Fiction, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
As Kaustubh struggled to emerge from his dream, slippery fibers snagged his calluses and pinned his bony arms and legs to his body. He was a cocoon. No, he was a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon. What was it that he learned in biology? When Kaustubh finally opened his eyes, brushing his lashes against the white floss, he realized that the mosquito net had fallen on him while he slept.
The mosquito nets were a recent addition to the bedroom he shared with his mother and father. His Auntie Sharmila had brought them with her when she and his cousins came from Pittsburgh for their annual visit. “She grew up here only,” Kaustubh’s mother said, slamming around the kitchen after Auntie took the kids to the Ganapati temple for puja. “She survived. And now she won’t come back without mosquito nets! Soon she’ll be taking malaria tablets!”
Kaustubh sat on the couch doing his maths. He knew that his mother did not want an answer. He also knew that Auntie and the kids were taking malaria tablets; he had looked through their luggage. But he did not tell his mother that. He did not want to get Auntie into trouble, because he was hoping that the Pittsburgh Steelers jersey he found in her carry-on was for him.
During Auntie’s entire two-week visit, his mother whispered under her breath about the nets every time Auntie left the flat. But the day after Auntie flew back to the U.S., Kaustubh walked into the bedroom and saw his mother driving a tiny steel hook into the ceiling above their bed.
“What are you doing?” he asked, as he watched white flakes drift down from the ceiling.
“I’m. Hanging. The. Nets.” his mother replied between thwacks of the hammer.
“I thought the nets were stupid?” Kaustubh said, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
Kaustubh’s mother dropped her arms, momentarily covering the sweat rings on the sides of her pink and green kurta. As she glared at him, the deep frown line above her nose swallowed her bindi like a lizard gobbling up a bug. “They are stupid,” she allowed, “but my sister left them here, so we may as well use them. If they are good enough for Nandini and Mohan, they are good enough for you.” Lifting her strong arms, she resumed her pounding, dusting her hair with more ceiling dandruff.
Lying in bed, wrapped in the net, Kaustubh felt strangely comfortable. Reassured. This is what the Christians must mean when they say that Jesus was in swaddling clothes, he thought. At school, they had an afternoon assembly for Christmas, and the Christian kids performed carols and put on a nativity play. The sheep had worn black tights and white t-shirts with cotton balls glued to them. Kaustubh wished that he could have been one of the sheep, but none of the Hindu kids were in the play.
Outside, it was early enough that the guttural rumblings of the rickshaws had only reached a low hum. In the courtyard, the pigeons were slamming into one another like suicide bombers, while servants swept up and down the lane beyond. Some used flexible bamboo brooms to tend to the garbage strewn across the road, while others pushed leaves from lawns with stiff bundles of reeds. Inside, his mother was grinding wheat in the kitchen, and his father was reading the newspaper, snapping the pages angrily and shouting “Sheet!” at news items that exasperated him. Their servant would not arrive until later in the day, when his mother needed help chopping vegetables for lunch.
“There’s a whole page in The Expresson for those fools who think the world is going to end this weekend,” Kaustubh’s father said.
“Which astrologer was it?” Kaustubh’s mother asked. She claimed not to believe in astrology, but every year she bought a new Star Signs calendar promptly on the first day of January and hung it in the kitchen.
His father snorted and rustled the paper. “The paper just says that it was a pamphlet. Doesn’t even say who wrote the thing, just that we’re in for earthquakes, cyclones, and floods. All because eight planets are in alignment today only.” Kaustubh heard his father blow air slowly through his lips, like he was inflating a balloon. Next, there was a flapping sound, as if his father was throwing sections of the paper around the living room in disgust. “In Gujarat, thousands of people have gone to stay in their villages in case the world ends! Idiots!”
“You can’t blame them, yaar, after what they went through.” The soft shuffle of his mother’s slippers moved from the kitchen to the living room, where Kaustubh knew that his mother would be rubbing his father’s shoulders and kissing him lightly on the head to avoid covering her lips with coconut oil.
