The hotel stands on the bank of our holiest river. The walls are eroded on one side by the water running silently but with a might that can swallow the entire two-story building and every life within. The casement windows do not reflect the candles on the temple steps on its other side, but seem to swing by their hinges in tune with the temple bells — each swing a heartbeat, the hollow hope of a prayer. People come from far away to rent their last space here. We are not allowed inside, but sometimes I can hear whispers, sobs, and even laughter thumping the walls. Today, however, the hotel is silent, and all you hear is the wind passing through — it is strange: the hotel seems hungry but patient.
A woman walks towards the hotel through the temple’s compound, bags on either arm and sweat on her forehead. Her green shawl and orange salwar kameez, a dress tourists love to wear, stand out against the gray brick walls that surround the compound on all sides but the one leading to the river. I think the riverside is not enclosed because they know no one will swim in it, except for us.
Passing one of the eight smaller pagodas that mirror the main temple, the woman tries to adjust the gold chain around her neck with her chin. She’s not willing to set down the bags in her hands even for a while. Behind her, an older woman is sweating, too, but is seemingly unconcerned about the hair and the blouse sticking to her body. This woman is being carried on a stretcher by two fellows. I shout to the younger one, “Hey—”
But there is a hand over my mouth. It tastes of dirt. Old Tar, now pinching my nose, says, “Don’t speak to her, fool. The bells have summoned her.”
Old Tar’s narrow eyes and crow’s feet make her seem like she has an interest in everything, as if she looks forward to each day so much so that she walks leaning forward. In fact, she leans so far ahead that it gives her a hunchback. But the load she carries counterbalances her weight — a sack always half empty with the trash she collects. I have never seen her wash herself in the river like the rest of us. People say that is because she does not want to be among us, that she thinks she is not like us, that her name is not even Old Tar. Some say when she was young and did not smell of dirt she would visit the temple not to wash herself in the river but to pray like all the others: “God, help me make a name for myself.”
Name. My name is not important. It doesn’t matter if it lasts after I die. I just hope I last, at least for the sake of my sister, Sky. A friend of mine died a few years ago when he was ten. I don’t remember what we called him . . . I think it was Love. I will be nine this year. I need to live for my sister.
“Hey,” one of the fellows carrying the stretcher calls. None of the others turn towards me. “I’ll be right back.” That’s Ruby. He, like Luck, is among the few of us who has done well for himself. At fifteen or sixteen years old, he is tall and has long hands, which is probably why he can stretch them out to protect us all in the temple. I take care of Sky the same way he takes care of us. I even wear a bandana on my head so I look like him, but his has an eagle while mine has someone’s eye, just staring nowhere. He wasn’t all that good before. He used to sniff glue all the time until he almost died one day. He fell on the steps of the temple and shook uncontrollably, his eyes rolled up till they were all white, and he foamed from his mouth, disgusting all the worshipers, tourists, and priests. I had to climb over a lion’s statue to watch him roll down the flight of stairs. He hit the ground hard as people spat curses, shouting, “useless dog!” and some other things that I did not understand. Somehow though, he stopped shaking and slowly pulled himself up on his feet. He gave up sniffing glue that day. I guess, like all the people who visit the temple, he found god.
As for me, I have not found god yet, though the priests say we have so many. I know all their names, what realms they control, and I see all their hands — some have four, some have six — but none ever offers us help. Sometimes I wonder if the gods just need money, like us. Maybe they don’t care for us because we don’t have money. They only bless the rich, like the woman who threw a hundred coins into the river for being blessed with a son.
That was a good day: my friends and I jumped into the river as soon as she left and found most of the coins. Luck did not even need to swim; he sat on the steps at the edge of the river and cast out a string that he had tied to a magnet and, after feeling the clinks, just pulled them out, one by one. He sat as dry as the lips of the temple priests at Old Rose’s while we shivered in the sunless day. Old Rose gave us plenty of food for all the money we had collected. Sky even got to taste meat for the first time. At just five years old, she is lucky that way. As she bit into the bone, I did not shiver anymore.
It is not that the temple does not provide us food — they do, but the food is hardly enough for us all. We have to buy our meals.
Most worshippers offer money to the idols of gods, which is bad for us because we are not allowed inside the temple. I do not know why we are not allowed inside but once when Sky had fallen sick I tried to sneak in to collect some coins and the old priest, S——, beat me with his walking stick and shouted, “You dirty creature! Get out of here! We will need to wash the gods with holy water now. Don’t you know the gods don’t want any of you here? That is why they took away your filthy parents.” I saw the priest wash the idols later and collect all the coins in his satchel.
