Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line - Deepa Anappara



When Mental was alive, he was a boss-man with eighteen or twenty children working for him, and he almost never raised his hand against any of them. Every week he gave them 5Stars to split between themselves, or packs of Gems, and he made them invisible to the police and the evangelist-types who wanted to salvage them from the streets, and the men who watched them with hungry eyes as the children hurtled down railway tracks, gathering up plastic water bottles before a train could ram into them.

Mental didn’t mind if his rag-picker boys gave him five Bisleri bottles instead of fifty, or if he caught them outside the cinema when they should have been working, wearing their best clothes and standing in a queue for a First Day First Show ticket they couldn’t even afford. But he turned on them the days they showed up with their noses red, their words mixing together like blood and water, their eyes swollen like full moons from sniffing whitener. Then Mental stubbed out his Gold Flake Kings on their wrists or shoulders, and he called it a waste of a good cigarette.

The pungent fumes of burnt flesh trailed his boys, and washed away the sweet, short thrills of Dendrite or Eraz-ex. He knocked some major sense into their heads, Mental did.

We never met him because he lived in this neighborhood long before our time. But the people who knew him, like the barber who has been shaving stubbly cheeks for decades, and the madman who smears ash across his chest and calls himself a saint, still talk about him. They say Mental’s boys never picked fights about who got to board a running train first, or who could claim a stuffed toy or a bump-and-go racing car wedged into the gap behind a seat-berth. Mental taught his boys to be different. That’s why, of all the children who worked at all the railway stations across the country, they lived the longest.

But Mental himself died one day. His boys knew he hadn’t planned on it. He was young and healthy and had promised to hire a tempo and drive them to the Taj before the monsoon came to the city. They cried over him for days. Weeds flowered in the bald ground watered by their tears.

Then the boys had to work for men who were nothing like Mental. There were no chocolate bars or movies in their new lives, only hands scorched by railway lines gleaming like gold in the summer sun, the temperature forty-five degrees by eleven in the morning. In winter, it bellyflopped to one or two degrees and sometimes, when the mist was white and grainy like dust, the knife-edge of the icy tracks skinned their blistered fingers.

Every day after scavenging, the boys cleaned their faces with the water dribbling from a leaky pipe at the station and sent a collective prayer up to Mental to rescue them before a train’s wheels ground their arms and legs to bone-dust, or a belt whistled through the air to snap their hunched spines into two and they never walked again.

In the months that followed Mental’s death, two boys died chasing after trains. Kites circled their splintered corpses and flies kissed their blue-black lips. The men who employed them thought it a waste of money to have their bodies picked up and cremated. The trains didn’t stop and the engines screamed late into the night.

One evening soon after the deaths, three of Mental’s boys crossed the road that separated the railway station from the hotchpotch of shops and hotels whose terraces were packed with red-and-white mobile-phone towers and black Sintex tanks. Neon signs flashed PURE VEG FOODS and STATION VIEW and INCREDIBLE !NDIA and FAMILY COMFORT. The boys were visiting a place not far from here: a brick wall with iron railings on which Mental had dried his clothes, and below which he had slept at night with everything he owned tied up in a sack that he hugged tight as if it were his wife.

In the yellow-pink light of the letters that formed HOTEL ROYAL PINK, they saw the small clay gods that Mental had arranged in a niche in the wall, Lord Ganesh with his trunk curled up in his chest and Lord Hanuman lifting a mountain with one hand and Lord Krishna playing the flute, sun-dried marigolds pressed down with stones at their feet.

The boys knocked their foreheads against the wall and asked Mental