About the Author

Anosh Irani

ANOSH IRANI was born and brought up in Bombay and moved to Vancouver in 1998. His play Bombay Black won five Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including for Outstanding New Play, and his anthology The Bombay Plays: The Matka King & Bombay Black was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Drama. The Matka King received a Jessie Award nomination for Outstanding Original Script, as did his latest play, The Men in White. Irani’s most recent novel, The Parcel, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize; was longlisted for the 2017 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the 2018 Dublin Literary Award; and was chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Globe and Mail, National Post, CBC, the Walrus, and Quill & Quire. His work has been translated into eleven languages.

Books by this Author
Dahanu Road

Dahanu Road

A novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

ONE
India, 2000
 
The smell of mosquito repellent pervaded Zairos’ small room, but he was used to it. Each night his father, Aspi Irani, would come into the room, shut the door and windows, and spray the repellent with great flourish as only an artist would. His father was obsessed with mosquito repellents and owned every brand on the market, from Baygon to Killer. He treated his array of repellents with the kind of passion usually reserved for record collections.
 
Zairos scratched his thigh and realized that he had been bitten by a monster. A few mosquitoes lay on the ground, some flat on their backs, some sideways, giving the impression that the place had been bombed. But these mosquitoes were part of the everyday death toll in the coastal town of Dahanu. In Dahanu, old-timers high on snuff reminisced about their childhood days in Iran and spoke to themselves in Farsi and Dari; tribal fishermen drowned in the sea, possessing neither the strength nor the will to prevent their boats from capsizing; retired schoolteachers drank country liquor until their livers understood their plea and put them out of their misery: and the young women who worked in balloon factories became balloons themselves, puffed up, bloated with the air of disappointment.
 
The bed creaked as Zairos rose from it. He crossed to the porch door and swung it open. His room was on the first floor of his family’s home, Aspi Villa, and the branch of a coconut tree reached for him, as it did every morning. The higher branches caressed the red tiled roof, and their leaves always made Zairos think of large eyelashes, as though the tree and the tiled roof were lovers.
 
Zairos put on jeans and a blue T-shirt and went down the stairs to the living room. His father was seated at the table, cutting an apple, his belly protruding from underneath his white sudreh. The sacred vest had a red blotch, most probably ketchup, on the small pouch at the V that stored the good deeds of the wearer. Zairos smiled at how devout a Zoroastrian his father was—instead of good deeds shining through, there was a blaring ketchup stain.
 
Knife in hand, Aspi Irani was painfully systematic in the cutting of the apple, accurate in the size of each piece, and not once did he even look at the fruit. An unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth. He used to be a chain-smoker, but when Zairos was a year old, Aspi Irani had dozed off while smoking his last Capstan of the night, and in a stupor flicked his burning cigarette into Zairos’ cot, and the horror of the flames was enough to make him quit forever. Zairos was told this little detail when he was ten with the lightness of a fairy tale. “Thank God it happened,” said his father. “Otherwise I would be smoking till today.” Although he had given up smoking, Aspi Irani had been unable to stop holding a cigarette. That and constantly running his fingers through his salt and pepper hair.
 
As soon as Zairos was downstairs, Aspi Irani started singing. His songs were a strange concoction indeed, a blend of three languages, Hindi, English, and Gujarati. Zairos always compared his father’s songs to country liquor: Use anything you can find—orange peels, battery acid, even leather slippers. Then squeeze hard and let its juice make your head spin. This morning, Aspi Irani’s song included two main ingredients— tennis and his old Morris. The two rhymed, and as he sang, the cigarette fell out of his mouth. Then he stopped abruptly and said to Zairos, “I think your mother is having an affair.” He said this every other day, whenever Mithoo went to the bazaar.
 
Theirs was an odd pairing. Mithoo was calm and soft spoken, with a perpetual smile on her face. She spent her time looking after stray dogs and teaching English to just about any child who wanted to learn. As a result, books were strewn all over Aspi Villa, from Wren and Martin’s thick dossier on English grammar to books for five-year-olds such as The ABC of English. There were times when Aspi Irani would come home and find strange children in his living room, sitting at the dinner table with colouring pencils in their hand and chocolate milk on their lips. “Is this an orphanage?” he would ask his wife. “Can we please give them back, my dear?” Mithoo would pout and wink at her husband, and Aspi Irani would melt, but only for a bit. The moment it got dark outside, he would turn off the lights in the living room, bring out an old rubber skeleton, and shine a flashlight on it, thus ensuring that his wife’s students would be terrified of English for the rest of their lives.
 
Aspi Irani loved the idea of sabotage. He yearned for a situation to ruin, as long as there was no permanent damage. No matter where he went, be it marketplace or wedding hall, he was an imp straight from the underworld, full of guile and mischief. Of course, with his thick forearms and massive calves, he was too large to be an imp, but he had an imp’s demeanour, from the sleazy to the sublime. When he was in action, his eyebrows arched like a piece of Mughal architecture; it was the arch of knowing that came upon the countenance of only those who knew secrets, of men who found beauty in the orchestration of disaster.
 
And it was the arch of his eyebrow, he claimed, that had made Mithoo fall in love with him. Mithoo’s parents had died in a car accident when she was fourteen, and she had responded with a bout of silence that lasted four years, until the moment she met Aspi Irani at Café Military in Bombay. “I was so handsome that your mother just had to open her mouth and say something,” Aspi Irani told Zairos. But then one day at a party, while his father was telling this story for the hundredth time, Mithoo whispered to her son, “I did open my mouth, but only because I was in pain. Your father had worn pointy boots and he stepped on my toe and I howled. But he prefers his version.” In any case, they were married six months later. At eighteen, Mithoo was a radiant bride, and Aspi Irani, seven years her senior, continued wearing pointy boots.
 
