Whenever our family returned to Bangalore, my brother and I spent much of our time in the Banashankari neighborhood, confined to the narrow flat-roofed house where our uncle Boshulived with his family. This included his wife Gayatri, daughter Hima, infant son Aditya, and our mother’s parents, whose names we didn’t know. We called them Dr. Ajja and Dr. Ajji, but that was just to distinguish them from our paternal Ajja and Ajji; whether or not they’d actually practiced medicine at some point was never something we troubled ourselves over.
With six people in three rooms, Boshu maama’s house was crowded enough even without his putting us up. Whenever we stayed over we rolled out a thick woolen mat, spread two or three blankets over it, and slept on the living room floor. The ceiling fan didn’t work and there were regular power outages in the evenings. Against the encroaching dusk Gayatri athé lit a gleaming red kerosene lantern in whose gasping light we practiced our shadow animals. Snoutless wolves. Broken-winged Butterflies. Elephants sprouting horns instead of tusks.
Worst of all was the toilet. There was no flush toilet in Banashankari, just a squatter. It had corrugated platforms on either side to grip your feet onto as you crouched over a porcelain hole. As I squatted, I followed the light that filtered through the small slatted window. From the ceiling I looked along the walls of coarse green limestone, watching for spiderwebs or scuttling cockroaches, doing times tables in my head: anything to avoid the stench which floated up into my nose and lay warming in my nostrils.
Ridiculous as it seems now, I was always afraid that with one false step I would fall into this toilet mid-use. Whenever we stayed over I would refuse to eat in the hope that I could avoid having to use the bathroom. I usually lasted three or four days.
Despite all this, my brother and I begged our parents to let us spend more time in Boshu maama’s worn-out house rather than the more spacious and amenable apartment in Vijaynagar where Ajja and Ajji—my father’s parents—lived.
“What is there to do there? Wouldn’t you rather spend some time with Ajja and Ajji?”
“Amma, we’ll find something to do. And we like Dr. Ajja and Dr. Ajji more anyway.”
This was a lie; if it came down to rankings, I liked my father’s father and my mother’s mother the most. But I think it greatly pleased my mother to hear that her sons preferred her own parents and not her husband’s. She took very little convincing beyond that.
Our main reason to stay in Banashankari was actually our cousin Hima, a lovely, gentle girl who was more or less my age and thus the only friend my brother and I had across the whole of India. She made a game of responding to Aditya’s gurgling nonsense with immaculate formality.
“Listen, listen everybody! I believe His Highness has orders for us.”
“Most appreciated, Your Majesty.” She bowed low. Then, in a stage whisper to us, “Our maharaja authorizes the construction of a brand-new athletic stadium for our enjoyment only. All hail Maharaja Aditya!”
“All hail,” Apoorva and I whispered back.
“Baby sultan!” Hima cried, pinching his cheek.
In the evenings, after she got home from school, finished her homework, and secured the blessing of our illustrious maharaja, the three of us would climb the backyard wall into the open grass field on the other side. Ten minutes to clear away the torn handbills and discarded waste, and we had a court on which we could play badminton for hours, right up until it grew too dark to risk stepping on shards of glass cola bottles. Those hours by themselves were incentive enough to prefer Banashankari to any of the other homes open to us in Bangalore.
But as a second reason there was also Boshu maama, my mother’s younger brother, who had a huge paunch and loved to use the word kick and took great relish in whirling us round by our ankles like shrieking propeller blades. Boshu wasn’t his real name; the word meant “joker” in Kannada. My mother had given it to him when they were kids.
A final reason was that if we pitched in with the morning’s errands—that is, rolled up our makeshift bed, poked the broom through Dr. Ajja and Dr. Ajji’s bedroom, sprinkled water over the plants by the main gate—then Boshu maama would hand us each ten rupees, which he extracted from a compartment in the gray steel almirah in his bedroom.
“Monkey senior, monkey junior,” he’d say. Then he tipped the notes into our hands.
“Can I have five more rupees, Boshu maama?”
“Can I kick you in the head?”
