Did you have a friend growing up? A special friend?
You smile. I can see you don’t take me seriously. You have a pretty face, Nurse. Not like the other lady they send up here during the day. She struts about like she owns the place, you know; and talks to us as if we’re vermin. Oh, she is all right to look at, must have been a dame too, once, back when she was your age, but it’s the eyes. Either they have it or they don’t. Yours do.
Go easy with that needle, won’t you? The mean one poked around at my arm all morning and couldn’t find the vein. Left it all sore. When I told her you always found it no problem, she jabbed even harder and said, ‘Yeah? Maybe I should search for a vein in your balls?’
That shut me up. Real good. You know what the thing is with you? You listen. You probably pay no attention to what we say, and for all I know you walk out the door here and forget every little word. But you look us in the eye, like you’re doing right now, and you do this little dance with your eyebrows as if to say, Is that so? Tell me more. Are you like this with everyone in here? Or just me?
Wait, don’t answer that. You will lie and say it’s just me. You’re that kind of person.
What? You’re done? I didn’t feel a thing. Not even an ant bite.
Now will you be a dear and check the drip for me, please? I feel woozier than usual; just want to make sure that your day girl did not ‘accidentally’ set it over the limit to kick me out of here. Even a few milligrams more than what is needed of the stuff and it conks you off in your sleep, they tell me.
All good? You guarantee one more day in the life of me? If it were not for the rules I’d have asked you to sign your name to it. It’s more fun this way, though, because I get to give you different names on different days. Today you look like a Sunita – commonplace? Yes, but also dependable. Consistent. Nice.
The mean one? I called her Chamundeshwari today. Yeah, right to her face. Tomorrow I think I will call her Bhadrakali – see what she does.
Anyway, do you have a few minutes to spare? I’d like to talk to you. What about? Why, I don’t remember anymore. I did ask you something when you’d just walked in, didn’t I? I’m telling you, it’s this damned drip – things slip away from the mind a bit too quickly for my liking – it was not always like this – I came first in class right through school – all the other boys used to say –
Ah, yes, that reminds me. I asked you if you had a special friend growing up. Well? Did you?
Don’t stand. It hurts my neck to look up at you. Sit down, and lean in so I can see your sweet face better.
* * *
Did I have a special friend? You bet I did.
My parents lived in a shack right next to the old shivalayam, at the edge of the village. These were the days before the new temple was built, you understand, and before they redirected the river away from Palem so that there would be ‘more for everyone’. My father, who used to run a salon right out of the front room of our shack, used to say in his last days – after the well had begun to dry – that they missed out a word in their slogan, that it should have been ‘more for everyone else’.
But when I was growing up, the moss that tinged the well’s stones was green in every season. We used to walk across it to reach the school, where Jalandharachari Sir taught Telugu. Do you recall the name?
Of course not, it was way before your time. Avadhani used to be a strapping young man in those days, and word in the village was that he had eyes for this washerwoman called Lachi. He courted her for years without success, my father told me, and at the end, when Lachi married someone else, Avadhani left the village in a huff, vowing to take revenge on them all.
What was that? Yes, my special friend. His name was Madhav.
Don’t ask me now whose son he was and where he came from; these things blur with time, and you would not know them anyway even if I remembered. The important thing is that he would accompany me home every day from school, especially along that dark stretch of road from the well to our shack.
He did not go to our school. I don’t think he went to any school. But he always dressed like those people from the cities – inserted ironed shirt, crisp pair of khakhi shorts, shiny black belt, oiled hair parted to the left, powdered face, white socks, black shoes. He spoke in the cultured manner of someone who had read a lot of books, but he was no older than me, and I was about seven or eight then.
Now that I think about it, Sunita – I will call you that for today – he was a lot like you.
No, don’t laugh; you don’t look like a seven-year-old boy. You don’t sound it even. But you listen, just like Madhav used to. I would speak and speak and he would listen and listen, and when I paused for breath he would ask a question in his small, knowing voice – just like you – and listen to me go off once more.
