I believe that every child in the city should learn to climb trees. City folk train their children to swim and to dance, to run and play games, to cross the horizontal plane in every possible motion, but they always ignore the vertical.
To climb is to expand your horizon—see far beyond the walls that define your life, spread your habitation over an earth much more dispersed than the cramped vessel that is your body. No man who has climbed down a coconut tree is ever the same man who went up.
I come from an arboreal people who have, since the old times, conducted their lives on trees. I was born on a branch of a banyan tree, cradled among the sinews of its prop roots when I was a child. The trees of my youth grew tall and stretched their branches in every direction—becoming shelter, playground, entire colonies—but the trees of my youth no longer stand where they once did.
I have not lived my life in those trees.
My great-grandparents were among the first of the forest folk to seek ground by the edge of the village, to raise huts and make beds upon its unsettling flatness, to sink iron in the soil and make it yield crops. Their adaptation was reluctant, long. Many continued to forage in the forests for honey and the inebriating sap of the mahua tree, to be exchanged for goods and money at the village market. Some found work as climbers of coconut and palm trees, always in demand in the season of fruit. Everyone climbed, in their crests of mirth and their depths of sorrow, but by and large the folk had to take to ground, for the forests had dwindled. Poachers, loggers, and expanding farmlands had taken our ancient hometrees. The forest no longer sustained the lives of its children.
It was from this ground that we were ousted before we made our way to the city.
The old zamindar had lost his title and estates, explained my son Binu after a few of our boys went to meet the village elders one morning. Not much would change for the rest of the village, but the fields at the outermost edge of the village—the farmlands of the forest folk—were to be handed over to the government for the commercial cultivation of betel leaves.
Puzzled, alarmed as I looked out at our tiny patch of land, I had said, “But this land was claimed by our forefathers! How could the zamindar give it away?”
Binu explained to me the bitter ways of the world. “Merely settling down and planting crop does not make the land ours, Ma. All land belongs to someone—someone who inherited or bought it with money. The zamindar allowed us to farm on his land, now the white people’s government has taken it from him. Nothing we can do about it.”
I was taken further aback. “All land belongs to someone? Even the forest, the marshlands? What about the rivers?”
“All of it, Ma.”
“Tell that to the birds, the monkeys, the foxes, even the bees and mosquitos.”
‘We are not animals, Ma,” Binu said, tearing away his eyes from my face. “Animals can be hunted, killed, driven away when people need to reclaim their land. If we stay, the white people’s government will do the same to us.”
“Where will we go?” I asked with trepidation.
“The village elders advised us on that, and Raghu agrees,” Binu said. Raghu was a tall, muscular young man, considered something of a leader among the forest folk, though each of us was free as the trees themselves. “It is no use to move to another village, since we don’t have the money to rent farmland. But if we go all the way to the city, there is plenty of work for men who can toil and climb. There are shanties for living. The money is better, too. We won’t have to hang our fates upon the rain or spend half of the year starving. The city is where the future is.”
Binu’s eyes glittered with furious hope at the thought. But my old mother’s heart trembled. None of the forest folk had been to the city before. The city was a myth.
“Don’t worry about me, Ma,” he assured me. “I’m not going alone. Raghu will come, of course, and Kanai, Kalua, Chandu, and even old Habu Jyattha. We will look after each other.”
In the end, both of us ended up going. My Binu was a child. He worked at the field like a grown man ever since a fatal cough had taken his father three years ago, but he never spent a night away from his old mother, never cooked a meal on his own. With our land taken, what was left for me in the village? Some other men decided to take their families too. Kalua’s wife and children prepared to go with him, as did old Habu’s widowed daughter.
I had expected we would climb out our journey, but Raghu dismissed the idea with a laugh. There were children and old people among us, and too much luggage, and the city was farther away than many forests’ lengths. We had to board a train—that loud, smoke-gurgling, serpentine monster we had only ever seen from a distance.
Thus we made our way to the city through a series of novelties. When the train spat us out in a surge of humanity at the station in Howrah, Kanai decided to go on a climb through the rafters to find us a way forward. Within minutes, he was hauled down with screams and threats by a group of armed, sinister men—all dressed alike in a light shade of brown—who called themselves the police. In the city, people were only too aware of what belonged to whom, and nothing was free. One careless step and you were trespassing into someone’s property.
