It was a mistake trusting your parents will come back to get you. It was a mistake turning your back to them, clapping idiot-like at the spinning top that lit up red in the dark. They left for Bombay, leaving you behind in Delhi with your grandma, your paati.
Its summer—the city is a furnace, everything is melting. Your paati slips in the bathroom and fractures both her legs. With weights, pulleys, her legs hang in the air, like the hands of a clock: 2.10 p.m. Her loose, burnt-brown flesh hangs loose from her thighs.
In brown shorts and a white t-shirt with stripes, you have your music notebook in your clammy hand, revealing wet phantom finger-prints around its spine when you change hands. A Donald Duck label in the front has your details:
Age: 8 yrs old.
She wants to pee. You slide the aluminium dish between her legs, her thigh-flesh jiggles. You wait for her bladder to empty. When she grunts, you carefully pull it out with both your hands, carry it to the door. You hold your breath and drain the dish, watching the piss form black globules on the dry earth.
She hands you her metal ruler, which you bury deep between her cast and her skin and scratch her calf, her ankle, and with your nails between her toes that wiggle. You follow her instructions: left, no, no, right, up, up, down…ah!
“Okay, leave. You’re late,” she says. “Leave the door open.”
“Run,” she barks and you’re out the door.
“Look everyone, Sethu finally decided to show up to class.” Arun, your vocal teacher, tells the rest of the students, stretching the vowels in your name like a chewing gum. He moves his limp wrists and motions for you to sit next to him. You sing for a bit. Then he asks, as always, for the other students to leave. The house is empty. You know what this means. But still, you try. You get up to follow them. You can’t go yet he tells you. He smiles, his hand is on your thigh. You walk to his bedroom.
Arun turns off the lights and pulls close the curtains, bolts the door. The sudden withdrawal of light, gives the room the cold, dark look of night.
“Let’s begin,” he says. He means the game. He calls it, ‘Adventures of the Night Explorer’: the goal is to identify different parts of each other’s bodies by touching. You know the drill, you know where everything is on his body; however, pretense is a big part of the game.
It’s your turn first so you feel your way in the darkness. Your tiny hands land on his mouth.
“Correct. My turn,” says Arun.
You lay still on the bed, trying your best to not make a sound. Arun places his sticky, fleshy palm on your stomach.
“No, my tummy,” you say, in a condescending tone. He likes it.
“Your stomach?” Arun says and lifts your shirt. He tickles you until you beg him to stop. You have to laugh, you have to enjoy it. Else, he gets mad.
“My turn.” Your eyes have adjusted to the light and you’re able to see clearly, but you continue to pretend like you have a secret. You also reach for his stomach but to make it more believable, you pretend to think.
“You give up?” he says.
“It’s your— .”
Before you can answer, Arun pulls your hand and slips it into his pyjamas, whose strings are already loose.
It swells in your hand until it’s a Popsicle. You know what it is, not by its official name yet, by what your grandma calls it: Choochoo. You have held yours many times, moving it like a hose to see how far up the wall your pee can go. You know it’s wrong, it’s something you aren’t supposed to be doing. If you tell your grandma, she won’t believe you. You could tell your parents, though your letter will end up like the rest, somewhere under a pile of old newspapers? You know they don’t read them. You know this because once they were visiting and you sat next to your dad, smiling shyly, giddy with excitement, and then blinked at your mum. Surely, they must have got you the latest Superman comic book. But the morning bled into noon and noon melted into night and a whole week went by. They hadn’t, and you never asked.
Arun wants you to move your hand up and down. How many times does he need to teach you? He makes these little sounds, takes these short breaths, before finally your fingers are wet like you’d just dipped them in a bottle of glue.
“You still haven’t guessed. You lose”
“Choochoo,” you say. It’s a game and you still want to win.
“Is that what you call yours?” Arun chuckles. “Let’s see if you have one.”
When you’re leaving he says, “See you tomorrow.” He expects you to bob your head, so you bob your head.
Grandma wants to know about your class, what you learned.
“Sing me something,” she says. You say you have to wash your hands first.
“Good boy,” she calls you. She says you should always wash your hands when you come home from outside. “Wash your feet, too.”