Betel Leaves — A Dalit Satirical Novel by Jai Anbu
March 14, 2020

Betel Leaves is a satirical novel about social and religious prejudice against the Dalits’ struggle for identity, dignity and freedom in present day India.

A silvery brook meanders way through a village towards paddy fields. Here extremes of beauty and poverty exist side by side. The Dalit villagers scratch a living from the fields. They are easy prey for corrupt politicians who steal their land, even those places reserved for funeral pyres. Guruji, a spiritual master, has come to their village and bought the land.  He builds an ashram from where he plans to enlighten the world. Trouble erupts when the villagers cross the boundaries set by the dominants.

 Dedicated to Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

 

The Elder

 

Only her atman existed. All her senses had ceased. Wrapped in her sari, she lay on her back with arms outstretched, hands clenched like raven claws, trembling, writing in the air. The sun had not yet risen over the paddy fields, but a drift of already warm air began to dry her tears and leave a layer of sharp salt on her skin. Her head was propped up on a hump of damp earth, her feet in a shallow puddle. A line of anxious ants paraded past her earlobes, over her face and ate into her eyelids.

All night the villagers were kept from sleep by the howling of dogs. Dawn broke with a strange sadness they all felt, the depth of which they had never known before. That was how it started.

The elder pushed through the fertile stretch of farmland at a speed that surprised everyone, hacking at the tangled vegetation with his good walking stick. At the sight of Lachumi lying in the paddy field, his face drained of blood. He turned around and said, “Don’t do anything. Get me some betel leaves. I’ll ask her what she wants. Then … I’ll …”

The farmers gathered around him moved closer, casting aside their spades and rakes. One stepped forward.

“Grandpa, you go and put your head down.”

“Why should we listen to your old stories?” said another. “At your age you should be in your bed. Go and get your head down.” He ducked behind his friend, perhaps embarrassed at what he had said. They all turned to look at him.

Then one pointed at the woman on the ground. “Aei! Look at her lips. Look. Blue! Must be a poisonous bite.”

“She’s still alive.”

“Here’s a ladder. Put her on it.”

One ran to find the bark to tie the woman onto the ladder. Two men dropped to their knees and lay the ladder beside her. It was almost twice her length.

“Don’t do it,” shouted the elder. “Listen to me, listen.” He pulled them away from the woman, tearing at their clothes. One fell back, leaving one of his sandals behind. The old man turned round and spread his arms, “Do you think it is child’s play to find a pregnant woman in a paddy field? In a fully ripened paddy field? You don’t know anything, I’m telling you. You know nothing of this land. I’ll ask her what she wants. It’s obvious the mother goddess is not pleased,” said the elder, clutching his polished stick.

“Thatha, your story is good, but no one has time for all this rubbish. Go and tell it to our folks at the graveyard. All bloody lies!” said the farmers and wearily lifted the woman. When she was laid out on the ladder, they carried her through the muddy field, crushing crab holes along the raised hump of the paddy field as they went.

“Aei! Senseless creatures. Listen to me! I’ll tell you what to do. She’s going to die. Take the baby out and do two funerals at the same time, with all the comforts and luxuries of a wedding. Slaughter a calf or a cow and offer the blood. That’s what our forefathers told us to do – or this land will perish!” said the elder.

“Forefathers told! Forefathers! Here is the machete. Go and take the baby out then!” said one of the men carrying Lachumi.

“Not with a machete, moron, not with machete – she is a woman. It should be done with a horn. A sharpened cow horn. I saw one, when I was a small boy,” said the elder. “Amma, Goddess! Save us from evil. Please don’t cast a spell on us,” he said, touching the woman’s feet.

Lachumi, carried like a chariot by seven men, wriggled and lifted her hanging head. She held tightly on to the side poles and, staring at them all with her blood stained eyes, said “Kasi, my little boy Kasi, He’ll set you all free,” before she dropped her head, and died.

 

The Elegy Singer

 

The door was ajar, so they stepped into the gloom knocking. From nowhere came the scream. The elegy singer was angry.  She grabbed a stone pestle and held it high. “Get out of here! Can’t keep a paisa under my pillow anymore. Was it Gandhi who walked away from the rupees? Get out of here, before I smash your bloody heads!” She got up from a woven plastic cot.

They pressed their backs to the wall. One ran back outside, protecting his head. “Grandma, grandma we didn’t come to steal anything. We want you to sing at a funeral. Two funerals.”

“Get away from here! If you make fun of me, you come to no good. Get away!” She hissed at them, her buck teeth catching the ray of sunlight piercing the hinge of the door.

But one of them moved closer, and leaned forward. “Seriously, grandma. Here, have these.” They gave her three betel leaves and nuts.

“Do you think I still sing for rice and lentils? For that! Those days are long gone now.” She turned away from him and spat on the floor.

“How much will it cost then? We have money. Look.” He pulled out a bunch of clean and crisp hundred rupee notes from his breast pocket.

She squinted her eyes at the rupee notes. “Where are you two from? Where is this death?”

“We are from the Harijan Colony.”

“Oh-oh-oh Harijan colony! Listen to that fancy name! Call it instead Parayah colony as it is known. You don’t even have a road or street lights in the Harijan colony, do you?” she twisted her head to the side.

“Grandma you are a Harijan. You know better. Which Harijan colony has proper roads and street lights? Don’t you worry about that now. There is a mud road where the banyan tree is. A Guruji from Delhi bought the land and built a farmhouse there. He promised us a road.”

“I know that. You all sold the land, didn’t you? You sold that and ate heavy meals, didn’t you? You parayah dogs. You’ll come to no good. I tell you something. If someone comes with an itch on his scrotum to help the poor, never trust them.”

“Pointless to talk about that, Grandma. We sold it out of ignorance and destitution. Anyway, a few girls got married off with that money. You get ready.”

“I want five hundred rupees. All in advance. Don’t tell me I haven’t said this before.”

“Five hundred rupees? All in advance? For singing for a corpse? Grandma! What do you think? You think we are living in a country ruled by Lord Shiva and Parvati? Have you ever seen a five hundred before?”

“Oh-oh-oh.” The elegy singer wet her dry lips. “You are babies! What do you know? Have you heard of Rajiv Gandhi? When he got killed, I woke up in the morning and two party men were standing right there. They gave me five hundred rupees in advance and took me in a pleasure car. I swear on my eyes! It’s all true. They even bought meals and arrack for me.”

“Oh, ho. Where did they take you? To Delhi? In an aeroplane?”

“Oh, don’t make fun of me. To the town. To the party office. I sat in front of the photo and sang a song. You should have heard that song! I finished my song and looked at them and each one was in tears. Those days are gone now. Give me four hundred, I’ll change and come.”

“Grandma, that’s all we have, two hundred.”

The elegy singer tied two hundred rupees at an end of her red sari and followed the men. “Tell me a little bit about this woman, so that I can make up a song,” she said as they all walked to the colony. She was humming a tune while walking through the dirt road.

 

Harijan Colony

 

The dirt road forked into two. The first twisted near the banyan tree towards the Harijan Colony and the other, red, muddied road headed towards the farmhouse. The gatekeeper, a dark, thin man with twig like legs, sat there, and rolled tobacco flakes on ebony tree leaves, smoking and puffing them through the wide gap between his teeth. He had unfinished tattoos decorating his bare arms and chest, a testament to his own artwork, a skill he had acquired while he had been an inmate in the Central Prison.

It was the gatekeeper who had advised the new owner to build a fence around the three-hundred-acre land. He was the one who had electrified the fence where the goats snuck in. He threw stones at the villagers who dared to venture inside for the cattle to feed. He blocked the way to the downhill where the villagers had cremated their dead.

On his morning patrol, he chased and caught two boys who had slipped inside the farm. He dragged and pushed them under a jackfruit tree and tied them both to with green pepper vines.

“Ohhhh…ammaa..ayyooo,” the boys screamed from their lungs. They wrestled and shook their arms and knees as red weaver ants ran across their bodies in havoc.

“Stop! Stop or else I will bury you under this tree as manure. I’ll bury you alive with your eyes wide open,” he shouted.

“Let us go, please let us go…please,” begged the short one.  “Never, never again I’ll never step into the farm, please let us go,” he stretched out his arms held tightly by the pepper vines. Ants started nibbling onto the crust of his wound on his lower limbs.

The gatekeeper noticed a bulging on the boy’s frayed pockets. He slipped his right index and middle finger inside it. It was with a sudden shriek that he pulled away.

“Ayyyyee, sons of swines!” he shouted, shaking his hand frantically. “What have you got in your pockets? Sons of swines!”

The crab that had come out had clenched itself onto his finger until he managed to swing it over the fence.

The boy watched his sweet, little snack crawl away with its claws. He wet his lips and swallowed as though he could taste the delicious aroma of the burnt meat that would have melted in his mouth. He looked back at the gatekeeper who was busy trying to calm the pain in his fingers, wiping them and shaking them, mumbling all the while angrily. That was the moment when the boy ran as fast as his short legs could carry him.

The second boy stood there still tied against the tree, he wasn’t crying, his brows frowned, wary of what would happen next. Fear formed beads of sweat on his pale cheeks, beads that glistened all the way down to his rib cage. He breathed heavily and a chunk of fresh snot shot in and out of his right nostril. His legs were shaking as though he was about to pee.

“What’s that son of a bitch’s name? I’ll kill him. What’s his father’s name?”

“His father…mmm…I don’t know his father’s name. He’s short. Black and pot-bellied. He’s the one who has the fodder job. That’s all I know.”

“And who the hell you are?” the gatekeeper pointed his chin towards the boy.

“My name is Kasi. My mother is Lachumi and my father is Mallan.”

“What did you come here for? At this time of day.”

“My mother died. She died of snakebite. I was following those who went to collect coconut leaves.”

In the meantime, the little boy who had managed to escape had gone and brought the villagers to the farm to witness the scene.

“Oh..oh.. Oi..” shouted the villagers. “What are you doing with the little boy? Leave him alone!” one shouted, his face creased with anger. He ran up to him and quickly began to cut the pepper vine with his sickle.

“Get out of the farm. At once! It’s a private road. I’ll chop the legs off if anyone trespasses again,” the gatekeeper said with eerie calmness.

“Let me see. Go ahead and chop his legs off. Let me see. Try and do it now,” one of the villagers warned him, his voice raised. “We didn’t come to steal your owner’s treasure. We are heading north to prepare for the funeral pyre for his mother,” the villager pointed to Kasi.

“Prepare for a funeral pyre, where? On private land? Don’t you know this is private property now? Can’t you see the fence? Guruji bought this land. He bought it to build his ashram. He owns it up to right up there,” said the gatekeeper.

“What? He bought all this land? Even this graveyard? Even the clearing behind the coconut farm? That is a deed-less land. Bought it from whom?”

“Ahh ahh ahh…bought it from whom? Why, from the government of course. Kaliyug! I can’t believe this. So now even you, the parayas, have started asking questions. As though there’s no other place in the whole country to burn a dead body. Get away from here! Before I make a phone call to the police.”

“You go and call your police. Call your Master. We don’t care. The one dead is a pregnant one. There are a lot of rituals to be done.”

“Rituals! Big rituals! Even Parayas started doing rituals? I remember what you did last time. You didn’t add enough kerosene or cowpats. The smoke came straight into our house. I couldn’t get anything close to my mouth for three whole days. I am not going to let this happen again. Before you reach home, the police will be there. I promise you that,” said the gatekeeper heavily, before turning around and heading towards his house.

 

The Golden Earrings

 

The corpse lay on a large wooden bench on the veranda, wrapped up, its toes tied together with a burnt orange colour cloth. Red kumkum marked her forehead and a gingelly oil lamp was lit in the corner.

The elegy singer squinted at the women standing around the corpse. She wiped the crusts of dried betel leaf juice from her mouth with her sari and went closer to them. “Why are you all standing there like this? Like stiff corpses at a funeral house! Do something! Beat your breasts and wail deep from your hearts! Go on, do it!” she nudged them.

The village women looked at each other and grumbled. “Where did this old woman come from? She won’t let us be,” said one and walked away.

“Oh...oh…what did I say? I asked her to make some noise. Look at the way she goes! Don’t tell me, you didn’t know this before. The soul won’t go anywhere! None of you will be able to sleep at night; none of you will be able to go and relieve yourselves behind the bush at night. I warn you!”

The women turned their faces away to block her out.

“A good woman, born in a good family, when she goes to a funeral, she will always cry. It washes her sins away. I’ll teach you a trick. Think about something bad that has happened in your homes and wail. In the future, there won’t be any singers to do the job for you. There won’t be any elegies. Each one will have to cry for themselves.”

The women whispered to one another, giggled a little and continued to take slow sips from their coffee.

“Bitches! None of you will be any good. Look at the way you giggle at a funeral house. Look at the way you dress. Parayah dogs! Pretending like Americans! Has nothing bad ever happened to you? Have none of you been harassed on the streets?  Have none of you been humiliated for the caste you were born as? Have none of you been groped at the market? Bitches! Giggling at a funeral and making fun of me!” She got up and stormed out of the room, fuming.

She went and sat with the elders in the vacant lot next to the funeral house. She took a betel leaf from the tray, smeared it with lime, chewed and spat forcefully and said to them, “Listen, this is very important. That a pregnant woman has died at the paddy fields, the fully ripened paddy fields, is a very bad omen. Not good for the peasants; not good for the ruling men. We have got to do what we have got to do. At midnight we must do the rituals, without forgetting anything.”

Selvam, the village communist gave her a dismissive look. “Do you have any sense at all? You better go and wail for the money you have received. Any more nonsense you utter, I’ll knock your teeth out,” he said. He continued to talk to the elders; “Our forefathers tilled this land. Our forefathers shed their blood and sweat. Now we don’t have a place to burn our dead. We can’t just leave it like that. This is barbaric. As barbaric as mentioned in ‘The Origins of Family, Private Property and State.’ Take note of what I am saying. When the revolution comes, nothing will stand in its way. All these bourgeoisie are going to apologize to us for exploiting us in the name of caste and religion!” He continued to blabber in clichés he had heard from the party meetings. But since no one reacted to his words, he stopped briefly, and then walked off towards the well-dressed mourners of the town.

“Selvam, Selvam,” the elegy singer went behind the communist. “I am an old woman. I am waiting for my turn to die. May that be today or tomorrow. If it were me, they could burn me right here. No one is going to bother. But this is a pregnant one. The soul will wander around. It doesn’t know whether to bless as a goddess or haunt as a ghost. We must do the rituals. Must do the rituals before warmness wades away from her asshole. We must respect our culture.”

“You are really mad. You are getting on my nerves,” said the communist. “You’re old, but you don’t have any sense. Whose culture are you talking about? The culture of the bourgeoisie? We have been suppressed by those shits for thousands of years. There’s no ghost; no goddess. This must be another story created by the high caste men to suppress us. Marx has mentioned this before.”

“Who is this Marx you are talking about? Which caste does he belong to?” asked the elegy singer. “So, what has this Marx actually said about the cremation of the Dalits?”

“Yes, Marx will resurrect them from the grave, peel the banana and feed you without touching your wobbly front teeth.  He has shown us how the world works. It is our job to fight back and reclaim our rights.”

“Selvam, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Your head is full of nonsense you read from the books. That doesn’t help. I have seen thousands of funerals here. We need to burn the body before it starts to rot and smell. In a respectable way. That’s what’s important now.”

“It’s not the corpse that is going to rot and smell,” said Selvam. It’s the democracy of the ignorant that is going to rot and smell. It has already started…”

The elders were upset by the communist’s talk. “He had a couple of drinks already. He is sure going to spoil the funeral,” they whispered and called the boys who had been secretly distributing the arrack behind a jackfruit tree.

“Do whatever you want. If there’s no respect for the elder’s words, there’s no point talking,” the elegy singer went inside and sat near the foot end of the corpse.

An oily haired woman sat near the gingelly lamp and started to wail in a high pitch monotone.

“Crows go to the funeral of all kind

They eat the carcasses

They clear up the land

What happens when a crow dies?

Oh..oh..ohh ohh”

“Who is this? Who is this singing?” asked the mourners sitting on benches and chairs outside.

“It is Rajini. Rajini, the school cook,” they said to themselves.

The Elegy singer noticed the corpse’s glittering earring. She went and sat by the head, and pulled out a coin, which she then gripped against the tightly screwed earring so that she could unscrew it from the corpse’s ear. “Give this to the husband,” she gave that to Rajini. “Ahh, no. You don’t have an earring. Why don’t you keep this for yourself and pay him the money,” said the elegy singer.

Rajini, the school cook, walked over to Mallan, the husband of the dead woman, and called him in private. “I know you are in trouble; it’s not the right time to do business, please don’t mistake me for this. I want this earring. I’ll pay you five hundred rupees. Look, it cannot  be more than four grams,” she weighed them holding on her palms. “Please don’t mistake me…I’m buying this just to help you. If you go to the shop, the pawnshop man will scratch off a gram for assaying. I’ll give you six hundred rupees.” She handed him the worn-out notes, secured the earring onto her sari, went and sat near the corpse and started to cry again.

 

The Enquiry

 

“Hey, little boy come here,” a plain clothes policeman called Kasi. “Go and get your father. Quickly, quickly,” he went and stood at the vacant lot next to the funeral house.

 Men hurriedly got up from the sedge mats and gathered around him. “Greetings, Sir, greetings, sir. What is this for? Is he getting any compensation?”

“Ahhh..ahhh,” the policeman said with a lopsided grin. “Get the husband. I have come for an inquiry.”

Mallan peeked through the window. He stuffed the money he had got from Rajini into his pocket, passed through the low doors and came to the veranda. The women sat on the floor, moved and let him go past. “Greetings, sir,” he brought his arms together to the policeman.

“So, are you the husband?”

“Mmm,” said Mallan scratching his scar at his forehead.

“Hands down. Let me have a good look at you. Don’t hide your face. The sub inspector is here, for a quick enquiry.”

“There’s no need for an enquiry, sir. This is a snakebite. I’ll show you,” Mallan pulled the policeman by holding his hand.

“No. No. I don’t want to see anything.” the policeman took his hands off. “You can come and say that to the sub-inspector. He is in the car.”

Men sitting on the veranda all patted their back and followed him without uttering a word. The children playing marbles on the street also ran behind them. “Kasi, Kasi,” Grandpa called from the veranda. “Kasi, where are you? You also go,” Grandpa advised. The whole village walked in a row behind the policeman.

The white ambassador car was parked in the middle of the dirt road, with its front doors wide open like an elephant’s huge flapping ears. It was slightly tilted towards the left, crushing the touch-me-not plants and the pink flowers. A battered lemon, stuck on its mascot to bring good luck, had shrunk to the size of a cashew nut. Fake jasmine flowers dangled from the rear view mirror. The white fungal drawings on the seat were covered with a pinkish towel.

The sub inspector leisurely leaned back with an arm behind his head. The other arm was stretched out through the front door, with a smoldering cigarette. There was a blue ink stain above his breast pocket and he had pinned his silver nameplate to hide it. He tossed the cigarette and gently ran his thumb and index fingers over his moustache, clearing his throat, he spat through the open door. “Mmm…are you the husband?” he asked in a baritone.

Mallan nodded his head up and down in fear. His arms were folded across his chest. He felt the uncomfortable warmth of tangy sweat seep up from his armpits and in the curve of his lower back.

“Mmm…tell me your name,” the sub inspector plucked his eyebrows.

“Mallan, Vellaiyan’s son.”

“Age?”

“Thirty six.”

“Mmmm,” the sub inspector responded with a long nasal sound. He reached for a notebook on the dashboard, jotted the names down and underlined them. He lifted his head and stared at the crowd who were trying to sneak a look at what he had written. “Stand back, stand back. Who brought all of you here? Stand back and give me some fresh air.” He waved his hands and looked at the policeman and rolled his eyes. “What did I tell you? Did I tell you to bring the whole village here? Am I serving free food here? You might be in the department for twenty five years, but you don’t know anything.”

“I did, sir, but they wouldn’t listen. All of them followed me as a flock.”

The sub inspector flipped the pen and looked around. “So, Mallan, what was the problem with you and your wife?”

“I didn’t have any problem, sir.”

“Do you understand what I am saying? I asked, what was the problem between you and your wife? Tell me what happened last night?”

“Nothing, sir, nothing happened, sir.”

“So, you are saying, yours is a family without any husband-wife problem. Is that what you are saying? And you want me to believe that?”

“I swear. I swear on my mother’s name, sir,” said Mallan. “True, sir. I swear on this banyan tree, or you name a powerful god, I will swear on it, we had no problems whatsoever… had never fought, I had never had even raised my voice. She was pure as gold.”

“Silver or gold, I don’t want to know anything about that. Now we have new rules. Every death after the first seven years of marriage needs to be investigated. Do you know that?”

“How do I know that, sir? I am uneducated, sir. “

“So how long have you been married for?”

“We never got married, sir. I met her at a farm and she fell in love and ran away with me. Should be more than ten years by now. This is my son Kasi, he is at year four at the government school. He is nine.”

“That is the problem. But we have some information of this as a murder.”

“Just because there’s no bone in the tongue, we can’t talk whatever we want. Sir, she was a goddess, sir, all she knew was love and hard work,” his voice became harder and his breath slower. He wiped the sticky tears away from his roughened face with the sleeves of his shirt. Someone behind patted his shoulder.

“So you say you didn’t kill her. What happened then?”

“The problem is, sir, from the day I brought her here as my bride, no one saw her sitting still for a second. If a cow mooed a mile away, she would run to feed it. She would be seen carrying a scoured sheep as a baby to the medicine man. This was a snakebite, sir. A cobra bite. Fangs were still visible right here.” He pointed to his calf. “She was dead before we brought her home. Or we could have given her betel leaves and pepper to chew. A cobra, sir. With the venom her face was as dark as Kali. Still there. You can come and see for yourself.”

“Look, things are not as they used to be. We have new rules now. We can’t treat women as livestock anymore. I believe you. She was bitten by a snake. But you see, the government won’t believe that.”

“Aren’t you and the government the same, sir?”

“Even I would be in trouble if I didn’t follow the rules. We need to prove she’s been killed by a snake.”

“Prove to whom?”

“To the government, to those who are above us.”

“Who is above us?” the husband scratched his head, confused. “Sir, this is not the first time this has happened here. We never take them to the hospital for a post mortem.”

“But, I had a phone call from the SP office about this death.”

“Sir, I am Selvam, I work at the party office,” the communist had come forward.

“So..?” asked the sub inspector with an indifferent look.

“Sir. I don’t understand this. To prove to whom? Why prove this to those who don’t even know us or care about us? Did any of them bring us rice and fish curry when they were starving?”

“Will the snake that bit her confess at court?” muttered someone in the crowd.

“Look, this is not a time for me to answer your stupid questions. Take the body to the hospital and hand this paper over to the man there. The doctors will run some tests and say what is what, and then they’ll prepare a post-mortem report. I need this in order to close the case. Do it or you may end up in jail.”

“Sir, I know this very well. All through her life, she never saw a doctor, never swallowed a tablet or medicine,” said the husband. “Even while giving birth to Kasi. Now, after her death, you ask us to take her to the hospital.”

“I’ve come to investigate, not to listen to your complaints. Pay for the taxi. I’ve got to go.”

The taxi driver asked for three hundred rupees and put away the money in a worn out brown leather diary on the dashboard. “Where’s ours?” asked the other policemen and grabbed the rest of the money from his pocket. They slammed the doors shut. “See you in the station,” said the policeman.

“Mallan, you don’t need to come to the station. You can send the report through that communist,” said the sub inspector as the ambassador car sped off, careering onto the curb and leaving a layer of darkness over the green leaves.

 

The Mortician

 

A red-stenciled ‘Mortuary’ on an almond tree guided their way to the mortuary. They walked past the cashew trees and laundry, pushed and dragged the trolley through as Kasi held tightly onto the side bar. Stray dogs trotted behind them.

The mortician got up from the red oxide ramp, stretched out and cracked his knuckles. He took the receipt from a villager, held it in his mouth and pulled the trolley on to the polished cement ramp. His small pox pitted face showed no expressions. He tugged the receipt on his pocket as he selected a key from his falling down trousers and opened the padlock and gently pulled the latch as it hung loose on two screws. He swept the termites on the wooden door frame with his bare feet and pushed the doors open.

 A gush of cold air mixed with the pungent smell of chlorine passed through their face.

The villagers stepped back and coughed. Inside, a green zero watt light glowed dimly near to the tube light. Behind the shadow of the light, lived a family of bats. They flapped their wings and made a squeaky noise. As if laying in wait, they all waved their leathery wings and rushed through the door to the trees far away.

“Mmm..you leave it to me,” said the mortician and lifted the wheels and pushed the trolley closer to the cement pulpit. A few bodies shrouded in white sheets have waited there in lines for the last test of their lost lives. “Got six, and this one makes seven, ” said the man and counted again. “Murders, suicides, accidents and fall from the tree. Everyone must come here,” said the man and spread an annoying smile with his betel stained teeth. Then as a mother watching her babies, he stood and watched the bodies for a while and went and tucked the blood stained sheets under the feet of one of these.

“The doctor is not on today. Tomorrow is Sunday. Don’t know whether he is coming or not. I have to get something to eat. Don’t worry they are all safe,” he said and locked the mortuary room. He looked at them and reckoned their caste. “Are you from the colony? Are you Parayahs? Parayan and Brahmin all at a same place as Gandhi dreamt!” said the man, unhooking his tiffin carrier from the roof and left.

He returned limping at nine, fully drunk, had his slippers in one hand and tiffin carrier in the other; his eyes were red as a dead owl’s and his sweat-drenched khaki shirt was unbuttoned to his chest. He leaned against the lamppost and started talking to it.

“This is funny, listen to this,” he giggled. “Oh I forgot. This bloody whisky! What they sell at the shop is not whisky, it is spirit. Spirit like the hospital spirit. Oh bloody hell, is that worth sixty rupees? No, no. Or is this stupid life worth living, or this horrible job worth doing, oh no. what is fucking worth in this world,” he limped and sat on the veranda. “Whole night escorting the dead as a ghost…one night a ghost pushed me from the veranda to the floor. Did I get scared? No! Ohh oh, I can’t be bothered with this life. It’s not worth living. This bloody job…for this bloody job I gave a bribe of fifty thousand. For this bloody job! Can anyone believe that… If I see that bastard minister now, I’ll do a post mortem on him now. If I see that doctor now. I’ll do a post mortem on him too..Who did the post mortem here? Not him; I did! I split open their head and tummy… I took the brain and liver and kidneys and intestines and everything... Yes, then I put those inside the Horlicks bottles and sent them to the lab. Do I have gloves? Do I have soap to wash my hands? The doctor stands there and signs with his green ink on paper and I’ve got to pay him bribes... What life is this? Is this life worth living? Did my mother give birth for this? I’m telling you, those inside the mortuary are more blessed than anyone outside it. This life is not worth living. If anyone comes and says this as my Karma, If anyone comes and says this is because ..I must do this because of my caste.. I’ll beat him with this broomstick, with the broomstick I use to clean the toilet and floor.”

Relatives of the other corpses came and slept there with him.

Kasi’s mother Lachumi had her post mortem done on Monday night and his father Mallan had a debt of twenty thousand rupees.

“I must say this. The body is decomposed,” the man said to them. “A snake bite. No one will take it inside a car, and you are of lower caste. Better burn the body behind the mortuary. I used to burn the orphans there. I’ll do that for you for another thousand rupees”, he said. Kasi’s father negotiated for five hundred.

“Come here! Is she your mother?” he called Kasi as he placed the corpse on a bed of firewood. The palm of her foot and the toes were turned into purple blue. “Go and touch her feet, she’ll bless you,” he said as he poured a bottle of blue kerosene from her foot on to her head. “Don’t worry, she’ll be with you,” he said as he placed another layer of firewood on her body. “Ah, ah. I forgot. I forgot, put this rice and pour this milk into her mouth…She knows, she knows. Amma, Goddess, let this be your last birth. Amma, Goddess.. if you want to take birth, born as a stray dog or as a dark crow. Don’t take birth as a woman..please don’t take birth as a low caste woman..” he brought his palms together, lit a rolled newspaper and handed it to Kasi. The fire grew with the tongues of a thousand headed snake. A rustling sound was heard and the body rose from the firewood bed. “It was the spine,” said the man. “I saw an apparition inside the fire, true, don’t worry, she’ll be with you,” he said wiping the boy’s tears with his thick fingers soaked with kerosene.

