Sindhuja felt her leg slip. She knew Marudhu had piled on too many broken bits of brick on her tray. She felt him strain under its weight, too, as he lifted it off the ground, his back bending and unbending, and let out a grunt as he placed it on the tightly wound cloth on her head. She would have stumbled and fallen if not for the sneer she saw in his eyes. She willed her mind to focus on anything but the weight – the beads of sweat on Marudhu’s thick eyebrows, the dust on his head, as if the roots of his hair had rusted, the cement mixer behind him, turning its big belly and burping out fine grey ash, the bright orange helmets of the supervisors – two of them – as they looked intently into a white sheet that needed both pairs of hands to hold.
Sindhuja adjusted her shoulders, sucked her stomach in, and turned around to walk the ten steps to the mountain of broken bricks near the gate of the construction site. She knew Marudhu would be watching her all the way, and was acutely aware of the shirt she was wearing over her sari, drenched in sweat, sticking to her back. She felt trickles of sweat along her neck, travelling down her spine, sweat on her midriff pooling at the edges of the sari’s fold at the waist, and sweat down her thighs, going down, down, down, till it petered out at her calves, tickling her. She realised she still hadn’t moved. She took a step forward and felt her body lose its balance, the weight on her head pressing down on her like an immovable boulder. She was worried that it would leave its mark on her head, too – a concave crater, a forever half moon in her night sky.
Sindhuja was almost near the gate. Two more steps and this ordeal would be done. Two more steps and she could throw that tray down. She sucked in her stomach again – and this time she distinctly heard her stomach protest, there was no space for it to move any further. She took one more step and collapsed on the dry ground, her body like a feather, almost drifting down in a confused trajectory. Her only thought before she lost consciousness was that Marudhu shouldn’t be the one touching her and lifting her up.
Anbu was bored. The balwadi (rural preschool) teacher had fallen asleep as always and left the ten children in class to fend for themselves. Most of them were still playing with the carton of used toys someone had dropped off a couple of days back – the car with four wheels that wouldn’t move, the airplane with a broken wing, the odd tennis ball, a Spider-Man mask, and the monkey that would only play the drums if its hands were moved mechanically, its battery operated past now gaping like an open wound. Anbu stepped outside and sat down, playing with a couple of stones, listlessly listening to the sound of the stone hitting the dry ground. He found a row of black ants marching into the balwadi and wondered if he should kill some of them by pressing down his thumb, but decided against it. If he had some fire, that would be fun. He looked inside the balwadi and saw the teacher was still sleeping, so he slipped away, walking down the narrow gully packed with houses on either side like a queue that had lost its pattern. He chased a dog away by raising his hands and pretending to drop it down; walked past a man, who was peeing onto the wall that carried a faded picture of Sai Baba with the cross and crescent moon on top; and stopped in front of the potti kadai, the small shop, where his grandfather Karuppiah worked.
“Yenne Anbu, don’t you have classes?”
“The teacher slept, thatha.”
“Again?” Karuppiah’s chuckle quickly turned into a nasty cough. He turned to the side and hit his chest repeatedly to stop the cough, and then sipped some water. But it took another ten minutes for the coughing to stop. Anbu waited patiently. When it stopped and Karuppiah’s strained face, his wrinkles deeper than before, turned to him, Anbu asked, “Thatha, can you give me that matchbox?” He was pointing to the one on the table, placed on top of a packet of beedis.
“What do you need it for kutti?”
Anbu almost never lied. Especially not to his mother and Karuppiah, the two people he loved the most in the world. So he simply said, “I want to burn a line of ants.”
Karuppiah, who looked momentarily confused, laughed out loud, but that transgression turned into a cough again, and while he turned his head and beat his chest and rode the debilitating wave of the slow burn in his lungs, Anbu grabbed the matchbox and ran away. He had no problems stealing.
