Bandilanka once again!

Here it is – yet another story from that tiny village of Bandilanka where lives that have been crushed rise once again to new heights of empathy and love!

6 – Familial slaves

“Look, Parvathi! A letter from America! Seshadri Mama[1]wants me to join him – in that restaurant business of his. You know the one.”

Parvathi looked up from the grinding stone.

“So … what does he need youfor? Or is this part of … part of the ‘debt payment’?”

She wiped her brow with the edge of her sari.

“Husband,” she cautioned, placing her hands on her knees to help her get up from the floor. Her legs weren’t cooperating so well anymore. “We are heavily in debt as it is. We have sold off the bit of gold my mother left me …”

“Yes, wife, I am so sorry about that!”

She got up, went to the hand-pump, and washed her hands.

“Stop that, husband! You have worked those sugar-cane fields so hard all these years – you have broken your back over them, just so that we could send our children to school. And now this lack of monsoon rains – everything destroyed.  Crop failure after crop failure …”

She scooped the chutney out of the grinder into a copper-bottomed brass vessel.

“My mango pickles are selling well. Those houses in Ganti Veedhi have ordered a dozen jaadis.[2]That wealthy Saradamma wants even more for the upcoming marriage of their daughter. That should get us quite a bit of money.” 

“You will work yourself to death, wife. I wish I could …”

Parvathi interrupted him:

“What did the bank say?”

“The bank? What do you think? We do not have an account. They will not even look at me. The moneylender … he told me to come back tomorrow.”

He glanced at his uncle’s letter.

“But now I have no need for the money-lender. This – this letter means that I can buy you a new sari, it could mean sufficient dowry for our daughter, …”

“Husband, I don’t need a new sari.”

She smiled.

“I don’t mind. My old saris are as good as new. And I’m keeping a couple of the heavy silks that my grandmother gave me for our daughter.”

Ramalingam gently stroked his wife’s cheek.

“You are a blessing, my Paru! May you come back to me as my wife for seven or more rebirths!”

Parvathi tried to scowl, but couldn’t resist smiling. She remembered exactly when he had last called her ‘Paru’ – on the day he held their first-born in his arms.

“See here – Seshadri Mama has sent me some money, and …”

“When does Mama-garu[3]want you there? And does he know that we can’t afford …”

Ramalingam interrupted her.

“Here … he says he will send me a ticket. Air India! Just imagine. As soon as I get a tourist visa of course. He has also mailed documents that I have to show to the authorities, documents that promise his financial support when I’m there. He warned me not to mention that he wants me to work for him. A work permit for America is almost impossible to get nowadays.”

He looked at Uncle Seshadri’s letter.

“He says that I am to tell the visa officer that I am a visitor, that he needs me to help him in the wedding festivities.”

“Wedding festivities? The old man’s getting married? “

“No, no! That’s what I am to tellthem, that it is his son’s wedding, that he needs me to bring special items for conducting the ceremony from India, to help him with the arrangements. Americans know how elaborate our Indian weddings are!”

Parvathi stood still.

“I don’t know, husband. I have a bad feeling about this. But helping him in that restaurant – I suppose he’ll pay you well for your work, right?”

“Yes, of course! US dollars! You know how many Rupiahs you get for a single dollar? Hundreds, I think. Our Suresh knows all about the … the internet. He will find out how much. Anyway, we’ll be able to afford that dowry the boy’s parents have been demanding for our dear daughter.”

*****

Ramalingam picked up his small shiny leather suitcase from the baggage claim area at New York’s JFK Airport. His previous travel had been limited to bullock carts, buses, and trains. And there were many buses and trains connecting Bandilanka to the big cities. He had his trusty bicycle to get to the fields.. But an airplane? He tried to understand how humans had developed this almost god-like technology. The Ramayana told stories about flights, but they were always about divine beings. He had been given a seat in the middle aisle of the plane, but an elderly passenger had noticed Ramalingam’s pathetic attempts to look out of the window. 

“Come! Take my seat, brother,” the man had offered. “I have had enough of these flights and would like to sleep for a while.”

Ramalingam had thanked him over and over again. After that, everything else on board the plane became a blur. His eyes were riveted on the images outside the craft: the ant-like people and cars as the plane soared higher and higher into the sky, the clouds through which the plane navigated before resting, it seemed to him, on white softness, and the sight of a brilliantly orange sun disappearing into the ocean.

He waited nervously in line as Customs and Immigration officials checked his passport and visa.

“How long do you intend to stay in the US?” the female official asked.

“Few weeks, sir. Only for my cousin-brother’s wedding.”

“Your cousin-brother?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you carrying any food or plants?”

“No, sir.”

The officer carefully examined his passport, checked the visa, and finally stamped the document. Ramalingam picked up his suitcase and followed the other passengers to the exit. His uncle was waiting outside.

“Come on! Come on!” Seshadri shouted. “I’ve been waiting for three hours. No relying on planes nowadays.”