The visitors of the temple give us money, too, but only some of them and it is hardly anything. Most of them just walk by us faster when we approach them and call us dirty and untouchable. Maybe they will give us more money if Sky hides under my shirt and pokes her arms out of the sides so we look like one of those idols.
Tourists are just the opposite. They give money if you have fewer arms. Drifter is lucky that way: he has one arm. All he has to do is smile for the cameras that surround him. Tourists say, “How awful” and, “Should we raise funds for these kids and gather some volunteers to help?” Then you hear click, click, click, and it is over. They never come back.
He doesn’t earn as much as us though, since he cannot swim in the river. The river is where you get most of the money. People throw coins, food and the clothes of their dead relatives into the river, along with their ashes. They offer it to the gods, but when they aren’t looking, we jump in and collect all that we can. First we get the coins. Then we get the clothes and the burnt wooden planks and bamboos. We can sell the clothes at the Dalit village. Dalits are the only ones allowed to handle the dead and prepare them for cremation, so they do not mind the clothes. Some call them “Impures,” and others, “Children of God.” But whatever the name, they know who they are: they are untouchables. We are not untouchables; to be a Dalit you still need a family name. We are just dirty. I can wash Sky in the river but people will still walk away when she approaches them. Dalits scare us. They eat rats and crows and pigeons, I have heard. They also try to take more clothes from us and pay less — except when Ruby is around. Somehow his tall feature with folded arms and silence seems to stop all bargains. Maybe it is his eyes — I have always felt there is something odd about them. They look like Sky’s: brown but faded, as if they have been scraped on the dirt path by the shore.
As I wait for Ruby to come out, hopefully with an apple or an egg from the hotel, Luck comes along and stands beside me. “Her name is Mrs. Hamal,” he says.
“Who told you?” It is pointless to ask how do you know? He has a way about himself.
“The bells tell me everything, boy.” He grins. “She traveled five days to get here. Can you imagine? Partly on buses but mostly on foot. Makes you wonder how lucky we are, doesn’t it?”
He talks so fast I can hardly ponder upon anything. Maybe this is his trick. “Don’t bother yourself, kid,” he continues. “She’s come here so her dying mother can go peacefully into the next world. The old mother can’t speak, can’t even ask for water.”
Water. I look at the river running behind us. An element. I think of the day, a few weeks ago, when I sat on the other side of the hotel, next to the temple. The sun was out but the day was windy, and Sky was playing with a puppy. She rolled around on the brick path of the compound, and then, on all fours, barked at some crows with a few stray dogs. She stood up and chased them, stolen crumbs falling out of their beaks in the hustle. Ruby’s t-shirt, too big for her, flapping by the sleeves — for a moment I thought she would fly. She ran with her nose cringed and her gums showing, saliva spitting out, her arms spread open. The crows settled on the temple’s golden roof; she stopped at the base of the steps.
Through the holes of the crisscross wooden window of the temple, I could hear, between coughs and grunts, the old priest preaching. Although I did not peer into the dim walls and see the orange shawl draped around the priest’s otherwise naked body, which is thin like Ruby’s except for the unfittingly fat belly, I knew it was old S—— (of course, I am not allowed to take his name with my dirty mouth). I imagined him wiping his bald head — his forehead is always smudged red with holy powder — then rubbing his hand on the white cloth around his waist. I hoped I was not dirtying the temple again by listening to his words.
