Varun walked through the grove behind the bungalow. He’d spent the past week counting the trees on the property and only recognized three. At the end of the driveway was the massive banyan, hundreds of roots dangling from its branches and weaving into one another to form delicate curtains he could brush aside. By the side of the house was the guava tree. Even though Jyoti Aunty had warned him to be careful, he’d still scraped his elbows climbing its trunk. And the guava he plucked was so hard he couldn’t even bite into it. Poppy had sniffed the guava without interest, then chased after a squirrel and barked as it scurried across branches. The third and final tree was the most special. A bougainvillea in bloom by the boundary wall. Ma’s favourite. Sometimes they would go for a walk in the colony’s park and she would point at trees and ask him to guess their names. Bougainvillea had been the easiest to learn because of how difficult it was to spell. Who knew a word could hide so many letters? Ma had laughed the first time he guessed at its spelling.
The smell of wet earth was rich this deep inside the grove, with its muddy puddles and leaves turning to mulch. It reminded him of rain on stone, of Ma’s hands after gardening. It was winter in Delhi. His school sometimes closed for days because of the pollution, and he and Komal liked to sit in front of the television and watch cartoons all day long, warming their feet against the portable heater. Outside, a dense fog would hang low among the tree branches, coating the roofs of parked cars with moisture.
In Bangalore, there was no fog. The air was light, bright, and not even that cold. Peering through the gaps in the canopy, he could see kites flying in graceful circles, their wings spread wide and their bodies dipping with the wind. How did they do that? He would have to look this up when he got home. Then he remembered home was packed into suitcases and cardboard boxes. He didn’t even know if they’d brought Ma’s nature books or Pa’s gigantic leather-back volumes of Indian history. What about the gramophone?
The smell of wet earth was rich this deep inside the grove, with its muddy puddles and leaves turning to mulch. It reminded him of rain on stone, of Ma’s hands after gardening.
The back of his throat prickled. He kicked at a tree trunk. The sight of its scraped bark immediately made him whisper an apology.
No, the boxes in his room only contained his old belongings, not theirs. Maybe there were other boxes hidden away, but Jyoti Aunty was so keen to unpack and shelve and tidy up that he would’ve noticed. There was always something she wanted him to do.
He pinched himself. It wasn’t fair to think cruel thoughts about her. Ma had told him that Jyoti Aunty faced difficulties he could never understand. He picked up a stick and, keeping his eyes shut, tapped the ground and moved forward with an arm outstretched. He tripped over a root. He splashed into a puddle and soaked one of his shoes. His sock squelched with every step. He tripped over another root and stumbled headfirst into a wall.
Here he was, struggling to walk a few feet. Meanwhile, Jyoti Aunty could cross roads without hesitation.
He removed his shoe and squeezed the water from his sock. The wall he’d walked into was the boundary wall, and from the other side came the incredibly loud sounds of construction. There were great booms and hoarse calls. He wasn’t sure what was happening out there, but clouds of dust drifted over the wall and settled on the leaves and branches of the grove. Following the boundary wall, he caught sight of the bougainvillea and tried to recall what Ma had told him.
The vines have long, spiky thorns, so be careful! The flowers are actually white but they’re surrounded by a cluster of pink leaves called bracts.
Above him, shards of glass from broken bottles had been wedged into the cement at the top of the boundary wall. What else had Ma told him? How could he have forgotten so much? The last time they went for a walk in the park, he’d ditched her for a game of seven stones without even saying goodbye.
He remembered Pa plucking bougainvillea near Feroz Shah’s tomb and threading it through her hair. And the jar in the living room, which she liked to fill with small pebbles and delicate pink bracts. And the time when she bandaged his fingers after he pricked himself on their thorns and was surprised into tears.
But he couldn’t remember anything else Ma had told him about bougainvillea.
What else had Ma told him? How could he have forgotten so much?
He rested his forehead against the wall. Its surface was grainy, browned over the years with plenty of cracks and chips. It looked like it could collapse from the slightest of touches.
He half-wished it would.
Voice tight in his throat, he whispered, ‘I want to go home.’ The wall gently shook with the pounding of construction. The movement disturbed a lizard from its hiding place. Varun watched it skitter across the wall. It was pale green and so translucent that he could see veins branching beneath its skin. Pa was terrified of lizards. The way they move! Yikes! Why are they so unpredictable, man? He would flee from the room while Ma, laughing, would nudge the lizard into a cup to set it free in the colony’s park.