“Sorry, Seshadri Mama,” Ramalingam said, bending down to touch his uncle’s feet.

“Okay, okay, enough, enough. Come on! I have a business to run.”

He opened the door of a shiny crimson BMW M4. Ramalingam was about to place his suitcase on the rear seat.

“Are you insane?” Seshadri shouted. “I have just had the car detailed. Put your stuff in the trunk.”

“Where, Seshadri Mama?”

“The boot, the luggage boot!”

The older man got in behind the steering wheel.

“What are you waiting for? Come on, come on. And stop calling me Seshadri Mama! ‘Sir’ is good enough.”

“Yes, Ma… sir!” Ramalingam responded, thinking with pride:

“He’s a man of integrity! Doesn’t want to be accused of nepotism!”

They didn’t exchange another word as Seshadri entered the JFK Expressway and navigated his way through the heavy traffic. As they neared the Bronx, Ramalingam noticed that the streets were getting dingier. Piles of garbage lay on the sidewalks.

“It is just like Bandilanka’s poorer sectors!” he thought. He looked at his uncle. It was very untypical that Seshadri Mama hadn’t asked him about the family, or about relatives, or … or anything at all. Perhaps he was exhausted, after all that waiting at the airport? Ramalingam decided to break the ice.

“Seshadri Mama, I haven’t thanked you enough for giving me this opportunity to … to come to America and …”

“Yes, yes!” Seshadri interrupted irritably. “You can thank me by working hard.”

He brought the car to a stop in front of a row of buildings. Each of them had exterior neon signs that read “Video”. He got out and beckoned to Ramalingam to follow him. 

Ramalingam followed Seshadri into an alley. The older man stopped in front of a shabby door and unlocked it. An overpowering stench of urine hit Ramalingam’s nose. He struggled with the vomit that was rising in his throat.

“Pigs!” Seshadri swore. “Come on, come on! Don’t dawdle.”

Ramalingam followed him up three flights of dingy stairs. 

“Mama … sir, where are we going?”

“To your quarters, of course, boy! You think I can afford a five-star hotel? I don’t have that kind of money to spend on my workers.”

He kicked the door open. Ramalingam saw three men sleeping in hammocks. The smell here was a mixture of spices and stale sweat.

“You’ll report for work at 5 am tomorrow. These fellows will bring you.”

Ramalingam set down his suitcase.

“Oh yes,” Seshadri held out his hand. “Before I forget – give me your passport, for safe-keeping. And your mobile as well.”

“Yes, sir.” Ramalingam obediently opened his wallet and handed his passport to his uncle. “But the mobile – I need it to call …”

Before he could say anything, Seshadri had grabbed the cell from his hand, thrust both objects into his pocket, and rushed out of the apartment.

One of the men in the hammocks opened a cautious eye.

“So! You’re the nephew! The boss mentioned you yesterday,” he said, rolling out of the hammock. “Welcome to the great United States of America, the land of the brave … and so on!”

Ramalingam set down his suitcase. 

“I … I’m not sure what this place is. Is this where I’m supposed to stay?”

“Yes, brother. This is for us ‘workers’!”

“But …”

“But you thought your uncle would take you to his palatial home! Dreams are good, brother! The only thing left to us beings who are less than animals.”

He took out a pack of cigarettes.

“Smoke?”

“No, thanks.”

“I’m Krishna,” the man said, inhaling the smoke, “And those sinful brothers are Raghava Rao and Mallikarjuna Rao. Where are you from?”

“Bandilanka. I am a farmer.”

“Oh ho! So that’s where the boss-man trapped you. His own birth-place, East Godavari delta. He ‘recruited’ us in Hyderabad. We were working in the Parle Biscuit Factory. My college degree was of no use to my family. No jobs for educated people like us.”

He looked at Ramalingam.

“Oh! Where are my manners? Here, let me show you around our Taj Mahal.”

He led Ramalingam to a pokey bathroom with a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. The sink was cracked. The floor of the shower stall was in worse shape, slick with green soap scum.

“Do excuse the mess,” Krishna said bitterly. “The maids resigned today, Mr. Ramalingam, sir.”

He stepped into a small balcony and opened a trunk.

“Here! Catch!”

He threw a hammock at Ramalingam.

“Your five-star hotel bed.”

He laughed raucously, then began violently coughing. Ramalingam noticed blood in the spittle. 

Raghava Rao groaned. Mallikarjuna Rao yelled:

“Shut up or get out!”

Almost immediately, the sound of snoring filled the air.

Ramalingam took out the hand towel wife Parvati had thoughtfully packed and tried to wash away some of the grime and disgust he felt. At least the tap water was clean. Krishna helped him put up the hammock. He had hardly eased himself into it when he felt somebody violently shaking him awake. 

“Time to go, brother!”

“But I haven’t … is it morning already? I haven’t had a bath, and …”

“No time, no time. Hurry up! You can do all of that there. Come on!”

