A long time ago in Bangladesh a boy was caught stealing a calf from a cowshed. He wasn’t a fly-by-night thief, but an opportunist who had been living with the family I was staying with at the time. An uncle of mine had employed him to keep the cows away from the paddy fields, plus run all his errands. The boy’s father would drop by monthly, a withered figure. From under a drab shawl, he would stretch out his bidi-stained hand to collect the boy’s wage. A few crumpled notes. He would then slip away, as silently as a leach, and not be seen until the same time the following month.
My uncle treated the boy in a manner not uncommon in a village where hired help was aplenty and opportunities few. He wasn’t averse to cuffing the boy in the back of his head whenever he did something wrong. Occasionally he would swipe his bare thighs with a stick or the end of a rope to make sure a mistake wasn’t repeated. The boy was from a low caste, half an orphan, destitute. He had been forced to abandon his childhood as soon as he learned to walk. With a father hooked on some habit, survival was his game.
Whenever punished, the boy winced and gritted his teeth, but never did I see him shed a tear. My uncle tried to rein in the aggression if ever I was present, realising that as a guest in his house and in the country, it would be too upsetting for my soft sensibilities. On the odd occasion he failed to notice my presence, it was the little boy who would flick a glance in my direction and assure me with a wink and a smirk that he was fine. During my stay the boy became my friend since we were roughly the same age. He taught me to swim, to ride a bike, to climb palm trees, to whittle a flute out of a stick of bamboo. His easygoing nature even brought out my shy mother tongue and helped it find a colloquial edge.
So the morning I woke up to the sounds of my uncle bellowing in the courtyard, informing the household of the crime the boy had committed, my heart sank. He’d been incarcerated in the cowshed and his father had been summoned. My uncle claimed his goodwill had been compromised to such a degree that he felt within his rights to beat the boy black and blue.
I wiped the sleep off my eyes and snuck into the cowshed. There I saw broken bales of hay, a bucket turned on its side, the earth sucking on the spilled contents. The boy was tied to a post next to the cows, reduced to an animal. There were marks on him too: a bloodied ear, puffy eyes and a swollen bottom lip. Tear tracks ran down his face, indicating that he’d been crying for a long time. I quickly shut the door. The light disappeared and a shadow fell across his face. For a few seconds the bruises became invisible against the burnished density of the interior. It was like a flannel or a band-aid.
Did you try to steal the calf? I asked him, but he stared stonily ahead as if any admission would diminish him in my eyes. I tried again. How long have you been tied up? All I got was the same hard face. I peered out the grill-barred window and saw the boy’s father amble up to my uncle, genuflected, ready to accept whatever sentence my uncle saw fit. They engaged in a brief conference. They then began making their approach towards the cowshed to hold court. They had obviously decided his fate.
Terror forced me to act. A terror I couldn’t confess to the boy. In fact, I didn’t say another word. I untied his red-raw wrists. I got down on my knees and untied his red-raw ankles. I threw the jute ropes on the ground and stepped back. The boy didn’t say a word to me either. He just leapt up and bolted out the back, the grace of his agility still intact.
For some reason, even now, years later, I am so pleased that he didn’t thank me or clasp my hands in gratitude. Anything either of us said at that moment would have slackened the unspoken bond we had established in the short time we’d been friends. It would have turned a moral act unnecessarily maudlin. All I knew was that this was the very least I owed him. Not as a friend but as a human being. That night I imagined him sneaking back to his home and ransacking all that his father was worth so that he could set out alone in the world. I believed he could survive. To this day I have nothing but admiration for him. He was the thief who despite getting caught didn’t allow anyone to rob his dignity. But in my heart he will always be my friend.
I tend to be drawn to people who have a sad air about them. A sadness that is subtle, but poignant in its subtlety. Whether this says something about them or me remains a question for another blog post, but what is most curious is that this sadness preoccupies me, both as a writer and a human being. There is always something about their sadness – a moment’s hesitation, a hollow laugh, a melancholic shine of the eyes, a quiver of the lips, or even a throwaway comment – that imprints itself on my conscience. Imagination then gets to work, sometimes days later when I’m out on a walk or having my morning cup of tea, and fashions a whole catalogue of stories that might explain the pain they are hiding.
Just this weekend I happened to bump into an old school colleague. It was on a bus. From the start I could tell he was in a bad way. His hair was dishevelled, his teeth stained, the skin on his scalp peeling. He reeked of booze and neglect. When our eyes met he balked at first but then sat up with his hands laced behind his back and greeted me with the slurred words: “Hey, it’s been years, tell me what’s been happening in your life.”
It didn’t take the honed intuition of a counsellor to spot the tight smile which was stretched like tarpaulin over the broken pieces of his life. What’s more, his gambit pretty much laid down the law that the conversation we were about to engage in would be one-way traffic with him asking all the questions to ensure we didn’t venture into his life. I respected his unspoken request and stayed on safe ground by opting to reminisce about our school days instead.
All the while, however, his current plight kept eddying in the corner of my mind. I could not help noticing the chewed fingernails, the blotchy skin reddened by shame, his eyes that kept darting, refusing to meet mine. The smile that wouldn’t leave his lips, the same smile he used each day to charm strangers into dropping a coin into his begging bowl.
This was someone who had been something of a maverick at school. He possessed an intelligence that could decipher the most challenging maths equations and solve the Rubik’s cube in a matter of minutes. Yet he had a problem with authority. He was no stranger to being put on school reports and his disruptive behaviour frequently had him standing outside the headmaster’s office. Having grown up in the unstable environment of a broken family, he’d always carried a keg of anger which teacher’s seemed to be particularly adept at setting alight. It was clear to many of us on the day he was served his expulsion notice, that after walking out of the school gates he would either use his anger to conquer life or use it to stonewall the world, irrespective of what it had to offer.
I’d very much hoped that in the intervening years he’d have carved out a life of success, a story befitting a Hollywood screenplay and if our paths ever crossed he would regale me with tales of his heady achievements. I’d had him marked down as a computer programmer – someone whose métier would take him to Silicone Valley or leading boardroom meetings at the offices of Apple or Microsoft. Alas, years later, to find him drunken on a bus in broad daylight, trying to hide his shame, made me realise just how abrasive life can be, especially to those who are forced to start on the back foot. If there’s any consolation, I suppose that had he become that success story I probably wouldn’t have been preoccupied by him all weekend, and the nib of my pen wouldn’t be quivering to write the story of the angry young man whose life is on an endless spiral until the day he wakes, suddenly alert, swatted by the realisation that it is now or never. I guess I can give him a happy ending, which is worth something, right?