She often wondered whether time had taken a wrong turn and left her stranded in a dark abyss. His face drifted in front of her, mostly in her dreams, always out of her reach. When awake, she couldn’t help but worry, fearing for the future, more her own than his. Even their phone calls had been short, almost wordless, his mood a confusing riddle.
Could it be that he had murdered again?
Another one of those fancy madams whom he loved gazing at as if they were wondrous monuments. Or maybe just a Meena or Lata from the trashy side streets where he hawked vegetables on his rickety handcart, a wooden catastrophe waiting to fall apart.
Whatever the reason was, this was no way to treat her. And with a sturdy heart, Neema dialed her son’s number, holding her breath, counting each ring nervously. Just as her hopes were about to be dashed, the rascal picked up, his voice as usual, rough and mechanical. He truly was her son.
‘Namaste Ma. What ails you? Better be important.’
Neema chuckled loudly. The brute didn’t have a shred of manners. Maybe she had taught him none.
‘Eh Kanha! I’ll slap your ugly face so hard. You’ll see stars for days!’
This wasn’t the best start to a conversation, but then she had never known how to talk to the boy. Her hands had done most of the talking for her. But he wasn’t a boy anymore. Kanha was a twenty-seven-year-old man and a killer. Neema pushed her anger aside and spoke in a friendlier tone.
‘Hey boy! It’s been two weeks. Where have you been lost? Have you forgotten about your old mother?’
The woman waited for a reply, but there was only silence, and the sound of heavy breathing.
Had he just finished stabbing his victim? Were his hands still covered in blood?
The thought made Neema tug anxiously at a frayed corner of her sari. She only had four, and this was the newest one. Kanha sent her most of his earnings, leaving little for himself.
Maybe that’s why she had turned a blind eye to his murderous side. Or maybe she was viler than him. Kanha’s reply was short and ordinary.
If anything irked the woman, it was her son’s brief answers. For all the insults she had lavished on him, and all the ear pulling to push him to school, the boy barely had any language skills. He hardly exerted his tongue, but his hands were definitely up to no good. The thought made Neema press the mobile phone harder against her ear. She wanted to hear him speak.
‘Kanha, tell me. What have you done? Your secrets are safe with me.’
The man’s gruff voice softened a bit.
‘What Ma? It’s not like that.’
Neema knew the boy wanted to tell her. It was just a matter of some coaxing.
‘Remember Kanha? When you were nine. I beat your butt with a washing bat. You couldn’t sit for a week after that.’
Her son’s grunt confirmed he was listening. She went on.
‘You took out your anger on a rat. Chopped it up nicely.’
Kanha’s laugh rung loudly. It lacked any feeling.
‘It should’ve been you, Ma.’
The man laughed again. This time softly. Neema thanked her stars that she lived hundreds of miles away from the scoundrel. He would have happily killed her. But this wasn’t about her.
‘Who did you kill? The woman with the dog? Or the ragpicker girl?’
In their last conversation, Kanha had revealed his deranged fixation for the woman and the girl. He had been keeping an eye on both. One was a newly married woman who walked her ugly dog every morning. She gleamed like a pearl in an ocean of plainness. The other was a ragpicker who was as filthy as the garbage she collected. Her dirt-streaked face undeserving of a second glance.
They had ignited a raw passion in Kanha’s heart, driving him to follow them, sometimes with his vegetable cart, mostly without. The man now whimpered.
Neema could imagine the bloodbath. It must have been gory. Kanha never stopped at death. He desecrated the bodies just like he had cut up the rat. She voiced her concern.
‘What if you get caught? They’ll hang you or you’ll rot in jail.’
An unimpressed voice contradicted the woman.
‘I’m smarter than that. No one has a clue.’
Before Neema could say anything, Kanha spoke again.
‘They weren’t the first. Experience matters.’
The woman looked at the time. It was almost noon. Impatience stirred within her again.
‘Are you still at home? Who will sell those vegetables? Are these women getting you any money?’
Irritated by her own questions, Neema lashed out with some more.
‘Will I die of hunger? What about you? When will you get a wife? I’m too old for chores now.’
Again, heavy breathing, and nothing else. The woman wanted to strangle her son. He was a good-for-nothing just like his father. A fool, a failure, a waste of her flesh and blood. But killers were clever, especially the ones who didn’t get caught. The thought frightened her. But rage often clouded Neema’s thinking, and she snapped at Kanha again.
‘Oye Kanha! I’m still your mother! Answer me when I talk to you!’
Sweat filled the woman’s armpits. It wasn’t just the hot, stale air. There had been more punishing heatwaves in the past.
Had the boy buried or burned his victims? He had never shared his secrets beyond a certain point. It was his matter, but she was attached to the fool, dependent on him just like he had once been dependent on her. And Neema had been anything but kind.
The line crackled, but Kanha’s voice returned.
‘Too many questions. Don’t bother me, Ma.’
There was a pause and then some more words.
‘I hate women. Don’t need a wife.’
Neema’s heart pounded in her ears. The boy was wandering from her grip. All the terror and hatred she had filled in him was now working against her. Soon, he wouldn’t even answer her calls, or recognize her voice. All he had to his name were a few murders and a cartload of vegetables. Neither were doing him any good. Her instructions were clear.
‘Kanha! City life is ruining you! Come home to me!’
Harshness would get her nowhere, so Neema softened her stance and spoke in a milder voice.
‘Kanha, come home, my son. I need you.’
The heavy breathing was gone. There was a loud beep and then nothing. Kanha had disconnected the call. A door creaked behind Neema. She didn’t bother to turn. She knew who it was. The cold edge of the knife touched her hot skin. A smile spread as blood spilled. Killer Kanha came calling.
Neema had taught her son well.
Two people, two different drinks, one never-ending fight. I’m Vodka, He’s Beer is a story of habit, hard to break.