He reached his balwadi to find the teacher still asleep and the children still engrossed in the carton of toys. The ants were scurrying into the balwadi, but stretching out upwards on the wall shared by the balwadi and the house next door. The smell of spices hitting hot oil in that house slipped through the sides of the unmoving cloth, which acted as a makeshift door. The heat pressed down on Anbu, rivulets of sweat racing down his body. He squatted and tried to light the first match, which broke under the force of his effort. There were five more in the box, so he tried again, and the next match broke, too. The third match, however, behaved and a healthy flame flared up, nearly burning the tip of Anbu’s nose, and a short laugh riding on fear escaped his body as he threw the match away. The match, still burning, found the cloth of the house next door. Anbu watched, first in fascination as the flame nibbled at the edges of the cloth, and then in fear as the flames leapt up in joy, quickly consuming the cloth and rushing inwards.
Marudhu felt the softness of Sindhuja’s right breast as he lifted her off the ground and carried her to a corner of the construction site where a green mesh cloth offered respite from the heat. As he placed her down on the ground, he squeezed her breast again and felt himself harden. Meena came with a tumbler of water, frowned at Marudhu, who grinned back. She splashed water gently on Sindhuja’s face and as Sindhuja returned to consciousness, forced her to take a few sips of the water. The supervisors were standing around, shouting instructions to bring tea and asking Marudhu what had happened.
“Nothing, Sir, all acting. So they can take a break.” He spat on the ground, the thick glob of saliva tinged faintly red at the edges from the paan he had chewed earlier.
“We don’t want any trouble. It is bad enough her husband died last month on site.”
“No problem, Sir. I can handle it.”
When the tea arrived, Marudhu took it to Sindhuja, who was leaning against a mound of neatly stacked bricks. He held the cup in such a way that she would have to touch his hands to take the cup from him. The heat of the tea and Sindhuja’s hand pulsated against his palm. Sindhuja stared at the floor and sipped her tea in silence.
“It’s no use, this stubbornness. You will lose your job here, and then who will look after Anbu? That old man? He will be dead before the day is out.” Marudhu was standing over her as he spoke. He squatted to try to meet her eye. “What is your problem? You think I am not good enough? Or is there someone else?” Sindhuja remained silent, finished her tea, put the cup on the ground, and got up. Marudha, too, stood up, blocking her way. She met his eye. Marudhu grinned, spat again and the day’s work resumed.
Anbu, along with the other children, was sitting on the floor, outside the potti kadai. The fire had burned slowly and steadily, swallowing up at least ten houses, including the balwadi, before the fire engine made its way into the narrow gully. Some people had tried to contain the fire with muddy water from the taps, but it simply wasn’t enough. Thick smoke engulfed the area like stubborn fists refusing to let go, only loosening its grip closer to the potti kadai. Anbu could hear the shrill siren of the fire engine, louder than the speeches and music from loudspeaker. He was restless to go and see the action. But the children had been forbidden to go anywhere close to the fire, so they sat in a row outside the shop, with a packet of Milk Bikis each in their hands.
Anbu had hidden the matchbox in his pocket as soon as the fire had broken out and people had come out of the houses screaming. No one would notice the burnt-out matchsticks on the floor in all that commotion, and, in any case, people were more worried about putting out the fire than worrying about how the fire started. His balwadi teacher, rudely awakened by the commotion, had quickly hustled the children away from the fire. Karuppiah, who had also arrived at the scene, coughing away, had taken them to the shop. Everyone was coughing – Anbu included – and he looked at Karuppiah, mid-cough, hit his chest, and grinned.
As stories of the fire’s magnificence spread, Anbu was itching to take credit. It was just like that time when he had left open a tap in the community toilet after his night-time pee, hoping to see a big flood the next morning. Instead, there was an angry mob that surrounded the area councillor’s house with buckets in their hands. Anbu had pulled his mother’s pallu and told her, “That was me, amma.” His amma had shushed him, and Anbu knew she didn’t believe him. So, he told her exactly what he had done, and his mother had nodded, even while she stirred the kanji in the pot, and he had followed her around, adding more details – some made up – to make her believe him. She had smiled as Anbu spoke non-stop, ending with a scream – It was me, amma! His mother had slapped him.
