He felt the warm breath of his mother on his thin neck and heard her hollow breathing. He closed his eyes but felt no relief and opened them again.
Light crept in through a tear in the newspaper covering the window. In the faint glow, he saw the outline of the blankets covering his father and two sisters sleeping on the floor, the silhouette of the old television set atop the wooden table whose surface had chipped off long ago and was now black from neglect; the lower corner of the Ganesha calendar nailed to the wall; silvery handle of the bucket in which his mother had vomited blood the day before and the visor of the dented yellow hat that his father wore to work. He felt a pang of pain and squirmed.
Once more, he pondered whether he should wake mother. What will she do? Give him a piece of churan, which he had already taken when no one was looking and had proven ineffective. Wake father? Father will most likely slap him a few times for waking him up for something as trivial as stomach ache before taking him to the latrine. But before that some questions.
His stomach had been hurting since evening.
Why did he not tell before? Because mother was coughing incessantly, her hollow lungs echoing with pain. Because father was irritated, just as he had been these past few days. Because his younger sister was crying. She had seen mother’s thin lips crimson before she wiped them with the edge of her sari. Because he suddenly felt helpless, and scared and told himself his pain will surely go away by nightfall.
Teasing will follow if his stomach ache became public knowledge. His sisters will pick on him. Darpok, darpok. Andhere se darr gaya. One of them will tell Bunty or Tinu and then the whole basti will know and he will have to remain hidden in the crevices of walls for many days till something new came up to occupy their time. No, he couldn’t let that happen.
Very slowly, taking his time, first legs, then torso and finally whole, he slipped out of the warm, cosy space and stood at the edge of he bed. Waiting, he held his breath, afraid that his breathing might be too loud and wake everyone. He shivered but not because of the cold.
He took small, calculated steps to avoid stepping on his siblings and father. He dreaded opening the creaky door, an old corrugated metal sheet once used to cover open balconies. Just then, he heard the whistle in the distance. Getting nearer. Nearer. The boy stood next to the door, his small hand placed firmly on the ridged surface, ready. The sound of wheels rolling on metal rails followed, subdued initially, but gaining tempo. A sweet melody to ears tired from hearing the hammers and drills all day, a lullaby to infants unable to sleep, a sign of normalcy for people of the basti who sold soda and water and tea at the station. For the boy, a saviour. By the time, the pendulated breaths and muffed ticking returne to strength in the room, the thup thup of his small chappal had moved far.
The basti was there when the plump midwife had cut his umbilical cord, ending one dependency and beginning another. It was the same room, only the windows were covered in drapes back then and the walls and the floor were somewhat cleaner. When the plump midwife had taken his father aside and muttered the blessed words “Badhai ho aap ko! Beta hua hai!” his father, in a spell of euphoria, had flung the boy’s sister to the roof of the house, which was cracked and leaked when it rained. His barely conscious mother had a fit of anxiety when the roof gave way and found in her arms a hairy child which she mistook for one of the monkeys that sometimes created ruckus on roofs. Her scream aroused the entire neighborhood which came running.
The basti was there to receive his father when he had first arrived in Delhi six years before, with a wife who was expecting and two daughters, carrying a trunk full of clothes and some money. Like with many others, it was frustration that drove him to the city. Frustration that it didn’t rain and when earth was dug up for water, only dust surfaced. The crops withered away and there was no food. Government sent convoys of promises, nothing more. The farmers were forgotten. They were angry. There was nothing they could do.
The ashy pages of newspapers were full of stories of golden opportunities that the cities offered. The pages spoke of how people from all over the country were flocking to these big cities and growing rich by the day. The blurry images in print displayed a kaleidoscope of vibrancy of city life. The cities sparkled like rubies.
The papers did not print the wailing of infants on footpaths or tents mushrooming wherever space was available and how for a simple post of peon, fifty people applied and only one got selected. Later on, his father was to wonder if he had somehow overlooked these sections in the papers. The truth dawned upon him and others only when it was too late.
By that time whatever will a man has left is replaced by disappointment and defeat from which it is difficult to rise. The stare of his children and cries of his wife become too much and there is no other way than to simply keep moving.
Even Rahim Chacha, rumoured to be 90, the oldest man the boy had ever met, could not say how old the basti was. When asked, he would only say it was there when he had arrived as a boy of nine with his father to learn the trade of cotton in the mysterious innards of Chandni Chowk.
His steps traced their way along the thin, dark alleys without any trouble. Right. Left. Left again. Right… His slippers scratched the rough ground every now and then. Right. A dog howled somewhere, was joined by others. Right.
Suddenly, a blinding light. He squinted momentarily. Shielding his eyes, he looked up and saw a bright yellow bulb on top of an electric pole with wires hanging like draperies from it. The light illuminated the closed shutters of shops that sold pan, beedi, cheap liquor, the gravel covered road, a scooter standing in one corner.
The tapering yellow rays reminded him of the sun from the day he had gone to the bazaar. A year ago; the last time as a family. The green bus stopped many times during the journey, its gates opening on their own letting people in and out before they finally got down. The sun was bright and the day warm and father carried him on shoulders because he was so light and small.
