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6. The weak atheist watches his team lose [Placeholder title]

We lost because you were kept from singing.
Because correlation must be causation
If I am to live, to keep believing
That a win matters. That the kingdom

Will be nigh. The falling grace of your neck,
The secret turn of your lips behind a veil of hair
is the stuff of song. The note that breaks
The sky into stars, the death of the word in an air

Slowly melting to a solid state. Because I
Must war against the invisible. The real
Is a ghost that the eye cannot abide.
That must be broken, rebuilt, a dark castle

Forged as you sing. Now, I can rest though we lost
I will dream of my kingdom, of towers of song.

5. Raj

A desert, though flat and broken, endlessly broken,
still consumes the eye until the mind sinks
into sand. And though, it is only transient,
you can slip away, transcend.

Here, there is only the promise of a fall.
Everything looms perpendicular. The right angle,
the keen edge, the eye cuts itself on all
it sees. The ear must shred its signals

from this primordial din, to still believe
in the possibility of song. Lips carved
in a rictus leer, I let myself be deceived
that this is all there is, that there is only the sprawl

of stories repeating endlessly like a mad program
we cannot break. And though, I do not know my part
I know I cannot fulfill it. I await
the promise of deliverance, to be one with the desert.

4. Gajendra

The shadow of doubt never leaves you. It settles
like a mugger. Eyes in wait. The gentle

passing of your days are now nothing. You shuffle
yourself from moment to moment. Stress a little,

never a lot. It’s bad for your heart, you remember.
You pull yourself from your morning tea to a quiet supper.

You pray. You tell yourself your prayers
anchor you to the sky. Something lurks

throughout your day. Spreadsheets form like falling walls.
You catch yourself thinking of the shapes of skulls

around you. Terror beckons, but you must keep calm.
You smile as you were taught. You long for home.

It is when you think you are certain.
It is when you think it is done.

The floor turns to swamp. The walls, fractured trees.
It grips you by the ankle, a scare of slashing teeth

You fall through the endless water. It chews its patient
way up your spine. You struggle. You fail. It rends

the silent prayers that made you. You are broken: a stream
of floating debris. You turn to the waiting sky. Scream.

 

3. Rapunzel

In darkness, every room is a tomb, open
like the pages of an old notebook. Their scent,
as stale as memory. Every night is a half-life
a ticking countdown, what dreams may come, then light
like a mushroom cloud at the edge of the horizon
The streets are littered with walking corpses, called out by the dead sun.

Nothing bursts into flame. The world persists.
I sip my tea. I call out to things, “You exist!”
There is no echo. I wonder what my voice
would sound like if I wasn’t there to throw it.
I am told there is a background hum
to our universe. A cry that never ended. A drum
struck once, a hollow boom, before noise

overtook it. My days are spent in silence.
I don’t need this window to recount the lies
I’ve told myself. There is no denouement
no clash of cymbals from the beginning of time

I have waited. I am waiting. Beloved, if you’re real, please stay away.
They left no monsters to guard me. You’re not needed. I’m safe.

2. The candidate and the man who can’t care

He has that smile, the benign yet certain kind
that you only see on those who’ve never
had to watch things grow.  Oh, he’s sure
of himself, of the change he bears
like a hidden treasure in the folds
of his skin, of the star-eyed oaths
he swears, of the steel-slick cold
much-practiced gaze he throws
from his stage, of the thunder
of loudspeakers hosanna-ing
his name, of himself as the future
that must be, of his golden reign.

I don’t know a lot about a lot of things
I do my work to earn my keep. I think
when I must as a luxury I’m allowed,
and I watch my days roll away: clouds
too distant from his thunder. Too
slow to keep up with the future, too
tired to read the hidden horrors
in terrible oaths. I can’t see much farther
than tomorrow, and I much prefer
the certainty of days gone past:
like an old remembered trail in a forest
of dead trees and silent bones.
Whatever happens, my years will pass on.

Tree after tree, my trail will unfold itself
and you with your smiles in this commercial
I think I’ll add you as a cracked skull
a thing half-remembered in my forest.

1. The watchmen

It was a place we were never meant to be.
I wish I could tell you I told you so,
but I remember walking with you down that road
to the bones of Ur, to the corpse of the city.

