Those Fifteen Minutes
I would blame my eyes and not my heart for whatever happened, or didn’t happen, yesterday.
The eyes saw something that they should not have seen. And that’s absurd, considering how many times the blinkers have failed me in the past and got me into trouble. Like the other day when I almost rode into a jaywalker at a turning after I missed to see him in the waning evening light, and as I tried to evade a collision, fell off the cycle, and a car screeched to a sudden halt within hitting distance of me bang in the middle of the road. Anything could have happened that day.
It was at the same spot, sprawling on the ground, just below the door of a parked car, basking in the twilight that I saw it yesterday.
What I am talking about here is a 1000 Dirham note.
I could have passed without noticing it if fate had decided so. But no. Fate sometimes turns into a wily thing and cocks a snook at me. It loves to dare and deride me even when I leave everything to its volition.
“Do whatever,” I invariably say with resignation at the end of a fight that I know it will willy-nilly win.
“I do what is good for you. You are too naïve to know it,” it says every time I make my protestations, demanding my due in a life that could be spent in a much better way.
“You do what’s good for me?” I ask, smirking at its lame, goddam philosophy.
Nothing that I consider good for me has ever corresponded with what fate thinks is good for me. We are at logger-heads forever, and fate always chucks my favour and has the last laugh, making me seethe at its whataboutery.
But I must be fair. It isn’t always as mean as I make it sound either. According to my roommates, it was my good fate alone that saved me the other day from getting knocked dead by the car. The fracture in the thumb and the bruises came gratis, and it can be credited only to my carelessness.
Coming to what happened yesterday, I can’t describe it as anything less than bizarre. It is like one of those dreams where you are half awake but are completely helpless to act as per your will because you are in a supine state, and you squirm and grimace in the dark, and in the end, you hobble to the bathroom dazed, to relieve a sagging bladder.
There was no reason for the nasty thing to be lying in wait on my path, bearing its sensuous worth like the anonymous models on the massage parlour cards strewn around the place. But it was there, right in front of me, as if it had lain there all evening waiting to be rescued by me from the elements. I could have just been blind to the lure of the fallen lucre on the road. I could have crossed it in total oblivion. It could have caught someone else’s attention. But it had beaten these odds and eventualities, and I had spotted it under the nascent street light in which all litter look the same. This only meant one thing and I was certain about it. Fate had a specific plan for me.
It took a while for me to believe that I wasn’t hallucinating. The summer hasn’t peaked to that extent. It will be some more weeks before the sun gets into the head when I am out and about delivering parcels to people to whom 1000 Dirhams is money that could fetch them a few extra, unwanted things. But to me it is a month’s salary. And when it lands in my life idly, it means a lottery to me and the people in my life. It can make some of their wishes come true sooner than they thought.
I paused discreetly near the note and got off my cycle. I looked around warily, catching in the corner of my eye the gentle flutter of the currency beside my slippers, as if it was waiting on its wings. I put a furtive step on it, lest the wind sweep it away, and I stood awkwardly adjacent to the parked car trying to think. I squinted through the shaded window to make sure there was nobody in the car. Who knows? It could have been a bait set by the police to catch the dishonest and unscrupulous men in the city. It takes a long time to know what amounts to breach of law and what is punishable here. I have always lived in the fear of being caught for unspecified wrongdoing. Every time I see a police vehicle on patrol, I dismount from my cycle almost as a reflex, hold my breath and proceed only after the car has passed.
I remembered a cook at the restaurant telling me when I came here two years ago that there are cameras fixed all over the city and every move we made, every breath we took was recorded and scanned. Considering that, the task at hand involved great risk, but I was blissfully unmindful of it yesterday.
It was time for Magrib prayer, and men were trickling into the mosque at the end of the street.
As I stood on, uncertain about my next move, I thought of the man whose money it must have been. I consciously chose to believe that it had fallen off a rich man’s wallet bursting with unwanted money and he might not even realize it. I didn’t want to imagine that it had fallen off a meagre pocket of someone like me. There is a way to know, though. In this place, a rich man’s money smelled of perfume, and a poor man’s note smelled of nothing in particular. For the moment, I stuck to my theory, that of the money belonging to a man who had no urgent need for it. The clean, unsoiled looks of the currency confirmed its refined background. I didn’t feel ashamed or guilty about pocketing it. It wasn’t stealing. I was categorical about it.