In later years, the boots gave way to moccasins. Whenever Aspi Irani went abroad, he came back with five pairs of brown moccasins, “One for each year, until our next holiday in five years’ time.” At the moment, the moccasins were neatly tucked away in a corner of the living room, while his face was buried in The Times of India. “The rupee has hit an all-time low against the U.S. dollar,” he grumbled. “What a wonderful way to start the new millennium.”
 
Then he looked up at the silver-framed portrait of Zarathushtra on the wall. “You should become finance minister,” he said. “Only a miracle can save us.” But the prophet remained unmoved. In his soft and luxuriant beard, a burst of light around his head, palms facing upward, Zarathushtra seemed preoccupied with matters celestial; the plummeting rupee or a foray into Indian politics failed to rouse him.
 
Aspi Irani turned his affections to the apple he was cutting.
 
“This apple is raped,” he said, pointing to a tiny, almost invisible rotten patch.
 
The word rape was a staple in Aspi Irani’s vocabulary. If his wife did not make the scrambled eggs soft enough, he would say, “Mithoo, these eggs are raped.” If his back hurt from the long hours of shuttling by train between Dahanu and Bombay, he would say, “My back is raped.” Everything was raped. The trees were raped, the walls were raped, the curtains were raped, the shower was raped, the whiskey was raped, the wedding was raped, and finally, if some unfortunate soul made the mistake of asking Aspi Irani for a loan: “Do I look like I want to be raped?”
 
He offered his son a slice of apple, but Zairos shook his head.
 
The first thing Zairos did every morning was smoke. He did not smoke at home. At twenty-five he was old enough, so that was not the reason. It just felt awkward, blowing smoke in front of his parents; it took the joy out.
 
When Zairos was out of sight, he lit up.
 
The horn of a train echoed off the walls of the bungalow, the sound like a jazz trumpet. It was 8 a.m.—the Gujarat Express had just come in from Bombay, and even though the coconut, mango, and gulmohar trees around Aspi Villa provided it with much-needed privacy, the train station was, as Aspi Irani said, “only a hop, step, and jump away.”
 
“Dahanu Road” read the yellow sign on the station. At one point, that’s all that might have existed. A single road. But now coconut sellers in cream dhotis lined the platform, sickles in hand, a pyramid of coconuts in a cane basket by their side. Toddy booths offered salvation to the dry throats of passengers, the palm wine adding sweetness to a sour journey. Vegetable vendors squatted on the ground, cucumbers, brinjals, and cauliflowers sprinkled with water, ready to be cooked at home amidst the chitter-chatter of housewives. Just as fresh as the palm wine and vegetables were the newspapers in the A. H. Wheeler stall. Wafer crisp, the headlines were scoffed at by the drifters, rickshaw drivers, factory owners, and farmers who paraded up and down Dahanu station as though it were a holy ritual.
 
Soon Zairos would reach his grandfather’s bungalow, where he would have his morning tea. But first he had a cigarette to finish, and, more importantly, he had to pay homage to the fruit that had fed his family for three generations. He blew smoke towards the chickoo trees that his grandfather, Shapur Irani, had planted decades ago. It was Zairos’ way of greeting the trees. It was the smoke of affection; it was like dew, a first kiss, one he blew their way every single morning.
 
 
Sapota. Sapodilla. In other words, the chickoo. Brown in colour, it looked like a potato with a shape so round it reminded Zairos of a woman’s bottom. When he bit into it, there was a sweetness that made him want more before he had finished eating what was in his mouth.
 
The wily chickoo had travelled far and wide. Born in Mexico, it found its way to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh (it was a third world fruit), Venezuela, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Brazil and the West Indies. This fruit liked its sunshine and tanned women. It had no patience for snow.
 
Apart from sapota and sapodilla, it had a bevy of names. In Sri Lanka it went by the name rata-mi; sawo in Indonesia, lamoot in Thailand, nispero in Venezuela, naseberry in the West Indies, sapoti in Brazil, and Zairos’ favourite, sugardilly, in the Bahamas.
 
As he walked the pebbled earth, he threw his cigarette into the cactus fence. His grandfather’s bungalow was in view. Even though it had been painted cream only two years ago, heavy rains had lashed the walls, and certain parts were bare again. It had an odd shape, two rectangular blocks at right angles with each other, like displaced train bogies.
 
His grandfather was on the porch in his rocking chair, still as ever. Even though he sat in his rocking chair all day, he never moved. Movement was the enemy, a thing of the past. And because Shapur Irani rarely moved, he remembered everything. How many trees he had, how old they were, how crisp the air was fifty years ago. More than anything he remembered the love he had for his wife, Banu. He once told Zairos, “If you took an army of starving young men who had not seen their wives for years, and you measured their longing for their wives against mine, it would still come nowhere close to what I felt for your grandmother.”
 
But neither love nor medicine could save his wife. Banumai died of a fever when she was in her late twenties. Zairos wished he could have known his grandmother. His grandfather did talk about her, but he presented her in pieces: she liked to read, she had two younger sisters, twins, she had fair skin, she loved Bombay more than Dahanu, she could bear the pain of childbirth like a tigress, she loved the feeling of morning dew on the soles of her feet, she had once seen a goat being slaughtered and could not eat for three days after that.
 
Apart from these snippets there were strange utterances, spoken in a haze, phrases such as “Banu, make the water hot,” “The gun stays on the bed,” “We are not moving to Bombay.” Zairos was careful not to let his grandfather know that he heard all these reminiscences, but he put together an image of Banumai; he could smell her bottle of eau de cologne by the bed, he could see strands of her black hair caught in the hairbrush that lay by the mirror, or the sweat on her neck and the paper fan she used to drive the heat away. When it came to Banumai, Zairos was like a thief: he took whatever he could when his grandfather was unaware. But the one thing he did not need to steal, the one thing that was obvious and as deep as the lines that criss-crossed on his grandfather’s face, was the love between them.
 