The villagers collected the ashes and a few bones in an earthen pot, and went home by the first bus. They sprinkled the ashes in the freshwater stream and buried the pot under the banyan tree.

 

The School Cook

 

The school cook craved a pair of gold earrings. Holding the dead woman’s earring in her hand, she went to look for the goldsmith.

The goldsmith was sitting cross-legged with a blowpipe and a pot of smolder. He made her sit on a low wooden stool and gave her an album to browse through. Bollywood actresses smiled on its worn out pages. The goldsmith stared at her bare neck. He smiled with his gold teeth. “You may be black, Rajini,” said as he opened the mahogany cupboard on his right. “You may be black, but you still have a pretty round face.” He has made a circle sign with his left hand and smiled. “You also have lovely bones. If you’d been in my caste, I could have married you,” he spoke softly and then he went and touched her earlobe, holding a gold earring to it. “Look at you. Just look at you. How pretty you are. This sunflower earring really suits you. I don’t see any reason for you not to get married.”

The cook looked down shyly. She took a deep breath in and sighed. “Which stray dog is going to marry me without a dowry? I am too old now. Thirty-five. I am used to this life. I have to go.”

“Would you let me try this chain on you? I made this for myself,” he hung the heavy gold chain with a pendant on her neck.  “How pretty you are. I feel like kissing you,” he said and stared into her eyes.

“I am not that kind of person. Take your hands off me,” she looked at him and bit her lips.

“Really true. I never had seen anyone as beautiful as you. Your skin is so soft. And you smell so good. What soap do you use? I wish I could marry you. But caste people wouldn’t let me.”

“When they are all dead and gone, come and call me. I’ll come with you,” she said and abruptly got up. “I have to go. How much does it cost?” she asked with her fingers on the golden chain.

“The broken one is enough for the earring. For the chain, pay as much as you can. I’ll come and collect it from your school,” said the goldsmith and lifted her like a baby by picking her up by her armpits. He leaned down for a peck at her cheek.

“No. You should look for someone else from your own caste,” she pushed him away with her head turned. Let me go.”

“I’ll come to your school next month.”

“No, please don’t. The headmaster is like a mad dog. He is looking for a chance to throw me out. I will come here and pay you,” said the cook and walked home with a smile. She stopped at the middle of the desolate farm, opened the purple pouch and touched the gold earrings. A strange sense of happiness ran through her body. Her earlobes felt warm. A pair of gold earrings! All of her own! A fulfilment of her childhood dream! She never had a piece of gold since she was young.

Memories came back vividly as pictures of the worn-out album. When she had been ten, her mother had taken her to a goldsmith at the temple for ear piercing. It was the temple of the high caste men. The priest was shocked. “How come? How come you are here? You shouldn’t have entered into the temple. You shouldn’t have glanced at our God. Now I need to do a special ritual to pacify our God,” said the priest in frustration and shut the doors. The high caste men who had been to the temple shouted at them.

Rajini’s mother had dragged her angrily by her arms, to the nearby bush and snapped off a cactus thorn. She pierced Rajini’s both earlobes and plugged the holes with the splinters of the coconut leaves.

Rajini screamed from the sudden jolt of pain.

“It will hurt for a little while only, like a bee sting or an ant bite,” her mother said and began pinching her arms to distract her. “I shouldn’t have brought you to the stupid temple,” she said and carried her home.

“Amma, why are these people not letting us inside the temple?” asked Rajini.

“Shit temple,” said Rajini’s mother. “Trouble, since the day they had built it. They don’t allow the lower castes, as if the higher castes born straight from the yoni of the Goddess.  A massive temple entry protest happened here long ago. It was sometime in the 1930s. Gandhi himself was here and encouraged the Dalits to enter the temples. These people will not find the courage to correct themselves, even if God himself descended. They are hopeless,” said Rajini’s mother in anger.

Rajini’s right earlobe had bled for three days, it had swelled up with pus and smelt like rotten jackfruits. Her classmates would pinch their nose. Teachers would make her sit on her own. She whimpered in humiliation to her father, “Why won’t you stop whining? It’s the same story everyday,” he shouted. “Don’t go to this stupid school anymore. There’s a lot to learn from the quadrupeds.” With that, he stopped her from going to school.

After seven years, under a reserved occupation for untouchables, she got a job as a kitchen assistant at the school. She had jumped up and down excitedly and then ran out of the house. She tied a red rope around the banyan tree and offered a betel leaf and areca nut for the Goddess for her generosity. She started early in the morning, asked the village children to take baths and hurried them to the school, she chased the truants away from the paddy fields and bushes and brought them to the headmaster. “Beat them up, sir. I’ve given them nicely. Beat them up,” she said to the headmaster.

“Rajini, are you going nuts? You are a kitchen assistant. You are not a head teacher,” said the headmaster. “Your job is to sweep the floor, fill the toilets with the water, and cook the midday meal in the kitchen. Just do your job and don’t poke your nose where it doesn’t belong. You are turning into a headache for me. I heard you are serving breakfast for children. Is that true? Is the government separately paying you for this?”

“Oh sir..sir…that is just lemon-rice, sir. I squeeze a few lemons from my backyard, with a little bit of turmeric, salt and mustard seeds; I fry the leftover rice and serve them for breakfast. Children love it.”

“I don’t want you to do that. If they get food poisoning, you and I can’t work here anymore.”

“Sir, it was the left over rice, which I used to feed the crows, sir.”

“Listen, try to understand what I am saying. The high caste men don’t want their children to be fed by you. The next time I hear this, you’ll see… I’m not going to say what,” the headmaster warned her.

 

The Headmaster

 

“Bloody excuses! I’ve had enough of them! Today, I’ll peel the latecomers’ skins off,” the headmaster shouted at the assembly. “What do you have to say boy? Speak up!” he yelled at Kasi who was queuing with the latecomers.

“Sir, sir, sir,” stammered Kasi and wiped off the holy ash from his forehead.

“This is for all of you. I am not saying you shouldn’t help your parents. But if you always obey them, you can’t go forward. You need to think for yourselves. Tell me what did you do this morning?” he asked Kasi.

“Sir, we had a ritual at the shrine, sir. For our studies.”

“Very smart, very smart,” the headmaster made a funny face. “So the goddess of wisdom is at the temples, and here we who are shouting our throats dry are idiots, aren’t we? This is for all of you. Our culture is the best culture. We worshiped wisdom as our goddess. We worshipped nature as our goddess. Poets like Coleridge and Shelley…they all got their ideas from us. And here, what did we do? We have refused our own children’s education. I am not going to let this happen. I want each one of you to be here at school, on time, looking nice and clean. I’ll inspect each one of you,” said the headmaster and carried on inspecting the students in the first row.

A pale, skinny, slightly yellowish girl with orange-coloured firecracker flowers on her plaited head suddenly fainted and collapsed onto the gravel floor. Her eyelids kept fluttering as sweat dripped from her neck and shoulders. She breathed heavily, like a just delivered baby goat.

“Call Rajini, call the cook Rajini!” the teachers shouted in panic.

Rajini left the kitchen as it was and ran with a bowl of cold water.

“Rajini, you stop right there,” the headmaster shouted to the cook. “This is school; not their grandparents’ house. We don’t need any pampering here. You are the one spoiling the school children,” he grabbed the bowl of water from her hand. “Is it true what I have heard? Did you serve lemon-rice for breakfast yesterday?”

“No, sir. I didn’t.”

“Don’t tell lies. I hate liars. Is the government paying separately for breakfast?”

“No, sir. It was the leftover food, sir. The children were starving, sir,” said Rajini and sprinkled some drops onto the girl’s wan face with a kitchen towel.

The girl woke up, with embarrassment, she looked at them and went to her classroom.

“Who said starving is bad?” asked the headmaster. “Starving is good! When I was a student, I never had anything to eat in the morning. Look at me now, a headmaster! Starving is good. How can anyone learn, if they have a full stomach? Those who starve are blessed. They know the laws of nature. They know how the world works.”

At eleven, during the morning break, Rajini was busy in the kitchen. She sat on the floor, resting her foot on the wooden handle of the boto knife, carving the rotten parts of the eggplants that had been bought from the Friday market. With her right foot, she nudged the split logs into the brick stove and then wiped the sweat off her shoulders with a small greasy towel. The cooked rice for the midday meal was spread out on a palm leaf mat on the floor and was covered with a thin towel to protect it from the lizard droppings falling from the asbestos roof. The soaked rice from the previous day was kept in a large aluminum pot in the corner of the kitchen.

Kasi and his friend Muthumani poked their heads through the door. “Is there any water to drink?” Kasi asked. “There’s nothing at the hand pump.”

“Come in, come in,” the cook softly called them inside the kitchen, spread out a newspaper on the floor and scooped up some rice and green chilies for them to eat in a couple of plates.

The two boys sat there cross-legged, taking a handful of rice with a green chilli, glancing at each other, pleased with the cook’s generosity, they began to enjoy their food in silence.

“Aahaa, very smart. Very smart! Who let you in?” the headmaster shouted suddenly from the door. “Get out of the kitchen! At once!” he picked them up, removed their plates from their hands and dragged them away by their arms. “Are you not in year four? Run to your classroom now! You have an English class with me!”

“Rajini, just between you and me,” the headmaster said avowing her eyes. “I have received a written complaint about you. The high caste men don’t like their children to be fed by you. They are not happy with you. I’ll talk about that later,” said the headmaster and went to the classroom.

Kasi and Muthumani wiped their mouth and ran to their classroom. “Keep quiet. All of you keep quiet,” Kasi told the students in class. “Did you know that the headmaster is going to be teaching us English this year?”

The whole class fell silent. Then they started to share the stories they had heard about the headmaster. There were stories about his moped; the one that sounded like a wind-up toy in which he chased the truants at the coconut farm, and stories about his bell-bottom black trousers, which he wore influenced by 70s’ films. There were even stories about the tamarind cane, which he had hidden inside his shirt on all his rounds. They all fell silent again when he walked in. He pushed the desk away from the bright sunlight, and swiftly sat on it. He looked around, rolled up his sleeves and began.

“Does everybody know who I am?”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused.

“Discipline. Do you know what that means?”

The classroom went silent.

“That’s what I want. I hope everybody knows what that is by now. I am very strict. If anyone yawns during my class, I’ll put him or her to sleep. If anyone farts, I’ll make him poop. Do you know how? With this magic wand,” he pointed at the tamarind cane on the table.

“Better that you wake up early in the morning, help your parents on the farm, apply some coconut oil onto your scalp, go to the river, do your morning business, take a nice bath in the cold water and come here to learn with your whole mind and soul present, or I will peel off your seven skins. Do you all understand?”

They nodded in silence.

“You are very lucky because I am teaching you English this year.” He went and wrote ‘ENGLISH’ on the middle of the dented cement blackboard with a chalk and underlined it. “E-N-G-L-I-S-H! A seven-letter word!” he counted, tapping the chalk piece on the blackboard. These seven letters are like the seven arms of a goddess. A benevolent goddess!” his eyes widened and his tongue stuck out as Goddess Kali. Very powerful! Okay, let me ask you all a question. I want to know what you have learnt so far. What do you remember from last year? If A is for apple and B is for Ball, what is C for. You, the latecomer,” the headmaster pointed at Kasi.

Kasi stood up from the floor and looked around, silently pleading for help, but no one offered any. Scratching his head he said slowly, “Poonai”.

“Poonai?” The headmaster’s face tensed in anger. “Yes Poonai,” he jumped off from the table. “Yes Poonai, Billi is correct! But I want that in English! Didn’t I tell you English is a benevolent goddess? A goddess who had chopped and drank the blood of our mother tongues. This is what I meant! There’s no escape now! Once you offer blood to a ghost, she will follow you to the death. But don’t worry. I will help you. His tongue slipped as he pronounced the word ‘mother tongue’. He laughed.

Someone helped Kasi. “C is for cat, sir.”

Turning to Kasi again, the Headmaster grinned. “C is for Cat. When you come to class tomorrow, you will draw a picture of a cat on a piece of paper and write “cat” below it a thousand times and bring this to my office.”

“Yes, sir,” nodded Kasi.

“Students pay me for private tuition at home. But here no one asks me anything. I always say this to my students. Make the best use of me. Ask me anything you have doubts about. Anything you are unsure of. I won’t be angry. For every question you ask, I’ll give you a groundnut candy.”

“I have a doubt, sir,” said Muthumani.

“Good, good. What is it?”

“What letter is this, sir?” asked Muthumani pointing at the @ sign from a printed piece of paper.

The headmaster took in a long breath. “This is a hard question. I don’t know the answer. If I don’t know, I’ll say I don’t know. I have to find that out. But when you come in tomorrow, make sure you’ve learned ten new words from the dictionary. You have to come and write them down on the board.”

Rajini, the school cook came and stood by the classroom door. “Sir, could you come here for a second? I want to talk to you,” she said.

“Now? Is this the right time for me to talk? Can’t you see me teaching? Go back to the kitchen,” said the headmaster.

“No sir, I want to ask you something.”

“What? What you want to ask?”

“Was it true what you were saying?”

“I say a lot of things. Which one do you mean?”

“You said the parents are going to stop their children because of my caste? Was it true? Or were you just making up?”

“It is all true, Rajini. Why should I make up? Do you know the Panchayat president, the village council leader? It was him. We live in a caste-ridden country, Rajini. People haven’t changed.”

“If this is true, sir, really, I don’t want this job anymore, sir. I feel very bad for my birth, very bad,” Rajini wiped her tears and walked to the kitchen.

“Rajini, Rajini, I’ll see what I can do,” the headmaster went behind her.

“No sir. I prepare food out of my love. My love which comes from deep from my heart. The children know it. If the grown-ups carry this kind of hatred, what is the point of me being here, sir,” said Rajini and went home. She never returned to work.

 

The Growing Stone

 

A stone started to grow under the tree that the pot had been buried under. Shaped like an egg, its top part was covered with green moss, whilst its lower part was submerged deep in water. On rainy days, the rushing water beat the stone heavily and left it covered in red slimy mud. Kasi, on his way to school, walked over to the stone and washed it.

“In what world does a stone grow? I can’t believe all this,” said a woman. “It has been here for so long. I used to wash my clothes on it,” she claimed.

“Yes..yes…all rumours..,” suggested another. “But, between you and me,” the other woman whispered. “I am a bit scared of walking home alone. People have seen a woman resembling Lachumi sitting there at midnight and asking for betel leaves. Apparently, the ghost was looking for Rajini. Do you remember Rajini, who had removed her earrings? And they say it resembles Kasi’s mother’s voice.”

“It’s all true; not a rumour at all,” confirmed the elder. “Believe it or not, it was the same stone that we had crushed the betel leaves on after we had finished the final ritual for Lachumi. The elder had tied a thin, red rag around the tree trunk and on the darkest nights, he offered betel leaves, areca nuts and lime on a plantain leaf to appease the ghost.”

Kasi loved fishing at the stream on holidays. He never sat on the stone. He never washed his clothes on it. He just stared at it and felt its chilled hard surface with his palms. Afterwards he softly touched his eyes with his fingertips.

Then one night, after a few heavy rains, the stone went missing. Kasi kept searching for it inside the streams and the paddy fields. He found a broken piece amongst the stones piled for the Ambedkar statue. All the villagers had agreed on a contribution, but the plan for an Ambedkar statue was soon abandoned, as some of them couldn’t afford the payment. The sand and stones were left in a pile below the banyan tree. Children, on their way to and from school, would linger there and play hide and seek.

One day Kasi dug a big hole and buried himself. The Dalit leader collected for the statue saw him and shouted: “Leave at once! The sand is there for a good cause..to build the Ambedkar statue, not for you to play with! It is bought with money from the poor, not from bribery..like for the other leaders.”

“Ambedkar ahh? Who is this?” squinted Kasi.

“Don’t know Ambedkar? You don’t know who Ambedkar is?” the leader sighed with a wry smile. “I don’t blame you…don’t blame you at all. Even those who have been to the college don’t know who he is. Do you know what..Ambedkar was a man not allowed to touch water at school. He grew up and burnt the old rules. He wrote law for this country. Do you think Rama and Krishna are avatars?  Ambedkar is an avatar. Ambedkar is an avatar this country has ever seen. Do you know what..this is what happens when liars write textbooks.

A for Ambedkar. B for Buddha… that’s how we should start..from scratch..from zero. Zero is an Indian invention. Aryabhatta is a genius. Mahabharata used to be our folklore. That’s what we should learn. Filthy bastards. Their textbooks are only good for wipe up your bum.``

“Okay, okay,” Kasi nodded as if he understood. “I will look after it. I won’t let anyone play here.” he promised him. He told the boys not to vandalise the sand collected for the statue. He sat on the pile of stones and watched over the banyan tree for birds. He  

saw parakeet and alerted his friend. ““Muthumani, Muthumani, come here! Look up! There… on that tree!” See…not crows, cuckoos or a squirrel. I just saw a parakeet with a red-coloured ring around its neck. Must be hiding somewhere. Let’s climb up and see.”

Short Muthumani climbed up the tree, and looked up. “I don’t see anything. I have a very good plan. Tomorrow get our midday meal from the school, climb up the tree and look out there,” he suggested. “That way I’ll be safe from the headmaster flogging me to death.”

“I haven’t done my homework yet either,” said Kasi.

Kasi and Muthumani had their lunch at school and then climbed up the banyan tree. They stuck their books securely into a grove and started upwards to look for the parakeet. “Go on, climb up. You can see the whole world from there. Go on.”

The farm owner’s big car passed through the kerb near the banyan tree, and slipped through the roots and its wheels got stuck in the mud. They all got out of the car to help. They pushed, but the front wheel sunk. “This tree should be cut down, or the villagers will build a temple around it and it will be a nuisance for the cars,” they discussed among themselves and came forward to pick up the stones to repair the potholes.

Kasi jumped down from the tree and stopped them. “No no no no… you can’t do this! You can’t do this..We need the stones! They are there for a reason; for a good cause.”

 “A good cause? What good cause are you talking about? Are they building a temple or what?” asked one of the men.  “A temple for a snake or for someone who has died of snakebite?”

“No, no, no, no. Not for a temple…for an Ambedkar statue,” announced Kasi proudly.

“Ambedkar statue? Here?” the men looked at each other, mockery etched on their faces. “An Ambedkar statue? Why do you need one of those here? There’s always trouble with these statues. All over the country..wherever you go..you can see one of these..broken or poured paint on..”

“Yes, yes we know,” answered Kasi. “Men break them, because they are scared of him. But we are here to safeguard him. He will look nice under this banyan tree.”

“What we need here is a proper road. That’s what we need. This is a rotten tree. We’re going to have to cut down this. The papers are in the village office,” the owners’ men said. They sat under the tree spreading out a large piece of paper. “The rotten banyan tree - we can easily cut it down, but if they are building an Ambedkar statue here - that can be a nuisance. That is definitely going to be trouble in the future - shouldn’t let them erect it! All these farms - we can easily make them organic farms,” they discussed.                

Kasi and Muthumani went to the village and told everyone that these men were planning to cut down the banyan tree.

 

Goddess English

 

The headmaster pulled down Kasi from the banyan tree. He knocked Kasi’s head with his knuckles. “Idiot! Is mud and clay stuffed inside your head? Follow me to the school now!” he shouted. Kasi followed him glancing up at the tree.

“Idiot! Don’t even know the value of education! Why do you think the upper castes wouldn’t let you study? Because they know knowledge is power.”  He retrieved a poem from his cupboard and ordered Kasi to copy it out onto a double-lined paper.

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

“Look at the beauty of it. Look at the way Coleridge dreams! Goddess Saraswati dances on his tongue. Is she just for the higher castes? No. For everyone of us! Why do you think the dalits built a temple for English? Because English is a goddess! She’ll dance for anyone who pays her respect. Not just for the higher castes! Now, don’t give me that terrified look. English is easy. Noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, preposition, and interjection. That’s all. I’ll teach you. Don’t worry, sit there and write. In your best handwriting,” he gave Kasi a groundnut candy.

Kasi walked home with the poem safely folded in his pocket.

“In Xa na du did Ku Bla Kha N

A sta tely plea sure-dome de cree,”

Kasi read the poem by the river. He read it by the stream. He read it out loud by the paddy fields. He walked to the pace of the rhythm he read. “Kubla Khan….Kubla Khan..” He shouted out whilst he jumped into the pond. Kubla Khan echoed through the mountains and hills. Kasi loved the taste of the words. Kasi loved the taste of the words as they rolled inside his mouth. He loved the sounds they made. Kasi climbed the pile of stones, touched the growing stone and whispered them as a mantra. “Amma, Amma,” he screamed. “Amma, aren’t you proud of me? Are you not listening Amma? I love you so much Amma. I wish you were alive today, to see me,” he stared at the stone and blinked his tears. “Amma..In your memory,” whispered Kasi while he cut off a thorny part of the pandanus leaf and dug into his arm, carving the letter A onto his skin. He then scraped mud from the stone and rubbed it onto the fresh wound.

The following week at school, Kasi recited the poem for the headmaster.

The headmaster went silent. “Kasi..his voice quivered.“Kasi, look at my hands..goose bumps Kasi..I get goose bumps. I don’t easily praise anyone, but, if this fucking Saraswati is true, she’s right here on your tongue,” he exclaimed, touching his betel leaf-stained tongue. “I’m so proud of you..but when I think of these sick and corrupted…these sick and corrupted..still hang on this caste.. That really makes me feel sick and tired. You have something in you. Do you know what I’d like you to do? I want you to give a speech on the school day. This one, the first speech of Nehru,” he handed Kasi a copy of Nehru’s first speech.

 

The Tooth Ache

 

There was toothache in the village. It made their cheeks swell as if a tree ghost had slapped them. Not a drop of water could be taken on the tongue. Nor could they utter any word, apart from weary moaning. Families ran to the Western Ghats hills to look for herbs. Salt and bark were everywhere. But what they really needed was the root of the herb Kandan Kathiri, which hides its flowers and tries to look like something else: but the goats with split upper lips forage for them.

The soil should be dug with a bamboo stick and the baby roots removed without waking the primary mother root in the middle. It should be taken hastily home without looking at the strangers on the street. Weren’t these the words of Lord Shiva to Parvati, the pious and benevolent goddess of our nature? Weren’t these the great words Sage Agasthia narrated to our elders, right here under this foothill? Weren’t we blessed with a forest full of plants, and poems sung in our mother tongue instructing us how to use them? Grandpa was narrating to Kasi while Kasi lay on the floor beneath Grandpa’s coir cot.

“Kasi…stop wiggling your teeth,” Grandpa raised his voice. “Milk teeth should fall on their own.”

“Grandpa..” Kasi showed him a tooth he had pulled out from his upper jaw. It looked like a sharp piece of chicken bone with blood.

“Mmm…Now, if you leave it there, the rats are going to pick it up.” Grandpa took the tooth from the floor and wiped blood with his towel. “Kasi..,these teeth are not ours…they belong to our forefathers. It is when someone acquires the skill of telling stories, they fall out. They should be thrown into the stream. I’ll take it in the morning.”

“Grandpa, has anyone ever swallowed their milk teeth?”

“I did. That was the reason, I had this bad toothache. One day I was so angry, I pulled them all out and threw them into the stream. But when Grandma was alive -” Grandpa’s voice suddenly changed. “When she was alive, the whole village used to come here for the potion she made. The toothache would vanish in a spittle of gargle from the potion she made. But she has gone..has gone and left me all alone,” Grandpa sighed and went silent.

“How did she die, Grandpa?”

“Better not to talk about her Kasi. Once I think of her, I can’t let her go from my mind,” he said, staring at the tiled roof. A lizard chirped from there. “Kasi, I thought the toothache is the worst. It isn’t. Love…that is the worst. It is like pulling out one’s own heart and watching the heartbeat. Her memories are not going to wade off until I am burnt with firewood and kerosene.”

“Did she have cholera? Or was it a famine?”

“Kasi, I did tell you this before. My father and mother died of cholera. The whole village was wiped out. Everyday three or four were burnt at the clearing behind the farm. Only we, the little ones survived. Your grandma died during the famine. This was when white men were ruling us. Even the high castes and rich were starving in those days; then you don’t need to say anything about us.”

Kasi yawned and fell asleep.

Grandpa didn’t. He was overwhelmed with grief. He remembered swapping chewed betel leaves with grandma and kissing her in the paddy fields. He got up from his bed, lit a beedi and let the smoke swirl around his mouth. The tobacco smoke relaxed him a little. He crushed a betel leaf on his wooden pestle, chewed and spat at the spit bowl. Before the sun rose above the hills, he got up from his bed, wrapped his towel tightly around his head and walked in the morning mist to the banyan tree. Kasi’s milk tooth was safely wrapped and tucked in his waistcloth.

Four men were standing under the banyan tree. Grandpa studied them. The older one who wore glasses with a thick golden frame came forward. “Hullo Grandpa, are you from the harijan colony?”

“Mmm,” said Grandpa and looked at the men.

“Grandpa, we are from the Gandhian movement.”

“What? You have come to steal the tree barks, haven’t you? Thieves everywhere! The bark from this side has completely vanished.”

“No..no..no. We aren’t thieves. I’m a Brahmin. We have come to help you.”

“We know all your tricks. By the look of you, one might think you had come to steal the tree barks.”

“Do you know the government has sold the Banyan tree? They are going to cut and remove the tree for a road? The village office has signed it off.”

 “First we lost the land, now they are going to cut the tree? Everything happens under that tree: ear piercing, hair removal, married couples walk round it four times before they go home together for the first time. It’s been there for years, it’s part of the village. We never asked anyone to remove it.”

“The government’s going to remove it. I saw the application, with all your thumbprints on it. Each one of the villagers had signed it.”

“All we requested was a road. Our children struggle to go to school here. On rainy days they can’t get to school at all. Guruji promised us a road and asked us to sign.”

“We know. Don’t worry. We are going to stop them from cutting down this tree. We are not going to sit in silence. We are going to fight.”

“Who are you going to fight?”

“The government.”

“Fight with the government? We don’t want no fight. Do you want us all to get killed?”

“Forget what happened in the past. This time we’re going to fight and win. We can do it, as long as you all stand behind us.”

“We’ve lost all our lands. Look at the state of the paddy fields! We have been looking after the land like a baby! Look at the state of it now. We don’t even have a piece of land to seed a green chili or a cucumber. We don’t own anything except these legs and hands. Now I think you’re planning to break those too.”

“No, we are not like others. We are Gandhians. You know Gandhi fought for the Dalits. Gandhi called the Dalits harijans. We’ll be with you. We’ve stopped dams and nuclear projects and land mining from taking place here.”

“All I know about the government is that it’s an invisible ghost living in the city. If it comes our way, we ought to run.”

“You say this because you don’t understand Gandhism. We have to fight for our rights. Lok Nithi (politics of people) is always quite far from the Raj Nidhi (politics of the government). Our goal is to bring these two together. We are going to start this from here.”

“I don’t understand anything. Selvam used to work in the communist office. He likes to talk about these things. He might understand. Go and talk to him. He lives in the middle street, third house.”

The Gandhians wrote the door number and the communist’s address in their diary. They made their way to the communist’s house.

The communist was brushing his teeth and inspecting the jackfruits at the tree in front of his house. He wore no shirt. He adjusted his lungi and listened to the Gandhians then rinsed his mouth and spat under the jackfruit tree. Then he cleaned his tongue with a splinter of a coconut leaf. He wiped his face on a towel hung in the tree. “Politics, comrades, politics,” he said exposing his clean teeth. “If Indians can send a rocket to the moon by ourselves, and if we are proud of that achievement, why do we need American companies to make this toothpaste? Why shouldn’t we be ashamed of this? You tell me,” he asked the Gandhians, pointing to the toothpaste tucked in at his waist cloth. “Politics, comrade! I am a Marxist. I always look at things with Marxian eyes. What you Gandhians do is the mystification of trees and mystification of our nature. I don’t like it. It is fallacy. Pathetic fallacy! But you are here in front of my doorsteps to seek support for your protest. You are here for us. As a comrade I’m obliged to offer my support. Let’s go to the banyan tree and discuss things,” said Selvam and took them to the Banyan tree.