He cleared his voice, like always, by spitting tobacco on the floor. “Every person,” he said, “is made of five elements: Fire, Water, Wind…Earth and Space. They need one another to sustain themselves. When the Wind of life, our breath, is waning it cannot hold the Fire inside us for long. Fire needs oxygen to burn, doesn’t it? The water we drink . . . we need it to live. It goes from our mouth to our stomach to our mind to our hands, fingers and toes. But when the Fire inside us is out, the Water is no longer agitated and no longer wants to circulate in our body. Have you seen water in a pan? It will just sit there — still. Only if you heat it with fire will it move, bubble and seem alive. And so it is, when the Wind, Fire and Water are no longer functioning in our body, we are taken away from this earth. Our body is made of Earth — clay and other things. This body doesn’t function then in the absence of the other elements. The only thing that remains is our soul, the spirit, Space —”
“Vat is dis soul?” someone interrupted. Old S—— grunted, probably wondering, like me, if this man was German or Swiss. He replied, “It is the essence of life. It is what gives us morals, our conscience . . . it is a living, breathing entity. It is an energy that we can’t see, our metaphysical self — that which is beyond our worldly suffering; poverty, hunger, pain…or pleasure. You might all call it ‘ghost,’ for it is colorless, transparent, permeable, un-humanlike . . . but here, we don’t see it that way. It is not frightening to us. I have seen two or three myself. One of them even spoke to me. He said, ‘Death is a process. It is a natural cycle. People embellish it by attaching too much emotion to it.’ Personally, I feel people are sad about death because it breaks the household hierarchy. Death breaks the social order at home so people don’t know what to do — the chaos leads to grief. What they don’t realize is there is a cycle of order. A father dies, his son replaces him. A mother dies, her son’s wife replaces her in the kitchen.”
“What if the child dies first? What if they don’t have any children?” someone questioned, a woman. By now people were getting ready to leave; I could hear coins clanking against the metal at the foot of the idols inside. I tried listening to the priest’s reply but the dispersing crowd grew noisy, so I ran up to the crisscross window and, standing on the tip of my toes, peered in. Old S—— was on his knees, pushing all the scattered coins on one side to form a heap — his orange shawl dragged on the floor, brushing the dirt, veiling the heap. He said, laughing, “They come to our hotel then.” What about the children who have no father, I thought?
I thought about all that Old S—— had said for a couple of days, but I still have not been able to understand why, if the soul is so good, do we not set it free? Why do we trap it in our bodies? And in this world? My body is dirty, the worshipers’ bodies are god’s creation, and the priests’ bodies are the closest to god — but would we all not be equal if we were all just souls? We would not need money. We would never go hungry.
Just as I look back at the hotel, Ruby comes out smiling and shining an apple on the bandana over his head. He first gives a nod to Luck and then the apple. Luck raises his hand, as if about to wave, but does not. He leaves anyway. I can finally think now. Before I speak though, and I think I wanted to say something, Ruby shuffles my hair and says, “Hey kiddo, don’t worry. Look here. . . .” He pulls out another apple from the pocket of his shirt and hands it to me.
“Thanks, Ruby.” My words jumble up with my laugh, which seem to come out of nowhere. “I . . . I will be right back.”
“Don’t worry about it. You can eat it here. Look, I have some bread and eggs that you can give to Sky.” But before I can even smile, “Actually . . . come here,” he says, grabbing my hand and leading me to the steps by the river hidden between two platforms made of stones and purposefully raised high — the edges of the platforms are still laced with the ash from the morning’s ritual that the Dalits forgot to wash. Three of them had come this morning when an old man’s stretcher was placed on a platform. He was dead. There are seven platforms and one more at the center for important people. He was placed on one of the seven. Our dead do not have a place here.
The old man did not stay at the hotel but was instead brought here in an ambulance. The people that came with him were dressed nicely: white clothes to mourn, black glasses to block off the sun, thick socks so their feet would not touch the cold ground, and some gold chains around their necks and hands. Only a few of them seemed unconcerned about their dresses. It is usually only the close family members of the dead who cry. One of the people in the dark glasses went up to the priest, R——, and informed him, “Uncle has been unclothed and washed already. But the priest we called at home didn’t have a saffron sheet.” The priest nodded. The saffron sheet. The Dalits wrap the dead body in three sheets: white for death as well as rebirth, red for purity and marriage, and saffron for the sacred soul — I know this because the Dalits do it ten to thirty times a day, and each time there is some person telling a curious tourist about it. This morning, a young man, not much older than Ruby, was telling his European friend, “The people believe that all the worldly things — pleasure and pain — have to be burned with the body so the soul, looking down at the body, feels detached and can travel into the new life. That’s why they have the three sheets. But before burning, the body has to be cleansed with holy water.” His friend was taking photos, and was about to say something before he was interrupted.
“Oh, I guess the body has been washed already. Some families can afford on-call priests,” the young man snickered, but then swiftly held his composure. “As you can see, the temple is rather dirty. People do not like spending much time here so they do what they can at home.”
