Once I complete the chapter I'm currently working on, I'll be fully halfway through the revision of Rag & Muffin, which I still expect to finish by the end of the summer. My goal is to have it on an editor's desk by the time I take my return trip to India in late October. Then, once it gets rejected the first time, maybe I'll make some alterations based on my trip or something.
A test reader told me the other day that my book's setting makes her feel hot, sweaty, and grimy. I took that as a great compliment, kind of like that guy who told C. S. Lewis he couldn't read Perelandra because it made him seasick. A pro author who edited the first draft also told me the setting was "very real." I personally care more about the setting than probably any other point in the book. I hope you like the characters and find the story exciting, but as long as you feel you've taken a trip to my city, I'll say I did my job.
The scene I'm working on now is a street scene. It's meant to be disjointed to give it a disorienting feel, but I may have taken it too far.
Shortly before the Elysian occupation, an entrepreneur had begun constructing a water pipe, ten feet in diameter, through a slum on the east edge of what was now the Dead Zone. That pipe then entered the district called Modikhana through a hole punched unceremoniously through Modikhana’s medieval wall. It was a mystery where the pipe was originally meant to run; now it simply ran intrusively into Modikhana’s center, where it stopped--a gigantic, hollow chunk of metal that had never fulfilled its purpose.
The members of the Ragtag Army stepped out of the pipe’s open end and into Modikhana’s bustle. A few people glanced their way, but most paid them no mind: the appearance of Rags and her well-armed band of children was a regular sight in this part of the city.
Eight hundred years old and one of the few parts of Godtown that had been carefully planned, Modikhana was formerly a separate village. Surrounding it was an imposing wall, and interspersed throughout were sprawling palaces accented with tall, delicate spires, though those were now largely abandoned. The maharaja who had built Modikhana had washed it in a coral color to disguise its shoddy construction. Formerly a home to royalty, it now served Godtown as a shopping district. Proximity to the Arx Ciceronis made it a favorite excursion spot for tourists and expatriates who wished to expose themselves to the local color without venturing too far into Godtown’s depths, so its inhabitants and their businesses were generally prosperous.
Although Modikhana had originally been laid out on a grid by the rigid architectural school that designed it, from the ground it looked as chaotic as anywhere else in the city. Its broad, two-lane streets were full of auto rickshaws, automobiles, buses loaded to their roofs with passengers, and motorcycles and scooters carrying whole families. Lorries with shrines to Ganesh mounted on their fasciae and visible through their windscreens had the words “Goods Carrier” emblazoned above their cabs and “Horn Please” printed on their rear ends. Drivers obeyed that last inscription with relish; if Godtown had traffic rules, nobody knew them: driving here involved a lot of jostling, a lot of honking, and, no doubt, a lot of prayer.
After leaving the pipe, the kids occupied themselves with the regular business of Godtown pedestrians--dodging vehicles. No longer pretending to act as a fireteam, they jumped away from motorcycles and sidestepped cars while simultaneously dodging the droppings left behind by camels, horses, and cows. This nimble and complex dance was not Sastravidya: this was merely regular life in the city.
“Sugoi!” cried Ryuji. “So this is Godtown.” He tugged at his shirt collar. “It is even hotter down here. Is it always this hot?”
“It cools off when the monsoon comes,” Nicky said. “Last year, half the city flooded--”
He halted and put his hand in his jacket when a series of deafening pops came from a nearby alleyway, but blaring disco music quickly followed the explosions, and then from the alley poured a frolicking group of men and women carrying a youth seated in a white palanquin ablaze with flashing string lights and surmounted by advertisements such as, “Svadista Ice Cream in Ten Flaver,” and, “Ramee Ayurvedic Messaj and Akyupunkshur.”
Nicky mopped his brow. “Fireworks,” he muttered. “I hate the fireworks.”
Several times, Ryuji found knots of people coming between him and the others. He struggled to keep an eye on Rags, who still held Popkin in her arms. Tall as he was, he still frequently lost sight of her, and even though he no longer had to carry the huge rifle, thanks to Jeanne, he had trouble keeping up.
