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For Femi Martin.
With his left hand wrapped tightly around the trunk, and both feet wedged firmly into crevices in the tree’s gnarled bark, Raju stretched up towards the hive. The buzzing swelled loudly in his ears, a droning, sliding wall of sound made by a thousand tiny sitar players in their black and yellow gowns. It was March, the start of the summer, and weeks of hot sun had made the bees slow and lazy; but however slowly they moved, he could still get into trouble perched up here. They might not have the stings of their angry cousins, but if a big swarm mobbed him his grip would not be sure, and a fall from this far above the ground could break a bone—or worse.
In his right hand, the homemade net—a wire coat hanger fashioned into a loop and long handle, with a leg from an old pair of tights stretched over the end—quivered as the long rod amplified the movements of his bony arm. In the long tail of the net, five of the fat, hairy bodies already hummed wearily. He could capture five more with two more passes, and when that happened he would climb down again, his work for the day done. Squinting his eyes against the sun, he breathed in, steadied himself, and swept his arm in another wide arc above his head.
Of all the young boys in the village, Raju was the best bee catcher. Maybe it was luck; maybe it was because his father, grandfather and who knows how many fathers before him had been fishermen; but at ten years old he was already skilled with a net in his hand, fishing for the many brightly coloured insects that swam in the air. His prize possession was a huge blue-black butterfly, caught one day in the hills many miles from his home. Now it was sealed away, long dead, in a glass pickle jar on top of the kitchen shelf, its dark wings spread wider than his hand, glinting like the sea.
Butterflies he caught out of love and fascination, but with bees, it was business. At least once every week, he would catch his quota of ten bees, sometimes even more, and take them back to his house. There he would walk through the living room—which was also the dining room, the bedroom, and occasionally the bathroom—into the tiny kitchen, where he would tease them carefully out of the net, and into a tin which had once held the masala sweets his father liked so much.
The next day, he would take his tin of masala bees with him to the dusty schoolyard, and sell them to the other children for two rupees each, or ten rupees for the whole tin, discount price. When his day’s trading was done, half of the money he would spend on sweets at the chai stall, bought from grizzled old Praseethan who had only three teeth. The other half of the money he would save in the carved wooden box his grandfather had given him. One day, he would have enough money to move to the city, where he would open up a shop selling rare exotic birds, or maybe dogs.
* * *
It was a bright, blue-skyed morning as Raju set out to walk to school from his house at the edge of the village. At every step he took, the tin of masala bees bumped against his back from inside the satchel bag he wore, and since by this time the bees had grown tired and stopped their sitar song, he hummed a tune to himself to compensate. Ahead of him, half a mile along the straight, red dirt track, he could see the village temple, crowned by figures of dancing gods in faded pastel colours. Beyond it, trees and shrubs thinned out before giving way to the banks of a small lake, around which the first villagers had chosen to settle so very long ago.
On the patch of ground between temple and lake, Raju saw that a small crowd had gathered. With their spindly brown legs protruding from beneath their dhotis, and button-up shirts hanging loosely from their sharp shoulder blades, the men of the village reminded him of the storks that came to wade in the lake, stepping delicately through the shallows in the hunt for small fry. Like birds, the men of the village were light boned people, whose hands cut through the air gracefully, like wings, when they spoke. But as he drew closer, Raju saw a short, pot-bellied figure in the midst of the storks: it was Mr Fernandes, his wide mouth grinning like a toad.
Mr Fernandes was not from the village, nor did he live there, but his family owned most of the land it was built on. From time to time, he would drive his big, new model car out of the gates of his house and come to the village, to collect rent from the farmers, flash his gold watch in the sun and tell long stories about his success. When he had run out of stories he would talk of the faults of the village men, laughing at their threadbare shirts and mocking their ignorance, both of which he attributed to laziness and lack of drive. His visits, infrequent though they were, were always a trial for the villagers; but since they were tenants and he the landlord, they had no choice but to endure his obnoxious manners with good grace.
From 20 feet away, Raju could read the men’s pursed lips and downcast eyes, and he felt a pinch of sadness that these strong, wiry men should be so meek. Leaning back casually against the bonnet of his white Maruti with a circle gathered around him, it seemed that Mr Fernandes was already holding court.
“…and of course, timing is the key. Do you think I could have got to where I am without keen sense of timing? Impossible. Because you see, for a businessman, time is money.” He stopped to point a finger around the circle accusingly. “And so if it happens that any man dares to turn up to my factory just one minute late, the next day he will not be returning to work. You will not find me operating as you people here, where you can wake when you please, work as you please, sleep in the afternoon if you please. In the city, a worker must know how to keep time.”