This exchange over with, he put on his tie and belt. A flurry of activity in the next twenty minutes emptied the house of various inhabitants. Boshu maama left for his radio station job. Hima finished her rice, put on her uniform, and left in the school-provided handcart, to be gone until evening. Gayatri athé took Aditya and hummed into his ear all the way to the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Dr. Ajja and Dr. Ajji also disappeared to their bedroom, the exertion of waking up having tired them out. This left my brother and me completely alone by ten o’clock with the desert of the Indian summer afternoon yawning before us.
No activity we could think of ever seemed adequate to quell the boredom of these desolate, windless, crawling hours. The midday heat didn’t just feel like the opposite of cold; it also felt like the opposite of time. Sunlight glared through grilles and shutters, ripened our heads, made tiny yellow spots weave across our eyes. We leafed through old Tinkle magazines, played the daily word scramble in the Times of India (“Rearrange these seven letters to find all 43 words!”—we never did), and even dug up the backyard, which was completely covered in dunes of sand that swallowed and then warmed your ankles.
Sometimes we’d turn an empty flowerpot upside down and climb onto it to peer over the wall. Across the dirt road lay clusters of exposed metal huts, populated by poor, dark-colored women whose children went around shame-shame and squatted in bushes to do number two. Girls ran in wild, ragtag circles and fell down on the short grass and played with discarded bottles. The boys never seemed to laugh about anything or cry much either. Aside from once in the morning, when they gathered to watch Hima and the other schoolchildren pile into the handcart, they paid no attention to the goings-on along the road.
After having spent all this effort occupying ourselves, evening seemed at last to creep toward us. Excited, we ran inside to check the clock that hung high above the divan.
The short hand was between the 1 and the 2. The long hand was at the 8.
My brother gasped. “Eight-twenty already!”
“Shut up,” I said.
Around 2 p.m. our grandparents no longer needed to sleep, which meant we could watch TV. There was STAR Cricket for their daily countdown of Bajaj Top 10 Cricketers of the World, HBO for American movies with yellow Hindi subtitles, and three or four cartoon channels that catered to bored, unimaginative children such as ourselves. The only alternative was the one English book I’d found in the house—Murderers Abroad, a collection of five Poirot mysteries which I’d reread several times over past visits. By now I could predict key lines on the next page without having to bother with the actual page-turning, and it was impossible to feel anything but tired familiarity when Poirot revealed that it was actually Dr. Leidner, or the Marquis masquerading as Mister Jones, or everybody on the train except for Messrs. Poirot and Bouc. At least television offered the possibility of new content.
The “Television Masti!” section of the Times of India’s Bangalore supplement contained the daily programming for all the news and movie channels. Each morning we scoured this quarter-page with the desperation of beggars fishing scraps from an unwatched trash heap. Using the purple-colored pencil I’d lifted from the box in Hima’s satchel, we circled Hollywood movies with remotely promising titles and then shored up the gaps with penciled-in detours to the cartoon channels in the upper 30s. On this defaced, newspaper sheet, among the purple frenzy of circles connected by arrows, lay the promise of safe passage: an escape from idleness, from captivity, from Agatha Christie. Television could rescue us from having to live in India. All hail.
Whenever we sat on the divan and actually watched Cartoon Network India, however, I only ever felt pity for the heads of these Indian television channels, who seemed obligated to lag ten years behind the rest of the world in programming. Obviously they wanted to play my favorites—Hey Arnold!, Rocket Power!, and a few others whose titles ended with exclamation points—but were no doubt hamstrung by complicated international treaties into putting up episodes of Captain Planet and passing them off as cutting-edge television. Poor executives. Did nobody ever think of them?
In between these second-rate television shows there were second-rate ads for Indian candy: for Polo mints, Cadbury chocolate bars, Nestle Smarties. The names were unfamiliar, but otherwise the format was not so different from America.
