(Should've never taken this off the blog in the first place. Greed for critical recognition is not becoming of me, at least till the time I begin to understand the difference between practice and the real thing)
Can you smell them already Birju? Ha, my friend?
Brijmohan sat bolt upright. He looked around the space of his tiny hutment with his heart beating heavily and the stump of his right arm itching all over. The four boys sleeping on the ground to his charpoy’s left with coarse blankets covering their bodies did not stir; nor did his wife who lay besides him on the bed made of thick jute strips stretched over a wooden frame.
Can you smell them from this far? Tell me. No need to be shy.
The iron smith stifled a shuddering cough at the last minute before it could escape out of him. He put his one good hand over his pounding chest to perhaps hold it in its place, to perhaps stop his heart from exploding into a thousand pieces inside. His breath came out cold, intense and the fear of someone awakening from his voice made him bite down hard on the skin of his bad limb.
I know you can smell them Birju. You want to know how I know? I can see it on your face. I can see it in your eyes.
Tears began flowing down his cheeks and sweat down his brow.
My brother, don’t be shy, come on. They’re waiting for you.
Quick march. . . . . . left right left . . . .
‘Stop’ he couldn’t take it anymore.
Come on. Left right left, left right left. . .
‘Please stop. PLEASE!!!!!!!!’ he cried into the darkness surrounding him, his hand still on his hammering chest.
left right left, left right left, left right left. . .
‘Please. . . ‘
Nalini woke up frightened by her husband’s crying and the sight of him sitting upright with his amputated arm in his mouth made her shift from panic to salvage mode even before a minute had passed.
This was the third time in the last five days.
She sat up beside him, hugging his naked ribs with her sari-clad bosom, holding his shivering body to hers and rocking back and forth gently.
‘Hush now,’ she whispered into his ear as her hand moved his bad arm out of his clamped jaw. ‘It’ll pass. . . I’m here. . . . you hear me. . . . It’ll pass’
In the flickering light of the nearly dead lantern that hung to their front, she looked down at his limb. There were reddened teeth marks on the skin and saliva dripping down the surface. She bit her lip watching them. Her eyes welled up.
‘Hush now,’ she repeated to the wailing man rocking back and forth beside her, wondering in her mind how the hand could be causing him trouble after so many years. Ten minutes passed as the children slept on.
Brijmohan could hear the marching orders inside his head become distant and fade away as Nalini egged him on in her soothing voice. ‘It’ll pass. . . . you hear me. . . . I’m here. . . It’ll pass’
Then it stopped.
Calming himself down, he wiped his face with a corner of his dhoti.
She continued to tend to the bite marks on his bad arm, inhaling air into her mouth letting it heat inside her ballooned up face and then blowing it slowly over the mottled spots. He let her do it for a while, feeling the comforting warmth of her breath easing out the itch in his veins. Then he asked her to go back to sleep.
‘I’m alright. Just a bad dream.’
That was all that he gave as an explanation. Nothing more than what he had given to her on the two previous occasions. She didn’t force him to reveal more either.
‘You should sleep,’ he told her but she replied from between low sobs that she wouldn’t unless he absolutely promised to wake her up the next time this happened and not chew off what remained of his arm.
‘I promise.’ He put his palm on her head. ‘Now sleep.’
Brijmohan sat awake as she lay down on the charpoy again and remained that way until he could hear her light snores. He got up from the bed as quietly as he could and slumped onto the floor, next to the sleeping boys. He sat cross-legged facing the four of them, eyeing one in particular.
He watched silently as the boy responsible for his misery over the past week slept on, drooling generously over the cushion.
‘Akash,’ Brijmohan mouthed the name and felt surprised at how much courage saying it out loud gave to his feeble heart.
Akash, the boy with zeal pouring out of his eyes and mouth, the boy with curiosity streaming down his ears and nose. Akash, the boy who had woken up a voice inside his conscience that he had presumed dead a long time ago, the boy who was to blame for the itch, the teeth marks and the tears.
‘Akash,’ he repeated again and heard the faint comeback of the marching orders as if they were responding to his call. He scratched the end of his bad arm with the fingers on his good one.
May the drunkard get to drink and drink and drink until he drowses,
May the carnivore inherit atleast a dozen slaughterhouses!
His eyes became moist once more and he wiped them off using his dhoti.
* * *
‘Bhagwan marzi’ (As He wishes) Brijmohan had said to himself that day, standing over the boy who sat in the rain, in the middle of the tar road with a torn shirt covering his chest and a worn out half pant drawn over his bottom. They had taken the tar road that evening as the mud path leading from the marketplace to their home was completely submerged.
