Chicken On The Treetop
By Meghna Pant
It's after waking up that Jamie realizes his bag has been stolen.
"These bloody Indians," he exclaims, getting up so fast from his hard bed that he has to lean against the wall till his head stops reeling. He feels an urgent itch on his forearm and looks down to see a large swelling emerge. Is it possible to get malaria immediately after recovering from it?
Don't let the welt distract you, he tells himself, knowing he has to deal with the more pressing matter of finding his passport, money and clothes so he can get home to San Diego. He walks to the ashram's seva office and refuses to sit down on the flimsy wooden chair Bethany offers him.
"I came to this meditation course to find peace, you know?" he says. On the peeling wall behind Bethany he notices a laminated sign stating the code of discipline for the ashram's residents. He clicks his tongue angrily on reading the second rule: abstention from stealing. "It's ridiculous. I flew like a thousand miles to India in search of spirituality, stayed in silence for ten fucking days, recovered from a deathly disease and then lost everything." His voice sounds strained against the quiet of the ashram and though in light of the situation he pushes away the shame he's feeling for shouting, he wishes he hadn't said fuck.
Bethany replies in an even tone, "You have any, how to say, suspect?"
Jamie looks at Bethany. He knows she's volunteered for a long time at the ashram, but she's white, from Croatia, but white; she'll understand what he's going to say: "It could be any of them. In the name of spirituality these people give big smiles and say the sweetest things, but turn your back and they take your buck. I can't believe these"
He can't think of something vicious enough to say. It's un-American, even outside America, to appear racist, even after they've voted for a black President.
"Shaitans," he ends with, a word for devil that he's heard the local residents use during the evening discourse.
Bethany continues in her accent, stretching her words as he's seen her stretching her thighs during yoga practice, "Maybe you think of person who could do this type of thing?"
Jamie remembers the little boy who cleans his room every day. Jamie had arrived in India three weeks back and headed straight from the Mumbai airport to the ashram. Back then he was filled with the wonder of possibility. He entered his ascetic room, with it's inch-high teak bed and doorless bamboo cupboard, and saw the boy sweeping under the bed with a bristled broom. Not yet six or ten for who could tell their age the boy smiled at Jamie when he him offered a tip.
"No, Sahib," he said in impeccable English. "If it weren't for you, this ashram would feel like a grave. I want to repay your presence by performing this simple duty for free."
How Jamie smiled back, taking a mental snapshot of that moment, marvelling at the wisdom of a mere child, vindicated in his impulsive journey to this land, ashamed of his childhood chasing Mountain Dew and Twizzlers, and his adulthood chasing eyeballs and ratings as a TV sales executive. It was as if he'd stumbled upon a secret garden full of enamoring creatures and he wished he had his camera to capture the strong breadth of one such creature's smile. But the lady at the ashram's reception office, who told him to call her Mata, had asked him to lock his Canon camera, along with his Seiko watch and his bag containing money, credit cards, a travel guidebook and passport in a locker to which only she had the keys. She allowed him to take four pairs of clothes of the ten he had and a hundred rupees in change.
This happiness didn't last. Over the next days, as the Noble Silence course began, Jamie's mood changed. The silence he was supposed to maintain for ten days grew vines around his swirling mind after the second day itself. The Guruji's taped voice during the evening discourse warned this would happen, residents would feel extreme emotions, but anticipating a certain feeling was not the same as feeling it. He was told that he could speak once a day to his evening teacher to ask one pertinent question. But he wasn't able to divide his life into blocks and pick one block that was more relevant than others. He waited instead for something to happen, a word or emotion to throttle him into the centrifuge of his life. Nothing happened.
In the focused environment of the ashram, with its sincere serious residents, he realized the disappointing truth: he couldn't live his life in anything but its superficial mundanity, his mind couldn't gather its own wisdom and he knew himself enough to be easily bored by self-discovery.
One afternoon, finding the peace grating on his agitated nerves, Jamie left the honeycomb-shaped cell where he was supposed to meditate and went into his room. There he found the boy going through his cupboard. Jamie walked up to the boy, who didn't hear Jamie's fury build-up behind him and remained engrossed in his task. Jamie put his hand on the boy's shoulder and spoke, for the first time in six days. He heard his own voice, alien and threatening, "What do you think you're doing?"
