At sundown the day’s dust would start to settle. By when folks finished dinner and stepped out to their verandahs it would be clear night outside, and eyes would dart from neighbour to neighbour and from neighbour to stars above. Most evenings a cool breeze played about, stroking a pre-bedtime peace.
Our houses were dispersed on either side of the street. The street went sloping down and ended at the houses of the American missionary on the one corner and the medical students on the other. The missionary lived with his wife and his little boy and the family was often out of town on God’s work. The medical students were from North India, a fair-skinned scandalous bunch. They’d bring nice-looking girls home and we’d spy on them from far. They took no notice of us. We were just local boys who sometimes held a moment’s interest for them, no more.
Where the street ended, wasteland began. On a clearing in it we played cricket evenings and holidays. Kids from other streets came to play as well, and in the dust we raised the ball from one game often went to the field of another game, and we went chasing, kicking up more dust, asking, “ball … give the ball, no?”
That night, we’d finished dinner and the adults had retired and were calling us in. We chatted with friends down the steps in the few moments before the final call. We took last glances at girls in line of sight. Just then, somebody saw dust rising before the missionary’s house. Brown and red dust. Light from unshaded incandescent street-lamps was knocking whorls of it. In its turn dust had turned the light amber.
We ran down the street, seeing men in action in swirling dust. Many men, although we didn’t count. Men on the fringe of the crowd, looking to the middle. Men in the middle, circling the centre, there punching and kicking and swiping at somebody.
We joined the crowd, which by now had come up the street, passed a few houses. Somebody among them noticed the street-side laundry-cart, where the dhobi always worked late. The somebody had hit on an idea. He and another ran and made a deal with the dhobi. They jogged up and spread red coals from the laundryman’s iron-box on the bed of dust among the stones on the asphalt-free street. “Bring him here!” they cried.
It was the milkman they had, we’d seen by now. The same milkman who brought untreated udder-fresh non-pasteurised milk every morning by six. On a bicycle he brought them, in cans either side on the back, walking, pushing his load. He was older than us, but we were only boys, and he was not too much older. He was wearing loose white pyjamas that he always wore mornings. His feet were bare, the slippers just lost, perhaps, because mornings we’d see him in rubber thongs.
Twice they pulled him back so they could push him fresh over the coals. He didn’t made a sound as he walked over the cinders. But he grunted sometimes when he took a hard punch, and when one got him on his diaphragm, he let off a pitiful “Hnphf!” His long mane-like hair was matted by sweat and dust and it swung as he reeled.
When they dragged him back a second time from the coals his wet dust-covered shirt tore the whole length from the collar. He let out a cry just then, said something. We could feel the dust in his throat. And the dust in our throats and dust up the nostrils. “Why?” an adult voice asked from the gate of a house. Parents and uncles and aunts were lining the street now, as when a Ganesha procession passes.
“Bastard lifts skirts of little girls, sir!”
It is possible nobody took serious belief to what was being told. It’s possible the fellow heard his accusers. Perhaps not. He staggered ahead, clear of the coals now, still taking an occasional beating. The frenzy of the crowd had abated at the top of the street. He didn’t couldn’t grunt any denial. His eyes set in a dusty dark wet face were dazed.
There at the top stood the last of the concrete light posts. Reaching it, somebody caught the milkman by his hair and brought his head round in a circle and kicked him on his butt. “Don’t do this again,” the somebody said. The man went tumbling, fell face down on the red dust of our little town. We felt his relief. We felt our relief. His soles were almost all we could see now, at the far edge of a pool of light. They were red and black and brown and raw.