ALL AT ONCE
I've only stopped here momentarily because there's a crowd and I like to think I'm a devoted observer of everything; from flies mating to random crowds gathered on the side of the road. They're waiting as it seems for something to happen which has happened before in their lifetimes. But maybe it happened such a long time ago that the memory is now beginning to get mixed up with other memories and this thing about to happen again, though unpleasant, will at least bring the older memory back to life.
There's about a hundred of them here and they're waiting to see carnage.
I don't live here, beside the road. The shacks that are about to be destroyed aren't none of them mine. I didn't stop here to buy any of the produce that's usually sold here in abundance nor get a haircut from one of these wooden cabins that serve as cheap barbershops for the masses though they're only blessed with 3 walls. They, also, are about to be taken down. I was only cycling through on the way to visiting a friend of mine whom I'd known for a very long time when it seems I rolled right into this thing which seemed to have been on pause while it waited for me to show up so it could start happening.
Usually, there's a different kind of noise here. As you pass by the makeshift fruit and vegetable stalls that are usually crowding for the same space along the side of the side just as if they were all paying obeisance to some pagan god of transportation. There's always an expectant hum to be heard everywhere in this red dust that's always swirling all over the place.
Today the only sound to be heard was of the distant diesel engine of a bulldozer, while everywhere else was nothing but quiet and the frantic sounds of heartbeats in fear of something they're not prepared for. And all across the place, there are large women with multi-coloured cloths tied around their waists taking their wooden pallets to safety and men in green or blue work suits taking down their cabins made of either wood or iron sheets. Recovering leftover stock. Doing their best so that wherever they set up shop again it wouldn't hurt.
Simply by being here it was as if I had claimed kin with each and every one of these people. As if I could, just by looking, share, and partake in their histories, hopes, and individual despair. I had become a little more than a spectator in a field of destruction.
HOW IT HAD COME ABOUT
A truckload of Municipal Officials had apparently shown up in the morning and gave everyone who operated in the area an hour's notice to collect whatever they needed to collect before it was destroyed.
What's about to happen is something that'll benefit no one except the Municipal Council's Public Relations Department. It'll give them something to do for a while. They'll release Press Statements about the 'urgent need' to rid the city of all illegal structures to improve the city's sanitary conditions and bring order to marketplaces.
Hearing that the people with their structures being destroyed will probably think along the lines of:
"Urgent Now?'…' after all this time?'…' please point us to where we can find these 'legal structures.'"
The more combative ones will say to each other, "This isn't a war they can win. We'll just come back here after they've left."
But by then everyone will have already moved on to other things.
The Public Works Department has found something to occupy them with on an otherwise slow Saturday.
THE LARGE WOMAN IN THE STRIPED WRAP-AROUND CLOTH
On the edge of this disorganized mess, there's a large woman collecting two of her pallets which she normally uses to arrange her vegetables and different produce in the fenced-in area reserved for such activities. She's among a crowd of many such women, most of whom are busy shouting over the loud din of the bulldozer parked a short distance away, laughing because of all the people affected here they're the ones losing the least. They're the ones who could come back here defiantly as early as the next day because they know that you don't need much to sell vegetables, except the vegetables themselves and at the very least a clean rug to arrange them on.
This particular lady isn't laughing though, nor is there even the hint of anything of a light nature in her eyes. She's humming a little church hymn to herself, even though the last time she had gone to church was when she'd been forced as a child. She finds herself thinking about going back to church more and more often these days, especially if she happens to think of her husband lying on the bed back home.
All she's thinking about right now is that it's still not yet noon and she can get home early and relieve her daughter from the odious task of cleaning her father's soiled pants. She looks over at where the bulldozer is parked and at all the Municipal Police massed together in a crowd around the marketplace, obviously there in case the situation turned south. She can't think of resisting anything that happens to her anymore though, the strength left her the day her husband had come home one day and told her he'd just lost his job and he was fatally diseased. If she couldn't get angry then, there was no way she could get angry now.
I watch while she stands and blankly looks around. She saw me watching her and stared at me for a few seconds, probably thinking I was a customer wishing to buy something from her but we're so far away from each other that we can't communicate with anything other than the loose strands of our common spirit, always seeking something to latch on to. And then she looked away again and got back to her life.
Her husband had been a truck driver for close to 20 years. From the time they'd had their first and only child, a girl who had just turned 21 and was currently staying fulltime at home helping her mother take care of her father when the mother was away at work. He had come home 2 years previously and announced stony-faced to his wife that he had just resigned from his job because he was finding it more difficult to muster the energy required for long-haul truck driving. After that, he had been hired for a short while by a local man to drive a beat-up truck that ferried river sand but even that had proved too much for him.
