Authors: Anosh Irani
Praise for Anosh Irani’s
THE SONG OF KAHUNSHA
“Direct and simple rather than elliptical, literal more than metaphorical,
The Song of Kahunsha
addresses the awful savageries and indignities of India within the focus of Bombay, but it escapes being overwhelmed by what it depicts because of its moral impulse…. Chamdi, who has always felt that thinking makes things possible, is given his epiphany in a beautiful final scene by the sea, and the novel … vindicates the fragile but triumphant scope of childhood imagination with touching grace.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Evocative and colourful.”
—The London Free Press
“[Irani] re-writes Dickens’s
with [his] native Bombay replacing 19th century London…. Pure storytelling…. The novel’s narrative encompasses more than gritty realism-that grit is counter-balanced by the wistfulness of Chamdi’s imagination, constructed on the basis of what beauty does strike his eye.”
—The Toronto Star
“[Chamdi’s] relentless struggle to survive makes him one of this year’s most unforgettable heroes.”
“No, this isn’t
, though it very well could be…. Written in succinct, understated prose, the narrative evokes the chaos of street life as well as the richness of Chamdi’s inner world…. Irani has written a gripping and compassionate novel that will resonate long after readers have completed it…. It calls to mind Rohinton Mistry’s epic about injustices of India’s caste system,
A Fine Balance.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“Irani’s melodies in
The Song of Kahunsha
are at once bright and melancholic, his characters and senses as sharp as tusks and his plot as lithe as children running.”
FOR MY PARENTS
ADI AND MAHRUKH IRANI
Without warning, the man rams the iron rod into the face that peers through the window. There is a sickening crunch and the face disappears. That must be Hanif the taxiwala, thinks Chamdi. The man stands guard outside the window, the iron rod by his side. He looks ready to repeat his actions should the need arise.
In the darkness of the lane, Chamdi can hear a woman scream from inside the blue shack. He imagines Hanif lying on the ground, his teeth smashed with an iron rod, blood streaming from his nose and mouth, while his wife bangs on the bolted door with her fists.
Chamdi is unable to move. None of the neighbours come to the family’s rescue. Most of the men and women return to their shacks, and the few that remain outside look just as terrified as Chamdi.
Chamdi stares at Anand Bhai, who stands rooted to the ground. Dressed in black, Anand Bhai looks like he is part of the night itself. Chamdi cannot understand how Anand Bhai can smile at a time like this.
Chamdi runs his hands across his ribs.
He tries to push his ribs in, but it is of no use. They continue to stick out of his white vest. Perhaps it is because he is only ten years old. When he grows older, he will have more flesh on his body and his ribs will be less visible. With this thought, he walks down the steps of the orphanage.
He stands barefoot in the courtyard. He never wears slippers because he likes to feel hot earth against his feet. It is early January, and the rains are still far away. Even though a new year has begun, the earth looks old, the cracks in its skin
deeper than ever. The sun hits Chamdi’s black hair and forces him to squint.
He stretches his arms out and walks towards a wall, where his world ends and someone else’s begins. As he nears the wall, he hears the city—faraway car horns, the hum of scooters and motorcycles. He knows Bombay is much louder than this, but the courtyard is not near the main road. Beyond the wall is a small marketplace where women sell fish and vegetables from cane baskets and men squat on their haunches and clean people’s ears for a few rupees.
Pigeons sit in a row on the wall and chatter. Spikes of glass are placed along the edge of the wall to prevent people from entering the courtyard. Chamdi asks himself why anyone would bother sneaking into the courtyard. There is nothing to steal at the orphanage.
A loud cycle ring causes a few pigeons to flutter away, but they quickly regain their places on the wall. The shards of glass do not seem to bother the pigeons. They know where to place their feet.
Chamdi touches the wall and feels the black stone. He smiles when he thinks of the moss that will appear. Rain can make life out of walls. But it is still a few months before he can inhale deeply
and take in his favourite scent. The smell of the first rains, that of a thankful earth satisfied by water, is what he dreams about all year long. If only the inside of the orphanage could smell like that, it would be the most loved orphanage in the entire city.
This tenth year has been hard for Chamdi. He is beginning to understand many things now. When he was a child, he had many questions, but now they might be answered, and he is afraid he will not like the answers at all.
He turns away from the wall and wanders towards a well made of grey cement.
As he stares at his reflection in the water, he wonders if he looks like his mother or like his father. He believes he has his mother’s eyes, large and black. Was it his mother or father who dropped him off here? He wonders if they are alive.
He puts one foot on the parapet of the well.
Bougainvilleas surround him. They are his favourite flowers. So pink and red, full of love, he thinks. If these flowers were human they would be the most beautiful people on earth.
He puts his other foot on the parapet of the well and stands tall.
He looks through the open window of the orphanage. Most of the children are huddled together on one bed. He can hear them sing “Railgaadi.” The girls make the
sound of a train, while the boys shout out the names of cities and towns at great speed—
Manama, Khandwa, Raipur, Jaipur, Talegaon, Malegaon, Vellur, Sholapur, Kolhapur
. There are so many places in India, Chamdi says to himself, and I have not visited a single one.