 

The Parrot

 

A parrot was sitting on a lowest branch of the banyan tree which canopied across the stream and the paddy fields. When anyone waded over the stream, the parrot screeched and flapped its wings. It waggled its tongue in the words of the forefathers, mimicked the noises of the silt bed and giggled at the girls at the bath ghat. When it saw the communist and the Gandhians, it flew onto Kasi’s shoulder and said “Inquilab Zindabad” (long live the revolution!)

The communist fumed with anger. “Did you teach this to the parrot? Don’t you know which one to make fun of? Silly thing! I’ll grind him up and make soup out of him.”

“Not me, it was them,” Kasi pointed at the boys playing cricket on the harvested paddy fields.

The leader of the Gandhians laughed. He wiped the glasses hung from a black chain and put them on, then walked closer to Kasi. “Beautiful, very beautiful.” He stroked the parrot with the palm of his hand. The parrot turned its head upside down and bit softly at his fingertips and then flew onto Kasi’s other shoulder and chewed his hair.

“Selvam, this is exactly what I was looking for. Who is this boy?” the leader asked the communist.

“Why? He is Kasi. His mother has died recently. Poor thing.”

“It would be nice if we could have him for our protest.”

“Who? This little boy? What does he know? Apart from Gandhi’s picture on the coins.”

“Selvam, look at it this way.  A skinny little village boy with a parrot on his shoulder, at a place of natural despoliation. It’s a symbol. It is like the spinning wheel for Gandhi. We can use it for our protest. We need to take a picture of him with the parrot.”

“Go on. Take it then.”

“No. We need to do it properly. At a studio.”

“We don’t have any camera or studio here.”

“We have one in town. They’ll do it for free. I’ll talk to him. You do me this favor. Here are fifty rupees. Take his father as well. And buy them some coffee and snacks when it’s all done.”

The communist took the money and kept it safely in his pocket. “Kasi, Kasi, let’s go to town. We need to take some pictures of your parrot. We can have some tea and snacks afterwards. Is your father at home?”

“Must be. He’s got no work,” replied Kasi, playing with his parrot.

“Let’s go and get him ready for the morning bus. I’ll buy tea and snacks for you.”

Mallan was squatting outside his home, removing lice from a black baby sheep. All the paddy fields at the nearby villages had been harvested. The fodder had been dried and sold. The chickens had enough grain to feast from the pile. The cows had enough to eat and ruminate. But the money wasn’t even enough to repay the interest of the debt. Mallan stared drearily at the dry land.

“Oi, Mallan, put your shirt on. Let’s go into town with the morning bus. We’ve got work to do. Let’s take Kasi too.”

“Selvam, I’m not going anywhere with you,” said Mallan. “You are a politician; a real politician; a proved liar. I can’t trust a single word you say. What did you say to me the last time? When your leader came from Delhi, I stuck posters all over town. Did you ever pay me my wages? You bought me just a sherbet! Just a sherbet for a whole day’s work! I dug holes a mile long for the red flags. You took all the money.”

“Mallan, you might not believe it, but I didn’t take your money. I swear. I swear it in the name of Marx,” he guiltily scratched his head. “Ours is not like the other parties. Ours is the party of proletarians. When the revolution comes…”

“Away with your philosophies! When someone is starving, don’t teach them your philosophies.”

“No, no, no. I am not teaching you anything. Look, I have fifty rupees. The Gandhians want a picture of Kasi with his parrot. After the bus fare for us three, we have twenty rupees for our coffee and snacks. They want to use his picture for the posters.”

“Fifty rupees? What about the parrot? The conductor even charges for a baby chick.”

“We’ll cover it with a wet towel and hide it inside a bag. I always do that with chickens.”

Mallan wrapped the parrot with a piece of wet rag and hid it under a wire plastic basket and covered it with newspapers and cloths.

Kasi had the basket with him and got on the bus.

The conductor eyed them suspiciously and let them in.

The communist and Mallan sat on the back seat and Kasi sat on a window seat by the middle of the bus. It was five rows down from the conductor’s seat.

The conductor kept walking up and down with an eye on Kasi’s basket. “Where you all going?” he asked Kasi. “You don’t have a chicken or a puppy inside, do you? If you have, then you need to get a full ticket,” said the conductor and whistled loudly at a bus stop to stop the bus.

“Whoost..whoooo,” the parrot from the basket whistled back. “Ahaa, I know all this tricks,” said the conductor and grabbed at the bag, feeling it with his hands. He found the parrot and issued a full ticket for it.

They got off from the bus when they reached the town, found the studio, took a picture of Kasi with the parrot on his shoulder. Then they drank some of the sour-tasting chlorinated water from the public water tank and went home again.

 

The Chapatti Mutiny

 

The communist steadied himself in front of the microphone. He dabbed his forehead with a red scarf. “Testing, testing, one two three, one two three.” He tapped the microphone and cleared his throat. “Comrades! People of my own blood! I have visited each one of you at your home. I have asked you to gather under the Banyan tree. Have you done it? No, you haven’t. Except for the boys prancing around the speakers for the songs, no one has come. But comrades, when the election comes, you’ll all queue up in the polling booth for a bribe and a taxi ride. I wish I could also do that. But I can’t. Why? Because I have read Karl Marx. I have read Lenin. Comrades, still, what is the use of it? How can I explain historical materialism to the elders wandering around in their loincloths? How can I explain dialectics to those still bowing and bending in front of the higher castes? How can I explain this to those who believe they are born as low caste because of their Karma. Comrades, I know, you wouldn’t listen. Whether you listen to me or not, I am sure the revolution is coming and it is inevitable.”

“Comrades! People of my own blood! Please don’t lie there! Please don’t lie there and blame the bourgeoisie for suppressing us for thousands of years! Make your way to the Shamiana tent. Look at these Gandhians. Look at the Gandhians, who have come all the way from the town and have kindly organized this protest to save our banyan tree. Why do they have to do that? They are here for us! They are here to protect our banyan tree. Hot chapattis and vegetable korma will be distributed at the end. Don’t ignore this as merely a chapatti; remember that the chapattis distributed in the north Indian villages spoilt the sleep of the British and threw them out of our motherland.”

The president of the Gandhians stood up in amusement, clapping his hands, waving at him to continue with his speech. “He’s a real communist,” he said to his colleagues. A few elders of the village and women on their way to their paddy fields stood in front of the Shamiana tent and listened to the communist’s speech.

Kasi went and proudly distributed notices with a picture of himself.

“Kasi, we don’t understand a word of it, but the speech is very good.”

“Respected elders! Hard-working women!” the communist waved his hands to his audience. “Let me tell you a story that the educated don’t want us to hear. Let me tell you a story that the bourgeoisie hide from us. On a hot summer day, after his hard work at a factory, a Dalit like you and me was thirsty. So thirsty, as he had ploughed the field for a whole day: but he was scared to death to touch the water tap. He waited for a higher caste to come. A sepoy, a soldier passed that way. The soldier was Mangal Pandey, a Brahmin. Will a Brahmin look upon us? Can a bourgeois empathize with a proletarian? Mangal Pandey chased the Dalit away. But the Dalit was brave. He cursed the bourgeoisie and asked him a question. A true question! A question that caused a lot of trouble for the British. The question was this: ‘Pandey, you chase me because I am a Dalit, a lowborn. Touching me would pollute you, I agree. But, what about the bullet cartridges coated with beef fat? Won’t they pollute you? Isn’t that forbidden for a caste Hindu?’ The sepoy got angry. He went and gathered his friends and fought against the British. That was the sepoy rebellion. Now, Mangal Pandy, the Brahmin is a national hero, with statues at the streets and his pictures on the postal stamps. Has anyone of you heard anything of Matadin Bhangi, the Dalit who was brave enough to confront the Brahmin? Now, tell me whether we need to rewrite history…our history..”

He looked round in triumph for the Gandhians. The Gandhians got up from their chairs. They had seen two policemen coming across the paddy fields, and were making a quick getaway through the Shamiana tent.

“The Gandhians didn’t like it,” the communist continued. “But truth has to be told. Wasn’t it caste behind everything here? Wasn’t caste behind Vellore and Barrackpore Mutiny? Gandhians might run…but communists, we don’t…Who is a real communist? A real communist is one who is not scared of a kick of the boots. A real communist is the one who is not scared of a bullet. What happened in China? Did the New Democratic Revolution happen without a cost? What happened in Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania and Czechoslovakia? And, of course, in Russia? Was it a failure? Is there a failure for Marx? No…One day the proletarians there will fight back to regain their power. Even if it is possible only through armed struggle.”

A policeman stood in front of the tent and waved him to stop. “Enough of your lecture. Walk to the station now. Who is this little boy on the notices? Is he your son? Get him also.”

“No, he is not my son. He is Mallan’s son. Kasi.”

“How many are you here? We need to get him too,” said a policeman, and went and looked for Mallan in the crowd.

Mallan came forward. “Sir, do you remember me? I’m Mallan. I don’t know anything about this, sir. It was the Gandhians that did all this, sir. They wanted the picture of my son.”

 “Alright. We’ll have a thorough investigation at the station. You come with me,” said the policeman, and took Mallan, Kasi and the communist to the police station for an enquiry.

 

The Police Station

 

The lockup room was empty. The sub-inspector went inside for a quick nap. He had to have a rest after his lunch or his blood pressure would shoot up, his belly would bloat and he would be burping like a boar for the rest of the day. He used the time between the burps to swear at politicians, because he believed his gas trouble had started while he was escorting politicians in the city. “Never miss your food, look at me suffering,” he advised his colleagues. “Even if you are escorting Lord Shiva and his consort, keep a biscuit or a piece of bread with you.”

Knowing his ailment well, he adopted a resting posture with his head raised and his pants slightly lowered. Even if the home minister came on the wireless, no one bothered to wake him up – for if they did, they were treated as if they had committed a crime not covered by the Indian Penal code.

Ten minutes had passed since he had gone inside and assumed his resting posture. He jumped up and ran out into the main office. ““Chi chi chi!” He made a hissing sound with his teeth. “Chi chi chi…can’t rest in this place for a second,” he said to the constables. A broody lizard had laid an egg straight onto his face from the top of the wall – the bean sized eggshell had cracked open and stuck to his face, and the egg white trickled down through his moustache onto his lips.

A thin constable on duty came closer and had a good look. “Hee hee hee..,” he laughed. “Nothing to worry about, sir. It’s a lizard’s egg for sure. You know something? The same thing has happened to an accused. He kept complaining to me the last time. All for good! The egg white is good! Good for your moustache. Not a poison,” he consoled the sub-inspector.

The sub-inspector went and squatted at the toilet and washed his face. The egg white lathered like the best soap. He finished up all the water in the plastic pot, but he could still feel the slipperiness on his fingertips and smell the egg white. “I’m going to the quarters for a wash. Will be back soon,” he said, and went home on his motorbike.

The communist, Mallan, and Kasi were brought to the station. “The three of you go and stand in the corner. The sub-inspector will be back soon,” said a constable and went back to reading his crime magazine.

They went and stood in the right corner, closer to the wireless system. It made hissing noises and beep sounds. “Hello hello…over over,” conversations went on like those between the village old ladies.

Kasi looked at the cleaned, oiled rifles leaned against the wall at the corner. “Truth alone triumphs,” he read out loud from the wall. He started to play with the case files in the wooden cupboards. A pile of folders slipped from the cupboards to the ground. Dust got up  and made them all sneeze.

The policeman pointed his baton at Kasi. “Won’t you stay quiet and still?”

“Can I have some water, sir?” said Mallan, pointing to an earthen pot kept on a wooden stool near the head constable’s table. He called Kasi and offered him some water to drink.  “The little boy wants to go to the latrine, sir,” Mallan asked and all three went to the toilet at the rear.

Two different policemen came and took over at seven. They read the notes written about the detainees, made faces to each other, but pretended that they haven’t seen them.

One of them changed his uniform to a thick sweater and a lungi. He wrapped a muffler around his ears, took inhalers for his asthma and then went and reduced the volume of the wireless system. He drank water, discussed the recent crimes and thefts and laughed. When he was switching on the night-lights, one policeman looked at them and said, “Don’t worry, the sub-inspector will be here soon.”

“Soon..soon, soon means when? It is getting darker. We have things to do at home. Is the sub-inspector coming today or not? Why can’t you phone and tell him we are here?” asked the communist.

“Who is here? The prime minister? Can’t you wait? Are you on your way to participate in a revolution?” asked the constable and went back to his chair.

“These communists are very dangerous, sir,” he said to his colleague. “My uncle is in the intelligence wing. He said the communists are getting a lot of foreign money. Do you know during the Indo-China war these communists supported China?”

“Sir, sir,” the communist called the policemen. “Sir, I know my rights, sir. I want to know the charge against us.”

“You want to know what? Charges. Yes. We are charging you on IPC 121 a, and all those sections. War against India, unlawful assembly, all sorts of things. If you don’t behave well, you will be charged with rape as well. An old woman will be coming to clean the toilet. She will be your victim.”

The communist sat silently on the floor.

Kasi went and hid behind the wooden cupboards. Mallan mimed to him to come and sit quietly. After a long roar, a motorbike came and stopped in front of the police station. Everyone looked at the door. A young man came in and asked for the sub-inspector. “I brought my wedding invitation,” he said.  “Can’t you remember me? I was all over the news six months ago. I am the famous biro-pulling thief. I was in that lockup room for three days for burglary. My eyeballs were nearly out when the sub-inspector kicked me with his boots. But the good thing is, he opened my eyes. He called my parents and asked them to arrange a marriage for me. I got a good dowry. I am not going to steal anymore. When everything is fixed, the sub-inspector asked me to bring my invitation card.”

“Oh, yes, yes. I remember you. Because of your bridegroom’s charm, I didn’t recognize you. Of course, the sub-inspector is the best we have ever had in this station,” said the constable. “He knows how to deal with things. Last year he arrested Subham Das, the Gandhian leader, who went on hunger strike against the government. The sub-inspector arrested him and kept him in this lock up room for three days. He gave him food, water, juice and everything. Then he went away with the keys, and we never let him go to the toilet for three days. Now if Subham Das saw the police, he would run for his life.”

The sub-inspector didn’t turn up that day, and only came to the station the next morning. “Good morning, good morning,” he greeted everyone, as cheerful as if he had got a big bribe. He sat on his chair and smiled at the three in the corner. “Oh, these are the revolutionaries? Hello revolutionaries, have you had anything to eat?”

“No, nothing since they came here, sir,” replied a constable.

The sub inspector went and looked into the bribery box. There wasn’t anything. He looked suspiciously at the two constables. “Who took the money from the box?” asked the sub-inspector.

“I took that for the toilet cleaner,” said the head constable. “The revolutionaries should learn to use the toilet before they bring socialism to this country. The cleaning woman was screaming this morning,” he said.

The sub inspector took a hundred rupee bill from his wallet and asked Kasi to go and get some breakfast. Kasi brought dosa, coconut chutney and sambhar. They sat in the office and had their breakfast.

“So, who called the police the goondas of bourgeoisie democracy?” asked the sub-inspector.

“Sir, it was a mistake,” muttered the communist.  “What I meant was…”

“So, what is this bourgeoisie democracy? I don’t understand this. Can you explain this to me.”

“Sir, that is, in Britain, Adam Smith has written a book called Wealth of Nations.”

“I don’t care whether Adam Smith has written Wealth of Nations or Poverty of Nations. Explain to that little boy what you meant by bourgeois democracy,” he said to the communist. “Aai, junior revolutionary! Come here!” the sub inspector beckoned Kasi over. “Ask him what bourgeoisie democracy is, and then come and explain it to me.”

After half an hour, Kasi was ready for the sub inspector. “Sir, bourgeoisie democracy is... it is... Men are greedy. Men always want more. To satisfy their greed, they would do anything. They fight. They suppress. They create Gods and write holy books. History is full of struggles….”

The sub-inspector patted Kasi’s back. “Good boy, I’m impressed. I’ve never seen someone like you. Now, you must not get involved in these things. Do you understand? Do you know what is important in life? Atman! The breathing! Your own life! That is more important than anything. If you get into these things, you’ll get killed, unnecessarily.” The sub-inspector looked at Mallan and said, “This is the second time I am seeing you. If you ever come to this station again, I will charge you with something serious. You can go now. Take this for the bus fare,” he gave twenty rupees to Mallan. “Hello communist, come here,” the sub inspector called the communist. “Have a look at this register,” he opened the dog-eared case register on the table. “Go through them one by one. Plays of Shakespeare won’t stand in front of this book. Jealousy, hatred, greed, corruption, forgery, theft, adultery, rape and murder. You name it, it’s all there in this book. And this is the tip of the iceberg. Look at this one, a father killing his own daughter for falling in love. You want to bring socialism to this place? Can’t you do something sensible? I don’t want to see you three making any more trouble. Today I am in a good mood. I am not charging you this time,” he said, and let him go.

 

The Pawnshop Man

 

“If you give me a hundred rupees today,” the pawnshop man boasted to his assistant. “I know how to make it into two hundred by tomorrow.”

His new assistant stopped counting rupee bills and looked at him. “How do you do that?”

“Like this,” the pawnshop man snapped his fingers. “This is business. Look, I’ll teach you everything. But promise me you’ll stay with me for a while. Don’t run away with a gold chain as my previous assistant did.”

The assistant nodded as he cleaned the iron safe with a damp cloth. “It’s a shame we didn’t have any customers today.”

“Some days, we don’t get any! It doesn’t matter. Do you know what was sown out there? Money! It grows faster than any plants. I am going for a collection now, to the Dalit Colony, to a farmer called Mallan. You can come with me.”

“So, how much is your interest rate?”

“Ha ha ha…What did you ask? Interest rate?” The pawnshop man laughed loudly. “All that’s for the people sitting in a bank, tapping on their computers. Do you think they lend a paisa to the poor? They wouldn’t let them in. They come to me. I believe in them. To take a child to a hospital, for a funeral, they run to me. I do this as a favor.”

“Alright. If you do this as a favor, how do they pay you back?”

“Good you asked me this. This is a risky business, you see. Any business is risky anyway. You should see these people when I lend them money. They bend and bow to the ground. They say, they will never forget me. They say, I am a saint...a living God. But the problem is…when you go to get the money back, they’ll show their true colors. They make a thousand excuses. They make up stories that you and I can’t even imagine. Rain failed, crops failed, my mother died, all those things. Some of them silently vanish to the cities. Some even commit suicide. You show them a little bit of pity, you are finished. They’ll strip your underwear off. Let me tell you what happened to me last month. A Dalit boy called Muthumani, dressed up nicely with jeans and t-shirt, as if he was rich, brought a mobile phone to my shop. I gave him a thousand rupees. Do you know what it was? A broken phone. I’ll kill him if I find him.”

“How does it work then?” asked the assistant, curious to learn.

“This is what you should learn. This is where you need to be very careful. Business is business. The poor are not good people. They are filthy people. They never want to repay the money. When they try to trick me, I trick them back. I go to the police. If they have a door number, I’ll go to court. I have links all over. You will see all of that soon.”

“Say, someone hasn’t even got anything to eat. What do you do then?”

“Do you know what I want? I want them alive. As long as they are live and breathing I know how to get my money back. I’m not an idiot. I go to their home all prepared. If any woman or small girls are there, I’m happy. I stare at them strangely as the heroes and villains do in our cinemas. A woman from the very same village, a school cook called Rajini borrowed money and she never returned it. I knew she had a gold chain. I had seen it. I had to use all my tactics before I got the chain. When I lent the money to Mallan, I knew he wouldn’t be able to pay it back. I noticed he had a small boy too. Look at this bond paper. If I send Mallan and his son to Nandhi hill quarry as bonded laborers, I will get thirty thousand rupees. That’s a good day’s work.” The pawnshop man started up his motorbike. His assistant sat behind him on the pillion and kept silent.

“Why are you silent? I know what you’re thinking. You think I am filthier than the poor. Isn’t that what you’re thinking? True, but this is business, little boy, this is business. You shouldn’t put your feelings or emotions into business. I know that many people ended up living on the street through making that mistake. Yes, I am rich. Somehow, I have managed to come to this place. I can’t step down. I can’t live like those poor people. I can’t do that. You know there is a point in the Mahabharata where Lord Krishna advises Arjun to fight without emotions and feeling. It must be meant for businessmen.”

“But, I think this is wrong. I don’t think I can do it,” said the assistant quietly.

“Sometimes even I feel this is wrong… But, what I can do? I’m born in a high caste you see…I can’t do these menial jobs and kill myself,” said the pawnshop man. And then he went to the village and looked for Mallan.

 

The Bus Station

 

The beggar man had a radio. He played Bollywood. After his last rounds at ten, he sat in the corner of the bus station and flipped his rucksack open. He took out a radio with dark, curved fingernails and placed it on a wooden crate. He then attached a thin string to his crutch. It was the ariel. He fine-tuned the radio. Vendors, lepers and prostitutes became his audience. They approached the beggar man and lingered there as he tapped his knuckles to the beat. They shared betel leaves and cigarettes. Women helped each other pick nits and lice from their heads, and they praised the beggar man for his service.

“This man has really brought charm to this station. Without him, we would have been bored to death,” said the vegetable vendor.

“This is his favorite place. Did you know that Nehru, our first prime minister, once spoke from right over there? He swears it is the luckiest place for him to beg.”

“Oi, oi turn up the volume up!” pleaded an old woman.

“Go away! Turning it up will drain my battery away!” shouted the beggar man.

“A mosquito would be louder!” grumbled someone from the crowd. But then there was a sudden silence and a song, so beautiful, it made everyone settle down and listen with their heartbeats quickening in crescendo.  A few even sang along softly in an undertone and felt as if Amitabh was sitting right there, leaning against the whitewashed wall and singing, “Kabhi Kabhi mere dil mein,” in his unique nasal tone.

“Bip, bip, bip, bip, beep. The time is now twelve. Good night, Subha Raat,” echoed the radio and went off with one long “beeeeeep" mid-song.

“Ooh, senseless! Have they ever managed to play a song right through to its end? And yet they play washing powder advertisements to the end,” mumbled a leper as he wiped the sweat away from his forehead with a towel and turned to walk away. The prostitutes began to search for customers.

“Go, go! Everyone, go to sleep now,” the beggar man ordered in an authoritative tone. He started repairing his harmonium. He asked Kasi to thread a needle. He patched the holes on the bellow with a piece of cowhide and then tightened the bolts and screws with a rusty knife. He pumped air through it and tested it for any leakage. The harmonium made a buzzing sound and began to smell like cigarette smoke. The beggar man ran his fingers over the black and white keys playing a tune.

Kasi curiously watched and listened to him. He remembered the song and mimed. “Amma roti de. Baba roti de,”

“That’s the one. Go on. Go on, sing it for me,” nodded the beggar man. “Come on. Spread the newspaper and sit over there,” he pointed to the place where Nehru had once stood and given his speech.

 “Amma roti de. Baba roti de

Amma roti de. Baba roti de

Bhala kare Bhagwan tumahra

Khali jholi bharna,”

The beggar man soon became excited and tapped at the wooden side of the harmonium with his left hand while he played the keys with his right. He hit a few fast notes in between and rolled his eyes around as though in a trance.

“Bhagwan who created the universe

Can’t he make us a piece of bread?

Bhagwan who created a caste to clean the shit

Hadn’t he thought about their food?“

“Vah vah vah..vareh vah,” The beggar man laughed. “Heavenly! Heavenly!  I used to be a musician you see,” he said.

“Then why are you here? Why are you begging?” asked Kasi.

The beggar man laughed out loud. “Am I begging? No, I am paying off my debt! Once, I was so proud. So proud! I wore gold rings on all my fingers. I ate three times a day…large meals…I ate like a pig!” said the beggar man as he nudged at the chicken bones he had foraged from the street. ‘KFC Chicken and Rice’ read the red paper bucket. The red logo with an image of an old man smiled from it.

“Appa look! It’s Karl Marx!” proclaimed Kasi proudly pointing out Colonel Saunder’s red picture on the box.

“Ssss..Ssss..Keep your mouth shut! We have had enough trouble because of the communists,” said Mallan to his son.

“Where are you going?” asked the beggar man.

“Nandhi hill quarry,” replied Mallan.

“The driver starts at ten to four. Have some rest. I’ll wake you up. Here is a newspaper to spread on the ground to sleep on and keep you warm.” The beggar man pulled out a folded newspaper from the outer pouch of his torn bag. He pumped air into his kerosene stove, fried onions and tomatoes, poured water and recooked the chicken legs. “I always cook my food well. You can’t play around with your body, you see,” he said to Mallan.

Kasi felt a rumbling inside his belly. It sounded like there were piglets inside, as Grandma used to say, and he tried to wet his lips. They felt salty. He gnawed at his mouth. His tongue felt like a sun-dried split fish.

“Lets go and have some water,” said Mallan to his son to distract him. Both went to the plastic water tank and turned the water on. It screeched like a chicken having its neck wrung. After a gust of air, water dribbled from it like tears and Kasi drank like a hungry goat, feeling like water was passing through the terraced rice fields. Afterward, they both walked back to the place where they had spread out the newspaper, to get some sleep. They glimpsed at the beggar man eating his chicken legs and rice.

“Kasi, once I get some money, I will buy you some chicken and rice,” said Mallan.

Kasi slept, thinking about the chicken.

 

The Lemon-rice Woman

 

The three-o’clock bus started at half past two. The driver moved the bus slowly towards the main entrance of the bus station and switched on the lights. He lit an incense stick and waved it around the steering wheel before sticking it in a picture frame hung behind the driver seat – Lakshmi, Jesus and a crescent and star for the Muslims were all trapped together inside that glittering frame. Rajini was loading her sacks around the wobbly gear lever.

“No, not there,” the driver said to her.  “I just hammered the board down. Push them under the seats,” he said and shoved the sacks in with his feet. “Seems it rained all night. Don’t know how the road is going to be.”

Rajini held her hands on her flabby waist and sighed.  “No, there won’t be any landslide today,” she announced with some confidence. “There won’t be anything,” she said again and bent down, opened one of her sacks and selected four fully ripened lemons, which she handed over to the conductor. “Go and place them under the wheels. This will cast the bad omen away.”

When the conductor came back he counted her sacks, with which she meant to pay for the tickets. “You got only three today?” he asked her in surprise.

“If the price goes up this way, we’ll all have to start eating the stones they’re breaking in the Nandhi hills. Have you heard how much onions are selling for?” she asked both the conductor and the driver.

“Do you think the rich are bothered?” The driver started whisking his handkerchief above the seat and the steering wheel.

“But, what I don’t understand is, when I bring something to sell, they won’t give half of the selling price,” said Rajini

“Bloody politics everywhere. I can only buy the rotten vegetables,” said the driver and angrily pushed his foot down hard on the accelerator pedal.

“Yes, yes. I can’t find rotten fruits and vegetables anymore,” she said. “I used to collect them for the monkeys. The quarry owner has cut the trees down on three of the seven hills. Where will the monkeys go for their food now? I don’t have a family. I never gave birth to a baby. But the other day when a baby monkey died on my doorstep, I couldn’t take that. I cried as though it had been my own child. I kept the dead monkey and waited for quarry owner Periyaswami to come. In fact I didn’t see him that day, or I would have thrown the monkey down in front of him. I could have told him, this monkey is not just a monkey. It is God! The Hanuman. Her voice grew louder in anger, she waved her hands and said, “One day, I’ll look into his eyes and tell him that his business is filthy business.”

Kasi climbed up the first step of the bus and Mallan remained standing behind him on the cement pavement.

“Is this the Nandhi hill bus?” asked Mallan.

“Yes, it is,” answered Rajini and studied his face in the darkness. “Oh,Mallan and Kasi, where are you both going?”

“We are going to work,” Mallan said, looking at her dark, round face.

“Work? You think they’re digging gold in the Nandhi hills? Why are you going up there to fall like moths into the fire?” Rajini asked, waving her hands around.  Her huge arm muscles had burst the stitches of her blouse. “Don’t you remember me? I am Rajini. The school cook.”

“I remember you, I remember you very well,” said Mallan. “And we’re going there, not because we love to work there,” he said. “We have sold ourselves as bonded laborers for seven years.”

