Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 1, Dated Jan 10, 2009
(born 1977) lived in Mumbai and earned a BBA from Baruch College in New
York. His critically acclaimed debut novel No God In Sight was
published by Penguin India in 2005. It has been translated into Marathi,
German, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch, and published in the US and
Canada. Tyrewala's short stories have been included in several Indian
and international anthologies. He will be editing Mumbai Noir, a forthcoming
title from Akashic Books, Brooklyn. He lives in Mumbai with his wife,
and is currently working on his second book.
WE ARE waking up.
To the clatter of rusty alarm clocks and the beepbeeps
of short-lived China-made digital timepieces, we
are being roused from our shallow sleep. It’s impossible
to be too restful before a journey. Many of us have been
edgy all night, or for days or weeks, and some have been
starved of unconsciousness for most of our lives
Our awakening has upset the ones
we live with.
As we dart about our flats this
morning preparing to leave, the departure
times for our various modes of
transport marking each moment with
panic, how our obstinacy must sting
They ignore our requests for
assistance in finding our socks or
ironing our sari blouses. Their resentful
glances make us spill our caffeinated
beverages. We bathe and dress to the
background score of sick-sick-sick, or,
As we are about to walk out our
doors with our backpacks or handbags
or medium-sized suitcases, the ones we
live with tell us to go to hell. They ask
what we mean by taking off like this, on
what grounds, with what understanding.
Seriously, who do we think we are!
(Over the past months and years,
we’ve gone missing from the daily grind
for hours on end, often for whole
afternoons or weekends. But this time,
with this trip, we will be gone too far
and too long.)
We glance down, at the watches of
various sizes and brands adorning our
respective wrists. There isn’t time
enough. And so we exhale and put
forward our reasons for the ten zillion
We tell the ones we live with that we
have a right to, or that we feel a
burning need to, or that we have no
idea why we want to…
We are not allowed to finish. Our
incomplete sentences are yanked from
us, and by now, after countless such exchanges, we have ceased to be
enraged by the unintended meanings
wrought upon our unuttered words.
We have a right to… be escapists?
We feel a burning need to… jump
town like circus-clowns, with no sense
of responsibility for jobs [or studies or
spouses or parents or children… ]?
We check for the time again, this
time surreptitiously, in the clocks on
the walls past the shoulders of those we
live with. If we don’t leave in two minutes,
we’ll never make it. Or maybe
we’ll reach in time to watch our trains
or buses or long-distance taxi-cabs
pulling away like satellites having other
Why aren’t you listening! We are
startled by the volume and ready
ourselves to be struck. Instead, more
verbal punches ensue: Why are you
being so heartless!
Within their soundproof cages of
flesh and bone, our affronted cardiomuscles
thump in protest.
We say we don’t like being screamed
at. We say our minds are made —
which is not entirely true, since the
distress of those trying to hold us back
makes us yearn for the days when it
had never occurred to us to go.
Now we are pressing the elevator
buttons. Those of us who live close to
the ground are running down the stairs
or are already on the streets outside
our apartment buildings. Some of our
names are being yelled from windows
and doors or building lobbies. We are
being called bastards and bitches and
sissies and pathetic fools even as we are
ducking into cabs or auto-rickshaws.
We tell ourselves that goodbyes like
these are privileges. We imagine we are
lucky to be loved so frantically.
The expressions of those driving us
to our points of departure indicate
IT IS a crushingly hot October
morning. Among the garrulous
multitudes jostling about us at
railways stations, at bus depots or
at out-station taxi-stands, we hope
there are at least a few others headed
where we are. Our need to be accompanied
is incurable. We expect arms
to be stretched out for us endlessly
as we dangle over life’s ravines
Arms which we must later hack off
when they won’t pull back or let go, like
earlier this morning.
We take our seats. Our journeys are
about to commence. Around some of
our necks are chains with alphabetical
pendants or lockets that enclose photographs
of sweethearts or deities. Our
bags contain music players, laptops,
diaries, magazines, packaged food
items, toiletries of staggering inconsequentiality...
Except for our clothes, we
will require almost none of these things
where we are going.
Fellow-passengers look rapt in
thoughts about the people and plans
awaiting them at the end of their trips.
We scrutinise them in an attempt to
glean their destinations. Are any of
them free-falling like us? Is anyone
going where we are?
Our co-passengers notice us observing
them. We trade nods and smiles;
and then we ask one another, in numerous
languages and in a variety of ways,
a similar sort of question:
Aap kahaan jaa rahey ho?