All these years, and I just cannot forget those walks home. He would stand at the well with one hand resting on the ledge, just so, waiting for me to branch off from the kids who took the other path into the village, and he would walk abreast of me until we reached home. Many times we would sit together for long minutes outside our front porch, until my mother would peek out of a candle-lit room to call me inside. He would then walk on in the direction of the village and disappear around the bend, the same bend where years later Mahender Reddy set up his general store and erected a tubelight on a beanpole by the street. Back then it used to be this dark little spot, a kind of cave you had to walk through to reach the flickering lights of the houses on the other side.
What did we talk about? Oh, everything! Jalandharachari Sir used to tell us a new poem every day in class, and I would repeat it off by heart to Madhav. He would ask me what it meant, and I would tell him. I told him how stupid the other kids in my class were. How jealous they were of me. How they showed it by tousling my hair and calling me names and drawing cat faces on the back of my school shirt –
Here’s some advice for you, Sunita, and it comes from someone who has seen a lot of life. Squash your inferiors before they squash you. For instance, this nurse they have working the day shift – this Chamundeshwari – I know that she is nothing compared to you, and you might think that you can ignore her. But that’s not the way of the world, dear. She will not ignore you. Take it from me, she is right this moment lying in her miserable bed, plotting ways to stick a knife in your back.
What do you do? You stick a knife in her first. Crush her before she crushes you.
The mediocre will do anything to pull down the good. Remember that.
* * *
The thing with friends is that they eventually leave. The thing with special friends? They leave without telling.
You nod as if you understand, and I see pain in the way you look away at the window, into the darkness. I did not take it to heart the first two or three weeks I found him missing by the well; after all, he did not come there every single day. There had been patches of absence before that too. We agreed that I was not to wait for him on these days; if he did not arrive before me, I was to take it for granted that he would not arrive at all – for that evening.
But on the fifteenth day, the day on which I realized that he was really gone – don’t ask me how, you just know these things – I sat among the fallen leaves by the well and cried. I don’t know how long I sat there, with my head buried in the crook of my arm, but when I rose to leave it was way past sunset, and the long dark tunnel that led to my home stretched out menacingly in front of me.
One step at a time, I thought, like he had told me.
Even a journey of a thousand paces must be tackled one step at a time.
So I took one step. Then another. And then another until I reached the front porch of my house. My father was sitting in the yard with a hurricane lantern perched next to him, and in its light he was cleaning his stainless steel scissors set, a Monday night ritual he kept until he died.
‘Coming home late today?’ he asked, not looking up. ‘You didn’t get up to any mischief, did you?’
‘No.’ When I went into the stuffy front room and spotted my mother exiting the kitchen, I flew into her arms and hid myself there until the sobs let up.
Just thinking of the day fills me with pain. Not the kind of pain that comes from the outside, with tubes sticking into your body, Nurse; this pain starts on the inside, wriggles under your skin, eats away at your soul one tiny bit at a time.
But even amid all that, something told me that night that Madhav was not gone for good. A friendship like ours could not end like this. He would return. If, for nothing else, to say goodbye.
* * *
My throat is on fire, Nurse, and I am not sure if it is all from the talking. Can you get me a small Gold Flake?
You must have seen my file already. So you know why I am here. They will tell you that I tried to strangle my son. I did. They will tell you that if they had not intervened, I would have killed him. I would have. What they will not tell you is the story behind the story.
I am an only child. Both my parents died before my twentieth birthday, my wife two weeks after my twenty ninth. We lit her up on the Godavari, and as the fire blackened into the night, my son asked me if he was now an orphan. I told him that we both were.
My son is my only link to humanity, Nurse. If I tried to kill him, can you imagine the strength of the force that compelled me to do so? My word, this cigarette is pungent. Nice pungent! Do they make small Gold Flakes like this these days? With colourless filters? What’s a nice girl like you doing carrying these in her outfit anyway?
Well, who am I to question the provider?
Madhav did return. Years after. On the eve of Aditya’s seventh birthday, in fact. It was a Monday, I remember, because I was just about to bring my hairdressing kit out onto the front porch to clean it. We were making a list of Adi’s friends to invite home the following day – it was a short list; Aditya has taken after me in his social habits – but when I asked him who his best friend was, his answer stirred awake a deep-seated memory.
