The younger of the two boys thought the garden was great. His older cousin thought it was pretty good too; a respectable garden. It went from one end of the driveway to the other, encircling the house like a C. It had a few coconut trees, lots of uneven grass, two mango trees, a papaya tree, a neem tree and plenty of mud. They never saw any actual papayas on the papaya tree, and only green and sour pretenders on the mango one. Occasionally the coconuts would have some water in them. They liked the garden despite its barrenness. They didn’t really expect things from the garden, and it was the only place they could play away from the adults in the house.
The house was nice too, they would have said, if asked. It had a hall, a dining room, a pantry, a kitchen and five bedrooms. The younger boy was amazed at the strange, thin wooden stairs leading up to two of those rooms. The stairs, now that the older boy thought of it, were kind of strange, and had been made out of compressed woodchips and sawdust. The older boy had gotten used to them, and didn’t think of how unsafe the stairs were for children, or why his mother led him up them by hand when he was little. He could climb them himself now, and did so when he visited his cousins’ bedroom. The stairs were no problem. He was going places.
There was this one particular stretch of summer days which the two boys would never forget. They woke up early in the morning while the koyals were still making their half-songs, while the wispy light was still empty of heat. They ate their breakfast, watched cartoons, and went out into the garden. The spread arms of the sun made imprints on each mind that only the other would recognise.
Sometimes, when the heat became too much, they would go to the younger boy’s room. In reality, he shared the room with his moody elder brother, who was hardly ever around. They liked this room because it had ‘good cross-ventilation’, and also because the younger boy had a box of marbles which they weren’t allowed to play with outside the room. He would take them out of the ‘secret’ compartment at the bottom of the closet, which everybody knew about. They looked for the ones with the strangest twists, losing them and hunting them down again, pretending to hide them from the moody brother who was ghost-like and would be imagined as a variety of villains.
The boys had no concept of time. They moved through each day with a relish they didn’t know they had, playing cricket without rules in the veranda, digging for treasure in the garden mud, trying to spot mongooses who lived in the holes behind the palm trees. The younger boy claimed they had red eyes, but the older one said he didn’t believe it. He was lying whenever he said it though, because one afternoon that summer, he was looking through the French windows when three mongooses came out from behind the tree. It was as though they knew when the boys went in for lunch. At first he wasn’t sure what they were, but he put two-and-two together, the rodent faces and their long bodies. He was just thinking of calling the younger boy, to say that they were nothing but big squirrels, when they saw him. It was like a dream. They all stopped and looked right at him, eyes like little flaming dots. He could see them through the panes of the window glass, through the tall weeds, through the warping summer air; and the next moment they were gone. He didn’t tell anyone about it, and didn’t even think of it for a long time.
There was always some construction work going on at the house those days. The two boys had become used to it, the dark-skinned labourers in their lungis, the bricks and sand lying around. Their mothers encouraged them to help the labourers out, and sometimes to clean up the crumbs of cement at the foot of the sawdust stairs, because they couldn’t afford more workers for that.
One day they were asked to neatly stack up the extra bricks in the garden. They lugged the bricks in ones and twos around the bend of the wall, and dumped them near the French window. The younger boy’s brother helped them sometimes, but soon he didn’t bother. He was like that, hanging around them for a while and then leaving, suddenly sour. For the two boys though, the indecision of puberty was still a few years away.
At some point, they decided to build a room. They didn’t know much about forts other than that they were boring and old, and anyway they didn’t have enough bricks for that. What they wanted was a room they could share. It became a strange ritual of theirs, but the random disappearances of the older brother gave them the feeling that this room would be a retreat from his moods, a secession from the elder, the snob.
The boys began to learn the fundamentals of masonry. They understood the value of concrete and the magnitude of their handicap in not being allowed access it. They found that placing the bricks in a zigzag, step-patterned manner would give the walls more strength. They enjoyed the roughness of the red bricks, the notion of hard work, the idea of making a monument while their skin glistened in the sun. They even suggested to one another that what they were doing was more ambitious, was better altogether, than the cement wall being erected in the house. Their ‘room’ was only four feet tall and about three feet wide, and without a roof, but when it was done, they were proud. It was a secret kind of pride. Though no one else cared, no one else got to call this their room either. They were standing near the French windows, looking at the Room, when the younger boy asked how they were supposed to get in.
