It resembled an old man. The giant tree in the middle of the courtyard. There were fewer such homes now, where trees flourished, and grew saplings in disappearing farmlands. Where once thrived flowers and shrubs of unheard kinds.
Such was the state of the village in those days…
There was a truck parked in the alleyway. Somewhere.
It wasn’t theirs. It belonged to someone else. Like the home, the courtyard, and the settlement where lived them.
Those who wore threads.
But not the tree. It belonged to her. And, she told that to herself every day. At noon, they saw it; deserted and forlorn.
They sought shelter underneath its branches.
Broken sticks were huddled in a corner beside a pot that simmered on the stove. Outside, an old man hunched his back as he sat down. He had no teeth. Or perhaps, he did. We couldn’t tell.
Her feet were soiled, like the rest. She disentangled her foot from the shrubbery that died last winter; her wails gathered everyone in the courtyard. She was little, far too little to be wandering around on her own. Her uncle picked her up and took her home.
Galamma raised her neck. Barking instructions at toddlers, she turned aside to let him walk by. His steps faltered. Mahalakshmi held her hands one last time and whispered, “I’ll be back.” While Suneetha leaped from her chair and sprung to the car, her father stood silently behind her mother.
They didn’t look at each other.
He heard them, that day. Every word reminded him of a past that never left them. Sometimes, he looked at us. His eyes were distant. He didn’t know who we were. He didn’t ask. And, we didn’t tell.
Why had he returned after so many years? We hoped to ask him someday.
For now, they were together.
And, we left it at that…
The clouds vanished yet again, this morning. The skies were empty. It was a sightless day, as some may recall. Children sat in their classroom awaiting their turn to speak. A few scribbled into their notebooks. Away from the crowd, at the far end, sat Ashwini furrowing her brows. Her befuddled expression stayed for a while. Unlike the rest, she drew lines in her notebook. She expressed her void through them: lines and circles. But the patterns were everywhere.
Sometimes, she stole a glance at us, and stuck her tongue out.
Sometimes, she ignored us.
One day, she drew the sunset. Its rays touched the ground. That day, she was the happiest. Some nights, we’d see her dragging her pencil across blank pages with vengeance. There were days when she tore them apart, and shoved them in the backyard.
“What are you drawing today?”
“Trees and Flowers,” she said without looking up.
“I’ll try drawing the peacock tonight. I need more coloured pencils,” she said looking at the locked classroom with a sly smile. “I’ll get them.”
“Where are your books?”
“What books?” she asked fetching other pencils from the corner.
“Your notebook where you write your lessons.”
Her jaw tightened as she scratched her face. “I tore them all up, and threw them away,” she whispered looking at us.
“There were marks all over it. In every book. They were in red.”
“Who made these marks?”
“Saar,” she said hesitantly.
“It was filled with mistakes. Everything was a mistake. So, I got rid of them.”
“Now, there are no mistakes,” she said smiling to herself.
There were questions. Everywhere. Some days, the books posed them. Some days, it was the adults. Every unknown answer bothered her. Every question that was unfamiliar angered her from within.
For, it was a reminder of what she didn’t understand.
“Why should I remember them? These sentences and words.” she retorted.
Her alphabets were inverted. It was deliberate. Like an act of defiance against those who forced her to conform. So, she discarded them all, one by one.
But she preserved her sketches. Every one of them. She never threw them away.
They were hers. The lines never asked her to remember them. But she did.
“If anyone hits her or yells at her, she storms away to a corner,” said Laxman during lunch. “She cries when no one’s looking. After a while, when she feels better, she sits with the rest of the group.”
She always remained aloof. She didn’t speak to anyone for long.
But she observed. Everyone and Everything. Nothing escaped her in those moments. Everyone was under her purview. In her world, they were her subjects. In theirs, she was unwanted.
Her matted hair had changed colour today. She refused to bathe. Her muddy feet spoke tales of her detour into the fields after lunch. No one likes to be around her, we were told. For, she was dirty.
“Sometimes, the older girls throw her out of their rooms because she refuses to bathe. She is stubborn, no doubt. But she has the soul of an artist. She is different, and that’s what makes her look at things differently,” said Laxman as we walked around the fields one night.
“She sketched my portrait a few days ago. She even left a bald patch to indicate it was me…”
She stared at it for a while. She was searching for them; frogs that returned home every night. She sat near the lotus pond fidgeting, wondering what kept them from entering the pond today.
“How many are there?”
“One. But he has a friend visiting today.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I can hear them,” she said with an incredulous smile.
“He lives below the leaf. That’s where he has built his home.”
“Look! Look! There they are…” she said pointing at frogs leaping from one leaf to another.
“They eat flies and insects. They only come up for food. Otherwise they stay at home.
