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A K Kulshreshth

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Short Fiction

The Crossing

Sudhir

“Who are the dirty children?” Sudhir’s son had asked him the first time he saw them. 
“They are beggars,” Sudhir had explained. 
“Why?”
“Because they come from a long way off.”
“Why do they do that?”
“Because they didn’t go to school and they watched too much TV.”
“Why do you watch TV then?”
“I watch only the news.”
“But you do watch movies. And you were watching the fashion channel you told me I couldn’t watch.”
Smack. “Yes sometimes. Now I need to drive OK?”

Sudhir used to drop his son to play school. At first he didn’t want to do it but his wife had to reach her school at the same time. When he did start he found it wasn’t so bad after all. The school was on his way to office. The fact that he had a fixed timeline brought some discipline into his morning. He had just enough time later to stop at his mistress’ place for fifteen minutes every day and that was nice as well. He wore his Ray Bans made it a point not to hold his son’s hand like some of the fathers did. Some of the mothers were real good specially one of them. 

But then he was confused these days – should he even be looking? He should see a doctor sometime soon but where? He couldn’t even start to imagine what his friends would be like if word got out. His wife had talked OK but it was dark and he couldn’t make out if she was smirking. It was probably a passing thing. Just that it happened once with his mistress immediately after the accident and then again the same night with wife. Since then he hadn’t even tried. Knowing his mistress she was probably out of bounds by now - she would have found someone else. But he would check. What a disaster. Everything had been working fine and now this.

Sudhir was heartbroken. He had watched his whole life get into a spin after the accident at the crossing. What was the use of living in style and having a good-looking wife and an even better mistress if you couldn’t get it up he thought again. At the age of thirty five he had slogged his ass off and reached heights which his father couldn’t even dream of. His parents still lived in the refugee colony of Rajinder Nagar. He lived in a swanky new apartment right next to the new shopping malls of Gurgaon. He drove a Honda City that gave him the best of both worlds – a big car to drive and very good mileage. Cheap and best as his father would say. His father ran a toyshop. His wife had just got herself a beauty treatment for four thousand rupees. Four thousand! And it didn’t even make a big dent. When he had started working in 1990 before the economy opened up his salary was four thousand rupees a month. But what was the point.

Sudhir’s son was a happy child. At first he didn’t have friends when they came back to India. Now he had two best friends in class. He was happiest when he won a beyblade match and his friends shouted champion champion. Specially the ones who were one year older. From cartoon network and from his friends he knew which beyblade was best. There were new designs every week. By now he also knew that he would get one new beyblade a week from Daddy. That was the easiest way. It was specially easy if he did a difficult plus like five plus six. If he needed one in between it was difficult but he had to work on mother. When she told him not to put his hand on her breast when both of them were half asleep he had to make her promise and the next evening he had to take her to the market before Daddy got back. 

The only time Daddy hadn’t given him a beyblade on the weekend and had slapped him instead was after there was the accident.

Debo

Debo’s son hated the recoiling most of all. It hadn’t mattered when he was a small boy in mother’s lap. He couldn’t make out what was going on. Now he could make out there two kinds of expressions. The parents would just look ahead pretending he didn’t exist. But the children were worse. They would look at him withdraw and cling to their parents or maids and just shrink back. One child had started bawling and he cried. He complained to Papa and got a slap. Papa fondled him later and told him he was better off than his cousins. He missed bathing in the pond but he didn’t say anything. There was one man who would at least look at him and say no son go away. The man would mouth it through the glass. He would still keep gesturing as usual because he didn’t want Papa to notice but he felt a kind of warmth whenever he saw the man.

Debo thought life couldn’t get better. After the accident he had got his wife to shave off his beard and moustache and crop his hair. He stopped using the crutch and his high heeled shoes and continued at the same crossing. Sudhir didn’t even recognize him. All beggars must have looked the same to him anyway. It was one of the high points of Debo’s day - watching Sudhir wrinkling his forehead and pretending he didn’t exist. It was a long time since the policeman had come knocking at home. He had scored with two more women. The money kept flowing in specially on Saturdays when he would ask for donations to the God Shani and all the rich people would reach for their wallets to make up for their sins. He was making four thousand rupees a month these days after paying off the area manager. Back in his village he had never seen that much money together. 

An NGO had started a slum school and his son was spending some time there. Debo had to take him there and hang around for two hours. They lost some money but his wife was working in the meantime. It was all right. A girl from the IIT had told him that his son had a lot of promise and he should study at the open school. Maybe his son would grow into an educated man. Perhaps he could beg part time wearing a disguise. Anyway that was in the future and right now life was good. 

It had been a long journey for Debo. From Bardhman in Bengal his land for as far back as anyone could remember to the churning seething new town of Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi. Bardhman had been green peaceful and slow. But the land didn’t grow the family did and Debo had found himself pushed to the fringes of existence. He sent one daughter to work as a maid in Delhi and never heard about her again. A neighbour told him about Laltu the local legislator’s son who would take your hut and plot of land and get you set up somewhere in Delhi and you had to vote for his party in the elections there. He would find you a place to stay for two months and then you were on your own. They had endured the humiliation and emerged stronger. 

