Kalua listened to his belly groan with hunger.
He mopped at the beads of sweat on his forehead with a gamcha1 and peeked over his wife’s shoulder into a pot wherein she was cooking some nameless concoction.
It was a homogeneous sludge, the color of mucus, with a few pieces of onion trying to drown themselves here and there. The sight of it was enough to dull his appetite a little, but to make matters worse, there did not seem to be nearly enough of it for sneaking off some to Safeda.
His friend would have to go hungry again.
He looked at Gudiya, his little sister, reading the scraps of a newspaper in a corner, and felt guilty about thinking of Safeda when he was failing to provide enough even for his family. Only last month, Gudiya had fallen sick and the doctor had advised Kalua to include meat in her diet at least once a week to make up for protein deficiency.
Despite this guilt, however, Safeda was also important to Kalua.
Like many other people in the world, Kalua had found his best-friend at his workplace. Only, the workplace happened to be a gutter, and the best-friend happened to be an alligator.
Kalua never knew how Safeda came to be there, only that it was hurt and starved when they first met, and so Kalua fed it his own lunch and applied cool mud on its bruises.
Because of the grey color of its skin, which Kalua thought unusual, he named it Safeda. The absence of sunlight in the creature’s life might have had something to do with it. Or, maybe it was just an anomaly. But in any case, the name’s contrast with his own amused Kalua to no end.
That was twelve years ago.
Kalua had not been married then and Gudiya hadn’t even been born. In those days, he used to go into the sewers only when his father’s cough was exceptionally bad. He hated every second of it and swore daily to himself that he would become anything but a jamadaar.2
That, of course, was before the world had explained the inescapability of his caste to him, and before his parents had died of tuberculosis, leaving him all alone to bring up his baby sister.
‘Ae, Gudiya, what are you doing reading in this bad evening light? You’ll ruin your eyes,’ he called out to the girl whom he had managed to keep away from the sewers, and had even sent to school.
Up till now, at least.
Gudiya was now close to 10 but looked like she was only 5-6 years old. It wasn’t unusual in their neighborhood though—malnutrition made the kids all look younger there than they actually were, and the adults older.
Gudiya looked at him and threw aside the newspaper scrap she was reading. ‘Went to the butcher in the afternoon, but he had already gutted and skinned everything. He asked me to come only when my cut had healed completely.’
After her school, Gudiya often went to help the neighborhood butcher in his shop and he tossed her a few coins for it every now and then. Two days ago, she had cut herself on the side of her hand while slicing a piece of meat. It was an ugly gash, and Kalua had tied a clean piece of cloth around it, hoping that it would not get infected.
The butcher, Kalua knew, had sent Gudiya away not out of concern for her but because he did not want to risk her blood making the food impure for his customers.
‘It’s okay, beta,3 don’t worry about it. This is just a temporary situation. Things will go back to normal soon’, Kalua told her with a conviction he did not possess himself.
His wife joined them and put the cooking pot between them, holding it carefully with rags in each of her hands. She rotated it a few times on the circumference of its bottom, as though trying to pull off some magic trick that would turn that mixture of water, flour, and salt into real food.
There were only two spoons in the pot.
‘Aren’t you eating, bhabhi?’4 Gudiya asked.
‘I’ll have something later. You two eat now, and please–take care to wipe off everything from the pot.’
But there was nothing to be had later, Kalua knew that well enough. It would be a week tomorrow since either of them had gone to work. This muck in the pot, this was the last of their rations.
He got up so quickly that his head swam a little and his stomach growled in protest.
‘I am sorry, I remembered just now–Varshney-ji had asked me to visit his house today. He wants me to help unload some stuff from his terrace. I’ll just go there and come back in some time, okay?’
‘But your dinner?’ his wife asked, not meeting his eyes.
‘You two finish it off. I’ll have some chai-nashta with Varshney-Ji.’
Kalua did not wait for her response, but at the door he paused for just a moment to look at her moving slowly to sit beside Gudiya. He came out of the shanty and took a few steps to the right so that they wouldn’t see him standing there.
Then he let out a long, heavy sigh. It was a sigh that can crush those who hear it, and must therefore, only be released once you are at a safe distance from the people you love.
His wife must have seen through his lie. She knew full well that he wouldn’t even be allowed to sit on the curb of a baniya’s house, let alone invited inside and asked to handle their possessions. Not in a million years–a pamphlet of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan fluttered near his feat and Kalua spat at it in disgust–not after a thousand more Swachh Bharat Abhiyaans had come and gone, could that happen in their world.
The only place Kalua, or anyone from his caste, could go to in the house of someone from an upper caste, like Varshney-Ji, was the latrine. Straight in, straight out, and a few coins dropped on their palms at the door without a word exchanged.
Kalua and his kin were like elves. Shit-scooping, latterine-scraping elves. Invisible and inaudible to everyone else.
But still, even while wading through the literal and figurative shit in their lives, they had been going on, one way or another. Until a fortnight ago, when a saffron-robed rally had snaked its way through the Jamadaar Basti5 with bright posters that most of the residents couldn’t read.
