Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 1, Dated Jan 10, 2009
Mridula Koshy (born 1969) makes her home in New Delhi along with her
partner and her three most rewarding creative efforts: Saleem, Akshay and Surya. Before
returning to India, she worked as a trade union and community organiser in the US.
A collection of her stories, If It Is Sweet, will be published by Tranquebar Press
in 2009. Her stories have appeared in Wasafiri, Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review
and Existere, as well as in anthologies in India, the UK and Italy. She is currently
working on a novel and hopes to see her work translated into regional languages.
The evening of that same day he sees her again. In the
moment this is absolutely astonishing to him. And the
moment after he feels relief. It’s as if he has been anxious
about something, maybe her, maybe the question
of whether he would see her again. He isn’t sure what
he’s been anxious about since he doesn’t actually remember feeling the anxiety that
when dissipated should allow him to
feel such relief. But the relief is certain,
even visceral, more than a mere lightening
of his spirit, or the lifting of
a burden. Yes, he feels as if he could
float, as if a burden has been lifted. But
even more strongly he feels light flooding
recesses of darkness in him, recesses
that he had not known were
dark or even known were there. It
seems to him that if he were to unbutton
his shirt and peer down at his belly
he would see through the skin to his
entrails which, just at present, feel as if
they are shivering themselves awake
from a long sleep.
|ILLUSTRATIONS: NEELAKASH KSHETRIMAYUM
And now he names the recesses one
by one — Charu and Chuk Chuk, the
old school building, the chink of yellow
under the door somewhere (where?),
the feel of the earth in the evening releasing
stored heat, the feel of the earth
against his cheek, the feel of the footpath
releasing heat which isn’t the same
thing as the feel of the earth — furry
or damp and packed. No, not the same
at all. He stands on the footpath, bites
into the guava she’s given him and
waits for the light to turn from green
to red way ahead at the flyover. The
man in the distance comes closer, his
open shirt flapping in the wind, closer
and the single button holding it together
at his chest turns from white to
whiter, and the handkerchief covering
his head reveals its blue print. And
watching and waiting Chottu Lal
breathes into himself.
He hadn’t thought of her after the
morning’s incident. Not to wonder if he
would ever see her again, not to speculate
that he might or might not, not
even to conclude that he never would.
But the evening of the same day as the
morning, as Chottu flattened himself
against the fence dividing traffic, pretending
sales were what he was all
about, which he knew it wasn’t, but he
felt alright with the pretence since he
hadn’t yet figured out what else there
was to him, as he leaned his head forward
from the fence to mug in the
rushing stream of mirrored car windows,
as he caught himself hoping
today Charu would show up with
balloons, traffic slowed and stopped
but not completely; it continued to
He darted in. It was nearly dark, getting
harder to sell magazines. Elly, he
said into a car and the window went up
tight. Elly, he thrust the spread-eagled
pages at the window. He turned the
magazine back to himself and with the
idea of putting some effort into his pretence
that a sale was even possible, he
took in the passengers seated inside —
mother and daughter, possibly —
flipped to the back, to pages full of
princesses, and turned these images to
the car’s interior: Beautiful bride,
madam. Beautiful. Beautiful. He tried
putting an entreaty in his eyes but felt
bored and wanted done with it, pushed
his nose till it flared against the glass
and pushed again till the bridge bent
and made a pleasant creaking sound,
and pushed till the distant ache in the
middle of his face was more glass than
him, and boredom became the grease
he spread on the window.