Tamey kyan jao chho?
Where are you headed?
Answers can wait. Cellphones are
Our fellow-passengers and we exchange helpless glances as inventions
of our own over-productive species
hijack our attention.
There are no surprises flashing on
our Caller IDs. ‘Home’ is already calling.
Those people — strangers still months
or years ago — whose belief in our lovableness
endures despite all signs to the
contrary, those dear and doomed
beloveds are calling.
No HIs and no HELLOS. (The
morning’s exit wounds are still fresh.)
The ones who’ve called just want to
know where we are. As if there’s a
chance we may have aborted our trips
and headed back to our workplaces or
colleges or any of the myriad
obligations that would occupy us on
what is, after all, a working Wednesday.
But we are where we planned to be:
by ourselves in our respective masstransit
seats, on our way to a place that
will swallow us up for days before
spitting us back out into this world that
we hope will remain unchanged in our
absences — no familial deaths, new
taxes, or impromptu wars, please!
Our mobiles crackle with moans
and sighs. Having commenced our
journeys, we’ve left the ones who’ve
called no scope for hope in any sudden
changes of our hearts.
They bid us farewell in the politest
possible manners, as if extending
courtesy to strangers; and then there is
silence. Our LCD screens indicate ‘Call
Ended’. The ones who’d phoned us are
As we pull our gizmo-holdinghands
away from our ears, the stabs of
loneliness make us breathless. We, the
abandoners, have become the newly
Our mass-transit vehicles pick up
For the remainder
of our journeys, we strive to extract pleasure from all the mundane rituals
of travel. From this evening onwards, for days to come, even the simplest
will be out of our reach — a touch, a song, a taste of our favourite
And so we daydream, eat, read,
watch videos, play music, and gaze out
the windows of our mass-transit
vehicles with the absorption of
Where we are going, there will be
such austerity, such deprivation. We
each have our reasons for going; at least
it’s our decision, it’s what we chose.
Decades from now what may (or may
not) be a fiery post-petroleum planet,
such austerity, we have been
assured, might no longer be optional.
Hong Kong sex workers drug and rob
tourists. Mumbai mayor’s plea to drive
out hawkers falls on deaf ears. US
plans Gitmo closure, new rights for detainees.
Indian in race for Citi’s top slot.
Will high crude prices spoil Dalal Street
party? Kashmiri youth rediscover religion.
GodTube.com a hit with the religious.
Nalbandian is the Master of
Paris. Drowsy drivers a road hazard in
US. More than 3,500 Chinese babies
named ‘Olympics’. Blanchett confirms
pregnancy. Christina is pregnant.
Foreigner nabbed with smack. Diwali
crackers kill one. Comet dazzles
Vacating our seats at the ends of our
journeys, we leave our newspapers
behind. When yet another torrent of
trivia piles up outside homes throughout
the nation tomorrow morning, we
will, mercifully, be spared the daily societal guilt — of being over-informed,
yet remaining so utterly
UPON OUR arrival at our destination
at various times
through the day, each of us is
given an envelope in which to deposit
our mass-produced and commonly-owned possessions.
Many of us require two envelopes,
and some ask for three. They are sealed
before our eyes and locked away in
This place we’ve come to is on a hill.
It is full of tree-lined gravel walkways
that wind past the dining areas, our
residential quarters, and two vast halls
in which we will spend upto fourteen
hours a day braving nullity.
Had we been less distressed by our
separation from our things, we
would’ve noticed how spectacular this
place is; we would’ve been grateful for
the chilly mountain air and the
gorgeous landscape views that play
peekaboo through the thick foliage.
But without our cellphones, MP3
players, laptops, cameras, cigarettes,
paan masala packets, jewellery, cash...
denied of these essentials, which
the people who run this place have
deemed too valuable or dangerous or
unnecessary for us to possess in here,
we feel weakened, like walls with missing
It comes as some relief to finally be
among others like us; actually, scores
of others like us, who’ve left behind
their homes, responsibilities, debts and
deadlines to experience the utter denial
of the world that is engineered in
The families, couples, and groups of
friends who’ve come here together are
holding their last conversations.
Wasn’t that an STD booth we spotted
outside the gate on our way in?
Now, with barely an hour left before
our tongues are stilled by vows of
silence, the unaccompanied ones
among us rush out to make their final
The line at the phone booth is long.
The woman presiding over it is wise,
ensuring every call ends in under two
We all get to speak. We get to hear
the voices of those whose shouts and
invectives had seen us off this morning.
