Skip to content

THE BOY IN THE DARK

*

‘Want to come? Meet my family?’

India is like this – random moments of decision. You have a choice. Yes or no.

I was tired of saying ‘no’ – that’s all I ever say in India. Today was a ‘why not?’ day, an ‘O.K.’ day, a ‘let’s go!’ day.

I tried it. Yup, that felt good.

It wasn’t far. We ducked down a side street, turned up a tiny alley and there was a low, wooden door. Vijay banged on it and shouted up to his wife.

‘Come down, it’s me! Open up! We’ve got a visitor!’

I looked up. Peeking over the wall was the face of a young lad. His eyes opened wide and he disappeared.

The door creaked open. A wary wife broke into a smile. She was young but that face told another story. Hollow eyes – even when she smiled her face was sad; she ached with some distant pain. There was strength and resistance, spirit in there, but life had played hard in the deep, dark shadows of those eyes. She had beautiful teeth, a tiny silver stud in one nostril, a streak of pink tika in the part of her long, black hair – and every gentle move she made said ‘mother.’

She loved her husband, he loved his wife. I could tell that in an instant. But more than life itself they loved their son – here he was, scrambling round her skirt, an inquisitive face, bright clear eyes. An eight year old boy looked up with a broad smile. He’d just run and specially combed his hair.

‘Good morning, Uncle!’ he shouted and pulled his mother back to clear my way. Mum and I looked at each other with an indulgent smile. She welcomed me inside with a gesture, stood back without a word. The door was open to the house of the poor man. The rich man ducked his head and walked in.

*

Vijay was always in the same place, looking for business. This was his corner, this was his spot, this was his chai stall, these were his friends. As the days went by I took to stopping by. We always had the same conversation.

‘No business?’ I’d ask.

‘No business,’ he’d agree then lift his shoulders slightly, then drop them. He‘d sigh. This was resignation, not cheerful stoicism; this was a man who carried a load.

‘No tourists’ he’d say and look around. ‘Nothing.’

We were deep in the season of the beast, when the hot air from Hell drowns Varanasi in a bucket of molten heat. It’s a killer. Only fools and Dogster come here at this time of year. To be a rickshaw driver, to have to pedal around in this sauna, to have to sit all day and wait for a job that never comes, looking for the chance, looking for the foreigner, looking for the lucky break – that’s a tough life.

He had nothing to do. Neither did I. I’d buy us chai and we’d chat about nothing much, sitting on a bench in a tiny room, facing another bench just two feet away where a changing parade of Varanasi’s finest sat and did exactly what we were doing, escaping the heat, passing the time, chewing the fat with a neighbour. It was the Indian equivalent of the corner pub. I loved sitting in there, being one of the locals. I became part of the furniture pretty quick. Nobody fussed and nobody cared, we sat and smoked and sipped. Life was good. Another fifteen minutes wasted, excellent. ‘See ya.’ Handshake. Exit. So went my Dogster days.

He must have been in his late thirties, maybe more, I just couldn’t tell; a perfectly ordinary Indian man, not handsome, not ugly, not remarkable at all – yet this man was a hero, in own tiny way. Vijay worked hard to keep his family. He had a special energy.

‘Two boys and one wife’ he told me proudly.

Ah, but he had sad eyes.

‘Up.’

We were in a tiny courtyard, maybe three metres square. One room in front of me – closed door, another to my right, closed door. In front of that a set of stairs.

I followed him, the lad pushing behind. He was very happy to see me, very excited. It was sweet. On the roof a tiny room; kitchen, living room, dining room, bedroom all combined. Set into an alcove in one blue wall three shelves with everything they possessed proudly displayed; plates, cups, bowls, spoons – all in shiny aluminium; jars, mirrors, bottles, a fan, a clock, a calendar, a framed family photo.  Up high on the wall a ledge with a shrine to Shiva, on the opposite wall a few clothes hanging next to a black and white T.V. This remained on all the time, volume turned down. Home.

‘Mummy like T.V.,’ said the boy. ‘She watch her play.’

He meant Indian soap opera. Mummy smiled and nodded. She was delighted to have a visitor too, it seemed. I was delighted to be a visitor.

‘One, two, three, five…’ The boy chimed. He was doing counting for me. ‘Seven, nine, ten!’

He was very proud. Dogster had to do a lot of head wiggling and making him laugh before we could try that debacle again. You know the rest.

‘One.’

‘One.’

‘Two-o-o.’

‘Two-o-o-o-o.’

