It was not what is generally termed a nice road. The rain trees and honges on either side had been razed some years ago so the road could be widened. For pavements, there were little lines of dust along the edges.
Inside was no nicer. Under an awkward falooda of tar layers, the wires and pipes were tangled and knotted. The sewage channels dribbled over everything, and the roots of long-gone trees tripped up any passing persons, bipedal, quadrupedal, or footless. Above as below, the jumble of cars and motorcycles, buses and lorries wound tight and constipated. The horns blew with the force of a thousand hatreds.
It wasn’t a very nice road.
At one end, an ex-river collected the sewage before flowing off in another direction. At one time, it had joined the sea. Now it meandered around the city in a surly way before petering out into a grey lake. When it could, it wafted its foul temper—part sickly sewage, part acrid chemical—over the road.
It was not a nice road at all.
And as is inevitable with even the most hardened people, the day arrived when it became aware of this fact. The general feeling had been lurking for a while. But that day, as the noise and the dust hovered thickly in the sunlight, as a hawker walked past waving little plastic cell-phone holders, the road found that not only was it aware of this not-niceness, it was also deeply resentful of it.
Not fair, thought the road.
This, it turned out, was consciousness.
Some were born to it, some achieved it; the road had been thrust into it by the force of twelve million bursting tempers. Frustration and despair and sheer fury provided a powerful impetus: the drivers and the driven who could never go fast enough—whatever enough was; the street dogs who just wanted to get to the other side with paws intact so they could bully a newcomer; the rose-selling kids who just needed to sell three more so they could get dinner; the man under the road who just wanted to clean the damn sewers without dying; the cows who remembered when the median had grass and were still looking for it. There was rather a lot of anger pouring into the road. The sheer concentration was beginning to give it a migraine, a throbbing long-term kind of ache that flashed with hideous lights.
Here I am, it thought, and then, immediately: How I hate everyone.
The road shook itself.
There was a mighty creaking.
Tar crumbled, cement cracked, dust flew.
Also flying: the cars and lorries and stray dogs and humans. For one cool and welcome moment the road was utterly empty. Then they all fell back, yowling with outrage. In the tangle below, sewage slopped over everything, and the man clutched a pipe and tried not to drown, suffocate, or otherwise come to a bad end.
The road was soothed, and sank back into the customary coma of roads.
This was not the last time.
Over the next few weeks, the road was awoken more often and more quickly—a horn here, a minor accident there, the deep rumble of a caterpillarish lorry doing a twenty-six-point U-turn that blocked the flow of all traffic for seventeen entire minutes one Friday evening. Each time, Road awoke to the rapid pounding that kicked its senses with a hundred thousand glittering steel boots. Each time, helpless, it rose and shook them all off. The lorry created such rage that everyone there that day was thrown off three kilometres, landing in splats like water from a dog’s coat.
After the yelling and the crying were over, after the scraping off of people and vehicles from Road was accomplished, the night was dark and sweet-scented. As Road was sinking back into quiet, there was an exaggerated burp. The handlebars of a motorcycle flew out of the ex-river and clattered onto Road. The ex-river burped again. When it saw Road looking, it gurgled, and threw a wave out. The wave bumped against Road and washed back and away. The last thing Road remembered was the play of water-lights reflected in the handlebars.
People began to pay attention. Road didn’t know, but pictures of it were now at a premium. Cameras flashed and clicked. A traffic light was set up, counting down seconds all day and all night. Helmets were acquired. Leopard-spotted police bikes lurked and eyed the road with sharp eyes. Everyone was hoping they had imagined it.
After a week’s quiescence, an ambulance tore across Road, siren wailing and lights flashing to the rhythm of help emergency help help help. Road opened its mouth and swallowed.
They were delicious.
After that, all kinds of important people came to see Road, to step gingerly around it, to prod at it with umbrellas and assistants. Structural Engineers and water diviners were the chief prodders, each cocooned by sidekicks and acolytes. Cameras and their people thronged about Road, getting bigger and flashier every hour. More people came, and did more poking. Mayors and MPs, local leaders of temples and mosques, and children whose friends had dared them to poke at Road with a stick.
Road felt their anxiety and anger, their irritation and their boredom, and ate them. Deep within it was an enormous hunger that no amount of sewage and electric wiring could feed. Road was a shell of a person, and it was not happy about it. It began to wake at odd times, starving so that only the fear and crunch of a pedestrian would fill the aching hollow.
Buses began to change their routes. Alternate roads were found to everywhere people wanted to go. The hawkers and street vendors followed the traffic. The heavy lorries began to circle around Road, avoiding it. Only the men who climbed down into the sewers still had to climb down into the sewers. But they learnt to be very quiet, to keep their footsteps soft and their feelings deeply hidden.
