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Thriving Mindfully

Category: Short Story (Page 1 of 2)

A tale of two sisters

Two pairs of worn out slippers cushion the brisk onward march of two petite girls.
Sudha and Radha, dressed alike in maroon polyester sarees are on their way to work.

Sudha used to help with household chores at her employers house earlier. Now, she works as a hospice for her employer’s wife who is terminally ill, lying in a comatose state at home.

Radha is a cook. A pretty good one in fact.
She has been the in-house cook for a wealthy family in a posh locality for a year now.

The sisters ended up in Delhi in search of work a couple of years ago. Sudha was just 16 then and Radha a year younger.
They decided to work so that they could send their little brother to school so that one day their family could finally climb out of the valley of poverty they’d dwelt in ever since they’d known life.

And life wasn’t easy for the young girls. They slept in a little makeshift room in the workers ghetto behind the railway station. They would spend the majority of the money back home for family.
They could afford only one meal a day,
a dinner.

But they were happy, for they were working for something larger than themselves.

Radha would often feel tempted to eat the food she cooked for the family. She had great culinary skills. The whole locality would be able to guess what was cooking whenever she cooked.
But since the food was so delicious, there would never be any left over food for her to enjoy the next morning.

Sudha’s employer (who she calls Sahib) was a hopeful man. He always believed that his wife will spring back to life and vitality the next morning.
He made sure Sudha prepared a bland Khichdi for his wife every single day,
Hoping that when his wife wakes up, she will savour the food.
But for the past one year, the woman has been on the bed, not blinking, not moving.
Sudha cooks with hope everyday still.
But her hope is different from that of her Sahib.
At the end of the day,
When she’s heading home, she gets to carry the uneaten meal of Khichdi which she prepares for the patient every morning.

That khichdi is the meal both sisters share in the evening as their solitary meal of the day.

Their lives have been running on the monorail of this monotony for the past year.

But something changed in both their lives in the past 24 hours.

Yesterday, Radha’s employer had a party at their home. She was asked to prepare a Biryani with Raita for the 30 odd guests expected. Radha, adept at her skill, cooked up a fragrant Potful of Biryani with a delicious Raita to go with it.

Today morning, when she went to work she found the aroma of the biryani still lingering around.
She checked the pot to find some leftover Biryani from yesterday.
She scraped the whole pot clean and filled up a polyethylene bag with the Biryani.
She scrubbed the pot clean and got to her usual work.
Singing to herself as she worked, her happiness knew no bounds. She couldn’t wait for dinner time when she would finally be able to share a good meal with her sister Sudha.
She had had enough of the bland khichdi Sudha used to bring every evening.

After finishing work, Radha quickly headed to her quarters in the workers colony. She heated up the biryani over a kerosene stove, laid out a plate and waited patiently for Sudha to come home.

‘Sudha! What took you so long !’ she cried out once Sudha entered the room.
‘Come , sit, we shall have something different for our dinner today !’ Radha exclaimed.

Sudha sat down solemnly.

‘What happened Sudha, you look gloomy’

‘Let us eat little sister’ Sudha spoke feebly.

Both of them took a morsel each of the fragrant rice. Radha waited in anticipation for Sudha’s appraisal but she wouldn’t speak a word. She ate quietly.

‘What is the matter Sudha ?’ Radha enquired comforting her with a touch.

‘Sahib’s wife passed away last night.’

There was an unsettling silence in the room.

Both took another morsel of the delicious biryani.
But all they could taste,
was the hunger that awaited
the next evening.

Half Pants

Little Manjunath could not think about anything else but his brand new half-pants. Having lived in a single pair of half-pants ever since he remembers, the new pair was a luxury.

And he had worked hard to deserve them too.

One day at school, all kids had assembled in the kitchen courtyard to have their mid-day meal. A stray lump of glowing coal had slipped out of the stove, lending the haystack nearby a reason to burn.

As the flame raged into an inferno, the kids screamed and ran helter-skelter in search of a safer shelter. Manju, on the other hand, ran up to the well and fetched a bucket full of water to douse the fire.

How could he let the pot full of halwa get consumed in the flames!

Soon, the teachers at school came to help and the fire was extinguished.

He became the hero of the third standard that day. All teachers celebrated his bravery. Everyone celebrated with the sweet halwa salvaged from the fire. But what little Manju remembered most fondly was the gentle way in which Dhaara teacher, had ruffled his hair.

Dhaara was Manju’s class teacher. She was a charming lady in her mid-20s who taught her students with deep involvement and affection. Manju loved her in the most guileless, young-boy-like manner possible.

The principal of the school had taken note of Manju’s bravery. He had announced a gallantry award for Manju, to be awarded on the 15th of August, India’s Independence Day.

Manju wished to receive the honour in a new pair of clothes. His clothing situation though was a bitter irony. While his father was the local village washerman, who dealt with clothes all the time, he could hardly afford two pairs of school shorts for Manju.

But on learning of the bravery award to be conferred on Manju, he had borrowed money to buy a new pair of navy blue half-pants.

It was the night of 14th August. The new pair of half pants were swaying to the wind on the clothesline near the village pond. Manju could hardly sleep that night.

‘What if the half-pants get stolen? What if they are blown away into the pond?

What if they fall off and get muddy?’

A hundred things could go wrong, and all of them pestered him equally.

The whole household was fast asleep. It was midnight. Manju heard a deep rumble from outside. And, another worry entered his mind,

‘What if it rains?

I won’t be able to go to school with wet pants!
And I won’t be able to receive the award from Dhaara teacher!’

He longed for his hair to be ruffled again, just like the day of the fire in the kitchen.

The rumble was back again. It felt as if the clouds were forewarning about a sudden spell of rain.

Manju had to do something.