“Why are you taking your son? Do you know how many children get killed there?  Don’t you know children have vanished for human sacrifice? Why can’t you leave him at home? With his grandfather. He should be going to school.”

“But, I can’t sleep a single day without him nearby. Is it true that they do human sacrifice there?”

“What she is saying is all true,” agreed the conductor.  “It was in the news. The quarry owners do sacrifice children and the mentally ill at the quarry site, to please mother earth,” he explained. With that he issued two tickets to the father and son.

“You remember, I borrowed some money from a pawnbroker for her funeral. He tricked me into this,” said Mallan to Rajini.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I live there and cook food at the quarry site. If you ask for the lemon-rice woman, everyone knows me. The workers bring their money to me, I save it for them. Come and see me at the quarry, I’ll help you,” said Rajini.

 

The Housewarming

 

“I thought Rajini had gone mad. But look at what she has given us. All we need for a shelter,” said Mallan, as he cleared a plot with a spade he had borrowed from Rajini. “Kasi, you clear this rubble away,” he told his son. Then he measured distances of ten by fifteen feet with a long bamboo stick and drew a line on the dirt floor with the sharp end of a pickaxe. With a crowbar he dug holes in the corner for the poles.

“Appa, are you building a house here?” asked Kasi, looking at the loaded lorries going in and out of the quarry through the dirt road.

“Look here, look here,” Mallan was pointing at a rat running into a hole. “Even the rats have their burrows,” he said, and started digging the soil around the rat hole. The hole went deeper. Mallan poured some water in to soak and started slicing it apart with the spade. The rat showed its whiskers and drew its head back.  “This big,” Mallan gesticulated with his hand to his son. “Has eaten very well…this big. This is going to be our dinner for our housewarming feast,” laughed Mallan.

“The rat?” asked Kasi peeping around the hole.

“Let’s finish our shed first,” said Mallan and plugged the rat hole with concrete, then stopped and sealed it with soaked mud. “Go and weave the coconut leaves,” he instructed Kasi and prepared the beaten drum for the doors. “There’s a pleasure to sleeping in the darkness when you have your own roof over your head. You’ll feel that today,” he said to his son.

Kasi started to weave the coconut leaves, but he kept looking back at the sealed rat hole. “Appa, are we going to eat that rat?” asked Kasi, fear etched in his voice.

“Kasi, this a very good omen. This is what mother earth has given us today. We should eat it with pleasure.”

“But how can I? I have never eaten one.”

“If you haven’t, taste it today. This is a really big one. Should have a lot of fat. I’ll prepare it nicely for you.”

“But is it good for us?” asked Kasi.

“Kasi…anything is good if it can keep us alive. Kings, queens and white men all ruled this country. But do you know what kept us alive? These tiny, little lives. They are our gods Kasi…These are our Gods.”

“Then how can we eat our God?” asked Kasi.

“Aahha, Where have you learnt to speak like a rich man? The rich can decide what they want to eat. But can we? I’ll tell you what happened when I was a small boy. One day, Grandpa and I went to the forest. We saw this tiger hunting a wild bull. It was huge and terrifying. I hastily climbed up a tree and stayed there, quite still. Grandpa was a brave man. He hid behind the trees and made noises to scare the beast away. He threw stones and sticks at it. He made a ball of dead leaves, lit a fire and threw it at the tiger. The tiger left the hunt and ran away, leaving the wounded wild black bull behind. Grandpa skinned the bull. Grandpa cut the meat up into long strips. We dried it in the sunlight until evening and then we grilled and ate some. When the cold night came we found a cave and slept in it. We both huddled inside until morning, trying to keep warm. Finally, we returned home. Grandma had been so worried. She thought we might have been killed by a tiger. When she saw us walking towards the hut with the meat slung over our shoulders, she was so happy. She ran up and down, not knowing what to do with it.  In the end, she shared it with the neighbours and we all took a whole year to finish eating it,” Mallan smiled proudly as his son stared at him with wonder.

When they had finished with the shed, Mallan started digging out the rat hole. He soaked the dirt floor with water and traced the hole with a pickaxe. Kasi kept clearing the mud out with a spade.

At some point, the rat tried to get out and ran back into the hole. It jumped over Mallan’s shoulder and ran to a corner of the shed.

Kasi chased it and smashed its head with a heavy blow.

“Well done! I missed it, but you didn’t. Well done! ” exclaimed Mallan and asked Kasi to hold the rat tightly whilst he stuck his penknife into its belly and slashed it up towards its neck. He scooped the guts out with his left hand, and then washed the rat in a bucket of water. He rubbed turmeric and chilli powder all over its body and hitched it by its tail. He lit dry leaves and began to grill it on a slow fire. The skin was burnt and the meat was seared to a golden brown. He chopped it into eight small pieces and fried it with onions and tomatoes, letting it simmer on the lid of an aluminium pot. “Ohh, biryani…Do you know who invented the biryani?” he asked Kasi.

“The Muslims?” asked Kasi.

“No. it was us! Our forefathers!” laughed Mallan. They went out to work, caught a crow, quail or a francolin, but they only had a clay pot for rice, so they put it all together, cooked and ate. That’s how they invented biryani,” said Mallan, mixing the curry with rice. He scooped the mix on a teak leaf, tasted it and shared it with Kasi.

They both squatted, enjoying the meat and rice.

 

The Contractor

 

Contractor Ratnam tied up bandanas on his bald head. He had seven of them. One for each day. The tailor stitched him for free from the rags and pieces from his shop. Everyday, he woke up by seven, took a cold bath and sat in front of the idols for half an hour to meditate and then he started his day.

He found Kasi’s shed before dawn and tapped the iron door with his right foot. He raised his voice above the barking of the stray dogs, waking up the workers at the nearby huts, who peeped through the burlap holes and cursed him for spoiling their sleep.He knocked at the door again with his shoulder bag, which he used as a sunshade during the day and kept under his pillow at night. “I’m here to pick up the little boy, to work at the gravel site,” he said to Mallan, who came out of the shed adjusting his sarong. “Are you his father? Wake him up, wake him up, I have to show him things,” said the contractor.

“He is still sleeping,” said Mallan. “I’ll buy him something to eat and bring him to the work site myself,” he said.

“No, no, no-I don’t have time for that. Tell him to wash his face and follow me. We offer breakfast, there’s even toothpowder there if he wants to brush his teeth,” replied the contractor impatiently and glanced inside the shed.

He saw Kasi sleeping on the flattened cardboard boxes, covered with one of his father’s dhotis. The head end of the cardboard was raised with a pile of sand. The contractor hurried Mallan up. “Wake him up, I have work to do. Work done before ten is work! After that I have to push workers like bulls pulling a laden cart. The loading men will be here soon to get you,” he said to Mallan.

Kasi wiped the crusts of sleep from his eyes and came out of the shed.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” he said to Kasi, looking him up and down. “Take that towel with you.” He pointed to a towel spread out to dry on the nearby bush.

“No, that’s not ours,” said Kasi.

“Don’t worry, I’ll find you one, I have a few,” said the contractor. He unzipped his shoulder bag and gave a handkerchief to Kasi. “Tie this up like me. Pull this end at the front and use it as a sunshade. It can be very hot,” he said as they walked past the narrow gutter and pits full of stagnant green water to the gravel site. “Can you see the yellow digger lorry over there? You are going to work there.” He asked for a few details about Kasi’s family, to most of which Kasi nodded his head.

“I like boys,” said the contractor and put his hand around Kasi. “Girls are trouble. They work hard, but when they pass the age of twelve, they spoil the workplace. Even the older men, about to die the following week, will sit and stare at their budding boobs. Boys are good,” he said, and escorted Mallan to the gravel site.

“First thing to do is to find a place to sit. Once you have chosen a place, you should stay there till the sun goes down. Or you will be wandering around with your hammer for the whole day to find a place to sit. This is my first instruction,” he said to Kasi. He kept his bag on a big rock. “Now take a big stone like this, keep pounding it with the hammer, like this, until you bring it to this size,” he showed Kasi. “Don’t think about anything else. Be attentive; or you might hit your fingers. The only thing you should think of is your debt. Don’t get bored. Even if you are exhausted, don’t get bored. If you get bored count the pebbles you break. Pound it with anger. That will help you to kill the time. That’s what I did when I was a small boy,” he said to Kasi.

 

 

The Herbal Bath

 

On Sundays, Rajini took a bath behind a cactus bush. She took a full head bath, naked, washing her face with turmeric and sandal paste, and her body with herbal soap. She asked her customers to oil her hair and to apply lemon on her scalp for dandruff, but never revealed the secret of the fragrance to anyone.

While carrying a bucketful of water for the bath, she noticed the subtle glances of Mallan. She suddenly felt a feminine shyness run through her body. She looked at his bare shoulders and quickly gazed down again. She walked proudly, swaying her back.

Mallan got up from the floor. “I’m going to my hut. If Kasi comes, tell him I’m there,” he said to her.

“Where has he gone?”

“He has gone to the town, with the lorry driver for a ride.”

“Why did you send him with the drivers. They are drunkards. On Sundays they drive as if there are no roads.”

“I promised him I’d buy him some chicken when I get some money,” he said.

“Can’t you think of anywhere else? I could have cooked it for you. Stay here in the shop until I finish with my bath,” she said to Mallan.

Mallan nodded his head in agreement.

She went behind the cactus bush, undressed, and hooked her blouse and sari on a spine of the cactus bush. The shadow of her nakedness fell beyond the cactus bush. She squeezed the fleshy parts of her body and inspected herself. She sat on the washing stone and started rubbing the turmeric on her face. Finally, she covered her bosoms and called Mallan. “Come here, come and scrub my back for me,” she called, holding out a handful of coconut fibers.

Mallan stood up and hesitated. He looked around and walked to the bush and stared at her bare back. So dark and shiny like a bathed buffalo. The blouse line on her back and arms was less dark than the other parts of her body. The turmeric paste and the soapy water dribbled through her soaked hair. Patches of dry talcum powder melted away from her skin.

“Please scrub it for me,” said Rajini and handed him a bar of soap and the coconut fibers.

Mallan wet his hand with the water from the bucket and started scrubbing her back. His fingers ran through the folds and scrubbed her as if he was bathing a buffalo.

She breathed heavily when his hands touched the fat above the hip bones. She arched her back and then slowly turned and exposed herself to him. She pulled him by his waistcloth and kissed him on the chest.

Mallan lost his balance and fell onto the floor. His lungi caught on a cactus bush and the thorns scratched his arms. He tried to grab his cloth and fell again on to the floor. Rajini sat on the washing rock and laughed heartily, as though she was watching banana peel cinema comedy. With her left hand she reached towards her mug and took a lemon out.

“Squeeze it on your manhood. This will stop any infection,” she said.

Mallan got up and stood before her, stark naked.

She looked at his private parts and smiled. She squeezed the lemon juice over his penis and washed it for him. Then they made love.

 

The Lorry Driver

 

“She stinks,” said the lorry driver. “I would never touch a thing from her shop. I wonder how anyone could eat her lemon rice.” He shook his head in disgust.

“We knew her. She is from our village,” said Kasi.

“Do you know her? It would be better if she doesn’t smell that bad.”

“I never smelt anything bad.”

“Because she bathes and dusts talcum powder all over her. But I know that fishy smell. It makes me feel sick. She has some sexual disease,” the driver tossed the cigarette bud into the road.

Kasi didn’t seem bothered about her smell. “My father said she is a very good woman,” he said to the driver. He was cheerful and kept watching the people on the road.

“Who? The lemon rice woman? A good woman?” grimaced the lorry driver. “She used to be a prostitute. Everyone here knows that. Men still go and knock on her door at night. She shouldn’t be allowed to walk on the streets. When the white men ruled this country, they arrested these kinds of people and threw them in prison. How old are you? You are only twelve. You have a lot of things to learn. Give me the brandy bottle, it’s inside the blue bag,” he said.

Kasi lifted the plastic bag he had in his hand.

“The chicken curry doesn’t smell good today.”

“I don’t smell anything bad,” said Kasi with his watering mouth.

“By sniffing the chicken I know whether it has been slaughtered or whether it has come from that poultry farm where they collect the dead chickens. If not happy, I would never touch them. For me, my body is important. I wouldn’t play with it.”

“Dead chickens?” asked Kasi.

“Yes, they do. Most of these shops do. You said you want to be a driver. Then you need to have a good sense of smell. You need to sharpen your senses. It is a skill.”

“Why should I sniff well to become a driver?”

“Don’t you need to know how much kerosene they added in the petrol? And if you eat whatever you get at the roadside, you’ll die by the roadside,” said the driver and gently turned away the lorry from the high road to a small road that went to the quarry. With one hand the lorry driver gripped the steering wheel. With the other, he unscrewed the bottle and drank the brandy. He stopped the lorry in the middle of the road and went back to the wooden bench behind the seat. “Now come and drive,” he said to Kasi.

“Are you asking me to drive? I’ve never ever sat in the driver’s seat before,” said Kasi.

“Do what I say. If I were scared like you, I’d never sit behind this steering wheel. I’d be pounding stones all day long. There’s only one life to live. So be brave,” said the lorry driver and drank a sip of brandy from the bottle. He tore a paratta from the bag and chewed on it. Suddenly, two motorbikes from the side roads came in close to the lorry. Kasi panicked and looked at the driver. “I’ll tell you what to do,” said the driver and quickly twisted and released the steering wheels from the rear seat. The boys on the motorbikes fell into the fence. “First lesson is this: The one driving in front of you is an idiot. The one behind you is a moron. This applies all over India, Kashmir from the North to Kanyakumari in South, from Pakistan to China. I drove all over. We are all the same. Culturally one. You have done very well. I’ll teach you how to drive in just two days, if you listen to me. You’ll be able to drive anywhere in the world, I promise,” he patted Kasi’s back.

 

The Dengue Fever

 

Two blankets weren’t enough for Mallan. He was shivering and sweating, his chest went up and down like the kindling bellows used to sharpen the crowbars at the worksite. The pungent smell of his breath filled the hut. Kasi kept the door open and fanned it out with a newspaper. Two skinny kittens sneaked in through the weaved coconut leaves and were rolling around the empty earthen pots in the corner of the hut.

A neighbor woman brought some rice water and a bun. “Your father has dengue, no doubt about it,” she said to Kasi. She stood by the door and fiddled with the padlock of the door. “I had this. I know exactly what it feels like. I was in bed for four days feeling as though my husband had beaten me up. My head was as heavy as a rock.”

“What medicine did you take?” asked Kasi.

“Good thing I hadn’t had a single paisa that day, or I would have bought some rat poison and killed myself.  It was pastor Joshua’s holy water that healed me. I can ask him to come and pray for your father,” she said.

“Appa, Appa,” Kasi shook his father’s foot. Mosquitos flew away from Mallan’s dirty toes. “Appa, do you want to eat this bun? Should I go and get something for you?” asked Kasi.

Mallan coughed and spat a mouthful of thick yellow phlegm onto the coconut shell kept aside as a spit bowl. “No, I don’t want anything. You go and have something. Don’t you starve. There should be some coins in my pocket,” said Mallan.

The next evening a Maruti car pulled up on the dirt road opposite their hut. A bright red label with the words ‘Prayer Moves Mountains’ was visible on the windscreen. Pastor Joshua got out of the car and greeted everyone standing on the road with his bright wide smile. “Praise the Lord brother! Praise the Lord sister! I come to pray for the sick,” he said and went inside Mallan’s hut. With his tight pants, tucked in shirt, and shiny, brown leather shoes he struggled to bend down. As he bent he said, “Praise the Lord” twice and spread his handkerchief on the floor and kneeled closer to Mallan. The body spray he wore filled the room with a floral fragrance. Holding the holy bible in his left hand, he touched Mallan’s head, drew a cross on his forehead and prayed.

“God allows suffering,” he said to Kasi. “Do you know to whom he allows the suffering? He allows suffering to those whom he loves the most. To be honest, our suffering on this earth is nothing when compared to the suffering of our God.  He has given his only begotten son to us.”

Kasi nodded and listened to the Pastor with reverence and fear.

“In the Holy Bible, Job went through much worse than this. If you have faith,” the pastor opened his bag and handed some painkillers and antibiotics to Kasi, “If you have faith your father will get better soon. Give these tablets to him.”

The next morning, Mallan got up from his bed and asked for a cup of palm sugar coffee. Kasi thought it was another miracle as mentioned by the neighbor woman. He borrowed coffee powder from her and ginger and palm sugar from another. He boiled the hot water half-full on an aluminium pot and added ginger, palm sugar and the coffee powder. He added crushed pepper cones and Tulsi leaves and poured it for him.

Mallan drank two cups and said he felt better, after the drenching sweat after the hot coffee. Kasi went to work with a sense of great relief. At his workplace, Kasi had ribbonfish curry and rice for lunch. Fluffy, white, tender cooked rice smelled like food from heaven above. Two fish chunks and curry were poured at the corner of the plate. Kasi took a piece and tasted it. The fragrance of the dry ribbonfish on tamarind juice spread warmness across his mouth. “Life is worth living, at least for the taste of this dry fish curry,” Kasi said to himself. Remembering this as his father’s favorite, he ran with a half-eaten plate back to his hut. He ran barefooted along the desolated mud and gravel road home. It was so hot, even water kept on the earthen pots outside evaporated into the air. There wasn’t anyone around when he got there.

He heard a song. The voice resembled that of Rajini. She sang an old Tamil film song. Kasi stood outside his hut and listened to the song.

Only with your ears, I would sing

Only with your mind, I would whisper

I play with my glances

And rest my head on your lap

Along with her song, Kasi heard the whimpering sounds of his father from inside. Kasi looked through the gap between the hinges of the door. His father kept his head on Rajini’s lap and cried. She wiped his tears with one end of her sari.  Kasi felt strange and his eyes turned red and filled with tears.

Rajini laughed and ran her fingers through Mallan’s hair. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” said Mallan. I don’t know why I am crying. It just feels good to cry on your lap. It just feels good.”

“Really? Does it feel good to cry? I never heard of that before.”

“True. I feel so good,”

“Maybe you feel very comfortable with me?” Rajini laughed.

“Don’t laugh for everything. Let me tell you something,” said Mallan. “I never felt like this before, but, after being with you for a few days, now I have a desire to live. Don’t know whether I am being selfish. I want to live for a few years at least. I want to do something for my son. I want to marry you. I want to take you to the town and buy lemon soap and talcum powder for you. I want to take you to the cinema theatre and I want to kiss you in the dark. I want to apply coconut oil on your head and massage when you have a headache. I want to show you what true love is.”

Rajini giggled “Is that how you are going to show your true love? Tears fell from her eyes onto Mallan’s cheeks. “I don’t deserve you to marry me, but what you say really makes me happy. It really makes me happy to know someone in this world loves me. That’s enough for me. That fulfills my life.”

Kasi returned back to his workplace with the food. When he returned in the evening his father was shivering again with fever. Kasi ran to the pastor’s house. He pressed the calling bell and waited for someone to open the gate.

The pastor came on the answerphone. “Praise the lord, praise the lord. Who is this.”

“My name is Kasi, from the stone quarry. My father is very sick. Please can you come and pray for him. If you come, he will be alright.”

“Now?”

“Yes, he is very ill. He is struggling to breath.”

“What did you say your name is, yes Kasi…Kasi sorry to say this. I can’t come. I have some guests. I will definitely come tomorrow. You stay there, I am going to pray through the answer phone.. Stay there.”

Kasi ran back to the quarry and found his father dead with a wide opened mouth.

 

Amazing Grace

 

“One day, all the dead will be raised from their graves,” said pastor Joshua. “So we should bury them with respect, we should never cremate them.”

“Seriously? The dead will rise one day?” The men squatted around Kasi’s hut and stared at the pastor in disbelief.

“If what he is saying is true, then there will be a big fight on Judgment day,” said one.

“Me, I have some serious questions to ask him,” said another.

“Brother brother…Judgment day is not for fighting,” said the Pastor with a smile. “It is to serve justice to people like Mallan for what they have gone through.”

The contractor Ratnam felt upset. “Pastor sir, everyone is going through trouble. Why are you converting a dead man into a foreign religion?”

“Brother, brother what is a foreign religion? Anyone suffering anywhere in this world is Jesus Christ. That’s what Christianity is! Jesus is not just for the living, he is for the dead too. Those who deny this will be judged accordingly at the second coming of Christ.”

“Pastor sir, we knew all these stories. I think you are doing this for a foreign charity. If not, why are you taking a picture of the dead man? You are rich; why can’t you give some money to the poor?”

“Brother, true Jesus has blessed me with cars and a big house. I enjoy it. When I prayed for Mallan I saw him crying for his sins with a broken heart. Our God is a loving God, but he is also the God of Wrath, so the sinners have to repent before it is too late.”

“You are asking me to repent? Repent for what?”

“Repent for your sins.”

“Am I a sinner? What have I done? Ask these people. I didn’t take a single rupee for the wood I gave to make this coffin.”

“Brother, everyone should repent. You and me, everyone. We are responsible for the world. We should all repent for our sins. And for the original sin.”

“What is this original sin?”

“The original sin is the sin that Adam committed against God. God put him in the beautiful Garden of Eden. God put him in a place much more beautiful than Nandhi hills; but he sinned against him.”

“So, now our owner Periyaswami is spoiling all these beautiful hills for his business. Will you ask him to repent too? Do you have the courage to do that?”

“Of course, I will. Actually, Periyaswami is my friend. If I see him, I’ll ask him to repent. I am not scared of anyone. The only one I am scared of is the man above.”

“Pastor, then why does the church have two burial grounds? One for the lower caste, and one for the rich? Is there a separate heaven for higher castes too?”

“Brother, God put us here on earth for a test. I’ll pray for you to have the wisdom one day to understand this. But I am sure Mallan is saved by God our father in heaven. So I am now going to do the funeral.”

Kasi sighed but was comforted by the Pastor’s words. Contractor Ratnam gave the fifty rupees bill to Kasi and left. The pastor sang “Amazing Grace” and buried Mallan on the foothill of the Third Hills.

 

Talk of the Devil

 

“Talk of the devil! Kasi, look who is coming!” said Rajini when Pastor’s Maruti car turned the corner into the dirt road. She rushed inside her house, washed her face, adjusted her sari, quickly tied her few strands of hair with a ribbon and alerted Kasi.

“Kasi, leave the dishes there. Go, go and get the papers to show the pastor.” She brought some soap for Kasi to wash his hands.

The pastor’s car drove through the puddles of rainwater and slowly pulled over in front of her house. “Praise the Lord,” the pastor waved his hands from inside.  “Praise the lord, so pleased to see you two!” He said and smiled as he got out of his car.

“Come in, pastor.” Rajini hurryingly wiped a plastic stool with a towel.  “Please take a seat, pastor. Actually we wanted to come and see you at church.”

“That is good news. You can come and pray anytime at church.”

“We need a favor from you pastor. Have you heard what the contractor has done to Kasi?” she took the bond paper from Kasi and gave it to the pastor. “He extended his contract for three more years. For the years that his dead father had to work. He says we have to talk to the owner Periaswamy if we want to change this. Will you come to the town and talk to him please?”

The pastor thoughtfully unzipped the bible, took out his reading glasses and read the front page of the paper. “Sister, to be honest, this doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems like it has been written by someone who doesn’t know how to read or write.”

“Pastor, will you please come and explain this to the owner? You are the only one we know who can talk. We can’t go; they won’t let us in”

“But sister, I am a preacher. For these things, I think you should get a party leader or panchayat president or someone like that.”

“Don’t you know Pastor? They are all his people. We thought you could talk sensibly and explain it to him. The other day I saw you praying for him in his car.”

“Yes, sister, I did pray for him. He is a Hindu, but whenever he sees me at the quarry, he smiles and asks me to pray for him. He appreciates my ministry among the downtrodden and does sometimes support financially. But sister, I’m not that good in negotiating things. Maybe you should get a lawyer or someone more suitable for this.”

Rajini took the paper from the pastor and gave it to Kasi. “Don’t worry Kasi, I’ll take you to town and talk to him.”

“Sorry sister, I’m really sorry. I am a man of God. I shouldn’t get involved in these kinds of situations. If anyone sees me with you, then they’ll start gossiping. Our own pastors will do that.” He zipped the bible and got up. “Satan is always looking for the opportunity to break up the Church. Satan is always looking for a chance to break the congregation. We are in our last days sister, in our last days. Days of the Antichrist. Someone even wrote a book recently, about Jesus Christ and Magdalene. I’m just an ordinary man.”

“But once you said Jesus opposed those who exploited the poor.”

“Yes, I did. But, sister, we can make plans, but God has the last word. I can’t do anything until God asks me to do so. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”

“Thank you Pastor,” said Rajini and went back inside her house. She sat on the steps, leaned against the doorframe and sighed. This was not the first time she had been failed by a man, but each time she had been failed, she had then fought back. “Kasi, we are going to the town tomorrow to see the owner,” she said.

 

The Pen Knife

 

Kasi felt a little shy wearing proper trousers for the first time. He came out of his hut to see whether anyone would notice them. The brown trousers, stitched from the cloth he had been given by the lorry driver for his father’s funeral, had two pockets in the front, two at the back and the tailor had stitched a secret one on the inside, so that he could keep his money safe from the pickpockets of the government buses.

Kasi had no money to hide. He looked around his hut, and spotted his father’s penknife. He slipped it inside his secret pocket and made his way to Rajini’s house. Rajini too was looking her best. She wore a red, silk sari and an emerald blouse with golden leaf borders. The blouse had a low-neck design, which exposed the skin rashes at the nape of her neck that she had tried to cover up, a little unsuccessfully, with Ponds Talcum powder. She applied the skin-whitening Fair and Lovely to her face and darkened her eyelids by carefully smudging in the paste with her little finger. A tiny mirror, hair comb and a tin of talcum powder were all kept in her leather bag to freshen herself up once more, once the bus stopped for the short break it took from its journey, to allow the passengers to relieve themselves at the roadside.

The driver kept glancing at her through his rearview mirror and chatted with her all the way into the night, along the bumpy tracks of the road. He compared her to a cinema actress and told her the story of a new film in which a prostitute becomes the lover of the hero. Kasi listened to their conversation for a while and then dozed off on her shoulder. He did not wake up until he heard the town’s traffic sounds at early dawn.

They both went to a tea shop, brushed their teeth with the toothpowder that they carried with them, and had a cup of tea and snacks. Rajini bought betel leaves, areca nuts, lime and tobacco to chew on. This was her way of relaxing and getting the confidence she needed to talk to the owner.

Kasi looked at Periaswamy’s house. It stood behind two huge iron gates. The yellow neon lights on either side were still on. A big rock salt and seven red chilies were tied onto the light pole to protect the house from the evil eye. Two big satellite dishes were turned out in opposite directions to each other.  A marble statue of a woman carrying a pot on her waist was pouring water into the murky fishpond.

A gurkha, the watchman, came to switch off the lights and looked at Kasi and Rajini in surprise. He confronted them. “What are you doing here?” he shouted.

“Is Periaswamy at home?” asked Kasi

“Get off this property at once. No, no one is home,” shouted the gurkha. “Have you started begging this early? Get off from this place.”

“Gurkha baai, brother, baaai..” Rajini called out to him in Hindi. “There’s something we want to explain to Periaswamy, sir.” She took out the bond paper from her handbag and showed it to him.

“Sir is sleeping. He doesn’t want to see anyone at this time. Maybe you can come back in the evening,” said the gurkha and latched the gates shut.

They heard heavy thunder, and no sooner had it begun, it started to rain hard. They both went and stood under the Indian Laurel tree along the cement pathway outside the compound. The gurkha opened the door to check if they had gone and saw them soaking under the tree. He felt sorry for them so let them in. “Go and sit in the patio. Sir won’t be coming down before nine,” he said and gave them his towel to dry themselves with.

They both sat on the patio and spread the wet papers on the floor to dry.

Thunder struck again, and rain came pouring down in torrents. The fishpond overflowed with water. The gurkha turned off the tap supplying the water to the marble woman statue which had been pouring watering into the fishpond. He noticed the bird droppings on the head and arms of the statue. He scrubbed it off with a blade.

As time went by, a few more visitors gathered into the patio who had come to visit Periaswamy. The gurkha brought coffee for all the visitors and switched on the small, white television mounted to the wall.

