At 2pm, steaming bowls of food are laid on the laminate dining table: plump white rice, curried ladies’ fingers, shredded bitter gourd. Michael is eleven years old, and his mother still squeezes a wedge of lime over his vegetable. There is no need to talk while they eat. Let the batch of mango spoil, I will not say anything, his mother says as she licks her finger and collects used dishes. With a wooden mallet, his father smashes a handful of blood thinners into powder – making spoons and glasses jump – and mixes a pinch of the dust into a mug of tea, a body slimming concoction prescribed by a close friend. After lunch, they disperse into separate rooms to take rest.
On his bed Michael lines up schoolbooks and planners with care. His parents can’t afford proper textbooks which means he has to manage with pages dispensed out of a photocopy machine, stapled and duct-taped in lieu of a spine. The pictures on his history and geography volumes are black-and-white shadows of the rainbow-coloured photographs nestling inside the hardcover editions of his peers. Sometimes it is impossible to discern food charts and water cycle diagrams, to perform reading comprehension when full columns of text are bleached off the page. Michael worries about his grades. Yet, how can he prosper with so little to begin with? How can he be anything but a fraud with pirated knowledge? Not too long ago, he failed his social science exam because the print shop left out copying the chapter on family planning. As a consequence, his parents emptied a drawer containing his saved-up Easter candy and expressed their resentment at sending him to a private, English-medium school rather than a public, tuition-free one. Later, while memorising the chapter he had failed, Michael stared hard at a splotchy outline of a condom. He thought that all of this could have been avoided, his entire existence that is, if his parents knew how to family plan according to their means.
When it is time to take a scheduled study break, Michael walks to the balcony, adjacent to the drawing room, and stares outside. On the narrow street below, neighbourhood boys play cricket, using a column of bricks as stumps, a tennis ball to pull off a yorker. When a car approaches, one of the neighbourhood boys, the smallest of the lot, carries the brick stumps to the side of the street and stacks them against the concrete boundary wall. If two cars come toward each other from opposite directions, one car has to back up to the nearest intersection. It is never clear who should reverse, so the cars flash high beams at each other and sound their horns. They turn off their engines if they really want to show aggression. Sometimes, a gatekeeper opens his landlord’s empty garage and beckons a car to roll in, warding off gridlock.
Michael does not play with the neighbourhood boys anymore. They used to make him a fielder (at best the wicket-keeper) and schemed behind his back. Last year, after his father had bought him a bat from the stadium market, Michael walked up to the boys and expressed his desire to play as a batsman. The neighbourhood boys called an impromptu meeting without Michael, then presented him with an offer. We are now a club, one of the older boys declared, and if you want to become a member and exercise your right to play cricket in this club, you have to donate your bat. Regarding the boy’s pockmarked face, Michael understood that the neighbourhood boys thought he was an illiterate pleb. Because he couldn’t expel words from his mouth, Michael had little leverage to negotiate, not in a way the boys could comprehend. The bat would become communal property, it was explained. He nodded in defeat, like a peasant capitulating to important, city men. From his post behind the stumps, Michael watched senior club members swing the glossy equipment to strike fours and sixes, heard the satisfying crack of wood against pressurised rubber. A few weeks later, a junior member of the club, a diminutive boy, mumbled that there was already a plan to evict Michael from the association. The next day Michael wrote on a notepad – a letterhead from one of his father’s failed businesses – that he would no longer play or be a part of the club. Therefore, I wish to take back my bat at the end of today’s game, he penned at the end. To his relief, there was little resistance from the neighbourhood boys. At home, when his parents asked what he was doing inside in the afternoons, Michael explained that more time was needed to manage schoolwork, which, in one sense, was true. His father tried to return the bat, but the shopkeeper showed him wear on the edges of the wood and refused. Michael was promised that there would be no more presents going forward. This is your fault, his mother said to his father. You give him things before he even conceives of them.
