Through the window of a hospital, the sun usually looks like a flower. But this hospital on the third floor in a lane near Charni Road Station didn’t seem to have windows at all. Just rows of cots in a narrow room with wooden partitions. Above, a huge fan like the wing of an old airplane. It was dark even during the day. The dull tube light burned through the day and the night. If you thought there was a window and went near it, all you would see was the wall of the neighbouring building. In such a room, KK lay on a cot like a figure cut out from a sheet of paper

This man who spent all his life on the streets of Mumbai had been involved in leftist movements since his youth. The textile mill satyagraha, the dockyard and the railway workers’ strike, he had taken part in all of these. After working in film studios as a set artist on daily wages, he went to study art in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan. On his return, having gained a new awareness, he gave up all his impassioned speeches and started teaching drawing to the children roaming in the streets. He wandered around with a cloth bag, coloured chalk in his pockets and holding a rolled-up black clothboard wound around a plank. His hands and body were constantly smeared with chalk dust

In the strange belief that unfortunate people living in squalor would have the doors of fortune open to them if they learnt about beauty and cleanliness and neatness, the artist would gather these dirty, snivelling children around him, stroke their backs, and make them draw a colourful parrot, a peacock, a sunrise, a brinjal, a rainbow, a bus. His friends scolded him: “What’s the use of art? Why don’t you teach them how to write instead?” “Chheh …”, he would reply. “This isn’t vocational training. Just an effort to give them the strength they need for their life.”

If you learn some art, you can draw posters, make decorations for the Ganesh Festival and for Navaratri, become a set designer in a film studio, create banners,’ he enthused the children. The mothers would dress them in a relatively clean set of clothes and send them to the artist. Whenever he saw an unkempt child by the roadside, he would immediately ask him whether he wanted to learn how to draw. Which child would turn away from colours and sketching? Pulling out the chalks and some blank sheets from his cloth bag, KK would conduct the class right there on the street. Later, he would distribute lemon peppermints to the children and hand out blank paper, a notebook, a sketchbook and some colour pencils, saying that they should fill the pages with drawings by the time he came by next.

It was natural that the children should call this man who carried coloured chalk “Khadoo Kaka”, Chalkpiece Uncle. Some would tease him as “Khadoos Kaka”, Short-tempered Uncle. Without ever getting provoked, Khadoo Kaka would go around collecting the old pencil boxes and the blank pages remaining in the notebooks, putting them all into his bag. Slowly Khadoo Kaka became KK.

Let alone a wife, KK did not even seem to have a distant relative. People did wonder how he earned his living. All his old activist friends had already retired and lived in their children’s flats, dandling grandkids on their knees. Dealing with scowling sons-in-law or daughters-in-law, they had melted into the suburbs. Without being concerned about any such obligatory relatives, KK led his wandering art-filled life.

The children of the women from the mujra halls near Kennedy Bridge were also brought into KK’s orbit. The sickly women who lay around all day put on their make-up at lamplighting time, shrugged into their padded blouses, and as the sarangi struck up a tune, they would make seductive gestures to the passersby. All night there would be a darbar of notes and coins and spitting of betel juice. The children, who had seen all the fake expressions of love and the cinema songs and the posturing from their hideouts behind the curtains, seemed fearful and warped. KK sat them down in a separate room and got them to draw. But however much they drew, the strange fear in their eyes did not go away, and this made KK sad. The orchestra members who got up to drink some water or to eat a paan in between two dance numbers would peer into KK’s art room and ask, guffawing: “Don’t you teach any naach gaana in your kindergarten?”

KK soon realised that the slum children from Dharavi, Koliwada, and Kherwadi had a sparkle in their eyes that the Kennedy Bridge mujra kids did not have. Thinking of all the eyebrow-plucking and seductive laughter, and of how simple emotions like shyness or excitement were acted out, KK felt that the only way to enlarge the children’s minds was to take them out on trips. Walking by the sea at Chowpatty or along Marine Drive, these children revelled in their freedom. The energy gained by the Dharavi kids through drawing and sketching was obtained here by going past the double-grill doors and looking at the far horizon. KK would feel acute pain when delivering the children back to the mujra hall. They would hold KK around his waist as though they were hugging their mother, weeping all the time. “Tomorrow let’s go again to see the sea.” This one sentence was enough to help the children get through the night.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Spotless’ in Mithun Number Two and Other Mumbai Stories, Jayant Kaikini, translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana, Eka/Westland.