Sins of Monsoons is an unpublished chapter from Shaila Abdullah's new novel Saffron Dreams.
The first thing you noticed about him wasn’t his bedraggled state or his incessantly snotty nose. It was the bluish black scar that ran lizard-like across the entire breadth of his chin. The presence of that scar is how I remembered Ramu in the beginning. I forgot faces easily even though I was a very perceptive child with a vivid memory, much to the exasperation of my parents.
Ramu was Mai Jan’s son, the maid who came to our house at the crack of dawn daily to do what we deemed beneath our stature to do—clean up after us, launder our soiled clothes, wash our dirty dishes, and even cook for us. The days she didn’t show up, the dishes piled high, and we ran around in a disheveled state: dirty, unwashed, with stinky knickers, food stains and day’s grime coloring our shirtfronts.
I saw Ramu for the first time when Mai Jan was still new, the morning I caught her and Ami in an animated discussion. Mai Jan was unusually late, insisting that it was because she had nowhere to put Ramu, her nine year old son who had just been expelled from school, his third one, for being too raucous. Mai Jan requested, no, pled short of going on all fours and prostrating in front of Ami to let Ramu stay outside our door while she worked.
“Alright, okay,” Ami conceded at last, wagging a red-tipped finger in Mai Jan’s direction. “As long as he does not cause any trouble here.” And as an afterthought asked. “How often does he take a bath?”
“Whenever we have water in the basti,” Mai Jan replied in the voice of one who had perfected the art of groveling to get wins from all situations.
Ami scrunched up her nose. “Which is probably never. He better stay out of trouble, or else––”
Mai Jan waved her hands widely to reassure Ami and joined it together in gratitude before turning around to go about her business. The “or else” in Ami’s world can mean so much and often nothing. And so Ramu became a permanent fixture near our door that spring, hunched up and busy with his few marble balls, while Mai Jan toiled endlessly in our home.
I wandered outside to get a closer look at Ramu. He scowled at me and returned back to his game. The scar intrigued me.
“Where did you get that?” I asked him. At our age, we rarely bothered with the formalities of introduction.
“Those are mine,” he scooped up the marbles hurriedly and pressed them to his chest. One fell off and rolled over to where I was standing, and he lunged at it.
“Not that, silly,” I said with a laugh, kicking the fleeing marble back to him. “The scar on your face!”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said proudly. “I have tons of those all over my body.”
I looked at him wide-eyed.
“How did you get them?” I asked again.
He didn’t answer. Then his eyes brightened up. “Do you want to play with these? We could play for keeps.”
I didn’t know how to play marbles and I certainly didn’t know what playing for keeps meant. I nodded nonetheless and sank down besides him, neatly folding my pinafore under my knees so my thighs won’t be exposed, just how Ami had shown me.
Ramu was quite an expert at the game and I didn’t realize just how much time had flown by until Ami came looking for me outside and seemed shocked to see me with my little companion.
“There you are. I looked all over for you,” she exclaimed, eyeing Ramu suspiciously. “What are you doing out there in the dirt?”
Ramu didn’t look up. He knuckled the blue rainbow marble against the green one and yelled, “Woh le!”
I followed Ami inside but paused to look behind briefly. Ramu winked at me.
“You lost the game. That was for keeps,” he whispered.
“What does that mean?” I mouthed back.
“You will be my slave girl for a whole week.” He laughed.
I stuck my tongue out at him.
“That’s what playing for keeps means, don’t you know?” he whispered.
Of course, it didn’t but I didn’t know it then.
Ami turned around at our derision and buzzing and subjected Ramu to a sharp stare. He bowed his head down and returned to his solitary game.
That night Ami gave me a bath, an unusual occurrence, and oiled my hair afterwards. She parted my hair in an uneven two and plaited it tightly on both sides. I winced, and she tapped me lightly on the head.
“You should know better than to play with Ramu’s type,” she said, irritably. “What will your Abu say?”
