Maharajganj, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, 1991
What you have to remember is that Ajay was just a boy. Eight years old and malnourished. Barely literate. Watchful inside the sockets of his eyes.
His family was poor. Wracked by poverty. Living hand to mouth in a hut patched with dried grass and plastic sheets on raised ground above the floodplain, by the ears of sarkanda beyond the shadow edge of the village. Father and mother manual scavengers both, scraping shit from the villagers’ dry latrines with slate and hand, bearing wicker baskets on heads, to be dumped on farther ground. Pissing and shitting in the fields before dawn. Pissing after dark. Growing meager leafy vegetables in the filthy runoff. Drinking water from the brackish distant well so as not to pollute the common source. Knowing their limits. So as not to invite death upon themselves.
Ajay’s mother, Rupa, is pregnant again. His elder sister, Hema, tends to their goat.
This is Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Nineteen ninety-one. The foothills of Nepal rise in the north.
The moon is visible long after dawn.
Before Ajay took a breath he was already mourned.
It’s nineteen ninety-one and the district is in dire need. The upper-caste landlords and their cronies thrive. The boy treks each day to the government school, an aging, unloved shell; a false hope of concrete without doors; wooden windows shuttered, splintered, and full of holes; rooms too small for the many children, snot nosed, hair combed, hair oiled, scrappy uniforms kept clean, fighting a threadbare tide. The teacher is missing, often drunk, often runaway, often collecting his government salary at home. Ajay is poor, less than poor, shunted to the back with the other Valmikis, with the Pasis and Koris, shunned, ignored. At lunch they are made to wait apart, on rocky ground, while the caste children sit cross-legged in rows on the smooth platform taking their meals on banana leaves. When their meals are over, it is the outcastes’ turn, their portion meager, watered down. After lunch Ajay is put to work. He sweeps the floor, removes dried shit from the corners, sweeps lizard shit from the ledge. One day a dead dog lies beside the boundary wall, bloated and rotten and snakebit. He is made to tie string around its hind leg, drag it away.
In the afternoon heat he returns several kilometers home to help Hema with the goat. Past the Hanuman temple, past the boys playing cricket. He keeps a safe distance. Three years ago he made the error of picking up a stray ball, throwing it back with all his might. The ball was shunned like a leper, and Ajay was chased through the fields. He escaped across the sewage ditch. They told him: Touch the ball again, we’ll hack off your arms and legs, set fire to them, throw you in the well.
It’s nineteen ninety-one and his father has gotten into some kind of trouble. Their goat has broken free from its tether and entered a villager’s field to eat the spinach there. Ajay and Hema retrieve it, but the owner of the field comes to know. He arrives late afternoon with the village headman, Kuldeep Singh. Kuldeep Singh brings with him a handful of eager goons. In their presence the landowner demands an explanation where none will suffice, while Ajay’s father, all sinew and bone, begs forgiveness when none will come. It’s the goat they deal with first. In clairvoyance, it spits and snorts and rears and brandishes its horns, so the goons shy away. It takes Kuldeep Singh to push them aside, to bring his brutish club down swiftly on its head. The skull cracks, the goat teeters on the void, legs folding—it looks, for a moment, like a newborn trying to walk. Kuldeep Singh places his knee on its head and slits its throat with his blade. Exalted by the hot blood, the goons move in on Ajay’s father. They drag him to the ground, hold him down by his shoulders and knees, and take turns beating the soles of his feet with bamboo sticks, graduating in their zeal to his ankles, his shins, his knees, his groin. They deliver heavy blows to his groin, his chest, his arms. His wife and daughter cry out, wail, beg them to stop. Ajay turns to run, but he’s held fast by Kuldeep Singh as he goes. Those heavy hands grip his shoulders. The breath of tobacco and liquor is a sour perfume for his nose. Ajay turns away, directs his eyes at the pinkish sky, but Kuldeep Singh twists his head so he must watch.
His father falls into a fever, bones purpling into dusk. In the morning, in despair, his mother turns to the local moneylender, Rajdeep Singh, begging enough to take her husband for treatment to the government hospital twenty kilometers away. Rajdeep Singh grants her two hundred rupees at 40 percent interest after a humiliating negotiation.
When Rupa reaches the hospital, the doctors refuse to admit her husband unless they are paid up front in full. They take 150 rupees, then leave him in a ward unattended. He slips from this world by midnight. She drags his body back herself, strapped to a wooden sled in the dark, reaching home after dawn. Denied access to the village’s burning ground, they cremate him themselves with collected oil and cheap wood on a pyre near their home. There’s not enough wood to finish the job. The stench is unbearable. They dig a shallow grave beside the woods and bury his charred remains there.
Next day, Rajdeep Singh’s men come round to remind Ajay’s mother what is owed. The goons surround Ajay’s sister, pass lewd comments, suggest what she might do. Ajay watches hidden and mute among the stalks of the neighboring field. There’s a cockroach in the cracked earth beneath his feet. He covers his ears to block the cries and stamps the cockroach into the dust. And then he runs. When he returns two hours later, his sister is sobbing in a corner of the hut and his mother is stoking the fire.
