Grating against the grey tarred road, the car squealed as if in pain, and slowed down.
Even while slowing down the left front side of the car hit a small boy, who fell down with a thump and rolled over the road. The right wheel hit his neck, rolled back and stopped with a jerk.
It is a desolate road…filled with an eerie silence of the afternoon… a time when the city roads are basking like serpents in the warmth of the sun. Traffic is also very scarce. Before the commotion of the evening office hours, this time of early afternoon seems like lull before the storm…. a time when, more than the silence, a dreadful anticipation of the coming chaos is dangerously palpitating in the air.
On both sides of the road, four-five buildings have been under construction for quite some time. Around these under-construction buildings lay scattered heaps of sand, cement, bricks, bajri, tattered gunny bags like huge dung heaps little huts like dead animal corpses in which the construction labourers lived with their little-mousy-brown kids and starving women.
Had I been a minister and had gone for an air survey of the nation’s condition from the helicopter, these hutments would have actually appeared like dung-heaps with people looking like insects swarming in and out of these. But I never got a chance of going on an air survey of the country’s problems; I am just an ordinary person passing by that grey road. All the freezing shock was not only because of the accident, but mainly because of the boy who didn’t yell out when he struck against the car. Without even a little squealing shriek, he was lying there, still as store.
Some people came running out of the slums. They bent down, looked at the unconscious boy, and started shrieking loudly.
Someone ran and called the boy’s parents. The mother sat on the road and put the boy’s head in her lap and screamed loudly.
Nobody bothered to call any doctor. Doctors are called by the rich and the beautiful. These innocent shitheads never thought of any doctor. They didn’t even bother to find if he was just unconscious or had given by his ghost.
Some of them peeped through the windowpanes of the car and stared at the soft cushioned seats and the music system
The car-owner, drenched thoroughly in sweat, came out of the car and bent down to feel the boy’s pulse.
“Put him in the car. I will take him to the hospital. It doesn’t matter, he will be fine.”
“It doesn’t matter? Huh? You have killed the boy and now you say it doesn’t matter”, thundered someone from the crowd, sputtering his beetal leaf spittle.
“You bastard …Black money has blinded you people. You can’t see from the car that there are people walking on the roads!” said another.
The boy’s mother was keening and beating her head.
The whole crowd created such a clamor, all speaking loudly at the same time, in voices full of anger and hatred, that nothing could be heard clearly.
“The boy will die lying here, at least take him to the hospital,” whispered a feeble voice.
Then a few boys moved forward, shoved the car-owner and said, “Take this rascal.”
These were the type of young loafers who could be seen on every nook and corner of the town streets and near the paan shops, making rounds of the streets the whole day, the idlers who could be seen outside every cinema hall staring at the posters. They have an aversion to the jobs their parents do; and the jobs they ever dreamt of for themselves could never come their way.
Most of them were convinced that they were the types who should be in the film industry. All of them were sure they will one day become film heroes.
When the first boy pushed the car-owner, the other one also felt he shouldn’t be left behind. Then the third, fourth…eighth, tenth ! And within no time, the whole crowd was battering him with fists, pushing him away from the car.
Evidently many other vehicles including cars, buses, scooters and motorcycles were passing by, but a few odd cyclists would slow down to have a look at the car-owner being pushed around, or to look at the wailing mother of the unconscious boy lying on the road. None of the cars or buses stopped. Evidently they carried busy people who had better things to do, and were in a hurry for other things, for better things.
Before getting beaten to pulp, the car-owner had the better sense of removing his watch, wallet, gold ring, and handed them over to the boys thrashing him.
They also pulled the music system, ash tray and other knick knack from the car.
Dragging his feet, he got into his car and fled the place.
Someone went and called the doctor, who put his ear to the boy’s chest, checked it with his stethoscope, and declared the obvious, “He is dead.”
• • •
They wailing and crying at this moment, “Oh my Lalla! My child!” the mother had always found the boy a problem for herself.
Ever since his birth, he had a stunted growth and it had affected his speech and hearing. His head used to shake, and saliva would drool from his mouth all the time. If she put something in his mouth, he would gulp it down. If not, he would go on whimpering. When he started walking, his movements were so discordant and wobbly.
