The fleshy Indian woman doing the yelling was at the supermarket counter, her head wrapped in a green sari, a set of gaudy bangles and chokers jangling as she shouted. The man her remonstrations were directed at was half-hidden behind a pile of boxes, pretending to dust something on a low shelf. Shoppers paused to stare at the scene, some clucking their disapproval, others suppressing their derision. It had become a staple of village gossip in recent days.
“Toto!” she called again.
The man took his time; he knew what she wanted. It was almost half past one, her time to feed the demon child. He walked over to the counter. The Indian woman was locking the cash register.
“Angalia customer, mimi iko enda lunch.”
She opened the metal door behind the shelf with electronics and batteries and disappeared into the back. The boy was already banging his tin plate on the floor. The screaming was going to start soon.
Before Bayi set up shop in Migori, Indians were mythical figures. Their sightings, whenever one or two drove through the dusty one-street town from Kisumu on their way to the border at Sirare, sent little children into frenzy.
“Chuti! Chuti!” they would shout as they chased the car until they could see it no more.
Then one day a Suzuki Vitara stopped in the middle of town and an Indian got out. He casually walked up to a telephone booth near the post office and began to place a call. When he finished and came out, there was a crowd in front of the post office that could have filled half the local showground. An excited babble went up, punctuated by loud shouts and laughter.
“Come Anyango! There is an Indian in that telephone booth!”
“You always wanted to see a Jaindi—here is one.”
The Indian casually lit a match and a hush fell upon the crowd. He lit the cigarette, took a deep drag and blew the smoke out through his moustache. The crowd burst into laughter.
“Look at his moustache; it looks like a rat on his face.”
More laughter rent the air. The crowd moved closer; a brave man leaned forward to inspect the dot on the Indian’s head.
“Javan, is that a hole on his forehead?”
“No, this looks like ink.”
“Why does he have a tach on his head? Should I get him a water pot?” asked a woman close by.
There was more laughter from the gathered crowd. The Indian, now a bit unnerved by their enthusiasm, ventured to wave his hand gingerly.
“Habari ya vatu ya Migori?” he said in broken Swahili. Javan jumped back in surprise and the crowd roared with laughter.
“Mzuri jaindi!” some people chorused in reply.
“Javan, what are you scared of?” asked another young man, laughing.
“What a strange kind of human,” a woman at the back of the crowd whispered to her friend. “Who would sleep with such a person?” A friend of theirs standing close by overheard them and turned, a twinkle in her eye.
“The fellow has not been in town five minutes and you two are already thinking of sleeping with him,” and they all laughed again, patting each other in their mirth.
The Indian tried to say something again but the babble overrode his words, so he took another drag on the cigarette. Javan, eager to redeem himself, took matters into his own hands.
“Shhhh! Hey! Quiet, I think the Indian wants to say something.” The crowd quieted, their eyes on the Indian.
“Jina langu Jamubhai, na mimi nasema kwamba… naenda kuja ishi hapa Migori na nyinyi hivi karibuni,” the Indian shouted in his loudest voice.
“What has he said?” shouted a drunk from the back.
“That his name is Bayi and he wants to come and live here in Migori very soon!” Javan shouted. The crowd went quiet.
Just then, a government landrover drew up and two policemen jumped out. The crowd scattered in an instant. The District Commissioner came out of the car and went to shake Bayi’s hand. Migori had an Indian. Soon it would have its first supermarket, occupying its first building with more than one floor.
Five months later, the supermarket was completed under the supervision of the District Commissioner himself. Migori woke up one day to find the building occupied. Bayi’s rotund wife Archana was brushing her teeth on the balcony which faced the street, and the village women who were on their way to the market insist that when they greeted her she looked down the barrel of her nose and aimed a large gob of toothpaste at them.
The supermarket occupied the ground floor of the single-storey building and the Bayis occupied the first floor. The notice for help wanted was stuck to the door the next day, and when Javan walked in to try his luck Bayi hired him on the spot.
“He is a popular man,” he explained to his wife. “He will bring us lots of business.”
“Don’t go making friends with these people,” she retorted in Hindi.
“Now Archana, I will be away most of the time taking care of the business in Kisumu. Please try to get along with everyone.”
She didn’t reply. Her gaze, when it fell upon Javan, was that of a surgeon regarding a fly in the operating room. Despite Archana, Shivling Supermarket was soon thriving and it was not all due to Javan’s shame. Rumour had it as well that the Indian man, Bayi, had sacrificed his youngest son to ensure success for his supermarket.
“They are devil-worshippers.”
“No, they worship an Indian god with twelve hands. If you go to the supermarket and look on the wall above the counter you will see a picture of him.”
The chatter would subside when Javan passed near them and bubble up as soon as he was out of earshot.
“And where do they put the demon child?”
“He sits in the back room all day, playing with toys and soiling himself.”
