This story seems to be taking off a lot slower than I thought it would, but I’m having a lot of fun writing it. In the description of Sassoon Docks, there may be a few mistakes and that’s because I’m relying purely on memory. Do let me know if there is something wrong. Here’s Part 1.
Sassoon Docks in the morning was a beehive of activity. People of all shapes and sizes milled around, going through chores that excited Bubba. But to the people who did these chores, there seemed a mindlessness to the way they did it. Bubba hated that. He believed that he was lucky to work here. It’d only been a week since he started working here and he already never wanted to leave.
If such a thing had happened earlier, Bubba would have immediately left the place. He didn’t believe in getting comfortable. But Sassoon Docks was different. For one, there was AC. AC was a diminutive old man, with wrinkled skin and beady eyes. He wasn’t someone the average person trusted, but Bubba always thought that it was the most untrustworthy looking people who could be trusted. AC — no one really knew his name; people just called him that since he fixed air conditioning units in rich homes in his spare time — took Bubba in when he’d come running to his chawl. A fishmonger by profession, he was mute, though it didn’t faze him. Nothing really fazed AC, like just two days back when the constables had come. AC waved them off and went about his work.
There were screaming matches everywhere, a sickly, sweet, fishy smell permeated the air. It was still early in the morning and the sun hadn’t come up. For Bubba who had never tasted fish before, eating it for the first time a week ago had changed his life. Prawns, eels, shrimps, calamari, small fish, big fish, he had tried it all, loved it all. He felt a sense of belonging, something he hadn’t felt in a long time, not since that woman three years back.
He began his work. To an untrained eye, this may seem like easy work, a banality attached to it that most jobs give after a few days. Bubba, though never really got bored. He had to go and negotiate the prices for the best catch every morning. The only thing he didn’t like about the job was the women. Fisherwomen would surround him on all sides, jostling to get the seller’s attention and he’d be the only man there. Most of the sellers took pity on him and gave him enough fish to go back to AC without disappointing him. Other sellers gave him good prices because they were scared of AC. There were whispers about AC everywhere. Some said he was once a rich businessman, others thought he was an underworld man.
“I need three baskets”, said Bubba.
“That will be Rs 30”, answered Ramu, the basket-keeper, scratching his neck.
“Okay, bring it to the edge of the jetty.”
Ramu meekly followed Bubba to the edge. The edge was a place away from the roofed centre, where all the bargaining with the fishermen took place.
“Put them here. Here’s your money.”
“What, boy. Everyday you give me lesser money than I should be making. Nobody else dares to bargain with me, but you…” Bubba caught hold of Ramu’s shirt and shoved him away. “Cheap bastard. Everyone knows you charge too much for those stupid baskets.” It was a daily ritual, this fight with Ramu. It was never understood why this happened, this needless quarrel.
Fishermen threw baskets from boats across to the jetty. Bubba had learnt how to catch it, empty those baskets into his and throw it back to the boats. Today, something was different. Every moment seemed slower and every few seconds he had to look over his shoulder.
“Come and get the money in the evening”, he called out to the fisherman as he walked away from the edge, balancing the three baskets carefully. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw some movement. He started. But there wasn’t any place to move. The centre was becoming crowded and he couldn’t run. His father had him well and truly trapped. He slowly began to jog over to AC’s stall. Setting down the baskets, he looked at AC and nodded. “I think they are here. I may not be back for some time. Find someone else to do this until then.” AC just stared and gave him some money, before motioning him to leave.
Sadpur was dark as a bat cave and hot as hell during the moonless nights of June and July. Sneaking out in the night with torches that were left behind by some businessmen was a daily sport for the children. Usually, they’d run into one of Bubba’s father’s men, who would then make sure they were sent back to bed. But moonless nights were the best. The children had learnt how to use the torches as signals and after a point they could even see in the dark.
Middle-aged men came in from Muzzafarnagar, wearing safari suits. Their Hindi sounded different, coarser and somehow more fascinating. The children hid behind windows to watch these men ‘talk’. A lot of alcohol was passed around and Bubba’s father would sit back and watch as his men did the haggling. All the suits looked the same to Bubba. Hardened eyes, big bellies and loud voices.
Sometimes, when his father looked out the window and Bubba cowered near the wall, he’d see his father smile. It was usually because the suits were giving him a good price. Or because one of the suits made the stupid mistake of challenging Abba’s prices.
It took a few hours of haggling and then the suits would leave. The children would run around the makeshift house where negotiations took place and off into the darkness.