As much as he would have liked to
go stand with the others, who had already
received their evening jobs —
balloons, jasmines, incense — who unlike
him were free of the anxiety of
wondering what came next, who like
him were in that in-between time when
it is too dark for magazines and cell
phone chargers and too light for balloons,
jasmines and incense, he knew
he couldn’t be seen loafing, or Charu
would set her boyfriend on him. He
loved Charu. She was his big sister,
wasn’t she? Or at least that’s what she’s
been all these years cooking his food
and cleaning his clothes for him. And
hasn’t it been a good thing for both of
them that she has Mohansingh for a
WITH THE advent of
Mohansingh, there had
been a layer of protection
added to the little enterprise that was
Charu, Chuk Chuk and Chottu. But
this protection which, at its best,
meant their family had grown by one
and a strong one at that, one who
could keep at bay thugs and rivals, interested
itself in studying the enterprise
for internal weaknesses, found
the primary weakness of the enterprise
was Chottu’s desire to develop
his personality in areas other than
salesmanship, cured Chottu of the desire.
Chottu tried not to fear Mohansingh’s
beatings overly ahead of their
occurrence. Because inevitable they
were and it would mean ruining otherwise
brilliant days to live in anticipation
of them. On the other hand, he
couldn’t afford to entirely forget them.
Because they were avoidable. Or at
least Chottu thought they might be. It
was a little confusing sorting this
question out since even on the best
sales days — four hundred rupees
once — he has had to dart behind
Charu or wail loud enough to turn the
attention of the street or BRT guard
If the mercurial nature of Mohansingh’s
temper was factored out and good sales factored in, then yes,
there were days better than good. Days
when Chottu was pulled into Mohansingh’s
brotherly embrace — samosas
and tea at Krishi Vihar. Maybe an hour
sitting idly, watching children at play
on the DDA lawn. Mohansingh is a history
buff, and in the time before he
sold Chuk Chuk he’d taken the two
boys to roam the grounds at Jantar
Mantar and Qutab Minar. On such
days, afternoon stretched to evening
listening to Mohansingh’s expansive
talk. Jalebis turned everything sweet.
And later than late, Mohansingh sent
the bottle around the circle — the four
of them, the circle. Four of them. A
momentary confusion in counting as
the fourth figure wavered. Chottu
tried counting again but the hurt of
his spread nose was not doing his
thinking any good. He switched to his
favourite line of reasoning: anything is
possible. This was a thought that covered
everything. It covered three, it
With a sigh of satisfaction Chottu
turned away from the greased car window
and to the woman in the auto.
Only seventy rupees for new Elly. New
Vog. New Maar Eclair. See see see see
see. He must have repeated his Take it
Madam — the whiny get under the
skin tone of which is the closest he
comes to sleeping while standing in the
middle of traffic — four times before
she looked up from inside her purse
and looked away. Too practiced, this
aversion of hers. No sale to be made
here, just more of the same irritation
shared by everyone else stuck in
traffic; her’s is expressed in the hair
The hand that’s
holding out the guava, this is what she was rooting for in the purse,
is empty and he’s trying to see if he can hold the guava and magazine
tucked between his chin and chest while he reaches deep into his pant
pocket to pull out something for her. Because he recognises her now —
by the rings on her hand, so many of them, they were amazing when he saw
them in the morning, some of them flecked in red as was her hand and sleeve,
the skirt spread on the street where she knelt. Not that he wouldn’t
have recognised her if he had looked her in the face. But he hasn’t
looked any more than she has. How then were they
to know each other
— the two of them who had met but not really met, just knelt side
by side by the man and his leg earlier this same day. This morning. Amazing,
is all he can think as he looks again at her hand. The rings. Then her
face. Yes, he remembers her face, which is like all other faces, but since
this morning so singularly hers it can’t belong to anyone else.
His voice is still whining,
Madam. Please madam.
His thoughts are jumping in his
head. Telling him to speak. Telling him
to not. Telling him to do something. He
searches. There is nothing in his pocket
for her. She,
I don’t read magazines.
I don’t read such magazines.
Frowning and shaking her head and
hair at him, but not looking at him. Not
I wish you would look at me. He
doesn’t have time to think this, just
wishes it. He thinks, the light will
change. The autowallah will turn hostile
to break his boredom.
He says, Madam this morning.
