Friday, June 16, 2023

Lost Dreams in the Shadows

 In a small, decrepit house on the outskirts of a bustling town, lived an old woman named Sapna. She had spent her entire life in poverty, struggling to make ends meet. Just like her name, she had dreams of a life which forever eluded her.  As a teenager she was married off to a man named Raja. Just like her, the husband too was a Raja in dreams. Her husband, Raja, was a hardworking man, but they were forever trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty. Day in and day out, they scraped by, barely surviving on their meager earnings.

One fateful day, tragedy struck when Raja was involved in a fatal accident while pulling his hand rickshaw. Sapna's world came crashing down around her as she mourned the loss of her beloved husband. The weight of grief hung heavily upon her frail shoulders, but she soldiered on, driven by memories of their enduring love.

In the days following Raja's demise, Sapna was left to pick up the shattered pieces of her life. As the meagre rations in her kitchen dwindled, she was wondering how to eke out a livelihood. Maybe venture out to the streets in search for work as a domestic help or maybe a daily wage laborer. As she was ruminating in these thoughts she was rummaging through their humble belongings, she stumbled upon a small box hidden beneath the side of the bed where her husband used to sleep. With trembling hands, she opened it, and to her disbelief, she discovered a small fortune in cash carefully tucked away by her late husband. The five hundred- and one-thousand-rupee notes were something she had very rarely held in her hands.

A glimmer of hope flickered in Sapna's eyes as she realized that, finally, their years of hardship might have come to an end. The money Raja had saved was intended for their retirement, a future they had long dreamed of but never attained. At least now, Sapna thought, she wouldn't have to beg for food in her old age.

However, fate had a cruel twist in store for Sapna. As she sat in her bed, her ears picked up a snippet of news on the radio crying hoarse from her neighbor’s shanty, the Indian Prime Minister's voice filled the room. He announced the sudden demonetization of 500- and 1000-rupee notes, rendering them worthless pieces of paper. The news left Sapna dumbfounded, her mind struggling to comprehend the gravity of the situation.

The next day, clutching a 500 rupee note, Sapna shuffled into the nearby grocery store to buy some essentials. The kindly old grocer, who had known her for years, noticed her confusion. With empathy in his eyes, he gently explained the implications of demonetization, enlightening her about the urgency to exchange the old currency notes at the bank.

Fear and trepidation gnawed at Sapna's heart as she embarked on a journey she

had never taken before. She made her way to the bank, her weathered face reflecting the weight of a lifetime's worth of hardships. Uneducated and unaccustomed to such formalities, the bustling bank intimidated her.

As Sapna approached the bank teller's counter, she handed over her treasured rupee notes with hope and desperation etched in her eyes. But instead of compassion, she faced accusations. The skeptical teller, eyeing her worn-out clothes and frail appearance, accused her of theft, refusing to believe that the money was the hard-earned savings of her deceased husband.

Undeterred by the bank teller's accusations, Sapna returned day after day, standing under the scorching sun in front of the bank, clutching the worthless notes. Little by little she turned weak with exhaustion while the passing away of Raja was gnawing an ever-increasing hole in her heart. She pleaded with the bank officials to recognize her dire situation, to understand that the money was her only hope for a dignified life in her old age.

As days turned into weeks, Sapna's health deteriorated, her body frail and weak from relentless exposure to the elements. But her determination never wavered. She refused to give up, for she had nothing else to lose. The world around her moved on, unaffected by her suffering, as people rushed past her without a second glance.

One scorching afternoon, Sapna's body could no longer bear the burden of her struggle. She collapsed to the ground, her breaths shallow and labored. Her fist, still clenching the worthless currency, opened as she drew her last breath. The few thousand rupees fluttered through the air, a pitiful testament to a shattered dream.

As Sapna's life ebbed away, a horde of desperate onlookers descended upon her fallen body. They jostled and fought to snatch the fluttering bills from the air, their greed overpowering any semblance of humanity. The money that was meant to secure Sapna's future slipped through her fingers, only to be torn apart by the hands of strangers.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Six Years in Chennai

Six years!! Six fricking years!! Yep its been that long since I moved into Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It wasn't an easy decision to move here at all. I still remember my friends at Birlasoft in NOIDA trying hard to dissuade me from moving to Chennai. But there was friendship on one hand and a newly solemnized marriage with Vidisha on the other hand. A love marriage to boot for on top of it. There is a saying I read somewhere, "Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache". In short our love marriage meant we had near empty pockets by the 20th of every month. Something had to be done to change our lives and that something came in the form of a job offer from Cognizant Technology Solutions in Chennai. So I accepted the job offer.

Chennai is not all embracing to someone who doesn't speak the Tamil language and has no money in the pocket too. I remember walking 5 KMs to office on many days just because I did not have enough money after the first month I moved in and I did not know the language enough to ask for lifts from colleagues. The reason being I had to pay 12 months rent in advance in order to get a house. It was tough to adjust but adjust I did or should I say walk I did as after all "Paapi Pet ka Sawal tha"...lolz. 

Chennai takes its language with gravitas. I still remember informal office meetings sometimes getting conducted in chaste Tamil sidelining me completely. I used to feel bad about this initially and it really hurt. 

