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HÉMA, MY HEMA /Mathew Chacko HÉMA, MY BEAUTIFUL Héma, is determined tonight. I knew it the minute I crawled into our home. I don't mean "crawled" in a figurative sense. It accurately describes what I did. Our house, you see, is a little on the cozy side; six by six feet to be exact. A perfect little cube it is, made of tin cans that my Héma's late hubbie took apart and flattened into sheets. The result has been quite colorful—white Amul mUk powder sheets next to yeUow Dalda tin sheets, next to rose-red and aquamarineblue Asian Paints sheets. Of course, rust, like a leprosy of tin, has eaten away most of the color, and the Jai Sena have scrawled their fascist slogans in black paint all across our walls. Still, it is our house. And a convenient one it is. Since the tin sheets are fastened only to each other, and since our house has no fancy thing as a foundation, it is possible to move from site to site very easily. When the rains come and the water rises waist high in our house—bringing with it turds, bloated and stinking dogscats -rats, and once, Gaya the leper's half-eaten right hand—Héma and I can simply lift up our house and move it to higher ground. That is if higher ground can be had. Our slum lies in a valley between the Dadar and Mahim roads, and in the rainy season, the upper slopes become coveted property. As the black and stinking water spreads its skirt higher and higher up the slopes, shacks begin to squeeze upward. Even what narrow paths we have close up. FamiUes wake up and discover that they have been interred in their homes and can escape suffocation only by tearing open their roofs. Sometimes, they are not able to do this in time, with tragic consequences. Last season, a shack whose occupants were all chUdren was boxed in. The neighbors later insisted that they did not hear any shouts or poundings on the wall. The claim is suspect. The rainy season, you see, reveals the true nature of the slums. It shows up all those fond myths about the generosity and selflessness of the poor. It puts rout to stories about starving famiUes cheerfully sharing their last morsel. AU through the monsoons, famiUes fight over the smaUest inch of dry ground like starving dogs over a scrap of meat. Slum citizens throw boiUng water into each other's faces and introduce scorpions among each other's sleeping chUdren. 260 · The Missouri Review Heads of famiUes end up face down in the slum soup along with the disintegrating dogs-cats-rats. That, in fact, is what happened to Héma's ex-hubbie. But the rains are at least two months away, and for now, we have the Ulusion of a peaceful community and the luxury of a stationary house. Coming home in the evenings, I don't have to risk my weight on the neighbors' flimsy roofs or endure their friendly greetings. I can walk along a two-foot-wide path, right up to our door. Although, when I arrive there, I have to get down on my hands and knees. This because our door—covered by an export quaUty Basmati rice sack—is only three feet high. Tonight, the first thing I see when my eyes have adjusted to the dark is Héma, my darling Héma, sprawled on the mat in her "Rekha outfit." It is an ominous sign. One that I do not even want to acknowledge. You see, I spent the last ten hours waiting patiently at the PubUc Hospital to interview the Medical Officer about the recent cholera cases in the city. I was there on behalf of the local Marathi newspaper for which I am a "free-lance"—a euphemism for my unemployed status. Superstitions about cholera must have prevented the regulars from taking the case. The wisdom of which I could see, as I stood in line with the slum parents and their sick children in the crowded corridor outside the M.O.'s...


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pp. 160-170
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