When Deepu arrives at our kholi, his face is swollen and, through his torn shirt, I see bloody scratches on his body. That downturned gaze tells me he has done wrong. I see my son’s defiance rising like a shield that the world will smash as it has mine, and a liquid sourness burns my throat. I can barely pay heed to the Pandu constable accompanying him as I nod, yes, I am the father.
It is a breezy evening out, but the air within is humid, close, stale. After another long day hauling shoe boxes at the factory, I’m on my way to Nathu’s. I had not been expecting Deepu. Each time he storms out, he stays away longer. Who knows where he goes or sleeps. He comes back, eventually, like a dog with rabid eyes and loping strides. This police escort is a first. Still, they’ve let him come here instead of ordering me to the station, so it can’t be serious.
Pandu starts talking, fat face bobbing from side to side, stick swinging about. His khaki pants are fastened tight below a pot-like belly and his shirt is missing a button. Deepu had ‘aggressively touched’ a college girl at Andheri station. The girl and her friend had dragged Deepu to the police station. His saaheb had wanted to lock the boy up after a good beating. But he had intervened out of pity.
He whacks Deepu’s calves with the stick. ‘Same age as my son,’ he says, raising his nasal tones like he’s giving a speech to the four-five people now gathered outside.
When Pandu stops spraying his gutka spit, I look again at Deepu, who has edged into the corner shadows – away from us and the mock-filled eyes outside. A buzzing insect has settled on the cut lip, where the blood is still not dry. I want him to deny the accusation, hit the man back, swat the insect away, do or say something, anything, that I can then put a stop to. He remains rocklike.
The man starts on me next. Tells me I need to teach the boy to stay within our kind, make him understand that touching girls like that is a crime, find him an honest job. He wrinkles his nose as if his shit doesn’t smell like ours because he wears a uniform. When he slaps Deepu’s back on his way out, I feel the sting on mine. His unsaid parting thought echoes in my ears: ‘You can wash coal as much as you like; it will never turn white.’
Once Pandu has turned the corner, I tell the gawping motherfuckers to get lost if they don’t want their teeth handed to them. They mutter and laugh till I give one a push, sending him sprawling and the rest scattering.
I grab Deepu’s neck and throw him down. My kicks land on his shoulders – he knows to turn his face away. He crouches, bracing for more. Finally, I lean against the doorway and slide down, taking in a gasp of cool air. Slowly, he moves over to squat at the other end. For all the world, we might just be a father and son sitting in easy companionship.
A little girl stands a few feet off, fidgeting with the buttonless man’s shirt she’s wearing. Thick smoke and food odors drift from nearby kholis, filling our nostrils, making our stomachs rumble and our eyes water. All around, there is the usual yelling, crying, and cursing.
Seeing how he’s shifting uneasily every few moments, I say, quieter than I want to: ‘Next time, don’t come here. Let them lock you up, beat you up. What did you think, touching that girl? That she would go with you?’
He stares ahead and it angers me more that his small ears, hooked nose, and jutting chin are so like mine.
Curse his slut mother for leaving when he was only two days old. In those early, rough days in the city, she wept every night while I struggled to find ways to make money. All these years, I, alone, have carried him, the weight of his bones bearing down on me.
One time, I thought I’d lost him forever. During the 2008 blasts, I had been loading newspaper trucks. When they shut the city down, I dropped everything and ran for him. Couldn’t find him for days. People said he was gone. A fist of pain had squeezed my chest day and night as I had roamed curfewed streets. On the sixth day, he had shown up as if nothing had happened.
After that, I never look for him when he disappears. That fist inside me has hardened to stone.
I get up. ‘Go to Ramiya’s if you want it so bad.’
At last, he speaks: ‘Pay for it like you, you pathetic fucker?’
He may resemble me, yet how is he my blood? I kick him again. He loses balance and topples over, rolling up into a ball again. I step away, shaking my head.
A scream spins me around. He’s swaying in front of the doorway, knees buckling, hands clutching his head. That unnatural sound from his wide-open mouth makes my insides ache.
The girl, watching all the while, bursts into tears and runs off.
I turn and walk away faster.
Nathu and I arrive at Ramiya’s after midnight and six bottles of feni. She’s sitting on the floor with a girl pressing her feet. She looks us over and says, ‘You’ve had your drink. I suppose you’re hungry now.’
Behind her, past the flimsy curtain, we glimpse humping backs and bare limbs. Some regulars pay just for the live shows. For most others, privacy is an unaffordable extra.
Nathu drops beside her, takes her hand, kisses it. ‘Ramiya,’ he slobbers, ‘You know my heart and life are yours. I cannot even look at another.’
She slaps his face away, laughing, ‘Ja, you filthy cur. You just want a free ride.’
I pay for both of us. She calls out a couple of girls. Ramiya keeps a clean house. I’ve been coming many years and never had cause to complain. But it seems the girls keep getting younger. Or I’m getting older. No matter. A man has an itch, he needs to scratch it. No need to go grabbing what is not on sale or freely offered – that boy deserved what came to him.
Ramiya points to the scrawny one and says to me, ‘She’s new – from faraway Vittalnagar. Thought an experienced man like you best to break her in.’
I know what that means. We go to the only room with a door. No one is allowed here other than girls who need to rest. New ones like her often do, especially when I’m done with them. More so if they try to fight. This one doesn’t – crumpling into a bloody, naked heap in minutes. ‘Look at me, Vittalnagar,’ I pull her head up by her hair. No facial marks, which is a relief as that makes Ramiya mad.
Back at the kholi, there is no sign of Deepu. A smoggy grey dawn is trying to smother the pitch-dark night. I lie down to get some rest. But that old stone-fist begins grinding heavily inside me, its jagged edges ripping me apart.
Then I know I am being watched.
‘Deepu?’ I whisper.
He breathes out and a half-sob escapes. I close my eyes to his pain, dripping like hot wax from a burning candle. A few minutes pass and I am drawn into that familiar, welcome heaviness before sleep descends. When a cold weight tightens around my throat, I gasp for air. But I am already drowning in my son’s tears as they rain down on me.
JENNY BHATT's Pushcart-nominated writing has appeared or is upcoming in, among others: Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Eleven Eleven Journal, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review, NonBinary Review, Femina India, The Ladies Finger, LitBreak, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World‘. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia in the US and Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India. She is currently working on her first short story collection. Find her at indiatopia.com.