Chennai has the most genuine people around. Those same team members who had earlier conducted the meeting in Tamil would summarize everything in English at the end so that I did not miss out on anything.

Chennai taught me to surmount the language barrier by simply being polite to everyone. So my introduction to the two life saving words, Anna and Akka. Just dole out an Akka or Anna while addressing people and they would definitely try to help you out.

Chennai is a city that slowly grows on to you and grow it did. The old world and the new world live in perfect harmony in this city. One still sees people cycling on the roads while the Jaguars and the Mercs glide past them. 

Chennai has been a gastronomically delightful place and I have eaten some of the best North Indian food over here. If Delhi had its Chandni Chowk, Madras (Oops! Chennai) had its Mylapore.

Chennai doesn't differentiate the 365 days of the year into seasons, One gets to see different degrees of heat here with all of them being above 36.5 degree Celsius. Phew!!

Chennai has probably the strictest police force around. I really am not joking here. I had tried bribing a cop once and had to pay a 'chalan' double the initial amount. Salute to them. It indeed is one of the safest cities I have ever lived in.

Chennai takes to Brandy like Punjab takes to whisky. Seriously I have never seen so many brands of brandy in a liquor shop as I see in Chennai. 

Chennai loves its gold. Six years and I am still awestruck seeing the kind of gold people wear over here.

Chennai takes its politicians seriously and their movie-stars even more seriously. Be it a political rally or the release of the latest Tamil block buster movie, posters appear magically overnight and disappear too after some days only to be replaced by the poster of someone else.

Chennai loves its beaches. Any public holiday or any regular Sunday one finds the beaches chockablock even with the sun beating down on your head.

Chennai loved its whistle podu team aka Chennai Super Kings. Alas, CSK got banned now. I still remember people having murder in their eyes for me when I used to cheer Mumbai Indians during the annual jamboree called IPL.

Chennai has taught my nearly 2 year old daughter more Tamil than she has picked up Odiya, Hindi, Sindhi or English. She still addresses me sometimes as "Appa" instead of "Papa"

Chennai you have taken 6 years of my life but you have given me back equally. The same chap who once used to walk to office, could earn enough to buy his first car here. Now we are all set to take possession of our first house too when I return back to India. A house that the once young star crossed yet empty pocketed couple would like to turn into a Home Sweet Home in a city they call their hometown now. Chennai you are mine now. 

Namma Chennai - Chance ey illa!!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Summer Vacations

Bapa n Maa have arrived today in Chennai. Well that's Bapa n Maa for Lil' Sam, Nana and Bou for me. In other words my parents have traveled all the way from Odisha to Chennai for the summer vacations.

Here I am 14000 KMs away all alone. Miss being there in Chennai now. Good days have come to roost in Chennai. My niece will be travelling from Ahmedabad to Chennai for her school vacations. The house will be filled with cheers and shouts of joy when two grand daughters get reunited with with their grand parents. Cartoons 24 hours of the day. Ice Creams, cold drinks and of course chips flowing. Story telling sessions during the evenings. Running around the house. Swings in the park nearby. Perhaps a visit or two to the beach.

Time sure flies by. It still feels like yesterday, when all of us cousins used to get together for summer
vacations with our grandparents. We used to be a motley bunch of kids numbering sometimes up to 15 cousins. Ohh!! The fun..The games....The fights....Moments which will remain etched forever in all our hearts.
My grandparents used to live in a village named "Nalihana" which was about 30 KMs from Puri. They owned a farmhouse which was spread across 35 acres. Warm sunny weather with the cool sea breeze flowing in the evening. Trees to climb all around the place. Mangoes to be plucked straight from the 100 odd mango trees and eaten without being washed. "Hoo-doo-doo ing" the bullocks which to the uninitiated was the war cry to make the bullocks go faster as they pulled the bullock cart. Fishing in one of the several ponds. Long lazy baths in one of the ponds owned by our
grandparents. If I remember correctly there used to be seven ponds but the best was the "Bada Pokhari". Nature at its best. Fresh coconut water from one of the coconut trees. Fresh honey from the apiary. Cricket matches and the occasional kabadi matches with the village children. 

My grandfather owned a Luna.Moped. That Luna was probably the first bike all we cousins ever rode. The thrill of zooming down the broken village roads at 25 KM per Hour......Wooohooo!!! I tell you we were speed demons...lolz. Evenings brought with them the
cry of the cicadas. The sea breeze made the evenings much cooler, not that we cousins minded the heat of the day. Night came early as most of the times there was no electricity in the village. The night brought with it, "Chuda Ghasha". That heavenly concoction of flattened rice mixed with generous amounts of pure ghee and lots and lots of coconut and jaggery. Yummy!!! I am salivating just thinking about it. 

Personally for me the best part of all those summer vacations spent with my grandparents were the story telling sessions. Both my grandfather and my grandmother were voracious readers who could read Odiya, Bengali, Hindi and English. The stories they would recite to us while all of us cousins sat with them during the evenings under a star lit sky still ring true in my ears. My favorites were the Jim Corbett stories. My love for story telling and story writing probably comes from those stints with my grandparents. 

Time sure flies by. That small lad from Nalihana today is in the USA and has his own daughter of nearly two now pestering her grandparents for a story this summer vacation of 2016.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Why Am I An Animal?

