Ajay Vishwanathan


Nominated multiple times for Pushcart and Best of The Net Anthology, Ajay has work published or forthcoming in over ninety literary journals, including The Baltimore Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Minnesota Review, Raleigh Review, and The Potomac. He is the Chief Editor of the Foundling Review.

Little Hands of Silk

“See them wriggle? And raise their heads?” asks Pandu, a silver chain shimmering in sweat around his neck, its oval glass pendant flickering and going dim on his bare chest. Though not as tall as my father, Pandu towers over me.

I cannot see clearly in the poorly lit factory shed but nod. In a large wicker basket, scattered among mulberry leaves, the silkworms look like tiny white trains dipping in and out of green tunnels. There are so many and they chomp so hard that it sounds like a flurry of raindrops.

Get closer,” he says, pushing my head forward with his bulky hand. The worms smell terrible, like the errant cricket ball that I often fish out from the gutter. Two boys, also bare-chested, hunkered over their own baskets, titter in a dim corner. “Now, Giri, search for ones that aren’t moving. There’s one right there.” I nod again.

“Those are the dead ones. You search for them and pull them out before the bastards kill the others,” continues Pandu. I wonder how the dead worms could do that to live ones but decide not to ask him. I don’t want him or the two boys to think I am stupid. “Get going now,” he says, and walks over to the boys whose faces suddenly scrunch up in focus.

He stares into their baskets, then yells. Dragging the smaller of the two boys by the ear, Pandu pulls him to the ground, then whips out his belt and whacks the boy repeatedly on his back and legs. The boy doesn’t resist. Grabbing a handful of worms from the basket, Pandu flings them in the boy’s face. His friend continues to work on his basket. “The next dead worm you miss, I’ll shove down your throat,” he says, making a grabbing gesture with his hand, tongue sticking out.

Pandu then slings the belt over his shoulder as if it were a large snake, and storms out, his head almost touching the top of the doorway. The two boys look at each other and then at me, the smaller one rubbing his left ear. I look down into my basket, my head reeling. My own father is short-tempered but has never raised his hand to me, which Mother says is rare. There are a couple of worms in the right corner that don’t move. I pick them up, and inspect them before setting them aside, their curled bodies feeling like soft dough. The idea of feeding the worms generously to reap more silk from them is fascinating. My basket is the smallest one, I realize, perhaps meant for trainees like me.

“You can get sick from touching them, you know,” says the bigger boy, wide-eyed. “Dhina almost died.”

“He had high fever for three days,” chimes in the smaller boy, still stroking his ear.

“Does Pandu know?” I ask.

The bigger boy grimaces. “Of course he does. He doesn’t care. He just needs the job done. A real demon, that Pandu. He only smiles at the big boss. Everyone else around here is vermin to him.”

I figure by “big boss,” he means the factory owner. Through the doorway I see Pandu at a distance, bending down and chatting with a woman in a lemon green sari. He is smiling, but she doesn’t look like his big boss. Later, I hear someone refer to her as Jothi.

Pandu didn’t look as big two days ago when he stood next to Father, going over the financial details of my employment. I wonder who would win if Father and he got into a fight. I’ve heard stories from Mother, of Father in his younger days, overwhelming grown men double his size in wrestling rings.

Last night, I heard Mother and Father murmuring late into the small hours, Mother weeping at one point. I wondered if it was about me walking all the way here to the town of Rangeri to work, instead of going to school. I picked up a few words: Moneylender. Deposit. Rains. Uncle Srini. For a few months.

I know Father wants me to get an education and then move to the city to work, just like Uncle Srini who always visits us in clean shirts carrying large suitcases. He chooses to stay in a motel in town. Mother told me Uncle Srini is frightened of snakes lurking in corners. But I suspect it is because our roof always leaks, water constantly dripping into old plastic containers, and because our bathroom is small and dank.

