The Ghost That Shaped the Skin

Sahdëv was twelve when he met his first Foreign Man. He entered Chirag Ali Street, humming under his breath, nursing the straps of his backpack, and saw him sitting on the milestone that was locally called Sanam Bewafa, Unfaithful Beloved, after the Salman Khan film: it read Delhi 793 even when the road didn’t take you anywhere near Dilli.

Upon seeing Sahdëv, the man got to his feet.  He was tall and long-limbed. Wind mussed his red hair and nuggets of sky-blue appeared between his strands. Sahdëv wanted to touch his chin, to feel the rough, warm hair of his scruff fill the space between his fingernail and skin. Sahdëv could touch him. They were both outside caste. The gora, the Dalit.

He fished a camera out and looked at Sahdëv. It was the boy’s first encounter of the kind, but he knew what Foreign Man wanted. He responded not with the Indian nod, lumbering his head side to side, but with the International Standard Nod that the Foreign Man would understand, a rapid rise and fall of his head.

Only after he heard the camera click did Sahdëv remember: his oversized shirt ended at his thighs and now his Dirty Knees Business would show in the picture. For ever-and-ever-and-ever. Even after he became a man and had children and they had Dirty Knee Business. It was what Bollywood fathers called Kismet ka Khel. The games fate plays. Why can’t they simply say rotten luck? Sahdëv asked his sister once. She said it’s a trick filmi people use to make Bollywood movies last three hours: roundabout dialogue.

Sahdëv watched Foreign Man pluck five notes out of a wad of rubber-banded rupees as he spoke in a Hindi as broken as Sahdëv’s. Hindi was a subject Sahdëv learned at school. Third period: after Mathematics and Geography, before History. They were both outsiders to India’s national language. A flock of hornbills, flying low, honked as they left Chamba for two seasons. Foreign Man named himself as Matt.

“Nice to meet you, Friend,” Matt said as he offered the money that Sahdëv took.

Had they—Sahdëv’s dimwitted classmates or those prissy convent boys who swung their beige uniform bums like stupid birds—had they been called Friend by a beautiful Foreign Man? Not a chance.

“Want to go to there?” Sahdëv asked, light-headed, emboldened. He pointed to the Chamunda Temple that sat on a hill.

Matt said, “Tomorrow. Nine?”

He held out a notepad and pen and signatured the air. Sahdëv put his name down in his mother tongue. Each Pahari letter separated from the next. Like the holes of a flute.  He agreed to meet Matt at Durga Inn.

He waved Matt goodbye and took to his feet. He was late. He ran through the flea market of baubles and beads and anklets and baskets heaped with cowries, blue and green. The tar and mud roads turned to patchworks of cracked earth. The leaves dusted from the chinar trees crunched under his bare feet.

He went and sat next to his sister and opened his fist. The notes uncurled and rustled in the breeze. Aarti lowered her head and smelled them and shot Sahdëv a hardened look.

“I know,” Sahdëv said. “But that’s fifty. There can be more fifties.”

“You did it for money?” Aarti asked, fixing him with a disbelieving glare. “When you lie your smell goes from Orange to Lemon.”

Sahdëv frowned and tried to think of oranges. Aarti leaned closer and whispered, “Be an Orange. Don’t be a Lemon.”

There was no school for girls in Chamba but Aarti was smarter than him. Every new moon they projected a film at the village square. The upper castes sat before the screen and Aarti and Sahdëv watched it from behind, sitting close to the screen amidst a crush of children. Aarti mimed the dialogues as she listened to Kiran, the village interpreter, cry out the Pahari translations. Kiran went quiet when Hero-Heroine broke into song, so Sahdëv never understood what they crooned about, it surely was some kind of magic spell because they went suddenly from Dilli, Kanpur, or Hardwar to Foreign. Over time, Aarti’s knowledge of Hindi made her understanding of the story independent of Kiran’s interpretations. So she sang Sahdëv the songs in Pahari when they walked back home after the movie. And Sahdëv realized the songs were not magic spells. Going from India to Foreign? That, Aarti said, was Dream Sequence.