Zairos climbed the three steps up to the porch. His grandfather called him Zairos the Great. Shapur Irani gave his grandson that name when he saw him walk for the first time.  “He is a conqueror like Alexander,” he had said. From then on, whenever Shapur Irani saw little Zairos approach, he would go to the nearest chickoo tree and shake it with all his might. “Be careful,” he would say, as sparkly green leaves fell on him, “your strength is making the trees tremble.”
 
But the name had meant something else to Zairos when his Navjote ceremony was performed. On the day of his initiation into the Zoroastrian faith, the head priest, in a white robe and prayer cap to match, admonished the nine-year-old Zairos for using that name, even if it was in jest with his friends.
 
“Alexander is an enemy of the Zoroastrians,” said the priest. “He murdered dasturs like myself and destroyed our holy scriptures.”
 
Shapur Irani was quick to knock some sense into the priest.
 
“By walking the farm with his head held high, Zairos is reclaiming what Alexander stole from us,” he said. “That is a sign of greatness.”
 
Then he bent down and placed his hand on Zairos’ head.
 
“Remember, it is our enemies who make us conquer fear.”
 
 
Shapur Irani’s eyes were closed.
 
Even though he was ninety now, he was still a big man. Over six feet five, he did not have the hunched look of a person who carried his ninety years in a dhobi sack on his head. He had his teeth, his strong legs and bushy eyebrows, the hair on his chest was white and long, and he shaved every morning at five, even though he never went anywhere.
 
“Pa,” said Zairos as he sat on the porch steps.
 
Shapur Irani did not respond. His eyes were still closed and his lips revealed the faintest quiver, a ghost language of sorts, which only the dead could decipher. Zairos stared at his grandfather’s thick head of hair—slicked back and silver.
 
“Pa,” he said again.
 
Shapur Irani opened his eyes slowly. If there was one thing that unnerved him, it was light. He did not want the light of the sun to gain entry through his eyes and illuminate the parts of him that were dead and gone. “To look at the past,” he once told Zairos, “is like shining a flashlight on a dead body.”
 
Zairos heard the familiar rattle of cup and saucer. His tea arrived magically, as it always did. Lakhu, the male servant who had served his grandfather for years, had strange powers. Perhaps Lakhu heard the cracking of pebbles under Zairos’ feet as he walked to the bungalow each morning, and he took it as a sign to boil the tea. It did not matter how Lakhu knew that Zairos was coming. He succeeded in not making Zairos wait for more than a minute.
 
Zairos took a sip and relished the taste of Brooke Bond, mint, cardamom, and ginger. Ants crawled around his grandfather’s feet carrying biscuit crumbs on their backs.
 
“It’s time you visit them,” said Shapur Irani.
 
He was talking about his chickoo trees. They were his children, just as real, and loved, as his three sons, Khodi, Sohrab, and Aspi. Their breathing had kept him alive all these years. Every morning he walked through his fifty-acre farm, with gusto, without a cane, to let them know he was still around. He wanted Zairos to do the same.
 
“Go meet them,” said Shapur Irani.
 
When the last of the ginger tea was gone, Zairos walked across the gravel and into the farm. The branches brushed against his arm and left their mark. Each day it was a new scratch or two, sometimes on the forearm, sometimes on the wrist, always gentle.
 
Zairos recalled that the chickoo had been brought to India in the mid-1500s by the Portuguese, and it continued to thrive in its new home long after the invaders had gone. But when Zairos was little, his father had told him that a Mexican gnome named Rose—called that because he had a deformed ear shaped like the flower—walked all the way from Mexico to Dahanu with a chickoo in his hand and, upon arrival, dug a hole and buried the shiny black diamond seed of a chickoo, and himself, in the earth. That was why chickoo trees did not grow as tall as pine trees. They had to restrict their height in deference to the gnome. When Zairos asked his father why the gnome walked all the way to India, Aspi Irani had replied, “He got lost.”
 
Zairos went past the papaya trees that had long ago ceased giving fruit, and over the thick black pipes that ran through the farm like oversized pythons. He took the same route every single time, until he reached the well. It was one of the deepest wells in Dahanu, more than seventy feet deep, with large boulders jutting out from its inner walls, but it gave no water. Old and dry, it was part of the furniture.
 
He plucked a blade of dry grass from the ground, put it in his mouth, and sat on the parapet of the well. There was an unusual number of crows in the sky. He looked up, tracing the concentric circles they flew in; they were gliding towards something to his left.
 
Barely had Zairos turned when he saw what the crows were after.
 
A man was hanging from a chickoo tree. His head was bent to the side, his arms dangling, his eyes wide open.
 
He resembled a dark puppet.

close this panel
The Cripple and His Talismans
Excerpt

THE IN-CHARGE
 
 
The man’s look tells me that I have made a mistake. He moves closer to my face, but his eyes focus on the dim light bulb that hangs above me in the centre of his beedi shop. His skin is soot, dark but smooth. Mosquitoes are converging around the bulb. He listens to their murmur.
 
“Yes, I’m the In-charge,” he whispers.
 
He looks at the mosquitoes around the bulb. They stick to it and exchange places with each other, a small dance to pass time between transmissions of malaria.
 
I try to get his attention. “Gura has sent me,” I tell him. “He says you have information about my lost arm.”
 
He covers my mouth. His palm smells of tobacco and money. There is also the stink of genitals but I try to dismiss that. He releases his hand slowly.
 
“I will draw a map for you,” he says.
 
