The Mitsubishi Lancer zooms through the silent streets, its radial tires skimming the smooth metallic surface, the speedometer hovering precariously close to the extreme right when there is a sudden and violent sound of brakes being slammed. The screeching tires protest as the nauseous sound of grinding bones combined with an agonizing cry shatter the pre-dawn stillness.
“Damn…must have run over some dog!” is the first thought of the inebriated teenage driver, discarded immediately as the accompanying gut-wrenching shriek forces a momentary flash of lucidity. The shrill cry, more like an animal being slaughtered, is thankfully wiped out almost immediately but its brevity does nothing to contain the magnitude of sorrow and anguish contained in the wailing that rupture the night and jolt the driver out of his party-induced state of joi-de-vivre.
It is a blood-specked dawn for the family of three, eking out an
existence on the streets of the capital by picking jamuns (blackberries) from the tress that line both side of the roads. The father stands trembling, rooted to the spot while the streets rapidly turn a ghastly red. The mother sobs uncontrollably for the senseless plunder of the sole pride of her womb -- her son, born after seven daughters. A mere stone throw away stand the sprawling bungalows, home to the capital’s rich and powerful.
The driver’s bloodshot eyes lock with the rustic eyes, for a nanosecond the perpetrator of the crime and the victim stand still as shock, guilt and naked fear, momentarily shorn of the trappings of wealth and power battle against anger, loss, and sheer helplessness, till the driver’s companion shouts hoarsely, “Damn it, Vicky, let’s go!”
Kairali Bai picks up a mop and a pail of water and starts to climb the stairs when her mistress’ voice rings out: “Don’t you touch the banisters with your dirty fingers!”
Kairali hastily murmurs an apology; the frown on Memsahib’s face is darker than the rain-bearing clouds that cruelly lash her coastal village every year and turn out more unfortunates like her on the road. Fate too loves to pick on the poor and wretched!
Memsahib son, Vicky, who usually wakes up around noon, has not emerged from his room for the last two days.
Sahib shouts at the cook again. Kairali casts a surreptitious look at the Sahib, still clad in his silk dressing gown – after twelve years she can read them as easily as her shikari (hunter) father had the tracks and pugmarks in the jungle where he had poached for a living.
Her son Chotu, wiser than his ten-year-old visage indicated, barefoot and bareheaded in the 48 degree centigrade heat, is sweeping the huge courtyard, working out his ‘punishment’ for stealing a wrist watch.
“Why, Ma, why? Don’t you know rich people are bigger thieves?”
“You don’t steal from those who feed you, son.” Her father had never captured or killed animals with young, even on the days his children had cried for food. And what if the Memsahib shouted sometimes, at least she wasn’t beaten every night by her drunken husband. Only Chotu had to leave school to work in the house; that had been the Sahib’s condition for not calling the police.
“Count your blessings, son.” Kairali stops a minute to wipe the sweat trickling down her neck and then joins her hands together to thank God for his kindness. At least they have a roof over their heads! And Chotu is not out in the streets with the drug peddlers and pimps. Her sister’s face, lined with pain and hunger and now with the ravages of the tragedy, swim before her eyes. Imagine -- her only son, mowed down by a car just three day’s back! The boy sleeping on the pavement, crushed under the wheels of a big car not far from her master’s house. Kairali shudders and began to scrub even harder.
At last she is finished. The marble floor glistens and satisfied, Kairali slowly straightens her back and troops downstairs, her silent footsteps halting as she hears the Sahib’s voice through the partially-closed bedroom door.
“…thank god they were illiterates! What if someone had noted down the number? Bloody idiots, sleeping on the streets!!”
“Don’t let Vicky step outside! I’m sending him to Australia immediately.”
“You want to send him away? The poor boy is frightened…”
Kairali felt herself tremble like the birds did before the earth rumbled.
“Your son ran over a sleeping boy in the car you insisted I buy him for his eighteenth birthday. Count your blessings, you stupid woman, that no one saw him!!!
“Do you know how much I have already paid? The police inspector, the guard, the commissioner. Now, where’s the passport…”
The pail drops from her hands as the door opens. Kairali looks up at her master. A strange thought crosses her mind – this is the first time she is looking into her master’s eyes. She does not feel anything as the single bullet tears through her frail body; oblivious, Chotu continues to sweep away his sins under the relentless Delhi sun.