They spent a long time mulling over that, eventually deciding to remove a few bricks from the top of one side, making a gap in the wall they could step through. The Room was great now. They had a space where they could spend days just relaxing and playing board games, like the kids on TV or in Enid Blyton books. Later in the evening, the labourers came around, and scooped up the discarded bricks for the wall around the stairs.
Upon entering the Room, the boys felt like the children they were. It started with a brief moment, silent and shared. Then it bloomed into something that weighed more than all those bricks together, the embarrassment of youth, of Golding’s uniformed officer glittering on the beach. The boys looked at each other and grinned nervously, sitting awkwardly on the room’s grass floor. They had to be careful not to lean against the walls, or the room would collapse.
They attended the room each morning, delicately placing a board over their crossed legs to play Monopoly or chess or cards. Sometimes they would sit cramped in the room with cold water or juice and sip while sweating in the boxed heat, neither daring to suggest they go back to the garden. The house inside was alien to them by now, filled with the earthy smell of cement, as the labourers piled bricks at the bottom of the strange stairs and pasted them with concrete.
The boys slowly began to feel the passing mornings, began to notice how the light was always changing. The room also changed how they felt now, about digging in the mud, hunting for odd rodents, spending hours barefoot in the baked-earth veranda, turning their soles a dull red. Their time in the room began to taint the sun-suffused memories of their previous weeks with that same sobriety of the bricked-in space. Their mothers didn’t need to call them for lunch more than once. Reminiscence became the after-taste of surprise.
In the following days, the older boy began to feel that the hours of dusk were increasing. He despised that time of day, its uncertainty, the torturous death of sunny afternoons. Though whether this sentiment was already present within him, or if it was induced by the simultaneous dismantling of his life in that period, he did not know, perhaps wasn’t even conscious of not knowing. Boys his age did not trace the source of their responses or try to understand them, but
moved between emotional states like refugees. Which is why, despite secretly dreading the hours he spent with his cousin in their ‘room’, he did not hesitate to feel angry when he saw, one quickly-evaporating morning, that the walls had been toppled, the bricks in a heap.
It was erroneous to name his reaction with words like: indignant, outraged, furious. They lacked the expansive masculinity, which such words implied. His was a simpler emotion, linked more to the abruptness of shock than real anger. He then felt loss, poetic loss for this inglorious ruin. He screamed and cried but no one came. He called for his cousin and heard nothing. After he quietened down, he became conscious of raised voices in the upstairs rooms, where the younger boy’s family slept. The older boy walked through the French windows, a portal whose purpose would soon become extinct. He noticed too, the lack of labourers, the inactivity. He found the wall, which he barely noticed as he passed the stairs every day, now finished. It had a door, but felt more like a barrier than a passage. He tried the handle; it was locked. The smell of cement, of infected rain, pulsed around the wall like an aura.
He knew something momentous was happening upstairs, but had no way of finding out what. He didn’t see anyone except his mother descend the stairs for the rest of the day, and despite all his questions, she told him nothing. He always become worried when he saw her like this, restlessly fuming, muttering to herself.
The next day, he woke up early, even before the koyals. From the dark pantry, he spied his cousin’s mother coming down the stairs. She was leaving the house to buy milk. When he heard the front gate shut with a crisp clang, he slipped into the wall’s open door and went upstairs.
Stepping into his cousin’s room, he felt the cool floor as if after years, the dawn air pouring in from the open windows. There was no movement, save the swelling and falling of the thin white curtains. For a long time he stood there, his eyes adjusting to the half-light, making sure the bodies of his cousins were still, unaware. He felt awkward then, his achievement anticlimactic. Between the long swings of the curtain, he could see the garden, looking blue before sunrise; the mango tree the bluest.
The older boy let his eyes roll over the room. He was surprised that his cousins had joined their beds to sleep, but not taken aback. It was one of the things he heard brothers did sometimes. Everything was the same, past the margin of unreality in the thinning blue light – except the closet. It was wide open, a few papers and clothes dangling off the shelves. Even the drawer at the bottom
had been removed and upturned. He glanced down the thin stairs at the grey wall, and looked through the window again, feeling unexpectedly like an intruder.
And then he saw three dark shapes, long, short-legged and silent, coming out from under the coconut tree and speeding through the garden. He felt sad now, like something had just been confirmed. He turned to go, and stepped on something small and hard. He bent down, and picked up the marble. It had a simple twist of pale green inside. Looking around, he saw that the dustbin was stuffed with the cracked box which they used to play with, now spilling its innards through the holes in the bin. He put the marble in his pocket, and left before the sun rose.