Please see the Glossary at the end of the story for the meaning of Regional words!
I felt dizzy and the whole place shook before my eyes. The bare wall in front of me showed bricks and metal rods underneath. Am i standing? I tried to move my legs but I couldn’t, nor was I able to feel them. I continued to move from my current position with no luck. Out of ideas, I turned my head to the right. My eyes, still a little blurry, could make out some shapes now. A table, cup of porridge and something small and blue nearby.
Where am I?
I could barely breathe. I turned back to the wall and I could see shapes now which hadn’t been there before. Starting out as a mirage, the shapes positioned themselves and mutated, providing detail. They were no longer mere shapes. They transformed to a human form of someone whom I would never forget for the rest of my life and beyond. He was sitting on a wooded plank with wheels, looking in all directions, with his ragged dress and his half burnt legs; His face and hair smeared with dirt. Almost all of his teeth had fallen out except for the two in front. He held a plate in his hand.
Standing behind him, I started pushing him into the traffic.
“Push harder, Munna.”
“I am trying, Baba.”
I tried my best to push him. His weight made the plank heavier. My body had been aching badly for the past few weeks and the pushing made it even worse. I listened to Baba as he sang in his gruff voice, singing his usual line..
“Ayya*, give us some money. Haven’t eaten in three days. Ayya, Amma!”
Some people threw coins into the plate while some just looked in the other direction as though they hadn’t seen us at all. Some screamed at us.
“Moron, coming in the middle of the traffic”
And there was police sir. He drove us off most of the time but for the past few weeks he hadn’t. He stood there under the lights signaling the traffic, his eyes trying to avoid us.
“Don’t just stand there. Shout! We don’t have much time!” Baba called out, pushing my hand off his shoulder.
“Ayya, Amma*,” I cried, my hands stroking my tummy.
The morning ordeal came to an end when the sun was right above our heads. Baba was counting the coins while I slowly walked over to Anu. She was sleeping under the hot sun, her broken hand stuck out in an awkward position, swollen. I bent down and placed her hands neatly above her chest. She opened her eyes for a moment, in pain, but closed them again. She had been sleeping like this for a long time now.
“You know, she has to get up tomorrow,” Baba called out.
“But she is not well, Baba.” I stood up and walking over to him.
“Nobody is healthy here, Munna. Here, get her something,” he said, handing over a 2 rupee coin.
“Baba, give me one more”
“Get lost! We only got 10 today and I have to give 4 to that police sir.”
“Our fate!” He growled.
“Son, open your mouth.”
I came out of my reverie. A lady in a white uniform was standing beside me.
“Come on, open up, I have lots of work.”
I slowly opened my mouth, and she put the blue thing into my mouth pouring some water with it.
“Swallow now. Come on.” she said, walking over to the bed beside me, where an old woman sat staring at me. The blue thing tasted fuzzy but the pint of water made me feel better. I gathered some strength and lifted my head. I was lying on a broken down cot with no bed or sheets unlike the one the women was sitting on. That took all the energy I had. My head fell back on the cot, making a loud thud and it started aching again. I slowly tried lifting my left arm which sent a shock through my entire body. I gave up. I tried lifting the right arm to no avail, either.
I was lying there, limp, my mind travelling from one painful place to another.
Anu sat there on the sidewalk, munching on the bun, while I looked at her. Her arm was swollen as ever and her legs had numerous lesions, which oozed out blood. She was more fragile than when I had first seen her, around three years back.
It was a cold night. I was pushing Baba on the way back home, the space below the Guindy* Bridge. It had been a year after we were driven away by the police from the sidewalk near the Guindy Signal. It was dark and silent at that time of the night. Most of the shops had closed. The wine shops were the only ones buzzing with activity. The other beggars were slowly settling down in their makeshift homes after wrapping themselves with whatever cloth they could find lying on the streets. When we were about to reach the next bend in the road, we heard a child crying in one of the streets on our left. Baba asked me to halt. We turned in the direction of the cry and all we could make out was a hazy image of a baby lying on the sidewalk.
“Munna, go and see,” Baba ordered.