It is dim and dusty, and I am being hit and bitten by insects the size of stones. I realize that he waits for me to respond.
 
“A map will be helpful,” I say.
 
His dark hands are beautiful compared to the rest of him. His face is round as an earthen pot and his ears are long. Strands of hair with the dryness of straw stick out of his lobes. But his hands are thin as if crafted from black paper. Mine are lighter, more the colour of soil. I am one hand less now; in fact, a whole left arm less if one insists on staring at me under the mosquito bulb.
 
He plucks out a short pencil from behind his ear. Apart from Shivaji beedis, he also stocks packs of Marlboro, Gold Flake, Charminar, Dunhill, Four Square and 555 on thin wooden shelves. I look at his small shop and wonder how he stays in this hole all day. I look to the side, at the shop next to his. It is a flower shop, just as constricting. Most of the flowers are dead. White buckets hold the fragrant corpses.
 
He now has a small piece of paper on top of the glass jar that contains sweets. The paper already has numbers scribbled all over it so I do not know how he will draw a map.
 
“You are here,” he says, his eye on the paper.
 
He draws a spiral, keeps circling. In order to make him stop before he puts a hole through the paper, I respond. “I understand, In-charge.”
 
I use his title in the hope that he will reveal his name.
 
“You are here,” he repeats. The circling continues. “You must follow a few landmarks. They will direct you to the games. But I cannot tell you what the landmarks are.”
 
“Games? What games?”
 
He hands me the chit of paper. One spiral shows me where I am. Two inches from it, a darker spiral shows me where I must go.
 
Let me have my arm for just a second so I can teach him a lesson. I am not accustomed to being mocked. I am a novice cripple.
 
“At least tell me which direction I must take,” I ask the In-charge.
 
“You will know. I’m busy. Now go.”
 
No one is around. If there were customers, I could understand if he said he is busy. But not even the flower man is visible. We are in one of the city’s gullies, a by-lane that only the local residents use.
 
I take the map and walk out on the street. I hold it under the streetlight with my right hand. If I had both arms, I would have a better grip. I try not to think of my disability. At times it makes me so rabid that I want to rip my other arm off. I then realize that I do not have an arm to pull the other one off. This angers me even more.
 
A lost arm causes much more than physical disorientation. I question many more things. Why does so and so have an arm? Why is he happy? Why is she beautiful? Why is the orange that I eat sour?
 
I think of Gura the floating beggar. It was he who led me to the In-charge. The moment I lost my arm, two months ago, I felt like a pariah in the company of normal people. After I got out of the hospital, I sold my white-marbled apartment by the sea and moved to one with stone flooring, where flying cockroaches and mosquitoes sang at midnight. I did not speak a word for two whole months. It was as though my arm had done the talking before.
 
Gura was the first person I talked with, this very morning. It happened naturally. In my new physical state, I recognized Gura as my equal—a beggar I could speak to. Gura’s remark startled me.
 
“Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it,” he said.
 
He sat at the entrance to my building. I had never noticed him before. Was it obvious that I had recently lost an arm? I looked at him and saw the face of darkness — a little hell, fallen trees.
 
“What will I get used to?” I asked. These were the first words I had uttered in two months. Instead of feeling better, I felt as though I were choking on my own vomit.
 
“Absence,” he said.
 
His body and face were more stained than the footpath he sat on.
 
“There is an absence,” he continued. “And you are not handling it well.”
 
Why should I? I thought. It is not as if I have lost my wallet. In fact, even when I lost my wallet I never handled things gracefully.
 
Then he leaned toward me. “Now listen,” he whispered.
 
Gura scratched a boil on his thigh. He picked out flakes from his scalp. He bared his teeth to the sun until they got hot. He licked his lips, tweaked his eyebrows and crossed his arms.
 
“Why are you staring at my face?” he asked.
 
“You said to listen.”
 
“Not to me.”
 
“To whom, then?”
 
“The street. All answers lie in its sounds. In the bicycle bell of a little boy also lies the wail of his mother, for she knows he will leave her soon when he is crushed by a speeding truck.”
 
“That’s quite dark.”
 
He is dark.”
 
“Who?”
 
“You tell me.”
 
“Why are you talking in riddles?”
 
“How are riddles shaped?”
 
“I don’t know.”
 
“They coil round and round like gullies.”
 
“Why are you telling me this?”
 
“You’re sucking it out of me like a mosquito.”
 
“No, I’m not.”
 
“If there is a dispute then talk to the In-charge.”
 
“Who?”
 
“The In-charge!”
 
Beggars do that, I thought. They feel God has abandoned them so they put someone else in charge. Poverty strips them of their brain. They start counting colours instead of money, and when colours run out they try and invent their own. That drives them to madness because it is impossible to think of a colour that does not exist.
 
So I walked past Gura and up the four steps that led to my flat. I was about to open the door when he said something that made my heart pound.
 
“The In-charge knows about your lost arm. That which you do not.”
 
Words like this come once in a lifetime, and you hear them even if your ears have been torn from your head and stamped into the earth.
 
“What does he know?”
 
“Ask him.”
 
“Where can I find him?”
 
“Your arm will show you. Point it.”
 
I raised the only arm I had toward the fire temple in the distance. Gura shook his head. I pointed to the post office and the three-star hotel. Then to the flyover and dancing bars below. The Central and State Banks, the old Parsi library, the gas cylinder shop, the nursing home known for selling babies when mothers were not looking. Soon all of these had been indicated.
 
“I’m lost,” I said.
 
“Then use your lost arm.”
 
“But it does not exist.”
 
“Nothing really does.”
 
I faced the old cinema that showed B-grade Hindi movies. I imagined I was using my absent arm to point. Since I had time, I turned toward the clock repair shop. Then I pointed at the toy shop whose sad moustachioed owner looked like he was selling sick puppies instead. I had spun a complete 360 so I looked at Gura, who urged me to carry on.
 
