Monday, November 14, 2011

Short Story: Happy Children's Day

She stared across the road.

Her deft hands, calloused with a year’s worth of rope-burns, were braiding plastic fibres, but her eyes – and her mind – were fixed on the cluster of pastel-coloured buildings that looked so inviting. School. The paradise of letters, numbers, pencils and books… a heaven that she could never enter.

She was seated beside the large, tinted windows. It was her favourite spot of all in the Rope-Making Unit, from where she keenly watched the mysterious outer world. As she worked, she’d observe the all-too-many vehicles, the rushing crowds of people, the high-rise buildings… If she set her imagination free, she’d almost hear the squeal of tyres as a car braked, a bike revving up, a harried mother snapping at her child for the latter’s constant whining about the un-bought lollipop. She could feel the wind, tainted with traces of smoke and oil, on her face.

The windows were her one-way link to the wonderful world beyond. She, on one side, regarding the outer world in wonder, while the people raced on with their lives, oblivious to the fact that a twelve-year-old was watching their world, enraptured, from The Hellhole.

The Hellhole, as her best friend Sita so aptly put it, was the place where children like her worked day and night, braiding fibers into plastic ropes. It was a decrepit building with a heavy air of despair and desolation about it, a stark contrast to the colourful and chaotic world outside – the world which promised joy and freedom for bonded labourers like her. So near, yet so far.

Bonded labourer. She knew that it meant that she was practically sold. The thought always brought a bitter taste to her mouth. Sold. Like a commodity, over the price of which her parents haggled with the Boss. She’d been so eager to help her family in whatever way she could, at least to make sure that her little brother Rohit never went hungry.

But never had she imagined in her wildest nightmares that this would be her fate. Trading her entire life for a few measly rupees. Yes, her entire life, not just the “bond period" of 3 years. She was twelve, but she wasn’t na├»ve; she knew she probably wouldn’t make it back to her home. Ritesh bhaiyya had been stuck here for around a decade. Some of the older girls were taken away all of a sudden by a creepy-looking man and were never seen again.

But, for once, she was too preoccupied with gazing at the school to wallow in her fear and misery. She had missed the occasion last year because she had been ill. She had heard all sorts of stories and she had to see it for herself. And here she was.

True, the sprawling school grounds looked more festive, she thought. Balloons and streamers adorned the periphery walls of the school. Her luckier peers weren’t in their grey-and-white uniforms. Some were wearing frocks, some in skirt-blouses and some in churidars. She noted that they were happier than usual. The milled about in groups, making their way towards the school gates, laughing and chatting. Happy and carefree.

But the thing that intrigued her was the banner over the arched gateway of the school. It was a confection of colours. Recalling all her lessons with Ritesh bhaiyya, she painstakingly recognized the letters, which –

Crack! Crack!

She was yanked out of her train of thoughts by a numbing pain on her back. Through her watery eyes, she saw the silhouette of the supervisor – a dark, burly man with his perpetual whip. Somewhere along the line, as she daydreamed, her hands must have let go of the plastic fibres. So, so, so stupid of her to be careless, off-guard.

Clutching her throbbing back, she stood up as the man yelled insults that she could hardly make out in the haze of the pain. It felt as though her skin was being slowly grilled over a white-hot flame.

After what seemed like a long time, she was roughly pushed down to her seat. She wiped her eyes as the heavy footfalls faded away into a distance. She sent a reassuring glance towards a visibly upset Sita and resumed her work, as did the rest of her friends. When she was sure the supervisor wasn’t looking, she snuck a look at the banner once again.

“Happy Children’s Day,” she whispered, bitterness lacing every syllable.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Short Story: Words

She pelts me with words.

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Know-it-all.
She calls me know-it-all and she acts like she knows everything about me. Does she know who I really am? Does she know the innumerous thoughts that race through my mind at million miles per second? Does she know about the battles I’ve fought to reach where I’m now? Does she know how far I’ve climbed and I’m still set to go up higher?

Over-smart. Show-off.
Me, over-smart, show-off? Because I have a Hermione-esque habit of answering questions, though on a far smaller scale? Because I asked her a few questions she didn’t have answers to? Because I dared to step out of the lines she drew? Because I didn't want to conform to her stifling traditions? Because I ventured to express myself?

Pretentious, vain, conceited.
Had she thought of looking beyond her assumptions and prejudices? Had she just glanced at the tip of the iceberg and failed to see it ran deep into the seas? Had she peeled off the different layers before she spun her web of lies? Had she ever heard of the proverb, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?
******************** 

I try to tune her out by singing “All you are is mean/and a liar/and pathetic/and a lowly life and mean, and mean, and mean….” in my head, but in vain. I could have borne it if she were hurling stones at me. Stones can only scar the surface – the skin broken, some blood shed. Or maybe some fractured bones.

But words wound far deeper. They pierce through my heart like a thousand knives. They course through me like venom, scorching my veins. They burn themselves on to my mind, smothering my confidence, my beliefs.

Her words also awaken my ugly side. They make me want lose control – to scream and yell at her to shut up, to quell that infuriating “I-know-everything” tone that adults often use. Or maybe just slap her, to wipe that smirk off her face. I want to fire all the questions that popped up in my head when she called me so-and-so, to see her fumbling for answers, to turn the tables.

But I keep quiet.

Because, even if words are silver, silence is golden.