Quietly, he left his own house like a seasoned burglar. Guided by diffused moonlight and his villager instinct, he made his way to the community pond nearby.

He knew where his father always hung the clothes of the family. The topmost clothesline from the bank, near the banyan tree.

The fact that he was more afraid of missing out on Dhaara Madam’s gentle ruffle than any dangers lurking in the dark, led the little 8-year-old through the eerie theatre of the night.

He needed little searching. He got hold of his half pants and felt the damp fabric on his cheek.

‘Would it dry by morning?’ he wondered.

He didn’t want to receive the award with wet pants!

The rumble of the night got intense. Manju tried to listen for the source of the sound.

A pair of luminous eyes shone at a distance near the pond. A padded tail, curved like a bow, dangled high above the patch of grass.

It was a big cat.

A leopard.

Manju gulped all his screams.

Just as stealthily he had come out of his house, he climbed up the Banyan tree to be at a safe place, away from the feasting Leopard.

He wondered whose cattle shed in the village was one sheep short that night.

He prayed to Lord Hanuman, under his stifled breath.

Manju sweat his shirt wet in the half an hour spent in cover on the Banyan tree. Once the Leopard finished eating, he walked past the tree slowly.

Now, both of Manju’s half pants were wet.

Satiated with the kill, the Leopard sauntered into the thicket under the guard of the night.

Manju fell unconscious hugging a thick branch of the mighty Banyan tree.

The following morning, when Manju opened his eyes, he saw the angelic face of his class teacher.

‘Is this a dream?’ Have I reached heaven?’ he wondered in delirium.

He saw the faces of his relived parents on the adjacent side of the bed. He had a warm quilt around his body.

‘You’re fine Manju. Don’t worry.

We are all proud of you,’ said Dhaara teacher.

‘Good morning, teacher’ he mumbled.

‘We were worried when you didn’t come to school for the ceremony. Then the school gatekeeper told us you were on a Banyan tree the whole night.’

‘I hope it wasn’t one of our sheep. The leopard….’

‘Sshh… Don’t worry about it.

Here, I have your medal for you.

To the bravest child in our village!’

Dhaara teacher lovingly put the medal around a supine Manju.

She ruffled Manju’s hair affectionately. The gentle sweep of her fingers was worth a thousand badges of honour.

Everything seemed to be ending well for little Manju.

A bravery medal home delivered by his loving class teacher!

Everything seemed perfect.

Just the warm quilt gave him an irresistible itch on the thigh.

He slowly reached for the spot under the quilt to scratch that itch.

That’s when he realised,

He was wearing no half-pants!

Manju slept through the whole afternoon, naked under the blanket, without a worry in the world.

Both his half-pants fluttered slowly on the clothesline by the banyan tree next to the pond.

Two prayers

‘Rain rain go away,

Little Johnny wants to play…’

Little Johnny was singing this rhyme, wishing the rains away.

‘It’s vacation time. Why does it have to rain now?’ he thought.

While little Lola reached her hand out of the window to catch the falling droplets of rain.

She was delighted to feel the heaven-sent shower on her palm.

‘Johnny, it is nice weather. Come let’s sit in the porch and listen to the rain,’ said little Lola.

‘I don’t want to listen to the rain. I wish there was a big Umbrella that could shield the playground from the raindrops,’ said a brooding Johnny seated on his black and white football.

‘But the rain is nice. The plants need it. Animals need it. We need water from the rain too.’

‘It can rain in the night when we are asleep. Why does it have to rain in the day?’

‘So that you can see it, silly! Don’t you like to play in the rain?’ asked Lola.

‘I am a big boy now. I am eight years old you know. I like sports. Not dancing in the rain!’

‘Too bad for you big boy. I am still a little girl. I love the rain.’

‘Then why do you raise an alarm when you see a millipede walk into the house at night after the rain?’

‘Did you see a millipede?’ asked a terrified Lola.

‘Ha ha ha, foolish girl. If I had one wish, I would pray for the rain to go away right now!’

‘No, Johnny! Let the rain go away slowly. I still want to dance in the drizzle.’

Johnny let out a big laugh.

‘Ha ha ha, I will use my secret powers, and pray for the rain to stop in 10 minutes!’

‘No, No, Johnny!’ Lola pleaded…


Oh almighty sun, let the clouds part…Let me see your shining face….’

Lola, in turn, prayed to the clouds,


‘Dear clouds, don’t go away too soon. Let there be a drizzle as you move to other places.’

The rain began to lessen in intensity. The earth was gravid with fresh water. The seeds in the earth awakened. Soon, a gentle glisten of sunbeam spread on the soft surface of the earth.

Lola jumped out in the puddle outside her house. Her brother Johnny, flung his football into the puddle. He jumped right in and the whole neighbourhood knew the kids were at play.

They walked to the little bridge near their house. The water in the canal was ripple dotted with the falling droplets. A lotus bloom moved languidly with the gentle flow.

‘You see the Sun is out. My wish has come true!’ said Johnny looking at the emergent sun.

There was no answer from Lola.

She was looking eastward, away from the setting sun. She was entranced.

‘Johnny…’ she tugged on his sleeve and pointed to the sky in the east.

Johnny turned around and looked at the sky.

A majestic arch of seven colours shone feebly on the blue sky. A faint assembly of colours sat on top on the arch, just in the reverse order of colours.

It reflected in the freshwater flowing in the canal.

‘What is this Johnny?’

‘Some magic. Did you pray for this Lola?’

‘No, I just asked for a little drizzle.’

‘And, I asked for a little sunshine.’

The brother and sister duo, watched the sky in awe, as the sun sunk in the western sky.

Millipedes dug their way out of the moist earth. Lola never noticed.

There wasn’t any fighting between the siblings anymore.

