“So, Singhania-Saheb, you’re all set here?”
My cheery watchman asked nervously. I nodded and he left, but not before saluting. To be honest, I’ve never been called ‘Singhania Saheb,’ that’s either my father or elder brother. Perks of being a younger son born in a business class family in India is this – nobody expects much of you. You can flitter away your life and still have a fatter bank account than most people living here.
I started on my diary as soon as Ramu-kaku left, ‘I am Ayush Singhania. First year, Mumbai University, studying journalism. Being the younger son of Suresh Singhania, I was successfully able to bribe our watchman Ramu-kaku to get me a place here. I’m hoping this place will give me a better outlook about society. About depravity. About things, “spoiled brats who suddenly want to become writers and revolutionists” don’t know. Where am I, you ask? I’m at Dharavi. Asia’s largest slum with a population of about a million people.’
It took me about two weeks to convince father to let me do this. So my book, will be about Life in Dharavi: A narrative. So for a good “feel” of the place, I’ve rented a one room shelter here. Well, it’s more of a hut with a tin roof. An old wooden bed that creaks and a chair that seems like it’s got plague are all that’s here. A door of light plywood that seemed so precarious, I decided against touching it unless absolutely necessary. I’m not complaining, but this place smells like rat piss and possibly, a cat may have died here.
Despite “the ignorance of the rich,” which is a stereotype I can never escape, I was smart enough to not bring anything with me. I’m living like them here. I don’t have a change of clothes, I’ve kept my smartphone back at home, replaced by the cheapest communication device money can buy. However, no force on heaven or hell can make me use the lavatory here. I go westward for that, to Mahim.
Mahim is my food source and I bring back a single bottle of water with me. I was on my walk back to my shelter when I saw children playing with a tyre. The little ones giggling as they followed their slightly older leader who used a broken bamboo to push the tyre onwards. Mainly naked, wearing drabs, they ran with the wind. It seemed sweet, they were experiencing a joy unknown to the world. I smiled at Ramu-kaku, who found it his duty to grin and salute at me every time I passed. I think he’s a little concerned about me, although I’m positive that father’s paid my neighbours sufficiently to keep me alive.
Around late evening, I was still buried in my diary when I heard a knock. A pang of adrenaline rushed in, my hand froze. “Singhania-Saheb, it’s me. Ramu.”
I stood up, relieved, and opened the door. “Ramu-kaku? At this time?”
“Yes sir, but I was thinking I’ll stay with you tonight. I’ll sleep on the floor and I don’t mind you keeping your bulb on, Sir. So, please let me stay with you?”
The man seemed to be trying not to offend me, yet this was Ramu-kaku. He’s been like this for years. He’s seen me since I was three, so I understood that he was feeling protective. I politely denied his offer and tried to assure him how I’ve survived quite a few bar fights and how I was only a few feet away from him. His shelter was exactly opposite to me. The man wouldn’t listen, saying how this would be highly inconvenient. He finally left when I said that I’ll leave the bulb on all night for his assurance.
“Don’t be alarmed by the dogs, Sir. Also, my request is that you do not open the door till I come knocking in the morning after calling your new number.”
I was smiling at myself when I shut the door. It melted my heart that he was so concerned about me, my father was yet to call me. I felt stupid about getting nervous before, I’ll be okay here. It’s just two days, after all.
I couldn’t sleep after that. I was on the bed, scribbling away ideas while somehow trying to keep away thoughts about my unconcerned family. My tears kept smudging my writing and I kept trying to dab it with my shirt. Ramu-kaku was right about the dogs though. I could hear them howling all night, not very close though.
I looked up immediately. Only to find nothing in the room but my bulb hanging from the tin roof. This guttural sound was so close, I almost felt this dog was inside the hut. My stomach sank, and my tears froze in my eyes. ‘Would my big, strong door hold out against what seemed like quite a large dog?’ The heaviness in my stomach persisted as the dog, which I concluded was right outside, continued its growling. It seemed like hours for something that lasted minutes. When it became dead silent, I checked the time on my phone. About two in the night.