This little boy was like a puppy. When you meet a puppy and the puppy likes you, you’d better attend to that puppy straight away. Ignore your hosts. Give the dog total focus for a minute or so, just so he knows he’s noticed, then that yappy, over-excited pooch will settle down and let his newest, best-est friend in the world get back to normal living. This is the way of the doggy world. Ignore my words at your peril. So, Dog Boy and Dog Man had quite a lengthy conversation while Mummy and Daddy looked on.

‘Ni-i-i-i-ne…’

‘Ni-i-i-i-ne…’

Then both together. Lots of excitement…

‘Ten!’

He clapped his hands and giggled with glee then jumped in my lap and started playing with my camera.

‘Stop, stop…’ came his father.

‘No-o-o-o, no-o-o,’ said his mother but I cooled them out with a wink and a whisper.

‘It’s fine, he can learn, let him be, let me show you…’

So Dogster launched into his second trick of the moment. Camera lessons for the Under Tens. He’s very good at it. That’s why the Dog carries around a simple, though vastly expensive, tiny, weeny little masterpiece that can be mauled by savages, poked and prodded, clicked and shown with impunity. I handed the Sony over with my traditional blessing.

‘Go out, take a thousand pictures! Have fun. Ho-o-o-old it steady, that’s the picture, oh, wow, you’re really good at this, that’s it, hold it steady… n-o-o-o-w, click! Hear that noise. Click! That was perfect. Go take another one. Yeah that’s great, take some more. Really good, go off, take and show me… O.K., yep, see ya!’

And phew, he was gone. Mum and Dad and I all smiled benignly. I had passed their test of children, now we could relax and be grown-ups.

‘My wife, she has problems,’ Vijay said with a frown. She answered his frown with one of her own. He looked tired, she looked exhausted, but it was not from lack of sleep. Mum was not well. She had ‘bad tummy.’

‘How long?’

‘Many years.’

‘Years?’

‘We can’t buy medicine.’

He wasn’t angling. He was just telling me the truth. She’s nodding and her forehead wrinkles slightly. She hurts. She’s used to it. It’s her life. Her eyes, god, those sad eyes. What has this woman seen?

I looked over at her husband. He was grim. He lived with a sick woman. She stayed at home all day. He went out, earned what he could, squeezed his way through the off-season, worked hard when the tourists were in town. He was the breadwinner. She was his sick wife. There was not a lot of fun in Vijay’s life.

‘Your boy is very smart,’ I said, trying to find something good in this wretched scenario.

Vijay’s face lifted. He translated briefly to his wife. Hers lifted too. They both wiggled their heads proudly.

‘Where did he learn his English?’

‘At school.’

‘What year is in now?’

‘He doesn’t go.’

‘Why not?’

‘We can’t buy book. Clothes-zes. No money.’

This bright kid, this smart little kid, full of life, desperate for learning – pulled out of school at this age, all for want of a dollar. I’m angry. I’m silent. I’m sad. I’m a guest in their house. So I smile.

Their son burst back in the door, full of life, bubbling with all the thrill of his newest toy. He snapped away; Mummy, Daddy, the old white man smiling there on the floor in the corner, he took, as per instructions, one thousand pictures. We spent the next ten minutes doing Dogster’s third party trick – the showing of the pictures that their son took, each of which must be viewed multiple times, each of which must be ‘o-o-o-hed’ over and ‘ah-h-hed’ over and praised and laughed at.

We clicked back through the pictures. Here was Mum, here was me, here was Dad. Here was Dad and Dogster, here was Mum and Dad, Dogster and Mum, Dogster and the wall, the wall and no Dogster, a blur, a large blurry finger, then the courtyard downstairs, then the outside door and the window and a blur and then whoa! What was that one?  Whoa! Stop! What is that?

I’m looking at a wasted face emerging out of darkness, a stretch of teeth, lips drawn right back – is this a smile or a snarl? Is this in pain or in laughter, is this a man, is this a boy, what is this?

Without a trace of this on my face I held the picture up.

‘Who’s this guy?’ I said with a smile.

‘That’s my wife’s son,’ said Vijay.

‘My brother!’ cried the little boy.

‘My son’ he added, not very convincingly. ‘Downstairs.’

‘My wife. Before. She marry.’ I never found out what happened to the husband. Dead, I assumed.

‘One baby. One son – come.’

He turned round to look at me, held out his hand to help me down the last stairs. He had a strong grip.

‘Leg.’ He shook his head. ‘Broken.’

There wasn’t time for more explanation. He opened the door. The smell hit me first. My eyes adjusted to the dark. His eyes adjusted to the sudden light.

The youth lay slightly turned on his side, a long, thin streak of a lad, fourteen, fifteen maybe, it was impossible to tell. He wore a pair of loose blue underpants and that was all. His legs were half drawn into him, thin, feeble sticks, his muscles wasted, crippled, worse – it difficult to see in the darkness, let alone process. His arms were similarly stripped of flesh, tendons pulled up tight, his wrists stretched taut, his chest caved in. He lay there; two bright eyes, a child looking out of a body that had ceased to cooperate. His mouth opened in a dreadful spastic yawn, he jiggled what little he could jiggle in excitement at the visitor.