He paused. There was a silence, broken only by a loud “Pwiit” as Saravanan, brother of Praseethan the chai stall owner, spat a jet of red paan juice onto the floor. Mr Fernandes looked at him disapprovingly, and went on:
“I have told you before, that through strong timing and hard work did I reach to where I am. Maybe for you people it is enough to work an hour here, an hour there. For simple men maybe, it is no problem to work little, earn a few hundred rupees in a week, no more. Simple men with simple tastes—and anyway, with more rupees, what else would you spend it on, in this grubby place? Probably you wouldn’t know what to do.” He tapped the bonnet beneath him, and laughed heartily. “Perhaps save up to buy a car?”
On the right of the circle, Saravanan turned his head to spit, but as he did so the man next to him jostled his shoulder. “Pwiit”—the red stream arced out in front of him and hit with a tinny splat against the wheel of Mr Fernandes’ Maruti, leaving a flecked red line that ran from the arch through the centre of the shiny hubcap, as if it had been slashed bloodily in two.
Mr Fernandes, who had already opened his mouth to begin again, froze for a second. He looked down at the wheel, then up at the spitter. It almost seemed like he might stay like that, stuck in position, glaring at him silently, until night fell. Suddenly, there was an explosion of noise:
“Haaaaaiiii!” shouted Mr Fernandes, raising both hands in front of him as if appealing to an umpire, his chubby arms rippling in the sun. “HOW DARE YOU?! You have soiled my vehicle! Soiled it with your dirty spittle! I WILL NOT TOLERATE IT!”
Stepping forward, the landlord grabbed Saravanan by the collar of his shirt. By this time, Raju had walked up to the edge of the circle to see what would happen, and he watched as Mr Fernandes pulled the paan chewer roughly towards the car.
“You must clean it up AT ONCE!”
Saravanan glanced around the circle. The other men shuffled uncomfortably on their feet, without meeting his eyes. Some muttered under their breaths. The landlord was a vain, petty man, such a very silly man to make a fuss about the tyre of his car—but what could they do? Who were they to stand up to a powerful man from the city, a man to whom they paid their rent, no less? Though they might object, it was clear that not one of them was about to say so. In the centre of the circle, Saravanan hung his head.
Slowly, the thin man squatted down on the floor, took a corner of his yellow dhoti, and began to rub at the wheel. The sticky red mess came off the metal easily enough, but left a dark stain on the yellow fabric. When he had rubbed off all of the paan spit he stood up again. He said nothing, but Raju could see that his fists were clenched, and jaw trembling slightly. The sadness Raju had felt before swelled into anger, prickling hot inside his chest.
Having exercised his power, Mr Fernandes seemed satisfied. He glanced down at his watch, then looked around the circle of men, who returned his gaze stonily. For the first time he noticed Raju.
“Do you know who I am, boy?”
Raju rocked his head from side to side, a yes. Mr Fernandes smiled.
“Good. Remember what you are hearing me say, and maybe you will grow to be smarter than these simple men. Maybe you will grow to be more like me.”
Raju rocked his head again. As if stretching, he shifted his weight back onto his heels, reached an arm behind him into his satchel bag, and took out the metal tin. Bringing his arm back around, he settled it into position in front of his small chest, and smiled back at Mr Fernandes. Catching sight of it, the landlord dropped a hand down to his bulging stomach, patting it absent-mindedly.
“And what’s this? A tin of masala sweets…ah, they are my most favourite.” He thought for a moment, and quietly added, “You know, I have a long drive back to the city. They would make a most delicious treat to take with me on the journey…”
He trailed off, staring lasciviously at the metal box. Without saying a word, Raju brought the old sweet tin out in front of him, holding it with both hands. He pushed it gently forward, offering it into Mr Fernandes’ well-cushioned palms.
“Such a smart, well-mannered boy. I will be sure to remember you. And now, I have no more time to waste here, my business cannot run on its own. Tomorrow I will return to collect from those I have not seen.”
With that, he opened the door of his shiny white car, squeezed his bulk into the driver’s seat, switched the engine on, and gestured testily at the men to step away.
* * *
Hours later, when the police arrived from the city, the village men would report that they had watched Mr Fernandes drive about half way around the lake, before he appeared to do a strange dance inside the car: body jerking in his seat, hands flapping around his face, head shaking crazily from side to side. When the car had veered off the road into the water, they had waded in to help, of course. But they were so surprised by the strange nature of the event that it had taken them rather a long while to react, a delay which had been quite unfortunate for their poor landlord.
Such a shame about Mr Fernandes, but, as Saravanan explained to the moustachioed officer, what else could they have done? They were such simple men, after all.