I buried myself back to writing, the jump scare had put a pause on my self-pity mechanisms. I noticed only around three that someone had started a radio outside. As a voice reminiscent of famous singer Shreya Ghoshal echoed outside, I mentally thanked Ramu-kaku. He knew she was my favourite and realising that a dog is nearby, he had started the radio and turned up the volume.
In Dharavi, the night is dark and full of horrors but it is here that the term ‘breaking dawn’ originates. The dawn, breaking through the darkness that engulfs this city. That engulfs the young hearts that dwell here.
At 5, my scheduled call from Ramu-kaku broke my almost trance-like state. I was so buried in the song and my writing, my mobile phone seemed like a good slap on my back. I picked it up and spoke with a husky voice, “Yes, Ramu-kaku, I’m alright. No, no, I slept well.” That was a lie. I couldn’t tell the man I had spent the night writing, he wouldn’t believe me. He’d get scared and I would be called back home so I had no choice but to lie.
He came to my door at about 6, by this time, I had emptied the mineral water bottle that I had bought at Mahim. My voice was back to normal and I felt slightly refreshed. Ramu-kaku’s eyebrows were drawn together but the man looked well rested. Much better than the pale, sickly face he had when I denied him permission to stay with me.
“Saheb, your father had called, he wants to know if you’ll be having breakfast back at home –”
“No!” I interrupted him loudly. He sighed and smiled through his old dark eyes. His prided moustache curved into a smile as he said, “Then sir, would you like my wife’s cooking?”
“Have I ever said no to that?” I smiled, Ramu-kaku’s wife has worked as our cook as long as him. When people mention home-made food, I think of her. Ramu-kaku went back, satisfied. I went outside, looking about my shelter. As I turned to see the left wall, I saw a child sitting there. Her feet drawn to her chest, wearing barely anything. She looked at me through jaded black eyes, and spoke in rapid Hindi, “What’re you looking at?”
I hadn’t expected that. Of all the things I would imagine she would say from “I’m hungry” to “Please give me some money.” I hadn’t expected her to say that. My surprise must’ve been evident as she chortled and said, “I know you’re broke. You have nothing to give me.”
Broke. I’m broke, apparently. Which wasn’t far from the truth as I really didn’t have anything more than a couple of twenty rupee notes tucked in my pockets.
“Yeah? How do you know?”
“Oh, that’s because everyone left your hut with such glum looks yesterday. Those people are overjoyed with a hundred, so you must be really broke for them to leave with such disappointment.”
“Those people? Which people?”
“Don’t act coy. You purposely left nothing, right? Despite your Ramu-kaku trying to stop them. Despite how much dear daddy paid them. You knew they’d check your hut, right? For any semblance of a valuable?”
‘We have a smart child, gentlemen.’ I thought, as I continued staring at her shabby drabs. Her frame must’ve been as thin as my wrist and her bare, wounded feet showed me everything wrong with the world.
“Don’t your feet hurt? Should I get you some bandages for that?”
“Don’t bother. I’ll sell it for the money.”
“You’re going to die if that gets infected, what’s the money going to be for then?”
“Oh and you think I want to live?”
“Tch…little miss smarty pants.” Being smart mouthed by a teenager doesn’t sit well with me. She spoke of death so simply, with such disregard, yet I could feel this was different from when we say it as we crib about our lives. So much depth in those dark, dejected eyes, they almost seemed old.
“How old are you?” I asked, taking a seat beside her.
She scooted a bit to give me some space, “I’m 14. You?”
“20. Do you want something to eat?”
Before my new, youthful spirit had a chance to answer, I heard Ramu-kaku call out to me, saying how breakfast was ready and he’d be glad to welcome me. “Yes. I’ll be there in a minute.” I wanted to ask my young friend, but when I turned around she was already quite far from me, running away. She turned around, smiled a toothy grin and put a finger on her lips, ‘shh.’
Ramu-kaku didn’t want to go to work after breakfast, he insisted that he wanted to stay and accompany me around. “I’m not going about right now, Ramu-kaku. You can go home for work and I’ll go around with you in the evening.”
