Canned Life – by Ajay Patri

by TBLM

We stood in front of the digital display, staring at the screen space beside the number of our flight. Our flight was delayed.

‘Yes?’ Avni asked me, nudging my hip with an elbow.

‘Yes.’

‘I knew it.’

‘No, you didn’t.’

‘I did. I knew something like this would happen.’
She glared at me. There was anger on her face. A twelve year old should not feel that the world is conspiring against her, I thought.

‘Let’s just wait?’

She shrugged, walked over to one of the stainless steel chairs that dot airports everywhere — cold, curved, not ergonomic by any stretch of the imagination — and sat down. In the second I took to sit beside her, she had begun typing away on her phone, her fingers flying across its screen in a way that reminded me of a conductor in an orchestra. Mesmerised, I imagined a dark hall, plush curtains, a small tribe of musicians following every movement of her dainty fingers as she led the music to its crescendo. I shivered, despite the thick sweater enveloping my torso.

‘Don’t read my messages!’

‘I wasn’t. I was…’

While I tried to extract myself from the grip of that phantom orchestral score, she pocketed the phone and stood up, her admonishment to me already forgotten.

‘I’m getting a cold drink. Do you want one?’

‘No.’

‘Cool.’

‘Do you need money?’

She looked over her shoulder and laughed.’No. I have money.’

She pranced over to one of the vending machines, a small wad of notes clutched in a fist. She had her own phone and her own money. Next thing I know, she would tell me she wanted to live on her own and do her own laundry.

She returned with a can of fizzy drink and opened it in front of me with a deft movement, sliding a tiny finger through the tab and pulling it upwards. A hiss escaped its aluminium body. The sound, fleeting and gone all too soon, started a tingling at my toes that made its way up my body, numbing me, distilling the harsh light, the staid announcements and the general hullabaloo of the airport until I was in a bubble of my own making.

‘Avni? Do you want to hear a story?’ I asked, my voice sounding distant to me.

‘No,’ She said, her phone on her lap again.

The bubble burst, punctured by the crispness of her reply. The world came whooshing back in;l I closed my eyes and sighed.

‘Okay. Tell me.’

I opened my eyes in time to see Avni put away her phone and transfer her attention, that fickle thing, on to me. Her face was set in a way I had not seen before. Was it contrition? With each passing day, I learnt that my child was capable of emotions she had not exhibited before. I smiled.

‘Alright,’ I said and jumped into the story, knowing her pity for me could be as short-lived as her attention span.

*

The house at the end of the lane was identical to all the other houses in its vicinity — low-slung, gray-walled, a limp and rain-sodden flag hanging from its roof. An old man and a boy emerged from this house, closed the door behind them, and walked down the stretch of muddy tarmac snaking its way between the houses, a strip that functioned as both a road and a footpath. As they walked, dawn broke over the horizon, the sun a hazy pellet of orange in a sky dominated by cumulus clouds that formed and re-formed at the hands of a crafty wind. The sun’s rays lit the path of the old man and the boy, helping them avoid the craters filled with rainwater that littered the road.

‘Hurry up, Aryan,’ said the old man, his voice trembling with excitement. ‘Walk faster!’

*

‘Is this boy you?’ Avni asked me.

‘It’s a story. It’s always good to have relatable characters in a story.’

‘If you say so. You’re the storyteller, after all.’

She took a sip of her drink, an impish grin playing on her lips.

*

The boy, Aryan, his eyes still crusty with sleep, looked up at the looming figure beside him.

‘Why are we going this early, Ajja?’

Ajja did not reply, choosing instead to walk even faster. Aryan stopped in his tracks, removed the thick framed glasses perched at the tip of his stubby nose and started wiping them on the end of his t-shirt. Ajja turned around when he noticed that his young companion was no longer by his side.

‘What are you doing?’

The boy held up the glasses, stifling a yawn, before going back to wiping the glasses with slow, circular motions, his thumb behind the fabric of his t-shirt.

‘Hurry up! Those Coca-Colas are waiting for us!’