They ran out of the apartment and down the stairs. Ramalingam almost knocked over an old homeless man sleeping on one of the landings as he followed the others.

“Hey!” the man shouted drunkenly, “wa… watch it, buddy!”

Down the alley they went, and onto the main road. A few cars roared past them. Ramalingam looked at his HMT watch. It showed 7 pm. Of course! He had forgotten to change Indian Standard Time to EST. He stopped to reset his watch, but heard Krishna yell: “What the hell d’you think you’re doing? Hurry up, you fool!”

*****

“One Alu Gobhi, twoAlu Methi, two Alu Parathaand … and … two plates of pakoras! Quick, quick, yaar! Those pakoras won’t fry themselves!”

Ramalingam wiped the sweat off his forehead and turned over the sizzling pakoras, trying to ignore the drops of scalding oil that landed on his unprotected hands. For the past six days he had been placed in front of the industrial size wok for eight to nine hours, his only job deep-frying pakorasand puris. The ten-minute break he was allowed to snatch was just enough to go to the loo and grab a drink of water. Today, the grimy walls of the windowless kitchen seemed to cave in on him. He had not been able to contact his family since his arrival. Without a mobile he was helpless. There was an internet café nearby, but he had spent the little money he had brought with him on linen and toiletries, assuming that he would he paid for his work. When he asked Krishna about their wages, the latter grinned.

“You’ll be paid soon enough, brother! Your work isn’t done yet!”

Ramalingam occasionally spotted Seshadri mingling with the restaurant guests. The day before he had seen the uncle with his arm across the shoulder of a white teenage girl.

“Who’s the girl?” he asked Krishna.

“She’s …”

Krishna looked at Ramalingam and hesitated.

“She’s his … a friend. You want to stay out of jail? Don’t ask any questions.”

Ramalingam felt panic strike his heart. Jail? Was there no end to the indignities he was suffering? He cursed his previous lives, the sins he must have committed in them. He looked at Krishna.

“Brother, you said that my work was not yet done. What did you mean?”

“Wait till Sunday! You’ll see.”

Krishna placed a sympathetic hand on Ramalingam’s shoulder. He looked around furtively, rolled a joint, and quickly smoked it.

“You want one?” he offered Ramalingam.

“Why do you do this?” the latter asked sternly.

“Survival, brother, survival. We are locked in this damn kitchen the whole day, slaving for that monster, afraid to go out into the streets for fear of being rounded up by the cops. We don’t have any papers, he has even threatened our families …”

“Wait! Threatened your families? But that is monstrous!”

“Yes, monstrous. I did call him a monster, didn’t I? But you are lucky, brother. He hasn’t got you in the kind of bind in which he has put us.”

He rolled himself another joint, smoked it, and continued:

“The three of us – Raghava, Mallika, and I – we robbed a grocery store near the factory. Unfortunately, one of the customers decided to be heroic and was killed for it.”

“You killed … you took somebody’s life?”

“Well, Raghava shoved him aside when the man tried to stop us. The guy banged his head against the stone counter. Couldn’t be revived. Your uncle was in the store at the time. He went to the owner and persuaded him to let us go in exchange for some big hush money! I don’t know how big the pay-off was, but it must have been very satisfactory. The owner didn’t press charges.”

“But the dead customer? What about his family? What about …”

“You know how it is in India, brother. Seshadri was desperate to get more workers for his filth here. Our cops back home are the most corruptible.”

His hands trembled as he stood up. Ramalingam felt his heart sink. The moment he had entered that filthy building, he had tried to ignore his uncle’s real purpose in bringing him here. Without his passport, he was paralyzed. His wife, his family – they must be worried sick. Paru … would she think that he had abandoned them, worse still, gone off with some white woman? Everybody in Bandilanka spoke so highly of Seshadri:

“That Seshadri is doing really well there – business is excellent, he has a flourishing restaurant. The Americans love our food. Have you seen the photographs he has sent to his family here? The house – it is like a palace.”

Ramalingam smiled miserably at the thought of his hovel. The sight of the hammocks alone would destroy them. What was Krishna trying to warn him against? What could be worse than this?He had to somehow get out of this hellhole. 

*****

“Where are we going?”

His three roommates were entering a different building today. Ramalingam remembered that he had said Sundays were different. He looked up at the sign. Hair and Nail Salon.

“What are we doing in such a place?” he wondered. They went up two flights of stairs. Fancy glass doors automatically opened as they neared them. The woman at the reception looked Chinese. For Ramalingam, anyone with Mongoloid features was Chinese. The woman got up.

“Welcome to Hair and Nail Spa! You have appointment?”

Krishna went up to her and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and waved them toward a flight of spiral stairs that led to a higher floor. The front room on this floor was discreetly lit with tiny lamps hung from the ceiling that shed a purplish glow across the walls and floor. Ramalingam saw several doors in the rear wall. As his eyes got used to the dim light, he made out the figures of several girls sitting on a couch to the left. They were almost naked, just like the women on the billboards that advertised all those Bollywood movies. He looked away in shame. Krishna nudged him.

