|Jan/Feb 2003 fiction|
"He has a hole in his head," Vivek's mother says, pointing at the boy. Her words startle Vivek out of his reverie. Groggy after the twenty-hour SFO-DEL flight, he is ruminating moodily upon the capriciousness of Indian customs officials. Upon landing at Delhi airport three hours ago, he had endured an interminable wait at customs, culminating in a fifty-dollar payoff to the inspecting officer.
Fifty US dollars.
It still rankles him, especially because it was ten dollars just two years ago.
She calls out to the boy. "Raju, idhar aao! Come here!" The boy comes unresistingly. When he reaches them, he bends his head, as if on cue, and Vivek looks down in spite of himself.
Holy shit. There it is. But...
"There's a plastic strip covering it," he says.
His mother is miffed. What does he expect? The poor boy can't very well walk around with an open hole, can he? She pats the boy's head, asks him to run along home. The boy doesn't budge, instead stretches out his hand. "What? You want money?" she is incredulous. He nods. Vivek cuts her off before she can chastise the boy. "Ma, it's not his fault," Vivek says. "Here, yeh lo, take this." He hands the boy a fifty-rupee note.
Thanks for the peep show, bud.
His mother flushes red at Vivek's intransigence, then swings around and angrily walks back into the house. Vivek turns back to the boy, who is staring thunderstruck at the note. The boy is wearing the universal uniform of street urchins: tattered undershirt, shorts, bare feet. He is twelve years old, thirteen at most.
"Uh... Raju. Bye." Vivek says. He waves and picks up his suitcases. The boy waves back. As Vivek enters the house, he looks back. The boy is still waving.
That night, Vivek dreams he is watching Tom and Jerry on television, the episode in which Tom uses a band-aid to stanch a breach in the Hoover dam. Except that Tom is Vivek, and the Hoover dam is not a dam at all, it's Raju, his head bursting at the seams, as Vivek-Tom tries frantically to stem the flow of blood. It is of no avail, the tiny plastic strip is utterly ineffective, and the head-dam bursts completely, leaving Vivek-Tom awash in blood. It clogs his nostrils, gets in his eyes, fills his mouth so he can feel its tangy taste. He tries to scream but only swallows more blood.
Vivek wakes up sweating. He doesn't get much sleep after that.
Parvati watches Raju. How peaceful he looks asleep. He used to love reading. He would read English books, lots and lots of them. She would pick up books for him whenever one of the sahibs threw their children's books away. She was never prouder in her life than when Rawat-sahib called to tell her that her son was selected for the school's top scholarship; she promised to herself that day that Raju would not turn out a dhobi like her, would not spend his life washing and ironing and delivering other people's clothes.
But that was before Bhagwan entered Raju. Parvati refuses to believe that Raju fell from his bicycle and pierced his head on an iron rod. Oh no. She knows it's God. He has snuck into her child and struck him dumb. The hole in Raju's head is Bhagwan's point of entry, and when Bhagwan is done taking residence in her child, he will exit the same way he entered. One day, just like that, he will be gone, and her Raju will be all right, brilliant and bubbly and talkative as ever. He will.
"Raju!" The shout rouses her from her trance. She gathers herself and comes out of the jhuggi, or shanty, where she lives with Raju, the baby, and her husband. Her emaciated face breaks into a smile when she sees Vivek. Her family ate well for two whole days off the fifty rupees Vivek gave Raju. Last night, she even slipped in a little kheer as a treat. Sweet rice pudding was his favorite, and Raju-Bhagwan ate it happily.
Bhagwan, if I have appeased you, please leave my child. Please make him whole again.
Vivek asks her about Raju. How did he get the hole in his head? Of course she doesn't tell him the real story. He'd think she's crazy, just like her husband does. Why doesn't Raju go to school? The school thinks he can't learn any more, that nothing will penetrate his brain. She knows better, knows he can do it—how can he not, with Bhagwan inside him?—if they only give him a chance. What does she want for Raju? She wants him to go to school, of course. "I want him to escape this life, sahib," she says.