Priest R——’s voice grabbed my attention. As the Dalits laid planks of wood and bamboo shafts over the dead body, the priest recited something from the thick book he held, Bhagavad Gita. I never understand what he says, though I hear it all the time. It is in a different tongue. I do not think anyone else understands it either. We understand what the priest tells us it means.
Some of the old man’s relatives went next to the feet of the body and almost touched them with their foreheads as the priest began humming. They then offered food, flowers, and money to the dead in plates made of leaves. Some of these plates would later be pushed into the water, while others remained on the platform. We cannot eat what remains, at first, since the priests say the dead turn into dogs before they can travel into the new world. So it is still their share. We have to wait for the dogs to eat. Sometimes there is still some food left for us. There is money to be collected though, since the dogs have nothing to do with it. Searching for money in the debris of leftover food and torn flowers is rough; there is a lot of pushing and pulling so I never let Sky go there. I do not go there because I wait for everything to be pushed into the river. I can collect more this way because I can swim faster than the others.
Before all this, however, the body has to be burned. So we waited and watched — Ruby, Drifter, Sky, Luck, the others and I, along with the priests and the dogs. The relatives paid their respects and the body was ready. The old man’s son lit the funeral pyre. When a father dies, the eldest of his sons lights his pyre; when the mother dies, the youngest son lights it. I guess children are important this way.
Some bodies take two, some take seven hours to completely turn into ashes. Most of them are left burning overnight. There is always a crowd around the pyre, but not of relatives, who go outside or stand along one of the smaller pagodas to smoke and talk. The crowds are mostly of worshipers and tourists. They are always curious. We run along the riverside by the farthest platform, if it is vacant, and play football with a stone. But sometimes I like to stand around and watch. This morning I stood there. The son stood by the pyre for three hours — not crying, but silently watching with a cloth over his nose. Close to the smoke, you need to cover your mouth and nose or it will burn you from the inside and make you tear. I do not know if he saw the old man’s hand slip out of the sheets and stick out of the wooden planks by the second hour. It was just the palm and the fingers though — they stared at me. Out of the flame, I knew it would take longer to burn.
I felt a push, and then another, and some more, until my thoughts were lost in the crowd. The ashes had been swept with brooms into the river and the family was leaving, people readjusting their dark glasses and holding the hands of those who wept, leading them out of the temple. “The priests say the fire is important for the dead, as is the river,” the man was saying to his foreign friend. “The burning and the scattering of the ashes into the river help the dead return to their basic elements. You see, the missing Fire and Water are added back.” I dived into the wreck.
The apple is sour. Ruby is trying to toss a pebble across the river. It skips, skips again, then drowns. A good attempt. “It’ll go across one day,” he says with a smile, his eyes droopy. “You know, kid, the way you take care of your sister. . . .” Ruby always has an earnest sign of happiness on his face, even when he speaks sadly.
“I’m allowed inside the hotel now. It’s not because I take care of you guys. It’s because I can make them money —”
“You think I can work there someday?” I ask sincerely.
“Kid, before this turned into a hotel, it used to be just a house. People would still come stay here — this was long before Sky was born.” I wonder if he knew my parents. How were they? Where are they?
“See, these priests are greedy. They don’t want me around. But since I have nowhere to go, they think I can make money for them when they go home for festivals. They let me enter the hotel so I guess I am not that dirty now. But Luck still is. They know he’s sly. He’ll always remain dirty.”
I look at Sky, sitting on the far side of the temple, perhaps waiting for me to return. A man feeds his son by the steps on which Ruby had rolled down. He waits for his wife who has only just entered. The boy, about my height, is eating something half covered by the wrapper. I do not know if it is his tubby cheeks glistening red in the sun or the drool wetting his chin, but it makes the food very desirable.
Ruby still continues, “Now the big celebration is coming up, and there aren’t going to be many people here. I might be the only one left behind. You know then I will —”
Sky licks her lips and, first crawling then walking, approaches the boy, requesting him to spare a meager portion. The father — his face cringing — immediately rises from the seat and, with his leg in a kicking motion, shoos her away. Sky jumps aside in fear, still watching the boy wipe his nose with his palm and eat. Then, for some reason, the boy throws the food away. As the father laughs, Sky runs to grab the gracious bounty. She picks it up and begins licking it, and biting it with the back of her mouth; she recently lost three of her front teeth. The father, seeing this, regains his face of disgust and anger. He spits on the ground next to Sky and shouts, “You dirty mongrel!” The son, taking cue from the father, scuttles up to her and kicks aimlessly about her as high as he can, sending the food flying across and, at the same time, hitting Sky in the face. There is a piercing noise. Sky’s tears smudge the boy’s shoeprint on her face. All this happens so fast that I cannot reach there in time. I still run. I run towards the boy not knowing what I will to do. I forget I am dirty. But by the time my legs reach there, the commotion fetches the boy’s mother who, seeing the boney knee-high figure of Sky crying in a ragged t-shirt and grimy knickers, throws a newly wrapped meal her way, collects the tubby boy and quickly leaves the scene. The crowd disperses and Sky stops crying, as if nothing has happened. Then she unwraps the meal and gives me a bite, smiling.
