About The Story The material conditions of Indian life mean that there is in our literature a current that deals almost entirely not with man’s ability to shape the world but rather his quest merely to gratify his shrieking and demanding body. In this story by Kshitiz Tirkey, we see a desperate teenager in a drought-stricken village less as a social animal—though the boy is that too—but as a beast, completely a prisoner of the hunger and thirst that assail his body and derange his mind.
Tirkey does not name his protagonist: the universe of the story is so elemental, and the passing of the hours in it so full of challenges, that identities are almost irrelevant. The focus on the main character’s bodily wants is so intense that we are both fascinated and appalled. On the scales of this universe, death is as welcome as life, and there is something heroic about the independent boy’s desire to work the plough on land that has just tasted water for the first time in years.
The Independent Boy
NORMALLY CHILDREN TURN THEIR FACES AWAY when they see green vegetables. However, for the 13-year-old perspiring under the searing sun, it was different. A single glimpse of greens was enough to get his dry tongue salivating. The cactus with its large thorns did look very tempting.
His chapped lips, bruised tongue and skeleton frame were all evidence of the food—pies made up of mud, salt, oil and bits of vegetables—he had been eating for the past two years.
For him, the taste didn’t matter much. Unlike other kids, he didn’t care whether his food tasted chalky, muddy or salty, as long as it satiated his hunger.
But today he was hungry and his mother was nowhere to be found. And though she had ordered him off the cactus, the hunger pangs had forced him to disobey her.
With water rarely, if ever, kissing their drought-affected area, the land had become hard. And this had made the roots go deeper in search of water, making digging a difficult job. But his hunger made him persist and he went on digging with a small stick that he found lying close by.
By the time he had the cactus uprooted, he was close to fainting from exhaustion. If he had thought he would be able to savour the fruit of his labours so easily, he was mistaken. A major job still remained: peeling the cactus. And with him so tired it wasn’t going to be an easy job.
With sweat pouring from his already wet T-shirt and his strength waning, he broke off one of the large pointed needles and bit on it. It was hard and difficult to chew, so he spit it out. He then turned his attention to the mite of flesh that had been ripped off with the needle.
The piece, though small, looked immensely delicious. He broke the flesh with his dirty fingernails and put it in his mouth. It was soft, chewy, but bitter. The viscous milk coming out of the morsel also made it difficult to swallow the flesh.
However, that one bite revived his life force. And after that it didn’t take him long to skin the plant. For his work, he had chipped off a small piece of flint from a dirty-looking stone, which he then rubbed against the cactus.
With the thorns and the outer skin gone, what remained was a pale peeled cactus, which stoked the fire in his belly.
He was so involved in peeling the cactus that he didn’t realise that his mother was standing in front of him. So engrossed was he in his labours that he never saw his mother’s hand making a swift arcing motion. What he did feel instead was a sharp sting that turned his chocolate-coloured cheek beetroot-red.
“Are you crazy!” she cried. “Don’t you know the milk from the cactus will make you sick? One touch of milk is enough to cover your skin with sores! What do you want? Should I and your sister waste away our lives taking care of both you and your sick father? We anyway don’t have much, and whatever we are left with, you want us to sell for your and your father’s treatment.”
“But I’m hungry, Maa,” he moaned, his eyes welling up with tears.
“Stop crying. Can’t you wait? Go inside, there are some pies ready for you on the plate, they should be enough to fill your stomach,” she said.
Then as an afterthought, she asked, “Did you swallow anything?” When she heard his answer, she told him to spit out whatever he could. Then, without any warning, she thrust her gnarled finger inside his mouth to make him vomit. And vomit he did, but nothing much came out. Whatever did was laced with the few precious drops of food and water that was left in his body.
With the toxins purged from his system, he headed past his mother for the food, but did not get far. Unable to adjust to the difference between the brightness outside and the darkness inside, he promptly crashed to the floor. However, the power of his hunger was so strong that it didn’t allow him to sit and cry. Instead he kept on groping with his hands and legs in the all too familiar darkness of his windowless home till they rested on the pies.
The house—all four sides and the roof were made of corrugated tin sheets—ensured that the boy’s sweat, pouring out in small rivulets, made its way into the pies via his hands.
The food turned into a sticky mire as it mingled with water. But the child licked his fingers clean. And as often happened after eating the mud pies, he started pining for water—the clay had sucked all the moisture from his tongue.