In the black of the night, there was no distance.
The eye saw no farther than the farthest dark.
Our torches caught the dust, the flaking bodies
of trucks, wheelbarrows no more red, the arc

of a crane arm, dead in its rising.  What was it
crunched with each step (I wonder now)? What
air pushed us past (why do I remember its hiss?)?
What cursed moon chose that dark hour

to light what loomed before us. What towers those,
like silent time in rows; windows spaced like empty eyes
staring (always staring, ah, those eyes!) at us?
What voice was it that screamed (was it mine?)

What echoed forth (do you remember?). And, at each door
that fed the mouth of each nescient tower,
a single chair with a pile of tinder
and a nameplate. The first bore yours.

“Some day, I will write of the dead”

Some day, I will write of the dead
I will write them as they lie,
as they sprawl, as they bleed
as the light pins them to the ground
and the cameras flash
as a thing encountered between pauses
they will always be there
that’s what they do, they’re dead.
Between one word and another, dead
Between breakfast and that faint hunger
in the afternoon, dead
Between the yawn, the eye rubbing, the murmured
apology, the flopping on the bed, dead

Some day, I will wait with the dead
I will put up a sign
“DEATH AT WORK”
I will watch them
I will watch them
I will write in the space of their passing.

Rakthabheeja [DRAFT]

There is a dead bedbug wedged between the cover and first page of a copy of the Gormenghast novels that was given to me once by a distant friend in a nameless past. In its death, it left no trail of blood. I estimate its death as some time between yesterday morning and late afternoon today. I imagine it scampered over the empty sheets of my bed, scouring this vast continent of dirty blue for a scrap of flesh, a sip of nourishing blood. Out of the sheer despair that routinely grips such creatures when hunger gnaws the windows of their minds and their senses start blurring and narrowing into a strait thin corridor of light, it perhaps sought to climb the walls of this Gormenghast. Too often, we forget ourselves caught in the throes of a feeling we cannot shake away like a fraying thread on a sleeve or a drop of bird shit. We carry it with us, we let it carry us in a headlong burst into unknown territory. Borders are forgotten, turrets, guns, the blinding shine of search lamps, all is unseen. She with the red tongue, she with the white eyes, a finger points and pew pew pew. Bullet holes sprout mysteriously, leaking mushrooms in the hollows between our ribs. A shriek will power us to climb the hills, the mounds, the highways in our way. And so it was, perhaps, that this bedbug clambered on, its insect mind howling for blood, blood, blood. A stray wind turned a page, held it close. Now I wait for my nails to grow longer and the holes in my body to re-seal themselves back to wholeness. Though everything is a single lengthening strand of light between me and the door and they are knocking and knocking and the hinges, they tremble. As the page trembles, the bedbug, the bedbug. Here, dead one. Here is blood.

A Fall [draft]

It’s after 12 and I’m out bunking the last class of the day. History.  There’s some Math competition in the school so the double geometry class was canceled. After managing a noisy, chaotic classroom for two consecutive free periods in the morning and a nicely filling lunch, I can’t be expected to sit through Chopra sir’s whining voice droning on about the independence movement. Who knew being a monitor would be so stressful? But hey, it gets me out of class once in a while, so I guess I can’t complain. I’m hanging out near the renovated classrooms on fourth floor. No one comes up here but you have to lie low so the peons on the third floor don’t spot you from the corridor. A bunch of us were supposed to meet up here, but it looks like no one else managed to get out in time.

“Hey, hey, Mithaiwala, what’s up? How’s monitor-giri working out?”

Mithaiwala. Only one chutiya in the whole school calls me that. The rest just call me MM. I like that. I look up and sure as fuck, it’s Vishal, sauntering up the stairs like he owns it. “Abbe, lie low! I don’t want to get caught up here”, I whisper to him. He plops down next to me and grins that crazy, bucktoothed grin of his, “I was in the competition.” He waves a badge at my face, “Free pass, yaar. Why are you up here any way? Chopra’s gonna be mad, you know? You’ll have to dish out some special mithai for him, ha ha ha” I hate his laughter and close as we are, I can smell that noxious garlic stink from his mouth. Does he ever wash his mouth? No wonder, his teeth are all yellow all the time. I peer down the corridor and it’s empty. No sounds from the stairs either. I have my own excuses for staying out, of course. Debate practice. Quiz planning. I have a notebook with my debate speech and a pen as evidence. It’s all good, I’m not worried.