So, this time around, Anbu decided he had to be smart about the matter. He looked at his friends eating their biscuits, their mouths pasty with crumbs, and he zeroed in on Pandi, the oldest in their group. He sidled up to Pandi, the seven-year-old, who instinctively hid the half-eaten packet of biscuits inside his shirt. Anbu showed Pandi his unopened packet and smiled.
“Pandi, that fire. You know who started it?”
Pandi looked at him, disinterested, his big eyes sunken in his hollow face. “I don’t care.”
Anbu looked at him, momentarily thrown by that reaction. He then moved close to Pandi’s face, close enough to smell the biscuits on his breath, and whispered, “It was me. I started it. See?” pulling out the matchbox from his pocket.
Pandi’s eyes rounded and he burst out laughing. Anbu indignant, stood up. “What’s so funny? I was trying to burn the ants and I took this matchbox from here only. See, from that table.”
“How do I know you didn’t take it just now? Go and tell your tales somewhere else, idiot. Such a big fire cannot start with such a small matchbox. Poda, go eat your biscuit.”
Anbu walked away and sat down next to the other children, nearly colliding into one as he did so. He opened his packet of Milk Bikis and started eating.
Sindhuja was sitting down for lunch when Ravi, the boy who worked in the scrap-metal shop next to the potti kadai where Karuppiah, her father, worked, came running to tell her about the fire. Sindhuja looked at Marudhu briefly, who nodded and pointed to the watch in his hand. Sindhuja left in a rush, half-running, asking Ravi about Anbu and how bad the fire was and whose homes had burnt down. She felt a pang in her heart for the slum that had been her home since she was Anbu’s age, when her parents had lost their jobs on the farm in the village like so many others and moved to the city. She also felt a guilty relief when she found out that it wasn’t her home that had burnt down. When she saw Anbu, she scooped him in her arms, holding him close to her body, kissing his head and cheeks, and trying to get in words between his unrelenting speech.
“This big the fire, amma, this big. And you know who made it? Me! I was trying to burn the ants and took the matchbox from thatha while he was coughing, and then the cloth caught fire and the fire jumped up, like this, see, like this, and then I ran away, and Rupini akka woke up and everyone was screaming, and I did it, amma, me, it was me.” He saw his mother nod along, and realised she didn’t believe him. Angry, he tried to break free from his mother’s hug, pushing her, clawing at her, scratching her before walking away, his small limbs pulsating with aggression, as his mother watched indulgently and called out, “Dai, Anbu, come back. I believe you, da. Tell me again, properly? Anbu!”
But Anbu had turned the corner, into another endless row of houses, the street twisting and turning like loose thread, and found his way blocked by a queue of sweaty men in lungis, lifted up and tied at their waists, their hairy thighs also damp with sweat. The fire engine was parked further ahead, and Anbu could see it. He inched closer, trying to see if he could sneak past the men in a moment of distraction. No such luck.
“Hey, what are you doing here? Go, go. You are Karuppiah’s boy? Get away from here. It’s dangerous.”
Anbu pretended to go away, but he ducked behind an overflowing dustbin. For some time, he was occupied with where he kept his foot, avoiding squishy packets of stale food or wet vegetable skin, looking instead for tetra packets of juice, which came from the apartment complex close to his slum, to stand on, or for plastic packets that most people in the slum got their drinking water from. When he peered from behind the dustbin, he saw that some of the men were moving towards the fire engine. He waited.