“Fools,” Kaustubh’s father muttered.
The slippers padded back toward the kitchen. “Well, if the world is ending at noon, we don’t need to decide on Kaustubh’s school, at least.”
The night before, they had argued again. When Auntie and her kids went back to the U.S., before Auntie walked downstairs to where Kaustubh’s father was waiting with the car, she had squatted down in her Western clothes and looked Kaustubh deep in the eyes. Perched on her heels, the weight she had gained in the U.S. made her unsteady, like a baby toy. Kaustubh was taller than Auntie when she squatted, and he had to fight the urge to topple her onto her backside.
“You tell your parents that you want to come stay with us, OK?” she said, pinching his cheek so hard that it brought tears to his eyes. Auntie interpreted the tears as sadness, and clutched him to her Mall of America sweatshirt. Kaustubh could feel her waggle her head at his mother as she hugged him.
“See, see! He wants to come.”
“He doesn’t know anything about it,” Kaustubh’s mother said, pulling him to her and crossing her arms over his narrow chest. “He’s only crying because you almost ripped his cheek off! There’s going to be a bruise!”
Auntie rolled her eyes and kissed his mother. “You never change, didi. It’s like we are girls again fighting over a doll, and you scream and scream so that Papa-ji comes running.”
Relaxing slightly, Kaustubh’s mother hugged her sister. “I always screamed because you always hit me, you goonda. Now go. You will miss your plane.”
Every night since Auntie had clumped down the concrete stairs with her taped-up bags of saris, Kaustubh’s parents had argued. If they were out in the living room, they spoke normally; if they had come to bed, they whispered. Either way, he could hear them.
“He’s too little!” His father repeated.
“I don’t like the idea of him going by himself,” his mother allowed.
“Maybe it would be better if we all went, but you don’t want to leave your mother.”
“This isn’t about my mother!”
“Fine fine.” His mother paused, but Kaustubh could hear them both breathing quickly enough to know that the conversation was not over. His mother’s voice hissed again, quieter this time. “Sharmila showed me the website for the school, and it looks superb.”
His father snorted. “Everyone knows that good teaching in maths and science are not there in the U.S.”
“But if he goes after fifth standard, he will have all the basics and be way ahead of them. They’d let him take classes at the colleges when he’s bigger. You heard Sharmila..”
Auntie thought that Kaustubh should come and live with her in Pittsburgh. She thought that his parents were limiting his options by keeping him in India, in a school where he had to spend time learning Marathi and there weren’t any computers. No one had asked Kaustubh’s opinion. He wasn’t sure what he thought, anyway.
Kaustubh had been to Pittsburgh only once. It was November, and he was colder than he had ever been. He had to wear Mohan’s puffy coat when he and his father went walking. The red coat was at least two sizes too big for him, and his father joked that Kaustubh looked like a walking tomato.
In Pittsburgh, Kaustubh’s father could walk for much longer than he ever walked in the joggers’ park at home. The footpaths were broad and smooth, and there were no hawkers or pavement dwellers forcing you to walk in the street. One afternoon, Kaustubh and his father walked to a steep hill where the houses jutted out from the ground, supported by wooden stilts. With their narrow, sad-eyed windows, the desperate houses looked like they were trying to run away from the hillside. Stairs climbed the hill at irregular intervals, intersected by narrow gravel footpaths. The arrangement reminded Kaustubh of the ancient Chutes and Ladders game that his babysitter brought with her to the flat on the nights she was willing to play with him rather than watch reruns of Marathi serials.
As Kaustubh’s father panted and wiped steam from his glasses, he said that coal miners had lived in the rickety old houses on the hill. It was the only place in town that they could afford. The mine owners even built a little trolley that took people up and down so that the miners could get to work faster. Kaustubh’s father pointed out where the trolley tracks snaked up the hill, and they could see the back of a carriage rising hesitantly toward the summit. Kaustubh begged to ride the trolley, but his father insisted that they needed the exercise and so they continued to climb.
