Winner of 1st Prize in the Memories from Books flash fiction contest
One hot June evening I hunched over the yellowing pages of the book, glistening golden foil wrapper in hand, it’s contents softening between my dusty fingers. Those were the days when all we had was Campa Cola, Thumbs Up or Limca, Dairy milk or Amul: no Lehar Pepsi, no Silk, and definitely no Lindt or Ferrero Rocher or any fancy stuff. Those were the days I lived in a jhuggi colony at the end of an affluent South Delhi neighbourhood.
I, the daughter of a Bengali maid and an alcoholic surly construction worker, had learned how to read. Rare? Yes. But thanks to a nice American lady named Jennifer and her guilty wealthy conscience, I had not only honed my reading skills, I had discovered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She had given me a dog-eared tattered copy of the book, its spine worn by creases. It was my most prized possession: I read it over and over again. It captivated me completely.
This is the thing I don’t mention today, when the interviewers ask what shaped me as a feminist writer, but the damn truth of the matter is most of it was thanks to a book about a small (probably white) boy. The irony is not lost on me.
In fact, I wished I had been born a boy, as it would have dramatically increased the odds of being Charlie Bucket or at the very least, like him. I would beg, borrow and steal to go buy chocolate bars, ripping them open, my heart secretly hoping for a golden ticket, a chance to meet the great Willy Wonka. Even though I knew it was made up. Even though I knew there was no such thing.
I yearned for the exotic poor people food that the Bucket family ate – boiled potatoes and cabbage soup sounded so much better than watery dal and roti. You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered these were merely aloo and gobi – the world’s least glamorous vegetables. When was the last time you heard anyone get excited about gobi? Yeah, I thought so.
I imagined my father, instead of being doused in that disinfectant smell of liquor was like poor Mr. Bucket – screwing on those toothpaste caps as fast as he could, while in reality, he was jaded and bitter.
On that day, I had a fresh chocolate bar, and planned to imagine that it wasn’t Dairy Milk I was eating, but Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. The experience of reading about Charlie’s adventures while tasting the chocolate melting on my tongue made it even more magical. But alas, I heard a rustle behind me, and before I could turn, I felt the sting of my father’s hand striking my skin.
“Every day all you do is read that stupid book. Your mother and sister need you at home, and here you are, you stupid lazy cow.” His words were slurred, his movements sluggish.
He ripped the book out of my hands, and the chocolate fell to the ground. Within moments an army of ants had swarmed it. Hot tears streamed down my cheeks as my book disintegrated into scraps of typeset paper. He then grabbed my arm, ready to swing again, but I brought my foot to his stomach, momentarily knocking the wind from him. He staggered for a moment, so I took the opportunity to run. He cursed and spat, but did not follow.
I stopped running somewhere on a quiet residential street next to a rather excessively landscaped park. Hyperventilating from adrenaline, I entered and sat down on a bench, ignoring a splinter that pierced my thigh. As my heart rate came down, I began to sob uncontrollably.
“There’s nothing that some chocolate cannot make better.”
I turned. I hadn’t noticed the old woman sitting next to me. She was smiling and holding out something in a shiny wrapper. I read the wrapper in the lamp light. “MAR...S?” I said out loud.
She laughed. “Yes, Mars. You don’t get them here, but my son brings them back from America.”
I broke a piece off. She smiled. I put it in my mouth. It was moist and chewy and nutty unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. In spite of my tears, I smiled a little.
“It’s nice,” I said, pronouncing the English words carefully. “I like it.”
We sat in silence for a while, chewing before I stood to leave. I would be in even bigger trouble when I got home. “Thank you,” I said careful to enunciate each syllable.
She handed me the rest of the bar. “Keep it. Seems you need it more than I do,” she said kindly.
As I neared home, I spotted my father seated outside our mud house. Teary-eyed, and smelling mildly of cheap whiskey, he pulled me into a hug.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. I pressed the rest of the chocolate bar into his hand. He took it, his eyes moistening and smiled.
He handed me a brown paper bag. I reached inside, feeling the gloss of the cover before I pulled it out. The pages were crisp and white, the spine smooth as silk, as if it had just come off the printing press. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I have not known joy equal to what I felt in that moment. I hugged him again, tight.
“I’m a drunkard, and a failure,” he said. “I hate my life, but for you, it could be different.” He patted my head affectionately. “You have a chance, and here I am trying to wreck it.”
I nodded. We sat there in silence for some time.
He cleared his throat, almost nervously. I looked at him and nodded.
“Can you tell me what this book is about?” he asked shyly.
I smiled, cleared my own throat, and introduced him to the magical world of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, under the hazy night sky, the bits of imported chocolate melting on our tongues.