The first time I saw Salim, the weather report called it one of Karimnagar’s hottest summers. Streets bore silence like a curfew. Cows belched and jutted out their tongues for moisture. The ice cream vendor rolled his cart into the shade of the big peepal tree and fanned himself with a wet cloth. The vegetable market vanished at noon and reappeared in the evening. None of this bothered us; we were boys with cricket on our minds.
I was no star, but I had a good arm and could take a running catch. Most of us were thirteen, but there were a few who were older. We were forming teams, tossing who’d get to bat first, and we didn’t see him approach.
We heard him before seeing him—“I got the bat.”
I turned and stood transfixed. Salim wore a graphic tee shirt that said rockstar. Although it was hot and humid, he had worn a biker jacket that he took off and folded, and as he did, his taut biceps glistened. It was a revelation; I never knew sweat could look so good. He was older, eighteen or so. He had thin lips. Strong thighs. And a sharp nose. I felt my stomach flip and flip, like dice that wouldn’t stop rolling.
Salim shook hands with some of the older boys he seemed to know, greeting them with a generic Aur Bhai. We drew close to introduce ourselves, and it was apparent he was the sun and the rest of us mere planets destined to orbit around him.
When it was my turn, I told him my name. Salim ran his fingers through his hair and said, “Khan, Salim Khan.”
“Like James Bond?” I had seen a James Bond movie on the neighbor’s television and was aware of this particular mannerism.
“Whatever,” he said in a low-pitched voice. But the quick upward dash of his eyebrows all but told me that I was going to be on his radar, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
“Chal, start,” the boys screamed, and we were off to field. Salim was on my team, and I watched him field in the short cover position. Hips thrust, back angled forward, he drew my eyes right where they were ashamed to go.
Soon it was our turn to bat. Six wickets down and chasing fifty-seven, the team sent me. Salim stood at the non-striker’s end. “Take a single, rotate the strike.” Even his shout sounded regal.
The tall, fast bowler sensed my fear and urged the fielders to draw closer. He took a long run up and hurled the ball. I swung and missed.
Salim came over. “What’s your name again?” he asked.
“Arun,” I said.
Look Arun, swing the bat low and run, I expected him to say.
“Do you have ten rupees? I forgot my wallet; I’ll give it back next week.”
I nodded and gazed around, letting people think we were having a tactical discussion.
Salim looked eager, and so I put my hands in my pocket. I made a show of looking, even though I knew I didn’t have any money. I then curled out my lower lip—I had nothing. He shrugged and strolled back to the non-striker’s end.
The ball came, and I swung the bat. We ran, and Salim took the strike. The bowler spat on the ball and rubbed it against his crotch. He took an even longer run up and bowled. Thwack! The ball flew beyond the compound wall for a six. Salim held his hand against his eyebrows, and in the shadow cast on his face, I saw the hint of a smile. We won the match with two overs to spare.
I saw him at the vegetable market the next day. I waved at him, but he was busy flirting with the fruit-seller lady. I stared at him for a good minute, and he turned around as if he felt the stare. He lifted his eyebrows, a flicker of recognition. He held guavas in his arms, and his eyes traveled to the person next to me, my mother, and stayed there—perhaps trying to ascertain if the woman next to me was my mother. I interrupted Mother in her haggling to point out Salim. By the time she turned to me, he had walked away, juggling guavas in the air. I wouldn’t see him again until a few days later. And I wouldn’t be friends with him until a month later, but I was already in love with his swagger. Which I knew I’d never have.
The air was hot and sober like it knew about the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Families sat in rows of plastic chairs facing the speakers. Father stared at Mother. This was what he had to endure, his face said. Mother watched him with fear in her eyes. I’d had enough of their drama. I scanned the crowd and saw Salim in the last row. He sat next to his father; they had the same chin. I sidled up to him.
“Why didn’t you come to the game?” Salim asked.
“Busy,” I said. I hadn’t been invited; the boys cared to invite me only when they needed an extra fielder, and I was upset.
“Let’s get ice cream,” Salim said. We strolled to the ice cream vendor sitting under the shade of the banyan tree, cooling himself with a paper fan. He opened the cart-brief and inserted his hand into it. Out came two ice cream sticks, one yellow and one pink. I paid.
