Bishu woke up early. He couldn’t sleep well last night. The deafening sound of August rain dancing on the tin shade didn’t allow him to close his eyelids for once. The clouds rumbled with frequent flashes of lightning. He lay awake, staring blankly at the musty darkness of their little nest. He could hear his mother snoring. The rain had slowed down near dawn. Bishu sat up on his bed. The pale white light of dawn penetrated through the cracks in the walls – they didn’t have a window. He looked at his mother in the dim light of dawn. She was still snoring; her mouth was open, with a thin silvery line of dried saliva at the side of her jaw. Putting on a genji, Bishu came outside. He looked up at the sky. The sky was overcast but the young Sun was lucent behind the thick curtain of clouds.
Bishu lived at the edge of the town with his mother Seema, in a shack with a rusty tin sheet serving as what they called chaal. The walls were made of thin and pale bamboo mats whose cracks and crevices were patched with newspapers at places. He knew that it was early but didn’t know the time. He didn’t have a watch. He made his way through the narrow winding alley of the slum; his feet sinking deep into the mud. Their neighbor’s old rooster crowed, which almost sounded like the cough of a decrepit old man. The ground was all the same everywhere in the slum, covered with thick slime made of mud, rotten vegetables, putrid flesh, blood, and sweat. Animal carcasses lay scattered here and there, decomposing unhurriedly. The slime was omnivorous. It consumed everything. Bishu saw his neighbor’s naked rickety infant playing with the severed head of a cat, kicking it across the narrow street until a shriveled dog ran away with that valued possession.
He reached the point where a petite canal of murky water cleaved through the biggest slum in that part of state, cutting it into two. Bishu lived in the Eastern part. Most other hard-working people did – maids, masons, sweepers, and laborers who used to work at the jute factory before it closed down twelve years ago. The great leader had promised to reopen the factory soon, every year before the election in March he had promised to start the factory in ‘coming August’ which never came. Bishu was perhaps the only person in his entire neighborhood, who knew the names of the months. His father, before he hanged himself from an old defective signal post near the railway tracks, sent Bishu to municipal school. Father, like most other men in the slum, used to work as a majdoor in the factory. He couldn’t get a job after the shutdown. For two years, the tuberculous man had trotted around the town, imploring to every man he saw for a job, coughing blood, looking helpless. The rope found him before a job could.
He took the narrow bamboo bridge across the canal. He saw a man lying face down in the mud. Judging by his immobility one could easily tell that the man was dead. Last night the man lay there, choking in his own blood. He, somehow, had asked Bishu for some water. He didn’t literally ask – his throat was slit in such a way that he could only gasp for air like a fish out of water, his eyes dilated, gurgling blood as he tried to speak, but Bishu knew that he was asking for water. They always did when they died. Bishu was quite used to it. He wanted to help but he didn’t for he knew that the man wouldn’t live. He didn’t want to extend his agony. The night rain had washed away the blood; in the grey light of gloomy dawn, the man was lying like a big sludgy lump of slime and flesh. Now, it saddened Bishu to think that he had gone away. Had he stood there, perhaps, the man would have lived. That was the reason why Bishu thought he was different from other slum dwellers – he could become sad. Nobody in the slum was sad. Yes, they were angry, irritated, aggressive, weary, and sometimes cruel, but they were never sad. Bishu thought about that. He thought hard, but couldn’t get any answer. Had he read more, had he continued going to the school, he might have become smart enough to answer these questions squabbling in his head all the time.
Bishu was standing in the Western part of the shack town, staring at the huge brick structure which used to be the big jute factory at some point. Now, it stood, fairly ramshackle, in an inefficient and weedy state, bearing a sign of hopelessness. It always made Bishu sad to look at that brick cage with three enormous chimneys, one of them busted, gaping up at the sky trying desperately to breathe like a man drowning in the slime. The slime was thicker in this part of the slum. He saw men and women squatting on their haunches here and there, excreting. They had no shame; hunger had sucked out their moralities a long time ago and left them only with dark primal intuitions. They are driven only by appetite.
