I Look At Our House With—
—upside-down eyes and count five holes in our tin roof. There might be more, but I can’t see them because the black smog outside has wiped the stars off the sky. I picture a djinn crouching down on the roof, his eye turning like a key in a lock as he watches us through a hole, waiting for Ma and Papa and Runu-Didi to fall asleep so that he can draw out my soul. Djinns aren’t real, but if they were, they would only steal children because we have the most delicious souls.
My elbows wobble on the bed, so I lean my legs against the wall. Runu-Didi stops counting the seconds I have been topsy-turvy and says, ‘Arrey, Jai, I’m right here and still you’re cheating-cheating. You have no shame, kya?’ Her voice is high and jumpy because she’s too happy that I can’t stay upside down for as long as she can.
Didi and I are having a headstand contest but it’s not a fair one. The yoga classes at our school are for students in Standard Six and above, and Runu-Didi is in Standard Seven, so she gets to learn from a real teacher. I’m in Standard Four, so I have to rely on Baba Devanand on TV, who says that if we do headstands, children like me will:
• never have to wear glasses our whole lives;
• never have white in our hair or black holes in our teeth;
• never have puddles in our brains or slowness in our arms and legs;
• always be No. 1 in School + College + Office + Home.
I like headstands a lot more than the huff-puff exercises Baba Devanand does with his legs crossed in the lotus position. But right now, if I stay upside down any longer, I’ll break my neck, so I flump to the bed that smells of coriander powder and raw onions and Ma and bricks and cement and Papa...
The cold slithers up my bare feet. Shadows and voices judder across the alley. The smog combs my hair with fingers that are smoky but also damp at the same time. People shout, ‘What’s happening? Has something happened? Who’s screaming? Did someone scream?’ Goats that their owners have dressed in old sweaters and shirts so they won’t catch a chill hide under the charpais on both sides of the alley. The lights in the hi-fi buildings near our basti blink like fireflies and then disappear. The current’s gone off.
I don’t know where Ma and Runu-Didi are. Women wearing clinking glass bangles hold up mobile-phone torches and kerosene lanterns but their light is wishy-washy in the smog.
Everyone around me is taller than I am, and their worried hips and elbows knock into my face as they ask each other about the screams. We can tell by now that they are coming from Drunkard Laloo’s house. ‘Something bad is going on over there,’ a chacha who lives in our alley says. ‘Laloo’s wife was running around the basti, asking if anyone had seen her son. She was even at the rubbish ground, calling his name.’ ‘That Laloo too, na, all the time beating his wife, beating his children,’ a woman says. ‘Just you wait and see, one day his wife will also disappear. What will that useless fellow do for money then? From where will he get his hooch, haan?’
I wonder which one of Drunkard Laloo’s sons is missing. The eldest, Bahadur, is a stutterer who is in my class.
The earth twitches as a metro train rumbles underground somewhere near us. It will worm out of a tunnel, zoom past half-finished buildings, and climb up a bridge to an above-ground station before returning to the city because this is where the Purple Line ends. The metro station is new, and Papa was one of the people who built its sparkly walls. Now he’s making a tower so tall they have to put flashing red lights on top to warn pilots not to fly too low.
The screams have stopped. I’m cold and my teeth are talking among themselves. Then Runu-Didi’s hand darts out of the darkness, snatches me, and drags me forward. She runs fast, as if she’s competing in a relay race and I’m the baton she’s about to pass to a teammate.
‘Stop,’ I say, hitting the brakes. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Didn’t you hear what people were saying about Bahadur?’ ‘He’s lost?’
‘You don’t want to find out more?’
Runu-Didi can’t see my face in the smog but I nod. We follow a lantern swinging from someone’s hands, but it’s not bright enough to show us the puddles where washing-up water has collected and we keep stepping into them. The water is icky and I should turn around but I also want to know what happened to Bahadur. Teachers never ask him questions in class because of his stammer. When I was in Standard Two, I tried going ka-ka-ka too, but that only got me a rap on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Ruler beatings hurt much worse than canings.
I almost trip over Fatima-ben’s buffalo, who’s lying in the middle of the alley, a giant black smudge that I can’t tell apart from the smog. Ma says the buffalo is like a sage who has been meditating for hundreds and hundreds of years in the sun and the rain and the snow. Faiz and I once pretended to be lions and roared at Buffalo-Baba, and we pelted him with pebbles, but he didn’t even roll his big buffalo eyes or shake his backward-curving horns at us.
All the lanterns and phone-torches have stopped outside Bahadur’s house. We can’t see anything because of the crowd. I tell Runu-Didi to wait and jostle past trouser-clad, sari-clad, dhoti-clad legs, and hands that smell of kerosene and sweat and food and metal. Bahadur’s ma is sitting on the doorstep, crying, folded in half like a sheet of paper, with my ma on one side and our neighbour Shanti-Chachi on the other. Drunkard Laloo squats next to them, his head bobbling as his red- rivered eyes squint up at our faces.
I don’t know how Ma got here before me. Shanti-Chachi smooths Bahadur’s ma’s hair, rubs her back, and says things like, ‘He’s only a child, must be somewhere around here. Can’t have gone that far.’