Vivek tells her he will try and talk to Rawat-sahib, the Principal, about a job for Raju. Maybe the job could morph into something more. She is absurdly grateful. As he leaves, he gives her another fifty-rupee note. "For Raju," he says.
An hour later, Parvati goes shopping. She knows her husband will shout at her for missing the scheduled laundry pick-up at the Grewal residence, but she doesn't care. She comes back laden with vegetables, rice, flour for rotis and puris, and of course, milk for kheer. Her family will eat well tonight. Bhagwan is taking care of them through Vivek, his emissary. She is happier than she has been in years.
That night, Parvati dreams that Bhagwan is finally leaving Raju's head, leaving to reside elsewhere. She watches the plastic piece fly off his head as Bhagwan exits in an ectoplasmic shimmer. Raju smiles at her and his lips move. Is he speaking? But the dream remains maddeningly silent. Very slowly, she starts leaning forward to see if the hole is still there.
Please, bhagwan, let it be gone let it be gone let it be gone.
And then Raju is screaming uncontrollably.
She wakes up with a start. The baby is crying. She feeds it and does not go back to sleep.
Vijay Rawat is intrigued when Saini, his assistant, announces a visitor. Nobody comes to see Rawat at his office. Not parents, not teachers, not students. Not unless they are stupid or desperate. He sees people when he wants to see them, not the other way round.
He looks up at the framed school logo on his wall. English Convent School. An incongruous name, since the school is not Catholic, nor is English the primary medium of instruction—that honor goes to Hindi. He is passionately proud of everything about the school, including the name. Especially the name, which he chose himself. Where are all those naysayers who predicted ten years ago that the fledgling school, started by Vijay Rawat, high school dropout, would amount to nothing? Where are those doubters now that English Convent is the largest and most profitable private school in town?
He knows how to run a school, oh yes he does. Case in point: the teachers who tried to start a union two years ago. He had tried to be a nice guy, had tried reasoning with them. They remained mule-headed. So he made a few phone calls, the erring educators were paid a visit, and there was no more talk of a union. Since then, fear has been an integral part of his administrative toolkit.
He knows of his visitor. Vivek Kapoor. Captain Kapoor's son. Army brat, lives in the States. He knows Kapoor's type only too well. The brat probably thinks he exists on a different plane from Rawat, probably has no respect for his elders, probably will call Rawat "Vijay", a moniker that nobody but Rawat's mother uses. Well, Rawat will show him what.
"Mr.Rawat?" Vivek's hesitant question jolts him out of his musings. Vivek is apologetic. He explains that he has disturbed Mr.Rawat's undoubtedly busy schedule to ask for a huge favor, namely, a job for Raju Kumar. Surely Mr.Rawat remembers Raju? He was a student at English Convent before his unfortunate accident. Raju is a good kid, a hard-working kid. He can do odds-and-ends tasks for Mr.Rawat, be useful around the school. He hopes Mr.Rawat will give Raju a chance.
The brat's trying to feel me up for a job!
He's about to refuse curtly when he realizes that Vivek has unknowingly touched upon his weak spot. Saini is a completely incompetent assistant, and Rawat suspects Saini might even be a little corrupt. If only he wasn't Rawat's wife's sister's husband. He remembers Raju. The boy has a hole in his head. His accident was a bad turn of events for the school; the boy had great potential and would undoubtedly have done well in the national boards. Hiring the boy might put some pressure on Saini, signal to him that he cannot take his job for granted.
So he asks Vivek to send Raju to meet with him tomorrow. He might have something for him. Vivek thanks him profusely. Rawat watches him leave with a certain satisfaction.
What do you think now, brat? Do you respect me now? Ever thought you'd have to call me Mr.Rawat, brat? I'm as good as you.