Vishal pulls his knees up and regards me with a questioning look. Always does this, same damned look with his eyebrows knit close, beady little eyes staring at you like a rat. I wait for the inevitable interrogation. Word of our little incident in the 9th X class must have spread, I imagine. Whole school’s like one big rat warren. All of them with their gossiping, little intrigues, and “plan”s. Hate them, all of them. Hate that class. How long before the bell goes off? How long before I can run home? “So”, he starts his prologue, measuring out his words like they’re money. “You have quite a terrible class, you know? Rita really fucked you with this monitoring business. Very tragic, I can’t even begin to think of the pressure it must all be.” He shakes his head like he is sad and all. Gods, I swear this guy is so Bollywood I want to punch him in the throat. “Tragic”, ha! Bet he has a little notebook to write down interesting English words or something.

“Can’t be easy at all”, he continues as if he’s talking about some D-level complicated 20-mark Algebra problem, “Bad enough they reshuffled all of us into different classes in 9th. But…shit, putting the whole Vinu gang and all the rowdies in all the classes in one X class is just…” He shakes his head again sympathetically. Like he’s Shah Rukh Khan. I know what he’s after. Bastard, get to the bloody point. He lets out a long theatrical sigh, “I really feel for you, man. Pata hai, I told Bedade sir that this is all wrong, that it is impossible for one guy to control a class full of gundas. I really fought for you.”

Sure, sure. My hero, here’s your medal, now smile for the cameras and fuck off. Bedade sir told me about this chooth’s meddling. Smirked at me in that military way he has and told me to do my job. That I’m not getting replaced, ever. I have to laugh at this now, “Ya, but after today, I’m not hoping to be monitor for long.” His eyes light up at my response. You could cut his face off now and use it as a great explanation for that “as curious as a cat” simile in the next English period.

“Jai can do a better job of it anyway.”, I shrug, “He’s been doing it every time I bunk and he knows most of those guys well enough to handle them.” Jai’s a good guy, good heart. Loyal to a fault, which makes him a terrible monitor, of course. Never calls his friends out and only goes after people that won’t mess with him later. Terribly unfair, but he does a better job of keeping the noise down than me with my absolutely fair, no-nonsense approach. I look at the time, 30 more minutes for the bell. There’s some commotion from the third floor below us. 7th class kids getting restless, I imagine. I always loved the third floor classrooms. Big and wide, with lots of windows that looked out on the road. I never had a problem getting a window seat. Just sit there and stare out at the road forever, that’s all I wanted to do. That’s all I want to do. The first floor classrooms are horrible. Small, cramped, and the principal’s office and the staff room are right down the corridor. Always noisy with people coming and going and the shouts from PT classes in the ground. No peace, no calm. No trees that swayed at an arm’s length from the window. No regular drone of traffic sounds and bird calls breezing in at your ears. No peace at all.

Vishal pulls me out of my reverie by tapping me on the shoulder. I zoned out on him, it seems, because he looks worried. I seem to do that a lot these days in school. Can’t focus on things that are right in front of me. The other day, I lost myself in my thoughts in Hindi class and forgot what page was being discussed in class. Earned a remark in the calendar and an hour of copying out the whole bloody poem 10 times in my notebook. Plus, I have to recite it out tomorrow in class. Vishal is talking again, “…that’s when Vinu came in and stopped the fight. Are you even listening?” I detect a note of impatience there and have to keep myself from smiling. I just nod and wave at him to carry on. This could be useful.

With a grunt, he carried on, “Any way, what I came to ask you is about what happened today. In class.” What happened, what happened, I’ve been listening to this bullshit for two periods now. Every guy I run into, what happened. “Nothing. Nothing happened”, I lay it out plainly. But he’s not convinced. Nobody is convinced. Because something’s always happening in this school, right? Little ant hive of bustling activity. Everything’s a movie waiting to happen, right? Everything has to be a big drama, has to be discussed and blown up and talked about. I hate this place. 18 more minutes, and I’ll be out of here.