Turning around, I see Ruby. He throws me a smile, but this time his face has lost the earnest joy. Above his towering head, I can see, at a distance, a window on the second floor of the hotel — there is someone looking down. It is Mrs. Hamal. She has her gold chain in her hand.
At night we sleep in a corridor by the compound gate where, during the day, visitors remove their shoes. Since the corridor is small and there are so many worshipers, many of the shoes are misplaced or lost. I wish I could do that: walk into some place with one pair and find myself in another. Would I take the new shoes back to where I stay or would they take me elsewhere? Old Tar finds all that is lost and sells them. Tonight she walks about with her eyes and her cigarette lit.
It has been five days since Sky was kicked in the face. But she lies beside me still holding the wrapper of the food the boy’s mother had given to her. She had asked me who the woman was. She thought the woman was nice. I turn away from her and face the hotel. The light in Mrs. Hamal’s room is still on. Behind me, I hear Sky fold and crush the wrapper. This is the only place from where I cannot see the river. My thoughts are interrupted by Sky, who says to Old Tar, “Are you my mother?”
Old Tar laughs. She almost falls down on her hunchback — she does that sometimes when she has had a lot to drink. Sky is already approaching her. I try to take Sky away from her, but my legs are suddenly fixed like some of the rocks in the riverbed.
Still laughing, she says, “Your mother? Your mother was a whore — just like you will be one day.” My ears seem thirsty tonight. And my heart beats faster as I break a sweat. Sky is already sitting down, her face covered in the look she has when I walk towards her hiding an apple or two behind my back.
Old Tar continues, “She left her family — all that money — and for what? For that no-good man! The whole world knows she slept with the servant-boy.” My father? “Her father beat up both of them and threw them out . . . and cut her off. That whore —” The word makes me feel warm and cold at the same time, like the time the old priest hit me with his crooked stick and I felt a sharp jab on my finger. It felt cool against the wind as I ran away and sat at Old Rose’s steps. When I looked at my finger, there was blood. It was only a tiny prick, but seeing blood made me want to cry. I do not know if it hurt. It just felt warm.
“She cried and screamed that she hadn’t done it — that she was forced to do it, but her father wouldn’t listen.” Old Tar begins to pick up shoes, looks at them, and tosses them away or into her sack, not paying attention to us anymore, as if talking to herself now. “Eventually she had nowhere to go but back to servant-boy’s house. And when the news spread that she was pregnant…her brothers stormed into the servant-boy’s house and beat him to death; of course, that poor bastard was an untouchable so no one cared.” A chill runs down my body, as if my skin is trying to break apart from me. Did Ruby know?
Sky is crying now. I do not know if she understands all of this. Maybe she feels warm and cold, too. Although I hold her in my arms my mind is elsewhere: so I…and Sky — Sky and I were born untouchables? Before I can make any sense of this, Old Tar continues:
“That’s when your mother came here to this temple. But, of course, everyone knew what a whore she was so no one helped her. Who sleeps with a lowly servant-boy? The priests told all the people to avoid her or go to hell. She got you then.” She does not point at me. She picks up a sandal and tosses it aside. “And you, little girl, god knows who your father is! Must be some poor boy here. Maybe that one with the bandana. That good for nothing —” She turns around and looks at me, licking her lips as if getting ready to speak again. She jerks forward a little as her mouth opens and pauses. I wonder if she forgot what she was saying or maybe she forgot my mother. I pull Sky up holding her hand, warm and sweaty. “And then,” she continues, and we stand still, “she fell apart. She did not eat or bathe. And one day, when you were both still small, she died.” I try to think of my mother. I cannot remember her.
