By Meghna Pant

Panchangam threw the coke can on the ground. There was a sound of crunch as the red can hit arid land. Its fizzy liquid trickled out. Sharda leaned forward and stuck her tongue out on it. Maybe she could get a drop? Quench her parched throat? But the brown bubbles had already sizzled away and she was left with her tongue on the ground, dusty and dry.

“If you sit, I’ll make you stand,” Panchangam said. “If you stand, I’ll make you walk. If you walk, I’ll make you run.”

He looked around at the gathering of villagers. They stared back at him blankly. The sun had burnt these villager’s faces to blend in with the land. Their eyes were buried under crow’s feet. Panchangam could see that their thoughts were dried out from feverishness.

These men and women could no longer understand the things that were spoken.

Men who have forgotten the language of the tongue, have to be shown its meaning. Panchangam hurled a potato in the air. All eyes moved with it.

“Who wants this?” he asked, looking around at the villagers. Sharda raised her hand before anyone else could.

Panchangam narrowed his eyes at her.

“You know what you have to do,” he said, in a sly slithering voice.

happybirthday_meghnaWe enter a narrow muddy path with jhopadpattis on both sides. Lalit apologetically turns his head towards me; the car can move no further. Seven or eight dusty children in ragged clothes surround our car, their noses pressed flat against the windows, their teeth white through the tinted glass. If we leave the car here they’ll scratch the silver-grey paint, sit on the hood or steal the rear-view mirrors, so I tell Lalit, ‘I don’t trust these slum people. I think you better stay in the car.’

‘Memsahib, I can take you to Mary’s house,’ he says gently.

‘How would you know the way around this kachra place?’ I ask.

‘I live here,’ he says, and our eyes meet in the mirror.

I look away and croak a reply, ‘Wait for us here.’