“Your father drinks?” Salim bit off a chunk of ice.
“That’s putting it mildly.”
Salim laughed, and my chest expanded.
“What does he do?”
Father spent most of his time away from home in a cargo ship that went back and forth between Maldives and India.
I was tired of the question. But people were always amazed that somebody in Karimnagar, thousands of kilometers away from the sea, became a sailor. I told him the story. One drama-filled night, our extended family chastised Father for not securing a job, and he boarded the train to Bombay in anger to find a job and throw the employment papers at all those questioning him. By the time the train rolled into Bombay, a full twenty hours later, his tongue was so dry he had to seek a watering hole. That accomplished, he woke up in a cargo ship several miles away from land. Upon discovering an unlabeled, unpackaged, and disoriented entity in the ship, the captain put him to work. As long as he worked, no one cared if he drank, and that was it for him. So—people usually exclaim on hearing the story—he did find a job that suited him. But it was only a job, and when he came back home, he drank and called Mother a randi.
Sometimes he’d ask me to dance, but the smell would make me nauseous, and I’d refuse to entertain him, and he’d slap me till my gums bled. I didn’t tell Salim the stories of those nights; I didn’t think it was cool to do so. But Salim sensed something. “You okay?” he asked.
I nodded and looked at my feet. My sandals had a blue in them I became deeply aware of.
He patted my wrist, and a tingly sensation spread across my body.
For the first time, I was sad when the AA meeting was over. I waved goodbye to Salim and went home, the lingering starchiness of the ice stick on my tongue.
Days drifted past, not unlike the way clouds made their way across the sky, this movement in time, some mysterious design underway. August rains downed summer heat. The ice cream vendor disappeared. AA meetings got suspended due to a lack of roofed seating space. The playground turned into a pond, complete with ducks, frogs, and paper boats. The vegetable market morphed into vendors with moving carts, blue tarpaulins, and flexible schedules. Father left, and school resumed. A boy in my class quit. Salim stayed.
The cricket group disbanded into separate units, and our unit was persistent enough to play in the minutes untouched by the evening rain. Salim and I, regulars in this group, met by the adda and waited for the rest. By now, the boys had changed their opinion. I was no longer the nerdy kid who couldn’t play well; I had important friends. We sat cross-legged, leaning against each other, and talked shit about girls. Someone brought up careers. One boy wanted to serve. The army will send you back in a box, we said. Another said he’d start a store. Good luck with that, we’ll be your customers—we made the sign for no money.
Salim said he wanted to be an actor.
“You want to be a Bollywood star?” I asked.
“I am a Khan,” he said, and the boys laughed.
“You need English for that.” I stretched my legs. I had seen interviews of Bollywood stars on tv, and they all spoke excellent English.
“English to act in Hindi movies?” Salim chuckled, and the boys laughed at me. None of us spoke English well enough for movies. I let them laugh.
The rain stopped, and we threw the ball around, but mud stuck to the ball and smattered a boy in the face. We laughed and gave up. Earthworms wriggled in and out of the earth, and we gaped at the tiny holes they made.
“Teach me English, I’ll teach you how to bat,” Salim said, on our way back.
“Who said I don’t know batting?”
Salim laughed, a hearty laugh that jumped out of his throat.
“I don’t know English.” I was thrilled with the idea that I knew something he didn’t.
“You know more than any of the other boys; I heard them say you won a prize in school.”
“Only because everybody else was worse.”
“Teach me.” Salim held my wrist.
Warmth gripped my body. “Right now?” I said.
Salim nodded, and somewhere in my arteries, I knew this was dangerous. But something larger than either of us had been set in motion, and I felt determined to see it through to its logical conclusion. As we turned the corner and walked up the street, my eyes fell on the house next to ours. These neighbors enjoyed spying on us. Chachi’s red sari, hung up to dry, fluttered in the wind. I hated the sari for being her deputy, surveilling on her behalf.
