Short fiction | Life underground

In the stomach of the city

A man from the countryside starts a new life in the tunnels beneath an Indian metropolis. A story.

At the Central Train Station, amid the hawkers, the fruit and vegetable stands, the porn magazines, the women's lingerie, and the smartphone chargers, Sam is waiting on the platform for the train. His shorts are too wide for his skinny legs, a few buttons are missing from his shirt, his bare feet are as dirty as the floor, he occasionally rubs his scabies-covered elbow. His adolescent face is beautiful like a fresh leaf full of sap. 

The afternoon is heavy and sticky. The smell of the recent downpour has masked the usual stench of piss, tobacco, and garbage. The scattered crowd runs around, jumps onto the tracks, crosses them to climb onto the platform on the other side, clings to the doors of the crowded trains already leaving the station. Sam continues to wait. 

Finally, he arrives. The man, around thirty years old, gets off the train, clutching a plastic bag with his belongings, he looks lost, tired, but tense with hope. He is one of thousands of men who have come from the countryside to the megacity in search of work. A peasant who ran out of land and is ready to toil in a factory, on a construction site, working on whatever machine. 

Sam is there to take him to the site manager, get him a place to stay, and put him on the restaurant guest list. In return, he hopes to grab some money, maybe some cash or a meal as a commission. The man sticks close behind Sam as he makes his way through the crowd, leaving the big hall, the hallways to the platforms and the offices with glass doors behind him.

He walks quickly and asks the man a few questions. The man, not very talkative, agrees in monosyllables, nods, smiles vaguely so as not to appear rude, devouring everything with his gaze. Sam turns left, nods in the direction of his companion, enters a passageway, and all of a sudden they are swallowed up by darkness. Sam leans against the side wall, advises the man to follow suit, to be careful.

“Those who do not have enough money to pay for housing in the city above descend into the black heart of the earth”

There they are, standing by the steps that lead downwards. The farther they go, the more the green, pungent smell of mould rises to their noses, mingling strangely with the smell of spices and soap. At the end of the stairs, there is light again. An underground colony spreads out before them. A city in the stomach of the city. 

Small tents line both sides of the walls. It is a wide space, like a courtyard, with several narrow corridors leading off from it, the end of which cannot be seen. Together, the underground tunnels form a labyrinth that is inhabited, busy and almost cheerful. Accommodation for beggars, prostitutes, cleaners, rickshaw drivers, workers from other regions who have moved to the big city.

Those who do not have enough money to pay for housing in the city, to live above the ground, dig tunnels, descend deeper, into the black, charred heart of the earth. They are exiles in their own land, subterranean exiles, the damned who are denied sun and air. Their only season is eternal night. Sam leads the man to his new abode. 

Plastic rolls leaning against the wall serve as a roof, old saris hang from strings as walls, and the concrete floor is padded with rags, old newspapers and jute sacks. The sandals at the entrance mark the beginning of intimacy. Here and there, children are hunched over paper and textbooks, scribbling something, reciting something aloud, and sometimes bursting out laughing.

Others play and crawl on the floor, pulling and climbing on the tails of mangy dogs, surrounded by pots standing on stoves made of clay and bricks. Some dented aluminum and enamel utensils, gasoline cans filled with water complete the secret kitchens.

The women who are not employed as workers or maids walk around busily, brushing their friends’ hair, delousing, nursing their infants, scolding their screaming and running children, spanking them when necessary. 

“Other people’s floor forms their roof”

The city runs wild somewhere far above their heads. In skyscrapers, houses, cafes, restaurants, stores and bazaars. Buses and trains saw through the skin of the city, sending their sounds echoing through this cavernous space. Other people’s floor forms their roof. If they all stood up and touched the concrete ceiling together with their hands, you would think that they were supporting the city, keeping it from collapsing. It is a land hidden deep inside the land.

Neither a geographical nor a political territory. A country like in a dream, in a blurred nightmare. A field of possibilities, without restrictions, without borders. Until the tunnels become dead ends, ending with walls, plunging into sewage, the rats clambering up to the people. 

Sam lives alone. Orphaned, abandoned at birth, rescued by an old beggar woman who is no longer alive, he moves through the tunnels the same way he moves through the city streets. Survives with odd jobs. Cleans windows, cars and sidewalks. Carries bags for grocers, suitcases for tourists, and shopping for old people in the neighbourhood. Plays messenger for the site manager, the workers, and the whores. 

Most of the residents here live among their growing families. The others, who have come alone, form bonds - of friendship, love, desire and dependence. They live in their circles of survival. Their anger, their pain, their despair, fill the place with turmoil, dissipating in the taste of malodorous alcohol, in a mocking laugh. Or in a sudden brawl like a bawling boxing or wrestling match of amateurs that leaves them gasping for air, sometimes bloody, emptied of their senses.

One is not born an immigrant, one becomes one. These men and women were not immigrants at birth, they have become so. They left their shacks in the country, sold their small plots of land, their cows and goats, scraped together what little money they could, and with a courage like red-hot coals in their skulls, they arrived here. When they were on the brink of dying, of hunger, of fear, of shame, they set out on their journey. 

They know it will be this way and no other. To rebel is futile. The city is changing. The country is evolving. It adorns itself with decoration, sensuality and luxury. Maybe the new generation will manage to get out of these tunnels, reach the surface and stay there to live. In the meantime, they drink a last liquor. 

“If he looks good, maybe they’ll do it to him for a smile, maybe they’ll even get hooked” 

The man settles down in a tent. After the long day's journey from his village, he can finally lie down. The last harvests were disastrous, his debts to creditors threatened the whole family. He had to look for work elsewhere.

He had to abandon his parents, his younger unemployed brothers, his sisters to be married off. His young wife. When he thinks of her, he wants to suck on tobacco leaves, chew them for a long time and then swallow the brown saliva. 

From his tent, he watches his new neighbours and neighbours' wives. A few old men and women, most are young, thin, gaunt, but brave, agile and resourceful. One or two women glance at him. The maids have gone to work in town. The others are preparing for their evening trade. Curious, amused, provocative. They know he is alone.

He will live here alone for a long time. He will have a job, have money. Enough to send his family something, pay for his meals, his bottles of booze, and maybe a hooker once or twice a month. If he looks good, if he's worth it, maybe they'll do it to him for a smile, maybe they'll even get hooked. It can even be quite nice. 

The man watches them and chews on the imaginary tobacco leaves. He is in the moment that precedes all other moments yet to come. His stomach tightens with anticipation. 

Misery is a prison. In it, you sleep with anyone you can get to survive as long as you can survive. 

Sam will be back later that evening to introduce him to the network, the circuit of underground tunnels. The man watches Sam move away. Under his heavy lids, the teenager's body and his beautiful, fresh face blur, mixing with the bodies of the women around his tent, swaying together like waves of colour, falling like confetti, glittering, sparkling, spurring him to forget everything as the evening passes like dust. 

Translated by Jess Smee