By the evening, we ended up in a shanty settlement by a road where a number of new buildings were being raised. All the men found jobs in construction—solid, daily-wage jobs for men who could toil and climb. Even Kalua’s wife and old Habu’s daughter signed up for work. I was no longer young enough to be employed at the construction site. But our family was only the two of us; Binu’s wages would be enough.
A chhatim tree flowered by our shanty, filling the air with a sharp, sweet fragrance that was no small luxury in this land of smoke and sweat. It became our anchor. Six shanties by the chhatim tree—home to the forest folk in the crowded, confusing city.
Before the spring, my Binu had encountered love. She was one of the women at the construction site. When he brought her home I learned that her ancestors had been potter folk from Bankura, but they had migrated to the city generations ago, and the girl had no pottery to her fingers. She spoke with a lilt that fell unfamiliar upon my ears. Binu hung on to her every word, the flick of her eyelashes, the swell of her breasts clasped tight in her sari. I counted the coins I had saved and decided on an auspicious day for the wedding in the coming month.
The wedding took place on its arranged date, but my Binu had no part in it. For weeks before that, Binu’s wages at the construction site had been faltering. He went up and down the scaffoldings like no other, but he had no knack for the rest of the work—mixing and preparing cement, digging the foundation, setting up iron frameworks of houses or laying bricks. The other forest folk had learned faster; especially Raghu, who had risen to become a supervisor. He was the man Binu’s beloved eventually chose to marry, though he still had a wife and a son back in the village.
It was then that I understood—the construction folk were a clan like any other, with their own laws and social order. All these people, once belonging to different places and diverse affiliations, had thrown over those loyalties and come together as the construction folk. Raghu, once a leader among us, was now a man of honour within this new clan. He could take any woman to wife, raise himself a new family within this larger family.
My Binu, with the forest assiduously clutched to his heart, had failed to become one of them.
Our money ran out within a week of Binu’s losing his job. We were alone in our plight, for the rest of the forest folk had turned over to Raghu’s side. Binu went out each morning to find work and returned empty-handed at night. He had no skills, and there were too many people in the city, too many desperate migrants pouring in every day. I suggested he find employ at a different construction site, but Binu maintained he had lost his stomach for construction work.
Then came a night when Binu did not return. I stayed awake all night, staring at the grey city sky. At dawn, just as I was nodding off, he walked in with a grin and pressed a bag of coins in my hand.
“Go to the market and buy some fish, Ma, and any spices you need,” he said with a happy slurp. “Ooh, after such a long time a real curry of fish!”
We had never managed to afford fish since Binu’s father died.
I was immediately suspicious. “Where did you get all this money?”
“I found work.” Binu shrugged, pouring himself water to wash, not meeting my eye. “Aren’t you happy? We’ll never again go wanting. We will eat fish, meat, milk, ghee, fresh fruits, anything we wish … every day!”
“What is this work that requires you stay out all night and pays you more money than even Raghu earns in a day?” I insisted.
He was reluctant to talk, but finally I got it out of him—Binu had fallen in with thieves. He met them on his way home one night, as he took a comforting shortcut through the trees. They had made him break into a house as a trial, and let him keep half of the loot. They were very impressed.
I was infuriated.
“Binu! Is this what your poor father and I raised you to become?” I cried at my foolish son. “What if you end up in jail?”
“Speak softly, Ma,” he hissed. “There’s nothing wrong in thieving. There are people in this city so rich it’s obscene. Their women never wear anything but the finest silk; they drip with earrings and necklaces, and have more stowed away than they will ever wear in their lives! Even the beggars outside their mansions eat better than what we scrounge by with our honest construction jobs! And poor, village folk like us get robbed of our forefathers’ lands and thrown out to live like dogs. Where is the justice in that?”
“Don’t talk to me of justice,” I said, silently cursing the men who had filled my boy’s head with such thoughts. “What of the day when the police catch you? They will shoot you down from the walls, break your bones, and throw you into a cell where you will fester with cockroaches and rats! You don’t have a father or brothers who will go in there to beg for your release! All you have is your mother—an illiterate woman who can’t find her way around the city without marking the pattern of trees! Will your gang of thieves risk their lives with the police to get you walking free again?”
That seemed to drill sense into him. The forest folk have no greater dread than to die entombed in a cell. With a grunt, Binu walked out of our shanty. When he returned for dinner, there was no more of shiny thieving money.
I served him the last of our muri, soaked in water and sweetened with a pinch of sugar.