He had heard the boy’s teeth chattering with the cold even as he ushered him into the tarpaulin sheet which they held above their heads, telling his sons to let him squeeze in between them.
The boy was twelve, almost as old as Bhanot, his second son.
Brijmohan had brought him home and asked his wife to bathe him, dress him up in warm clothes and feed him. Nalini, having taken a liking to him from the very first instance, had obliged without complaint. After all, the poor child was shivering like a leaf and Nalini was a kind woman at heart.
Akash had slept for the whole of the next day.
The rains had worsened and with no safe road now connecting his house to his shop, the iron smith and his three sons would be staying back until the deluge subsided.
Then, with Nalini nursing him to his full strength in just two days time, Akash had broken free of his illness-induced-silence, so much so that his talkative, jolly voice made Brijmohan wonder whether this was the same boy he had rescued from the street.
‘Me? Going where you ask?’ he had repeated their question while bouncing Munil’s rubber tyre on the floor with a wooden stick.
‘To the city of course!’
‘The city?’ Nalini had sounded worried.
‘Yes didi. The city’ he bounced the rubber ring higher.
‘What will you do there?’ Brijmohan had enquired. ‘Do you have relatives who will take you in?’
‘No sir. I will be the first in my family to go to the city,’ his tiny nose flaring with pride as he answered.
‘But why are you going boy? Do you not like your village?’
‘What makes you say that? I love my village. I have many friends in my village.’
‘Then why leave?’
‘No no sir, you have got it wrong. Of course I will go back.’ his stick now trying to pierce the rubber surface.
‘Once I have the money, I will go back.’
‘Money?’ Brijmohan had asked only in time to be interrupted by Munil and Bhanu’s entry into the discussion; excited, surprised, innocent. . . bouncing off their seats on the ground as high as the tyre:
Maa did we hear right. . . . .Maa, Akash is going to the city? Yes boys, it seems so. Is that true Akash? You’re going to the city? Yes (nostrils flaring again) Waaah, Akash is so lucky na maa? No response. Tell us Akash, tell us, tell us how big is the city. . . . . what will you see there. . . . . what will you do there, tell us, tell us, tell us. And Akash responding with pomp filled cheeks Oh the city? Twenty times the size of my village it is my friend told me. Oh the city? A hundred palaces made of glass touching the sky I will see there my friend told me. Oh the city? A thousand rupees I will get there and come back to my village. And Sukesh joining in now with mention of money putting a spark in his eyes ek hazar rupaiya? Akash, with a swelled up chest Yes. A thousand rupees or even more. Waah maa? Hazar rupaiya, Akash is so lucky na maa. Nalini silent. Bouncing clapping Munil What will you do with all that paisa Akash? What will you do, tell us tell us tell us. And Bhanot joining in tell us, tell us, tell us. And Akash with his chest looking as if it will explode with all that smugness Oh the money? I will pay back what my pa owes my uncle and get my ox back. Waah maa, Akash is so lucky na maa? Your father has a debt? What does he do? Brijmohan finally getting to speak amidst the excited cheers. Oh my pa? Used to be a potato farmer but some days back he hung from a banyan tree and now he is burnt to ashes like my ma. Nalini’s palm covering her mouth, her children continuing to bounce and cheer, the last statement failing to even register in their pumped up heads. His pyre was this high Akash standing up raising the stick in his hand as tall as possible to demonstrate, I owe my uncle for the logs. Brijmohan looking straight into the boy’s face, the smile on those lips unbearable to watch.
Waah maa, Akash is so lucky na maa?
He had wanted to ask him nothing more. But Sukesh, the eldest, perhaps with jealousy tingling in his throat, eager to play the curmudgeon had continued, ‘A thousand rupees? Who will give you that much money?’
And Akash, ‘I can’t tell you. It is my secret,’ his response as good as rehearsed.
‘A secret,’ he had repeated again in a tone that literally begged them to persuade him into revealing it.
‘What is the secret Akash, tell us na please. . . tell us tell us tell us’ Munil and Bhanot obliging even with Sukesh throwing scathing looks at them.
‘Tell us tell us tell us’
‘Ok ok, I’ll tell you.’ Akash putting down the stick and the rubber tyre, sitting on the ground before them, his audience all ears.
‘First promise that you won’t talk about it with anyone else. Not a word. Do you promise?’
‘Yes’ them replying, even the one handed iron smith and his wife.
Akash had cleared his throat and then began to narrate what his friend, a bidi smoking vagabond named Khan had seen one time when he had gone to the city in search of work.