I could hear a growl. Sigh!! Hunger was playing games with me. It was my six day old empty stomach which was the reason behind the commotion disturbing the peace and quiet of the early night. I rubbed my belly and wondered aloud
that I will have to satiate my stomach sometime soon. Darn, I should have whispered to my stomach, because just then one of my six day old twins opened her little beautiful eyes. How beautiful they looked sleeping peacefully? But no time to admire the sleeping beauties as my maternal instincts kicked in and I knew the routine had to be followed again.

I moved closer towards the awake baby and nursed her. But to my surprise and horror, my baby started bawling even while I tried to nurse her. "Shhh!! Young lady, otherwise your twin brother will wake up too". Oh! No, too late, her sibling had started stirring now.

These were the times, when I literally wanted to shout out, O' God, why did you give me twins? Raising two children was proving more than a handful to me, what with my philandering husband having conveniently run away after impregnating me. I tell you, all males are like that. Damn you, my husband!

Controlling my emotional outburst, I snuggled closer to both my babies in order to nurse them again. But the bawling did not stop. I tried changing my position, lifting my babies but nothing helped. Then I realized, the milk had stopped flowing and this was the reason the hunger of my babies was not getting satiated. With every passing moment, the cries of the babies was getting louder and shriller. O' God, what should I do now was the thought that pulsed through my panicked mind. Taking a deep breath I tried to calm my mind and realized, that ever since the delivery of my twins I had not had anything sumptuous or healthy to eat. My milk had been flowing until now but the earlier stomach growl had been a sign that I needed to replenish my body with some food immediately.

Both of my babies had stopped crying and were looking at me imploringly for milk. I cooed to them, "Soon my children, I will feed you both soon, but before that Ma needs to eat a little something". I decided to sing them a lullaby so that sleep would embrace them from the grasps of hunger. I was rusty with my singing, but nevertheless I improvised on the lyrics and soon the eyes of both my twins became droopy and within a span of half an hour, both of them fell asleep again.

I got up and stretched the aching muscles of my body. I looked around the house and all I saw was emptiness. I had binged on all my food stocks and now there was nothing in the house to munch on. Looking out of the window, I realized it was fast approaching the witching hour and I could venture out of the house soon to grab a quick bite.  I snatched a quick look at my sleeping babies and yes, they were fast asleep, probably dreaming about drinking milk. My cutie pies, what should I name them. Hmm! May be after I have eaten and fed my babies, I will ponder over this all important question of naming my children. After all, a nicer sounding name is half the battle won. Pity those parents who do not put a thought towards naming their children. I winced as I remembered my younger sister who had been named 'Munia'. What with the people of the village nearby having a song blaring out of their radios,'Muni badnam hui, darling tere liye'. Poor Munia had been the butt of all jokes throughout her live. Nah! I will be careful and give my twins fashionably modern names.

I ventured out of the house as quietly as possible as I did not want to disturb the hunger and lullaby induced sleep of my twins. Alternating between speed walking and jogging I reached the end of the forest and the beginning of the village in good time. There was a time when I used to live in the land where the village has now proclaimed itself, but alas I had been forced out of my own land like an outcast. Now as a result of this, I lived deep within the forests.

Keeping to the shadows and tip toeing as silently as possible I entered the dirt tracks that separated the houses within the village. I had my mind on the goat house of the village headman. I wanted to raid the goat house as quietly and quickly as possible. Grab a goat and run home to savor it at my own leisurely pace. After all a postpartum mother needs some high grade protein in order to heal from the stress of baby-birth.

Something was amiss that alerted my sixth sense and I crouched down behind a wall. Careful not to make any sounds, I strained hard to listen to any on toward noises. I was not able to point the reason for the growing unease affecting me. Nevertheless I decided to wait a couple of minutes before I resumed my raid. The uneasiness never left me. This feeling was something new for me. I had always been a brave heart and never been afraid of the villagers. Then why was I feeling uneasy tonight.

The age old battle of the heart versus the mind took over me immediately. My heart responded to the uneasy feeling by wishing me to return home as soon as possible, for maybe my babies had woken up and finding me absent were crying
themselves hoarse. The mind never to be outdone, responded by telling me that no food for me meant no milk for the babies. I knew the babies could not tolerate hunger and which mother would ever want to keep her babies hungry. End result, mind won and I decided to raid the goat house as quickly as possible and return back to my babies.

Perhaps it was my unfed stomach or the thought of my unfed babies, which led me to throw caution to the winds and rush towards the goat house. Just as I turned the corner of the last house and the goat house loomed ahead, I heard a twig break faintly. Before I could realize what happened a net fell on me ensnaring me within it. I was trapped.

The doors of the houses opened and the villagers started coming out of their houses led by their dogs who started barking at me. I tried with all my might to escape from the all-encompassing net but I couldn't. The villagers maintained a respectable and fearful distance but their respect and fear soon gave way to collective disrespect and fearlessness. A stone was thrown from one among the crowd and hit me on my back. “Cowards”, I roared in pain.  Soon the incoming missiles started raining on me from all sides as the crowd encircled me. A voice from within the crowd shouted at me, “This is the thief trying to steal our goats, let’s punish him.” This insult was too much for me and I roared back at them in anger, “this used to be my home on which you villagers have forcefully encroached upon and now you dare to call me a thief”.

My roar silenced the villagers for a moment, but the attack on me soon resumed even more vigorously. The more I tried to escape from the net that had trapped me, the more I got hopelessly tangled. This emboldened the villagers and the human circle around me became tighter as the villagers now came closer.
Wooden ‘lathis’ materialized out of nowhere and the attack on me continued. In between all these physical blows on my body, the occasional cowardly village dog tried to take a chunk out of me.  The pain and the humiliation of being attacked by puny dogs was too much for me, when I heard someone from within the crowd throw another insult at me, “let us punish this filthy animal by cutting its hands and feet, that ought to be a fitting punishment for a thief trying to steal away our livestock’s”. I was crying out in pain, asking for mercy from all the lacerations on my body. "Oh! Villagers, you are calling me an animal. Why am I an animal? Have I forcefully taken over your land? Have I ever brutally attacked any of you ever? Have I ever talked of chopping your hands and feet even though you have stolen my land, my river and my trees from me.Then why am I an animal." My cries of anguish were falling on deaf years as the pain became unbearable when the villagers finally managed to chop off my hands and feet.

I do not know for how long I had been unconscious, but daylight was creeping in. I was exhausted from blood loss but I was still alive. The net had been removed from on top of me as I lay there bleeding. I was too weak to protest when soon the younger among the villagers slowly crept towards me with small rectangular bricks in their hands. Maybe this was yet another instrument of pain which the villagers would use on me. But no, there were no new blows to me, instead I could see the villagers stood in front of me with  one hand raised holding that rectangular brick which seemed to emit bright flashes like miniature lightening’s.  I heard one of the young villagers speaking, “This ‘selfie’ picture is going to make me a hero in front of my children’s eye when I tell them, it was me who had punished this thief.” Summoning all my last reserves of energy I begged them to allow me to leave as my poor babies were hungry.

My babies must be waking up now from their hunger and lullaby induced sleep. Mummy is coming soon, don't cry my babies. Oh!! What shall I name my twins, who are just six days old? The pain. The darkness. The end.

Authors Note:
I was inspired to write this story after I saw this image on the internet of a Leopard that had been lynched by a mob in a village of Maharastra. I personally believe the price we are going to pay in this battle of supremacy over the riches of Mother Earth will return back to haunt us. Man versus Animal conflict is a reality which we cannot escape from. Hope better judgement prevails in the future and we give back what we have forcibly taken away from other animals.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Happy Birthday Gal

364 days have passed since I came visiting Ma and Pa. I hear that the earth revolves around the sun once every 365 days. That means tomorrow the earth will be at the exact same position relative to the sun as it was when I came visiting before returning back.

My first memory is of Ma looking at me teary eyed while I looked back at her teary eyed myself. Ma was exhausted and crying with the pain of labor while I found the first moments outside of my cozy room for the last 9 months a little bit unnerving. The harsh lights and the loud noise of voices in that sterile smelling room were all overwhelming to me. Ma's cooing voice made me stop crying because I remember hearing her soothing voice every day. After settling in her arms I tried to single out the other voice I had heard for the past 9 months. But that voice was not audible to me. Later I found out that Pa had never been there when I came out. That self-obsessed snob was still  in office in faraway Chennai.

Pa came calling the next day. A full 20 hours after I had come out. Can you imagine? They say, 'first impression is the last impression'. No doubt, Pa didn't leave a good impression on me. I would have been the bigger person and forgiven Pa. However the first thing which he did on seeing me was kiss Ma in the cheeks. Gross!!! Hello!! I am the newcomer here, not Ma. Look at me when you are in the room with me. Nah!! After a full 5 minutes of hugging Ma, did Pa finally turn his attention to me. The nerve of that guy named Pa, the first thing he did was flick out his mobile and click a smiling selfie along with me. Self-obsessed snob I decided is the correct name for Pa. I didn't like Pa’s ham-handed behavior  at all and burst into tears as soon as Pa lifted me in his arms. I didn't understand though, Pa had tears in his eyes too when he hug me the first time.

Although Pa got off on the wrong foot with me, he was not too bad a person. I could hear him cooing to Ma, "How beautiful our little bundle of joy is?" Pa seemed to be always there looking at me whenever I opened my eyes. Ma used to scold Pa to keep my voice down and stop clicking selfies with me always there in the frame lest I get disturbed.

Pa says he likes history a lot. However Ma say's "Who in the correct frame of mind likes history?" You see I like Ma. After all I spent 9 months as a tenant inside her. So I tend to see eye to eye with Ma more than Pa and therefore I have decided I too don't like history. I have already dwelled on the past a lot, and the past my friend is called history. So let’s cut to present day again.

Tomorrow will be an anniversary. An anniversary of my first full year here. I expect nothing less than being treated like a Princess from heaven. A new beautiful fairy dress with the works including a tiara and a magic wand. A big party. A colorful cake. A magician doing magic tricks especially pulling the rabbit out of the hat. No clowns though, cause clowns with their big red colored lips scare me. Lots of other kids. Foot tapping music so that some of the other kids can shake a leg and entertain me and if I am in the mood who knows I might join them and shake a leg too. Food should be yummilicious although I am not sure how yummilicious tastes because I haven't had the chance to taste anything other than milk. But who cares, I like the word " yummilicious " so the food in the party should be "yummilicious" and nothing less than that. I almost forgot this last one. I want that big...bigger....biggest brown Teddy from Hamleys as a gift from Pa.

I have been rambling along for too long now. I guess I got that gene from Pa. Pa and Ma must be busy getting things in order for my big day tomorrow. But what is it I see. Pa and Ma have been sitting quietly on the sofa without even talking to each other let alone planning my birthday. Ma turns to Pa and tells, "I miss her. She would have turned one tomorrow, if she would have been alive." Pa keeps quiet while a tear burns its way down his cheek.

I tell you, crybabies, both of them. So what if I had to leave the both of them and return back to God after spending just 6 days with them that doesn’t mean they will continue to pine for me even today. I mean, come on guys, it’s been a year now. Ma and Pa, you should have been planning a big party for me. Anyways I will be the bigger person here and forgive both of you. It’s pretty late now and the grand plans for my first birthday party cannot materialize in such a short deadline. At the very least get a pastry and cut it on my behalf and mind it the pastry has to be of the “yummilicious” flavor.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Ragpicker

A long day in office normally leaves me cranky and short fused. I decided to have a fag nevertheless on my way home, even though it was pretty close to 9:00 PM in the night. As I lit up the fag and enjoyed a drag, I noticed a shabbily dressed old man standing near the shop counter. The man was fidgety and had the looks of poverty having made a permanent hovel over his destiny. The shirt he was wearing was definitely a hand me down, which had seen a lot of hands in its life time. The lungi he was wearing was tattered and probably had not been washed for a long time for fear of it turning into tatters.

The shop is run by a middle aged woman, who has a permanent constipated smirk on her face. She is rude to a fault and never smiles. But hers is the only shop on the road and therefore there is always a constant flow of customers to her small shop. I have been going to her shop every day for the past 2 years, and she never shows any signs of recognizing me. Though it does not bother me that she does not remember me, but it sure feels irritating when she asks me "Which brand of cigarette, saaar?" I mean, I go to the shop every evening after office to smoke a fag and yet she does not remember the brand I smoke.

Now coming back to the present, the old man kept standing near the store front while the store lady ignored him and I took a drag from my cigarette. The old man was looking intently at the various tall glass jars which held different candy and sweet meats. Finally after contemplating a little, the old man pointed a bonny finger to a rectangular plastic container. The container had several chocolate bars belonging to the Nestle brand. The shop lady had an incredulous look on her face as if to suggest, "Are you mad old man, pointing fingers at the most expensive chocolates in my shop." The shop lady ignored the old man for a couple of minutes.

But the old man stood there patiently pointing at the rectangular plastic container. Finally the shop lady stood up and shouted in coarse Tamil at the old man. Now I have been living in Chennai for nearly 4 years now, so I can understand a smattering of Tamil. The shop lady was shouting at the old man, that he would not be able to afford the Nestle chocolates even if he sold his skin. Many more such colorful profanities spilled out from her mouth. The old
man stood unflinching there. This seemed to cause the shop lady to lose her temper further. She raised her voice to a decibel ten notches higher and shouted, "Get out of my shop beggar."

The last insult shook the old man out of his reverie. The weather-beaten man unclenched his fist and there lay several coins in his palm. The shop lady immediately cut short the ranting and ravings she had been subjecting the old man till now and stood quietly. The old man showed one finger and asked in a weak voice, "Yevelo" which in Tamil means, "How much"? The shop ladies voice carried a hint of sarcasm as she said the cost of one chocolate was Rupees Thirty.

The shop lady expected the old man to shudder at the mention of price and hence the sarcasm in her tone when she spat out the price. I would be lying if I say I too was not expecting the old man to quietly go away with downcast eyes of a defeated man after hearing the price. However the old man did not betray any emotion and stood his ground. The cataract in his old eyes made it difficult for the old man to differentiate the one rupee from the two rupee coins. Nevertheless after much fumbling and bringing each coin near his eyes more than once, the old man successfully counted out thirty bucks and kept them on top of the rectangular container which held the treasured Nestle chocolates.

The shop lady was taken aback on seeing the small pile of coins and even though she had perfectly good eyes, she took longer to count the coins than had the old man. Perhaps, she was making sure each of the coins had the Sarnath Lions engraved on them properly. After making sure she had her money, she opened the container took out a single thin slab of Nestle Cadbury chocolate.

The old man accepted the precious cargo from the shop lady and ran his fingers over the shiny plastic covering of the chocolate. As I stood there, I could see the old man finally betraying his emotions as a thin smile broke upon his old tired face revealing several missing teeth. The smile lines around the corners of the mouth less prominent than the many wrinkles which crisscrossed the weather-beaten leathery face. The old man saw me looking at him blankly. There was a slight nod of his head towards me as he shuffled across the store front out of the shop.

Just as the old man walked out of the shop dragging his tired feet along, the rain God decided to provide some background effect to this setting by opening the heavenly flood gates. As often happens in India, the electricity gets cut off as soon as it starts raining, plunging the road and the shop into darkness. The road was deserted and the old man could have easily walked back into the shop if he wanted. But the man picked up his rag pickers torn and mended jute gunny sack and slowly walked across the street melting into the darkness.

I was waiting for the unseasonal rain to stop so that I could get along on my way to my home. Just then an Audi car swerved into the street screeching aloud from its tires and lighting up the now darkened street with white light from its incredibly beautiful LED lights. As the car whizzed past, I saw the old rag picker man for the last time. There he was sitting huddled under a tree along with an equally old woman. The thin chocolate slab was broken into two and each of them had a piece in their hands as they laughed without care like two young children.

Chutki's Voice

Chutki was eldest amongst her 3 siblings but nevertheless was addressed by everyone as Chutki  (The small one). Maybe because she was a girl and all 3 of her siblings were boys or maybe destiny would ensure that she never match the greatness her brothers would no doubt achieve. No one knew the reason. Chutki lived in a small nondescript village in India with her parents and 3 other siblings.

Chutki was lucky in many ways, because she got a chance to go to school even though she was a girl. But this meant nothing to Chutki, because after doing all the household work, feeding her younger brothers, washing their clothes and grazing the old lame cow and collecting any eggs from the 2 hens her family owned, she never had the energy left to go to school. However ever day after she had completed all her work, she would set off for school. School time was the only time when Chutki got time to frolic around with her friends, Munnia and Jamunia and sometimes sneak into the Zamindars orchard to steal a raw mango. Chutki knew that someday the teacher of the school would definitely complain to her parents that she bunked school alarmingly regularly. But when did a precocious 13 year old think of consequences.

There was one person in the world that Chutki was afraid off and that was her father. Bholaram, the father of little Chutki had been a hardworking man. He
used to work hard in his fields and earn just enough to support his family. But 5 years ago the rains failed and Bholaram had to leave the village in search of work. He earned money from the city but also earned a new habit in return. The habit was country rice liquor called "handia". Bholaram was never the same again after returning from the city. The "handia" like a slow poison started to sap his strength and he could no longer toil hard under the sun in his fields. Money started to dwindle like the fickle rains and his mood swings became worse. Abuse and even beatings of his wife and daughter but never his sons were the only way he could vent his emotions. His wife realizing that the only way to stop the regular beatings was a wad of notes thrust into Bholarams palms started working as a daily wager.

One day little Chutki after finishing her daily chores was getting ready for school when her mother said she would not be going to school today. Chutki threw a tantrum because Munia and Jamunia her friends had said to her yesterday that the imli tree near the village pond was bearing the sour imli pods she loved so much. All her plans of going to school nee the imli tree were now blown away. On seeing the girl sob, her mother told her that a guest of her father was going to come in the evening, so Chutki should help with cooking today and also takes a bath and dress well. Just at that time, Munia and Jamunia called from across the fields for her to join them for school. Chutki after giving a pleading look to her mother and receiving a cold stare in return knew that the imli pods would have to wait until tomorrow.

That day her father put one of the hens of the family to the blade. The whole day Chutki helped her mother cook some delectable delicacies which consisted of boiled rice and chicken curry along with sweet rice. Ohh!! the lovely smell that wafted around the house was so heartwarming. Chutki and her siblings could not wait for evening to come so that they would be able to eat.  After  completing the cooking, her mother took her to the village pond and ensured that Chutki took her bath properly. On returning home, Chutki was given an old threadbare sari to wear. Her mother put on little Chutki's forehead a little red “bindi”.

Finally the darkness of dusk fell and crickets started buzzing from the fields. The wait for the guest started now. Her father had gone to receive the guest but had not returned yet. The chicken curry had grown cold and the rice even colder, but there was no sign of her father or his guest. Little Chutki after working the whole day was sleepy. She tried very hard not to fall asleep lest her brothers gobble up all the chicken curry. But try as she might her eyelids started to droop and sleep overtook her little body.

Chutki woke up to the loud abuses of her father shouting at her mother. Her
mother seemed to be wailing loudly and so were Chutki's three brothers. She tried to listen but the wails were drowning out the words. She looked out of the window and saw that it was still dark, that means the chicken curry was still there to be relished. Just as these thoughts were passing her mind, her mother entered the kitchen along with her father. Bholaram had murder in his eyes, and he pushed his wife towards Chutki and barked an order to pack some belongings and left outside. Her mother immediately started to pack some old clothes and other knick-knacks into a tattered cloth bag. The cloth bag was threadbare and so was the clothes packed into it. Suddenly Chutki realized that the bag was being packed with her meager clothes.

Chutki's teary eyed mother came up to her and said that "you are going to a new home tonight for some days, so do whatever you are asked to do, never open your mouth and do not complain no matter what". Chutki was confused, on one side, there was the excitement of travelling to a new place and on the other hand her mother's intonation told her that something was amiss here. Profanities from her father's mouth caused her mother to push Chutki out of the house hurriedly with the cloth bag.

Chutki saw his father sitting outside the house along with a very old man eating the chicken curry and other delicacies. Chutki suddenly felt very self-conscious and stared down at her own feet intently. Bholaram came up to her and pushing Chutki towards the old man, said "Go with this God like man and do all his bidding". The old man chuckled a throaty chuckle which one attains after years of smoking the "bidi" and asked Chutki to follow her.