The gate creaked open. It was just another two-bedroom house, identical in construction to others in the street, with cement floors and circular stairs that were built like a garland, leading to the terrace. The house looked normal, but the walls seemed to betray the drama. Melancholy seeped through them. I wondered if Salim could tell.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” Mother said, handing Salim a glass of lemonade.
Salim gave a coy smile. I looked at Mother, her hair tied into a bun, waiting for our empty glasses, a wide smile on her face. She liked him. Why wouldn’t she? She’d think I’d learn from an older boy. I showed Salim my prized possession—a globe I won in school—and my favorite spot, the terrace. From the terrace, I saw Chachi peering from behind the sari. What would she make of Salim?
She’d be scandalized that I brought home a Muslim. Chacha, her husband and a friend of my father, had often expressed the opinion that all Muslims were Pakistanis. He believed they spawned dozens of kids with the intention of taking over India; he acted as though the country’s future depended on him, a bank cashier. I avoided them both as much as I could.
Some parts of the terrace had already dried, and Salim sat down at the edge and whistled “My Name Is Joker.” I washed my feet at the pump and sat next to him. I hung my legs in the air and water drops fell from my feet, one at a time, onto the potted plant below. Kaali, a stray black cat that hung around our house, strode on the parapet wall. Chacha once said that a single black cat brought a hundred years of misfortune. He urged Mother to consult a priest and determine the best possible way to appease gods.
“What can a black cat do to a house that already has your father in it?” Mother said to me after she nodded the neighbors off.
Everything around me conjured memories and experiences I wanted to share with Salim. There was so much to tell, and the enormity of this task overwhelmed me. I stayed quiet, vacillating between sharing everything and sharing nothing.
Salim raised his eyebrows as if to say, What’s the plan?
I brought my English textbook and placed it on his lap. He flipped pages—an exasperation apparent in the curve of his lips. He put the book aside and said he wanted to fast forward to the part where he spoke English. I told him everything worthwhile took time.
He squeezed my hand.
I looked at the textbook for a minute, not really seeing anything on the page. There was a tension in the air, a newness, this unfamiliarity. Neither of us seemed to be able to concentrate. I put the text aside and watched men burning wood in the distance. Smoke drifted over thatched houses in the eventide sky. Crows didn’t caw, dogs didn’t bark, people didn’t quarrel, and for the longest time, there was silence and it felt like we were in a picture titled Two Boys on a Terrace.
Somewhere, a train sounded its horn and broke the silence. Salim smiled and said he liked the view from the terrace. The train blew its horn again and it was just your regular train horn, but it sounded a lot like the arrival of happiness. Salim placed his arm around me. I pretended to yawn and leaned my neck against his arm. Like a friend. From his armpits wafted a thin scent of dried rice, and I smelled him, and I smelled him again, and I swore it would be the last time I did—I didn’t want to be caught, I sensed it was forbidden, but each time I took a breath of it, time stopped, and nothing mattered. My father, my mother, the neighbors, the narrow street, everything was dull and pale in comparison, and I kept breathing until my nostrils with their eagerness had become used to his scent, and my chest grew heavy. I had lost it, and I held my breath to ease the weight of that finality, and when I breathed again, there it was, that whiff of intoxication. I held my breath again and again. It came to me that I had been waiting to answer something about myself, and now I knew what it was, and this filled me with anxiety—there’d be days, months to think about what it meant, I told myself, but I could no longer deny it. This new anxiety settled into my being like the smoke that melded into the sky, darkening it bit by bit. But in that moment, leaning on his shoulder, I pushed everything out of my mind and looked at the eventide sky, wide and unblemished, and smiled as if I were being photographed.
“Do you want to go to that English movie?” Salim asked the next day. We had seen posters for Pirates of the Caribbean at the adda.
“Ooh, that’s a good way to pick up English,” I said, looking at his light stubble.
Salim’s smile took on a teasing quality. “Do you have to ask your mother?”
“I don’t have to,” I said, punching his arm.
I snuck money out of Mother’s purse and we took the long route via the train tracks to avoid being seen by people we knew. The secrecy of this mission increased the thrill I felt in the cinema when we rubbed shoulders. We hid our faces in our hands and when the cinema went dark, we rose in delight. The movie had more action than dialogue, half of which I barely understood. Pirate was a new word; we said to each other hello, pirate and howdy, pirate.
