The bore well drilling rigs where Suresh worked were decorated with flowers and curvy maidens.
When he was 16, Suresh decided to go to the city to work in construction with his cousin. He had never liked school, all that memorizing of useless litter, the shame of failing Algebra and English. After barely passing tenth grade, he had had enough. Coimbatore was where things were happening. If he stuck around this village he could maybe earn 200 rupees a day doing coolie work. But in Coimbatore, buildings were popping up like monsoon mushrooms. Contractors were practically begging for masons. As a mason’s assistant, Suresh could earn 400 rupees a day and stay with his cousin’s family for free. If he worked hard, he could clear 10,000 rupees a month. He would be able to afford his own motorbike. The problem was, Suresh couldn’t decide between a black Honda Passion or a red Bajaj Pulsar.
“Be careful in the city,” his father said as the boy climbed on the bus with his shopping bag of belongings. “There are bad people over there.”
“I’ll be fine,” Suresh said. “Call you tomorrow?”
Suresh settled into the rhythms of his new life. He and his cousin worked hard and learned quickly. From time to time, Suresh would send money home. Though his parents never said so, he knew they were proud.
One day, a man in white came to the construction site. Suresh wondered why he kept observing the boys so intently.
After work, the man approached the two boys.
“You’re good workers,” he said. “How would you like to earn 18,000 per month, running a bore well drilling rig?”
“Adengappaa!” Suresh’s eyes went wide. “This is a joke, right?”
“Do I look like a joker? 18,000 cash. And if you can find me three more boys, I’ll give you each an extra thousand in hand. Meet me here in two days, same time.” He pulled out a wad of bills from his neatly ironed shirt pocket and handed each boy a crisp 500 rupee note. “Think about it.”
The boys talked half the night. By lunch break the next day, they had convinced three other friends to join them.
“We’re not telling our families,” Suresh said. “We want to surprise them with all the money we’re making.”
That evening, the five boys met the man in white. They were joined by a stranger with jaw muscles that rippled.
“Sign here,” the stranger said.
“What do all these words mean?” Suresh asked.
“Just legal nonsense. This is a real job, you know.”
The boys looked at each other.
“Why not?” They each signed.
“When do we leave?”
“But what about our stuff? Our families?”
The new man laughed as he gathered the contracts. “Haven’t you ever heard of cell phones? You can call home whenever you want. And the company will give you new uniforms. Come on. Your car’s waiting. It has AC.”
The Tata Sumo had tinted windows and had plush seats that smelled of stale smoke. As they drove late into the night, Suresh closed his eyes and dreamed of his new motorbike.
Before dawn, they pulled up to rig in a desolate field, lit by a single spotlight. It was roaring and spewing powdered rock.
“You, boy.” The driver punched Suresh lightly. “This is your stop.”
Suresh rubbed his sleepy eyes. “What about my cousin?”
“He’s been assigned a different rig.”
Suresh grabbed his cousin’s arm. “We want stay together.”
The man jerked him out of the car and slammed the door. As the car sped away, Suresh felt his throat tighten. A foreman in a sweaty strap shirt approached him.
“Come on, dah,” he said. “You’re a man now. Don’t worry. You’ll see your friends soon.”
Suresh was put to work straight away. He shoveled the grey powdered dust away from the deepening bore hole. The spotlight stung his eyes. He could feel the thundering diesel engine in his bones. As each 5 meter length of shaft clattered its way into the earth, the rig operator would throw a lever, releasing a screeching hiss of compressed air. Two boys would drag over another length, attach it to a cable which hauled it up the tower. They would then use a massive wrench to stabilize the lower segment while the drill tower twisted the new length onto the shaft. The pulverizing would start again, length after length. Suresh’s sweaty neck became caked with stone powder.
The sun was well above the horizon when they struck water at 300 meters. Now Suresh had to dig a channel for the slurry to drain away. His clothing and hair were splattered with a grey slop. After another hundred meters, the drilling was complete. Silence.
“We sleep under the rig,” the foreman said. “It’s cooler there. You can wash at the tanker truck.”
After bathing, Suresh crawled under the rig with the foreman and the three other boys. When Suresh tried to talk to the boys, they shrugged him off.
“They don’t speak Tamil,” the foreman said. “That one is Hindi, the other two speak Kannada.”
