“RIVER OF NO RETURN” by Tabish Khair

My partner turned to me and said, ‘Do you hear something?’

No, I replied, I do not hear anything.

“Yes. And isn’t that strange? It has been so silent here since yesterday. Leaf-drop silence! Haven’t you noticed it?”

Now that he mentioned it, I had and I hadn’t. I had been too busy feeding my children to stop to think about it, but one part of me must have noticed it. We live next to the largest garbage dump on this side of the city, and we often squeeze through the barbed wires to scavenge in it. We also live next to a four-lane highway that is usually thrumming with traffic, so much traffic that most of us dare cross the highway only at night. We live – squat, you would say – between this dump and that highway.

I scrambled up the ridge that hides our dwelling from the highway and saw a surprising sight. The highway was bare. And usually, at this time of the morning, there is what they call the rush hour, so that the paved highway is a liquid stream of metal. And it is repeated in the evenings, when the lights make it look like a river of quicksilver flowing both ways, beautiful and deadly. But there wasn’t even one car on it at the moment. Not one.

          I could see many of us were already down on the other side of the ridge – littered with cans, plastic, bottles, paper, rubber tyre strips, hub caps – and a few had clambered up to the highway, something they would seldom dare to do at this time of the day. I looked behind me at the garbage dump, usually congested with trailer-bearing cars; the place was deserted. I could not even spot the hefty guards who chase us away with curses and sticks if they see us scavenging in there.

My partner had followed me up the ridge. He saw what I was looking at. ‘Locked,’ he said, ‘The gates are locked, and it is not a Sunday.’ Then he let out a wild yell. I hate it when he does that, as if he was a wolf or coyote or something wild like that!

‘Cool, isn’t it?’ he said, ‘I have to see what Robin says about this.’ And with that he was running down the ridge and into the clump of trees on the left where Robin and his pack of useless bums hang around, lapping up anything that drips, tongues lolling at any female who passes. There was no point saying anything. Nothing can keep him away from his mates in any case. And at that moment, I was distracted by a bird song that I, even with my sharp ears, had never heard before.

In a few days, we were so used to the silence and the absence of people that we almost forgot about them. Once in a while, a car or a bus would go past on the highway, but the dump remained chained and locked. Even the highway was empty for such long stretches of time that many of us started going up and squatting on it: this was late winter, and the concrete of the highway was warmer to sit or lie on than our moist, shady dwellings. Our children started playing on the highway all through the day and sometimes even at night, though I never allowed my children to do so. The first and only time I saw them playing with friends on the highway, I did not just forbid them to do so. I dragged them down the scree by the scruff of their necks.

          My partner laughed at me. ‘Can you see any cars up there?’ he asked, ‘Ghost cars, maybe?’ I shook my head. It is so easy to forget: a few days back, not one of us would have dared to play on the highway, and we would have crossed it only if we had no choice, and as quickly as we could. But now, well, not only were many of us taking the sun on the highway, some were even going up there to sleep during the nights. Not me though, and not my family.

But Robin and the boys? They were up there, up there on the highway. Strutting around. They had marked out their territory, sleeping up there – the concrete was warmer during the night, as it slowly released the sun it had soaked up during the day. In a few weeks, despite the occasional reminder of a bus or a car, they had come to believe that the highway essentially belonged to them.

          How long did it last? It was many weeks, months, maybe years? I lost track. We all lost track. Even I had to remind myself that once the highway had been a river of hot metal, which ate one up like acid, leaving only shreds of flesh, bits of bone scattered on it. It lasted so long that I started listening to that rare birdsong out of habit. Every morning.

It ended as suddenly as it started.

          The gunshots woke us up. They were coming from the highway. We ran up to the ridge, hiding behind bushes, for no one runs blind and brave into gunshots. There were vehicles up there on the highway. There were uniformed men with guns.

There had been a massacre.

          Robin and his boys, and many others, many, many others, were lying on the warming concrete, scattered around, some even on the scree, shot down as they had tried to flee. The uniformed men were dragging away all the carcasses and throwing them into a van. I could see that Robin was still alive. He was near the edge of the highway. Robin is a big mongrel cur, and his thick, bushy tail was thumping on the concrete. A man bent down to drag him and Robin snapped at the man, barely missing his hand. Another man came up and shot Robin again.

          ‘Fucking wild dogs,’ he said. ‘I had no idea there were so many.’

          The man who had almost been bitten by Robin looked sad.

          ‘I don’t see why we had to shoot them,’ he said, ‘I mean, the traffic would have chased them away.’

          ‘There would have been accidents,’ the other man replied, ‘We cannot afford any further losses, man. The economy has to be revved up. Damn, it’s time to put your shoulder to the wheel! No bloody games anymore. Don’t you want to get back to normal life?’

          ‘Yes, I suppose it’s for the best,’ the sad man replied.

          I pricked up my ears. I swear I could hear the traffic building up as if it was the tide creeping up on us. I saw it in my mind’s eye: the city lighting up, like a volcano, and a river of molten metal flowing from it towards us, a torrent of acid consuming everything on its way, humans, humans, humans.

I listened hard. I listened very hard. But I never heard that rare bird song again.

[Note: This is the FULL version of the short story that was later edited, in order to fit the time slot, by the author and read out by the brilliant Shabana Azmi for ‘The Decameron 2020,’ an You Tube channel envisioned by the renowned Italian writer, Erri de Luca.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrVkZMUK3Yk]

Born and educated in the town of Gaya, in Bihar, India, TABISH KHAIR is the author of various books, including the poetry collections, Where Parallel Lines Meet (Penguin, 2000) and Man of Glass (HarperCollins, 2010), the studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels (Oxford UP, 2001), The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness (Palgrave, 2010), The New Xenophobia (OUP, 2016) and the novels, The Bus Stopped (Picador, 2004), Filming (Picador, 2007), The Thing About Thugs (Harpercollins, 2010; Houghton Mifflin, 2012), How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Interlink and Corsair 2014), Just Another Jihadi Jane (Periscope and Interlink, 2016/17), which was published as Jihadi Jane in India (Penguin, 2016), and Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018). Other Routes, an anthology of pre-modern travel texts by Africans and Asians, co-edited and introduced by Khair (with a foreword by Amitav Ghosh) was published by Signal Books and Indiana University Press in 2005 and 2006 respectively. He has also edited or co-edited other scholarly works.

[Pic and Bio courtesy: tabishkhair.co.uk]

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