Spiderman by Renu Balakrishnan

My sister-in-law Susan runs a home stay at our old family home in Kerala and on my last visit I went with her to the local police station to register the two foreign tourists who had arrived the night before.


‘It’ll be a quick thing,’ she said. ‘We can grab some lunch later and may be catch a film. You can sit in the car if you wish.’


But I chose to go in with her. I had never been inside a police station in Kerala before. Assorted cars stood bumper to bumper on the road to the left and right of the rickety gate so we parked some distance away and walked down past the rows of cars. I noticed a couple of Honda Accords, a Vento, at least three Swifts and an Inova and other brand names unfamiliar to me. Damn. It looked like we’d be the last in a long queue to the inspector’s office …


The station, a cottage, tiled, with yellowing white walls, sat in a garden of sorts: straggly balsams fringed an overgrown lawn with a flowering frangipani tree at its centre. We walked through the gate, up the dusty path, through the garden and up a shallow flight of stairs to a little room where a smiling constable on a plastic chair behind an old wooden desk nodded at Susan.


‘Ah. Yes.’ He took the forms from her. ‘Three English people no Madam? Staying for four days? Sir is expecting you. But there is some work he is engaged with at this moment so will you go in and wait? Yes. Right turn please. Kamala. Kamala.’

A young policewoman appeared in response to his shout and guided us through a narrow corridor into a larger room with three rows of benches like a municipal classroom. Dusty frames enshrined lugubrious photos of long dead national leaders and revolutionaries and hung higgledy-piggledy on three walls. Charts illustrating the dangers of drunken driving and such hung on the left and right side of the doorway at the centre of the fourth wall through which we had entered. A bamboo cane and a dusty grey black umbrella stuck out of a plastic waste basket beside the door. We sat on a bench. My bottom pressed down on its hard wooden surface. I hoped the wait would be brief. Where were the owners of all those cars? We were the only ones in this room. Were they waiting elsewhere?


Ah. We glanced up. A woman’s face peered around the door. Neither the panda eyes from the melted kajal, the remnants of crimson lipstick in the serrations of her full and sensual lips nor the patches of startling pink pancake makeup could detract from the symmetry of her lovely face. Sharp amber eyes stared at us in turn – harmless old women – and stepped in through the door.


‘Where’s my kid?’ She asked.


Neither of us said what kid? For her outfit took our breath away. An Alexander McQueen ensemble from a garbage dump: leather jacket with equal numbers of gleaming buttons and jagged holes flapped open over a silk, sari-blouse whose plunge and transparency revealed pert breasts and dark nipples. One leg of her khaki trousers had unraveled from its folds and hung over her foot and trailed on the floor while the other remained poised above a glittering golden sandal. A mass of curls escaped from a jaunty bonnet (!) and hung down over one shoulder. Despite the costume I noticed the fine lines of her tiny waist, swelling hips and long limbs.


She glanced around the room and turned and walked out.


‘Where do you think you are going? And where’s the kid? No more toilet breaks for you.’ Kamala must have pounced on her in the corridor and led her away for we couldn’t hear her response.


Susan and I looked at each other. Well.




Susan said, ‘Who knows?’ And we giggled nervously.


‘Why are you all laughing?’


A little boy stared at us from the doorway. He must have been five years old. He was a solid little chap. He wore black stretch jeans and a red t-shirt. Either he or someone else had drawn zigzag lines all over the jeans and t-shirt with a black magic marker. He held what appeared to be a red handkerchief in one hand and a ripe, peeled banana in the other. Bright button black eyes shone in a round face and a mop of curls burst from his head.


Susan and I smiled at the little fellow. ‘Come here…,’ Susan held her arms out to him. He bounded up to her and clambered on her lap. He looked at me and grinned. ‘What is your name, Monne?’


‘Spiderman.’ He dropped the banana on the ground and put the red fabric, which turned out to be a slitted eye mask around his face. We laughed. What a cute chap. He jumped off Susan’s lap and kicked her hard on her shin, picked the banana up, and mashed it on my freshly laundered white trousers.


‘Ouch.’ Susan reached down and rubbed her ankle.


‘Hey.’ I jumped up and scraped off the gooey mess. ‘What are you doing?’


