The thwack of the machete on the jackfruit woke him up. Blinking the afternoon sleep away, Unni ran down the shiny wooden stairs, its wobbling making the underside of his feet curl in fear. He ignored the sensation and let the momentum take him to the bottom. Everyone in the house would shout “careful” when children came down them, but nobody had thought of replacing this death-trap. Its shiny steps were worn by the family’s feet into slippery silk. The two beams holding it up had deep cracks, into which Uncle B stuck incense sticks, in memory of his wife, who fell and cracked her head on the last step. The teak wood bannister, carved into a snake, shook like a loose tooth. The landing was a big granite tile. If the smooth wooden steps did their job of accelerating your descent to the ground, the hard granite could finish it by killing you. Unni, jumped from the last step, cleared the granite slab and ran down to the kitchen and then out the back door to the verandah that circled the house. His mother was squatting in front of an enormous jackfruit, pouring coconut oil onto her hands to keep the sap from sticking when she plucked out the juicy flesh, after Uncle B had cut it into quarters. Unni sat at the doorstep, waiting for her to hand him a piece. The other kids had not woken up from their forced siesta. His mouth was watering, the smell filled his nostrils and mingled with the scent of cow dung and hay that wafted from the cowshed in front of them. Uncle B dug into the folds of his lungi and took out a ten rupee note. “Nine Navy Cut and buy orange candy for yourself with the rest.” Unni looked at his mother, who had a frown on her face but didn’t say anything. He took it as consent, grabbed the money and ran around the house to the road in front. Ikkaka’s shop was just a few yards down the road. The blacktop was still hot from the afternoon sun. He walked on it until it was too hot to bear and then jumped on to the gravel side. He heard the growl of a small engine and looked up to see Nisha from next door trying to ride her father’s Scooty. She was concentrating on keeping the handles straight and was not looking in front of her. Unni took a deep breath before letting out a loud yell and charging towards her. She braked so hard and so fast, the back of the Scooty rose. The rider and scooter fell to the side. He was still laughing when she got up, dusted the gravel from her elbow where streaks of blood were already appearing, and shouted at him. He ran the last few steps to the shop and slammed the money on top of the counter. Ikakka lifted his head and stretched his hand slowly to the shelf that held the cigarette boxes. “Nine Navy Cut and one orange candy” Unni said unnecessarily. He had been making the same trip all summer. Ikkaka placed the pack of cigarettes on the counter next to the money, and Unni unscrewed the big bottle of candy and took two sugar dusted, orange, jewel-like, pieces out. Ikkaka had given him permission for that too. The pack had ten cigarettes. Usually, Ikkaka would unwrap the cellophane and carefully take one out. Today he just gestured to the box and waved his hands. Unni took the pack, popped the candy into his mouth and walked back. Ikkaka sometimes possessed a rare streak of magnanimity, usually when the day had been unusually hot. Nisha tried to slap him as he walked past, he dodged her, and she went back to inspecting her scraped elbow, brushing off some of the gravel she had missed. Unni never brushed his wounds; even as they began to heal, he would sit and pick at the tiny pieces one by one, some of which, when removed, would be replaced with a tiny, brilliant red droplet of blood.
Everyone said that Unni couldn’t keep his hands still. It was a curse that regularly got him in trouble and mostly ended up with some kind of a beating. A knock on the head from Uncle B, a pounding on the back from his mother – who had heard somewhere that it was the only acceptable place to hit a child – a caning on the palm from his school teachers, or a slap on the face from karate master, “etc, etc, etc”, as his English Miss would say.
His fingers unwound the clear cellophane from around the pack. He opened the cover and slowly slid out the dull gold wrapper and placed it carefully in his pocket. Manu had made a ball with gold chocolate wrappers. Unni wanted to make a kite, but nobody bought him chocolates; the cigarette foil would have to do. The neat row of cigarettes stared at him. He took one out and brought it close to his nose. The smell was incredible. Uncle B was expecting only nine, so he carefully placed one in the crook of the sapota tree and ran to the back of the house. The jackfruit was piled up on a steel plate. Mini and Manu were already digging into it. Unni grabbed a few and sat down with a satisfactory sigh.
The white stick in the crook of the tree stayed stuck to the back of Unni’s mind. His initial idea was to sniff it once in a while when no one was looking. But the thought took off and he decided that he would smoke it. The second-most hidden place in the entire compound was behind the outdoor toilet. The most hidden place was the abandoned temple tank.
His mother had found him there once, skipping stones across the still water. She had dragged him back home, but not before giving him what she called a tight slap: “Nobody will know if you fall in and drown. They found that boy’s body after five days.” Unni’s cheek was smarting from the slap. Anger came boiling out of his tongue, dark bubbles of hate floating towards his mother. “You always said your life would be better if I wasn’t there. Let me drown or disappear. Leave me. What is it to you?”