The disease he was suffering was one common among truck drivers. HIV. And because he had discovered this fact very late after he had already fallen sick, the medication wasn't having that much of a positive effect on him.
Ever since her husband had told her of his condition she hadn't done anything in the way of reproaching him, which is something he had been fully expecting, so that when it didn't come both of them sunk into their thoughts and reconsidered their previous estimation of each other. The wife realized that this man who hadn't slept with her for the better part of 8 years was much to be pitied since he had now come to realize that there were only a few people that were constant in their affections and vows as his wife was. She took to the task of looking after him with a certain cheerful resignation, doing her best to bolster his spirits whenever she was home. She still worked 6 days a week at the marketplace.
'Maybe this will give me a few days to spend at home with him,' she now thought as she finished packing the last of her tomatoes, vegetables, and potatoes in her wicker basket. She placed it on her head and left this place where she'd been working for the past 10 years with only a little sadness that it was never going to be the same again. She figured though that she could afford to stay home for a couple of days if she wished. But she shuddered when she thought that whenever she did indeed come back, the place would probably reflect a little bit of the emptiness that she had been feeling inside for the past two years.
I'm brought back from her direction by a little man standing right there beside me on the side of the road. There's four of us clumped in a little crew that's a little separate from the rest of the crowd that's massed here and which continues to swell. I'm holding on to the handlebars of my bike and I'm trying to hold on to what this little old man is saying but all I can hear is one word repeated over and over again.
THE LITTLE GENTLEMAN STANDING NEXT TO ME
Standing next to me on the side of the road is a little white-haired man whose crown only reaches up to the underside of my arm. While I'd been busy focusing on the large woman with the stripes, this man had been staring for the past 30 minutes or so at the same spot in this slowly disintegrating field that had served as a market for the past 20 years at least. It's only now that he can start to see its surface, unbroken by little structures of all shapes and sizes serving as selling points for all manner of things.
But he's not looking at anything other than the spot about 50 metres away, where his welding shed is slowly being taken down by a couple of boys that he hired. They're piling up the iron sheets into a neat pile. His old but well-maintained welding machine plus odd bits of metal that he uses for his work are all neatly organized on the side.
I look closely at him and realize that he's holding a couple of welding rods in his left hand. The most startling thing about the man though is that he's been letting out a muffled 'Ahhh' for the past 30 minutes or so at regular intervals. His sighs aren't directed at anyone nor are they prompted by any action as far as any of us can tell, he's just looking at the very spot where the boys are taking down the shop where he's been operating for the past 20 years.
The other two characters standing here are having a quiet conversation about the old man. From their words, it seems that no one here knows exactly where the old man stays but he's been coming to this marketplace every morning for at least 20 years now. He had built his little shop during the early years of working here and has had a steady flow of business all through the years because he did all of his jobs efficiently and on time. Despite that, his business had never grown larger than it was, either because the old man lacked any such ambitions or they speculated that he might have an expensive hobby or he kept a second household somewhere.
All their summations, like most speculator gossip, hovered somewhere between truth and strange fiction.
The old man didn't have any hobbies and he wasn't blessed with any wild ambitions. What he had was enough and had been enough for him ever since he'd settled into his role. He stayed at his own house in the high-density suburb of Glen Dour. He had gotten this house as part of a package after he had retired at 55 from his previous employment with a manufacturing company. With the rest of his earnings, he had bought his welding and had decided to situate his business in this place because of the high volume of customers and because he desperately needed to be active again.
He commuted for an hour every day from his house but still managed to be one of the first people who arrived in the morning at the marketplace.
The old man was hurtling with as much control as he could muster, towards the ripe old age of 80, but not a single person here could've guessed as much.
He had rightly figured that he couldn't cope with taking down his own shed by himself. He knew that he didn't have the willpower to set up again. He knew that this had probably been his last run and he knew that now it was over. He knew a lot of things and they were all compressed into the sighs he let out almost every two minutes.
Without any constant and active stimulation of his mind and limbs, he knew that he wouldn't be able to last long. He had never had a wife or kids and as he looked at the last bit of iron sheeting from his shed being dismantled, he also thought that maybe he might've been able to cope if he had a family to fuss over in his old age. If he had had a son to leave his meagre possessions and savings to, he might've had reason to be proud even as he looked over all the things he had done and accomplished over the last 20 years and beyond.