Periaswamy joined him shortly afterwards and greeted everyone on the patio. He looked so respectable, with a white dhoti and hand-woven shirt, sandalwood paste and kumkum on his forehead, and a thick gold chain hanging down from his neck.

Periaswamy looked at Kasi and Rajini sitting on the floor. “Why did you let the prostitute in?” he shouted at the gurkha. “Get them out of my home, now,” he shouted.

The visitors looked at Rajini and talked to themselves. “Cheats! These women would do anything for money,” they said.

Rajini got up and stood near the naked marble woman. “I didn’t come to cheat anyone. I wanted to show a contract document to the owner,” she said.

“Yes, a multi-million dollar contract. Get out of here.” Periaswamy winked and laughed with his visitors. “Every day the same story. These people come up with a new story every day. If you sit and listen to them, you can write a novel. I have strictly instructed the gurkha to not let them in. God knows which caste they belong to,” he said to visitors and asked them to drink their coffee.

“God knows which caste, because, he has fucking created this,” Kasi jumped forward and pressed the blade of his knife on Periaswamy’s neck. “If you utter that nonsense anymore, I’ll slit your throat. We have had enough of this. Apologize to her. Or, I’ll slit your throat, bathe you with your own blood,” he pressed the knife harder.

Periaswamy’s wife, an old woman screamed from the terrace. “Ai Gurkha go and stop him. Ai someone call the police, call the police,” she shouted. Three of his grandchildren, on the way to their school dropped the umbrellas and school bags and hid behind their mother. The visitors hid behind the TV and ran into the house. The gurkha was as still like the naked statue.

“Kasi, Kasi what are you doing? Leave that son of a bitch,” said Rajini in total contempt. “Leave him, he doesn’t deserve to be killed by you! Look at his face. Kumkum on his face looks like bird poo. Look at his face. A filthy maggot on poo! I’ll give him a punishment. A punishment he will remember until he is on his deathbed! I’ll give him an award bigger than he ever received from this government. Bharat Bum Ratna.. Let all his family witness this!” Rajini lifted her sari showing her dark bare buttocks to him.

Periaswamy covered his face with his left palm and looked down. The businessmen and politicians turned away their heads in disgust. The children took a second look at her bare bottom, looked at each other and giggled.

Rajini went and took Kasi by his hands and slipped out of the campus. “Keep your knife hidden. I don’t want you to go to jail. It’s always for us that the jails are opened. Have you ever heard of a higher caste rich man in jail? It’s always us. I don’t want you there. Take this,” she took off a gold earring from her ear lobes. “Take this and go to Mumbai, before his people come,” she said.

 

Mumbai

 

“You aren’t crying, are you?” a skinny wife shook the fat man’s arms at the Mumbai express. They sat there on the train, in silence for a few minutes. The sound of whimpering was audible.

“I’m just thinking about things…just a bit emotional,” managed the man staring out through the window.

“I haven’t ever seen you this way. What’s wrong with you?” the wife asked.

“I was talking to that boy by the window seat. He is running away to Mumbai to escape his father’s debt. It reminded me of my childhood. Reminded me of my father.”

“Oh…don’t take all these so personally. Everyone has a story. I’ll give him some food when he wakes up,” said the woman. She laid her dolled-up daughter on the floor and went to the latrine. She returned with freshly washed nappies and began to tie them up on the iron bar of the window. She opened a huge stockpot and started sharing curd rice and pickle with everyone in the compartment. “Aii wake up. There’s water in the latrine,” she called to Kasi. “Go, wash up and come. I’ll leave some curd rice and pickle for you.”

All the passengers at the S3 enjoyed the food.

“You are a very lucky man; your wife is a very good cook,” mumbled a passenger through a mouthful of curd rice.

“Who? My wife? Had she cooked, you’d have been travelling by the latrine,” the fat man laughed.

“Always saying something. To make me feel bad about myself. In front of strangers,” the woman said and served more rice onto his plate.

“They are not strangers. We’re all like a family until we reach Mumbai.”

“Very true, very true,” uttered another passenger. “The train is a good place to make new friends. A family, once I met on Pune Express, they had come with a huge silver pot for my son’s wedding. What a lovely couple!”

 “But, I bet, the people in the first class…they wouldn’t do that,” the fat man responded. “I was once travelling by the AC coach. You should see the way they sit on their seats, all pompous and fart-like. If you say hello, I bet, they wouldn’t smile. Their children…you should see them.. they play with their mobile phones and headphones, nodding their heads like lunatics. I wish I could give them a good slap.”

 “You are right. You are absolutely right,” said the man sitting opposite. “I hate those who have their noses stuck in novels. I don’t know what is written in those books. But, these are so unsociable! They don’t utter a word and they glare at me as though I’d just stolen their meal. Even if I was given a free ride, I wouldn’t ride with these rich people, I tell you!”

“True. One hundred present true,” said the fat man. “Before I opened my hotel, I used to work at a restaurant in Mumbai, where all these rich and famous people would come to eat. You should have seen the way they’d spent their money! I have seen all these people come up on the cinemas. The closer you look at them, the uglier they are! And they are tiny! I don’t want to say anything more about the things I have seen in that place…We have women from good families here.”

“So, you run a hotel? You must be a rich man then.”

“Rich man? Me? A beggar in Mumbai earns more than the richest in my village.”

“Very true, very true,” the man sat opposite agreed. “It is utter stupidity to show off with money. But, you are doing a great job. Not many have a good heart.”

“Well, if you open up your eyes…you’ll change. I have seen so many things. If anyone comes to me for help, I always help him,” said the fat man.

“Can you give me a job?” asked Kasi directly. “I can cook.”

The man looked at Kasi thoughtfully. “A hotel job is not as easy as you think. It doesn’t suit everyone. You would need to have a lot of patience. People can turn very nasty. If they say the sun rises in the west, then you need to say yes, yes, yes. Ask me why. Because, they are the ones who have money. The world is run by them. What they make is Law; whom they show is God! Mine is a family business. There are no fixed hours. If you are happy with all this then I can offer you a job.”

“It’s fine. I’ll do it,” agreed Kasi.

The fat man pulled out a crispy ten rupees bill from his pocket. “Keep this with you as an advance, in case if you want to smoke a beedi or chew a pan. Come with me, there’s always a place for someone like you in Mumbai.”

The next morning when the train reached the station, Kasi took one of his cardboard boxes and followed him to his house.

“Kasi, go. Go and walk around. Lend your ears and listen to how people speak here,” the fat man advised Kasi.

 

The Jugaad Gun

 

Kasi ran errands. At the grocery shop, when he didn’t know the words for the things he needed to buy, he gesticulated in ways that amused the shoppers; he dropped the little girl off at the Anganwadi and picked her up again; he helped her with her Maths and English homework; Kasi learnt to speak Hindi, Marathi and Bihari; he travelled back and forth between his sixty feet road shop and his house; he helped the woman to prepare the batter; he fetched water, served food, and washed the dishes, the cloths; he cleaned the latrine when it was his turn, swept the street and so became a member of the household.

For Ganesh Utsav, the shop was closed. The fat man paid Kasi twenty rupees and asked him to take Dharani to watch a film at a house where new films were shown on special days. He bought a small bottle of brandy and had his lunch with his wife. “We are going to be happy today,” he winked at her and handed her a bundle of garlanded jasmine flowers to wear in her long plait.

“Are you mad? The children are around,” she said. “How can anyone have sex in the daytime? It isn’t good for the body,” she frowned.

“What is good for the body? Squatting in front of the kerosene stove for all three hundred and sixty-five days? Is that what you think is good for the body? We are going to have proper sex today. Exactly as they do in films.”

The skinny woman’s face flushed. “I promise you can do whatever you want with me at night, but now leave me alone. I need to wash our clothes,” she twisted her head away.

“How long have we been married for?” the man asked. “Seven years! Have I ever seen you fully naked? No. Never. All you do is tug up that sari and we have sex like homeless people in the streets. We aren’t like them. We have a proper roof over our heads. Go on! Take off your dress!”

“There are people around.” She raised her voice.

“People around where?”

“Kasi is around,” she whispered. “He’s not a small boy..he’s a young man.”

“He knows everything. He won’t come. We have a proper house with proper doors. There were four men having sex in the same room in Kamathipura. Come on! I’ll teach you something new,” he said excitedly, nodding his head.

“What are you going to do? Tell me this first.” she stood stock still near the door.

“Aahn..aahn..when a man is in a hurry..you ask thousand questions,” the fat man dragged her by her wrists and threw her onto the iron bed.

“No, no, no don’t tear my blouse off. This is the only good one I have. I am going to scream, stop it! Stop it!” she shouted.

The fat man pushed her over until she fell face down onto the metal cot and he covered her flat buttocks with both palms. He reached over and grabbed the remote control, switched on the TV and turned the volume up until it blared through the vessels of the small house. He jerked off his trousers and threw them. They landed on the broken wooden stool. He jumped onto her back swiftly and squeezed her.

“What are you doing? What are you doing?” she cried. “What are you doing? Do you think I am a prostitute?” she yelled in panic, and she pushed him off. She ran into a corner of the room and cried. “Do anything more and I’ll go straight to the charity woman. She’s already asked me whether I had any complaints!” she threatened, her voice small but sound serious.

“I’ll break your teeth if you go out and tell her what happens inside this house. Is she the one who married you and brought you here, all the way from your home? Come here now and do as I tell you,” he spoke firmly.

“I can’t do it,” she waved her hands in front of her frantically. “Did you marry me and bring me here to treat me like your prostitute? The prostitutes at Kamathipura would do these things! Not me!”

The fat man stormed out of bed, fuming with anger. He pushed her against the wall, put his hands around her neck and started strangling her. “Shut up your bloody mouth! Stop screaming!” he shouted.

“Kasi, Kasi, help me. This man is killing me!” the woman screamed.

Kasi rushed inside the house from the street, and pushed him off of her and onto the metal cot. “Leave her alone! Leave her alone,” he shouted, blocking him from getting to her again.

“Kasi, you better not get involved,” sneered the fat man. “This is between me and my wife. You have no right to intervene here. I ought to correct her.”

Kasi stared at him angrily, and turning around, putting his hands on her shoulders, asked her if she wanted some water. “You’ll be fine,” he consoled her. Kasi headed off to get her the water but in that small time span the fat man got up from the bed, adjusted his belt, and suddenly kicked the woman hard so that she hit the door with a heavy thud and fell onto the floor.

 “Have you lost your mind? I said leave her alone!” Kasi turned on him and tried to help the woman slowly sit up on the floor. “She’s already suffering from back pain,” he said, his voice trembling with rage.

“Not just back pain. She has all the ailments of the world and she still doesn’t know how to respect her husband! She has no manners at all!”

“I’ve been living with you for nearly four years. I've never seen you treat her with respect, ever!” said Kasi.

“Useless. She doesn’t deserve to be here. Doesn’t deserve to be my wife. She was starving in her village. She didn’t have a spare dress to change into. She never even gave me a single paisa as a dowry. I married her and brought her here. She should worship me like a God for marrying her.”

“So, you brought her here to be your slave? Not your wife? You tried to set her on fire for sending money to her sick mother! You threw hot water on her! You count the money in your wallet before you go to the toilet and count it again when you return! You have a mistress who lives on the fourth street! And you think she should worship you like a God?”

“Oh she told you everything, did she? A wife has to be a bitch in bed. This one is good for nothing! True, the fourteen streets of Kamathipura are full of plump little thirteen-year old girls. They’ll do all the monkey tricks for a hundred rupees! Look at how ugly she is! A man wouldn’t even look at her face! I’m going to kill her and get another wife!”

 “And what if she kills you first?” asked Kasi. “Don’t expect people to bend and bow for the whole time. One day, when they stand up for their rights, it’ll be very nasty.”

 “Are you threatening me? I was waiting for something like this to happen. I’ll throw you out of my house!”

“She might be scared, not me. I have places to go, but I’m not going to leave now,” said Kasi “I need my salary for the past four years. You owe me 1 lakh rupees. ”

“I owe you? You owe me! Think about the state you were in when you came here. A bag of bones! Now you’ve grown taller, you have fat on your cheeks and you think you’re Shah Rukh Khan?”

“I’m not going anywhere without my money. So if I were you I’d see what you can do about that,” said Kasi.

“I know! I know who’s behind you! The Bihari boys. The thugs! They’ll chop someone's hand off for only fifty rupees! They carry guns in their underpants. You’ll go to jail if you befriended them. You’ll see.”

The following week, when he met his friend Hariom, Kasi asked him where he could get hold of a gun.

“Ahh..ahhh, you’re a proper man now? Hariom laughed. “You’re eighteen; you definitely need one! Come with me,” he said and led Kasi through the stinking gutters. They then climbed up a ladder and walked through some wooden boards to his room. He opened a secret hiding place in the garbage bucket, unwrapped a gun and handed it to Kasi. “A jugaad gun. An improvised one. Home-made, but it does the job,” said Hariom.

Kasi gently held it in his left hand. It felt heavier than it looked. He changed it to the other palm and weighed it. It was heavy. It smelt like rusty iron or blood or garbage. The screws around the grip were loosened and the gun was wrapped up in black tape. The metal spring above the trigger was covered in red grease and mustard oil. Kasi felt a sense of power surge through him. He ran his fingers through its handle and felt the smoothness of its texture. Four new, shiny, brass, pencil-like bullets were wrapped up in a Marathi newspaper.

“It’s a strange feeling to hold a gun, isn’t it?” asked Hariom.

“Sure it is.  A weapon. It must be man’s first invention,” Kasi smiled and nodded to Hariom.

“Yes, yes, yes. Men started to hate each other from the beginning,” said Hariom. “Men hated each other, because they were scared that they wouldn’t get their chapattis. So they train their children to hate. Caste, God..religion..Look, you were born in the south. I am a Bihari. Are we not good friends?… because I feel for you; I understand you. But, I’m telling you.. Some really don’t deserve to live. I mean those who are not capable of loving.”

“How much do you want me to pay?

“No, have it for free. It is my gift to you. For your eighteenth birthday. Shoot the fucker off, whoever messes with you, just shoot him,” said Hariom pointing his fingers in the shape of a gun to his head and pretending to fire.

 

The Flavor of India

 

“He’s gone. Kasi, my husband, he is gone to live with his mistress. The Nepali woman on the fourth street,” the woman whimpered to Kasi. “Earlier, once in a while he used to go to the prostitutes. I knew about it. I pretended as if I didn’t know. Now, see, now see, he’s gone for good! He has too much money now. Too much money. Look at these!” she opened her blouse and showed him the cigarette scars. “Look at the scar on my foot where he poured kerosene once. I thought it had been water at first even though he had pulled that trick on me before. I remember laying there on the mat and he lit and threw the matchstick on me. The fire quickly spread all over my red cotton sari. He wouldn’t have minded if I had died that day. I’m just a slave to him. Do you know how much he earns? A lot. And I have never seen a single paisa with my own eyes,” she kept saying the things that Kasi had heard many times before.

“You must leave him and start your own life now,” Kasi repeated. “If I were you I would do just that.”

“But what he was saying is correct Kasi. I’m useless. I don’t know how to go and buy anything from the shop. I don’t know how to count. I don’t know how to get a train ticket. I’m useless. You’ve been here for only four years and you already speak the language so well.”

“No one is useless. I’m going to teach you what I know, starting from today. I have contacts. We’ll start a new business for you.” Kasi smiled at her with self-assurance.

The next day Kasi took her to see the chit fund woman, who lent them money.  They rented a shop, at Ambedkar Nagar, Depot road. A brick walled one room shop, which once used to be a shoe repair shop. When they walked inside the shop, it stunk of mice urine. Cockroaches ran across the floor and hid behind the cracked walls. Kasi threw away the wooden chairs and empty casks into the gutter. Kasi whitewashed the walls with the chemical that repelled insects and creeps. He drew out new menus. Kasi’s friends came and helped them.

They bought groceries from the shop opposite and kindled a fire near the gutter.

The women who had been running to catch the bus, stopped and gave them suggestions. “Split the garlic before you peel it,” advised one woman who had been hurrying to her office. “Wash the onions before slicing them,” prompted another. The workers, who were waiting for the leather factory to open, squatted around and watched him cook.

Kasi fried tender chicken with onions and curry leaves, added chopped ginger and garlic, clove, cardamom, coriander, chilli, cinnamon, turmeric powder and stirred everything together. He adjusted the low flame on the stove and poured beaten yogurt and lemon juice into the mix. A brand new scent covered the whole street. Kasi took a spoonful of curry and offered the workers a taste. They requested new dishes to be added to their menu. The woman quickly learnt different recipes and served her customers. They named the shop, ‘Flavor of India’

“Kasi, the man started seeing me,” said the woman while she was washing the dishes.

“Which man? What you mean?” asked Kasi.

“Who else? My husband. He wants to come back to me,” the woman said proudly. “He came to see me twice and he was crying. His business isn’t going well.”

“He tried to talk to me too. I didn’t even look at him,” said Kasi.

“Do you know what happened? This man, he saw me in the middle of the road and held my hands. He burst into tears. I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t stay and watch a man crying. He said he wouldn’t beat me or touch me without my consent ever again. I told him to come back home.”

“Are you sure? Have you thought about this well?” asked Kasi.

“At the end of the day, he is my husband, Kasi. My father died when I was young. I grew up fatherless. I don’t want to see my daughter grow up fatherless too. This is the man I once loved. I just can’t stop loving him,” said the woman.

The man returned to her and looked after her new business. Kasi returned to his village, with his gun.

 

Homecoming

 

“I knew it, I knew it!” Grandpa clapped his hands like a baby. With his boisterous laugh, the spit sprayed up in the air. “I knew you were coming. The roosters were crowing and the lizards chirping,” said Grandpa, chewing tobacco and crushing areca nuts. “I knew it. I went and sat at the bus stop all of last week. The villagers started to make fun of me. Now see, you are here.” Grandpa gripped Kasi’s hand. Tears wet the wrinkles and skin folds around his eyes. “It is true, I was a little scared,” he added in a flat tone, wiping his tears with the back of his hand. “I thought you wouldn’t come, and I had a secret present waiting for you.”

“A secret present?” asked Kasi, looking around inquisitively. A shirt and a few dirty clothes hung on the rusted nails on the mud wall. A stack of clay pots lay at one corner of the kitchen, where his grandpa hid his coins and dry fish. That was the sum total of all Grandpa’s possessions, as far as Kasi could see. Grandpa’s ration card was wrapped up in a newspaper and stuck on the roof above the doors.

He might have saved some money for me, Kasi thought to himself. “Grandpa, why haven't you asked me anything about Appa?”

Grandpa took a deep breath and stared at the red, eroded mud wall. “What did he see in her? Women kill, Kasi. Women kill. They give birth, but they can also kill. Why do they call this ‘mother earth’ then?” he tapped the cow-dung, pawed floor with his walking stick. “I heard all about him.”

“He wanted to marry her,” said Kasi.

“Marry whom? Rajini? Very good one! Marriage is not like buying something from the shop. It is for two people to grow together.”

“But they both loved each other,” said Kasi.

“Love? Is that love that they are showing in the cinemas? That is a burglar telling his story to a robber. True love is what your grandma had for me. She never thought about her own needs,” he wiped his tears.

A rooster stiffened its neck and stretched its left wing in the front yard. It chased after a hen in circles and the hen ran into the house and hid under Grandpa’s coir cot. “Catch it! First thing to do is to slaughter this chicken.” Grandpa shut the door with his walking stick.

Kasi chased the chicken. It climbed up onto Grandpa’s bed and darted away to the kitchen, then dropped itself heavily on to the broken door and flew out. Kasi was left alone with a handful of black feathers. The house was full of dust and feathers.

Grandpa laughed like a baby with his mouth wide open, flashing his rose gums and long, dry tongue. “You are eighteen; can’t you get hold of that chicken? I hunted down a thorny pig at your age. Me and the thorny pig. Should be at this size. Head to head, rolled around on a steep hill and fell into a meadow. Thorns were all over me.  I didn’t let go. Look at the scars on me here! Grandpa showed Kasi the scars on his face. Everyone should have a scar; as a souvenir to prove they have done something worthy enough when they lived. Your father got one. Right at the middle of his forehead. Let me see what you do now,” said Grandpa, making a clucking sound, ‘Chucky, chucky, chucky.” The chickens ran to him.

Kasi jumped and caught the black chicken. He held it upside down, tightly across his lap and slit the neck with a sharp knife. The chicken ran and sprinkled its blood all over the front yard and went and fell under the neem tree.

“Ah.. Kasi have you seen the way the chicken has sprinkled the blood? A full circle. That’s a good sign,” said Grandpa.

Kasi suspended the chicken on the window bars, plucked the feathers, lit a newspaper and, removing the rest of the feathers, cut it into medium pieces. He fried it in an earthen pot and added a pinch of turmeric powder, green chilies, ginger and garlic. He poured in coconut milk, covered the pot with a lid and lowered the fire. The aroma spread out towards the whole village. He laid out the food on a plantain leaf.

“Cooked very well!” said Grandpa, and tasted the meat. “The ghost of your grandma will definitely come and eat with us,” said Grandpa, and put aside a piece of chicken on the right-hand corner of the plantain leaf.

“What present do you have for me, Grandpa?” asked Kasi, chewing on a mouthful of rice.

“Don’t worry. It’s safe. Eat your food first,” said Grandpa.

“Grandpa, please tell me what you got. I hope it’s not the brass spittle bowl,” said Kasi and tried not to giggle.

“I’ll give it to you if you promise me you’ll stay here with me.”

“Half of the villagers have gone out of here. What job would I do if I stayed here?”

“Haven’t you seen the Ashram behind the barbed wires? Three hundred acres of paddy fields and lands. All our paddy fields. A swami from Delhi bought it and all our villagers have been given some work there.”

“What sort of work?”

“There is a cow farm. They look after the old cows. They have herb farms. There’s always some work you can do.”

“Yes, I promise. I will stay with you and work here. Show me the present now, please Grandpa.”

“Hmmm.” Grandpa got up and brought the clay pot where he kept the ashes of the rice husks for brushing his teeth. He reached inside and took out a small piece of melted gold coin from the pot.

Kasi choked. “Grandpa what is it? Is it really gold? Where did you get it from?” Kasi asked.

“Sssh” Grandpa smiled and buried it again inside the rice husks.

“Grandpa, where did you get it from?”

“It was from a piece of jewelry. I melted it down,” he explained, his eyes glistening with pride.

“Whose jewellery?”

“I found it in the field. I know where it came from. It must have belonged to one of the women who participated in the Temple entry protests. Do you remember, our villagers had organized for an ear-piercing function at the temple of the higher castes? The higher caste men chased us, and a lot of these women lost their heavy golden earrings running to escape from the men.”

“Really, when did that happen?”

“Ask Selvam, the communist.  He read these books. He must know about it,” said Grandpa.

 

The Communist

 

Selvam had aged quickly. The white of his eyes had turned to a yellowish brown and his Che Guevara beard into grey. He walked with his shoulders slumped and legs slightly apart, limping with his left leg. It took a few minutes before Kasi recognized him as the communist.

“Hello, comrade brother,” Kasi called out to make sure it was him.

“Hello Kasi,” the communist came over and fondly patted Kasi’s back. “Good to see you, Kasi. There’s not a day I don’t ask Grandpa about you. You are a big man now- a proper man, look at you, with light stubble and mustache, good muscles on your arms - you have changed a lot! Have you been working at a hotel?”

“How did you know?” Kasi wondered.

“I know by the look of you. You look well fed and watered. You even have cheeks. Can’t believe you are from our caste.”

“But, you look quite old.”

“Oh yes, yes, yes, life is short Kasi,” Selvam rubbed his belly and smiled. “I got married and have two girls now. Did you know that?”

Kasi watched the girls playing with an armless barbie doll on the sand floor. “I’ll get some sweets for them.”

“Haven’t you heard my story? I lost my wife, Kasi,” said the communist. “She was at Dr. Pillai’s clinic for three months. He completely robbed me. Once, we had nothing to pay more, he sent her home. These are the new bourgeoisies. But look at me now. I’m working so hard to pay for my debt. If I had to die today, all that my children would inherit from me is this debt. That’s what really hurts me.”

Kasi smiled consolingly. “How’s your work at the party office?”

“I stopped working there, Kasi. I fell from the scaffolding and broke my ankle. Can’t stand for more than ten minutes,” said the communist pointing his left foot.

“Oh, no! I thought you might have become a leader.”

“Be a leader? Me? I gave up all those dreams, Kasi. All I dream about now is the future of these little girls.”

“I wish I could help you.”

“Come and help me on the farm then. I work at the ashram now. I look after the abandoned cows.”

“I can do that. I’ll be glad to work with you.”

“It's not as easy as you may think. Need to work like a dog. I need to bathe forty cows. I need to feed them too.”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” smiled Kasi.

“Don’t go nowhere. We need you here Kasi. Go and ask the manager for a job. His name is Nitin. I’ll talk to him,” said Selvam

 

Guruji

 

“What a wonderful day! Isn’t it so? Isn’t it so?” Bhagwan Guruji asked his devotees with a broad smile. He was kneeling in front of a huge brass bowl and rubbing its ribbed edges with an orange cotton robe. He then gently placed red and white lotuses to float inside the wide bowl and sat down comfortably on a raised cushion in the middle of the meditation floor. His devotees circled around him and watched him with an amusement akin to that of parents of a small child.

There were chakras drawn on the clay-tiled floor. Mantras and their translations were engraved on the stone pillars, and patterns of mythical figures on the terracotta roof. Every inch of this building told of Guruji’s passion and love for nature. There wasn’t any wall to block the sun from rising in the Western Ghats hills, stretching its rays from the open skies and embracing the devotees with the warmth of a long lost love.

The devotees who had gathered for their morning prayers were a cultural mix. At least eleven of them had traveled across the globe to this remote village. Most carried a saffron shoulder bag with water bottles, purification tablets, a meditation towel, and a small notebook and pencil. They walked barefoot around the ashram in a trance-like state, hardly in touch with the physical world or worldly affairs.

“Look up at the hills over there,” Guruji pointed to the clouds trapped at the highest summit of the Western Ghats. Soft sunbeams meandered through the fluffy cotton clouds and shone like the golden mythical river Sona, mentioned in the holy books. The clouds formed shapes and figures as though they were narrating a scene from the epic Mahabharata. One reflection even resembled Lord Arjuna on a chariot of four white horses. The mist, the scent of the burst jackfruits and the chirping of the sparrows gave the whole place a liveliness that reminded them that this earth was not entirely theirs – they were just sharing a portion of its beauty for a short time with other living things and people.

“What a magnificent view! Don’t you think so?”  In awe Guruji pointed to the sky above the Western Ghat hills. “Those who are good with words could write a poem just now. Is it necessary to be a poet to appreciate such beauty? No. Just as long as you aren’t burdened with a rational mind, and you feel with your heart,” Guruji tapped his chest with his left hand. “This art and poetry is fairly new. Language is fairly new. Language is powerless. If we cannot accurately describe an object in words, think about emotions, feelings and experience. This is a simple one. Isn’t this enough to draw yourself to your inner self? Isn’t it enough to reveal yourself to you? Are you following me?” he asked, stroking his silver beard.

His devotees’ faces glowed with satisfied glimpses of enlightenment.

“For those who don’t believe in the presence of a supreme being, say, for example, an atheist, this experience is nothing. Merely a daily occurrence,” explained Guruji. “Let me make it clear, that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate beauty or don’t love nature. The only difference is that experiences like this elate us and elevate us on to a higher plane. Do you understand what I mean?”

The devotees nodded their heads.

“This is so wonderful, Guruji. I completely understand it,” said an ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) chief and long-time devotee of Guruji.  “Gi! My job involves sending rockets to the moon and taking pictures of the sun. But you are showing me how to see things with my inner eyes!”

Guruji added, “Of course, intimately, like knowing your wife or your husband.”

“Guruji, this place is so serene. We love it. How did you find this place? Why did you choose this?” asked a devotee from Europe.

“Yes, I found it when I was a wandering mendicant. What you see there is the Western Ghats hills, a world heritage site according to UNESCO. In my previous life I was a sage meditating on those hills. I have written all about it in my autobiography, ‘My human life.’ Feel free to buy a copy from the book stall,” said Guruji to the westerner. “When I bought these lands, they were all paddy fields. The natives used extensive pesticides and had poisoned the soil. I redesigned the landscape and replanted it from scratch. Now, as you can see, we preserve its biodiversity. We have built a shelter for the abandoned cows. You can go for a walk and see what we do.”