‘Madhav?’ I said, keeping my face utterly staid, because after all, this could be another Madhav. ‘Whose son is he?’
Adi shrugged and looked at the front door. A few dried neem leaves swirled in along with a rush of low-howling wind. I turned to follow his gaze; for some reason I expected to see the black-belted figure of Madhav standing there, in his unblemished shirt and pressed knickers and white socks pulled up almost to his knees. He would be a man now, of course, since twenty five years have passed since I saw him last, but my eyes would not see him in any other form.
The doorway to the night, though, remained bare.
‘He walks with me from the well all the way here,’ said Adi. ‘Sometimes he holds my hand.’
I looked down at my scissors set, adjusted the position of a couple of them just to give my trembling hands something to do. ‘Is he nice?’
‘He is all right.’
‘Then we should call him tomorrow and give him chocolates,’ I said. ‘Will he come?’
‘He will. It was he who asked me to invite him.’
A little pang of envy passed through me, then. Madhav had never asked me to take him home. Even as I was aware of the emotion, the absurdity of it struck me. It was just a coincidence that Adi’s friend had the same name as my old walking companion; nothing more. That Madhav was different to this Madhav. How could they be anything but?
Well. How could they, Nurse? But they were.
One more cigarette, please. Keep this off the record, will you? I don’t want Chamundeshwari tomorrow screwing me over. Have you ever wondered just what it is these self-righteous folk have against us smokers? It’s our health, our future; we will ruin them as much as we wish. Who are they to stop us?
And while you’re at it, please adjust this tube. It has begun to sting again – ah, that’s better.
Now, back to where I was – the next day none of Adi’s four friends turned up. None, that is, besides a white-faced boy in shining black shoes and ice-white socks. When he saw me he smiled, the old smile of an old friend. He said, ‘How are you, Seenu?’
And you wouldn’t believe me, Nurse, he hadn’t aged a day!
* * *
I don’t remember what we spoke about that first day, but I suspect it was as it had always been: him asking questions, me answering. Him asking more questions, me answering some more.
He asked after my parents, how the barber shop was running, where I’d met Kausalya, when I had Adi – everything, but each time I began to ask him where he had gone all these years, some unknown fog would fill my mind, and words would fail me.
He came home every evening after that for a few days. Adi would leave us in the front room and carry his schoolbag into the inner bedroom. Madhav would sit on one of my barber’s chairs, facing the mirror, and we would talk and talk and talk.
Have things ever happened to you which seem small and insignificant at the time of occurring but assume great significance later, as you look back on them? One such incident happened to us during this time. After my daily talk with Madhav had ended and he had gone on his path home – where was his home? Did he have one? – I went to check on Adi and found him sitting upright and cross-legged in the far corner of our bedroom. An assortment of sewing needles lay before him on the floor. At the pointed end of each was impaled a different kind of insect.
I could not quite examine what he had in his collection, because he hurriedly put them away as he saw me approach, but I did spot a beetle, a butterfly and a cricket.
Lots of crickets in Palem.
Will you give me another cigarette or am I out for the day? Aha, you’re an angel!
* * *
What do you do when you come to know that your son is a murderer, Nurse?
No, I don’t expect you to know the answer to that. I don’t expect anyone to know the answer to that. It’s like rowing a boat on the Godavari in flood. What works for one boat for one oarsman on one day will not work for another boat for another oarsman on another. You just cross your fingers and do what you feel is right.
What did I feel was right on that day? Get rid of the body. And if required, turn the evidence around to point at me.
I had a customer that afternoon, right on at half past three, the time at which Adi and Madhav usually return home. This was unusual, but a good barber never turns away a full head of hair (my father told me this), so I set down to business and heard the boys enter from the side door and make for the bedroom. I will not divulge the identity of the customer, because he has chosen not to embroil himself in the matter. But let’s just say that if you’ve lived for any amount of time in Palem, you’d know him well. He wanted his armpits trimmed and perfumed after the haircut, and then he wanted a shave, so it was a good forty five minutes by the time I was done with him.
