The stench of the liquor seemed to be everywhere in the little hut and made her want to gag. She tried to relax, but she couldn’t. Nanakhram muttered something and turned in his sleep, in the process laying a heavy leg on little Somu. The little boy winced, but was too tired to bother. Sulekha wanted to burn the lazy leg that hurt her hard-working child, but she didn’t. She slowly removed the leg, lifted Somu up and took him outside the hut along with her. They slept on the caked-mud floor. The mosquitoes were unforgiving but it was a lot better than the inside of the hut.
The scene repeated itself every day. She dreaded the first week of every month when her employers’ gave her money and Nanakhram took it away to squander on the liquor. Somu had stopped going to school, he went to the factory now with his mother. Together they made shirts and skirts all day. It was hard to work on the sewing machine sitting on the stool. Her back hurt, but she put a brave face for Somu. He was an intelligent kid; he learnt the ropes too quickly. A little too quickly perhaps, for Sethji had noticed this. Now there was no turning back to school. This saddened Sulekha who never wanted her children to ever set foot in the factory. She liked padhaai.
Acha naukri lag jaye to, paise ke saat izzat bhi jo milta hai, she kept telling Somu repeatedly.
Sulekha’s mom had been in debt to Sethji, of how much amount they never knew. But she kept working for 18 years now since she was 4. And they gave her a meager 200 per week. It was okay though; more money meant more liquor for Nanakhram. And less peace of mind.
They were on their way to the house when she saw him. She stopped in her tracks and clutched Somu’s hand tighter. He was talking to a girl. A teen, perhaps. She hadn’t bothered to comb her hair or groom herself. Nanakhram must have a secret sense of humor thought Sulekha furiously, because the girl kept giggling in a high pitch. The daily laborers who had just returned from sheher laughed knowingly. It looked like this happened frequently. Sulekha’s impatience grew. And then she saw it. Her maa’s only gold bangle on the girl’s wrist. He had taken it two months to pawn it the gold shop for liquor money, he had said. Her blood boiled. She wanted to run and take it back from the girl, but she didn’t.
She turned back, with Somu at her heels, sprinted towards the hut. She grabbed a torn sari and started packing her few belongings in it. The wooden baansuri, some clothes for Somu and her and few other things. Then she knotted two ends together and repeated the same with the other two ends. Somu didn’t ask any questions, he knew it somehow. Then she reached for the big bamboo in the roof, and moved it slightly to remove the money she had been safekeeping. Thankfully, the raakshas never noticed this, she was glad for once.
She clutched the package with an arm and took Somu’s hand in the other. She was determined not to weep, she left. She didn’t even turn back to look at the hut that had known for eight years. The hut had seen her come in a happy bride, seen her squeeze out a child with no mid-wives, seen her turn breadwinner for the whole family and seen her suffer through a major chunk. Now she is out to conquer her world. Somu will live a different life, she thought to herself resolutely as she reached the main road.
And then out of nowhere, a truck hit them. Somu was thrown onto the grassy divider but she didn’t make it. The skull was crushed to a pulp, Somu had heard it. But he hoped that his mother would make it like always. She has been a fighter all her life, hadn’t she?
All reason failed, he shook her bloodied body, the blood was sticky but Sulekha didn’t move. The temple priest was lying; he had told Ramu that her patience was given by goddess Durga, who took up residence inside him. And goddesses didn’t abandon little kids, his mother had told him so.
The villagers shook their heads and spoke among themselves. Their hearts went out to him but they could do little. He cried and cried until his throat felt parched. Then he fell asleep. A deep sleep, a void and he felt safe. Again. His mother was here.
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