Reaching out for the jug filled with water, he gulped down as much as possible, but its saltiness ensured that he was left thirstier than before.
No rainfall, and the untiring sun’s harsh heat that year, had dried everyone’s wells and left their fields fallow. The salty water had been brought by his mother from a well located eight kilometres away. She knew what salty water did to the body, but, with her peculiar wisdom, said it was better to die from drinking water than of thirst, which was far more excruciating and painful. However, in the boy’s opinion, a knife was a much better alternative to both as a way of taking one’s leave.
The thought of death made him look eastwards, to where his progenitor lay. Sheathed in absolute darkness, the only thing that gave away the frail old man’s presence was his rhythmic breathing. The stroke had not only left him unable to move, but had also taken away his voice.
However, the man in front of him had not always been like this. According to his mother, his father had once been as strong as a bull. She had once even described how his father had tilled his land on his own, bearing the heavy wooden plough on his own shoulders.
The boy, however, had never heard the story of his father’s great strength from anyone apart from his mother. And though he did respect his mother’s perseverance, he was troubled by her belief that one day her husband would get up from the cot, and speak with the mouth that hadn’t uttered anything in ages.
In the beginning, the boy too had believed in his mother’s conviction, but as time passed hope had given way to the practical exigencies of life, such as that of his family’s survival.
Their income wasn’t much, but whatever it was they had to labour hard for it. His mother did back-breaking work for ten hours every day at the brick kiln, and the brother-sister duo sold daatun—tree branches used to brush teeth—at the local haat. And even though the combined income was not enough to provide for the family, still his mother spent some of it on a witch doctor, trying to cure his father’s paralysis.
The boy had never liked the witch doctor much, and thought of him as a scavenger living on their hard-earned money. He had even voiced his dissent to his mother, but instead of listening she had gone on to list some imaginary improvements in his father. His cause hadn’t been helped by his father’s inability to say anything.
But one day his rage had reached breaking point and burst out. That day, he berated his father for his paralysis, his mother for being too narrow-minded, and his sister for no reason other than just being there.
The sheer impotence of his very short life had made him bellow with such a rage that the walls of his house had trembled. This went on for some time before he had ran of his house, sobbing. It was only then that his rage subsided.
He had thought that this would have brought his mother onto his side, but her faith in the witch doctor had become even more pronounced after that episode. It was then that he realised that his mother, who seemed so strong on the outside, was lost forever in a morass of hope and despair, and would never return.
In time, the helplessness in his father’s eyes had made him wonder if his progenitor wanted his freedom back by leaving this world for the netherworld. A passing remark he made to his mother on this matter got him three slaps in return, leaving him with a mark on his right cheek. All this had happened in front of his father, and at that moment the child could swear that two tears had fallen from his father’s eyes—incontrovertible proof, for him, of his dad’s agreement with his belief. But by then he had himself become too disoriented to bring it to his mother’s notice.
The sickening smell hitting his nostrils brought him back to reality.
He searched in the darkness of the shack and found the tin can with its wick, soaked in kerosene, jutting out. He lit it and took it near his father. The flame cast an orange light on his father’s face, making every feature distinguishable. His father, similar to him, was just bones wrapped inside a bag of skin.
“Toilet?” he asked his father, but got no response apart from a stare. He went nearer and the smell hit his nostrils again, this time much more strongly—conclusive proof that his father had dirtied himself and his cot.
Others may have found this job dirty, but for the boy it was something he had been doing for the past five years. Anyway, there wasn’t much to clean up, as there never was much to eat.
He picked up some hay, turned his father over, and cleaned his buttocks after taking off his underpants. He then turned his attention towards the small puddle of squalid black stinking matter that had accumulated on the cot. He cleaned that up too.
Then, taking the hay outside, he threw it in a ditch where pigs were waddling in the dust. No sooner had he thrown the dirty hay than the pigs created a ring around it. Laughing in his mind, he said, “It’s better to be a pig in today’s world than a human. No matter whether we have anything to eat, the pigs will always have plenty for themselves.”
He then cleaned his hands by rubbing dirt and ashes on them.
Looking up at the afternoon sun, he realized he was late for his weekly visit to the haat. The marketplace was located about four kilometres away. But since he was so young, he wasn’t allowed to go that far on his own, and so had to tag along with other villagers who were going there too.