‘Hey. What are you doing?’ the child mocked squeakily and ran round and round the room one way then the other. ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ His eyes glittered through the slits in the mask and he held his arms out in front, the fingers curved into claws. His merry grin twisted into a snarl and he ran frantically round and round the room. After the third round he ran to Susan and kicked her on the other ankle, turned and butted me hard in my stomach. Susan and I must have screamed for Kamala ran into the room and grabbed the bamboo cane from the basket. Thwack, thwack – two fruity ones on the legs didn’t seem to bother the kid at all. He glared at the police woman and snatched the cane from her and ran around the room swooshing it and whooping loudly all the time.


Susan and I cringed and made not even a pretence of trying to wrest the cane from the whirling one as he passed close to us on his dizzying revolutions. Kamala ran behind him yelling and cursing till she slipped on the mashed banana I had scraped off my trousers on to the floor and fell with a thud. How the little demon laughed in high pitched glee, yelling, ‘Spiderman wins … wins, wiiins…’


We helped Kamala up, smoothed down her sari and led her to the bench. She sat down and took a minute to catch her breath. Then stood up and winced and rubbed her bottom and the demon child charged at her, cane held aloft. Susan and I squeaked ‘No. No.’ The cane swished down, Kamala stepped sideways and grabbed the child’s wrist in a vice. ‘Owww.’ The cane dropped to the floor and Susan picked it up and held it behind her.


Kamala marched the child, writhing and screeching, out through the door. We stared after them in total silence.


The smiling constable from the front room came in and asked us to follow him. Susan put the cane into the plastic basket as we passed through the doorway. A woman’s furious voice became louder as the constable led us down the winding corridor into a large hall lined on both sides with barred cells.


In one Spiderman clung sobbing to his – we presumed – yelling mother, the dishevelled beauty. She appeared to be trying to peel off the child’s mask while he twisted and turned his face this way and that, all the while clutching her leg. She glanced at us then turned on the child, pushed him to the ground and snarled, ‘Get away from me, you son of Satan. See where you and your mask have got us.’ A gray haired, white clad woman in the cell next to her jumped up from the floor and cursed mother and child in choice Malayalam expletives. Two men in the cells opposite – an eighteen year old in faded jeans and sweatshirt and the other, middle-aged in a white mundu – shouted at the child too. The thin cries of the child sliced through the din. ‘I am … I am. I am.’ The woman managed to wrest the mask off the child and threw it out of the cell. It fell at my feet, a crushed, piece of red fabric with its stained elastic band snapped into two.


‘You are not .You are not Spiderman.’ The mother screeched. The child gulped. He let go of his mother, walked to the bars, held two and pushed his little face between them and smiled beatifically at us.


The constable ignored all and ushered us forward to the end of the corridor into the inspector’s room. Susan submitted the required form, signed on dotted lines and thanked the inspector.


The constable saw us out and in reply to our breathless questions said, ‘The Netravali gang … car thieves. You saw the cars outside? All stolen. The elder woman, the leader, is the beauty’s mother – who knows who the father is – and the young man is her lover. The old man and the young woman are a pair.


‘And the child is…?’


‘Spiderman.’ And he laughed at his own cleverness.



A large black and white picture adorned the front page of the daily on Susan’s doorstep. Yes. It was them. A teenaged boy and an older woman stood with their arms around one another. An older man and a beautiful woman stood on either side of a little boy, who glared, through a mask, at the camera.


The Netravali Gang Nabbed at Last

Below a young reporter wrote a long, sensational account of how this gang, originally from Netravali village, operated. Susan and I read it twice over with great interest. They were nabbed on their annual visit home.


The two women, would wave down a car at a junction and ask for a ride. They invariably chose new cars with just a driver and one passenger. The men lurked around the next corner, darted in front of the car, evicted the driver and passenger and zoomed off to a safe spot where they handed it over to their partners in crime who repainted the vehicle, fixed false numbers and sold it to dodgy customers after the hue and cry had died down. The gang periodically disappeared off the radar and resurfaced in different states – Himachal, Gujarat, and Orissa – always following the same modus operandi.


Why most cars stopped, the reporter conjectured, was because the women seemed in genuine distress and because they had a little boy in tow. The younger woman and the little boy dressed in costumes and claimed to be late for a fancy dress event when they were in cities or part of a circus when they worked in villages. The lady’s costume defied description but the little boy was, even on vacation, always, Spiderman. And that’s what led to their arrest.


The article speculated that the adults would get at least ten years in jail. The child would go to a state run remand home.


I looked at the tattered piece of red fabric I had picked up from the police station. Maybe without the red mask the child would have a chance.



Renu Balakrishnan is a writer, counsellor and creative writing teacher with a novel in the pipeline, who lives and works in Mumbai.