“Do you want to play with us?”
He looked at them warily. He was used to being ignored. This was one of those playgrounds for rich kids after all. The ones who came in fancy limousines and who carried their own smartphones and credit cards even before they had sprouted pimples on their faces.
And yet, here they were. Three of them, two boys and a girl, staring at him with frank, appraising eyes. The girl was pretty. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old, exactly his own age, with strawberry curls and dimpled cheeks. The boys were similarly good looking, blond, fine boned with firm jaws. They would grow up to be dashing young men. Arrogant and entitled.
Maharathi Debdutt saw the hennaed foot, dainty, as the passenger stepped off the palanquin. Then the wheel went over it. His deed was done. He did not hear the shrieks that rent the air. From the beautiful princess who was to be wed, she became the hobbling one, the unwanted one.
Ever since Maharathi Debdutt had set eyes on the little one, Rajkumari Heeramoti, she had fascinated him. Her absolute milk white skin, the fragility of her limbs, her big black eyes and tumbling black curls, were a delight. He would watch her at play from a distance. He was a horse rider and a charioteer, and he was not allowed within the palace.
The sulphur gas hissed and smoke was issuing every few metres from the porous rocks. The clouds churned in the sky with lightning in ugly shades of grey black. The landscape lay broken and crying from the third cataclysm.
But what scared Rangar the most wasn’t the dangers on the land but what lay ahead.
The road, once upon a time it may have been a road, was broken. It was littered with potholes, rocks lining hot mud pools that steamed and an occasional geyser of magma. His blistered feet hurt, even wrapped in multiple layers of clothes. He looked up at the path he was following up to the mountain which was still spewing smoke and gases into the air.
How did the witch Manap survive here, he thought?
They said the fog was made of the tears of the old soldiers, those who left the town to make long journeys to god-knew-where. The soldiers grieved, those who stayed back said, for the homes they had left behind, and for the memories that were forced to linger. After all, if you left the fog behind you, there was nothing left of your past. You left your memories at the brink of the cliff, and started anew.
The fog covered the town in its entirety. There were days the thumb-shaped hill across the river would disappear in the mist, then there were days when the fog sneaked into bedrooms. It had a peculiar taste which everybody said was the taste of longing—a taste of the tears of the men who had left.
Husbands and wives had learnt to use their other senses than their sight. The children would play with the mist, sometimes twirling it around their fingers as they did with fireflies that ventured into the town, drawing shapes as one would on a fogged-out glass pane. Or they would play hide and seek in the fog, even though everybody warned them not to trust it as they would their dogs, or their cows, or the goats. The fog was not a pet, the women whose faces had wrinkles of sadness said, it had been here since forever, even before they settled in this bowl near the river.
When she walked into the room, every eye in that place rested on her, as though she was a magnet and we were all iron filings.
Sarika was her name—I found that out later, after my eyes had examined every inch of her body and her face from where I was sitting. A mad wave of desire swept over me and I felt as though I was possessed. Have you ever felt like that? I hope not. It was something which had no hint of romance in it. I had to have her. The last vestiges of propriety and polite behaviour that had been long back instilled into me were cast off, like winter clothes at the beach.
The club was noisy, filled with nameless faceless people, gyrating in time to the dull droning of one hip hop song after another. I walked over to her, drink in hand, a salacious smile on my lips. I looked around to make sure that she was alone.
Translated by Abhisek Sarkar
Chhabi has expired.
Chhabila died close to day break. She had been choked to death. Her one year old child Etim, following his usual morning practice, is trying quite hard to suck some milk out of one of her breasts.
Patuki has no inkling about who killed Chhabi. Although it is not unknown to him that this is not a natural death, he is yet to discover that the man he spotted approaching Chhabi’s house early in the morning was the killer. But the very next night Patuki would come to know who killed Chhabila. The one who would be his source of information is the most reliable of all. The rich and the poor, thieves and thugs, the good and the bad, all have respect for him. It is only Patuki who he speaks with. But the day is still young and he has to wait long for nightfall. How long will he have to cope with this hubble-bubble in his stomach, with this uncanny sensation running through his veins?
The man who visited Chhabila at dawn had also been seen coming out of her house late in the night. Patuki spends the whole of the night at the southern bank of the pond behind dense bushes, fishing pole in hand. Long aerial roots of a great banyan tree surround this place. These bushes entice him. The night has its own allure. Only Allah knows why people waste these hours sleeping. Patuki does not sleep; he cannot. The long fishing line of Patuki does not have a hook hence the float also is redundant. He has seen people climbing up his fishing thread from the water— many of them. They climb throughout the night and bless Patuki. Then they climb up those roots of the banyan tree. Now they turn into fireflies and fly around the Banyan pir.
The man trudged up the red mud lane carrying a rucksack on his back and a tin trunk in one hand. He mounted the three steps from the lane and stepped over a metal stile flanked by gateposts. An elderly woman sat on the concrete platform in front of the big white house; she seemed to be waiting for him.