When they reached the top, they could see two rivers coming to a point around the skyscrapers of downtown. “Like Pune,” Kaustubh said. “The Mula and the Murtha!”
“Yes,” Kaustubh’s father said, bent over and breathing heavily, his scalp showing through his carefully combed and Bryllcreemed hair. “Like Pune.”
As they stood and watched the city below, a fine white dust started to drift down from the sky. Kaustubh looked up, thinking that it was some strange kind of American bird poop, and his father laughed. Grabbing Kaustubh’s arm, he pointed to the flakes as they mysteriously dissolved into the red sheen of Mohan’s coat. “It’s snow, beta. Snow!”
Kaustubh suddenly sat up straight in bed, pushing aside the mosquito net, a mummy struggling out of his bandages. It was Sunday; he remembered. Sundays were for cricket. Not horsing around in the parking lot of the society, but real, proper cricket, played on the pitch at the Law College or down the road at the Institute. Not playing in the road with biscuit tins or old tires in place of stumps, but playing on a twenty-two yard pitch with real equipment. Kaustubh had school every other day of the week, with jostling rickshaw rides and blue and gray uniforms and exams, but on Sundays he was free.
Throwing the tangled net on the center of the bed, Kaustubh ripped off his pyjamas and walked to the metal cupboard where he and his parents kept their clothes. He examined his shelf and stroked the bumblebee colors of the Steelers jersey for a moment before dressing quickly in the closest thing he had to cricket whites: beige pants and a white t-shirt with “Here Comes Trouble” written across it in green. Before he ran out of the room, he grabbed his bat and his red belt, threading it through the loops of his pants. Pausing in the corridor, Kaustubh wondered how he would make it out of the flat without drawing attention. The 1995 datebook that his mother used as scratch paper was sitting on the desk, and he quietly tore out a page and wrote, “Playing Cricket. Back for Dinner” in English. Kaustubh’s mother wanted him to speak only Marathi at home because his exam grade had been so poor, but she had not said anything about writing in Marathi.
Holding his breath, Kaustubh tiptoed past the doorway to the kitchen. His mother did not turn from the counter. Plastered against the wall, Kaustubh looked toward the door to the flat.
“Maybe we should have Kaustubh’s chart done again? It might help us decide?”
Kaustubh held his breath while his father sighed and shook his newspaper.
“You had his chart done last year only! And we just said that this astrology is stupid, yaar.”
“No, no, we did not say that astrology was stupid. We said that one guru was stupid.” In his mind, Kaustubh could see his father closing his eyes and resting his head on the back of his lime-green armchair. When he spoke, his voice was tight with the strain of his stretched neck.
“Why even talk about this until after his exams?”
With that, his parents’ Sunday morning rhythms of grinding and newspaper-rustling resumed, and Kaustubh exhaled and surveyed the living room from around the corner. Sneaking out meant playing without his shoes, which were on a rack within his father’s field of vision, but that was fine. The bigger problem was how to walk behind his father’s armchair and get to the door. Kaustubh decided to crawl. Luckily, his father had turned on their tiny radio and was humming along to a song on Radio Mirchi.
To crawl silently while carrying his bat, Kaustubh had to slither along the tile floor on his belly. He pretended to be a soldier, carrying his gun above water, and carefully wiggled past his father’s chair to the front door of the flat. Standing up gradually, he watched the back of his father’s head while feeling for the lock with his hand. As he turned the metal rod and pulled, he winced, anticipating the metallic thud that sometimes accompanied the lock’s twisting action. He was lucky today, though. Both the lock and the door opened smoothly and silently, and Kaustubh slipped onto the landing without a sound.
Kaustubh ran down the stairs and burst into the dusty courtyard, arms raised as if he were crossing a finish line. With a cautionary glance at the barred windows above, he ran toward the lane. Somnath, the security guard, glared at him from under his hat, but Kaustubh kept running until he was well out of shouting distance. Slowing down to a quick walk, he swung his bat as if he were warming up. A few walkers ambled down the lane, the women’s dupattas blowing behind them in the breeze as they swung their arms and pointed their white tennis shoes forward. Some of the men had scarves tied around the tops of their heads and knotted under their chins, as if they were suffering from toothache rather than the morning chill.