Now she looks at him. Sewage in his
belly. He nearly heaves. She recognises
him. She is embarrassed. Or is she? He
doesn’t know. Why would she be? He’s
not. Is she? The street has turned
darker in the last one minute. He’s right
about the autowallah who’s begun,
Didn’t she say she doesn’t want anything?
BUT CHOTTU’S head is all the
way inside the auto. He is so
relieved she’s here. He could
let his knees buckle that’s how weak he
feels. He could let some part of him
rest against her. He could let his nose
press to hers.
Madam, this morning. Remember
His leg, she replies.
And they repeat this to each other:
He asks her shyly, Do you have any
She asks him, Where did you get the
The spell is broken by something,
maybe just the passage of those few
seconds of their bewildered recognition
into the next few seconds of time beyond
the recognition. They turn together
to the autowallah. They are both
This morning there was a terrible
accident right here. On the other side
of here. Going that way. Two cars,
three motorbikes. On the other side,
the fence is like this. She makes a curve
in the air with the hand with the fingers
with the rings.
He says to the autowallah, She
helped. She was the only one who helped.
She says, This boy was the only one
who helped. He brought a cloth.
She turns eagerly to Chottu. He, anticipating
the question, is already answering
I bought it from the
man who sells duster cloth. Twenty rupees I paid myself.
What happened to the man?
THE AMBULANCE never came.
First the number was busy. I
must have dialed 101 a hundred
times. It was busy the whole time.
You should dial 100.
Well, yes. But by then I got though.
And that was when a police jeep happened
by. I said as much to the ambulance
people. They hung up on me.
Oh, what do they care. What happened
to the man?
She turns the question over to the
What happened to the man?
The boy shakes his head. He doesn’t
know what’s happened since they
loaded the man into the police jeep.
But Chottu understands the autowallah
is asking something else.
No leg left.
He tells the woman, Some different
people have gone to his neighbourhood
to say he’s hurt. By now maybe his family’s
gone to the hospital.
The woman speaks excitedly.
One leg was crushed. The bone inside
was so crushed I couldn’t see any
of it though I could see clear through to
the inside, the blood and flesh had all…
like a shirt inside out. But the foot and
below and the knee and above was fine.
He was trying to drag himself away.
Only as she says this does she realise
what it was the man was trying to drag
himself away from: his leg.
Not like a shirt, she thinks. Like a
kite. It was crumpled like a kite, the
frame broken. A delicate structure,
given way. Between the foot and the
knee. Something had given that should
have stretched the leg smooth, but it
had given, and the leg was crumpled and gaped. The skin folded on itself,
the shine of it gone. She looks at the
boy. She can picture him flying a kite. It
is no effort. Seeking confirmation of
this unexpected truth, something
hidden from her till now, she nearly
asks him if he flies kites.
This boy, she repeats, was the only
one who helped.
She asks the boy, You paid for the
He says, Yes.
She thinks, it doesn’t matter if he is
telling the truth.
He shakes his head and smiles. He thinks, it doesn’t matter if I am telling
the truth. The two smile, a secret smile.
Didn’t she tell you she doesn’t want
any. You get out of here now.
The two smile, widening their smile
to include the knowledge that the autowallah
The boy pulls out the guava which
has found its way to his pocket. She
gives him a twenty rupee note for the
cloth he had bought, for the way in
with which he had reached under the
flesh that was a leg and wrapped the
cloth twice around. She accepts the
guava from him and returns it to him
and accepts it back from him and this
is where their fumbling finds them
when the lights ahead change. And just before he runs, crisscrossing between
cars, to the footpath, she thrusts the
guava back at him. He re-pockets it. On
the footpath he looks away from her,
towards the light at the intersection.
From far away, with his shirt flapping
on either side of him, a great bird is approaching.