“How lucky,” Sahdëv said bitterly. “No passport, no paisa, go anywhere in the world. How do I get this Dream Sequence?”

Now a train’s whistle tunneled up the hills. In the silence that followed, the children heard Papa’s sheep bleating. Then, the indistinct forms of the beasts appeared, hazy in the twilit wilderness.

The Foreign Men, Aarti once told Sahdëv, make you believe you have a place at their table but they take what they want and leave and after that your world will never feel enough. But Matt will turn out different, Sahdëv told himself.

***

After they waved each other goodbye the next morning, Aarti left for work, the construction site of a shopping mall on the town’s outskirts where, for six hours a day, she carried bricks on her head, and Sahdëv, his back saddled with a schoolbag, went to Durga Inn.

Crows stood still on the inn’s slanting terracotta roofs like they were meditating. Its vermilion walls were doused with morning’s drowsy shadows.

Matt came out at nine as promised. He scanned the street. His gaze, forest-green, swept over but didn’t spot Sahdëv. The boy didn’t wave, didn’t raise a hand. The forest gaze returned, paused, then settled on him. He walked up to Matt.

“Sahdëv,” Matt said slowly. “Correct?”

Sahdëv smiled and held out his hand. He meant to hold Matt’s hand and lead the way. But Matt took his hand, shook it, returned it. What kind of behavior was this? Gora-sahibs are strange, Sahdëv thought. Beautiful, but strange.

They went up the winding road that wove through the market. Sahdëv pointed to the vegetable shop that sold Shame Beef on the sly in black plastic bags to dodge the Hindu activists who prowled the bazaar with lathis, ready to smack anyone who dared think of the holy cow as a meal. “One. Tight. Slap!” they called their campaign, which, frankly, Sahdëv thought, was more melodramatic than all Bollywood Papas put together.

They walked past the convent that separated the fruit bazaar from the brass shops that sold deities of different sizes, Hindu mostly, with some Buddhas sitting in between, benign-faced, cross-legged. Once Sahdëv had stopped before a shop to play a game of Spot the Buddha. The shopkeeper raised his stick and shooed him off. “As if I’m a crow,” Sahdëv had sulked. Aarti explained that untouchables were bad news for those in God Business. “Who’ll buy his gods if they see you there? He’s just doing it for his paapi pet,” she’d said, rubbing her belly. Sahdëv never understood why Bollywood Mas said greedy belly. It’s the human, the Belly Papa or Ma who’s greedy, no? The thought made him feel smart. He was convinced he had a bright future. A future without a paapi pet, Aarti sagely added.

“Your school?” Matt asked, pointing at the convent, bringing his camera to his face.

“No such luck,” Sahdëv said.

“Then not worth a photo,” Matt said, putting his camera away.

Sahdëv blushed. His lessons, he told Matt, were held under a tree, a blackboard pinned to its bark. Its thick canopy kept the monsoon showers at bay. But sometimes raindrops trickled from leaf-tips onto their slates, erasing words they’d just written.

“Take me there someday,” Matt said.

“Tomorrow? Same time.”

Matt looked at Sahdëv’s satchel and stopped short. I skipped school, Sahdëv thought, and Matt caught me—red-handed as grownup people liked to say to Sahdëv: Teacher Madam, Father, Aarti. But Matt said nothing.

He brought his camera to his face frequently. Only rarely did Sahdëv hear the camera’s click. It was late morning by the time they reached the hilltop Chamunda temple. The coconut and garland vendors outside its gate were on siesta breaks, the chorus of their snores audible even with the thatched awnings drawn close. Matt pointed to the sign outside the temple. ‘Only Hindus beyond this point’, it read in English, Hindi, Pahari.

“Those rules for Indians only,” Sahdëv said. “You go in. I wait here.”

“You not Hindu?”

“Not correct kind of Hindu,” Sahdëv said.