“That is no child. I have heard he is almost 16 years old.”
“My god! What about the older one?”
“A girl, lives in Kisumu with her father. I hear he has business there too.”
“Twelve hands! That must surely be a demon.”
Later they would troop to Shivling Supermarket to count the demon god’s hands.
The door behind the counter led to a small room with a set of stairs under which the boy’s bed things were spread. The rest of the space was full of boxes, an unofficial storeroom.
The commotion of feeding could be heard from Javan’s side of the door every lunch time. He had reconstructed the scene playing out behind the door many times from the smells and sounds alone. The boy would shout through mouthfuls of food and spit if he did not like what he was fed. When he spat, the sharp voice of Bayi’s wife would ring out through the door, “Haku!” followed by the sharp report of a slap and then a keening that rose into a full-throated bawl despite her desperate soothing exhortations. A few minutes later, she would open the door hurriedly, her sari stained with gruel.
“Toto!” she would call out, “Patia mimi sweeti mbili hapo haraka.”
Javan would pass her the bowl of tropical mints and she would pick two and quickly return, locking the door behind her. Soon, the boy would be silent.
“Toto!” Archana called now as she re-emerged from the enterprise, “Enda tupa hii. Chap chap!”
She was holding out a green polythene bag, its opening tied shut. Its contents, though concealed, emitted a cloying fecund odour. The boy had soiled himself. Javan looked around hoping no shoppers were witnessing this new humiliation and then took the bag between forefinger and thumb and headed out the front. Behind him, Archana counted everything she had left on the counter audibly, so he could hear her as he went. When he returned, he found a tin cup of hot black tea and four dry slices of white bread on the counter—his lunch. He took them and went to sit at the entrance.
“Javan may be earning good money at that supermarket, but how does a full-grown man allow a woman to call him by a child’s name?”
“She treats him like a thief and a beggar.”
“Why does he stay?”
“I hear Bayi promised him a lot of money if he stayed until his return.”
“When is that?”
“In three months; December.”
“He won’t last one; have you seen the way he looks at her?”
“Toto!” Archana shouted irritably from behind the counter. Javan had hardly been eating for five minutes. “Maliza lunch yako chap chap! Iko kazi hapa!”
Javan poured out the remainder of his tasteless tea and headed back into the supermarket.
A hush fell momentarily upon the crowd at Kamumbo when Javan walked in that evening but the babble resumed immediately. Mumbo had spotted him and was wading through the drinkers with a jug and the sort of half-litre mug the locals called a pobop. Shivling Supermarket had killed his small shop within a month of opening and, after an unsuccessful foray into the hotel business, he had resorted to this. Though at first he had resented Javan for taking a job at the establishment that had ruined him, he had found Javan a faithful customer and now exhibited an open friendliness towards him.
“Omera, don’t sit so close to the door as though you are unwelcome at my establishment.”
They shook hands and laughed as Mumbo filled the mug with his wife’s special brand of moonshine. Then he was pulling Javan to the back room where only selected drinkers were allowed and where, at nine every night, his children spread their mats and slept, right in the middle of the revelry.
“Come, let me introduce you to my wife’s cousin Ogwel. He is from Kisumu, and he is as tired of Indians as you are.”
Ogwel was already tipsy, gregarious from the drink. He greeted Javan as if they were old friends and began talking as soon as they sat down.
“They call everybody “Toto.” In Kisumu we are used to it.”
He took a long swig from his pobop and waited for Javan to do the same.
“Let me tell you something,” he continued. “In Kisumu, an Indian like Bayi does not talk where other Indians are talking. It is the reason he has moved here.”
“Why?” Javan asked.
“Because he is a nobody, a small Indian. In India, men like him wash the feet of other Indians. That’s why the other Indians have refused to marry his daughter.”
“They have? What does she look like?” asked Mumbo, appearing out of nowhere to fill their mugs.
“Like her mother,” Ogwel spat.
“In that case, Bayi is an unlucky man,” said Mumbo.
“If you marry a crocodile don’t be surprised when she gives birth to a monitor lizard,” Ogwel added, and the men laughed and drank. Javan was beginning to feel tipsy. Mumbo was speaking to him now.
“Omera, when are you leaving that god-forsaken job?” he asked.
“December—I promised Bayi. He said that he’ll bring me a bicycle,” Javan confessed.
“It won’t happen,” Ogwel declared, looking at Javan over the rim of his raised mug. “If you think an Indian will take money out of his pocket and give it to a black person, promise or not, you’re in for a rude shock.”
“Toto!” Archana called from behind the counter the next day. Javan was at the far end of the first aisle and he walked over, unhurried. There were no customers in the supermarket. The clock on the counter read half past one. Feeding time.