He likes how tall he feels with the added height of the parapet. Perhaps one day he will grow to this size. But it will still take years. And even if he does grow tall, so what? He will still have nowhere to go. There will come a day when he must leave the orphanage. But there will be no one to say goodbye to. No one will miss him if he goes.
He stares at the water in the well.
It is extremely still. He wonders if he should jump in. He will swallow as much water as his body will allow. If his parents ever come back for him, they will find him sleeping at the bottom of the well.
The moment he has this thought, he gets off the parapet.
He walks quickly towards the orphanage and climbs up the three steps that lead to the foyer,
where the children’s rubber slippers are placed in a neat row on the ground and a black umbrella hangs from a hook on a yellowed, patchy wall.
His small feet leave dirt marks on the stone floor. He enters the sleeping room and receives an angry look from Jyoti, who sits on her haunches and washes the floor. She always scolds him for not wearing slippers.
Twenty metal beds occupy this room. The beds are placed opposite each other, in rows of ten each. They have thin mattresses covered with white sheets but no pillows. Since Jyoti is mopping the floor, the children are on their beds. Most of them are still on a bed near the window and are playing a game of antakshari. They have stopped singing “Railgaadi” and are now at the point in the game where they need to sing a song that begins with the letter
Without taking her eyes off Chamdi, Jyoti dips a thick grey cloth into a bucket that contains a mixture of water and phenyl. She slaps the cloth onto the ground. Chamdi looks at her and smiles. She has worked at the orphanage for many years, along with her husband, Raman, and Chamdi knows she means no harm. He wishes Jyoti could stop and make tea for him, but she will
do so for all the children only after she has finished washing the floor. She has put oil in her hair today, and the smell of oil and phenyl floats through the room.
Chamdi looks inside Jyoti’s big green bucket, at the water dark with dirt, and he is reminded of the well. He looks away immediately, and heads for the prayer room. He assures himself that no one will know that he just thought of jumping into the well. No one except the man who stands in the prayer room like a beautiful giant.
Chamdi is unable to look at this man. Chamdi is ashamed of the thoughts he had, especially since this man has suffered more than anyone else Chamdi knows.
Even though Jesus’ eyes must have seen so much cruelty when he was alive, they reveal none of it now. But what Chamdi likes best about Jesus is all that light around his head, as if Jesus invented electricity. When Chamdi burns because he sees another child who is happy, who has not just one parent but two whole parents, he thinks of how badly Jesus was treated. Jesus came to earth full of love, but he was sent back on a cross with blood and angry words.
It encourages Chamdi that Jesus was once a small boy too but then he went on to become a leader of men. Even though talking to Jesus does make him feel better, Chamdi is always uncomfortable when he asks for something. Each morning, all the children collect in this prayer room and, instead of praying, they close their eyes and make demands. Chamdi does not feel this is real prayer. To him, real prayer means sending a bright thought, like
I love you
, to heaven. That is prayer. The moment you ask for something, the prayer room becomes a marketplace.
He looks around to see if anyone is watching him. He does not want anyone else to witness his prayer. Jesus has never answered him, but he understands that after the way Jesus was treated, he may not trust human beings at all. So he accepts Jesus’ silence.
Chamdi tells Jesus that from now on, he will learn to carry sadness with him as if it is an extra toe. As he utters these words, he knows Jesus will be proud of him.
Chamdi feels tired and wants to rest, but at the same time he does not want Jesus to stop watching over him. So he lies down on the stone floor and sends his thoughts to Jesus:
I promise to try to be happy
Chamdi knows he is better off than blind people, or children with diseases, or even stray dogs with so many holes in their bodies.
He feels much better. Now he can close his eyes and do what he likes to do best, what he has been doing since the day he was born, or maybe since he was three years old. He will imagine the city of his birth, Bombay.
He has spent all his life inside the courtyard of the orphanage. He has not seen much of Bombay. And lately, what he has heard about Bombay has disturbed him. Mrs. Sadiq, who runs the orphanage, has not allowed any of the children to step outside the orphanage walls over the past three weeks.
The Hindus broke down the Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya, a faraway place, she said, and now Hindus and Muslims were hurting each other in Bombay because of that. The streets were not safe anymore, not even for children.
But Chamdi reminds himself that a new year has begun.
No more shops will be looted, no more taxis will be burned, no more people will be hurt. If these things truly happened, then Chamdi must rebuild Bombay on his own, brick by brick.
So he closes his eyes and sees a red rubber ball.
In Chamdi’s Bombay, children play cricket in the street with a red rubber ball and even if the batsman hits the ball hard, sends it crashing into a windowpane and the glass breaks, no one gets angry. The glass mends itself in a few seconds, and the game resumes. The umpire is an old man who runs a cigarette shop. Even though he cannot pay attention because he has cigarettes, paan, and supari to sell, he is so gifted that he recreates the game, ball by ball, in his head. The spinner bowls in strange ways. He runs backwards and without even looking at the stumps, tosses the ball miles into the air, and the batsman, if he is experienced, waits patiently for the ball to land, which can take anywhere from one minute to seven minutes. When the ball does land, it spins so sharply that everyone feels giddy.