Sahdëv’s Hindi was not up to the task of explaining caste. So before Matt questioned him more, he crouched and started to un-strap Matt’s sandals. He wanted to touch the hair that sprouted on Matt’s toes.

“What are you doing?” Matt asked.

“You must take off shoes to go inside.”

“I can do it,” Matt said, bending.

Sahdëv said, “Father says, Good to serve elders.”

“I’m not elder, okay?” Matt said in mock anger.

He ducked as he entered the temple: suspended from the already low ceiling were a hundred brass bells. When he arrived at Chamunda’s statue, he turned to Sahdëv for directions on what to do next. So Sahdëv squatted on his knees, joined his hands, closed his eyes. Chamunda, he told Matt, was the patron deity of children.

Matt produced an odd sound, something like a whimper. Sahdëv opened his eyes and found Matt squatting sideways. His face, visible in profile, was marked with a frown. After a moment he opened his eyes and blinked. His lashes were damp. But he didn’t wipe them.

Then, he stood up a little too swiftly. His head struck a bell and it gonged. He nursed his head and smiled sheepishly at Sahdëv.

***

“You take me to home with you?” Sahdëv asked Matt later that day. They sat on a charpoy placed in the courtyard of Durga Inn. From the corner of his eye, Sahdëv watched the owner, Big Bhola, glower at him from behind the counter. He will wash or burn the charpoy I sat on, Sahdëv thought. His hatred of Dalit children was World Famous in all of Chamba.

“Dublin?” Matt said, placing between Sahdëv and himself the camera. “You can go anywhere. London, America…”

Londonamerica is a place with a long name and no Matt in it, Sahdëv thought. He didn’t want to go to this Londonamerica.

“What will you do with these photographs?” Sahdëv asked, picking the camera up. He brought it to his face and pressed the lens to one eye and screwed the other shut.

“I’ll make a book of them,” Matt said. He turned to face Sahdëv. Sahdëv met Matt’s gaze, but he didn’t meet Sahdëv’s. The camera came in between. He tucked his red hair behind his ear and looked away.

“Will you give the book to me?” Sahdëv asked.

Sahdëv clicked the shutter button. Matt disappeared for a fraction of a second. He turned to Sahdëv, his startled look melting into smile.

“How did you know,” he asked, taking the camera from the boy.

“Monkey see, monkey do,” Sahdëv said.

“I will give you the book,” Matt said, laughing. “But if you want to read it, you shouldn’t cut school.”

It took Sahdëv a moment to understand what the phrase meant. Cut school.

“You promise?” he asked, holding his hand out.

Sahdëv’s hand filled his palm. It will be soft, Sahdëv thought. But it was rough. A crackled texture like his own.

They heard the peal of a conch. Followed by shrill human howls. Minutes later, a thicket of smoke lumbered past the gate of the inn. Cocooned in it were masked figures: four tigers with smoking censers. They chanted Goddess Chamunda’s name.

Matt got to his feet and, camera in tow, trespassed the procession. Sahdëv followed him, but he lost Matt amidst all the gyrating human bodies, all taller than him, their smoking brass censers swaying inches above his head. He pressed his hands to his burning eyes. Someone grabbed his wrist, drew him to the side of the street.

“Stupid,” Aarti scoffed. “If they see you, you know what they’ll do?”

Sahdëv pictured his skin, his odor, something about his flesh betraying his to the godmen whose sentiments would turn from bliss to rage. He had the gall to enter their sacred celebration? One. Tight. Slap!

The procession left in its wake a smoke curtain. From it emerged Matt, holding his camera aloft. His skewed button-down bared his shoulder. It was the most the children had seen of a Foreign Man’s flesh.

Matt squatted before them. Aarti looked away. Sahdëv noticed a gash above his eyebrow. He placed his hands on Matt’s shoulders and leaned forward. He smelled Matt’s perfume: sweet, with a hint of spice. He blew mouthfuls of air, lips inches from the cut, flower-red. He placed two fingers on Matt’s neck and found his pulse. “Now you are okay,” Sahdëv said.

