“Lonely Planet's mission,” so it is written on the cover of each of the publishing house’s travel guides, “is to enable curious travelers to experience the world and to truly get to the heart of the places where they travel.” The short stories collection “Between the Assassinations,” from which the following story is taken, plays a cruel and ironic game with this declaration, which stands at the heart of every modern travel guide, while it intentionally masks, of course, the very same “truisms” that might hinder the touristic experience. Aravind Adiga worked on this collection while he wrote the novel “The White Tiger,” which earned him the 2008 Man Booker Prize. These two assassinations are that of the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, in 1984, and that of her son, Rajiv, who also served as a prime minister, in 1991. Between these two political assassinations, both by minorities that rose against the controversial political dynasty, which also led to oppression and substantial divisiveness in the country, Adiga brings forth the lives of residents of the town of Kittur. Kittur is a fictional town located on the coast of South India, between Goa and Calicut (nowadays Kozhikode), and this wonderful collection of stories is in fact a mock travel guide for the tourist visiting the town. The residents of the town, much like the two children beggars and their parents in the sad story before us, are trapped in a harsh reality that sentences them to perpetual disappointment even from those closest to them. With immense sensitivity and heart rending descriptions, Adiga bestows upon these disadvantaged characters a human face, and weaves a delicate thread between the heart of the reader, who is but a tourist, a temporary visitor, and the locals who are indeed so distant from him. It is Adiga’s ironic game, of all things, that succeeds in truly fulfilling the promise Lonely Planet makes to his readers: “to experience the world and to truly get to the heart of the places.” The name of the story, "The Cool Water Well Junction," is yet another move in this game—the exotic name, which is supposed to signify a tourist site, is actually the name of a bustling intersection in the slums, a landmark for the girl who’s sent to score a hit for her father. Adiga brings back to the picture all that’s been spared of those who seek exotic experiences in the subcontinent, everything that’s damaged and desperate and crying out. Reading his stories leads the reader down paths that are shaky and uncertain, and yet honest and powerful at the same time.
The old Cool Water Well is said never to dry up, but it is now sealed, and serves only as a traffic roundabout. The streets around the well house contain a number of middle-class housing colonies. Professional people of all castes – Bunts, Brahmins, and Catholics – live side by side here, although the Muslim rich keep to the Bunder. The Canara Club, the most exclusive club in town, is located here, in a large white mansion with lawns. The neighborhood is the “intellectual” part of town: it boasts a Lions Club, a Rotary Club, a Freemason’s Lodge, a Bahaʾi educational group, a Theosophist Society, and a branch of the Alliance Française of Pondicherry. Of the numerous medical institutions located here, the two best-known are the Havelock Henry District Hospital and Dr. Shambhu Shetty’s Happy Smile Orthodontic Clinic. The St. Agnes Girls’ High School, Kittur’s most sought-after girls-only school, is also located close by the junction. The poshest part of the Cool Water Well Junction area is the hibiscus-lined street known as Rose Lane. Mabroor Engineer, believed to be Kittur’s richest man, and Anand Kumar, Kittur’s member of Parliament, have mansions here.
“It’s one thing to take a little ganja, roll it inside a chapati, and chew it at the day’s end, just to relax the muscles – I can forgive that in a man, I really can. But to smoke this drug – this smack – at seven in the morning, and then lie in a corner with your tongue hanging out, I tolerate that in no man on my construction site. You understand me? Or do you want me to repeat this in Tamil or whatever language your people speak?”
“I understand, sir.”
“What did you say? What did you say, you son of…”
Holding her brother by the hand, Soumya watched as the foreman chastised her father. The foreman was young, so much younger than her father – but he wore a khaki uniform that the construction company had given him, and twirled a lathi in his left hand, and she saw that the workers, instead of defending her father, were listening quietly to the foreman. He was sitting in a blue chair on an embankment of mud; a gas lamp buzzed noisily from a wooden pole driven into the ground next to the chair. Behind him was the crater around the half-demolished house; the inside of the house was filled with rubble, its roof had mostly fallen in, and its windows were empty. With his baton and his uniform, and his face harshly illuminated by the incandescent paraffin lamp, the foreman looked like a ruler of the underworld at the gate of his kingdom.
