I never knew how to retort to death. So, when Amma died during the winter of god-knows-what-year, I did not know what to do. I had an uncle (whom I never saw before that day) come to see me the day she died. He promised to look after all the arrangements for the funeral; he did not say what his name was and I did not care. They said I was supposed to be present at the funeral, and that I had to perform some ceremonies. I could not have cared less, I did not even want to be there, but they said this was the last thing I could do for her. I was there when they cleaned her body and bathe her, which was strange because as far as I could remember we never had enough water to bath. I was there when they dressed her dead body in a clean, new white saari so that she could be happy on her last journey. It was funny if you ask me; her whole life she could not afford a single saari of her own, her whole life she wore what she could find in garbage bins of the city and now that she doesn’t feel anything, now that she doesn’t care what cloth she wore they have dressed her in a new saari. It was funny and that was why I smiled the whole time they dressed her. They looked at me in a funny way, I could not understand what that meant, and it was only later when I told Munna about it that he explained that they thought I had lost my mind and were sympathising me. “But why would they sympathise me when I knew none of them, Munna?” I would ask him and he would laugh at me saying that I was a weird kid and that I knew nothing about the world. I was there when they took her to samsan and I was asked to follow while my uncle and three other men carried her over their shoulder. I saw men take a turn to carry here, and I saw men follow her dead body and shouting a line again and again. Later when I asked Munna about it, he told me that it was a chant that was sung whenever someone dies. I dared not ask him any more questions after that for the fear that he might again make fun of me in front of others.
It was funny, watching all those men walk behind her dead body. It was funny because I suddenly remembered about Mishraji, the man who they said was the owner of everything around. Mishraji was a good man, but had a very foul smell, I remember because he would always hold me near him when talking, he would give me and a one-rupee note and ask me to go and play so that he could talk to Amma about rent. I would look at Amma for permission and she would look at me in a way I could not understand. So, I would go out and play and on my return, I would find her sitting in the corner on her knees and sobbing clutching all the clothes that remained on her. It was funny because Mishraji was here, and his workers were emptying the hut.
It seemed like everybody around me felt sorry for me, everybody except me and Amma. I could hear them, murmuring and looking at me,
“How will he survive now?”
“How can God be so cruel?”
They went on and on. I was tired of them, I wanted to run. I wanted to run as fast as possible and not look back. Instead, I stood right there, in the darkness by the corner, Amma’s body laid by the tree.
“How old are you, beta?” The heavy voice startled me. I was terrified. It was the first time anyone spoke to me since morning. “Come on, don’t be afraid. Come here.” He gently pulled me from the corner.
The man had a big and scary face. His upper lip was cut from the middle and it looked like it had accidently buried itself in the moustache. He spat the paan he was chewing near my legs.
“Tell me, beta, how old are you?” He grinned and wiped the red juice dripping from his mouth with one hand.
How old was I? I did not know it then. Amma never told me. She never told me anything. Even when I asked her why she cried every time Mishraji came she would push me away. I hated her for doing it. However, I do remember one day when Heenu Kaka came, he said something about how big I have become. “Look how big you have become, just eight and already so tall.” He had said.
“I… I don’t know…” I replied cautiously.
That was that. I did not know then who this man was and what was he doing there. But then again, I did not know what were all these people doing there? I knew none of them. So, it did not make a difference if one of them said something to me. The big-faced man left and I went on to stand in the corner.
By the time we reached samsan, it was dark and we were down to six people. Of them one was my uncle, one was me and one was the priest, the other three people, it seemed, were cursing their luck that they got to hold the dead body at the wrong time and were stuck with it.
The cremation ceremony took another hour and by the time Amma’s body completely burnt it was midnight.
It was right then –when the priest handed my uncle the ashes of her remain- that it suddenly hit me.
Amma was dead.
I was alone.
I let the feeling sink in.
I could go anywhere I liked; I could do whatever I liked. No one would stop me. For the first time, the gravity of the situation hit me. My mouth turned foul, like the garbage bins of the neighbourhood where I used to play with Punnu and Sohu. My stomach crumpled and I knew I was going to throw up, which I did only moments later.