Aryan wore the glasses. They slid down the bridge of his nose like his skin was greased, coming to rest at the very tip of his short nose again. He took a step forward and peered down into a pothole filled with water, running a hand through his tousled hair.

‘Are you combing your hair now? What is this?’

‘Can I go back and get a sweater? I’m feeling cold.’

‘No. That’ll take too much time. You should have worn one when we left.’

‘But you dragged me out of bed!’

The boy’s words were heavy with reproach. As they stood and held each other’s gaze, the sun rose a little higher on the horizon. Water evaporated from the pothole and clung to the road in a fine mist. Ajja kicked a pebble and walked over to where Aryan stood.

‘I’m excited about today. I thought you would be too.’

His voice was strained, breaking at the edges with the effort of appearing conciliatory.

‘So I can’t go back and get a sweater?’

‘We need to keep going.’

‘Okay.’

A wary expression crept onto the old man’s face at this sudden crumbling of resistance.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Ma always says you must obey your elders.’

This admission did nothing to ease the wariness on Ajja’s face. He reached up a hand and scratched at the small scar near his temple, a bone white indentation of the skin that marked the end of his close cropped gray hair.

*

‘I don’t like this old man,’ Avni declared.

‘Isn’t it too early in the story to be reaching that conclusion?’

‘That boy wanted a sweater and they were still on the same street. They could have walked back to get one.’

‘What if I told you the boy was too sensitive to cold? That it wasn’t really all that cold?’

‘You can’t change the story now, not after you’ve started telling it!’

‘Wait till the end of the story then, before you decide what to think of these people. What do you say?’

Avni narrowed her eyes and said nothing. I took it as my cue to continue.

*

‘You don’t want to go and get a sweater because I told you so?’ Ajja asked the boy.

‘Yes.’

‘I’ll be…’

Ajja caught himself, a hand going up to his mouth to stop the expletive sitting on his tongue from spilling out. Aryan looked at him with no deceit on his face, no tricks hidden up his short-sleeved t-shirt.

‘Okay. Okay, let’s keep walking then.’

*

Avni rolled her eyes at me, in a I-told-you-so gesture I ignored.

*

They started walking again, feet moving in tandem, the black rubber soles of their boots firm on the uneven road. When they reached the end of the street and turned right to go along the next one, Aryan looked up at the old man.

‘Ajja?’

‘Yes?’

‘They say it rots your teeth.’

‘What?’

‘Coca-Cola. They say it rots your teeth.’

‘What nonsense!’

‘I heard it on the bulletin last week. They said we’re being forced to give in to the outsiders but that doesn’t mean we have to drink the … the vile poison.’

‘Vile poison?’

‘That’s what the broadcaster said.’

‘Vile poison? Ha! Such rubbish! I’ll tell you what. You brush your teeth after we come back and you’ll be fine.’

‘And my teeth won’t rot?’

‘They won’t.’

Ajja supplemented his words with a smile which, given the state of his teeth (they were a typical old person’s teeth: yellowing, misshapen, and with gaps wide enough to insert a coin through), did nothing to reassure the boy that his own teeth would come through the day unscathed.

‘Don’t you believe me, Aryan?’

The boy struggled with the question, unwilling to lie. Ajja reached out a gnarled hand to pat him on the shoulder.

‘Why don’t I tell you a story?’

‘A story?’

‘Yes. Would you like that?’

‘No, no. You’re not supposed to tell stories.’

‘Eh. Who told you that?’

‘Stories corrupt your mind. They show you a world built on flimsy ideas, distracting you from what is real.’

‘That’s utter nonsense!’

Aryan tilted his head to look at him, his eyes going opaque as the sunlight reflected off the glasses. Ajja slowed down, his own brow furrowed, his hand still patting away on the boy’s shoulder.

‘I wanted to tell you a story about the war.’

‘The war?’

‘Yes. I fought in the war. Did you know that?’

‘Yes. Ma told me you were wounded in the war.’

Ajja’s fingers leapt to the scar again, tracing its line from a point behind his ear to its eventual transformation into just another wrinkle near his eye.

‘What else did she tell you?’