Debo used to look down upon Bangladeshis and Biharis. He was shocked at first when the rough Hindi-speaking people of Delhi lumped him with them. Now he judged people by how they behaved and not by where they were from. His wife was the one who pushed him into migrating – she thought they might find their daughter and she was anyway sure they would only inch towards starvation in Bardhman. She told him a story about a frog that was boiled slowly and didn’t jump from the water when he could and by the time he realized he needed to jump it was too late. They had been drunk and had a good time then. Her strength never ceased to amaze him. He hated it when he remembered some of the things she had to do on their journey here. But there was no other way. She would now do the afternoon shift for just two hours with their youngest son and she did it quite well. He made sure she had a comfortable life. The few times he did score with other women he would tell her about it and she would reproach him but he knew that she was laughing it off. He told her he didn’t try hard on his own. It was just that he never refused an offer. She found that funny as well. Sometimes he sang for her and it pleased him that he could still bring tears to her eyes. He had picked up Baul music from a traveler when he was a child. Life had been kind to him. The accident was definitely another signal from God. 

The Crossing

The accident happened on a Friday. Sudhir was a little pre-occupied. He had worked later than usual on Thursday. At night his wife saw a scratch on his back and blew her top. He told her he was itchy and he’d scratched himself too hard. But he needed to put in a word with his mistress. He had had a tough concall with a customer team at six in the morning. He had his daily dollar allowances from his business trips in his wallet to be given to the handyman in office. For a small tip the handyman would get the dollars converted into rupees and deposit them into Sudhir’s second account so that they didn’t have to be taxed. He had to remember to give the money over before he went into a meeting at ten. He had to buy a bigger iPod on his next trip. A colleague had just amassed 13GB of songs and overtaken Sudhir’s collection. 

He was running late. It had rained and the car bumped hard into a pothole and there was a metallic clang as the silencer hit the road. He hated that. Dirt and corruption. If only they could do something about it. There was the usual couple of beggars at the crossing. Bloody refugees. He felt embarrassed when his colleagues from abroad stepped out of the gleaming office and onto the potholed roads and crossings clogged with beggars. Bloody politicians were stuffing money up their asses. That was the whole problem.

The light started to turn red and he honked hard. He had almost made it when the beggar came in the way. It was unreal - the thud and the silence. He saw it in slow motion. He stopped and thought of scooting but by then the traffic from the right was zipping by. His hands were trembling and he tried to calm himself by taking three deep breaths as his Yoga teacher had taught him. Bloody hell. If a cop came over he could try telling him that he knew the Senior Superintendent of Police. But he wasn’t so sure. Anyone could say that.

Debo had hit the bumper of the car with his crutch on the spur of the moment. It made a nice thud. He fell down like a log and rubbed the chilly powder into the corners of his eyes with practiced ease. When he got up he made sure he was very unsteady. Two cyclists had come to his help and of course they would side with him. What a bonus. The guy was shaken and his hands were trembling. Debo knew he had hit a jackpot.
“Why didn’t you look? I need some time to brake!” Sudhir shouted. He was sweating.
“Sir the light had turned red. You know that,” Debo said. His crutch shook but he was cool.
“It was still yellow and I need a few minutes to stop the car. You guys shouldn’t be here anyway. Do you know what will happen if I take you to the police?” Sudhir tried to stare him down.
“Sir the policeman is on his way you can see him across the road. I am a poor man. You know that. “

It was true. The cyclists were glaring at him. Cars had piled up at the crossing and soon the light would turn green. Then they would start honking. He could already feel their stares burning down his neck. The policeman would walk across as soon as the traffic from the right stopped. Bloody morons ready to pounce at him just to get even. Just because he was worth more than all of them put together. Time to act. No time to think. Dirt and corruption. Bloody hell.

“Look I’m sorry I’ll give you five hundred rupees,” Sudhir said.
“Sir I’m a poor man. I’m ruined for the rest of my life. I don’t even know what it’ll take at the hospital. You are a rich man sir. You can do better. You know that.”
“Here’s two thousand rupees and let me go. Count them fast.” Sudhir’s hands were shaking violently. Notes of hundred; twenty of them. He saw Debo’s eyes light up and wondered if he had given in too fast. But out of the corner of his eye he could see the traffic light opposite turning yellow. It would be his turn next. 
“Sir you are a fair man. May your wife and children live long,” Debo said.
“Sisterfucker get lost,” Sudir hissed and sidled into his seat. He had left the car on. His son was wide eyed. The light turned green and he zipped away before the policeman could cross the road. Tough call but he thought he had done a good job. 

Debo knew that the notes were dollars. One of his friends had just got some and sold them.
“Come here,” he said to his son when they had walked for a few hundred meters and run like crazy for a few hundred more. 
“How much is two thousand into forty five?” 
“I don’t know Papa.” 
“I’ll tell you. Ninety thousand rupees!” 
“How much is that?”
Smack. “More than we need.”

♣♣♣END♣♣♣

Issue 26 (Jul-Aug 2009)

fiction
  • A K Kulshreshth – “The Crossing”
  • Barnali Saha – “Born Into a Brothel”
  • Jayita Sengupta – “Monsoon Clouds”
  • Saikumar Menon – “Crucible of Destiny”