‘What’s his name?’
‘Was he an auto driver?’
‘Listen to me… I demand an explanation. Now.’
‘Do you have any idea where he might be?’
Her silence was deafening.
She furiously chopped the onions, the knife narrowly missing her thumb.
‘Can’t you hear me?’ I screamed.
She pushed the plate away.’ Stop torturing me like this.’
‘I need to know’
‘Well, if it’s any consolation to you, he wasn’t an auto driver or anything’
‘He was a policeman’. She brought the plate closer. Tears falling profusely down her cheek.
I slammed the door behind me (except that there was no solid door), grabbed my bag(a real one!) and walked out.
Silence. It drove me crazy.
I passed Bhola’s tea stall. The smell of hot samosas and oil hit me in the face.
‘Where are you going? Come have tea. I have made your favourite samosa’
‘Sorry uncle, but I have to go. The bell must have already rung’
‘Oh oh. I almost forgot. I am talking to the most educated person in our neighbourhood. Don’t worry, you don’t have to study this hard’
All you need to know is how to make first class tea and pav bhaji’
Let me be truthful here. Bhola is, unfortunately my uncle. He has been supposedly taking care of my mother, my two sisters, my only younger brother and me. He lives with an ugly looking wife right behind his tea shop. It stinks. I mean everything. The house, the shop, his clothes, even his own children.
In short, I have always hated him.
‘Our teacher tells me that cleanliness can prevent dangerous diseases and save precious lives’
‘Oh the hell with your teacher. That’s all they know to teach. Cleanliness and discipline. Can they get us all jobs?’
His sarcasm shook me.
‘No, I think she’s right. She says we need to work hard in order to find jobs’
Everyone standing there, drinking tasteless tea from filthy glasses, laughed.
‘Look, what all ideas she has put in his stupid head. Run my boy, put your bag there and go collect junk. You will at least not go hungry’
It was getting too much. I pushed an old man aside and brought my face closer to my uncle.
‘Really? You sit here pouring more water into milk and adding rotten potatoes in your samosas. How would you ever know? You have never even seen the steps of that building’
I ran my fingers through my dusty hair (I saw a hero doing it in a film)
I walked away from there. My uncle and his loyal customers, the colour drained from their faces.
The Gate. That’s what we call the huge bridge that stands right above our homes.
It was my friend, Shyam who had suggested it. He said, if we went to the other side, we could see a different world altogether.
Fast cars. Boys carrying phones, girls wearing shoes.
‘I wish we could break it down someday’, he said, over and over again.
I haven’t seen Shyam for a long time. No body talks about him any more.
‘He ran away’, my youngest sister, Ujjwala, whispered to me one night. ‘He ran away to the city’.
‘What about The Gate?’ I childishly asked her.
‘I don’t know’, she said. ‘Maybe he just jumped over it’
‘Or maybe he just walked right under it’, I said.
In the dim candlelight, I saw her shaking her head.
‘Maybe that’s exactly what he did. He walked under it!’ she said
We laughed out loud. We laughed so hard our stomachs began to ache.
‘Shut up, you brats’, Ma said. ‘Go to sleep’
We cupped our hands over our mouths. In the morning, we laughed to our heart’s content.
I saw Gulab walking towards me.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked.
She grinned.’ You still go to that boring place?’ Don’t you ever get tired?’
‘No,’ I curtly replied. ‘I like it there. It gives me hope’
‘Pah’, she spit on the road.
‘You know there’s no hope. Stop talking silly things.’
‘Why can’t you come, Gulab? We can get out of this place sooner or later. There are better things for us to do.’
‘I would have come if they still gave free lunches.’
I said, ‘They sometimes do’
‘Okay okay Babu Sahib. Now don’t start preaching. Go fast. The bell must have rung.’
‘Yes. It has,’ I said
She nudged me and walked away. Towards those dingy dwellings, where men sat chewing paan and listening to the broken radio. And where women went to work in the posh buildings opposite to us. Women cooked, cleaned and washed in those houses. My mother does the same too. They pay her 50 rupees every month.
Gulab’s mother died last year in a terrible accident. A bus ran over her as she was crossing the road. They didn’t have enough money to bury her. So, they burnt the corpse near the sea. Ever since, her father began to smoke.