When evening approaches, the mosque blares the call to prayer. Michael finishes his homework. His parents finish their naps. They are in a bad mood because the sunset awakes strangeness in people. Or perhaps there is something inherently strange about his parents. They nibble toast biscuits and drink hot tea to subdue themselves. Before going out, his father dabs coconut oil on his scalp and drives a comb through his hair. He usually returns late at night, for which he is badgered by Michael’s mother. Do you want to get knifed? she asks. Don’t you know what the streets are like? She isn’t wrong. There are stories of mugging that take place between midnight and dawn. Residents who return late or leave early are stabbed, then rickshawed to the nearest hospital if lucky. The attackers draw out machetes and speak in rural dialects, in accents that are sneered at by city people during daytime. If anyone tries to outrun them, they throw homemade bombs and hop over boundary walls. Eventually, Michael’s father experiences the phenomenon first-hand. The news makes him a neighbourhood sensation. It lands him on the phone with the neighbourhood commissioner who advises having faith in the ruling party and making a donation in the name of God.
Here’s how it went: Michael’s father is on a rickshaw, almost home, when a man with a gamcha wrapped around his face falls from the sky brandishing a curved blade. Because he is brave and physically fit, Michael’s father jumps off the rickshaw and grips the man’s neck with his hands. The rickshaw puller flees in fright. The attacker waves his blade at the air. Michael’s father dodges the swipes but is suddenly overcome with light-headedness and a piercing pain in his heart. He can tell that his blood pressure has exceeded 160 by 100. He can feel his grip loosening. Swallowing his pride, Michael’s father cries out for help. Where is everyone? he yells; I’m having a heart attack! The hospital later suggests a panic attack, but Michael’s father rejects their suggestion. Aroused by the call, neighbourhood men come out of their houses and start beating the man who turns out to be a boy, once the gamcha is ripped off his face. Pig, pig! the men cry in unison. No more pigs in our neighbourhood! The boy becomes limp and stops breathing before the police are informed of the mess. Rabid kid, Michael’s father says later, wiping sweat off his temples. I was close to gone. I told you, Michael’s mother says, furious. Don’t say I didn’t! What if something happened to you?
While Michael’s father is away at night, Michael’s mother watches TV and speaks over the landline. She reads the culture section on the newspaper and tears it in half if she recognises someone from her past. A long time ago, she was a singer on national radio and numerous men expressed interest to marry her. Michael’s father is proud that he was the one to win her over. During a house dinner party, Michael heard him say to his business partner that she would have had no life if he hadn’t intervened. I plucked her out just in time, he said.
It is for the best that his parents are separated after sundown. The last time the two of them were home at night, Michael heard shouting and ran into the kitchen to find his mother trying to set herself on fire. His father said, please, do it before you change your mind. Later, this memory would reenact itself many times in Michael’s head, playing like syncopated music in the shower, in the middle of an exam, in his dreams. His mother would light a matchstick and hold it at the edge of her shalwar. The flame would implant on her hip, crescendo into a blaze and gradually die without consuming her. Wow, his father would say at the end. You should get an award.
What if Michael were to set himself on fire? He wonders if that would erase his parents’ problems.
Not far from where they live, krishnochura trees bloom in front of the Parliament building, spilling red over footpaths and main roads. Fleshy starfruits, sprayed with insecticide, are arranged on cycle vans near intersections. One price, one price, hawkers bark at customers who try to bargain. Garment factory workers stomp across the city in bright sponge sandals. Then, with a switch of traffic lights, heavy rain starts to fall. Go quicker! Michael’s mother tells the rickshaw puller, but the main road is already clogged. The hawkers throw plastic over the fruits and call on God. The factory workers squeal and run. Eventually, open drains fill up with water. Transformers explode in a pyrotechnic display, and all buildings in their neighbourhood lose power. Following the day’s final call to prayer, candles are lit one by one in every house.
