The trees that stood before the gate of their house swayed in the gentle breeze. Spring had brought about tiny, yellow flowers on them. But the flowers had almost all fallen off by now. The Mohua petals filled the surroundings with a sweet, sleepy smell. These Mohua are said to be flowers of intoxication. Sweet liquor is made out of their juice. Some sages have called them the flower of attraction, flowers of illusion, and therefore fit to be metaphors for life. But those sages are mistaken; life is not what is sinful. Life is a penance; and that thing we do to escape from it, that is the actual sin. The drinking is sin, the wanting is sin, the dreaming is sin, and death is sin. Even austerity (unbeknownst to these sages) is a sin.
Salim knows this because his mother has made him learn it, many times over. You have to endure the life you are given, you have to be thankful in living it. But Salim has committed every possible sin on the list. He instinctively knows that. But logically, what Keshav says is also correct. If you do something not as an escape but as enjoyment, it turns from sin into penance, because it turns from escape into life. That is also how love works. He has read that love is the biggest redeemer of all; the most vital of feelings – he has read it keeps the heart beating and the universe going. But you have to enjoy it in order for it be a penance. Salim’s mother never taught him sex could be anything but a penance, a righteous act. And he knew it was correct because when he said that in class, their doctor, Miss Anshu, had him applauded. Until a few years ago, Salim would feel really lucky. He had love in his life, he had money, and he had a basement to live in. Jasleen had it better, Malik and Hafiz had it way better, but their mother had chosen him over them. He was supposed to get married to his mother when he grew up. But in recent days he has started to feel slighted when other boys spoke about girls they liked. When he said this to Keshav he laughed so high all the crows from the Peepal tree flew away. He said Salim’s mother was a b**ch and a c**t. Salim didn’t defend his mother. He had begun to learn how wrong all this in theory was. But this was his life and she was his family. If she wanted to marry him, she could. No amount of wrong could turn this from right.
Keshav was a slumboy of heavier built with long stretch marks on his ribs. He had recently taken up the job of selling IDs to potential buyers. When Salim had asked him where the photos in the IDs came from which they changed after being paid to, at first he couldn’t tell. One day, Keshav came up from behind and sat down on the slum fence by him, saying nonchalantly “I found out where they take the photos from.” On Salim’s asking many times, he said “They kill them. That’s what they do.” Salim thought Keshav was really cool. He knew people who are killed for the good of the world get to heaven. But he still felt a certain chill at the thought. That was always Salim’s fault. He could never change how he felt. Over time, Salim learnt which people were killed. That was the way it always was with Keshav and Salim, they learnt together and realised together. They chewed Mohua petals together. Keshav didn’t make fun of his book reading. He said Salim should create similar books for book-reading if he wants. “You should write it so raw and painful that the readers fear to read it” He said once “because they know it so real that they know what happens in the end.” Keshav is bitter that way. He does not believe in fairy tales. He likes books on murder scenes and fight scenes.
When it came to sex, however, he could never make it come at home. He thought he did well but as he grew, he learnt the difference between the robotic and the human. Keshav didn’t get the subtle difference. Nor did most people in fifth grade. Even Malik and Hafiz couldn’t make him feel. Not even for Miss Anshu who had become a contestant for his mother’s place in his little heart. But once his thoughts had run over Malik’s best friend; that’s when he had an inkling of what it should feel like. Malik played Men’s football at the neighbourhood club, and Salim often went to his practice, committing the young men to memory. Keshav said there was no difference in essence between a man and a woman; and he had read that in school too, men and women are equal in all things. But he knew he must marry a girl. When he first realised he would have equally liked to have Miss Anshu as his bride, he felt a huge sense of guilt. He didn’t even go to the slum wall to meet Keshav though he had promised stock. But it was true. He would like to sleep by her side, cupped in her arms. Feel her heartbeat and hug her from behind in the kitchen. Maybe she would let him marry a man later, too.