“But I’ll keep going round and round in circles,” I said.
 
“Like a Jalebee!” he laughed.
 
I felt very foolish. A beggar was mocking me. So I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out some money. It was the only way to save face. A rich man without an arm is still superior to a poor man with one.
 
“It’s a hint,” said Gura.
 
“You want to eat Jalebee?” The poor fellow suddenly had a craving for orange coiled sweets?
 
“You can’t eat this Jalebee. But can you go to it.”
 
I understood.
 
There was only one area in the city where gullies wound like riddles, where the in-roads were black as death, messages from prophets were scribbled on the walls and babies walked like tiny gangsters, toting guns and milk bottles.
 
“Jalebee Road?”
 
“Good work, my crippled genius.”
 
“Will you take me there?”
 
“I have begging to do! You think I can afford to waste time?”
 
“Then how will I find the In-charge?”
 
“Even the blind can find him.”
 
So when night fell, I walked to Jalebee Road. In the heart of Jalebee Road there is a tree. It is the oldest tree in the city, without leaves, and is considered holy, a refuge for all lost souls. It is said that a sage sits in its hollow, an addict who has run out of ganja, who heals the sick and poor by sucking the sadness out of their lungs. (No one has proved this, but people do feel better after circling the tree.)
 
So I went round and round the tree. After all, I was a lost soul, too—I did not know where to go. Even though there were a few people near the tree, they ignored me. Then an old woman, as bent as the tree itself, joined me. She walked as though it was a marriage ceremony and she was my ancient bride. Perhaps her husband had abandoned her on their wedding day many years ago. If it made her feel better, who was I to enlighten her? We both circled, but she soon wandered off toward the balloon factory in the distance. I must have circled the tree one hundred times.
 
I was so dizzy the residents of Jalebee Road flew toward me.
 
The street children came first. They flew sideways and they were all scratching their heads and laughing. In their laughter I could hear the shouts of their fathers, too: drunk, angry at the walls, washing the dirt off their lips with every sip. Suddenly Gura’s words made sense. All answers lie in the sounds of the streets.
 
So I closed my eyes and opened myself up to the sounds around me. The blaring horn of a truck said “move out of the way or I’ll kill you”; the wind blew through the old, bare tree and made a wailing sound as it yearned for leaves. But it was the bark of a stray dog that made me open my eyes. It sounded like the cough of a wise old man who had walked down from the hills, past the plains and into this winding pit.
 
There was a deep gash in the dog’s white skin. As it licked the flies off the wound, I saw its cold, silver eyes. The dog was blind. Yet it looked straight at me and smiled. Was it laughing at my deformity? Then it sniffed the earth, licked an ant-ridden packet of Glucose biscuits and walked past me toward a narrow lane. Just before it entered the lane, it turned around and spoke in garbled sounds, dog language, in which A’s are yells, B’s are cries, C’s are pleas and D’s are direct commands.
 
I heard a distinct D. Follow me, it said.
 
And then I understood Gura’s final words. Even the blind can find the In-charge. A blind animal would lead me, if I was humble enough to allow it. It went past the cheap tailors and roadside barbers, and stopped outside a small cigarette shop. It was very dark and all I could see at the counter was a light bulb. It was so dim it seemed to spread darkness around with confidence, as if it were a cure for light. Not a soul was around. The dog whimpered, raised its hind leg and watered the parched earth.
 
I leaned over the counter and saw a dark man, born of the night bulb itself, hiding in his own shop, speaking to his glass jars filled with sweets, whistling to his packets of supari and paan masala, counting money fast-fast. I asked him if he was the In-charge.
 
“Yes, I’m the In-charge,” he finally whispered.
 
So now here I stand, late at night, in one of the by-lanes of Jalebee Road, and stare at the map the In-charge has just given me. I hope it gives me some clue as to where I must go next. It can be north or south of the shop. You will know, the In-charge said.
 
I hear a sound, a cough.
 
A man is asleep on a handcart, a rag over his eyes to stop the streetlight from invading. Slowly he turns in his sleep. The rag of cloth is off his face. Maybe I should take my first bearings from him. His head is north, his feet south. One uses one’s head to think, so maybe that is where I should head. But one uses feet to walk. So perhaps south is where I should walk.
 
The logic of the armless.
 
The man coughs again. I see his face clearly and another thought strikes me. The man looks South Indian. I shall go south.
 
As I walk, I wonder what I am doing here. I am sensible, literate. I should handle my loss with dignity.
 
I question the In-charge’s actions. Why can’t he just tell me where I must go? As I look behind me, the beedi shop is now the size of a sugar cube. Maybe I have walked far enough. I look at the map again. The first spiral is light. The second spiral, my destination, darker.
 
The human mind is weak. Scribbles on a chit of paper taunt it. I think about the fried eggs I had in the morning. Did I put too much pepper on them? Whenever I am reminded of my arm, I try to think of mundane things. This tactic is as useful as the map I hold.
 
The street gets darker. This is strange since the streetlights are at an equal distance from each other and all of them work. With each step I take, darkness envelops me. I feel the tip of her fingers, the softness of her palm, the warmth of her hands against my face. I hear her hum—it is the sound of the universe and only I am meant to hear it, under a sky that is as black as the hands that touch me. Darkness prays for me, a prayer that will keep me in its womb for as long as I can remain. Even comfort gets hard to bear, she says. I believe her because a mother is to be believed. As she recedes, she glides down my arm and leaves. A mother has many children, she says. She must care for them all.
 
I have entered the darker spiral.
 
You will know, the In-charge said. The mosquitoes know. The man on the handcart knows. My feet know and they will take me there.
 
