This article has been submitted by Surbhi Shah for the CLATGyan Blog Post Writing Competition. If you think this article is a good read, ‘Like’ this article on Facebook (the button is at the bottom of this piece) or post a comment using the ‘comments’ section below.
Ramu woke up to the clanking of utensils being washed by Ma. He lay on his charpai, with half-closed eyes, heavy with smothering sleep. Quietly, he observed a lizard trace its path across the crumbling, dilapidated ceiling. The lattice on the only window sieved the sun’s rays that fell on his little face in criss-crossing patches of dark and light. His large, brown eyes reflected the frenetic dance of the suspended, sparkling dust motes that ushered in the cold and clear daylight.
Today was a special day. Ramu’s face was lit up by an excited fervor as he milked the cows, pulled up the water and fed Lakshmi, the goat with an urgent enthusiasm. Before long, he was skipping his way to school, the top of his meticulously-combed head bobbing up and down among the steady stream of heavily-laden mules he met on the way every morning.
There was going to be a new teacher today.
Every day for as long as he could remember, Ramu had been presenting himself at the local municipal school- with a devotion that would put even the most ardent temple goer to shame – with the hope that Masterji would show up today. Once in a month, his prayers would be acknowledged and Masterji’s godly, rotund presence would impart its teachings while Ramu, along with a few other children, would cling to his every word, devouring them with an almost ravenous and insatiable hunger.
But today, the young woman standing at the cracked blackboard, etching “Anjali Sharma” with the squeaking chalk, was quite unlike the corpulent, glowering, pan-chewing Masterji that he knew. As she ushered him in, her gentle smile warmed his heart as it struck him how much she resembled his elder sister – who he had lost to some nameless, incomprehensible disease. He stared at her with an unmasked wonder all through class, while simultaneously absorbing everything her soft, almost sing-song voice had to say.
Anjali had come to the small, nondescript village of Deoni from the far away city of Mumbai to care for her ailing grandmother, and had offered to teach at the local school in order to keep herself occupied when she wasn’t at her grandmother’s bedside. She was appalled to discover that the meager education facilities in place in the village were in shambles, and the villagers’ children scarcely had access to anything that resembled a primary schooling. She was more than happy to lend a hand and as she discovered how much the children were eager to learn and how little they knew, the unfairness and injustice of it rankled deeply within her. Among all her students, little Ramu, with his blotting paper like mind, was undoubtedly the brightest.
Ramu, for his part, had never been so overjoyed. His unconditional love for his teacher knew no bounds and he would do everything his little mind was capable of to earn her praise. Every morning before embarking for school, Ramu would visit several houses in the village to deliver milk that his father had begun to sell. He would save Anjali Didi’s house for the very end and would coyly ask if he could come in, in the hopes of being treated to a pepper mint. He would then accompany his Didi to school, all the while his chirpy voice pelting her with his unending stream of questions about multiplication, Mahatma Gandhi and the moon. Sometimes, she would tell him about her life in the city, how her Mummy and Papa had died when she had been very young, the few friends that she had left behind and how much she missed the tall buildings and the big city lights. And he would listen with endearing, wide-eyed wonder as he imagined what it would be like to live in a noisy, sprawling, endless expanse thick with teeming people and swarming vehicles. It would always send his heart a-flutter and his slender fingers would curl up more tightly around her hand.
After the last school bell, Ramu he would dutifully escort Didi back home. In his little mind, he considered it his responsibility to provide her with the happiness of his company; and she became increasingly accustomed to his presence. She would divulge some of her darkest secrets to his uncomprehending ears; and her anxiety for her grandmother coupled with the dreary desolation living in a remote village entailed, would vaporize before his beaming smile.
And so before they knew it, a month had gone by.
In the still, echoing, pre-dawn darkness, Anjali felt her grandmother’s grip on her hand slacken, and heard an audible sigh leave her frail, unmoving form. “NO!” she yelled. Before she could brace herself, the crushing reality hit her with a ruthless, mind-numbing force. She sunk down to the floor in a heap. Her grandmother was gone.
Anjali knew her life had been ebbing away slowly but surely, like hourglass sand that would inevitably run out, but it felt instantaneous, as if her life had never teetered on the edge, but had simply been snipped short or blown away in the blink of an eye. Wisps of guilt crept into her mind and slowly spread their tentacles into her murky thoughts. She had failed, hadn’t she? She was responsible in some way for her grandmother’s demise. How could she have gotten so involved with the school that she’d begun to neglect her primary responsibility? A dead, unshakeable weight began to settle slowly on her chest.
She didn’t hear the door open. A moment later, a pair of thin arms wrapped themselves tightly around her. She could feel Ramu’s tiny heart thudding away, the soothing rhythm in sync with the beating of her own bleeding heart. The smell of the sun was in his hair as the tears rolled down one-by-one and silently fell on his forehead. She clung on to his skinny frame – it seemed like the only very real thing – and the silence that she breathed in, in those few, infinite moments filled her up with an indescribable solace.
Anjali performed the last rites in the dying rays of the setting sun. The raging funeral pyre seemed unreal to her. When it died down after an aching eternity, she collected the ashes. Her jeep waited outside the cremation grounds on the outskirts of the village. She revved it up and the trembling hands on the steering wheel began to drive away. The gathering darkness swallowed up the village soon enough and she did not see the small boy chasing after her barefoot, tears streaming down his face, or hear his desperate cries renting the air. Ramu’s simple world had crumbled before his eyes, like the proverbial pack of cards, blown away in a gust of wind. He had lost his Didi all over again.
A few miles from the village, Anjali thought of Ramu. Maybe she should’ve said goodbye. But he had his family to take care of him, didn’t he? He would be fine. And they could always find another teacher for the school. There would be no returning now. Thoughts of the city tugged at her mind as she looked at the ashes, and it struck her how utterly alone she was.
Surbhi Shah is a law school aspirant; a rebellious teenager who, besides being an avid reader, likes to think of herself as highly eccentric, prone to delirious laughter and a victim of the I-think-too-much-about-everything-syndrome. Occasionally delusional, she staunchly believe that waking up early should be banned and that the most difficult thing about writing a story is publishing it.