I can't distinguish between sleep and wakefulness these days, but if this is called waking up, I have just woken up. You open the eyes, stretch the limbs, join the rush, pace with the clock till it is dusk, or till your eyes close again. A day in one's life. I had known such days. Till four months ago.
I fold my bed carefully and put it in the hole. They gave me this pack when they threw me out of that bus. The stock has to last for one year, I was told. Should I have to visit the Embassy to collect the stock, I wondered. I don't need to. They will come and give me. It's alright if I forget the track of time, and I most likely will. They will remember. They will keep the clock for me.
This is my domicile. It's an abandoned subway. It used to stink when I was thrown in, but I have gotten used to it now. One of my friends had a theory that it takes a man 21 days to get used to something. I didn't keep a count, but I guess it didn't take me longer than that. The subway, just like the rest of the city, is under surveillance. And that's how they will fish my body when I die.
I walk up the steps and smell the day. How does one smell the day? Live my life for two weeks and you will, too.
The din of the city is gradually getting louder. Artemis de Cuba is a secret Cuban province. You won't find it on the map. It's a small picturesque island, two hours off Guantanamo, and a favorite retreat for the mafia. The city is rich and thickly guarded. Unless you are in close circles of mafia or politics, you can't get out of this island alive. Should you get caught scheming an escape, they will put you on a boat to Guantanamo as a subject for training the new recruits in torture methods. If at all they don't shoot in your brains and dump you dead in the sea while on the boat itself.
People walk past me. I walk past them. I'm not a stranger anymore. I would cross three lanes and I know my place. I arrange my humble spread and sit at the foot of the skyscraper. On a lucky day, in two hours I get the money needed for a basic meal and tea. I sit here because this is closer to the airport. I look at the skies and I see these planes - all of them private, chartered jets - flying. And I fancy one of them mistaking me for a head of a drug cartel and flying me out of this place, back in time, for an evening with a Brazilian escort, but losing the direction and landing in India. Or even, having realised the mistake, push me into the sea below. From where I would swim, across one sea after another, to reach the tip of India. And resting on the sand, cry. Cry loud, to my little daughter, "Darling, I have come!"
An old man hurriedly drops a coin into my bowl. I lower my eyes and look at it. I say, "thank you", but he has already left. Within two hours, thanks to a few generous souls, I have enough money to buy myself a meal. What would my daughter think if she is told her father is now a beggar? At six years, she is too young to examine her prejudices, but also old enough to imagine her father in a beggar's rags and form a lasting opinion, as a consequence. Her mother abhors beggars and has done a good job of gifting her prejudice to the little one. It takes a snap to form a bias; to undo it takes a lifetime.
By the time I finish brunch, it’s almost noon. I don’t know when I will have a good meal again, so I sit there for some time and relish. I close my eyes and feel the sun on my face.
Swiftly walking by, a young man pulls a coin out of his pocket and throws at me. Before I thank him, he has joined the crowd. They never look at me. If they do, they would see their own guilt. Charity is the easiest way to get rid of guilt. Pull out a coin, throw at the guy, and you are a step closer to heaven. I gulp a piece of bread, sip a cup of tea and take them closer to heaven. By sheer accident.
But this isn't a bargain I had asked for. I had a life just like these people who, dressed in rich suits, are hurriedly making their way to work. I was a strategy consultant with one of the biggest brands on the globe. Fat pay, enviable perks, two cars in the garage, annual holidays in the Caribbean, medical insurance, education allowance for the kid, I had everything. I didn't see a blot on the road ahead, I was proud, confident, and believed I didn't owe anything to the world. And then, in one hour, everything changed.
I remember that day. "Come over with your docs in an hour. A quick meeting", the voice on the phone said. It was an acquaintance at the Embassy. Must be for an important trip, I thought. The guy didn't smile when I entered his cabin. I was told that a confidential file of national security, which I had prepared for a defence client, got leaked and, probably, traded. "But it was protected, encrypted at two levels, and can't go out without approval from high-office", I clarified. "But we can't touch the big fish", he admitted upfront. "And because you know this secret too, we got you", he added. They took me into a voice-proof room, stripped me, burned my documents - passport, bank cards, identity cards, education and work papers, everything - and put me on a plane. I was blindfolded. A couple of minutes later, I felt a sharp prick of a needle on my wrist. For a few seconds, I felt everything was spinning and slowing down. When I regained my consciousness, I found myself sitting in that bus. I wanted to know what, if at all, they had informed my family. To my daughter. But they wouldn't answer. Can I make a phone call? No answer. When will they send me back? No answer. Estranged. Stripped of identity. Done in.