Ignoring the ache in his back and shoulders, Suresh curled up on his side, and slept.
Later in the afternoon, the Hindi boy woke him for rice and watery sambar. After lunch, the boys climbed on the back of the rig. Minutes later, their entourage was headed down the highway to the next job.
Suresh noticed that the signs in the towns were no longer written in Tamil. It made him feel sick inside like when he had been little and had done something wrong. He thought of his parents rolling out their sleeping mats and settling in for the night.
The days stretched into weeks and months. When he asked the owner about his pay, the man laughed. When he asked to use his cell phone to call home, the man slapped him with his heavy paw. Work by night. Sleep under the rig by day. Food when he could get it. Wash under the spigot of the tanker truck. Suresh gradually learned some Kannada from the boys. By now he realized that they were captives; they would never be paid. When he talked to the foreman about it, the man pointed at the owner with his lips and warned Suresh to shut up.
“If you try to speak to outsiders, he will cut your food for two days. If you attempt to escape, you will wish you hadn’t. They killed a Hindi boy once, you know.”
One day, the owner called Suresh over to meet a man who spoke Kannada with a raspy voice.
“You can have this one,” the owner said. “He’s fully trained and a hard worker.”
The man inspected Suresh and felt his muscles.
“Fine,” he said. “But, I’ll return him if he’s no good.”
Suresh watched as the new owner counted out a wad of 1000 rupee bills.
“What are you looking at?” the owner said. Suresh looked down. He studied the festering wound on foot, trying not to feel. “And don’t you dare make any trouble for your new owner, you hear me?”
Suresh was driven away to join a new team. He hadn’t even been able to say goodbye to the foreman or the other boys. Night after night. Job after job. Groups of boys circulating through. No close friends. Working in the monsoon rain. Freezing under the clear skies of winter, and always sleeping under the rig during the heat of noon. Suresh wondered where his cousin was. Surely his father would have filed a missing person’s report. Would the police ever find him? Would this be his life till the day he died? Suresh bit back the tears.
One night while preparing to wash up, a three-wheeled tuktuk drove up and stopped on the other side of the rig. Suresh wondered who it was, a new job perhaps or supplies the owner had ordered. The diesel engine of the rig was finally silent. Suresh stripped off his shirt and pants and began to wash up under the spigot. As he scrubbed, his hands passed over his chest and upper arms. He was no longer a skinny 16 year old. He now had the body of a man.
Disembodied voices floated on the night air. The owner’s raspy words in Kanada. Somebody else’s. An argument. By now Suresh had picked up enough Kanada to follow the conversation.
“You can’t have him without paying for him.”
“But we don’t have that kind of money.”
“Then we have a problem, don’t we? I paid 50,000 for him. It’s simple math. You hand me 50,000 and I hand you the boy.”
“But this man is his father!”
“So you say.”
“Please, sir, have mercy. You are like a god to me. You must help me.” This time the words were in Tamil. Suresh felt a surge in his chest. Forgetting that he was dressed only in shorts, he rushed towards the men. Their faces were hidden in shadow.
“Sir, do you have children? What if your son were missing. Please, I beg you. I’ve been searching for him for two years.” Suresh’s heart was thrashing, a wild animal lurching against its cage.
“Appaa! Appaa!” Suresh flew into his his father’s arms. “You’ve come for me!” Suresh was sobbing now. The two fell at the owner’s feet and looked up into his face.
“Please, sir.” His father’s voice was heavy with emotion. “If I had the money I would surely give it all to you. Please.”
The owner pursed his lips. He switched to broken Tamil. “Have you filed a police case?”
“No, sir. Never. We came here on our own. The boy’s cousin used to work for the previous owner and escap…that is… resigned his job. He gave us info and we’ve been asking everywhere. This is our 28th village, sir.”
The owner frowned and looked at them long and hard. “Get up, get up. Go. Before I change my mind. But there better not be any police business or we’ll come looking for you. Got it?”
Suresh scrambled into the tuktuk and pulled his father in after him. Appa turned to the owner.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you so very much.” But the owner had turned away and was barking at the other boys.
As they drove away, Suresh looked back. Three boys were standing in the shadows of the rig, their faces just visible in the dim light. They were staring after him with empty eyes.