A ripened mango fell from the tree with a thud and splattered its juice in the artificial stream beneath. Sparrows chirped and flew from the tree branches. “Look, it’s time for breakfast. When you are in touch with nature, she tells you what to do. Life would simply be all things falling into place, like a puzzle, not like things falling apart,” said Guruji and guided the devotees through a gravel-strewn path, explaining that the path was made this way in order to massage the soles of their feet. He stopped, suddenly, when he saw a young boy standing at the gateway. He was about eighteen, tall, dark, thin with a long face.

“Are you one of the villagers? You can eat after the guests have finished their breakfast,” said Guruji.

“I didn’t come to eat. I came to find out whether I can be given some work. Yes, I am from the village and my name is Kasi,” said the boy.

“Stay there. I’ll send for the manager,” said Guruji and guided his devotees to the dining room.

For breakfast, idli, the steamed round rice cake made with the batter of black lentils and rice, and the vegetable curry Sāmbhar, were served on earthen plates. Guruji noticed a foreigner struggling to eat with her hand. He went to the kitchen and brought back a silver spoon for her. “Be free,” said Guruji, touching her shoulder. “Be free, rules are for those who have learnt to use them. You can eat with a spoon. Be free,” he repeated.

The words, ‘be free’ were flung like a temple bell on to her ears and she broke into sobs. Her neck muscles tightened, her nose and face flushed and her tears trickled into her earthen plate. The rest of the devotees who had been sitting at the dining room table moved back to give her some space.

“What’s your name, my child?” asked Guruji.

“Olivia Bonniwell. I’m American,” she said.

“Go freshen up, come and meet me in the evening. We’ll go for a ride around the farm,” said Guruji.

 

Olivia Boniwell

 

Olivia Boniwell grinned at the mirror. “Look at my dry skin...my frizzy hair.” she pulled her fringe and frowned. “Oh my God! Even my teeth have faded. Is this me? The award-winning journalist?” She smiled mockingly at herself. “What am I doing here? Oh my god! Men... disgusting creatures. They have ruined my life,” she took a deep breath and sighed. “So embarrassing… When did it all go wrong? Why did I cry in front of the devotees? Was it fake crying?” She stared deeper into her own eyes. “Well, at least I got Guruji’s attention.” She touched fists with herself in the mirror in self-appreciation. Then she picked up her backpack, padlocked her room and went down.

Guruji was waiting in the courtyard. A white Range Rover was parked near the plantain trees. He was chatting with Nitin, the ashram manager and the skinny native boy who had come looking for a job.

“Come on, Olivia! Get in,” Guruji adjusted his vermillion kurta and got into the car. “We’ll drop these two at the cow farm first.” He pointed to the manager and the native boy. “You don’t mind, do you? He is Kasi, one of the villagers. We always employ the locals at the farm.”

Olivia got into the front passenger’s seat, unbuckled her bag and looked for her water bottle and purification tablets. She took out a writing pad and a pen and scribbled on the pad. “Thank you so much, Guruji, I feel so blessed,” she said, tapping on the pad with her pen.

Guruji touched the steering wheel and prayed. When the car turned on to the dirt road, he looked at Olivia and asked, “Olivia, I have heard you were quite successful in the past. Are you writing anything now?”

“Yes, Guruji, I do have some thoughts on spirituality. On Indian spirituality. But I don’t have anything to hold on to. I mean, I don’t have a structure yet.”

“Good! Good. I’d love to read something about that. Good, good. I have read quite a few recently. All quite shallow and superficial. But, I would like to read something critical,” he waved his left hand in the air.  “I don’t like the usual glorifying or rubbishing stuff.  What do you normally write?”

Olivia stopped scribbling and looked at his thick fingers gripping the gearing lever. Two brass rings were on his left hand. She read the ‘Om Nama shivayah,’ engraved on his rings. “I am a food writer, Guruji,” said Olivia.

“Food writer! Now that’s interesting!” He nodded in admiration. “We humans…eat all the time. But, have not yet mastered the skill…I mean most of us don’t know how to eat, isn’t that true?” asked Guruji. “Spirituality starts from food, isn’t that right? Are you enjoying the meals at the ashram?”

“To be honest, I do Guruji. I’ve started to like the vegetarian meals.”

“We farm our own food. Look there, we have around two hundred varieties of spinach and green leaf here,” he said, pointing to the green farms on his right as they drove past.

The Range Rover climbed uphill on a slippery, muddy road. Village women were bent low, continuing to weed the farm, stopping occasionally to stretch their backs in the sunlight. Other villagers walking in the road carrying jackfruit on their heads, stepped down into the gutter and let the car pass. They were surprised to see Kasi sitting inside the car with Guruji and with a white woman, and waved at him.

“These jackfruits…Guruji,” said the manager from the back seat. “The villagers pluck them even before ripening. I told them not to do that.”

“That’s something I’ve never tasted,” said Olivia.

“We can get you one if you like, madam,” the manager said. The car was passing through dense jackfruit trees. Grey langurs were tearing at the unripe jackfruits and throwing them on the dirt road. Crows picked at the remains from the potholes. The car passed a wobbly, wooden bridge and then through the paddy fields. A pair of bullocks was passing the narrow path, and the men behind the two bulls were beating to speed them up.

“This is ridiculous. The natives never listen to us. That is not our farm, still, look at the way they treat the animals!” shouted the manager. “Idiot…”

The man ploughing the farm called Kasi,” Aii Kasi. I have caught a few cranes. Do you want to take one home? Good for Grandpa’s asthma...”

“He is my uncle,” said Kasi. He waved at the man and said no.

“Poor little bird,” said Guruji and looked at Olivia. “Olivia, the idea of the cow farm is to rescue the abandoned cows and provide them with a safer place. You might already be aware that cows are holy for us. Do you eat beef?” asked Guruji.

“Yes I do Guruji. Beef is something that I always enjoyed. I love Kobe burgers. But, now I have mixed feelings about that. Isn’t that an ecological adaptation Guruji, for people not eating beef in this part of the world?

“Ha ha ha..” Guruji laughed. “Might be…well..might be. Who says that? Some American Universities? But Olivia, the reason I don’t eat meat is not to pace with the ecosystem or for their sentience. I don’t eat meat …purely for spiritual reasons…do you understand what I mean.”

“Absolutely Guruji.” Olivia jotted something down on her notebook.

“Olivia, don’t you think we can be more creative with vegetarian food. We have thousands of varieties of edible plants and herbs here. This is a part of the Western Ghat hill; an ecological treasure. We are currently doing a survey of these plants in this area. I have been once to the Kew Garden in the UK, I would like to have one like that. My daughter Amrita is leading the survey team. You can help them.”

 “I’ll be happy to do that, Guruji,” said Olivia.

 

Amrita

 

Amrita walked back and forth inside the crescent hall and filled the flower vases with long stem lilies. The anklet on her bare foot tingled softly as beats to the bamboo flute music from speakers hidden within the wooden poles.  Her dark and wavy hair bounced full of a wild rose fragrance, like the one that grew by the clear water pond next to the foothill. When her fluttering eyes glanced at Kasi at the front door, her thick eyebrows arched as a fierce goddess inside the sanctum sanctorum. She twirled the hem of her dress in her nervous fingers and then rushed over to the door.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she said to him firmly. “The manager won’t like it. He said the villagers are bothering guests for money.”

“It was the manager who asked us to be here, by 9’ o'clock sharp, to help them count trees and plants, ” said Kasi showing her spades and baskets. Rajini was standing behind him with a basket.

“Oh, I see. Move the spades from the sidewalk. The guests can get hurt. Go and wait by the main entrance,” she pointed them to the entrance and rushed in to assist a guest.

“She is so arrogant. Look at her makeup and lipstick,” said Rajini to Kasi.

“Who is she?”

“Don’t you know her? She’s Amrita. Guruji’s adopted daughter.”

“Does that mean she doesn’t have a father and mother like me?”

“Yes, but she is not like you. That is for sure. That’s what the Guruji had written in his autobiography. I have read all of it.”

“What has he written about her?”

“Oh, apparently he says when he was a wandering mendicant, all he possessed were the dress he wore and a saffron shoulder bag. Once when he was sleeping on a railway station bench, he was woken up by a low moaning of a baby girl. It hardly had any strength to make a sound. Two dogs had been chewing and dragging its placenta through the platform, and the stationmaster chased them away with stones. Guruji couldn’t take it. “I will adopt the child,” Guruji went and told the stationmaster. “Adoption is not that easy Guruji,” the stationmaster said to Guruji. “It is more complicated than killing a girl child. If you kill a girl child, no one is going to bother with it. To adopt you need to own some property, a piece of land. If you wander as a mendicant on Indian Railways, you will get tummy bugs, not babies,” said the stationmaster and waited for the railway police. That was the moment, he says he realized the value of having an ashram to help the world. He says he was the man who once renounced all institutions. He paid the bribe, bought the baby, named her Amrita, and officially announced her as his only heir. Do you believe all this? I don’t.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Just because something is written in a book, it doesn’t make it true. They can fool the guests coming from all around, but not me.”

“Why?”

“Does she look like a girl found at a road side? This Guruji is a crook. There is something he is hiding. She could be his real daughter. Have you seen her smile? The way her lips stretch upwards on the sides…exactly like his mouth when he smiles. If you are in doubt, watch her closely. Watch now. She is walking over here,” Rajini nudged Kasi.

Amrita called Kasi over and asked them to walk down to the east of the farm with their spades and baskets to start the inventory.

 

The Wild Tomatoes

 

“Guys! Come here! Come!” shouted Olivia behind a cactus bush. “Look, what I’ve found. Tomatoes! I think these are wild tomatoes! Lovely, aren’t they?” she plucked a ripe one off its branch and greedily took in its scent. She gently felt the texture of the leaves with her fingers.  Her inner arm, that had touched the leaves of the plant, soon reddened and started to itch.

“Are they edible Olivia?” asked a fellow foreigner who had started snapping photographs of the plants with a huge black camera.

“Of course, they are,” replied Olivia, washing one and taking a bite. “Mm…a real treat. A tiny bit sour though. There must be something in the soil,” she said to Amrita.

The head of the survey team, a botanist, took a map out of his bag, opened it up and marked the area they were in. “Olivia, wasn’t it a great idea to have these natives come along with us? It was actually my idea to invite them. They might offer us some valuable information we don’t know about. This was exactly what had happened when the British did the classification. A lot of information was lost.”

“Oh really?” asked Olivia and scribbled something down swiftly inside her red notebook.

Kasi was scraping away the turf with a spade. Rajini cleared the soil around the plants. Amrita came closer to the bush and silently admired the beauty of the red ripened fruits while smelling the yellow flowers. Suddenly sneezing, she turned to Kasi and said, “You can have a taste of it if you like.”

“No thanks, I’m fine.” Kasi replied and continued digging, whilst carefully loosening the soil around the roots.

“Taste it. It’s not poisonous.”

“No thank you, I don’t want to,” repeated Kasi and smirked at Rajini.

“Hey! What are you both laughing about?” Amrita demanded. “Tell me.”

“These tomatoes grew from human feces. The villagers used to poo behind this bush,” Kasi answered hesitantly, the laughter in his voice still threatening.

“What?” Different concerned voices from the team rose, as their faces frowned and stared at each other.

“That’s disgusting,” said Olivia.

They stepped back and started inspecting their flip flops and shoes.

“Why didn’t they just use the toilet?” asked Olivia.

“Because they don’t have one,” said Kasi simply. “Only three houses in total have toilets here.”

“That's terrible,” Olivia whispered and furiously wrote something down inside her notebook again. “Let me see whether I can do something about this.”

“I am going to discuss this issue at the ashram and see what I can do too,” echoed Amrita.

The Clinic

 

Olivia screamed and ran away from the wild jackfruit tree. The monkeys were scared. They dropped the fruit and climbed up to the highest branches of the tree. Cranes, in the nearby fields, fluttered into the skies.

“Something has crawled into my ear,” Olivia screamed, standing by the gutter near the stream. “I can feel it. I can feel it. It’s in there!” She pointed to her left ear and shook her head frantically. Her eyes watered, her cheeks flushed, and her nose swiftly turned a pinkish red.

The members of the inventory team shrugged and made faces at each other. “Some sort of allergy?” they wondered out loud, looking bewildered. “Nothing to worry about, don’t panic. Don’t panic. Meditate. Concentrate on your breathing,” said the ISRO chief.

Olivia sat down on the cement steps for a few seconds and then jumped up again. “I can’t concentrate on my breathing. Something has gone inside my ear. Could someone call a doctor please?” she shouted.

“Do we have a doctor at the ashram, Amrita?” asked an older member of the inventory team.

“We do have an Ayurvedic doctor,” said Amrita.

“Not an Ayurveda doctor. I want a real doctor. Don’t we have a real doctor here?  Someone who can get the bloody thing out of my ear? What sort of place is this?” she rolled her eyes. “Do something please,” she shouted at them and cried.

Amrita looked at Kasi helplessly. Kasi went and brought the tractor and drove them to the clinic. When a sweat drenched white woman got down from a rusty tractor, it transformed Dr. Pillai’s Clinic into a state of emergency. The patients who had been sitting in the waiting room, got up from the plastic chairs and made space for the new patient.  “Sit down please, sit down, I’ll go and call the doctor,” said the receptionist and handed over a form to Kasi to fill. A security man brought a table fan and placed it on a stool facing Olivia. The cleaners hid behind the doors and watched her.

“Good morning, madam, good morning.” Dr. Pillai himself had come to the reception and greeted Olivia. “Are you okay, madam? Okay madam?” he nodded his head.  A green stethoscope the size of a water snake, was hanging around his neck as he spoke. “You don’t need to wait, please come in. Please.” He led Olivia and Amrita to his office.

“How old are you madam?”

“42.”

“Now, tell me what’s the problem.”

“Doctor we were at the farm. She said something has crawled into her left ear,” said Amrita.

“It is there,” shouted Olivia. “I can still feel it.”

“I’ll do a thorough inspection. Don’t you worry. Madam have you had any recent infections? Taken any bath at the ponds?”

“No.”

“Don’t worry about this, I’ll sort it out,” he said and opened a small box and took out the otoscope. He went towards the right side.

“Not that one, left one please,” Olivia raised her voice.

“I know…I know. Give me a second. I’ll sort this out. Let me inspect the right ear first.” The doctor put his glasses on and looked into the right ear. “The right side is clear, now, let me see the other side,” he said gingerly, pulled the earlobe down and looked through the lens of his scope.

Amrita squeezed Olivia’s hands. “You are doing fine. You’ll be okay,” she patted her.

The nurse switched off the fan and stood ready with a pair of forceps and a green towel to catch anything in sight that popped out from her ear.

“There is nothing here other than a little bit of wax, nothing else. No need to worry. If there is something, usually it swirls around. There is nothing. It might just be an itch,” said the doctor.

“Are there any drops or something to apply,” asked Amrita.

“No, you don’t need anything. I checked thoroughly, not a single thing in there.”

“Thank you so much doctor,” said Amrita. “How much do I need to pay?”

“No, nothing, she is my first foreign patient, I am not charging anything,” said the doctor. “But I would like to take a picture with her, as a souvenir,” he said. He took a Polaroid camera from his drawer and asked Kasi to take a picture of him with Olivia and the nurse.

The next morning, the local daily came out with Dr. Pillai smiling on the front page beside his foreign patient. Olivia saw it in the breakfast hall and burst out. “This doctor is a cheat, and he didn’t ask for my permission to use me in an advertisement like this! Do you know that I hardly slept last night? Something is still inside my ear. I can still feel it. I have decided to leave this place,” she complained to Amrita.

“Really? I am so sorry,” said Amrita. “Let me talk to the manager. He might have some numbers,” she rushed to the office behind the crescent hall.

On the way back she saw Kasi carrying vegetables to the kitchen. She called him. “Kasi, you know the doctor we saw yesterday, was he a qualified doctor?”

“Why? How is the woman? Is she better?”

“No, she is not. He cheated us. I am really angry. People like him make me upset.”

“This is where we used to go. I don’t know whether he is qualified or not. But he had charged a lot for Selvam, one of our villagers. Would you like to go for a local type of remedy instead? We do that all the time.”

Olivia sat silently for a few minutes and then nodded in agreement.

Kasi took three shallots and bird’s-eye chillies from the kitchen, chewed on them and blew into Olivia’s ear. And a tiny ant came out.

 

The Village Officer

 

The village officer was playing with a marble earth paperweight. He sent the peon and called Amrita in. Kasi followed her with a requisition letter bearing the villagers’ thumb impressions. The officer took the letter from Kasi, and began to read it out loud whilst trying to correct the numerous grammatical errors, his brows frowning endlessly. “Madam, let me make this clear,” he said spinning the paperweight on the glass table. “These people are not going to change. Please understand this simple truth first.”

“But, sir, this is an issue which affects all of us…” Amrita quietly said.

“Madam, the government is doing all it can. Ultimately, only education can bring about a change. And that will take time as you understand. We must do this first,” said the officer.

Amrita did not give in. “I heard that the girls drop out of school because there aren't any toilet facilities for them to use.”

“Ah…ahh…ahh no toilets! Big deal! This is just an excuse for them to drop out. Those who want to study will study wherever they are. Regardless of whether there are toilets or not. There wasn't any toilet facility when I was in the school.”

Kasi interrupted him. “Sir, we have come to ask for the loan allotted by the government. We all have signed the requisition form.”

“Ah ah ahh. Who are you? I haven’t seen you before.”

“I’m one of the villagers. I was in Mumbai.”

“You say you are one of the villagers. Do you know about anything that’s happening here? I, myself have sanctioned twelve loans for these people. Do you know what they did? They bought gold chains and earrings. And the only thing I gained was a bad reputation from the higher officials. I heard Bill Gates’ wife is helping to build toilets. I have this number somewhere,” he said rummaging inside the table drawer.

“Sir, we didn’t come here to get Bill Gates’ money,” said Amrita. “We came here to ask you what has been fairly and legitimately allotted to our village.”

“I’ll see what I can do madam,” the village officer said to Amrita. “This letter…there are a lot of grammatical errors here, madam. Ask them to correct it and send it with this boy tomorrow. I’ll see what I can do.”

The next day Kasi took a typewritten requisition letter with the villagers’ signatures and thumb impressions. “Oh, you again? Early in the morning? For toilet business?” The village officer laughed at him and took the letter and corrected it again. “The letter is fine, but why are the signatures going from east to west? The thumb impressions aren’t looking great either.”

“Sir, what do you expect from people who don’t know how to write or sign their names?” asked Kasi. “Do we need to pay anything extra? Do you need any present for the loan?”

“No, no. I think because the village is far from town, the contractors won’t be interested.”

“Then pay us, and we’ll do it ourselves.”

“So that you can loot the money and run away to Mumbai?”

“Sir, the toilet is an essential need sir. This has to be done as soon as possible. Half of the Indian homes have no toilets.”

“Ahh…ahhh..ah..What were you doing in Mumbai? Were you preparing for the Indian civil service?”

“No, sir, I was in the criminal service,” smiled Kasi. “You know chopping arms and legs off…that sort of job.”

The village officer frowned and stared at him up and down. “Don’t bluff! Are you the one who helped Dawood Ibrahim cross the borders? Remember, you are talking to a village administrative officer. You haven’t got a knife with you, have you?” asked the officer.

“Actually I do. For self-defense,” said Kasi and pulled out the rusty-covered gun with a plaster wrapped around its grip.

“Keep it, keep it. I don’t want any trouble. I have a family to feed!” the village officer said with a pale face. “I’m a good public servant. I always wanted to help people out. But I've never been appreciated, by the people and by the bureaucrats above.”

 

The District Collector

 

A toilet block with eight squat rooms was built and an inauguration was planned. A drawing of a man with a handlebar moustache pointed to the men’s section and a portrait of Kate Winslet was drawn to the women’s. The date and dignitaries had been engraved in the foundation stone, stating it had been built under the scheme for the uplifting of scheduled castes.

On his way to a redressal camp, the Punjabi Sikh district collector agreed to visit the village. The streets were promptly swept; the litter was wiped away. The mud road leading up to the main road junction was decorated with coconut leaves. The village officer himself, cut off the low tree branches remembering the height of the district collector.

The district collector arrived on a Sunday evening. He was so tall that he had to bend down when he got out of the car. He had to stoop when talking to the villagers. He wore a red turban, he had rolled and tied his beard and kept nodding at the villagers with a gentle smile. Finally, he cut the ribbon, inaugurating the toilet block and the new library, which was built with the money that Olivia had crowd-funded. He stepped inside the library and browsed through the books and found that they were in fact children’s school books. He donated five thousand rupees to buy books for the library.

Amrita was busy serving mango juice and biscuits to the guests whilst the children ran behind her, trying to steal extra biscuits. She offered drinks to the elderly and wiped the sweat off a cripple’s forehead with a napkin and gave him some juice in a white plastic cup.

The district collector went to have a chat with her. “Actually, I was talking about you. I’m so pleased. You are the real face of young India. I heard the village council elections are due. You must compete in them. Have you heard of Chhavi Rajawat? She is doing very well in a village in Rajasthan.”

“No, I’m not interested in politics,” said Amrita. “I just love these children. I love to do something for them.”

”Good, good good,” said the district collector. He ate two biscuits and walked over to the village women. He spoke to them in native Tamil.

“Sir, how did you learn Tamil so well?” Rajini asked him.

“Oh, that was one of the questions they asked me when I went for the civil service exam,” said the district collector. “India is a multicultural, multilingual place. How would I understand these people without speaking their language? So, I answered that language is a vehicle of culture. Without knowing local languages, I wouldn’t be able to understand people. And so, I learn native languages wherever I go. And I got in.” To prove himself further, he went and asked the villagers a few more questions in Tamil. But instead of asking how many kids Rajini had, the collector asked how many husbands she had. The villagers burst out laughing. The collector apologized and encouraged Rajini to contest for the Panjayat election.

 

The Lost Earrings

 

The tractor stood like a chariot at the front gate.

“Very powerful one! Has thirty horsepower!” said the manager to the Brahmin.

The Brahmin did prayers and went around the tractor three times whilst sprinkling rose water onto the wheels and to the seats. He drew lines on the tractor with sandalwood paste and kumkum bindi in the rearview mirror. He then lit a cluster of incense sticks, letting the smoke twirl around the steering wheel.

Amrita took the keys from the Brahmin’s tray and handed them to Kasi. “Go on, start it,” she told him. Kasi smiled back shyly and waved his hands to the villagers who were standing on the other side of the dirt road.  He climbed up and sat in the driver’s seat. The plastic wrap on the seat and the gear lever was still untouched. He felt the smoothness of the steering wheel and breathed in the new oily and rubbery smell. He thrust the key inside the greasy keyhole and turned the engine on. The tractor roared to life like a lion and smoke spurted out through its front exhaust hose as if it were a train. The villagers crowded around him and clapped their hands.

“My predictions are never wrong,” said Rajini to another. “These two are going to cause trouble. Trouble for all of us in the village.”

“Which two? What are you talking about?”

“Can’t you understand what I’m saying? These two! Kasi and Amrita.”

“What’s wrong with them? What have you seen?”

“I haven’t seen anything yet. But I will soon,” she nodded with a smile. “I watch things closely. I don’t like the look of that girl. I think she is going to kill this poor boy.”

“What you mean by that? Don’t be jealous! Just because you don’t have a husband, you look at everything differently. They are young ones. Even if they kiss or snog behind the cactus bush, what is wrong with that?”

“It’s not me. It is the truth! How many of the villagers got married to someone from another caste? Don’t you know how many Dalit boys get killed and girls get burnt each year for falling in love with higher castes. He is like my son; I won’t let that happen.”

Kasi drove the tractor and it went past the gates and got into the unused Ashram land. He lowered the plough and drove past in a straight line up to the wooden bridge and then back again. The tractor made four deep burrows in the dry land. Dust rose up in the air and shimmered in the morning sunlight. Children ran behind shouting gleefully. They saw some glittering objects thrown up by the deep ploughing and picked them up.

“They are the earrings that belong to the women who participated in the temple entry protests. Finders keepers,” Kasi said.

 

The Blacksmith

 

A blacksmith came to the village with a blower and a cowhide. He repaired his blower with a rusted needle and kindled the firewood in the middle of the dirt road. “This is wrought iron, look at this. The kind they use in the train tracks,” he said and forged it into a shape of a trident. Once heated, the trident glowed like a piece of gold. The blacksmith ran to the stream and dipped it into the cold water. It made a sizzling sound as though meat was cooked in beef fat. “Do you know what? I crossed seven seas and hills to come here. I came here to dig out the gold,” he said. “Do you know what? In our land, our Gods are laid out on golden beds. Our women wore gold that hung from their heads to their toes. They drank palm wine and danced with men,” he boasted and, reaching down to his leather pouch, he gulped some wine down and then offered it to the elders to taste. “Ullaaloo..ullaloo,” he sang and danced around the fire.

“You say your land is paved with gold. You say your women hide their private parts with dresses of gold. Then why are you begging for food?” asked Rajini.

“Ullaaloo..ullaaloo,” the blacksmith sang and jumped in front of her. “Ah…I come to ask you whether you would marry me,” he knelt in front of her. “I’ll marry you and take you as a princess to the other world. I’ll present you with a key of a bungalow made of gold. Take a good look at me, I am the goldsmith, the one who made your earrings!” he smiled with his golden teeth.

Children sat on the road laughed and laughed. Girls hid behind the neem tree and made fun of the hole they could see in his striped underwear.

“He is a funny one! He is telling stories to make us laugh!” said an elder. “Rajini, would you like to be his princess?” the elder smirked.

Rajini twisted her head in shyness.

“Let him stay here for a while and sharpen our knives and ploughs. We’ll share our food with him,” agreed the villagers.

The blacksmith was standing in the stream practicing his Surya Namaskar with his palms pressed together. He bent and poured water into the direction of the morning sun. When he caught sight of Kasi, he hastily finished off his ritual. He waded out of the water and patted his wet hair dry under the sun rays. Then he pulled his hair up into a knot and addressed Kasi: “I have heard so much about you. You have been sending all the children to school. You’re entertaining the mentally ill at the library. Do you know what impressed me the most? When I heard that you’ve been teaching the elderly how to read and write. I myself, can speak seven languages. Did you know that? I worked hard and learnt Sanskrit. I do all this black magic. If you want to seduce a girl, I have medicine to help you do this. You just have to hold it in between your thumbnail and drop it in her food. The next moment, she’ll be at your feet worshipping you like a puppy.  Now what can I do for you?” asked the blacksmith.

Kasi gave him his broken plough blade to repair. The blacksmith took the broken plough blade and ran his fingers over its sharp end. His eyes widened as he saw the sticky stuff besmeared there. He touched each fingertip and smelt it.  “Ahhhhh…uhhhh,” he burped and yawned. “Sulphur stone! Do you know what was caught on this plough? A stone of sulphur. A stone of life. Where did you find it? Tell me. Where?” he asked with a smile.

“Somewhere in the fields. I threw it back. I don’t remember exactly,” said Kasi.

“I’m going to look for it,” said the blacksmith. “It is the queen of all stones. If it’s melted in a fire, do you know what will come out? Mercury. Pure mercury. It can easily be turned into gold. All you need is a virgin girl. You are not too far! Make a pouch with the mercury in and touch the private parts of a girl on the fifteenth day of the full moon, the mercury will turn into gold. Pure gold! It’s all written here. Read it for yourself,” he showed a palm leaf manuscript to Kasi.

 

The Unicorn

 

An injured bull was brought to the cow shelter. The left horn was broken and a patch of dark blood clotted around the base. Flies buzzed in and out through its crushed remains and it stank like rotten flesh. The bull’s right horn was fine. It was sharpened and painted yellow to attack the bull tamers. Its ears were cut short and a white scar ran down along its nose ropes. A fresh wound was visible on its right hind foot, and the bull kept swatting the flies away with its tail.

The vet called the bull a unicorn. He gently removed the nose ropes from its head and asked Selvam to give it a proper wash and spread out a rubber mat on the floor to keep it dry. A ceiling fan had been fitted on the pole above their heads and ran all day and night. The vet gave medicines and recorded what it ate and what it didn’t.

“It’s cruel and barbaric,” said the vet to the volunteers. “Look at the poor thing! These animals are trained for bullfighting by being tortured and mutilated since the day they were born. We came by this one legally, but some political parties are supporting bullfight in the name of tradition. We say we are civilized, look at the poor thing.”

Olivia went and caressed the bull’s fluffy black tail.

“Stay back, Olivia, stay back,” warned the vet from his table. “Have a good look at its tail. It’s been fractured several times. At the race, they apply chilli powder and all sorts of things into its back passage. It might get scared if you go any nearer.”

The bull saw Olivia, rose quickly from the rubber mat, lifted its tail and urinated. There was an unknown fear in its bulging eyes. It blinked at Olivia and suddenly jumped over the metal barricade and trampled the grass on its way into the meadows.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” said Olivia and tried to follow the bull.

The bull swiftly turned around and started chasing Olivia through the bathing area, soon diverting to the shed where they kept the fodder.  Olivia ran until she fell into the weedy pond and had to swim across to the other side. While getting out she bruised her elbows and her tooth broke and she started to bleed.

“Olivia, it was the ochre robe you wore,” said the vet. “They are fed with alcohol and mango bark potions and trained to get into a frenzy at the sight of human beings.”

Olivia was made to sit on the vet’s chair and he cleaned and applied medicine to her wounds. “These are herd animals, you see. They feel lonely if they are left alone. They have the same emotions as we have. We need to recover them psychologically too.”

Olivia rested in her Ashram room for two days after that.

Except for the gaping wound on the bull’s nose, all its other wounds healed, and it started to enjoy the green grass and tamarind seeds. It got better and gained twelve kilograms, but its rage against humans never changed.

On Friday, when Selvam went to give the bull some water, it pummeled him against the water tank and severed his neck. He lay there, in his own blood, until the next morning, where he was found by Kasi and admitted into the government hospital for surgery.

The Invocation

 

The invocation at the local shrine had started at twelve. The lizard skin udukkai and the cowhide pampai drums were beaten. Nathaswarm, the wind instrument, blew the favorite tunes of the Goddess. Villagers who worked in the town and women who had been married off in the neighboring villages, had all returned for the function. Each family member held a baby chicken as an offering while they queued in front of the shrine. Women dressed up well in silk saris walked around chatting and sharing betel leaves whilst elders sat under the shadow of the neem tree and gave instructions to the others. Men sat under the shade and talked loudly.

The lizard skin udukkai picked up a fast pace and the drummers started to dance.

With a scary scream, the Goddess descended on the priest, but this year she was full of rage. The priest whimpered and twisted his body in wrath. He desperately waved a huge iron sickle in the air, bit his tongue and spat blood on his bare chest.

“Is it true, you sons of stray dogs? Is it true?” the Goddess shouted through the mouth of the priest. “How many stray dogs have converted into Christians?”

“We ask for your forgiveness on their behalf, Goddess. Please, we beg you for forgiveness. We shall excommunicate them,” said the villagers in fear. “We will never attend a function at their family.”

“Is this fair? Is it? You sons of bitches? Is this fair?” the priest possessed by the Goddess sneered at the elders. “If you all resort to this, who is going to offer me a chicken? Are you going to abandon me? Are you? Speak!” The veins in his neck bulged and his face went blue until he grabbed a black chicken from the floor, bit its neck and sucked its blood dry. “Go and ask the sons of stray dogs. Go and ask them. Will a white man become their father if they offer him some food? Will a Brahmin ever marry their daughters if they pretend to be of a higher caste? You can wear pants; carry the black bible and walk to the church and can sing in English; but you can’t change your caste. That is the curse on this land. Go and tell the stray dogs.”

“We ask for forgiveness on their behalf. We brought the chicken, so you would have mercy on us. Have mercy on us. Don’t give us chicken pox or smallpox this year,” begged the elders.

To the right of the shrine, the bull from the cow shelter was standing and enjoying the betel leaves that had been offered to the Goddess. When a high decibel cracker went off, the bull strayed into the crowd and started charging at anyone in its way. It hit the tube lights and trampled on the decorations at the entrance to the shrine. The priest possessed by the Goddess saw this, threw his sickle on the ground and ran for his life. “Run, run! It is a dangerous one trained for the bull fight!” said the priest as he ran through the paddy fields.

The villagers shouted and stamped on each other in a wild frenzy. Women fell to the ground and ran screaming hysterically in every direction. Children wailed and ran recklessly, bumping into each other. Their parents chased after them. Old folks forgot their walking sticks and let them drop to the ground as they tried to help each other flee the chaotic scene.

Kasi ran after the bull with a rope and tried to throw the loop around its neck but instead slipped on the gravel and injured his arms and knees. Soon he got up and resumed the chase.

Men climbed up the trees and women hid behind walls. They called out at Kasi, cheering him on: “Go on Kasi…go on…throw the rope around the horn. Go and get a bamboo stick through his legs,” they jeered.

The bull ran around in circles, unable to charge at anyone. It stopped and panted in the middle of the street. It pawed at the ground with its front left foot.  Kasi removed his shirt and adjusted his waist belt. He rubbed his palm with sand to get a better grip of the rope. He took a deep breath and approached the bull from the front.

The bull ran off when he saw Kasi and began to chase those who were hiding behind the coconut tree. He made them jump over the thorny fence. The women hid behind it and  threw baskets and sticks at the bull.  Amrita, who happened to be passing through in a white car, witnessed the scene and stopped the car. She got out, climbed up the cement fence and stood there watching Kasi chase the bull to the ground. Her white dress flapped with the wind and the bull finally got distracted. It gave up. Kasi approached swiftly and tethered it to a coconut tree.

 

The Oxtail Soup

 

The bull was kept tethered to the tree until the day darkened into night. It severed the hibiscus on the fence and rubbed the tree trunk with its yellow horn. Its forefeet became tangled in the rope, and when it heard footsteps and people chattering it tried to leap onto the street, horn pointed viciously towards the unseen threat.

The priest, who was walking past with a heavy bag, panicked and dropped his brandy bottles in the middle of the street. Looking around, he hastily hid them with his towel.

The young boys noticed him. “We‘ve been washing all these big pots since evening. We cleaned the shrine. Give us one of those bottles,” demanded a tall, skinny boy.

“No, no, no. You can’t drink this. This is an offering for the idols. You’ll get sick and vomit blood,” said the priest.

“Who has that much blood left anyway? We boys are really tired. So, if someone breaks into the offering box like they did last year, don’t come and ask me who is responsible then,” said the tall boy.

The priest took in a deep breath and sighed. Slowly he reached inside the bag and pulled out a bottle. “You must share this with everyone. I don’t want any complaints,” he said and gave the boy the bottle. “Is this Kasi lost again? Has anyone seen him?”

“He took the people who had been hurt by the bull to hospital. He just hasn’t come back yet,” someone said.

“This bloody bull spoiled the whole function. Look at where Kasi has tied the beast up - the rope is nearly torn through. There’s going to be another rampage soon,” said the priest. “Why can’t all of you just chase the beast into the jungle? I’ll give you another bottle.”

“Give us another bottle then. We’ll call the blacksmith and chase it away,” said the tall boy.  With a glint in their eyes, the boys ran behind the shrine with the bottles. One of them went to look for the blacksmith.

The blacksmith came and squatted with the boys and drank the brandy from a coconut shell. He licked his lips. “Let me tell you something. Forget about chasing the bull away. Give me a couple more drinks and I’ll slaughter it and make a fine oxtail soup. A tasty, first class, oxtail soup. You won’t have tasted anything like it in your whole lives. You can keep it warm on an earthen pot for seven days and drink it before bedtime. You will all become Bollywood stars!” The blacksmith snapped his fingers.

The boys were tempted. “But we aren’t allowed to eat beef here. If the Cow Sangh find out, they’ll kill us.”

“The Cow Sangh!” The blacksmith cleared his throat and spat on the floor. “Who are these Sangh? It’s not today or yesterday that we started to eat beef. We’ve eaten beef for generations. Now, the Cow Sangh comes to cause trouble and all the cows have to be exported to foreign countries. Do you think the white man worships cows? They go straight on to his plate. Here, our children are starving.”

“No, we used to cook beef before, but when the Ashram was built here, we had a village meeting with Guruji and the Cow Sangh, and it was agreed by the elders not to buy or cook beef anymore.”

“You are young boys. You should think for yourselves and decide whether to eat beef or not. Not let them decide what you eat. I can slaughter this bull and butcher it for you. It is a real art. Did you know that?”

The boys discussed it among themselves. Two of them said they didn’t want to get into trouble and went home. But the tall boy convinced the others. “Don’t bother about them. Let’s slaughter it. It’s been awhile since we had a piece of meat.”

The blacksmith brought the bull over and tied it to a cornerstone behind the shrine. Then he took a knife and started to sharpen it on the stone.  A few boys squatted while a few more sat on the floor cross-legged. The rest remained standing, slouched over slightly, with arms around their chests, watching the blacksmith with fascination.

“Not sitting down like that! I can’t do this job by myself. I need some help,” ordered the blacksmith. He patted and caressed the bull. Then he bent down near its right hind foot and tied a knot just above the hoof, and then another knot around its left hoof, tightening it. He took another piece of rope, tied the fore legs together and pushed the bull down onto the ground.

The bull fell over in the mud. It was in shock; didn’t move. Its eyes bulged and the whites were exposed. Tears wet its dark, shiny eyelids and trickled down its nose. The blacksmith sat over it and stamped on its forefeet, running his fingers over its windpipe.

“Hold on, hold on a minute,” shouted the boys, “we need the blood to fry it.” The tall boy came up with an aluminum pot.

The bull tried to wrestle free. Realizing the task was impossible; it let out a long, feeble moan. The blacksmith held the knife and with the blade, drew a line from the bull’s ear down to its windpipe. “For our health and wealth,” he said, and slit the skin folds, through the windpipe to the ears. Then he dropped the knife and went and lit a cigarette.

Like water bursting from a hand pump, the bull’s bright red blood spurted into the pot. It kicked, twisted its body and made a gurgling sound through its windpipe. The blacksmith finished smoking, came back and untied the bull’s legs. He poked it with the tip of his knife. “It’s not dead yet. I’ll take its cowhide for myself,” he said and flipped the bull over on its other side.

The bull gave one final kick, then stretched out its legs and died. The blacksmith sharpened the knife again on the cornerstone and skinned it. A few villagers and elders joined in to help him. They brought their own knives and started demanding for the best part of the meat. “My wife is pregnant,” said one. “My father has asthma. I need the liver.” said another one.

At midnight, when Kasi brought the injured from the hospital, he saw the villagers fighting with one another for the beef meat. “I got only two rib bones!” one shouted. “I don’t want anything, just the dark portion of the intestine,” demanded another. One begged for the brain and the other for the hoof.

When Kasi witnessed their arguments he scratched his head and sat on the floor. “Why are you doing this?” he shouted at the boys. “If you want meat, we could have bought a bull and slaughtered it. It isn’t right to do this.”

“How long are we going to tolerate them? We need to butcher one every week,” yelled a drunken boy.

“They are coming to our land and teaching us culture? We’ll teach them our culture,” said another one.

“All right, but, if anything happens tomorrow, we must all stand together. We’ve been suppressed for thousands of years so we are suspicious of each other and will never get along,” Kasi said solemnly. He then spread banana leaves on the ground and shared the meat equally amongst everyone.

In the meantime, the blacksmith was busy preparing the oxtail soup in a large aluminium pot. The villagers  all woke up and queued the next morning for the hot oxtail soup. They drank until they were full and also took some home.

 

The Three Days of Mourning

 

“This is so ridiculous!” said Guruji in a clear, crisp voice. He had just returned from a foreign tour. He went straight to the boardroom and called all the staff to an emergency meeting.

“Guruji, it’s very tragic that this happened during your absence,” started Nitin, the manager. “We have conducted some enquiries; this was the work of a homeless blacksmith. He was the one who had the idea of butchering the bull.”

“I am so angry,” said the vet flipping through the folder he kept for the unicorn. “It was just above 500 kilograms when it arrived. The last recorded weight was 580. We’d been working very hard.”

“Butchering and eating a bull is their Karma,” said Guruji. “They have done it for thousands of years anyway. But, we explained it clearly when the ashram was built, and they all agreed not to eat beef meat. It really hurts,” said Guruji.

“Yes, Guruji. They are sending us a message. A political message,” said the manager. “A clear and yet a hidden message. We all need to be aware of it,” he explained in a level voice, almost devoid of emotion. “These kinds of things should be nipped in the bud.”

“Won’t these Dalits grow up, Guruji?” asked another board member.  “We have done so much for them.  We’ve built them a proper road, given them free medicine and jobs. Why can’t they appreciate these things?”

“Believe me, I know. It is the same story everywhere. Once they get used to these kinds of favors, they become lazy, they rely on the system and eventually they start to bite the fingers that feed them,” another board member grumbled.

Guruji nodded. “But the one I am most worried about now is Amrita. She is very close to the villagers. She plays with and bathes the children. She goes to vaccinate them. She helps them with their lessons. I am worried in case they do something to her. If anything like that should happen...”

“We understand, Guruji. We’ll keep a close eye on her,” said Nitin. “We informed the Cow Sangh of this tragic incident. They are going to issue the blacksmith with a warning.”

Three days of mourning were announced at the ashram, special prayers were conducted for the bull and the villagers were not allowed to enter the ashram or work in the farms.

 

Naranath

 

The blacksmith had been found lying face down by the abandoned well at the end of the dirt road. He was covered with a heap of fodder, wearing no shirt or sarong, and his stripped underwear was wet from the morning mist.

“Drunkard!” the villagers cursed and started to spread the fodder along the road in the sunlight. The blacksmith’s slipper had hooked itself onto the cane so they threw it in his direction.

“Hey! Wake up! The mongrels are going to bite off your balls!” shouted one, kicking his feet.

The blacksmith remained there, stiff. He gave no sign of life. There was not a single scratch or a speck of blood that could be seen on him. Just an emotion, a sense of fear, frozen on his dead face.

The villagers left their work half done and gathered around.

“It’s obvious who has done this. For some strange reason I couldn’t sleep last night,” said Rajini. “I heard a motorbike’s engine around midnight.”

“Nothing escapes you. Did you know anything about the blacksmith?” asked another.

“He’d told me all about himself. He used to be a goldsmith. He had lost his mind and wandered around with the caste of people who do black magic and tantras. He hadn’t got anyone. He just wanders around.”

The villagers covered their mouths and stared at one another in shock.

“He was funny. He made me laugh. He said he’ll marry me and make me a princess in his palace.”

“What tasty soup he made! How delicious, with pepper and shallots, I can still taste it. Whoever did this should be bitten by a cobra,” mumbled a granny.

Selvam kneeled down and inspected the body. He flipped the body over and checked its back for any bruises. He then bent down and smelled the corpse’s mouth. “Smells of toddy. I don’t think he took any poison. He might have choked or smothered with the fodder. I can’t figure it out.” He got up, went over to the stream and washed his hands. He called Kasi. “Kasi, go and see whether he has any address or number on his hut.”

Kasi ran to the blacksmith’s hut. The torchlight was switched on, but as the battery was almost drained, the bulb glowed dimly in a corner. Two cow hides were hung from the top pole. His blower, bag and plates were thrown across the road. Tins, bottles and pots were scattered amongst the cardboard boxes on the floor. Kasi turned the bag inside out and the stones the blacksmith had bought from the villagers in a pouch as well as a few palm leaf manuscripts, rolled out. There was no address or number to be seen anywhere in order to contact his family.

“We are not going back to the days when we keep our mouth shut and accept all they say and do,” said Kasi and came forward. He called the boys. “We’ll take the body to the ashram and protest,” he said to the boys.

“Yes, yes. The foreigners who have come all this way to our village should know the true colors of these hypocrites,” the boys said in anger.

They removed the scarecrow’s shirt and trousers and dressed up the corpse. “An innocent man killed for eating beef,” they wrote on a piece of paper and pinned it onto the blacksmith’s chest. A picture of Ambedkar appeared. ‘I was born a Hindu, but will not die a Hindu,' said a placard.

They then tied the corpse onto a bamboo stick and walked slowly towards the ashram, carrying the body behind them. A police van was reversing near the front gate. When they caught sight of the boys, two policemen jumped out and stopped them. “We’ll look into this. We’ll look into this. You can all go home,” said one of the policemen.

No one moved.

The sub inspector jumped out from the van. “This homeless man is a criminal! Anyone who has helped him hide will also be brought to justice! We will take his body for further investigation,” the sub inspector said and asked the boys to load the body into the van.

“We need justice! We need justice,” shouted the villagers. “We need justice for the man that's been murdered on our doorstep! We want this to be registered as a murder!” demanded the villagers.

“No, it is not up to me to decide if this was a murder. I can only register this as an unnatural death,” said the sub inspector.

The villagers all came and sat on the hot tar road, blocking the police van. Those who worked in the factories, took the day off. Children were informed at their school that there had been a death in their village. They made a brick stove and cooked rice congee with fodder and twigs. Boys rolled a huge boulder in the middle of the road, painted it lime and kept a handful of ripened paddy and a flower wreath at the stone. They kept the blacksmith’s blower, cowhide and stones beneath.

“Protest! Protest! Until justice,” they shouted.

“We’re not afraid! We’re not afraid! “Murder! Murder! Register this as a murder,” the villagers demanded.

Selvam crouched in the gutter and watched them. He called Kasi. “Not bad at all. I thought the boys were only fit for watching films and wandering around. Well done Kasi,” the communist praised him.

“Brother, not just that, look at this,” Kasi pulled out a gun and showed it to Selvam. “You wait and see. I’m going to shoot whoever is responsible for this.”

“Kasi, what is it? Give it to me? What is it?” Selvam took the gun from Kasi. “A Katta gun! Homemade. You want to change the world with a rusty gun? The time of armed struggle is long over. The bourgeoisie holds all the weapons and all the power. They’ll finish us off. This is good for nothing,” said the communist and hurled the gun into the stream.

The sub inspector noticed it. He called Kasi. “It's nearly 3 o’ clock now. I can’t wait anymore. It's a health and environmental issue. According to Health Law 1939, we have the right to take action and remove the body. If you want to make a complaint, come with me to the station. Then I can register this as a suspicious murder,” he said and so Kasi followed him to the police station.

 

The Red Corridor

 

“I know you don’t read newspapers,” Amrita said when she entered Guruji’s bedroom, “but, you need to have a look at this.” She showed him an article that was on the sixth page of the Daily Star.  It read:

In a predawn operation, Q Branch police have arrested a suspected Maoist in the Harijan Colony. According to initial reports, Kasi, a nineteen-year old male from the Harijan Colony left the village when he was ten following a communist protest. His whereabouts have since been unknown. A homemade weapon and four live rounds were recovered from the suspect. When attempts to make him surrender failed, the police had to fire at him in defence. The injured suspect is now being treated at the Medical college Hospital. As he is fluent in Hindi and Bihari, the investigating officers suspect him to have had training from the Maoist stronghold.  Nothing significant has been found in his home, but the villagers are providing their full support and more information is hoped to be retrieved soon. It is worth mentioning that one year ago the suspect had threatened the village administrative officer for a loan with forged documents.

The Maoists are trying to link a front from Northern Bihar to South India. The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has referred to them as today’s largest internal security threat.

Amrita followed Guruji’s eyes as he read and waited for him to respond. Guruji stood up and left the newspaper lying face down on the chest of drawers. He gently stroked his beard but remained silent.

 “Aren’t we responsible for this?” Her voice broke the silence.  “One has been murdered for eating beef and the other one will be killed by the police in self-defence. Aren’t we accountable for this?”

Guruji tapped his fingertips. His eyes were locked onto the birds flying on the horizon.

Amrita went and stood next to him by the window. “We can’t just shut our eyes and keep quiet you know. That would be inhuman. How can we talk about spirituality if we don’t understand reality...I mean...other people’s reality?”

Guruji took a second look at the article and scratched his forehead, his brow furrowed. “Mmm..” he sighed eventually. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“No, you don’t need to do anything. I have already spoken to a lawyer and the District Collector. I’ve arranged for Kasi to be bailed out,” she said and left the room.

 

The Kiss

 

Amrita bumped into Selvam and asked him for directions to Kasi’s house. “I am so sorry about the blacksmith’s death,” she said to him while walking through the narrow streets.

“Oh, don’t be sorry. It’s been a week and almost everyone has forgotten about him,” said Selvam. “The blacksmith was a homeless man. If we start feeling sorry for all these homeless people, we won’t be able to carry on with our lives.”

“And I’m sorry about Kasi.”

“Oh, he’ll be fine. Thanks for bringing him out, though,” said Selvam.

Amrita was silent. She followed him through the cow-dung paved streets. The dogs got up, looked at them, barked and ran into the thatched and clay-tiled houses. There wasn’t anyone at the coconut fronded shop. On the left side of the shop, sweets and sodas were covered with a green towel, and pickles, incense sticks, washing powder and shampoo sachets hung in a semicircle as a garland. Television and electric cables hung overhead. Naked children chased the newly hatched baby chickens. A goat that had been tied up to the mango tree, climbed up its trunk, balanced itself on a branch and tried to reach the leaves above. Another goat was tied to the windowpane and kept ringing the bell on its neck with every scrape on the glass.

“This is his house. Kasi, Kasi! Someone has come to see you!” called Selvam standing by the mango tree.

There was no response. Amrita waited for a few seconds and peeked through the door. Then she tentatively removed her sandals, left them on the veranda and slipped inside.

Grandpa tossed the beedi through the window and looked at her. Smoke slowly filled in the air as it escaped through his nostrils.

“Amma, who are you Amma?” Grandpa asked. His eyes widened as if he’d seen someone from a different world.

“Grandpa, she’s from the Ashram. She’s come to see Kasi,” said Selvam through the window.

“Is that Selvam? Selvam, come. Come and sit,” Grandpa said, reaching for the sedge mat that was under his bed.

“Amma,” Grandpa kept the walking stick on his lap and gripped it with both hands. “Kasi won’t listen to me Amma, Kasi won’t listen to me! He is leaving me here and going to the town. Who is going to look after the house? Who is going to look after the goats? Look! The squirrels are eating all the mangos! I don’t think I can live too much longer. I am eighty-one. I am counting my days.” Grandpa said to her.

Amrita nodded and held his hands. “Don’t worry Grandpa. I’ve come to ask him to work at the ashram,” she said loudly. “Guruji asked him to come and see him.” She looked through the kitchen door and saw Kasi squatting and milking a white goat.

Kasi came in carrying a small brass pot filled with thick goat milk. He set it down on the floor and smiled at her. “I’ll make tea,” he said and sat near the firewood stove and kindled the fire with an old newspaper.  Soon the smoke from the stove filled the room and Grandpa started to cough. The sunlight and smoke beams met just beyond the kitchen door where Amrita stood and made her look like Laxmi, the goddess of wealth.

Grandpa brought his hands together, interlocking his fingers. “This is the girl. This is the girl,” he muttered. “Will you get the job for him at the ashram?” he asked Amrita.

Amrita nodded. “Kasi, Guruji wanted to see you,” she said, resting one hand onto the wooden doorframe.

“I don’t want to work there anymore. I passed on the message to him already,” said Kasi and stirred the milk, which had begun to boil and spill over the saucepan. He added sugar and tea dust, and just when the milk started to boil out for the second time, he filtered the creamy layers, tea dust and the goat hairs from the mix and poured it into the stainless-steel cups.

“I’ll give it to them,” said Amrita. She took two cups of tea and handed one to Grandpa and one to Selvam. Grandpa grabbed the rim of the hot cup, tasted and licked his lips. Amrita smiled at him gently and sat on his coir cot. It sunk, and she spilled some tea on the floor. “Sorry”, she said and tried to get up.

Selvam watched her in admiration. “We are the oppressed. We eat beef. You are of a higher caste and you are drinking with us. I just can’t believe my eyes,” said Selvam.

“Somehow I fell in love with this place. And I fell in love with the people. Regarding the bull, I had a discussion with my father. He said it would hurt the sentiments of the Hindus.”

“Who are we then? Not Hindus? the communist smirked at her. “Do you know Lord Shiva accepted Kannapa’s meat as an offering?”

“Yes, you are Hindus. I was so narrow minded. But now I understand. This has taught me to open up, to be non-judgmental. To be honest, my father is very upset about the death in the village.”

“Amrita all these paddy fields were ours once. This was the place where our grandparents worked. It is painful to know we are not allowed into the farm.”

“My father is very upset about the death in the village. He wants to see Kasi. Kasi, please come and see what he has to say,” she got up from the bed, and walked over to the kitchen with her cup.

“I’m thinking of a job at the town, or maybe the brick factory,” said Kasi.

“Kasi, you must come and see him.”

“No way I’ll go do that.”

“Come and see him. I had a long chat with him yesterday.  Listen to what he has to say,” said Amrita. She leaned closer to him, without touching him she bent down and kissed his forehead.

Kasi felt her lips on his forehead, felt the warmness spreading across his body. He stood there frozen like a heron at the paddy field.

“Alright, I’ll come and see him tomorrow,” Kasi said.

 

The Eyes

 

“Kasi, let's take a walk,” Guruji patted Kasi’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. He opened the huge lion door knocker and led him through the north wing corridor beyond the yoga hall, where no guests or foreigners were allowed.

Kasi walked slowly and steadily over the red marble floor. The tinted glass windows on the right of the corridor were open to let the air in; its faint swirling and rustling indoors mixed with the flowery fragrance of the cleaning liquid from the freshly mopped floors. The wall on the left side of the hall along the corridor, was painted lurid orange and spotted with lilac depictions of naturally occurring stones. Stonehenge, elephant rocks, riverbed pebbles, and heart-shaped stones. One of the stones resembled the full, rounded breast of a woman.

“Kasi, that’s my cottage over there. The one next to it, is where our senior female devotees are staying. I don’t generally bring anyone to my cottage. The most recent visitor was a Malaysian minister.”

“Why are you taking me there then Guruji?”

“I don’t really know,” he said, thoughtfully stroking his beard. “I just wanted to invite you in for tea.”

“I’m a lower caste Guruji. I don’t think…,” Kasi swallowed up the remaining words, remembering the villagers’ warning.

Guruji laughed loudly and rested his heavy palms on Kasi’s shoulders. “That’s the reason I wanted to bring you here. I am going through a period of personal reflection, Kasi,” he looked into his eyes.

Kasi looked at Guruji inquisitively, and slowed down near the hibiscus plants in front of the house. Guruji beckoned him inside. The mantra, ‘Om Namashivayah’ was engraved on a gold plate that went along with the teak wood walls around the living room. When inside the house one had to chant the mantra, it made it feel like a temple, thought Kasi. The fragrance of the sandalwood idols on the black granite floor shifted to and fro in the air-conditioned current of the room. Two dark mahogany chairs with cherry red cushions and roll pillows were situated in the middle of the space, just beneath a low-hanging crystal chandelier. Idols of Vishnu on a snake bed, Lord Shiva, Saraswati on a lotus, the Quran, the Bible, books on Vedas, Yoga Sutras and Environmentalism were all scattered beautifully on the lone shelf and on the wheeled-wooden chest below it. Through the half-closed door facing him, Kasi stared in awe at a huge ornamental brass lamp hanging from a hook on the ceiling.

The cowrie shell curtain behind him fluttered and a middle-aged woman draped in a sleeveless blouse and silk red saree walked over slowly and glanced strangely at Kasi. She must have been in her early fifties. She carried herself with an elegance and flow that was compelling, despite the makeup she was wearing. Her fingernails were neatly trimmed and painted blue. She went back to the kitchen and brought back a bottle of water with two glasses. She wheeled the wooden chest closer to Guruji. “You should have taken these by nine,” she chided him whilst handing him two small cases of tablets and capsules.

“Where is she?” asked Guruji.

“Amrita? She must be having a bath,” she replied, rolling her eyes and heading back inside.

“She is Ms.Urmimala,” said Guruji, turning to Kasi. “She manages all the ashram affairs. She lives in Delhi, and doesn’t come here often,” he said and swallowed the tablets one by one.