Education would see me through. Or so I thought. I would find some work, make calls to home, post notes on Facebook, file an online petition, and it will be fine. A few weeks of tough life, but I will be out. Rahim laughed at me, "you are naive". Rahim was the guy I first met when I took the steps down the subway. He looked younger to me, but I never asked his age. He taught Economics at Stanford, he told me. A migrant from Pakistan, he was picked up as a terrorist suspect after he strongly defended on Facebook a campaign that questioned the government's stand on freedom of speech. I wanted to know why he thought I was naive. "Because you are in a rat-hole and are still thinking in terms of options. That's what the world makes you into. Your life depends on someone's whim, they kick your butt, put you into a hole", he stressed, "close the doors and expect you to find the way out, yourself!"
I was still not convinced. Rahim explained, "Not for nothing is this a secret province. Once you are in here, there's no way out. You are an illegal entity here. Nobody is allowed to give you work. Without identity proof you are not allowed to make calls. Besides, you can make calls only to other provinces. Calls to your country and my country are barred. Unless you are, you know, in close circles with the mafia. If at all you go the distance and steal one of their phones and call your home, they will intercept your call, track you down and kill you in ten minutes". It made me feel more gloomy and angry. "Without identity proof, again, you cannot step into any internet kiosk. And no, this ain't no movie, so don't imagine some generous bystander helping you with his iPad. Every mail is tracked, every IP address is mapped, every corner of the city is under surveillance. Nobody will risk it for you. And Facebook? Twitter? Mail? Ha ha ha! You surely don't know the world, bro! Your profiles must have already been erased!" he added. "J-u-s-t l-i-k-e t-h-a-t!" he snapped his fingers. "And in a world obsessed with evidence, how will you prove your identity?"
"It can't be that bad", I tried to tell myself. "Authoritarian regimes are vile. Human rights are totally violated", I opined, trying to keep it as a mature conversation and not yield to my emotion. He again chided me to not repeat from the book, but to look deeper. "All regimes are just the same, bro! It's a power game. In authoritarian states, they use torture; in democratic states, they use persuasion. Whichever way, it's the state that decides your choices". His argument was forceful, so I couldn't refute. At the same time, I refused to lose. "But even at relative terms, democratic states grant you more freedom. Your voice is at least heard", I made a point. "Freedom is a big myth, a sort of global urban legend! In a state that is strongly capitalist and with a thriving consumerist culture, feedback is a cog that helps their competition. So you are encouraged to voice your grievance, and they make you believe you have the same equation with the state. You are a scapegoat. You voiced your story. Did anyone give a fuck? You think your state or your company wasn't aware that you would be deported? Why do you want to deceive yourself more? Wake up!"
I couldn't move. His words, "Wake up!" played in my mind for some time. He had to add, "And who said you don't have freedom here? You are free to move around in the town, you can sleep anywhere. You won't be killed for begging. Public toilets are free to use, and they are clean. If you pass out or get shot, health care is free". I noticed his dismissive shrug. "You could visit the girls, they give you a special price. They are kind", he winked.
He seemed to be familiar with this place. He could help me out, I reckoned. "Well, I had everything till the other day. Now here I am. I don't have any documents. I want to go back to my little daughter. I at least want to call up and hear her voice, and tell her I am alive. I can do some work. I could... teach, do computers...", I tried to add. "And?" he asked. "I could... I could wash cars, clean the tables", I was desperate. "Can you sell drugs?" he asked. "Impossible. I will rather die than sell drugs!" I asserted.
One week later, he introduced me to a crack gang. After I told him I will never sell drugs, he didn't ask me again. But probably he knew I would relent. For six days, I knocked on the doors of offices, homes, hotels and malls. Nobody would give me any work. When I returned at nights, fighting the pangs of hunger, he would offer me bread. Desperation was getting to me. I wanted to call up, if only once, and find out how my daughter was doing. "I want to give it a try", I finally told Rahim. He briefed me. "It's illegal, by the book. But do you think cops don't know? There are millions in it, and the state needs it. You do good, you make quick bucks. No danger from cops, they will look the other way. The danger is from the other gangs. Even from your own. But, hey, it's not any more cruel than it's in a corporation. There, they fire with pink slips. Here, they use guns. You rise the ranks, they may even help you visit your country".
In my job, I always smuggled ideas. It is the norm. It is the game. My conscience was clean. Now if I were to smuggle drugs, what's so bad, after all, I reckoned. Rahim almost read my mind. "You are trained to believe that everything legal is moral and everything illegal, immoral. If selling drugs were legal, would you have taken so much time to decide?" When the gang briefed me about the job, it sounded very similar to a job description in a multinational. If one looked at their organization chart, he wouldn't be able to tell the difference, either. It wasn't an ethical question for me anymore, but that of my own grit. I was enticed by the fact that I could save money and somehow find a way out. But the stakes were high - one mistake, and I must pay with my life. Can I risk it? Survive longer, save coin by coin, and meticulously plan an escape, or risk it, live on the fringe and rather even die? I had thought about this even before I met them. Rahim warned me to be polite with them, no matter what. I weighed in the stakes again. Politely, I thanked them and told them I am not ready for it yet. With a grin and a hard pat, the guy said, "Easy. No worries. Whenever".