There is no more rage or bitterness
now. There is just concern — theirs for
us, ours for them. Some of us hear
weeping at the other ends of the lines.
It makes us want to die. Oh come on,
we say with mock nonchalance, it’s no
big deal, it’s just ten days!
Ten days, 240 hours, 0.04 percent of
70 year lifespans. We have seen lives
changing in two seconds and we will be
gone for 864,000 of them.
... make sure you shut the gas
properly, tell him I’ll send the cheque
soon as I’m back, take your medication
regularly, cross the road carefully, don’t
let her get to you, don’t take that route,
don’t sleep with anyone new, I love you,
I’ll miss you, I’ll see you soo...
Our strolls back — from the phone
booth to the entrance of the centre —
turn out to be the most mournful sixty
feet any of us has ever traversed.
What we spoke into the phone —
maudlin terms of affection and anxiety
— will be the last utterances to escape
our lips for days to come.
We return to our rooms. We close
the doors. We push our bags under our
beds and sit down on the meagre
mattresses and wait, like prisoners, for
the gong that will announce the start of
our severance from life, as we know it.
For the second time today, our
hearts are beating so fast they could
flee this place if they had the legs.
We’ve amassed outside the two halls
assigned to our respective sexes, waiting
to be called in. Through the halls’
mosquito-netted windows, we catch
glimpses of endless rows of blue 3X3
mattresses that have been arranged like
cavalry. In there is a spot assigned to
each one of us.
We can hear the distant rumble of
highway traffic and the bugles of
passing trains. The sun has just set.
How did we not notice... There are
not just scores, but hundreds of others
like us here. They — or rather we —
are old and young and rich and poor
and rural and urban. So many of us
are from foreign lands. For the next
ten days, while eating, walking, sitting and living together in absolute silence,
we will play guessing games with
ourselves about our fellow-attendees’
lives, their origins.
With hundreds of tongues on hold,
the only sounds are of crows and
bulbuls and the sharp chirps of unseen
RIGHT about now, many of us were at home, dining with our families in
front of television sets. Some of us were out shopping for knickknacks
— torches, mosquito repellents, warm clothing. Several of us were
still at work, struggling to complete assignments before we took leave.
Until yesterday, despite our preparations, our going away was as yet tinged
with uncertainty. Even on the eve of our departure, we didn’t think
we were the kind who could turn away from the world, even if for just
ten days, even though our needlessness in this world had been revealed
to us over time in sharp excruciating installments. ‘Mother’,
‘father, ‘banker’, ‘doctor’, ‘teacher’,
‘brother’, ‘student’, ‘boss’…
All these ephemeral labels and their demands on our lives that we have
put on hold to be here.
People claim their lives are suffused
with meaning after spending ten days
here. They say the scars of their pasts
are erased by this drill. Upon returning
to their daily routines, they find themselves
centred and unshakeable, no less.
And yet we’ve come here, despite
such alarming testimonies, lured by
something more prosaic than the
promise of some dubious peace.
We are beneficiaries of a rare variety
of charity at this centre. Each of us is
being fed and housed by the direct
contributions of those who were here
before us. When we leave, we will be
expected to do likewise for those who
come after us. How much we part with
in the end — anonymously and
voluntarily — will depend on how
deeply we desire to perpetuate this
centre and its teachings. Our
scepticism is non-negotiable; we might
end up shelling out nothing. But by
providing free shelter and sustenance,
even to those who could afford to pay
five times over, this centre has bestowed
us all with something extraordinary
— an opportunity to spend a few
days on this planet untainted by the
twin stains of profit and loss. For many
of us, this was reason enough.
Girish Khanna!... Kasim Pilani!...
Nick Fischer!... Rahul Adhikari!...
And, on the ladies’ side:
Rajni Chani!... Mila Rutso!...
Avantika Joshi!... Minaz Khwaja!...
We break away from the crowds
upon hearing our respective names and
venture into the halls one by one.
By the time the last woman and man
has been called in, it is night.
The lights outside the halls are
switched off. Where hundreds of us
were standing half an hour ago, there is
now empty darkness.
A breeze blows in carrying wood and
neem smoke from the nearby village.
A garden snake darts across the
clear grounds and scrambles into the
undergrowth bordering the centre.
Amidst thousands of carcasses of
insects crushed under our feet, the
thousands of insects that survived
resume their hectic journeys.
A plane bound for Tokyo traverses
the starry sky, too high to be heard.
None of us is around to notice
any of this.