In the kitchen, Michael’s mother complains about the maid being away in her village. She complains while peeling potatoes and washing rice. She complains while scouring pots with a stainless-steel pad. She complains while squatting in front of a long, curved blade to descale fish. Michael’s father pays her no attention while he changes into a lungi and a wife beater. He reaches for an emergency lamp on a high shelf and sets it on the dining table. He clicks on a calculator, scratches numbers on a notepad and eats jhalmuri off his cupped palm. Also at the dining table, Michael scans the pages of the daily newspaper. A war crimes tribunal is set to sentence the leader of an Islamic party to death. A nine-year-old has been mutilated in a road crash. A celebrity couple has welcomed their first child. Michael wrinkles his nose at a chemical odour wafting out of nowhere. From the corner of his eye, he sees a mosquito-repelling coil burning insidiously in the dark.
The fridge is leaking, Michael’s mother says, holding a candle in her hand. Your beloved padma ilish is rotting. I’m busy; please don’t chew my ears off, Michael’s father says. Cook them in mustard. No, deep fry them, the eggs too; whatever you like. Nothing matters anymore because our son is bankrupting us. I am burning my retirement on his education with no hope of ever getting a return on investment. Will he even pass this year? How should I know, Michael’s mother asks? I warned you about his school, didn’t I? New uniform every year! Art paper, different sizes of paint brushes; what a waste. He is not interested in art; he’s not capable.
Michael looks up from his newspaper and glances at the garish clock on the dining room wall beside the wooden cross. He was told that the clock was from the 1980s, gifted to his parents at their wedding by a cousin who admired Japanese craftsmanship. It no longer reads time accurately. Because of its geriatric character, the clock reminds him of his deceased grandmother who had also been topsy-turvy near the end. Michael’s father used to joke that she was the last living remnant of the Mughal Empire, which Michael knew wasn’t true because the empire ended in 1857. His grandmother couldn’t possibly have been more than 150 years old when she died. She was probably a remnant of the British Raj, Michael thought. In her last year of life, Michael was watching the Cartoon Network once when his grandmother sneaked up from behind and smashed a ceramic vase on his head. She insisted that Michael be lynched, claiming that he was a traitor to the country and that he had betrayed her husband in the war. Months later when she died, Michael cried and threw up. He loved his grandmother, and he knew she loved him back. During Christmas, she used to make him rice pudding with jaggery, his favourite dessert, for which she would order the ingredients weeks in advance from her village. When he would have difficulty falling asleep, she would tell him stories about his father’s childhood, stories in which he made a lot of trouble but always emerged as the hero in the end.
The sky rumbles. Michael turns on his bed with biting pain in his stomach. He knows the fish is to blame. Staggering to the bathroom, he recalls a TV news report about a public clinic for the poor that specialises in treating diarrhoea, where the patient beds have a circular hole at their centre. Michael wonders how bad his bowel movements would have to be for his parents to leave him there and never come back.
From the toilet, Michael can hear his father on the phone, talking with one of his close friends who lives far, far away. I am finished, Michael’s father says, whereas you had the vision and balls to move out of the country at the right age. I’m nearing forty-five, brother, and I’ve already suffered a heart attack. There’s nothing left for me. My poor wife pretends she is dead. One morning, I wake up and see her ears and nostrils plugged with cotton. Another morning, her neck is covered in ice, melting into the pillow. Tell me how I am supposed to react! I ask her, what’s your problem? I say, let’s take you to a doctor; maybe it’s depression; maybe it’s your monthly time. Women are complex because their biology is complex, but my wife is also a performer. I no longer know what is real. And now she has my son in her corner. There’s no difference between the two in behaviour. We still can’t make him talk. We gave him speech therapy, antibiotics, homeopathy. Nothing works! What did I do to deserve any of this? Why is God hellbent on punishing me?
