Winner of the 2022 Lewis Edwards Memorial Prize
Armaan Verma is a student of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He published his first book, ‘Glorious Greeks: Meet the Gods’, when he was eleven. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines like The Quint, HIMAL Southasian, and The Skinny, and he intends to write frantically for the rest of his life.
Connect with Armaan
Armaan says: This story was written based on multiple visits to southern India, where the air is hot and tempers can sometimes be hotter. It reflects the fact that right and wrong is twisted, muddy, and difficult to pin down. And only when placed in a foreign land does the foreigner understand this in its entirety. Place is everything. But it is also nothing.
Hills of Basalt
And the thing was small. Made soft by the water, and its arms and legs wrought like the manyhanded idol of a god.
The sahib was new was all he was ever told.
He wore khaki shirts and safety boots. The dustyhaired, slipperfooted children stopped to gape at his Jeep when it cruised by. The shopkeepers watched the sahib shop, smiled when he greeted them, and took no offense when he argued about prices. He knew that the sahib was not like other sahibs; not fat, for one thing, did not crinkle his nose in disgust. Still, the man stuck out like a fly in butter in these sweaty, basalt hills of the south. But Maan Roop was told, in the liquor shop and the tea shop and the butcher and the temple: the sahib was new, and so it was okay.
He lurched forward, tea spilling. That could be cleaned later. The sun would dip and the soil would burn red and the lights would go out on the metal mug still fallen and Maan Roop would remember in his sleep that he had forgotten to clean the damn tea and he would stumble out blind to do it. But for now, Sunny was calling him. And after the sahib, the madam sahib, and their two rottweilers, it was to Sunny that Maan Roop answered first.
I am here.
Sunny was old. But not that old.
He often feigned his senses were dulled. Sunny was tall for the south, with army-style trimmed grey hair turning white, a thick moustache, forearms that bulged when he raised them, and a smile that seduced the rottweilers but kept human beings at bay. His shirts were all faded to the same colour and his lungi never reached beneath his knees. Had been on the farm some months longer than Maan Roop, who was but a month in. Story was that Sunny had caught wind of a new sahib in the hills with a new rubber farm and he had accosted him and told him he would manage it all for free (he was retired, after all) and the sahib had taken him on goodwill and now every rubber sheet, every bucket, every brick that moved across this plot of land was moved on the word of Sunny D’Souza.
Sunny lifted a wizened finger east. Tell those guys they can move that monster onto our land if they want.
Our land. Maan Roop flung his head where Sunny pointed and saw that there was a borewell being drilled on the farm adjacent. Nine men and a carrier truck, bearing poles and compressors and drills. But not nine. Maan Roop noticed the tenth. A boy, more like. Ten? Eleven. Apprenticing with an uncle, he supposed. Bony and dark and jumpy, waiting to glimpse the water when it roiled and routed out of the earth.
Sunny sir, the sahib has said they should not. They are foreigners doing work on someone else’s land.
Sunny’s halfsmile never faded, even in command. I am telling you to tell them.
Paled Maan Roop. He feared what would become of this. Sunny’s manhood ended where the sahib’s began. When Maan Roop was first hired, it was Sunny who had taken him out for dinner and convinced him that he was overworked. When the rubber tappers had raised hell over their wages, it was Sunny who had agreed with them over the sahib. He had nothing against Sunny, but—
And if they want chai, give it to them.
Maan Roop’s shoulders drooped. But why are we helping them?
People will talk. Saying that the sahib is an unhelpful wretch.
Maan Roop felt a stirring in his balls. But he dared not scratch them before Sunny.
The rubber farm was not enormous; some twenty acres? A comfortable ten minutes from the local river that flooded in the monsoon. He walked along the fenced boundary, along which ran a gaping gash of a ditch, where coconuts dropped in the mornings and wild boar wandered squealing in the night, making the dogs sniff and roar and wrench their chains.
When he reached the farm gate, he saw the carrier truck on the neighbouring farm wedged uncomfortably between some palm trees. The drillers stood around a small hole in the ground, into which the carrier ceaselessly pumped compressed air, and all the while torrents of mud came gushing out of the earth and onto the drillers, and Maan Roop wondered if it had been oil how they might have danced and bathed and drank in it. Instead, they stood still, encased in mud-spew from head to toe. He hailed them and when all turned their heads he told them that they may use the sahib’s land for their carrier so that it may rest easy, away from trees.
They said nothing. One of them, mudded and gaunt, looked at him through hollowed eyeholes and nodded. He heard them talk in their strange tongue and guessed they were not of the north, nor of the south; perhaps somewhere in the middle. One of them drove the carrier onto the farm, a steaming, belching beast too big for these parts.