They grinned at Bishu showing their pyorrhea teeth, some of them abused him: “Why have you come here? You son of a bitch.” Bishu didn’t mind – he didn’t care; they had always been like that and he chose to ignore. He had never abused in his life, even though his mother did. He had tried to be different from them his entire life. Rupsha miss used to say that Bishu was a brilliant boy. She had always loved Bishu, she had a special regard for him. She used to buy him exercise books and pens; she always shared her ‘tiffin’ with him.
The world in which he moved was very small. He always desired to transcend the invisible boundary of his tiny, filthy, vulgar, and slimy world. Bishu entered the factory shade through the wide front gate. The vast interior where monstrous machines stood once is now inhabited by hundreds of men, women and their cubs, fighting, scratching, screaming, eating, excreting and breeding – all out in the open. He made his way through the scrimmaging crowd of men and women to the far end of the huge hall where an obese bald man sporting a checkered lungi and nothing else sat on a charpoi. If you looked closely, you would have discovered that she was a woman. She was bald, her upper body bare. Her wrinkly face changed its form rapidly as she chewed a mouthful of betel leaves. Spitting out a lump of red saliva on the floor she grinned at Bishu. “Have you changed your mind then, eh?” Bishu could see her disjointed and decayed line of teeth.
“I’ll do it,” he said quietly. She grinned again amusedly. Her toad-like eyes glittered in the light of a yellow bulb which hung over her head. She called out, “Sukhi, come out, you bastard.” There was a string of mosquito nets along the wall, fifteen or twenty of them, conscious of what was going within them, gazed at one another with steady faces; feminine laughter and groaning could be heard from within. A moustached man with a cocky countenance peeked out from one of them reluctantly. He looked at her questioningly. Sukhi was a cop who frequented those mosquito nets. She said, “Boys will go fishing today. There must not be any cops, alright?” There was a strange sense of dominance in her tone. The cop nodded assertively before disappearing once again inside the mosquito net.
She stood up with effort. Beckoning him to follow her, the big buffalo walked outside through the rear door. Bishu followed her silently. She was Manu, the mistress of the slum. Everybody listened to her, everybody was afraid of her. She was ruthless. Manu used to be a butcher in her youth. Now, she ran the whole slum, every business that happened around it. The factory courtyard was filled with little groups of boys, their age ranging from ten to twenty. Many of them were sleeping, some playing cards, and smoking, abusing and shouting profanity. They were dark, thin and dirty but their eyes were shimmering with an unearthly hunger. They were Manu’s army, her business – trained pickpockets, thieves, and cut-throats. Bishu never thought that he would join them, but he was helpless. He wanted money to get out of this inferno and start living somewhere else in the town. He had always dreamed of a little house, a peaceful place with an electric fan, a t.v. and a small kitchen for his mother. He also wanted to gift a few books to Rupsha miss; she loved reading more than anything else. He tried every other way to earn but of no use. He could only get enough money to get out of here by working for Manu. There was no other option.
Bishu followed Manu to a group of four boys of his age. They sat on a broken wall watching over the courtyard like hawks. Chakku was their leader. He squinted at Bishu and remarked, “Why is he here? Isn’t he a goody boy?” They laughed. Manu said, “He’ll go fishing today. You’ll teach him.” Chakku couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He and Bishu never got along. Though Bishu had no axe to grind against him, he didn’t like him. Bishu never knew what he wanted to be but he had always wanted not to be like Chakku. Chakku was the most feared person in the slum after Manu. He was only seventeen and had already killed over a dozen men. He had smothered his own father to death when he was only twelve. He and his gang had raped almost every girl in the slum.
