Stones and diamonds

She picked it up from the road. Turning it carefully in her hands, she observed it from all angles. Disappointed, she threw it away. ‘Today’s been a bad day. I haven’t got much…’ she thought. ‘Let me look farther. Maybe there’ll be something there…’

She walked along, her shoeless feet burning in the hot summer sun, yet caring little about it. She looked around, but she couldn’t find anything she wanted. No pieces of iron, scrap metal, plastic or anything that would fetch her money. Her young hands clutched at the gunny bag slung over her shoulder and drops of sweat began to fall from her brow. She wiped it with one hand and dried it on her tattered frock.

‘Ow’, she said and dropped her bag. She peered at the underside of her foot to see a tiny thorn protruding from the heel. When she tried to pull it out with her nails it only got lodged in further. Tiny tears formed around her otherwise bright eyes. She sat down, kept the throbbing foot on her other thigh and gritting her teeth, tried to remove the thorn by pressing the skin on either side of it.

‘Hello beti, what are you doing?’

She looked up to see Uncle gazing concernedly at her. No one knew what his name was. He was called ‘Uncle’ by everyone and indeed he was older than most people. She waggled her foot in the air. ‘The thorn is refusing to come out’, she said childishly. Hiding a smile behind his moustache, Uncle told her, ‘Come, I’ll see how the bad bad thorn won’t come out.’

He offered his forefinger to her and she tightened her little fingers round it as he led her to his house. It was an old broken down house, one which with some care could have been better, though not much. He lived alone in it. Some said that his children had driven him away whereas others opinioned that he had run away from jail. Nevertheless, the only solid fact remained that he lived quite alone and seemed to know no one.

He struck a matchstick, heated a pin lightly to sterilize it and came upto her. ‘Uncle, are you going to prick my foot with that?’ she questioned, beginning to get worried. ‘Don’t worry. Listen I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time there lived a king with three beautiful daughters…’ he began, all the time expertly prising the thorn out of her foot. ‘Tra la la. Here is the evil thorn’, he said. Giggling, she said, ‘It got afraid of you.’ When she got no response she went to see what Uncle was doing. ‘I have a surprise for you. Here it is’ he said and kept a bundle of newspapers in front of her with a flourish. This was a game they played every week. He would announce a surprise, she would pretend to be curious and he would keep the week’s newspapers infront of her. It didn’t fetch a lot of money, but for her, every little bit counted. That was something she had learnt long back in her job of scrap collecting— small things count. Little pieces of scrap iron contribute towards getting a tidy sum.

‘Come here. Open your bag; I’ll put it inside.’

Dutifully she held the bag open and watched him as he put the newspapers in and deftly tied the mouth with a bit of string.

‘Off you go now. Next week I’ll have a surprise for you again, okay?’

‘Yes, uncle, I will come. Bye.’

‘Look out for evil thorns…’

‘Hee hee’, she said and scampered off.

Uncle buying newspapers was indeed a curious thing as he seemed to have barely enough money to make ends meet. This issue was vociferously debated over by the neighbours. Some said that this just showed that he was from an educated family and his children had shooed him out. Others counter-argued that since he had nothing else to do in jail, he had gotten into the habit of reading newspapers and now, couldn’t get out of it. While the neighbours had a jolly good time whispering it as he passed by the real reasons were something else. One, he was passionately fond of cricket and since television was a non-affordable luxury he had settled for the newspaper. Two, he had a habit which, try as he might (not that he did) wouldn’t let go of him. He loved buying lottery tickets. Every evening one could see him outside the lottery-ticket shop, chatting with the shop-owner and sipping a small glass of tea from the tiny hut-like tea-shop next to it. Every morning he would open the newspaper after a small prayer to God and check the results. Cursing his luck, he’d vow not to buy another lottery ticket but when evening arrived it was the same story all over again.


‘Where are you coming from’, questioned her mother, sternly.

She cowered knowing what was going to follow.

‘I went to collect…’

‘Don’t lie. I saw you in uncle’s house. How dare you lie to me’, she yelled and hit her hard on the backside.

{Sniff, sniff} ‘He gave me paper.’

‘Why did you go inside his house? I have told you so many times not to go there. Don’t you know he’s come from jail?’ she screamed and hit her again, even harder.

The girl’s wails could be heard all down the street.

She lay sobbing in a corner of her hut, too tired to cry anymore. Her mother guiltily walked in and held out a small bowl of rice to her. ‘Eat’, she said.

She looked scornfully at her mother and turned away. Smiling a little, her mother pulled her close and said, ‘Here, eat this. Then I will tell you a story.’ Grudgingly she took the bowl and began to eat. Stuffing her mouth full of rice she asked ‘Where is my story?’

‘Once upon a time in a far away land…’

‘Mummy, what is jail?’

‘Where did you hear that?’

‘You told me yesterday. You said Uncle…’

‘Hmmm. Jail is a place for bad people. If a person steals or kills someone he goes to jail.’

‘Do you get chocolates in jail?’


This idea dampened her spirit a little but she continued her torrent of questions.

‘How do you kill someone?’

‘Child, what are you saying?’

‘Tell me, tell me, tell me…’

‘Ummm, with a gun’, she replied since she was sure her daughter couldn’t lay her hands on one.

‘What’s a gun?’

‘I don’t know. I have not killed anyone.’

‘Are you sure? How do you know we are not in jail? I don’t get any chocolates here either…’

She laughed and patted her child’s head. ‘Go to sleep. It’s getting late’, she said and covered her with a thin sheet.