And both prayers were answered, in nature’s own sweet way.

Forbidden Love

I felt the tender touch of her hands on mine. She was scared, but I could sense the excitement in her quivering fingers. It was the first time we had held hands in public. And that too, with her parents standing right next to us. But we were standing in the planetarium, and the lights were dim. The shadows were our cover. Gradually everything was enveloped by a darkness as deep as interstellar space. A beam shot out of the projector and the story of the universe began. The roof of the planetarium became the theatre of creation.

‘It all began with the singularity…’

I felt a big bang in my heart as our fingers flirted. The gulf of intense longing was finally bridged. The darkness in the theatre helped us submit to pleasure that though innocent was forbidden. She was the only girl I ever thought about that way. I had loved her ever since I saw her for the first time. She was my best friend, my neighbour, my school bench partner. She was my everything.

I could feel her racing pulse. Our hormones fired in harmony. We clasped each other’s hands tighter, as the loudspeakers aired trivia about nebulae and supernovas. I cared least for the movie screened at the planetarium. I had found my universe in those fleeting moments.

Her shapely nails felt cold to the touch. Her slender fingers were every bit artistic. I dreamt of adorning it with a ring one day. There was a spiritual electricity between us. Our longing was magnetically mutual. We were the twin star systems projected on to the ceiling. Love was our gravity.

Her hand was slightly bigger than mine. And she was taller by a full four inches. I was still waiting for my puberty to hurry things up while she had begun to show signs of womanhood. I compensated for my fledgling manhood with an assertion in my grip that I believed girls loved to submit to.

When they began to project pictures of the moon landing, all I could think of was the nights we had spent being lunatics in our respective balconies, yearning to see each other in school the next day.

Her eyes had a lunar charm. And she’d teasingly call me a loon. I would always think that one day I would have the courage to tell her that I will love her to the moon and back.

On the ceiling, I looked at Armstrong hopping on the moon and felt that he’d fallen in love. He looked at me and felt as if I’d landed on the moon.

It was a mystery how a beautiful thing like her could be the daughter of the most uptight, unpleasant Uncle of the neighbourhood. If I had one wish, it would be for him to disappear forever. Could he float away beyond the solar system like the Voyager probe?
But imagining the grief of my beloved, I had never wished ill on him.

However, I also wondered how her charming mother could fall for such a crude, average looking man. That’s what happens when others arrange for who you must love, so I thought.

I trusted their daughter’s choice to be better than theirs.

Slowly the movie zoomed back to life in our solar system. The frigid extremes of Neptune, the hoola hooping Saturn, the Giant Jupiter, the traffic congestion of the asteroid belt, the red planet Mars and finally, to mother earth. They showed the evolution of life on the blue planet, the oceanic life forms, the first plants, glimpses of the Jurassic age, the meteor strike, ice ages, the age of the Neanderthals, the rise of Homo Sapiens, and finally vignettes of life in our current times.

I wished the movie to last longer. They could show a 3-hour movie and I’d watch it happily standing in the planetarium. I could finally understand what Einstein meant by relativity. Time had flown past like a happy memory. And in that mote of a minute I had found all the meaning in the world. I was the expanding universe.

We held on to each other’s hands. We felt reassured of the mutuality of our longing. Caressing gently, we sunk in the final moment before parting.

But the lights came on too soon.

Right opposite me, I saw my girl struggling to stay afoot. She fainted and fell on the floor once she saw me in the act.

Her flabbergasted father looked at me with the consuming gravity of his twin black hole eyes.

I looked to the left and pleaded innocence.

I was holding the hand of her mother.

The weight of water

The rousing beat of the temple kettle drum awakened the village out of its afternoon siesta. Shantu, the elderly weatherman of the village could hardly contain his excitement. Standing high on the temple square, he summoned the villagers and announced,

‘Listen up my fellow villagers!
The days of suffering are finally going to end. Count this as the last day of summer, for I predict that we will get the first spell of rain tonight.’

The crowd cheered in celebration. Shantu had seen the most monsoons in the whole village, and people trusted the accuracy of his intuition.

The women were especially happy. It cost them two blisters a day to walk up to the pond in the village nearby to fetch water. Soon, the pond in their own village will have water, saving them time and effort. The kids rejoiced at the idea of showering in the rain to their heart’s content. The seedlings of rice in the earth too waited eagerly for the first spell. Startled birds expressed their surprise for the celebration of belated news. Only if humans had instincts as honed as theirs!

Amid the celebration, Shantu’s granddaughter Gauri walked up the temple stairs hurriedly. Her pet dog Kalu followed her as usual. As she heaved herself up to the top flight, she asked Shantu,

‘Daddu, Daddu, can I go to the pond to fetch water today? I’ll go with the other village women. Please, please…’ she wheedled.

‘You little child. You are 8 years old. You’ll break you delicate neck with a huge potful of water on your head,’ he said patting her head.

‘I will take the smaller pot. I can carry that.
Please let me go.’

‘Did you ask your Amma?’

‘No, she will refuse for sure. But if you grant me permission, she will let me go with everyone else.’

‘Okay, but Kalu must go with you. For your protection, okay?’ Shantu asked lovingly.

‘Yes, there is no way he can stay without me. He will follow me!’

‘Okay, go and come back safely.’

‘Really! I can go?’

‘Yes. And here, take this mango. Enjoy it on the way.’

Gauri pocketed the ripe mango and raced down the temple stairs. She headed straight to her little hut nearby.

She took a small earthen pot and followed the village women headed to the pond for the evening shift of fetching water.
This would mark her first excursion out of the village. She was jubilant.

Kalu sniffed the way forward as Gauri’s little footsteps tried to keep pace with the women who were growing smaller in size every time she tried to spot them.