As Salim continued to grow up, things started to clear and cloud simultaneously. Almost all of the most important things in Salim’s life happened over the course of the summer in seventh grade. It started when the Mohua first blossomed in the trees, and climaxed when he met Keshav for stock on the first day of school after spring break. There was always enough stock at home. What Salim went to the slum fence for was not the stock but Keshav. He waited for him, his feet dangling over the kickable bricks. But when he saw a tall, dusky figure walk out from behind those trees of sin, his words got caught up in his throat. He found it funny that the first word he thought was ‘puberty’. Salim had been waiting for his own. Keshav had grown up. Deep ridges now formed in his cheeks as his smiled; the tilt of his lips had become even more crooked. His eyebrows had deepened. Jaws chiselled out. He himself seemed unaware of it. Salim realised with that caught up throat he had not one but two things now, that for the first time in his life he wouldn’t ever be able to share with Keshav.
Salim walked up to the fence from under the shade of the Mohua trees and climbed to the other side. No matter how hard it is, he always must take the route through the front door during daytime. From here he could see his mother slouched on a plastic chair, her head towards the ceiling. He was a little surprised when she made no movement at his coming in. It was a good opportunity to turn right back out. On his way out he saw a bare-chested, broad-shouldered delivery man pass by him. He stiffened, his clenched chest loosening like rabbits. He knows what this is. A man’s jealousy. He walked about the corner and entered through the back door, his heart beating wildly.
The back door led through the kitchen to the cellar, which Salim had perfected into a basement living area. It was far from perfect, however. The house stood proud in what remained of an 18th century Thakurbari, with the first floor locked and sealed. Salim’s mother had rented that ground floor where she started a necklace making workshop. Salim wondered if the landlady knew about the basement. One day Salim had ripped off the plaster in the process of being thrown down the stairs and that had revealed passages, with several tiny rooms and one leading to the river. These days Salim didn’t like to spend the night in the basement. He wondered if the landlady was aware of the man who lived in the tunnel.
Salim had heard and smelled him walk, eat, hum and even smoke once. He found some rice and fish in the fridge which he took with him downstairs. The rubble from the broken plaster wall still lay around after seven months. He sat down on the floor and slid his right hand into his trousers. With each mouthful, he increased the intensity of the movements. Salim had wanted to go to the rooftop after lunch now that Keshav was away, but he didn’t get to do that. By the time he regained his consciousness, he could already hear Malik’s haggard breathing from the room above. With an involuntary sigh, he got up and climbed into the light.
But the noises had stopped. He could now hear the new man’s deep voice break into a cracking high-pitched scream. Salim ran into the bedroom in time to see the delivery man push his mother to the ground and lash belt after belt on her. Salim’s chest smarted again; he felt his blood rise up. Malik and Jasleen stood in separate corners, nonchalantly chewing on a paan each. Hesitatingly, Salim walked up to the man and placed his trembling hand on his collar. He didn’t look convincing at all. But he asked him to leave his mother alone. The man smiled and wiped his spit. He put a stop to his mother sleeping by them again.
From that day onwards, the horrible spitting man became a sole centre point for everyone. Their mother no longer spent much time with them. One night, Salim wondered if his mother had already changed her mind about marrying him. To pair intense dismay with infinite relief is an odd thing do to; but both resulted to tears that night and Salim balled up on the floorsheet and cried.
“Did the fisherman bite your hand again?” Keshav asked, breaking into his chain of thought.
“It’s a new one this time” he replied “He’s everywhere and everything now.” Salim had two new, hazy scars on the back of his palm. His eyes went back and forth helplessly, from his own scrawny body to Keshav’s lithe stomach and back.
The delivery guy was everywhere, but to Salim there was a newer, more exciting personage now, and he felt like crying when he thought of it. Salim was bringing back milk from the adjacent market on the first Sunday of his vacation, rejoicing in the well known smell of the flowers that adorned his path. The tree-grove started a little away from the hustle of the morning haat. His revere came to sudden stop when a tall, middle aged metrosexual passed by him to the opposite side. ‘Metrosexual’ was a word Salim had newly learnt on the internet. That well groomed man spiked a sudden chill in Salim’s arms. But no, not because of his appearance. It was his smell. A good smell? Perfume, shampoo? It was a musty, decade old smell of damp. Salim was only too familiar with it. Wishing Keshav was there, he traced the man to a clean, two storied blue house. Then he went home.
At home he stole some phenyl from the kitchen and cleaned all rooms on the passageway from the cellar to the tunnel. He even cleaned his own room. Then he dropped on his floorsheet and slept for the first time since his mother forgot of him.