On the footpath Chottu notes the
bird man’s approach and makes a great
show of eating the guava. He pops into
his mouth the last bite, stem attached
to a shredded leaf. Like a wave receding
from shore the movement of vehicles
igniting to launch travels back from the
light turned green, reaches her auto
and he, feeling between his teeth, tells
her of his deep and abiding love. His
leg, Chottu whispers, and she lurches
forward, Then she is carried away.
At the moment of the impact he was
standing on the footpath making his
sounds. Gawww and Heeenh. Nasal
sounds, pitched to break the morning
to tell the world about Gawww and
Heeenh and much more that was not
sound and so remained trapped inside
him. The impact shot out the wealth
of mucous from where he mined his
sounds and afterwards he lay on the
ground, his face wreathed in goo. What if, he thought, I have no sounds
left to make?
He worried then about his one leg
which very clearly was done saying.
The foot at the end of this leg was
planted firmly on the ground and the
rest of him, supine. He turned on to his
side, curled tighter in an attempt to pull
himself to the foot, which done talking
was apparently also done listening,
would not come to him when he called.
But his calling was silent. The foot
could be forgiven. This foot planted
firmly on the ground, he saw, was holding
up the mass of his leg. Gawww and
Heeenh, he thought: Jellied and Riven.
The knee was good. A good knee. The
knee and the foot were both good.
Good knee and good foot. They held
between them the flesh that skin and
bone no longer wanted to. And the
flesh was good. It wanted to remain a
leg, his leg. It clung to itself. All of the
good in him conspiring to help the
good flesh levitate between good knee
and good foot.
THE GOOD in him welled
up and he could no longer contain it. It pooled under him. It drew itself
into spirals around him.
It rose from the ground,
a stairway sprung from him. In starbursts of light his stairway materialised
a few, then more, and many more. The many were good in their sounds.
Have you called?
Someone get that Bhatia fellow here.
The colony doctor, I said.
Don’t move it.
If you move him.
What do you mean the tempo won’t
Get ten fellows together and that
tempowallah will sing a different tune.
What does he mean he won’t take
Let’s show him.
Who was the driver?
Yes you. Come here.
Who is it?
Here give him water.
No water. Listen lady, don’t give
Is someone trying to get the doctor?
It’s the Sadhu.
Yes it’s him. I see him here every
morning. These malas around his neck.
What Sadhu? That’s no Sadhu. The
man is mentally ill, and we call him
The bloody incompetents. No one’s
Busy. That’s all I get.
Me too. Dialing for more than ten
Get that driver here.
What do you mean he is gone?
Nothing left in that leg.
He watched these sounds of goodness.
If only they were telling him what
was known. Though he opened his
mouth nothing came from within. The
sounds were on the outside now. And
he lay baffled. The woman who was
patting him leaned closer and said,
They are coming. Don’t move now.
The doctor will be here soon.
He rolled his eyes to let her know that she was his sound. She frowned at
that. He found he could make crying
sounds. Air went in and air went out
with the crying sounds. It was good. He
curled tighter and cried. The woman
Don’t move. They’ll be here soon.
We’ll take care of you.
Her sounds rolled
under him, rolled him out from under himself. He thought, This isn’t
a bad way of travelling. He travelled on sounds.
Don’t give him water.
Pick him up. Pick him up.
Bloody hell, there’s nothing to hold
Pick him up, I say.
In he goes.
Where will you take him?
Isn’t there anyone of his here?
Got him good? Where to?
Isn’t there anyone with this man?
I know this man. He’s from the
bustee near Khanpur?
Near Khanpur? Isn’t that far from
You’re not crazy are you? You want
me to turn in that direction?
He wanders here every day. Stands
around waving his arms.
He’s not from Khanpur. He’s from
right here in Krishi Vihar.
He needs to be taken straight to the
hospital. Sort out the rest later.
It will be alright. My husband’s toe
was the same way to the side.
Where will you take him?
Where else? Moolchand.
Isn’t there anyone who’ll accompany
He’s rolling. Green. Green. A lawn.