He remembered what the sahib had said. Tomorrow, they’ll drill a borewell nearby. Don’t let them onto our land. When he turned to check on the dogs, he saw the madam sahib on the porch of the house, some fifty paces from the gate, and she watched him dispassionately. He minded her little, and she minded him less. She kept Maan Roop mainly for the dogs. So that he may feed them and clean them and walk them when she and the sahib went away. Abroad, they had told him, where they lived some months of the year. Why they returned every time after leaving was beyond him.
The madam sahib watched him. Gestured for him to come. He jogged and stood beneath the porch, squinting up at her.
What’s happening there?
Madam, they’re drilling for water. The people next door must need it for their crops.
I can see that. But why is that truck on our land?
A swallow. A shifting of feet. Say something, you fool, or she’ll gut y—
Madam, Sunny sir has allowed it.
I see. Carry on.
He thought of his job, and how long he would keep it. He thought of the sahib, and of the madam sahib, and of himself, and the absurdity of three northerners sweating for a bit of rubber. He thought of home—Shilpa, and how he had married her because she was the prettiest bride he would find, and how she had married him because the most hard-working boys had already left the village. He felt that he should have slept with her more, perhaps. It would have helped. Made her feel loved. He thought of his old, bent mother, and her elation at his securing a job, and a job of service at that, for she still maintained that he like his father was fit for servitude and little else.
But he was happy to be here. The sahib paid almost naively well, like he was throwing his money away. And little manual work Maan Roop had, except for wresting scrap out of a rottweiler’s mouth. His mother had often told her hideous friends that he excelled at thinking, at sitting for hours when there was work to be done and you could push him off his feet and he would lie there, thinking, without the spine to stand himself up. She had said the same to him over the phone when she had learnt that a tailor’s son was fucking Shilpa. And that he had done nothing to stop it.
He felt a pull in his stomach. He looked back—the dogs were chained to one of the pillars of the porch. A male and a female, snouts larger than his hand, puffing hellish hot breath in their sleep. They had learnt to love him, and perhaps they would one day learn to obey him. Sitting next to them in the shade was old Sunny staring back at him. He had the look of a man who had spotted an idiot in his natural habitat. An hour later, he had still not moved. The madam sahib came out, frowning to see the dogs consorting with Sunny, and unchained them to let them inside the house. And yet Sunny did not move.
You are young, Maan Roop, the sahib had told him one evening long past. I have been everywhere. Everywhere. I want my family to live well. I’ll pay anything for it. Maan Roop had nodded vigorously and had thought of the tailor’s son and whether he would pay for Shilpa’s blouses. But I want them to live here, in our own country. On our own land. All this rubber shit is an excuse. Farming is good fun, sure, but I’m here because I want to be. Here. Back.
Maan Roop had stood, blinking. It had been dark outside and he had imagined tears rolling down the sahib’s face. Maan Roop had asked, Where are your children, sir? And the sahib had concluded, looking out into the night, There’s a son studying abroad. But he’ll be back. Maan Roop thought of when he would go back, when the work was done, the wages paid. And he had thought then of Shilpa trembling in ecstasy as he slowly turned the handle on his own door.
The day dallied. The big house cleaned, the dogs fed, walked, played with. Tears of latex rolled down the rubber trees into black cups. Between shifts, the drillers hazarded their curiosity with him in their broken, staccato Hindi as he served them chai. The names of all the villages nearby. Who was this sahib. Why was he tapping rubber. Abroad? What was his caste. Will he need a borewell on his farm. Where is the river so that we may bathe. The boy among them shook the mud off his back like a dog and ran up to Maan Roop, who squatted beside the carrier truck, sipping his own tea.
Is there a liquor shop nearby? The boy spoke the best Hindi.
Maan Roop weighed him. Why?
My father is asking. He will be thirsty once the work is done.
A pause. Some of the drillers watched him. Thirsty men. Maan Roop answered, it’s down the road on the second left turn. It’s called Prakhar Wines.
A faint sun threw pink up to the clouds as if it were Holi somewhere on the horizon. Pink and then red, like the blood of beasts that died for nothing. Night rose, and the stars crumbled. Sunny had disappeared. When the water ceased to gush out of the soil, they plugged it. The carrier truck rumbled off, and nine men and one boy drifted into the night after having raised water out of the infinite.
Yes, madam, coming. He began to jog.
I called your name four times.
The sahib is home. He wants to speak to you.
Maan Roop slowed. Perhaps he would be going back sooner than he had expected. He entered the massive house, and the light burnt his eyes. The sahib, seated on a sofa, asked Maan Roop to explain his insubordination, and he recounted Sunny’s order and his own meek protest. The sahib was silent for a time.
Did the drillers talk to you?
Only asked questions, sir. What village is this. Who is the sahib. Where is the liquor store.
The liquor store?
And you told them?
Yes sir. They said they would be thirsty.
They are not from here, you idiot.
