It was the ninth day of the bright half of the month of Boishakh, Rama’s birthday in fact, and Abhijit Bhattacharya woke early. With the deliberate and deft movements of a sleepwalker, the nine year old son of Bengal reluctantly wound on his dhoti over his sacred thread as he blearily surveyed the turmoil of the five-way junction of Ballygunge Phari. Even at this early hour it was outrageously frenetic and the searing scarlet red orb of the rising sun mercilessly intensified the chaos.

For nearly three years Abhijit has lived with his mother, one of his three sisters, two younger brothers, three cats and two squabbling monkeys on a tiny island of pavement outside the Dey Park in Phari. His middle sister Prilanka had left two years ago after she had married on her tenth birthday and his eldest sister Prim, whom he could scarcely remember, had never actually lived there as she had been sold by her father long before to clear an untidy accumulation of gambling debts. Before Dey Park, they had lived relatively comfortably in a bus shelter on Ashutosh Mukerjee Road just down from the Cancer Hospital. This was until they were bullied out by a particularly aggressive family from Bihar who, wanting to expand their kitchen, threatened Abhijit’s mother and sister with an acid attack if the family did not vacate. Still things could have been much worse – very much worse in fact. Take for example, the bewildered, desperate multitudes seething around Sealdah Station ; fresh off the train from Bangladesh, they spill out in the city of joy by the thousands into the labyrinth of streets and alleys with not even a square metre of pavement to claim for themselves. Or even here, just across Bondel Road beyond the Kwality restaurant where the rag-pickers, carcass handlers and nightsoil scavengers have staked out a 100 metre section of A.C.Road and where you venture at your own peril after dark. Here at Dey Park however, it is relatively safe. The back perimeter of their triangular patch is shaded by a peepal, a holy fig and is protected by the wrought iron fence of the park, another side backs onto the Kali shrine and the remaining side is in full view of the traffic policeman’s box. This provides them with some measure of security in exchange for the lack of privacy. Furthermore the proximity to the broken water mains pipe is a definite advantage especially in the fierce heat of midsummer.

On the occasions his father deigns to appear, the visits are neither predictable nor are they pleasant as it is invariably when he is down on his luck. Forever abusing and beating Abhijit’s mother, menacing and frightening the children, he alternately cajoles and threatens them for money to buy whisky and charas.

An unwelcome legacy of his father’s dissolute and erratic behaviour is that Abhijit has inherited a huge responsibility to his family - a not inconsiderable burden for an adult but an intolerable one for a nine year old boy it must be said.


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