I am back with another short story. I know I promised this short story to my little sister a very long time ago (mostly because the protagonist is named similar to her name). I am very sorry about its lateness and will beg forgiveness of you the next time we meet.
I love you, darling girl! :*
One more thing that struck me when I chose to finish it today was how it’s Independence Day tomorrow. I think you would see how much we, as India, have grown since the days I have narrated of in this story. It’s set in the immediate post-Independence era, you see.
Enough rambling, let me post the actual story right away.
Of Dreams Coming True
The sun bore down upon Amrita and beads of perspiration had formed on her forehead. Her gold-brown skin shone with the sweat. The collecting basket lay neglected beside her.
“Why am I always expected to do things I don’t want to, Keshav?” she asked.
Without waiting for a reply, she went on gesturing with her hands and wrinkling her forehead with displeasure. The big brown eyes were annoyed.
“I mean, he doesn’t do the things he hates, does he? When he wants to sit with his books all day, he does! When I ask for it, I’m kicked out! And Aayi says women should not do all the things men do.”
She picked at the grass near her feet and sighed loudly.
“It’s just not fair.”
‘Baa!’ said Keshav.
She looked up and smiled at the hairy snout opposite her. Her sun-dappled hand reached out to stroke his head. With her other hand, she held out some of the grass for him to chew.
“You do understand, don’t you, Keshav?” Her features had softened out and a tiny dimple winked on her right cheek. Loosening the pallu of her saree, she softly dabbed at the sweat on her forehead, her eyebrows set in a worried line.
“Whenever I ask to be excused from the cotton-picking, for any reason at all, it’s always, ‘Now, Amrita, you don’t want to be doing that. That stuff is for the boys to do. Get to work.’ It just sucks, I tell you!” Her mimicry had swelled into a high-pitched scream by the end of the sentence.
Keshav chewed his blade of grass and gave her a blank stare. She sighed and stood up. She had to get a move on. Or Baba would be disappointed with her day’s work.
“Why do little boys get what they want, and big girls nothing?” She heaved a long breath and muttered angrily for a second or two.
They were cotton merchants, her father and his seven brothers. As far as she knew, they had been cotton merchants for three generations. Her great-grandfather had dandled her little brother on his knee and told the tale to an incoherently babbling baby. That little brother was the one she was being competitive with. For everyone in her family, it had always been Piyush this and Piyush that, and Amrita had been bossed about to fetch things that darling little Piyush wanted.
She did not like it one bit.
Slowly, she picked up where she left off at the edge of their cotton crop. Her mother worked her way from the other side of the crop. She was lightning fast in pulling off the soft centres of the exploded pods. Amrita always received a ‘oh darling, you need to pick up your pace if you want to finish in a thousand years’ from every old great-aunt who passed by her spot. With a loud cackle to boot.
All she had wanted was to go to the big, white building on the edge of the town. Like the other children did. Day after day, Armita watched with longing eyes at the crowd of school girls and boys reading thick books sitting around the trees in the backyard of the building. This was their daily routine around noon. After a while, they opened bundles of packed food and ate them, chatting happily.
Amrita burned to join that happy laughter. She wanted to be shooed back inside for the afternoon classes by the old teacher with his thick glasses.
They all looked vastly superior in her eyes. Piyush swaggered through the trees like he owned the place and sometimes, he waved at her as she straightened her back out and flexed her finger muscles. It seemed to her like he was mocking her fate. But, she knew he wouldn’t do that. Despite all her jealousy at his life, he was her little brother and absolutely doted on his big sister.
The afternoon sun shone with even more vigour as Amrita tried to watch what she was picking through the thin layer of the saree she had draped over and around her head. After the third time in which she had started to pry loose an unripened pod unable to see clearly, she dropped her basket and sat down.
The tears swelled up inside her and she let out a silent howl. She so badly wanted to cry out loud and bang her body onto the soil in frustration.
‘Why, God, why do you have to do this to me?’ she prayed.
All sleep was lost that night. Baba had been disappointed with her work, and Aayi had clucked over Piyush as he writhed in his bed with a fever. Amrita wondered if they should call a doctor, but dared not voice it out loud. They would chide her to leave the thinking to themselves.
