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Chawl

 Zakir’s chappals slapped the concrete as he walked back home, exhausted. For him home was a hole in the wall. A hole shared by his mother and baby sister along with a host of crawling guests that visited unannounced. A hole that smelled like burnt rotis and sewage. A hole that was carved out by impatient hands on a small budget. The walls of Bombay had many such holes and many Zakirs. Too often had Bombay seen these drooping shoulders supporting sunken cheeks and beady eyes. And too often had Bombay lulled itself to sleep to the sounds of their snores and silences. Snores that oft wheezed into silences.

Zakir was one of the many ants living in this wall, united by the moments of our community. Where nothing was yours or mine- it was always ours, even if you didn’t want it to be. So when Manto bought a television set in 1983 Ameena aunty broke a coconut on its frame. The good wishes split the display into two worlds and nothing had ever been as exciting as the ‘83 world cup on a buffering display of perpetual suspense. Like many other things at the chawl, its defect made it ours more than theirs. And so when the one-eyed dog walked into our walls for the week or when the rain outstayed its welcome, we did not complain. Because like the brick and cement, these glitches of poverty were all that we owned and all that made us feel safe. Because while they drank milk out of packets every day, the only milk we had known was the one Allah gave for the early six months of life. Because while we stank of hell and sin, the familiar musk of penury reminded us of all things we were and loved.

And so we remember, through the symphony of cracked backs and shouting children, that we have enough. That while we are more mortal we are more awake than the shiny people racing past our lives, afraid that destitution was contagious. Our deaths are ours and so are our births. The missing are never talked about and nor are any other plagues. We battle disease and dance with infernal fires that knock down our doors- chasing us. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print, so we never bothered with a paper. The roll count before sleeping was the only progress report we needed, Zakir’s chappals reminding us that we were alive.

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