The boy had the wits or guts Jamie couldn't tell which to put his finger on his lips, reminding Jamie that he wasn't supposed to talk for ten days. He began to walk out of the room. Jamie caught him by the starched scuff of his white half-sleeved shirt and dragged him to the reception office where Mata was sitting alone.
When he accused the boy of stealing, Mata looked up at Jamie through her spectacles dropped to the bridge of her nose, and said in an unruffled voice, "He was not stealing, Mr. Henderson. It is part of his ashram duty to look through the resident's bags and ensure that forbidden items like alcohol, reading material or writing paper have not been sneaked in. My advice to you, if you please, is that you focus on your course and trust us to do our job."
Jamie saw that the door to the boy's incarceration was closed, had never been opened. "I want my things back," he said, knowing no other way to vindicate himself.
"I am afraid that is not possible, Mr. Henderson. It is against ashram policy and it will be unsafe for you."
But Jamie was adamant and Mata finally relented, telling him she was doing it so he didn't succumb to anger that was not permitted during the course. Jamie took his orange duffel bag, knowing he'd achieved the goal of the Noble Silence: to see things for what they were. Spiritual cleansing was a lie meant to lure unsuspecting tourists like him and take their money. In the next few days he spoke loudly to himself and woke up at ten instead of four-thirty. He started taking photos of the ashram, which was strictly forbidden. He demanded Pepsi when given lemon juice, and pizza when given vegetables. He read his travel guide openly, in defiance of the ashram rules. His Aussie roommate asked to be moved out. On the last day of the course, Jamie was shifted to a single room, where he fell ill four hours later.
The illness was his true meditation; his mind and body alternated between ravage and quiet. He remembered little of the hospital or the doctor whose accent he couldn't follow, but the noise, oh the noise from the street outside his window, the fan in his room, the bustling nurses and the gurney tires against the cement floors, remained with him when he went back to the ashram after recovering. He came to collect his belongings lying safely in his locked room, but the lull of the ashram, in contrast to the hospital, along with the antibiotics, eased him into a deep sleep. He woke up to discover that he'd been robbed of everything.
Jamie runs his hand through his hair. It feels coarse. On the path to austerity he had thought it shameful to use shampoo or conditioner, so he'd been dipping his head under the hard tap water as a wash. What baloney!
"It's that boy, the boy who cleans the rooms," he says definitely to Bethany.
Bethany looks at him with her thin mouth slightly open, as if she doesn't quite believe what he's said, and replies, "I do not think it is possible to do much of anything about this. The boy you say of is like son of ashram, adopted by Guruji. The boy's father leave him before birth and the mother, she was sweeper in ashram, fall off ladder and lose her mind, so Guruji has give him house to stay and free school. Maybe it will help if you have, how to say, proof of his robbery?"
"No, I don't have any proof."
"Then no one in ashram believe you."
"You expect me to just sit here and do nothing?" he asks. He puts his hands on his cheeks and feels hollows that weren't there before. How much weight has he lost?
"I do not know exactly. Maybe you go to Mata."
"Mata," he scoffs. "She'll never believe me."
"Maybe you go to police. You have copy, I hope, of your passport and visa."
A warning rises in Jamie like seltzer. He makes a quick calculation and realizes that his tourist visa expired four days ago. He's living illegally in India. When he tells Bethany this, she informs him of the endless rounds he'll have to make of the police station, the American Embassy, the passport office and the middlemen. Jamie curses the boy and without another thought, he steps outside Bethany's office, walks across the single-storey cement building for residents into the double-storied brick building for administration. He barges into Mata's office ranting out his story.
Mata waits till he's finished, before saying, "I am sorry to hear this, Mr. Henderson, but I did warn you about your bag. However, I cannot imagine what motive a little fatherless boy will have to steal your clothes and passport."
"He is poor, that's his motive."
For the first time in the four weeks that he's been in India, Jamie sees someone's mouth clench and eyes narrow. Mata uses her calmness sparingly as she says: "It is not always the poor who steal, Mr. Henderson. As an American you should know that."
Before he can respond, she gets up like a long sigh and adds, "The boy you speak of lives ten minutes away. I will have his place searched. If he is not the culprit, I will try to find out who is in the next few days."
Jamie finds he cannot argue with her reason. He asks, "What will I do till then?"