There had not been a peep all this while from the inner room. As I washed my scissors and swept away the fallen hair into a rubbish bag, a sense of foreboding entered me. I locked the front door and hastened to the bedroom. I expected it to be locked on the inside; it wasn’t.
What I saw on the inside – no, Nurse, I must get through this without water; trust me, it’s not thirst that’s making me gag – was my father’s old scissors. Gleaming white in the frosted evening sunlight, almost half drenched in blood. The hand holding it belonged to Adi, thumb and three fingers covered by a sticky, deep red substance, blue school shirt smudged around the breast pockets.
He was sitting as he had been the other day examining his insect specimens, cross-legged, as if meditating. His free hand rested on the chest of Madhav, who had been stabbed and hacked in at least five different places above his torso. There had been a serene beauty to the way he had impaled the insects; here there was none of that; all I could see here was blind, savage rage.
In my saner moments I think back to that day and wonder: Madhav had been Adi’s only friend. He was the only one who visited him on his birthday. How could he harbour such vile hatred for him? But then I realized that yes, Madhav had been Adi’s friend, but I had stolen him for myself. That pang of envy that passed through me on the first day Adi told me about Madhav – that same pang must have become the shard that shattered his young heart.
But at that instant, standing and watching them, I had little time for thought. I marched in, heaved Madhav’s body onto my shoulder, held his hanging dead arm firmly so that he wouldn’t fall off, and told Adi, ‘Clean up here. If I am not back in thirty minutes, come find me in the backyard.’
* * *
I was back in twenty five minutes on the dot – I knew because I kept track on my watch. Digging a ditch to fit a seven-year-old body doesn’t take long if you have the right tools. I had the right tools.
Back in the room, Adi had cleaned up with the precision of a barber’s son. My father’s scissors looked as good as new once again. We sprayed the room with deodorant to get rid of the putrid smell, and I plucked some jasmines from the back garden to sprinkle on the bed, just so we could breathe without retching.
Then I sat Adi down and told him the story we must tell the others.
Then we waited, Adi and I, for them to arrive.
Only they didn’t. When they didn’t come the first night we thought they would come the next day. A week passed, and then a month.
Kausalya’s brother works as a sub-inspector at Dhavaleshwaram’s police station. Gautam Posani is his name. I wondered briefly if I should call him and make a clean breast of it all, but the more practical part of me prevailed. If no one was asking questions, why say anything?
Life returned to normalcy of a sort in a month. We seemed to have gotten away with it. My barber shop went on as usual. I cleaned up my tools on Monday nights. I helped Adi with his homework on most evenings of the week. I began to visit Sivayya’s shop every now and then for a packet of his best arrack, and after getting back I would reel over to the backyard and watch the place where I’d buried Madhav.
You look shocked, Nurse. Don’t tell me you’d have done differently if your own son had done something like this. Oh, I would have turned him in too, as long as we were having a hypothetical conversation at the temple square. But this is real, my dear. Instinct trumps morals – every single time!
But as they say, one shadow passes only to allow another one to enter. Just as we were getting back to our old lives, Adi tells me that he has made another friend.
* * *
This one he called Renuka.
A quiet, unassuming girl, about the same age as Madhav. The first time she came home, she was wearing some tattered rags. Her hair was black and straight, and she had the greyest eyes I’d ever seen. I kept my distance, spoke to her no more than needed, because I thought doing so would keep Adi from harming her. Little did I know that he had already acquired the taste.
One day, perhaps on her third or fourth visit home, a few minutes after they’d gone into the bedroom, I heard screaming.
I kicked the door open just in time to see Adi strangling the poor girl with a rope. They were both sitting cross-legged on the floor – with her back to him – near the same corner where I had first seen him with his insects. Her eyes popped out at me, and her mouth was wide open, her tongue flapping up and down between ashen lips.
Now, Nurse, I said I acted the first time out of instinct, and this time too, it was instinct that drove me. When a girl of seven cries out for your help, you go to her rescue, even if you have to fight your own son.
So I leapt at the boy and wrenched his hands away from the rope. His grip proved surprisingly weak. I peeled his fingers off and yanked him by the arm to the other corner of the room, the one farthest from the door. ‘Go! Run!’ I told the girl, and after she had fled and left just the two of us in the house, I proceeded to take his strangling rope and whip the crap out of him.