Would his parents be angry when they realized that he’d gone, Kaustubh wondered? And what did those astrologers mean, that the end of the world would be at noon today? Did that mean that all human life would end? All life, period? Would the planet still be here, but every living thing on it would be destroyed? Did the astrologers mean that the entire universe would end, too, or was it just Earth? Just this solar system? Was there any hope that he could score a century first?
Engrossed in his thoughts, Kaustubh did not notice that the garland-seller had begun to set up shop at the end of the lane. The thin cord that she had strung between two trees did not have many garlands dangling from it yet, and Kaustubh did not see it. As he tripped on the cord and tumbled to the ground, he brought several necklaces of marigolds into the dust with him. The garland-seller started to scream, waving strands of jasmine with one hand and her flat brown basket with the other, as if she were playing some strange percussion instrument. Kaustubh did not respond. He simply stood up and brushed himself off, dignified, and made haughty eye contact with the old woman before turning on one heel and strolling off, using his bat like a gentleman’s walking stick.
At the chowk, Kaustubh bought two wadas and gobbled them down, ignoring the chutney and sambar. Turning onto Law College road, he had to dodge a two-wheeler with a sari-clad woman and baby riding pillion. Pausing, he gazed after it as the gold and blue border of the woman’s sari snapped in the wind. Kaustubh dug his right big toe into the dust. His parents did not let him ride on two-wheelers anymore; not even the scooter his father took to work on days when his mother needed the car. When his father first brought the scooter home, Kaustubh rode with his parents just like all of his friends. But when Auntie saw the scooter, her next finger-pointing sentence was a warning to his cousins that they could not get anywhere near it, much less on it. Later that night, Auntie and his mother had several hushed conversations containing the words “skull injury” and “brain damage.” Now, he watched families of five ride happily along, toddlers perched between handlebars and babies on the laps of their sidesaddle mothers, but Kaustubh could not even ride with his father. Kaustubh was certain that Sachin Tendulkar had a two–wheeler. How would he make the national team without one?
Sighing, Kaustubh pushed his shoulders back and turned toward the Law College. As he walked on the edge of the road, navigating the piles of trash, the potholes, and the bus stops, sunlight wavered through the mist and the pollution as if Kaustubh was seeing everything from deep underwater. Smoke from burning trash prickled the inside of his nose, and he coughed and spat. Once, Pittsburgh was more polluted than Pune, his father had told him. Pointing out an old streetlamp, he told Kaustubh that when the factories were pumping through the coal underneath the mountains, the city was enveloped by a cloud so dense that the gas lamps had to burn all the time—even during the middle of the day—and people said that walking on the streets felt like they were swimming through fog.
Walking to the pitch without shoes was perilous, because if Kaustubh lifted his eyes from the ground, he risked stepping on a piece of glass or a nail, but if he did not watch the traffic, he would likely become the frontpiece for a two-wheeler. As a result, Kaustubh’s head went up and down so frequently that he looked like he was agreeing to some silent proposition. But the red-brown clay of the cricket pitch glowed through the trees soon enough. There was no one else on the field. That meant he could stake his batch’s claim for the day. He stopped checking the ground and ran to the gate, pumping his bat back and forth to propel himself forward. Once the pads of his feet hit the soft, safe ground of the pitch, every muscle in his body tingled with expectation. Standing at the crease, Kaustubh began to take broad practice swings to show passers-by that a serious player was present.
Slowly, the others trickled in. Aditya wearing his ridiculous shorts. Vijay with his battered red notebook and ballpoint pen for keeping score. Asit with a leather ball stuffed in each pocket of his windbreaker. They began doing running drills and hitting practice bowls as the traffic beyond the fence grew from the occasional grumbling of a rickshaw to the normal daily avalanche, punctuated by the occasional scream of an unlucky pedestrian.
