Seven-year old Sachin quietly opened the wooden latch, looked left and then right before pushing the cow into the vegetable garden.
“Oh Babu! Oh Baaa-buuu! A cow has gotten into your garden and is eating all of your cabbages!” Sachin yelled.
“Wh-what! What’s wrong?” ‘Babu’ bolted out the front door of his two-storey brick house wearing a blue striped lungi and a matching undershirt. White foam covered both his cheeks and his protruding belly jiggled as he ran down the porch steps. Bald except for a few tufts of white hair, Sachin thought his head resembled a wide dirt road with banks of snow on either side. Sachin had seen such pictures in newspapers and covered his mouth to hide a giggle.
“Who are you and what are you doing on my property?” Babu growled with a razor in one hand and a washcloth slung over his shoulder.
“Babu, look!” Sachin pointed to the garden.
“Oh no!” Babu cried out. “My cabbages and cauliflowers! That cow will eat my money before I make it!” The man raised his hands to his forehead and started running towards the garden.
“Don’t step into that garden wearing your bed clothes! I take flowers for my Puja from there!” The man stopped running and scrunched up his face. He knew Purnima was watching him from the kitchen window.
Babu stomped his feet in the dirt. Disobeying Purnima meant fasting for the entire day. “Hey boy, get that cow out of my garden!” He yelled, waving the washcloth to shoo away the flies that had begun to settle on his cheeks.
Sachin took his cue and began running after the cow. The plan had worked! After all, how could a person who never gave any alms to the poor let a cow eat his vegetables? But Sachin did not know this. In fact he did not know the man at all. But he was hoping that the man would reward him with some vegetables that he could later sell on the street.
Sachin broke a stick from a nearby neem tree and slapped the back of the large cow. Good thing he wasn’t wearing his red shorts or else the cow would have come after him. It was a known fact that the colour upset cows, making it run after the person wearing the colour. Phew!
As Sachin continued pushing the cow, he felt guilty for using an innocent animal to earn his livelihood. But Sachin felt guiltier for dragging his grandmother, Dida, out of his father’s home. Yet he had no choice. After his parents died fifteen days apart from each other, his oldest uncle and aunt pretended to care for him. They fed him twice a day and demanded he do the chores with the servants of the house. One day he overheard his married oldest sister come and beg their Dida to take him to her house. But Dida refused because his sister’s husband was an angry man. He worked in the army and had arms the size of submarines. After Sachin’s parents died, his sister took their brother Siddartha to her home. Siddartha became sick with the flu and was unable to complete his school work. Their brother-in-law didn’t believe he was sick and beat him to death.
Sachin wiped his eyes. Siddartha was older than him by two years and promised to teach him how to play football. Now Siddartha couldn’t even play. Since then Sachin knew that no one would love him like his Dida. He needed to protect her and that’s why he dragged her out of their house and made the tool shed their home. Who’s to say that someone wouldn’t beat her to death?
“My beans!” Babu shouted from his porch.
Sachin blinked. He had forgotten where he was. He quickened his step and pushed the cow harder. “Come on! Come on!” Sachin shouted. The cow finished eating the beans now gazed on the spinach leaves. Just then Sachin grabbed and uprooted a whole bunch of spinach plants.
“No! What are you doing? My vegetables!” Babu groaned, his knees dropping to the ground.
Sachin waved his hand at Babu and took a deep breath. He began tapping the side of the cow while holding the spinach in his other hand. Using the leafy vegetable as bait, the cow came out of the garden and Sachin shut the wooden latch.
Pleased with himself, although dirt-stained and dripping with sweat, Sachin turned around and yelled, “It’s out Babu! I did it!” He looked at the garden and the house but Babu had disappeared. There was no sign of Babu or his wife. Perhaps the owner had known all along that he had pushed the cow inside the garden.
Sachin’s shoulders hunched forward and his feet dragged in the loose soil. Already the rubber strap of his right sandal had developed a crack when he had been shoving and pushing the cow. It would snap any second.
Inside the house Purnima shouted at her husband.
“Do you have no compassion you old man?”
“What did I do?” The man said wiping his clean face. He turned up the dial on the ceiling fan. “And where’s my tea?”
Purnima poured tea into a porcelain cup and just as Babu was about to pick it up, she took the cup away.
“Why did you take away my tea? Now what have I done?”
Setting aside her husband’s tea, Purnima folded her arms against her chest.
“It’s what you didn’t do. Look at that small boy!” She said pointing to Sachin who shoved the remaining spinach into the cow’s mouth. She saw him wipe his eyes with the back of his hand.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Give him some money!” Purnima shouted.
“I don’t have any change,” he replied scratching his belly.
