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Stray Gods

Shastri Akella

The poplar lies flat on the ground, felled by a summer storm. Boy is sitting on its trunk again, waiting, when he sees a boy across the road. The boy is fidgety, stepping in and out of the shadows of the leafy eucalyptus trees. Boy thinks of cream poured into a mug of coffee, disappearing, then rising again to the surface. He licks his lips, craving something sweet, and whistles. The boy, startled, looks up first, as if to spot the bird that’s the source of the sound. So Boy whistles again. This time, the boy looks in his direction. Boy beckons him over. The boy runs across the road. Without breaking his stride, he leaps, pivots with a hand planted on the trunk, and lands next to Boy. Their shoulders touch, their heads are nearly level. 

  “What’s your name?” Boy asks. “Haven’t seen you before.” 

“Madhu,” the boy replies. He tells Boy that he lived in Garhwal until the Ganga flooded his town and took his parents and Samosa the Dog. He sounds as if he’s reporting a loss endured by someone else; emotion doesn’t alter his voice or turn his eyes liquid. 

Boy says, trying to mimic Madhu’s cool tone, “Both our parents are like this poplar.” He thumps the bark for emphasis. “Vertical until last year, horizontal now.” 

Madhu gestures to the tree’s new tender branches, to the shoots and leaves they sprout, and remarks, “At least it’s still growing.” 

Boy doesn’t know how to respond to this observation.

“I live with Chacha-jee now,” Madhu says. “Asked him if we could get a dog. He asked me to go to the highway on Friday at five and see what happens to dogs ‘round here.” 

Boy frowns. “House dogs are safe.” 

“Our house is tiny,” Madhu says. His cupped palms face each other. Then, he frowns, brings them closer, and nods. “So we can only get an outdoor doggo. One who does his own thing, comes back for food, water, and cuddles, then off he goes. It’s how Samosa was.” 

Boy shakes his head. “Better not to have a dog, then.” 

“Why?” 

“You’ll see. That’s why you’re here, no? Me too.” 

At 5 p.m. they hear a sputtering engine and a Bollywood song. A minitruck appears at the bend of the road, its body the yellow of egg yolk, surrounded by a halo of smog. It gets close and brings with it a stench like that of stagnant water. 

The driver’s tinted window is raised. They can’t see him. When it passes them, the truck slows down and they see the dogs: four strays per crate, four crates per row, dogs stacked four rows tall in the bed of the truck, their snouts pressed to the crates’ wooden bars. 

The dogs see Boy and Madhu too. Their bony shoulders turn alert, their tails begin to wag. Some black as the tea Grandpa drinks, most some shade of brown, with patches of singed fur. One dog is as still as a branch in a windless summer. One of them limps. Her hind leg hovers. She falls under the force of her wagging tail but stands back up, unfazed. 

Boy bends forward and barks. They bark back, their heads raised. Madhu joins him. When the crates start to wobble with all that canine movement, the truck picks up speed, turns a corner, and is gone.

“What’s he going to do with them?” Madhu asks. 

 “He rounds them up from our city and takes them to a pit,” Boy says, pointing at the road to his left with his chin. “He got started two weeks back. He controls them with a taser rod. Know what that is?” 

From the corner of his eye, Boy sees Madhu wipe his nose with his fist. 

“He slows down because he wants me to see,” Boy says. 

“He’s seen you before?” Madhu asks.

Boy nods. 

“He wants you to see them suffer,” Madhu says. It isn’t a question. 

Boy clears his throat of the lump that’s gathering in his gullet. He asks, “Want to come with me to work?”

From 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Boy works at Lajawab Highway Dhaba, frequented mostly by truck drivers. They park their trucks at the curb, tailgates painted with gaudy portraits of gods and goddesses who look like Bollywood celebrities: a mauve Lakshmi looking like a grinning Priyanka Chopra, a blue Shiva like a moody Kartik Aryan. Underneath are words that have nothing to do with deities or celebrities. Horn OK Please. Mom’s Blessings

When the truck drivers get drunk, they tell Boy stories about faraway places where they collect or deliver goods. A desert with a river buried underneath its many metric tons of porous sand. Temples where you get blessed by elephants. 