A semicircle of construction workers had formed below him. Soumya’s father stood apart from the others, looking furtively at Soumya’s mother, who was muffling her sobs in a corner of her sari. In a tear-racked voice she said, “I keep telling him to give up this smack. I keep telling-“
Soumya wondered why her mother had to complain about her father in front of everyone. Raju pressed her hand.
“Why are they all scolding Daddy?” She pressed back. Quiet.
All at once the foreman got up from his chair, took a step down the embankment, and raised his stick over Soumya’s father. “Pay attention, I said.” He brought his stick down
Soumya shut her eyes and turned away.
The workers had returned to their tents, which were scattered about the open field around the dark, half-demolished house. Soumya’s father was lying on his blue mat, apart from everyone else; he was snoring already, his hands over his eyes. In the old days she would have gone to him and snuggled against his side.
Soumya went up to her father. She shook him by his big toe, but he did not respond. She went to where her mother was making rice, and lay down beside her.
Mallets and sledgehammers woke her up in the morning. Thump! Thump! Thump! Bleary- eyed, she wandered up to the house. Her father was up on the bit of the roof that remained, sitting on one of the black iron crossbeams; he was cutting it with a saw. Two men swung at the wall below with sledgehammers; clouds of dust rose up and covered her father as he sawed. Soumya’s heart leapt.
She ran to her mother and cried “Daddy’s working again!”
Her mother was with the other women; they were coming down from the house, carrying large metal saucers on their heads filled to the brim with rubble. “Make sure Raju doesn’t get wet,” she said as she passed Soumya.
Only then did Soumya notice it was drizzling.
Raju was lying on the blanket where his mother had been; Soumya woke him up, and took him into one of the tents. Raju began whimpering, saying he wanted to sleep some more. She went to the blue mat; her father had not touched the rice from last night. Mixing the dry rice with the rainwater, she squeezed it into a gruel, and stuffed morsels into Raju’s mouth. He said he didn’t like it, and bit her fingers each time.
The rain fell harder, and she heard the foreman roar, “You sons of bald women, don’t slow down!”
The moment the rain stopped, Raju wanted to be pushed on the swing. “It’s going to start raining again,” she said, but he wouldn’t change his mind. She carried him in her arms to the old truck-tire swing near the compound wall, and put him on it, and gave him a push, shouting, “One! Two!” As she pushed, a man appeared before her.
His dark, wet skin was coated in white dust, and it took an instant for her to recognize him. “Sweetie,” he said, “you must do something for Daddy.”
Her heart was beating too fast for her to say a word. She wanted him to say “sweetie,” not like he was saying it now – as if it were just a word, air that he was breathing out – but like before, when it came from his heart, when it was accompanied by his pulling her to his chest and hugging her deeply and whispering madly into her ear.
He went on speaking, in the same strange, slow, slurred way, and told her what he wanted her to do; then he walked back to the house.
She found Raju, who was cutting an earthworm into smaller bits with a piece of glass he had stolen from the demolition site, and said, “We have to go”.
Raju could not be left alone, even though he would be a real nuisance on a trip like this. Once she had left him alone and he had swallowed a piece of glass.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“To the Bunder.”
“There is a place by the Bunder, a garden, where Daddy’s friends are waiting for him to come. Daddy cannot go there – because the foreman will hit him again. You don’t want the foreman to beat Daddy again in front of all the world, do you?”
“No,” Raju said. “And when we get to this garden, what do we do?”
“We give Daddy’s friends at this garden ten rupees, and they will give us something Daddy really needs.”
She told him.
Raju, already shrewd with money, asked, “How much will it cost?”
“Ten rupees, he said.”
“Did he give you ten rupees?”
“No. Daddy said we’ll have to get it ourselves. We’ll have to beg.”
As the two of them walked down Rose Lane, she kept her eyes on the ground. Once she had found five rupees on the ground – yes, five! You never knew what you’d find in a place where rich people live.