He must be very ill, not as healthy as I imagined, Kasi thought to himself. “Guruji, what our villagers did was terribly wrong. They shouldn’t have killed the bull. I do apologize…”

Guruji nodded and stroked his white beard. “Kasi, I have been contemplating a few things recently,” said Guruji. “There has been an error of judgment from my part, I think. I am a Yogi, teaching this ancient wisdom of yoga around the globe. I have branches in North America and Europe and have thousands of devotees who eat beef. I don’t discriminate against them. But at home, I think I wasn’t generous enough.”

“But Guruji, is meat not bad for our health?”

“I thought so. But now, I feel I no longer have the right to preach this in a place where millions are starving.”

“Is beef truly unhealthy Guruji?” Kasi asked impatiently.

“Of course, it’s unhealthy. Eating meat is no good. I can’t justify killing of any species. And yet, I failed to see the other side of the story. Through the eyes of the sons of this land. That is my mistake. I was caught up in politics and rejected another point of view. I therefore rejected the core concept of Hinduism. I should apologize to all. I should atone for my past. I want to myself that I am not biased, and I am not carrying the relics of the barbaric caste system. To start with, I want to employ you at the ashram,” he got up and went through the kitchen door to get something.

Kasi didn’t know how to respond. He looked around and noticed a pair of eyes watching him from the half-closed wooden door that was opposite him. The minute he met their stare, he knew whose eyes these were. Amrita. She was standing near the hanging brass lamp patting her dark, damp, long hair gently with a fluffy towel. The yellow blouse she wore was tight and short. It didn’t cover her honey-hued midriff and her belly button. When she smiled and tried to move, her brown petticoat became caught on the brass lamp’s hook and exposed her untanned calf muscles.

Kasi’s heart pounded, and he felt a shiver run through his entire body. He turned his head away, but his eyes longed to gaze at her again. Guruji brought a new set of clothes and some cash in an envelope and pushed it all into Kasi’s hands. “Now you have access to anywhere in the ashram,” he said.

 

Ms.Urmimala


The evening discourse at The Crescent Hall was cancelled.  Ms.Urmimala was surprised, as this had never happened before. While at the ashram, Guruji had always tried to be there on time. She noticed his recent mood swings and indifference towards her. She felt powerless. What in the world is he thinking? How do I know if he doesn’t open his mouth? She kept asking herself as the days rolled by.

She prepared his favorite buttermilk in a large glass pitcher and garnished it with chopped coriander and curry leaves. She went and knocked on his bedroom. Guruji was settled with a book, A Brief History of Time. He turned his head slightly to glimpse at her and went back to the book. He looked tired and sweaty. The peeled skin above his grey beard twisted in annoyance.

“Jija,” she called him by his pet name. “Jija, you haven’t had a proper breakfast. Would you like to have a drink?” She left the pitcher on the glass side table and leaned against the curved hand rest of the couch.

“No, I’m fine. I’m just fine. I am not hungry,” he mumbled, absorbed in his book.

“You don’t need to be hungry to drink something. It’s buttermilk, I made it fresh for you.”

He was silent. He sighed and flipped over to the next page.

“Jija..,” called Ms. Urmimala and went and touched his shoulder. “I understand you, Jija. I know exactly how you feel. You must be feeling sad about the death in the village. You must be feeling guilty for somehow being involved in this murder. It’s okay. It’s not your fault. I spoke to Nithin. He says he didn’t tell them to kill the man. It was so unfortunate.”

Guruji rubbed his forehead and his thick grey brows that came together in a frown. “Nithin ruined everything. I don’t want to see him again.”

“Jija, please, he is my son.”

“I don’t want to see him again. He is a murderer.”

“Jija, please. Please don’t forget his service to this ashram.”

“Service? He ruined everything. Knowingly or unknowingly, he is involved in this.”

“No, he isn’t. I did speak to him. He says it was the Cow Sangh. If he is a murderer every one of us are murderers.”

“What do you mean every one of us is a murderer?” he asked, his voice strained. He got up angrily from the couch. He pulled the flowery curtain near the large glass panel. “Urmi, I don’t feel well. I don’t want to talk to you. Could you leave me alone?” he raised his hands in the air, exasperated.

“Jija, I want to talk to you. You are getting so defensive. You are completely changed. These kinds of words have never come out of your mouth before.”

Guruji kept staring out through the window. “You are the one who brought him to this ashram.”

“Yes, I did. I brought him to this place. But are you at all aware of the practical issues involved in running this place? Do you know anything about the bribery involved in maintaining everything here? Do you think that without the political help we could have maintained this place? You should stop lecturing me and keep your eyes open and think for a change.”

“Yes, I don’t know anything about this place. I don’t know anything about this country.”

“Maybe you know too much. I did tell you this before we build the ashram here. We could have stayed in Delhi.”

“You are ignorant. Really ignorant. You don’t understand how much I love this place.”

“Yes, I am ignorant. Ignorant to leave my husband and my little daughter behind and come all this way.  I believed your speeches, I believed every word you said and followed you blindly. I am ignorant. I gave all my youthful years to you. I came and slept with you when it pleased you. Yes, I am ignorant.” She broke down in sobs.

Guruji went over to her and helped her to the couch. He sat next to her and wrapped his arms around her. “I know, Urmi,” he wiped her tears with his fingers, gently, and moved her hair that had got stuck onto her wet cheeks. He held out and kissed the back of her palm and whispered, “I’m sorry. Let’s forget about this.”

Ms.Urmimala smiled a small smile through her tears, got up slowly and adjusted her sari. “Drink it now, I made it for you,” she said and looked at the buttermilk. “I’ll get you a glass.”

“It’s okay. I’ll drink this way,” said Guruji and poured the buttermilk into his mouth without letting it touch his lips. A chopped piece of coriander leaf became lodged in his windpipe and he coughed vigorously, saliva dribbling out.

“Are you okay?” she slapped and rubbed his back, concerned.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

“Let me call for some help. Amrita..Amrita!” she shouted. Amrita wasn’t there. She called reception and asked the doctor to come urgently to the cottage. She helped Guruji, who had turned a shade of green, down to the living room and propped him onto the sofa. She quickly brought over a glass of water and asked him to drink.

Guruji, sweaty and pale, tried to take a sip and painfully tried to explain, “Something… still stuck in my throat.”

“Get Nithin on the phone, quick!” she told reception. “Nithin, Guruji is not well, let’s take him to the hospital, immediately. I’ll go and call them to be prepared to receive him,” she instructed Nitin.

Guruji was taken to the Intensive Care Unit of Dr. Pillai’s Hospital, to a phenol smelling white cubicle with blue curtains and dim lights and he was connected to colorful wires and monitors, and soon he seemed like a part of those machines.

“This is so frightening doctor, so frightening,” said Ms.Urmimala placing her purse on the top of the glass table. She supported her chin with her hands. Everything was alright. Yes, he had had occasional asthma and blood pressure, but other than that everything was alright with him.”

“So, you’re saying he’s never had an attack before? But the ECG has some changes,” the doctor circled the graph with a red pen. “We’ll confirm with a CT.  I suspect a hemorrhage, a stroke. Critical, but stable, nothing to worry about now, still things may develop.”

“Doctor, he was so conscious about his health. He goes for regular walks, trekking, and takes regular medication for his diabetes, asthma and blood pressure. He is a pure vegetarian. He’s converted many others to vegetarianism. It’s sad that this whole thing was caused by a tiny piece of coriander leaf.”

“Oh, not really. Life is so unpredictable, isn’t it?  I think this is what makes it beautiful. All I can say is everything is under control now. You needn’t be worried. Let him take rest here.”

“How long must he stay here for?”

“Let him stay a while. I’m not going to discharge him until I am completely satisfied with his progress. It’s a blessing for us to have him here as a patient. I’m sure the management is not going to charge you for anything.”

“One more thing doctor. When will it be safe for him to fly to Delhi? Can he go there for further treatment?”

Dr. Pillai wasn’t pleased with that question. His tone changed. “We have all the facilities to provide his treatment here, madam. My wife is a professor at the medical college. She’s on the way.”

“Yes, but we are more comfortable there. Once he is ready to be transferred, I would prefer to take him there.”

“As you wish. To be on the safe side, I’ll send one of our doctors along with him.”

Ms. Urmimala and Nitin transferred Guruji to a Delhi Hospital.

 

Nithin

 

A turquoise Ganesh was mounted on the dashboard. A Yantra, a triangular metal plate with mystical diagrams, replaced the Audi symbol on the steering wheel. Nithin reclined the seat and eased his arms over his head whilst he waited for Amrita at the Delhi Airport car park.

When he saw her coming up to the car, he leaned over to the passenger’s seat and opened the door for her. The Audi A3 then crawled through the crowd, passed the trolleys at the sideways, passed ‘Incredible India, committed to make in India posters, coffee shops, and honked at the other cars. Finally, Nithin said, “We need to hurry up. Guruji is critical. He doesn’t know what’s going on around him. Your voice might trigger something in him. The doctors are less optimistic.”

 Amrita was silent, watching the traffic go by.

“That is not the only reason that Urmimala called you here. It’s not safe for you to be in that village anymore.”

“I haven’t yet done what I wanted to do. I’m setting up this school and the District Collector asked me to help them with the local elections.”

“The local elections? They're one big joke! Forget about that uninhabitable place! We advised Guruji against it, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“I also have some more paperwork to do, for the English Medium School. My father wanted me to do this too.”

“We have done enough for that place. Now things are no longer what they used to be. It’s not safe for you to be there anymore.”

“I’ll be okay. I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not okay. You’re vulnerable. You’ll be under constant threat as long as you are there.”

“I don’t see any threat. You say this because you don’t understand them.”

“Why do we need to understand them anyhow? Whatever we do, they won’t respect us.”

“I don’t want them to respect me. I don’t look down on people. But, we are responsible for their current situation. We owe them. We owe them a lot.”

“Listen, listen. Things have not been good after the death of that village man. The police have advised us to be cautious. I was just talking to a member of parliament the other day, on how we can get rid of this land.”

Nithin drove past the main entrance arch of the hospital, honked to the crowd, reversed and parked the car closer to the children’s play area. He then took her to the second floor where Guruji was being treated.

 

Varanasi

 

Guruji was left-handed. It was the side he lost after his stroke. The message he scribbled with his right hand resembled extinct Sanskrit. Doctors had tried to read it but had soon given up; nurses had pressed their lips tightly and remained silent. Amrita on the other hand, simply frowned for a few seconds and then managed to read it as Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi.

Ms.Urmimala discounted it. “He’s poorly. We can’t take him anywhere,” she said with an authoritative tone. The following week, when Guruji was discharged from the hospital, she made arrangements to take him straight to the holy city. An Ayurvedic team followed them for an oil massage.  Amrita joined them. She had never been to the river Ganges before.

The first thing she saw was a corpse. The corpse had been tied up and laid out on a bamboo stretcher, which was then balanced on the roof of a van. The mourners of the dead one dispersed withered marigold petals, all the way to the river bank.

Agents of low caste priests chased behind them for business. “Are we really spiritual beings on a human journey like my father claimed?” was the repeated question she heard as she walked along. Amrita walked past the narrow streets stacked with firewood and wooden logs.  Here and there, liberated sadhus begged for alms. A five-year old girl softly pulled onto her dress and silently begged for some food. In her arms she cradled her baby sibling. Amrita gave her a small, pained smile. The girl resembled the communist’s daughter at the Harijan colony. “Meaningless!” she thought, “This life is meaningless!”

She continued looking at the girl expecting something from her, the forced smile hurting her jawline. What sin had they committed to be labelled lower castes? Whose idea was it in the first place, she wondered. It was heinous. She felt their own pain pierce right through her when they looked back at her.  She walked past them and made her way to her hotel. She hated the food served there and so went straight to bed, hungry and woke up feeling tired and empty.

The next morning Guruji's condition had deteriorated further and so he needed to return back to Delhi. He was struggling to breathe whilst being supported by a machine. Wires were on his skin; Tubes were coming out. One to feed; one to eliminate. The machine said he was alive. But he never regained his consciousness.

Amrita decided to return to the Harijan Colony and work for the villagers.

 

The Election

 

Rajini contested for the village council election. She went and sought the support of all the political parties. “She is characterless! She’s not fit to be a leader at all!” The party leaders unanimously said.

The Dalit People’s leader who happened to be in the village for Selvam’s daughters ear boring function campaigned for her. He visited the hi-tech farm and Tilapia Fish Pond and congratulated Kasi for his innovative ideas. “We need to politicize our people. First, we need to teach them how to vote. Kasi, you should arrange for transport,” said the leader.

Kasi listed him the preparation for the election. “We are taking the elders to the polling booth by bicycles and motorbikes. We are lucky enough to have betel leaf as our symbol. The elders will be able to remember it easily,” Kasi said.

“I have been talking to people from the other castes too,” said Amrita. The opposition party has nominated the brick factory owner. His caste men will never vote for someone from a different caste.”

“Obviously there is a stigma. People are not prepared to see someone lower caste as a leader. It’s a shame, and they have to grow up. But we can’t give up. We are Ambedkar’s children,” the Dalit leader said.

“When I explained to them how the water supply, our toilets and deweeding our water sources are our priority, they seemed to understand this though,” said Amrita.

“I really appreciate your support,” the leader encouraged Amrita. “People like you bring a real change in our society. But I heard the opposition party will be distributing earrings to secure their support. We are going to be vigilant on Election Day. The district collector is very supportive.”

“Fucking largest democracy! Don’t know whether to laugh or cry!” said Selvam. “This fucking democracy is really funny. In 1938, we had been chased out of a temple for organizing an ear piercing function. Our gold earrings had been thrown out into the paddy fields. Now, after nearly a century, we are getting them back. As a bribe! Does democracy really work at all? Maybe, for those bastards! I really don’t know. I really don’t care anymore!”

“This is quite interesting? Has anyone documented it?” asked Amrita. “We really need to document these stories. I have been listening to quite a lot of stories. Each one from here has about a thousand stories to tell. So amazing,” said Amrita.

On polling day, the whole village was in festive mode. Gandhians printed Rajini’s posters out for free. She greeted everyone with her palms pressed together. Kasi accompanied his grandpa to the tractor and took him to the school to vote.

Rajini won as Panchayat council leader. She vowed to keep her election promises. They signed to build an Ambedkar statue to start with and the district collector was invited to unveil the statue.

 

The Sulphur Stone

 

During their stroll through the paddy fields, Amrita stepped on a sharp object. It pierced through the mid-part of her right foot. It started to bleed. She held onto Kasi’s shoulder and limped over to the cement pavement. She panted, and her eyes were streaked with pain

“Let me check if anything is stuck inside,” said Kasi. He went to the stream to cup some water and came over and washed her foot. Blood kept oozing out like a sandpit dug by the stream and spread all along the cement pavement, smelling like the rusted part of a ploughshare. He cupped more water and poured it onto the wound, which was half an inch deep and wide.

Amrita moaned in pain. “Ouch, ouch, it hurts. It feels like something is stuck inside. It must be a piece of glass,” she opened her mouth and groaned.

Kasi got up and looked for the culprit. The sharp-edged stone resembled the shell of a dead tortoise. He flipped it over with his foot. Streaks of yellow, dark red and mud clung to it. When he took it in his hand and blew the dirt off, he realized that it was a broken piece from the growing stone. The stone that grew from the place where his mother’s ashes had been buried. The stone that the blacksmith searched for. “This is a magical stone,” he said in awe, and hurriedly rinsed it in water.

“A magical stone?” she took it from his hand. “Oh it’s heavy! I nearly dropped it. It’s really heavy.”

“This is the stone where mercury comes from. I read it on the blacksmith’s palm leaf manuscript. I took his manuscript and kept it safely in my home. All the instructions for making gold are there. Oh, look how much you’re bleeding!” he began searching for the right herbs. He had plucked a few ponmucuttai leaves and crushed them with the stone. He tore off a piece from her shawl, spread the herbs inside, and secured it tightly around the wound.

Amrita tapped the stone with her fingers. “So strong. Almost like metal. Seriously. Is this where gold comes from?” she asked. “I can’t believe it.”

“That’s what the dead blacksmith told me. I’ll have to read the manuscript again.”

“I want to see it too.” Amrita limped and together they walked to Kasi’s house.

The village streets had been deserted. Stray dogs wagged their tails and came over to her, licking her wounded foot. Kasi chased them away. The goats were tied onto a tree and the windows and doors had been left open. Grandpa was snoring in his coir cot.

Kasi went in and took the palm leaf manuscript and gave it to Amrita. She sat on a low wooden stool and gently untied the red tie that held it. She rolled out the manuscript with care “So, fragile. We need to be gentle,” she said and read the first line.

“I can’t read it,” she said to Kasi.

Kasi sat next to her and touched each letter and spelled it out. “In the beginning…”

Amrita tilted her head and tried to follow his words. She felt his arm brushing against his. She stared at him. He stared at her back. They both stared at each other. Grandpa woke up and coughed. Amrita limped home with the palm leaf manuscript.

 

The Alchemy

 

Amrita read and re-read the palm leaf manuscript. She had collected the plants and herbs it listed. She had gathered three wide mouthed earthen pots. The bamboo tubes and stones were kept in a jute basket. The bellows of the blacksmith were underneath the wooden table. On her cycle’s fifteenth day, she was ready to invite Kasi to her home.

Kasi went and sat in the chair that was in the corner of her bedroom. He saw the manuscript spread out on the maroon-splashed satin bed. Books on Ayurveda and Siddha lay under her pillow. A diagram of a coiled snake was on the cover.

Amrita took the first palm leaf and started to read. She traced the letters slowly with her fingertip. The letters were carved on palm leaves and rubbed with turmeric and sandal paste.

“In the beginning,” she read and they were enveloped in the light of the ghee lamp on the wooden table. The flame flickered and grew high. It danced like a virgin girl. Her face glowed in it like melting gold. It spread a warmth that filled the room.

The wind blew and with it a flowery fragrance spurted from her black hair. Her breath became warmer. She breathed heavily and glanced over at him.

“First you lit the lamp and…” whispered Kasi and stood behind her.

She turned her head and her lips were parted. Her pearly white teeth shone in a half smile. She studied him quietly whilst her hands steadily held on to the tong heating the stone on the ghee lamp.

He studied her back. The soft blue cotton sari fell on her lovingly and covered her curves. She smelt like a myriad of flowers from the western ghat hills. He stared at her neck. It had the colour of honeycomb. As though a mantra had been written on extinct Sanskrit. A black mole that rested on the ridge of her chin as if to cast away the evil eye caught his attention. Her anklets were singing. Feeble and loud, like the chanting of shrine, they called to him.

He forgot who he was and where he'd been. He looked around as if he had been lost and now at last had been found.

She turned and looked into his dark, bright eyes. Her gaze was heavy with black, enormous pupils taking him in. She moved closer to him and slowly pressed against him.

He could feel her chest heaving, and could see the veins throbbing in her neck. Their hearts pounded there, together, like stone mortars with herbs.

He trailed his fingers through her hair and felt their silkiness and warmth and then he clasped it, slightly pulling her head back, breathing into her skin.

 She blushed. She parted her lips again and pulled him towards her.

With both hands he cupped her face and kissed her forehead. He lingered softly on her cheeks and finally, with a passion he couldn't contain, he kissed her full lips.

One of her earrings fell on the floor.

They both bent down to reach it. They found it and then they lost it. Found it and lost it again. And they woke up finding each other entangled-like coiled snakes.

 

The Long Suppressed, Finds Utterance

 

A full size statue of Ambedkar was erected on a stone pedestal. His left hand held the constitution of India and the right arm pointed east towards the village. “Harijan was the name of guilt: Gandhi’s guilt. We’ve had enough of this. Ours will be called Ambedkar Colony,” Kasi spoke.

The district collector himself was present as he unveiled the statue. A stage made of bamboo sticks and roofed with weaved coconut leaves, was erected. The village women’s colourful saris were used to decorate the floral arch at the entrance. The members of Parliament and the district collector were sitting in the first row of the dais. The sub-inspector and policemen stood behind them. Rajini wore a pink sari and sat in the middle. She shyly observed the faces around her. When she was invited by the collector to deliver her speech, she walked onto the stage and held out the sheet of paper the communist had written for her. She had kept that piece of paper inside her blouse during the entire proceedings. It became blotchy and torn from the sweat that had accumulated. Many of the words on it had faded out into incomprehensible smudges. She stood there and nervously stared at the audience. She forgot everything she had planned to say. She turned and saw Kasi walking over with a glass of water for her to drink, accepted it gratefully, took a sip and handed over the microphone to Kasi. “Kasi, you speak English. You give a speech, you say something,” she said.

Kasi looked around at the crowd proudly, he remembered something he’d learnt at school; looked at Amrita and began his speech - Nehru’s speech.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance….

The district collector clapped his hands. “Indeed, this is a wonderful moment,” he said and presented Kasi with a golden silk towel.

Divya and Kavya, the communist’s daughters with Ambedkar’s picture pinned up on their silk petticoats, struggled to climb up onto the stage, and when they finally managed it, they presented the district collector with lemons and duck eggs.

The collector fondly rubbed their cheeks. “Who is he, the little one?” he asked Divya pointing out Ambedkar on her badge.

“God!” said Divya.

“This is against what Ambedkar fought for. But, that doesn’t matter. You’ll understand once you grow up. What does Ambedkar mean to you, big sister?” he asked Kavya.

Kavya glanced down and bit her dress shyly.

“Tell him, he is our symbol. Tell him he is the one who brought meaning to our lives,” helped Kasi.

“We are….because he was…..” said Kavya.

 

The Wedding Day

 

Amrita was pregnant on her wedding day.

Selvam invited everyone with betel leaves. “Don’t forget it. Don’t forget it,” he kept repeating to the people in the streets. “Remember it is a very important wedding in our history,” he said to the villagers.

“You must stop spreading such nonsense,” one villager spoke up. “What does a wedding have to do with our history?”

“Is this nonsense to you? Tell me why did Ambedkar marry a Brahmin?”

“Oh, I don’t know anything about that. Might be because he loved a Brahmin and she loved him back. That’s all. Don’t create new fantasies now.”

“It wasn’t just because of that. I think he purposely did it to make us understand the meaning of love. I think, he purposely did it to make others realize what love is. That’s how I look at it. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God. But, I think him converting to Buddhism is also political. This man, every time I think of him, I cry. I am an idiot…I understand Ambedkar so lately. Don’t worry, if you don’t understand. We have a lot of work left for the wedding. Do as Rajini says.”

The panchayat leader, Rajini, delegated work to the villagers. Three-year olds were to throw flower petals at the bride and groom. Four-year olds to seven-year olds were to serve guests water at the feast. Young girls were to dance, and older girls were to teach them how to dance for Bollywood songs. She called a boy who scribbled on the toilet wall and asked him to write a wedding poem. The men were to cook, the boys were to serve, the women were to do the washing up and the elders were to crack the areca nuts. A list of all the villagers who had been killed from caste discrimination was made up for offering beef biryani at plantain leaves.

Old women weaved the coconut leaves and men built a large tent. Loud speakers were tied on coconut trees. Red banana trees with ripened fruits were planted all the way from the junction to the shrine and decorated with color tube lights and lamps. Chairs and benches were rented out from town and arranged in front of the shrine.

Rajini did the bridal makeup and introduced the bride.  Amrita’s cheeks were touched with rose-pink powder and her eyebrows were darkened with pencils. A basketful of garlanded jasmine and firecracker flowers were pinned on her plaited black hair. Kasi wore a white dhoti and shirt and sat on a plastic chair in front of the shrine.

The priest was busy inside the shrine decorating the idol with a sari and placed a coconut in a small water pot. He saw the brandy bottles lined up in the inner corner and licked his lips in anticipation.

“What is the priest doing inside? Ask him to come out!”

“Eleven to eleven thirty is the auspicious time,” shouted the priest from inside. He was squatting behind the idol and has already finished half a bottle of the ‘Black Dog Quintessence Whisky.’

“Go to hell with your auspicious time,” said the communist and went inside. “Do you know why revolution hasn’t come? Because we were looking for an auspicious time to come. I have prepared a long speech. But I am too drunk. I can’t give the speech. Doesn’t matter. My brother Kasi is getting married. Beef biryani is served. A large drum full of beef biryani with plenty of tender meat strips. This is the revolution. This is a fucking revolution which I wanted to see in my lifetime. Freedom to eat. Freedom to eat what you want to eat. I don’t believe in god, this woman, Amrita, she is a goddess. She helped us get our land back. The three hundred-acre land. What else could a farmer hope for? What else could a fucking farmer hope for? I’m happy; I’m drunk. Can’t give a speech. But, I am content.” His mouth was red with the juice of the betel leaves.

 

The Crippled

 

When he heard that beef pakoda was being served, a cripple, with his polio-affected knees, crawled into the shamiana tent near the Ambedkar statue. “Is the village meeting over?” he kept asking passersby. “Aren't they serving food after the meeting?” he asked Amrita as he rubbed off the sand from his palms and knees.

“Ahh..achh..choo…You should have come with someone on a bike,” said Amrita, helping him sit on a plastic chair.

“I asked the boys to wait for me, but no one did,” the cripple complained to her.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. The meeting isn’t over yet. I’ll bring you some food,” Amrita said and brought him a spoonful of beef pakoda on a paper plate. She watched him enjoying the food, little by little, and saving some in his pouch for later.

Amrita’s eyes brimmed over with tears. “I’ve been so ignorant. So ignorant. What right do I have to stop him from eating what he wants to eat? What right does anyone have to stop him? Who am I? I was the one who is crippled! It really hurts, when I think about it, it really hurts,” she held onto Kasi’s arm and cried.

Kasi wrapped his arms around her and wiped away her tears. “They say their feelings are hurt. Whose feelings is this poor man going to hurt? And look who’s talking about feelings? Those who have never treated us as human…”

 “Your attention please,” Rajini spoke into the microphone. “I need a volunteer to take this cripple to the collector’s office to help him apply for disabled pension.”

Amrita raised her hand and came forward. “I’d be happy to help, but that is just not enough. I’ve heard that they do corrective surgeries for polio nowadays. We need to get him operated. I have explained to him and his mother. And also, can I make a suggestion? We shouldn’t call him a cripple anymore. He has a name. I haven’t heard anyone call him by his name.”

“True, if we call him a cripple, how does it make us different from our oppressors who call us lower castes?” asked Kasi. “All the same.”

 “Yes, yes we should set an example for the higher castes,” said Selvam. “We know what it's like..because we know the pain…the pain of rejection. The pain of discrimination. Caste is a disease...a mental disease..as Ambedkar said it is a state of mind. We have the responsibility to humanise those who practice this,” Selvam said angrily.

 “Without a doubt! Without a doubt! ” said the elders leisurely stretched under the shade of the neem trees.

Rajini was furiously scribbling the meeting’s minutes on a writing pad.  “Does anyone else want to share anything? Say something, come on.” She passed the microphone.

 “These bakodas are so bloody tasty. I wish we could have a meeting every month,” someone suggested.

“I mean say something about our problems, caste, religion or something along those lines,” suggested Rajini.

“I don’t give a shit if anyone thinks he is of a higher caste!” shouted one villager. “What does it matter to me if a man thinks he is the king?”

“The microphone was handed around in a circle.

Children took the microphone and told stories. They were so excited to hear their own voice resound loudly from the speaker. Amrita encouraged them to express themselves. When the parents heard their children speak through the microphone, they shed tears of happiness.

Selvam’s suggestion of ‘Land to the Tillers’ was rejected by Kasi. “We can’t afford to lose our land anymore. We can work according to our needs and abilities, but we can’t sell this land,” said Kasi firmly.

“O, Yes, yes, yes. Or else our people will sell it for an earring!” agreed Rajini. “And they will pay and bring a Brahmin to give our prayers.”

“And the Brahmin would make up a few fucking mantras.”

“In a dead language.”

“In which no one understands..”

“And they say one is created from the head and the other from the foot.”

“And they make up stories to make us believe.”

 “Filthy bastards and their half-baked ideas..”

“For dividing people.”

“That’s not going to happen here anyway,” said Kasi, “As we have read Ambedkar..”

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/janbu/" target="_self">Jai Anbu</a>

Jai Anbu

Jai Anbu grew up in an Indian village with the life and the stories of Dalits. "Betel Leaves", which he wrote during his time on the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University, was shortlisted for the 2016 Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is currently working on his second novel.

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