‘A tall glass room with a big black box,’ he had said. ‘You’ll find one at every corner of every street in the city.’ His hands showed them the size. ‘There must be a hundred of them in the city, maybe two hundred!‘
‘Hmm. . . A big black box,’ Sukesh, the first to speak once Akash had finished revealing his big secret. ‘A box that spits out hundred rupee notes’ he had smirked sensing victory.
‘No.’ Akash, nostrils flaring again, but with annoyance this time,’ Not just a hundred, even five hundred and thousand rupee notes.’
‘Hmm. . . So you just walk into the room and take it?’
‘I’ve heard enough’, Sukesh had gotten up and walked away from them, triumphant even as his kid brothers remained seated, enthralled, their chins supported by their palms and eyes as round as buttons.
‘Now remember all of you,’ Akash had pointed a harmless finger at each of them,
‘You’ve promised not to share this with anyone. Otherwise everybody will start running to the city and there won’t be enough notes left in the box for me.’
Yes yes. You can trust us. We promise Munil and Bhanot.
Brijmohan had looked away from the boy’s face that was now positively glowing with earnestness.
That night would be the first of the three of his torment.
* * *
Come on, don’t be shy, answer me, will you? he could hear the vehicles whizzing past them as they walked on one side of the highway. The road pitch black except for the head lights on the vehicles.
He could hear that sloshed voice above the shrill noise of crickets filling his ears from the barren land to their right, a brief chortle escaping from his own mouth.
Answer you what?
Just tell me, can you smell them or not?
Ok I will. First tell me how far we are from there.
More cheap liquor going down his throat, setting it ablaze anew.
Well let me see, at this speed, atleast a bloody hour is what its going to take us.
An hour? He heard himself exclaiming. And you want to know if I can smell them from here? The fuck do you take me for? A dog?
Come on tell me Birju. You know you can tell me anything, right? Can you smell them from here or not.
He did not respond.
Fine. Keep it to yourself. Well I fucking can and you know what? I’ve got the balls to admit it.
Brijmohan could see himself stopping and turning towards him. He could see that face so clearly, each detail discrete, every feature almost livid.
So you’ve got the balls to admit that your nose can smell a whore from a mile away. Good for you. Admit that to your fucking mother.
He heard laughter, including his own.
Birju my friend, you’re so funny. He felt the teasing hug around his body. He felt the inebriated kiss on his cheek.
Stop that bahinchod, or I’ll screw you! Pushing him away.
Well. . . I mean, in a sick, demented way. But still. . . funny.
He could hear laughter again. Cheerful, mirth filled voices of two young labourers sharing a half emptied bottle of country liquor, on their way to the city brothel, visibly swaying.
Ah Bhagwan! One whole hour to pass before we greet!
Greet what? He had asked him. Go on. Don’t leave it hanging there in my brain like that. Finish the fucking rhyme.
A mouthful of meat and a handful of teat!
He could hear himself laughing once more amidst the noise of cars passing by and the crickets crying their hoarse hum as he drank some more and burped.
And now he could hear something else inside of him as well. He could hear the mischief of the liquor creeping into his head like scuttle bugs in the night. He could feel it taking over from him the controls to his spine, the controls to his will and the controls to his desires.
And as Akash, his dearest friend, repeated the question again, he could hear himself heat up and answer with greed: I can smell them alright.
Aha! What did I say to you. I knew it. You want to know how I knew it? I could see it on your face. I could see it in your eyes.
And it was the liquor now that was doing the talking for him, as he felt the desires inside him grow a hundredfold with another sip from the bottle. He could hear himself speaking of the fear of not being able to do it, the fear of not being able to go through with it, this being his first time. My brother, don’t be shy, come on, Akash, spit dribbling from his jowl, eyes vacant, they’re waiting for you, holding Brijmohan’s hand now, quick march. . . left right left . . . Come on. . . And the craving inside him, ever growing, making him march along, left right left, left right left. . .the two men taking long strides on the street to the tune of their own marching orders.
Not caring that their steps strafing left, were bringing them closer and closer to the centre of the road. Left right left, left right left. . . Ignorant of the shouting voices and the honking horns whizzing past them. Left right left, left right left. . .oblivious of the two bright lights fast coming their way greeting them with its loud Pammmmmmmm. . .
Left right left, left right left. . . Left right left, left right left. . . They had marched together, Brijmohan and Akash, hand in hand, till the very end.
* * *
Brijmohan continued to watch the sleeping boy from where he sat even as he sensed day break approaching. The itch in his arm was gone. But tears continued to stream down his cheeks.