Next morning after eating some bread and changing his trousers he waited at the Mohua groove for the clean blue thief. But he waited in vain. It was on the day after the next that the lean middle aged muse walked down to his home. Salim hid behind the tree and followed him at a distance. At the third turn he bent down to tie his shoes. Salim slid from behind the Peepal tree and sniffed the blue thief’s shirt. Sure enough, the smell was not there. Salim could even catch a whiff of the Phenyl. At that moment the man stretched up and turned towards him. A terrified Salim turned and sprinted towards the super mart.
Keshav had turned away to snicker at Salim’s retort. “Maybe you should rethink about marrying your hands-throwing momma then,” He said with a chuckle. “Bloody H**ker”
Salim knew what that was. But right now his eyes were fixed on the building at the other end. Every morning around this time the horrid delivery man would come up to drop off mail to this house. Oddly, he delivered all kinds of things. “Wo!” said Keshav “That’s boss. Wait it’s been a while.” He jumped down from the brick fence and ran up to the delivery man. Without knowing the exact words and while mixing up the profanities, Salim thought in essence oh crap. He jumped down too, and before Keshav could find him, reached school.
School was intolerable that day. On the hallway after the last class was over he met a classmate with long black hair. He pulled her into a vacant room (the hundred year old private school was filled with unused places) and pressed his body with hers. The enraged girl took a minute to realise what was happening and while he waited for the unfeeling, mechanical process to reach completion she landed a swinging chop on his throat and walked off. He could feel her crying long after she was gone. He stretched on the ground and waited for them to come drag him away. But surprisingly nothing happened. It annoyed him. He snorted some stock till he felt like himself and made straight to the tunnel. The thief was bundled up on the right side, probably sleeping. Salim produced a cracking kick for his shoulder. This time he was completely convincing. Before the man could react Salim held him up by his collar and laid punch after punch over his clean-shaven face. The man did not retaliate, but calmly accepted Salim’s vehement curses. They eventually fell down, both breathing heavily and wincing with pain.
Anil had a very straightforward routine in his everyday life. Three years ago he moved to this city, (some people might say like a creep) and has lived ever since on his lakhpati family’s inheritance. He was a man of simple tastes. In his early twenties he had run away from home with the ambition of joining the civil services. There he rose rapidly through the ranks, but was rumoured to have resigned after the woman of his dreams turned him down. If you could take a peek into his mind you would be able to see how he congratulated himself to have lived the classic bourgeoisie lifestyle, in a half-satirical, bitter sort of way. Every morning he would wake up, complete his training routine, eat his fill and go on a walk. At a certain time and certain point on his walk he would pass by a private school and look for a single mother who would be saying goodbye to the daughter. He would smile on his way and move on. That, he would happily often conclude, was all he allowed himself. His ardour for the woman, he would say, had all subsided except for a lingering affection; but her daughter was his daughter, and she was everything to him now. Most people snickered at this thought, some people wondered if it was perverted, but there was indeed nothing perverted about Anil’s love for the family he had claimed as his own. She might not see it, but he saw that vacant place in the little girl’s marvellously vast life and he wanted to be worthy of it. He was on good enough terms with her mother to be able to do that monetarily – as they owed their first meeting to that infant child – and for now, that was enough. He was even trying to give up smoking and drinking, because he couldn’t imagine the darling angel coming in contact with that swirling poison. He said this to the collar boy, whom he really found amusing.
“I did find you smoke once though.” Salim replied.
“I do it whenever I am stressed. It’s my way of coping with everything that’s going on” said the blue thief, slightly ashamed of his easy life.
They talked for a while about some things. But the clean thief wouldn’t tell Salim what he was doing in the tunnel. On Salim’s commenting how it was his house actually, the thief made it clear to him that it wasn’t; it was the landlady’s house and his mother was the one who paid for it. Salim asked him if he wanted to buy some stock. The man thought for a while and said yes. He said his name was Sayan. Salim almost laughed out aloud. There were two things in the world that Salim knew well about. One was stock and the other was identity; this man was lying about both. This man had never taken a snort in his life. But when he produced actual bank notes, Salim made sure to get them exposed as counterfeit.
“They are real.” Said Keshav, holding them up in the light.
