Dancing to the Flute
KALU STOOD STILL, staring up into the banyan tree, oblivious to the sounds around him or to the man resting against one of the tree’s many trunks. Finally, spotting the perfect leaf, the boy began to climb.
Kalu’s right foot clung to root and branch while his left brushed the tree, toes skimming the surface like a blind man’s cane, making sure the path was clear. The banyan seemed to help, its rough, scored bark and twisted limbs providing support, until he reached the branch holding his leaf. It was fresh and green, the color of a ripe lime. It was the size of his hand, and just as supple.
He steadied himself in the branches, plucked the chosen leaf, and rolled it into a pipe. He softened one end in his mouth, pressed down with his teeth to flatten the tube, and blew. The sound, sweet and clear, rode the wind, snaking through the tree and down into the village. It cut between the movie songs blaring out from the village shops and the triple horns of lorries competing for airspace. It slipped around the ringing of bicycle bells, weaving through the village and down to the rocks, where it met the river.
The women washing clothes on the rocks stopped for a
moment, lifting their heads to the sound, before continuing to beat the cloth, this time in rhythm with the music. Kalu settled into the arms of the tree and kept playing.
The man sitting at the base of the tree relaxed his shoulders, his head dropping back to rest against the shadowed bark. He had stopped on impulse at the foot of the banyan that day, and regretted it as soon as he saw the boy. The child was reed thin. He looked no more than ten. His face had the withered look of a ripe sapota, dusty and creased as if the skin were made for a bigger fruit.
The man sat still, not wanting to be disturbed, and had been pleased when the boy decided to climb the tree rather than walk around it. The view in front of the man was expansive, over the cliffs to the River Narmada on one side and the village on the other. His spot under the tree was quiet. When it came, the music carried him away from the heat of the day, back to the crispness of the morning.
The child he had seen seemed too small to make the sound coming from the tree, a sound that was neither worn nor common.
• • •
Kalu stayed sheltered in the cool leaves of the banyan, away from the midday sun, for a few more minutes. His belly growled at the thought of food and he knew if he wanted to eat, he’d have to go down and beg. It had been a long time between meals. The last time he ate his fill was just before he hurt his foot.
It had been a moonless night. The kind of night Kalu liked least. The type that carried nightmares if he wasn’t careful. He would wake with a shock, his body shaking, unable to recall anything but an ache that clung to his lean frame and the fear that made him want to vomit. That particular night he’d
crept to his favorite sleeping place, in the shadows behind the paan-biddi shop. Close enough to people for company and hidden away from harm.
He listened to the film songs played through the loudspeakers at the front of the shop, accompanied by the drone of the generator and the loud, tangled arguments of the men smoking beedis or cigarettes or chewing paan. They spoke of politics, films, and women, but never religion.
The noise often kept the rats away. They traveled up from the river, as big as bandicoots and with teeth strong enough to cut through wire; Kalu worried that they would attack his fingers or toes while he slept. But he was safe here.
The area outside the shop was a mess of broken concrete, splattered red from the betel juice. When she saw the place in the morning, Jaya-shree Ben, the paan-waala’s wife, would screech like a bright green parrot at her husband, Ravi. It was comforting, part of the pattern of each day for Kalu. If he was lucky, Jaya-shree Ben would pay him to clean the area for her. He could do that before running errands. It all depended on her mood in the morning.
Kalu never slept deeply, but that night he was tired. He’d worked hard during the day, delivering goods for the ration store near the bazaar. It had been hot work, especially when the deliveries were for the rich folk on the hill. He wrapped his hand around the small, sharp stone he always kept by him in the night, and closed his eyes.
Later, in the coolness of the early morning, he’d felt something slice into his foot like a red-hot knife. He leaped up at the pain, dropping the stone, then collapsed again as his foot buckled under his weight. There was no one nearby, not a human, snake, or scorpion. The light from the paan-biddi shop and the graying sky illuminated a reddish lump and a line of blood near his ankle. By midday, the area around his
heel was covered with small sores and the joint was stiff, as if the bones had fused.
Until then Kalu had earned what money he could by helping in the fields or running errands. Now, his not being able to run fast or even walk without limping had reduced him to begging. Nothing, not constant washing or even the paste he’d borrowed from the paan-waala, had helped to heal his foot.
He still tried to work whenever the opportunity arose, but his damaged heel and ankle made it difficult to walk, let alone run. The sores soon began to fester. After the first few days, Kalu became immune to the sweet, overripe smell that lingered around him like cheap cologne; others didn’t. People had once smiled when they saw Kalu’s jaunty stride or heard him whistle as he ran from job to job. Now they turned away, holding handkerchiefs to their noses while shooing him off the pavement.