‘Not much else.’

‘Do they tell you war stories in school?’

‘Yes. But they’re not stories. They happened for real.’

Ajja snorted, before quickly disguising it as a cough.

‘Right. Well, I want to tell you a real story too.’

‘Then it’s not a story.’

‘What?’

‘It’s either real or it’s a story. It can’t be both.’

Ajja came to a halt. Aryan paused beside him as well, his eyes still hidden behind their milky façade. Ajja opened his mouth to say something, then thought the better of it and nodded.

‘How long have you had those glasses?’ He asked instead.

‘Since last year.’

‘Aren’t you too young to be wearing glasses?’

‘The doctor told me to wear them.’

‘Do you always do what people tell you to do?’

‘What?’

‘Nothing. Forget I said that. Let me tell you something about the war. Something real.’

*

‘A story within a story?’ Avni’s eyebrows were doing their best to disappear into her hairline in a show of incredulity. ‘This is like that old movie which had dreams within dreams.’

‘That’s the way things are. And who knows? Maybe someone is telling our story somewhere. Are you getting bored?’

She looked at the display board, which had remained unchanged since we had sat down. She shook her head.

*

‘I’ll tell you the story of Fanoos,’ Ajja said.

‘Who’s Fanoos?’

‘Fanoos was a friend of mine. Grew up with me in the same neighbourhood. He was this little runt who used to go around delivering milk on his Pa’s cycle. This was before the war.’

‘What did he do after the war?’

‘Nothing. He died in the war.’

Aryan’s mouth formed a perfect little O of disappointment. ‘Fanoos was a martyr, then.’

Ajja laughed little staccato beats of laughter that were suspended in the air around them for a while. ‘Fanoos was no martyr, ‘ he said.

‘He died in the war.’

‘Did I tell you Fanoos wore glasses just like you?’

‘No.’

‘Well, he did. Soda glasses, we called them. They were thick and ugly like the bottom of a soda bottle. Have you seen a soda bottle?’

Aryan shook his head, tripping on a stone but managing to keep his balance.

‘Don’t your Ma and Pa drink?’

‘Of course not! Drinking is not allowed. Alcohol is a…’

‘A vile poison. Yes, I get it.’

Ajja sighed, rubbing his bony chest. They had reached an intersection, the faded stripes of a zebra crossing before them. The traffic light on the other side of the crossing flashed red. Aryan held out an arm in front of him, catching him in the stomach.

‘Now what?’

‘It’s red.’

‘Eh. Look around you. There’s nobody around!’

‘We should follow the traffic rules.’

‘Half the traffic lights in this country don’t even work and you want to wait till this one turns green?’

‘We will wait, Ajja.’

Ajja gritted his teeth, shifting his weight from one foot to another. When the light turned green, he placed a hand on the boy’s back and pushed him ahead.

‘So how did he die?’

‘How did who die?’

‘Your friend Fanoos.’

‘Ah. Fanoos. Poor boy. He should not have been in that war, not with those bug eyes of his. He couldn’t see two feet in front of him if he wasn’t wearing those hideous glasses.’

‘But he joined anyway?’

‘He did. Kept sneaking into the meetings. The captains threw him out at first. Then they beat him and threw him out. He was considered a liability. Do you know what that means? A liability?’

‘Yes.’

‘But Fanoos didn’t learn his lesson, did he? No. He kept coming back, no matter how many times he was kicked out. No matter how much they beat him or humiliated him. I’ve never seen a more stubborn person in my life. When the captains realised he would not be dissuaded, they let him remain.’

‘He was a true believer.’

‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that. We believed in different things back then. Not like your Ma and you.’

‘But you said he kept coming back and that…’

‘Can I finish?’

‘Sorry, Ajja.’

*

I was subjected to another elaborate eye-roll from Avni. She mouthed sorry and grinned in a way that was both infuriating and adorable.

*

Ajja cleared his throat, making a show of having lost his train of thought and the enormous effort it took to reclaim it.

‘Well, on the day we hit the palace…’

‘You were part of the attack on the palace?’

