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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 1, Dated Jan 10, 2009
EXCESS  
original fictions

Same Day

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.

EVENING

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.

Personal History
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 lurch about.

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 boyfriend?

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 their way.

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 covered four.

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 she shakes.

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

Personal History

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.

And,

I don’t read such magazines.

Frowning and shaking her head and hair at him, but not looking at him. Not seeing him.

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. The leg.

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? Get lost.

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 the man.

His leg, she replies.

And they repeat this to each other: His leg.

He asks her shyly, Do you have any news?

She asks him, Where did you get the cloth from?

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 embarrassed.

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 it.

Personal History

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 boy.

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 cloth yourself?

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 is jealous.

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.

MORNING

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.

Personal History

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 take him.

Get ten fellows together and that tempowallah will sing a different tune.

What does he mean he won’t take this man?

Let’s show him.

Who was the driver?

Yes you. Come here.

Here. Here. Here.

Who is it?

Here give him water.

No water. Listen lady, don’t give him water.

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 a Sadhu.

The bloody incompetents. No one’s picking up.

Busy. That’s all I get.

Me too. Dialing for more than ten minutes now.

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 kept whispering.

Don’t move. They’ll be here soon. We’ll take care of you.

Personal History

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 onto.

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 here?

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 this man.

Bloody hell.

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.

DAY’S END

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 is waylaid.

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 shirt pocket.

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 to anyone.

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 his cheek.

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 been picked.

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

Personal History

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.

How much?

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 buoyant hearts.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 1, Dated Jan 10, 2009

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