“Thank you, doctor sahib,” Matt said, and at this, a white man calling Sahdëv a sahib, even Aarti laughed. Sahdëv joined his hands above his head and twirled on one foot. Once, twice, three times. And the three of them shared, quite miraculously, another moment of laughter, of giddy lightness.

***

When classes ended the next day, Sahdëv found Matt outside his school fence to which some of his classmates had tethered their sheep, goats, cows.

“How did you know I study here?” Sahdëv asked, his voice beaming with pleasure.

“I have other friends,” Matt said, and winked.

Sahdëv felt his smile weaken. His classmates gathered around Matt and studied him with eyes big and round. Matt placed a hand on Sahdëv’s shoulder.

“My best friend,” Matt said to them, and their eyes turned on Sahdëv, filled with respect: thick as aloo-paratha, cool as ice-goli.

***

The days started to get colder as the week came to a close. Aarti stopped warning Sahdëv about Foreign Men but he knew she wasn’t pleased about all the time he spent with Matt. So he told her every night what Matt and he did during the afternoon. He wanted to provoke her out of her silences. If she doesn’t start scolding me again she will leave me, Sahdëv told himself. That was what happened to Ma. First she stopped yelling at him, then she slept for days, then she went away.

“I told him about Ma,” Sahdëv said one night. “He hugged me. He smells nice.”

Sahdëv sensed Aarti’s body go tense. “What did you say?”

“What happened to her.”

“Like you know anything.”

“I do.”

“Because I told you. That’s not even half the story.”

“Not everything is about you.”

Aarti went quiet. Then she said, “It’s not your story to give away to strangers.”

They lay with their backs to each other. Sahdëv heard her sniff.

“He’s not a stranger,” Sahdëv said. “He comes to pick me up at school.”

“So you have a brother now. Congratulations.”

“Not brother,” Sahdëv snapped. ‘Husband,’ he wanted to say. But it wasn’t a fact. He tried ‘boyfriend’. But his tongue thickened and refused the word as though it was foul-tasting fruit. So he settled for ‘friend’. “He’s my friend,” Sahdëv said. “He calls me friend.”

A moment later, he turned and leaned over Aarti to see her reaction. She was fast asleep, her face moonlit and expressionless.

***

It was Aarti’s birthday. She pulled a stool up to the cupboard, climbed up, and brought down Ma’s shawl. She bundled it around her shoulders and lowered her head. Sahdëv kissed her forehead.

“Let’s share Ma,” she said, holding a hand out. From her forearm, the shawl drooped like a wing.

Aarti crouched to match Sahdëv’s height and rearranged the shawl across their joined shoulders: his left, her right. Giggles spilled from their mouths as they scrambled out the hut’s damp darkness and into Chamba’s cold blue morning.

They ran through the vegetable bazaar, shoulder to neck. “Slow down,” Sahdëv said, but Aarti didn’t. He struggled to keep pace. They bolted down the slippery winter roads that overlooked Sago Lake. It was sheeted in mist. To their left was a park. In it, children played. In between the legs of the children who ran about, playing Chase, Sahdëv discerned the figure of a man who sat next to a boy, his pale hand perched on the boy’s shoulder, the wind mussing his hair: shadowed, red.

Sahdëv’s feet went unsteady. “Matt?” The word left his mouth—clear, loud. He stopped short abruptly. The shawl, tangled around the bodies of the siblings who were separated by a few inches, tugged at her, then at him. They wobbled on the ice-slick road, lost footing, and went tumbling down the slope.

Aarti looped an arm around a boulder they went skidding past. Her other hand reached for but missed Sahdëv’s wrist.

In the thick of winter, Sago Lake was a fat slab of ice. When Sahdëv went spinning across its surface it was the beginning of the season. To the sound of cracking glass nerve lines formed on thin ice, grew wider, gave way.