‘Aye, Kalu, wait for me,’ she hollered as Kalu paced away on the path. He must also know of the impending rain, like the birds.

She met a village lady who was on her way back to the village. Effortlessly balancing two pots of water on her head, she walked gracefully through the sun-baked road.

On spotting little Gauri near the pond, she asked,

‘Aye, Gauri, what are you doing here?’

‘I’ve come to fetch water with Kalu,’ she said with an eye out for her beloved pet.

‘Go and play in the village little girl. You are too small to make this shift.’

‘ I want to help Amma in the household now.’

‘Does she know you’re here?’

‘Maybe, I told Daddu…He knows.’

‘Okay, go quickly. The pond is right beyond that bend you see behind the Banyan tree.’

‘Yes, yes… ‘ she said and rushed to keep pace with Kalu.

‘Kalu, wait for me….’

She reached the pond to find a few village women filling up their pots. One of them helped her fill her little pot as Kalu slurped away from a puddle nearby.

One of the ladies said,
‘Don’t carry the pot on your head. It is heavy. Carry it on your hip…Like this’ she gestured.

With a little help from the women, she balanced the pot on her hip and started her journey back to the village.

She measured the distance back to her village with her tiny steps…

‘Ek…Do…Teen…Chaar…’

She ran out of numbers within a minute. On the way, she started to feel a bit hungry.
She tried reaching the Mango her Daddu had given her from the pocket of her skirt while balancing the pot on her hip.

But just as soon as she managed to pull out the mango, she lost grip on the pot and it came crashing down at her feet.

The pot was shattered. All the water in Gauri’s eyes poured out.

‘What will Amma think of me for breaking this pot?’ she wondered amid snuffles.

She felt a heaviness on her head, as if she was carrying a hundred pots.

She sat right by the broken pot, with Kalu licking her face of tears.

‘Do you want to have Mango, Kalu?’

Kalu never refused food.

The best friends shared the fragrant mango while coming to terms with the loss.

The mango helped her relax. Meanwhile, the weather had begun to change, just as her Daddu had predicted.

She stared at the wet patch of earth where the water from the pot had soaked in.

‘What will Amma say?’ she wondered.

Back at the village, Shantu had begun to get worried about Gauri. Most women had made their way back from the trip.

Shantu was as afraid as little Gauri now.

‘What will Amma say?’ he wondered.

With his walking stick in his hand, Shantu started walking briskly towards the pond.

The gathering clouds had painted the path all around in a gloomy light. For the first time in years, Shantu found himself running. He raced towards the pond in search of Gauri.

From a distance, he could hear Kalu howling back at the low rumble in the sky. He felt a bit relieved. Within moments, he saw the emerald of his eye and heaved a sigh of relief.

‘Gauri…Chalo.. Let’s go home!’

‘Daddu..!’ she cried out.

Shantu saw the broken pot and understood the whole story.

Gauri had mud all over her hands and Kalu had mango pulp stains on his face.

Shantu wiped Gauri’s tears. She held his hands and began to walk towards the village.
Kalu led the way, barking at the sky.

‘Gauri, don’t worry about Amma scolding you, okay?’

‘Hmmm…’ she whimpered.

‘Did you enjoy the Mango?’

She nodded.

‘Why did it take you so long to head back home?’

‘ I was digging a small pit Daddu…right where the water had soaked into the earth. Kalu helped me too.’

‘Accha? Why so?’

‘I buried the mango seed there.’

Her Daddu slowed down his pace a bit.
He turned to look into her eyes.

‘How could I let the water go to waste, Daddu?’

Her eyes were pure as love. Shantu had never felt more proud of his little granddaughter.

He hoisted her up and sat her on his shoulder. That was her favourite ride. Slowly, they headed towards their village.

Soon, it began to drizzle. Gauri smiled. Kalu howled in joy.

‘Daddu, the Mango seed will grow, right?’

Thunder roared in the sky. It was a resounding answer from heaven.

And every little raindrop said,

‘Yes, it will.’


The fakir with the flute


It was another bad day at work.
After all these years, I couldn’t understand whether it was the work that was bad, or was it I who was bad at work. Nevertheless, the pay was good, and that had kept me going.

My mind was a scramble since morning in my cubicle and I couldn’t wait for that hallowed half-hour of repose – lunch-time.

After a hurried lunch, I walked up to the chai shop across the street for the sake of maintaining at least one habit unfailingly.

It was a cloudy day and the usual clamour of the street was a bit subdued. As I sat under the Neem tree, rationing miserly sips of hot chai, a faint, evocative melody fell upon my ear.

Happy to have heard some music on the street, I looked around to find its source. Soon, I saw an elderly flute-seller walk up the street with a playful air.

He wore a black turban, a faded yellow kurta and flowing black pyjamas. A stick that leaned on his left shoulder was festooned with a bunch of flutes of different sizes. His traditional leather footwear curled back in at the front, much like his sinuous moustache.

With an easy, graceful gait, he approached the chai-shop. He played a familiar filmy tune that most of the generation on the street had grown up listening to. We measured our age with the breadth of the smile that the prized piece of nostalgia brought forth on us.

He slowed down his advance near the chai-shop and with that timeless melody, he slowed down the pace of the street.

Once he finished playing the tune, the hum of the traffic resumed, as a poignant, practical applause.

He gave himself the reward of a content smile.

Having subconsciously judged his petty life at first glance, I felt perplexed by the quiet complacency in his demeanour. Or should I say, a bit envious.

I waved at him and asked,

‘Aye, bansuri-wallah, chai?’

He nodded as if he saw the invitation coming.

As I offered him a cup of chai, I asked,

‘What’s your name?’

He gently swayed his head, like the topmost branch of a young tree, as if in no hurry whatsoever.