Now he was about eight or nine years old, but still he would roam around dumbfounded, with the same shaky movements, trying to balance his small body on his shaking legs. He was neither aware about eating nor about cleanliness. His mother used to curse him day and night. She would pray for his death. She always berated him as a result of one of the sins she had committed in her previous life. She would wail and tell everyone, “I will feel relieved the day this boy dies.”
Though the slum dwellers were blaming the car-owner, yet they all knew that he would have definitely blown the horn and Lalla wouldn’t have heard it. But now that he was dead, who was going to check his ears ! It is good that the car-owner was given a sound thrashing. He will always remember it. These rich car-owners think a world of themselves. Don’t they ?
• • •
At last the people of the whole slum colony suggested that the accident should be reported to the police, and the body should be carried home only after the police investigation.
The police arrived after a few hours, the way police arrives whenever they get a complaint from a ‘dry’ area like a slum colony, from where there is no hope of making any money.
They filed the complaint after noting down the car number. They took down the statements of the eye-witnesses. Then they said that the body would be taken into custody and handed over only after post-mortem.
The next day the parents and the other slum-dwellers brought the body back from the police hospital and moved toward their colony. On the way to the colony, the vags bond boys of the colony and even the men who were working at the construction sight started raising slogans against all the car-owners. The women wailed feebly.
Then suddenly, like a whirlwind arising from distant horizons and spreading in all its fury, started stopping every car to ask for some donation for the cremation of the dead body.
It was not like begging, but they were threatening everybody like highway robbers. They would stop every car and their heads would peep in all the four windows of the car, threatening, “One of your rich bastards, some bloody son-of-a-bitch car-owner has killed our boy. We have to cremate him. Come on, shell out some money.”
If anyone tried to argue with them, they caught hold of him from his collar and pulled him out. Their hands resembling beaks of the vultures. They tore at pockets, pulled out wallets, snatched wristwatches and whatever else they could.
The boy’s father watched all this ruccus and realized that these rogues would run away with everything. With all the loot. All the goodies ! So he put the dead body on the roadside, and joined this group of rouge robbers.
The mother kept wailing loudly, because she had realized by this time that though she had lost her son, now the louder she would cry, the more money would come their way.
Evening changed into night. Somebody complained to the police. Two policemen sauntered leisurely and threatened the group including the dead Lalla’s father. One of the boys took them aside and requested them not to interfere. ‘It is our boy who has died. We are poor labourers and we have to arrange for the cremation. You don’t worry; you will get an equal share in the booty.’
The two police men ambled away, keeping a watch lest another policeman came that way to share their loot.
• • •
It was night.
The day’s earnings were calculated near the dead body and shares were divided. The boy’s mother too was given one share.
“But I am the father, my share should be more than the others”, the boy’s father protested.
“Okay, you’ll get extra money tomorrow. We will give you two shares,’ said the boy in the red shirt, combing his hair.
“What difference does it make? We can wait one more day for the cremation.”
So it was decided to carry the dead body home for the night and bring it back on the road the next morning once again.
• • •
Next day, the whole exercise started with renewed energy. Besides the cars, now scooters and motor-cycles were also made to stop, and the owners asked to donate some money. Even the pedestrians were not allowed to go without paying money for the cremation.
The mother was lamenting constantly. Her throat had gone dry and stiff with pain, and her voice was choking, but she went on wailing. That is a different matter that now it was only her howling that could be heard. The tears had dried up.
The passersbies stopped near the body for a moment, and then perilously checked their pockets. When a few small coins and a few notes would collect near the corpse, Lalla’s mother would collect the little heap with a sweep of her hand, tie it in the corner of her saree, and start wailing again.