As far as his eyes could see there were shops covering almost the entire road. Cars honked relentlessly for space among the encroachments.. There were so many people, not rich, like them, he tacitly understood.
Young men shouted enthusiastically to the walking crowd.
“50 ke do. 100 ke paanch”
“Laajawab discount. Aiyee! Aiyee!”
“Naya Maal Saste Mein…”
“Madam, naya piece aaya hai…”
There were many shops selling saris. His mother went to all of them and saw many and finally bought one and was happy and got him and his sisters sweet candy when father was not looking. She was happy; her otherwise expressionless face smiling and her hair flowing in the light breeze. She pressed her possession to her bosom.
There was a man moving with a bicycle loaded with carpets and brooms that had green and blue handles. The carpets were shiny.
An old man sat selling amulets of various religions. Mother said he was a bad man as he had no faith or if he did, he hadn’t stuck to it, so in either case he will be punished by god.
They passed many shops selling many things; kitchen utensils, sweaters, salwaar kameez, kurtas, and aachars-pickles. Then a shop selling toys. Model cars and trucks and dolls and monkeys with cymbals in place of their hands.
“Bekaar hai. Do din mein toot jayeeinge,” father said.
They looked at mother who agreed with father and they nodded back in an understanding which they did not really understand and looked once more at those multi-coloured toys before moving on.
His father bought him chappal from a man who was sitting surrounded by rubber shoes and slippers. The place smelled of pungent rubber. Holding his father’s hand, his eyes fell on a small blue coloured one with little waves drawn on them. He pointed at them.
“Kitne ke diye?”
“Kya keh raha hai? 75 rupees? Theek Theek laga,” his father tried to bargain.
“75 rupees. Lena hain to lo,” the vendor replied curtly. He was not going to budge.
Defeated, his father looked back at him. Very slowly, from the upper pocket of his shirt, he took out a hundred rupee note and handed it to the vendor.
When the sun went down and the sky turned dark blue, the bazaar twinkled with the light of incandescent bulbs. Near the end, the air was filled with the sweet aroma of gulabjamuns, and they were delighted when father bought them two pieces, which they all shared equally, even mother. Father did not eat.
On the way back he sat on mother’s lap for the lack of space and fell asleep to the laughter of his parents mixed with the droning engine of the bus.
Then mother started coughing and father, something happened to him too. He began shouting and beating his two sisters and him. His slippers with the little waves lost their colour and white patches appeared where once blue dominated.
The stench was sharp from the-gutter at the end of the basti. Beyond it were the tracks and beyond them, the trees that lined the open field where men and women and children walked every morning to squat in a little bit of privacy and relieve themselves.
Outside the safety of his native land, the boy hesitated a bit and looked back once or twice into the darkness from which he had come. He sniffed and wiped his nose and began walking. The flint crackled under his feet as he stepped on the tracks, illuminated by the yellow sodium lamps that brightened the tracks from one end to another as far as the fog allowed him to see.
Squatting under an oasis of light near the track, he immediately felt pain ebb away. A sweat of relief crossed his brow. It was all silent and he stared at the darkness.
A howling came from the basti. Kalia! The poor dog must be feeling cold!
The surface of water in the bottle he had carried with him was still riling. Up and down. Up and down. Slowly, now. Up. Down. Bunty had cheated in cricket yesterday… up down.
He closed his eyes and missed the moment when the water settled in the bottle and the dawn which came slowly, white because of the fog, and cries of Allah-u-Akbar which filled the basti and aroused many still in their dreams.
To him, the events appeared to be simultaneous, but in truth each was separated from the other. The train that screamed by, jerking him backwards in his own congealing discharge; his sister shouting, “Vo raha, Maa!”; approaching footsteps. In the confusion, he was only able to feel the wetness seep in to his pajama. He started crying.
He was trembling when running like a fanatic his mother crossed the tracks, got hold of him and started slapping him.
“Manhoos! Haraamzade! Yaha kya kar raha hai? Pichle do ghante se tujhe dhund rahe hai saari basti main! Kho-Kho-kho” she kept on slapping him, his voice drowned in the cracking of the slaps and the coughing obscenities of his mother
“Aah! Maa! Dard ho raha-“
Tears were running down their faces.
“Jeena haraam kar rakha hai—“
Her sisters were looking at him and his father was crossing the tracks and there was Bunty and Tinu and other men.
She kept on coughing, her hollow lungs resonating, bitter and hard, worsening to the point of terror in her eyes and she eventually let go of the boy. And then her hand was red and her lips were red and she fell on the tracks, gasping and coughing.
The boy stood, watching her, tears running down his cheeks, too afraid to move, clasping with both hands his damp pajama, and when he looked up he saw his father and neighbours surrounding his mother.
A thin, red trail escaped the corner of her lips, moved sinuously along the ear and spilled crimson on to the grey stones. The whistling of the train laughed in the distance, the factory sirens blared for the workers to assemble and the automobiles began to growl on the dusty roads of the still-yawning city.