After a sip of chai, with a nod of approval, he said…

‘Kanha…My name is Kanha…’

‘Kanha, tell me, why is it that you keep playing this old filmy tune? Is that the only song you know?’ I asked with a hint of disparagement.

‘I can only play what people are ready to hear, Babuji.’

I felt I heard a part of me in his answer. How I had learned to sell what people were willing to buy, thinking that was the only way.

But what separated him from me? I couldn’t remember even a fleeting instant from my life when I was as content as this flute-selling fakir.

‘Why don’t you play something new, something original for me? If you do so, I might buy a flute,’ I said.

He smiled.

‘I have been waiting for a pair of ears that pine to hear a new message through music.
Do you think you are ready?’ he asked in his throaty voice.

‘Yes, I am,’ I said on the behalf of the street.

They say that the value of any thing is in the way it alters your perception of time and space. Whoever has been in love, has lived this truth first hand.

As he began to play, perhaps it was love that he weaved in those ennobled breaths.

The whole street stood entranced. All involuntary work suddenly lost its relevance. Hawkers, pedestrians, spent cows, orphans on the street; felt magnetically drawn to the caress of that tune. The wind flowed with a gentler hiss and the sun peeped ever so little to shine a spotlight where it was due. Just as lost as the street was in the music, so was Kanha, the seraphic source of those mellifluous moments.

The thousands of questions people had in their mind were answered, all the pain in their hearts was soothed, and everyone, for that hallowed span of time, learned to smile again without longing for a lasting reason.

As he held the final note on his bansuri, the clock began to slowly tick again.

He opened his opal eyes and invited me to lose all my guards. I looked into his eyes, those fabled tunnels with a blinding light at the other end.

I submitted to a hypnotic spell, and let him read the maze of my mind.

He blinked twice, and I began to sense my surroundings again.

‘Did you enjoy the music?’ he asked humbly.

‘Yes…Yes…It was… the truth…’

‘To answer the question on your mind, Babuji…
That music…
That’s the value of my breath.’

He had read my mind like a book. And I was glad he could read the script that I’d begun to forget.

He reached his hand to one of the other flutes in his collection and pulled out one with a pink thread at its end.

He handed me the flute and lovingly said,

‘Go find the value of your breath.’

I took the flute in my hand and looked at it with a hope that I’d thought I had given up on long ago.

Slowly, I looked up. Kanha was already walking away with his easy, nonchalant stride.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask him,
How much I owed him.

Rags to Riches

There’s a mountain that has been growing steadily over the years in the outskirts of the city. Marooned in a corner beyond sight, this is where all of the city’s discarded things live. Welcome to the city’s ever-rising landfill, where unwanted people rummage through the unwanted refuse of a million people to make ends meet.

This burgeoning arena, is the pit stop on the journey of garbage, en route the mystical place called ‘away’ where we assume we throw our waste. The stench is unbearable, yet, should you ask a rag picker if it bothered her, she’d ask,

‘What stench?’

People have lived their entire lives here, picking and sorting waste. One among these indistinguishable many is Fareed. He celebrated his 60th birthday a month ago, and there were pastries to go with the celebration. After 5 decades of living in the rubble, he knew where exactly to find what. Finding the place where the garbage from the bakeries was dumped was a piece of cake for him.

He still had a few childhood friends in the dump-site. Most were the lucky ones who hadn’t succumbed to occupational hazards over the years. Many of his friends had while working at the landfill. His father died when a dump-truck accidentally buried him under a pile of garbage, muffling his screams forever. A woman he’d fallen in love with got poisoned by lead at the site. He still remembers her blue face, her lifeless eyes, when they took her away for cremation. It all felt like yesterday. But between yesterday and today, he’d lived his entire noxious life.


He loved to talk. Being one of the seniors at the site, he’d often find a huddle of young rag pickers around who’d plead for stories from ‘back in the day’. He didn’t complain of the sporadic bouts of attention he’d get in an otherwise punishing life.

Often, he would be heard saying his signature quote to youngsters,

‘Remember, half of the waste that comes here is still good. It’s usable. Yet under the weight of this labyrinthine landfill, even a good piece of ripe fruit starts to emit a foul odour.
Half of every person’s heart is good too, yet in this damned place, if it starts to rot, you should learn to forgive him and save the part that’s still good.’

The people found his unlettered wisdom and undeniable honesty endearing. Despite the resignation to fate, he still worked with pride, for he worked hard to earn a dignified living.
But in his quieter moments, away from it all, he still latched on to the hope of finding a treasure chest buried in the mound, a ticket to retirement.

Who can stop a man from dreaming?

Two days before, on a typical day at work, he had climbed up to the corner of a narrow stretch of the peak. On either side lay steep valleys that led deep into the whirlpool of waste. He sat down on an old computer monitor with his plastic bag of collected waste and took a good look around the place.

Generations of scavengers flew in circles over the landfill, as if waiting patiently for him to die. Flies preferred to perch on putrefying organic matter nearby, sparing him the discomfort. His mismatched shoes oozed gunk. For as far as he could see, it looked like a museum of the failure of civilization.

He narrowed down his vision and looked around to find anything he could sell for a good value. Magnets from speakers, metals, IC chips…

Scanning in this way, his eyes fell on a shapely hand jutting out of the mass. An eagle let out a shrill scream as if expressing Fareed’s horror. Amid the disgusting pile of garbage, the hand of a beautiful woman buried in the rubble only added to the wretchedness of the surroundings.

‘Who could she be? A victim of a drug war? A pregnant teenager? A trafficked girl from the village?’ he wondered.

Gingerly, he stepped closer. He saw a gem-studded golden ring on one of the fingers.
His eyes lit up. It was mid-afternoon and there wasn’t anyone around. He knelt and pulled the ring out of her finger. Her hands were cold as an ice-cream cup.

He quickly pocketed the ring. He looked around again. There wasn’t anyone within sight.

He thought,

‘Maybe she’s wearing a necklace too. Perhaps this is the jackpot I’ve been working towards all my life.’

In his mind, he had already pictured himself in a tuxedo, away from a lifetime of filth.

He held that cold-lifeless hand buried in the garbage and tugged on to it. He pulled as if his life depended on it. But the weight of garbage doesn’t even let the living people loose, what fate did the dead have?

Amid his desperate act of pulling with all his might, he managed to loosen the body out of the rubble. Suddenly, the garbage under his feet loosened out and he fell back and rolled down into the valley, still with the dead woman’s body in his hands. Both bodies fell as lovers in a romantic movie, deeply attached despite the illegitimacy of their bond.

And then there was suffocating darkness.

Hours later, Fareed woke up to such blinding whiteness that for a moment, he felt he’d died and reached heaven.

As his eyes adjusted to the lights in the hospital room, he saw the face of Sabi, a young rag picker who’d been working nearby when he fell.

He tried to speak but he found himself unable to. His head felt heavy from all the bandages. He blinked constantly.

Sabi wore a crescent smile on her face and said something, but Fareed couldn’t hear her.

On Sabi’s right arm, he saw a small bandage. Sabi pointed her eyes towards the pouch of blood hanging high on the right side of the bed. In moments, Fareed realised that he was being administered Sabi’s blood.

Old Fareed felt a sickness inside. He found a rotten part of him that had become selfish merely with the thought of a possible escape from his life at the landfill.

But he remembered his own quote that he would share with young rag pickers often –

‘….Half of every person’s heart is good too, yet in this damned place, if it starts to rot, you should learn to forgive him and save the part that’s still good.’

Somewhere between deep sighs, he found the heart to forgive himself for that lustful moment of pure selfishness.

With great difficulty, he moved a bit and felt the left pocket of his pants. The ring was still there.

He peeped into Sabi’s eyes as if asking for forgiveness.

Fareed pledged himself to give the ring in his pocket to Sabi.

He smiled. Sabi did too and held Fareed’s hand gently.

Sabi’s hand felt as warm as life.

Fareed remembered that the last thing he had held before his downfall, was a cold, lifeless hand.

Deep inside, he felt recuperated.

Little did Fareed know that the ring in his pocket was a cheap piece of imitation jewellery. He also didn’t know he had fallen from the top of the garbage pile, holding the hand of a mannequin.

But, in Fareed’s story, a fake gem and an ever-lifeless body, helped him find the jewel in his own heart, the gem of a person Sabi was, and, in some way the good part of in both their souls, that was still worth saving.

The Autobiography

Little Samay had begun to feel betrayed by the weekends. Usually, these two days were reserved for playing with his father. But lately, his journalist father had been swarmed with work. The casualty – their play-time.

Gingerly, he stood near the door of his father’s study and peeped in with his puppy eyes. He waited to be noticed. But work had worked a spell on his father. He wouldn’t look away from his laptop, as if the whole world around him had disappeared.

‘What are you doing, Papa?’

‘Samay, I am writing a review for an autobiography.’

‘What is an autoto….’

‘Autobiography…say Auto…Bio…Graphy..’
 
‘Auto…Bio…Graphy..?’

‘Yes! Very good.’

‘So, what is an autobio…?’

‘graphy…..An autobiography is the story of someone’s life.’

‘Anyone can write an auto..bio…graphy?’

‘Good! Well, yes, anyone can write it. Usually it is written by people who have done great work in their life, so that people can read and learn from the writer’s life.’

‘Do you have an autobiography, Papa?’

‘No son, but someday I might write one.’ added the father, still clanking away on the laptop.

‘Hmm…Does Grandpa have an autobiography?’

‘No, son, why don’t you help him to write one?’

‘Yes! Good idea! Can I write my autobiography also?’

‘Sure. Why don’t you help Grandpa write the story of his life? And then you can write the story of your life too!’

‘Yes! Auto..Auto…Autobio….’ sang out the 7-year-old and ran downstairs.

After a couple of hours there was a knock on the door.

‘Mom?’

‘Yes, Samay, it’s me. Open up!’

The little boy hopped across the hall and opened the door for his mother.

‘Ah, mom, your hair is short now!’

‘Yes, I got a haircut.’

‘I also want a haircut!’

‘Okay, next week, I promise.’

‘I am writing my autobiography, Mom. I am helping Grandpa write his autobiography too..’

‘Oh goodness, who taught you this big word, Papa?’

‘Yes, but Grandpa fell asleep. We only wrote a little until now. We will continue after lunch.’

‘Hmm…he doesn’t sleep before lunch usually. Maybe he is tired after telling you his story.’

‘Maybe. But we only wrote a few lines”

‘That’s okay. Now go call your father for lunch.’

The family chose to not wake up the eldest member for lunch. They let him rest in his room.

After a hurried lunch, as Samay’s father was rushing back to his study, his wife said,

‘Can you check in your father? I think he fell asleep in his wheelchair in his room.’

‘Sure,’ he said and walked up to the room.

He tried waking his father up. But, he was past the earthly plane. Seated on the wheelchair still, the dead man had a peaceful smile on his face, as if he’d accomplished everything he’d aimed for in life.

There was a note that rested in his lap.
Samay’s father took the note in his shaky hands and tried to read the squiggly handwriting.

It read,


‘ MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY’

Yesterday, I was a little child.
I have grown up so fast.
I enjoyed playing in life. I am happy.
It will be lunch time soon.
I am going away…’

And the teary-eyed son couldn’t tell, if this was his son’s autobiography or his deceased father’s.