I was true to my word and technically Ramu-kaku left his wife behind so I can’t go around anyway. I seated myself at the threshold and watched as morning enfolded in Dharavi. People bustled about. Cycle driven carts laden with pottery, people with their vegetable baskets seating themselves on the alleys that would be about 12 feet broad. People bought, negotiated, argued and sold. Life, as it were, had begun by 7 in the morning. Amongst this densely populated alley, children ran around dodging adults and cycles. The women were already heading towards a seemingly endless line for water. Some were washing clothes, some were in the vegetable market, and some were just discussing the daily gossip. When my cook and apparent bodyguard left to fetch water, she left with me the daily paper. She apologised countless times for leaving me and for not being able to provide the English newspaper, my words were little comfort to the flustered woman. After reading the paper, I lit myself a cigarette and looked around. Ramu-kaku’s and my shelter were a little far from the rest of the alley, that is, about 30 feet. Yet, this little distance seemed a little isolated from the rest. People probably didn’t need anything here and hence, innately avoided it.
“You’re not writing?”
My young friend from the morning was back. Unlike the rest of the women and children, she hadn’t cleaned herself up and her matted hair flew about in the murky air. She seated herself beside me and looked at the cigarette in my hand. Anticipating her request, I firmly extinguished it and said, “Nope, you’re too young for this.”
“As if you obeyed that age restriction. Also, I wasn’t about to ask, I was simply looking cause my father enjoyed those too.”
She may or may not have had a point about me obeying restrictions, I don’t intend to confirm. So, I thought it best to change the topic. “You don’t play around with the other children? How am I the person you’ve come to meet?”
She seemed to quieten down, I figured she wasn’t exactly comfortable about this topic. Attempting to change it, I began, “Besides –”
“I don’t like the other children. It’s like…. despite being around them, I still feel alone and ignored.”
I laughed out a bit. Abashed, she slapped my arm lightly. I was happy, this seemed the first thing she had said that sounded like any ordinary teenager. I guess, identity crises are common to each and every teen. “I see. So would you like to show me around a bit? Not too far since…”
“Since a 20 year old man like you needs protection from others.” Her cheeky smirk returned and she stood up, offering me a hand, making fun of me seemed to have lifted her spirits. I took the tiny hand and got up, deciding to get my notepad and a pen.
People aren’t friendly at this hour. Everyone I asked seemed to be too busy to answer me. After laughing at my attempts, my teen guide took me to a very old woman who sat away from the bazaar. Chewing pan as her breakfast, she seemed more disinterested in me than anybody here. I looked back at my companion who simply motioned me to continue.
“Dadi, would you like to tell me a little about your life?” I asked her, addressing her as ‘Dadi’, meaning grandmother. The woman spat out her pan to the side, analysed me and said, “What does a boy like you want from that spooky, haunted hut?”
“I’m simply here to know about your lives. I want to write about it.”
“Ohh? That so?” Her eyes gleamed with mirth and mockery. She began, “The hut you’re living at, young boy. Do you know the story of that? The story of the demon dog…”
Had Dadi mentioned some ghost or no faced spirit, I’d find it easier to accept. As my last night jump scare had left me jittery and I found it wrong to vilify cute creatures like dogs, I was stomping back to my shelter haughtily. Her tale had left me queasy and owing to how mystifying grandma tales are, my shelter now looked eerie to me.
“That’s terrible of her! To vilify dogs like that!”
“You don’t actually believe her, do you?” My companion, who had vanished amongst the crowd after delivering me to Dadi, was back. Her voice out of nowhere had made me a bit jumpy. She giggled again, “A twenty year old man, spooked by a story from Chachi. This is hilarious.”
“I don’t want a comment from you. You were so scared of the story, you left me there and ran off!”
“I wasn’t scared…I had…business to attend to!”
“And I have to believe that?” I retorted, denying that any such tale is true. However, before heading to Mahim for lunch, I noted it down anyway.
‘About 50 years ago, in this very shelter, lived a shining example of chivalry. Note the sarcasm, as this man was an alcoholic, a wife beater, who had no qualms about beating even his own child. His child, received the brunt of his fury after the passing of his wife. Broken and in dismay, the innocence within it, had almost perished. A heart fearing to cry as it hurt to cover its mouth with a broken hand. What’s most tragic, is that this is the story of so many children in our nation.
