Saturday, 28 March 2015

Maladies of the Lily White

Poor beggar girl, Photo source: DeviantArt
Jani had her home in a slum. Her mother used to sit underneath a canopy at the turning of the small alley which ran across the blighted area, selling small stuffs. Her income was meager. Some extra money would pour in once in a blue moon, and there would occasionally be provision for tea as well. Jani had always seen that routine, her mother never tiring and setting up her little shop every morning with new hope. She had never seen a life beyond those dusty streets and dingy huts. Her mother would narrate stories about the city to her, about the big tall buildings, the buses and cars, the busy streets and the orange street-lights, the fancy restaurants and flashy shops, and she would dream about being there someday. The house she was living in was a one room accommodation with a leaky roof and brick walls, matted with ages of black soot. There was a small bed in the corner with a soiled bed-sheet covering it. There was no money to buy another and so they slept on it ever. A rainy day would be tough and they would spend hours putting buckets under the leaks, emptying and re-filling all the while and praying for the downpour to stop. Dinner would usually be a plate of white rice at most, and on more fortunate days, they would have lentils and some vegetables. Life was difficult for them, but they were content. Jani’s mother had stitched a cloth doll for her sixth birthday. The little girl adored it and would show it off to her friends, comb its hair, offer it false food and sleep with it by her side at night. She never parted with her doll. She would enjoy the attention of her friends and would spend hours boasting about her prized possession.

Monsoon had settled in, the rain bringing with it a lot of distress that year. The gutter nearby was overflowing with stinking murky water. The area was flooded and dirty, diseases spreading and people dropping like flies. There were frequent visits from NGOs and relief centers. But the scene was going from bad towards worse. Medicines didn’t suffice and food was scanty. Jani’s mother too, was down with high fever, some kind of deadly flu, the doctors said. She had become pale and thin. The free medicines had failed to work and the poor girl didn’t know what to do. A night after the relief camp had withdrawn her mother’s condition worsened. She kept throwing up the whole night, her feet cold and body shivering. Jani was scared to sleep with her. So, she slept on the floor with the doll by her side and lulled herself to sleep. Her mother died that night; Jani was left all alone.

The coming days were tough for Jani to cope up. Initially, the neighbors would pity her and offer food from their small shares. But as the days passed, the warmth in their voice lessened. The shortage of and greed for a full time meal and all the bitterness of their miseries had hardened their hearts. The rain had got heavy and the roof leakier than before, and finally one ill-starred night, it crashed. Poor Jani had no shelter now. Though she had survived the accident, she knew that there was more discomfort coming her way. She hugged her doll tightly to her bosom and cried the whole night, fighting the rain and cursing her fate, wishing she were dead, and at the crack of the dawn, she made up her mind to leave the slum forever, oblivious of the future.

So, she bundled her belongings up in the soiled bed-sheet. There wasn’t much to carry. Just few old clothes, a stale piece of cooked meat, which one of her neighbors had once offered, a packet of white chalk which her mother had given long back, and her favorite, the cloth doll. As she walked past the small alley, Jani remembered the good old days with her mother and her friends. She approached the turning where her mother used to set her canopy up. The rain had swept away the temporary set-up, leaving only a pool of mud instead. The oilcloth that her mother had once used to save the puny shop from rains was half buried in mud, and a stray dog sat there, happily munching on a bone. She envied the dog with all heart. She tried to chase it away, suddenly feeling immensely possessive about the thing that once belonged to her mother. But the animal was reluctant. It gave a huge carefree yawn and reverted back to its chewing. She tried a few more times, but failed. Jani was frustrated, her heart heavy with the failure to retrieve her mother’s oilcloth. Just as she was about to give up and leave, the dog came to her wagging its tail. It had smelled the meat in her bundle. But, Jani didn’t have the slightest idea about canine behavior and gave a feeble attempt to shoo it away, confused and scared. But there was a sudden sharp bark in reply, giving her a strong panic attack. The dog plunged upon her bundle in an attempt to discover what it had smelled. Jani freaked out and after a brief struggle managed to tear the bundle out of its mouth. A terrified Jani then ran for her life, clasping her bundle tightly and not daring to look back.

Exhausted and shaken by the unexpected aggression, she arrived at the city at mid noon. It was exactly how her mother had described it to be- busy and flashy ever. She found her place underneath a peepal tree growing near the road-side. There was a woman selling fruits at a distance. She had tied her one-year old baby boy by his right foot to the lamp-post nearby, restraining him from wandering into the streets, and was busy attending to the customers. Her voice was hoarse and she sweated even in the shade all day long. The fruits in her basket reminded Jani of her empty stomach. She opened up her package hoping to find the piece of meat. But there was no meat. There was a large tear in the bed sheet. So, the dog had succeeded in its attempt after all! She searched for her other belongings. She had her frocks and the packet of chalk intact. But, her treasure, the doll was gone! That night, she slept underneath the tree with the bundle as her pillow, crying in hunger and despair, chewing the chalk pieces she had and longing for her cloth doll by her side and had a dream about her mother narrating stories about the big city.