“Ramu is fun. What’s the harm in playing with him?” I picked up the pink hand mirror on the bed and studied my plaits. They seemed to grow almost horizontally from my ears like two giraffe ears. I winced at the crooked parting and the uneven distribution of my hair. I couldn’t wait to fix it but decided to wait until Ami left the room.
“He’s Hindu,” Ami said as if it were a bad word, taking the mirror away from my hands. “Don’t you know?”
I swallowed hard and looked at her in defiance. So!
“He’s filthy, in case you haven’t noticed,” Ami tried to strengthen her case. “And the smell he carries around. Chi!”
Personal hygiene was a big thing with her.
Ramu did have a particular odor but I didn’t find it offensive. It was no different than Mai Jan’s—kind of a unique merger of unwashed mop and stale spices that in time you start associating with a person or kind.
Ramu was there again the next day when I sneaked out while Ami was napping. This time he was drawing a two feet circle with white chalk on the concrete. He selected a shooter, a bigger red marble, and placed it inside the circle and then chose another smaller one. He flicked at the marble deftly with his fist, aiming for the red one. The marble rolled with increasing speed and pushed the shooter out of the circle.
“Woh le ho!” Ramu shouted, both hands up in the air, his greasy sleeves falling down to his elbow. His victory cheer never made sense to me but I had heard street kids holler in that manner too. He saw me and smiled.
“Did you see that? Did you?” He was so excited that saliva shot out of his mouth and showered my face. I pretended not to recoil, and he didn’t offer any apologies.
“I did. Good one!” I admitted, clapping my hands in camaraderie, and sat down beside him. “Can you teach me this game?”
He was an impatient teacher. When my fingers wouldn’t flick the marble in the right direction, he would hold his hand roughly over mine and almost force the marbles to lunge forward with his strength.
I heard Zoha cry inside the house and got up with a start. Ami had left me in charge of her before she went down for her nap. I could hear the dhub dhub of the wooden laundry bat from somewhere inside where Mai Jan was thrashing our laundry, punishing the clothes for the stains they carried, absolving them of all sins. Deliberate or not, her labor almost muffled the young child’s cry.
On some hot sweltering afternoons, Ramu and I chased the white puffballs—the flowerlets of shimul tree, fleeing from their split pod–– all across the yard. They always traveled a little too high, a few fingers beyond our reach, like unattainable dreams.
It was raining heavily the day I realized just how vulnerable Ramu was under all his machismo. Ami had gone shopping leaving us in Mai Jan’s care. I sneaked out when Mai Jan was busy with the young ones and met Ramu outside. He was standing with his hands in his salwar pockets, looking forlorn.
“I hate rain!” He declared, his lower lip trembling. His nose was running, and he made no attempt to wipe away the mucus. He pointed toward a little shed that stood a few steps away in the yard, beside an old banyan tree.
“Can I go in there to hide for awhile?” he asked, licking his snot.
The shed had tools for household projects and Ami used it as a godown for excess nonperishable food supplies, like rice, flour, and oil. On hot summer days, Mai Jan used the extra space to dry slivers of raw mangoes called keri before pickling the achar in a huge clay pot covered with white muslin cloth.
I nodded and Ramu raced towards it screaming as the rain pelted his head. “I don’t want to die,” I heard him yell.
I was surprised at how scared he was. He almost made it to the door when the sound of thunder threw him off balance ands he landed on the ground. I raced towards him and pulled his hands to drag his horizontal body inside the shed. It was dark inside, and my eyes needed to adjust. I rubbed them furiously and blinked a couple of times, unleashing dancing spheres that bobbed up and down the wall. The only bulb in the shed was shattered, its filaments exposed, all tangled up with the metal prongs. I stumbled over an old red torch that I quickly turned on.
“It’s okay, Ramu,” I said softly. “Rain doesn’t harm!”
“It does,” he maintained sullenly.