The difference lay in quality. American advertisements were crafty and sophisticated; they picked your psyche’s locks with a sense of cunning normally found in jewel thieves. Resisting them toughened your defenses, which made it all the more startling to watch the advertisements that played in India. How could they be so primitive, so ill-hatched, so content with mediocrity? Who were they meant to convince? They couldn’t have persuaded an American squirrel to buy acorn-flavored Kit-Kats. And always the same, too: always a troupe of children frolicking in a meadow with an animatronic tiger/clown/genie. Cue saccharine music: electric pianos highly preferred, though not mandatory. Cycle through jump cuts of laughing, fair-skinned children. Have announcer sandwich the product name between shouts of naya! and masti!. Cut to final glossy close-up of product. Fade to black. Repeat. My brother and I laughed at the clumsy hackwork of it all, but I felt personally insulted by these commercials, which made no attempt whatsoever to deceive us. We watched them only because there was nothing better to do.
And yet before too long the heat and loneliness and stifling unbroken paralysis of midday Bangalore overwhelmed us, and we’d march outside and spend all of our money buying those same, horrendously advertised sweets from the shop outside Hima’s house. This shop had actually been built into Hima’s house, though someone else owned the property. There was no entrance, nothing to enter; just a roomful of provisions behind a shopkeeper’s counter. Perforated streamers of chip bags hung from the ceiling, while candies and sweets lay under the counter, arranged in a glass case like counterfeit jewels.
There were other goods there too, but nothing important to us. What else in the shop really mattered, besides the candy? Basmati rice? Amrutanjam? Medicine?
With my money I usually bought a bag of spicy Kurkure chips or a full 5-Star candy bar which I wolfed down right there, in front of the shopkeeper and the dark, silent boy who sometimes lounged on the steps by the counter. My brother preferred hard candies, since he could buy several of them to savor for the rest of the day. “One Alpenliebe, one Hajmola, two of the pineapple ones…” he’d whisper to me.
“Alpenliebe tastes terrible.”
“Amma says you have to buy me whatever I want.”
So I would relay the request to the shopkeeper in my deficient Kannada.
Of course, having consumed my own purchase without a glance at my brother, I would spend the rest of the day wheedling him for his sweets. To loosen his grip on those tasteless candies I employed every manipulation I could think of. Paeans to the importance of kindness to one’s siblings. Assurances of repayment with extra tomorrow. Long rants on the mediocrity of Indian candy and their tendency to melt—a lie, of course, since things that melt quickly have no place in South India, I didn’t even really like his candy that much, particularly the horrible creamy Alpenliebe ones. But it still seemed imperative to me that he hand them over—and if he did so grudgingly, then the fact that he’d handed them over anyway was somehow even stronger proof of his love for me. So I led him to the yard and invited him to imagine the candies as they roasted in the sun, burning their sticky logos into his hand.
Sometimes he’d hand me a pineapple one out of pity. But usually he kept them all.
When I grew frustrated with his ingratitude, I would overpower him. In a second I would pry one or two candies from his closed fist and swallow them right there, which made him cry. He sniffled at first. Then the sobbing got shriller as it grew, and it was up to me, feet warming in the sand, to placate him before Dr. Ajja or Dr. Ajji came out to investigate. As I went through the gestures of remorse and reconciliation, I crowed inside with triumph which only moments later would mutate into hot, devouring guilt that forced me to apologize to him again, with genuine emotion. This happened multiple times, long after he should have learned better, but he always forgave me. He always stopped crying. And my mother never found out.
It was late afternoon, and we were at the shop outside the house. An extremely hot day too: the kind when the air in the distance shimmers like water and the sunlight presses talons into your eyes as if to punish you for looking at things. I’d bought an orange popsicle. My brother, who’d recently come into money thanks to an aunt, ordered a box of Cadbury Gems—an M&Ms knockoff—to add to his usual assortment of hard candies.
As we turned to leave, I noticed the dark-skinned boy leaning against the edge of the shop. By the looks of it he’d been there for hours. Sweat glittered on his forehead. He was staring up at a cloudless sky, and when he breathed I heard the air strain through his mouth, drying out his teeth. His eyes were half-closed.
I knew this boy lived in one of the huts in the field across the street. I had seen him playing there with his sister once or twice. His mother probably washed clothes or cleaned houses. Or did nothing. His fingers drummed against the ground—absently, I remember, everything about him was absent.