They moved to the side of the lane; a white car paused for a moment to go over a bump on the road, and she shouted at the driver, “Where is the port, uncle?”
“Far from here,” he shouted back. “Go to the main road, and take a left.”
The tinted windows in the back of the car were rolled up, but through the driver’s window Soumya caught a glimpse of a passenger’s hand covered with gold bangles; she wanted to knock on the window. But she remembered the rule that the foreman had laid down for all the workers’ children. No begging in Rose Lane. Only on the main road. She controlled herself.
All the houses were being demolished and rebuilt in Rose Lane. Soumya wondered why people wanted to tear down these fine, large, whitewashed houses. Maybe houses became uninhabitable after some time, like shoes.
When the lights on the main road turned red, she went from autorickshaw to autorickshaw, opening and closing her fingers.
“Uncle, have pity, I’m starving.”
Her technique was solid. She had gotten it from her mother. It went like this: Even as she begged, for three seconds she kept eye contact; then her eye would begin to wander to the next autorickshaw. “Mother, I’m hungry” – rubbing her tummy – “give me food” – closing her fingers and bringing them to her mouth.
“Big brother, I’m hungry.”
“Grandpa, even a small coin would…”
While she did the road, Raju sat on the ground and was meant to whimper when anyone well-dressed passed by. She did not count on him to do much; at least if he sat down he would stay out of other kinds of trouble, like running after cats, or trying to pet stray dogs that might be rabid.
Toward noon, the roads filled with cars. The windows had been rolled up against the rain, and she had to raise both her hands to the glass and scratch like a cat to get attention. The windows in one car were rolled down, and she thought her luck had improved.
A woman in one of the cars had beautiful patterns of gold painted on her hands, and Soumya gaped at them. She heard the woman with the gold hands say to someone else in the car:
“There are beggars everywhere these days in the town. It never used to be like this.”
The other person leaned forward and stared for a moment. “They’re so dark…Where are they from?”
Only fifty paise, after an hour.
Next she tried to get on the bus when it stopped at the red light, and beg there, but the conductor saw her coming and stood at the door: “Nothing doing.”
“Why not, uncle?”
“Who do you think I am, a rich man like Mr. Engineer? Go ask someone else, you brat!” Glaring at her, he raised the red cord of his whistle over his head as if it were a whip. She scrambled out.
“He was a real cocksucker,” she told Raju, who had something to show her: a sheet of wrapping plastic, full of round buttons of air that could be popped.
Making sure the conductor couldn’t see, she got down on her knees and put it on the road right in front of the wheel. Raju crouched. “No, it’s not right. The wheels won’t go over it,” he said. “Push it to the right a little.”
When the bus moved again, the wheels ran over the plastic sheets and the buttons exploded, startling the passengers; the conductor poked his head out of the window to see what had happened. The two children ran away.
It began raining again. The two of them crouched under a tree; coconuts came crashing down, and a man who had been standing next to them with an umbrella jumped up, and swore at the tree, and ran. She giggled, but Raju was worried they would get hit by a falling coconut.
When the rain stopped, she found a twig and scratched on the ground, drawing a map of the city, as she imagined it. Here was Rose Lane. Here was where they had come, still close to Rose Lane. Here…was the Bunder. And here – the garden inside the Bunder that they were looking for.
“Do you understand all of this?” she asked Raju. He nodded, excited by the map.
“To get to the Bunder, we have to go” – she drew another arrow – “through the big hotel.”
“And then we go to the garden inside the Bunder…”
“We find the thing Daddy wants us to get.”
The truth was, she had no idea if the hotel was on the way to the port or not: but the rain had driven the vehicles away from the road, and the hotel was the only place where she might be able to beg for the money right now.
“You have to ask for money in English from the tourists,” she teased Raju as they walked to the hotel. “Do you know what to say in English?”
They stopped outside the hotel to watch a group of crows bathing in a puddle of water. The sun was shining on the water, and the black coats of the crows turned glossy as scintillas of water flew from their shaking bodies; Raju declared it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
The man with no arms and legs was sitting in front of the hotel; he yelled curses from the other side of the road.