Our little angel, however, found a friend. Man’s best friend had found this lost soul. The child fed this dog for days and took care of it, however, when the father found out that food was being stolen, he left the hut. The child alone and incapable to satisfy his grumbling stomach, died of starvation. The tale continues further into darkness. The dog found its owner, dying. In an attempt to wake the child, he licked the child furiously. Slowly the tongue started flailing the thin skin and the animal, given a taste of blood, bit into the child’s neck. You can love a monster, it can love you back, but that doesn’t change its nature…
The dog, gone rogue with hunger and an appetite for human flesh, bit several children and adults. Tearing out limbs, until a local police officer, shot him. The inspector was enraged from the bite he had sustained. Despite his bleeding left arm, he had shot the dog, wounding the infamous “Demon Dog” fatally.
The story is such that even in death, the dog has lingered as a spirit and also resulted in mysterious inexplicable deaths in the locality.’
“Saheb!” Ramu-kaku called from the door. I opened it to see him just as concerned as last night. ”My wife tells me, you’ve been talking to yourself all day and you haven’t gone for lunch, Sir. It’s 4 in the afternoon, the sun sets early this time of the year.”
“Oh no, I talk out loud when I write. I’ll go get lunch immediately.”
My lunch didn’t sit well with me. Growling demon dogs had killed my appetite. My mind persistently returned to the guttural, almost unreal sound I heard last night. ‘If I hear it again tonight, what should I do?’
Jumped. Alright, I’ll admit it. When my dear friend called out to me right outside the Dharavi station, I jumped. I was scared, it happens. This time, instead of simply laughing at my weak spirits she came and stood on my foot. I feigned pain as she was too light to hurt my feet through my sneakers.
“You just left! You didn’t even tell me!”
“Do I report to you now, Ma’am?” I asked grinning. Children, I thought, had such a calming effect on nerves. A road almost empty, the twilight having claimed the people inside. After that story, I should be running to Ramu-kaku and then straight home, but her being there with me gave me faith. She reassured me, I had become dependent on a child I didn’t know.
She twiddled her thumbs, “No. You don’t report to me, but I thought we’re friends now. You could’ve told me you were going.”
I smiled, she got lonely, having no one to tease, “Well, I didn’t know where you were”
“No, really. You vanished after seeing me off at that apparently haunted hut.”
“I did not! I was sitting against the wall as in the morning!”
“Oh, I didn’t know… and it was late so I left for lunch.”
“…Some friend you are…” she mumbled.
I took her gift out of my pocket and touched it to her cheek. She shrieked with the sensation of cold. “What is that!”
“It’s fresh orange juice and here’s some fruit cakes, eat up!” I offered her both. She looked shocked, more shocked than I’d ever seen her.
“These are for…me?”
“Yeah, I realised you’d be hungry so I bought them for you”
“But…not even father gave me food…”
I noticed her reluctance to accept it, so I took her tiny hands gently and placed the cake and juice on her palms. Her palms were almost half the size of mine and they felt colder than the juice itself. Her eyes glistened with tears and she drew her hands to her chest with the food, “I’m going to sing for you!”
I grinned, she thinks she has to repay me. My young friend walked with me to my shelter. Right before entering she told me, “Oh, you need something to write! I’ll go get something for you. Wait here!”
As her common tendency, she disappeared among the alleys again. To her house probably, her parents must’ve been worried. Hopefully though, she’ll have the cakes and juice by herself, the bruises I saw on her feet and arms in the morning didn’t make me feel the best about her family. I spent another night in my shelter. I’d be a wreck but Ramu-kaku had shown me around the slum all evening and as soon as I returned from their house after dinner, he had started the radio. No rogue demon dog dropped by this night, simply the calming voice of my favourite singer flooded into my shelter as I wrote down my observations.
It was only in the morning that my youthful friend returned. Smiling proudly and puffing with pride, she handed me a newspaper while I smoked on the threshold.
“It’s a newspaper, idiot. About the incident 50 years ago!”
I was curious and read the article, ‘Starved dog murders 12-yr old in hunger! Turns rogue and injures several in the Dharavi slum. Hero officer wounds it fatally!’