Before, he drank and beat his family.
Poor man. Lost his job at a plastic factory. He now sits at home, sleeping all day.
Gulab and I always played together. You could call her my childhood friend. We used to work in a factory once but then the police asked us to leave.
When we were asked to join school, she strongly refused. She sat for a few classes but then began fighting with the other girls.
Once, she beat a small girl with an iron rod.
After Gulab left school, she asked me to do the same. I refused .I told her that I found solace in the school classroom. I was enamoured by the pictures they showed us. Of children just like us. With happy faces.
For some time, we didn’t talk to each other. Like the rest of them, she also thought me crazy.
‘You are grown up now. Almost 16, isn’t it? And you go to school’
‘I like it there’
‘What a shame. Why don’t you help your mother?’
‘I will make lots of money one day and help my mother and sisters. For that, I need to go to school’
‘What bullshit. They are brainwashing you’, she warned me.
‘Oh shut up, Gulab. You are getting on my nerves. Get lost’
And that was it. She was so stubborn that she didn’t talk to me until I went on my knees and apologised. She was too proud to accept it. I apologised continuously for a week and bought her a set of cheap looking bangles. She accepted them both.
Gulab looks different today. She acts different too.
But I don’t like her this way. She wears dark red lipstick and adorns her sticky hair with orange flowers. The first time I saw her wearing a sari, I thought she looked ridiculous. But then, I didn’t tell her that.
Now, she also applies some kind of mushy thing over her face and chews paan like everyone else. She’s changed a lot. Sometimes, at night I get scared seeing her.
Gulab means rose (my second sister’s name is also Gulab), but my childhood friend has lost the tenderness of her face and the innocence of her childhood.
Sometimes, I think she’s a stranger. No hellos or goodbyes.
She tells me every single time.’ They are brainwashing you. They’ll kill you’
She’s lost her body. I think she’s trying to save mine at least.
At night, I sit on the pavement and look at the shining lights above. These lights come from those very same posh houses in which our women work.
Red, blue, yellow. There are lights of all colours. Sounds too.
Every night, in one of those rooms, somebody sings loudly. Loud enough for us to hear. The songs are of different languages but when film songs come, we instantly recognise it.
Children in and around our dwellings dance on the streets to these tunes. Sometimes, we sing along. Once, we saw a few boys and girls dancing in those rooms. Their bodies close to each other, they danced all night. We watched them from below until the music finally stopped.
They are so big. The buildings I mean. Apartments, flats, my teacher tells me. That’s what they are called these days.
They are so big that the sky actually gets caught behind. Not just one, but dozens of such apartments on all sides. And in the middle, the only things standing are our tin roofed cardboard houses and The Gate. And then scores of orphaned children dancing away to hit numbers.
‘If you don’t tell me, I will also run away’
‘I really mean it’
‘Is my father dead?’
‘What happened? Give me his address. I will go meet him.
‘I have a father. I need to see him now.’
Ma’s silence always drove me nuts. She just didn’t budge.
She was frying fish, a Sunday afternoon delicacy bestowed upon us by our dear Bhola Uncle. And the next day as expected Ma would fall sick. The fish was that horrible.
‘There’s something really wrong with you. I don’t know why you are throwing all these questions at me. It’s just pointless’, she got up.
My eyes widened. I couldn’t believe that she was finally giving me an answer. After all these years.
‘He was a policeman’, she said.
‘I know. You told me’
‘Yes. But you don’t know everything,’ she continued.
‘It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. I didn’t know what to do. Believe me or not, that was the first and last time I saw him. I don’t even know his name’.
A bee zoomed in and out of our room. The buzzing sound drowning my thoughts.
In a matter of fact manner, my mother said ‘He grabbed me as I was going to fetch water. He was very gentle’
She smiled at the thought.
I yelled, ‘For God’s sake! He wasn’t a good man, Ma. He hurt you’
‘I know,’ she yelled back. ‘I know he had hurt me, but I didn’t know it then’.
‘Did anyone find out?’ My voice lowered.
‘Yes, when you were born’
My sister began to cry. The bee had stung her.
I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t shocked.