That night, Rawat dreams that he is addressing students at the morning assembly, as he does each day. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees Raju waiting in the wings. Before Rawat can react, Raju walks slowly to the center of the stage and turns around to face the audience. A gasp goes up. The entire top of his head is covered with a gigantic piece of plastic. He grabs one end of the strip and starts peeling it off. It makes a ripping sound as it comes off, taking with it slivers of skin, strands of hair, drops of blood. The plastic strip is almost off now, the hole is partly visible, there it is... and then Raju is screaming with horrible, mind-blowing pain.
Rawat wakes up drenched in sweat. He spends the rest of the night tossing and turning.
Saini is upset. He has a good thing going at English Convent, and this saala, this bastard, this idiot mute, is ruining it. Saini is the defacto gatekeeper for school admissions. Parents pay him to get admission interviews for their children. They also pay him to cover up their progeny's escapades, and, on a couple of occasions, to convert a grade from "F" to "D." But Saini's bread-and-butter, the way he makes most of his money, is arranging admission interviews. Access to Rawat's ear, recommending who to interview and who not to, is worth a lot of money. Saini's three-story house is testament to that.
Of course, he takes extreme precautions to keep the payments on the down and low. Rawat demands absolute loyalty from everyone who works for him. Saini quails to think what might happen should Rawat get a whiff of how, he, Saini, is running the admissions process.
But now a few parents are discovering an alternate route to get to Rawat. Both Dr.Taneja and Mr.Makhija used Raju as their emissary to set up admission interviews for their children, slipping a letter in Raju's pocket to take to Rawat, thus bypassing Saini entirely. It is only a matter of time before word spreads around town, before prospective parents see Saini more as a hindrance than a resource, and cut him out completely. Things are getting out of hand. And the urchin is at the epicenter of it.
Saini is too scared of Rawat to say anything to him directly. When he complains to his wife that Raju is slacking off on his job, asks her to convey it to Rawat through her sister, she comes back and relays to Saini that Rawat actually likes Raju, has taken a shine to his uncomplaining quiet efficiency.
This is getting out of hand. I must...
"Saini!" Rawat's shout cuts short his ruminations. Rawat, as is his style, cuts to the chase, asks him what he thinks of Raju.
Sir, he is a lazy idiot. Sir, we should fire him immediately, I can find ten boys better than him.
Before Saini can articulate his thoughts, Rawat tells him he is considering getting Raju to enroll part-time in the school. There is a lot of good in the boy, Rawat says—that brat Vivek Kapoor, despite all his character flaws, seems to have been a good judge of character—and the boy will return loyalty with loyalty. He, Rawat, will think about it some more before making a decision. He then dismisses Saini peremptorily.
Saini is stunned. The boy is attacking his livelihood, is kicking him where it hurts. That this urchin off the street, this son of dhobis, this walking freak—the hole in Raju's head both fascinates and repulses Saini—can do this to him, Rakesh Saini, is unthinkable. He must act.
That night Saini dreams that he is an announcer at a circus side-show with Raju the main attraction. "Come see the eighth wonder of the world! The boy with the hole in his head!" People are paying Saini money to gain admission to the cage where he has the saala locked up.
And then, somehow they switch places.
Saini suddenly finds himself locked in the cage, a large plastic strip attached to his head. He starts scratching at the strip, trying to rip it off. It seems welded to his scalp. He will surely die even if he manages to take it off. There, he has it partly off, he can feel the edges of the hole. But the pain is incredible, and even as he marvels at the hole in his head, he finds himself screaming in more pain than he has ever experienced in his life.
Saini wakes up abruptly. He knows what he must do.
Raju is bewildered. The last three weeks have been a blur. First he met Vivek-sahib, then his mother told him that Vivek-sahib had found him a job at English Convent. He has tried to make his mother happy, has tried to work hard and do his best.
Rawat-sahib is happy with him, he knows it by the way Rawat-sahib pats him on the head and says Shabash, well-done. But Saini-sahib is not pleased, Saini-sahib does not like him, he knows it by the way Saini-sahib constantly glowers at him. Why? Raju doesn't know.