A tickle in the ear woke Jani up early morning. It was the dog from the slum licking her face. It had followed her to the city and was now sitting beside her, wagging its tail, its tongue out. The previous day’s tiff was still fresh in her mind and this time Jani was more angry than frightened. The beast had stolen her food and taken her dear doll. With much spite, she grabbed a stone lying nearby and threw it at its head. The dog let out a weak whimper and skipped a few steps back. Satisfied, Jani went back to sleep. A few moments later she felt the tickle again. Annoyed and disgusted, she got up to hit the dog again and stopped suddenly. It was her doll; the dog was holding it in its mouth. It came towards her, this time with more caution, and settled near her, putting the toy at her feet. Jani was viewing the whole drama silently and could not believe her eyes. She had found her doll again. And she had found a new friend as well. She patted the dog’s head and said, “Thank you. Will you stay here with me? I’ll call you Kala”. The dog rested its head on her lap. Kala had reciprocated her love.

The next day started bright for Jani. An apple had accidentally rolled down from the woman’s basket into the streets. She had found it while taking a stroll nearby and taken it to her place. Kala had found a bone to chew upon. A light breeze was blowing and they were dozing off under the cool shade of the tree. Kala would raise his ears once in a while, paying attention to the slightest of sounds. But, Jani was soon in a deep slumber, dreaming about her life in the slum. She saw herself in her mother’s sari, the cloth doll in her arms and Kala following her, barking at a neighbor of hers. Then she saw her home. Someone was cooking inside the kitchen, might be her mother. Just as she was about to call her from behind, she felt a tight slap on her face and woke up with a start. The fruit seller lady was standing there, anger showing all over her dark face. Jani noticed her black unclean teeth and fuzzy hair and shuddered. “You took the apple from the streets, didn’t you?”, the lady inquired, dominance distinct in her tone. She gave a nod and there was a slap again. “Now pay for it”, screamed the lady. “But I don’t have any money”, Jani answered, a little frightened. The lady was furious now. “I don’t sit here all day to do charity! If you don’t have money, give me something else. Show me what you have in that dirty pack of yours”, she pointed towards her bundle. Jani quietly opened it. Kala was watching her with great observance. The lady ransacked the bundle, scrutinizing the things in it, until her eyes fell on the cloth doll. She took it in her hands and muttered to herself, “My son is going to love this”. She turned towards Jani and bluntly said, “I’ll take this.” The poor girl was already in tears. That was her mother’s last gift. She could never part with it, never. She snatched it back from the lady and snapped, “Anything, but this.” Jani’s words were like a huge blow on the fruit seller’s superiority. Enraged, she put her hands forward in an attempt to grab the doll from her. But Kala was already alert. He pounced upon the lady, almost pinning her to the ground. The lady was in a state of shock. Kala’s sharp barks left her no choice but to leave the place. After she was gone, Jani hugged Kala and thanked him, and promised never to leave him.

That evening, Kala was run down by a car. Jani was outside a baker’s shop, picking up a half eaten cake from the dustbin nearby when she heard the brakes screech. Kala was dead by the time she reached. His intestines were out and bathed in blood. The car driver geared off not bothering to look at what had come under the wheels. Passersby did a "tch-tch" and a "tchu-tchu" and went away. The fruit seller lady gave a sinister smile and was back to her business, shouting in her hoarse voice even more enthusiastically. Suddenly, the city no longer seemed like what her mother had described. Jani cried by his side till midnight, indifferent to the dust and the traffic in the streets. She had lost a friend.

Early in the morning, when the road was empty and the dust had died down, Jani slowly went to the peepal tree and brought back her soiled bed-sheet. She picked up the bits and parts of Kala’s cold body and carefully wrapped it up in the cloth. She took him back to the tree and started digging the ground with her bare hands. But the ground was coarse and Jani was just a child with not enough strength. Even after a couple of hours of desperate struggle she could still not dig enough earth to lay Kala’s rotting body. The sun beams were slowly dawning through the darkness. The street lights were dimming down and cars and buses were beginning to run again. Jani noticed that the fruit seller was back with her baby. Keeping the previous day’s tiff and all her fear aside, she went to her and asked, “Can you help me out? I need to dig the ground to bury my pet dog.” The lady looked at her as if she were a criminal. “Go to hell! Both you and your flea bag!”, she thundered. Jani thought for a moment and said again, “Please, I know you didn’t like him. But he is dead now.” After few seconds of silence the lady said, “Fine. I have a knife. But you’ll get it only when you give me the doll. And yes, give me the knife as soon as possible. I have a lot of work to do. I don’t sit here all day to solve other’s problems.” Jani nodded a silent yes.

So her mother’s last gift was soon gone. A grave was dug out neatly for Kala and he was rested in it. Jani was heart-broken and silent. She wept by his grave and slept by his side that night. And, she dreamed of being at her home again. And in her dreams she saw her mother in the kitchen, cooking for her. She smiled at her and welcomed her with open arms, “Where were you Jani? I’ve waited for so long and missed you so much. I’m glad that you’ve returned”. Jani felt the warmth of her mother’s cosy bosom.

She was happy. She was home again.