Making their way into a narrow alley opposite the maidan, Malhar and Meera followed Mirchi into Anand Nagar, staring uneasily at the closely clustered homes, each no more than a crude assembly of some bricks, corrugated tin, tarpaulin sheets and bamboo poles. A child peered at them from above a ladder on the left, a woman scrubbing plates outside a door looked up from a soapy puddle on the right. Making a rapid turn here, ducking under a clothesline there, they emerged onto an open patch under a large water tank. Three barefooted children ran about in the middle, feral pigs and goats fed on a pile of garbage at one end, and a billboard rose at the other, with a bevy of filmstars on it, urging the people of Anand Nagar to simply toss a spoonful of paan masala into their mouth and experience the taste of success.
Standing under the tank, Mirchi stuck two fingers into his mouth. “PHEEEEEE PHEEEEE PHEEEEE” he whistled thrice. In less than a minute, a black dog with white patches on his neck, sides and feet, came bounding towards him, and then began dancing around the boy.
“Dekh, Munna,” Mirchi bent down and threw his arms around the dog, “I’m going to get a bat like Virat Kohli’s,” he said, tugging Munna’s ears. “Now you wait and see, everyone will want to play with me.”
Meera looked on with a grin, as Munna licked Mirchi all over, then jumped about the two of them, tail wagging rapidly. Mirchi produced a biscuit from his pocket, then held it before Munna, who crunched it up as they walked on.
“Mirchi…kya tum,” Meera was about to ask if he lived nearby, but Mirchi cut in, compelled to make a point.
“I knowing the English,” said Mirchi. “You speaking me English.”
“That’s…uh…that’s great!” Meera smiled awkwardly, even as Malhar winced at the sight of the filth floating on the nallah alongside, hit by an overpowering acrid smell.
“Daily I taking kachra patti from beauty parlours. All aunties there speaking English. So I knowing…” Mirchi offered an explanation, sauntering casually through the narrow lane, even as Malhar placed his feet carefully to avoid stepping into puddles, as the asphalt had made way for loose earth, stopping to check the underside of his shoes every now and then.
“That,” Mirchi stopped all of a sudden, pointing to a house at the end of a lane.
“You all have such funny names!” grinned Malhar.
“What you coming to see?”’ Mirchi raised an eyebrow. “You’ve done what was necessary,” Malhar brushed the boy aside.
“The rest is none of your business.” Meera fixed Malhar with a disapproving glare.
“When you giving me bat?” asked Mirchi.
“Meet me tomorrow morning at ten under the big banyan tree at the maidan,” said Malhar. “I’ll get it for you.”
Mirchi shrugged. “But if you no come, I coming to your house. Remember, I knowing where you live,” he said, before turning away along with Munna.
“You didn’t have to be so rude!” Meera admonished her brother as they approached the end of the lane.
“He is the one who got us here.”
“I got us here.” Malhar made big eyes.
“And I am going to give him a bat! Why do you want him to know what we’re doing?” he said, as they spotted two women and two little girls, seated on a rope cot outside the last house.
Meera pulled Malhar behind a blue water drum. “I am ruined!” one of the women was sobbing softly, “Not only am I caught in this police enquiry, I have also lost my job. And nobody will give me a job now. What am I to do now? How do I feed my children?”
“That must be Sarla,” whispered Malhar. Sarla was speaking in Marathi, a language they could understand. Meera fixed her brother with another stare. He had this annoying habit of stating the obvious. Peeping out she had a good look at the woman. She was demure and petite, dressed in a yellow synthetic saree, red bindi on her forehead, hair in a dishevelled bun, green glass bangles on her frail hands, a beaded mangalsutra strung around her neck.
“I don’t know for what sins God is punishing me.” She dabbed her face with the pallu of her saree, then pulled her daughters close and wiped their tears. “The police say I must have known they had so much jewellery in the cupboard because they recently had a wedding in the family,” she said, banging her forehead violently with her palms. “But if I wanted to steal, would I not have done it already? I have been working there for eleven years. I had their keys for the last eight years!”
“Here,” the other woman opened a newspaper packet and handed it to her. “You mustn’t have eaten anything since morning. Eat first…” Sarla opened the packet and distributed the rotis to her children. The younger girl tapped her, then made some signs with her hand. The mother smiled slightly, replied with some more hand signs, then took half a roti from the child’s hand.
“The girl,” Malhar whispered again, “she uh…she’s…”
“Deaf…” Meera swallowed a lump in her throat.
“My good-for-nothing husband cares for nothing but his bottle. With great difficulty, I put these two in school,” wept Sarla, “I didn’t want them to have a miserable life like mine. But now I won’t have enough to put food on their plates.”
Overcome with sympathy, Meera decided they’d done enough snooping for the day. She signalled to Malhar and they retreated quietly out of the alley. “It’s not Sarla,” mumbled Meera, as they tried finding their way back through the maze of tiny lanes. “No,” Malhar nearly skipped, less bothered now by the mud and filth, pleased to find the number one police suspect in the clear.
For that meant they had a mystery to solve!
Excerpted with permission from The Case of the Vanishing Gods, Mallika Ravikumar, Talking Cub.