Another excerpt from SHARD OF SUNLIGHT: Indu with her best friend.
Thursdays and Sundays were holidays at Indu’s school, The Sacred Heart Convent. The state schools closed dutifully on Saturdays and Sundays like the rest of the working world, but the nuns had to do something different, if only to establish their superiority. Leela, Indu’s best friend, went to a local Primary school, so Sunday was the one day Indu had to spend with Leela.
Some time in the evening on Saturdays, when her jutka clip-clopped home from school, Indu would start thinking about playing with Leela. Would Leela’s disagreeable father, Chathu, be at home to scream at them? It would be a good Sunday if he was sleeping off a drinking bout from the previous day; he would not emerge from his dark hole of a bedroom till mid-day, and then he would be half-asleep.
Before she set off towards Leela’s house in the morning, Indu checked whether Mathu had started sweeping the front yard, making wide semicircles in the dust with her broom. And was Chathu up and about?
Today Leela’s veranda was empty, so Indu wriggled through the fence at the kitchen end of her house and crossed the narrow path to Leela’s mud-brick hut. It still gave her a sense of wrongdoing. When her father was around, going to Leela’s house was strictly forbidden. According to him they were “useless people” and her grandmother called them “the unwashed tribe next door.”
Now, however, her father was in Vellore Jail, because he was something called a freedom fighter, and Indu could go where she wished. She tiptoed gingerly up the rickety quarry stones, which did duty for steps to Leela’s hut; They had a habit of tilting if you caught the edge; she had stubbed her little toe on those a few times. Chathu’s dilapidated deck chair was the only furniture on the veranda and his blue-and-white, crumpled lungi hung on the back as though he had thrown it there in a hurry. Indu gave the chair a wide berth though Leela’s grim father was not sitting in it just then.
When she reached the front door she stopped for a moment and peered into the tiny, cramped corridor getting her eyes accustomed to the forbidding darkness inside.
‘Leela, where are you?’ she called uneasily, as she stepped inside. She could smell the mouth-watering farinaceous smell of roasting cassava, not something made in her own house very often. It was only in the houses of the poor that cassava was used as a staple instead of rice.
‘In the kitchen. Come,’ Leela shouted out.
Indu heard the rustling of dry leaves and knew Leela was in front of the three-stone fireplace shovelling dry leaves into it with her hands. In the morning Leela was often to be found there, warming up yesterday’s fish curry or straining old rice from the cold water soak that kept it fresh.
Indu forced herself to step into the dark passage; the floor felt gritty and uneven. There was a bedroom on either side and if you peered in, it was always night in there and smelled of unwashed clothes and damp. Once safe past the rooms, the kitchen was light-filled and airy with a door leading outside, though it hung loose on one hinge. Outside the door was the large half sphere of the bamboo basket under which Mathu kept her chickens. The leaves that Mathu swept up from the compounds where she worked, and the coconut fronds she begged off Indu’s aunt Devi for firewood, were heaped just outside the door. Some were spread on the mud floor in front of the hearth.
Indu found the older girl squatting in front of the fire, blowing at the embers through a bamboo pipe. A fine patina of ash had settled on her matted shoulder length hair, which was more brown than black. Indu loved Leela’s hair, wavy and thick and long, unlike her own no-nonsense crop.
Leela nudged the roasting cassava out of the fire towards her and beat at it with the bamboo pipe, testing whether the skin had flaked, ready to split open. Satisfied it was done she left it on the floor to cool and turned to Indu who was now squatting beside her.
‘Play kottamkallu?’ she asked.
It was Leela who generally took the lead in such important matters as what game to play each day. She was left so much to herself by her mother that she had grown beyond her years.
Mathu did not have much choice except to leave Leela to her own devices. What Chathu gave her for rice and fish each month, after he had drunk most of his salary, did not stretch beyond the middle of the month. She supplemented this income with working in Indu’s house, sweeping and swabbing, spreading cow dung on the floors once a week, and beating the life out of clothes on the concrete slab at the back. For this she was given five rupees a month and food for her and Leela. Because of this work she knew her daughter would never go hungry.
‘Mmm…’ Indu murmured, too eager for the cassava to say anything properly. The two girls started beating at the hot cassava with their palms, loosening the burnt skin from the tuber, then peeling it off to bite greedily into the fluffy white flesh. They opened their mouths and blew ha-ha as the hot cassava threatened to burn their tongues. For Leela this would be breakfast but Indu had already eaten her conjee of well-cooked rice in its starchy water, and moong dhal curry, before she ventured out.