Mata amazes Jamie with how swiftly she replies, as if she's answered his questions before. "You can stay in the ashram for free, but you will have to volunteer your services like Bethany."
Jamie hears the purpose in Mata's voice and knows it will be a few hours before the boy is caught. He'll go to the police after that, with his passport and a letter of apology from the ashram in hand. He accepts her offer and goes back to his room. That evening he doesn't leave his room though he's supposed to assist Bethany in serving herbal tea and fruits to other residents. No one disturbs him.
The next day at five o'clock, there is a knock on his door. He opens it to see Mata holding out his bag, as if she's giving him a glass of water.
"You found the culprit?" he asks, taking the bag, but she turns on her heels and walks away. Jamie runs after her, shouting, "I knew it. It's the boy, isn't it?" She continues to the exit. He follows her, "Can you not have him apologize or admit you were wrong?" She walks ahead and stops near the ashram gate. He goes and stands next to her, "Don't think this matter is over. I will go to the police and report the crime."
His eyes follow Mata's stare and he sees Bethany standing among a group of people at the gate of the ashram.
"Beth," he shouts. "Hey, Bethany. They found the thief!" Bethany looks at him and turns away. He wonders why there is a packed suitcase next to her feet, when a black and yellow rickshaw pulls up to the gate. He sees two people grab Bethany by the arms and force her into the rickshaw as if she is a convict. By the time her rickshaw leaves and the crowd disperses Mata included Jamie realizes he can't stay in the ashram a moment longer.
He rummages through his bag and on seeing that everything is intact except some cash, he runs to the administration building, drops most of the Indian money he has twenty-thousand-rupees in the donation box, and heads straight back to the gate. He asks the watchman for directions to the nearest police station where he needs to report his expired visa.
"You big Sahib need visa to come to India?" the toothless watchman laughs incredulously, giving him directions. Jamie slips a surprised hundred-rupee bill in the watchman's hand and steps out of the ashram. He looks on both sides and sees miles of countryside highway lined by rows of trees. He can hail a rickshaw since it's three kilometers to the police station but his mind is too burdened for his legs to remain still. He starts walking, not noticing any sights or sounds, listening only to the silence of his own mind. After a few minutes he sees a boy ahead with slumped shoulders, thin legs dragging on the ground and dark hair clinging damply to the back of his neck. It's the boy from the ashram. If guilt has a form, Jamie knows it's this. He shouts: hey, and realizes he doesn't know the boy's name. Though they are alone on the muddy path lining the highway the boy doesn't turn. Jamie jogs up to him and taps his shoulder. The boy looks at him startled, drops what he's holding and starts to run.
"Stop. I want to say I'm sorry," Jamie shouts; he has no energy to chase the boy. He picks up the wire contraption the boy has dropped: two circles held horizontally by a stick.
He holds out the contraption and shouts again, "I'm not going to hurt you. Take this back."
The boy peers over his shoulder and steps onto the highway. Jamie's mind sets up a din as he sees the boy intends to run across. He finds his voice, "Watch out! There's a truck coming!"
Jamie watches as the truck swerves to avoid hitting the boy and crashes into a silver car coming from the opposite direction. He bends over and shields his eyes to avoid the glass shards and red dust flying around him. After recovering from a coughing fit, he looks up to see the truck driver reversing his vehicle, instead of helping the hit car's victims. In an instant he's driving away. Jamie quickly gets his camera from the bag and photographs the back of the truck, including the license plate and a painted sign that says Obay The Rullz.
He hears shouts and murmurs; the highway that was empty a few seconds ago is filling up with people. Where are so many people coming from? He backs away, unsure of how to navigate a big crowd. His eyes search for the boy but he is no longer there. He sees a woman's bloodied body taken out of the car and laid out on the road, as people in the crowd yell, pushing each other in confusion. A few minutes later an ambulance comes and a doctor checks the body. Jamie hears the word dead. The crowd begins to disperse. There's nothing left to do so Jamie continues his onward journey toward the police station. He walks briskly because this time he has proof for the crime he intends to report.
Something pokes his hand. It's the boy's wire contraption. Mud clings to it. Jamie looks down at it hard; it reminds him of the way he's acted since coming to India, especially toward the boy, the poor boy he's been so unfair to. And he's continued his bias toward the truck driver, blaming him for the accident, when in fact the boy ran on the highway because of Jamie. Jamie has caused the woman's death.