“I will buy some more muri from the market tomorrow,” I tried to console him. “If we ration this money, it will last us long enough for you to find an honest job.”
“I have no desire to chew on muri for the rest of my life!” Binu snarled, and went to bed without his dinner.
He left again the next morning, and did not return.
For days, I waited dry-eyed for my son. I went begging to the doors of the rest of the forest folk. But they said Binu had affronted them all, called Raghu’s new wife a whore in front of everyone at the construction site—they would have nothing more to do with him. I crawled to other people at the settlement; asked those who could read newspapers if there was any report of an accident; even went to the local police station to ask. Nothing came back to me. No news, no rumour, no sliver of light in the dark.
It was then that I started climbing again.
I have never known how old I am at any given time. Age-keeping is not a tradition among the forest folk. Perhaps a mother remembers—the way I remember twenty summers have passed since my Binu came to me—but my parents have been dead a long time. I was an old woman who had outlived her husband and brought up her son to be a man; an illiterate woman migrated to a new land, where there were few whose speech she understood. But I still had a few dark hairs on my head; and when I put my hand on the trunk of the chhatim tree, I could feel the agility of my girlhood coursing through my wizened limbs. I was younger then than I am now, telling you this story.
The first time I climbed the tree, I only sought solace among its leaves and strong-scented blossoms. But once up among the branches, I could feel my apprehensions dissolve. The city lay beneath me, spread much wider than I had ever walked, less forbidding from above than it felt when I looked up from the ground at its walls. It offered countless footholds. Nowhere was too far to reach, as long as I was strong enough of limb and desperate of heart.
I began searching for Binu, crawling over the flimsy roofs of the shanties, from there a leap to the lamp post, then past the thick iron grilles and the concrete terrace of the two-storey house next door. Every night, I ate a dinner of muri and set out after the city had gone to sleep. I counted trees to remember my way—my own house under the chhatim tree, in the shanty settlement, which was twelve buildings from the sterile mango tree that grew by the corner of the road. The city was not a forest, not even a village, but there were enough trees to line one’s route.
There was so much I saw as I climbed—highways filled end to end with horse-drawn coaches, rickshaws and cars; houses of the rich glittering with chandeliers in the balconies. I saw drunks ambling down deserted streets after midnight, falling over each other and wailing the distorted notes of songs I had never heard. I saw white men and women alighting from their cars in front of the theatre, their clothes and jewels and wigs so alien and dazzling to the eye. I saw corpses smouldering till dawn at the burning ghat of Kalighat, under the shade of the Kali temple. I saw poor people—poorer than my son and me—huddling against walls to sleep, only rags between their modesty and the world.
Once I saw a fairground, resplendent with string lights and the mouthwatering smoke of frying snacks curling up in the air. I was not unfamiliar with fairgrounds. Travelling fairs did sometimes come to the village of my past, though none of those simple village fairs had contained the multicoloured tent that rose like a billowing hill at the centre of this fairground, or the Ferris wheel taller than the heights of five grown men.
Fairs often hired local workers to run errands for them. Was that where my Binu had gone? But there were no trees inside the fairground for me to climb my way inside. When I tried to walk in by foot like the other people, I discovered that they demanded an expensive ticket to merely let me enter.
I finally ran out of the stack of thieving money that Binu had left me. I had given away much of it as futile incentive to people who promised to keep an eye out for him. The last of it disappeared when my landlord came demanding rent. When he discovered that my son was gone and I had no money to pay for the next month, he promptly turned me out of the shanty.
I ended up in the streets like the beggars I had seen on my arboreal adventures. Remembering what Binu had once said, I planted myself at the gates of the most affluent-looking mansion in the area. Other beggars were huddled there already—grime-faced old men, women, children—but those street folk showed themselves to be kinder than others who had more to their names. No one shooed away a poor old woman with merely a bowl who had come to sit among them.
Four times a day, a maidservant emerged from the mansion with leftovers in a wide-brimmed bowl, from which all of us ate greedily with our fingers. The maidservant rarely spoke to any of the beggars, but seemed to know all of them by sight. The day after I arrived, she pointed at me and said, “You there—are you a madwoman?”
“No, didi,” I replied modestly.
“Not mad. Not disabled. Not too old to move or work. Why are you begging?”
“I am a poor woman from the village, didi. I have no one to support me,” I said.
“What is your name?”
“Binu’s Ma,” I told her, for that was what I had been since the day he was born.