Moisture

Early in the morning, seated like emperors on the chewed up seats of their tractor, brothers Mansukh and Hasmukh set out against the wind, in the direction of the nearest Government-run procurement centre. Propelled by the joy of having a bumper wheat crop, even the load of a 100 quintals of freshly harvested wheat could not hold their tractor back as they drove through the rustic landscape.

True to the meaning of their names, at that moment, a deep contentment permeated their entire being. Even the hum of their tractor sounded like a celebratory roar.

A ramshackle radio blurted out an old Hindi tune…

‘Rimjihim gire saawan
Sulag sulag Jaaye mann’


(Gently the rain falls,
and my heart burns slowly)

Arey, why is this radio singing such a melancholy song at such a happy moment,’ said Mansukh.

‘Ah, Mannu, turn off the radio. Today, we’ll sing our own tunes in celebration,’ said Hasmukh.

Mansukh banged the radio with his fist, and got right back at the wheel. The old radio paid heed to the request for silence and became a mute spectator to the rapturous singing of the two happy brothers,

‘Yeh desh hair veer jawaano ka…’
(This is the land of brave youth…)

Their happiness knew no bounds. The government had announced the start of the procurement from the beginning of next week. The enthused brothers had set out for the town two days ahead of schedule, just to be sure that they were the first ones to get their harvest weighed and get the fruit of their hard work. They’d planned to reach a night earlier and camp in their tractor on Sunday outside the procurement centre.

After a day-long journey, they reached their destination and parked their tractor just outside the procurement centre. They were the first farmers to have reached there. They felt happy about the head start. They wondered why other farmers hadn’t thought of arriving early. But they didn’t complain about the absence of competition.

They cooked dal and rotis on a chulha they’d carried from home and helped themselves to a tasty meal.

‘What a joy to be tasting rotis made of this fresh harvest of wheat, Mannu!’

‘Yes, Bhai, it has a sweetness to it. That’s a reward in itself!’

‘Sharbati wheat, the pride of Madhya Pradesh,’ announced Hasmukh.

‘Indeed!’

‘Let’s get adequate rest, it’s going to be a big day tomorrow.’

‘Yes, Bhai,’ said Mansukh.

‘And once we sell our harvest, we shall celebrate with a drink!’ suggested Hasmukh.

‘Of course, we shall, bhai.’

The brothers lay down on top of the sacks full of Sharbati wheat at the back of the trailer.

As they lay back, looking at the sky, the presence of a flurry of clouds unsettled them.

‘Should we put a tarpaulin over the trailer, just in case it drizzles?’ asked Hasmukh.

‘Yes, let us do that.’

They covered the trailer with a shiny blue tarpaulin. With that as the last touch of effort, they lay down again in the trailer. The radio hummed,

‘Aaj mausam bada
Beimaan hai…aaj mausam..
Aane waala koi toofaan hai…’

(Today the weather is being
a big liar…
Seems there’s going to be
A huge storm…)

‘Turn off this omen of a radio! It better not rain tonight.’

There was a thud and the radio fell silent.

The next morning, the brothers woke up to a drizzle, and before they knew, it gathered into a storm. In a mad rush, they secured the tarpaulin firmly around the trailer and drove it under a banyan tree to get shelter from the rain. They couldn’t wrap their head around the unseasonal rainfall.

In desperation, they prayed for the rain to subdue lest their bumper harvest of Sharbati wheat gets moist.

The humidity in the atmosphere weighed heavily on them. It rained for four hours, and then the clouds fluttered away with the titanic wind.

They rested the night out under the tree as the weather cleared up. The following day, the procurement centre opened for business. A steady stream of tractors full of wheat harvest was beginning to queue in.

Still happy to be the first ones in the line, the brothers drove the trailer to the weighing area. An agriculture officer took out a sample of wheat from one of the gunny sacks for quality testing and handed them a token.

The brothers waited anxiously. Meanwhile, a few reporters were covering the story of a bumper harvest of Sharbati wheat in Madhya Pradesh.
Hasmukh being the more eloquent of the two, agreed to feature on the camera for a byte.

Mansukh held on to the token and waited to hear back from the officer.

Soon the officer came out of the testing room and informed Mansukh matter-of-factly,

‘We cannot accept your wheat. The moisture level is beyond the permissible limit.’

‘But, sahib… we’ve got 100 quintals, a bumper harvest….what are we going to do with it?’ pleaded Mansukh.

‘Why did you allow the grain to be exposed to rain? Didn’t you hear about the cyclone in Maharashtra? There was a forecast for rain on the radio. Didn’t you listen to it?’ reprimanded the officer.

‘We tried our best to protect the crop sahib….sahib… Please help us, we won’t be able to repay our loans if we don’t sell this harvest at the minimum support price.’

Mansukh was close to tears, as Hasmukh was happily sharing the joy of reaping a bumper harvest on camera, just a stone-throw away.

‘I can set you up with a distillery. You can sell it to them. They make country liquor. You might not get the minimum support price, but you will at least get something.’

The officer made the offer with an impersonal, almost calculated evasion. He made himself feel worthy of worship for his bureaucratic benevolence.

Mansukh was speechless. The officer took that as a yes for his offer. A few calls were made. Before too long, the harvest met the fate of being deliberately made to rot to obtain a ferment – the potion that promises to be the cure of all ills.

Dejected, he dragged his feet to his trailer. Hasmukh had just finished his interview. The cameraperson panned the camera to capture Mansukh’s face in the frame.

His eyes looked heavy,
as if weighed down by a surplus of moisture.

He heaved a sigh and struck his hand on the old radio.

It sang out

‘Yeh reshmi zulfein
Yeh Sharbati aankhein…’

(Oh these silken hair…
These Sharbati eyes…)

The camera froze.