“We had a free Geometry thanks to your stupid competition and…I managed the class. That is all.”

“Oh, that was it. Right, right. You did not go ballistic on Abhay and Sejal at all then. All of that is just lies, is it?”

The bastard’s taunting me. I can hear it in his voice. I can see it in his ratty eyes. Ah, I’m tired and sick. I think I have a fever. There’s no wind up here during school hours. You’d think there would be a wind because of all of the empty space up here, but there isn’t. I guess I’ll have to spell out the truth, bring some much needed clarity on this matter. Gods, I hate talking about this shit.

“I’m the bloody monitor, right? That’s what I’m there for, to manage disturbances in class. Abhay was yelling at Sejal from the last bench and she, on the first bench, yelling back. The rest of the class is howling like a pack of monkeys about this. So yes, I quieted them down. That’s. My. Job.”

I didn’t realise I was yelling until I saw Vishal motioning me to quiet down. Heh, he actually looks a little scared now. Though I wonder what he’s heard. What’s all this fuss about?

“Ya, ya, I’ll be quiet. But…why’s everyone asking me about this? Ran into Raghu last period and he wanted to know what happened. Recess time, the girls and Jaadya and Muthu are after me about what happened. Vik’s not talking to me at all. Why all this tamasha?”

Vishal stares at me blankly, “Baba, how long have you been out?”

I try to remember. Let me see, I stormed out of the class in the middle of Geometry – 2, leaving Jai to tend the class. Recess was right after. Skipped the English and Marathi periods for debate practice. Huh. I’ve been out all day! “I’ve…been out since recess, why?”

Once more, that godawful shake of his head and worse, now he’s staring distantly at the empty corridor. Damned dramebaaz probably imagines the whole of DDLJ in his head while wanking. “So…you really don’t know”, he mutters. I’m obliged to interject with an irritated “WHAT?” now.

“Sejal’s been weepy since you threatened to report her and Abhay to Bedade. What I hear, she started breaking down minutes after you bunked before recess.”

More drama, nice. But Sejal’s always been a little drama queen. She stays in my building, we go to the same Marathi tuition, I should know. Since her tits popped out and she started getting attention. It’s nothing new. I’ve known her since KG and it’s bloody nothing new. I tell him, “It’s nothing new. She’s always been like that. Probably wants some sympathy, that’s all.”

Vishal tries to smirk, but fails horribly. It makes him look like he’s trying to wink at someone. “Mithai man, you’re in deep shit. She’s been telling people you’re a stalker. That you chase after her in the building. Keep bothering her over little things and teasing her with your little group. Blank calls and all. That you’re a two-faced little shit playing the good boy in school and showing your real face outside.”

This is…new. This is, I don’t know what this is. Why would she do this? Rotten little whore that she is, why would anyone believe this? Gods, fuck, fuck, fuck. Bhen…fuck. She ties me a rakhi every year. She’s beautiful and smart. I remember her in last year’s New Year’s party in the building. Her hair in the wind, her dance…she’s a conniving little bitch. Vishal is watching me. I stand up and peek over the low wall of the corridor, at the ground below. I don’t want to see that bastard staring at me. I want…”How long has this been going on?”, I ask.

“Oh, the rumours have been out for a month or so now. That you fancy Sejal. But, this is the kind of proof that confirms it, you know? And…oh man, let me tell you, Vinu and Abhay and the lot, they are not happy. There’s a setting today. After school. Your setting.”

I can feel the colour seep away from my skin. I can feel my blood turn warm, a loss of feeling in my knees. From what I’ve read and seen in the movies, this is what falling in love is like. But I haven’t felt afraid like this, not for a long time. A setting. My setting. What is this? Doesn’t anyone want to know the real deal? I can feel my teeth gnashing against each other, a sullen rage like a hammer on my chest. “That whore has so much cock in her mouth, bhenchod, and you guys believe her over me? Vik, where the fuck is Vik? I want to talk…” I see the smile on Vishal’s face, that awful shake of his head and I don’t have to hear him at all.