But as he stood there looking out over 20 years work dismantled into a neat little pile for him to carry away and mull over at his leisure, he wondered what the point of it all had been. 'I have simply killed time for 20 years,' he thought.
But all these thoughts and reflections only came out in a stretched out, "Ahhhh," as he stood there, little and beat down on the side of the road.
I'm certain that if any of us three who stood there closest to him at that point had known the amount of torment and regret contained in just one of his sighs we would have all been a little bit more compassionate.
My eyes wandered away from this little man with his large compressed sadness, onto another man who was closest to where we were all standing. He was watching over the packing of his huge store's contents into the back of a truck. His store was the biggest in the place, and it ran parallel to the road.
MOVING TEARS IN A TRUCK
Everyone around us was still trying their best to salvage something of their disintegrating lives before the bulldozer came to take down everything else. I could still hear its distinct engine droning from somewhere I couldn't see, but it sounded very close and its sound carried into the earth and transmitted its menace into the hearts and minds of everyone who stood there.
The woman with her produce on her head had left, the old man besides had finally stopped his lamentations, while everywhere around me it seemed like everyone was busy with their own story playing out. With masses of spectators to witness who broke down under the strain, and who managed to keep it in until later.
It was a large marketplace so there were still people busy packing it in before the real carnage began. Because they all rightly figured that for now while their labour was still being driven by nostalgia and despair; when the Bulldozer came it would be driven by other things. Mostly diesel.
There was still a strong group of heavy-boned women with wrap-around cloths, who looked like different variations of the same woman because they'd spent so many years selling the same produce right there by the side of the road.
There was also so much red soil here that only 30 minutes after arriving the whole makeup of my past and all my memories seemed to be tainted red. There was also so much happening here that it seemed like I needed all my ancestors here with me just to have enough eyes on all of it.
Here's one other thing my vision managed to latch upon:
In front of a large moving truck stood the proprietor of a makeshift hardware store which had grown large over the last 15 years in this place where it shouldn't have been. He was slowly packing it in. I heard him ask one of the guys helping him, "Is that the last of it?"
"Ya. There's just this packet of nails here and we're done," said the truck driver and I think the man cried a little but his tears were hidden behind the moving truck. As I stood there I was certain that those tears would not be left behind. I'm sure they moved with him. Maybe when it came time to offload the truck they also found a 750ml container full of the man's tears. And maybe some other things as well. Because I have no idea what a life's work looks like when you offload it off a moving truck.
Watching this whole thing brought to me the same feeling you'd get if you stood by the side of the highway and watched people try to hold on to the crumbling pieces of their lives. And you're expected somewhere else.
THE PRETTY GAZEBO
I'm still standing here watching little capsules of destruction busy trying to make a bigger picture. On the fringes of this little picture playing out is a little gazebo closed surrounded by a pink wall. It has what looks like ancient designs on its roof. The thatched roof is supported underneath by these little wooden poles that look like malnourished struts holding up a grand ideal.
There is no one attending to it trying to save it from the destruction that's about to descend on it. I think it's because there's not much you can save at short notice from a pretty gazebo with ancient designs on its roof. That job is one that would require a lifetime.
In its isolation, it looks less like a gazebo than a dream of a gazebo. Like a dainty little dream that I had a long time ago that I'm now only finding out is stranded in a nightmare. It almost seems like if I look at it long enough it might hitch up its thatched skirts and run away blushing, away from my dream. I was only looking at it in snatches and wondering if anyone else could see it.
"Hey. Do you see that gazebo?" I asked the old man standing next to me almost as soon as I realized I'd asked the wrong man. He just looks at me and replies to me with one of his, "Ahhhs."
I realize that he's still holding on to his welding rods. I count them and there's twenty of them. Tied in a neat little bundle in the man's hand.
THE BULLDOZER IS HERE
The bulldozer is finally prepped and ready for action. There's still a few structures standing. Mostly bare brick walls with the roofing and door frames taken down. The people here are talking about using the rubble from the destroyed structures to fill up the many potholes in the area.
'It'll take a whole lot more than rubble to fix this mess,' someone else says, probably thinking out loud. I think he means that it'll take lots more to fill up the many holes and empty spaces in these people's lives. Their biggest advantage is how oblivious most of them are to these gaps. They just go forward in life in glorious ignorance.
The operator of the bulldozer looks distracted. I see him looking over at the gazebo and frowning. It almost looks as if he's as confused as I am on what such a little thing of beauty is doing in a place like this.
