Fiction from Bikram Sharma
Amrit’s fingers close around the ladybird. It’s the most valuable type, red with black dots, and if he’s careful he could show it off to his classmates or keep it in a glass jar by his bed. Instead he swallows it whole. Down it goes, down into his stomach. He knows what will happen next. Two possibilities: multiplication, where the ladybird becomes ladybirds, one into two into four into infinite, killing him as they swarm out of his mouth; or it takes root so that in time he grows paper-thin wings. He crosses his fingers, hoping for the latter.
Sandeep joins him. They sit under a cherry tree and watch other students playing football and kicking up clouds of dust which drift across the school field. Some of the older boys get into a shouting match. A teacher pushes through the crowd, grabbing at collars to break up the fight. Lunch break is nearly over and spirits are rowdy.
Sandeep spits blood. He smiles shyly and says, “Someone poured acid on Ekta.”
Amrit understands the individual words but not the sentence. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, during chemistry someone spilt acid on her arm and it burnt her skin. They took her to Nurse first, but obviously for such a big problem what’s Nurse going to do? Miss Mirza ended up driving her to the hospital.”
“How do you know?”
“My bro told me. He was in the class next to the lab. Said the room smelt horrible and Sunita puked. Princy was super angry. He had everyone from the chemistry class sit with him and explain what happened.”
“So what happened? Who did it?”
“Don’t know. My brother told me to bugger off when I asked.” There are smudges of red by the corners of his lips.
“You’re bleeding again.”
Sandeep grimaces as he fishes a sharp sliver of glass from his mouth. “What to do?”
Amrit considers telling him not to eat glass anymore, but he knows that’s impossible. Just as he swallows ladybirds, ants, dragonflies and beetles, Sandeep slides glass, blades, pins and staples into his mouth. Their classmates make fun of them for this and at some point he knows they’ll be caught and punished, that’s inevitable, but for now this is what they do because it’s in their nature.
The bell rings.
Amrit races Sandeep across the field, twisting his way past fellow students. Soon he’ll be able to flutter above them all.
Miss Menon enters the classroom, clapping her hands and shouting, “Sit down, sit down, hurry up and sit down!” Amrit’s already seated but he yelps when a paper pellet stings his calf. Dev snaps a rubber band between his fingers and smirks.
“Okay, class six, be quiet,” Miss Menon says. “Geography has been cancelled today as we’re having a special class on sexual education.”
Upon hearing this some of the girls straighten their backs.
“Now then, this is a serious topic so please pay attention. Vinita, no talking! You’re all reaching an age in your life when you begin to see and experience changes in your body. Some of these changes include hair growing on your face, on your chest, under your arms, and even in other places. This process is called puberty. Puberty can be difficult because your body behaves in ways that are unpredictable. What do I mean by that? Well, you may grow taller. Your shoulders may broaden. Your voice will break, which means it will deepen. Essentially, you’re growing. While this may sound very strange and scary, it’s perfectly natural. What’s happening is that you’re turning into adults, a process which is different for boys and for girls.” She flips open a textbook to a bookmarked page and holds it up for the class to see. “This is a penis.”
Amrit squints at the cross-sectional diagram on the page and recalls his father instructing him to peel back his foreskin when he bathes and urinates. But he never explained why.
“These are the testicles,” Miss Menon says, using the tip of a pencil to trace two pink-shaded ovals. She begins to speak like a tape on fast-forward: “They’re essential components of a boy’s reproductive system, are enclosed in the scrotum behind the penis, and produce testosterone and sperm.” She flips the page. “And this is a vagina.”
There’s no explaining this diagram. Amrit looks at his classmates. Some are doodling or looking out the window, though most of the girls are behaving in a way that reminds him of flies against a windowpane—still yet hyper-attentive.
“When a man and woman marry and wish to have children, they have sexual intercourse. During sexual intercourse, the man’s penis becomes erect. Erect means that it fills with blood. This is what an erection looks like.”
Vinita bursts into laughter.
“Don’t laugh, don’t laugh,” Miss Menon shouts, banging a duster against the blackboard.
What does it mean to fill with blood? All Amrit can picture is Sandeep’s mouth, delicate flesh cut and weeping.
“The penis enters the vagina and . . . after some stimulation, ejaculates.” Miss Menon frowns, trying to make up her mind. “What this means is that the penis, well, it enters the vagina and releases sperm.”
Amrit switches off. This is too complicated for him to understand. His classmates raise their hands and ask questions about breasts, ejaculation, sperm and chromosomes, and Miss Menon answers in words that are equally large and misshapen, like mutant variations of a familiar vocabulary. Staring at the pastel-coloured images in the textbook, he finds himself thinking about Ekta. She has a large leather-bound album which she carries in her backpack and enjoys sharing with him on the bus. It’s filled with feathers. They’re pressed between pages and held in place by glossy strips of tape. They both agree that the best feather is the brightest one from a parrot. It’s a wonderful red with streaks of yellow that light it on fire. He’s often smoothed its barbs, half-hoping his fingers will feel the heat. Will Ekta be on the bus tomorrow, or will her acid burn take a long time to heal?
Miss Menon snaps the textbook shut. “I think that’s enough for today. There’s a video on the topic, but because Mr Shah is using the TV for drama class, we’ll have to wait till tomorrow. Don’t worry, the video should answer any questions you have. This is, of course, a sensitive topic, so please don’t be afraid to bring it up with me whenever you want.” She wipes the blackboard, even though she hasn’t written anything, then abruptly leaves. Papers rustle, chair legs scrape across floor. Another paper pellet stings Amrit’s arm and he wishes not for wings but for pincers.