That afternoon, just a month after Amma’s cremation, the big-faced man came. I was sitting under the flyover, which Amma once told connected two big cities. I did not remember the names but Amma told me they were really big and they had big houses and big cars and it was just like heaven. She said that I could go there once I was a grown man and that I could have a nice and big house and a big car. The flyover was huge; if one stood in the middle of it and looked in either direction he would not see the ends of it. It was really fascinating to see cars passing by at high speed. Standing on the railings of the highway, I could see the inside of the soap factory which was just next to the flyover. It had big machines that made extremely loud noise. Like a dinosaur. Amma once told me about dinosaurs. They lived many years ago and at the time, no one used to live on earth. Not even Panditji living in the small temple near the municipality building, and he seemed very old. But Amma told me that dinosaurs lived many many years before even he was born. Before anyone was born. For days now, I have been going up the stairs onto the highway to stand on the railings and look inside the factory. I liked the smell of the factory. It smelled like maalik’s house. Sweet and scented. Amma was a dai there. Maalik’s name was Raichand, but we were not supposed to take his name. He would beat us if he heard it. We were to call himmaalik. I always wondered why, until one day Amma told me that maalik meant owner and apparently he was our owner.
I always wondered how great the smell must be on the inside. How great must it feel to stand next to the big machines and see them do all the work? Someday I’ll work in the factory too. I’ll go inside and smell as much soap as I want and no one would stop me.
Ever since Amma died, I lived here.
This has been my home. Everyone around here was good. Munu kaka brought me here the night Amma turned to ashes. I was sitting there sobbing. My head and chest hurt. Munu kaka carried me to this place on his shoulders and since then I had been a part of this neighbourhood. Everyone was always kind to me. Everyone except Appu. He was seventeen and was always bossing around. He worked at the soap factory as a carton packer acted as a real big shot. He made more money than most of the people living here so nobody said anything to him. Every night he would sit on the big rock along the boundary of the factory and smoke chillumwhich he said helped him relax. I was curious and that is why one day I asked him if I could smoke it too. He did not say anything. I wondered if he even heard. He just lay there on the rock and pretended to be asleep. Except for his hand in which he had the chillum, none of his body parts moved. It was easy for mistake him for a dead man. His activities scared me and so I ran. Ever since that night I never went near him again. Then there was Sohail. He was my best friend. His was the first house in the neighbourhood and could be seen from the main road. Next to his house ran a big drain which made a monstrous sound as it flowed. I would have easily mistaken it for a sea if only the water in it was any less black. Sohail told me that his school teacher had told them that it carried all the waste water from the city and dumped it in the Gandak, which flows just behind the soap factory. He attended the local government school which was almost three miles from his home. Some days, just so that he had company I would walk with him to the school and waited outside till he finished and then we walked back home. He said he came to school just so that he could have free meals which the school served in the recess. “Sometimes they are bad, though.” He said to me one day as we were walking past the bus stand on our way home. “Sometimes most of us get sick eating the food. One day, one Raju from other village died because a chhipkalifell in his thaali from which they were serving. The working staff blamed it all on his parents’ saying that why was it that only he died. Most of us are here for the food and on some good days they taste good. Especially the khichdi. We all lovekhichdi.” He rubbed his hand against his belly and closed his eyes as if to smellkhichdi.
Later that night I had asked Munu kaka out of curiosity if I could also go to school. He dismissed me saying, “Who will pay the fees? Your Amma? Or your Appa?”
I never asked again. That night I went behind the tree near the big rock and cried. I cried until my tears ran dry and my mouth began to hurt. My stomach hurt from hunger. I rose from behind the tree when I had no more tears to shed. I saw Appu. Laying on the big rock like every night and occasionally taking a puff from hischillum.
That was ten days before this afternoon.
I was sitting on the rock pretending to be Appu when the big-faced man arrived. I saw him walk past Sohail’s house around the corner of the street leading to the soap factory. He was smiling and waving at me. I could his big face and his fat crooked smile. I could make that he was chewing pan and the same red juice was dripping from his mouth. He wiped it. This time not with his hand, he had a handkerchief. He wiped his mouth politely. I could see him tramping through the mud. There was another man with him, walking behind him as if following his trail through the muddy way. The other man was slightly taller than the big-faced man and was in white from head to toe. I moved to stand up on the rock and take a look at the other man. He was wearing gold chains around his neck and had rings in almost all his fingers. They did not seem nice. Amma had warned me about such men. She had said that I should never talk to the kinds of them. That they come to take kids like me away and make them do bad things. She had said that these men would take me away and cut my limbs and make me beg for them. I saw as they got closer and closer. And with every step the big-faced man’s face grew bigger. With every step of his, I grew colder. My eyes looked through the area to find one familiar face. But it seemed like it had been deserted. It was almost as if no one lived there except me. I tried to look for Munu kaka, who was the eldest in the neighbourhood. I tried to look for Suresh, the sweeper boy. I tried to look for Govind, the municipal boy. I could find no one. I prayed for Sohail, but he must be in the school. For that one moment, I tried to even look for Appu, hoping that he would show up with his smoke. But my eyes saw no one. The big-faced man and the other man were got closer and closer. I was growing numb. My legs were shaking. It was only so much that an eight-year boy could handle. The next thing I felt was my head colliding against the edge of the rock on which I was standing. The world around me turned black.