Salim was still enraged at Keshav for knowing the delivery man, better still for liking him. The worst part was the delivery man was actually fond of Salim. In a sick way Salim knew he was his favourite. One of those days, Salim and Hafiz were sitting down for lunch. It was on those rare occasions when his mother was not high. Salim couldn’t really eat like this; but he was really saddened by Hafiz receiving an extra egg. By the time the delivery man came home Hafiz was already done with both the eggs. The man asked Salim what was wrong. Hafiz told him about the prehistorically existing egg-serving story. He said the reason Salim was never happy about eating with them was because he was a little man who wanted grown man’s food. The delivery man picked Hafiz up and threw him against the wall. Salim bolted up terrified. The man picked up a hot ladle and struck Hafiz with it. All Salim could do was to cry and assure him that he did not want the second egg. He asked their mother cook another egg for Salim and made him eat it.
Not that Salim didn’t once use this to his advantage. By the third week, that man’s younger brother had started coming to their house too and had taken a fancy to Jasleen. Salim was horrified at the thought. And sure enough, she brew trouble. Mother and Jasleen had always been against each other about men, and she soon confronted Jasleen for shamelessly pursuing a man who was too good for her. She asked Jasleen why it was always her priority to ruin their mother’s life. Things soon escalated and mother held up Jasleen’s hand on the stove. The delivery man snatched Jasleen away from mother and the usual scenario was recreated. Malik who tried to come in between them ended up bleeding from his forehead. Salim yelled at the top of his lungs “Stop! STOP!” but no one heard him. In the end he had to make it end by piercing his hand through the pointy fishhook left behind by Jartha.
And this is exactly what he would never tell Keshav. This was the kind of thing his friend hated the most. It was the only thing that could ever made Keshav cry. Salim asked Keshav what the tunnel man could be doing. Keshav thought for a while and told him that recently a lot of young girls had been reported missing. The man could be a detective and hiding there to catch boss.
“Did boss do that?” asked Salim, his hands going cold.
Of course not silly, replied Keshav.
Anil knew about the identity-theft in the neighbourhood. He even knew about the drug racket. He was never bothered about any of that. But there was something about this missing person’s case; it caught his fancy enough to drive him out like in the old days. There was something artistic, mysterious about these kidnappings. To satisfy himself, he had hung around the gang leader, even lived under his girlfriend’s roof. He had not been wrong. Those people were as clueless about this as he was, and probably more worried. After all, this was not the way professionals did it. This was subconscious social mockery. But the dinghy tunnel turned out useful in the end. If not for that hiding place he would never have found out about the abandoned hydrogen plant by the riverside.
Salim sat on the hill by the river in a dejected mood. His eyes followed Salima, his namesake, as she walked by the bank towards the ruins. She was Mehrab’s sister, the girl whom Salim had pinned to the wall the other day. Even though he knew he would never apologize, Salim felt uneasy every time he thought of it. Anil said he would never let a single sin touch his angel without her permission. He was sin. He knew if Keshav knew what he had done, he would have stiffened, and said in a soft voice “That’s an awful thing to do.” What if Mehrab had other ideas about this? Salim decided he would actually be really sorry if someone else ended up with the same unfeelingness.
Salima was soon out of sight. Salim knew girls shouldn’t be going about alone. He got down from the hill and did what he was best at doing. The sister crossed the Mohua grooves and the Palash grooves until she was pretty much walking through the barren land of the decaying chemical plant. Now the boy was really worried, almost sure she was giving up her safety for something stupid. They were walking through a path with only a few thorny shrubs and wild grass here and there. Salim kept to the grass. His heart stopped at the firm grip on his collar. “This is a first” said a well known voice from behind. “You are following a girl through creepstreet. Salim-Salima. Nice.”
Salim said nothing. He undid the hands from his collar and crawled ahead. The sister stopped before a bunch of trees. It seemed she would go towards the highway instead. Keshav had been only teasing him till earlier, but now he added. “Don’t follow her. Let’s go back. She might board the car.” What car? Salim turned towards him. Keshav said nothing, only pulled him backwards.
“Are you involved in this?” said Salim. Keshav shrugged. “It’s her choice. Let’s go.”
“Are you involved in this.” It wasn’t Salim’s own voice.