She laughs loudly and pushes us aside, and we fall. But even as she is walking away, she continues, “You, little girl”—Sky looks at her, as I wipe her cheeks with my bandana—“will be like her one day — like me, too. This is no place for a woman. Look around you: eight little boys and those two men, Luck and the other one. The same tourists that throw money at you now will throw money at you again when you grow up, but it will be for a different reason. You won’t be untouchable anymore, and you will not like it. That is what happens to us all. You will be taken from here and you will do as they say — and when it is all over…when you are old and tired, you will come back to this temple and you will pick up trash.”
Sky asks me if Old Tar is lying. I am not sure. But I say, yes. I watch Sky fall asleep in my arms, my hand combing through her short hair. Her nose, flat, round and runny, cringes when she sniffles. She shivers half the night, but still sleeps like the other boys around us. I forget: we sleep hungry tonight.
We wake up to an excitement. All the boys are gathering around Luck so we follow. They love Luck. He is clever in his speech and gets away with anything. The past few nights have been cold and he has been sneaking into the hotel to sleep. He will not tell us how he slips in unnoticed but is instead talking about Mrs. Hamal and her dying mother.
“This could mean money,” Drifter cheers, shaking his one clenched fist. “It’s good since the hotel’s been mostly empty these past few days. I think the gods are feeling generous and sparing lives because of the festival. I hope they’ll be nice to us too.” In some ways they have: a lot of worshipers have been visiting the temple lately so there are more chances of getting coins — but we do not. The worshipers do not feel as generous as the gods.
“I’ve been bringing them water and stuff.” Luck smiles, his crooked teeth exposing the chewing tobacco stain. “She doesn’t know I’m one of you. She thinks I work at the hotel.” Taking a comb out of the back pocket of his trousers, he runs it through his hair and spikes it up with his hand, all the while cleaning his teeth with his tongue. “Her husband is still in his village. They don’t have phones there and it takes too long for her letters to reach him. It’s good he isn’t here — she told me he didn’t want to come because it’s not his mother that is dying — this way I can carry around the stuff she buys at the market; hopefully she will give me more money for that.” He slips the comb into his side pocket, but it does not go in all the way. When he pulls it out, hanging on its teeth is a gold chain. He thrusts it back in. “I’ll buy you all some food once she leaves.”
Everyone cheers at this promise. I am happy, too. This means I can keep Sky away, at least for some more time, from whatever Old Tar said was coming for her. Luck continues, “But remember, don’t come near me or talk to me when Mrs. Hamal is around. She should not find out I’m one of you. See, I won’t have much trouble from the hotel workers since most of them have gone home for the festival. And the two that remain, Archin and Bhushan, leave early in the evening to either go home or fall bonelessly drunk somewhere. All I have to worry about is you people.”
I run to the edge of a cremation platform and jump into the river. When your body plumps into the river, splashing and pushing aside our holiest water, transposing it for one single moment, you feel you have all the power in the world. Except, the river quickly regains control — takes back every part you displaced and bullies you in its currents. I like swimming in it though. It is not that deep and I can swim across in two minutes. But I do not know where it starts or where it goes. It is brownish and thick; when you open your eyes you cannot see anything. I like to let go of my body and float like I am dead. Free. Free from everything, free of all hunger. I think of the distance between this river and the sky. Why does the sky remain so far? Why does it not come down to kiss the holiest of all rivers? What is between the sky and this river? The priests say gods live up there, so why do they recoil from the water — their holy water? I dream of following the currents to the ocean one day — just to see where everyone is going; see what the next world looks like. When I come back up Sky is waiting for me. I do not know if I smile back at her.
“The boys are waiting by the hotel,” Sky says. There is oddness in her voice. She has been with Drifter accosting visitors for food. I come out to the shore, shaking to rid myself of as much water as I can from my body. I wear my t-shirt and put on my bandana, and walk towards the crowd, water still dripping behind me from my knickers.
Mrs. Hamal outside the hotel by a platform heating underneath the afternoon sun. Her hair is disheveled and her wrinkled off-white salwar kameez blends into the gray brick walls of the compound. Her bare neck displays a bruise that resembles the one on Sky’s cheek — the one she got when the boy kicked her. Archin, rubbing the back of his neck, nods questioningly at Bhushan. Ruby’s voice grabs me from behind and plucks me from the group to one of the cremation platforms. I am surprised Luck is sitting with him in such plain sight. He tucks a gold chain into his pocket. Noticing the question on my face, he says, “Archin found me sleeping inside, but when he went to tell Mrs. Hamal who I really am, I slipped out.” He smiles at Ruby.