The next day she awoke quietly and ran out before her mother saw her. She ran till uncle’s house came in sight.

‘You’re here so early? I thought you won’t come till next week.’

‘Ummm, I wanted to ask you something.’

‘Wait a minute. See here, do you know what this is?’

‘What is it?’

‘It’s a gun. See? Bang, bang’, he said and pointed it in all directions with a gleam in his eyes.

The girl took one frightened look at him and ran out at top speed paying no heed to his shouts of ‘Wait, listen; come back here…’

Still shaking a little, she crept into her hut. Her mother had gone out for work and thus she was all alone. She found two stones and a thread and began to play a game which she had thought of. She tied a thread to the end of a stone. Keeping the other stone on the ground, she swung the string till the first stone hit the second. She started competing with herself as to how far the stone went at one go.

Noon arrived with its royal heat and her mother. ‘How much did you collect today?’

‘I didn’t get anything…’

‘What? You lazy child! I suppose you’ve been playing around all morning. Go out and collect some scrap. You will get lunch only after that.’

Slowly she got up, picked her gunny bag and went down the road.


Morning awoke with the crow of the rooster and the sunshine tiptoed towards the little girl’s face through the makeshift window and tickled her. She rolled over and dozed off. Her mother shook her awake. ‘Get up; today you will come with me.’

‘What about scrap collecting?’

‘Today you will come with me and work. You never get much scrap, anyway.’

She became thoughtful. Scrap collecting was great fun since she could do what she liked and wander as much as she wanted. ‘I will get more scrap today.’

‘Hurry up and clean yourself. You will come with me today’, said her mother and went out.

There was nothing to be done so she got ready and the two set off to a nearby house where the girl’s mother worked as a maid.

As they passed Uncle’s house he called, ‘Come here; I have something for you.’

She cowered behind her mother till his house was a long way behind.

The house was beautiful to her young eyes. Flowers of every hue adorned the garden. It was a visual feast. ‘Wheeee’, she said and rolled on the soft lawn.

‘Madam, I have got my daughter to work here.’

‘I need someone to water my plants. Can she do that?’

‘Yes, she can.’

When she took the big garden hose with her tiny hands and cool water splashed out of it she let out a yell of surprise.

‘Don’t waste the water. Water all the plants, understood?’

Joyously, she nodded. She aimed the hose into the air and squeezed the end to make the water move in a shimmering arc. She watered each plant, taking care to wet all the leaves so that they looked fresh. When she was done she wiped her hands on her frock and sat on the lawn. ‘This is much better than scrap collecting’, she thought. Her mother came out to find her daughter completely wet and rolling in the lawn which covered her with tiny grass pieces. ‘Come here, you idiot’, she said and proceeded to wipe her daughter’s head with the edge of her sari. ‘Come here, I’ll show you how to water the plants without getting wet…’

As they went on their way back home Uncle called out to her again and this time she didn’t pretend; she just ran home at top speed leaving her bewildered mother hurrying after her.

Uncle called her many times and even tried coming after her one day; much to her horror but she scuttled away at the mere shadow of him. Slowly, Uncle gave up trying to talk to her. Sometimes, she thought she saw him looking at her as he passed her house but when she turned to look, he wouldn’t be there.

Summer gradually made way to the passionate rainy season with its thunderous rain, dazzling lightening and the heavenly smell of the earth. The croaking of frogs could be heard in the distance. The rain made a rhythmic sound as it pattered on the plastic sheet that covered their hut. It was slowly beginning to get cold and she sat close to the fire and watched her mother cook food over it. The droplets of rain made their way down a hole in the plastic sheet to the hard, straw covered mud-floor inside. ‘Mummy, the roof is leaking.’


‘Mummy, the water is coming into the house.’

‘Keep quiet. I have no money to buy a new sheet to cover the house.’

As the rain lessened, the two went for work. Watering the plants was no longer required but scrap collecting was difficult. Besides, her mother thought she would make her daughter share her work in the house. As they passed by uncle’s house they could hear him giving rasping coughs. He looked weakly through the window as they passed by. She held her mother’s hand tightly and went off.

As the day’s work was almost over someone came hurrying. ‘Madam, do you know? Uncle has died.’ Remembering him and his kind ways all of a sudden, she pulled at her mother’s sari till she came with her. A bunch of curious people had gathered around. Uncle sat peacefully in his chair; his head on his chest, with the newspaper neatly folded and kept on his lap. ‘Mummy, is he dead?’


Someone asked, ‘Does a rag-picker; a small girl live nearby?’

Surprised, she answered, ‘Yes, why?’

‘Uncle wanted you to have this. He’s written a small note here which says so.’

Curious, she opened the paper covering it. She almost dropped it in shock. It was the gun that she had seen Uncle with. ‘It’s a gun, it’s a gun’, she screamed. A few people who were watching tittered. ‘It’s only a toy. She thinks it’s a real gun’, they said and laughed. She gazed at the gun which was beautiful and hand made, which looked like it had been polished every day. Yes, it was indeed a toy. ‘Uncle didn’t come from jail. He only wanted to gift this to me’, she realized. As she was thinking thus, her mother took the toy gun out of her hands. She looked at with obvious happiness and satisfaction. ‘This will fetch a good amount in any toy shop. Along with the little I have saved, it’ll help me buy a new sheet for my roof…’

Jayashree Bhat