We watched a number of movies, and there were other new things for us to discover. We learned people called 911 in case of emergencies. Sex before marriage was okay. An alien invasion was always on the horizon. We mastered the art of styling our hair like Brad Pitt with a mix of coconut oil and tooth powder. Watching a movie put Salim in an expansive mood. He’d put his arm around my shoulder and tell me what he would have done differently had he been the hero. I’d nod, and we’d go our separate ways. But often, I’d be the first to bid goodbye. I sensed that Salim didn’t really want to go home. All I had to do was invite him home, and he’d come. But then there was the anxiety that never left. And the question of appropriateness. I couldn’t really invite him without an excuse, and Salim wouldn’t be comfortable coming without the excuse. But the excuse arrived one night, and I felt something stir in my pants. Salim’s father was out of town, and Salim said he’d be going back from the movie to an empty home.
We had just watched The Lord of the Rings and were fascinated by the idea of a sequel, of a movie not finishing at the end.
“I wish the movie kept going,” Salim said, his arm around me.
“Until the morning, right?” I said.
Salim turned toward me. “What?”
“Because you are so scared of staying by yourself in the dark.” I laughed.
He held me by the neck and tickled me in the ribs. “My precious.”
I wrenched free and ran a few feet ahead. “Do you want to sleep at my place tonight?”
“Will your mother be okay with that?”
“Come with me,” I said, wishing for the night to never end.
At home Mother okayed my proposition as I knew she would and brought out extra sheets. And I made his bed, next to mine on the floor. Salim wanted to shower. I opened the bathroom for him and pressed a towel in his hands. I felt my sex grow. I tucked my hardness between my legs and hoped it wouldn’t show through my underwear. Salim came back from the bathroom in a towel, naked from the waist up. His body emanated heat, but it was my face that felt warm as I hovered around him, asking if he needed another towel. He had hair all over his chest, a mole on his biceps. I had one in the exact same place and I showed him.
I touched his mole, pushing it with my index finger. “Oh, it is a mole,” I said, keeping my face straight.
“What did you think it was?” he laughed.
I gave him one of Father’s tee shirts and ran to the bathroom. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to the bathroom and pulled out my fly. The scent of him lingered and I stood there inhaling it, watching myself grow. The tap was wet, Salim had been naked right in front of it. I moved to touch the tap. The long handle of the tap could have been his shaft and I stroked it again and again, bathing in the scent he left. I perched down and took it in my mouth and cocked my head back and forth, imagining him scrunching his face, and I knew this was wrong, something was very wrong with me, but I could not stop, and with each hold of my mouth, I felt my penis grow harder and harder, and I held my hand to the hardness while I continued to move my tongue over the tip of the handle, licking it in each untouched spot, teasing it, and I closed my mouth around it, working against the handle faster and faster till I came.
By the time I cleaned up and came back, he was fast asleep. I fell on my mattress and lay awake for a long time, torn between wanting to wrap myself around Salim and running away that very night before I got outed. When I finally fell asleep and woke up the next morning, Salim had already left, and Mother was searching the house, turning up plastic chairs.
Mother asked me if I had taken the twenty rupees she had placed in the folds of a magazine that had been on the teapoy. I hadn’t, but I felt my stomach tighten, and I saw the same thought cross her eyes. Had Salim stolen the money? I asked if she had kept the money elsewhere and forgotten. And she accepted that as a possibility. But I left for school wishing I could make the money appear. I would somehow detect that the wind had swept the note to a corner. Or Mother would remember where she misplaced the money. Anything really. I knew Salim had money problems—I paid for everything. But I thought he’d ask if he needed the money. I sat through the class with difficulty and returned home.