Just as I began to stoop, making as if to strap a loose chappal, two fashionable women walked up to the car parked behind me. Returning to my upright position, I waited for them to drive away. But the women were steadfast in their conversation, rattling off English as if they were the last descendants of the English-speaking tribe. I became increasingly conscious about my lingering about. Men began to trickle out of the mosque after the prayers. There were more people on the road now than before and I lifted my foot a little to confirm that the money was in place.
“Bhai,” I was startled by a voice that came from my left. I looked sideways expecting someone to say, “You are standing on my money.” To my relief, the man was only searching for the post office. He looked to be my kind, worn with worries in life, else he wouldn’t have called me bhai. I wondered how heavy his baggage of unkept promises to himself and his people was. I was glad that the 1000 Dirhams had not revealed itself to him. He would have had an equal need of it as me.
“I don’t know. Ask someone there,” I waved in the opposite direction in a bid to bundle him off.
As I began to get restless and fidgety, I reminded myself to maintain sanity. I was giving in to temptation alright, but it wasn’t a crime by any stretch of imagination. There was nobody to stake a claim on the note and therefore it could be anybody’s. Including mine.
The two women who had got into the car were still not driving away. I was annoyed. Just then, a police vehicle stopped in front of the mosque, and my heart capered and my head tingled with unfounded dread. Why did I imagine that they were there to keep an eye on me? I felt weak and downcast. The circumstances were clearly not conducive to a clean, unsuspecting act, and with each passing moment, I began to feel like I was sinking into a state of imagined depravity. Spurred by desperation, I slid the currency under the car on which I was by now leaning and secured it from any rival eye. “Perfect. You did a sensible thing. Now, go around and come back in 15 minutes. By then, this place will be clear. I promise,” I heard my fate instruct in my ears. It was unequivocal. Fate wanted me to take home the jackpot. It was giving me the right directions.
Encouraged by its words, I swerved the cycle and pedaled on aimlessly. Past restaurants and Shawarma corners. Past people in haste and cats that lazed. Past the fragrance of neem blooms and the glare of neon lights. Past immigrant dreams and a city’s superfluity. Past 15 minutes of rising and falling apprehension.
There was only a sliver of time between the 1000 Dirhams and me, I thought with mounting excitement, and this time I was unwavering. I had gathered enough courage to scoop up what was destined to be mine. As I passed by the mosque, I made sure that the police had left. And then as I neared the spot, I saw the inconceivable.
Fate had replaced the car under which I had slid the money with the motorbike of a Pizza delivery boy. Baffled and beside myself, I put my cycle on stand and scoured the place frantically. Semi clad women from the massage parlour cards looking at me invitingly. My eyes swam amidst their seductive poses, pausing at some unintentionally, and searched for the elusive currency. Cameras atop the buildings around must have caught me squatting and combing the place like a crazed animal.
It was unbelievable. The 1000 Dirham note had vanished in 15 minutes.
“Are you looking for something?” the Pizza boy asked as he walked up to his bike.
I looked at him head to toe with choking disappointment and anger as if to assess his scruples, and wondered if he could have stolen my 1000 Dirham note. But on what grounds could I have confronted the man? I shook my head as if to say, ‘nothing’ and began to cycle back to the restaurant. My phone showed eight missed calls from the arbab. He will be livid and I knew I had an earful waiting for me. I raced through the sidelines, past insignificant things.
In the night, as I lay on the top tier of the bunk bed in our twelve by twelve room, staring at the flaking ceiling, I asked fate, “How spiteful can you get than this? What would you have lost if you had let me had that money?”
Fate replied, in the most sorted manner, like a mother would tell her ignorant child, “I did it in your interest.”
“In my interest?” I guffawed theatrically. “Losing that kind of money? Do you even know what it meant to me?”
Fate laughed softly. I wasn’t sure if the laughter meant derision or pity.
“Losing? How can you lose something that wasn’t yours really? Sleep now. You have lost nothing, not even a shred of your conscience. I made sure of it.”
I don’t understand much of what my fate says or does. Its cryptic nature will continue to confound me for as long as I am alive. We share an equation that makes us strange bedfellows. It will have its brazen ways and I will bicker with it like an impertinent child. I will resist and throw tantrums. And in the end, I will surrender, more out of fatigue than favour.