He’s rolling down a sloped lawn. Children
watching. He’s rolling through
their days and nights. Green green rolls
around him and a voice is whispering.
This is good. He can listen to this voice.
It’s telling him the sound of what he’s
wanted to say for so long. It’s good to
hear it. Amit, the sound.
First the inert brown sack lying crumpled
on the street. Then the car that
rolls over the sack. Now the sack
breathes life, a ripple travelling the
coarse material, like wind travelling
water. A hand emerges from inside.
Chottu watches Chuk Chuk forming
himself. The same old trick. How boring
is this. And does it bore him: this
ache in his throat?
Chottu dissolves into his shirt,
pulling its dark around him. The comfort
of his own warmth and smell are
with him. A long time ago when Chuk
Chuk replaced him as the magician’s
assistant, Chottu had repaid Chuk
Chuk with a trick of his own. When
tired, or especially sad, or just sick with
the vomiting coming, when in the magician’s
embrace, smell yourself and instant
happiness. Chottu Lal inhales
himself then he turns the shirt front in
with him and bending into his pocket,
huffs the rag there. Out on the street
the top of Chuk Chuk’s head emerges
from the sack and Chuk Chuk is borning
himself through magic. Eyes and
smile, white in the dark face.
COME, CHUK Chuk says, breathe a
little more. And I will talk to
you. It is three-year old Chuk
Chuk who smiles and orders Chottu.
When Chuk Chuk comes to him, it is
always as he did the first time, as a
three year old. Then, he had communicated
with just his smiles and tears, and
by pointing to the trains lined up on
the platform. Koooo Chook Chook.
And once he had your attention, faster
and faster, Chuk Chuk Chuk. Chottu
understood immediately. He turned to
the magician and said, He came on the
train, like I did. He spoke with awe.
After all, he had been five, six, maybe seven when he climbed on the train.
How did such a little fellow get on a
train by himself?
The magician scooped up the baby
and Chuk Chuk settled into the man’s
arms as Chottu had years before.
But he wants to go home, Chottu
spoke anxiously. The magician paused
at that. But Chuk Chuk himself never
looked again at the trains. He pushed
his nose into the magician’s shoulder
and wiped emphatically. At the end
of a day performing on the platform
the magician, carrying the now sleeping
treasure, led the way out to the
street, woke the baby, bought big
glasses of sweetened milk for all three,
fed Chuk Chuk by hand as Chottu
looked on enviously. By then it was
established the little fellow would answer to Chuk Chuk.
Chottu watches the competing
images of Chuk Chuk and the man
approaching. One, a rippling sack, the
other equally mirage, his outline rippled
by waves of heat rising from the
footpath. But moment by moment the
rippling outline is clearer, closer — a
bird flapping, then a building on the
move, chest out and fists flexing.
Chottu dives into his shirt pocket,
inhales his rag and re-emerges to Chuk
Chuk softening, sweet as sugar melting, We’re brothers, aren’t we? We’re brothers,
Chottu whispers. And the magic
must be strong because Mohansingh
Chottu watches two men slap each
other on the back, close enough to
him for their thunk-thunk to clap his
back. Now Mohansingh is slipping a
friendly handful into the other man’s
The brother magic began for the two
boys when they met Charu. She told
them, you are brothers. She told them
she was their sister.
What a slut. She’s no sister of mine,
Chottu thinks. And he knows he’s right
because how else to explain the heat
blast of her scorching him.
Mohansingh’s alright. He’s freed
Chottu up as never before. He no
longer feels it necessary to watch
Charu around men — she is characterless,
she is, the way she grinds her hips
when she walks, and sways — as if the
effort of all that grinding has left her
too weak to simply stand — when she
stops. There is nothing very still about
her, is there? Even in sleep, she sends
her arms and legs every wild way.
Chottu squirms. That business of her
acting shocked if a fellow were to lunge
for a handful. Nothing but pretence.