Mother said she hadn’t found the money. I dropped my bag and went looking for him. I figured I’d ask him casually if he happened to see any money lying on the ground that night. I went to his house. The gate was locked. I didn’t see him the whole week. Mother forgot about the money. Every day after school, I did the circuit. I went to the playground, the theater, the market, the adda. I spun my globe, wondering where he was. I lost interest in school. No one asked me to teach English anymore; no one squeezed my wrist as he did. Each day I looked for him, the money became less and less important. And I slapped my thighs in anger. What I had done with the tap, my sin, had pushed him away. In the bathroom, I remembered what I had done, and my penis began to expand. I was ashamed; I took a blade, steadied my hand, and put a tiny cut. A drop of blood emerged, and the sight of it stopped my shame. I apologized to him at all the places, for desiring him, for doubting him.
The next week, I came home from school and saw him sitting on the sofa laughing with Mother, as if they were now best friends, as if she were just as important in his coming to our house. I went straight to my room and collapsed by the window. Salim came into the room and put his hand on my shoulder. He whispered sorry, and I felt his mouth brush against my ear. A tingly warmth spread through my body.
“I had to go to my father’s village on an urgent matter,” Salim said.
“What happened?” I asked, continuing to act upset.
“My father began drinking again; we had to take him. He can drink all the buffalo milk he gets there.” He grinned.
In spite of myself, I let out a chuckle. “I looked for you everywhere,” I said.
“Sorry,” he repeated and enveloped me with his long arms. I turned and hugged him. Locked in his embrace, I looked outside the window. A pigeon lay on the neighbor’s wall looking for grains. He held me tighter. The pigeon found a grain a couple of feet away on the wall. His hands caressed my back. The pigeon hopped to the grain. He kissed me on the cheek. The pigeon grabbed the grain and flew—not knowing that it lifted into the sky my soul.
Most days, I found Salim at home eating Mother’s pakoras, regaling her with all sorts of tales. He’d say that he’d marry a woman like her, making her blush and laugh in a way I’d never seen before, and then he’d turn to me and wink. This only meant I didn’t have to explain who we were. I could linger in the painting that was Two Boys on a Terrace. January brought my fourteenth birthday. We bought a bubble stick, for laughs, something we both had done when we were much younger, and rinsed it with soap and blew soap bubbles at each other, often grazing each other’s feet. We hadn’t proceeded beyond what we already did. I hadn’t asked if his kiss on the cheek meant more than the affection men sometimes displayed in Bollywood movies. There was time, we’d get there. But I found myself growing in confidence, and I threw away the blade in the bathroom.
Mother baked a cake and gave us money to officially watch a movie. We went to the theater, this time unafraid. Salim copied the gestures of film stars and I copied him. I cupped my palms when I spoke in a low voice, like him. I drank chai in the evening, like him. How was I to know things would change so soon?
Chacha beckoned me the day after my birthday and asked me what Salim’s name was. He had seen him around the house often and wanted to know who he was. He knew Salim was Muslim, and this was his way of confirming. Fucking pig.
“Samir,” I said and ran.
February followed. Father would return any day—it was time. Dark clouds of rain lurched forward in the sky. Shadows the size of mountains cast gloom everywhere. Vendors in the vegetable market packed up their carts in a hurry. The ice cream vendor was nowhere. The playground was desolate. The cinema had a padlock—temporarily closed for projector repair. I found Salim sitting on the train tracks, throwing pebbles at the track.
“It’s only temporary,” I said. But I couldn’t hide the fear in my voice; it felt like we were train tracks, parallel lines that cannot meet. Chacha would tell Father, and he wouldn’t let us meet.
Salim stared at the tracks. “I’m leaving for Bombay,” he said. Every pebble thrown at the track made a dull cracking noise I heard again and again.
“When?” I asked. The rumble of clouds silenced everything.
“Soon, I’ll come say bye. In a couple of days,” he said.
I wanted to leave with him; I had fantasized about running away with Salim. He’d tell me to come to the train station one day. I’d hurry there, forgetting to pack my prized globe. And he’d offer to get it for me. And I’d tell him that I wouldn’t need it anymore. And that he was my world. But he hadn’t asked me to come with him, and I had too much pride to ask.
Salim stood up and brushed the dirt from his pants. “There’s nothing here. I have to go,” he said.
I let out a sob. “I’ll come with you,” I said.
Salim squeezed me on the shoulder and left.