Although in Rahim I found a chap who I could share my anguish with, I hated him because he seemed to have answers for everything. He was incisive and witty. I tried to find the method in this madness, and he reminded me I am mad. I could not come to terms with the situational irony of my life, he persuaded me to confront it. I can't say I made friends with Rahim, for I didn't spend much time with him. And in whatever short time I had spent, I was preoccupied with my thoughts and hardly tried to know anything about him. However, in the few discussions we had, he packed in insights that I couldn't crack in my lifetime. If I have survived here for so long, I owe it to him. Three weeks after I met him, at about midnight a crack gang came in and took him away. Rahim had told me that the new recruits in these gangs compete for cash awards on Ximbo, the local version of YouTube, by posting videos of their violent attacks on the homeless. I don't know if they killed him, but after that night I have never seen him again.
A few hours go by, as I reminisce and pointlessly observe the crowd. I sit on the pavement, sipping tea. My cap is torn at its edges. With my thick beard to add, I look funny and out of place. On the opposite side, a young woman is talking on the phone. Her other hand is firmly clasping her little daughter’s hand. They may be waiting for the bus, returning home after a round of shopping. The little girl looks at me. I look back and she smiles. Maybe she finds me amusing, or maybe, by some miracle, she saw in my eyes the beautiful face of my daughter. The woman looks complete with the baby. People are wrong when they say a woman completes a man and vice-versa. If that were so, marriage by itself would be fulfilling. But that’s not how it is. It is children who complete them both – the man and the woman. The nurtured becomes the nurturer, life comes full circle. A minute later, the bus arrives.
I find a place to sit outside a park. I watch the children playing. A little kid approaches me and puts a chocolate in the bowl. I smile at him. His mother scolds him and pulls him away. Over the next hour, a few people notice me and I gather some coins. The city is brightly lit and it has started to get cold. I get up and start walking. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the subway. I take the shortcut to reach sooner. I reach the penultimate lane when I spot a group of young guys chatting and smoking. It doesn’t feel all too well, but I just keep at it. I will just walk by quietly and not stare at them, I assess. As I am just about to walk past them, two guys stand up and intercept me. We don’t exchange any words or stares. Quickly, they check on me and find nothing. One of them pulls the change I had gathered in the day from my pocket. Finished with, they push me away.
Anger would have been a fair response, but I realise this is the world I have made. I realise I am responsible for the world, as it is. This much is clear to me - that I had lived like a frog in a well. I thought if I have a good job, a family, and minded my own business, I am living it perfectly. Why do I need to care for, or understand, the world, I convinced myself. What do I care if some country, thousands of miles away from mine, is at unrest, I would dismiss it with arrogance. But I see that to think one is alone and independent is a delusion. Every time I forgot to be kind, every word I spoke in anger, every act of indifference, every prejudice I held as truth, every truth I refused to believe – at every such moment, I made the world what it is. Now I am paying for it. Everyone must pay. If you are lucky to make it through life unscathed, your kids will pay. If they are lucky too, your grand-kids will.
I reach the subway. When I walk down these steps, there's no note of piano that I hear. All I hear is the haunting sound of my own feet hitting against the floor.
I spread my bed carefully and lie down. In an hour or two, some young chaps, ambitious of winning cash awards on Ximbo and making it big in a drug cartel, may stop by and pick me up. Or they may come next evening. Or the day after. A day or two later, someone munching on popcorn will, after watching the bullet hole crack my skull open and my frame drop dead to the ground, point the cursor on the Like button and click it. Deliverance of another kind, but if there's no deliverance from this hole, that's the second best. It's that time of the hour when, if that guy from the Embassy hadn't called me that day, I would hold my little one in my arms and hum the rhyme that only two of us know. It’s meaningless, but she gets it. Quietly, I sing what has become her favorite lullaby.
The Subway DiaryRound round round and round round round
In such a big ground, round round round
Daddy round, baby round, round round round
You and me in the ground, round round round
I just hope my daughter is listening to it. Will I ever see her again? I don't know. Imperceptibly, and stealthy as a snake, fear grips my frame. With every fleeting moment, the tide of hope seems to recede further. With hopeless resolve, though, I want to hang on to its faintest edge. There's a secret cam somewhere in this dungeon. It could be right above, looking into my tear-dimmed eyes. The indifferent stare of the world. As I look into blinding darkness, I wish this night never ends.
Vijayender Cherupally is a behavioural design consultant, who gets intrigued by randomness and uncertainty.