Black water bubbled to the surface. First Sahdëv’s legs, then his torso went underwater. The bank sank out of view.

The lake’s cold water drenched him, burned him, left him lightheaded. Deep belching sounds clogged his ears. His screams became blue bubbles that exploded above his head. A shoal of yellow fish swam past, eying him with suspicious round eyes.

Then, he heard a liquid explosion, the guttural sound that water makes when it swallows objects. Matt is here to save me, Sahdëv thought.

Aarti tumbled down the lake, surrounded by a cone of urgent bubbles, one leg stretched and taut, the other bent at the knee, her hair scattered above her head. Sahdëv met her gaze across a blue shiver. She sank to the lakebed. Unsettled sediment billowed up. The water darkened then paled. The lake was inside Sahdëv with all its old taste.

Aarti shot up, fighting against the weight of the water. She bridged the distance between her and her brother. She grabbed Sahdëv. He gasped. She held him in place over her shoulder with a hand looped around his waist. She started to swim upward.

The distance between them and the surface seemed interminable. But at some point, their heads did rise noisily out of the lake. Water dripped hurriedly from Sahdëv’s hair, onto the lake’s thinly frozen surface. His body bobbed on Aarti ‘s shoulder. All around them the sound of cracking ice.

There came, at last, the solidness of earth under Aarti’s feet. She laid him down and took off his clothes and pumped his chest. Water sprang from his mouth, leaving an aftertaste of mould. She slid a hand under his neck, made him sit up, scrubbed his palms. His shoulders throbbed, his limbs ached. He thought of his bed, of warmth. Of Matt. Why hadn’t he come to my rescue? Sahdëv wondered. Didn’t he see? He turned to the park, a little uphill. He didn’t see Matt anymore. But that hair was unmistakably his. The red of sunsets and betelnut juice.

Aarti was shivering. She couldn’t open her clothes because she was a girl. Someone passed on their shawl to them. Aarti wrapped it around Sahdëv and nestled him against her body.

***

Matt left Chamba two weeks after his arrival. On the eve of his departure, Sahdëv and he went to the Chamunda temple with a marigold garland. Matt wore a jacket and a neck warmer, Sahdëv a sweater that belonged to Baba. The air had gotten crisper, the wind’s bite sharper.

“Are you feeling better now, little man?” Matt asked, and Sahdëv nodded.

Sahdëv had told Matt about the accident. It was impossible to tell from his expression if he had in fact seen Sahdëv sinking. “I’m glad you’re safe,” was all he’d said, a response that left Sahdëv’s doubt intact.

Before they entered the temple, Matt held the garland close to his face and moved his lips inaudibly. The petals moved under the weight of his breath. Then, he went in, wrapped it, per the custom, around one of the bells above his head.

“What you asked Child Goddess for?” Sahdëv asked from the entrance.

“John,” he said. He gulped, he spoke a long English sentence, he closed his eyes and stood still for a long time.

As they walked back home, Sahdëv pressed a slip of paper into Matt’s hands.

“My address,” Sahdëv said.

“I’ll write to you,” Matt said, secured the paper in his wallet.

“I’ll read it, because I won’t cut school,” Sahdëv said.

Matt showed Sahdëv his thumb, his other fingers pressed to his palm. An almost-fist: what did that mean?

The town center, a faint glimmer from up the hill, grew brighter as they approached it. A clinking sound rose from a dustbin. Child-sized shadows pottered around it. A dog barked. An old Bollywood song played from someone’s house. Some men walked past them, punching each other’s arms rowdily, calling each other names.

“Maybe I’ll come to Dublin on a Dream Sequence and meet you,” Sahdëv said.

Matt laughed and placed his hand on the side of Sahdëv’s head and drew him closer and pinched his chin. It felt like a punctuation to the ten days that they spent together; it’s time to go, the gesture—its unexpected intimacy—said.