“See, we did that scene with Sanjay the other day, remember? Where he was bothering our Saina a lot so we had to…straighten him out a little? For the Vinu gang, this is payback. Vik agrees. We don’t want a big scene happening over…what you said,” Now, he’s smirking. Bastard learns fast, “No scene over some bullshit spat.”

Sanjay is a pervy little runt, goes around proposing to random chicks every month. Hides out in the toilet during the rakhi weeks to avoid being brother-ed. I am a bloody asset, the guy who helps these sorry little duffers out when their little ape brains can’t understand basic math, when the weight of all their muscle squeezes dates and events in history out of their head. I’m the guy passing my impeccably written answer sheets back to them so they can scrape together a 50 in their exams so their dads won’t beat them. I am the good guy, the clean name, I’m a fucking asset! And they’re throwing me out to the jackals like this? No, fuck, no. Never, no.

“Listen, don’t fight it. I mean, it probably won’t be anything bad. They have a lot of bhadaas in their hearts to take out on you, because of, you know, your monitoring and all. Thoda maar khaa le, two or three slaps, a punch or two. And it’ll be done. If you don’t fight back, it’ll be over in a couple of minutes, tops.”

Sage advice from a cowardly little piece of shit that always hangs back from a fight. A gossip machine is all he is, a Narad muni. In the distance, the bell rings. School’s over. I can hear Vishal rising up behind me and walking to the stairs. He says something but I can’t hear him. I can only think about those guys waiting outside, the crowd gathered around them, the eyes…the waiting, watching eyes. Sejal. I can’t get beaten in front of Sejal. Everything has to be a scene here. Blown up, exaggerated, a movie every day. I hate this and I can’t leave. The 7th class is being led out. I can hear the noise of the line going down to the gates, like a river flowing out. A river of whispers. Whole bloody school, with its rivers of whispers. Won’t be long before Vishal drops a word with someone who murmurs to someone else and people start showing up here, persuading me to show up for this farce, this act, this…what do they call it, climax. Yes, climax. I should get out of here. But I can’t. They’re waiting outside. And if I take too long, they’ll wait outside forever. And it’ll be the same thing tomorrow and day after and the whispers piling up. I don’t want to be a part of this any more.

I am at the head of the stairs, looking down. The peons are out, I can hear the swish-swish sounds of their brooms re-distributing the dust in the corridor more evenly. So every part of it is equally dirty. Stairs, ever stood at the top and looked down a straight flight of stairs? Kind of looks like an arrowhead. An arrow pointing at where you ought to be. All you have to do is fall down its length and it will take you where you ought to be. There is a wind at my back now. The after-school wind, we called it. I always thought of it as a wind of nothing, a wind of absence, like the school is making up for its sudden emptiness by breathing out along the corridor. Like it’s pushing all of us who’re still here away. Go outside, it’s saying. Walk out to whatever is waiting outside for you. The school bus, a gang of waiting thugs, Sejal. Walk out. Or fall. I wipe the sweat off my forehead. I turn around, the corridor’s still empty. Where’s the wind? I should get going. It’s only ghosts up here now. I take a step back. The arrow will carry me.

An old man in a shed [DRAFT]

An old man in a shed is no bother to anyone. Or so we thought even as we played our little games, ran around like careless dogs searching the wind for a question, a fleeting glimpse, anything new in the endless summer of our holidays. But our mothers warned us, and when warnings were ignored, importuned us with wan eyes and pleading hands to stay away from the old man in the shed. We were young then. Most of us still wore shorts to school and deferred for the elders who bore the privilege of long pants and early morning classes. Warnings and petitions did not stop us for long. But an old man in a shed is not a subject of much interest. He had been the watchmen of B-block for the longest time. There is only so much time that we could sit on warm marble benches or at the foot of gnarled, ancient trees to watch the slow slurred murmur, the red-eyed blinks, the fetor that gathered like a cloud around the shed. No, it wasn’t fun. It did not engage us and soon, we concerned ourselves with weightier matters like the shifting borders of our turf (the weaker lot in the A-block buildings, out in the back of the society, had received a fresh influx of cousins and family friends that year, which led to tensions along the established borders between us B-block guys and them.) and introducing the younger ones and newly arrived ones among us to the chain of command. The establishment of order and intrigue took up most of our time. The rest was spent in fostering a batch of puppies that we hoped to raise as attack dogs in the future. The only items of interest around the shed were empty stinking bottles that we used for target practice with rocks or as launchers for rockets.

