For minutes on end the boyís gaze has been trained, like that of a famished dog, on the man eating chhole-kulche. The manís hand is as big as a dinner plate. In it, he cups the leaf that holds the chhole. The boy stands by the coach of the train, his body taut as a spring. The constant pangs of hunger, which have been his companion through his seven years of life, have made him alert, observant, opportunistic. With his eyes, the boy has already mapped the exact trajectory that the leaf will take when the man hurls it out of the window of the coach.
For a moment, the manís eyes meet the hungry, expectant gaze of the boy. His mind turns to sin, or perhaps disgust. He starts eating rapidly. Every morsel the man puts in his mouth is like a turn of the knife in the boyís heart. The man finishes the kulchas and then wipes the leaf with a long finger, sweeping the chhole to one side. And then, holding the leaf by the edges, he empties it all into his mouth. The boyís heart sinks. The man extends his hand, tosses the leaf onto the platform and with a jerk he turns to sit facing the other way. It has become difficult to bear the boy'ssharp gaze.
The boyís body stiffens. He springs for the leaf. Thereís still a little gravy on it, and his tongue moves rapidly in and out like a lizardís, licking it clean. A long whistle. Hundreds of birds flutter up from under the roof of the platform. Crying, they wheel in the air. The train slowly chugs out of the station.
Like every other day, he walks to the cart of the hawker selling chhole-kulche. He will wash the dirty plates and tumblers, fill the bucket with fresh water and earn himself a kulcha. The boy stands on one foot, scratching his leg with the other, staring steadily at the hawker. The hawker ignores him. He is aware of the boy standing there, and he wishes he would leave. Finally, he says roughly: "Run off. Thereís nothing to be washed."
The boy stands his ground, hanging his head.
"Didnít you hear me? Have you plugged your ears with cotton? Only two people in the whole train ate. What is there to wash?"
The boyís head droops lower.
"You lover of your mother! Run off or Iíll give you a slap." The boy lifts his head and looks at the hawker. He knows very well the breaking point at which people lose their patience and give him a thrashing. He walks away, his steps weary.
The lights of the station are switched on. The boy realises that it is night, and he should go home. But he has to visit two more places. Now, he stands by the tea stall. The tea-wallah dumps used tea leaves in a container. The boy takes these tea leaves home. They boil them again at home to make tea. His hands reach for the container, but the tea-wallah scolds him: "Move along! This is not your fatherís property! All the beggars seem to have made this station their home."
The boy reaches out again. He is inured to abuse. He who gives will curse before giving. He knows this. The tea-wallah roars: "What? Are you deaf? Take the tea leaves tomorrow. Here on, Iím going to use them twice before I throw them away."
The boy slinks away. A rare breath of summer breeze wafts a small, white paper bag along the platform. The boy smiles. He runs for the bag. Putting it to his mouth, he blows into it. It swells into a little balloon. Then with a blow of his fist, he smashes the balloon. The bag bursts with a loud pop. The boy is happy. Forgetting all the abuse, he walks towards the godown.
Sacks of grain are stored here. Then they are loaded in the goods train and sent away, no one knows where. A few grains always bleed out of the sacks and fall to the floor of the godown. The boy sweeps them all up and carries them home in a bag he makes by gathering his shirtfront. To this day, he does not know how Ma transforms this grain into flour and then into rotis. Two policemen always guard the godown. One is tall and slim as a bamboo, with big moustaches. The boy calls him ĎMuchhalí. While heís sweeping up grain from the godown floor, Muchhal unfailingly lands a kick in his back. The other policeman is completely round. The boy calls him ĎMatkaí. Matka always tries to prevent Muchhal from kicking him about. He likes Matka. The policemen carry long canes tipped with iron knobs. They sit by the door of the godown, smoking beedis.
But today, the boy hesitates. Today, both policemen are standing by the door with guns in their hands. Sharp knife-blades glitter at the tip of each gun-barrel. The boy moves forward. Muchhal sees him. The boy stops. Muchhal beckons him with his hand. The boy walks up to the door, and the two men. Muchhal aims his gun at him. The shining blade is an inch from the boyís throat.
"Do you know what this is called?"
The boy shakes his head.
"Bayonet. Swine, this is a bayonet. If I were to push it a little, it would pierce your throat right through."
The boyís legs tremble. He wants to pee.
"Go on. Youíll scare the little boy to death."
Matka pushes Muchhalís gun away with his hand.
The boy raises his eyes and looks at them.
Which one will ask him to go in?
"Do you want grain?"
"Yes," the boy shakes his head in affirmation.
"Then go in, you lover of your sister! Why are you standing here staring at us?"
The boy moves but a step, and Muchhal grabs him by his hair and then by the throat and draws his face up to his own. Then with two thick fingers he takes hold of the boyís nose and pinches it hard. The boy screams, and Muchhal increases the pressure. With a jerk he throws the boy to the floor. The boy whines like a beaten dog. Muchhal roars:
"Seed of a dog. Donít you know you are forbidden to come to the station? Mother-Ö coming to the godown. You want to steal? Iíll bury this bayonet in your stomach. Yes, this bayonet." The boy curls up like a bundle on the floor. He has stopped crying. Both Muchhal and he are surprised: why hasnít Matka intervened?
"What does your sister do?" Matka asks gently.
"She gathers coal from the tracks."
"You seed of a pimp, if she goes again to the railway line, we will rip her legs apart. Donít you know that you canít wander about on the tracks?"
The boy and Muchhal wait to hear what Matka will say next.
"Go. Run along home. Bring your sister. Bring a bag, too. She can fill the bag. You wonít be able to carry the bag by yourself."
The boy runs home, hoping that they will get grain. He reaches the shanties under the big bridge outside the station. Darkness is falling. He jumps over the drain and goes into his shanty.
Ma is lying on the floor, a bandage filthy as mud on her amputated leg. Flies hover about. His sister is blowing into the fire in the chulah, which is improvised out of three bricks.
"Have you brought the grain?" Ma snaps. "No? Then what were you doing all day, you bastard? Were you playing with the boys? Donít you know I havenít eaten for two days?"
Ma sits up with a flop, like a frog, supporting herself on one leg. She grabs the boyís wrist with fingers like tongs, draws him to her and starts beating him.
The girl rushes from the chulah and pulls him to safety. Ma turns her face away and says:
"You bitch, keep out of this. Youíre as bad as he is. You were out all day but didnít bring back a single piece of coal."
Ma used to go to gather coal until she lost her leg. The trainís wheel cut it clean off. Now, his sister does this work. They sell the coal to make a little money for salt and chillies.
"I have told you a hundred times that the policemen do not allow anyone on the tracks these days," the girl retorts.
The boy remembers.
"What is it?"
"Send her with me to the godown."
"The policeman there says that he will give me a bag full of grain if I bring my sister along."
Swadesh Deepak is most widely acclaimed for his play ĎCourt Martialí, which has been
translated into several Indian languages and has enjoyed tremendous success on the stage.
Deepak has also published three anthologies of short stories. He lives in Ambala