“Oh really?” Uh, oh. He didn’t like that tone. That tone meant his wife had her own plan if he objected to giving money. “Listen, Purnima-”
Purnima tucked the aachal of her sari into her waist and let the kitchen door shut with a bang.
“Little boy, listen! Wait!”
Sachin turned around and saw the owner’s wife running towards him with a basket in her hand. He stood still, one sandaled foot in the soil, the other broken sandal dangling in his right hand.
“Come,” she said. Sachin followed the large woman into the garden. She picked more than four dozen lemons and placed them in her basket. “Open your gamcha.”
Sachin untied the red cotton threadbare gamcha from his waist and tied up his reward. Grateful for her generosity, he thanked the woman by touching her feet.
“I saw what you did young boy.” She said.
Sachin swallowed the lump in his throat, not daring to look up.
“But I didn’t say anything to your Babu because he’s a stingy man. He never gives anything to anyone, not even to a helpless cow. Oh, it was great fun watching him fidget while that cow ate his precious vegetables!
Satisfied that he wouldn’t be punished, Sachin smiled at the woman. He began walking again and stopped to survey a line of houses on a small street. It was a short distance from the main market. Surely this would be a fine place to sell his lemons. Sachin spread out his gamcha on the dirt path and arranged the lemons in pairs. Clearing his throat, he began shouting, ‘Two lemons for six rupees! Two for six! TWO FOR SIX!”
Within a half hour, Sachin sold all his lemons. By this time the sun was getting ready for its evening departure. The wind kicked up soil and sand from the road and tossed it high in the air. The result was a very dirty young boy.
School. He liked school. He liked the pictures in his books and he liked solving his additions and subtractions. He liked raising his hand and answering the teacher’s questions. He liked his teacher too. Sachin frowned as he remembered his school books. His uncle and aunt refused to let him go to school. One day he was in their family library and was about to take out a fat book from the shelf when a ruler hit his knuckles so hard that he dropped the book on his big toe. When he looked up he saw his uncle’s oldest son glaring at him.
“Why did you do that Arup Dada?” Sachin cried out from the pain on his knuckles and big toe.
“Don’t you dare come into my library you good-for-nothing orphan!’ Arup shouted.
“I’ll go to school, read lots of books and then when I’m older I’m going to come back and never let you into my library again!” It was his library more than Arupda’s considering Sachin’s father had bought most of the books.
Arup raised the ruler high into the air and threatened to strike again if Sachin didn’t leave.
Sachin blinked back tears and squinted to see his way through the dust. No sooner did his eyes clear when another gust of wind kicked up more dust. The bright and shiny afternoon suddenly became cloudy and dark. Sachin yawned and stretched his arms. He wished he could take a nap. The unpaved road had small huts scattered on one side while corn fields spread out on the other side. In front of one hut was a shaded area untouched by the wind. Sachin sat on the front step, “too low,” he said to himself. Looking around he found a loose brick in the grass. He put down the brick and laid his folded gamcha on top. In one corner of the gamcha he tied the money he had earned from selling the lemons and slid the knotted corner under the brick. He slowly laid his head on the makeshift pillow and closed his eyes. He had to switch sides three times before he became comfortable. With his back to the hut and his knees drawn up to his chest, Sachin fell asleep on his new bed.
The rain fell in big drops and the wind turned from hot to cool. Sachin dreamt he was in his mother’s arms as she sang him lullabies. He saw his father come and stroke his head and plant a small kiss on his forehead. He saw his grandmother braid his sister’s hair as Siddartha bounced a ball. He dreamt of picking guavas from their orchard and hanging upside down from their mango tree. And then he saw their horse, Ritu. She was shiny and brown and nuzzled her way into everyone’s hearts. One morning she nudged Sachin’s foot with her front hoof. He nudged her back and went to gather her morning breakfast of oats and milk. When he came back he saw Ritu lying on the ground, her eyes open and staring ahead. Sachin saw her eyes, round and full of love. It wasn’t much later that his father fell ill and died. Then Sachin’s mother died too. He cried in his sleep until Siddartha came to teach him football.
When Sachin awoke the clouds had shed their dark gray outfits and now shone blue with the last of the sun’s rays hitting upon them. Sachin stretched his arms and legs. He tied the cloth around his waist and started walking again. After awhile he noticed his stomach growling. Putting a hand inside his pocket, Sachin felt the small coins nestled deep inside the cloth. But he wouldn’t spend his money like this. No, he would wait to reach home and give the money to his Dida. She was probably waiting for him, wondering the fate of her only living grandson. Still, home was a long time to come. He would need to pass through two more corn fields before reaching home. As he walked and listened to his stomach, he noticed two labourers on foot. They were talking about how much the cost of food had risen.