Time seems to pass slowly in the small wooden shed. I miss school, the open windows, the Peepal tree outside, the constant chatter and giggling, the loud toll of its bell. And my teacher, Master Ram, the look on his face when he gave me a small silver coin, impressed by my performance in the surprise quiz. Keep it, he had said, patting my back, Whatever you do, continue to work hard. I wondered if he gave similar coins to other students.

Then for the next few weeks, I stared at the coin, running my fingers over the engraved lines of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. I’d always wanted to ask Master Ram if there was any other meaning to giving me the coin. Before coming here to work this morning, I buried it behind my house.

Pandu doesn’t return to check on us. I learn that the bigger boy’s name is Chaami, and the smaller one, who pointed to many fingernail marks on his arms, is Ganga. At ten, Chaami is a year older than me, while Ganga is eight. Chaami and I, we discover, live in adjacent villages, his on the way to mine. Just before sunset, Chaami tells Jothi that we’re done for the day, and she comes in to check on our baskets. “I heard that you dropped out of school,” she says to me, her eyes surprisingly warm, and pretty. I don’t respond.


As we walk back home, I realize that Chaami likes to talk, and wander. He escapes into little alleys through sunflower fields and returns with funny-looking pieces of wood, sends unsuspecting goats scurrying, and stops to stare at ant hills before decapitating them with his slipper.

Chaami tells me that he lives with his brother who is more than ten years older than him. They’ve been together since his parents died. Chaami hardly remembers them.

“You know, Ganga lives in the factory,” he says. “I’m happy to be going home.”

“In the factory?”

“Yes, in one of the shelters there.”

“Why can’t he go home?”

“He cannot. His home is several miles away. Every month his father comes to collect his wages, but hardly spends time with Ganga. I heard he remarried after Ganga’s mother died. He’s only interested in the money.”

Perhaps my parents were talking last night about what they owed the moneylender. In the past month, he has already visited us twice. I know Mother sold her golden bangles last year. She has been sick lately, shadows under her eyes dark and deep, like abandoned wells. I think of Ganga’s mother, and then my own again.

“Ganga talks often about his aunt Leela,” says Chaami. “He even has a crumpled sheet of paper somewhere with her address in the city. He wishes he could go to her.”

“You mean, run away from the factory?”

“Yes. It’s not easy. He tried it once, got lost and almost died. Someone brought him back, and Pandu punished Ganga for trying to escape. The next day, I noticed beedi burns all over his chest.” Chaami shudders.

I don’t mention anything about my work to Father and Mother that night. They don’t ask me anything, which I find strange, as if they are afraid of what I might say. I fall asleep thinking of Ganga, imagining the dark figure of Pandu chasing the boy around a tiny room, smoke spewing from his mouth, a beedi between his fingers.


I don’t see Ganga for the next few days. Chaami tells me he has seen Jothi hugging and kissing Pandu in one of the sheds. We giggle. Three new boys join us, fingers bandaged in white cloth as if they are guarding them from the worms. They keep to themselves, their hands weaving in and out of the baskets, like humming birds.

Chaami tells me Pandu and his people might have moved Ganga to another shed, the dreaded hot water area.

“Or maybe he’s in the mulberry fields,” says Chaami, a hopeful smile on his face. I know what those fields mean to him; it’s where kids pluck fresh mulberry leaves the whole day, bag them, and hurl them into bullock carts that haul the bags into the factory. Chaami thinks that is the best place to work in the factory: to be running around in the open green, stopping once in a while to stare at the blue skies and to wave at flying airplanes. He would rather be in the blazing heat of the sun outside than sit all day soaking in sweaty coops.

In the afternoon, Ganga comes into our shed. I’m happy to see him. He walks to me, and asks that I follow him. “Jothi told me to call you,” he says.

He takes me to another shed, much bigger, a few meters away. “I heard they plan to get many more boys here,” says Ganga.