Seconds turn to minutes. Minutes turn to hours. Michael rises up from his bed and watches a slab of grey cloud from his window. Now the rain has the tempo of TV static and smells like rusted tin. The idea of going to school in this weather makes him sad. He wants to tell his mother that he feels sick. But he knows that she will never allow him to stay home. Besides, his classmates, who are now waking up in air-conditioned bedrooms in affluent parts of the town, already pity him for being poor and impaired. He doesn’t want to hand them another reason, making him seem even less capable.
Michael puckers his fingers around his chipped window grills. Beyond the window, a few feet across from where he stands, a pair of adult underwear dangles from a clothesline like a flag. He knows that the underwear belongs to the bachelor neighbour who brings an easel onto his balcony and paints the bodies of women in pain. Michael remembers the fuss the neighbour made when a couple of his paintings had gone missing from the balcony. An investigating officer shone a torch light into Michael’s bedroom from the neighbour’s apartment. Afraid of being deemed a suspect, Michael quickly ducked under his desk. The paintings were later discovered in a drain. A common thief admitted that he had leapt from sunshade to sunshade to scale the building but had found nothing valuable to steal.
Michael lets go of the grill. He goes back to his bed and closes his eyes. Almost immediately, his mother walks into the room and pulls away his blanket.
The school uniform can’t be ironed because there is no power. In the bathroom, the shower only jets out cold water, causing Michael to shield his head with his hands. Why do you act like a prince? his mother asks, turning on the kitchen tap over an empty pot. She carries the filled pot to the stove while Michael waits in his towel. Once the water boils, she pours it into a large bucket used for doing laundry. She does not flinch when sprays of the hot liquid land on her arms. There are many grease burns on Michael’s mother’s arms, marks that resemble groups of islands on a map. Mix it well with the water in the bathroom, she says to Michael. Carry it carefully.
Michael likes to have milk and toast for breakfast, but today the milk is spoiled and has acquired a metallic taste. His mother runs it down the kitchen sink before his father is awake, in case he takes a sip and deems it potable. Michael signs to his mother that he has no appetite this morning. Yet, he forces down a piece of soft white bread and an overripe banana, upon her insistence. With the ceiling fan not working, he feels his undershirt pooling with sweat.
Turbid floodwater has entered through the collapsible gate of their building and risen up the bottom steps. Michael’s stomach bubbles with sickness. His mother ties a large surgical face mask over his face. The edges of the layered fabric dig into his cheeks. Last year, at a cousin’s birthday party, another cousin who happened to be a paediatrician asked Michael if he had asthma. There is a chance you have it, the cousin said. I wonder if it’s connected to your mutism. The cousin laced his fingers, to show the connection between asthma and mutism, before repeating the information to Michael’s parents. I wouldn’t be surprised, Michael’s mother said. His father is a chain-smoker. Today it’s asthma; tomorrow, lung cancer. Michael’s father bellowed with laughter. Don’t believe a word she says, he said. She always had a knack for making a mountain out of a molehill. She likes to act.
The rickshaw puller hands Michael and his mother a plastic sheet to protect themselves. The neighbourhood is submerged. The puller rings the rickshaw bell before making a turn, but there’s no traffic. A corpse of a dog foaming at its mouth comes floating toward them. A bobbing plastic Sprite bottle. A broken tree branch. A bare-chested boy wades through the water with an empty cement bag. Michael makes eye contact with the boy, then looks away. The stench makes him heady. It’s affecting his mother too, he can tell. She clutches his wrist with her cold, sweaty fingers, then closes her eyes. Perhaps, she’s suffering from vertigo. Michael wonders if this is any different than her indulging in one too many servings of paan at the end of wedding parties. He visualises her funny faces, her slurred speech and her disjointed gait in saree and heels. He has never witnessed his mother enjoying herself more than when she’s chewing betel leaves. But this, Michael senses, isn’t enjoyable to her.