Ajja frowned at the interruption but Aryan gaped at him, his pledge to remain silent forgotten.

‘Yes. I was part of the first line of rebels breaching the walls.’

Aryan gasped. Colour rose up his cheeks at an alarming rate, his nostrils flaring like he found it difficult to breathe.

‘Ma never told me you were a part of that!’

‘Well, lots of people were a part of that.’

‘Seventy three rebels. They taught us in history. Twenty seven of them were martyred. Wait till I tell everyone else in class my grandfather was part of the palace assault!’

Ajja frowned, more lines materialising on his aged face, perplexed by the boy’s reaction.

‘Was Fanoos with you?’

‘He was one of those twenty seven.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes. He stepped through the breach, lost his glasses in the melee, and waved his gun around at our own men. Can you believe that? He even got me with the bayonet at the end of his rifle.’

Ajja kneaded his scar, wincing like it still hurt, a grim smile splitting his face into two.

‘Only wound I got in that war and I got it from my friend. That’s funny, huh? This is what they called irony in the old world but I don’t think they teach you what it means.’

‘What happened to Fanoos?’ Aryan’s voice was little more than a whisper, begging Ajja to not continue even though his words said otherwise.

‘He was shot. Four times in the chest.’

‘Did you shoot him?’

‘I didn’t. But someone else in the rebels did.’

Aryan reached out and clutched Ajja’s elbow, his face dissolving into relief.

‘I’m glad you didn’t shoot him.’

‘Me too. But I would have shot him a minute later if someone else hadn’t.’

Aryan retracted his hand like it had been scalded.

‘It’s the truth. There was no time to waste and I sure as hell didn’t want to die an unnecessary death. And that, Aryan, is the story I wanted to tell you.’

*

‘Wait, wait,’ Avni said, a hand on the sleeve of my sweater.

‘What now?’

‘That was his whole story?’

‘Yes.’

She looked troubled, her face scrunched up as she shook the can of fizzy drink and found it to be empty.

‘I thought there would be more.’

‘There is more of my story. Should I continue?’

‘Yes, please.’

*

They continued walking, in silence now, until they reached another intersection, the red light glowing from across the street. Behind the traffic light, a convenience store hunkered on the ground, its windows grimy with dirt and the shutters lined with rust. The door was open, however, it’s rectangle of darkness strange and inviting. Ajja looked from the red light to his grandson.

‘We’re almost there. Can’t we skip this light?’

Aryan, who had a dazed look on his face, shook himself from his reverie. He crossed his arms and planted his feet wide like he expected someone to ram into him from behind to throw him off balance and he had no intention of letting that happen.

‘Ajja?’

‘One light.’

‘Did you ask Ma about this?’

‘Huh?’

Aryan was unmoved by Ajja’s show of ignorance. His chin jutting out to indicate the store, he repeated his question.

‘Did you ask Ma about this?’

‘I told you I would.’

‘Did you?’

The light turned green. A lone cyclist pedalled past them, his face bent against the chill, the hem of his gray trousers flapping in the wind.

‘No.’

‘Is that why you wanted to get out of the house so soon?’

Ajja looked at the decrepit buildings beyond the convenience store, advertisements for groceries, vegetables, and boots papered over their outer walls. He looked at the decaying yellow pole housing the traffic lights (what luck to run into two functioning traffic lights in the span of minutes!). He looked up and saw the flags that adorned each building, bereft of fight, limp in their death. He looked down and saw the coarse road they would have to traverse to reach the convenience store. He looked everywhere but at the boy standing beside him.

‘We should go back.’

‘Go back?’

‘Yes.’

‘Don’t you want to have a Coca-Cola? You know boys your age everywhere in the world have had Coca-Cola all their lives, right?’

Aryan crossed his arms even tighter, tucking his fists under his armpits.

‘It doesn’t matter. You said you would ask Ma last night.’

‘I’ll ask her after we go back.’

‘After we have had that, that vile poison?’

‘What vile poison! The only vile poison is the one inside your head! Everything they teach you about the revolution in that school of yours. You’re too young to be involved in all that! You should be going in there and having your first sip of Coca-Cola!’