I rubbed my sister’s cheek. ‘It’s okay,’ I told her. ‘It happens’
My mother rubbed her eyes and sat down to fry the remaining fish.
I looked around.
Rotten. Everything. Everyone. Rotten.
The only soul I know that isn’t rotten stands in front of our school. Well, at least on the outside.
She is young. Pretty. Tall.
She smokes, occasionally outside the classroom and carries a huge bag.
‘I like you all,’ she says everyday. ‘I am glad you are letting me help you’
Some boys laugh hearing this. Girls giggle.
Her name is Anna. I am Christian, she told us on the first day. I can sing, talk and eat. And now, I teach.
‘What is your God’s name?’ a boy asked.
Everyone else squirmed.
She smiled, flashing her teeth.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied.’ Why don’t you go figure it out?’
Nobody asked her God’s name ever again. I think it was because nobody could figure it out.
‘Ask me about books, places, animals, birds’, she told us.’ That would be fun’
And that was how our first class went. School, we screamed. School…School………School………… we repeated as we went home that day. Our very first word. It’s an English word, Anna teacher added the next day.
‘Angrezi’, she said. ‘They haven’t left us still.’
‘Who lives in those brightly lit noisy rooms?’ I asked her one morning.
She pulled out a cigarette. Lit it in an instant.
‘The rich’, she said.
‘How rich?’ I couldn’t resist asking.
‘Are they rich enough to buy cars and phones? Do they have more than one pair of shoes?’
Anna teacher laughed.
‘My child, they are so rich they can even buy your sisters and brothers and, about their shoes, I suppose they have almost a dozen’
‘Don’t worry. If you study hard and get a job, you can be one of them too’
She threw the cigarette butt away and pulled out another.
I didn’t speak for a while. I was actually trying to imagine all those shoes and all that money. I couldn’t believe that I could ever do the same.
‘Remember, they will destroy you and your land. You have to fight the battle’, she said after a pause.
I didn’t understand.
‘Yes. The weak and the poor will have to rise against them’
‘How? I simply asked.
She must have realised that I didn’t completely understand her. She gave me a better answer.
‘Come to school everyday. Bring your sisters. We need them too.’
‘My sisters!!’ I rolled my eyes. Ma made them sweep and clean other houses. They always complained of back aches.
‘Exactly. We need each and every one of you. Tell your mother to send them here’
That evening, I told my mother everything my teacher had said. Word by word.
After listening carefully (a rare moment) she nodded.
‘Okay. But you must always keep an eye on them’
‘Eh?’ I was bowled over. I was in fact expecting her to slap me hard or chop my ears off. I was stunned to the core.
‘Ok’, I managed to find my voice. ‘I will’
She called out to my sisters. They hugged me hard.
Gulab said, ‘Now I can write my own name. Isn’t that great?’
Life is full of ups and downs.
Bhola, when he came to know of my mother’s desire to send her daughters to school, became violent.
He dragged his sister on to the road.
‘Have you gone crazy like your bastard son? You will bring shame upon all of us’
‘It’s my choice,’ Ma screamed, her clothes almost ripped apart.
‘Choice. Shit. There’s no word like it. This is our fate. We don’t send our daughters to those dangerous places. They will kill them all.’
I grabbed his leg
‘Stop hitting my mother. You will kill them, not those people. Why can’t you let us get out of this wretched place?’
He pulled me by my hair and threw me against our house. The cardboard pieces tumbled down upon me. He began hitting my mother. My sisters and brother stood screaming.
No one cried.
No one stopped him. Instead, I saw many women joining the attack. The men were too lazy or weak to do anything.
‘She’s a total waste’, they said. ‘Look, she has children with different men. She’s a devil’
They called Ma a lot of names. One of them pinched my brother, his skin coming off.
There wasn’t enough time to think.
I couldn’t take this any longer.
I picked a huge stone lying beneath the rubble and aimed at Bhola’s head. It happened too quickly. I smashed the stone on his stinking head and blood poured out.
The women retreated. The children scattered away.
The men didn’t speak. There was blood everywhere.
My mother got up, picked up her clothes and asked me to put the stone away.
(No one noticed the blood on her body)
Bhola lay there. Like a dog. His tongue sticking out.
The place came to a standstill. When the police came to take me away in their blue van, nobody spoke.