The smell eventually led Jaya-shree Ben to Kalu’s makeshift home behind her shop. “Kalu, out! You’re driving away our customers, dirty boy. Wash yourself. Don’t you have any respect?” She held one hand firmly on her hip while waving him away with the other.
“Go to the community doctor, Kalu,” scolded Ganga Ba, an elderly, healthy woman with sharp eyes and a sharper tongue.
Kalu had delivered letters for Ganga Ba since the day he first arrived in Hastinapore, two years earlier. He’d been confused and disorientated after walking for what had seemed like miles. His throat had hurt, and he’d asked her for milk. She’d given him milk in return for delivering a letter to the post office. He couldn’t remember anything from his past, not even his name, so Ganga Ba called him Kalu, because of his black hair and sun-scorched skin. She said that calling
out “boy” was demeaning and that everyone deserved at least a name. Besides, how would he know which boy she meant?
While Kalu accepted a name and work from Ganga Ba, he had refused to go to the community doctor for his ankle. He’d seen what the daacter had done to other patients. Jasumati, the wife of the sweets merchant, took her mother-in-law to the clinic when the family noticed the old lady’s toes had blackened. Instead of fixing her toes, the daacter cut off her foot! Besides, everyone knew the daacter spent more time drinking than practicing medicine. Kalu had seen the effects of alcohol. Some people became so funny that it was better than a film show. Others you just had to avoid for fear of a beating. There was no way he was going to trust a drunken daacter to fix his foot.
He had come to the banyan tree instead, knowing that he could sit and play for a while without disturbance. Although his seat in the tree hid the village from his view, he could see parts of the River Narmada far below. The cliffs were lined with trees and farmland, punctuated with white, domed temples, each with its own colored flag. Kalu had heard that there was a temple every mile along this part of the river. If you looked closely, you could see the paths and man-made stairs in the cliff face. Each provided a way down to the river, which wound in sweeping curves. Kalu could see his friend Bal taking the buffaloes down for a drink at one spot. Farther away still were workers in the fields, like brown specks of dust weaving between rows of green.
As the women walked back toward the village with baskets of wet, clean clothes, wrung and roped together and balanced on their heads, Kalu thought about leaving the tree. He came down reluctantly, moving slowly, wincing at the roughness of the curved branches and the folded trunk. Soon, even climbing the banyan would be impossible.
The man resting in the roots opened his eyes and spoke just as Kalu reached the ground. “Do you only play into the sky for the gods, or can you play down on earth as well?”
Surprised, Kalu gripped the trunk so as not to fall over. The man sitting on the cotton towel looked tall. He wore a traditional kurta rather than a smart shirt and pants, and his sandals were strong and new, even though the case beside him was battered. If he was lucky, Kalu would earn enough for a meal right here.
“If you liked it, sir, please spare some paise. . . . I’m hungry.”
The man’s expression hardened. “Begging?”
“My foot.” Kalu waved his foot around, hoping the smell would make the man pay him quickly. “I can’t work anymore, sir . . . some paise?”
The man looked at the foot. It was clearly infected. Sores covered most of the heel and part of the ankle, and it was obvious that the problem had been in existence for some time. The boy stood straight, balancing like a paper kite on the wind, his toes holding him steady. The man focused on the boy’s eyes; just as Kalu decided to speak, the man smiled and said, “Come, beta, how about I treat you instead of giving you paise?”
Kalu took a step back. “I don’t need treating.”
“Your foot does.”
“How can you fix it when no one else can?” He wrapped his good foot around the bad, taking care not to touch the sores.
“I’m a vaid, a healer. It’s my job to help. Now, I can’t promise anything. I’ll need to get closer to do a proper inspection. Then much depends on your following my instructions—all of them. Sickness can take many forms. The outward manifestation is often the least complicated part.”
As the words flowed around him. Kalu had heard about vaids from Malti, Ganga Ba’s servant and his friend. Apparently, a vaid healed Ganga Ba’s sister when she had cancer. And she didn’t even know she had cancer at the time. Malti said that Ganga Ba had told her friends a vaid often understood things most people in India had forgotten. And they didn’t open you up or cut your bones. This man didn’t smell of alcohol like the daacter, either. There was something about his face that Kalu, who was normally wary of strangers, automatically trusted. He wondered if he had seen the vaid before.
Kalu moved to rest his back against the trunk of the banyan, positioning himself so the stench from his foot blew away from the vaid. “I have no money. I can’t pay.” Kalu’s voice was clear and sweet when he wasn’t begging. “I used to work, but no one wants me now.”
“And your parents?”
“I don’t have any.”
“What about other relations, or are you completely alone here, boy?”