Gradually the news reached some other slums as well. All the loiterers who used to hang around the paan shops, feeling envious of their counterparts from Lalla’s colony, also decided to jump in the fray to make some easy buck. It’s not every day that one gets opportunity like this to earn easy money. Otherwise there was nothing exciting in their lives. It was a useless struggle, sickening arguments, quarrels and squibbles, and thrashings at home. Sometimes, as a stroke of luck, they could earn a pittance by selling cinema tickets in black, or by drug trafficking. Otherwise it had been an impecunious existence, with the never-ending loans of the tea-shop or paan seller hanging on their heads like Damocles’ Sword.
So gradually, by the evening, miscreants, pick-pockets, gamblers and the blacklisted outlaws of all the neighbouring slums started stopping the car-owners on their respective roads, threatening them and fleecing them. Constables from police stations attached with every slum, came there initially, to enjoy the show, then stayed back till evening to get their share. Smoking leisurely, they stood guard to this new type of highway robbery.
By the evening Lalla’s corpse started stinking so badly that his mother, on the pretext of wiping her tears, actually tried to cover her nose with the corner of her saree. She whispered to her husband that Lalla had started stinking, and that the corpse should be disposed off by the evening.
Lalla’s father got worried.
Something must be done about the stink. How can they cremate it so soon ? It was because of this corpse that these good-for-nothing ruffians of the whole town had got a chance to earn a decant buck. How could the corpse be disposed off so soon ? It was yet to provide for many more. Let the slum community of the town earn for the next couple of years, otherwise they will finish us, thoughts were fluttering like wounded birds in the heard of Lalla’s father.
The rich car-owners were also at their wits end due to this corpse.
Car…? Oh yes, when Lalla’s body was brought out from home, in the morning, if corrugated cardboard and tarpaulins can be called ‘home’, and placed near the car on the footpath, people saw that all the four wheels of the car were missing, and bricks were placed in their place.
Lalla’s father was highly disappointed at this unfair move of these rascals. After all it was his son who had died, so it was he who had the first claim on these wheels. Isn’t it ? ‘Bloody thieves !’ he cursed them in his heart.
• • •
Immediately ice slabs were brought to soak the stink, and Lalla was put on these slabs. In the process, Lalla’s father noticed that ants were crawling near the body. He cursed his wife in his heart, “Stupid woman Is she blind? Couldn’t she see that she should have removed the ants? Bloody bitch !”
Another night descended.
The traffic on the roads thinned and gradually became a trickle. Now and then a singular car, bus or truck passed with such a speed that it seemed stupid to stop it.
So everyone, dog-tired after the day’s hard labour, sat near the corpse and divided the money.
‘What to do with the corpse’ was the question staring them all in the face. It was not possible to carry it inside as some fluid had started oozing out from the mouth, the nostrils, and from the skin all over. Though the mother had been wiping it with her saree, but now people were scared of carrying it. It might crumble in their hands, or turn into pulp like a roasted egg-plant. So everyone decided to leave the corpse on the roadside only, and take some rest on the foot-path by turns. At that moment, two boys went and brought some food from a roadside eatery.
All of them relished the food sitting there on the footpath, close to the corpse.
Lalla’s mother moved a little away from the corpse, washed her hands, and took her food.
While sleeping at night, everyone wanted to be a little away from the stinking corpse, and yet close enough to keep a vigil over it. You never know, some one might steal Lalla’s corpse tonight, like the wheels of the car. Moreover the area was full of wandering dogs, always hungry, looking for anything eatable.
• • •
So for the next two days and two nights also, the whole activity was replayed.
On the fifth day of Lalla’s death, when people saw that the bloated corpse might burst like an over blown balloon, they cremated it.
Because of Lalla’s ‘act’ of benevolence, his funeral was attended by thousands of slum dwellers. When the corpse, laden with flowers and wreaths, was placed on the pyre, there were tears in many eyes because a good source of easy money was slipping out of their hands.
And the next day, people of different slums sneakingly started looking out for such children, who were of no use to their parent, or were a pain in their neck. Those lame, crippled, blind, dumb-deaf children, whose parents, instead of going on uselessly feeding them for the whole long life, had always wished for their death.
Who can predict when such a useless brat might be hit by another car, opening the rusted doors of their rotten luck !
Very quietly, all of them started waiting for the next accident to happen.
Translated by Narinder Jit Kaur and the