It was the last day of examinations; students were rushing out of the school main gate, they were all happy to greet the summer vacation. Parents were waiting for their children.
“How was exam?”
“Are you hungry?”
“Let’s get you an ice-cream.” Different words came from parents’ community.
“Mamma, where are we going for vacations?”
“Papa, balloon.” Kids spoke with innocence.
Pramod walked among them, all by himself. He was the only one who was not excited about the vacation. He looked glum even after having written all his answers for the science paper of class VII. His mother or father was not waiting for him. In fact, his mother, Usha was perhaps doing dishes or laundry in someone’s house whereas he hoped his father, Kali to be at his job rather than a wine shop. Kali was a vendor and used to sell homemade samosas prepared by Usha. On most of the days, Kali would use the entire little amount he had earned on a local brand of whisky or rum. On most nights, Kali would come home late in the night and abuse, even beat Usha and ask for more money for wine. On the contrary, Usha worked really hard. She would get up at five, sometimes even before that and prepare meal for her four children and husband. Then, she would do the household works, wake up her husband, prepare samosas for him to sell and leave for her work as a maid where she worked all day wandering from one house to another. Her children would see hot samosas being prepared in their own house but they were never fed with the tempting snack except on festivals.
Usha’s two daughters were growing up fast, they were 13 and 15 and she was hoping to fix them as housemaids. Her elder son, Mohan was 18 and used to repair the bicycle punctures on the street. However, most the time he was indulged sniffing ganja and playing cards along with his friends.
While Pramod’s classmates went to their respective homes, he walked to a courier agency. Working there the whole summer was the only way he could have afforded to pay the fee of a private school. His mother would lend her some money but only after hours of bellowing about her struggle of how she had earned that money. And she was not wrong in her place. Washing the dirty plates, eating leftovers for lunch and dusting and wiping the floor had made her look old already. She was 35 but looked way over 50 or perhaps more. She only had two sarees which she wore on alternate days. Her hair needed a wash rather badly but only if she could have afforded the luxury of shampoo. There was only one kind of soap which she used to wash herself and then use the same soap to wash the dirty clothes. While her other maid friends managed to smuggle few spoons, a fancy cup or some soaps from their mistress’s home, Usha’s honesty and dignity matched the same levels as her hard working attitude. She was frequently rewarded by her mistresses with some delicacies which she would bring home for her children. With her income, she tried to save some for children’s marriage. Education was off the table anyway. Although she had no means to fund her son’s education yet she secretly hoped that Pramod may end up being a big officer and drag all of them out of the swamp. Probably she was lucky enough that Pramod turned out to be responsible unlike his father and brother.
“Go away, I do not have a job for you,” said the courier manager suing Pramod away.
“But you let me work for you last year,” said Pramod in an undertone.
“I told you, go away. I have already hired some college guys with their own bicycles.”
Pramod turned and started to walk home. His home was five kilometres from school which he used to walk to and fro every day. Wearing the same uniform for six days, he would wash it himself on Sunday at the bank of a pond. They did not have a bathroom in their home. His family lived in a single room government quarter for the poor with a common bathroom, so common that the ratio was one bathroom per ten families. Henceforth, Pramod used to find his way to a pond nearby every Sunday to relax, bath and wash his dirty clothes.
On any other day, he used to wish for a new bag, a fancy ‘Spider-man’ water bottle like other kids or a new set of uniform but that day he wished he had a bicycle to deliver the couriers all around the town. Being rejected at the courier agency, he knew he had to fall back on his back up part time profession as a painter. A kid of twelve and he already had a back up profession to fall back upon. He had been painting houses under the supervision of Ramu for two years. Ramu used to live in the same building as Pramod. He was a professional painter and used to hire kids from his building as cheap assistance.
Diwali season was a good way for Pramod to utilise his winter vacations, collecting cash for school fee. But he always liked the long summer, riding across the town on the bicycle of his manager, delivering goods. At times, he would receive a generous tip from the customers. Also, unlike the painting job, there was no one to supervise and scold him apart from a manager back at the agency.