'Beautiful things are always ending up in the wrong places,' I feel like saying to him.
He starts his engine and starts moving. The first thing he heads towards is a little square structure made out of iron sheets. It looks like it used to be a shed where someone sold cellphone accessories and for some reason, the person still hadn't collected whatever he needed to salvage. There are all sorts of dead chargers and earphones outside. The owner runs and tries to tell the driver to wait. He says he's forgotten something inside. But the driver is irritable by now. It looks like he's been irritable ever since he saw that little gazebo.
The old man standing next to me shifts his weight onto his left leg and then says, "Ah." Even though nothing has happened yet. The other 3 guys standing close all look at him confused. I look at him and smile.
The man operating the bulldozer doesn't stop as he's being asked to. He lifts the trunk of his machine over the iron cabin, lets it hang there for a few seconds, then brings it down and pulls one side of the wall back towards himself. The thing comes crashing down.
The owner of the shed now has his hands over his head. He's stopped a few metres clear of the bulldozer. The operator finishes off the structure quickly.
His face is expressionless as he moves on to the next thing.
The owner of the shed comes over and lifts bits of iron sheeting out of the way busy looking for whatever it was he wanted to retrieve. He doesn't find anything. Someone comes over and asks him what he's looking for and he only shakes his head and moves away. Everyone moves in and starts moving the iron sheets into one place thinking that perhaps they'd find something important the man was looking for.
Maybe a brand-new cellphone charger.
The bulldozer has destroyed 2 other structures by now. The operator looks like a man trapped in an extremely dull high castle as he sits in the cabin of the heavy machine.
It also seems as if he's moving around the gazebo. Maybe he's hoping that one of his superiors will come to him and tell him he doesn't have to destroy it. Or maybe he's only working up enough courage on the other structures and hoping that by the time he gets to it he'll be as tough as steel. Kind of like that guy, 'No-Emotion Steve'.
No-Emotion Steve is a local celebrity who shoots spoof videos of himself showing tremendous emotional strength during the very worst that life can throw at a man.
Everyone knows him. Including the operator of the bulldozer.
While he's been working away the large crowd just stands on the side-lines and quietly watches the action. There are little groups that have formed all over the place but they're all seem to be engaged in a strange conference conducted in a vacuum. No one seems the least bit agitated. Even though they outnumber the massed Municipal Police by at least 3 to 1 none of them looks like they're interested in anything more expressive than quiet mumbles.
One hundred Municipal Police minds are all wondering what they're doing here besides watching something they'd rather not be seeing. It doesn't look like there's anything for them to do here besides absent-mindedly swinging their baton sticks and deliberating on where they're going to drink after this thing was done.
A few are crowded around a phone belonging to an expressive member of their ranks. He's showing those around him a video that seems exceedingly funny to both himself and those around him and he's doing a simultaneous commentary job as the video plays.
Things are happening all around 'No-Emotion Steve' but he's seemingly oblivious to it all.
You won't find the bulldozer operator's name on the City Council Payroll. That's because he's actually not employed there. He works for a company that is on a long-term contract to assist the Public Works Department in some of their major operations.
In a nutshell, this is how that company had gotten that contract: it was owned by the Town Clerk. A nephew of his acted as a proxy on all legal documents. They had different last names. It was an ingenious plan.
The Town Clerk's nephew, the bulldozer operator's dummy boss, rarely showed up at the company offices so that the two permanent employees received their orders only a few times a week through text.
The rest of the time they drank tea.
The company offices were located at a disused City Council property. There was only a single-roomed wooden shed there where the two employees spent their days, awaiting orders. The yard was strewn with obviously neglected earth moving equipment in disrepair.
This bulldozer operator was one of the two permanent employees. The other was a middle-aged woman who worked as the receptionist/administrator. Even though they were both married they were seeing each other on the side. Or rather they were seeing their families on the side since they spent most of the time together.
They weren't in love though.
There was just nothing else to do there in the quiet times while they were awaiting orders and a job.
Living like this as he had been for the past 12 years had made this man extremely passive participator in life. Nothing had really moved him deeply in a very long time. Whenever he looked at his wife or his two sons he felt nothing more than a vague regret that this was the culmination of his whole life. His job, because it wasn't the least bit challenging, provided him with zero distractions. His mind just hadn't been stimulated by anything in a long time.
He was a chain smoker. Not because he craved cigarettes but more because he had stopped caring about what he did to himself. Maybe he was too passive to kill himself and so he was delegating that job to tobacco.