He reaches the police station and goes to the first table, where a constable in a khaki uniform is sitting in front of an old tattered register.
"I'm here to report a crime," Jamie says.
The constable lifts his pen and brings it down on the paper, "Against whom?"
Jamie licks his dry lips, and clears his throat, before replying, "I want to report a crime against myself."
It's a crime to be rich, Anita thinks as she clips on her diamond earrings. Guruji has told her that wealth is like a wounded dog in a remote corner, concentrating only on its own slow death. Or did he say that about America? Or India? It's a bad sign when she can't remember Guruji's words. She's been feeling bold since waking up, and it's making her uneasy. Knowing that in this mood she will not be able to sit still in the back of the car, she dismisses the driver and drives to the ashram herself.
On the way she sends Guruji a text message asking him the purpose of her life. Each time she asks this he gives her a different reply, saying there is no one answer for certain questions. This time he replies: "Your purpose is to be true to what lies inside you." He's always telling her to look deep within herself, to journey from the outside to the center, like a Madala painting. She tries this and finds nothing.
She reaches the ashram gate, where the watchman gives her a salaam, and after parking in her reserved spot she walks to the school. Mata is waiting for her. She looks ruffled today, her tightly ordered face thrown into disarray.
"Is everything okay?" Anita asks Mata.
"Someone has stolen a resident's bag, Mrs. Kotak. I'm investigating the matter," Mata says in her severe voice that runs this place.
Anita says: what has the world come to, a line she finds suitable for every situation.
They walk along the brick school where scores of the surrounding village's children pile into seven-foot by seven-foot wall-less classrooms. She knows they're here because of her very generous donations but this doesn't make her proud.
She stops at class two and asks Mata, "How's Ramesh?"
Mata's face relaxes as she smiles at her. Anita knows Mata thinks that she shows concern for Ramesh because he's deaf and she's childless. She shifts uncomfortably on her feet as Mata says, "He is the same, same grade for the last three years though his Reading Comprehension has improved."
This gives Anita an excuse to look more closely at Ramesh. She wants to memorize him because she doesn't know him. The mole on his upper lip has grown a little darker. He's tanned from the summer heat, like his father, and he seems thinner, though he's always been thin, like her. When she worries about his weight, Guruji assures her that the ashram sends food to his house everyday. When she weakens, wanting to cook for him, feed him with her own hands, Guruji tells her to stay away for both their sake.
Mata continues talking, "You will not believe this but the resident whose bag was stolen accused Ramesh of stealing it. I had to have Ramesh's house searched an hour ago while he was in school, though his mother went hysterical. Obviously there was nothing." No wonder Ramesh seems listless today, not paying attention to the teacher, playing with something on the ground. "It's so sad but the resident thought Ramesh did it because he's poor."
"Poor," Anita says venomously. "He is not poor."
Mata looks at her surprised.
Anita takes a deep breath and changes the topic, "How is his work around the ashram?"
"He wants to do kitchen duty though I've told him repeatedly that he's too young. He says he loves the sight of boiling rice and rolling pins."
What a wonderful moment this is, Anita thinks, when she's stumbled upon something in common with her son. Cooking is her passion, which she stopped after her husband Uday told her it didn't suit her stature. All of a sudden, she understands Guruji's text message this morning: be true to what's inside you. There's only one thing that's touched her from the inside her son and while he's true to her in his unwitting likeness to her, she isn't true to him. Fifteen years ago, she desired what she knew to want: money and perfection. Newly married, she pushed her husband Uday hard to make money, to become his boss's boss, to buy the Merc, and their big apartment with its retinue of servants. In less than seven years she had more than she needed. But she couldn't have a baby. The enormity of leading an imperfect life hit her and in search of assurances she ran to Guruji, who her new rich friends praised so much.
He told her on their first meeting, "Life is a sum of equals, Anita. Everyone gets an equal share in the end. The more you have, the more you want, the more you have to lose. The less you have, the less you want, the less you have to lose. That's why the happiest people I've met are the poorest."
These words changed the route of Anita's desires. She began to notice the tight smiles on her friends, the limitless greed of her neighbours, the disaffection of Uday's success. She tried to simplify their life but Uday had worked too hard to give it up; he had become her, wanting perfection, wanting it all. Happily, after a few months, she became pregnant, but thirty-six weeks later, while Uday was at a shipping conference in Greece, she gave birth to a baby boy who was deaf. He wasn't perfect. Anita knew this had happened because of the sum of equals; Uday and she already had too much, a perfect child was not theirs for grab. Uday screamed, get rid of that shaitan's child, dump it in the garbage before I get home.
