Excerpt from The Orphan Keeper
28 June 2019
The city of Erode was like a thousand others that dotted the vast landscape of India. How could it not be, with over half a billion people who called the country home? Erode had hotels and hostels, factories and farms, cement homes and mud huts, hope and despair — and a mischievous boy of almost eight named Chellamuthu. Like so many other poor children in India, the boy wore disheveled hair, warm eyes, and a naïve grin. At his age, running around the city without shoes and shirt was still a choice and not an embarrassment. Despite his family’s poverty, he was generally content — except for that constant, itchy feeling of hunger. He would never get used to that. “Are you ready?” Chellamuthu whispered, crouching like a hungry tiger beside the park fence. His timid cousin Krishna paced the dirt behind him, head bobbing, fingers twitching. “If the guard catches you, he’ll beat you like a sewer rat!”
“Not if I’m a fast sewer rat.” Badri Park in Erode, a short six blocks from Chellamuthu’s home, had been finished a year earlier, and to the children living in its shadow, it was a mystical dream come true, as if they’d awakened to discover that the Taj Mahal had been built next door. The day the park opened, before they started to charge admission, Chellamuthu overheard a man say that the design was patterned after children’s playgrounds in America. If that was true, Chellamuthu was ready to stow away that very day. At the center of the park was a tall double slide that rolled out from a covered platform like twin metal tongues. While their shiny surfaces could scald a child’s skin, the thrill of plummeting down a slick piece of baking metal on one’s backside was worth the risk of burns.
To the east of the slide, secluded by a planted row of trees, stood three sets of spindly swings with spidery red legs cemented securely into the ground. Their soft rubber seats dangled enticingly on steel chains, and though they were at first perplexing to Chellamuthu and his friends, the boys quickly learned, by watching children of the wealthy, the proper way to pump their legs to send the swings higher.
To the west of the slide was Chellamuthu’s favorite ride: a round, spinning dish with attached bars, all hovering over a soft bed of sand. It was called a Merry-Go-Round, and it was brilliant! Children would gather around it in a circle and push like a stampeding ring of mules, causing the metal platter to spin so furiously that anyone attempting to hang on would be spit into the sand like bad tobacco. Dreams on a disk. Exhilarating! There was more—each piece with a name as thrilling as the ride itself: Teeter-Totter, Monkey Bars, Jungle Gym.
Oh, what a wonderful place this America must be! The first several weeks the park was open, admission was free for everyone — until they finished the brick and metal fence that surrounded it. The grizzled guard who began demanding rupees at the entrance explained curtly that the fence was there to keep the children inside safe. However, his words, delivered with grunting disdain, made it clear they were now charging a “small” fee solely to keep the poor and undesirables out. But scarcity often breeds ingenuity. A single child could easily distract the guard at the gate while on the opposite side of the park a multitude of children poured over the fence like roaches.
Of course, they would often be discovered, chased, and tossed outside to the cement like rubbish. But even that was exciting, making any day at Badri Park for a poor boy in India a good day. “Are you ready, Krishna?” Chellamuthu waited for his cousin to divert the guard. But this time it wasn’t so he could break into the park to play. No, today he was here on official business. A group of older boys from Kannaian Street had befriended Chellamuthu in town and then stopped him a week later at the bridge at Barrage Road when he was driving the landowner’s cattle across to feed. They had noticed that although Chellamuthu was athletic for his age, he was built with skinny arms. Even though he didn’t yet know the boys’ names, they had offered him three rupees to sneak into the park and see if his hand would fit through the opening of the box where the guard dropped the entrance fees.
They said it wasn’t stealing, insisting that he take nothing from inside. “Just see if you can push your hands through the hole and then tell us how deep you can reach,” they said. “You know, to measure the depth of the box. We have a bet about how many rupees can fit into a box that size.” What could be wrong with that? Nothing, except his mother’s words had camped in his head, and Chellamuthu couldn’t convince them to leave: “Be honest, good son, be kind. You must, if you ever hope to see the end of your suffering and attain moksha.”
Moksha, a state of liberation where one could finally be free from the struggles of life and the cycle of reincarnation. He was sick of the grubby word. But if there was a battle in his head as to what he should do, his resistance was so quickly pummeled that it never stood a chance. Now, as he crouched outside the park, the older boys had come into sight, and he was already supposed to be inside. He shoved Krishna toward the guard and then scurried to the opposite fence. The job would be quick. He would never get caught. He’d earn an easy three rupees. What could possibly go wrong?