The Koteshwor Urchin

The boy was hungry. He crumpled the last of the chawchaw packets to see if anything was left. Nope. He upended it over his mouth, just in case. A bit of seasoning fell out. His dayslong fever had abated, finally.

The boy was thirsty. At least in this regard, he was well off. He tore off a bit of plastic from the pack of water bottles in his hideout. In a few minutes, he gulped down the entire bottle. That would keep his stomach occupied for a while.

He exited from his lair, past winding tunnels, and emerged onto the junction of Koteshwor. The scorching sun slammed into his eyes and it took a few moments for him to get used to daylight. He did a wide take, and fear grew upon him every passing second. There was not a soul in sight. No movement around this busiest of intersections, when even in midnight there would be bikes and trucks passing through. No sound, except the whisper of a bitter spring wind. It was sinister.

The boy contemplated if this was simply one of his nightmares, when everyone vanished, and he had to crawl through an empty world. But it sure did not feel like a dream. Your hair did not itch during dreams, right?

Then his brain made the connection. People had been talking about a disease or something. A few days before, the mineral water business had been booming. There were more vehicles than usual, but he had noticed most of them had been full of people with packed bags. He had come down with a fever and a fit of coughing, so had chosen to rest in his lair. There had been enough food to last him a few days. Now, after a week, it seemed everyone had left the valley, back to their homes. But the boy had no home. Koteshwor chowk was his home, always had been.

He had no name. Or rather, he had a few names - chotu, kale, fucche - and he answered even to oe, so now he had forgotten his original name. He didn’t really get the fuss over names. Now, number plates on vehicles made sense. Because vehicles were dumb. But, people should know when someone’s calling them, right?

A drawn-out siren pricked his ears. A vehicle, coming in from Bhaktapur. He wasn’t alone, after all. In a minute, the ambulance had raced past him, its tone getting longer again. Someone might have been dying inside the vehicle at the time, but for some reason, it lifted the boy’s mood.

Maybe the traffic would return soon.

The following weeks were maddening. The traffic did not return in full. No red lights to stop vehicles, letting him peddle bottles. No one walked the streets, which was a strange sight. There was a feeling of hushed anticipation in the air. The boy hid, when any cops came nearby, following his gut.

Yet he had to eat. So he trailed the banks of Manohara, looking for somewhere to get food. He had long determined not to do two things: beg, or pick up trash. The first because begging was rarely successful for his demographic. It was the cripples and the teeny kids who took it all. The second because it scared him. The trash boys slowly got deranged, bit by bit. He was in no way pristine, and the last time he had had a semblance of a bath was when it had rained. But these kids carrying waste slowly started turning into waste themselves, huffing god knows what and losing all care. No, he would steal, cheat and plead, but not stoop to begging or apathy.

Now this resolve was weakening.

Everything was closed. The small church that sometimes gave away food, closed. The restaurant which left out unused meal prep, closed. The store that left out expired food for the street kids, closed.

The boy thought of leaving, then quickly dismissed the idea. Koteshwor was his home. He couldn’t fathom abandoning his post. His lullaby was the faint grunts of the nightly lorries and the roar of the planes taking off. Of course, both these sounds were in short supply at the moment.

He had a bit of money saved, from good business days when the heat had been getting on the nerves of people stuck in traffic. The boy burned every last rupee he had, when he finally found an open bhatti. In his joy, he even ordered a cup of tea with his packs of junk food. The wizened woman there was suspicious how a street kid even had that much money, but made no comment. The warmth forced a passage from his mouth to his belly, and he sat palming the steel cup until all the heat was gone from it.

After a month or so of surviving on meager scraps, the virus seemed to be abating. A few people were back on the streets. Cops reappeared on the intersections. The traffic, with glacial pace, was returning.

On the day he finally saw bikes and cars and vans stopped by the red light, waiting, honking at Koteshwor, a tiny tear escaped the boy’s left eye. He sat down, a stupid smile on his face.

But, everything was not back to normal.

For starters, the cops were different. They had weird nearly-helmets on. The young cop who used to guffaw when the boy did a mock-salute was no longer there. Instead, a matronly traffic police could be found during his shifts. She glared and shouted at him whenever he crossed her sights. The boy kept well clear of her from then on.

The boy did manage to locate some of his usual customers, but again, something had changed. Right before office hours, he noticed a familiar black car. He scampered towards it and knocked on the window. There he was, the pot-bellied merchant with the fat mustache and bald head. This man would buy two bottles every day, without fail, invoking a prayer for the day’s business. Now the same man, face covered with a mask, glanced at the boy without opening the window. The boy could not tell his expression, but his actions seemed to speak all. Get away, the merchant seemed to be saying.

One biker handed him a cloth mask soon after. “Wear this, kid,” the man said and sped away.

An old lady, head covered with a turqoise shawl, was lying down near the bus stop. Her sandals were a few feet away from her body, and it wasn’t clear if she was breathing. Some kind-hearted person or another would always check on such people before. Not now. For two hours, the boy glanced at the corner of his eye at the old woman. This fellow … no that girl … he was sure the next person would be certain to check upon her. Did they think she was dead? Had this virus gone and robbed people’s kindness?

After an agonizing couple of hours, the boy finally set down the half-pack of bottles he was carrying around and moved towards the lying figure. He approached slowly, like nearing an injured animal. When he was right above her, he breathed a sigh of relief. The old woman was breathing, although in fits. He touched her forehead. It was burning.

He looked around, tried to drag people towards the scene. But everyone shied away from his touch. He looked towards the intersection, but the traffic seemed busy. It felt like an eternity, looking around to see if anyone would help. He ran in front of pedestrians, joining his hand, but no one would stop.

Finally, a woman wearing white seemed to notice his confused wandering. He pointed towards the old lady, too tired now to even speak. The woman rushed forward, and after pointing a device at the old lady, took out her phone. An ambulance came screaming not long afterwards.

While the old lady was being loaded into the vehicle, some other people in white seemed to be interrogating the helpful woman in white. She answered some questions, and pointed at the traffic police. Then she sneaked near the boy, and in a hushed voice, said, “Run, kid. You touched the lady, right? Get away from here, now.”

The boy, his throat too parched to respond, nodded. With a sidelong glance at the ambulance men, he slipped away. After crossing the street, one of them seemed to notice him, and shouted. The boy fled.

On and on, he ran - at first with fear, then out of sheer desperation. He parted through pedestrians, all of whom seemed to repel away from the boy. His old way of life was gone for now, that much he understood. He had to leave Koteshwor chowk behind. His lair, his water, all gone.

The boy ran for hours, eventually reaching the other side of the ring road, a highway exiting the valley in front of him. He had nothing right now, and his stomach was screaming murder. But he would survive.

He always had, virus or no virus.

Written on 22 August 2020