Chapter: Like a Flurry of Raindrops
AT half past six, the Factory blared to life. The giant loudspeaker shook like a tree limb caught in a gust as it announced the start of morning shift: three shrill, drawn-out whistles that sliced the crisp air and shocked the birds. By that time, Manju and Shiva had already signed in and were lined up with other children, still sleepy, their faces dull. The kids trooped single file towards shacks or brick buildings depending on the tasks they had been assigned.
“Radio was moved from the mulberry fields back to cocoon boiling,” Shiva whispered. “Just before you came.”
Manju shook his head.
“I’m just glad they didn’t pick me,” said Shiva.
“Poor fellow! From the open mulberry fields to horrible cocoon boiling…tche!” Manju wrinkled his nose; the tiredness in his eyes had suddenly dissolved. He shoved his hand into the pocket of his shorts and felt for Masterji’s coin.
“I’ll miss that fellow’s funny stories,” said Shiva. “If it were not for Radio, I would’ve smashed a few more things in this place.”
“Pa! You need to tone down your anger. Don’t forget—you’ve got into trouble before.”
“I’m sure Radio has a crazy reason why the rains looked like blood the other day.” Shiva paused. “Maybe we will get a turn soon in those mulberry fields.”
“Yes! That would be nice… remember the last time there?
Shiva grinned. “The supervisors spent more time smoking beedis than keeping an eye on us.”
“And Radio would secretly smoke those beedis thrown away in the grass,” said Manju, smiling, making his way into a shack that had a large ‘15’ painted in white on the outside. Then a thought shot through his mind. “The last time Radio was in cocoon boiling,” Manju recalled, “he got very sick.”
Shiva blew out his cheeks. “He’ll survive,” he said tersely, and walked behind him.
Manju turned and glanced at his friend. He’ll survive.
“You worry too much,” muttered Shiva, pushing past his friend.
Manju hung his head. Worry too much? He paused. Maybe Appa would like to have a son like Shiva. Tougher. Bigger. Less emotional.
Fifteen was one of the silkworm rearing units—humid and cramped. Tall stacks of wicker baskets sat outside the door.
Shiva nodded at a group of three boys sitting bare-chested in a corner, each of them bent over a giant bamboo basket. The only light in the room came from the lone oil lamp suspended from the low ceiling by a jute rope. The floor was dark and made of concrete. It was pocked and grainy in parts, cracks running like veins across it. Scattered among mulberry leaves in the baskets, the silkworms looked like tiny silver trains dipping in and out of green tunnels. There were so many, and they chomped so hard that it sounded like a flurry of raindrops. Around the edge of the baskets was wet bark that kept the air moist for the feeding silkworms.
Manju and Shiva sat cross-legged next to mounds of mulberry leaves. Behind them, resting against the wall were two cheap folding chairs that no one used. Shiva adjusted the gray scarf around his neck and pulled at the tattered hem of his shorts. Two more boys joined them. For the next couple of hours, they would separate the dry, light-colored leaves from the thick, dark, and shiny ones, and toss them in a cardboard box that would later be burned behind the shed.
“Get closer,” the supervisor said to the three bare-chested boys in the corner. The worms smelled foul, like “vomit of a dead fish”, as Radio once commented, and everyone rolled over laughing.
“Now, find ones that aren’t moving. There is one right there. See that?” The boys looked down and then gazed up at him blankly. The supervisor crouched next to them and waved his hands impatiently. “See? Those are the dead ones.”
Manju glanced at Shiva, anxious about his friend’s hot-tempered reactions. Shiva was staring down at the basket in front of him, his nostrils flared, lips pursed. His breaths were heavy, like he was pushing back a jet of emotions. When he looked up, Manju shook his head lightly.
“See them?” The supervisor yelled again.
“Saar?” Manju called out softly.
The supervisor didn’t hear him. “When you find them, you pull them out before the others die as well.” he continued. “Understand?”
The supervisor turned towards Manju.
“They don’t understand,” said Manju.
“They speak only Tamil.”
“Speak what? Can you be louder?”
The supervisor let out a groan and rose, shaking his head. “Useless Tamilian buffoons! Where did they find you?” He kicked one of the boys—smallest of the three—in the ribs. The boy fell to the side on the concrete floor. “Worthless people!” the supervisor muttered and walked towards Shiva and Manju. “Aye you…somehow teach these fellows what to do.”
Manju nodded. “I’ll try, saar.”
“Then do it!” His chest swelling, the supervisor snorted like an angry boar before leaving the shack.
Manju walked over to the group and smiled. Shiva followed him, muttering angrily, his lips still pursed. The small boy rubbed his head. Tears welled in his eyes. The other two looked dazed. With broken phrases and gestures, Shiva and Manju got them working again.
The dead worms, darker than the rest, were to be discarded into a plastic container. As he was showing the Tamil boys, one of the worms came apart like rotten fruit between Manju’s fingers and covered them in sticky brown juice. The boys exclaimed in disgust and backed away.
“Yuck! Go rub that on Pandu’s face!” Shiva yelled; he had worked in the Factory for more than three years, but the sight of foul-smelling liquid oozing from decaying worms still made him cringe. Some boys in the other units wore bandages around their fingers to avoid falling sick.
Manju grimaced and shook his fingers like he was holding a dead rat. Then jumped up and rubbed the juices against the wall. “Aah! Chee!” he cried. Everyone cackled. As the two friends returned to their positions, Shiva handed Manju a large mulberry leaf to wipe away the rest of the stickiness.
Just as the chuckling died down, Pandu burst into the shack and walked straight to the three new boys. His burly arms glistened in sweat. Silence.
“These wimps?” he asked the supervisor who nodded.
Pandu leaned forward and studied the worms in the baskets, his eyes narrowing. Manju and Shiva exchanged quick glances. Reaching in, Pandu pulled out a dead worm and hurled it violently into the plastic container. Then another and another, his expression hardening. “You beggars! You have done nothing here—nothing!” he yelled, kicking one of the baskets to the center of the room. It swirled and lurched but the contents didn’t spill out. Pandu yanked off his belt. The boys dropped their shoulders and cowered against the wall, their lips quivering.
“You lowlife!” Pandu raised his hand and brought his belt down. The three boys covered their faces and curled up in fear. A tiny smirk broke out on the supervisor’s face.
“Here I am, running about w-waiting for the new kids to arrive. And you fellows act dumb and w-waste time!” Pandu’s words echoed around the room. The faint shadow of the lashing belt danced on the adjoining wall like a vicious cobra. “The next dead worm you miss, I will…” he made a grabbing gesture with his hand, tongue sticking out. The he tossed the belt at his feet and stomped out of the shack. The supervisor grinned and scanned the room as if surveying the rewarding ruins of a battlefield. He bent down and rearranged the wicker baskets. Then grabbed Pandu’s belt from the floor before following his boss out the door.
The smallest boy began to sob.
Shiva shook his head, pulled his scarf by its dangly end and snapped it in the air. “I feel useless sitting here doing nothing… really useless.” His lips trembled.
Manju placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I know,” he whispered.
Shiva swept Manju’s hand away. “What do you know? Huh? Bloody saint!”
“Why are you yelling at me? I’m only trying to—”
“I don’t need your help. I know you’re the calm one who went to school. Smart-ass.”
“What does this have to do with school?”
Shiva didn’t answer.
“You don’t want to be in trouble again…” said Manju, “it’s this temper that got—”
“Aye! Stop lecturing me.”
Just then, the loudspeaker crackled and filled the air with a long and jarring whistle.
Manju looked up and stared at the door, his jaw tightening. Then squeezed his eyes tight. Another truckload of newcomers had arrived.