*

Avni held up a finger for me to pause. I waited while she brought out her phone, tapped on it a few time, and scrolled through an article.

‘It says here,’ She said, her heart shaped face washed in blue from the screen’s glow. ‘Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar were the three countries in which Coca-Cola was not sold for a long time. And us, for a brief period between the revolution and the eventual dismantling of the regime when democracy was introduced.’

‘I could have told you that. You didn’t have to go to the internet for it.’

‘I didn’t think you would know.’

She gave me a sheepish grin. I wanted to snatch the phone and throw it as far as I could.

‘Can I continue?’ I asked, my voice terse now. My back hurt, whether from the horrible chair or from the storytelling, I wasn’t sure.

‘Yes, please,’ She said again, her voice mellifluous like an angel’s.

*

Aryan shook his head at this outburst.

‘I won’t have it unless Ma is okay with it.’

‘Your Ma is…’

Ajja stopped with his mouth open, his gray lips speckled with spit, his eyes bulging. Then, with an effort that seemed to take every bit of willpower he could muster, he composed himself, taking a deep breath of air before gesturing to the road in front of them and the traffic light, which had turned red again.

‘Come with me. It’s only Coca-Cola. It’s not going to hurt anyone.’

‘That’s what they want you to believe. But this will ruin everything. Ma told me it will.’

‘That’s because your Ma was born after the war. All she knows is what they taught her after the war. She’s too old to learn anything new now but you aren’t. So why don’t you come on over with me and discover something new?’

‘Are you saying Ma is wrong?’

‘All I’m saying is the world she was born in is going away. She’s part of a lost generation. A generation that’s only ever known one way of living. You don’t have to be like her.’

‘This is why Ma doesn’t like it when you visit.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘You are not patriotic.’

‘Not patriotic?’

‘Yes. You don’t care for our values, everything we have protected for so long. We are in a bad condition now because all these companies are boring into us like worms in an apple.’

‘Worms in an apple? Is this from one of your textbooks?’

The boy blushed, flustered at being caught out before rallying to his cause again.

‘So what if it is? It’s all true. I should have known Ma would never say yes to this.’

‘Then why are you here?’

Ajja spat out the question, stamping a foot down to emphasise it. The force of it was enough to make Aryan take a step back. He teetered on the edge of the invisible line that separated the footpath from the road.

‘You were hoping I did ask your Ma, didn’t you? Oh yes, you did. Don’t lie to me! You want to taste that vile poison as much as I do.’

When the boy remained silent, his mouth slack with indecision, Ajja punched the air.

‘Ha! This is good. This is very good. You see, it doesn’t matter which side is right. All you need to do is think for yourself. Do what you want to do. So come with me!’

Aryan looked from his grandfather to the convenience store, his face hardening again the longer they stood.

‘No. I’m not drinking it.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

‘Alright then. I’m going to have one anyway.’

Ajja started across the road. When he was halfway over, Aryan trotted up to take his spot beside him.

‘It’s red. Shouldn’t you be standing over there still?’

The boy shrugged.

‘Go back home.’

‘I’m not drinking it. I’m only walking with you.’

They entered the convenience store, exchanging the cold air of the morning outside for the musty interior. As they approached the cashier’s counter, their eyes sought the glass fronted refrigerator that was stuffed with Coca-Cola cans, their red and white skins brightening up the store. The cashier, a middle aged woman with her hair in a bun and a cigarette smouldering between her fingers, got up from a battered chair.

‘Yes?’

‘I’ll have one of those,’ Ajja said.

‘Just the one?’

Ajja looked at Aryan’s defiant gaze before nodding.

‘Yes, thank you.’

The woman produced a key out of a pocket in her cardigan, jiggling it into the little keyhole in the refrigerator. She retrieved a can from the stack and placed it on the counter. It pulsated with an otherworldly energy, its sleek lines and shiny surface out of place in the drab store.

‘I’m expecting a stampede in here later. That’s why I’m keeping the fridge locked. It’s good you came early.’