They call him Boy. Boy, when they need a glass of water. Boy, when they want their plates cleared. He likes it. The neighborhood boys get to attend school, sure, but he’s the only one with an English nickname. 

Boy takes the orders, Madhu brings out the food. Madhu brings back the plates and glasses after the customers have eaten, Boy empties the leftovers into a plastic bag. Boy washes the dishes in a large steel basin, set on the ground, filled with soapy water, Madhu dries them with a rag. 

“I won’t pay you,” Boss Sir warns Madhu. 

Madhu shrugs and starts stacking the clean, dried plates on their designated shelves. 

“Not everyone is money-minded,” Boy taunts. 

“Oh yeah? Want to work for free, Boy?” Boss Sir retorts.

Paramjit Singh shows up at ten. Boy puts in his regular order with the kitchen. Butter naan with aloo gobi, a cup of yogurt mixed with freshly grated onions.

  “Tell my friend about the dog man,” Boy hollers as he pours out the basin’s dirty water. He points at Madhu with his chin.

“Ajay’s my cousin,” Singh says, looking at Madhu. “He noticed that lately the city is overrun with strays because after the new government kicked in, the municipality had its hands full, no? Spying on Muslims, what meat they’re buying, ‘that better not be beef!’”

Singh shakes his head. As Boy fills the basin with fresh tap water, he remembers Grandpa telling him about the men who patrolled Muslim neighborhoods in jeeps, using megaphones to remind residents that cows are sacred, eating them is a sin, and sins have consequences.

“Anyway, about two weeks back, Ajay offered to take care of the strays,” Singh continues. “Charging each neighborhood a fee which, of course, they were happy to pay. Thing is, he doesn’t just get rid of them.”

“The taser?” Madhu asks. “Why?” 

Boy remembers the dog with a broken leg. In his head he calls her Sita. 

Singh sets aside his plate and says, “Some people don’t need a reason to be cruel. When Ajay was sixteen and I was twelve, he’d torture ants and butterflies.”

“And now it’s the dogs,” Madhu says.

Singh continues, his voice distant, his face childlike, as though he’s once again a boy, at the mercy of his cousin. “He’d make us watch and he’d say he’ll pin it on us if we breathe a word. We didn’t know better. And, God, we had this cousin, he was my age, he got it worse.”

“In what way?” Madhu asks. 

A mixture of revulsion and fear passes over Singh’s face. Madhu fills a steel glass with water and brings it to Singh, who gulps it down. 

Singh says, “He came over one night, last week it was, drunk as a fish, and said he saw a boy standing by the road so he slowed down to give ‘the kiddo’ a ‘show.’ I told him ‘That’s my friend from the dhaba, be nice.’” 

It was Singh who told Boy about Ajay and the best place to spot him. 

“I hope karma bites him in the ass,” Boy says, bringing out the food. 

“I won’t hold my breath if I were you,” Singh says. He looks at Madhu and opens his mouth as if he’s about to say something. Instead, he digs into his food.

They bring the leftover food from the dhaba into the woods and eat in torchlight. When they play chase after, they aren’t Madhu and Boy. They’re the mythic boy gods, Krishna and Balarama, and Ajay, one of the many demons that the brothers chase and vanquish.

“Your uncle won’t mind?” Boy asks, when they make their way back to the fallen peepul. “It’s late!” 

“He won’t notice,” Madhu replies. “Comes home at six or seven, drunk and tired from work, and he’s out like a light until seven the next morning.” 

Boy notices, again, that Madhu relays this information without emotion. 

“And you?” Madhu asks. “Your people won’t ask why you’re late?”

“Grandpa is also fast asleep by the time I get home.”

“Drunk?”

“Just old.” 