I take off my slippers and throw them to the side of the street. The soles of my feet are pleased to feel patches of dirt and soil. Open drains gush around me. Dirty water speaks underneath us all. I am certain the games are near.
 
I walk a little farther and I see three, maybe four bodies come toward me. Their walk is slow and deliberate. I try to remain calm. They can take nothing from a cripple. To my left, I see three forms about fifty feet away, slightly thinner, shapely. Where are all these people coming from?
 
Two armoured vehicles, the colour of rust, glide to the centre of the road and halt. I cannot see the drivers. Headlights burn the earth. On the ground, the outline of a large circle is drawn in white chalk. The human forms are closer and real. They converge on this centre, which is being built around me. I can see the people now, and I know I have found the place.
 
The games have found me.
 
Of course the In-charge knew I would find the games. It was never in my hands to begin with. Some sort of army has decided to meet here. There are women with acid burns, their faces the road map to ancient ruins. Women I cannot look at because I know that only man can inflict such impairment. Their saris wound around them with preciseness, the women take protection in any form, even a thin layer of cloth. There are beggars, some on wooden platforms with wheels. The stumps of their feet shine in the headlights as if they have been oiled meticulously. Even stumps look different. God is a genius: no two arms look alike. Cut them off, and no two stumps are identical. What more proof does one require of God’s creation?
 
I look at their faces and I am not surprised that I recognize some of them. It is not a mystery that all beggars look the same. They are the same, floating beggars. You see them at one traffic light, asking for money in God’s name. You see them at another traffic light, pleading that one of their relatives is dead and money is needed for the funeral. You think: this beggar has a resemblance to the one seen in another part of the city, or at the previous signal. Clouds float, and when you look up from taxis, you can swear they follow you. Beggars do the same.
 
The floaters come to the edge of the circle. Wheels scrape on concrete. Blue sari-clad eunuchs are present, too. Most of them are man-made; all that was man in them was removed.
 
The armoured trucks are still running. I am certain they contain valued goods.
 
Then, through the stream of acid women, I see the In-charge. He looks blacker here, in the face of headlights. There are at least fifty people now, representations of everything that is wrong with the world, everything that will remain unchanged because normal people are in charge. Here we all have one heartbeat, one drum that God beats, upon which he inflicts soulful migraines.
 
The In-charge raises his right arm. He wears a lungi and a white vest, and I notice that he is well fed. His hands might be thin and beautiful, but his stomach is a lewd protuberance.
 
The doors of the two armoured trucks open. From each armoured truck steps a human form that is hard to behold. I feel normal in their presence. These are not figments of an armless man’s delirium. These are lepers. I try to remember the hum of darkness, thinking it will soothe me, but I cannot.
 
The only thing that differentiates the lepers is the cloth that covers them from lower belly to knee. One is black, the other white. Perhaps this is why I have been sent here, to feel better about myself. In the presence of the diminished, greatness can be achieved. Arm or no arm, I am now a giant.
 
The armoured trucks make sense. If an ordinary vehicle were to transport these two, they might not make it here. They are so fragile, the wind might blow their fingers off. The engines shut off.
 
Silence.
 
We could have heard a bird chirp in another universe.
 
A sound: the scraping of feet.
 
The leper in black holds one leg and walks, assisting the leg itself with a hand that is wrapped in bandages. The other has a stronger walk but his face has receded more, itching to kiss skull. They walk to the centre of the circle and face each other. I cannot see their eyes and I am glad. The In-charge positions himself between the two.
 
A little girl, no older than ten or eleven, with long black hair parted from the centre into two neat plaits, runs to the lepers with two garlands in her hands. Faces with the geography of hell are treated to the scent of heaven. The lepers bend low to accept their garlands. They are humble.
 
“Sisters and brothers,” shouts the In-charge. “To see so many good persons in one gathering warms me. Our custom will remain the same as always. We will start after our prayer.”
 
Something touches my feet. I look down, and it is a beggar seated on the ground. He has no legs. He extends his arm. I do not know what to do. He takes my hand. I feel someone’s palm on the stump of my left shoulder. It is a eunuch’s. I look around and everyone is holding hands—acid women connected to eunuchs, eunuchs to amputees, amputees to beggars.
 
What are they all praying for? Their limbs to grow back? I tell myself that destiny exists; if not, what can explain my body being touched by these people?
 
Then the In-charge raises his arms, looks to the sky and closes his eyes. He chants, and I have never heard anything like it. It is the song of a dying man sending his last words to heaven, asking the ones who are already there to come receive him. Everyone joins in. Slowly the chants fade, as if large birds are transporting these sounds on their backs and carrying them far away from us.
 
I open my eyes only when I hear the shuffling of feet. The In-charge stares at his watch. “It’s midnight,” he says. “Let the games beginff”
 
He then lifts the little girl in his arms and joins the crowd.
 
The lepers walk to opposite sides of the circle.
 
The one in black screams. It is a summons to all the lepers of the city; in every sewer, under every bridge, beside every beedi shop, there is a leper who hears it and feels the juice of life in his sores.
 
The one in white does not move, but his fingers are curled into a fist. He waits for the other to come to him.
 
Now the two are only feet apart.
 
They are illuminated by the headlights.
 
The one in white strikes first; a blow to the face.
 
The crowd roars. A eunuch shouts to the skies: “Forgive them!”
 
Forgive whom? For what?
 
The beggar beside me spits, whether in disgust or glee I cannot tell. He thumps his tin can to the floor repeatedly.
 
The one in white moves again. With great force he steps onto the other’s foot. There is a deep hole in it, near the ankle. The outer rim of the hole is black, the inner rim is yellow and the core is white as ivory. With his heel still dug in, the leper in white thrusts his hands onto his opponent’s chest, pushing him away. He lifts his foot and watches the leper in black fall to the floor. The sight is terrifying. Three toes lie on the concrete.
 