The rickshaw nears the edge of the neighbourhood, where the all-girls high school, known as Government Girls, is located. The main building of the school is a giant rectangle with almost no windows, reminiscent of military barracks Michael had once seen in a war documentary on CNN. The main entrance of the school compound has been pushed open all the way so that students cocooned in rickshaws can be transported directly to the front steps. Girls hop onto the porch in a single motion and quickly fix the creases across their dress uniforms. They are flighty, Michael thinks. Is it because they are biologically complex? A few of them sneeze, and one girl wraps herself with a thin shawl she has been carrying in her backpack, perhaps unsure until now if she would need the extra layer.
Michael goes to an English-medium school. His classmates ride in leather-upholstered cars that play stereo music and smell of camelia groves. They are dropped off by their chauffeur, whom they refer to as driver uncle. Some have multiple cars and multiple driver uncles. Some even have divorced parents. Michael has little in common with them. The boys talk about PlayStation games, make plans to go swimming or golfing after school and wear spotless shoes that squeak when they run. The girls gossip and chew gum, apply makeup in the bathrooms and exchange movies in secret. Who are your friends? Michael’s father asked last year. Give me their names, addresses and phone numbers. Keeping it vague, Michael said he had too many friends to count. Because they were rich, they went by many names, addresses and phone numbers.
The only person who is in the same pecking order as Michael is a boy who recently transferred from a Qawmi madrasa school. On the boy’s first day, Michael had passed a handwritten note to him during tiffin break, after observing that not a single of his classmates had approached the newcomer. The note said: Welcome! The boy timidly took the paper from Michael, then scribbled back: THANKS. Michael noted his terrible handwriting, then wrote back: You can talk normally. I am not deaf.
Michael quickly discovered that the new boy was quite irregular. He recited religious invocations while sneezing, eating and drinking and while entering and leaving the bathroom. Toilets are filled with evil jinn, the boy shared. He sought Michael’s help in math. Michael was eager to assist at first but grew impatient when the boy only showed infinitesimal progress after weeks of one-on-one tutoring. Finally, their friendship came to an end when Michael refused to admit that the boy had memorised the entire Qur’an. Taking offense, the boy asked if Michael thought he was lying, asking what a kafir like him would know about the Qur’an anyway. Wallahi! the boy exclaimed and never spoke to Michael again.
By tiffin break, Michael is glad he came to school today, despite someone tripping him in the hallway and someone else mocking the way he signed with his hands. He is in a good mood because on his last math test he received full points and on his latest social science assignment, his teacher wrote excellent and drew a star underneath. Despite the sorry state of his books, his dedication to learning is paying off, Michael thought. From the windows in the hallway, he sees that the rain has ceased and the clouds are parting. The day is growing brighter. Even his stomach is quiet.
Michael swallows a soggy egg sandwich his mother put together. He makes his way to the teacher’s offices to see the Bengali instructor. He wants to ask why he is struggling and how he can be better. The room is empty when he enters, smelling of coffee, samosas and printed ink. The chairs are out of alignment, umbrellas open on the floor. Michael tiptoes to the conference table and waits for the teachers to return. Where are they? On the table, there are stacks of papers. Michael pries, then discovers that they are question papers for upcoming half-yearly exams. They haven’t been locked away in the metal cabinets yet. How can his teachers be so careless? The papers are all for his class, Grade 3.
The windows in the teachers’ offices overlook hibiscus trees and an outdoor basketball court. Now that it has stopped raining, students have flooded outside. The sky is translucent and gargantuan. Michael’s neck pricks as if someone is watching him from behind. He does a nonchalant scan, but no one is there. He feels himself breathing faster.
Michael waits another couple of minutes. When the teachers still don’t show up, he walks back to conference table and lifts a copy of an exam from each stack. By the time he is finished, he has eight stapled documents in his hands. He walks out of the room, turns a corner, hits a boy’s forehead and falls. The papers fly out of his hand and scatter across the floor. Michael jumps up and sees the face of the Qawmi madrasa boy. Sorry, the boy sings in a frightened voice. Michael bends down to pick up the papers as fast as he can. The boy helps him. Michael wants to yell at him to stop. If only he could speak.