“I just woke up one day by the roadside. I walked to the village and I’ve been here since.” Kalu didn’t mention the dizziness he’d felt that day or the dreams that had followed him. “But I’m never alone,” said Kalu, cautious of the man’s interest. He counted on his fingers. “There are my friends near where I sleep; and Malti, who works for Ganga Ba; and Ganga Ba herself, who gave me my name, Kalu; and Bal, who looks after buffaloes and smells more than I do.” The boy’s sudden laughter made him sound more like the child he should have been. “Even without this stupid foot—and, oh, lots of others.”
“Kalu, is it? Krishna’s name and a flute player, too.”
Kalu sat next to the vaid, forgetting that the smell and
sight of his foot drove most people away. He liked this man. No one he remembered had ever called him beta, their child.
“All I do is play leaves from trees. That’s not a flute. I can’t even work now, with my foot.”
The vaid smiled. He’d seen a mix of determination, strength, and laughter in the child’s eyes. The strength and suppleness of bamboo before it was burned. It was the same look he used to see in his brother’s eyes, all those years ago.
“Don’t worry about the payment; I have no doubt you’ll be able to pay. The kind of payment I want doesn’t involve money.” The vaid dragged his bag through the dirt beneath the tree to a clear space. “First let me see how far the rot has gone.”
As Kalu moved his foot toward the vaid he heard a shout. “Oy! You, boy, get away! What do you think you’re doing harassing Masterji? Get away, filth!”
Kalu scrambled behind the vaid, gasping as he grazed his heel on an upraised root in an effort to get away from the angry man.
“Calm down, bhai, this boy is my patient. Just as your wife is.”
Kalu stayed behind the vaid’s back, watching and waiting, ready to escape if need be. The man wore shiny lace-up shoes that looked hot and tight, together with socks that should have been white but were now gray and brown, stained by a mix of shoe polish and dirt.
“But, Masterji, he’s nothing but a worthless beggar. And the baby’s coming. To be wasting your precious time on the likes of him!” The man never looked at Kalu, choosing to focus only on the vaid.
“Time is never precious if you don’t use it wisely. Kalu needs my help more than many others. He should be treated no differently than anyone else.”
Kalu’s shoulders relaxed as he listened. While he knew that other people had better lives, he’d never thought of himself as worthless. Not in the sense this man did. While he did not live in a house, he was a good runner. At least, he had been until his foot was damaged. Maybe the vaid could fix it. Why, even the angry man seemed to respect the vaid.
“Please, Masterji, my wife. The baby. We need you.”
The vaid turned and refastened his case, and the man seemed to deflate just a little.
“Beta,” the vaid said, turning to Kalu as he rose, “unfortunately, babies cannot wait as long as little boys. But tonight, just after sunset, go to Ganga Ba’s house. Knock on the door and ask for me. I’ll tell her to expect you. Don’t forget. I’ll need some extra herbs for your foot in any case. And here.” He pressed ten rupees into the boy’s hand.
“But I’ll . . .”
“No, son, this is for the music I enjoyed so much. Fair is fair. And, remember, you have given your word.”
“I’m depending on you.” The vaid smiled before leaving with the man. Kalu watched the vaid move with slow deliberate steps, while the other strode, waving his hands as if fighting a swarm of mosquitoes as he urged the vaid on.
Kalu rubbed his thumb against the soft edge of the note. It was more money than he’d ever had. He’d be able to buy so much: that flute he’d seen at the paan-waala’s and maybe some sweet barfi for Ganga Ba and Malti.
Malti washed clothes in the morning, cleaned during the day, and often called Kalu to pick up messages and make deliveries for Ganga Ba in between. She was at least four years older and a full head taller than Kalu. Malti was old enough to give advice with authority, if not strict accuracy, and young enough to understand Kalu’s point of view.
She had described her first taste of barfi to Kalu one warm, lazy afternoon. They’d been sitting in this exact spot, under the tree. Most people slept through the midday sun. The heat rose from the ground, the shops closed, and the streets were left empty. Once the dishes were washed, the tables wiped and the floors cleaned, Malti, along with everyone else who worked for Ganga Ba, normally rested on a saadadi, the crisscross of straw or plastic mats laid out each afternoon on the green granite floor of the dining room. It was the coolest place during the summer heat. When the temperature dropped, however, Malti and the other servants often moved to the living room, still on the floor but with the television switched on. Ganga Ba didn’t mind what they watched as long as it didn’t disturb her nap or her comfort in any way.
That particular day had been a little too warm. Tempers flared in both the kitchen and the dining room. As the youngest in the household, Malti was often the easiest target. She was small for her age, and even though she’d grown in the past two years, the other servants continued to remind her of her junior status.
On still, humid days when even the lizards stayed under their rocks rather than bask in the sun, she felt the taunts more than usual. So that day she’d escaped from the house and walked the long path down from the good houses to the banyan tree, in search of at least a small breeze cooled by the water below.