“They will bloom tomorrow,” she said pointing at the lotus plants and got up to leave.
“When they do, I’ll wake you up…”
She yelled at anyone who crossed her path. Her tiny fingers were balled into a fist. Storming out of the classroom, Ashwini ran to the garden where she hid her pencils and papers. She dragged them to the ground, and scribbled harshly over old circles. Some overlapped. Some vanished.
Some were left incomplete.
Her papers had holes. In a fit of rage, she drew flowers, and trees, one page after another. Broken nibs were tossed aside, alongside destroyed papers that were shredded to bits. She drew for a while gritting her teeth with every sketch, muttering curses under her breath.
Someone had hit her again.
“Why is she upset?” we asked Chaithra who was carrying large bundles of books into the room beside us.
“Her sister slapped her,” she replied nonchalantly.
“Ashu refused to do her homework. She wants to draw all day. So, her sister got fed up and hit her.”
We hugged her hoping she’d calm down. And, we walked away.
She didn’t stop us.
Later at night, we spotted tiny hands throwing bits of paper inside our room. It was dark and we couldn’t see. Flowers. They were drawn on every piece of paper that was slid under our door.
It was her. We spotted her walking in silence to the dining hall.
“Did you get my flowers?” she asked with a wide grin.
“Yes, they were lovely.”
“I’ll make you some more tomorrow…”
In April, she heads home she had told us one evening. Summer vacations meant she would meet her sister and brother. She didn’t know how old they were. “One comes up to my elbow, and another one reaches my knee. So, they are that old,” she declared when we asked her.
“I won’t come back,” she said.
“I’ll go home, work and take care of my siblings…”
“You are too young to care for them. You must come back and go to school.”
“No,” she huffed in anger. “My parents work every day. I can do it too.
We didn’t say anything. Not for a while. Not until the moon rose.
“Let us take a picture. That way, I’ll have something to remember you forever.”
“No!” she wailed in protest. “I will leave before you wake up tomorrow.”
“No. You won’t”
“Or I’ll pluck your eyes out and feed them to the frogs. I will cut them into tiny pieces and feed the frog and his friend,” she said guffawing at her own remark. She held her stomach, and crawled on the ground for a while.
“Where do you live?” we asked her when everyone went to sleep.
“I am from Rampur. And, I live in Pune.”
“How far is it from here?”
She thought for a while before answering. “5 km.”
“First, we go to Koppal. Then, we eat at a restaurant there. Later, we board the train. Usually, I fall asleep when it moves. In the morning, we reach Pune. So, it is 5 km in all.”
“Surely, it’s a lot more than that,” we told her with a smile.
She stuck her tongue out once again, and ran to bed. She gathered some sacks on her way to the dormitory. “What are they for?” we yelled at her worried she’d get into trouble with the older children.
“For your eyes,” she screamed back.
“I have to store them well…”
It was all over the platform. The residual black, they called it. She banged her fists against the ground. It didn’t work. Ashwini paced back and forth. Another girl, a bit older than her, handed her a massive stone. She crouched on the floor once more.
Raising her hands above her head, she crushed it into pieces. Over and over again.
“What is this?” we asked her.
“Charcoal,” she answered gathering the remnants in her palms.
“To brush my teeth,” she explained, “They will turn them white. I am going home today. And, I have to wear a dress. My uncle will arrive soon.”
We never saw her again.
By the time she’d returned, we left. We had said our goodbyes, far too many times. Her expression turned sour that night when we told her.
She didn’t ask us why.
We said we’d be back.
“No. Everybody has to leave, some day…”
They carried bricks on their heads everyday. Or stones. Or tools. Or sand. Whatever got them enough to eat that day. Their legs turned brittle some nights. Their hands were sore.
They were construction workers.
There was no one to look after their children. So, they locked them in every morning. Their house had one room. They had three children. The older one was sent away many years ago.
She stayed in a hostel run by nuns. She was to go to school there from now on. She would visit home every year, she was told. They enrolled her in a convent school.
One morning, she walked to the sister-in-charge and told her, “You are old. You will die soon. I will take over this establishment when that happens.”
She was joking but they didn’t take it lightly. Fearing a coup within the premises in a few years, they threw her out, and asked her to return to her parents.
“So, she came back home. She was four years old. And, they deserted her. Since her cousin stayed with us, her aunt requested us to take her in,” said Renuka three weeks ago.
“What’s her name?”
“The girl who was thrown out of the hostel and school.”
She pointed at a tiny girl near the pond. She had dirty feet and matted hair. The others picked on her because she was the youngest. She didn’t know how to wash her clothes or keep herself clean.
Her curls covered her eyes. She conjured up stories in the dark.
Her world didn’t belong in theirs.
(to be continued…)
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