Electricity and gas were still delivered down Road and up Road, crackling under its sore skin. They tasted sharp and unsavoury. Road took the occasional lick, but they only made the huge hollowness hurt. Sewage ebbed and flowed under them, passing under Road until it was sucked greedily into the ex-river nearby.
The ex-river’s soul was as filthy as Road’s, its anger slowed and weighed down by grease and tangles of hair-and-sanitary-pads-and-let’s-not-speculate-what-else. The ex-river’s name was lost to antiquity, but now it had come to think of itself as Sludge.
The hunger grew blackly. Road and Sludge passed it between them like a treasure, each adding to it, hoarding it jealously. Fine dust, grey for ex-hills and black for ex-trees covered them. The rats began to avoid them. It was when even the cockroaches fled that Road and Sludge began to wonder about the future.
A trap was set. Monday morning, 9.30, a time of great popularity for Road; a time when Sludge swelled with the morning flushes of a million homes.
That morning, all kinds of things gathered on Road: autos with children crammed in like matches; a gem-box of buses, blue-and-white, shiny red, yellow, green; cars with glossy black windows like grapes; sleepy cattle and hens and dogs; a dustbin overflowing with a Sludgish odour; a yellow giant with a bellyful of cement. They collected there and began to yell: horns and brakes and groaning gears and the shriek of hot metal.
If Road hadn’t planned to wake up, the din would’ve accomplished it anyway.
Road took a deep breath of dust and cement, and shuddered. It caved down to Sludge, and slid into the waters. Two intrepid scooters slid with it and they took one each. More came. Crackling buses and cars, more spindly matchsticky humans and dogs, a heady swig of garbage.
Policemen arrived in a fleet of square white cars. Then came ambulances, and a large red fire truck. They honked desperately, shining migraine light, red-blue-red-blue. At exactly the right moment, Road twisted and dipped—a marvel of timing and suppleness, it thought—and they went flying into Sludge, carried by their own momentum.
Road and Sludge divided them scrupulously in half. Right at the end, they shared the fire-engine with its nice chewy hose and delicious clean water.
The hunger was sated. Road sank thankfully into a stupor.
When Road awoke next, some time had passed. It had been patched again. More mud and more gravel had been packed together, and more tar scraped over the top, so it was flattish. Traffic was back, and so was the sense of waiting, the feeling that soon the ache would start.
The sky was hotter and dustier, and Sludge had gone slow, sluggish, almost solid. It wouldn’t speak, except to let out the occasional hiss. A sewage man—for they had not abandoned it—was there that day, and he seemed a bit greyer too. Road reached out for him, and found in him another kindred soul—he too was filled with anger. But his was something old and weary, tree-like, stretching beyond Road’s abilities. And certainly far ahead of Sludge, Road thought.
When the noise above grew and rose, horns piercing through Road and into the tunnels, the man slumped against the walls and said ruefully: Jam! What can you do? Since there was no one else around, Road realised he must have been talking to it. It rolled the word around in its head: jam jam jam.
The man continued to lean against the wall, and continued to smile his weary rueful smile. Road shifted and snuck out a little ledge of clean rock. It nudged just under the man’s knees. He startled and then eyed it. He watched it for a minute or two, and Road held it solid. When the ledge showed no signs of disappearing, the man sank onto it, and breathed out a whispery little bit of gratitude that made Road squirm.
Other men came, and Road nudged them all towards the ledge.
Summer went on, hot enough that Road’s tar went soft sometimes, and the stray dogs refused to cross it, not even to bark at offensive strangers. Road drowsed and woke, mostly in a daze, but sometimes because Man or one of his friends was in the tunnels, softly rearranging and unblocking things.
In the afternoons, when the sky was white-hot, the tunnels were blissfully cool in comparison. The Men sat down on the ledge and talked. They would open out their little steel dabbas and share their food. Sometimes, they would throw some lunch into the sewer for Road. Road never ate it, but it enjoyed the smell wafting down the tunnels until it reached its inevitable Sludgy end.
Other days, the Men took out bits of paper and played with them. Road loved to watch them shuffle and deal and throw their bits of paper around. Their hands moved finely when they were dealing with cards, not sewage: smooth and swift, fingers flickering like leaves. Or like light on water. The games wove patterns into the air under Road, filling it with a strange longing.
This was not the black hunger that Road felt when there were jams. It was something gentler, and Road felt then that it too would like a ledge to sink down upon.
As the heat grew, the Men often napped on their ledge. Road couldn’t sleep or wake properly. It drowsed somewhere in between, and strange images came to it. Often, it imagined itself with hands. Always, they held cards. In the heatdreams, Road shuffled and flipped the cards in these hands, rapid, clever. In the really good dreams it set them dancing among the sewers so the Men and Sludge could watch.
