered legs. Same sullen face, with oily, brown skin barely covering our zygomatic bones. We are as thin and brittle as the stick men you make with discarded matches on tables, while you watch with great yearning as brawny cuts of meat sizzle against cast iron grates.
All at once.
You have been told about us. We are somewhat of a tourist trap. A spectacle, even? No, just a place and people you’ve seen only on television, who you might even pity–if the mood finds you–before seamlessly filtering back into your own worthless existence (if I dare say?).
Much of my daily energy is sucked away chasing vans like yours. Two every hour, if we are lucky, sometimes more. You see, I am not as fast as the others. I was born with bowed legs–which never corrected themselves–to a mother I cannot begin to describe.
As a natural penance of my physical limitations, I am always at the back of the mob. This positioning–fortunately or unfortunately–depending on how you see it, allows me to evade ferocious scrapes and bites as the other kids jostle for crumpled green notes pitched to no one in particular, from the safe insides of a tourist van. It is like bones being thrown to diseased dogs from afar. Except, I am always too far. I have come to realize that if you really want some skin in the game, you must be prepared to nurse shallow wounds. You’d get your Litti, sure, but with a burning back–full of digs and cuts–which you’d swear could only be the masterful work of a great, wild cat.
I have seen this green gold in the hands of others, burnt with jealousy for it, and have gone to bed on countless occasions with the images of dead old men stenciled into my brain. Bed, you may ask? Of course, it is not a bed by your standards. Thatched market bags on a series of interconnected cardboard boxes. Do not ask me where I pee and shit. I will let you use your imagination to answer those kinds of questions. And no, I do not brush my teeth. Or change my clothes. Or go to school. Hah. School.
I am that kid who knows what hunger slashing the insides of your stomach feels like. When the coils of empty intestines throb so much that you must give up chasing tourist vans for the day. You accept defeat and wait for the consequences which spring from defeat. Vomit. Hallucination. Blackout.
I am that kid who is sometimes saved, not by you, but by the compassion of a random passerby, who hands me a cardboard tray with Litti and tomato Chokha. My favorite roasted vegetable by the way! On those kind days, you can see me gobbling the snack in one mad, revolting rush, before chasing the tiny streams of red juice snaking towards my elbows with my parched, yellowish tongue.
I cannot say whether it is God who sends these people to save me from passing out and falling into the open trenches, only to be devoured by even hungrier creatures lurking in the dark pits of plastic and slush. If it is indeed God, why does he sentence me to anguish each day, reviving me only at the very last moment, before forcing me back into a never-ending cycle of satisfaction followed by ravenousness? Why can’t he keep me whole all the time? Why couldn’t he make me the person inside the van throwing money to the mob instead?
I am that kid who eats in filth, on decaying curbsides. Where discarded trays–like the ones given to me with Litti Chohka–form mountains of paper. Where disgusting insects–the size of lemons–zoom in and out, searching for any hint of leftover scraps. There is none. There never is. This is how abject hunger works. It spreads beyond starving humans to lesser appreciated beings like insects. Even the inanimate are not spared. Just have a look at the endless rows of leaky, rusting galvanized sheets that make up the roofing of the crumbling stores that line the main street.
How funny is it that an insect’s ecosystem reflects my very own existence? A miniscule microcosm of my life’s hell. A constant competition to survive. Day in. Day out. But somehow, like me, the insects do manage to survive.
I don’t have goals or aspirations. I am steeped in numbing loneliness today as I will likely be tomorrow, and each day after that. I don’t think much about the future. I can only think about now. A life driven by hunger makes you myopic, I guess. The doors of slight possibilities and even slighter promises have never been left ajar for people like me. Am I even people? Or am I like the insects, whose only real purpose is to move from point A to point B and back? A dreamless, choking structure of a life. But a life, no less.
I am also that kid, I suppose, in Cite Soleil, or Guerrero, or Kapiri Mposhi or in Jumla. Unified not by color, or language, or ambition–but by circumstances. By our rankless positioning in the totem pole of class (or lack thereof), opportunity (or lack thereof), and wealth (or lack thereof).
We are the derelicts of society. The beggars. The louses. The outliers. I like that last one, don’t you? I accept that I am all of that, but maybe I am more, too.
Rajiv Ramkhalawan is an Attorney-at-Law and emerging writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Rajiv is the winner of the 2020 Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize. He is a past recipient of a regional award from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. His fiction was shortlisted for the 2020 Perito Prize and nominated for a Best of the Net Award in 2020. “Tourist Vans” was inspired by Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, “The White Tiger”.
Details of Previous Publications and Links:
Litro Magazine (forthcoming), The Caribbean Writer, New Reader Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review.
New Reader Magazine, Stranger:
Wilderness House Literary Review, Curried Shrimp and Dhalpourie:
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