Never kill God's creation, Guruji told her. He told her to bring the boy and a thick wad of notes to the ashram, and handed both over to the ashram's sweeper. After that day, as the fee for her guilt and gratefulness, Anita kept the ashram's coffers full and hers empty. She heard from Guruji that the sweeper looked after the baby whom she named Ramesh as her own son. As Ramesh grew, so did Anita's visits to the ashram.
"Why are you making my son sweep and dust?" she would ask Guruji.
"A grain of seed or a rock, both sink in the water. Doing menial work does not demean a child; just as buying him a play station does not make him greater." Thus, like all parents Anita learnt about humility through her child.
"Mrs. Kotak?" she hears Mata say. "Shall we go over the new vocational training program?"
"Of course," Anita replies with forced brightness. She takes a last look at Ramesh and follows Mata to her office.
"I am so sorry, I think I've left the program papers in Bethany's office," Mata says when they reach her office. "Would you mind if we sit in her office today?"
"Not at all," Anita replies. She likes Bethany who's been in the ashram for six months now. They go to the seva office where the door is shut. Mata walks in without knocking and they see Bethany inside the room, with one hand inside an orange duffel bag and the other holding a wad of notes. Anita doesn't realize something is amiss until she hears Bethany mutter a curse and Mata say, "Call the police."
"Police? For what?"
"Remember the stolen bag I was telling you about? Well, we've found the thief."
"Are you sure? Maybe we should ask Guruji first?" Anita says, knowing this is a not a situation Mata is experienced in handling.
"He may be sleeping. It's early morning in America," Mata says. But Anita calls him knowing he never denies her call.
Guruji tells them: Karma is fairer than human justice. A greater punishment will await Bethany in the outside world. Let her go.
After they send Bethany away from the ashram, Anita mulls over Guruji's words. Her karma of greed and abandonment has banished her to a life of guilt and unhappiness. As she bids goodbye to Mata, telling her she'll be back tomorrow to finish the vocational program planning, she realizes that since Ramesh's birth she's felt as though bits of her skin have shriveled and peeled off, leaving patches of raw flesh so painful that she's never been whole again.
"Resolve your discontent in this life or it will follow you exponentially to your other lives," Guruji tells her on the phone, as she gets into her car.
"How do I do that?"
"You will unconsciously invite your penance when you're ready for it. There will be signs in the clouds, in leaves, in people, but I warn you, grab that chance when you see it or it will never come again."
Anita puts the phone down, unable to imagine what her sign for penance will be. She looks outside her car window at the passing fields and shrubs but there are no signs. Suddenly her eyes fall on a chicken perched on top of a tree. There is no one around so she can't fathom how the chicken got ten feet off the ground. Something about the chicken's bizarre situation makes her laugh. It's been years since she's laughed so completely and relief rises in her. Maybe this is my sign, she thinks, but what am I supposed to do with it?
That's when she sees Ramesh ahead of her car, running across the double-lane highway with a truck heading straight toward him. She hears the wild honking of the driver, which her son can't, and a white man is screaming on her side of the road. In his hand is the wire cycle Anita had given Ramesh eight years ago, a send-off for the journey he was about to begin. A curtain lifts on Anita's day and she can see clearly again. This is the chance Guruji spoke about if she misses it, it will haunt her in all her lives.
Anita realizes that the truck will either swerve left, in which case he'll hit her, or to the right where he'd hit Ramesh. She can't give the driver a chance to make up his mind. She turns her steering wheel to a sharp right. Her car heads straight into the truck.
"I'm free" she thinks and laughs "ha-ha-ha-ha."
Nandu laughs as fifteen-metric-tonnes of his truck plows into the sixty-inch Honda Civic bumper. He's sure he's hallucinating again. For the tip-top lady, who knows she's going to die, doesn't shield her face but looks up as if embracing him and smiles.
From experience Nandu knows to stiffen his body and cover his eyes, so when his body lurches into the steering wheel, it's ready for the impact. He hears the screech of tires, the crunch of glass, the smash of metal on metal and a stunned silence that tells him it's safe to open his eyes. He looks around. The dust from the asphalt road has risen, as has the iron ore from the back of his open truck. This clouds his already dizzy head.