I woke up to the sound of drums being played right next to my ears. My head hurt. I touched my forehead and felt a bandage where I had hit my head. I tried to open my eyes. The drums did not stop. I could hear the chatter and cry and laughter amidst the beating of the drum. It was some time before I could finally open my eyes and see around me boys and girls, big and small, playing drums near my ears. I pressed my hand against my ears. To this, they played even harder. I gave a shrill cry and felt my cheeks wet. “Look at him. He’s crying like a little girl.” One of them said and they all laughed. “Girly, girly, why you cry?” The other said. All others followed and they started singing in chorus. “Girly, girly, why you cry?” I cried harder.
I tried to remember what had happened but all I could recall was my head hitting against the rock.
“Hey! You filthy little bastards. Leave the boy alone.” The voice came from behind me. It was sharp and almost sounded like a girl’s. “Don’t you rascals have work to do?”
The silence that followed still gives me a chill. At first, I thought it was because I had pressed my hands so hard against the ears, but I was wrong. All of them froze. None dare move. At once, I heard many small footsteps, as if all them unsure where to go. After a minute, which lasted an internity, the silence returned.
I heard large and heavy footsteps walking towards me. I pressed my ears harder. My head hurt.
“Open your eyes, you bastard.” The voice kicked me. I did not move. It kicked me harder and I fell to the other side. I felt heavy, hairy arms lifting me. I kicked and bite the arm but was met by a muscular slap across the cheek. “You filthy rat! How dare you bite me.”
“Easy, Rono. The kid’s new. Give him some time.” The voice said. I looked up at the source and met him in the eye. His black, hooded eyes. His face was sallow as if he had Jaundice. He had a cruel smile which was almost sad. And as I would later find out that he frowned a lot. He wore torn out skinny denim which would have looked stylish if it was not torn at the waist and a t-shirt which had initially been white but had turned grey.
He motioned Rono to put me down which Rono at once obliged.
“What is your name, Kid?” He asked.
I stood there terrified. I could not speak. I dare not speak. I was sobbing. I missed Amma. I wanted to be with her.
“When the boss asks you something, you answer. You little scum.” Rono kicked me from behind. “Give me ten minutes with him boss and I’ll teach him some manners.” He said poking me in the head. My head still hurt.
Rono was a tough guy for his age. As I later found out, he was fifteen and made his way by just following boss and doing his works.
“Send him to the others. They’ll teach him everything he is to learn.” Boss said to Rono and to me he said “And listen, you rat! It’ll better if you learn things fast. I haven’t got nerves.” He walked past me.
Rono kicked me hard on the back and pointed me in the other direction and signalled me to walk.
Fifteen minutes after my conversation with boss I was directed to a long and large hall. It smelled of garbage. Like Kochu, when he would return to Munu kaka after collecting the garbage. I wanted to see Munu kaka again. I wanted to smell the scent of the soap factory. To stand on that railing and look inside the factory. To see Appu smoking his chillum. To see Suresh and Sonu and Joji gamble and to see them fight after one of them lost. None of this feels good. I wanted to run to Amma. But wasn’t she dead? I hoped that this was just a dream and that I would wake up and tell Sohail about it and then we would laugh it off. I stood there with my closed eyes, pinching myself so as to wake up from this nightmare. Heenukaka taught me this. He had said that pinching one in the dream ends the nightmare. I pinched myself harder.
“This is no dream rascal. Here, I’ll show you.” I heard someone say. A laugh followed. Before I could understand, a boy walked to me and pinched me on my hand and held it. I fought back and hit him on the face. The boy let go of my hand and sat there holding his face. His friends, all at once, came rushing on me. Before I could process any of it, I was knocked down on the ground. They kept hitting me until my body could take no more. Legs, belts, fists fell on me like a hundred lighting striking all at once. The bandage wore off. My head was bleeding again. I lay there crying. Crying for Amma. Crying of pain. My head hurt, more than it did earlier. And it was for the second time that day I was unconscious.
to be continued. . .
The story’s not finished. There’s more to come. The remaining part of the story will be updated soon.
. . .also, don’t forget to share your views in the comment section below. Thank you.
Liked it? Subscribe to my newsletter.