Read an Excerpt
I LOOK AT OUR HOUSE WITH—
—upside-down eyes and count five holes in our tin roof. There might be more, but I can’t see them because the black smog outside has wiped the stars off the sky. I picture a djinn crouching down on the roof, his eye turning like a key in a lock as he watches us through a hole, waiting for Ma and Papa and Runu-Didi to fall asleep so that he can draw out my soul. Djinns aren’t real, but if they were, they would only steal children because we have the most delicious souls.
My elbows wobble on the bed, so I lean my legs against the wall. Runu-Didi stops counting the seconds I have been topsy-turvy and says, “Arrey, Jai, I’m right here and still you’re cheating-cheating. You have no shame, kya?” Her voice is high and jumpy because she’s too happy that I can’t stay upside down for as long as she can.
Didi and I are having a headstand contest but it’s not a fair one. The yoga classes at our school are for students in Standard Six and above, and Runu-Didi is in Standard Seven, so she gets to learn from a real teacher. I’m in Standard Four, so I have to rely on Baba Devanand on TV, who says that if we do headstands, children like me will:
· never have to wear glasses our whole lives;
· never have white in our hair or black holes in our teeth;
· never have puddles in our brains or slowness in our arms and legs;
· always be No. 1 in School + College + Office + Home.
I like headstands a lot more than the huff-puff exercises Baba Devanand does with his legs crossed in the lotus position. But right now, if I stay upside down any longer, I’ll break my neck, so I flump to the bed that smells of coriander powder and raw onions and Ma and bricks and cement and Papa.
“Baba Jai has been proved to be a conman,” Runu-Didi shouts like the newspeople whose faces redden every night from the angry news they have to read out on TV. “Will our nation just stand and watch?”
“Uff, Runu, you’re giving me a headache with your screaming,” Ma says from the kitchen corner of our house. She’s shaping rotis into perfect rounds with the same rolling pin that she uses to whack my backside when I shout bad words while Didi talks to Nana-Nani on Ma’s mobile phone.
“I won I won I won,” Didi sings now. She’s louder than next-door’s TV and next-to-next-door’s howling baby and the neighbors who squabble every day about who stole water from whose water barrel.
I stick my fingers in my ears. Runu-Didi’s lips move but it’s as if she’s speaking the bubble language of fish in a glass tank. I can’t hear a word of her chik-chik. If I lived in a big house, I would take my shut-ears and run up the stairs two at a time and squash myself inside a cupboard. But we live in a basti, so our house has only one room. Papa likes to say that this room has everything we need for our happiness to grow. He means me and Didi and Ma, and not the TV, which is the best thing we own.
From where I’m lying on the bed, I can see the TV clearly. It looks down on me from a shelf that also holds steel plates and aluminum tins. Round letters on the TV screen say, Dilli: Police Commissioner’s Missing Cat Spotted. Sometimes the Hindi news is written in letters that look like they are spurting blood, especially when the newspeople ask us tough questions we can’t answer, like:
Does a Ghost Live in the Supreme Court?
Are Pigeons Terrorists Trained by Pakistan?
Is a Bull this Varanasi Sari Shop’s Best Customer?
Did a Rasgulla Break Up Actress Veena’s Marriage?
Ma likes such stories because she and Papa can argue about them for hours.
My favorite shows are ones that Ma says I’m not old enough to watch, like Police Patrol and Live Crime. Sometimes Ma switches off the TV right in the middle of a murder because she says it’s too sick-making. But sometimes she leaves it on because she likes guessing who the evil people are and telling me how the policemen are sons-of-owls for never spotting criminals as fast as she can.
Runu-Didi has stopped talking to stretch her hands behind her back. She thinks she’s Usain Bolt, but she’s only on the school’s relay team. Relay isn’t a real sport. That’s why Ma and Papa let her take part though some of the chachas and chachis in our basti say running brings dishonor to girls. Didi says basti-people will shut up once her team wins the inter-district tournament and also the state championships.
My fingers are going numb in my ears, so I pull them out and wipe them against my cargo pants that are already spattered with ink and mud and grease. All my clothes are dirty like these pants, my uniform too.
I have been asking Ma to let me wear the new uniform that I got free from school this winter, but Ma keeps it on top of a shelf where I can’t reach it. She says only rich people throw clothes away when there’s still life left in them. If I show her how my brown trousers end well above my ankles, Ma will say even film stars wear ill-fitting clothes because it’s the latest fashion.
She’s still making up things to trick me like she did when I was smaller than I’m now. She doesn’t know that every morning, Pari and Faiz laugh when they see me and tell me I look like a joss stick but one that smells of fart.
“Ma, listen, my uniform—” I say and I stop because there’s a scream from outside so loud I think it will squish the walls of our house. Runu-Didi gasps and Ma’s hand brushes against a hot pan by mistake and her face goes all sharp and jagged like bitter-gourd skin.
I think it’s Papa trying to scare us. He’s always singing old Hindi songs in his hairy voice that rolls down the alleys of our basti like an empty LPG cylinder, waking up stray dogs and babies and making them bawl. But then the scream punches our walls again, and Ma switches off the stove and we run out of the house.
The cold slithers up my bare feet. Shadows and voices judder across the alley. The smog combs my hair with fingers that are smoky but also damp at the same time. People shout, “What’s happening? Has something happened? Who’s screaming? Did someone scream?” Goats that their owners have dressed in old sweaters and shirts so they won’t catch a chill hide under the charpais on both sides of the alley. The lights in the hi-fi buildings near our basti blink like fireflies and then disappear. The current’s gone off.
I don’t know where Ma and Runu-Didi are. Women wearing clinking glass bangles hold up mobile-phone torches and kerosene lanterns but their light is wishy-washy in the smog.
Everyone around me is taller than I am, and their worried hips and elbows knock into my face as they ask each other about the screams. We can tell by now that they are coming from Drunkard Laloo’s house.
“Something bad is going on over there,” a chacha who lives in our alley says. “Laloo’s wife was running around the basti, asking if anyone had seen her son. She was even at the rubbish ground, calling his name.”
“That Laloo too, na, all the time beating his wife, beating his children,” a woman says. “Just you wait and see, one day his wife will also disappear. What will that useless fellow do for money then? From where will he get his hooch, haan?”
I wonder which one of Drunkard Laloo’s sons is missing. The eldest, Bahadur, is a stutterer who is in my class.
The earth twitches as a metro train rumbles underground somewhere near us. It will worm out of a tunnel, zoom past half-finished buildings, and climb up a bridge to an above-ground station before returning to the city because this is where the Purple Line ends. The metro station is new, and Papa was one of the people who built its sparkly walls. Now he’s making a tower so tall they have to put flashing red lights on top to warn pilots not to fly too low.
The screams have stopped. I’m cold and my teeth are talking among themselves. Then Runu-Didi’s hand darts out of the darkness, snatches me, and drags me forward. She runs fast, as if she’s competing in a relay race and I’m the baton she’s about to pass to a teammate.
“Stop,” I say, hitting the brakes. “Where are we going?”
“Didn’t you hear what people were saying about Bahadur?”
“You don’t want to find out more?”
Runu-Didi can’t see my face in the smog but I nod. We follow a lantern swinging from someone’s hands, but it’s not bright enough to show us the puddles where washing-up water has collected and we keep stepping into them. The water is icky and I should turn around but I also want to know what happened to Bahadur. Teachers never ask him questions in class because of his stammer. When I was in Standard Two, I tried going ka-ka-ka too, but that only got me a rap on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Ruler beatings hurt much worse than canings.