I look for the In-charge, for some signal to explain this horror, but he is not visible. I want to look away, but the only sound I hear is that of the beggar’s tin can beating the concrete.
 
In the glare of the headlights I see the whites of the lepers’ eyes. The vanquished one does not recover from the onslaught. He lies on the ground, as torn as the garland petals that lie by his feet. He looks to the sky. Is there a spirit world up there? Is there a separate one for lepers? Does the soul of a leper have leprosy?
 
At this moment I could donate the excess of blood in me to each hospital in the city, it pounds so hard, gushes so furiously. It could spurt from my mouth and make the city brighter.
 
I could make dying oxen dance.
 
The In-charge reappears. He raises both his arms. I wish I could raise mine. I have raised my arms in the past, but only to pull things down, curtains and people alike. It is sometimes more convenient to raze lives than raise them.
 
The In-charge walks to the centre of the circle and goes to the lepers. No, he walks past them and comes toward me.
 
Do not come here. I do not wish to be singled out, a sparrow among lions.
 
An endless row of eyes stares at me.
 
It is easy to stand on a pulpit and lecture about how the world sits on a dog’s tongue, that each time the dog licks excrement it coats the world with a layer. That we are all bad people, and that we must be punished. I ask all holy men to stand here today. Wisdom will escape them like worms from fruit. They will feel naked and shake, and hope that their eyes do not meet a leper’s.
 
“You must be part of the proceedings,” the In-charge says.
 
“Please, I’m okay,” I reply. I would give my other arm to be somewhere else.
 
“You must earn your right to be here.”
 
“I don’t understand.” I say that to buy time.
 
“Come with me,” orders the In-charge.
 
He holds my hand and takes me to where the leper in black is on the ground. The other leper looks on.
 
“Now help him up,” the In-charge tells me.
 
“But he’s a leper!”
 
“I’m aware of that.”
 
“But if I touch him …”
 
“Help him.”
 
“Why me?”
 
“You must earn the right to be here.”
 
“No one told me that.”
 
“Do it. Now.”
 
I look around.
 
I extend my arm.
 
For the leper on the ground, it is a shaft of light.
 
He holds it with both hands. His hands are hot.
 
I lift him.
 
The crowd disperses. They turn and go on their way, to their brothels, their begging spaces and their drinking cells.
 
“Why is everyone going?” I ask.
 
“They are mere spectators. This is your moment.”
 
“My moment?”
 
“It is why you have met me. Help this man here. He is the victor.” He turns to the leper in black.
 
“But he lost,” I say. “The one in white tore off his toes!”
 
“The winner is he who loses his ugly parts. The loser is he who is left with them.”
 
The leper in black, the one who has been relieved of his rotting toes, looks surprised. The lepers must not have known the rules of the fight. They were tricked. And rightly so, or else they would have ripped off their own body parts.
 
“It’s his turn to be free,” says the In-charge.
 
“Free?” I ask.
 
“He has done his time. As his body slowly comes apart, he will be relieved of it. He will be cleansed soon.”
 
The leper in black bows his head. The one in white snarls and walks away.
 
“What about him?” I point to the one in white. I am conscious of the manner in which we speak, as though the lepers are not part of our world.
 
“He gathered the festering parts, so he lost tonight. He’s not ready. He must do more time.”
 
“What does all this have to do with me?”
 
The In-charge whispers into the leper’s ear. The leper then looks at me from the corners of his eyes. He turns slowly toward me. I hope he does not touch me.
 
The leper puts his hand in his mouth.
 
He bites hard onto his forefinger. He does so as though he is eating a dark biscuit.
 
Pthuck.
 
A snap, like that of a dry twig.
 
The finger stays in his mouth, caught between his teeth. If I give him a matchstick, he might smoke it. He picks it out of his mouth.
 
“Take it,” says the In-charge.
 
And dip it in my tea? Offer it to others as a vintage cigar?
 
“It’s an offering,” urges the In-charge.
 
“I’m okay,” I say.
 
“The victor must relinquish his finger. One by one, he will renounce all his body parts until he ceases to exist. Only then will he be cleansed. You cannot let him down.”
 
“But …”
 
“It’s crucial that you take it.”
 
“I …”
 
“Do it!”
 
“Can’t he give it in a bag?”
 
“Listen, friend, do it for your own sake.”
 
I extend my arm, a naughty child holding his hand out for the schoolmaster’s cane.
 
“Is this how you accept an offering?”
 
I cup my hand.
 
The finger feels scaly. A dry piece of dog shit.
 
The leper taps the stump of my arm.
 
He comes close to my ear. His breath captures the essence of an entire hospital.
 
“Baba Rakhu,” he whispers.

