by Hema Nataraju
We were kings of the world. When we set out every afternoon with our tire hoops and sticks, not even the gangs of feral dogs dared to cross us. The sun was relentless, but when have nine-year-old kids ever cared about the heat roasting their backs? We had a fixed route; the neighborhood boys and I assembled at the mouth of the bazaar, got our hoops running, turned left on Gandhi street, and then right on Hillview — a long stretch of open road flanked by trees which hid the mansions of the wealthy.
We slowed down here, tiptoeing close to “Chicken-Heart” the napping security guard, and barked like dogs right in his ear. He woke up, startled. We waited until his heavy jowls reddened and then we ran. He chased us, hurling choice expletives, all the way to the end of Hillview. The thrill that ran down our spines tasted like fizzy cola the rich kids drank. Vehicles screeched to a halt. We stuck our middle finger out at angry drivers when we ran across the main road that cut Hillview from Lane 4, where the mine workers lived in squat matchboxes.
We usually found her near the big trash bin on Lane 4, waiting for someone to throw food away. When she heard our tire hoops trundling down the asphalt with our bare feet thumping close behind, she’d try to hide. But we were always quick to find her and ready with stones to throw at her. This was the best part of our day — throwing stones at the crazy woman. Rumor was she had once eaten a live rat. Sometimes we caught lizards and threw them on her to see if she would eat them. But her reaction was always the same — she pulled her matted hair and screamed in a strange language and we laughed because that’s what everyone else did and we could do anything.
We were kings of the world.
Kings of the world who turned into dirt-faced, starving boys after the hoop ride ended. Slum dogs who dreamed of squat matchbox houses with toilets inside and some space to stretch their legs at night.
On one such tired evening, Mr. Das, the building contractor who made shiny promises to turn our slum into an apartment complex, was inside our tarpaulin hut with Ma. I knew by the red towel hung over the asbestos sheet which served as our door. A sign that I should stay out. Ma said he helped us with money and food. I spat in his ugly shoes anyway. I kicked dirt, craned my neck to watch the neighbor’s TV, but I couldn’t hear anything. The air was cool and melancholy so I took a walk with it. Lane 4 was mostly empty. Lights were on inside houses, everyone looked cozy and happy in their nests from where I stood.
The sob came out of nowhere — an arrow slicing through the night. For a moment, I thought it was Ma. She cried like that sometimes after Mr. Das left, clutching the wad of notes he gave her. I peeked behind the dumpster for the source of the sob. A matted head, trembling shoulders and torn clothes on a stick-like figure sat in a bubble of gloom. I stood there, hands balled into fists in my pockets, half-saddened, half-scared she would turn around and recognize me.
She didn’t. Or maybe she did recognize me and didn’t care. I had nowhere to go, nor did she. I wedged myself next to her, between the reeking dumpster and the dank, crumbling brick wall. I didn’t know what else to do. Not a word passed between us. She sobbed some more and I mentally worked out a new hoop trundling route which avoided Lane 4.
A few minutes later, the crying stopped. She looked up at the sky and mumbled something I didn’t understand. I saw a hint of a smile flit across her sunken eyes. I looked up too. Open-mouthed, we stared at the gibbous moon slide out of a dark cloud. There was nobody by the dumpster to question the crazy lady or me. We were free at that moment.
We were kings of the world.