“Bayool Maami?” the man asked, joining his palms in formal greeting while introducing himself, “Shyam Kulkarni.”
“I was expecting you two hours ago, Painter Saheb,” Bayool said, rising slowly from the cement platform and hobbling into the sitting room, “Come, come. Sit,” gesturing to the sling back armchair.
Bayool was an elderly woman who wore dentures. Shyam noticed that when she smiled there were gaps in her dentures that made her teeth look natural.
“The bus broke down,” he said simply. “Bayool Maami, please call me Shyam.”
He sat in the armchair and looked around. Through the floor-to-ceiling bars that made up one wall of the sitting room, he observed a cottage nearby.
“You will live there,” Bayool said, pointing to the cottage.
The property adjoining Bayool’s seemed impenetrable with trees, briars and tangled creepers, but Shyam saw outlines of a roof and walls and broken down windows of a house through those trees.
Gopuji tore away the blanket. His shirt was drenched in sweat. He dragged himself out of bed. When he foamed toothpaste in his mouth, he heard it again. It seemed to be a classical tune of great melancholy, of Western origin rather than a Hindustani one. It flooded his ears. His temples throbbed. Sudden chills in the forty-degree Mumbai heat and humidity. He remembered last night’s dream of feathered attacks. Yes, that was what it was. Wet wings slapping at him as if they would murder him in a pond or lake … hard forceps-like things clutching his neck … a thick fleecy rope winding around his neck … tighter and tighter, claws gripping him and tearing his flesh.
Even the memory of it sent streams of sweat down his body as he showered and got ready for work. The lilt lingered into his hearing.
Gopuji was accustomed to background music. In fact, he was more used to it than most average people. He was a filmmaker. How many times, while making films, had he ardently wished for a personal background score? A score that would act like lyrical second thoughts, drizzling around him, making his life more meaningful and understood by those around. Was it this wish that followed him now? This principle that if you wished for something strongly into the Universe it was bestowed upon you?
The only thing I could do for him was take his picture. So I heaved my DSLR up—it had to be bulky, to give that touch of authenticity—and peered through the viewfinder, focusing on his face.
Not that I needed to. The camera was perfectly capable of capturing the shot on its own. But this was art, and I, the artist. I had to at least appear to work for my fee.
Through the unforgiving lens, Harun Shamsuddin looked even worse. Despite being powdered over with makeup, his pale, papery skin seemed like it would shred at the slightest touch. The luxuriant wig perched on his scalp made the deep furrows on his forehead look more pronounced. He was dressed in his old lawyer’s robes, now billowing over his shrunken frame.
“You can Photoshop the tubes out, right?” his daughter Mimi asked over my shoulder. I lowered the camera and studied the tubes affixed to him intently, giving the impression of great concentration. There were fewer than most of my other subjects: just one going into his nose, and another dangling out of his arm. The others were all concealed beneath the robe.
Irati had green fingers. A darker green than most gardeners’ fingers. She could twist and fix and grow and stunt. Better than the new sacks of pesticides and fertilisers that flew off the dealership godown in Manjeri. The old ones smelled of sweet distilled poison or dusty, desiccated old warehouses. The new ones burnt your nostril hairs if you got too close and melted stony warts if you didn’t have time to go to the clinic. They also killed all the beetles and the grasshoppers, the aphids and the worms, the moles and the rats and if taken carefully they killed humans. If not taken carefully, they just left the unsuccessful souls at the threshold of death with the world outside pitying them and the family inside cursing them. Irati had no use for fertilisers or poisons. Nothing living dared to crawl, step, slither or fly into her plot unless she wanted them to. On that five cents of strange ground, she grew bananas and nutmeg, coconuts and moringa, areca and cashew. The harvests were always more than she could eat or preserve and nobody in the village bought or borrowed anything from her. So once a month, she took a bus to Kozhikode with sacks full of the sweetest smelling nutmeg, strangely heavy coconuts, banana stalks that had perfectly symmetrical bunches or moringa that curved up to the sky.
It had become a pastime for the neighbours to look carefully at the local reports in the newspapers the week after her market trips. A Yemeni trader had grown a beautiful set of breasts overnight. The priest’s wife burped every time someone told a lie near her. Scores of people who ate the unbelievably sweet banana pradhaman during a baby’s 28’th Day celebration were compelled to buy the child innumerable gifts of gold and silver. The moringa sambar made a shy young wife seduced every man in her old husband’s areca nut factory. Some women tried to bring up the stories at the river bank and Irati, without glancing up from her washing would grunt a reply that she never read newspapers.
Kemban came from Tiruvannamalai to climb coconut trees but ended up climbing into Irati’s bed. A few days after the November thunderstorms ended and the winter mists invaded the mornings, she came to buy broken rice from Meleparambu House with a gold leaf strung on a black thread resting in the hollow of her throat. The women from the river reported an extra mundu and towel that she brought to wash every day. Kemban was now her man. They watched curiously for an entire year but nothing strange happened to him.