Five minutes later, a crowd had gathered around the fire engine. Anbu scampered towards the crowd, burrowed his way in and saw that the men were helping the firemen to haul a long, green pipe. The smoke was making everything harder to see, so he moved in closer to the truck. He went to the other side of the truck, but couldn’t inch his way closer to the door of the fire-truck. He had always wanted to see what it looked like inside. Someone shooed him away again and, by then, he had lost interest. He ambled through many houses, peering into open doorways, imagining telling his friends about entering the belly of the fire-truck and finding a huge tank of water filled with fish. Okay, maybe he would leave out the fish.
He found he had turned the corner to his house. He went inside, found his mother watching TV, snuggled close to her and fell asleep.
Marudhu was livid. It was past four in the evening and Sindhuja hadn’t returned to work. He spat on the ground, angry and frustrated. He kicked the mountain of sand next to him, yelled at one of the workers for slacking, and threw the cup of tea that was delivered to him by the young boy from the teashop. The cup shattered and its pieces shone under the still-harsh sunlight, before being swept away quickly by another worker. The supervisors had left after lunch as usual, leaving Marudhu in charge. No one messed with Marudhu in any case – his brother-in-law’s cousin worked for the local gangster and Marudhu made use of that fact blatantly, or sometimes subtly, as much as his cleverness and recklessness allowed. By six in the evening, when the workday officially ended, he had smoked three beedis, and built up Sindhuja’s betrayal, as he saw it, swiftly in his head. He started his motorbike, his lungi riding higher up, his thigh revealing faded green cotton boxers underneath, his thin, dark leg shifting the gear. He rode towards the supervisor’s house to collect money for the daily wage. As he weaved in and out of the peak-hour traffic, he spotted one of Periyasaami’s cars – an Alto with the windows wound down. Inside sat his brother-in-law’s cousin. With incessant honking, Marudhu made his way to the Alto, and parked himself next to the car.
“Dai, Marudhu! We were just talking about you.” The cousin and the other four men in the car sniggered. “Heard about the fire?”
“Yes, anna, I did.”
“Of course, you did. Your girl’s son was in it. Oh, wait, wait, not yet your girl. Yenne, Marudhu, losing your touch?” He made a lewd gesture with his hand and all the men burst out laughing. The signal changed to green.
“We are going to visit that dying man. Come along, you will enjoy this.” The Alto sped away as if it wore an imaginary siren, and Marudhu was close behind, the adrenaline already pumping in his blood.
Sindhuja had decided she wasn’t going back to work. She watched Anbu walk away from her, knowing he would come back eventually – the slum was their home and no one ever lost their way there. For some time, she joined the crowd watching the firemen hose down the fire. Their fire suits were blackened with soot, their faces covered by masks, and the heat from the fire seemed to push into them like a mob. She found her father standing at the back of the crowd, his body heaving with another spate of coughs. The doctors had told them a week ago that his tuberculosis had made severe advances. Sindhuja walked up to him and led him away from the fire, trying to get him back to his shop.
“Va pa, let’s go. There is nothing for us to do here. The firemen will handle it.”
“Ille ma, you go. Go back to work, Anbu is safe in the shop. Ravi is there to watch him.”
Sindhuja hesitated. Something inside of her threatened to crack, like hardened soil too long in the sun. She wanted to hug her father, tight, like she used to when she was young, knowing somehow that she was protected. Now she saw him, weakened, his body giving up, and wondered briefly if she had the strength to protect him from the steady, cruel march of time. She walked back home, strangely bereft of thought, and barely registered the crowd of people, or familiar faces and voices calling out to her, or even that her phone, hidden in her blouse, was vibrating. She reached home, mechanically switched on the bulb hanging at the centre of their one-room home, and surveyed her house.
Sindhuja switched on the TV, their only real possession, and settled on the floor, allowing the loud voices and music of a Tamil serial to envelope her. When Anbu walked in and snuggled on her lap and fell asleep, she stroked his hair, felt fat lice like tiny bumps, and aimlessly began to pluck them out. The sound of her nail pressing on their bodies filled with her son’s blood calmed her down.