Ajja gave a weak smile, handing her the money and picking up the can.

‘How can you be so unpatriotic?’ Aryan asked the woman.

‘What was that?’

Ajja placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

‘Nothing. Have a good day.’

‘And you.’

He steered Aryan back out into the watery sunlight.

‘That was unnecessary.’

‘It wasn’t. People wouldn’t buy them if she didn’t stock them.’

Ajja waved this argument aside, his eyes on the perspiring can, which looked even more brilliant out in the open than it had in the store. He shifted it to his other hand to, rubbing the condensation off his palm on the seat of his trousers.

‘Are you sure you don’t want a sip?’

‘No.’

‘One sip. It won’t hurt. We don’t have to tell your Ma.’

‘You mean lie to her? No, thank you.’

Ajja sighed and opened the can. A fizz escaped its body, dissipating into the dawn with a faint echo.

*

I stopped for a moment, gathering my wayward thoughts and examining Avni’s face to see if she had discovered my sudden urge to tell her the story. Her face gave nothing away, inscrutable like the opaque glasses of the boy.

*

‘What do you think it tastes like?’ Aryan asked.

‘I already know what it tastes like. I want to see if I remember it right.’

The world quietened down at this. The birds stopped twittering and the wind stopped whistling. The nascent hum of a world waking up gave way to a complete silence in which the boy’s mouth opened wide until it looked like his jaw would dislocate and fall to the ground.

‘How did you…’

‘When we breached the palace. What do you think we found in there? Apart from the fancy furniture, the toilets made of gold, the exotic pets?’

‘Coca-Cola?’

‘Yes. Huge ice boxes filled with Coca-Cola. We finished it all in that one night. Every single drop of it.’

‘You drank Coca-Cola on the night you attacked the palace?’

‘Not just me. Everyone. Even the captains of our glorious revolution. Everyone had their fill. It’s no wonder they banned it later. We drank enough to last a lifetime. Your history textbooks don’t tell you that, do they?’

‘No, no, this is…’

Ajja held the can up and rubbed his nose against its chilled surface. Condensation dripped off the tip of his crooked nose.

‘You don’t have to believe me but I was there. But do you know who didn’t drink Coca-Cola that night?’

Aryan shook his head, too stunned to form words anymore. With the sun behind him, light no longer reflected off his glasses, his eyes shining in clear horror.

‘Fanoos. Because he was dead by then. Lying outside in the courtyard with four bullet holes in him. He could have had the Coca-Cola if he had stayed alive but because he died, he became a part of that other lost generation, the one before your Ma’s. I’m not one of them, I’ll have you know that.’

Ajja brought the can up to his ear, a wry smile on his face.

‘Come here.’

Aryan obeyed him, walking over in a daze. Ajja held the can of Coca-Cola to his ear.

‘Hear that? That crackle?’

Aryan nodded.

‘Sounds like I’m listening to an old friend right here.’

*

I sat back, my spine curling against the steel chair, the muscles in my back hurting with an ache that burrowed deep inside my body. Avni continued looking at me with an expectant face and when I remained silent, she shook her head.

‘That can’t be it.’

‘It is. That’s the end of the story.’

‘Did the boy drink the Coca-Cola?’

‘Who knows?’

‘Come on! You can’t do this!’

‘I’m the storyteller, remember?’

‘Was it all real?’

‘What part?’

‘Your story. The old man’s story.’

There are no real stories. There are things that happened and then there are stories. These words, well-meaning but hollow, formed in my head and threatened to spill out of my mouth. I pursed my lips to seal them in. An old unwillingness to twist the truth rankled inside me somewhere.

‘Am I part of a lost generation too?’

My heart skipped a beat. Looking at the pain on Avni’s face, I realised that I had it wrong. She was not as grown up as I had feared her to be.

‘Am I?’

I should have held out my arms and gathered her in a hug, murmured words of comfort in her ear. What I did was tear my gaze away from her eyes and look at the display board. There were numbers on it now where there were none before. Our flight would start boarding in thirty minutes.

‘You don’t have to be,’ I told her.

***