averted, Vijay hurries past the group of lepers clustered
round a small trash-fire on the sidewalk. Bombay has so many,
with horrifying gargoyle faces and missing toes. The neon
street lamps cast a dim purplish light on uneven cobbled
sidewalks lined with the cocoon-like figures of sleeping
It’s after 2 a.m., and the last
train has left. The gothic bulk of Victoria Terminus rises
before him, its ominous carvings peering into the dark through
hundreds of eyes. The air smells of feces, night-scented flowers,
the sea, and a rotting rat. There’s no taxi anywhere.
“Bhai?” says a voice. “Brother?”
A man steps from the shadows.
His nose is gone, and a hole gapes in one cheek. Vijay walks
on quickly, suppressing pity and disgust. Leprosy. In the wealthy,
it’s Hansen’s disease; the victims get treated and recover.
The poor get crippled and beg.
“Bhai?” The man stumbles
along behind him. “Vijay-bhai? Don’t you recognize me?”
As the leper speaks, he does.
“Raj? What…? They told me you
were dead. Two years ago. In the April of 1975…” Raj. Vijay’s
childhood friend. Raj, who died while Vijay was studying overseas,
and Vijay had wept secretly over Mother’s letter.
“Yes,” Raj says, his voice soft
and harsh, his eyes shadowed by the dirty shawl wrapping him. “I’m
“Don’t say that!” In a flash,
Vijay understands. Raj Raj didn’t die, he contracted the living
death of leprosy. Mother’s letter lied, to save him pain and
Raj’s family shame.
“They can cure leprosy nowadays,” Vijay
says. Why hadn’t his family done something? Money problems,
most likely. “They have medicines. Don’t worry about the cost.
Tomorrow, I myself will take you…”
Raj interrupts him. “This is
not leprosy, Vijay-bhai. No hospital will help me.”
It’s true that Raj looks terrible,
much worse than any of the other lepers. “Of course, they will
help you,” Vijay says. “If it isn’t leprosy, then the doctors
will find out what it is.” Yaws? Kala-azar? Something.
Raj just shakes his head no.
Damn this fatalism! He must get
him to treatment. Maybe his family actually tried, maybe Raj
“Vijay, I truly am dead,” Raj
says. “I have no breath.”
“What?” Vijay says, trying to
reason with him. “If you were dead, you would be cremated!”
“My body disappeared from the
hospital before my family arrived. I am dead. Mein hoon
ek zinda laash.”
Zinda laash. A living
corpse. A zombie. Suddenly, Vijay’s terrified.
The Raj-creature steps into the
hard light beneath a street lamp, and pulls a long knife from
under his shawl. Vijay jumps back, ready to run.
“A tantric promised he could
make me wealthy, pay for my sister’s wedding…he used me for
his magic, killed me, turned me loose like this.”
“But, what are you doing here?” Vijay
asks warily, watching the knife. With the lepers, he means,
but he doesn’t say it. Raj seems to understand anyway.
“Where else would I go? When
there is no hope, when you are a corpse who cannot die, even
the ordinary street dwellers run away. The leper folk…understand.”
Painfully, Raj bends down, places
the knife on the ground. Most of his fingers are gone. The
dark skin on his forearm is shriveled and ragged. “I stole
this from a shop.”
He struggles to his feet and
removes the shawl, exposes a bare neck. “I waited two years
for someone to help me. There is no one, only you…please kill
Vijay swallows hard and picks
up the knife with his handkerchief. A ripe smell of decay overlays
the scents of feces and flowers and the sea. He tries to steel
himself for what he has to do.
Someone coughs. The group of
beggars is watching him, heads turn from the fire. Vijay looks
at them, at the knife, at Raj. He hears a quiet voice from
among them. “Kill me too, sir…”
“I can’t!” Vijay cries and steps
back. “Raj, I promise I’ll arrange your sister’s wedding.” And
he drops the knife with a clatter.
The lepers murmur. Vijay walks
away hurriedly, trying not to run.
“Sahib!” someone calls. It’s
not Raj. “O, kayar-sahib!” Hey, Sir Coward.
Vijay turns back to see a leper
lifting the knife, using both stump-fingered hands. As he watches,
the man hacks at Raj’s neck until the head falls to the paving
stones with a fleshy thud, and the body collapses into a pile
of rags. The warm stench of decay overpowers all the other
smells. The executioner looks at him, his eyes dark pits under
the harsh street lamp.
The leper’s had the guts to do
what he couldn’t.
Vijay pauses, salutes him. The
man gives a small nod and returns to the fire. Vijay continues
his lonely walk. Sir Coward indeed. The sea wind is blowing
in his eyes. Maybe that’s what’s making them water.
# # #
Lepers by Keyan
published November 23, 2009