***

After dinner that night Aarti washed the vessels and spread out their straw beds and put the lantern out. They lay down. The night was alive with peepers. Sahdëv didn’t know the name of the train that took Matt away, but he knew the time, and when the time came, and he heard a far-off steam engine whistle, the heaviness in his eyes seemed foreign, beyond the margin of sleeplessness. He bit into a rag to muffle the sound he made.

But Aarti woke up. She raised his head, pressed it to her shoulder. She laced her fingers over the nape of his neck.

When his throat was emptied of its lump he brought Aarti’s hand to his forehead. He asked her to see if he was hot. But words were marbles in his mouth: they rattled, they produced meaningless sounds. In the blue daylight, she slowly laid him back down. Outside, their sheep started to shuffle and bleat.

***

The lake’s surface became a slab of ice, thick as a tombstone. Then the seasons changed again—icicles slow-burned by sunshine; entire banks of snow then turning liquid, producing music more beautiful than birdsong. Every day, the postman cycled past their house. Every day there was no letter from Matt.

School closed for summer. Sahdëv came second in his class. His teacher gave him a Letter of Appreciation. He took it to Lake Sago. Its waters reflected the blue sky and the cumulus clouds that stood up there, placid as Father’s sheep.

“What gift do you want?” Aarti asked, looking at the Letter of Appreciation, unable to read it, her face swelling with pride.

“Teach me how to swim,” Sahdëv asked.

And she did. Then, one day, he spent hours in the lake, occasionally rearing his head to gulp some air before returning to the water’s womb. As if he was searching for something but couldn’t find it.

It was dark by the time he gave up and came out and sat by the bank, breathless, his fists clenched.

At some point that night, Aarti came and sat by his side. I told you to stay away from the Foreign Man, she didn’t say. She threw Mother’s shawl around his shoulders. The warmth made Sahdëv realize how cold he was.

“The moon is swimming across the sky,” he said, rocking back and forth.

Aarti said, “It’s the clouds. Clouds swimming across the moon.”

***

The Sanam Bewafa milestone may have lied, but Sahdëv did find himself in Dilli twelve years after he left Chamba. His education and an English Speaking Course landed him a job at call center where he worked from midnight to nine in the morning, receiving calls from American customers, introducing himself with the name he had been assigned, Callum Flynn. “An American name makes Americans feel more comfortable talking to you,” the manager had explained and Sahdëv responded with the International Standard Nod because the call center didn’t care about his caste, nor did its employees.

It was in Delhi that Sahdëv’s paths intersected once more with Matt’s. Two years after his arrival. The Ghost That Shaped the Skin. By Matt Buckley. The poster for his book launch was in the window of Landmark Bookshop located in the heart of Delhi, along with a date and time for the event and the name of the publisher.

Sahdëv pressed a hand to the glass. His fingers left an oily smudge. With the cuff of his shirt he scrubbed it clean. He knew he hadn’t forgotten Matt, but only now did he realized that time had leeched his longing to meet him.

***

On the evening of the book’s launch there was at Landmark a decent crowd, some gathered around one table piled with Matt’s books, other chatting around a table stacked with glasses of wine white and red, cheese blue and Swiss, and crackers plain and salted, some. A screen, lit blue, fluttered whenever someone opened the door. The few chairs that were there were all occupied. Sahdëv stood to the back next to a man who wore a backpack.

Then, Matt got up from a chair up front and walked up to the lectern. Nobody introduced him. Sahdëv gulped. They’d shared a room—for how long? Matt cleared his throat and leaned towards the mic. The light above his head cast a shadow on his face.

“I’m what you may call a hobby photographer,” Matt said. “My pictures raked in no dough, which, by the way, I made sorting Christmas parcels, working odd hours at the dock.”

It was one of those stories, Sahdëv could tell, that Matt liked to tell.

The lights in the room dimmed as Matt continued, “So I’m pleased to release a book of my photographs. Who would’ve thought—the oddball divorcé, coal-cracker’s son.”

The audience guffawed. Sahdëv didn’t know what provoked that response. His English Speaking Course hadn’t prepared him for this moment.