Seeing that little Gazebo had moved him though for some reason. He wasn't sure why but ever since he'd noticed it he had been extremely irritable. He had a feeling like he wanted to mow down everyone who was standing around him.
They all seemed to have conspired to keep away from the little thing and that's probably why he was irritated. It was the first genuinely beautiful thing he had seen in his life and now he had been tasked with destroying it.
He was secretly hoping that someone from that City Council crew would come to him before he got to it and tell him that he had done enough. That this was enough carnage for a day. For a lifetime. He had almost completely forgotten that they still had to visit one other site before they signed out for the day. If he had remembered that now his spirit might've disintegrated.
That's why he kept looking over at the woman in charge of the operation but whenever he did she just seemed large and distracted. She barely even looked his way.
In 30 minutes he was done with everything else. He turned off his engine and walked over to the Inspector. She looked at him approach with a slightly amused expression in her eyes. His face looked like a statue she remembered from her High School Hostel.
She said, "You look like a statue from a fountain of my youth." He was too distracted to appreciate wordplay.
"Do I have to take down that little thing?" he asked as soon as he was within earshot of her. He said it in a way that made sure no one else heard him. The crowd had craned its collective neck and was now looking over at the two of them. They were all wondering the same thing: 'is it over?'
"Yes. Your orders were to take down everything remember?" she said aloud. Enjoying the attention. Enjoying being in control of a spectacle.
"What if I say I won't do it?" he asked, looking her straight in the eye.
"Then I'll have to report you," she said and then toned down her voice when it became apparent to her that she might suffer the indignity of public insubordination. "What do you mean you can't do it?" she continued, in a whisper, "it's the job. We're all tired here and we'd appreciate the chance to leave this place and move on to the next site" She now spoke with a hint of panic in her voice.
The bulldozer man looked her over for a minute with knit brows.
"What single thing have you done all day to even make you remotely tired?" he walked away muttering beneath his breath. Even though she heard what he said she was mostly relieved to notice that he seemed to be going back to finish his job. Either way, she resolved that she was going to lodge an official complaint about the conduct of this man. Whether or not he worked directly for them she could still get him in trouble at his work. Or so she thought.
The crowd watched him walk back to his large, yellow vehicle. They weren't sure if he was packing it in or if he was going to finish the only structure that was still standing. Besides the Public Toilets that is.
He passed right beside me and I had to move my bike a little out of his way otherwise he would've crashed right into it. I made him mutter curses under his breath as he walked, looking down the whole time. He got to his partner for the last 12 years, climbed into the cockpit, and started the engine. Instead of moving towards the Gazebo, he moved in the opposite direction.
The bulldozer is a huge vehicle, but at that moment he looked the larger of the two. He was scowling as he moved the vehicle off the dust of the marketplace into the side street and drove it slowly towards the nearby houses. Nobody knew where he was going and most of the people there ever saw him again. A few in the crowd gave chase, wanting to see where he was headed.
The inspector just stared after him for a while. She exchanged a few words with the people close to her. Five minutes later the crowd of Municipal Police had been armed with picks, hammers, and axes and they were heading for the little Gazebo.
At that moment I decided I had seen enough. I tried to check if the little old man was still standing beside me and was disappointed when I noticed that he was no longer there. I had no idea when he had moved. The other 2 men who had been tied in a neat little knot with me and the old man ever since I had stopped here had also dashed after the bulldozer. I looked over at the Inspector and she was busy trying to recover the situation by barking confused orders at the mass of redirected security personnel. She was walking in front of them towards the Gazebo and she looked like all her frustrations were going to now be directed towards it.
I couldn't get myself to stay any longer at that point. Besides being extremely late, I didn't trust that I could bear to see that pretty little thing destroyed. I was certain that if I did there was a good chance of being run over by a car along the way.
Everyone was disbursing again. Like an oversized lung finally expelling air after holding it hostage for too long. Each was taking his own direction along the many potholes in the place back towards the safe embrace of monotony.
My soul seemed weighed down by the rubble I saw all over the place. So I let my bike gather speed and then felt it's resistance on my thighs as I began the uphill climb towards things that awaited me in other places.
I remembered why that little Gazebo had made such an impression on me. It was because it reminded me of a little passage I'd read from Rabi Tagore.
A water vessel, taken as a vessel only,
Raises the question, 'Why does it exist at all?"
Through its fitness of construction it offers the apology for its existence.
But where it is a thing of beauty it has no question to answer.
It has nothing to do but to be.