In this series of three conversations with library activist and author Mridula Koshy, she talks about the inner life of her characters, about bilingualism and about her latest novel Bicycle Dreaming. She explains how her first book, If it is Sweet, a collection of shorts stories, had several working-class characters, characters who are often only used as foils in fiction. She defines her urge to change this aspect of writing, to shed light on their interiority, as her politics. In the second conversation, she talks about her bilingual self and the process of navigating this bilingualism through English. Finally, in the last conversation, she talks about her latest book Bicycle Dreaming, a novel set in a waste-workers community of Chirag Delhi. The conversation is followed by the ‘Prologue’ to the novel and a reading.
Landfill was the wrong word for it. This was no modest depression at the edge of town, filled with garbage and covered over with soil, green grass over the top of that. This reared, mountain-high, compacted black—nearly indistinguishable from the less compacted grey soot of the horizon. It was miragelike, but not in the distance; it was right here in the city.
Soon enough, the nose was assaulted. The stench was not the lesser stench of Delhi’s naalas, those creeks and rainwater runoffs smothered with garbage and rooted over by translucent-skinned pigs. This was the septic scent of faecal matter dredged from the sludge at the bottom of the naalas, and transported in tankers to the landfill. The tankers released the sludge as they travelled the winding road up the garbage mountain. When they were done, the road was pasted in slime and left to dry. Now there was a high shine to the road’s black surface, but the tinsel effect when the sun struck and broke elsewhere on the mountain’s sides was not from the sludge; it was from the thousands upon thousands, from the hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands, from some incomprehensible number of hundreds of thousands of halved and discarded razor blades aglitter underfoot in the soft dust.
There were no pigs. There were dogs. They were not rabid. There was even a litter, eyes shut, tumbling by feel as they did in the womb, in dust that was so soft, it was nearly as soft as the fluid in which they recently swam. This dust hung in the air, lighter than the air, filtering the last light from the setting sun. It was time for herds of cows to give over picking through rotting garbage; it was time for them to head down the slippery mountain and find rest elsewhere in the city.
Two children descended the mountain. Were they the last stragglers? Earlier in the day there had been scores of children. And men and women. They had worked the mountain, pushing their legs in shin deep, anchoring themselves at impossible angles in its yielding sides so that, hands free, they could dig from it buried glass and metal and plastic.
The two were midway in their descent. They appeared to have had no luck today; they trailed deflated bags. On the other side of the mountain there were three different couples, loading their respective carts with bag upon bag of garbage they would haul away to recycling factories. The children laughed when asked the reason for their empty bags.
They looked away when asked their names. The girl continued to chatter. She boasted of making two thousand rupees yesterday. They’d found iron. Broken down machinery. At twenty rupees a kilo.
Did they haul a hundred kilos of iron off this mountain?
The girl’s skin was clear, and her eyes clearer still. The boy’s skin, though, was pitted all over. The black that settled over the whole of it was the black of the mountainside; the brown and yellow patchwork underneath spoke of long acquaintance with hunger. It was impossible to see his eyes. He kept them fastened on the ground but neither was he timid. He shrugged, shoved his free hand deep into the pockets of his two-sizes-too-large pants and spat to the side. But he answered the question amiably. Yes, of course. There was no way other than by carrying. What was a hundred kilos? They only carried it two kilometres. His home was two kilometres away, in a bustee. The thekedar, the contractor, kept a storage shed there. It was on the other side of the mountain. Today though, they had no need to rush to cover the two kilometres before the thekedar took in his weighing scales and closed shop for the day. They were headed in the opposite direction, into the city.
The boy made a scoffing sound and repeated the question to himself as if disbelievingly. Why? Because we have money. And there are many good things to buy.
What will you buy?
Nothing. He just talks about buying things. He doesn’t actually buy anything. He is saving his money.
All this tumbled from the girl, and though the boy never stopped making his scoffing sound, it now had a quality of being pleased with what the girl was saying. Something like a smile flickered across his face. Did he like the idea of himself as thrifty even as he scoffed at her need to explain him?
What about her? Did she not want to buy something for herself?
Not really, she said. But we will see a movie.
There was a loud snort from the boy and she dissolved into helpless laughter. Were they laughing at the credulity with which their story of Rs 2000 had been swallowed? They couldn’t be making a tenth of that in one day, could they?
The girl explained the laughter. He doesn’t like movies, but we see them because I like movies.
Yes, he agreed, she likes all things that are not real. Again, the flicker of a smile, and as quickly his long lashes swept across his eyes and he returned to looking down. Perhaps what seemed to be hostility was actually shyness.
He said the bag wasn’t empty. There were books in the bag they were dragging. He said this dump used to be good till the incinerator plant was built down the road and they started dumping the ashes from it here. No, the sludge did not do the damage that ashes did. The sludge was confined to the road. Malba, that fine dust left over from the constant reconstruction of the city, fogged the heap, but it did not do the damage the ashes did. Books could survive malba, but not ashes.
Would he sell the books for pulp?
The boy looked up, and even in the waning light, his anger was clear to see.
I can read, he said. I will use them for my studies.
Do you attend a school near here?
They did not answer though the girl straightened her back and stood erect, possibly in a sly pantomime of the school neither could possibly have attended that day. Their hands were black with the dirt and ashes they had been digging in, their clothes filthy. And even the clear-skinned girl’s nose ran a trail which she now carefully wiped with the inside hem of her green dress.
She put her hand out and he took his hand out of his pocket to allow her to hold it. They returned to the path they were descending. The words he flung back up the mountain were spoken loudly, they might have been angry, or perhaps not. They were not without the indifference and possibly indolence that seemed to be his way of being in the world:
What do you care what our names are?
And he turned and looked over his shoulder and up at you, and you studied his face for the brief moment he held it open to you. But it was increasingly difficult in that grey light to know what was meant by an expression, or a few words, or their inflection. By the time the two children had rounded the road ahead, disappeared into another fold in the mountain, and emerged again, they were mere silhouettes against the night sky. What had been invisible in the day now came into sight: the small fires everywhere fed by gas escaping from deep within the heap leapt and subsided and leapt again. Now it was night and the next day was far away.