Once or twice it tried to tell Sludge about the hands. But Sludge was a river before it was a Sludge, and its mind was made for otters not card tricks. In fact, Sludge was entirely human in one way only and that was this: it had no interest in listening to stories about someone else’s half-remembered dreams.
And anyway, even mostly-asleep, Sludge had its own agenda. Someone further down was stacking concrete against its banks, and Sludge was mutely furious. Another time, another season, it would have raged and flooded and battered at the concrete, but the sewage brought only a small stream these days, and the sun scorched most of it off. Sludge grew sullen and congealed.
The heat seemed like it would never end. Old cracks and potholes twinged with every new vehicle. Everything felt slow and thick and syrupy and Road wondered if this was how Sludge always felt.
It was a relief when, one day, something cracked and the monsoon arrived, cooling Road and dampening its surface to black again. Sludge awoke in a hurry, now a thinner, faster, deeper person. The sunlight sometimes gleamed in its water, and frogs chorused on the banks in the nights. Sometimes, Sludge even gurgled.
(Road only creaked, and mostly by mistake.)
The sewage that came into the tunnels was surging with rainwater now, and it poured and poured in. The tunnels began to smell greener: more moss, less urine. There were even some fresh leaves from some distant place where the roads were still niceish. The sewage moved nimbly, no poking required these days. Road imagined itself melting and washing down into the tunnels too, glossy and fragile as insect eyes. It had always been a short road, joining one highway to another. Giving Sludge a bit of a bank to bounce off, and then make away with the sewage.
Road itself didn’t go anywhere. Deadend, people said as they stomped all over it.
The Men stayed away from the tunnels.
Road raised the ledge. It kept it steady, and the cards dry. Just in case.
It continued to rain. Water collected and pooled on Road’s surface, faster than even Sludge could drink it. As it got deeper, it seemed to be collecting more and more vehicles and more and more people. The water was chilly and pleasant, it seemed to Road: an ideal way to shake off the still horror of the summer. It thought of hands shifting and leaves shuffling. It imagined melting and pouring, of flowing away from under the dust and the noise into somewhere dark and quiet.
Roads were not made for otters, but it thought it knew how Sludge felt.
The vehicles didn’t. They honked and screeched and refused to leave.
Road tried. Really tried, remembering the men who sank onto its sewer ledge, quieting their insides. Jam, Road told itself desperately, just a jam. Jam jam jam. Jam jam jam. Jam jam jam.
It looked at Sludge: dark, forever headed somewhere else.
A car flashed a headlight and beeped a horn. Another replied, louder, brighter, angrier. The lights and cries bounced and grew. Everything went on, closer and closer to too much. Jam jam jam jam. Surely there could not be so many horns in the world? Why was everyone shouting all the time? Who was that huge yellow creature, clanging like a walking prison?
The migraine and the rage rose. So did the wordless yearning. The long silence of the summer had been brewing them slowly, and now they poured out hot and strong. Road’s old patches and fractures creaked and swayed. The big tear from the fire engine day thinned and ached. Jam jam jam jam, thought Road, frantic, but the weight was too much. Road shook and shuddered. It bowed. Bent.
Something tore, a vast rip across its middle. An old wound reopened.
There was a long high screaming, the kind of sound that claws through everything: metal, stone, concrete, flesh. It came from Road, but it couldn’t stop doing it, any more than it could stop sliding. The air was thick with flying people and vehicles and dogs, and everything screeched and tore. Lights flashed and dazzled. The shrieking of iron and human and Road went on and on until Road could take it no longer and everything went black.
A vast pit gleamed in the night like tar. Till a few hours earlier, it had been Sri Muthuswamy Rao Road and before that Contonment Parade Road and even before that just Market Road. Now it was a complete absence of road. The nearby sewer, once-river, had flooded into the hole and a salty-bitter stench rose from it. Rescue helicopters had lifted people out and were now looking for corpses, human and vehicular.
If they found fewer than they should have, it hadn’t yet occurred to them to check what Sludge was eating these days.
Sludge threw waves out and up, and sank tendrils deep into the ground. It would miss Road’s friendly wall, but it felt good to stretch itself, to spread deep and wide and feel the sky on its face. On its new left bank, it allowed one ledge between it and the air. It was a smooth spur of granite that smelt of Road and the kind underRoad men with the delicious lunches who were always trying so hard to let Sludge flow. Their playing cards were there too, leaf smooth. They were a bit damp but mostly safe. The men could sit, Sludge decided, only them—and it would talk to them of the sea it had once flowed to.
Sludge purred a buttery purr and basked.