She clanged the door behind the counter shut and disappeared into the house beyond. The boy must have been hungry today because he had been banging his dish since noon. She had left an Indian magazine on the counter and Javan leafed through it lazily, waiting. Younger Indian women, it seemed, smiled a bit more than Archana. There were recipes—one for something that looked like a big green shit. He winced in disgust at the sight of it on an expensive-looking dinner plate. He could hear her coming down the stairs now and the plate clanging got a little louder. She shouted something at the boy and he stopped banging the plate and then there was silence.
A customer walked in, one of the market women. She sold deep-fried fish and sun-dried whitebait. She was looking for cooking fat, the cheap unbranded one that came in polythene-wrapped mounds. He pulled down the box with the cooking fat, took the woman’s money, and watched her leave. As he came back to the counter, he thought he heard a scuffle but he paid no heed to it. He returned to the magazine and opened another page. It was eerily quiet though. The boy usually made a fuss every time he was fed. An Indian man and woman were dancing on the page—now that would be a sight!
He heard it again, the distinct sound of scuffling bodies, and this time it was followed by a scream that ended short. Something was wrong behind the door. He banged it and tried to listen. First nothing, then the sound of body against body, cloth against cloth, bone against floor. A woman’s cry this time, and something struck against the door from the inside. He looked down to see what it was. It was Archana’s set of keys. She was yelling now as the sound of blow after blow came from behind the door.
He bent down and pulled at the bunch of keys, dislodging it from the bottom of the door. He was trembling slightly when he fitted the key into the door and opened it. The boy was a sight to behold, his eyes wild and his face splattered with food. He sat astride his mother, striking, striking, and trying to find purchase on her bejeweled neck which she protected fiercely with her hands. When she turned her face towards Javan, he saw that she was bloodied around her nose.
Javan grabbed a raised wrist and the boy’s rage turned on him. Screaming and flailing wildly, the boy came at Javan who struck without thinking like one fighting a wild animal. His fist caught the boy across the temple and threw him over his mother’s prone body and onto his makeshift bed where he stayed whimpering softly. His mother cried out with the blow, as though it were her own body Javan had struck. She struggled to sit up and Javan, seeing the boy neutralized as it were, turned his attention to her. Her neck was bruised as were her arms and shoulders and she was still bleeding from the nose. He helped her to her feet and up the stairs, to the house nobody had yet been invited to, and sat her on a sofa from where she signaled to him that his help was enough. He returned downstairs, the boy hiding his face when he passed, and went back to the counter and the magazine. The clock on the counter read a quarter to two. It had all taken about ten minutes.
He worked alone the entire afternoon. At about three, he heard her come down and give the boy a bath. There was no commotion. An hour later she emerged and took over the counter from him. Only when they were closing did she finally speak to him.
“Thank you, Jaban.”
Four months later, on a hot January afternoon, the Suzuki Vitara pulled up next to the telephone booth near the post office and an Indian got out. He walked into the telephone booth and began to make a phone call. A couple of children drew close, mischievous grins on their faces; they wanted to hear first hand the strange intonation of the Indian’s speech that they had so often made a joke of with their friends. The Indian shooed them away with his loose hand, frowning when they repeated phrases of his speech to each other and bobbed their heads exaggeratedly. Occupied by their mirth, they didn’t notice the man on the brand new Raleigh bicycle stop behind them and pluck a sprig of lantana camara. He left some green leaves on the tip of it and caught them by surprise, lashing out left and centre as the children squealed with excitement and scattered. It was just another part of the fun for them.
“Don’t let me catch you bothering Bhai again!” he shouted at their retreating backs, but there was a smile in his eyes.
“Wachana na sisi, Jaban,” the children teased, mispronouncing his name in the same fashion as his masters did. Bhai stepped out of the phone booth and walked to the car. He opened the boot and lifted out a large polythene bag with some difficulty.
“Peleka hii kwa mama,” he said to Javan, handing him the bag. The other man slung it across his shoulder and turned to leave. Bhai would be away for another month, taking care of his businesses in Kisumu. In his absence, Javan would work the till, run errands for Archana and endure the gossip of the market women.
“Has Javan been here today? I sent for cooking fat from the supermarket ages ago.”
“You know he’ll only come after two o’clock, when the demon child has been fed.”
“The demon child that tried to kill its own mother?”
“The very same.”
“What a terrible thing.”
“What do you think happens behind that door when he’s in there with her?”
“Awino stop being ill-mannered.”
“No, I heard it’s true. He is riding Bayi’s bicycle as well as Bayi’s wife.”
“How can anybody have sex in there, with that demon on the wall?”
“Don’t you know? The child’s master, the god with twelve hands.”
Alexander Ikawah (@filmkenya) is a writer and film maker living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. He fell in love with stories as soon as he could read, and has always loved to write, recently being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2013. Though he mostly works on short stories, his intention is to write the next great African novel. When he is not writing or reading, he watches and talks about films with a small but growing community of young Kenyan film makers and script writers.