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 naïve; 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.

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