Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Babel - Story


(Translated from Malayalam by Jose Varghese)

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, 
it would have been permitted.
- Franz Kafka

“Listen Polleyachan, you’ve got to hurry up and be here soon, at the Mission Hospital; don’t tell me you are busy. A worker had a cardiac arrest. I had to make a scene at the office to bring him here. A few hassles here in the hospital too...and we need to pay the bills. You call me once you reach in front of the Casualty.”

Gauridas disconnected the phone before anything could be said in return. The details of the call flashed on the phone for a while and it was then that Polleyachan saw that there were already three missed calls and a message to call back – all of them while he was having a quick morning shower. He felt very bad that he failed to rise up earlier today, as he got ready in a jiffy to go out.

He grabbed the rosary that he forgot to wear in all the hurry, then the motorbike’s key, and the weekly account statement which he is supposed to give the Trust Accountant of the Archdiocese. He stuffed all these in his pocket and combed his hair with fingers as he locked the door. Since he hadn’t taken the bike out in the past few days, he had to kick the starter down several times. As it moved out of the Engineering College campus and reached the main road, Polleyachan was wondering what the ‘scene at the office’ and ‘hassles in the hospital’ were.

Gauri got acquainted with Polleyachan during the construction of the huge library building at the Engineering College of the Archdiocese. It was when an AICTE inspection pointed out the insufficiency of the existing library space that the Trust under the Archdiocese decided to construct a new library with all the required facilities. Gauri was the Site Supervisor of the construction company. And the church appointed Polleyachan as the supervisor from their part. In normal circumstances, two people in their positions should have had a lot of arguments and fights. But it’s already been three months since the work commenced, and it’s almost finished now - there had not been any harsh words between the two so far, except for the unavoidable doubt clearances from both parts.

Gauri is a relatively junior employee in the construction company. He has just three years’ experience there. When the other buildings of the college were built by the company, he was in his training period there. He could have come to the site once in a while then, but he doesn’t remember seeing Polleyachan those times. He was already working in the supervising team at the shopping mall construction twelve kilometers away from the college in the heart of the city when he got a transfer as the site supervisor of the library building. A young man like him would have felt bad about leaving the huge project to move to another site, but Gauri gave his consent as soon as he got the instruction from the management. He was longing to leave from the work atmosphere in which supervisors would verbally abuse the laborers, even making obscene remarks about their mothers and sisters, and would beat them up cruelly just in order to meet the contract deadlines. Gauri was developing a resigned attitude, faster than how the skins of the Bihari, Bengali, Rajastani and Orissi migrant laborers got rougher by time.

Gauridas felt reassured that it was a good to move from the earlier site when he could closely associate with Polleyachan. His responsibility was to represent the company. Polleyachan was the one who took care of all the work there, and he even had a rapport with the laborers and the ability to control and finish the work within the deadlines without much noise or verbal fights. For Gauri, that ability was a bit awe-inspiring.

Gauri used to think that ‘Polleyachan’ was just another name that’s quite usual in Kerala, like Matthachan, Potthachan, Varkeychan, Kunjachan and so on. But he realised only later that the ‘achan’ (‘father’ in Malayalam) suffix to his friend’s name stood for his vocation as a priest. Gauri couldn’t control his laughter when he saw Polleyachan in a cassock for the first time during a function at the college in which their Bishop was a guest. He even laughed nonstop for one or two minutes. He had never seen Fr.Polley in that attire in the Trust meetings or the construction work. Fr.Polley used to wear black trousers and white or light yellow shirts on such occasions. Sometimes he would wear kurtas of the same colours as well. There were just a few local people who didn’t find anything special in the cassock, while all the migrant laborers were amused just like Gauri. He couldn’t help asking,
“So, Polleyachan is really a priest in a church?”
“Hey no, man. I am a fake priest.”
“Oh, no! I wasn’t trying to tease you. We are all really surprised to see you in this attire.”
“See, if you go a little way downwards from our market, there’s a small church in which the Holy Mass is offered only on Sundays. Apart from this supervision I do, I am the vicar of that church as well. You got it clear now, eh?”
“Oh, but still my Father...”
“But still, what?”
“Nothing. Just saying Praise the Lord!”
“Ah, amen. The rest of small talk later. Go ahead with your work at the site. I will just show my face to the Bishop and come there soon.”

Though the priest went off saying this, Gauri was flummoxed as the smile faded from his lips. He hadn’t been interacting with Polleyachan the way one should with a priest. He hadn’t kept any respectful distance. He had shared risqué jokes with Polleyachan, about the male laborers mating hurriedly after lunch, in the corners of buildings under construction, behind cement sacks, in the shadows of huge machines – these are people who have stayed away from their hometowns and families for months, trapped in work that comes in turns in construction sites. It took Gauri some time to overcome the embarrassment and anxiety to see in a priest’s attire someone who had silently nodded and smiled at all these earlier.