Maan Roop made no reply. Dismissed. The madam sahib read a book under the ceiling fan, the prowling dogs sniffed the corners, and the sahib remained glued to his phone at the kitchen table, eyebrows furrowed. As Maan Roop retired to his room after cooking a splendid dinner, he was flung back into the world of work by the sahib’s call.
Come, the sahib grunted.
Outside, halfsmiling Sunny’s hands rested on his hips. He was standing at the farm gate. The sahib had called him over. Gestured for him to come in, and the two met in the middle, in the quiet of the night. Two cocks in battle. Chests puffed up and necks craned back.
They talked for a while, Maan Roop behind them. Looked savagely composed. Sunny tilted his head to glance at Maan Roop, who instantly looked away. Sunny’s stance seemed to loosen the more he spoke, while the sahib’s stiffened. The sahib’s hands also rested on his hips. Every word was measured. Spoken to a beat that only he could count. He would never let a tailor’s son near the madam sahib, Maan Roop knew. Maybe because he hadn’t—Shilpa was—Yes, maybe—
And if something were to happen? The sahib’s voice was level, calm.
What could happen, sir? Sunny’s back was straight but his shoulders relaxed.
Sunny, we don’t know these people. I don’t know anyone here. They could steal, they could get high, they could destroy the plants. How do I know? You want any old fucker to walk up and down my farm like he owns it?
Sunny sighed. You are new, sir. I don’t expect you to understand.
Anyway, that’s not why I called you.
You contradicted what I said to Maan Roop
Just did what I thought best, sir. Anyway, the villagers are beginning to talk—that things are becoming strange since the sahib moved here. Everything was peaceful before.
Your services are no longer required.
A pause. Sunny’s words became knotted. Sir, you are new. People here look up to me, don’t—
That’s all. You may go.
Maan Roop had begun to think that Sunny was irreplaceable. Immortal. Affixed to this land like a banyan tree. Sunny snorted, smiled a goodbye to both, and left in silence with the remains of his pride.
The breeze was gentle at night, despite the approaching monsoon. The dogs did not bark, the madam sahib did not stir to check on them. Only Maan Roop lay awake listening to the world breathe.
The following morning, a commotion at the tea shop. A crowd of men jostling in a circle, in tears. The madam sahib, picking up groceries, knew something was wrong, but so did Maan Roop. He suggested they leave. Immediately.
She ignored him and walked up the road. And when she reached the edges of the crowd, she staggered back and choked down a sob. Maan Roop, terrified, ran up to her, and beheld the thing in the circle’s centre.
The thing had washed up on the riverbank, all its clothes intact but soaked. The villagers had pulled it out at dawn, and it had lain there beside the road, wailing men about it. And the thing was small. Made soft by the water, and its arms and legs wrought like the manyhanded idol of a god.
Drunkdrowned, said some. Drowneddrunk, said others. His father coughed out quiet sobs. Found his way to the river somehow to wash himself. Somebody said he had seen all ten of them stagger out of Prakhar Wines onto the road at two in the morning. Singing songs in their strange language. Somebody else said he had no business working so young. No matter how poor. Why on earth did they let kids near drills? When Maan Roop brought himself to look, he saw the hands bent stiff, the hair plastered to the forehead, the cheekbones sharp, the nose swollen, and the eyes black like the charred bones of the dead.
Maan Roop accompanied the madam sahib back to the farm, where the sahib watched them come, weary. The madam sahib sobbed on his shoulder, and they spoke of their own son, of money, and of the police. Maan Roop weighed his own life on the scales of his heart. Telling them about the liquor shop had been wrong. But what? Was he not to talk to any stranger, any kid on the street? Kids die. And in the East, they die in droves. How was he to know that they would drink? And so much, too? A well-paying job hung over his head, and his mother’s cries, and Shilpa’s exasperated sighs. He should have slept with her more; maybe then she would have thought him a man among men. No, Maan Roop was not to blame. And even if he was—no. But even if, the job mattered more. He could not remain poor because some incompetent father had endangered his own son. And now to convince the sahib of the same.
The sahib watched Maan Roop for a while. The police will be here later, Maan Roop, he said.
Not city cops, he knew. Country fuckers. Poking at the honest with their canes, sniffing out the deepest pockets. They loved a sahib, particularly a sahib who was new.
Yes sir. I didn’t kno—
We will deal with that. You will be fine, the sahib muttered and waved him away.
The dogs were silent as he walked them under the rubber trees. He will be fine. And he saw beyond the farm’s boundaries a man. Grey head, a halfsmile, and a lungi pulled above his knees. He was speaking to old men, the old men, perhaps, from the villages, pointing at the sahib’s farm and shaking his head and stroking his chin. Damn foreigners, Maan Roop could almost hear him. They have come here and now a child is dead. Shilpa kept talking of a child, but it never appeared. The halfsmiler looked at the borewell and then eyed Maan Roop. And Maan Roop looked past him, down the winding road—flanked by these basalt hills—that disappeared into verdant jungle and stretched its way back to the north.