Bantu, the fifteen year old help of Kesari Kaka, the local milkman, was a man on a mission. Bent over the handlebar, his legs moving at a furious pace like two steam driven pistons, his rickety cycle no less than a whirlwind, Bantu negotiated his way through the narrow, congested lanes of Bysack Para*, avoiding a ditch here and a drain there. It had rained last night and the earthy smell still lingered in the air. This was his favourite smell in the world, more than the alluring odour of kerosene, more even than that of dendrite. He breathed in deeply, filling up his lungs, splashing water all around as he pedaled through a puddle. The wind whipped his face and ruffled his hair, his precious brown hair, which he took great care in combing, but he had no time to spare a thought for them. ‘Bantu Baadshah’, he daydreamed, ‘Running against time to deliver his cargo, alone in this desolate wilderness, the only one who can deliver it and save the day.’ Sanjay Dutt’s ‘Khalnayak’ played in his mind, fuelling his wild flight of fantasy. A stray pebble under the wheels of his cycle brought his rocketship Imagination plummeting down to reality. His cycle lurched dangerously. Instinctively he turned back to make sure his cargo- two large aluminium cans of milk, were still safe and hanging for their dear lives. Unfortunately with his eyes off the treacherous road, his cycle chose that very moment to crash headlong into a ditch. Bantu went flying one side, his milk cans, the other. He cursed the ditch and 14 generations of its family for tripping him and mumbled all the nasty things he could think of and invented a few on the spot. But a bruised knee and elbows were the least of his troubles. The fall had caused the lid of one of the cans to come loose and now ten litres of milk were celebrating their freedom by forming a puddle. Granted it was not the most jubilatory thing to do but what more can be expected of milk. Bantu groaned. Suddenly he didn’t feel hero-like at all. The milk had been bought and paid for by Banwari Kaki. Kaki’s bhaang* was world famous in Burrabazar. Fights were known to break out over her last glass of bhaang, especially during holi. And now ten litres of milk, the prime ingredient of bhaang was gone. He could already feel the wrath of Kesari Kaka and all the people whose thirst would go unquenched because he was too busy in his make believe world. Slowly dragging himself up, he moved to pick up his bicycle and the remaining can. Atleast he still had that one. He was retying the can to the cycle rack when it happened. What was that? He could not be sure. The movement had been fleeting, gone before he could wrap his head around it. He walked over to the cursed ditch, the harbinger of his misfortunes. There was nothing in it. ‘Maybe a crow had alighted to drink from it’, he thought. He must have imagined the hand. He sought to walk away and then stopped. A ripple ran through the muddy water, then another and then another till it looked like a shoal of fishes were swimming relentlessly just beneath the surface. Ever the curious soul, Bantu sat on his haunches and cautiously stuck one finger into the water. Nothing. Emboldened he stuck his whole hand in. His fingers scraped gravel and mud. No fish, no beetle, nothing. He withdrew his hand.
Except now, there was another, his wrist firmly held in its grip. Bantu looked on in horror as another hand shot out of the ditch and grasped his hair. The scream never left his throat as the hands pulled him- hair, head and body into the ditch.
(to be continued)
Written by Rohan Sarkar
Illustrated by Reya Ahmed