The Aquarium

Seven floors up in the sky, tied between two unfinished columns, a saree swayed gently with a toddler as its guest. A 2-month-old baby slept in sublime peace in the makeshift swing, as if convinced that when he opens his eyes, his home would finally be ready.

But for his father Bala, who pours concrete for most of the day at the construction site, there is no place called home. He only knows floors. Last month he and his family lived on the 5th floor of the skyscraper to be. Once the floor was in place, they moved to the 6th floor with a few fellow labourers. And just yesterday, they’d moved to the 7th floor, their new address until the concrete sets, and it’s time to move again. He’d made peace with the idea that the people who build houses for others may never live in a house of their own.

A thin layer of cement covered the life of his family. The few belongings that they had –  a tin suitcase, some aluminium pots and pans, a broken mirror and a few drab clothes – spoke of the grey monotony of their life.

That day, as Bala was pouring water on the beams of concrete for curing, his wife Suparna filled a potful of water from the hose and told her man smilingly,

‘I am making something special for tonight’s dinner.’

Accha? Why so?’ he asked.

‘It is a special day, that’s why!’ she said a little loudly to be heard above the rattle of the water pump.

That left Bala wondering if the spike in decibel level in his wife’s reply signalled an impending tussle.

‘Is it her birthday today? What else could be special for a woman!’ he thought.

He got back to work, hoping to get off duty when the siren went off at 5 p.m. at the mill nearby. The contractor was away for the day, and he thought, if he finished the work earlier than expected, he could wrestle out some moments of rest from a painful and inhuman work schedule.

With the parting sun, the warm gusts of air changed to a cool breeze as the evening gradually set in.

Once Bala was done with pouring water over the concrete casts, he shut the water pump and called it a day in his mind.

However, how much of the day was yet to unfold was beyond his imagination.

He sat on a bamboo scaffold resting on the outer wall of the building and watched the sun sink slowly.

‘It is her birthday and I have nothing to share with her. How could I forget? But how can I be expected to remember that. It’s her first birthday since we got married!’

Wondering thus, he looked at the clear blue sky to find eagles circling far above, as if hovering over their prey. A languid lake shimmered at a distance. The view from the unfinished 7th floor was remarkable indeed. He wondered if his village at the outskirts of the city would be visible from the 25th floor once the building construction is finished. And with that thought, came a longing to live as simply as he used to, in the village. But that was an illegitimate dream in the eyes of society.

To cloud his happy memories of the village, he lit a beedi. As the spent matchstick sailed down, he looked down through the slots on the bamboo scaffolding to follow its trail.

Once he lost track of the matchstick, his eyes slowly regained focus. Down below, he saw a huge safety net tied all around the building on the 4th floor. This fairly new safety feature reminded him of his friend Pradhan, who had to fall from the 4th  floor while at work a few months ago to ensure that the contractor paid an iota of attention towards worker safety. Pradhaan succumbed to the accidental fall, leaving Bala alone, for the first time since they’d known each other. A fall, a splat, and 20 years of friendship, gone with the wind.

The lake at the distance and the safety net underneath reminded Bala of childhood days, when he and Pradhaan would catch fish at the village pond.

He remembered what Pradhaan used to say on days when they could only catch a few small fish in their net. While Bala would get frustrated, Pradhaan would always say,

‘Bala! Be happy with what we have. Let the few fish caught in the net become the dinner. The fish that escaped the net, deserve their life.’

And that would comfort Bala on a bad day at fishing. And those few fish would always taste good when smoked on a fire and shared with his closest friend, the ever-optimistic Pradhaan.

Wondering about the idyllic time with his late friend, he fell asleep on the bamboo scaffolding. Floating in the ocean on memories, he smiled and turned gently to his right. With that move, his body lost contact with the scaffold and he fell through the air, three floors down, where a huge safety net cushioned his fall.

The last thing he heard before losing consciousness was the collective cry of his fellow workers all around.

A few hours later, he woke up to the yelling of the contractor. He’d been unconscious for some time now. His fall had forced the contractor to rush back to the site in the evening. The cherubic contractor weighed as much as Bala’s entire family. The contractor’s head was as bald as the eagles’ that hovered in the sky. The 7th-floor inhabitants were fretting from the rousing reprimand of the contractor. 

Bala faked a drowsy state for a while to dissuade his employer from shouting anymore. As he showed signs of recovery, the contractor felt relieved that Bala was not going to die. Another casualty on site was the last thing he wanted.

Entrusting Bala’s well-being to his floor-mates and his wife, Suparna, the contractor left the site hurriedly, as if fleeing from a crime scene.

Things began to settle down at the village in the sky.

Still feeling a bit disoriented, Bala tried to remember what had happened to him.

It was late in the evening. The son cried from the rocking swing, as if complaining, ‘Why isn’t my house ready yet?’ Suparna pacified her son with loving affection.

Meanwhile, Bala remembered what he was thinking about just before he fell. He was remembering Pradhaan’s consolatory words after an unsuccessful day at fishing…

‘Bala! Let the few fish caught in the net become the dinner. The fish that escaped the net, deserve their life.’

As he woke up gradually, an ironic smile surfaced on his face. Looking up at the sky, he whispered gently to his deceased friend,

Pradhaan,
I am the fish who got caught in the net. And you are the fish who managed to escape!’

Suparna left the dinner pot simmering and rushed to check on Bala. He was wide awake now.

‘Don’t breathe a word. Dinner is ready. Let’s just eat together’ she said.

‘Ah, what’s for dinner?’ he asked.

Maccher-jhol (Fish Curry)’ she said softly, with a touch of affection.

Bala gulped.

The smell of the fish stew permeated each crevice on the unfinished 7th floor of ‘Aquarium high-rise residency.’

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