The two girls were so engrossed in their cassava they did not hear the clumsy footsteps outside, the thump of an umbrella on the floor, followed by the shuffle of a weight collapsing on the deck chair. Then someone cleared his throat, hawked and spat noisily.
‘Father,’ Leela said, standing up quickly, in her haste dropping the remnants of the cassava she was eating. Indu scrambled up too, but before she could escape Chathu was in the kitchen glaring at her, and Leela was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where is the other one? Leela…’ he called. His speech was slurred. ‘Where is that nayinde mole, koothicheende mole?’ He stretched out his arm to grab hold of Indu, and then thought better of it. In the process he lost his balance and fell back against the kitchen wall. Indu smelled his sour toddy breath as he glowered at her, and with it the stench of stale sweat.
He heaved himself up and leaned towards Indu. ‘Eating my cassava! Mmm… Go, Go… Now – and don’t let me see you here again.’ The thick blob of mucous, which had hung under his left nostril was now smeared across his cheek.
Indu heard the menace in his voice; no one had ever spoken to her like that. He must be the reason she was not allowed to go to Leela’s house. She ran out of the back door and across the path. Wriggling through the fence she scratched her arm on the wooden post, but didn’t stop till she reached her veranda. She was breathless and shaking, glad to be on familiar turf but also certain there would not be any sympathy for her if Devi got to know she had sneaked off next door.
Leela wandered on to Indu’s veranda later. ‘Kothamkallu?’ she asked. In her right hand she loosely held a fistful of stones; they threatened to dribble through her fingers. She sat down carefully on the cement floor, at the edge of the veranda – she would never come further in, as though there were some invisible lines that stopped her. She scattered the stones in her hand in a small spread in front of her. Then she selected her master stone and threw it up to head height in front of her, testing its path. Not satisfied, she repeated the action, scooping up five small stones from off the floor, as the big stone started to descend. She caught her master stone neatly with the same hand and smiled at Indu. Leela was very good at this game.
To Indu, Leela seemed almost a grown-up. Self-sufficient, because she made her own rules, and did not care what the adults thought or did. When she was younger she used to follow Mathu around when she came to work, always a few paces behind, left thumb firmly stuck in mouth. These days the thumb was definitely not in the mouth and Mathu came to work alone.
Indu knew there was no point asking Leela where she had been and why her father was so angry. Leela never said much about what happened in her home, concentrating on the games they played together. It was always Indu who asked questions. When the questions became oppressive Leela would merely get up and saunter away.
‘I thought he was going to hit me,’ Indu volunteered, taking care not to ask anything this time.
‘He won’t hit you. Only Amma and me. He’s scared of your father.’
One angry shout from her father was enough to make Indu want to pee, but he had never hit her, even that time when she had accidentally pushed one of his law books off the veranda ledge and into the rain. He said he didn’t believe in hitting anyone, there were better ways to make children behave.
‘But he’s not here now.’ Indu voice trembled on the now; suddenly she wanted her father. Chathu, she was certain, would not have dared shout at her if her father was around.
‘That’s right. So don’t wait for him to save you. We just have to run fast when my father comes back from work. He’s always too drunk to chase us.’
For Leela all of this appeared to be totally normal. Indu knew her friend lived in a more precarious and uncertain world, but she had never imagined she needed to run away and hide from her own father. Now Indu had to learn to run as well. And hide?
‘Hide where?’ Indu asked, bemused. There was nowhere to hide in Leela’s little house with two rooms and a kitchen.
‘In the gully at the back. There is a drumstick tree there and I sit behind it.’
Indu had always known there was a narrow path there; it was the place where Chathu’s household went to shit since their old stone-and-thatch latrine came down in the last monsoon. Indu wondered what happened when it rained and you had to go. Did you hold an umbrella up with one hand while you did your business? The narrow channel flooded during the rains, bringing all the sewage from up the hill. You could see turds and the odd dead, bloated goat floating in that water. Leela in there? Sometimes Leela’s world seemed so distant from hers.
‘It’s filthy,’ Indu said.
Leela tossed her head, throwing the comment to the winds. It seemed this was not a worry for her. Indu thought about the elaborate cleaning rituals in her own home: rooms swept daily by Mathu, new cow dung spread on the floors every Friday and women in pristine white clothes, with shining, newly washed hair down their backs, to dry in the mornings.
No, Indu did not want to hide anywhere near that filthy gully; she must find another place for herself.