|If you are afraid of heights|
Raj Kamal Jha
Itís a manís voice, itís about half an hour before noon, a crowd has gathered to listen. She is one of them, the only woman.
"If you are afraid of heights, brothers and sisters, I have nothing to show you, please leave. But if you don't care how high you go, if you donít mind people becoming dots moving up and down the road which becomes a ribbon, then listen to me. Because I will tell you how you can climb on to my crow's back and fly out of this city.
"Across and over, above and beyond. No pushing, no shoving, no saying sorry, no jumping puddles of pee or piles of shit. In short, my friends, no headache.
"I'll fly you from here, right from where we stand, two hundred and fifty three by five Beadon Street, pin code seven zero zero zero zero six, Mitra Cinema in front of us and below, to my right, hereÖCan you see it, that's my crow.
"Heís in a cage yes but no, heís not sad, heís at your service, always at your service.
"I'll hold him down, don't you worry, just make sure that when you're on top, your legs are firmly pressed against the bird's back, hard and tight. Think it's a horse, youíre the rider. Like the jockeys you see at the Race Course where rich people come on winter Sundays, in dark glasses and cars pressed flat to the ground."
It's a man's voice, it's half an hour before noon, a crowd has gathered to listen, about fifty to sixty people, all men who have no need for time. And at a distance, about twenty to thirty yards away, with their backs to this crowd, there's a woman and a child.
The woman's hands are dark, her nails bent, misshapen, her fingers wrinkled, maybe sheís just finished washing dishes. The child is a boy, seven to eight years old, in shirt and shorts that should have been white, his shirt crumpled where it was tucked into the shorts and has now come out. The boyís returning home from school.
He's pointing to a shop-window where they have put up for display, a mini cricket set, complete with a bat and pads, wickets and gloves, a tiny little helmet, a cap with Sachin Tendulkar's face on it.
Coming free with this set is a brown clipboard with a piece of paper and a pen dangling at the end of a red cord. That's for writing the score. There are rows and columns printed on the paper where you can put in the bowlers' figures, over by over, ball by ball.
The woman, most probably the child's mother, looks tired and although she lets herself be dragged by the boy towards the shop window, while he's looking through the glass, pointing to what he wants her to buy, she turns her head in the direction of the voice.
"Are you scared?
"I can feel it, donít hide it, I know some of you are nervous, telling yourself let my bus arrive so that I can get out of here but don't be scared, there's nothing to be afraid of. Tell me, what's the worst that can happen?
"The crow will get angry, heíll fly for just a minute or so and then sit on some roof. Well, if that happens, and I'm telling you it won't, one hundred per cent guarantee, but even if that happens, suppose I'm wrong and the crow lands on someone's roof, wait for a while, check if anyone's looking because we don't want any trouble, no one shouting at you stop thief stop thief.
"And when you're sure that all's clear, quickly come down the stairs. And if they catch you, ask you who you are, where did you come from, tell them everything. Why hide the truth, you haven't stolen anything from anybody, just tell them you came down from the sky, on the wings of a crow."
The crowd laughs, some clap their hands in added appreciation, someone throws a half-rupee coin, its clink disturbs the crow since it begins to flutter in the cage, its beak sticking out through the bars.
Across the street, they have begun to scrub the floor of the cinema hall lobby. Two boys, both not older than twelve or thirteen, they have made mops out of old, torn towels tied at the end of sticks.
She can see them, the water in their buckets has turned black. They should throw it, she thinks, fill fresh water since the dirt is getting back to the floor but then no one's there to check so they don't bother.
And in any case, in half an hour, the noonshow crowd will be here, mainly students bunking classes, some from Scottish Church College, some from as far as St Paul's. This show is always an English movie, always a title that suggests some sex, on a poster with a white woman.
Today it's Indecent Proposal, crow-droppings streak Demi Moore's neck, someone has torn a bit of Redford's chin.
"I'm sorry, my friends, no heavy men or women allowed, don't get me wrong, my crow is strong, I feed him well, five times a day, special things, like cream-biscuits, sometimes
even chicken and rice, but after all, heís a bird and how much weight can he take?
The crow flutters, another round of applause, a bus has stopped, some passengers crane
their necks to see what's going on, why thereís a crowd, some people walk away to board the bus, new ones join in.