“Why do you care?” Keshav’s eyes shot afire. “Have you found yourself another whore so soon because your mother will no longer give you your midnight kiss?”
“Well maybe you should go look for someone else because you have successfully mocked and overlooked everything I have ever cared for!” Salim pushed the tall boy away. “Funny to hear you talk about whores after all the people you visit with your murder money! You never taught me any of that!”
Leaving the boy groaning on the ground Salim rushed to the road from where muffled screams were emanating. He crouched down behind the bushes but he could see no one. “This way” said Keshav in a hush. Salim followed his finger and saw two pale naked women carrying an unconscious body into the chemical plant. “Holy hell” said Keshav. Salim ignored him and tiptoed to a creak among the ruins. Behind the chemical plants were series of abandoned workers’ quarters. The women crouched over the body like two mad cavemen. When they were close enough, they saw Salima was still alive but unable to make any noise. “The twin sisters,” an astounded Salim said under his breath.
But the women seemed to catch on to something. They got up to look around. Salim jerked back in fear. Keshav grasped his hand and led them to place behind the barrels. It was so dark and so jammed no one could know there was any space there except the ones within. Salim lay down for what seemed like eternity, spooned tightly in Keshav’s arms. Keshav closed his eyes and breathed in sync with him.
“I didn’t” Keshav whispered as they untangled after the women were gone “I didn’t meet any whores, with or without my stupid money.”
“One of us must go report.” Said Salim. Keshav nodded. “You will be okay?”
In those days they still kept up the telephone booth, but the nearest one was at the marketplace, which was six miles away. No one can run that distance that fast, but Salim had that day. How he would come to regret that decision! He had years enough to balance them out; to figure out what he regretted the most – the punch, following Salima, the goodbye or the moment he turned around. That was it. When he hung up on the kind dispatcher and lifted his head towards where Keshav waited for him, and saw the smoke rise into the sky. And he ran back. Fighting, fainting, falling he ran half the way till he realised it was pointless. He sat down on the wet ground and pressed his hands upon his aching jaws. It would take him months to learn how the kids had been tied together, gagged and blown up; it was originally meant to have been a house on fire but the plant had blown up too with what remained in it. It would take him years to learn the mechanics.
The whole neighbourhood knew how close the two boys were. His mother came down to meet him and wiped away his tears. Is my little prince doing well? She asked. Salim sat stoned, unable to process what she said. She placed her hand on his head and stroked his hair lovingly. Then she promised him she would make sure he felt better. But before she could kiss him, he got up. The Mohua flowers were long gone, leaving two old, commonplace trees behind. Miss Anshu’s Hospital wasn’t really far from his place. He calmly walked up to her and sat down. The truth is he doesn’t remember how she looked, why he sat down and what he said.
They waited till ten o clock. The police did arrive despite the commotion of the blast. His mother and Malik arrived. The roadside workers injured in the blast all arrived. It was unbearable. Mother and Malik put on a great show; their child would never say such a thing in any other circumstances except a shock of this intensity, he had been on drugs in company of the unfortunate boy, his mother had toiled lifelong for them etc, etc. When Salim realised he would have to go back to the basement anyways, he decided to go take a stroll.
Outside, Anil was sitting on a bedi smoking. When Salim saw him, he sat down by his side. Really sorry about your friend, Anil said. Salim shook his head. It didn’t matter anymore. He had successfully entered into the penance of life, nothing was anymore an escape. “Death is about to become commonplace.” he said, looking at the blinking lights of the unending queue of ambulances. Anil was amused again. But then Anil did the unthinkable.
He extended his palm and offered Salim a smoke.
The kid looked at the spiralling fumes. His lungs burned in anger yet ached for them. In the end he lost to an ancient sigh, and stretched his fingers out.
‘Maitreyee’ (She/Her) is currently completing her senior secondary from Kolkata, India. She likes to tell stories that deal with concepts of Behavioural Psychology, Perception and Dialectics. Her involvement with the heritage of Bengal, though relatively new, has had a great impact on her characters and the world they live in. Her work has previously been published by Rigorous and The Write Order. She has written for and is actively associated with Wallflower Scribbles, a student based social media community that aims to explore local culture and support youth empowerment in the region. She is planning to complete her first book ‘All Good Girls Go To Alsergrund’ in the very near future.