“Is that why she is crying?” I ask.
“No, it’s because her mother’s not dead yet,” Ruby says. “She thought she would be. She doesn’t have money for the hotel. She can wait till the evening but now Archin and Bhushan are saying they have to run home for some emergency — yeah, sure. Anyway, they are the only people who can perform the ritual since the priests are not here.”
The distance between Mrs. Hamal and us makes listening in on her conversation impossible. I can only see what is happening. Archin and Bhushan go into the hotel and bring out the old woman on a stretcher. As they approach the cremation platform next to us, Archin shouts, “Ruby, go get the wood and stuff from the store. Tell the old chap I asked for it. You and Luck will have to prepare everything — I don’ t have time.” Ruby and Luck run out, and I join the boys. Sky slips her hand into Drifter’s. When the stretcher is placed on the platform, I am shocked. The old woman’s eyes are still moving. She is alive. But she can neither move nor speak. She just lies there.
“Okay, ma’am,” Bhushan speaks, “we’ll wait till we’re done with our cigarettes. I’m sorry but we can’t wait any longer than that.”
“No! No! You are animals! Where is that other boy? Send him to fetch a priest. You can’t tell me there isn’t a single priest around. You can’t do this. Look at my mother. Look!” She does not look. “Look, I’m sure my husband will be here tomorrow. He’ll give you anything you want. Please don’t do this. I came all the way here. You can’t do this.” She looks away, facing the platform at the center, raised from the rest. “Okay,” she faces Archin, “if he doesn’t come, no one has to know that we stayed another night. Please. I will give you anything. I will —” she looks towards us, “Where is that boy? Look, we will be very grateful to you. We will pray for you and your family. Please. What if she was your mother?”
Bhushan stares at Archin. Drawing a cigarette from behind his ear, Archin replies, “Ma’am, his mother is the concern of our emergency.” He sounds like one of the priests. “That’s right, ma’am,” Bhushan adds. “Sorry, we are in a hurry.” They leave her.
Mrs. Hamal stands still, not looking down by her feet at the person that lies there. The mother’s eyes move left and right rapidly as if, like Luck’s contraption, a string will cast out of her eyes and reel in her daughter’s attention. It does not happen. A gush of wind hits hard on the river, activating it, angering it. The waves collide on the wall of the platform where the old woman lies. It looks as if the river’s tongue is licking the ashen residue of a previous meal, whetting its appetite for what is to come next. The tongue falls back, savoring the taste.
A little farther, Archin taps the ash off his cigarette, the saffron glow eating the white sheet of paper. Exhaling a thick smoke, he nods at Bhushan. I walk up to Sky and put my hands in her pockets. There is one coin inside — just enough for our next meal. I pull it out and clench my fist, feeling the edges of this tiny metal object. How small it is to fit in my hand; how big to fill two stomachs; how large to govern a life? It is rough around the edges.
I wonder if Mrs. Hamal can buy some time if I give her the coin. Perhaps Archin and Bhushan can buy some food with it, and maybe wait some more. But what about Sky? I am almost nine now and Love died when he was ten. Soon Sky will have to fend for herself. Maybe Old Tar was wrong. Maybe Sky will soar high. I look around for help, some one to convince the stubborn Archin, but Luck is not around. I look at Sky and say, “We are going hungry tonight.”
The priests say all of us reincarnate again and again till we become the most perfect being we can be — that is when we are returned back to the Supreme Being. I do not know if this old woman will return to the Supreme Being, and I am not sure what will become of Sky and me.
I approach Mrs. Hamal with the coin and stretch my arm as far as I can. She finally moves her head and looks into my eyes. I feel the weight of the coin in my hand. The wind hits hard on the river again. The old woman is breathing hurriedly, her eyes moving in all directions. Mrs. Hamal remains still. Her lips are parting suddenly — her tongue eager — but they remain ajar. I remember I am an untouchable.
I feel like I am immersed in the river, but instead of the water there is absence. I look down at it flowing. The sun is trying to settle the water, but the currents foolishly fight over its hapless image, trying to claim it. It is not theirs. They can touch it, but never own it. The hotel is silent; the windows remain still. The temple has not a heartbeat; there are no bells. We are all going hungry tonight.