I see Jothi standing in one corner of this two-window room that smells like rotten wood. She nods at me. The calmness in her face seems strange in this factory. A few dozen youngsters are standing over steaming metal containers that hold hot liquid with something white floating in them. Ganga takes his place next to one such vessel. Scattered plentifully throughout the room are wooden reels that are taller than the boys, some of whom have their fingers in the water.

Jothi motions me to take the empty spot next to Ganga and walks toward me. Water boils in a container in front of me. Jothi bends down and grabs a bamboo basket full of oval balls that look like tiny eggs.

“You throw these cocoons in the water and let them sit for a while, until the silk coating starts coming off,” she says, flicking a couple into the hissing liquid, and turns to Ganga. “Why don’t you show him?”

Ganga, I quickly recognize, doesn’t talk much. He thrusts his hand in the hot water, his face expressionless, while my eyes widen in surprise, and starts moving his fingers as if searching for something. “The white coating, you keep touching it, feeling it,” he says, “until they are soft and ready.”

“Isn’t that water hot?”

“It is. But I don’t feel anything.” Ganga pulls his left hand out and shows it to me. I notice dark purple blisters below his knuckles and tiny bubbles with fiery rings of red skin around them. “You get used to it.”

I don’t respond, but stare at the damage to his tiny hand.

“Do we have to use bare hands?”

“Yes. Fingers work best. They say we need to pull them out at the right time. Tools damage the silk.”

I continue staring.

“Try it,” he says. I shake my head. “Try it,” he says again. “Or someone will force you to.”

I look around the room. Boys, not older than six or seven, going by their size, stand like little soldiers with their tender hands groping underwater, some wincing, some unmoved. My gaze shifts outside one of the windows where Pandu and Jothi are talking, standing next to bins full of cocoons that look like unstrung jasmine flowers. He seems angry, his hand gesturing in front of her face. Next to the fair-skinned Jothi, Pandu looks dark, like a silhouette.

She spits on his face. He strikes her with his right hand, undoing her hair that was tied in a bun. She tries to hit back but he catches her wrist and pulls her away. They move out of view.

“Come on, Giri, do it. Or I’ll get into trouble.” Ganga grabs my right hand and plunges it into the boiling liquid. I scream, my voice cracking, withdraw my hand, and whimper to myself as all eyes turn to me. A burning sensation seeps into my skin, and spreads to my arm. I look down. The back of my hand is red. Pandu, with his lumbering, lopsided gait, walks in through the door, expression grim. His eyes fall on me.

“Do it,” mumbles Ganga. I poke my hand back into the water, and feel the sting again. It drags on my fingers like leeches, and then subsides. I wonder if it is just numbness or if my skin has dissolved to the bottom of the vessel. One of the cocoons feels softer than the others. I pull it out and ask Ganga if it is ready. There is a dull quiver in my fingers. He strokes the soft silk and nods yes.

I sense Pandu’s eyes still on me. Ganga gets the attention of the boy in front of me who turns around, grabs the cocoon from my hand, and inspects the loose fabric. Unfurling it expertly, he pulls out the brown worm trapped inside and chucks it into a bucket nearby. He then drags the silk threads like a sock over an oval, wooden board, and allows them to dry. The flexibility of the fabric surprises me.

We work into the afternoon. The dead worms in the bucket, brown and slimy, fill up fast. We’re interrupted by a stranger who rushes into the room and herds us outside through the back door. “Be back in an hour,” he commands. We roll out like marbles from a tilted pail. Rumors float that uninvited inspectors have arrived.


Ganga and I squat near the edge of a mulberry field, the gentle breeze and nodding treetops providing relief from the insides of factory sheds. My eyes linger first on my right hand now burning in the naked sunshine, little bubbles breaking out below the knuckles, then move to my unscathed left hand that reminds me of times I have left behind.

“Hurts, right?” asks Ganga. I nod. ”The bubbles get large and water comes out. Hurts till the skin becomes dry and peels off. Then it happens again. You will soon stop staring.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since I was five.”