He's running late because of Bijli, who let him sleep on her jute cot last night. He had to pay her fifty rupees, double her usual rate, but didn't mind since he hadn't seen her in ten days. He did protest though, knowing she liked a show, "You are charging me for the whole night when I'm staying for five hours?" Bijli slapped his hand, which was inside her choli, and slowly said, "A night passes in an hour for some people, Sahib." Her words, emerging from her red pan-stained mouth, stretch like poetry on the highway he's driving on; the word Sahib makes the bulge in his pants go to his chest.
To save time he's been driving for nine hours without stopping. To save money he's eaten only a piece of toast on which he spread Iodex, the balm he uses for his aching back. The Iodex has cooled his stomach and put him in the robotic stupor he needs to navigate the National Highway, where roads curve like mines and potholes run for fifteen kilometers, where it once took a man twenty-six hours to transport his father's dead rotting body.
Nandu feels a shooting pain in his ribcage, reminding him that there are no happy endings. Every time he has been in an accident, which is every other week or so, the people sitting in cars or motorcycles, clinch their faces and cover their eyes at the last moment, as if not seeing can change the direction of his truck's tires. Yet, the tip-top lady went with her lips stretched across her happy face.
He wants to see the lady, though he never sees his victims, but he's not familiar with this taluk. If he gets out, thugs waiting behind trees could rob him. And though the highway is empty, it won't be long before an angry mob comes here, ready to treat him like they would a mosquito carrying malaria. It's time to act, he realizes. He spits into his hand and rubs it on his eyes. Feeling more alert he looks outside. The dust is settled and the boy is gone. He starts the engine.
He has to drive another two-hundred-and-twenty kilometers to reach Dadar before midnight so Malak, who owns this truck, pays him for this thirty-two hour trip. It takes him an hour to cover forty kilometers on this truck and it's already six o'clock. Because of the accident he'll also have to stop at Kalamboli Terminal in Navi Mumbai to repair the rear-view mirror and most likely the fender. This will take an hour, upsetting his plan, but he'll have to make up by driving even faster. It's cheaper for him to pay the mechanic Ramubhai at Kalamboli Terminal than to have Malak find out about this accident. Nandu remembers the first time he had an accident, when a drunken motorist crashed into the back of his truck. As punishment Malak had beaten him with an iron rod. For his last accident, when he'd plowed into a van full of children because he was high on eraser fluid, Malak didn't pay Nandu his salary for two months.
Nandu will have to bear the cost of this accident. He checks the money tucked inside his underwear. He has only ninety, no forty, rupees remaining.
"I hope Ramubhai gives me credit," Nandu thinks as he reverses the truck.
He picks up the lit bidi that's fallen on the dashboard and puts it back in his mouth. His lungi flares open with this movement and he looks down to see the lesion on his inner thigh. He scratches the lesion and brings the bidi next to it. Why, they could be twins, he thinks, for both are red and dotted, spreading their fire. The only difference is that one itches while the other drives away the itch.
"Yeh dosti," he sings to himself half-heartedly and accelerates.
He inhales and blows out smoke on the Kali statue that Malak has put on the dashboard. How often he's touched the goddess's feet in front of the police, when he's caught with cannabis pulsing through his veins, or kerosene, not petrol, pulsing through the truck's veins. He chuckles but stops on seeing his reflection in the center mirror. He looks like a shaitan, with his shallow skin blackened from not being washed for days and his beard unshaven for what, three days, or three weeks? Four white pustules grow from the left corner of his lower lip. Last week there was one pustule but he scratched it till white pus bled on his brown fingernails and lips. Bijli teases him about this sometimes, calling him her AIDS Sahib. Maybe my wife gave it to me, he teases Bijli, poking the white pustule above her lip.
As his bidi comes to a sad end and the sun sets on his thoughts, Nandu looks one last time at the rear-view mirror. He sees fifteen-twenty people running toward the accident spot, where the car lies smashed into itself, as if it's taken a deep inhalation. The iron ore from his lorry has flown everywhere and covered the dead car with its smiling lady in red dust.
