Fiction: Half Burnt Cigarette Butts

Hindi Original: Hansa Deep
English Translation: Santosh Alex



Hansa Deep हंसा दीप
Today was the second day of his work. I had called him to clean the dry leaves and over grown grass in the backyard. I was getting ready to sit out and enjoy the summer. A change in the complete eight months of chilled cold winter was also changing the mind too. To sit out most of the time and enjoy the summer, cleaning was necessary. After checking with many of my friends, I selected him, his name was- Livi.
He was very punctual. Like yesterday, today too his vehicle hit the drive way at nine o clock. He came to the backyard through the side gate. While coming in he picked up the newspaper lying on the drive way. On the front page was the headline "I am not able to breathe" and there was a big picture alongside, in which the police were pressing the black man’s body and he was pinioned under his feet. The newspaper was filled the news of agitation regarding racism globally.
"You see, bad people in this world!"
I nodded in agreement "There's no lack of bad people in this world", I say this sentence always. If I want, I could have a said a few words of solace. I was aware of his mental state; however, I was much concerned about getting my work done. To divert his attention, I took the newspaper from him. What is the use of this unnecessary conversation and I started giving him instructions, about today’s work.
He was listening to me and crushing the remaining cigarette butt under his feet. He was clenching his teeth. The anger that arose because of the picture in the newspaper had travelled to his legs. That butt must have become ash long ago and have mixed with the mud but Livi was still not calm. To crush the cigarette butt with his feet was not to put off the slow spark but it gave a sense of relief, to crush the world under his feet. 
Yesterday when I met Livi for the first time I kept on staring at him. While speaking over phone I could not understand as to whom I was talking to. The speaker had a bold voice and spoke decently. The vehicle reached exactly at 9 O clock. Over the phone I told him to reach the backyard. I was comfortable with people not entering my house. Nobody should know that a lady was living here alone. If small things were to be done, while working, observing, people would know many things about the house. That’s the reason I was more cautious. 
I saw him coming. He was black. From his body I understood how much more black colour could be blacker. He was tall and stout. One would fear looking at him for the first time. He understood it. Maybe he was used to this kind of response. 
He said “Don’t look at me. Look at my work.” He was true. He had to say like this because one would get a sense of unbelief seeing his face. Man starts identifying himself. Tries to assess himself. He knows that no one wants to see his face. He had black skin and long nose with a nose pin. He was bald headed, with shabby gloves in his hands and heavy sneakers on his legs. 
In front of his well-built body, stood a short me, like an ant looking up and speaking to the elephant. Any moment the elephant can crush the ant with his hand and the ant wouldn’t get a chance to even scream and say good bye to this world. 
It took few minutes for me to come out of his personality. Don’t know to which country his roots belonged to, but his attitude was clearly visible. The attitude of a skilled worker. It was not the sweetness of cheating, but the bitterness of honesty was evident. 
“Just look at my work once, you will not like anybody else’s’ work.” What he said was true. Looking at the work he completed in a day there was no doubt that nothing could be better than this. He made his work his strength. He did not get this skill from birth, but he earned it, this is what he wanted to convey. It was not in his hands to decide the colour of the skin. He could not give shape to his fat and puffed nose. To the things which he could not do anything, how could he be the parameter of its merits and demerits. His appearance and colour could not deny his goodness.
He takes money for the work he does. There was no compromise. As he begins to speak his white teeth are seen with a smile. Looks like someone had fixed a garland of white beads. Listening to him I get immersed in the glow of his teeth and my eyes can’t find a better place that way. I cannot resist. But what do I do? Who doesn’t like fairness. Or maybe it would be proper to say that eyes like fairness, whether it’s of paper or of the skin. 
I am not very fair, but believe me I was bathed in milk by my mother. She used to rub my body with milk. During my childhood when mother used to bathe me in milk she used to look at me with love until the milk stayed on my body. She used to bless me to bathe with milk every day and be fair like milk. I went on bathing with milk. I was just the way I used to be. But mom thought that the dark colour had gone and I became brownish. That colour which made me more secure in the foreign land. I was called brown. I need not bear the oppression of the black colour and be criticized of the dictatorship of the white colour and not be blamed of bringing corona from china. 
I also knew that when people talk to me nobody would look at my teeth because they were not as white as Livi’s teeth. Consuming tea, coffee regularly made my teeth gel with my brown colour. If I could measure it with any standard I was ten percent better than Livi. Even I have experienced the dominance of white people over me many times. I had felt compunction. Then my attitude was due to the loyalty of my work. I had retired recently. But like Livi I too was humiliated. Not once but many times. Me who lived among crows and buffaloes was a part of the conspiracy of colours, white, black and brown. White, black and brown! giving testimony the history of my country flashes in my subconscious mind, while our own people were suppressed in our country. The destruction of white legs in black shoes. Its bitterness still lingers somewhere in my mind. 