"No No, don't walk along with me, walk 10 steps behind me," the old man said to Chutki as soon as they turned the corner of the road leading away from their village. They walked and walked but their destination was nowhere in sight. Not that Chutki was aware where the destination was. She was feeling angry at her mother because she had not been fed her dinner. Dinner always consisted of boiled rice water and today after nearly 8 months they had chicken and proper rice and she had been denied that. In order to stop thinking of the hunger pangs she tried to think of the adventures she might have at her new home. Maybe there will be more food at the new house. Maybe there will be small children in the house she will be asked to play with them. As these thoughts were fleeting past her, she heard the old man cough in front of her.

The old man after leading the way for nearly 2 hours under the night sky finally stopped and opened the gates of a big house and announced in his hoarse voice that they had reached their destination. The old man entered the house and barked at Chutki to bolt the door behind her. Chutki stood silently as the old man sat down in a chair. "What are you doing standing like a puppet, haven't you no manners. Go and get me a glass of water from the kitchen which is adjacent to this room," said the old man. Chutki ran across and came back with a glass of water. 

The old man smacked his lips after drinking down the whole glass of water. Keeping the glass down on the floor, the old man beckoned Chutki to come near. Chutki was unsure but remembered the last words from her mother about being obedient and doing whatever asked to do. She took a tentative step towards the chair. The old man reached out the rest of the way and dragged her towards the chair. His grip on her hand was tight but what scared Chutki was not the grip but the stare. The old man seemed to be seeing right through her. "Let me see what I have got for myself, now turnaround girl," said the old man. Chutki did as commanded and stood silently feeling uneasy.

The old man then let go of her hands and asked her name. "Chutki" replied Chutki. The man rose and went to a different room but soon returned with some old faded dresses. "You can take a bath tomorrow and then throw away that rag you are wearing. Wear these clothes which belong to my granddaughter who left them here when she had come last year," said the old man. Chutki took the offerings silently. Mustering up her courage, Chutki asked, "Babu, what work will I do for you in this big house." The old man smiled and said, "You do not have to do any work in the house as there are servants for that. I am an old man and I have everything I need thanks to Goddess Lakshmi. However I get lonely in this big house as my children have grown up and left the village for the glitter of the city. I have brought you here to give me company and that is your work. I will feed you well for this, however I have one condition for you and the condition is you are not to speak with anyone outside this house no matter what happens." Chutki was feeling happy, no work to do and freedom from school, what more did she want from life. She blurted out, "I will do my best to keep you happy Babu." The old man smiled and said she can sleep in the kitchen for this one night as I am very tired.

The next morning she woke up early to find the old man sitting in the verandah
with a cup of tea. "You can follow the pathway from the back of the house to the village pond to take your bath", said the old man. Chutki nodded her head and selected one of the new-old faded dresses and went out in search of the pond. The pond was quiet big and there were separate sections for men and women to take bath. Some children were splashing about and making a din in the whole area. Chutki was feeling shy. It was not that she had never taken bath in a pond. On the contrary she did it daily in her village but she was always accompanied by her mother. Now here she was standing alone on the first step of the 'ghat' on the pond and pondering on whether to take the second step or not. Just then an old woman bent with age trying hard to walk down the 7 steps to the elevated 'ghat' made in the pond approached her. "You are a pretty girl. What shapely feet? You must be a Brahmin. Are you a guest of the Misra family?" The old woman was not waiting for answers as if waiting might age her a little more and bring her closer to the inevitable death that was waiting for her. The old woman, continued, "Are you deaf and dumb, my child?" Chutki was about to reply in the negative, when everyone in the vicinity of the pond stood up in attention.  Someone shouted make way for the Zamindar Babu. Chutki turned around to see it was her benefactor the old man who was being addressed as the Zamindar Babu. The old man looked around nonchalantly and said, "I have already taken my bath, please carry on my fellow villagers. I came here just for a walk" As the villagers returned to whatever they were doing earlier, the old man lingered for a moment near the pond but his gaze was on Chutki all the while. Chutki remembered the condition put forward by the old man they called Zamindar Babu the last night that she was not supposed to talk to anyone. She got away from the clutch of the old woman who was still mumbling, "What a beautiful deaf and dumb child? and ran down the steps of the 'ghat; to take her bath"

A week went by like this. There were servants in the house who tried to be friendly with Chutki but Chutki could not break the condition and so never spoke. The village womenfolk too tried their best to gossip with her, but Chutki was true to her promise and never spoke. She must have really appeared deaf and dumb to the villagers. Then one day, when her Babu had gone away to visit the fields, Chutki sat alone and began humming a song she had heard. She did not notice that one of the maidservants had entered the room to clean the floors. She gasped on hearing Chutki humming a song but kept her counsel to herself.

That evening there was a crowd which gathered in front of the Zamindar Babu's house. Finally the Zamindar went outside to see why they were crowding outside his house. The Sarpanch of the village walked forward and said, "We have been seeing that there is a young girl living in your house for the past week. Who is the girl? What caste she is? Is she related to you in anyway?" The Zamindar looked back coldly into the eyes of the Sarpanch and retorted "What business do you have asking me about this?" The Sarpanch not to be cowed down, replied, "Do not try to bluff your way out, Zamindar Babu. This has happened previously too and each time you have shouted your way out. But this time, we have decided to not take things lying down. We will call the police if you do not give us answers" The Zamindar said, "all right, you can talk with the girl and ask her as many questions as you want and satisfy yourselves, but I am not going to waste my time speaking with you louts." The Zamindar beckoned one of his servants and asked him to escort the girl outside.