“Come on, brother! We have to get to work.”

“No! What? What is this?”

Ramalingam glanced at them. The girls looked underage, younger than his daughter. He noticed that they were mostly brown-skinned. Krishna whispered:

“You’ll get used to it. Think of the money – it’s good money, brother, very good money.”

“But I don’t understand! What is this?”

“We prepare the girls for their customers, brother. We tell them how to perform, how to satisfy the needs of our customers. They are very wealthy.”

“What do you mean ‘prepare’?”

“Brother, I can’t believe you’re related to Seshadri! You mean to tell me that you’ve never gone to a brothel?”

“No,” Ramalingam said truthfully. “That is a paapam![4]My wife is everything to me. But I still don’t …”

“Look, brother Ramalingam, it is simple. These girls are chosen for their virginity. Nowdo you understand?”

Ramalingam felt the bile rising in his throat. He screamed: “Shiva, Shiva! Never!” He took a step back and felt a figure pushing against him. The blade slid smoothly through his heart. He whispered a single word before darkness descended on him: “Paru!”


[1]Uncle

[2]Ceramic jars for pickles.

[3]Honorific

[4]Sin.

More on Leela/Meena, my beloved sleuths!

Amazon has just published some more of the cousins’ adventures! “Mummified Murders” will take you to Egypt, “Murder in the Coconut Groves” exposes you to the dark side of village life in South India, and “Murders in the Ivory Tower” will remind you of those (un?)-forgettable days in college!

Murders Arabian Style – a Leela and Meena Mystery

Amazon has just added this to the list of my books! Do check it out and let me what you think

Leela and Meena, those intrepid South-Asian sleuths, are pulled once again out of their quiet retired lives in Tucson, Arizona, to figure out why young women are disappearing from a university dorm in Istanbul, Turkey. The reader knows that a modern-day Harun-al-Rashid has decided to recreate those exotic nights. He has abducted Faridha Ahmed, a scholar of Middle Eastern Studies, who has just arrived in Istanbul. In his fantasy, she is his ‘Scheherazade’, chosen to tell him the stories from the original Arabic. But he reverses the original challenge Scheherazade had to face. Instead of weaving story upon story to defer her execution, Scheherazade is ordered in this 21st century version to bring each story to an incontrovertible end, failing which the ‘king’ will execute a young woman. This may very well turn out to a mass murder of a gigantic scale. Our detectives get some promising leads. The kidnapped woman has been doing extensive research on the Arabic translation of the Thousand and One Nights. What is it that drives the kidnapper to recreate those ancient times?

My amazing South-Asian-American women!

There once were two gals full of pluck

There once were two gals full of pluck

Their tongue out at the world they stuck

“You think we’re done

Coz we’re seventy-one?

Well, think again, for you’re out of luck!”

Murders right gruesome they cracked

In courage, you see, they ne’er lacked

Said plump Leela: “Come on!

Our lazy days are gone!”

‘Twas awesome how their noggins they wracked!

But Meena the cautious did balk

At killers, and how they do stalk!

“Be wary, my cuz!

            I’d leave it to the fuzz!”

Grinned Leela: “We’re made of good stock!”

So do read the mysteries they crack,

And tell me what’s quite out of whack,

Your comments will lead

To tales with more speed,

That you’ll with great gusto attack!

Their tongue out at the world they stuck

My eleven-year-old is now twelve years old! This is chapter three of “Lalli goes out on a limb.”

Birthdays are for the birds!

A pair of strong arms did declare

“We can fly with one leg, without care!

The impossible dream isn’t far

To reach the unreachable star

We’ll conquer the world if you dare!”

Sally Benson was about to help Lalli down the steps of the school bus when her twelve-year-old charge grabbed her crutches and hurried as quickly as she could into the house. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. In two hours, she would be crossing the road to celebrate the birthdays of two very dear friends, Mi-hi and Kumuda. But first she had to wrap the gifts she had bought after weeks of searching for the perfect gifts. She had finally had to consult the birthday girls’ dads. And now she knew she had the most perfect gifts ever!

Amma helped Lalli into an outfit she had bought for the party: dark blue chinos that would actually go over her PROSTHETIC leg, and a navy floral print tee. At exactly 5:29 Lalli and Nitin were ready to leave. They could hear sounds of music from across the street. Lalli wasn’t too happy about her kid brother tagging along.

“Does he have to?” she had grumbled to their parents. “They are my friends! And he’ll just …”

But Nanna and Amma[1] had INSISTED. Grown-ups always insisted.

“Learn to be more RESPONSIBLE, Lalli! You’re not a baby anymore!”

Lalli had sulked for a minute, then relented. She suddenly remembered how Nitin had been EXTRAORDINARILY supportive during those first awful weeks after the ACCIDENT. Well, not that he wasn’t a brat now.