She didn’t know how long she stayed like that. Eventually, she registered the incessant vibration of her phone and pulled it out. It was Ravi, from the shop.
“Akka! akka! Come soon! Periyasaami’s men are beating up ayya. Come fast, akka!”
Sindhuja’s first instinct was to make a mad dash to save her father. But she stayed where she was. She wouldn’t be of much help in this situation – she knew why they were there. Her father had borrowed money for her husband’s funeral – this included a band of drummers, a procession to the crematorium, firecrackers, alcohol, and food for a sizeable crowd – from Periyasaami. Now they were asking for it.
She gently lay Anbu on the floor, muted the TV, got up and adjusted her sari. She heard a knock on the door. She opened the door to find Marudhu there.
“You thought I wouldn’t find you?” He sneered as he poked his head inside the house and looked around. “Just as I thought. Nothing of value here.”
“I have to go,” she said.
“Where? To save your father? I told them not to kill him. My brother-in-law is there. They will slap him around and drop him home. I told them to.”
Sindhuja wondered if Marudhu really had as much power as he claimed. People in the slum joked about him behind his back – his stick-like frame, his false bravado, his manner of speaking with that slight sing-song quality – but when Marudhu arrived, everyone kept quiet.
Marudhu put one foot into the house and leaned forward. “Why wait till tonight? They will keep your father busy long enough for us.” He put one hand on her waist, while the other hand remained on the door.
“Not now, please. Anbu…”
Marudhu took a deep breath and stepped back. “I will expect you at nine in my house.” And then he was gone.
Sindhuja shut the door, lay down next to Anbu, and fell asleep.
An hour later, Anbu woke up and found his mother asleep next to him. The TV was on but silent, showing the ad of his favourite chocolate. He waited for it to end, then rubbed his eyes, and slipped out of the house as noiselessly as he could. He went to his grandfather’s shop.
The commotion caused by the fire had died down and most people had returned to their homes or to work. He passed by a teashop where he overheard two old men discuss the fire – it was caused by the kerosene stove, no, no, it was the heat, no, no, it was the kerosene, I keep telling people to stop using kerosene, it is the oil of the devil, but no one listens to me – and Anbu felt oddly deflated. When he reached the potti kadai, he found its wooden shutters locked. He tried looking for Ravi, but there was no one around. He knew where they kept the spare key – behind a loose brick on the side – but if he opened up the shop now, people would notice. He went back to the teashop and hung around, listening to the old men.
Bored of the old men squabbling over the same thing, he walked back home, only to find a crowd gathered outside. He pushed his way through and found his grandfather on the floor. Anbu noticed the TV was still silent. A group of women were sitting next to his mother, beating their chest with vigour, reminding Anbu of his grandfather, and ululating loudly, when one of them spotted him.
“Ayo, Anbu! Thatha is gone, your thatha is gone. Who will this small boy now call thatha? What is this cruel fate, how much more are you going make them suffer?”
Anbu walked through the people in the room to where his mother was and sat on her lap. She didn’t move or look at him. Anbu looked at his grandfather’s face, for the first time noticing his features not ravaged by his cough. His eyes were closed, but they looked like they were trying to touch each other using his big and bulbous nose as the bridge. His lips were thick and completely blackened. Someone had placed a one-rupee coin on his forehead. Anbu was so engrossed in his unmoving grandfather that he didn’t notice the sudden hushed silence envelop the room as a large man with a lustrous handlebar moustache ruffled his hair and then spoke to his mother: “My condolences ma. My men who did this – bloody cannibals they are – I have fired them. My humble apologies and please accept this token as a price for my guilt. We will talk accounts later.”
The man left, and his mother remained silent. On Anbu’s lap was a brown envelope. He looked in it and found it full of money. “Look, amma, so much kaasu.” Sindhuja finally looked at her son, his sparkling eyes full of life. She hugged him tight, knowing it was futile, while Anbu quietly pocketed some of the money and thought of kerosene.
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