Monday, May 4, 2009

The Glass Curtain

“For someone who’s never really cared about all the philosophies and philosophers in the world, I guess, it’s true, you know; ‘So many things in the house, and yet the place echoes of emptiness’”, thought a little mind, now quite empty itself.
That’s exactly what Meena considered as she stared down the bare, dusty road that ran from her house up to the Minar gates. It was not a very long road; just a lane, really, as she could see the end. The crumbling ruins of the once great fortress, stared back at her, just as morosely as she did. It was one of those moments, I guess, where a 150 year old and a 12 year old have something in common but considering even that, this was not a rare sight.

Every morning, Meena woke up to the sound of the rickshaws honking their horns in the chilly morning sunlight, searching for passengers and to the cries of the peddler van owned by her father, refusing to budge from its slumber, and to the looks of frustration on his worn face. Mother would be busy mending this, cleaning that and washing everything else in the houses of the adjoining streets with her elder sisters, whereas her brother would soon be off selling papers and other odds and ends that nobody really wanted to buy, at the nearby traffic signal. Nearing noon, her share of the chores basically comprising of cleaning the house including dusting the floor, wiping it with a dirty wet rag-which she saw no point in, by the way- washing the clothes the family had worn the previous day, scrubbing the few utensils that they owned, and a few other errands that sometimes sprang up unexpectedly would be done, and she would be sent out to play. This was the time of the day Meena dreaded.
Along the short dusty lane that housed their mud and brick makeshift house, were many such small houses, and beyond that was the market place surrounding the Minar. Most of the children that lived in those houses were older and like her brother and sisters, they were working in shops at the market and in houses. A few odd children that were her age, were from the ‘big houses across the street’ and they were sent to school, books-bags and all, and would not include her in their games even if they had holidays, as it usually was, at this time of the year. If she now dared a peek round the edge of her lane, it would only make them stop their play and stare at her, in her brown and tattered clothes, as if a soldier of war who was supposed to be dead had suddenly turned up at their doors and said, ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’. Admittedly, they never really bothered her; to her it seemed as if they just wanted her to go away and try not to put them in the position of having to refuse her express desire to join them, and that’s exactly what she did. For the first few days of having moved to the Minar marketplace, a filthy skirt often fluttered ‘round the corner, and a curious eye blinked at the almost oblivious feet in trainers, shoes and socks as they ran around, until it was time for homework, and the mothers would poke their heads out of the kitchen windows and shout them into their respective rooms.
Sometimes, an elder boy, from the most affluent house in the street, would come out for a round of cricket. Meena had watched this band of children many a time on their mini adventures- the time they had nicked a few raw mangoes from the seller at the corner of the marketplace as he dozed one lazy summer afternoon - they had left him a plate of three cut pieces with mirchi and salt on them, and boy, had she laughed when the shopkeepers bewildered face had poked out from under the canvas protecting the stall! The time when they had smashed the potter’s biggest pot in search of a hidden treasure was, of course, slightly cruel considering the poor potter’s hard work, but since no one had bought spider ridden old thing from two years, it was a laugh like none other, anyway! !

Today, however the group was in a huddle. She wondered what was going on. Hopping from one foot to another, she almost tripped over her own toes, trying to see what was being contrived on. They seemed awfully quiet and that seemed to her like the lull that comes before a storm. Suddenly, one of the younger children broke off from the group- “I’m not coming, you guys can go. My father’ll kill me if he finds that out!!” he was saying. This incensed Meena’s curiosity further still. She crept slowly into hearing range. One of the boys was whispering angrily – “shut up, someone will hear you! No one’s going to find out, come here...” and the boy, who had been halfway up the stairs, halted and reluctantly, retraced his steps. Together, they edged slowly, towards the Minar. Its foot was invaded by sellers of everything from fruit and flowers to many colorful birds in cages to colorful hangings made of plastic and glass. A rickety old iron stair led the way upwards towards the back and there was no support for it except the paan stained walls to the left. The group seemed to be making its way towards it. One by one, the gang left the ground and soon disappeared behind the low parapet wall. Meena had not the courage to follow them, but she hid behind a huge, unclean cage in which a bunch of parakeets morosely picked at the bits of rice and dirt lying on the floor. A very short time later, the elder boy that she had often seen playing on the streets too came up stealthily and disappeared behind the parapet wall. In about an hour, her cramped legs groaned beneath her, and she turned to leave, seeing that the gang was not up to anything exciting after all. But at the very same moment their heads appeared bobbing up and down, coming ever nearer, on the other side of the parapet wall. Following close behind were a bunch of foreign looking people. She had seen such tourists before and had received sympathizing looks from them, so preferring to avoid that, she hurriedly tried to run out of her hiding place, which was not very good anyway, as her legs were revealed for the world to see from behind the cage. Besides, she did not want the children to think that she was curious as to what they had been up to. But as luck would have it, she ran straight into the eldest boy. Head on they crashed into each other. Her knees were scraped and bleeding as she struggled to get up but she did not look around once more and embarrassed she, made a beeline for her house.