The next morning dawned fresh and cold. It was the crack of dawn, and Armita had woken with a start. After checking on the sick six-year old, who was still muttering in his restless sleep, she crept outside wound in a shawl. In half an hour, she had slipped open the gate and stepped up in front of the idol. It was her favourite time of the day to visit Lord Shiva.
The early morning birds chirped softly overhead as she sat cross-legged at the base of the large banyan tree. Like every time, her eyes roved over the fiery God who sat in close-eyed meditation. It was the irony of the idol that always pulled her to Shiva. He was called Shiva the Destroyer in all his tales. But, the deity was always depicted as sitting in silent meditation. His third eye placed laterally in the middle of the forehead was open in a slit. Barely open and chiselled upon dark greyish stone with no colours, it looked as if it could penetrate her very soul. She shivered slightly.
Her mute conversation with God continued for a while. She told him about her recurring dream to study and travel the country, and her wishes for the little brat to snap out of his fever. The branches overhead rubbed against each other and expelled a cloud of parrots into the air. It was then that she realised that she was very late.
Hurrying through breakfast was quite impossible to her as she enjoyed her mother’s excellent rotis and dal very much. But, as she neared the house, there was no fire in the kitchen and no mother plucking a puffed roti off the stove with her bare hands. Piyush’s room was crowded and she made her way to it in dread.
Mother was fanning her little boy with a palm-leaf fan. All the while, tears streamed down her cheeks and splattered onto his twitching arm. Amrita knew her father was at the fields already and bit into her cheek painfully.
Amrita’s thoughts swirled around her head. She would never be allowed to leave if she asked. But, she might slip out unseen. Her two great-aunts had the eyesight of eagles, but, all eyes were trained on her mother’s movements then. She had wet a rag and placed it across Piyush’s forehead.
“It’s too wet, daughter-in-law,” sneered Sita Maa.
“Use a clean rag, why don’t you?” asked Lakshmi Taayi.
Mother never indicated that she had heard. She seemed in a daze. Mechanically wiping of the trickling wetness, she wiped her hands and felt Piyush’s neck for the temperature.
Amrita slowly backed out of the room and softly shut the front door. She couldn’t very well lock it from the outside, so she hoped it wouldn’t swing open with the breeze. It was perfectly safe though. Everyone knew each other in their village.
Trying to walk in a prim and erect manner to give her a little more height that her thirteen-year old frame could be expected to show, Amrita moved towards the one bus stop of the village. She knew that two buses to the big town plied through there everyday. She waited for it and willed her heart to slow down.
The bus came rattling into the stop and several dusty people alighted from it. Nobody noticed the young girl with her pallu pulled up over her head sneak onto it. Nobody asked any awkward questions. The bus conductor spied the girl boarding his bus.
“Wait right there, little lady. Do you have the money to spare for the ride?” he demanded of her.
“How much is the fare to the town, Saab?” she asked back politely.
The conductor seemed taken aback at such a respectful tone and stammered out that it was two rupees. Out drew a soft hand and it placed the small coin on his outstretched palm.
“One seat to the town, please.”
If he had been able to watch her face, he would have spotted the smug, satisfied smile upon it. Amrita spotted half a seat remaining after an enormous woman had sat in a seat for two. She made her shaky way towards it and perched on the remaining space. Everyone was giving the lady a wide berth as she lurched dangerously out of the seat whenever the bus made a sharp turn. But, she steadied herself incredibly when the little girl had sat by her side. She even pointed out all the important places as they passed through the town to the final bus stop.
The whole mass of standing and sitting people staggered out of the bus with relief. The roads had been slick with mud during that trip in addition to their general uphill nature. Amrita’s excitement had reduced into a quiet wonder at the task she was about to do.
With everything she had heard from the woman on the bus spinning through her head, she had never felt more like a child as she had then.
It was a brand new world to her. The tall, sophisticated buildings rose around her intimidatingly. She gulped and moved a few steps forward in the direction of the entrance to the bus stand. People shoved and bumped into her several times as she reached the pavement. She sighed and rubbed the sore spot on her shoulder where a particularly strong man’s arm had collided.
The cold morning had given into the warmer rays of the eight o’clock sun. Amrita knew it by the way the mud had started curling back into dryness on the edge of the roads.
‘I’m going to get into heaps of trouble,’ she thought helplessly.
But, she had to do something.
Within a little while, she had gotten the hang of walking through the thronging mass of people. Carefully, she recollected the numerous locations the woman on the bus had shown her. Her mental map began to take shape and she chose one turn after the other with much more ease than she had ever dreamed of.