“And where is your Binu?”
“He is lost, didi. It’s been a month. I’ve searched everywhere, but cannot find him.”
“A common story in the city,” observed the maidservant. “Even so, it’s a shame that you are begging when you’re capable enough for work. We are looking for a cheap new maid in this house. There will be no money, but you will get food and a place to sleep that’s not the street. Do you think you can do it?”
I agreed, so the maidservant waved me in through the gates, locking them on the faces of the other, less fortunate beggars. The housekeeper—plump and dressed in a crisp new sari—went by the name of Leela Rani Dashi. If not told otherwise, I would have taken her for the mistress of the house.
Leela Rani listened to my story and commented, “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t dream of letting riffraff like you into the house, but this household is all in decline. The master’s businesses have been failing; there’s a son to be sent to college and a daughter to be wedded. They cannot afford to pay another decent servant. What caste are you, anyway?”
I did not know of any caste, so I told her that my people were called the forest folk, that our ancestors had lived in the forests.
“Ah, so you’re from one of those unclean castes,” Leela Rani rolled her eyes and sighed. “Not that there is any bias in this house, not as long as the masters don’t find out. Can you cook?”
“Yes, didi,” I said, so Leela Rani sent me off to have a bath, then cook dal.
Afterwards, she tasted the dal and spat it out immediately.
“This is inedible!” Leela Rani growled. “Thank god I didn’t already serve it to the masters. Is this the kind of shit people eat where you come from?”
“We are poor people, didi,” I mumbled.
“If you wish to last in this house, forget all this shit cooking you claim to know. The masters of this house eat lavishly, even in these days of dearth. You cook exactly as I teach you, or go back to the street.”
“Yes, didi,” I lowered my eyes, cowering before this woman less than half my age.
So I stayed in the Dhar Mansion—as it was called after their masters’ name—and learned to cook anew under the supervision of Leela Rani Dashi. I learned to make pulao fragrant of ghee, six kinds of dal, shukto with five different vegetables, rich kalia made of the rui fish, three kinds of chicken and mutton, sweet payesh dripping with jaggery. I was allowed to sleep in a room under the stairs, sharing it with the other maidservant, Subhadra. The Dhar household might have been on its decline, but for me it was a luxury beyond imagination. Never before had I slept on a raised wooden bed, surrounded by a mosquito net.
I did not sleep happily for long.
As I settled into the rhythms of the Dhar household, my heart clamoured again after my son. Even if Binu was dead, I had to know. So I started again on my late-night excursions, lying awake past bedtime for the reassuring sound of Subhadra’s snores. I would step out on tiptoe, holding my breath, finding my way in the dark to the guava tree in the garden, which sent its branches outside over the streets. Then there were more trees, lamp posts, rooftops—the familiar landscape of the city at night.
I was always back in my bed before Subhadra or Leela Rani woke up at dawn.
I am not entirely sure any longer if I made these trips merely for the sake of Binu, or to preserve my own sanity. I never went too far from the house. I skulked every night among the same trees, while vast stretches of the city remained unexplored. Binu might have been anywhere among them.
Or Binu might not have been anywhere at all. He might have died long ago, his body thrown into the river, far from my reach or recognition. But I swung through the branches every night, raptured by the twang of my muscles, breathing in deep lungfuls the chill night air—the sweetest you could find in the city. It was the only time when I felt entirely, hurtfully, alive.
Almost a year passed without incident before, on a rooftop, I ran into a band of thieves. They might have been more surprised to see me than I was to see them.
Those wily, hard-eyed men knew every other thief in the city. I described my son to their leader—about a head taller than me, dark as molasses, head of curly hair, the best climber you would ever meet. My Binu could even find his way up surfaces entirely without foothold.
“I did hear of such a man once encountered by Sidhu’s band up Kolutola way,” the leader told me. “But it was more than a year ago, and he never returned after the first night.”
“How can I be sure you’re telling me the truth?” I demanded.
“Why would I lie to you, Buri Ma?” said the leader of the thieves. “We also have wives and mothers in our homes.”
“None of them like you, though!” leered one of his men.
The leader snapped at the comedian, then said to me, “A man like that in our line of work would become a legend. All the thieves in the city would hear of him. But he’s not there among us, this I can assure you.”
He offered me to join his band instead. I was old and a woman, but I could still be an asset to any band of thieves. I politely declined. I had a job on land; it was good enough. All I wanted was to find my son.