“Hang on! This says the dog kills the child, Dadi told us the child was already dead! And wait a second, you can read?”
She frowned. “My father taught me to read when he wasn’t intoxicated. About the child though…the news could’ve been slightly inaccurate. I mean, this is the story of Chachi’s brother in law. She would know best. Either way, I got you a story!”
I put the paper beside me, reading about it in a newspaper somehow made it seem more real.
“But the fact that this dog became a phantom and killed other people can’t be true, right? Like maybe it turned hostile towards humans but it’s dead. People must’ve died of some unknown disease.”
“I don’t know about that, but you’ll find that lots of people believed that those who died were killed. That they’re necks were bitten off just like the child.” She shrugged, seemingly unbothered. ”Those who died, all coughed blood as if their voice box was bitten off.”
I gazed at her, her manner. She seemed to not mind speaking of horrible deaths. ‘A dangerous maturity at her age. A maturity she couldn’t attain unless she experienced the monstrosity of humans herself.’ My eyes lingered on her battered clothes and thin, bruised body. I decided to buy her another gift today.
I went about the day asking people about this phantom dog and my apparently paranormal shelter. Tales were told about screams and barks. I found that given a chance people could exaggerate to no end, apparently even those who died of fever were because they were cursed for going near my shelter. In fact, when I was going for lunch, I was fully convinced that this was an entirely made-up story.
“Tuber-culosis also results in coughing up blood and therefore it is proved. No such demon dog exists!” My young friend walked me till the station not contradicting my theory. Her silence scared me. I wonder if it’s about her abusive father. She gave me no justification for her sudden subdued nature.
However, when I was back at the station after worrying about her throughout the journey, she greeted me with the same smiling joy. Had she hidden her pain so well that it didn’t show or if seeing me made her happy, I couldn’t tell. As she darted towards me to embrace me, I put my second gift around her. I thought hard about it and I realised she’ll need this most. A blanket. A blanket to cover herself up when she wanted no one to see her.
She looked up with those dark, black eyes. Letting the warmth of that small blanket snuggle her. “This is for me, isn’t it? You’re a spendthrift.”
I pinched her cheeks lightly, “This is the part where you say ‘thank you.’”
She simply giggled and ran ahead of me the rest of the way. I wrote little in the evening and looked around for my friend when I was returning from dinner at Ramu-kaku’s place. Today is my last night here. She had most likely headed to her own house. Once again, I prayed that the blanket wouldn’t be snatched from her.
I could pity her, but I really couldn’t change her life. If I start pitying everyone, life would become an endless nightmare. That is why, writing my book was absolutely necessary. If people knew the hard truth, if they heard it so many times that it rang in their ears, maybe they would help. Maybe, my dear little friend would have a better, brighter life.
‘A life where she would, indeed, want to live.’ This was the final line in my diary. My research was complete and I had decided she would be my protagonist.
When I capped my pen, pleased with myself, I heard nails screeching. Screeching devastatingly against the plywood door. Barks. Deafening barks of a wild animal. A huge weight threw itself upon my door with a heavy ‘thud.’ I was frozen until this, I gathered my wits and started calling Ramu-kaku.
Splinters of wood were falling, the ply wouldn’t hold. As the scrawling continued. The demon dog seemed to have brutal strength, true to its name. It was ripping away ply like straw. I kicked the chair towards the door. My strength had left me, the chair didn’t reach the door. In fact the falling of it, triggered my visitor further. I could hear it drooling by now. My fingers finally completed Ramu-kaku’s number and I pressed hard on the green call button.
My bones were shaking, I felt my tongue go dry. I started jumping a little in fear. Fear, in its raw true form.
The voice of god erupted next. I don’t fully recollect the next few moments as my brain had gone numb. The radio. I realised a few minutes later that the radio was playing again. It was louder than the other days, and as if on cue, the dog withdrew. He growled a bit more at my threshold, the plywood door barely hanging on. I couldn’t see my fear but I heard him leave.
My heart continued thumping but my knees buckled. I placed a hand on my hammering chest and sat on the floor. My voice was stuck. Voiceless tears leaked out as perspiration settled on my eyebrows. I crawled to the fallen chair, gulped and set it against the door. The door squeaked loudly, so much so that I thought it would fall.