The blue on the screen turned black. Matt said, “The Times called the photos, here I quote, ‘A statement made by one postcolonial child on postcolonial children of another country’.”

On the screen, Ireland’s flag appeared next to India’s, and when placed one next to the other, Sahdëv thought, his homeland’s flag looked like Matt’s country’s flag horizontally-oriented. The screen darkened again and a dedication appeared.

“For little John. I’ve known you so few years. I’ve known you a lifetime.”

There appeared on the screen an assortment of Matt’s monochromes shot in India, each preceded by a place name. Silchar. Rangpo. Chanderi. Then, Chamba. Children with fruit baskets. An infant held at a stone deity’s foot. A blunder of schoolboys squatting on the ground, their eyes fixed to slates, a chalk between their fingers, Sahdëv saw himself in that picture. His Dirty Knee Business captured forever in Matt’s photograph.

“The next few images might be disturbing,” Matt warned from someplace unseen.

Aarti with her hands thrown out, her teeth bared. At first it seemed like she was having a good laugh as she took a dip. Until one noticed her eyebrows wound tight, and all around her, the frozen expanse of Sago Lake, interrupted by a circle of blackness that was swallowing her.

A close-up of her face appeared next. Grainy. Her terror apparent.

In the next image, a black Sago hole bubbled, its water rippled, as Aarti’s head tore its dark surface. She lumbered towards the bank, Sahdëv’s body draped over her shoulder, his legs slapping her chest, his head behind her, his hands swinging in and out of view, one photo to the next, his fists clenched.

In the final few images, Sahdëv sat crouched and naked, his boy-penis shriveled like a fruit on the verge of rot.

The screen faded into a blackness. The silence in the room felt saturated with something else. The lights came back on but were kept dim.

“Why take a picture instead of trying to help?” someone asked. Her voice trilled with hatred.

“Because photographers are witnesses,” Matt said. “When a wildlife photographer sees a lion get a deer he doesn’t interrupt the hunt. A war photographer doesn’t stop the soldier who kicks an unarmed civilian lying on the ground.”

“Something’s at stake in war, in wildlife. What’s at stake here—other than the poor drowning boy?”

“A social ecosystem. How would the townspeople behave if I was absent, or present like a ghost? I wanted to watch unseen. Like a ghost.”

“And what a social ecosystem,” someone else said, “Look at the brave girl rise to the occasion.”

“Exactly,” Matt said, and applause followed.

Sahdëv decided to call Aarti and tell her that a room full of strangers clapped for her bravery. It was tricky to reach her. He had to call the phone shared by all the residents of her chawl. If he tried early, when her daughter was at school, the phone was perpetually engaged, but if he called late, after his niece was asleep, the watchman scolded him, the ringing wakes the children up, he’d say and hang up instead of setting the phone aside and going to fetch her.

People lined up to have their books signed. Sahdëv stood at the end and watched himself make his way to the front. The back of the book had a picture of Matt in side profile: his head lowered, the sky behind him blue. Was that the picture that Sahdëv took?

He had imagined many versions of his reunion with Matt. In one he received instant recognition despite the years that passed and the changes they wrought. In one Matt bought him a pizza at Dominos.

When it was Sahdëv’s turn, he held his book out. Taking it, Matt asked, “Your name?”

“Callum.”

“Where you from?”

“It’s for my friend. He’s a hobby photographer—like you.”

“Where you from, though?”

“Vizag—it’s a coastal town in Southern India,” Sahdëv lied.

“Never been down south. What’s it like?”

“You know. More of the same. Just, hotter days, smaller hills.”

Matt smiled. On his face rose a tide of wrinkles that aged his allure like good wine. He signed the book then held it out.

Sahdëv took it, strode out the door and leaned against the brick-wall. He remembered to breathe. It was drizzling and the air smelled of wet roads and the sound of traffic. Sahdëv opened the book and looked at the photograph in which, before his eyes, he drowned again. A droplet fell on the page, forming a damp, wrinkled circle. The drizzle became a downpour. Sahdëv shut the book and tucked it inside his coat and popped his umbrella open but didn’t leave. Many minutes passed.

