A.K. Kulshreshth has had stories published in two anthologies of new writing (Bear Fruit, Singapore, 2009 and Silverfish 4, Kuala Lumpur, 2003) and in Muse India. Another story is forthcoming in Asia Literary Review. He holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Engineering and a Ph.D. in Management.
He lay on his belly, fifteen feet above the ground. The ants floated down gracefully, some of them drifting a bit with the breeze. They would land on all sixes, take a few seconds to orient themselves and then soldier back to one of the points on their long line.
He was eleven, and this was his favourite spot in their house in an industrial township in the middle of a jungle in East India. He lay still there, not minding the sun on his back or the hard concrete of the roof barely carpeted with tar below him. Once in a while he would cross and uncross his legs. His chin rested on the fingers of his left hand. At random intervals – when he felt like it – he let his right thumb twitch and get out of the way of his middle finger which had been straining against it. Another ant would be neatly dispatched. It was important to do it neatly. There was time.
There was a big guava tree in the backyard which he used to climb up to the roof of the house. There was another route along the ledge which he used to climb down, and then cross over a small boundary wall to the roof of the servant’s quarter. From there he would move on to the big boundary wall separating them from the neighbours behind them and get back to the tree which had grown into their neighbours’ space. It made a nice circuit, and he could spend hours moving lazily along it especially in the afternoons before his playtime.
On some days, like that day, there were large black ants. He used to tick them off the roof and watch them floating down. You couldn’t fool around with the red ones, and the small black ones were no fun. With the large black ones, you had to be careful and get the action right so that they couldn’t bite you. It hurt like hell if they did. But over time he had mastered the art of flicking the ants off the roof, with an action like a carom stroke. They were so small, and they were pushed off firm ground into thin air and made to drift through a distance which must have seemed enormous to them. It fascinated him that it didn’t seem to matter to them. They didn’t get into a group and attack him, and sometimes he used to wonder why. They would just meander a longish distance so that he couldn’t get to them any more. He didn’t ask his parents about it – may be because he didn’t want to tell them about the game he had invented.
He had left his Bata slippers on the ground below him. Only an idiot would navigate the crevices, stumps and holds of that circuit unless he was barefoot. His slippers had worn unevenly, tapering to a jagged sharp edge at the end where his feet had outgrown them. The balls of his feet had ground hollows into them. The hollows were blue like the straps and the rest of the soles were a muddy white. He wore a brown cotton T- shirt which had once been carefully tucked in to his dark blue shorts as he changed out of his school uniform.
He lay at one corner of their roof. To his right, there was a narrow concrete side lane followed by a stretch of domesticated greenery. Here there were trees at regular intervals, surrounded by decorative latticed brick walls which were taller than him, and which he sometimes climbed over when they played hide and seek. Further right there was the road which marked the end of their township. It was narrow but smooth, unlike the roads outside the township which were wider but mostly run down. In the township, the roads were neatly lined on both sides with red gravel. After the road, there were the electricity and telephone lines. Still further to the right there was the storm water drain with gentle slopes. He had navigated his Atlas cycle into it when he rode it the first time without support. He had left behind his cousin who was pushing him and he didn’t know how to get off it. After the drain, there were the remnants of the thick jungle of mainly saal trees which had been razed to make place for the factory and the township.
At the crossing a few hundred metres below his feet, a concrete signpost announced the names of the roads. Long Road. Ridge Road. There weren’t too many roads actually, in that small township, but they were all announced proudly.
To his left, and above and below him, there were neat rows of houses. In his part of the township, they were built on eight hundred square yards each. The company was still doing well, and the houses and signs were kept gleaming most of the time. Every house compulsorily had a neat lawn in front, and a kitchen garden in the back. Their kitchen garden was dominated by the guava tree, but they also had two papaya trees, a lemon tree, tomato plants, the sacred basil plant, curry leaf, peas and a few plots of coriander and mint. Across the big boundary wall, there was an equally diverse garden but it did not have a single big tree dominating it.
To those who grew up in these industrial towns which dotted the country, even those who left early as some factories closed down, the time they spent there has a magical quality. The intervening years have tinted their memories so that they mostly remember the culture as an uber-cosmopolitan, super-civilized one. He doesn’t argue about it, but he’s not sure he wants to live in a “township” with his colleagues.
Anyway, he was up there, and that was when he got the feeling the first time – the feeling you get that someone you haven’t yet seen is watching you. He has got it a million times since then, but for sure that was the first time. By some magic, you choose between all the degrees of rotation available to you and zero in on the right direction to look at whoever is looking at you.
He saw the maid Sandhya who had stopped coming to their place – he didn’t get to know why. She was still working with their neighbours who lived behind them. She had just plucked a few guavas from the tree with a bamboo pole.
The pole was still in her hands and the guavas were in the fold of her green sari. They hadn’t made the thud of landing on the ground because she had got them in to fall into a pouch she made with her sari. He had seen her do that earlier.
There was this time when he had got whacked because of her. He and his friends used to cycle a lot. He had a red-and-white Atlas cycle to start with, and much later a black Sen Raleigh. The jungle at the edge of the township had well-worn paths through it where people and animals had passed through. They cycled through the jungle to reach an abandoned shooting range. The range was a twenty- feet- high brick wall supporting a mound of mud, and a field in front. They climbed the mud hill and found the shells of cartridges embedded in the mud. They went cycling behind the nearby government hospital, and saw a dog carrying a small skull away. These experiences were their deepest secrets, and they whetted their risk- taking ability. The parents didn’t mind, or may be they forgot to tell them. Once they decided on a stretch target and headed for the hill at City Centre. He did the trip when he went back many years later. It is about three kilometers, and the hill is piddly. Back then, it was the farthest they would have been ever, without an adult or a Dada or Didi accompanying them. You not only left the safe haven of the township, but also crossed another township and drove along the infamous Grand Trunk Road. They made it to the hill and back, but Sandhya saw them on the way back. Of course he got whacked by his mother, and so did his friends by their respective parents. They were forbidden to leave the township after that. A child had died in road accident a while back. Sandhya later told him that she had to tell his parents because it just wasn’t safe for him. She stroked his head.
And then there was the other time. She had been bending over to grate some mangos once and he couldn’t take his eyes off her soft curves. It crossed his mind that she had had them all along but he had never looked. He knew he shouldn’t be looking now but he couldn’t stop. Then suddenly she had looked up straight into his eyes. He had felt an uncomfortable flush come over him and the stiffness happened. They looked at each other for a few seconds and then he turned his gaze away, but not before he saw that she smiled at him. It wasn’t a smile of malice or mockery. There was something about it which made him realize that she was amused but she didn’t look down on him. She had stopped coming to their place a little later.
He didn’t actually think about either of these incidents as he lay on the roof that afternoon. But they were a part of him, like a snake and a ladder on the path to that point in his life.
He had been pretty still in that corner up there, with only his head projecting from the roof so that he could watch the ants floating down. She probably saw him when he moved a bit and then their gazes locked. Her eyebrows rose and her jaw dropped. From that distance, he saw furrows form fleetingly on her forehead. Then the furrows disappeared and she lowered her gaze. When she looked up again, she stared calmly at him. They looked at each other for a while. There was the distance between them, and the wall.
He doesn’t know how long the moment lasted.
His face broke into a smile. She didn’t smile back, but something changed in the lines of her face. They became softer. She unfroze and disappeared effortlessly. The green of her sari melted into the trees.
Saal – species of tree found in Eastern India and other parts of South Asia.
Dada – elder brother.
Didi – elder sister