If the town had been intimidating till then, the Town Hospital appeared like something Amrita should have avoided like the plague. The cleanliness of it blew her mind wide open. She stood opposite to it for minutes, making up her mind. Piyush’s baby face came to her in a flash and she squared her shoulders with a kind of reckless determination.
In ten minutes, she stood at the front desk, looking up at the matronly-looking woman who manned it.
“What is it, child?” she asked pleasantly.
“My brother is sick,” replied Amrita.
“You have to fill out the form and wait for a doctor to be able to see him. Here, fill this up,” she said, handing her a piece of paper with printed writing all over it.
“I cannot do that,” she replied, nervously.
The woman looked down at the girl from over her desk. The neat folds of her simple saree and her quiet eyes caught her unawares as she had been used to the rough and shoddy demands of the fast-moving town people. She walked around it and led Amrita to a seat.
“What is the problem, dear?” she asked her.
Amrita’s instincts buzzed about the woman. She would be patient, she thought.
“I need a doctor to come and visit my brother in the village. He has got a very bad fever for a few days now. And no one knows what to do. Cold compresses did not help. He shivers and has fitful hours of sleep,” she summarized.
“To go to the village? Did you come from there this morning?” the woman asked, wonderingly.
“Yes,” she replied impatiently.
“Please, hurry. Would any doctor be willing to go with me?”
The woman sighed in reply. What a brave, young girl from a small village, thought the woman. She knew that Dr Roy would help, and she went to fetch him.
Within an hour, Dr Roy and a nurse helped Amrita into the seat of his car and snapped on a seat-belt, the sharp click of which sounded very ominous. Her veins buzzed electricity however and she felt sharp and alert. Something about the kind eyes of the doctor had soothed her nerves about the whole trip to the big, scary town.
In an hour, Amrita superbly navigated the car into the shady banyan tree next to her house. A throng surrounded the front door and the sight of her rippled through it with hissing sounds. The crowd parted and the image of her father came forth.
She gulped and froze in her path of success, which slowly lit up and melted her insides.
“Where have you been, beti?” asked the furiously twitching moustache. Amrita hung her head and spoke no words.
“I asked you a question,” growled the moustache then.
“Saab,” spoke Dr Roy.
Amrita turned to him for a fraction of a second and shook her head for half of one.
“Baba,” she cleared her throat and held herself high.
“I went to fetch the doctor for Piyush. From the town. You can scold me later, but, first let him be examined,” she spoke in one breath.
“Come, doctor Saab.” Amrita led the way through the already crowded hallway into her little brother’s room.
An hour later, having administered a couple of shots, Dr Roy stood outside the house for a breath of fresh air. The crowd outside had dispersed silently and his young patient was sleeping in a natural manner inside.
“I can’t say how much I am grateful – “ started Amrita’s Baba.
“Oh, please don’t thank me, sir,” replied the doctor.
A sullen stare looked back at him. It was the face of a stubborn, village-bred man. One look at him said that he was guiltily grateful for the city doctor’s help. A closer examination revealed that there wasn’t an ounce of trust in his psyche for the very doctor. Susheel Roy sighed. He had met many a character similar to this fellow.
“You must thank your daughter,” he said lightly, making the older man start.
Susheel bowed his head. “I would not have been able to do my job if she hadn’t reached us today. She is the reason your son is alive,” he elaborated. The bushy eyebrows pushed themselves together.
“I don’t know – “
“All you need to know is that Amrita has been very brave and smart today,” finished the doctor.
“I will take your leave now. Pranaam.”
“Pranaam, Doctor Saab,” he replied to his greeting in a daze.
Three days later, the children of the First Family of Pulgaon village played together at recess. Piyush helped his big sister with a slate and chalk piece to write her very first letters. With her saree pallu tucked into her waistband, Amrita sat cross-legged with the slate on her lap. The mango tree overhead swayed in a breeze and the smell enveloped the children. After having written the first letter to Piyush’s satisfaction, she looked up at the rustling leaves and smiled wide.
“Thank you,” she whispered to herself.
Dedication : (As expected) To my beautiful-inside-and-out baby sister.
PS : I hope you like the story.
PPS : Happy Janmashtami. Thank you for kicking my inner writer alive, Krishna.