It’s after this that Gauri started observing Polleyachan closely. Though he used to communicate a lot with all kinds of people in his work place, Gauri could see then that Polleyachan had some special characteristics. First among them was his tendency to ask the kind of questions that none among the work supervisors would bother to ask. Polleyachan would keep asking about the hardships of the construction workers from other states. He would keep asking in the midst of busy work about their salary, whether they come alone or with family, how often they go to their homeland, how their accommodation and food is, whether employment rules are applied in their cases, whether any organisations interfere with their issues, whether they get any company perks other than what those contractors who go to the villages to pay per head-count in order to bring them here, whether the company takes care of medical treatment if they have any accidents, and so on. Though Gauri hadn’t said anything that affects the company’s interests earlier, he had begun to speak openly when he became close to Polleyachan. He had to share with Polleyachan his own revelation that the sum total of life wasn’t all that good for those workers who came to Kerala in search of a permanent job that provides timely food and a reasonably good salary so that they could overcome the bad living conditions in their native lands. There were labour mafias working for companies spreading their nets across small villages for workers on the contract basis. The workers were not only illiterate but even inefficient to put across their ailments effectively to others, if they fell sick in the strange land to which they have migrated. They had to put up with the arrogance and flimsy excuses of companies that wouldn’t observe proper work schedules or terms and conditions. They couldn’t even think of strikes or arguments about work conditions, and were destined to lead a life at the receiving end of foul words and beatings. Before he could finish his rant about what really burns within the labour camps made of tin and tarpaulin, Polleyachan interrupted, “Is there no change to any of these even now?”

Gauri didn’t comprehend why Polleyachan asked that. He is like that at times. He would ask questions without expecting an answer. If you ask him something in return, he would just walk away with a naughty smile. He would stop talking in mid-conversation and walk away hurriedly on the way to the Men’s Hostel, running fingers through his greying beard with one hand and keep throwing and catching the keys of his bike and the store room with the other. It’s on such situations that Gauri mumbles ‘pseudo-priest!’ to himself, jokingly.

After putting his bike on its stand, Polleyachan walked to the Casualty to meet Gauri there. He kept running his fingers through his beard and kept throwing and catching the bunch of keys to imitate himself even then, though the naughty smile was missing. When he saw Polleyachan, Gauri ran towards him, breaking the hospital-corridor silence with heavy footsteps. Even before the priest could finish his question about what really happened, Gauri started talking it out.

“Father, I was just getting ready to come to the college site when the girl from the admin department of our company called. She told me that a worker in the shopping mall site had chest pain. Since it’s not my site, I asked her whether there aren’t supervisors to deal with it there. She said it didn’t seem they were going to do the necessary, and asked me to be there if possible, and hung the phone down. By the time I was at the site, things were a total mess. No one took care of the worker with chest pain or released a vehicle to take him to the hospital. Two Bihari workers from his village hired an autorickshaw and took him to the nearby clinic. When I got to know about all this at the site, I hurried to the clinic on my bike. It’s there that I got to know that it was not a mere chest pain but a heart attack. When I saw these workers there with no money in hand and with no idea of what was really going on…Father, to tell you the truth… what came to my mind was my mother who died in a heart attack, the first one itself.”

It’s when Gauri mentioned ‘these workers’ and pointed at them that Polleyachan noticed the two men in dirtied work clothes, with their heads hung down.
“I didn’t think of anything else then. I called a site supervisor and demanded a vehicle to be released. Though he gave some flimsy excuses at first, he budged when I threw some foul language at him and kept insisting. 

It’s with a tablet under his tongue, prescribed by the doctor at the clinic, that he reached till here. In the midst of that these people called to the site and asked for some money. Even though the supervisor called the office and requested some money, he got nothing. No one even bothered to come here or see what’s happening. If that girl from the admin hadn't informed me of this, everything would have been over in the clinic itself.”
“And where is he now?”
“He was in the Casualty when I called you. He wasn't getting any attention even here. When I made a scene, they conducted some tests and moved him to the ICU. They were saying that he would need an urgent surgery, and that we need to pay for that in advance. When I got to know that this hospital and your college is run by the same management, I felt like calling you at once. I know I am bothering you, but you have to help.”
The local joke about the church and the priest being two separate entities came to Polleyachan's mind, even amidst the discomfort he had in the hospital situation.
“I will call the office and find some way to solve the money issue. If they are adamant that they won't give anything, I have some other plan in my mind. I can also try to scare the labour contractor.  Let’s see whether something comes out of it. If there is still some more money needed, I can spend it from my pocket. I am not looking for hospital charity. I just need some space to arrange everything. It's not fair if they say that we have to pay the entire amount right now. You have to find a way out of this for me.”