It was one of the few moments of my life when the devil truly possessed me, Nurse, for I did not care where my blows landed or how hard they fell. Once or twice I aimed at his back but caught him on the side. He did not scream, did not so much as grunt in agony; he just bared his teeth and received each lash, and in the dim light I had this grotesque thought that he was perhaps grinning up at me.
I did not stop beating him until my arms felt like they were about to fall off. Then I tied him up, locked him in the room and went straight to the bus stop at the old temple. The last bus to Dhavaleshwaram leaves at 6:30 in the evening, and I caught just as it was about to fall into gear and climb the main road.
* * *
We returned to Palem in his jeep, Gautam and I.
He listened to my story during the journey with an impassive face. Once or twice the constable at the wheel turned and stared at us, but at a click of the sub-inspector’s fingers, turned his attention back onto the road.
I was stupid to not see it then, but Gautam is Kausalya’s brother, and Adi is for Gautam his sister’s son. He is a blood relative. What am I, after all? How did I think that he would root for me over his nephew?
When we got to the house, I checked the bedroom to see if Adi was secure as I had left him. He was. Gautam came in behind me and looked down at the boy, semi-conscious, muttering something through gnashed teeth. ‘Loose the rope,’ he told the constable, and followed me to the backyard, where I told him I was going to show him my evidence.
He watched me dig in the light of the half-moon, without offering to help. After getting to about four feet, I softened the strokes of my spade, expecting to hit bone or skull at any moment. But my feet sank further and further in the moist earth.
Before long, I was standing in a five-foot ditch about waist-deep, drenched in sweat. Gautam, with his hands tucked behind his back, walked up to the edge and peered in, sideways. ‘Well?’ he said.
‘I buried him right here.’
Gautam sighed and said, ‘You reek of arrack, Seenu.’
And he gave me that look that policemen have, that withering you-scum-of-humanity look he must have given scores of criminals in his life. Except that I was no criminal; the real criminal lay inside the room, bound and beaten.
Gautam clapped his hands, and the constable came rushing by. ‘Get him out of there,’ he said, ‘and into the jeep.’
Just before we got in, I heard the click of handcuffs around my wrists. ‘Just a formality, Seenu,’ said Gautam, and got into the front seat. Adi sat with him on his lap.
As the engine roared to life, Nurse, he looks back at me, the kid, and gives me another of his ghastly grins. All teeth, no eyes.
* * *
The rest of the story you know well enough. They searched for Madhav, and found no boy answering to my description. They found no Renuka either. They put me here saying I was crazy, that I beat up my son drunkenly every night (Adi confirmed this, that lying asshole) and then covered it up with tall tales.
I should have kept something as evidence from that first night, to prove that I’m telling the truth. I thought that the body of Madhav would be proof enough. But Nurse, in our village, policemen can do anything they want. Is it inconceivable that Adi met Gautam during the one month following the murder and got him to get rid of the body? As for the investigations, Gautam was in charge of them all. Why, even the psychologist who sent me here – he is Gautam’s friend too.
They got rid of everything, and here I am, telling my story for the hundredth time to the hundredth person, and I can tell from the look on your face that you do not buy it. Well, it is not important whether you do or not. These restraints are strong, and even if I am to break free of them by some miracle, I know that they give you those electric wires to beat us into submission.
I am past rescue. I know. But I worry for Renuka, Nurse. She was sitting next to Adi in the visiting room the other day. She had bruises all over her face. Her lower lip was swollen and blue. ‘The police uncle comes to me every night,’ she told me in a whisper. ‘He touches me even when I ask him not to. Won’t you save me?’
Now I know what you will say; that Adi came to visit me alone, that hospital records show that no one else was admitted along with him into the room. I can only shrug and smile at that, because all it tells me is that you’re in it together – all of you – you – Gautam – Adi – the hospital – the police station – and I must fight all of you to rescue Renuka, poor Renuka – she is counting on me – I am her only hope – oh, my hands tremble so – give me a cigarette, Nurse! One more cigarette, and then you can knock me out for the night, and tomorrow we’ll play this game all over again.