Friday, 19 December 2008

The afternoons here used to be hot, very hot. Outside the iron-grilled window koels uttered thirsty calls from the branches of the guava tree. The boy, barefooted, swaddled in a white towel, took his time. One of the servants would already have carried up two steaming buckets and hung up a fresh kurta on the hook behind the door. But the boy did not notice these just then. A glance up and down the empty corridor, the door creaked shut behind him and a wooden bolt fell into place. Bare feet slapped against the red stone floor and a hand reached up to pull down the window shutters. Barred sunlight glanced off his dark shoulders as if in mild reproach and, so denied, stealthily picked out other details of the room- the cumberous marble throne, dust motes dancing in the corners, the gentle bobbing of the plastic mug in one of the buckets. Shyly, it came back to rest at his feet again, and the boy, shrugging off the swathes of coarse cotton, nodded a brief hello.

 Even in summer, the water was always hot enough to make tea with. He bathed as all Indians do- dip and pour, dip and pour, scalding streams running off his back, beads of hotness quivering on his skin. His arms burned with goosebumps as he did this; his feet, rooted to cold stone, would shiver. This part of the house was deserted. The heavy door blocked out all sound except the tinny buzzing of the bluebottles. Only that, and the voices of the ghosts rising out of the mists. Those who lived deep in the walls and only emerged in this place of half-shadow in the dead of noon while everybody else slept. 

The boy knew them well, although they never spoke. They were curious, and always hungry for stories. They knew, without his telling, of his past and his present. They knew the shape of his body shining translucent in the mist. They knew the depth of his thoughts, of his diffidence and his tender youth. They had already claimed him as one of their own.

The boy understood all this, and he accepted what they had to give. They sent him dreams, vivid watercolours of greengray meadows and vast silent marshes. They came to him at night when he lay in a bed much too big for him, creeping through thick walls and running like thieves up many stairs, down dark corridors. They brought faded images of people he had never seen and poured waves of sepia deep into his brain. They stretched midnight long and taut until the day seemed unreal when it came and he woke up feeling many years older. Once he had complained of nightmares, but he knew better now. All they wanted, in their insistent, wordless way, was to keep themselves alive. He understood, and he never forgot.

An hour or so later, a darkheaded boy in a new white kurta emerged from the rarely used 'downstairs bathroom' and climbed up the courtyard stairs to the terrace, leaving a trail of wet footprints that soon disappeared in the fierce sunshine. The maid who collected the empty buckets later grumbled in the servants' quarters that chota sahib would surely catch his death of cold one of these days.

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