I emptied the water bottle and laid on the bed. My heart had just recovered, when the door was hammered once again. Had I been older, I was assured to have a heart attack. That, however, didn’t happen as Ramu-kaku bellowed, “Saheb! Please open the door!”
I collapsed into his embrace as soon as I opened. He was crying for me like a baby, “I’m so sorry. I should’ve never let you stay in this haunted shelter. I had heard the rumours. I’m very sorry!”
“Oh about the previous owner of this shelter being a drunkard animal who his own wife cursed. This shelter holds her grudge, still. I didn’t expect a spirit to be able to do physical damage.”
I wanted to laugh. Also, I wanted to cry. “This is no spirit, Ramu-kaku. Some dog did that to the door. Thanks to your radio, he withdrew.”
“Dog? Oh, the stray one around here. I didn’t think it was strong enough for this. Now that you mention it, I may have been woken up by barks. As for any radio, Sir, I don’t have one!”
“Not yours then? Someone else must’ve played it every night then.”
“Could be, Sir. It’s very difficult to sleep here if you’ve got good hearing. With the dogs and noisy neighbours.”
I simply nodded. The story about the man-eating dog may have tricked me to overestimate a stray, but my heart was not steady yet. I felt sure about leaving tomorrow. Ramu-kaku stayed with me for whatever little hours of the night that was left.
At about 7, he was walking with me towards the station. Unconvinced that it was only a stray that attacked me, he walked close to me and seemed to shield me from any possible danger. As we were about to enter the station, I checked for my belongings. Ramu-kaku did the same but his face turned white as he checked and rechecked.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“If you would hold this, Sir” he replied and handed me an amulet of sorts. Rechecking his pockets for the third time, he said with a long face, “I’ve left my phone at home.” As expected, he refused to leave my side and said that he would come back after successfully delivering me home. I retorted. I would not have it. I told him I don’t need a guardian and he can take the next train right after me. The argument continued for another couple of minutes. Finally, frustrated with his stubbornness I raised my hands and said, “Look around! This is the outside of a station! Nothing could happen to me among all these people!”
He accepted defeat, but he would only go back provided I kept the amulet with me, to ‘ward away evil.’ I was about to enter the station after seeing his figure fade in the distance. “You’re leaving without goodbye again. This time for good.”
She had gotten very good at finding me and she brought with her my confidence. I turned and smiled to see my young friend, wrapped in the blanket I gifted her. “Forgive me, will you? I had a shocking experience last night.”
“Oh I know all about that,” she came and leaned against the wall, “still can’t forgive you for leaving without a word. Especially when I’m just outside.”
I figured she meant she lived near me and maybe, just maybe, she was my guardian with the radio. “How do you know about my shock?”
“It’s the morning news,” she laughed as she said. “However, I’m not talking to you till you make it up to me for leaving without a word.”
I looked around motioning towards the stalls near the station and looked at her suggestively. Despite everything around us, she motioned towards my jeans pocket, “Leave me your pen would you?”
I’ve never heard a sweeter way to ask for a memorabilia. “Here you go, something to remember me by.”
She took it hastily and turned away, flustered, “I don’t need anything to remember you. I don’t want to remember you! This is payment! For my singing!”
She gasped and turned around, lightly kicked my shin, “How dare you! I’ve been singing every night outside your quarters! Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me!”
“That was you? Not a radio?”
She had turned away again. Attempting to tease her, I went towards the stairs and said without turning, “If you sing that well, keep doing it. Maybe you could be a singer.” I sincerely meant it, if her voice was that lovely, she should. ‘What’s wrong with you ears? Why didn’t you immediately recognise her voice?’ I wondered thinking that it was indeed her voice that I heard at night. Maybe because of the atmosphere of the night that I couldn’t quite place it.
“I sang to protect you, I can’t be a singer…”
I stopped on the stairs and smiled at her childishness without turning, “Protect me? Oh, from the demon dog. And do tell me why it would listen to you?”
“Why? It’s my dog after all, I fed it.”
‘Hang on, did she say her dog?’ I turned around to nothing.