If I remember the old man at all, it is because of a curious incident during the late summer of that year. With the failure of negotiations and an astute deployment of thugs by the A-block gang, the original B-block gang had crumbled into a set of 4 smaller gangs, each maintaining a tenuous relationship with the other. This caused considerable stress among us. A vast sense of disillusionment loomed over the B-block, even as the start of a new school year approached us with a weight of rainclouds in the air. Many among us broke away, spending their days and evenings reading, watching television or playing board games. Safe in the confines of their homes, they chose to stay away from the revival effort among the few of us who wished to renew B-block solidarity. In an effort to reach out to the splinter gangs in the other buildings, a few of us in B-5 launched a grand ‘Chor-Police’ game. It spanned the length and breadth of B-block with 15-man teams of cops and robbers, chosen from the 6 buildings in our block. The rules of engagement were laid out in meticulous detail. We did not wish to leave any room for error or misunderstanding that could result in petty conflict. We hoped the game would be a step in re-forging a united B-block group, a return to a glorious time when we were one.
In the week following the announcement of the game, preparations were afoot. We prowled the block, spotting conveniently parked cars, trees and dense thickets in the garden that looked promising as possible cover spots. Lists of nooks and crannies were made and remembered. I was a part of the Police team which required its own specific planning. Who would be the forward guard? Who would form the van? Patrol routes and scouting protocols were established. Call signs and whistles were formalised. We discussed each member of the Chor team, working out their possible working patterns. We knew Chintya and Tapli were the weakest links on their team, but suspected they would be used as a trap to draw us in. We came up with a list of the known hiding spots favoured by the planners in the Chor team, Krish and Faavda. A novel attraction of this game was the introduction of guns. These were the same guns we bought during Diwali. Load a roll into it and you could shoot off 30 to 40 bursts. There were quite a few intensive discussions on gun protocol before the game between both teams. Friendly fire, range, cover options were all discussed and rules were created to account for them. For instance, for the purposes of the game, any form of cover was considered bulletproof. If you hide behind a thicket or a wall, you were considered bulletproof until you stepped out. Hostage situations were set up for both teams, as we did not wish to unfairly penalise the thieves by depriving them of this option. Training exercises and mini-games were conducted throughout the week. It was heartening to see so many of us back outside after weeks of inactivity. Indeed, it felt like a new dawn.
The game started at 4 PM of a bleak June day. We counted to a 100 while the thieves ran free to find their ambush spots and hiding holes. We loaded our guns and set out in teams of two, as had been decided during the preliminary planning sessions. One in the front, the other shadowing him from a distance of 10 paces. But, as with all plans, our best precautions crumbled within a half hour of the game. We lost two of ours, and killed three of theirs. The lack of captives annoyed me to no end and I decided to dump the plan and set out on my own. Soon, I lost sight of all my comrades on the Police team as I followed a sneaky path behind the parked cars. It was around 5 PM and I knew from past experience that this was the time when most adults stepped out after their afternoon chai. It was a risky time to play the game as you ran a high risk of being cornered by uncles and aunties out for a walk who benignly enquired about your age, your school, your academic performance, your family and a whole slew of random trivia that was known to everyone. Out in the open with no cover like that, little incidents like this made you easy prey. I was cornered once by an uncle who was planning to go out for a drive. My evasive answers only earned me a lecture about my behaviour and stern reprimands to stop skulking like a no-gooder, tuck my shirt in, clean the dirt from my hands, put my gun away, go home and do my prayers. I nodded obsequiously to all of it, fervently watching the space around me for signs of Chor activity. The litany of scolds was interrupted by a series of yells from near the gate. Taking advantage of the sudden pause in the uncle’s rant about the Jungle Book show (which I absolutely adored then, fancying myself to be a wolf in the pack), I raced towards the gate and arrived at a most curious little scene.