He was silent and remained still on the floor. I realized that no answer was forthcoming and sighed. I sat besides him on a flour sack and looked up at the wooden slats on the ceiling where cobwebs and sparrow nests were crisscrossing paths.
“I hate love,” Ramu said. “Love hurts.”
When I heard his voice, I turned to him in surprise, not sure of the reason for such a remark. Ramu’s eyes were closed, his eyelids trembling. A lone tear slid from a corner of his eye and ran towards his ear.
“Who do you love?” he asked after such a long time that I jumped.
I thought about that for awhile.
“I think I love Abu, Sian, Zoha––”
“Do you think your Abu love you?”
“Of course, he does!” I don’t know why I sounded so defensive.
Ramu turned to me and asked matter-of-factly, “Where does he touch you?”
The questions loomed large inside the little shed, rebounding off the walls and came to rest alarmingly on me. I looked at him in confusion.
“What do you mean?”
He shook his head. “Does he touch you down there?” He gestured towards my knickers and I recoiled from him and sat up, ready to flee.
“Does it hurt when he touches you? You know, when he says he loves you, but it doesn’t really feel like it.”
Ramu’s voice seemed like it was coming from a distance. It didn’t even seem to be his any more, it had an inhuman quality, as if all emotion had been stripped from it. My own voice was gone. I didn’t understand his questions, but my built-in sense of danger alerted me that it could only mean something dreadful.
Ramu stood up resignedly and turned to me as I stupidly backed against the wall, my heart threatening to open my chest cavity and pop out. I watched as he undid his salwar strings. The trousers fell in a bunch around his soiled ankles and then he looked up, his face a blank slate. I clapped a hand to my mouth to silence my cry of shock. His little shriveled penis was swollen and red, surrounded by scars and burn marks of all shapes and sizes. His entire lower body was covered in new and old wounds; some angry cuts were getting ready to clot.
“This is how my Baba shows his love––”
I raced outside the shed and didn’t pause until I got inside the house and into my room. I shut the door and bolted it from inside. It was then that I fell against it and cried. At some point late in the night, his final words came to haunt me.
“Can I show you my love?”
By then the rain had stopped.
I never saw him again. I stayed indoors and never wandered outside. Ami seemed pleased. Once in awhile, I glanced out the window and saw the top of Ramu’s scruffy head but he never looked up. On occasions, I hid and listened to the sound of marble hitting concrete. I bore no ill-feeling towards him, only a sentiment of a drawn out sadness. And then he stopped coming to our house. When Ami asked Mai Jan about him, she raised both of her hands heavenward.
“Allah jane, where he is,” she said and wiped a tear from her eyes with her pallu. “He hasn’t come home in three weeks.”
“Three weeks?” Ami looked shocked. “Have you and Akram looked for him?”
Mai Jan nodded. “I did. His Baba is always doing drugs. He’s never in his hosh to go search for his son.”
A chill ran down my spine at the mention of Ramu’s father. He had a sinister presence in my mind. He scared me even though I had never met him. I hovered in the area, listening in.
“What about the police? What did they say?”
Mai Jan laughed and sank down on her knees with the jharoo, sweeping away a large arc of dust. The little restless particles took off in the air in distress, shimmering in the light filtering through the window, unsettled molecules that floated in air in panic and lost their ways.
“Bibi, police don’t care for children like Ramu,” Mai Jan was saying. “They are a dime a dozen and always running away from home. They will probably tell me to go home.”
Ami was speechless. She was rooted to the spot and looked at Mai Jan for a very long time. Then she turned and went inside her room, disturbed.
For a long time afterwards, whenever our car stopped at intersections, I hungrily scanned the sea of bedraggled little boys that surrounded our car for a familiar face—the ones who scrambled and fought each other to clean our windshield with their rags. Their discolored, dirty washcloths always left more smudges than what was previously there. For me, monsoons only heightened such imperfections, exposing the sins of the season, laying bare the inequality of our losses.