He’s quite the plump rooster. Crying out plaintively with rapidly flapping wings, he flew down in a spiral from somewhere in front of the roti shop. Unable to keep his balance, he fell over. One of his wings still quivering frantically, while the other rested still. The feathers of the open wings sparkled and twinkled in the twin illumination of the streetlights and the LED lights from the roti shop. Waiting for his rotis, Ratan Master’s eyes fell on the shine of the multicolored wings in the light. The rooster was trying to stand upright; he will get a chance to fly again if he regains his balance. He still kept screeching, voice fainter than before. Ratan Master noticed that the rooster’s legs were tied.
“How much longer for the rotis?” he asked.
“About another half an hour, sir! Once the peas potato curry is done, the rotis will be made. Motiya is kneading the dough right now. Want to have some tea? Motiya will make it on the stove. Especially for you!”
“Sure. Without milk.”
“Of course. Motiya, make tea for sir! Bring me a cup too,” Munna yelled. The roti shop was on his front yard, and it benefited from being on the roadside, right next to the slums. Ratan Master came here every day to get rotis. He sat a while, and talked about this and that; he is not in a rush. After surveying many shops, he has decided on Munna’s Roti Shop – soft rotis made with good quality wheat. To wait for a while for something that good was satisfying. Ratan Master also liked the smell of the rotis being toasted. He settled down on the wooden bench comfortably.
Upon hearing Munna’s order, Motiya came out of the shop. Noticing Ratan Master, she pulled her veil over her face a little and said, “There is no kerosene. You have to take the kadhai down and heat the water. I’ll make the tea.”
“No, no. No need for tea. I’ll just sit here,” Ratan Master said, embarrassed. He knew quite a few people from the slums here. Their children attend the public primary school. The school itself is not far from here. The black, dirty waters of the large canal near the road and its putrid smell have polluted the air of the school along with the slums.
Well-acquainted with the helplessness, poverty, uncleanliness, and crime infestation of the slums, Ratan Master felt that they would not charge for the tea; hence, there was no need to go to all the trouble for it. But Munna paid no heed to Master’s protests. He put the water to heat on the oven, and then burst out in anger, “The bastards give only a liter’s kerosene for 100 rupees! And there is never any kerosene in the ration shop, they sell it all in the black market.”
Ratan Master is not unfamiliar with this reality. Although, he never needs kerosene. Being a single man alone in the house, one cylinder of gas is enough to last him a month. While listening to Munna’s complaints about the lack of kerosene, he began watching the fallen rooster’s struggles once again. From within the slums, a shrill female voice wafted over, “Hey Chandu! O Makhna! Catch the rooster and bring it to me!”
A few moments later, Chandu and Makhna came running. Makhna held a bucket in his hands. They were Ratan Master’s two students: one in third grade and the other in fourth. They were happy to see Master. They said excitedly, “Sir, sir! This is our rooster. Today there will be chicken at home, chicken!”
“We’ll eat chicken! He-he-he! Chicken! Chicken, chucken. Chicken, chucken. This bastard will be very tasty, right sir?”
“We’ll cut up the bastard!”
“What have I taught you?” Ratan Master said, “You shouldn’t say bad words like that.”
“Sorry, sir. It was a mistake. Are you angry? Are you?”
“No, I’m not angry.”
“Look here, sir. You see the knife? I will cut up the rooster with this. It’s incredibly sharp. Here, hold it, hold it. Hold it and see!”
But the Master held both his hands close to his chest. Nearly hiding his hands from sight, he said, “The knife is truly very good, Chandu. But why do you two need to cut up the rooster? Take it home, someone will cut it up for you there.”
His students burst out in squeals of delighted laughter. They clapped their hands and danced a little. “Sir is scared, sir is scared!”
Chandu threw a kick to the rooster and the bird cried out in pain. Spreading his wings wide, he flapped them hard. In a swift jump, Makhna tried to trap the rooster under the bucket in his hands. The bird was fighting back valiantly; crying out in pitiful squeaks and thrashing his wings, he left scratches on the ground with the nails on his bound feet as he tried to upturn the bucket. Makhna’s strength was also not to be underestimated. He too began to push down on the bucket harder. The Master watched as Munna, Chandu, and passers-by heartily enjoyed this struggle.
In the violent back and forth, the rooster’s red comb came somewhat loose. Immediately, Makhna grabbed the fallen red comb with a pounce. At the rooster’s jostling, the bucket finally fell over. With two cups of tea in her hand, Motiya came and stood behind Ratan Master at this moment, “Have the tea, sir.” She kept the other cup beside Munna’s hand. With the aroma of spices and the color of turmeric, the curry made of cottage cheese and potatoes were bubbling over heartily. Munna said, “Don’t forget to add the black pepper and salt before taking the curry off the fire.”
Meanwhile, Makhna and Chandu were busy with the rooster’s comb.
“Sir, look here! It’s so soft! Blood is dripping out too. Touch it, touch it!”
Ratan Master said, “I know their comb is as soft as petals. Throw it away.”
“We’ll eat it! We are so hungry. Ooh la la ooh la la!” Makhna crooned.
“Want to eat it? Yeah? Let’s eat.”
Ratan Master called out in horror, “Hey! No, no! Don’t eat it. Throw it. Throw it away!”
“He-he-he! Sir, haven’t you ever eaten raw chicken? Tastes amazing. I always pick up pieces to eat whenever I go to my father’s shop.”
Ratan Master felt bile rising in his throat. He didn’t feel like drinking the tea anymore, but he had to take a sip, for courtesy’s sake. He felt as though he were helpless. Children love him, but sometimes in loving them back, Ratan Master was a helpless man. Taking small sips of the tea, he tried to distract himself by looking at the light in the shop. A long time ago, when he used to study physics, light was his favorite topic. He doesn’t remember any of it now, but he still tried to think of the full-form of LED.
Despite trying his best to not let his eyes wander to it, Ratan Master couldn’t help but look at his students. Makhna licked the rooster’s comb by hanging it on his nose. Chandu did the same. They kept licking the comb, one after the other. Motiya yelled out, “See now, you wounded the rooster! If it dies, your mother will beat your skin off. It will be inedible, you fools!”
“Ah Auntie, it’s fierce-spirited. It has taken a lot of beatings; the bastard won’t die so easily,” Makhna said. Chandu instantly corrected him, “Hey! Sir forbade us from saying ‘bastard,’ remember? Sir, look, Makhna said ‘bastard!’ Shall I gut him? Shall I gut him with the knife?”
Excerpted with permission from Murder by Tilottama Majumdar, translated from the Bengali by Subarna Banerjee, edited by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri, Antonym.