Around him swam a whirlwind of colors, a babbling din, and a constant assault of smells. Buildings of every conceivable shape and size, decked in string lights, and stretched off in every direction, flanking narrow, crooked streets. Blazing with light or appearing out of the gloom were gaudy signs and advertisements in both the vernacular and in misspelt English. And there were people, people everywhere. Everything seemed designed to distract him and separate him from the others--and he knew if he lost them, he might never be able to get back home.
A gaggle of jabbering teenage girls in salwar-kameez passed before him. With his heart pounding in anxiety, his first impulse was to push through them, but then he realized that might be a serious faux pas, so instead he stood in place and fidgeted in uncertainty. For a moment, his gaze alighted on the face of one of the girls: her eyes were deep brown, almond-shaped, and lined with kajal. She had a golden stud in her left nostril and a glittering, clear jewel between her brows. She gave him a slight nod and an intense gaze unambiguous in its meaning, and his throat tightened up.
“What are ya doin’?” Nicky was suddenly at his shoulder and yelling in his ear. “Don’t get lost. C’mon.” Nicky seized his hand and pulled him after.
Ryuji glanced down at the sweaty hand grasping his, and he decided to respond to Nicky’s firm grip by gripping him back.
The girl who had given him the come-hither gaze disappeared in the press, but there were more than enough other women equally pleasing to the eye: dressed in embroidered and jewel-bedecked saris or salwar-kameez, with arms loaded with bangles and ankles sporting strings of bells, with bindis glittering on their foreheads, with rings in their noses and jasmine in their hair, or sometimes with their heads or faces scrupulously but nonetheless alluringly covered, and with cholis revealing an inch or more of golden brown midriff, they were almost too much for a boy in the throes of adolescence to take.
Nicky glanced back at him again. “Dude, you’re droolin’. Knock it off.”
They soon caught up to the others, and Nicky kept hold of Ryuji’s hand. A marjara pulling an old-fashioned rickshaw walked by with his passengers and did his best to give Rags a proper greeting without letting go of his load.
“Namaste, kumari-ji!” he shouted.
“Bonsoir!” Rags cheerily replied.
Popkin leaned over Rags’s shoulder and shouted to Ryuji, “That was a real marjara!”
“Yeah,” said Ryuji. He sniffed hard. His nose was still stuffy. “We have seen them before, but you maybe not remember.”
The Ragtag Army made it only a few more blocks before it picked up a cluster of hangers-on in the form of beggar children. Several made the hand-to-mouth gesture indicating they were hoping for money, but others simply gathered around Rags and shouted greetings. Three little boys, looking more bedraggled than most, danced and jumped around her, shouting.
“Miss Rags! Miss Rags!”
“Can I pet Muffin?”
“Where are you going?”
“Are you fighting bad guys?”
“Have you come to see the parade?”
“There is a parade?” Ryuji asked.
His expression very solemn, the last boy to speak turned to Ryuji and puffed out his chest. “They are consecrating Kumari in our Jagdish Temple, and they are taking her there tonight. Everyone in Modikhana is celebrating. They say her Sammohana is very strong, and many pilgrims will now come to our temple for the kanya-puja.”
Nicky grunted again and muttered in Ryuji’s ear, “This means a delay.”
“By the way,” the boy added, turning back to Rags, “my older brother is still telling everyone that you are his girlfriend.”
“Tell ’im next time I see ’im I’m gonna kick ’im,” Rags answered.
It wasn’t long before they could hear the clamor of the procession. Upon reaching a wide intersection, they stopped and watched as marjara priests, stripped to the waist and with their sacred threads upon their shoulders, marched up the street. Following them was a line of sadhus coated in ash, with their hair tied up in topknots, their eyes bloodshot, and their faces elaborately painted in the markings of their sect. After them came a large portable shrine of silver, fronted by six ceramic horses and pulled by a small tractor.
In the shrine on a lavish silver throne cushioned with blue velvet was a little cat-eared girl no older than five. Clothed in a red Benarasi sari, she had strings of flowers around her neck, a crimson jewel on her forehead, heavy kajal around her eyes, and an elaborate nose ring attached by a chain to a flame-shaped headdress almost as tall as she was.