“Bus number 5,” Miss Reddy bellows, and a queue moves forward. It’s the end of the school day and the students are lined up by bus number in front of the gates. Everyone’s talking about Ekta, their conversations crackling in the hot air, and Amrit overhears the rumour that the principal might expel Tarun because he’s the one who spilt the acid.
“What’re you saying?” a nearby senior exclaims. “Why would Princy do that?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” the senior’s friend replies. “Tarun did it on purpose. The chooth thought he was being very clever and everything, playing some fucking prank. Moron. They should chop off his balls. Did you hear her scream? Fuck me, man, I’ll never forget it. We were in the middle of a test and Miss Mirza ran out to see what happened.”
“You see Ekta?”
“No, dude. They took her away pretty quickly. Someone told me her flesh melted and you could see the bone.”
Amrit feels as though a football has slammed into his chest. There are no insects so he grabs a fistful of sand and rolls it in his mouth, grinding the tiny grains with his teeth. Their gritty explosions are loud in his head. He pictures bone peeking through flesh, the hollow tip of a feather.
“Look at this retard,” one of the seniors says, looming over him and giving him a whack on the head. “What’re you doing? You keep eating that you’ll be crapping piles of sand.”
He remains motionless, waiting for something to distract their attention. The afternoon heat is silt, settling smooth and heavy over him, making his forearms sweat and shine like the rainbow wings of a dragonfly.
“Bus number 6,” Miss Reddy bellows. The queue he’s in pushes forward and he hurries along, climbing the steps of his bus to sit by the window of a middle row. Two seniors in the back are already playing a game of red hands, slapping each other as hard as they can, and Amrit tries to imagine the day he’ll metamorphose into such hulking creatures. The bus pulls away, leaving behind a sea of faces impatient to go home. He waves at Sandeep who grins bloody teeth.
The ride from school to the centre of the city is long and Amrit sleeps. When he wakes up, head reeling from sluggishness, he finds his penis has stiffened, hitching his shorts up and down and drawing attention to itself. This has been happening for the past few months, though thankfully Ekta hasn’t said anything. He covers his lap with his backpack.
At Mekhri Circle a fat man leaps onto the bus and asks if he can ride till Richmond Town. The teacher tells him this is a school bus, but the fat man doesn’t seem to mind and sits down, taking up so much space that the swell of his stomach presses against Amrit. In response, Amrit’s penis thumps against his backpack. The teacher stands up, sways slightly as the bus turns, and proceeds to give the man a real firing. The man’s eyebrows contract. His expression contracts. Everything about him seems to shrink in indignation. He curses her. The bus driver laughs and tells him to get out and the man finally does what he’s told. Giving the teacher one last dirty look, he leaps into traffic and runs alongside a stream of motorists until he’s safe on the side of the road. The seniors in the back row give him the middle finger.
Amrit concentrates on his body, on the heat burning under his skin. He grinds his backpack against his abdomen and experiences dull yet encompassing flickers of pleasure. For the rest of the ride his eyes do not register what they see.
At home he eats a mango. His mother is kneading dough, pausing occasionally to wipe her face with the sleeves of her blouse. Her hands and forearms are covered in a fine layer of flour. “Had a good day?” she asks.
He doesn’t know how to answer that question so he continues to eat his mango, gnawing on a seed that’s larger than his hand.
“Your teacher called and told us you had a special class. How was it?”
“It was okay.”
“Did you understand everything she said? Or were you confused?”
“And what does that mean?”
He shrugs again.
“Okay, mister. Well, Pa and I are happy to talk about it if you ever want to.”
He throws the mango skins in the bin and leaves his plate in the sink.
“Go,” she says. “Wash your face. You don’t even know how to eat a mango properly!”
Amrit goes to his parent’s bathroom and, even though he knows he’s not allowed to, locks the door. He rummages through their pile of laundry and unearths his mother’s orange blouse. Goose pimples erupt across his skin as he sheds his clothes and wears the oniony-smelling top. Standing in front of the mirror, he laughs; it’s far too large for him, making his arms and chest appear skinnier than they are. Will he one day fit into this, ballooning up like the fat man on the bus? He puffs his cheeks, pretending to inflate. There are wisps of hair on his lips. Even Ekta has those wisps, though her legs and arms are smooth. He presses his forearms together and wonders where hair comes from, whether Ekta will need to wear a cast, and why his penis stiffened on the bus. He looks at it now. It’s small again, confirming that his body is no longer his own, acting out, sizzling like oil in a frying pain, like acid on skin.
An ant climbs out of a crack in the bathroom wall. It observes its surroundings before leading another ant leading another ant leading a chain of ants towards the window. They are precise in their movements, following the leader and knowing exactly where to go. Amrit presses a thumb in the middle of their line, crushing three and causing the rest to scatter. He swallows their bodies. If not a ladybird, perhaps an ant. If not an ant, perhaps a dragonfly. If not a dragonfly, perhaps a grasshopper. Bringing his face close to the mirror, he peers into the undulating landscape of his reflection’s eyes and searches for something vast and fierce, knowing full well that soon he will find it or it will find him.
Bikram Sharma is from Bangalore. He completed his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and in 2016 was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust writing fellowship at the University of Kent. His work has appeared in various literary magazines including Litro, Out of Print and The Suburban Review.