‘I’m so sorry my dear friend,’ he said in a trembling voice and closed his eyes allowing that final image of the truck hitting Akash, face first, with its full force to resurface from deep down where it must have gotten buried with seventeen years having passed. The impact had squashed his friend into pulp and flung Brijmohan onto another car coming from the opposite end. The driver had been quick to brake but it would take his vehicle ten more feet to come to a halt. Enough time for Brijmohan’s hand that was stuck in the front wheel to get severed from his body being dragged behind.
He opened his eyes and wiped them again with cloth.
‘I’m sorry for that night,’ he said looking at the boy and got up slowly, careful not to make any more sound.
As he lay down again on the charpoy besides his wife, for the first time in the past week he asked himself why this was happening to him now. Was it simply because of the name that this boy shared with his dear dead friend that these nightmares had been triggered?
Or perhaps there was more to it.
Perhaps it was the fear that had filled his head when he had heard the boy speak of his impending journey to the city with so much gusto just as the younger and more ambitious version of himself had spoken about it with Akash nearly two decade ago; it was the fear that the boy, in so familiar a naivety, was about to venture into something that he knew absolutely nothing of just like Brijmohan and his ill-fated friend had; fear that Akash might end up sharing the same fate that the man who shared his name had met with on that devastating night.
And as he closed his eyes lying there on his coarse bed, Brijmohan felt that he knew already everything that was about to happen to the poor child.
With the rains having stopped, he knew the boy would leave at sunrise despite Nalini’s pleading and begging him to drop his plans and stay with them instead.
Despite all the odds stacked against him, he knew the boy would make it to the heart of the city and find the tall glass room with the big black box in some corner of a busy street just as Khan, the vagabond had described to him.
He knew the guard sitting outside the glass room with a uniform on his chest and a cane in his hand would eye the filthy clothed urchin approaching the door with scorn and disdain. I want to go in, Akash would tell the uniformed man I want a thousand rupaiya to which the guard would snigger his heart out and ask for a card. I don’t have any card. I want a thousand rupaiya to which the guard would snort mockingly and tell him to get lost.
But he knew, the boy would not budge so quickly. And, he knew, the cane would come down swiftly over his back. Suar ka pilla (you little piglet) Brijmohan heard so loud and clear now and saw the crying, dejected boy running away from the glass room and sitting down at the edge of the street near an open drainage, its foul stench making his wet nostrils flare.
And he knew, the stink would make its way through his nostrils, into his head and into his mind corroding it, robbing it of its zeal and sincerity, of its cheer and joy, conniving against his good nature and replacing these with doubt and reluctance, with sadness and sinister. The boy would never be the same again even as he returned empty handed to his own village, to his own friends. The reek would travel with him everywhere and at all times, reminding him of his failure, pulling itself over his eyeballs like an opaque blanket that would make him blind to optimism.
Akash, the boy whose innocence could melt glaciers, in the end would lead an arduous, crippled life of pitiless facts and callous truths just like the ironsmith had been leading for the past seventeen years.
But wait my friend! the voice that he dreaded so much was alive in him again. wait and watch. . .
Brijmohan opened his eyes, turning his head towards Akash who continued to sleep, still drooling over the cushion, unaware of his future being charted in the one handed iron smith’s mind. He waited for his vision to re-adjust itself to the dim light.
And then he saw it; the glint on those cheeks, the gleam on that face, only understanding now for what it really was.
Then all of a sudden he was back at the scene with the crying, dejected boy sitting at the edge of the street with the open drain pipe spurting its stench onto his nose. He could see as he had seen before the boy paining from the blow to his back, cold, hungry, thirsty, the odor slowly eating its way into his mind.
And he knew now what would really happen next. . . .
The boy with the glint on his cheeks would look around, curiosity getting the better of him. He would get up, wiping his tears and his running nose on his sleeve thus breaking away from the hold of the drainage reek before its chance to decay his thoughts.
Akash would look around and find himself in the middle of a hundred glass palaces and metal streets filled with dazzling lights, brilliant sounds and a thousand colourfully clad people moving back and forth, resembling the ebb and the flow of a mighty and horizon-less ocean.
And he knew that the guard and his cane would be forgotten alongwith the tall glass room and the big black box that spat out hundred rupee notes.
The city would enchant him, the city would excite him and like the overpowering tentacle of a giant octopus the city would swoop down on the boy with the gleam of destiny on his face, swallowing him up forever.
Brijmohan slept a dreamless sleep that morning.
* * *