“But he’ll just …”

Nitin had stuck his tongue out at her. Lalli had grinned and stopped whining.

They crossed the street to their friends’ home. There was no way Lalli could keep up with Nitin. He and his two legs! He bolted across the street. But she was pretty quick with her crutches too. Dr. Sandburne had given her a whole list of exercises to increase her mobility. She had to admit that she had been very scared of returning to school, but her classmates’ super enthusiastic welcome had chased away all her fears. Her homeroom teacher Ms. Gatsby had called her a second Jessica Cox.

Jessica Cox

“Jessica was born without arms. She does everything using her feet as you children would use your hands: she flies planes, drives cars, does all the normal, everyday things you and I would do using our hands and feet. And today, Jessica holds the titles of the first person without arms in the American Tae Kwon-Do Association to get a black belt, and the first woman pilot in aviation history to fly using her feet.”

“Awesome!” the class had gasped.

At home Amma and Nanna had found a different name for her: Rabiya.

 Rabiya[2]

Nanna had shown her a photograph of Rabiya receiving a National Youth Award in 1993:

“Her name is Kariveppil Rabiya. Polio crippled both her legs when she was only seventeen. But that has not prevented her from becoming a social worker. She has been tirelessly campaigning to educate more adults, especially women in her home state of Kerala, and elsewhere in India.”

“She is bound to her wheelchair, but she is one of the most amazing women I have known,” Amma had added. “I met her a few years ago in Kerala – you know where Kerala is, right?”

“Yes, Amma! It’s in South India!” Lalli said in a resigned voice.

“Just checking! So – I visited schools funded by a volunteer organization that Rabiya started in Kerala. The school is for physically and mentally challenged children.”

“That’s so cool! I’ll do something like that too, right, Amma? You know what? I’ll make PROSTHETICS for all the poor kids all over the world who can’t afford them. I’ll study science and invent something, and have pots and pots of money, and …”

Her parents’ grins had stopped her in her tracks.

“You think that’s funny?”

Her Nanna had quickly placed an apologetic hand on her head.

“We weren’t laughing at you, Lalli kanna. We love your passion, your Amma and I. It just makes us smile to hear you describe your ambitious plans.”

“I know, I know,” Lalli had admitted. “I talk too much. But …” Her face had brightened again. “But wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could create a new kind of PROSTHETIC leg that would look exactly like a real leg, with nerves and veins and all?”

She had looked down at her shiny new leg and had stroked it lovingly:

“Not that this leg isn’t awesome.”

The front door of their friends’ home was wide open. As they entered the living room clutching gifts for Mi-hi and Kumuda, Lalli saw hundreds of balloons that had floated up to the ceiling, declaring in bold red letters:

Mi-hi and Kumuda – HAPPY TWELFTH BIRTHDAY!”

The girls’ parents Ronald Armstrong and Anuraag Kulkarni were really cool. Of course, her own parents were okay, too. But Ronald and Anuraag – they were something else. For Halloween they had transformed their house into a haunted mansion with screeches and howls and rattling skeletons. And the four of them had dressed up as the Addams Family. They were definitely Lalli’s most favorite neighbors. No, that wasn’t quite true. Old Mr. Steave in the house bang opposite to theirs was wonderful too. He was a MENNONITE. She remembered how after the ACCIDENT (this word had been life-changing for her) when she was confined to a wheelchair, she had begun seeing the old man, really seeing him. She had not only helped distract him from grieving over his dead wife, but had uncovered a mystery that had allowed him to keep his house and even gain a new family.[3]

 Lalli was curious about her friends having two men for parents. But Amma and Nanna had explained what gay meant. A man could love another man, just like Amma and Nanna loved each other. It was called HOMOSEXUALITY (homo meant genus – she had learned all about AUSTRALOPITHECINE, HOMO HABILIS, HOMO ERECTUS, AND HOMO SAPIENS in science class). But because only a woman was BIOLOGICALLY equipped to give birth to a baby, Ronald and Anuraag had adopted Mi-hi and Kumuda. They had also exchanged MARITAL vows the previous year. In fact, Lalli’s friend Sharon knew all about it. Her dad, a JUSTICE OF THE PEACE, had performed the ceremony.

“How come they have a birthday, like, on the same day? Are they, like, twins or something?” Nitin had asked her the previous evening.

“No, silly! Mi-hi is Korean, and Kumuda is from South-Asia. They were ABANDONED by their mothers. That means, their mothers couldn’t look after them,” Lalli explained, an ‘I-am-your-older-sister-I –know-so-much-more’ tone tingeing her voice. “Ronald found Mi-hi at a local hospital in Seoul when working as an interpreter for the US army in Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. And Anuraag discovered Kumuda in New Delhi when someone took her from the auto-rickshaw where her mom had left her to an ORPHANAGE.”

“So they were, like, born on the same day? That’s so COOL!!!”

‘No, Dumbo! Since Anuraag and Ronald didn’t know when exactly Mi-hi and Kumuda were born, they just chose a day – RANDOMLY.”