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The Men in White

The Men in White

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The Parcel

The Parcel

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Excerpt

Prologue
I go by many names, none of my own choosing. 
   I am called Ali, Aravani, Nau Number, Sixer, Mamu, Gandu, Napunsak, Kinnar, Kojja—the list goes on and on like a politician’s promise. There is a term for me in almost every Indian language. I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers. Parents think of me as a kidnapper, shopkeepers as a lucky charm, and married couples as a fertility expert. To passengers in taxis, I am but a nuisance. I am shooed away like a crow. 
   Everyone has their version of what I am. Or what they want me to be. 
   My least favourite is what they call my kind in Tamil: Thirunangai. 
   "Mister Woman." 
   Oddly, the only ones to get it right were my parents. They named their boy Madhu. A name so gloriously unisex, I slipped in and out of its skin until I was fourteen. But then, in one fine stroke, that thing between my legs was relieved of its duties. With the very knife that I hold in my hand right now, I became a eunuch. 
   Perhaps my parents had smelled the strangeness in the air when I was born, the stench of the pain and humiliation to follow. At the least, they must have felt a deep stirring in the marrow of their bones to prepare them for the fact that their child was different. 
   Neither here nor there, neither desert nor forest, neither earth nor sky, neither man nor woman. 
   The calling of names I made my peace with years ago. 
   The one I am most comfortable with, the most accurate of them, is also the most common: hijra. The word is Urdu for "migration," and we hijras have made it our own because its meaning makes sense to us. 
   I am indeed a migrant, a wanderer. For almost three decades, I have floated through the city’s red-light district like a ghost. But this home of mine, this garden of rejects—fourteen lanes that for the rest of the city do not exist—I want it to remember me. I want it to remember even though the district is dissolving, just like I am, like the hot vapour of chai. 
   Come on. Who am I fooling? I don’t taste like chai. I am anything but delectable. I have been born and brewed to mortify. At forty, all I have left is a knife dipped in the moon and a five-rupee coin given to me by my mother. 
   But mark my words: I will make myself a household name. I will spread my name like butter on these battered streets.

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The Song of Kahunsha
Excerpt

Prologue.

Without warning, the man rams the iron rod into the face that peers through the window. There is a sickening crunch and the face disappears. That must be Hanif the taxiwala, thinks Chamdi. The man stands guard outside the window, the iron rod by his side. He looks ready to repeat his actions should the need arise.

In the darkness of the lane, Chamdi can hear a woman scream from inside the blue shack. He imagines Hanif lying on the ground, his teeth smashed with an iron rod, blood streaming from his nose and mouth, while his wife bangs on the bolted door with her fists.

Chamdi is unable to move. None of the neighbours come to the family’s rescue. Most of the men and women return to their shacks, and the few that remain outside look just as terrified as Chamdi.

Chamdi stares at Anand Bhai, who stands rooted to the ground. Dressed in black, Anand Bhai looks like he is part of the night itself. Chamdi cannot understand how Anand Bhai can smile at a time like this.

one.

Chamdi runs his hands across his ribs.

He tries to push his ribs in, but it is of no use. They continue to stick out of his white vest. Perhaps it is because he is only ten years old. When he grows older, he will have more flesh on his body and his ribs will be less visible. With this thought, he walks down the steps of the orphanage.

He stands barefoot in the courtyard. He never wears slippers because he likes to feel hot earth against his feet. It is early January, and the rains are still far away. Even though a new year has begun, the earth looks old, the cracks in its skin deeper than ever. The sun hits Chamdi’s black hair and forces him to squint.

He stretches his arms out and walks towards a wall, where his world ends and someone else’s begins. As he nears the wall, he hears the city – faraway car horns, the hum of scooters and motorcycles. He knows Bombay is much louder than this, but the courtyard is not near the main road. Beyond the wall is a small marketplace where women sell fish and vegetables from cane baskets and men squat on their haunches and clean people’s ears for a few rupees.

Pigeons sit in a row on the wall and chatter. Spikes of glass are placed along the edge of the wall to prevent people from entering the courtyard. Chamdi asks himself why anyone would bother sneaking into the courtyard. There is nothing to steal at the orphanage.

A loud cycle ring causes a few pigeons to flutter away, but they quickly regain their places on the wall. The shards of glass do not seem to bother the pigeons. They know where to place their feet.

Chamdi touches the wall and feels the black stone. He smiles when he thinks of the moss that will appear. Rain can make life out of walls. But it is still a few months before he can inhale deeply and take in his favourite scent. The smell of the first rains, that of a thankful earth satisfied by water, is what he dreams about all year long. If only the inside of the orphanage could smell like that, it would be the most loved orphanage in the entire city.

This tenth year has been hard for Chamdi. He is beginning to understand many things now. When he was a child, he had many questions, but now they might be answered, and he is afraid he will not like the answers at all.

He turns away from the wall and wanders towards a well made of grey cement.

As he stares at his reflection in the water, he wonders if he looks like his mother or like his father.

He believes he has his mother’s eyes, large and black. Was it his mother or father who dropped him off here? He wonders if they are alive.

He puts one foot on the parapet of the well.

Bougainvilleas surround him. They are his favourite flowers. So pink and red, full of love, he thinks. If these flowers were human they would be the most beautiful people on earth.

He puts his other foot on the parapet of the well and stands tall.

He looks through the open window of the orphanage. Most of the children are huddled together on one bed. He can hear them sing “Railgaadi.” The girls make the chook-chook sound of a train, while the boys shout out the names of cities and towns at great speed – Mandwa, Khandwa, Raipur, Jaipur, Talegaon, Malegaon, Vellur, Sholapur, Kolhapur. There are so many places in India, Chamdi says to himself, and I have not visited a single one.

He likes how tall he feels with the added height of the parapet. Perhaps one day he will grow to this size. But it will still take years. And even if he does grow tall, so what? He will still have nowhere to go. There will come a day when he must leave the orphanage. But there will be no one to say goodbye to. No one will miss him if he goes.

He stares at the water in the well.

It is extremely still. He wonders if he should jump in. He will swallow as much water as his body will allow. If his parents ever come back for him, they will find him sleeping at the bottom of the well.

The moment he has this thought, he gets off the parapet.

He walks quickly towards the orphanage and climbs up the three steps that lead to the foyer, where the children’s rubber slippers are placed in a neat row on the ground and a black umbrella hangs from a hook on a yellowed, patchy wall.

His small feet leave dirt marks on the stone floor. He enters the sleeping room and receives an angry look from Jyoti, who sits on her haunches and washes the floor. She always scolds him for not wearing slippers.

From the Hardcover edition.

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