“Go away, you devil’s children! I told you never to come back here!”
She shouted back, “To hell with you, monster! We told you: never come back here!”
He was sitting on a wooden board with wheels. Whenever a car slowed down at the traffic light in front of the hotel, he rolled up on his wooden board and begged from one side; she begged from the other side of the car.
Raju, sitting on the pavement, yawned.
“Why do we need to beg? Daddy is working today. I saw him cutting those things-” He moved his legs apart and began sawing at an imaginary crossbeam below him.
Two taxis slowed down near the red light. The man with no arms and legs rushed on his wooden board to the first taxi; she ran to the second one, and put her hands into the open window. A foreigner was sitting inside. He stared at her with an open mouth: she saw his lips making a perfect pink “O”.
“Did you get any money?” Raju asked, when she came back from the car and the white man.
“No. Get up,” she said, and dragged the boy to his feet.
By the time they had crossed two red lights, however, Raju had figured it out. He pointed to her clutched fist.
“You got money from the white man. You have the money!”
She went up to an autorickshaw parked by the side of the road. “Which way is the Bunder?” The driver yawned. “I don’t have any money. Go away.”
“I’m not asking for money. I’m asking for directions to the Bunder.”
“I told you, I’m not giving you anything!”
She spat at his face. Then she grabbed Raju by the wrist and they ran like mad.
The next autorickshaw driver they asked was a kind man. “It’s a long, long way. Why don’t you take a bus? The number three-forty-three will get you there. Otherwise it’ll be a couple of hours at least, by foot.”
“We don’t have money, uncle.”
He gave them a rupee coin and asked, “Where are your parents?”
They got onto a bus and paid the conductor. “Where are you getting off?” he shouted. “The port.”
“This bus doesn’t go to the port. You need the number three-forty-three. This is the number…”
They got out and walked.
They were near the Cool Water Well Junction now. They found the one-armed, one-legged boy working there, as he always did; he went hopping about from car to car, begging before she could get to them. Someone had given him a radish today, so he went about begging with a large white radish in his hand, tapping it on the windshields to get the attention of the passengers.
“Don’t you dare bring your begging here, you sons of bitches!” he shouted at them, waving the radish threateningly.
The two of them stuck their tongues out at him and shouted, “Freak! Disgusting freak!”
Raju began crying after an hour and refused to walk anymore, so she picked in a rubbish can for some food. There was a carton with two biscuits, and they had one each.
They walked some more. After a while, Raju’s nostrils began bubbling. “I can smell the sea from here.”
She could too.
They walked faster. They saw a man painting a sign in English by the side of the road; two cats fighting on the roof of a white Fiat; a horse cart, loaded with chopped wood; an elephant, walking down the road with a mound of neem leaves; a car that had been smashed up in an accident; and a dead crow with its claws drawn in stiffly to its chest, its belly open and swarming with black ants.
Then they were at the Bunder.
The sun was setting over the sea, and they went past the packed markets, looking for a garden.
“There are no gardens here in the Bunder. That’s why the air is so bad here,” an old Muslim peanut seller told them. “You’ve got the wrong directions.”
Looking at their crestfallen faces, he offered them a handful of peanuts to munch on.
Raju whined. He was hungry…to hell with the peanuts! He thrust them back at the Muslim man, who called him a devil.
That made Raju so angry he left his sister and ran, and she ran after him until Raju came to a stop.
“Look!” He shrieked, pointing at a row of mutilated men with bandaged limbs, sitting in front of a building with a white dome.
Gingerly they walked around the lepers. And then she saw a man lying down on a bench, his palms crossed over his face, breathing heavily. She came near the bench, and saw, right at the water’s edge, fenced off by a small stone wall, a little green park.
Raju was quiet now.
When they got to the park, there was shouting. A policeman was slapping a very dark man. “Did you steal the shoes? Did you?”
The very dark man shook his head. The policeman hit him harder. “Son of a bald woman, you take these drugs, and then you steal things, and you-son of a bald woman, you!-“
Three white-haired men, hiding in a bush near her, gestured to Soumya to come and hide with them. She took Raju into the bush, and they waited there for the policeman to leave.