Once when a sweaty amoeba of boys was spreading and contracting across the pitch, Kaustubh stopped in the middle of a sprint and clapped his hands authoritatively. “Chalo! Chalo!” he yelled. “Let’s start! Line up and we’ll pick teams!”
The boys scuffled into a line, some barefoot, some in plastic chappals and some in sneakers. Kaustubh and Vijay walked back and forth in front of the others, stopping and looking them up and down, tilting their heads and rubbing their chins as if examining paintings in a gallery. Suddenly, Vijay’s thick, black eyebrows raised a little higher than evaluation of his fellow players required, and he spun around, searching the pitch.
Kaustubh stopped his deliberations. “What’s wrong,” he asked, wondering what could be more important than deciding whether Parag’s gulab-jamun flab was more of a liability than Rohit’s specs.
Vijay stared at Kaustubh. “The stumps,” he whispered. “Where are the stumps?”
Kaustubh and the others slowly turned in hesitating, stupid circles. “Who was supposed to bring them?” Kaustubh asked.
Sorav, a reedy boy known for his endurance in the field, stepped out of the line. “Amit, I think. But he’s not here.”
“His ma wouldn’t let him come,” Prakash volunteered. “She saw that thing on NDTV about the planets and kept him home for the end of the world.”
“If the world comes to an end, what does it matter if he’s in Viman Nagar or here!” Kaustubh yelled, his voice high and tight with exasperation.
Mohinder stepped aggressively toward Prakash. “Why didn’t you go and get the stumps then, yaar? You live in the same colony.” Prakash mumbled something inaudible and began to root around in his nose with his index finger, a nervous habit that impeded his fielding skills. Easy flies often soared over his head because he was absorbed in studying the black snot he’d scraped from his nostrils.
Once it was maddeningly apparent that the stumps really were not on the pitch, the boys scattered. Some ran up the hill to the other pitch to see if the older boys had an extra set of stumps, but the seniors just jeered at them and waved their bats threateningly at the juniors’ backsides. Others rooted around in the trees surrounding the pitch in search of sticks of relatively equal size.
After fifteen minutes of running around, the boys found three sticks that could be balanced like the frame of a tent. Asit, whose dad was an engineer, managed to balance a fourth stick precariously on top. Then, they attempted to play for an hour or so, but the makeshift stumps were so unsteady that the swing of a bat or the stamp of a foot could bring them swirling down.
Usually, the joy of the game was enough to make the boys ignore the climbing sun, but today the heat and the cloudless blue sky mocked them and their makeshift equipment. Every few minutes the fielders piled into dusty wrestling matches over who would stand in the sole patch of shade and play had to stop. No one wanted to build a tower of chappals to replace the stumps like they did on days when they played in the street; it seemed to disrespect the field. Soon, the boys began to slink away, one by one, without the usual discussion of who would hold the field and who would bring back food and water. There were only halfhearted promises to check back after lunch. Soon, Kaustubh was alone, sprawled on the pitch and shielding his eyes from the sun with his bat as he watched a crow amble across the sky.
How depressing if the world came to an end without a decent match, he thought. But to stay here and die on the pitch would be a noble demise. Symbolic. An athlete meeting his end in the place where he had truly lived. Soon, sweat began to roll down the sides of his nose and pool at the corners of his eyes. He sat up and balanced his elbows on his knees. Now that the other boys had gone, the stray dogs were invading the pitch, dragging their scabby bellies in the dirt and scratching their swollen balls. One yellow-eyed mutt had no fur at all, and its skin was entirely pink. Who would get close enough to a stray dog to shave it, Kaustubh thought? Or had someone poured acid or boiling water on it?
Unwilling to relinquish the pitch and head home in defeat, Kaustubh grudgingly walked to the edge and sat in the shade. Lying down again on a slight incline, he rested his head on his bat like a pillow while he watched the dogs and the street traffic beyond. Cricket wouldn’t matter if he went to the U.S., he thought. None of them knew how to play cricket. When his cousins were in India, he brought Mohan to the pitch and his cousin did not even know how to hold a bat. It was all baseball there. And football. Or soccer, as they called it. Their football was a scary sport where fat men jumped on one another and didn’t appear to use their feet for much at all, besides the occasional kick of a pointy ball through a wishbone-looking thing. Real football wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. He enjoyed playing it from time to time. And if Mohan could play it, with the extra stone he was carrying around on his pudgy frame, so could Kaustubh.