That night was spent sleeplessly, as Meena, pored over the embarrassing event. The boy had been knocked over apparently, and was getting to his feet, moaning as she had turned her back on him. The next day, as soon as she could, Meena, ran out of her house in search of the gang, just to see if he was alright. But not finding them anywhere, she returned to the cage of parakeets and stared sadly at the spot where they had collided. It was then that she saw them again- the gang and the group of young foreigners. This time, she could see that they had been on top of the Minar together and the eldest boy was stuffing something into his pocket as he descended from the stairs. Shocked, Meena abandoned her hiding place and out rightly stared at the boy as he passed by. What did that packet contain? Drugs..?
Breaking off from the crowd, he walked up to her and looked up at her face, questioningly. Suddenly feeling rather bold, she said-
“I’m fine”
“Oh ok..,” he said and turned to go but she stayed him and asked- “Is everything fine? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“Of course not,” he said walked away.
All the same, for the next few days Meena kept a lookout for them. One such sleepy afternoon, when nothing had happened and everything was quiet, the children had disappeared up the staircase, the only few people who were still shopping were picking up their bags and leaving. The wind blew on the precious curtain of glass pieces in the shop nestling at the wall of the Minar, that the shopkeeper so laboriously polished everyday, swinging it. The parakeets in the cage were dozing, but they woke up with a screech and started flapping around as a head popped up at the parapet and there was a tinkle of glass with a resounding crash as the heavy curtain fell to the ground. In a moment the heavy set shopkeeper was screaming and looked up at the sky lamenting his loss. There, of course, was a curious bunch of children, looking down at him. In the moment that it took him to add two and two, Meena, grew desperate and seizing the first idea that occurred to her, she grabbed a loose stone, and flung it across at the shopkeeper. It hit the debris and destroyed it totally. ‘Doubt if a bomb would have done a messier and a more complete job of it.’ was the only thought that stared at her dully from across the street as the shopkeeper took in why this rag ridden girl got the sudden urge to fling a stone at his precious old curtain. And there the thought remained, glowering at her, like a slight joke that felt like a pinprick of light wiping out all remorse from her mind as she cleaned out the store, slowly and painfully for the rest of the day listening to the shopkeeper moan, “what a waste of a good curtain..”

It was very late when she woke up the next day. Her hands were bruised and cut where the glass had caught her. Grumbling, she completed her chores, there was no odd sense of satisfaction as her fingers burned at the touch of water and dust. What had she been thinking? This was definitely more stupid than any stupid thing she had done in her life. But somehow she had not wanted the shopkeeper to climb those stairs. Somehow…well, she’d achieved her end alright.
This time when she finished her chores, she did not know if she really wanted to wander out. But there was a knock on her door. Outside, stood the foreigners, behind the boy with whom she had collided the other day. As soon as she had opened the door, he started reciting from a newspaper cutting- “The government confirms that endangered animals and birds were indeed being illegally sold at the Minar. The pitiful condition in which the animals were kept moved the children of that area, and with the help of a Chicago- based organization, FLY that consists of a group of ornithologists and eco- workers, these children successfully supervised the raiding of the shop. The shopkeeper is now facing…” and his voice was drowned in the applause that they now beset on her.
The boy was grinning at her, handing her an envelope, “what a waste of a good curtain…” he said and winked down at her as he left.

When they had all gone, and their shouts of jubilation could still be heard from her doorstep, Meena gathered up the courage to open the packet. It contained, of course, a bunch of crisp notes with the government seal on them and a small handwritten chit that said- “For school”. Yup, once again, it was one of those days in which a 150 year old and a twelve year old had something in common - especially for that band of hooligans, now dancing around like monkeys down the street. And it smelled strongly like pride.

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