I later learned that the incident started with Chintya choosing the shed as a hiding place. It worked brilliantly as a vantage point that covered three of the major paths around the B-5 building, while also providing a view of the main road outside the gate. I imagine it was Faavda’s idea to corner that spot. We chose to ignore it as we did not wish to go anywhere near the old man in the shed. Chintya however hid inside the shed and struck up a conversation with the old man. He informed him of our game and sought permission to hide inside the shed, which was surprisingly granted. Hiru and Gotya had spotted Chintya peeking out of the shed, from a distance. They slowly made their way up to the shed, unnoticed as Chintya was distracted by his chatter with the old man (the kid had a bad tendency of losing focus of important things, which made him an easy target in all our games). Eager to get Chintya “alive”, Hiru covered the door while Gotya covered the window. Cornered as he was, they expected Chintya to surrender, drop his gun, and be captive. These were the rules of the game. Chintya, however, chose to act like the utter prick that he was. He hid behind the old man and claimed cover and protection from the guns leveled at him. A “Time-Please” was called and most of the teams that were skulking close by gathered around the shed. The rules were discussed and everyone agreed Chintya was caught fair and square. The old man kept laughing and muttering to himself through the whole thing, patting Chintya on the head and calling him a good boy, promising him that nothing will happen to him.
The stand-off lasted for a good 10 minutes before Gotya got bored or angry and called off the “Time-Please”. Before everyone could return to their previous positions, he pointed his gun over the old man’s shoulder and fired thrice. It was then that Chintya, like the damnable little twit that he was, yelled and screamed and wept like a little baby. Suddenly, the old man reared himself up and backhanded Gotya out of the shed. He got a thick stick from behind the door and gave him two solid knocks in the ribs. Everyone started yelling then and these were the yells that pulled me to the spot. When I arrived, they had pulled Gotya away from the old man. A few adults were running towards us from the distance. The old man stood snarling before us, stick in hand, yelling abuse at us. Some of his curse words were unfamiliar to us, but a lot of them we knew.
An undercurrent of confused disgruntlement mingled with fear took over all of us. Gotya was bleeding from a cut on his head and we were scared. We kept our distance from the old man as he started walking towards us. Some of the guys ran off to call the adults to help Gotya. Most of us stood before Gotya, afraid but determined to keep the crazy old man from him. The old man suddenly stopped and lashed out again with his stick clipping Krish at the elbow. Over the chorus of yells, I saw him as he sank to his knees, weeping. He kept muttering something in Hindi between long wracking sobs, pleading with us to not take the boy away. “Baccha hai, sir, chod do, mera baccha hai.” His breath stank of the same rank smell we found in the empty bottles around his shed. He coughed and raised his arms to us plaintively, continuing to plead with us. He dropped to all fours and kissed the earth before our feet. We sprang back a few steps, weirded out but fascinated by this abject display. We stood rooted to our spot as the old man called upon every God in the pantheon to fill our hearts with mercy and let the boy live. By this time, Pappu Bhaiya and Ajmal, both of them college students, had come by. They promptly subdued the weeping old man, shoving and punching him about the head, hailing the standard abuse at him. “Madarchod” “Bhadve” “Bacche pe haath uthata hai?” “Bhosdi ke” “Maar, madarchod, maar abhi”. Chintya crawled out of the shed and ran into the B-5 building. None of us spared him a second glance. Gotya’s sister came and dragged him away to the clinic. Soon, the compound was filled with adults dragging us all away from the scene.
Gotya got a few stitches from the cut over his left eye. All of us got scolded for playing “dangerous games” and acting like goondas or heroes (Sanjay Dutt and Sunny Deol). All playtime was suspended for us until the school year started. As for the old man, apart from a streak of blood outside the shed, we never saw him again. School started with the rains, that year.  A lot of us including me, Krish, Gotya, Faavda were now in the secondary section, with morning classes and long pants. We studiously ignored Chintya for about three months before allowing him back into our group. As for the B-block gang, it never re-formed again. We continued to work in groups of seven or ten with a floating membership in four or five different groups. The old shed was cleaned out and a new watchman was appointed. He had a neatly trimmed moustache and saluted everyone when we entered or left the gate. He also glared at us while we played, but we didn’t pay him any attention. He was just another man in a shed by the gate.
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