Chutki walked with small tentative steps towards the place where the crowd had gathered. One of the servants had brought a chair and the old Zamindar was sitting on it and glaring at the villagers. She stopped some distance away with her head bent down. The Sarpanch asked in a soft voice, "Little girl, who are you? Who brought you here?" Chutki was still looking down intently counting the fingers in her feet. The Sarpanch tried to coax some words from Chutki but there was no response. Finally the old lady who had met with Chutki on the day she had come to the village pond for the first time was summoned. The old lady, too tried to reason with Chutki but still there was nothing. Chutki simply did not open her mouth and appeared to be intently examining the dirt embedded with her toe nails. Finally the Sarpanch said, "Girl, we know you can speak, why you are not replying? Tell us, is the Zamindar keeping you forcefully against your wish?" At this point the Zamindar roared at the villagers and said, "Enough of this nonsense. I have tried to accommodate your wishes but you are hell bent on proving me guilty on some cooked up charges". The Sarpanch now looked sheepishly at the villagers hoping to get some support. Seeing that the Sarpanch was on the back foot, the Zamindar went for the kill and said, "Get out of here immediately, otherwise I will call the police and have all of you arrested." The threat had been delivered in such a menancing way that it did not take long for the villagers to dissipate from in front of the Zamindar's house.

Time flew, and now six months had passed. The villagers now decided to mind their own business and stopped trying to talk with Chutki. Summer had passed and winter was fast approaching the horizon. One misty morning little Chutki was walking towards the pond when the village boys gathered around her and started shouting "Here comes the mad girl who does not speak" and one of the bravados decided to up the ante and said, "Here come the mad fatty." Chutki had not been well for some days and was feeling weak, but this taunt irritated Chutki to no end. After all she was all of thirteen years old and how could she take this taunt lying down. She wanted to scream at the boys that she was not deaf and dumb, but as always she kept quiet. Chutki had started gaining weight over the last couple of months. Maybe it was the good food in the Zamindar Babu's house. 

At that time she did not care much and just wanted to complete her ablutions and return home and have her breakfast as she was feeling famished. She hurried past the boys and went to the pond. Little Chutki had never worn a sari but now her Babu had commanded her to always wear saris. Bereft of any company with women, she learnt to drape a sari around herself in a clumsy manner. Therefore as she was taking her bath the wet sari clung to her torso in a manner which showed more than it hid. The other village womenfolk were speaking in hushed tones staring at her.  Chutki was used to their staring and talking behind her back, so she ignored them and changed into a cleaner sari and started to walk back to the house.

Gradually waking up early each day and taking the long walk to the village pond became a chore well-nigh impossible for her. On one such day as the afternoon sun began to make its daily descend to give way to the evening, an unseasonal storm started to gather on the western sky. Chutki had been alone in her room crying silently as the pain was intolerable when she heard the loud shouting of angry voices along with the cracking of the thunder outside. One of the maidservants came up to her and said, that Zamindar Babu had summoned her to come outside to the front of the house. Chutki dried her tears using her sari and walked out towards the front door.

A huge crowd comprising of the whole village led by the Sarpanch was standing outside on one side and standing defiantly against them was the old Zamindar. A hush fell in as little Chutki walked with some difficulty awkwardly towards the crowd with her eyes glued to her feet. Addressing no in particular but rather the whole crowd, the Sarpanch said, "Look. Just look at the poor girl. I feel so sad for her." The crowd chanted as in chorus, "Sad, Sad". Having garnered the attention of the crowd, the Sarpanch continued, "This is not the first time, we have seen such disgrace fall upon our village, courtesy of the Zamindar Babu". The crowd was now glaring at the Zamindar.  A nameless face from within the crowd shouted, "We need to get a confession from the girl, so that we can get a watertight case against the evil Zamindar Babu and throw him in the prison."  "Yes. Yes", chanted the crowd."

By now it was quiet dark with the black clouds dimming out the sun completely. The wily old Zamindar dared the crowd and said, "I am as pure as Lord Krishna himself. I have done no evil.  Get the girl to confess against me and I will turn myself to the police." The Sarpanch glared back at the Zamindar and said, "We shall see to it." The Sarpanch turned to Chutki and in a fatherly voice said, "You are like our daughter. We will take care of you. Just tell us what evil things has the Zamindar Babu been doing with you. We will protect you. We shall take you to your parents, who must be missing you as we are sure, Zamindar Babu has kidnapped you and doing things to you against your will." The whole crowd murmured, "We are with you child." Tears were trickling down Chutki's face but words were not.

Just then there was a brilliant flash of lightening tearing apart the darkness in the sky followed by a loud crashing of thunder. Some of the children among the crowd shrieked in terror while even the elders cowed down in fear. Chutki too opened her mouth to scream in terror, but no voice came out. The Sarpanch who had been nearest to Chutki staggered back and fell down in terror as he saw that Chutki could actually no longer speak. Her tongue had been cut off.