“No, no Prakash. If I eat the money that I earn, what will my wife and children eat? This is a far better solution. I won’t be hungry for a few hours,” Shyam said while lighting his cigarette. Prakash nodded as Shyam continued smoking. When he had smoked it halfway, Shyam threw down the cigarette.
“What are you doing? Why did you throw it away?” Prakash said.
“My wife will yell at me for smoking,” Shyam said.
“Then save it for tomorrow. Put it on your pocket.”
“No, no my dear friend. She goes through all my belongings before washing the clothes.”
“Oh.” Prakash nodded, fully understanding his friend’s dilemma.
The two men hadn’t notice the young boy walking behind them and listening to their conversation. After the two men had disappeared, Sachin bent down and picked up the half-lit cigarette. He looked at the burnt end and ran a finger across the white paper. Suddenly a hand grabbed the cigarette out of his hand as another grabbed his collar.
“Hey!” Sachin yelled, “Why did you do that?” He looked up and saw the owner of the half-smoked cigarette. Sachin swallowed a few times before finding the courage to speak. “I-I thought you were done with it...so I thought...”
“Don’t you know that cigarettes aren’t for kids!” Shyam said shaking the boy by his shoulders. “What’s your father’s name? Where’s your home? Why aren’t you in school?”
“Ma and Baba are dead and I have a long way to go till I go home and I was feeling really hungry and I heard you talking...” Sachin let his voice trail off as the man released his shoulders. The second man patted Sachin’s back and smoothed his hair.
“Listen boy, no one is supposed to smoke cigarettes,” Prakash said stroking Sachin’s head. “They’re bad for you. We have kids your age at home and if I ever caught them smoking then I would-”
“Why do you smoke? Why do you do something that you know is bad for you then?” Sachin asked, peering into Prakash’s eyes.
Prakash bent down and held onto Sachin’s gaze. This boy was right, why was he doing something he knew was bad for him, something that he wouldn’t let his own child do?
Prakash stood up straight and turned to his friend. He dug his hand into his back pocket and brought out four unused cigarettes and one half-used cigarette. He walked a few steps away from them.
“Prakash! Where are you going?” asked Shyam. Prakash raised his hand upwards and continued walking.
Prakash stopped and used a stick to dig a hole in the ground. Sachin saw Prakash bury the five sticks in the small hole. He walked back to them now.
“You are right my child. You are right. Let’s go Shyam,” Prakash said pulling his friend’s forearm.
Sachin began walking again.
The sun finally set, turning the sky a myriad of blue, purple and pink. A few drops of water fell and lightening struck across the sky. Sachin ran to the nearest grove of trees. He continued walking through the forest, the lightening illuminating his path. His bare toes squished in the mud and he walked faster. Up ahead he saw something lying on the ground. Apparently, the storm had caused a tree to fall. ‘Must be a coconut tree,’ he said to himself. Sachin stepped over the fallen tree but stopped after taking a few steps. Why did the tree feel cold and so smooth?
He turned around and waited for lightening to strike again. This time when the forest lit up with white light, Sachin looked down and saw the fallen object. But it wasn’t a tree. It was a long thick snake! Sachin jumped back and landed on a bush of white flowers. He gasped and covered his mouth. Could the snake hear him? Would it come back to eat him? Unable to move, Sachin stared at the moving horizontal line. Which direction was it going?
For what seemed like hours, Sachin stared until he noticed the left side narrow. With a hand on his chest, he concluded the snake was travelling in the direction opposite of him. Sachin released his breath and continued his way home. Siddartha would have laughed at him. He liked pulling pranks. Perhaps that’s what their brother-in-law thought Siddartha was doing, playing sick.
Sachin turned and continued walking home. Lightening struck again and he could see a small hut. Nearing closer, he saw the yellow light from a hurricane lamp spread its brightness across the porch. As the lamp swung from a hook, an old woman came out. Clad in a white sari, she held a bamboo stick in one hand and a towel in her other hand.
“Sachin!” Ranibala shouted while swinging the stick at Sachin. Didn’t he understand that his day’s adventures and search for livelihood left her in distress? Why couldn’t he understand that it was important for him to come home, to grow big and strong so that one day he could take back his rightful property?
Sachin ran to his grandmother, burying his face inside the white folds of her sari and locking his thin arms around her waist.
“Where have you been?” Ranibala repeated, softening her voice this time. Letting the stick fall to the ground, she stroked his black hair.
Sachin untied his gamcha and placed the coins in her right hand.
Sachin smiled, revealing two missing front teeth, “Nowhere at all Dida, nowhere at all.”