Throwing Rocks At Dogs by Kuzhali Manickavel
Kalaiselvi saw them when she was walking home. They were hanging around a tamarind tree, their tiny black eyes darting back and forth. It was the same bunch that had tried to open her front gate last week. She had yelled at them, her hands banging ineffectually at the window as they sauntered away laughing. They looked exactly the same. They were wearing the same clothes; the same stains clung to their dirty faces and arms.
As soon as she got home, Kalaiselvi went to the garden and found a stone that fit comfortably inside her fist. Then she crouched by her window and waited. It was the small one that finally entered; the one with sagging blue shorts. The stone whipped silently through the air and caught the small boy in the side of the head. She watched as he crumpled to the ground; then she waited for him to jump to his feet and run. But he didn't.
Kalaiselvi locked the gate and dragged the little body inside. She wrapped her hands in plastic bags first because it was a slum boy and she knew that the safest way to touch slum boys was with plastic bags on your hands. She grabbed his bony ankles, pulled him into the front room and locked the door. His shorts clung awkwardly to his hips and a filthy rope of red thread snaked over his bloated stomach. He was bald, with a scar above one eyebrow and tiny cuts around his mouth. Kalaiselvi picked up the phone, dialed and waited with her lips slightly pursed. She heard a click, then a man's voice that sounded like steel wool.
"Adhi?" she said.
"What?" said the man.
"I think you should come here," said Kalaiselvi.
"I've done something."
Kalai used to spend a lot of time thinking of Adhi's voice. She said this was because it did not fit his face or body, which were both rather unremarkable.
"But your voice," she said to him one day, "is like beedi smoke in the morning, right after the rain, when it's still cloudy."
"Is that a good thing?" he said.
"It's the most gorgeous thing in the world," said Kalaiselvi, grinding her knuckles into his forearm. She was always grinding her knuckles into some part of him, saying he was like wet cement on a hot day, like mannvasanai*, like a fresh wound in a green coconut. One day when they were traveling by bus it rained, suddenly and fiercely from a sky that was as dark as ink. Just as suddenly, the rain stopped and the sun split the sky with a single, thick yellow beam. Kalaiselvi had leaned forward, breathing in everything with her mouth half-open. Adhi felt her knuckles grind into his thigh, like she was carving a hole into his skin, right to the bone.
Adhi came seven and a half minutes after Kalaiselvi phoned. She heard him find the key under the rug and open the door. She pictured him staring down at the little boy lying on the floor.
"Who is this," he asked when she entered.
"One of those slum boys. He snuck in and tried to steal something. I hit him in the head with a rock."
He looked at her, his eyebrows gently furrowing and straightening out, as if the realization was only hitting him in ebbs and waves.
"It's like throwing rocks at dogs, Adhi. It's no different," Kalaiselvi said.
"This is not a dog," he said, kneeling down. "This is a boy."
Adhi checked for a pulse and heartbeat. Then he checked if the boy was breathing.
"I think you just knocked him out. You want me to take him to the doctor?"
"No," said Kalaiselvi. "Wait with me until he wakes up."
"Then you can go."
They sat at opposite corners of the room, alternately looking out the window and at the boy. Adhi said the slum would be after her now. Angry men and women with coarse brown hair and bright red mouths would beat down Kalaiselvi's door, demanding money because she had stoned one of their boys. They would come after her for the rest of her life. Kalaiselvi began to laugh.
"What can they possibly take?" she said, looking at the room. "They can have my plastic chairs. Both of them. They can have my chappals**."
"When he wakes up we can say he fainted or something," said Adhi. "We can give him a glass of milk and send him home. Do you have any milk?"
"They were just standing there, a bunch of them, watching me, waiting to sneak in here and steal something. They think I'm an idiot. They think they can just walk in here and take whatever they want. Why would they do that? I don't have anything to take."
"You don't have to give him any milk," said Adhi. "Not if you don't want to."
Kalaiselvi was down to two meals a day. She had four sets of clothes and one pair of shoes that people kept mistaking for bathroom chappals. You've worn your bathroom chappals outside, they would say with a chuckle and she would shake her head solemnly and say no, these are my good chappals. These are all I have. When the vendors cheated her out of a few extra rupees, she made it a point to tell them that she knew what they had done. She would show them the holes in her clothes and say look at this. Just because I can speak English does not mean you can cheat me. At least you should be fair.
"It's hard for me to do ordinary things," she had told Adhi one day. "It took me 10 years to get my ration card and they spelt everything wrong- my name, the street name, everything. I have to go all the way to Kattumannarkoil to get it changed. Everyone else on this street got their ration card in six months with no spelling mistakes. And they don't even need their ration cards!"
This affected her greatly, the fact that her neighbors had perfect ration cards that sat quietly in large steel cupboards. None of them bought ration sugar. One lady bought ration rice but used it to feed her dog.
"I don't know what's wrong," said Kalaiselvi, shaking her head. "Everything is so hard to do."
Adhi had gone with her to Kattumannarkoil, waited with her in the decaying government office, listened to her explain to the peon that she had no money for a bribe and watched as the peon gently sneered and told her to come back tomorrow. That's when Adhi had cornered him and whispered "Thevadipaya***, you want something? You want me to give you something?"
A few minutes later, Kalaiselvi was putting her papers inside her yellow cloth bag while Adhi waited for her in the street.
"If you ever come this side again, just see what happens to your ration card," said the peon from the doorway. "Just see what I do to you."
On the bus ride home, Adhi's anger seemed to fall into itself, eating away at his heart and stomach.
"It doesn't matter, said Kalaiselvi." The rice is always damp and moldy. And have you seen the sugar? It's yellow. Sometimes it's brown. I don't eat that much sugar anyway. Sugar's bad for you. It gives you diabetes."
Adhi suddenly felt too tired to say anything.
The slum boy's hand twitched. His grubby forefinger extended, like he was anxiously pointing at something. Then it curled into itself like a dying worm.
"What do you think his name is?" said Kalaiselvi.
"Ramesh. Satish. John Pandian," said Adhi.
Kalaiselvi looked at him with her head tilted to the side.
"I just realized your name is very slum," she said.
"No it's not."
"Yes it is. It's like a hit man's name. It's like Veera. Or Rockappan."
"It's short for Adhinarayanan."
"Are you serious?"
"Didn't I tell you?'
Kalaiselvi frowned at him, her mouth slowly pursing like a swollen lip.
"Are you a Brahmin?" she asked.
"Why? Do I look like a Brahmin to you?"
"Is that a yes?"
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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