Short Story: The Sleep
Everybody is aware of physical and emotional pain, but that doesn’t stop some people from inflicting it on others. Shon Mehta
Pedro had been wide awake the entire night. All the coconut oil on his head couldn’t help him calm down. Even the sleeping pill he had taken could not make him sleep for long. His anxiety about his impending homelessness had triumphed over all.
He kept imagining himself sleeping on a footpath near a gutter, with filth all around him. The more he thought about it, the more anxious he became.
He had not felt this anxious ever, not even when fed up of his father’s abuse, had run away from a small fishing village in Goa to Mumbai. Then, he had health and youth on his side. Now he had neither.
One long illness, and his entire world had come crashing down. He lost his job, and his life’s savings were gone too. Now he was a frail man with an aching body, approaching sixty, with no money, no job, and no one to turn to. He still had the same thoughts, and had the same dreams of traveling the world, but his hitting a rough patch had made him a lesser person in other people’s eyes. His friends and acquaintances had cut their ties with him. Pedro had realized that, indeed, a downhill slide is far worse than an uphill battle.
“Pedro! Pedro! Open up, I know you are inside.” Pedro’s landlord was banging at his door. He had come to collect the rent, overdue for several months.
Pedro glanced at the mobile phone in his hand. It was seven in the morning. He stopped moving, even breathing, and waited for the landlord to go away.
“Pedro, come out,” the landlord shouted. “I know you are hiding inside. The security camera outside caught you sneaking in yesterday evening.”
Pedro wiped his sweating palms, and cursed silently as he walked to the door. He slowly opened the door, and faced the landlord. The landlord was standing with his bunch of thugs, whose job was to intimidate the defaulters.
“It has been almost six months,” the landlord fumed. “Your were ill, so I gave you such a long leash. But you are taking undue advantage of my kindness.”
Landlord was anything but a kind man. In the past three months, in lieu of the rent, his thugs had taken away Pedro’s television, fridge, furniture, utensils, whatever they could lay their hands on. Now, only the mobile phone was left.
Pedro's heart sank as he realized that he was carrying the phone in his hand. He desperately tried to hide it in his clothes, but it was too late — the landlord had already noticed.
“Give me that mobile phone,” he demanded.
“I can’t!” pleaded Pedro. “I receive my interview calls on this phone. Please, I need this phone.”
Everybody is aware of physical and emotional pain, but that doesn’t stop some people from inflicting it on others. One of the thugs stepped forward, forcibly snatched the phone from Pedro’s frail hands, and shoved him away.
“This old phone only pays for one month’s rent,” the landlord snarled. “Five months’ rent is still due. I give you two more days — arrange for the rent, or you are out of here.”
Pedro nodded, but he had no idea what he was going do next. He had been looking for another room for some time now, but the whoever he approached asked for a good sum of money as surety. Pedro had none.
Two days went by and, true to his word, the landlord evicted Pedro from his property. He confiscated all of Pedro’s possessions as well. Pedro moved to nearby homeless shelter where he had secured a place in advance.
He now spent his days walking around the streets of Mumbai, desperately searching for a job. He had no other option — his only means of access to the job market, his mobile phone, was gone and he did not have the money to buy a new one.
There was a time when “jobs available” boards were everywhere. It was said that Mumbai has a job for everybody. When he had first arrived in the city, years back, he had almost immediately landed up a well-paying job in a departmental store, and worked his way through the years. But those days were long gone — now there were far less jobs, and far more job seekers. And even for the jobs available, employers preferred a young person, not a frail old man.
After a week of looking around, luck seemed to shine when Pedro noticed a board with “Experienced Clerk Wanted” outside a store. Pedro had almost twenty years of experience in a departmental store, so he walked in with full confidence. The interview went well, and the manager of the store looked pleased.
“You are just the person we need, the job is as good as yours,” the manager smiled. “Give me your address and phone number. I will talk to the owner and confirm by the evening.”
“I don’t have a phone,” said Pedro, with a tinge of embarrassment.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Ok,” the manager said. “Fine, no problem, just write down your address and give the phone number of someone who can pass you my message. I will call them.”
Pedro decided that it was best to come clean about his situation.
“I am between houses at the moment,” he said. “I lost my job and house due to a long illness. I am also unable to name an acquaintance. Once I have this job, getting a rented room should be easy. Maybe I can come back in the evening and get the message myself.”
The manager did not seem comfortable talking to Pedro anymore.
“Are you homeless?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” Pedro replied. “Currently, I am.”
“You beggar!” the manager shouted. “I know your kind well. You all are drug addicts and thieves. How dare you enter this shop? Get out! Get out before I call the police.”
Pedro, taken aback at this outburst, composed himself and walked out. Having to deal with the police was not something he needed at the moment.
Later that evening, when Pedro went back to his shelter, the manager refused
him a place. “One can’t stay here for more than a week,” he declared.
Pedro went searching for a new shelter, but he was out of luck. Some shelters had space for women and children only, while others had their regulars with no room for more.
Getting desperate now, he hurried to the train station and tried to sneak into the platform — but the guards at the train station ganged around, poked him with their batons, and threatened him with arrest. Pedro moved away quietly.
With nowhere to go, not even a place to sit, the city was now a living hell for Pedro. Feeling hopeless, he thought of killing himself — but he was afaid of dying, too.
As Pedro looked around, he saw the railway bridge on the other side of the station. The bridge had been under construction for the past few years, but the work had stopped as the government had run out of money midway. The area was now desolate and unused. Pedro thought of trying his luck there.
He was feeling very tired, and his legs hurt, but he somehow limped his way to the bridge. The place was occupied — a migrant family was living in one corner, in a shelter they had made out of asbestos and plastic sheets. Pedro moved to a spot on the footpath a few steps away from them, cleaned it of the rubble, and sat down.
The family watched Pedro from a distance. They were suspicious at first, but seeing Pedro silently crouch in his spot, they decided that he was harmless. A few minutes later, a small boy from the family approached him and offered some bread. Pedro hesitated first, but was too hungry to resist. He watched the boy run back to his father, who waved at Pedro. Grateful for the kindness, Pedro waved back. He lied down and looked the flickering lights from the train station. Before long, he was fast asleep.
It was way past midnight when Pedro woke up with a startle. He was sore, and felt strange and confused. It took him a moment to remember where he was. As he lay silently, he realized that what was once his worst nightmare had now become his reality — he in fact was homeless and sleeping on a footpath.
Pedro kept pondering. He had already lost everything, and had nothing more to lose. He no longer had to worry about the landlord, and the threats of eviction. He had became a discard of the society — nobody wanted him, and nobody cared for him anymore. Being homeless was his new reality.
As Pedro lay there in his thoughts, a strange thing happened. His anxiety disappeared, and he felt calm and relaxed. He looked at the stars in the open sky above, took a deep breath, and went back to sleep.
© Sheetal Mehata.
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