She whispered to the three white-haired men, “I’m the daughter of Ramachandran, the man who smashes rich people’s houses in Rose Lane.”
None of the three knew her father. “What do you want, little girl?”
She said the word, as well as she could remember, “…ack.”
One of the men, who appeared to be their leader, frowned. “Say it again.”
He nodded when she said the strange word the second time. Taking a pouch made of newspaper out of his pocket, he tapped it: white powder, like crushed chalk, poured out. He took out a cigarette from another pocket, sliced it open, tapped out the tobacco, filled the paper with the white powder, and rolled it tight. He held the cigarette up in the air and gestured with his other hand to Soumya.
“I’ve got only nine,” she said. “You’ll have to take nine.”
She gave them the money; she took the cigarette. A horrible doubt seized her.
“If you’re robbing me, if you’re cheating me…Raju and I’ll come back with Daddy – and beat you all.” The three men crouched together. They began shaking, and then they were laughing together. Something was wrong with them. She grabbed Raju by the wrist and she and her brother ran.
Glimpses of the scene to come flashed through her mind. She would show Daddy what she had brought for him from so far away. “Sweetie,” he would say – the way he used to say it – and hold her in a frenzy of affection, and the two would go mad with love for each other.
Her left foot began to burn after a while, and she flexed her toes and stared at them. Raju insisted on being carried; but fair enough, she thought – the little fellow had done well today.
It began raining again. Raju cried. She had to threaten to leave him behind three times; once she actually left him and walked a whole block before he came running after her, telling her of a giant dragon that was chasing him.
They got onto a bus.
“Tickets,” the driver shouted, but she winked at him and said, “Big brother, let us on for free,please…”
His face softened, and he let them stay near the back.
It was pitch-black when they got back to Rose Lane. They saw the lamps lit up in all the mansions. The foreman was sitting under his gas lamp, talking to one of the workers. The house looked smaller: all the crossbeams had been sawn off
“Did you go begging in this neighborhood?” the foreman shouted when he saw the two of them.
“No, we didn’t.”
“Don’t lie to me! You were gone all day – and doing what? Begging on Rose Lane!”
She raised her upper lip in contempt. “Why don’t you ask if we begged here before accusing us?”
The foreman glared at them, but kept quiet, defeated by the girl’s logic.
Raju ran ahead, screaming for his mother. They found her asleep, alone, in her rain-dampened sari. Raju ran up to her, butted his head into her side, and began rubbing against her body for warmth like a kitten; the sleeping woman groaned and turned over to the other side. One of her arms began swatting Raju away.
“Amma,” he said, shaking her. “Amma! I’m hungry! Soumya gave me nothing to eat all day! She made me walk and walk and take this bus and that, and no food! A white man gave her a hundred rupees but she never gave me anything to eat or drink.”
“Don’t lie!” Soumya hissed. “What about the biscuits?”
But he kept shaking her: “Amma! Soumya gave me nothing to eat or drink all day!”
The two children began wrestling each other. Then a hand lightly tapped Soumya’s shoulder.
When he saw their father, Raju began to simper; he turned and ran to his mother. Soumya and her father walked to one side.
“Do you have it, sweetie? Do you have the thing?”
She drew a breath. “Here,” she said, and put the packet into his hands. He lifted it up to his nose, sniffed, and then put it under his shirt: she saw his hands reach through his sarong into his groin. He took his hand out. She knew it was coming now: his caress.
He caught her wrist; his fingers cut into her flesh.
“What about the hundred rupees that the white man gave you? I heard Raju.”
“No one gave me a hundred rupees, Daddy. I swear. Raju is lying, I swear.”
“Don’t lie. Where is the hundred rupees?”
He raised his arm. She began screaming.
When she came to lie down next to her mother, Raju was still complaining that he had not eaten all day long, and had been forced to walk from here to there and then from there to another place and then back to here. Then he saw the red marks on his sister’s face and neck, and went silent. She fell to the ground, and went to sleep.
*The story is taken from the book “Between the Assassinations by Arvind Adiga“. Picador India, 2008.