“Wow! Wish I could, like, choose my birthday rand… what you said!” Nitin had exclaimed. “My birthday nobody’s, like, around! A summer birthday sucks!”

They heard excited voices. Kumuda and Mi-hi rushed in from the kitchen to greet them. Kumuda ripped open the gift that Lalli’s dad Sastri Mantha had wrapped so carefully.

“Wow!” Kumuda cried out. “A set of Nancy Drew mysteries! Cool! Thank you, guys!”

She looked over at her sister.

“What’d you get? Come on, sis, hurry up!”

Mi-hi glared at her sister. She placed her ear against the wrapped box and listened intently. Frowning, she sat down on the carpet, tenderly untied the bow, and carefully peeled off the tape that kept the wrapping paper together. Kumuda hid her face in her hands, unable to bear the suspense. Lalli’s face tightened as Mi-hi removed what looked like an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter. She jumped up and clapped her hands delightedly.

“COOL! The best gift ever!”

She ran up to Lalli and hugged her tightly.

Kumuda and Nitin shouted as one:

“What is it?”

“It’s an En…”

Ronald and Anuraag came into the room at this moment.

“… Enigma Machine!” Anuraag exclaimed. “You did it, Lalli! Give me five!”

They excitedly raised their hands.

Nitin grumbled:

“The enig… machine … what, like, what does it do?”

Mi-hi lovingly touched the keys and said, all the while looking at her parents for confirmation:

“Enigma Machine, Nitin. It looks like a typewriter, but it’s a very so-phis-ti-ca-ted device. The Germans made it during the Second World War, right dad?”

She looked at Anuraag who nodded encouragingly.

“So how, like, how does it work?” Nitin persisted impatiently.

“When you press a letter, the cipher letter lights up on the screen. The Enigma machine has several wheels that connect letters with wires. That determines which cipher letter will light up.”

“Go ahead, Mi-hi! I know you can’t wait to try it out,” Anuraag said lovingly. “Come, kids. Gather around.”

He began:

 “The Germans used very sophisticated technology to create a machine with which they could send messages that would be practically impossible to decipher. In fact, do you know that our present-day computer is the direct descendant of the Enigma Machine?”

Lalli asked: “The Germans sent codes to spy on us?”

He bent down and gently removed the machine from Mi-hi’s unwilling hands.

“Look here. See how the wheels inside are placed? They are the key to figuring out the messages. When you know in what order the wheels are placed, you can break the code. Each wheel rotates after a certain number of letters are typed, so the cipher is continuously changing within a message. And that makes it much harder to encipher the messages.”

“Wow! You didn’t tell me all this when I asked you what Mi-hi would like for her birthday, Anuraag!” Lalli gasped. “I know you are an expert CRYPTOGRAPHER. But when you said you could get this machine from someone who collects World War II souvenirs, I really truly didn’t know what to expect!”

Anuraag plugged the machine into a wall socket.

“See how it lights up? We can play with it later on. But …”

“Dad?” Mi-hi tugged Anuraag’s sleeve impatiently.

“Yes, Mi-hi, you may take it into my study. I know you want to try it out. It’s an old machine. I’ve replaced the old frayed cord with a new one. So, we’re all set to go!”

Mi-hi smiled, unplugged and picked up the machine with Anuraag’s help, and they carried it into the study. She didn’t remove her eyes once from the machine, even as her dad gently pushed her down into a chair. He looked lovingly at this twelve-year-old girl who never ceased to amaze him with her extraordinary ability to focus on things. He planted a kiss on her head, and returned to a chaotic scene: kids were piling into the living room, Ronald was darting here and there, desperately trying to manage food, kids, and gifts.

“Anuraag, help!” he yelled. They hurried into the kitchen and carried back two cakes, one chocolate – Kumuda’s favorite – and the other a mousse cake with a caramel topping – Mi-hi’s favorite. Twelve candles graced the top of each one. Lalli looked around. The couple stood back with a sigh of relief.

“Time to get that absentee daughter of ours,” Ronald said with a smile. “I’ll go get her.”

“Wait!” Lalli cried out. “Let me! I want to see how long it’ll take her to hear me!”

“Okay, Lalli! Thanks!”

Lalli guided her crutches to the study, pushed the door open, and yelled:

“Mi-hi! Come on! Everyone’s waiting!”

There was no reply. The room was empty, the window open.

“Just like her to wander off into the garden, just to play with that new toy!”

She went up to the window.

“She must be hiding in that tree-house Ronald built for them.”

She hopped back into the living room.

“Ronald, Anuraag! She’s hiding. Has to be the tree-house, right?”

Anuraag nodded.

“I’ll get her.”

He came back a few minutes later with Mi-hi in tow:

“I had to carry her out of that tree-house!”

“Oh dad, stop!” Mi-hi protested. “But you know what? I’ve already figured out at least twenty different permutations and combinations!”