Monday is payday for the truck drivers so they’re happily drunk. Boss Sir plays a ’90s Bollywood song on the radio and turns up the volume. Madhu sashays his hips as he picks up some plates and walks them to the dish bin. A customer—a sardar with a blue turban, a wispy white beard, and neck skin loose like a turkey’s—whistles like he’s at the movies.

Madhu leaves the plate in the basin and breaks into dance, a mishmash of steps taken from different films: he throws his hands in the air and churns his waist, he shrugs his shoulders as he hops from one foot to the other. Some customers stand up and sway their hips and hands. Some encourage their children to join Madhu. Boy, squatting on his haunches and doing the dishes, wiggles his head in time to the music, enjoying the spectacle. 

Boss Sir tips Madhu that night. The boys run through the woods, laughing, their game of chase particularly rowdy: Ajay-demon is a deodar bark that gets a thorough thrashing, he’s a stone that’s yelled at and flung into a pond. They picture animals reacting to their ruckus: an owl turning its head and blinking disapprovingly, a snake raising its sleepy hood and sticking its tongue at them. 

 

The blue-turbaned sardar is back on Thursday night. After he’s done with dinner and drinks, Madhu picks up his plate and mug. When he turns, the man slaps him on the butt. 

Madhu turns back, frowning. The man grabs Madhu’s wrist. The mug falls to the ground and breaks.

“I’ll throw you over my shoulder and take you with me,” slurs the man, his lips chapped, his breath reeking of arrack. “You’ll dance only for me.”

The customers and Boss Sir are frozen as if they’re witnessing actors on a stage. Boy picks up the basin and walks with his torso angled backward. He approaches the man from behind and empties the dishwater on his head. The shocked sardar releases Madhu’s hand. He smells his wrist, wrinkles his nose, turns around. Boy strikes him with the steel bin. A collective gasp surrounds Boy. 

A gash forms on the sardar’s forehead. Blood drips and wets his mustache and lips. He presses a hand to his forehead and his eyes go wide. He stands up, jumps across the charpoy, and grabs Boy’s collar. 

“Enough,” yells Boss Sir, stepping out from behind the counter. 

The customers unfreeze as well. Some walk toward the man. A woman who towers over the rest steps forward and strikes him across the cheek, her bangles filling the air with a strident jingle. Boy recognizes her. Su Madhavan. A truck driver from Bengal. 

The man releases Boy’s collar, steps back, and warns, “I’ll be back. And I won’t be alone.” 

“Do come back,” retorts Boss Sir, planting his hands on his hips. “Make it easier for my cop friend to nab you.”

Su says, “Plenty of witnesses here who’ll happily tell what they saw today.”

A chorus of affirmative murmurs follow.

Su adds, “They put you away for twenty years for this kind of a thing.” 

Something flashes in the man’s face. He starts to leave. 

“Yeah!” Boy shouts. “Keep walking.” 

The man stops and turns to face Boy.

“Tough guy,” he says. “You think you got away? Someone else will pay the price.” 

Boy frowns. The man grins.

“My cousin told me to leave his dhaba friend alone and frankly, when it 

was just you, I didn’t care,” he says.

Boy understands who the man is and his neck goes hot. 

“Then I saw him sitting next to you—pretty as a girl, light-skinned like a Bollywood heroine.” Ajay gestures to Madhu and licks his lips. “I couldn’t help it, I had to come see him.” 

Su steps forward. Ajay beats a hasty retreat.

 

Boss Sir lets them leave early that night. They sit in the woods with the torch switched off. Madhu is scarfing down the leftovers. Boy doesn’t touch the food. He imagines Madhu and himself as ants inside a sealed envelope. 

“What if no one helped us?” Boy says.

“But they did,” Madhu says.

 “How are you like this?” Boy asks. “Do you not get sad? Angry?” 

“My tear ducts don’t function,” Madhu says, powering on the torch. He taps his neck. “And a football hit me here when I was one so my voice is defective—it can’t show emotion.” 

“Really?” Boy asks, his eyebrows cranked up. 

Madhu pursues his lips, struggling to conceal the laughter that makes him hiccup. 

“Stop messing with me.” Boy sulks, punching Madhu on the arm. 