“I heard you tried to escape.”

Ganga shrugs. In the distance a bullock cart full of mulberry leaves, appearing like a strange animal with a funny hump, pulls up near the factory entrance.

“They did bad things to you for that, right?” I ask.

“They do nothing good here.”

“Would you try it again?”

“Not the way I did. We’re in the middle of nowhere.” Ganga looks up at the horizon. In the clear sky two birds chase each other, a broken chain of mountains in the background.

“My aunt’s in the city,” he says. “I know where she lives. Wish I could go to her.”

“Why doesn’t she come and get you?”

Ganga shrugs. “She’s probably afraid of my father. He can do horrible things. But I know she likes me.”

I look down at my scalded hand again and imagine Mother holding it on her lap, whispering in my ear, telling me it will be fine, her gentle voice gliding through my body like a caress. And Father snarling, his fists jammed in his pockets, harsh angles of his face stiffening. He gets quite upset when someone hurts me.

The bullock cart driver, a sprightly, turbaned man in white shirt and shorts, gets off and hustles into one of the sheds.

“That’s Heera,” says Ganga. “Comes once a week, takes a bathroom break at the factory, chats with Jothi and a few boys. He always wears white.”

“From here he looks like my father, short and stocky,” I say.

“He will now drive the cart to the nearby train station where he sells the leaves.”

Soon, Pandu and his cronies come out and call us back into our shed. I hear someone yell, “Hhrrr . . . rarrr. Rarrr.” I turn around and see Heera urging his two brown bulls around the bend, the two-wheeled cart lurching and moaning. Even his voice sounds like Father’s. I watch him till he goes out of sight, then enter the shed.


Chaami is quieter today as we walk back home. He hardly even glances at the lamb that jumps at us from the bushes, or asks me about my hand, even as I keep wringing it in pain. When I finally ask him what the matter is, he tells me that his brother’s getting married. And that he has decided that Chaami should live in the factory.

“He didn’t even ask me,” says Chaami, his voice thin, wistful. I put my arm over his shoulder, and he does the same. We walk together like joined twins.

I don’t talk about my scalded hand. But I want to show it to Mother, and whine about how it burns, and how difficult it will be for me now to hold a cricket bat and launch the ball high over the fence, my friends watching in awe, and about how I wish I could join them in school again.

I enter my house and find Mother crying, crouched next to a pot of stew. The moneylender, wearing thick glasses and pearl necklaces, his stomach sticking out like a misshapen watermelon, hovers over her, talking loudly and waving a stick. Father is sitting in one corner, head bowed. The moneylender looks at me and gestures with his large hands. “Here comes your savior,” he says, and walks by me, lips curling in scorn, and out through the door.

For long moments, we sit in silence after he leaves, shadows dulling in failing light.

“Amma,” I say, and show Mother my hand, slowly bringing it to eye level, scars now dark and ugly. She stares at it, covers it with her palm and looks away, as if she doesn’t want to know the blisters exist. I wince in pain. She takes a deep breath, lets go of my hand, and leans back against the wall.

Father gets up and walks in my direction, his gait hesitant. Bending forward he peers at my hand without touching it, then shakes his head, looks at Mother, and walks back to where he was sitting.

“Go and wash yourself,” says Mother. “I have sambar for you. You’ll feel fine after dinner.”


Sleep doesn’t come easily to me. I smell the cool oil that Mother applied on my scars before lying silently next to Father. With words dead, even the door creaking at the hinges seems loud. Whatever I think of makes me bitter, even thoughts that once made me happy. I think of Master Ram, remember the birds singing on the Peepal tree outside my school, remember Father telling me to become like Uncle Srini.


In three days, Chaami joins us in the hot water area. I’m happy and sorry at the same time. He will feel worse here, but at least all three of us can be together. His brother is getting married tomorrow, but Chaami’s been thinking of life in the factory, life without long walks through fields and past muddy runnels, life in constant fear of unfriendly shadows.