“Sure, you have, young lady!” Ronald said. “But haven’t you forgotten something?”

“Forgotten?” Mi-hi looked at him in surprise. “What?”

“Do you know why all your friends and your family are gathered here?”

“Oh, oh!” Mi-hi smiled, a dimple appearing in each cheek. “Sorry, dads! Sorry, sis!”

A few minutes later two happy faces blew out twenty-two candles. Admiringly sticky mouths and hands surrounded Mi-hi as she demonstrated the wonders of the Enigma Machine.


[1] ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ in the Telugu language of Southern India.

[2] Kariveppil Rabiya (born 1966) is a physically challenged social worker from Vellilakkadu, Malappuram, Kerala in India, who rose to prominence through her role in the Kerala State Literacy Campaign in Malappuram district in 1990. Her efforts were recognized at a national level by the Government of India on multiple occasions. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._V._Rabiya)

[3] See Lalli’s Window by the same author!

More about my “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”

“Malgudi Days,” a collection of short stories by the famous Indian writer R. K. Narayan, was my inspiration forf “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives.” Narayan portrayed the many faces of life in the fictional town of Malgudi. My Bandilanka serves a similar purpose. However, whereas Narayan’s stories are peopled by men and dogs, mine run the gamut of caste, class, gender, and age. Here is a taste from the short story “Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma”:

Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma

“If I were to be born again,

I would like to be born in the

family of a scavenger

so that I may relieve them

of the inhuman unhealthy and

hateful practice of carrying

head loads of night soil.

Mahatma Gandhi

The last rays of the sun disappeared below the western shore of the Godavari River. Kaavanna squatted at the threshold of his hut, smoking the first bidi of the night. There would be many more during the next twelve hours. Without his bidis, the stench would be overpowering. He inhaled the last bit of smoke deeply into his damaged lungs, and got up slowly, trying not to look at the blood he had just coughed up. He wondered, as he did every night, how much longer he would be able to survive. He glanced at his wife of four decades. She had inserted the lit end of the bidi into her mouth so that the smoke would go more directly into her lungs. That was the way of the Paky people. Kaavanna’s bleeding gums had stopped him from smoking this way. Kondamma finished her smoke and spat.

“Come, husband!” she whispered, tapping him gently on the shoulder. “No time to waste!”

She had given him three daughters and two sons. All of them were scavengers, just like their parents. Karma! There was no escaping one’s karma. They were Paky, the lowest of the Relli caste. The Relli thought they were so superior! They gathered fruit and sold them. And that gave them the right to steal all the Government benefits. Not that this Government does much for the likes of us. He spat as he thought of the government. It was always the same, always the same unending misery and hunger.

 If only he could get his children out of this cesspool. But how? He rubbed the small of his back. His own health was rapidly failing. He had neither the strength nor the will to live. The ‘nalla mandu’[1] that he was taking in increasing quantities was becoming more expensive. And the pain was unbearable.

“Here!”

His wife handed him the tools of their trade: a brush, a bucket, a metal scraper, and a wooden scoop.

“Kondamma, you should stay home today. We’ll manage. You know you are …”

“Yes, yes!”

Kondamma aggressively tucked the end of her sari around her waist.

“Listen carefully, husband! If I allowed my monthly shame to interfere with our work, you would all be starving by now.”

She called out to their children who were hastily swallowing flattened rice puffed up in a little watery milk. Kondamma handed each of them a bagful of raw peanuts that a farmer from the neighboring village had given them for cleaning his latrines.

“Don’t eat them all at once!” she cautioned. “And don’t forget those jute scarves for your faces. Did you soak them in sesame oil?”

“Yes, Amma!” came the chorus-like response from five teenage voices. Her oldest – a son – would turn nineteen in a couple of months. She sighed.

“Husband, we don’t have any kerosene left. It will be hard.”

Kerosene had become too expensive. And without it, the stench from the latrines would be like entering narakam.[2]

The group picked up the soiled gunny bags that contained their tools. Kaavanna whispered:

“Time to go! We have to get there before the early morning trains block the tracks.”

Today’s work was along the railway tracks in the Bandilanka station. The amount of human excreta along the tracks was one of the less onerous of the tasks facing them every night. They wouldn’t have to climb down into the big holes of the pig toilets. Kondamma shuddered. Her worst nightmare was imagining she was choking to death in the putrefying muck. Her sins in a previous life must have been horrific indeed for her to be reborn into this most dehumanizing of tasks.

Seven figures slunk along the side roads and back alleys to get to the railway station, avoiding the main roads. It would be safer that way. If people spotted them, they either threw garbage at them, stoned them, or came at them with lathis.[3] “Unclean pigs!” The cry never varied. “Daridram![4] Daridram! Unclean pigs! Unclean pigs!”

The tracks were glistening after an early morning shower. Kaavanna bent down to feel the ground.