His voice had broken on the last sentence, shifting from one octave to a higher one, that barely made it into his mother’s ears. Her eyes had gone wide. She had turned to him and sighed. Unni had wondered if he was going to be slapped again. “Your father is the one who left. Be thankful that I am here.”
He wondered now if he should tell Manu and Mini about the cigarette. They came for the summer holidays every year from Bombay. He was thankful for their company, but they always got him into trouble. They never got their knees peeled or had mango stains and blood on their clothes. They never ran too fast and they always got good marks. They had a father, who would call precisely two weeks into the summer holidays, just when Unni had forgotten about school and its myriad humiliations. Over the crackling phone line would come their results, in a stack of ‘cent per cent’ and one or two subjects with a few marks less – at these the duo would groan and moan. Unni’s mother would stare silently at him. He would have barely passed. A month after that, the twins’ father would arrive with a parcel of textbooks. The evenings turned into a torture after that – before the books arrived, the evenings were only slightly bad.
At six in the evening, the mothers would hurry into bathrooms, outside taps or wells and clean themselves up. Unni’s mother would have her second bath and then use her considerable lungs to call Unni. He would always come in reluctantly. Entering the damp bathroom he would wait for his mother to face the small dresser, with its smaller mirror, to apply a fine layer of lavender-smelling powder, comb her long curly hair and tie it into an unforgiving knot at the nape of her neck, adjust her sari and then finally concentrate on creating a perfect round of maroon on her forehead. He would keep the door slightly ajar and pour water noisily from a mug onto the floor, none of it touching any part of his body. He would then take the damp towel that his mother had used and wipe himself. Inhaling the scents of lavender, sandalwood and woodsmoke always made him feel better. It was a smell unique to his mother. He would come out and his mother would comb his hair down and rush him to the bottom of the stairs where the photos of the gods were waiting. It was one of the few moments he got to spend alone with his mother.
He didn’t realise how much he loved watching his mother get dressed; how much he loved it as she cupped her hands around his chin and combed his hair into a sleekness (that would get mussed in a few minutes) until it was all disrupted by the twins’ mother that evening. She walked in to borrow talcum powder. Unni knew that his mother rationed the powder. The liquid maroon pottu for her forehead was bought once a year at the annual pilgrimage to Guruvayoor, and the lavender scented talcum came from his other uncle who worked in Saudi Arabia and came home once a year. The tin containers had to last until his next visit. She put a small amount in a piece of paper for her sister-in-law. “What stinginess!” the woman muttered while taking the paper and walking away. As she crossed the threshold of the room, she muttered even more. “Who is she perfuming herself with foreign powder at dusk for? Her husband ran away long back.” Unni felt his insides twisting.
Once all the kids were assembled in front of the gods and the lamps were lit, they had to recite the Gayathri Mantra and then the alphabet and mathematical tables. On evenings after the books had arrived, this would be followed by the twins opening the texts excitedly and reading aloud. Unni had to sit fidgeting until they finished. It ate into the TV time before dinner. He would often be forced to flip through one of his old books until his mother decided the torture had gone on long enough and saved him. When he scampered to her side, to the corner of the TV room, he would feel a love for her that would almost squeeze his lungs shut. He would have to sit next to his mother on the floor, while the twins lolled on the sofa next to Uncle B. He usually sat on the sofa, but whenever there were guests, his mother would make him sit next to her on the floor.
His mother gave his legs a squeeze and he forgot the slight and wanted to give her the whole world. A world that got upended the next day.
It started with a wail. His mother opened the brown envelope, read the contents and emitted a sound that made Unni’s spine tingle even though he was all the way in the front of the house, swinging on the creaky old black gate. Uncle B came running, followed by the twins’ mother – she had started almost as soon as his mother had drawn in the breath to wail, so finely tuned were her senses to tragedy and scandal. Still Uncle B was faster. He read the letter and cursed. His mother curled herself into a ball and the twins’ mother, after hearing the first few sentences of the letter, went to her side. She rubbed his mother’s back. There were tears in her eyes, but there were none in his mother’s.
It was only a day later that Unni came to know the contents of the letter. His father had sent papers for a divorce. He did not know what the word meant. The twins took immense pleasure in informing him about it. But they were disappointed. He did not care. He could barely remember his father’s face – seen only for ten days, once in two years. Those ten days were usually spent visiting relatives and gods; ten days when he had to sleep with Uncle B, who snored and grunted through the night, ten days that his mother became flustered, absentminded and irritated.