Madhu explodes with laughter and throws an arm around Boy’s shoulder. Boy shrugs his hand off but laughs. Suddenly, Madhu stops laughing.

“Someone has to pay the price,” he says, reminding Boy of Ajay’s threat. 

They know who that someone will be. They concoct a plan. 

 

Madhu stands alone next to the peepul. Boy lies curled on the road. He wears different clothes: a long-sleeve shirt, a pair of trousers.

The music precedes the appearance of the vehicle: Bollywood song, an engine’s sputter. With his back to it, Boy hears its approach. The current of its movement, coursing through the road, thrums against Boy’s body. 

It halts abruptly behind Boy and the screech of its tires roars in his ears. He can feel its heat on his back. Its burnt battery smell fills his nostrils. He hears a door swing open with a creak, followed by the thump of a pair of feet jumping onto the road. Slippered footfalls approach Boy. A hand grabs his arm roughly and turns him over. 

In a flash, Boy is on his knees. He digs his teeth into Ajay’s nuts. He wraps his hands around the man’s ample waist. Ajay howls and pummels the back of Boy’s head. It hurts and the man stinks of urine but Boy doesn’t let go until he hears the opening and then the slamming of the truck door.

Then he crawls swiftly away and stands up. Ajay makes a low keening sound as he doubles over.

Madhu has the truck keys in one hand, the taser rod in the other. Boy runs to Madhu, grabs the keys, and makes his way to the back of the truck. He unlocks the door and clambers up the bed. The dogs bark. He barks back. He raises the latch and opens the door: one crate, then the next. The dogs jump out. They don’t run. They eye the dogs that are still caged.

Madhu watches Ajay, his thumb on the taser rod’s button. 

When Boy is on the second row, he hears Ajay’s guttural curse. The man is on his feet and stumbling toward them. Boy’s hands don’t stop working. Dogs pop out. Flashes of brown, flashes of heat, flashes of stench flying past him. On to the third row.

Ajay’s at arm’s length from Madhu, one hand on his crotch, the other brandishing a fist. Madhu presses the baton’s button. He wields the trembling, crackling line of purple toward Ajay, who steps back.

Boy is freeing the final row of dogs. Ajay makes to grab the baton. Madhu gets him on the wrist. And it’s satisfying: a band of electricity quivering against the torturer’s hand. Ajay screams and shuffles away. 

Boy whistles. Fourth row done. The dogs are out. They growl with their eyes fixed on their tormentor. They smell his weakness. 

Ajay looks at them, his face a flood of terror. Madhu brings the baton swiftly down. One foot, then the other. Ajay is on the ground again.

Madhu swings the rod over his head and throws it into the woods. He steps off the road. The torture weapon is out of sight.

The dogs fall into ranks. They become a pack.

They walk toward Ajay, their gait slow, their teeth bared. Boy sees the 

sinews in their flanks. He smells their singed fur. He sees their thin legs. 

Madhu joins Boy, their breath heavy, their bodies radiating an untamed heat. Ajay doesn’t run. He’s frozen, or he knows there’s no point.

Boy catches a last glimpse of Ajay before the dogs blot him out and get to work. 

  

“Tell me about Samosa,” Boy says.

The air is spiced with the aroma of leftover biryani. The nighttime darkness is pinched with torchlight. Madhu describes Samosa’s brown eyes, his cold nose, his floppy ears.

“He could never fully bark,” Madhu says. “He’d try, but it would get stuck in his throat and out came a sound that was more like a yelp.” 

  Madhu lets loose a yelp. Boy yelps as if in reply. The two go back and forth, their exchange interrupted by a strangled sound Madhu makes. He presses his wrists to his eyes. Boy peels one wrist away. 

  “Liar,” he says. “Your tear ducts work just fine.” 

  Madhu’s sob turns into laughter. Boy grabs the torch and gets to his feet and breaks into a run, hollering, “If you don’t catch me before we get to the peepul, you lose!” 

In their game of chase that night they are, quite simply, Madhu and Boy.