“I’ll especially miss diving into those mounds of hay by the road,” says Chaami. “And playing hide and seek in them.”

Ganga smiles. I smile, then become quiet, listening to new thoughts unfolding in my mind. I look around the room.

“Heera will come tomorrow as usual,” I whisper. “How long would it take to sneak out the back, run to his cart, and hide in those mounds of leaves?”

“Through the back?” asks Chaami, turning to look.

“Less than a minute,” says Ganga. “But if the other boys notice, they will create a scene.”

“Leave that to me. I’ll distract the boys.”

“And you?”

“I’ll join you later. Maybe you could come here one day with Aunt Leela and take me.”

I look out the window at the dirt road where Heera would park his cart, and feel my heart thump faster. Cloud shadows float over open grounds and across the bright trees swathed in sunshine. Someone grazes my elbow, and I sense a presence behind me. Turning my head, I see Jothi glaring at us.

“You three have been working or telling each other stories?”

We stay silent. “Stop murmuring, or else I’ll send you to different parts of the room,” she says, and walks off.

My hands are in the scalding water but they feel nothing. I wonder briefly if Jothi heard us.


Morning rains make everything around look a shade darker. Little ghosts of mist wobble on dirt. The three of us work in silence, occasionally peering out the window. Jothi is in a red sari today, the brightest I’ve seen her wear. She’s talking to a cleaning lady who nods silently, and points to the open window. Perhaps Jothi wants it cleaned. Perhaps she will draw the shutters, and make it impossible for us to see Heera pulling in. The cleaner leaves the room, but doesn’t return.

Pandu doesn’t come in the whole morning, which passes slowly. My eyes are tired, for I hardly slept last night, thinking about today, about the precious coin that Master Ram gave me. I dug it up this morning and dropped it in my pocket.

Now I place the coin in Ganga’s hand. “Take it,” I say. “Keep it with you, somewhere safe.” He looks at me with surprise. He knows the story behind the coin. I have told him many times.

Past noon, we see Heera round the corner, wheels creaking. We look at each other. Heera is in a blue shirt today. He takes longer than usual to dismount.

“Now, wait till no one is looking in your direction,” I say, and walk to the front of the room. On reaching the front door, I pretend to slump to the ground, making sure I hit the wall and make some noise. Someone yells. I feel footsteps running in my direction, and the buzz turning into clamor, and commotion. Minutes pass before someone pours water on my face. I open my eyes, crinkle my face and act dazed.

Strong hands lift me to my feet and someone asks me if I’m okay. I nod yes and pat down my dirty shirt. I walk gingerly to my spot, and see that Ganga and Chaami have gone. And that no one else has noticed. I see Jothi standing at the spot where I had fallen, her eyes fixed on me.

I wait till she turns away, then look toward the window. And catch the back of Heera’s bullock cart staggering away from the factory.

I imagine my two friends whispering to each other under the blanket of leaves, giggling, relieved, excited to be heading towards a free world where they can run barefoot, scrambling after frightened frogs, and catching raindrops in their mouth.

I wish I was with them on that cart.

Then, I think of inconsolable Mother, and helpless Father holding her hands.

The cart disappears from view and I feel the familiar bite of the water on my hands. From the corner of my eye, I catch the redness of Jothi’s sari beside me.

“You feel better now?” she asks. I nod, and look into her eyes.

She places her hand on my back. “Tomorrow I’ll try to move you to the mulberry fields.”

The most beautiful products often take root in inferior settings. In addition to conveying this, I wanted to highlight child labor in many parts of India, a situation born out of poverty, greed or lack of alternatives. I wanted to go with either a brick kiln or a silk factory, and then decided on the latter because the silk-making process itself afforded a tantalizing mix of intricacy, skill and rigor. Not all characters in this story are repulsive; I intentionally depicted the protagonist's parents as silently regretful but helpless, so that I could portray the various grounds for child labor.