I broke away to the terrace and stared at the Karimnagar-sized nothingness in front of me. I blew soap bubbles alone on the terrace. And I could not think of anything other than the one time Salim and I blew soap bubbles at each other. There were things we wanted to do together. Swimming lessons that never happened. Cricket coaching sessions that got postponed. The trip to his village that never materialized. There were conversations that needed to be had. I wanted to know what his mother was like. What did he do when his father drank, and he was too young? Why did he prefer full-sleeve shirts instead of half-sleeve shirts? What were his childhood stories? What had he done when he was fourteen? Why did he have to use his fingers to push up his hair after he had used a comb? Had he liked me the way I liked him?
The soap bubbles lifted higher and floated away. Through them, some things were enlarged, and some were minimized. I saw Salim’s absence looming large, and Salim himself in the distance, shrinking away. The bubbles, it struck me, were like memories; they were not original events themselves, they were illusions. And what could I do—I wept on the terrace—but touch these bubbles and hear them go pop pop pop!
The night Salim was supposed to leave, the cries of a woman woke me up. Cuss words, a chorus of harsh voices. It was past midnight. A thief had been caught, I thought. But I heard Salim’s voice, pleading. I sprang to my feet; he had come to say goodbye.
I opened the door, and in the hall, near the other bedroom, Father had returned. And something had happened. Chacha and Chachi stood watching. Father kicked Salim in the stomach and a shirtless Salim twisted on the floor. It didn’t make any sense. Father slapped a crying, semi-dressed Mother in the face and went back to kicking Salim. Had Salim been caught stealing money? Chachi dragged Mother inside the bedroom.
Father bent down and slapped Salim in the face.
“You circumcised bastard,” Chacha’s voice boomed.
I didn’t understand any of it. “Please don’t hit him,” I said.
Chacha shoved me, and I fell back into the room. “Stay inside,” he shouted and bolted the door. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t move. My feet wouldn’t cooperate. I couldn’t open my mouth either. It was as if someone had bound my legs and gagged my mouth. On the floor, I watched the gap between the door and the floor. Light sneaking in from under the gap fell on my globe, which had somehow fallen on the floor. I couldn’t comprehend what I had seen. Why couldn’t I move? Something to do with what I had seen in the seconds before Chacha pushed me inside, something to do with Mother appearing not quite herself. I couldn’t do anything other than look at the gap. Salim had taken away something of what I had, this much I felt. My body shook and shook on the cold floor of my room as I replayed those final images again and again. Soon, I was no longer sure of what I saw—all those individual images became a hazy film.
An hour passed, and the voices dissolved into silence. When the house fell silent, my body returned to me. I got up and ran away from home.
I never saw Salim again or went to Karimnagar after that. For a while, I worked at a dhaba in Odisha, several hundred kilometers away. The dhaba sat next to the highway and attracted a fair amount of dust and flies. A stray dog slept under the tables and I’d feed it leftovers. The work itself wasn’t bad. I’d serve food to customers and scrub their plates. Nights were the busiest and afternoons the quietest. Some afternoons when I was dusting the dhaba signboard or picking at a solitary grain of rice lodged inside the stove, Salim would pop into my head. And I’d briefly wonder what happened that night. Before I could arrive at an answer, I’d feel a sharp pain deep within my chest and I’d distract myself with one task or another. Occasionally, a customer would complain about flies and I’d take a grayed tablecloth and swish at them. But the flies were also like memories. They had a mind of their own, they flew out of reach and returned uninvited; they’d entice, gently whirring in the air, nasty little fuckers.
I tried to forget him. My last night at home, I raised myself from the floor an hour after the house fell quiet. I opened the door and stepped into the hallway. There was no one. I walked past the other bedroom that remained closed and felt sick. I limped outside, there was complete darkness. Kaali emerged from the black of the night and meowed at me. Come with me, I spoke to it. And my knees wobbled. A song played in my head—the song Salim used to whistle. “My name is Joker.” I danced past the veranda. One step at a time, I shook my legs. Past the house, past the playground, past the adda, past the vegetable market, past the train tracks, past the cinema, past the places he became a part of, past me.