Unni’s world was one where things did not go according to plan. At eleven years of age, he had accepted and even come to anticipate that he would never get what he wanted. Things would always be against him. His mother and Uncle B made preparations to go meet his father at his ancestral home, six hours away. The divorce papers had been posted from there. A few discreet phone calls had established that Unni’s father had returned to his village a fortnight ago, and was still there. Uncle B and his mother would be gone for three days. That was the time that Uncle B had given himself to convince his brother-in-law not to get a divorce. After he agreed, Unni and his mom would move to his father’s house; this was the twins’ mother’s contribution to the situation: “Husbands like it when their wives live with their mothers, instead of hiding in the wives’ brother’s house.” Unni did not agree with any of these plans. He liked things as they were. He tried telling his mother that she could divorce happily. She just lay on the bed without responding. Uncle B told him to shut up, and the twins’ mother screamed at him. “Children do not talk about such things, or make decisions. Especially a good for nothing child with a mouth that is studying for PhD while failing 5th standard.”
Unni was so angry that he ran to the crook of the tree and grabbed the cigarette he had stashed there. He then ran to the kitchen and grabbed a matchbox. There was no time to run to the abandoned pond. He made his way to the back of the outhouse. It took him a dozen tries before he understood that the cigarettes didn’t light unless he sucked in air at the same time. The matchbox was almost empty before he could light the thing. The first puff made him feel dizzy, his mouth felt dry, and a small itch climbed up his throat to where the smoke touched it. The next puff, he drew in hard. It went right down his throat and his lungs reacted by expelling everything out in a coughing fit that brought tears to his eyes and snot dripping down his nose. He was still holding the cigarette and trying to catch his breath when a heavy thump landed on his back and made him almost kneel on the rubble. He turned to look and saw his mother standing there. His heart plummeted to the ground, and before his brain could catch up, lightning struck the side of his face.
Nisha was responsible, she had seen him through the trees and run into the house to his mother, screaming. “Unni is smoking behind the outhouse!” My mother who had not been able to get out of bed for days had reached the back of the outhouse in record time. No sticks or stones stopped her bare feet. Like an Ayyappa devotee climbing the forested mountains, she advanced through the rocky grove and up the rubble path to the back of the outhouse. An incarnation of Kali, she seemed to have a few extra hands when the thumps fell on his back and a slap split his lip. Unni howled. Nisha had followed his mother and stood between the mango trees watching. Her face showed conflicting emotions: satisfaction over a job well done followed by a fast-dawning horror that the job was done a little too well.
Two years later, the slap still gave Unni tingles of embarrassment that would show on his face. He was walking home one day with a fold of money in his pocket. It felt heavy. He remembered the slap. He was beginning to understand that the slap was just the start. Tiny barbs of humiliation were queueing up, ready to jump into his life at any instant in his future. The queue was longer than the one at the post office he had just left and as irregular as the money orders that came in his name and not his mothers. They were a lot more irritating than the letters he had to send his father that had no sentences, just numbers that accounted for every paisa that came in the money order, (if he missed out on anything, the exact amount was deducted from the next month’s payment), and worse than the looks that everyone at the post office gave him when he presented his school ID card to collect the money. He did not need that stupid card. Everyone knew him. He was the boy whose father hated his mother so much that he wouldn’t even send money in her name. Whose mother had dragged his father to court for money. Whose father had married again. Whose mother had taken over a grocery shop, despite being from one of the most respected families in the town. Whose widowed uncle smoked, drank and wandered the party offices late into the night. Unni’s self-flagellating thoughts was broken when he spotted Nisha standing on the porch of her parents’ house. A streak of maroon paint lay on the parting of her hair like a warning sign. She did not need it, that ugly, toad-faced woman had married just around the time his father had divorced them. He, his mother and uncle were not invited to the wedding, even though they were neighbours. In Unni’s mind, the stolen cigarette, Nisha and the slap were all somehow connected to the torment that had followed.
Unni stopped at Ikkaka’s shop as he usually did after his trips to the post office. In his monthly letters to his father, this was written off as bus tickets to and from the post office. Ikkaka did his slow, choreographed, routine of pick-and-place on the counter.
Uncle B was sitting on the backdoor step. It was tea time, and habit had brought him there. Unni’s mother was at the shop. She made a big steel pan of tea and left it on the stove every morning. All you had to do was heat it and pour the tea into a glass. Uncle B still hadn’t wrapped his head around the procedure. He had never set foot in the kitchen. On the day that Unni’s mother had explained the process, he stood at the threshold between the kitchen and dining area and nodded his head. Tea was on the stove, breakfast on the table; lunch on the kitchen counter and dinner would be cooked and served after she closed the shop at eight. The biscuit tin was on the side shelf.
Unni heated the tea, poured a glass for Uncle B and himself and sat down on the step below Uncle B. The wad of money felt heavy again in his front pocket. Uncle B’s eyes flitted to it with every sip. After tea, Unni took the glasses and put them on to a side for his mother to pick up later and put in the big stone sink outside. That was the extent of his rebellion when it came to domestic chores. He then took out the cigarette pack from the fold in his mundu and passed it to Uncle B, who opened the pack, took one out and passed it back to Unni. Both lit up in silence.