There was no well-defined path to the haat. And with the sun beating down hard and not a single tree in sight, it wasn’t long before thirst began to plague him again. He resisted for as long as he could, but when it became really unbearable he took a bottle out from his satchel and took a few sips of water. But he didn’t glug it down, and instead kept the few drops in his mouth. This helped him keep his mouth moist. His mother had taught him this trick to help keep thirst at bay.
The small marketplace, situated right in the heart of the small district, was bustling. The branches he hawked were torn down from a tree that grew in the family’s backyard. However, with each passing season, even the tree was being reduced to just a skeleton.
It didn’t take him long to sell the few bundles of daatun he had brought along. He now had to wait for other villagers to finish selling their wares and make their own purchases. Bored, he roamed around the small market place, whose alleys were so familiar to him and, in his joyless world, so inviting.
Suddenly he heard the sound, fisssssssssssss, of a hawker putting a slice of marinated fish in boiling oil in a frying pan. The smell was intoxicating. He loved fish, but hadn’t eaten it in years, and had now even forgotten its taste. The scent of chicken curry with rice was overpowering too. However, the thought of his family waiting for him to bring home some flour, oil and vegetables, which would tide them over the next few days, helped keep temptation at bay.
The real temptation was brought on by the sugar-boiled candies, which were present in various colours.
By the time people had sold their wares it was dusk—time for them to begin guzzling country liquor. Even the child was offered some, but he politely declined.
Then they packed their bags for home, and as always, on the return trip, the boy became the caretaker of his intoxicated caretakers. However, his record was far from perfect, and it was common for people to be left behind and found only in the morning.
Today it was much darker than usual, and he was having trouble looking after some of his companions. Then a drop of something hit his arm. Thinking it was bird droppings, his head rose instinctively towards the source, even as his opposite hand reached for the arm to remove whatever had dropped there. Then he became aware of the sweet smell of rain hitting the ground.
It had been ages since rain of this sort had hit the region. The clouds collided with each other, and the roar of thunder was deafening.
The downpour was so strong even the sleepiest of the drunkards was roused from his stupor. All at the same time, people joined their hands and looked up with much devotion, praying to the heavens to not take this monsoon away quickly. They then slowly lay down on the ground with their mouths open and their eyes closed in ecstasy. The rain pattering into their mouths was delicious, and they drank and drank and drank the precious nectar denied to them for so many years. Then they washed off the years of blackened grime that had become almost part of their bodies. The boy stayed back and chose just to observe them. The last time rain had pattered on the roof of his house he had been a toddler, and he had run out naked to greet it. But years of difficulties had killed the child inside him, and had created a hollow place in his heart, so much so that he couldn’t even remember when he had smiled last.
Not wanting to interfere with the joyous celebrations of his companions, he started walking towards his village on his own. The wet fields made walking difficult. He knew nothing of how to walk on muddy ground. If the monsoon remained like this they could have a good crop, he thought. There was a bag of paddy seeds at their house. Maybe, he thought, he could cultivate rice.
From a distance, the whole village seemed devoid of people. Another puzzling thing was a thick plume of smoke rising from the direction of his house. The last time this had happened was when his mother had cooked real food, but that was about two years ago.
All the people of the village, he saw when he came closer, had gathered in one place. And his house, or whatever was left of it, was the source of the smoke.
All five corrugated sheets were lying in a heap, glowing red. Thin wisps of smoke were rising from the cot with a charred thing lying on top of it. His mother was lying near the charred corpse of her husband with her tears flooding her beautiful face. His sister was sitting close to her, staring at the sky from which life and death had come.
The thoughts that should have come to his mind should have been—when? how? Instead, the first thing he thought was that his father was dead. For all these years he had been a silent advocate of his father’s death, but now that his progenitor had left for his heavenly abode he felt an emptiness creeping inside him.
He walked up to his mother, who after seeing him began to cry even more hysterically. Tears soon began to flow from his eyes too, but it was not because of his father’s death but because of the acrid smoke.
He then saw the wooden plough lying in the courtyard. It was unharmed by the lightning.
The night was a blur, and when he got up next day the first thing he remembered was the plough. He went up to it and lifted it. Surprisingly, he found it very light. His mother’s words came back to him: “Your father once tilled the land bearing the plough on his shoulders.”
Determined to do the same, he carried it for a few metres, before falling in a heap and dying.