At four, Suriya was an expert at running naked around his neighborhood and peeing in the drain. Whenever I would ride my cycle up Karappusamy Kovil Street towards the clinic, Surya would take a break from his very busy life to wave. I had first made his acquaintance when he had chased my car with a big stick, no doubt ridding the village of some dreadful monster. Suriya was a short little fellow with a bright smile and fireworks for a personality. We soon became face friends.
“What are you doing in that sand pile, Suriya?”
He frowned as if I were interrupting his train of thought.
Another morning he and his friends were playing house under the outside cot where his uncle slept under the stars. Though I called out to him, he was too busy to wave to me.
Another morning he looked sad. “Where’s your motor bike, Suriya?”
He shrugged. “Broken.”
Surya’s father had given him a little tricycle made of cheapo metal and vinyl. I often asked him to take me for a ride, but he always declined. A few weeks later its’ wheels were wonky and the seat broken. Soon after, his Amma sold it to the irumbu karan for junk.
One morning while I was riding by, I found Surya in the midst of a screaming match with his big sister. She had a real cycle with training wheels and she wasn’t letting him ride it.
“Quit pulling, dah! You’ll break it. Just like you broke yours.”
“I just want to go for a ride!”
“You’re not even tall enough to reach the seat.”
He hit her. She hit him. Loud wails. Amma shouting. Maama shouting. Paati shouting. Everybody shouting… It was not a good day.
Another time when I was driving by, Suriya was squabbling with a second grade boy named Vikram. This lucky kid was holding a new plastic 4 by 4, a radio-controlled car with lots of silver and stickers and a battery motor and an antennae. Aiyoh! Did Suriya ever want that car! But the boy wouldn’t let him try it. All the village kids were gathered around Vikram. Never did they dream such a thing was possible. All these years they had played with sticks and stones, and had made cars from coconut shells. This was so much better! The kids were running behind the car laughing and clapping. Vikram was the king.
Suriya climbed under his uncle’s cot and sulked.
But not for long. The car soon ran of juice and the kids got bored. A few weeks later, it too was sold to the junk man.
Not only new plastic toys, but the other kids were getting new clothes as well: faded jeans with lots of silver snaps and zippers and English writing. Tee-shirts with stripes and numbers just like Sachin and Dhoni and the other cricket heroes on TV. Surya just wore his old home-made outfits.
I felt badly for him. There were two men on his street who drank too much. One was the tailor who would quietly stop sewing for a week and lie around drunk. The other man would stagger and swear and shout and make a complete fool of himself. This was Suriya’s father. All the other dads had enough money to buy nice stuff for their kids. Naveen’s father even bought his sons a moped. A real one. Which they could drive by themselves and on the main street too!
For many weeks, the happy Suriya I had known was gone. He didn’t join the games of the other neighborhood kids. Though he still waved to me, it was without enthusiasm.
Then one day, I saw him beaming and jumping up and down. He was bare- chested, wearing only a pair of red shorts.
“What’s that you’re carrying, Suriya?”
“Appa gave it to me. It’s a real moped tire. None of the other kids have one.”
“What do you do with it?”
He showed me how he could use it as a steering wheel to drive his big bus all the way to Bodi. Pawmp! Pawmp! And he could throw it in the air like an airplane. And wear it around his waist. And wrestle it like a jalli kattu bull. And hold it above his head like a crown.
But the very best was what his dad had taught him. He could set it rolling down the lane and whack it with his stick. His motor machine was way more powerful than Naveen’s baby bike. His was black and gold and could drive to Bodi in one minute and even fly!
I watched as Suriya charged off, his tough feet tearing up the pavement. That evening, he would definitely need a good scrub before supper. And perhaps Appa wouldn’t be drinking. Perhaps he would pull Suriya on his lap and hear all about the places Suriya’s unbreakable bike had taken him.