‘Hello, little ghost,’ Varun said, just as Ma used to say. He offered his open palm to the lizard, but it disappeared down a hole in the wall. Kneeling to get a better look, he was surprised to find the hole was large enough that he could squeeze through. On the other side were a filthy courtyard and an empty swimming pool.
Varun frowned. He’d expected to see blue tarpaulin sheets and bamboo scaffolding, piles of sand and cement mixers. Not an empty swimming pool. Where were the construction workers? Everything was carpeted in a thick layer of dust. Filthy and drained of water, the swimming pool looked strange. Like it didn’t belong there. And yet there was something familiar about it.
He thumbed the edges of the hole, the wall’s insides with its mossy bricks that were powdery yet rough to the touch. If he wanted to, he could cross over. He could have a quick look around and be back on this side without anyone knowing. He could. There was no one to stop him. Grandma hardly left her bed and Jyoti Aunty never stepped inside the grove. Even if Jyoti Aunty did wander past this spot, it wouldn’t matter because she couldn’t see.
His neck burnt with shame. No, that was not nice. He shouldn’t have thought that. Picking at a scab on his elbow, he considered going back to the house to finish his homework, maybe help Jyoti Aunty unpack the remaining boxes. But then he spotted something inside the pool. It was small, circular, casting a shiny speck of a reflection. A coin. Waiting to be found.
Varun glanced over his shoulder, then squeezed through to the other side. Seconds later, the hole in the wall sealed itself up.
Poppy twitched her nose. The hairs on her back stood on end, bristly as thorns. She could smell it in the wind, sense it in the air. Something was very wrong. There had come a swift predatory sound from the grove, like a cat leaping to snatch a pigeon, crushing a windpipe between its teeth and muffling panicked wingbeats by clawing flesh.
She pawed the front door.
‘You want to go out?’ her sister asked.
‘Okay, okay, no need to be so noisy.’ Her sister slid her hand along the wall and guided herself to the front door, which she opened.
Poppy padded out and listened. The insects in her territory had gone deathly quiet. She sniffed the grounds around the house, seeking the source of this disturbance, and soon picked up the scent of the boy.
The last one was potent, like orange rinds turning rancid in the summer. She’d grown accustomed to it hanging thick and oppressive inside the house, especially over her poor ma, but here it was, spilt outside.
She lowered her nose to the ground and followed the boy’s scent. Along the way he’d stumbled. Had he used a stick? Here was a scuffed trunk, here a shallow puddle, and his tracks. Her apprehension mounted as she moved away from the outer rings of her territory into hostile underbrush. Several times she heeded the warning calls of birds and took off, only resuming her search when she was sure she wasn’t being watched. She kept expecting a scene of violence, feathers and blood. Just as she was beginning to tire, her joints stiff and aching, she arrived at the boundary wall where the boy’s scent winked out.
And in its place stood a vertical line of darkness, hissing and crackling at the edges.
Poppy yelped and scurried away. She hid behind a tree and sniffed the earth, the roots. A tunnel! How was this possible? She’d always believed they were stories told to pups to warn them of the pipes under the city. What was this, then? How was she supposed to defend her territory against something that was like waves of heat trembling on the horizon? This was no prey that could be savaged by her teeth.
She kept expecting a scene of violence, feathers and blood.
Where was the boy? The boy, the boy! This was his doing, climbing over boundaries without sensing the danger lying in wait.
She thought about leaving. She could go back to the house, eat her rice and mince and laze in the garden, or maybe walk her sister up and down the driveway and then lie under the blanket beside her ma. It would be so easy to go back.
Safety, comfort, family.
And what if something happened to the boy? He was still only a pup. He was not like that man who’d treated her so roughly. The family had suffered enough. With the boy lost, their grief would turn solid, climb upon their shoulders, and wrap its hands around their throats.
Her sister whistled from home. ‘Poppy! Where are you?
The timing was cruel, like a vet’s injection sliding under pinched fur. But wasn’t that life? It was capable of breathtaking cruelty, striking from out of nowhere, random, unrepentant, leaving devastation in its wake or little children at the mercy of grief. Poppy was no fool. She knew the truth. To go would be to abandon the boy, and the boy was under her protection.
What was she to do, then?
The answer came from instinct. Poppy began to dig.
Excerpted with permission from The Colony of Shadows, Bikram Sharma
Publishing/Hachette India (September 2022)
You can buy your copy here.
Bikram Sharma is from Bangalore. He completed an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and in 2016 he was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust writing fellowship at the University of Kent. The Colony of Shadows is his debut novel.