“You talk too much boy. Do what you are told if you don’t want to end up buried alive in the slime,” Manu warned him. Chakku knew it was not wise to argue. He said to Bishu, “Meet us by the railway tracks at 6 in the evening. We’ll be around signal number two where your stupid father hanged himself. If you don’t show up we’ll cut your tool and feed it to the pigs.” They laughed again. Bishu didn’t pay attention to their raucous laugh. He just nodded and left the place. It had started to drizzle again. By the time he reached the canal the rain came pouring down from the sky. The corpse was still there but naked now. Someone had stolen his clothes. Bishu crossed the bamboo bridge and started running towards his shack. The path was covered with dense, sticky, dark slime trapping his feet, but he still ran – at least he tried to.
The rain slowed down by the evening. Bishu stood in front of the mirror which was their only luxurious possession. He said to himself, “Just a few jobs and I’m out of here. Don’t worry. Bishu will not take part in any kind of violence.” It was a cheap square piece of glass with a red plastic border. Bishu’s mother bought it from a fair long time ago. He was just about to leave when his mother seized him by his left hand. He didn’t notice that his mother had come back from work. She scrubbed pots and washed clothes in a few houses in the town.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“To find work,” was Bishu’s reply. His mother said, “In the evening? Why don’t you tell me the truth? You bastard. If you get drunk again I’ll kill you, I swear.” Bishu freed himself from his mother’s feeble grip and came outside.
When he reached the signal, Chakku and his gang were already there. They were lurking around the bushes. Even though it was already dark, they had handkerchiefs around their faces.
“Where have you been motherfucker? Didn’t I tell you to come at six?” Chakku glared at him.
Bishu knew it was not six yet. He asked the time at a tea shop on the way.
He said calmly, “I don’t have a watch.”
Chakku would have said something, but stopped. They heard the faint clinging noise of wheels – a train was approaching. Chakku beckoned everyone to take their positions. “The new boy stays with me,” he whispered.
Two of the boys disappeared in the darkness to the other side of the tracks. Another one stayed with Chakku and Bishu. Chakku thrust a jute bag into Bishu’s hand and said, “You know what to do.”
Bishu felt nervous as they waited in the undergrowth by the tracks. He looked at the other two, their eyes glimmering in the darkness.
“If you try to do anything smart we’ll rip your guts out,” whispered Chakku. Bishu’s legs started shaking as the train drew closer. They waited like bloodthirsty predators. The train slowed down its pace to stop at the signal. Bishu could see an almost empty compartment in front of him. It was drizzling. His sweat got mixed up with the rain water. The train stood at the signal for five minutes. Bishu felt that he had been waiting for an eternity. As the train was about to move, two boys jumped up through the open doors. Bishu could vaguely see a jostling inside the compartment. Before he could understand anything, boys dragged down someone from the train.
Chakku shouted, “Now.”
Bishu jumped as the person tried to stand up. He could feel that it was a woman. Putting the jute bag over her head he held her down tightly. She was struggling like a trapped animal, throwing her limbs out in the air. Two boys pinned her down on the ground. It was raining cats and dogs by then. Bishu could hear the sound of muffled groaning and crying coming from the jute bag. Two boys took off her ornaments, snatched her bag and cell phone, and ran off towards the slum.
“We should be going now,” bellowed Bishu as he saw Chakku unzipping his pants. He knew precisely what was going to happen.
“You said we would only steal,” he shouted.
Chakku pushed him aside and thrived at her body like a famished dog, choking her in the process. Her mask had now come off. A flash of lighting allowed Bishu a glimpse of her face. He was horrified and flabbergasted to see Rupsha miss, her eyes dilated, blood coming out of her nose. He opened his mouth in a dumb shriek and before Chakku could understand anything a heavy boulder smashed his head like a pumpkin in a fountain of blood.
It was morning. Bishu dragged himself wearily to his shack, his clothes wet with water, mud and blood. He stood in front of the mirror. Light came from his left through the open door. He couldn’t recognise the man in the mirror.
The slime was omnivorous. It devoured everything in the end.
Indian words used:
- chaal: shade of a cottage made of tin or earthen tiles.
- genji: a sleeveless thin shirt.
- majdoor: labourer.
- charpoi: a string cot.
Written by Nirban Roy