A stranger, a visitor, a man from the world outside his room, a visitor, his visitor – he was glistening with excitement. I knelt down beside him, got down to his level as much as I could and held his hand. I looked right into his eyes and smiled.

‘Pleased to meet you, fella.’

Squeeze his hand. You and me, pal, you and me.

He started to breathe fast.

‘Slow down, sausage, how are you? Eh? This is no fun, how are you?’

He didn’t understand a word but he heard the so-o-o-othe of my voice, felt the squeeze of my fingers and in his heart I know he was talking back.

‘How are you, fella,’ I cooed and rubbed his hand, ‘had a rough time of it, I see. Damn, this is tough.’

He stared and stared and smiled with his eyes. I felt he was totally with it –perfectly intelligent but lost, lying there all day, every day, for months, for years, lying there with nothing. Was he in pain? He was beyond pain. He lay there in the dark. He just lay there. He slept on his back on a thin blanket on the concrete floor, just a grubby pillow for his head.

‘How are you, eh? Difficult to talk, mate? That’s O.K., you don’t need to talk. I’ll just sit here beside you and hold your hand. You like that, eh? Go-o-o-od man.’

I kept up a monologue of what I hoped were soothing sounds, kept hanging on to his hand. He squeezed back, just a touch, just for a moment but in that moment I knew he was there.

His mother’s burden was to feed him and wash him and change him and wipe his filthy bum and every other little hourly indignity that a cruel god could inflict. That’s what had hollowed her eyes out.

His step-father’s burden was to love his wife, to take a woman with another man’s child, to move to Varanasi and make a home there then watch as the boy became an invalid in front of his eyes. His greatest joy, his youngest son was the greatest weight of all. He could barely keep his family in food, let alone buy medicines, school books, doctors and schools. He’d failed. That’s what was in his eyes. He’d failed. He could not do what a man must do. He must provide. His burden was to sit in the street for day after terrible day and wait for the fluke, for the chance, for the job that will tide them all over till tomorrow, knowing that he can’t change a thing.

But they kept their shame in the bottom room, without a sound, or a window. Not a friend, not a toy, not a single piece of stimulation.

‘Leg. Broken. No doctor. No money. Leg. Look. No doctor.’

How long ago?

Five years.

‘Mm-m-m-m,’ I crooned, still holding his hand ‘mmm-m-m-m-m, that’s been tough, sausage, that must have hurt a lot. You’re a brave man…’

His eyes were burnt into mine. Those desperate eyes.

‘Let me out,’ they were screaming, ‘let me out, let me out, let me go!’

‘How long have you been here, fella? Five years? That’s a long time, that’s too long in the dark. Are you there, mate? Can you hear me? That’s it, squeeze my fingers, good man, sque-e-eze my fingers. Go-o-o-od boy, you’re a champ…’

He had my full attention. He had my hands, he had my heart – he had whatever I could give him – but I couldn’t give him back his life.

This kid had been normal. Imagine; this kid had been active. He’d broken his leg – that’s all. They had no money for treatment. They put the boy in a room, tried to make him comfortable and hoped for the best. Their boy never got up. He wasted and wasted, lay there alone, abandoned, in pain. He lay there, he lay there, lay there till his muscles wasted away. He became incontinent; his muscles ate themselves, his body twisted slowly into the shape I saw today. Nothing would rescue the boy from this prison – only death – but the boy just wouldn’t die. His life dripped away in the darkness, no meaning, no purpose – just more hollows for his mother in those dreadful, sad eyes.

He was just happy to have a visitor.

You see? You see? You can’t take it on. You have to harden your heart to survive it.  You have to gently take your hand from his, gently smile that one last smile; you have to gently, firmly, sadly walk away.

Don’t look back, Dogster – you’ll turn to stone. Don’t watch that light go out in his eyes. Don’t watch the door close, don’t give him care, don’t wonder how you could have changed things.  Walk away, turn your back, close your heart, you’ve done your best, turn the key – lock him back in his prison.

Don’t think about the boy in the darkened room, Dog, there are too many boys and too many rooms and too much darkness to deal with. Don’t think about the boy in the darkened room. He’s dead. Think about his brother, think about his Mum, think about those hollow, tragic eyes. Think about his father sitting in the market; empty pockets, full of hope, full of an enterprising love that can’t be beaten. Waiting patiently, waiting for the break, waiting for Godot in Varanasi.

*

%d bloggers like this: