Fiction / November 2008 (Issue 5)

The Killing

by Nirmala Pillai

Muthu remembered the weariness and nausea. Stumbling, he had just managed to drag himself to the cement kerb before he blacked out.

As awareness returned, he saw that it was dark. His hand-cart was propped against the streetlight. The road was deserted. The squat shapes of the docks and warehouses, fronting the road made it eerie. The smell of the sea and rotting fish hung in the air. He struggled up and hitched the thick coir ropes across his chest, straining hard. He did not hear the distant rumble of running feet. The echo of whooping cries — as a small panting figure hurtled round the side lane and crashed into him. Small animal noises drowned under Muthu's oath and rage as the protruding wooden handle, wedged them under its titled base.

Muthu looked into the terror struck face, so close to him and felt his anger seep away. As he got up, he saw the silent encircling group of urchins, who had stopped some distance away. He pulled out a flat sharp knife and moved forward his face, snorting and jaw thrusting.

The shadow made him sinister, the silent posture threatening — if they only knew! How weak and frightened he felt, his heart thudding in his chest; they measured each other then the nasty looking urchins withdrew. When they were far enough they showed their fists and cried, "We will get him, you see, we won't let that dog escape."

Putting away the knife he dragged the cowering boy from under the cart. He could not have been more than eight or nine years. He was scratched and bleeding and on his thin emancipated body tattered knickers hung, the plastic wire that fastened it hanging loose by his side.

"Who are you? Why did they chase you?" Muthu asked him. The boy only stared — with big round eyes that swallowed his face. Muthu knew he could not leave him here. They would be back, with renewed violent energy — even now they would be lurking round the corner, their animal patience endless. He lifted the boy into the cart and took him home.

Home was a shanty on the pavement made of sack-cloth and tin, out of which a dog crawled wagging his tail. His immediate neighbour was a fat old whore, called Alli who sent her two sons out to steal.

She coughed and muttered from the doorway, "Your stupid dog has kept me awake whining away." Seeing the curled up form of the child she exclaimed, "What new creature have you brought now? If it’s another noisy one, I will wring its neck."

Muthu shot back, "Shut your rotten mouth." He put the boy down roughly and went inside.

Alli asked, "Hey boy, what's your name?"

When he lifted his eyes and looked at her, she gasped, "This one is a babe. Where did you get him? He is all cut and bleeding."

She groaned and struggled out of the charpai, its ropes squealing, and squatted near the boy swabbing his face with the end of her saree pallav. The touch of her gnarled fingers seemed to comfort him. He buried his face and wept calling for his "Akka" pathetically. Muthu hearing it came rushing back and stood on the threshold stunned. The selfish, lazy Alli had cared for the boy.

He shouted, "Why is he crying? What have you done you fool?" In the silence their eyes seemed to speak for the child.

"Must be hungry … I will see if Govind's tea-stall is open. He might have some idlis left over." Muthu quietly walked away feeling stupid for shouting at Alli.

As the dog got up to follow him, he drove it away. He came back whining and lay at the boy's feet. Alli quietened the child and asked him his name. The tiny trembling voice whispered, "Thampi." As the dog licked his body and hands the young face changed; it broke out into smiles. And as he caressed the dog, his pain flowed away in sensuous pleasure.

"Where are your parents?" she asked. He shook his head, "Amma, Appa dead,” lying like a corpse on the ground. “Akka has come here with an uncle in a big truck. She left me telling me to wait. She never came back. I have come in search of her.'' His small face darkened with sad memories.

Alli thought that they must have come from the upcountry district where a big dam was being constructed. His sister must have found a protector and he had lured her to the city.

The sudden rumble of a lorry startled him and he scrambled under the bed.

Muthu entering the alley felt his heart miss a beat when he did not see the boy; he asked Alli in panic "Did those boys come again? Have they taken him away?"

Alli laughed and sniggered, "Chee! What concern! That old stone heart of yours can show some feeling, eh! He heard some noise and disappeared, under my bed."

Muthu felt angry at her retort. He dragged the boy out and told him to eat. The change on the face of the boy was miraculous. He was happy to see Muthu. His smile was full of trust. He looked as if there was nothing to fear. How like chameleons they were Muthu mused.

What was happening to him? A child comes into his life and he was experiencing all unfamiliar sensations thoughts and feelings.

Before he went inside he called out, "Haven't your sons come back from their duty? Thieves pah! You don't know what honest labour is. Like mother, like son."

She cursed and spat a stream of tobacco juice in his direction …

"Saint Muthu, what have you got? Pulling that cart of yours like a donkey sweating in the sun? Breaking your bones and muscles for a paltry sum of which you so boastfully talk. All the others have left this god-forsaken hole. I will also go one day. What about you? By robbing and cheating you get something. But you have got nothing … No woman, no child and all old and bent … Miser, you are trying to teach me eh?"

Muthu lay listening to her tirade. Yes, what she said was true. He had no one. This was his home, this bare space. Everyday only the dog awaited his return — if he died the Municipality would come to drag away his body like a stray dog. Only they would find his worldly saving of money in its pouch and a knife, around his waist ... The boy and the dog had fallen asleep curled into each other for warmth. Like a little seedling, a thought was taking root in his heart. What could he do with the boy, could he dare to hope to keep him ...