On another night, I climbed all the way to the settlement where Binu and I first lived in this city. I could not even find our old shanty. The chhatim tree had been cut down. Other shanties jostled crookedly in its place. I crouched against their makeshift windows to listen to the breathing of the sleepers inside. I was no longer sure if the other forest folk still lived there, or if newer migrants to the city had taken their place.
That night, I shed my last hope that Binu would come back to me, even if he someday returned.
My days wore on within the walls of the Dhar Mansion—unbroken by surprise or joy. Then, nearly five years after I entered that house, there was a robbery at midnight and I lost my job.
The robbers broke in with hatchets and guns, woke up the household, held everyone up against the walls as they cleaned out the master’s money vault and boxes of the mistress’ jewellery. At that hour, long past midnight, I was conspicuous by my absence. Subhadra tearfully confessed that she had often woken up late in the night and not found me in my bed. By the time I quietly slunk in before daybreak, every member of the Dhar household was ready to turn me over to the police.
All except the son, Udayan—a teenager who had grown up to be a charming, eccentric young man during my years at the house.
“I know that Binu’s Ma has nothing to do with the robbers!” Udayan Dhar put his foot down before his parents’ wrath. “Can’t you all see? She is just an old woman gone funny with age. She goes about mumbling in a strange language and hardly knows what she is doing! We should relieve her of her services.”
He took it upon himself to make sure of it, stood over me in my room as I packed my few belongings, walked me out through the gates of the house. Once we were past the high wall, young Udayan turned to me conspiratorially. “I am sorry you are leaving our house accused of being an accomplice to robbers,” he whispered. “But it had to happen one way or another.”
I held him in a blank stare.
“Very well.” He grinned, gracefully sidestepping the conversation I had no intention of having with him. “Here’s the other thing, Binu’s Ma. You are a skillful cook. I will badly miss that keema curry, I assure you. But there will never be a dearth of work for a cook as good as you. How do you feel about working at a hotel?”
“A ho … tel?” It was an unfamiliar word.
“A hotel is a new kind of establishment where young men go to eat, whenever they need a break from their family meals,” Udayan explained. “The hotels in the city are always looking out for good cooks, especially those who have no qualms about cooking beef. I can take you to a place which my friends and I frequent. I will see that you’re paid a fair salary, and you can rent your own shanty and have all the freedom you want.”
I did not think I had a qualm about cooking anything, so I followed Udayan to this hotel he spoke of. It was like nothing I had seen before—immense iron kadhais of rice, meat, fish, dal, vegetables being washed, chopped, fried, stirred, ladled into servings at the same time, in a never-ending stream. My arms tingled at the very sight.
Nobokrishno Samaddar, the owner of the hotel, was not found unwilling to admit me into his kitchens, though the rest of his cooks were sturdy men, stripped down to their vests, foreheads and biceps dripping with sweat from their toil. The world of outdoor work was not for women from respectable homes in the city. But a poor, illiterate widow from the village, white of hair and bent of spine, was beyond such decorum of domesticity. I could work wherever I liked.
For the next two years, I worked in the kitchens of Nobokrishno Samaddar. I stayed when he sold the hotel, cooking in the employ of the next owner, Abdul Kareem. When Kareem shut shop and returned to Lucknow, I found a place at the vegetarian dhaba of Udhamjeet Singh. From there to a Kali temple where I cooked bhog for the worshippers, after that to yet another hotel.
I kept working and moving, picking up new recipes and methods of cooking, learning to satisfy fresher palates. The city swelled around me, every day swallowing more streams of migrants as they came along chattering in unfamiliar tongues, demanding new foods I had never seen or eaten before. I learned to cook all of them. Within the grease-stained walls of those kitchens, the men and boys took to calling me Buri Ma—“Old Mother,” for there was no longer the name of any offspring to mark me. I had shed my Binu irrevocably from myself.
I lived alone, working all day and roaming above the city at night, though each day my limbs grew a little weaker for a particularly steep climb. I no longer did it with any hope of running into Binu, but to remind myself what I was, to see the worthlessness of my misery against the churning tide of humanity that was the city, to hold dear the forest in my heart.
Then one day, a stranger came looking for me.
On a regular day at the hotel, there is no shortage of eccentrics who come to eat. The stories told by the serving boys in between their shifts could fill entire books. But no one ever asked for me, though the dishes prepared by my hand always met their approval.