A few hours later, the thekedar—the local contractor—turns up. He offers his condolences and, knowing their parlous state, suggests he pay off their debt in full himself. They can pay him back in one simple, honorable way.
Ajay doesn’t get a say. The next morning before light, he is loaded into the back of a Tempo carrying eight boys he’s never met. It’s an old vehicle with a battered cabin and a greasy cage fitted behind that has a roof open to the stars so its human cargo can see but dare not risk escape. Ajay has nothing to show for himself save his old clothes and a soiled blanket. His mother and sister stand at a distance, then turn and walk away. The engine idles on the dirt track beside the gully. Then the contractor climbs in and the assistant climbs in and they drive from the crawling light along a potholed track toward a black horizon pierced by stars. Ajay sits catatonic among the sullen and shivering boys. A patchwork of blankets barely keeps them warm. They huddle together on the cab side of the cage, facing east, watching their homes recede, waiting for dawn.
They stop at a busy dhaba just before sunrise to piss. A mindless tube light gathers yearning moths. Steam escapes resting truckers’ mouths. In minutes the sky has turned pale and the landscape grows distinct. Vehicles trundle down the highway. Wheat fields stretch in the mist on either side. The contractor’s assistant, a wiry, dark, pockmarked man with a twisted mustache and a long face and narrow eyes, opens the back of the cage. He warns them not to run as he leads them to the trench to piss, and to make certain of this, he stands behind them toying with his knife. The fog sweeps in more heavily, the sun briefly appears as a pale silvery disk, then vanishes. Locked back inside the truck, the boys are given roti and chai as the thekedar and his assistant sit at one of the plastic tables in front and order aloo paratha.
This is the moment.
One of the caged boys, pigeon chested with curled hair, once passive, leaps up and scales the cage, throws himself down. He’s running along the earth before anyone can react, down and running toward the backside of the dhaba, hands reaching out instinctively to grab him, but the boy slips through and leaps over piles of garbage, then over the stinking ditch into the shrouded field. The thekedar’s assistant is quick on his feet, his plastic chair falling as he gives chase—running alongside the toilets, jumping over the ditch himself, pulling his knife. And then both boy and man are gone. The truckers, the dhaba workers, the boys, all watch expectantly in the direction of the escape, peering into the gray expanse, cocking their eyes to hear. Only the thekedar, a man of great experience, sits calmly sipping his chai.
Five minutes pass with no sign. Normal life resumes.
Then there’s a paralyzing scream, an outrageous howl somewhere in the fog. All the stray dogs begin to bark.
When the assistant comes back panting, alone, his white undershirt is flecked with blood. He spits on the ground and sits without a word.
No one dares meet his eye.
He finishes his chai, eats his paratha. The moment is seared into Ajay’s brain. The mist in the fields rises and fades.
They drive all day and the sun grows sharp, burns captive the whole world through its towns with dusty junctions of trucks and vegetable stalls.
Some of the boys begin to stir as if waking from drugged sleep, whispering among themselves, trying to shield themselves from the glare of the sun and the dust and wind. Ajay squints and talks with no one; he tries to remember his father’s face, his sister’s face, his mother’s face. He tries to remember the road home. In the afternoon he wakes without realizing he’d fallen asleep and sees a city with wide boulevards and grand buildings and gardens of bright blooming flowers, a world he thinks is a dream.
When he wakes once more, it’s nearly sunset and they are on a narrow road rising into a mountain range, with a tumbling bank of scree at the right and rolling hills behind.
He looks at the eyes of the other boys and finally speaks. “Where are we?” he says.
“Where are we going?”
One nods above. “Up there.” “Why?”
The boy looks away. “To work,” another says.
They breach the mountains late that night, rising into the foothills, crawling the switchbacks there, the Tempo ascending no faster than a mule, its engine straining against the gorge torrent and the pitch dark. As they plateau, a humming sheet of river stalks their side. The moon shows again, waxing to full, the tall sky incandescent. But beneath the gliding fleet of cloud, there’s blackness, grotesque shapes, dead drops, a world of shadow, the lull of the engine. The temperature drops and the boys draw close for warmth, rattling bones in cages, bracing themselves. Then the lava hours of nightmare begin, the ceaseless rise and rise, the sudden fall, hour upon hour wrapping around valleys and hairpins, with air so cold it scars, Ajay holding on for the next bend, for the plateau, for the sun to rise and spread itself on the unseen river, to be returned home, for his mother to wake him up from sleep, to drag dead dogs from school.
Then tendrils sprout and the night is done, the yolk of a sun cracks over the peaks and the blue death that filled the final hours is cast away. Pure light and the victory of dawn. Ajay examines the faces of the blinking boys, stirring dazed within their blankets. Faces older: fourteen or fifteen, a face that is younger, maybe seven. Checking to see if they have changed. They have not. But they have passed through a portal.
There’s no hope of home now.
From Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Deepti Kapoor.