This little girl was so small and her throne so big that her tiny feet, painted red with alta, stuck straight out in front of her. Although her clothing was gaudy and her position ludicrous, her serene and somber face told of august wisdom beyond her meager years. People cheered as she went by, and following her shrine were dancers and musicians and anyone else who wanted to join in, raising a celebratory but highly discordant din.
Numerous police wearing khaki uniforms and carrying bamboo lathis mixed with the crowd and watched the procession. Some, as evidenced by their neatly folded turbans, were Sikhs. The policemen warily eyed the Ragtag Army, but none appeared inclined to confront them.
Popkin, still riding in Rags’s arms, stuck a thumb in her mouth and waved as the kumari went by. “She’s real pretty!” Popkin cried.
“Yes she is,” said Rags.
“I still think you’re prettier,” said Popkin.
“So do I,” Rags answered.
Muffin led the Ragtag Army to a streetside dhaba where they could wait for the parade to pass. Rickety tables overspread by dingy bamboo-framed umbrellas fronted this modest outdoor restaurant. Behind a battered counter, a marjara man in a grimy apron fried savory meals in dented pots of oil. Since they had a large collection of urchins following them, the Ragtag Army literally overran the place, upsetting some of the grownups sitting at the tables and also upsetting some of the tables. The more good-natured merely laughed at the sudden appearance of the children, and a few stood and bowed reverently to Rags. Even the greasy marjara cook stepped out from behind his bubbling pots, bent low, and touched Rags’s shoes.
Ryuji noticed that Rags winced.
“You are always welcome here, kumari-ji,” the cook said.
“Thank you, Jayesh.” Rags set Popkin down and did namaste. “But we can’t stay long. I just wanna get the news on my town.”
“Let me serve you something,” Jayesh answered. “Perhaps some gulab-jamuns, some faluda, some barfi--”
“I don’ eat nothin’ that starts with barf. Just the news.”
“At least allow me to get you and your friends some chai.” Without waiting for a reply, Jayesh slipped away and was soon down the street at the chai-wallah’s.
To make sure his sister didn’t wander off, Ryuji took her hand. Then he leaned down and whispered in Rags’s ear, “Is it okay for us to eat at a place like this?”
She shrugged. “Might as well. Sooner ’r later you’re gonna get disinterest anyways.”
“She’s tryin’ to say dysentery,” said Nicky. “Ever’body gets it. They call it Godtown Gut.”
Jayesh soon returned with a tray full of kullarhs of hot, milky tea, enough for the Ragtag Army and even several of the urchins. Rags took one of the cups, though Ryuji noticed that her smile became strained.
Cautiously, he picked up one himself, took a sip, and burned the roof of his mouth.
“I have to pass,” said Nicky when Jayesh offered a cup to him. “No sugar.”
“Ah,” said Jayesh with a nod. “I always forget you are diabetic.”
“Wrong, but close enough.”
After tossing her drained kullarh in the sewer ditch, Rags stood by Jayesh’s beat-up stove while he cooked. Ryuji stood nearby and listened.
“What’s the news?” Rags asked.
“Everyone in Modikhana loves you since you drove out that Turkish gang,” Jayesh answered. “But there’s trouble.”
“There’s always trouble. Just tell me whose butt to kick.”
Jayesh turned from his stove and reached into a grimy shelf where he found a rolled-up poster. Pulling it out, he handed it to Rags and then continued frying. “These are all over Modikhana,” he said.
Rags unrolled the poster. Leaning over her shoulder, Ryuji saw a crude drawing, a caricature of Rags in a dress even more frilly than the one she was really wearing, with a miniature top hat askew on her bangs and a pair of long knives crossing each other through her hair. Under the image was printed the legend, “This girl is dead meat! --Lung Shi-yu.”
“Iron Lung,” Rags muttered. “He just moved to the top o’ my list.”
Muffin pushed past Ryuji, slipped up beside Rags, and sniffed the poster. “It seems Iron Lung detects a power vacuum in Modikhana and wishes to fill it. No doubt he is trying to erode your support through fear.”
By this time, the last stragglers in the parade had passed, and the cacophony of the celebration had grown tinny and distant. Rags crumpled up the poster and waved to the others. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s go. I’m in a lousy mood and lookin’ to beat some bad guys.”