Michael gathers five of the exams while the boy retrieves three. Before the boy hands Michael his stack, he gazes at the headings. Michael watches him frown, then freeze. Michael snatches the documents out of the boy’s hands and rushes to his classroom. He opens his bag zipper and shoves the exams behind his spineless textbooks. He sits on his chair in the empty room. Michael has always known he is a mishap. He is mute and asthmatic. He is feeble and strange. A freak to his peers. A failure to his parents. How does one survive in a world where one is the weakest?
For the rest of the day, Michael waits to be summoned to the principal’s office. He anticipates the Qawmi madrasa boy snitching on him sooner or later. Michael has been in that office before. He remembers sitting on a padded chair, next to his mother, and counting the leaves of a bonsai plant that rested on a glass table. The principal was concerned about Michael’s grades. She asked if everything was okay at home, but Michael’s mother had all but said a word. Staring at the bonsai, Michael thought how cruel that the plant was forced to be stunted. The principal signed a document, titled Deficiency Notice, with a handsome writing instrument. She had a coat of maroon paint on her fingernails. Her hair exuded the smell of henna and shimmered under shafts of sunlight that flooded her office.
On the rickshaw ride back home, Michael is silent. The Qawmi madrasa boy hadn’t betrayed him today. What game is he playing? They stop twice: once to refill his asthma inhaler from a pharmacy and once to purchase art supplies from a stationery shop. His mother haggles with the bookshop owner over the price of watercolours, then asks if Michael wants an ice cream bar from the store next door. He shakes his head. What’s wrong with you, his mother asks? Municipality plumbers in their neighbourhood are unclogging drains, clearing the flow to the sewers. No longer stagnant, the floodwater is forming whirlpools, making its way to subterranean levels.
At home the elderly maid is back from her holiday, her complexion tanned, her disposition upbeat. She went to the countryside to resolve past matters with her son and persuade him, by force if necessary, to get married and give her grandchildren. In her arms, she lugs a bag of fresh vegetables and a bottle of goat milk. Depositing her wares on the counter, she holds Michael’s face in her hands and smiles a toothless grin. Mashallah, she says.
Today, she will wipe the floors, do the laundry and use the sheel pata to mash ginger and garlic into paste, per Michael’s mother’s instructions. Michael can tell how relieved his mother feels.
Months ago, the maid was reprimanded for rinsing dishware with water that contained grime from the kitchen floor. It was uncovered that her cataracts were advanced and she had no money for surgery. She explained that her reclusive son had run away with a wooden chest that contained all her life savings. Skin from her throat, hanging like a pelican’s pouch, quivered as she sobbed blindly on the floor. At the end, Michael’s parents paid for her lens replacement. Michael’s mother rode with her on a rickshaw to the eye clinic. Why are you going to your son when he looted from you? Michael’s mother demanded to know days after the surgery. The elderly servant broke into tears. He is blood, madam, she said. He’s all I have. There’s no one else I would rather see.
Michael lathers his hands with a pink soap and dries them with a threadbare towel. He can smell pickled olives and cut cilantro. He can hear the hum of a busy refrigerator. At 2pm, Michael’s mother sets the table and brings out the food. His father switches on the fan and stares at the swivelling blades in awe. Bathed and changed, his parents have never looked more kempt, not that Michael can recall. There is a glow to their skin, a grace in their movements, a glimmer in their eyes. What changed, Michael wonders? When everyone is seated, Michael signs with his hands that he has something to say. Eat first, Michael’s mother replies. It is important, Michael signs. About school. He knows, Michael’s father asks? Did you tell him he’s leaving? No, I have said nothing, Michael’s mother says, annoyed. I have been getting good results, Michael interrupts. I think I’ll do really well this year. Let’s eat first, Michael’s mother says. The rice is getting cold.
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