Polleyachan gave a reassuring pat on Gauri's shoulders and walked ahead on the way that was arrow-marked the administrative block. There were two men in the corridor, leaning on the wall with their hands clasped over their thighs, but they didn’t move an inch as he passed them. Even when Polleyachan came back after a consultation with the priest who is the Director in charge of the hospital to somehow convince him of the situation, the two Biharis kept standing there in the same position. Gauridas was not seen anywhere there. Achan asked through gestures where he was. One of them pointed towards the ICU which was a bit far from where they stood. When Achan reached it, Gauridas was standing there, leaning on the wall, imitating the posture of the construction workers.
“What news Father? Any progress?”
“I have told them everything in detail. We have to pay the whole amount only in four-five days. But…they say we have to pay at least half the amount by this afternoon.’
“That's fine. They have some weekly Chit Fund in the labour camp. The one who is ill also has an account in that. I made these guys call at the camp, and they have agreed to make some adjustments to get some money from his account because this is an emergency. And they have also agreed to have a bucket fundraising.”
“Okay. What's your next program now?”
“I will be here itself. I am not going to the work at college today now. Don’t worry, the work there will not be disrupted. I have just called eat the office. They’ve send someone called Senthil to replace me today. He has already come to the site once or twice.”
“There was no need for that. It's only a matter of a day or two.”
“It's not because of that Father. The company won't allow them to work without a supervisor…that's why.”
“Ok. Let it go like that then.”
“So, are you going back, Father?”
“If there is nothing else I can do here now…”
“What you have done so far itself is great enough. Thank you so much, Father!”
“Keep all the formality with yourself man! I haven't eaten anything so far. I couldn't even take my medicine for blood pressure in the morning. It seems I am going to have some gastric trouble. Why don't we just have at least a cup of tea?”
While walking to the canteen with Gauri, Polleyachan’s bunch of keys clanked, breaking the rule of silence in the hospital.
After ordering strong tea for both, they found a table in a less crowded space in the cafeteria.
“Haven’t you told me earlier that you are a non-believer?”
“Yes, do you doubt that Father?”
“Hey…no doubts. Have you ever wished it was better to be a believer?”
“There hadn’t been any reason for that till now. And the things happening around seem to prove that there is no God too, right?”
“That might be true. But it could be those same experiences that turn out be the reasons for some to become believers. That’s the weird thing.”
Gauri felt it was his usual habit of asking unrelated questions out of the blue and then moving away from the topic in between. But Polleyachan didn’t stop this time. He kept talking.
“An old friend of mine…a very close friend to be precise…he was a supervisor in a construction company like you. I’m talking about an experience he recounted. It happened twenty years back. He must have been twenty-two years old then. An age when one has the desire to like travel around the whole of India. So, he left his hometown, boarded a train. It was a time when big buildings were being constructed in North India. Once he worked for a while in the north, he got transferred to a site in Maharashtra. The work was going on in a desolate area, a bit far from Bombay. It was the norm there those days that a lot of workers from other states landed at the construction sites there, just like the situation we have here these days.”
“Cut the long story short, Father. After drinking this tea, I’ve got to smoke a cigarette and go back quickly near the ICU.”
“The story is not all that long, anyway. The piling work of a big building was going on. Due to the carelessness of the person who was operating the excavator, its boom hit the head of one of the workers. His head broke and blood spurted out – his body lay on the ground, getting distorted in spasms. Workers and supervisors ran to the spot, hearing the scream and commotion. But there was no way something could be done. The hospital was far away. The facilities at the work site existed only in papers. What to say… by the time the people who gathered met the manager and conveyed the news, the man died… before anything could be done in his favour.”