A SILK SARI FOR MEENA by Debasree Bhattacharjee
“A silk sari!”
The old woman could hardly believe her ears.
“Stop dreaming, you idiot!”
“Don’t you shout, Amma (mother)!” Squatting on her haunches, Meena
was deftly shaping the cow dung batter into round, flat cakes to dry them under the hot sun. The cakes would then be stored and used as precious fuel to cook their food. It was their black gold.
“It’s elections, Amma! Otherwise, why should the big netas (politicians) be so kind to us?” The weary resignation in Meena’s voice was matter-of-fact. She stopped a moment to shoo away the flies and gently rock the rickety cradle containing her one-year-old baby.
“Don’t you answer me back, you hussy! I’ve lived through more elections than you. But silk, why, never ever have I touched silk!”
The word ‘silk’ was uttered with reverence and respect. For creatures who live in the streets, cook, bathe, fight, cry and love under the open skies, the word ‘silk’ conjured up images from another world --- of couples dressed in skimpy clothes gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes from the billboard above, of big, shiny cars that whistle past their children squatting on the side of the road, a row of naked bottoms as they defecate; the women doing the same behind a tree or a hedge when lucky to find one.
Having grown up rummaging through garbage dumps for a lucky find or a morsel to eat, Meena, with a five-month pregnant belly protruding grotesquely through her faded colorless cotton sari, knew too well the futility of dreams.
But, today, the world seemed so different!
Meena carefully scraped the last of the dung into a cake – you learnt
not to waste a drop when you walked miles barefoot in the hot sun to collect it. She closed her eyes and almost magically the stench, the flies, the naked pot-bellied kids with running noses and kohl-lined eyes, the ugly slum with blue plastic sheets and scrap tin roofs – all faded away and she was surrounded by a shimmering mass that swirled tantalizingly around her. She stretched out a hand, excited by the unfamiliar smell of newness but the six yards of dream floated away and Meena laughed a rare, excited hopeful laughter.
She kneaded the flour for their mid-day meal of chapattis (bread) and slices of onion, the cheap blue and green plastic bangles jingling on her stick-like hands. How pretty she would look in it! What color would it be?
The baby woke up just then and howled in hunger. She quickly stuffed half a chapatti into its tiny hands. “Ssshh, be a good girl. The sari’s for you, my darling!”
However, there was the immediate problem of collecting twenty-one rupees, the fee for attending the rally where the ‘big’ politician would distribute the saris. She approached her husband and received a stinging blow across her face for an answer. Finally, it was the old woman who came to her rescue with a worn ten-rupee note.
“Get the sari, … it’ll make a good dowry for your girl!”
Over the last five years, Meena had managed to save seven rupees but that still left her four rupees short.
Determined not to let anything come between her and the coveted sari, Meena thoughtfully ran her eyes over their sole possessions – a goat and three scrawny hens.
“Cockracoo,” it yelled plaintively as she set off with it. But it fetched five rupees and Meena was all set for the big day.
Seventeen-year-old Meena and her unborn child were crushed to death under the stampeding feet of the hundreds who crawled out of their holes frantic to grab a slice out of a life-time of suppressed dreams.
“I must have been out of my mind!” moaned the old woman. On her now fell the onerous task of raising the pitiable girl child and managing her drunken, brutal son.
She started to sing to the whimpering motherless baby as she rocked the cradle:
In a far away kingdom
Was a beautiful princess
Dressed in jewels and silks
Sleep my darling
For then will come your dreams….
(The sari is a traditional Indian unstitched garment that is worn draped around the body. Silk saris are often hand-woven and have rich embroidery and intricate borders.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Debasree Bhattacharjee is from India. She works as a freelance Copy Editor and has a few published short stories for children to her credit.
Both of these stories are fictitious accounts of real-life incidents. The story ‘Count Your Blessings’ is about a young and rich drunken driver squashing a sleeping boy under the wheels of his speeding car. ‘A Silk Sari For Meena’ is the story of a stampede that occurred after rumors that the stock of saris to be distributed at a political rally was almost over. Seventeen poor people, many of them women, died in the incident.