“He ordered a plate of keema curry with rice, and asked to meet the lady from the trees.” The boy flailed his arms, perplexed. No one at this hotel knew about my life in the trees, but I was the only woman in the kitchens. “He talks all fine and proper, but he has this … gaze. I don’t think I can explain.”
It was late in the afternoon, way past lunch hour, but just before the eaters of the evening started streaming in. There was only one patron at the hotel.
The man turned out to be portly and middle-aged, spilling from the sides of the cheap plastic chair. He was dressed in a shiny silver jacket, foppish and entirely inappropriate for a gentleman his age. He ate with undivided attention, slurping at his keema curry and rice.
When I took a seat at his table, squeezing myself clumsily into the chair, he exclaimed, “My word! This keema curry is without match! Every bit as good as I’d heard.”
He looked up at me with one normal eye and the other one not of this earth, and whispered, softly, “Parmila Debi, I have travelled a long way to seek you.”
Tears came rushing into my eyes. They blurred the gaudy interiors of the hotel and spilled in large, ungainly drops onto the table before I could check myself. When had I last heard that name pronounced out loud? Not since my husband had passed. When did I lose the last person who had known it? My Binu, my son … so long ago that the interim years bled into one another. I felt lightheaded. For as long as I could remember, I had been Binu’s Ma, Buri Ma, the faceless cook who fed hordes of passing strangers, the weird old woman who climbed trees on the sly at night. Who was this man that came to resurrect that Parmila Debi, lost under reams of forgetfulness and time? What did he want with me?
“I am newly returned to this city,” spoke the man, as if reading my mind. “I have purchased a house along its southwest edge—an ancient mansion half-sunk in the river, its walls held upright by an age-old banyan tree. I have no wife, but a pair of twin children. Parmila Debi, would you come work for me, looking after my house and children while I prepare to start my new business?”
“Only if you tell me what you know,” I said.
“Very well.” The man’s smile flickered in his unearthly eye. “Let me tell you that your Binu is alive and safe, but far away in a town called Thripuram, several weeks’ journey south of here. He spent years in my employ at the Majestic Oriental Circus, though it was only at the hour of his leaving that I learned anything of his former life. Binu is bound in Thripuram to fulfill an obligation from which it may take him years to return, but I promised him I would find you whenever I returned to this city.”
And that was that … Binu was alive, Binu was safe. Binu had other obligations to root him to other places. All of a sudden, sitting at that table in that gaudy, alien hotel, I felt like my life had come to a complete halt.
I had to remind myself to exhale.
It occurred to me that I did not even mind that Binu hadn’t come back to me himself—after so many years, I no longer recalled how to wrap my days around him.
“A banyan tree, did you say?” The words slowly formed in my mind. I had to find my place again in the world—this new one where I no longer lived in anticipation of my son. Where would I go back, to what roots, when the last of the forest folk and their trees were uprooted and scattered to the wind? I was too old, too tired to start with a new guise.
“Entwined in the brickwork,” said the strange man. His smile grew softer; a misty fondness shaded his uncanny eyes for this faraway tree that I’d never met. “Sunk deep in the river soil, binding the crumbling mansion to its foundations.”
“I have had my lifetime’s worth of living in mansions,” I said. “That life no longer inclines me. In the city I cannot live in the branches of a tree, but a shanty among its roots will have to do.”
“Then a shanty you will have, Parmila Debi, right before the entrance of my mansion.”
It was true that I had never met a man like him, nor would learn his name—Johuree—until later. But what did I fear from the strangeness of men? All men in the city were strange to me; and I, to them, perhaps the strangest of all. My Binu was gone, finally a grown man with his own interests that he no longer shared with his mother. He had left me no grandchildren; I didn’t know if he ever would. It would be good to have children again to love and raise, even if they belonged to a stranger whose gaze sent a faint shiver down my spine.
I had been a simple old woman once, another of the forest folk mothers, but I no longer recalled it—the city had turned me into a freak. Why would it surprise me if other people it considered odd turned out to be my family after all? They had been family enough for my Binu. This man was the first to speak a kind word about my son, or any word at all, after the parched decade I had spent with my ears pricked up every moment, even in my sleep, growing accustomed to the heartbeat of this city instead. It would be good—good enough—to spend my last days in the benediction of a banyan tree, surrounded by folk that knew me entirely for what I was.
“I will be happy to come and look after your children,” I said to the strange man. “When do you need me to start?”