“We have a few hours to work. When the station master comes out early morning at the sun’s first rays, he will not want to lay eyes on us – it would be a bad omen for him. He’s a Brahmin.”

The seven spaced themselves along the track. Using wooden hand scoops, each followed a segment of the track and collected waste from between the rails. An exhausting two hours later Kondamma cried out:

“We will pause here. Eat some of those peanuts! And Rangamma, go quickly to the pump …”

Older daughter Rangamma took out a brass pitcher from her bag.

“The one outside the station house? But Amma …”

“Yes, I know. We’re not allowed there. But at this time … just be careful! And try to get as much water as you can!”

Rangamma slowly walked to the water pump. Kaavanna took out a bidi, but before he could light it he collapsed on the iron rails.

“Husband!” Kondamma bent over her husband. “Talk to me! Say something!”

“Deva, deva!” she moaned, looking at her husband’s mouth. It was covered with bloody froth. She knew there was no hope for them here.

“Help me carry him home!” she ordered her trembling children. “His heart is still beating.”

Eighteen-year-old Venkatabaabu lifted his father’s frail body, and walked towards the station house.

“Amma, we need our money first! For medicines. The station master Reddy garu, we have to ask him.”

He knocked on the door. A middle-aged man clad in the  uniform of a station master emerged. He stopped at the sight of Venkatabaabu and covered his nose with a starched white handkerchief.

“Yes, what is it? Don’t tell me you have completed your job.”

“Reddy garu, our father – he is very ill, perhaps dying even. We need some money to pay for the medicines, for the Vaidya.”

“What impertinence!” Reddy screamed. “You get paid only for finished work! Go back this minute! You people, you expect us to feed and clothe you for nothing?”

“No, Reddy garu, but …”

“So! Well, you won’t get paid and that is my final word.”

The pompous station master twirled his walrus moustache, and banged the door shut in Venkatabaabu’s face. Inside the house, he grinned and counted the money he had kept from the scavengers – a hundred Rupees, but he’d be able to buy a bottle of country liquor with the money.

“It’s no use, Venkatabaabu. We have to hurry!” Kondamma whispered. “Our Vaidya[5] will help. When we visited him a month ago, he gave us free medication. No one else will touch us.”

She looked anxiously at her husband. His breathing was becoming shallower by the minute. Was that a whisper? He was trying to say something.

“Wait!” she said to her son. “Put him down! He’s trying to tell us something.”

   Kaavanna looked at his family through tear-filled eyes.

“My wife, my children, this is the end of the road. I know the moment has come for me to leave this life.”

His voice trembled as he spoke his last wish:

“You will scatter my ashes in the waters of Mother Godavari. My blessings on you all.”

His eyes closed. The breathing stopped. Quietly, his family carried him home.

A week later, the local Telugu language newspaper reported:

“TRAGEDY AT RAILWAY TRACKS!

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD BOY SLIPS ON FECAL MATTER, KNOCKED UNCONSCIOUS,  RUN OVER BY TRAIN!

BREAKING NEWS, 4. April, 2018: The eleven-year-old son of our local station master Ramayya Reddy was tragically run over by the morning express from Hyderabad when he slipped on fecal matter that hadn’t been removed from the tracks. Ramayya Reddy has been arrested for gross negligence in mismanaging the cleanliness of the tracks. He has been accused of underpaying or pocketing the money owed to manual scavengers. There have been protests about fatalities resulting from scavenging. But this time a widespread strike by manual scavengers is directed at Mr. Reddy for gross abuse and exploitation. The Corporation is investigating the case.

Kondamma wiped her eyes as she read the news item.

“Come, Amma! It is time to go.”

At the shores of the Godavari, five figures jointly poured the ashes from a brass pot into the waters of the river, as their mother chanted a prayer to the gods for the souls of her husband and the boy martyred on those railway tracks.


[1] Opium

[2] Hell (in Telugu)

[3] Lathi: a heavy iron-bound bamboo stick

[4] Daridram means poverty. The word is used in a derogatory manner, as a curse.

[5] Non-codified traditional doctor.


Lalli’s story

At a recent librarian’s convention in Williamsburg, my “Lalli’s Window” generated a lot of interest (and buying power!). The appearance of a eleven-year-old South-Asian girl who loses a leg in an accident brought tears to the eyes of another eleven-year-old girl who asked me when I was signing the book for her: “Did she HAVE to lose a leg?” It broke my heart, but I felt at that moment that it changed that empathic girl’s perception of the world around her, as it did my Lalli’s!

As a writer of mystery novels, I’d love to see who reads my blog!

Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives

My latest is a collection of short stories with the title “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives.” A remote village in South India – home to my grandparents – brought back almost forgotten memories of people in the house who carried out all the unimaginably demeaning tasks that caste and class condemned them to do! My stories bring these lives into focus, listen to their voices, cherish their dreams! The loving washerman, the proud sweeper woman, the lonely widow, the child bride … these are some of the lives that lend purity to an otherwise corrupt Brahmin oligarchy!