Kalu was resting high in the arms of the banyan, hidden from the view of the villagers, being entertained by the squirrels that ran up and down the tree chasing their own tails as well as one another’s. He watched as Malti settled in the roots, her skirt covering her legs, her back relaxing into the wide trunk, before he swung down in front of her.
“Hey, yaar.” Kalu laughed as Malti jumped.
“Don’t—just don’t ever scare me again.” She punched him lightly on the arm before settling again. The river before them was restless that day, flowing quickly on her way through towns down to the coast, to join her sister, the sea.
“Sometimes I wish I could float away on the river,” said Malti. “I’d travel far, far away. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to Bhraamanji grumbling. ‘Malti, do this. Malti, do that . . .’ It’s always the same. I’d find a place where no one knows me. Where I could eat barfi all day.”
“Barfi?” asked Kalu, his stomach growling at the thought of the sweet. Though he’d seen barfi in the sweetshop, he’d never had enough money to buy any. “What does it taste like? When did you try it?”
“Ganga Ba bought some when her daughter came from America. Bhraamanji said that he could easily have made it . . . and nicer, too. Ha! He’s lucky Ganga Ba keeps him. But I ate a little of a broken piece. It was lovely. Sweet and powdery.”
“Since when is mango powdery? It was nicer, much nicer. If we have it again, I’ll see if I can get you a little. Unless of course Bhraamanji makes a fuss.” Malti bit her lip and stared down at the river. “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t here.”
“If you went, where would you go? Would you leave soon?” asked Kalu.
Malti looked down at Kalu and nudged his shoulder. His problems were far greater than her own. “Don’t worry, big eyes, I’m just angry and tired and hot. I’m not going anywhere. Nowhere far, anyway. I earn a good wage here, enough to send money home. And it’s a good town. I’ve heard stories about the city.” The shadows beneath her eyes became more pronounced. “A friend of mine went to the city when I came here. They offered her more money than she would get in a
village. There were more people, too. You even had to queue to go to the mandir to pray. She could go to the cinema, even the ocean. Can you imagine? The ocean! Then one day we stopped hearing from her. No one has heard from her since.”
Now, sitting alone beneath the tree, Kalu remembered the sadness in Malti’s eyes the day she told him that story. He laughed now as he thought of how pleased and surprised she’d be when she saw the barfi he would buy her. He wrapped the money between a couple of large leaves, so that no one would see it, and then tied the whole bundle in the corner of his shirt before limping toward the shops.
If he was careful with his choice, there would even be enough money to buy a few sweets for Bal. He knew that Bal, like him, had never eaten anything as fine as barfi. After Bal’s mother died, his father had sold him to a farmer as a bonded servant. His job was to look after the buffaloes from dawn until the evening, finishing work when the buffaloes were housed.
Most people ignored Bal, making room around him and the animal smell that lingered no matter how much he scrubbed. Bal, in turn, barely spoke to anyone, except his buffaloes. Kalu was his only real friend. The two of them had first met one evening after Kalu was given a little rice by one of the villagers. As Kalu sat by the river to eat it, he saw the other boy, half hidden in the shadows. Kalu offered him some food. Not because he had eaten too much but because the older boy had seemed insubstantial, ghost thin. Bal said no to the food but slowly moved from the shadows to sit by Kalu. After that, the two of them met most days, sometimes for only a few minutes, other times for an hour or two. Neither could rely on a family but they each had the other. While Bal was thinner and quieter than Kalu, he was street-smart, and the younger boy knew he could count on him. Both boys
had been abandoned, but, unlike Kalu, Bal could remember his parents.
Bal was one of the few people who still welcomed Kalu unconditionally, even after Kalu’s foot was injured, and he would be just as excited as Malti to have the barfi. Kalu decided to buy the flute first, and then make his way to the sweetshop for the barfi.
The flute wasn’t normal stock at the paan-waala’s shop; however, Ravi had gone to the big town to buy one for his son. Kalu had heard Ravi explain to Jaya-shree Ben that it was much cheaper to buy three than one, and they could easily sell the other two in the shop. Jaya-shree Ben had not been amused. A paan-waala’s shop attracted men and often servants; it didn’t attract children or doting parents looking for gifts.
The flutes were small and plastic, just big enough that your fingers didn’t overlap when you closed the holes. They were green on one side and yellow on the other. It was more a toy than a real flute, but much better than nothing. Ravi’s son had broken his flute after four days, and stepped on the other after six. Jaya-shree Ben had then taken the last one and placed it firmly beside the cash register.
Kalu knew that if he asked just so and promised free labor in return, Jaya-shree Ben would give him a good discount on the flute. She loved a bargain, and so did he.