I was in jail for, I guess for about six months or so.
It was terrible there. Big burly men hit me so hard that I couldn’t hear anything in my left right. They shaved my head and made me drink rice water. I was always in pain. I could barely walk on some days.
Anna teacher came and spoke to the bald headed old man there.
‘You are young; one of the prisoners told me. Don’t waste it’.
Self defence. ‘You are lucky they left you.’ she said.
Then, she took me to my new house. Nothing new about it except for colourful looking cardboard pieces and a big wooden door in front.
My family hugged me. I was given jalebis to eat.
‘Come to school from tomorrow’
‘Be brave. May Jesus bless you’, she said.
When she left, I told my youngest sister, ‘His name is Jesus’
‘Anna teacher’s God’s name’
‘Yes. Jesus. I think it’s a man’
‘What’s his father’s name?’ she asked.
I pulled her cheeks hard and laughed.
‘I don’t know. Why don’t you figure that out?
Nothing much has changed since I left.
I see old men, too weak to move sleeping outside. Women still wear the same saris and go to work early in the morning.
Many of my friends have quit school and now work in a glass factory. Some of the girls have got married to men living next door.
My mother brings bread and milk from the house in which she works. My sisters collect junk on Mondays and Wednesdays, the other days, they go carry cement on their heads. Now, they don’t sweep or clean.
Music flows from those rooms. I realise the people there are very rich. They have children who go to school in buses and their wives watch TV in the afternoon.
The music hasn’t changed. Film songs are played all night. Boys and girls dance together and phones continue to ring.
The Gate stands. But doesn’t separate us anymore. Men with tools have started to clear away some of the houses next to us. They will get us any day, the old women tell each other.
School has also not changed much. Anna teacher smokes all day and her smile remains beautiful still. There is a new teacher too. He is a young bespectacled man with no moustache. He wears long sleeved shirts and also carries a huge bag.
When he shakes hands with Anna teacher, his cheeks turn red.
Sometimes, I see them sitting together, smoking. I think he likes her (He always carries her bag)
If you are wondering whether I am doing fine, let me be frank. No, I am not. My head throbs at night and I have bad dreams. I once dreamt of Bhola coming towards me with a sword in his hand and cutting my head off.
His shop was demolished that very same day and now, another tea stall stands.
I stopped eating samosas. I hate tea now.
I feel like crying sometimes. I guess Gulab was right. There’s no hope here.
Everyday, either a child is born or someone is hurt. Men frequently knock at many doors. Women quarrel with each other, every day.
My mother continues to walk a long distance to fetch water. They have stopped calling her names.
The rich people have now more than one car and they throw out all their leftover food onto our roofs. I can’t study at all. Our candles have melted and people are too tired to open their eyes.
I was coming back, late at night when I spotted Gulab squatting under the bridge.
She clapped her hands. ‘Arrey, when did you come? ‘
‘A week back’
‘So, what have you been up to?’
Sensing irritation in my voice she said, ‘Do you like my lipshtick’
‘No I don’t. I think it’s ridiculous. And it’s not lipshtick. Its lipstick’
‘Lipshtick. Lipstick. Doesn’t make any difference.’
She took a purple lipstick, out of nowhere and applied some more.
I said, ‘It looks ridiculous. You look horrible with it. Rub it off’
‘No, I won’t and what’s your problem. I think it suits me just fine.’
All of a sudden, I got so angry that I hit her hard across her face, the impression of my right palm on her left cheek. The lines very clear.
For a minute, no one talked.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I really didn’t mean to do that’
I stood there not knowing what to do, feeling very guilty but angry still.
‘Actually, the lipshtick does suit you,’ I said sheepishly.
She smiled. I smiled.
And before I could say anything more, she grabbed my shirt and pulled me towards her.
I fell on top of her and she fell on the slushy ground with a thud.
Her lips found mine and in the darkness, I felt her.
The smell of the orange flowers on her head, the taste of the purple lipstick on her lips. Her skin was soft but her hair sticky.
Under the bridge, under the star lit sky.
As we furiously felt each other, I could hear them laugh, from those rooms above.
Their laughter getting louder.
‘What a pity,’ they were telling one another.’ What an absolute pity’.