Why did he always come round here? Didn’t he have any other friends? Or school? Even Hima went to school. His truancy discomfited me. My mother had told me not to speak with people I didn’t know. But then what could I say to him, in my broken Kannada? What could he say to me in his broken English? When I looked at him I felt a shame I only feel when I’m in India—the shame of being wealthy. Back in California I’d asked my mother to buy us cheap collared shirts, dirty slacks, and dusty chappals for use in Bangalore. Not that she listened. Into our suitcases went the new sneakers, the fresh supply of socks and underwear, the half a dozen shirts and jeans she’d purchased months in advance, which we were forbidden to wear until we arrived in Bangalore.
The boy lifted his head and took a look around. When his gaze met ours he made no attempt to turn away. He was about my brother’s age, with messy black hair and a tattered black shirt and cloth slacks. Even now he didn’t open his eyes all the way or make a move to stand up.
I remembered then how a month ago we’d taken the train to Mangalore, third class, and at one station a beggar boy had come in and chanted paisae, paisae. One of his eyes was missing its pupil; there was just curdled white, and a few droplets of yellow. I had told my mother afterwards of the nightmares I’d been having about him. She had stroked my hair.
“What you can do,” she’d said, “when you have become a big doctor in America, come back to Bangalore. Just for two or three months out of the year, treat the poor children like him. This way you can give back to your country. It’s good that you feel this way. Don’t forget this feeling.”
The boy on the train had no chappals. He’d spoken with a beggar’s metallic drone. Like a sick goat, he’d chanted paisae, paisae, paisae. He probably hadn’t even seen me. I turned to the dark boy leaning now against the wall by the shop. He had stopped drumming his fingers.
Seized with impulse I tore the Gems from my brother’s hand and flung the box over to him. He fumbled the catch, then fumbled again in picking it up off the granite steps; the box rattled as it hit the ground. He held it in his hands and turned it over, and then he looked back up. Not a trace of gratitude in his features. It felt like he was searching our faces for lies, or else expected us to snatch the Gems back at any moment. He didn’t smile, and his eyes were still half-closed, the pupils barely visible.
We stared at each other for a second, and I felt poor and rich at the same, simultaneously proud and ashamed, as if he owed me and I owed him all at once. But owed him what exactly? What could I owe someone like him, this unclean slack-eyed boy who lived in a shack and didn’t have any money and was beneath me in every sense? I grabbed my brother’s arm and pulled him back inside Boshu maama’s house, past the wetted row of plants. As I closed the gate behind us I heard the boy on the other side. He was opening the box.
“Amoghu, that was my Cadbury. You took my Cadbury candies, my money, why did you do that?” my brother asked. His voice quivered at each my.
“Shut up,” I said.
He seemed to be having trouble keeping the corners his mouth still. “I’m going to tell Amma and Boshu maama and Dr. Ajja and, and you have to give me five rupees tomorrow. Amogh! Amogh, listen!”
“Fine.” But I was barely listening to him. Instead I was whirring with glossy visions of my future, imaginary scenes in which I rose to unparalleled heights of good conduct and selflessness. Blood pounded in my ears while an announcer reeled off my accomplishments and virtues. See? I had learned what it was to be charitable, to be kind. I would end the suffering of the lower castes. I would make lots of friends, I was a good boy, I’d done a good thing. I would become a brilliant doctor and work summers for free in the Bangalore slums, where I would move waist-deep amongst the lepers and beggar-boys, dispensing medicine into their beseeching hands. Naya Amogh hai, extra masti, theera jaan, first class! I was a supremely good boy and I would—-
“At least can I have some of your ice cream?” my brother asked. He held out his hand, the fingers curling in, just a little.
I saw the boy hanging around the shop several times after that, but I never gave him anything again. Nor did he ever indicate that he expected otherwise or that anything otherwise had ever occurred. The weeks crept by without a word or a look between us.
To my surprise the commercials were not all so bad anymore; they’d made astonishing strides in quality, and each day I found them more charming, more lively, more heartfelt than ever before. As time passed, I could not help but laugh when the animated Alpenliebe Man yelped his catchprase, “Lagey raho!,” and my heart buzzed with joy when, at the very end of the Bata Kids Footwear dance sequence, all the children threw their shoes into the air, to be caught in freeze-frame against a wide blue sky.