With Mohansingh around she is a considerably cooler Charu. No longer free
to induce anything, neither an inducement
And, Chottu thinks, he is no longer
the one responsible for defending her
— in the past the most he had managed
was to take the beatings of those who
stepped over him, asleep next to her on
the footpath, then awake to protest
them having their go with her, then silenced
by the blow the footpath struck
Too ugly, that Charu, to be a whore
till twelve, one or two when the drunks
come looking. With traffic dwindled
and the city dead, the street lights,
though they do nothing to enhance her,
casting her in blue and cratering her
skin, allow the right notes to exchange
hands — from the customer’s to Mohansingh’s.
And she’s gone, into the
dark, over the wall, and amongst the
trees of the jungle park. Mohansingh,
Chottu’s turned a sleepy eye and seen,
stands a respectable distance from her,
but still well within the apron of the
street light, so that Charu’s finally a
professional with backing, and not
merely the girl wrenched to the ground
and taken for loose change or nothing
at all. Backing. It’s a word Chottu understands
is stronger magic than
brother and sister.
Chottu ignores Mohansingh’s finger
crooked at him. He crosses the street to
the middle divider and leans his back
against the fence, studies the younger
children. None of them bring back Chuk
Chuk’s face. A brother is what he wants.
His one arm lifts in the air, reaches for a
shoulder to throw itself over. He lets this
arm land on the fence, picks the other
arm up and throws it over the fence as
well. Now he tucks one foot flat against
the fence and waits to catch the eye of
any one of the older boys. One by one
they look his way and look away till he’s
found by the one. Chottu ducks his head,
takes a hasty wipe at his face and looks
back to catch the boy’s eye, to nod. The
boy has turned away but in the aggressive
self-consciousness of his squared
shoulders, in the way the other boys have stepped away from him, Chottu knows
he’s not mistaken in thinking he’s
HE WAITS another moment
at the divider, hoping Chuk Chuk will come again. But he doesn’t.
He doesn’t crawl out of the sack
the magician spreads
in the middle of the street for the car to run over. He doesn’t
take a bow while the crowd applauds. He doesn’t turn the money over
to the magician. He doesn’t grow too big for the magician’s
sack as Chottu once grew too big for it. And he doesn’t join Chottu
in running bottles of liquor for Mohansingh. And he doesn’t get
caught by the police. And he doesn’t get sold somewhere far away.
(Where?) And he doesn’t crawl into Chottu’s bed at night when
he wets his own. And they don’t lay side by side. And Chottu doesn’t
feel in Chuk Chuk’s cheek the soft earth releasing the heat of the
day. And as sleep takes Chuk Chuk, Chottu doesn’t prop himself on
his elbow to watch the fluttering lids, the place where a light shines
under the schoolhouse door.
And Mohansingh is upon him.
Chottu shakes his head, dumb in
the sweet he is swimming. He giggles in reply.
Having a good time, eh? Good good,
you stay alert. Get sexy.
Mohansingh ploughs through
Chottu’s pant pockets, lifting him as
he pulls the various coins and notes
out. A cuff to the ear and the building
moves on down the street. When
Chottu looks again for Chuk Chuk,
even the sack is gone.
He checks his pockets. How much
was in there? How much in there now?
The twenty rupees from the lady? Is it
still there? No. He checks his shirt
pockets. He takes the rag out from the
plastic bag, searches in its every fold.
The twenty rupee note is nowhere. The
magazines are gone with Mohansingh.
His longed-for break is h
Briefly he remembers the woman.
Evening and morning on the same
road. Surely she will return. And then
what? He can’t remember what comes
after that though the story is one he
had only recently been telling himself.
The guava, he remembers was perfect
— the skin astringent, the flesh mellow.
He sucks at the seed bits, still there,
hard between his teeth. A better world,
he thinks as he chews at his teeth.
It’s a long wait for Charu. When she
comes, she is trailing a string of