Fat government men came in that rally with their sweat-shined faces, their saccharine smiles, their noses scrunched up against the smell of Kalua and his people. The fat men declared proudly on their loudspeakers that no one would be required anymore to lower themselves into a sewer. If anybody asked them to do so, the government would penalize that person and put him in jail.
They were told that the credit for all this went to their Chief Minister and the Prime Minister, both of whom cared deeply for all Hindus, including dalits like Kalua and his neighbors.
The fat men waved to the people from their vehicles and were careful not to shake hands with them. Among much fanfare, with satisfied smiles, they went out the same way they had come in and breathed freely once more in the clean air outside the slum.
As Kalua, his wife, and their friends realized a couple of hours later, the government men had forgotten to mention what would be their new employment, now that this one was illegal.
And so it was that the slum had begun to crawl towards starvation. They had held up until now on the tidbits saved over their lifetimes. A few had managed to get odd jobs here and there, but no one really wanted to employ a jamadaar in their shop or house, or anywhere that there would be a chance of being touched by them.
Kalua wondered where he could go to pass the time while his family had their dinner and decided upon the only place that felt a little like home. A horrible home, true, but still a home, with the comfort of an old friend.
Maybe he would also be able to catch a few rats down there and feed them to Safeda.
‘Do you think bhaiya6 will be able to get some work today?’, Gudiya asked her bhabhi, back in the house.
‘Yes, yes, of course, he’ll find some work. Don’t you worry about it.’
But, Gudiya did worry about it.
Just as she worried about the fact that her brother had not been able to feed his pet in the last two weeks and it was making him even sadder than usual. Gudiya had never met this pet, but she knew its name was Safeda because it had slipped out of Kalua once, though he had not noticed it.
Gudiya liked to imagine that Safeda was a fluffy white dog like one of her classmates had at her house. Only, her bhaiya kept it in the sewer instead of the house. To a 10-year-old’s mind, this did not seem all that strange because she knew that bhabhi would never have allowed bhaiya to keep the dog in the house, not when they never had enough food or money even for the three of them.
Like most kids in the neighborhood, Gudiya knew that the last couple of weeks had been especially bad for everyone.
It was evident in the way that people she had known all her life to wake up at dawn and go to work now spent their days sitting desolately in front of their shacks, waiting for something to happen. They reminded Gudiya the days when she was a toddler and had kept waiting for the ice-cream man who, somehow, never went through their gully.
The worst of it all was the change in her bhaiya.
No matter how bad things got in the past, he had always had a joke tucked away somewhere in his head, ready to be called and released to laughs when things began to look too grim. He did things instead of waiting for them to happen. Like, when Gudiya had waited, and waited, and waited, for the ice-cream man, he had gone out one day and had brought back three orange ice-creams from God knew where.
These few days, however, he hardly talked to her at all.
Some days while taking a bath, Gudiya moved her fingers slowly underwater in the bucket and watched them for minutes on end. That’s how her brother looked these days. Like a man living underwater in his head; walking around in a bubble of vacuum and space where no one could really reach him.
Except for his pet, maybe. It might cheer him up if Gudiya brought it to the house and surprised him. Anyway, she was sure that it would cheer her up!
So, after her bhabhi had put her to bed, and went to sleep herself, Gudiya put on the robe that Kalua wore while going into the sewers. He had made it by stitching together discarded polythene bags.
It was too large for her, of course, and fluttered behind her like a superhero’s cape. The multicolored polythene bags shimmered in the weak light leaking inside from a streetlight and looked like an undisciplined rainbow.
She also put on Kalua’s yellow safety helmet and his brown leather boots.
Quietly, Gudiya stole out of the house and closed down the door behind her. She walked up to the open manhole down which she had seen her bhaiya disappear many times.
Then, with a look at the moon overhead, she lowered herself down into the darkness, down the iron rungs of the sewer.
This manhole into which Gudiya had lowered herself was connected to other manholes in the city through large pipes constituting Aligarh’s sewage network. As Gudiya descended further down the hole, she could hear the water splashing at the bottom and her guts contracted a little with the inherent fear of invisible damp things.
The stench of sewage was overwhelming and made her feel a little faint.
To steel herself, she looked up at the circle of the night sky through the open manhole, but it looked so far away suddenly that she thought it better to concentrate on her descent.
Finally, after a few moments, or minutes, or millenia, her boots found mushy ground.
A small part of her mind wondered how a dog could live in a place where the water came up to her ankles. But before she could give it a thought, there was a sound of water splashing nearby.
It sounded like she wasn’t alone. Someone else was also taking a night walk here. Or, maybe it was just the sound of her heart tumbling out of her mouth and falling into the sewer.
Gudiya moved forward, putting one foot after the other, like a little soldier in large boots. Her polythene robe made an almost-but-not-quite-silent slithering sound behind her.
A few more steps and the darkness would be absolute. Gudiya pressed a little wire in the helmet and the bulb-battery combination that Kalua had taped together jumped to action.
The feeble light threw long shadows on the sewer’s walls and Gudiya saw that the pipe turned sharply to the left a little way off in the distance.