Once upon a time, he was a student at this very school. He remembers people applauding him, remembers Rawat-sahib patting him for something other than bringing him lunch on time. But those details are as dim as a ray of light from the depths of a dark cave, and after some moments trying to recollect sharper images from his pre-blackness life, Raju gives up. He has internalized the fact that since the blackness, he is now a new person leading a new and different life.
He was cycling to school that day. His friend Bunty pointed to something, it might have been a shiny new car or a funny advertisement on the side of a bus, he can't remember now, and Raju turned his head for an instant, and then the blackness descended.
He woke up feeling as if a million hot needles were piercing his head. He cried continuously because of the pain, till it became a part of him and he stopped. He could feel an emptiness, a vacuum in his head, and then Doctor-sahib did something, and the emptiness was gone, replaced by the alien piece of plastic.
Initially he tried pulling at it, tried itching it, tried scratching it. It remained implacably attached to his scalp. Slowly, over a period of months, he made peace with it, with the sporadic bouts of blackness that descend on him, with the sudden shooting pains in his head, with the four tablets he swallows each day. Not so the neighborhood kids, who were his friends a lifetime ago. They taunt him. "Mute idiot! Mute idiot!" they shout. Raju avoids them. Eat-sleep. Eat-sleep. The routine was comforting, familiar, and he was content.
Until Vivek-sahib showed up.
"Raju!" he hears Rawat-sahib's voice, and obediently walks into the office. He is surprised to see Saini-sahib. They look at him strangely as he comes in, and he is suddenly scared.
Rawat-sahib asks Raju if he, Raju, has anything to tell him.
Raju shakes his head, puzzled.
Rawat-sahib asks him the same question repeatedly.
Raju shakes his head harder each time.
What is Rawat-sahib talking about?
Finally, when it appears that they are at an impasse, Saini-sahib suggests that they search Raju's tiny cupboard in the school basement. Raju is puzzled but confident, confident because there is nothing in the cupboard worth taking, worth besides a few odds and ends—pencil sharpeners, empty water bottles, that kind of stuff—he has found lying around the school.
Saini and Joginder, Rawat's bodyguard, walk Raju between them, Rawat a few steps behind. They reach the tiny cupboard, Saini throws it open, and there it is: two thousand rupees in plain view.
Saini turns triumphantly to Rawat. Rawat looks grim but peculiarly downcast.
"From my office?" Rawat asks Raju. Raju is suspended in fear; he is unable to nod or shake his head.
Rawat whispers something to Saini and Joginder, and they nod. Raju wants to speak more than anything he ever wanted. He wants to shout, Rawat-sahib, it wasn't me!, but no words come out, and he can only struggle futilely as Joginder slings him on his shoulder like a sack of grain and strides away.
Raju does not dream that night.
Vivek's phone rings at work. It is his mother. It must be midnight in India, he thinks, she will never call him unless there is something wrong. She seems to be struggling for words. "Vivek, Raju..."
"What about Raju? Ma, tell me!"
The words come tumbling out in a rush. Raju didn't come home yesterday afternoon. When Parvati went to English Convent to check on Raju, they told her he had left for home at the usual time. Vivek's mother helped Parvati file a police report yesterday evening. Today morning, the police called. They had found him. His body was completely unharmed.
"But his head - his head - Vivek, the plastic strip was ripped open," his mother says. "I can't even bear to think how painful it must have been for him. He must have died horribly."
Vivek's mouth has gone dry.
"I'm worried about Parvati," his mother continues. "She keeps repeating how happy she is that God has left Raju's body. She thinks he must have gotten into a fight, maybe with the boys who make fun of him."
Vivek doesn't say anything. He feels incapable of speech.
"Mr.Rawat has been very nice. He was really concerned about Raju's disappearance yesterday, and he came by the jhuggi this evening to offer his condolences," his mother says. "He offered Parvati's husband a janitor's job at the school. They could not thank him enough."