Were his parents even going to ask him what he thought about going to the U.S., Kaustubh wondered? Or would he get home from school one day and find his plaid suitcase packed and his dad waiting to make the drive to Mumbai? Should he tell them about the nightmares he’d had when they came back from Auntie’s? About being lost in the cereal aisle of the enormous supermarket, and a sweaty man in a white jacket streaked with blood hanging him upside down from a metal hook behind the deli counter? No point in worrying about it if the world is going to end, Kaustubh thought, glumly.
Squinting at the sun, Kaustubh tried to figure out the time. Was it noon yet? If it was, either the prophesy was incorrect or the rest of the planet had been demolished, leaving him and the dogs to rebuild civilization. Gazing at the dogs, who had piled into a gnarling, fighting mound of fur and teeth, he hoped that the astrologers had been wrong. Kaustubh stood up and walked into the sun, where he turned in slow circles, looking at the ground. His father had once tried to teach him how to tell time using sunlight and shadow. Unfortunately, Kaustubh had been too absorbed in watching television to listen, so all he did was increase his flow of sweat from a trickle to a torrent without coming to any conclusions.
Flopping back down in the shade, Kaustubh looked up. A huge palm tree stretched above him, its fronds thinning from lack of rain. Kaustubh stared at the yellow-green stripes until his eyes blurred. Maybe it would be better if the world ended? Then he would not have to move to Pittsburgh. There were no palm trees in Pittsburgh. No wadas, no garlands. No hot dhabas from the lady down the street, no Diwali fireworks. And no cricket. Kaustubh’s chest and throat tightened, and he could feel tears beginning to boil behind his eyes.
Right when the first tear cut a path through the dust on his cheek, a rickshaw shuddered to a stop at the gate. There was the obligatory fight between the passengers and the rickshaw-wallah, and then Amit and Prakash tumbled out, the stumps sticking out of a flowered cloth bag.
Kaustubh jumped up, swiping at his face and brushing the dirt from his clothes. A comforting breeze had started to tease from the North, and running across the pitch no longer left him desperate with thirst. Amit and Prakash were running too, Amit waving the stumps and Prakash making filmi arm gestures.
“How did you get her to let you out?” Kaustubh said as he skidded to a stop and grabbed the stumps.
Prakash elbowed Amit aside. “It was me,” he said, thrusting his chest out and grinning. “When I got home, I turned on the TV and saw that the doomsday prediction ended at noon. I ran over to his place, and they were all kneeling and praying.”
“We were there all today morning,” Amit moaned. “My knees are bruised!”
“So I told his ma to turn on the television, that the end did not happen. She was so happy that she let Amit go right away.”
Kaustubh’s smile was broad, but his eyes were already compiling a checklist for the afternoon’s match as he tousled Amit’s hair. “Let’s go,” he said. “Do either of you have a mobile?” Prakash nodded. “Text as many of the others as you can.” While Prakash tapped away on his phone, Kaustubh and Amit used rocks and sticks to drive off the dogs. Once the messages were sent and the pitch was clear, Amit began to twist the stumps into the ground.
Kaustubh held his bat behind his head to stretch his arms and shoulders as he walked to the gate. Peering around the corner, he saw Rohit and Vijay strolling along, waving their arms and pushing one another into traffic as they argued. Turning the other way, he saw Parag talking to the paan-wallah. Kaustubh’s stomach was growling like a caged animal, but it did not bother him. The painful rumbling was another happy piece of evidence proving that the prophesy had failed, and that he was very much alive. Kaustubh untangled himself from his bat and waved it, and all three boys started to run toward the gate. Spinning around, Kaustubh strode to the crease, his shoulders back and his head high. The world was not ending. Not today.