I let go of the plank and ran into the cold and eerie street. When I came close, I could see the baby, its arms and legs flailing around. The face was red from all the crying. The baby stopped crying for a moment when I looked closely. That was when I saw the cute little face of Anu.
“Anna*, how old am I?”
“Huh?” I uttered coming out of the Reverie. “I don’t know.”
“Oh!” she said, looking at me for a moment and then getting back to her bun.
She looked like she was four. But I was not sure. Neither was I sure of mine.
I could be seven or eight. Diwali* was the marker. The first two Diwalis went by without me knowing what it was. By the third one, I had met Baba who told me about Diwali and its traditions. People wasting their money buying crackers, bursting it right from the brink of dawn leaving the streets heavily littered, lighting lamps after dusk giving the whole neighbourhood a shiny glow. Diwali never ended without people eating good food. I always wondered what good food tasted like. I had a vague idea of my own. There were lots of buns, biscuits, tea and of course, Paratha*. Just the thought of Paratha made my mouth water. The fourth and fifth Diwali were really hectic. Baba took me to the temples.
“People are generous during Diwali” he used to say.
The sixth one was rather bizarre. Baba never talked about going to the temple, nor was he doing well. He lay there on the plank, his arms stretched out; His mouth wide open. Anu sat there, looking at him, waiting for him to get up and give her money so that she could buy her first bun after three days. That was the last Diwali he was with us. During the usual morning routine, he looked tired as ever, while I pushed him harder into the traffic. He didn’t shout nor did he lift his hands. His face drooped and he made a moaning sound.
“Baba, wake up” I said shaking him. He looked up one last time, his eyes bloodshot while he fell down from the plank onto the road. The signal turned green and the passers-by shouted at us for blocking the traffic. Blood was trickling down his wide open mouth. I sat beside him, shaking him, screaming out his name. Nothing. He lay there, still.
The last Diwali went by, a month back. I had planned to go to the temples taking Anu with me, but couldn’t. The swelling had spread to her other arm as well and she lay motionless on the sidewalk with flies all over her face. Day by day, her health became worse and I could not remember the last time she spoke to me. I had tried my best to get her some food, at least a bun once in two days. But the last time I gave her food, she hardly chewed it. I knew I had to do something. Temple was my best bet, but I couldn’t leave her alone. Police sir gave us more problems than ever. With Baba, he didn’t touch us. Now he drove me off whenever he saw me getting onto the road which made it tougher to get even a rupee a day. When he went off to lunch, I sneaked on to the road but the traffic was less than mornings. Rarely I would get a rupee or two and that was it for the whole day. On one rainy day, I set out for another ordeal; my mind focused on only one thing, try getting at least two rupees to get Anu something to eat. The traffic was heavy and I thought I could make more today. I found that harder than usual. Anu had merely a cloth covering her and she was already drenched.
“Ayya, Amma,” I called out, moving past the two-wheelers to the four-wheelers. Not even a single coin! Time was running out. I shouted. I turned around in all directions hoping to see at least one kind face, but all I could see was disgusted ones. Bad words were hurled at me from all directions. The signal turned green and the vehicles started to move. But I kept moving in between them, calling out.
“Move away, idiot!”
“Shit! Get out of the way.”
But I kept on moving. Then it came out of nowhere; a truck, trying to race past the signal before it turned to red, only to veer off the road, towards me. I started to run but it was too late. The truck hit me squarely on the left side of my body. The impact was tremendous. My body went numb sending me flying towards the curb where I hit my head. That was the last I remember.
“Son, breathe hard!”
I looked up and saw a guy with spectacles. He had something going into his ears and he was examining my chest. My breath came out in gasps. I was suffocating.
“Breathe! Breathe!” he shouted.
I tried, but I couldn’t. The last image I saw was of Anu, lying unconscious on the sidewalk. Then everything stopped. I tried getting up. It was so easy for me now. I flew over the cot and looked down. There I lay, motionless while people in white, ran around me, agitated. The guy kept pressing my chest but I didn’t feel any pain. I was finally free.
Diwali-Indian Festival of Lights
Ayya, Amma - Terms to call people with Respect (Ayya – male gender, Amma – Female gender)
Guindy - a place in the city of Chennai, India
Paratha – A food item made of wheat
Anna - Brother