Next morning Muthu felt the difference. Somebody was dependent on him. Today he had to think of somebody else besides himself. He heard the laughter and excited barks … living sounds unlike the furtive whispers and crawling shadows of Alli's sons. There was something fresh and happy in that sound. As he saw Alli sprawled under her mountains of clothes, sadness touched Muthu. Even this crude whore of a woman had someone to take care of her. Bad or good, her sons called her their mother.

Muthu called out to the boy and began his day pushing his hand-cart towards Govinda's tea-stall. The boy danced along pretending to help him push the cart. Yesterday was forgotten. Today was a new dawn. Muthu felt greedy for human company. Thampi could help him …

As he tripped over a stone, he jerked back. He realized he was dreaming-planning for the future which he had never done before. He lived day to day delivering bricks the whole day for the Sethji on Hassan street in Sewree.

The next few days took on a depth and variety which Muthu never dreamt existed. He felt new vigour and hope surge in his tired veins. The boy chattered and chattered and Muthu drank in joy and happiness. Thampi never complained or whined. He accepted the moments as it came. When Muthu thought of his future like a terrible certainty it struck him that this one would never learn to be a fighter … grow cunning and street-smart like Alli's sons — that was why the urchins were hounding him for the kill. They recognized the softness as weakness — an easy prey.

Unlike other kids what little he got was shared with the dog. He was never without a pet sparrow or a cockroach or a dove. Like an idiot he would gaze at the moon and say that his mother resided up there and he would join her soon.

Muthu cautioned him again and again, "Don't stray. Boys like you are eaten. They will kill you and throw you into the sea. Don't go near the docks." Thampi would smile and listen and then follow the dog's bark to play.

The street boys teased him whenever they crossed his path as he delivered bricks. One day a drenched Thampi came crying with a bleeding gash on his arm. What could Muthu do? He was more alert and vigilant. Next day they threw stones at them and broke the bricks he was carrying. He could not chase them. For the boy would be an easier target. Thampi had come to mean something. The savage strength he poured into his straining seemed to have a new meaning and a strange satisfaction.

One day Thampi stood transfixed in the road staring at the congealed blood and pink innards of a dead white cat. He gently lifted it and dropped it in the gutter watching it swirl and disappear. Muthu felt a premonition when he looked at the sorrow pooled in the eyes of Thampi. He grated harshly, "If you don't fight back, you will die like that cat, eh!"

But the boy only grinned suddenly. How he irritated Muthu with his happiness. Hunger, thirst, heat never seem to bother him.

One evening Muthu seeing the mud caked body gave the boy a bath under the public tap. His laughter rang out and fascinated Muthu. When the wet naked body danced and played in the water a lump of regret rose in Muthu's throat. What had he missed in life? When the boy wearied himself, he dried him with his turban and decided to buy him a new pants and shirt. Tonight he could wear his banian.

Despair clouded Muthu's thoughts — if only he could go back to his village, but it was fifty years too late. Life would have been different. Guilt haunted him. He was responsible for his father's death. He had quarrelled with him for money and killed him in a drunken rage. The family, the villagers had all driven him out. He was a vagabond for years fearing police arrest. How could Alli say he had not come up in life? From a manual labourer he had a cart of his own. Was this the end of his life? Muthu felt the weakness wash over him and a hurting pain in his chest … In these few weeks he was feeling the sweetness and sorrow of a lifetime … When he felt the small hands curl into his arm, he clung to Thampi.

No there was a purpose, he consoled himself. He forgot his pain and built up a dream of tomorrow. He could tackle all the urchins of this world as he willed his body forward … Next morning Thampi was left behind. Alli also disappeared to beg at the temple because it was festival day.

Suddenly the idea of bathing the dog as he did yesterday appealed to Thampi. He danced down to the cul-de-sac, with the dog yapping at his ankles.

Here the overflowing gutter and broken pipeline pooled into a stinking pond. It was a deserted stinking dump for the city; a breeding ground for rats and mosquitoes and a source of water for dogs, crows and sparrows. Thampi splashed into it gleefully to give his dog a bath. In their fun and play they did not see the shadows creeping in the bright day into a closed circle. When the first blows fell the dog bit and snapped at the intruders but the greater strength drove him away yelping tail between his legs.

Thampi was helpless. His banian hung in shreds. They knocked him down and pounded him till his bones broke. The slippery waterlogged ground put up thousands of slimy fingers to hold him down to help his enemies, to drown him in this cess pool. His fading voice called out for Muthu, for Alli. No one came. When he fell face down and lay still they triumphantly kicked his body around then danced away.

Only the black crows and twittering sparrows set up a cacophony and then grew silent after the mosquitoes settled down on the surface to their job of breeding. The city caught him at last. At noon the dog crept back sniffing, nudging the body. He slunk away hearing the splash and groan as Muthu saw his Thampi and dropped his packet of new clothes.

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