“Hey,” someone said.

Sahdëv tilted the umbrella back. That someone was Matt.

“Where are you going?” Matt asked.

“You?”

“Need to get the metro back to my hotel,” Matt said, ducking under Sahdëv’s umbrella. Matt shifted slightly and they started to walk. Sahdëv breathed hard and his shoulder rose and fell against Matt’s arm. Matt was taller than him. They had never spoken in English before. Sahdëv responded to Matt’s questions with more fabrications: what he did for a living (Python programmer), how many siblings he had (two, a sister, a brother). Good thing he wore his citrus cologne, Sahdëv thought. The chemical nature of its fragrance will make it impossible to tell if he smelled of oranges or lemons.

“Who’s John?” Sahdëv asked.

“My son,” Matt replied. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.”

“If he was here today he’d be your age.”

It took Sahdëv a moment to realize the fact contained in the statement.

“I’m sorry,” Sahdëv said. “What happened?”

“You should come to Dublin someday,” Matt said. “You might like it.”

“My brother recommends I go to Londonamerica,” Sahdëv said.

“Where’s he?”

“Mumbai,” Sahdëv said. “He doesn’t want me around him—I guess?”

Matt laughed. “I’m going there—later this month, on the 31st of March, actually,” he said. “Have a little book event at Strand. Ask him to pop by?”

“He didn’t get an education,” Sahdëv said. “I got one and didn’t cut school.”

Matt gave a knowing nod, as if between his entry into and egress from the lives of his subjects, the anecdotes that he’d gathered along with staged and candid snapshots amounted to an understanding of the lives he never looked back at.

“Why India?” Sahdëv asked.

Matt turned and looked at him, the green of his eyes bright even in the dimly-lit street.

“My marriage didn’t survive after John,” Matt said. “I had to get away. Why India specifically? I don’t know. But in the end I choose this place and kept coming back.”

Sahdëv knew why: he wanted to photograph children who bore no resemblance to John. His choice-making process, that he seemed to have forgotten, could’ve taken him to Bangladesh, or Kenya, but they brought him instead to India—into Sahdëv’s life.

“Will you buy yourself a fancy house with your book money?” Sahdëv asked.

Sahdëv expected Matt to say something in the vein of wanting to donate the money to the places he where his photos were set. He felt a tide of resentment rise within him, prepared to meet that response, prepared to meet the glow that he imagined on Matt’s face at the notion of giving back.

Matt shook his head. “If the book makes any money at all, and that’s a big if, I’ll get new lenses for my camera instead.”

Sahdëv felt grateful for that response. Its transparency allowed Matt his humanity that Sahdëv wanted him to have. So the boy that he was doesn’t feel like a complete fool.

Around their bodies it rained. Wind lashed them with water. Matt shook his head. Droplets flew off his red hair, onto Sahdëv’s mouth.

At the station they went up a flight of stairs. Sahdëv didn’t lower his umbrella, Matt didn’t ask him to. Their bodies continued to remain bound by the necessity of space.

They waited on the platform. When the train pulled in, Matt gave Sahdëv a hug. One of Sahdëv’s hands held the umbrella above their heads, the other hung stiffly by his side.

“Thank you,” Matt said, stepping out from under the umbrella. “Say hello to Callum. Beautiful name, by the way.”

The metro doors opened and Matt stepped in. Sahdëv put his umbrella down. The tube’s glass doors closed. Matt met his gaze and smiled. Sahdëv pressed two fingers to his neck, he joined his hands above his head and twirled on one foot. Once, twice, three times. First a mild confusion, then an urgency filled Matt’s face. He pressed a palm to the glass door. The train whisked him away in a blur of lights and noise.

Callum’s waiting for me, I should go, Sahdëv thought. He turned and strode up down the station’s stairs.

 

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