They were remarkably big and bloody, those eyes. Both bulged out of their sockets a little, adding to the hideous features of that face. They were watery, as if flooded by unshed tears.

The owner of these strange pair of eyes was a source of entertainment to 12-year-old Muthu. He would gawk at him with his mouth wide open. And slowly, ever so slowly, that stare would transform into a grin of satisfaction — at his faring better in looks than the poor wretch. Sitting in the makeshift waiting shed by the meat stall, he and friends would make jokes of the man with the protruding eyes.

But what kept Muthu squirming on the tattered grass mat inside his hut were thoughts of those eyes bursting. He would think of a hundred scenarios wherein they got pierced, crushed, or burst. These musings occupied Muthu all the time, even when he sat down to study in the dim disk of light by the kerosene lamp. Sometimes, he would stare at the flickering flame and imagine those eyes coming out of their sockets, like eggs out of a hen’s vent.

“What if he collided with someone? Would his eyes burst then? What if somebody hit him in the eye? And he definitely can’t look through a pipe, can he? He can’t press one end of the pipe against his eyes; oh, that would hurt a lot!” Muthu would wonder and perspire under the moth-eaten blanket.

The vagrant, however, didn’t care much about the jeers and sneers from the idlers, often responding with a stupid grin, which, for some reason, made the boy beside with rage.


Muthu was returning home from school that day. He walked alone, a sling shot hung from his waist. Everything that moved was game. Most escaped, thanks to his poor aim, but a large squirrel wasn’t as lucky. A stone caught him on the head. It writhed in the air as it fell, giving Muthu a rush of excitement. The boy sat on his haunches to examine the dying creature; its skull broken and blood oozing from its mouth.

But what fascinated Muthu the most were the eyes. One of them had popped out, giving the face a grotesque appearance. After what seemed like several minutes, Muthu snapped out of the trance and took a razor blade from his instrument box and cut off the creature’s tail. “These are going to make a fine brush,” he said, stuffing the bloody tail into one of his schoolbag’s pockets.

It was then that he saw the man with the bulging eyes, shuffling along in his dirty and tattered clothes. He had a strange look on his face; a look of excitement, a warm expectation. Drool dripped in long threads from his hanging lower lip. He carried a cloth bag in his hand. Muthu followed him.

A few minutes later, the man took the narrow mud road leading to the abandoned match-stick-making unit. He had been staying there ever since he showed up in that village unannounced one morning many years ago. Muthu pressed his body against the compound wall and peeked into the building. He could see the man going into the room that once served as the office; the tiled roof of that portion still held.

The man sat on the crumbling cement floor and took out a packet from the bag. There was happiness on his face, happiness at having received food for the day. He made a morsel of rice and started making clicks with his tongue. He was looking up at the roof as if he was calling something. He spent several minutes doing so, but nothing came. Disappointed, he started having the food, looking expectantly at the roof every now and then. Muthu heard him talk as well to an old black-and-white photograph that sat leaned against the wall; it was that of a couple. The man’s thin mustache and the woman’s hairstyle bespoke of a time long gone. The doggerel that came out of his mouth accompanied by exaggerated gestures looked funny to Muthu.

The zoo

What he found by chance soon became a habit and Muthu found himself going back to the run-down building daily. He would observe the strange man as he went about his dinner. His miserable existence became Muthu’s obsession. It was Muthu’s own zoo and the man his animal. But soon the man’s sufferings became too familiar to excite Muthu anymore.

So, in the most childish way, he started lobbing stones at the vagrant, reveling in the sharp cries he uttered as stones dug into his flesh. It turned out that Muthu liked such cries and wanted more of it. In that dilapidated building, reeking of urine and damp dirt, a tale of horror thus started playing out, but away from the eyes and ears of others.

As he lay on his grass mat with his grandmother snoring on the bed nearby, Muthu designed plans for his next day’s torture. The only thing that worked as tireless as he was his sling shot, which sent out a copious volley of stones in the direction of the man. The glass shards that he spread on the room cut the man’s bare feet and body. Often, one of the boy’s stones would catch him on his face, a little to the right or left to his eyes; Muthu never got his aim right. But, that was enough to inflict horrible damage to the vagrant’s face and leave him battered and bleeding.


Around this time, Muthu’s grandmother found her grandson happy lately. There would be a smile on his sweet face whenever she beheld him close. And that was good for him, she thought. “He had never smiled since his mother hanged herself,” the wizened woman would tell her neighbour. Muthu also stopped visiting his ‘friends’, who let him tag along only because they found him funny to look at and easy to make fun of.

On the other hand, people started seeing less and less of the strange man these days. Whenever he came, he would come limping and the stupid smile on his face had been replaced by a pathetic plea. He looked shriveled, his potbelly shrunk, and his face swelled at several places. His tattered clothes were bloody and loose on his person.


When the monsoon came, Muthu could not make his daily visit to the factory building. But when he visited, he made it worthwhile. By this time, the wretch had started recognising his tormentor and tried to put up some resistance. He would hurl stones at Muthu whenever he spotted him lingering around the factory building. But barely did they reach Muthu, for, by that time, the man had grown considerably weak. The monsoon rains made sure his injuries get infected and the racking cough he picked up recently left him groaning and squirming after every fit.

Muthu grew frustrated even as life drained out of the vagrant’s body. The boy would try his best to insult and injure the man to extract some kind of response from him. All he got, however, were sobs and weak gestures.

When Muthu realised that the man was too weak to resist his attacks and even utter cries of pain, he made the final move. On a rainy evening, Muthu set out to the factory. At its run-down gates, he stopped. He could see the office room was dark inside. He approached it slowly, fat raindrops forced by a headwind battered him on his face.

Inside the room, Muthu saw the vagrant huddled up in a damp corner. His body shivered as if he had a terrible fever. Infected cuts and swollen bruises covered his body, barely clothed by a torn shirt and a dhothi. Muthu sat on his haunches beside him and looked at that face closely — the sight sent him to a trance.

In a steady but mechanical motion, he forced the man onto his back, ignoring his weak protests and pleas. He sat on that frail chest and stabbed him in the eyes several times. The man’s final cries were drowned by a booming thunder.

When Muthu stood up, the trance was over. The rain strengthened as he stepped out of the building, washing him off the blood and gore. He went straight home and, after drying himself, went to bed early. It was the best sleep he had had in a long time – a deep slumber without dreams.

Days became months and months years yet Muthu’s crime was not discovered. But as Muthu grew older, however, his grandmother saw the inevitable changes happening on his face and physique. He developed a slight droop to his frame; his face became redder and lips thicker. But above all, she beheld with a sigh, his eyes started bulging. And, in a hushed voice, she would often tell herself, “He takes after his father.”

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