The bearer kept the tea glasses on the table with a loud thump and went back. If you see Gauri looking intently at the storyteller who kept on talking as he sipped tea and ran his fingers through his beard, it would seem that he has changed his mind about getting the story finished fast.
“And then? There was no legal case, or any complaints?”
“No way! Nothing happened. No one knew nothing other than the names of the dead man and his village. If they took his body out of the company, it would be a hassle. They needed the post-mortem report and a doctor’s certificate for that. If they needed to find out his home address and take his body there, it would take a few days. The site manager scolded and abused the workers who volunteered to take his body to his village. They backed off when they heard that they would have to do it at their own risk, forsake the wages for the days they lose that way, and that there won’t be any assurance that they would have a job to get back to when they come back. Things happened pretty fast after that. His body was dragged down the big pit dug for piling and they had a quick and quiet burial of it.”
“None among the workers or supervisors objected?”
“The company offered double salary to all its workers and special allowance to the supervisors. And they scared off those who still raised their voices. Everything ended there.”
“And your friend…what about him?”
“He took the allowance, ran away from there and reached home. He kept dreaming of the blood-soaked body, its head split open, moving in violent spasms. He lost his sleep over these recurring images in his dreams. Thinking repeatedly over the dead man dumped in the bottomless pit, he became an insomniac, unable to even close his eyelids once. Then he started mumbling, and then speaking loudly, things that didn’t make sense. In short, he went mad. He who didn't believe in God started praying all the time, when he was in his right senses. Before this news spread in his locality, his family took him to a small rehabilitation centre run by our community, far from his place. That’s how I got to know about him.”

Though the cashier called out and asked them if they needed anything more, they understood that it was a signal to empty their places for those who were waiting for seats. Polleyachan and Gauri paid the bill and walked out of the cafeteria.
“Haven’t you seen him after that, Father?”
“I see him occasionally. He’s somewhat normal now. But he gets in trouble now and then. He keeps living like that – with his faith, prayers, and madness. It seems he hasn’t married yet.”
- Silence –
“But the reason why I told you all this is for something else. He has a collection of paper cuttings – a file that contains all the news about the accidents and the suffering of construction workers.”
“Real news on these incidents don’t come out so often, Father. Even among those that come, only half would be true.”
“That could be the case. Even then…there are some bits of information in his file. Workers who had serious accidents at work, and leading a life that’s worse than death. Those who commit suicide because they couldn’t stand the cruelty and abuse of their supervisors or couldn’t escape it and find a way back home. Those who are suspected for crimes or shunned for no special reason and beaten to death by the local people. Those who roam around helplessly with illnesses that exist or not … there are so many single-column news items like that.

Polleyachan took Gauri on his bike and dropped him at a small shop next to the hospital wall. He didn’t forget to give Gauri the regular useless advice to quit smoking. Since the way to the Trust office was crowded, Polleyachan drove slowly, with utmost care. By the time he finished his usual chit-chat with the accountant and the audit work, and came out of the office, the temperature rose too high outside. As he rode his bike and sweat dripped down his head inside the helmet, Polleyachan kept shaking his head in irritation. By the time he reached the college, it was almost noon time. Senthil, the new supervisor kept eyeing the beautiful college girls returning from the computer lab to their classes, even as he gave directions to the workers. He behaved himself when he saw Polleyachan. After parking his bike on the pathway, Polleyachan hung his helmet on it handle-bar and walked ahead. Since he didn’t take his breakfast or medicine before the hurried ride to the hospital and back, he felt dizzy as the afternoon heat fell on his head. He walked towards the site, wondering whether his steps swayed a bit.

Senthil, who is from Nagercoil, stood on the ground and lifted his head towards the workers standing on various levels of the building on scaffolds and concrete, as he gave them commands in a langue that was Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi intermingled. These languages reached those various levels in the form of instructions. All those workers – from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa – keep on doing the work after processing these instructions in their respective languages. Those who are at the topmost level are attempting to fix the big letters made of cement to give the building its name. In a mystified vision as if a layer of yellow fell over his eyes, Polleyachan saw the long name, ‘Bibliothèque’ get reduced to ‘Babel’ in a lightning flash. The whole building becomes a huge crowd of people. Some climb on the shoulders of those who stood in a big circle holding hands, and some others climb on their shoulders and then on the shoulders of those who climbed first, and some more on their shoulders…the circular form of people keeps growing like that, going high upawards. In an excitement to reach higher and higher, the crowd roars. The moment a man climbed over to a height that seemed impossible, an excavator’s hand comes buzzing, hiding the sun behind it, and hits right on his forehead. In the scream ensuing a head getting split, the human tower scatters. Right at the centre of those who move away in fear, a body falls from the utmost height.

By the time Senthil saw Polleyachan standing fatigued with his hands over his head and ran towards him, the priest had fallen down. When the people who gathered around because of the commotion took Polleyachan on their shoulders and shifted him to the office building, he was passing the distance, through memory, of the self-betraying transformation from the cross that’s the refuge of the messiah’s missionaries to the reverse form of a headless cross that’s the drawing tool of an architect. The bunch of keys that would jangle on such occasions fell from his loosening clasp.


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(c)2009 Devadas V.M [ ]