Nandu passes an ashram to his left. There is a three-foot long photo of that famous Guru on its front wall. Nandu spits out of his doorless seat. People go to these places when survival is not their priority, like tip-top people, like the smiling lady. There are other ways to get to know yourself, like inside this truck with its rattling windows and caged thoughts, a moving jail where a break in monotony is the death, of others. It's the only way to know who you really are.
Does Mata not know who I am, Ramesh wonders, when she asks him if he knows where the American's bag is. He find's the question silly, knowing Mata keeps all the bags safely locked up in her office. Instead, he asks her if he can start kitchen duty today. She says no, again. He finishes ashram duty and heads toward school when his wire cycle, the only toy he's had since childhood, slips out of his hand and falls down the stairs. Its handle breaks. He sits on the classroom floor, his tears drying in the thirty-five-degree heat. The fan is not working and he feels lethargic and dull. He kills a fly fluttering around him and is dissecting it when he notices that the shaitan is back. She comes every week, sometimes every second day, during his school time, and though everyone says she's kind because she set up the school for children like him, she scares him. Every time she comes, she stands outside his class and stares at him such that for the rest of the day he keeps looking around to see if she's following him. She wears shiny clothes and big sandals, her hair is the color of a broomstick, combed, and there's always a thick black line below her dark eyes. She doesn't look like she makes rotis or writes on files like the other women he knows. This makes him more suspicious of her. When he complains to his mother about her, she says the woman has come on earth to see if Ramesh is a good boy. She tells him never to look into her eyes. So when he sees the shaitan he concentrates on the fly's hairy legs till she's gone. When the school bell rings Ramesh is glad the day is over. He starts walking home.
He wishes Guruji was here so he could tell him so many things, especially about the kitchen duty. He wants to learn how to cook so he can feed his mother. For the last four years his mother is either in pain her face pinched, trashing her arms for hours on the bed, pulling her hair out or she's on a rampage beating their chickens, force-feeding slop to the goat or wandering off alone in the dark. He knows Guruji will not say no but he doesn't know when he'll see Guruji. In the last three years Guruji travels a lot and comes to the ashram, without warning, just once or twice a year. Ramesh gets upset by this for Guruji likes him a lot. Out of all the children in the ashram, Guruji only allows Ramesh to sit on his lap and even tickles him till he laughs.
Ramesh doesn't like it when the other children snigger and he reads their lips saying, "Look at the son and father," or "Guruji has a mad wife and a deaf son."
My mother is not mad, he tells them, but when he goes home on those days he asks his mother, "Who is my father?"
His mother says nothing but she looks at him, sometimes teary-eyed, sometimes angry, and sometimes she makes an air beard from her fingers the Guruji! Ramesh doesn't mind that the Guruji is his father since he doesn't remember any other father.
Ramesh takes the broken wire cycle out of his brown shorts, wondering if he can use the coir from his mother's broom to fix it, when someone touches him on the shoulder. He looks up to see a vaguely familiar white man. Then he recognizes the orange bag the white man is carrying. It's that crazy American! Though no longer as fat as he was when he first came, he still towers over Ramesh, his green eyes blood-shot, his red hair standing up like daggers and an unreadable expression on his pink face. Ramesh knows the man is trouble. The first day they met he offered Ramesh money (which his mother said was how men stole souls), then the man broke the Noble Silence and then he complained about Ramesh to Mata. He's another shaitan, Ramesh realizes, and they're alone here, there's no one to save Ramesh from him. Ramesh drops the cycle in shock and runs. He turns to see that the shaitan is not running after him so he slows down. From the corner of his eyes he sees his chicken on the opposite side of the road. His mother has put it on the tree again; she's probably having one of her bad days. He runs across the road and on reaching the other side he turns around. Instead of the white man, he sees a car crushed under a truck.
There are accidents everyday on the highway; this is not as bad as the four-car pile-up he's seen or the time when an entire bus caught fire with its passengers inside. Judging by people's expressions after these accidents, he knows that the horror of hearing a crash is much worse than watching its stillness; it's the only time he's glad he's deaf. He dusts the powder from his white shirt, unaffected by it for trucks pass by everyday covering his hut with red powder from their carriage and brown dust from the road. It's part of his life, this destruction, as much as the ashram is his life's construction. He walks up to the tree where his mother has put the chicken and picks up the ladder fallen on the ground. He climbs up the ladder and brings the chicken down. They are going home.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011
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