Again, she heard the sound of water splashing. Despite an instinctive urge to run back with her tail tucked between her legs, she kept walking in the direction of the sound. And then, as she stood at the pipe’s turn she saw in front of her a man tossing something into the water at his feet.
No, not into the water. Tossing something to a creature on the ground.
A creature that definitely was not the fluffy white dog from Pinky’s imagination. White teeth glinted in an evil grin at her. A pair of dull green eyes with black slits for pupils measured the flesh on her bones. In the wavering light of Gudiya’s helmet-bulb, she saw a ripple of excitement pass through the monster’s dirty rubbery-white body.
The man standing beside it, startled by the light, turned to face Gudiya. It was her bhaiya, of course, and how shocked he looked!
The dead rats dangled by their tails in his hand like the balls of the neighborhood butcher, who had shown them to Gudiya last week and had given her 20 rupees just for touching them.
She looked from her brother to the monster at his feet and she opened her mouth to scream but found the sound missing. She closed her fists so tightly at her sides that the cloth Kalua had tied as a bandage came off and two tiny drops of blood dropped down from the open cut into the water.
The starving alligator, half-blind, but no less a predator for it, caught the whiff of fresh blood like a drowning man catches a rope thrown at him out of the rescue ship.
Kalua’s mind tried to make sense of the situation and failed irrevocably. His thoughts came to him only as snatches of the self-evident truth. Must do something. Quickly.
His friend, whose primary trait in the last twelve years had been laziness, was now paddling furiously towards his sister, who stood rooted to the spot.
A large stone brick, dislodged long ago from the sewer’s wall, was lying near Safeda’s tail, and Kalua picked it up.
‘Gudiya! GUDIYA! Run. NOW!’
But Gudiya’s eyes were locked on Safeda, as though hypnotized, and she looked like she could not even hear Kalua.
Kalua moved toward Safeda, stumbling in the water and almost falling down. In a couple of strides, however, he was near the alligator’s head. Safeda turned to look at him and for a moment Kalua thought he could see the trace of human intelligence in the green eyes, a hesitation in moving towards Gudiya.
But hunger is hunger.
It turned again towards Gudiya and with a flick of its tail almost hit Kalua, as if warning him to not meddle with its dinner.
Kalua raised the brick in his hand, stepped forward, and brought down its corner in Safeda’s left eye. He wanted only to buy enough time to send Gudiya away, but it was as if the violence had unleashed something inside him which he did not know existed.
So, before Safeda could turn towards him, he crossed his leg over its back and brought the brick down once again. And then again, and again, until there was no movement left in the body and the light had gone out of Safeda’s eyes. It felt a little like the final cleaning away of the shit that other people had flushed his way. Regular work, nothing odd. A frightened little giggle escaped Kalua’s mouth at this thought.
He did not know what made his hand stop finally. Maybe, it happened when Gudiya managed to find her voice again.
‘Bhaiya, please. Enough’
Her face looked so small, so fragile, in the half-light-half-shadow of the bulb in her helmet. It reminded him, strangely enough, of how little Safeda had been when he had found it starving in the sewer.
‘Come, let’s go.’
Kalua crossed his other leg over Safeda and took Gudiya by her hand.
He took one last look at the body of his friend before turning his back on it: an eyeball, dislodged from its socket, dangled from the destroyed face by a thin string of flesh. Even as he watched, the eyeball gave up to gravity and fell down to the sewer floor. ‘Plop!’
Kalua bent down for Gudiya to climb over his back and like that they walked to the manhole’s iron rungs before they climbed out of it.
In her cot, tucked down by her brother, the monster in the sewer seemed little more than one of her regular nightmares to Gudiya.
With half-closed eyes she watched Kalua put on the polythene robe she had taken off–he had thrown his own in the street, blood-stained and grimy as it was–and pick something from the kitchen shelf before going to the door again.
Fear crept back into her heart. ‘Where are you going, bhaiya? Come to sleep, please?’
As he put the thing that he had picked up from the shelf into his pocket, Gudiya saw that it was the knife she took with her when she went to work at the butcher’s shop.
‘Don’t you worry, I’ll be back up in no time at all’, he said with a tired little smile. Then with a little hesitation, he added, ‘And maybe tomorrow, we will have meat again for lunch. It’ll be good for you, the doctor said.’
- Gamcha: A cloth used sometimes as a towel and sometimes as a scarf of sorts in various parts of India.
- Jamadaar: A sweeper or manual scavenger.
- Beta: A way of addressing a kid.
- Bhabhi: Sister-in-law.
- Jamadaar Basti: A neighbourhood, or ghetto, in which mostly sweepers and people of lower castes live.
- Bhaiya: Elder brother.
Aditya Gautam is a writer currently living in India. His short stories and poems have previously been published in Singapore, the USA, and the UK. One of his stories was also included in the Best Asian Fiction Anthology by Kitaab, Singapore. In 2018, he won the LitMart contest to pitch a novel at the Bangalore Literature Fest.
© 2020, Aditya Gautam