Livi used to get angry with those who were fairer than him. I had no enmity with him, used to speak frankly with him. Maybe he had found some similarities between us. Hence he vents his anger unflinchingly. 
I started liking his work. He finished the outside work within two days, I thought, its two years since the inside part of the house was not painted. The wall has decoloured and lost its sheen. At some places the plaster and strands of colour have fallen down and the nakedness inside peeps out. Why not get this work done simultaneously? When he was about to leave I paid him for the day’s work and spoke to him about painting the inside portion of the house. He glanced at the house, guessed and made it sure that it was a three bed room house. Looking at the outside shape of the house he had an idea about the length and breadth of the inside portion.
He agreed. Next day morning I gave him five hundred dollars to buy almost ten boxes of paint, brush, roller etc. As he took the money and kept in his pocket I thought he would not come again. It’s a nice opportunity for him to loot the lady who was all alone. Even after believing Livi and his work I was surprised to doubt him. The entire world would doubt such faces and after all I was also a part of the world. I was consoling myself that even if he doesn’t come, its ok. At least I would learn a lesson because of the five hundred dollars. 
Next morning when I woke up I was expecting him. It was already 8 O clock. I began to panic. I thought to pacify myself by walking up to the corner of the street. I could while away my time and change my concentration. While strolling I found that everything was not clean like it used to be daily. There were pieces of paper, leaves and eatables spread over the place. Few coffee mugs of Tim Hortons too lay there. The garbage box was full up to the brim. The lid could not be closed and the foul smell spread all over. Cigarette butts which were not trampled were thrown there. Seeing this I stopped. In those butts sometimes I saw myself and sometimes Livi. One was black and the other was brown. The trampling legs would not know whether they are trampling the person or the cigarette butt. 
I strolled for half an hour and came back home. I had my breakfast and was about to look at the clock by then the vehicle of Livi came. He parked the vehicle. Along with him there were three more people who looked like him and they were approaching the door. Until now I feared only Livi, now there were three more! He rang the bell and told that he would finish his work in two days. So the entire team would work.
They entered the home quickly one after the another and my breath was fast like the blower. They were four and I was one. Now I was not even an ant. Four of them could blow me in a go. They began the work from the living room. I was doing something meaningless in the kitchen. I would peep at them in between to see their work. One of them was rubbing the wall, another spread the cloth and another took out the paint from the boxes. They did not call me to push something, nor took my help. The boxes of paint were being emptied and they were moving from one room to another. 
I was surprised. Such good work was being carried out in a pace. The rooms were shining in the new colors. They were placing the things in its original positions. In between I asked them to have coke, tea or coffee. They were happy. They were talking and also were laughing loudly. They included me also in their conversations. There way of talking made me laugh. During lunch time they went outside. When they came back they bought a slice of pizza for me too. 
“Why for me?”  I asked 
“Because you are very nice.” Livi said.
 I giggled. I could not hide the truth inside me that “I don’t believe you.”
I like pizza. But I don’t know why that slice of pizza they bought could not attract me. Considering Livi’s affection, I kept it in the fridge, thinking of throwing it later. 
The work was progressing very fast. In between he asked me money to buy more colours. Every time I gave him the money, it terrified me. I thought that he would not come back. When he went out his friend would take rest on the grass outside. He would come back after sometime smiling. I began to like Livi’s whitish laugh, it enhanced my belief. 
It was seven O clock by the time they finished their work. They had finished two day’s work in one day and were ready to leave. They were washing their hands after painting the walls. I paid him the money, gave him tip too so that they could have a nice dinner. The relation of the owner and the worker became natural now. During the entire day the house was filled with their laughter. They made me laugh a lot. Livi and others saw my entire house. But now I was not afraid. I don’t know I was thinking why did I not meet Livi before. I had difficulty in getting small things done. 
As he was leaving he smoked a cigarette. I had a curiosity to see whether he would crush the cigarette. He held the cigarette till it was put off. Then he threw it into the nearby garbage box, started the vehicle and left. 
I took a deep sigh of happiness that he was not angry with me. I kept the feeling about him within myself. I took out the pizza from the fridge, heated it and started eating it. As if Livi was somewhere in the room and was watching that I respected his treat. It was not his white teeth alone, but his personality too was before me, whiter than the beam of light. 
***

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