While the boy still admires the cricket set, she has strayed a couple of feet to her left, towards the crowd, she's getting interested, she wants to know what the man is up to, what will he do to the crow, what's he trying to get at.
"Once you've decided, let me know, I'm ready, the crow's ready. We will choose a good time, the best is three or four in the afternoon because that's when the sun is going down, it won't hurt you or the bird. You see, you can wear goggles, my crow can't."
Another tired wave of laughter, the child has now entered the shop, on his own, the motherís closer to the crowd, listening to each word the man says.
"My crow doesn't need goggles, he's handsome, my black diamond, ready to fly. So hop on, sit down, throw your head back, feel the wind in your hair, let him fly.
"In forty to forty-five minutes, one hour maximum, if the wind blows in the right direction, you will reach Chittaranjan Avenue, flying over Bowbazar, its furniture shops, you will be so high you can't smell the turpentine or the varnish.
"And when you are right above the Indian Airlines Building, the crow will take a break there since there's no one on that roof, all are downstairs, working in their offices. Don't wait too long, don't spoil this bird, you've paid good money, so even if he looks at you with sad eyes, don't give in, get flying again.
"Another half an hour and you'll be over Park Street and Chowringhee, the five-star hotels, maybe if you are lucky, he will take you over Grand Hotel and you can see people from England, Germany and America."
The mother looks at the child who is now asking the shopkeeper something. The shopkeeper, a middle-aged man, knows this is a pointless query from a child whose parents cannot pay, so he keeps reading his newspaper, lifts his head twice, nods at the child once, then gestures towards him to leave.
"When you cross Park Street, after five minutes or so, the scene below will begin to change. The houses go, their roofs disappear, so do the children playing there, all gone. Instead of the black tar of the road, the white of the cars, the yellow of the taxis, all you will see will be the green of the Maidan.
"Be careful now since you will soon pass the tallest building in this city, you must have read about it in the papers, heard it on the radio, even seen on TV, they are all talking about it. It's so tall that my poor crow cannot overfly it, so be careful, the maximum height he can take you to is half of that building.
The man goes down on his knees and lowers his head to the cage, looks into the crow's eyes, his voice falls, she cranes her neck, strains her ears to hear.
"So my dear bird, remember that you have to fly straight, don't look to the left or the right, just slow down a bit so that they can see whatís inside this building, do you hear me, are you ready, now?
"Silence, total silence, the crow will speak."
No one in the crowd moves, all eyes are on the cage, the child has now come to join his mother and because thereís a crowd, she lifts him high up so that he can see over their heads. A line of people has formed at the cinema's booking counter.
The crow caws. Once, twice.
"Yes, yes, brothers and sisters, heís saying yes, yes, heís ready to take you to the tallest building in this city.
"Take a ride on my crow and go watch it, not from the ground, because what will you see from there, nothing, just another tall building, a building so tall your neck will hurt. And they have a huge wall surrounding the building, there are sharp pieces of glass on it, you can't even sneak in at night, but if you're on my crow's back, there's nothing to worry, he'll fly you past and you can look inside and see how they live there."
Another round of applause but by this time, the crowd has lost more than half its strength. Their bus has come.
The woman stops at her house, the child changes his clothes, has lunch, she tells him he should sleep, itís very hot outside and when he wakes up, he can go and play with the kids and then begin studying, sheís cleaned the hurricane lamp. And if he does well in school, sheíll buy him something from the cricket set. She canít buy him the entire set, she says, so heíll have to build it up one by one.
The child is satisfied with the assurance and goes to bed leaving her alone to wash her face at the roadside hydrant outside their house.
Ten minutes later, she begins her work, the afternoon shift at the Dasguptas. This is the lightest shift, thereís never much work, only the floors need to be scrubbed, the milk bought, the tea made.
And while she empties the black water out of the bucket to refill it for the next room, she can see a crow come to rest on the ledge of the window.
She looks at it, imagines herself sitting on its back and smiles at the absurdity of it all. That she, a thirty-seven-year-old woman with a child to bring up, alone in this city, could spend so much time listening to a man tell a stupid story about his crow and the tallest building in this city. She begins to feel a little bit guilty.
Rak Kamal Jha is Executive Editor of The Indian Express. His second novel, soon to be published by Picador, is titled after this story, which appeared in The Little Magazine in May 2000