With most of the families opting for whitewash before the holy festival of Diwali, for the first week of that summer, Ramu did not get any contract. Pramod was jobless. He had to collect cash for new session’s fee and books. Also he had hoped to buy new uniforms and a new school bag by working hard but all he could do was to sit idle and let the time pass.
“Pramod, let’s go, I have got a job,” said Ramu one morning.
Pramod quickly gathered his painting clothes which were equally old as his normal clothes but much more stained. Ramu pedalled his bicycle while Pramod ran behind him for a kilometre to reach the site. Apart from Pramod, there were three more in Ramu’s gang but they were in high school, much taller and more efficient than Pramod. While Pramod got the least cut, he was made to do most difficult job of climbing on walls using temporary stairs made of rope and bamboo sticks.
Ramu’s gang stood outside a home, waiting for the door bell to be answered. After the third bell, Anuradha eventually opened up the wooden doors, slowly walked past the porch and stood on another side of big metallic gate.
“Is this your entire team?” Anuradha asked. She lived alone in the big house. Her husband had passed away couple of years ago. Her son was posted abroad and her daughter was married. However, Sarita would visit along with her son every year during summer. Anuradha was looking forward to welcome her grandson and hence the painting of the house.
“Yes, madam,” Ramu answered.
“Come in,” she said.
Ramu walked to the porch area along with his gang where he was asked to stop.
“I want all these walls on the outside to be painted in blue, okay?” she said.
“Only the outside walls, madam?” Ramu asked.
“What caste are you, Brahman?”
“No,” said Ramu looking down.
“Huh,” she said, “ring the doorbell if you need anything. Do not come inside.”
A week had passed and Ramu was not even close to finishing his promised four day job. He was out of resources; two of his men had ditched him to work with another contractor for more money. It was only Pramod and another guy with Ramu. Anuradha was not happy with the progress but she had no option in spare. Her daughter and grandson had arrived two days ago and her welcome preparation for them was undone. ‘Maybe if I had hired a Brahman painter, job would have been done by now,’ she thought.
Anuradha’s grandson, Ashish had also just taken his examinations for class VII. His teachers had taught him that all of them were equal and felt bad for Pramod. While he lay in the air-conditioned room sipping orange juice, Pramod would drink water out of an old plastic bottle which he brought himself. And if Pramod ran out of water, Ashish’s grandmother would not give water to lower castes. While Ashish played games on a new videogame bought by her grandmother, Pramod would climb the ropes to reach the second floor and paint it, hanging his life and himself in the balance. And for lunch, Pramod would often depend on a banana. On a rare occasion he would also have a samosa which he had successfully sneaked from his father’s lot. Ramu would eat a complete meal from a lunch box from home but Pramod had no money to buy a box to pack his lunch. Feasting on a banana was his best choice if he wanted to save for school.
After ten days, Ramu had finally finished painting the walls and only few odd jobs were left to be dealt with. Pramod was sweeping the fallen leaves in the backyard. He had been working from Sun to Sun for past few days. Ashish walked to him.
“Do you want to play?” Ashish asked. Unlike Pramod, Ashish could come out of home only during evening, that too with his mother’s assent. Ashish showed a ball to Pramod which he held in his hand. Ironical it was, two guys of the same age, one held a ball while the other had a broom in his hand. Their complexion had striking difference as well as their health. Pramod had red eyes, dark circles; lean built while Ashish was glowing.
“No, I have to clean all this,” said Pramod.
“Okay, I will help you and then we both can play,” said Ashish as he walked closed to Pramod. “Have you ever played Mario on videogame?”
“No, no, I will clean…”
“Ashish,” Anuradha shouted. She walked in fury towards Ashish and snatched the broom from Pramod’s hands.
“Go inside,” she freaked.
“But…” Ashish tried to speak.
“Go, I said,” Anuradha said and started to beat Pramod. Poor fellow could do nothing but beg. But Anuradha was hell bent; she was moving her hands faster than she had moved in years. Pramod was on his knees, using his hands as a rampart.
“You little prick,” she shouted as she continued to beat him.
“Madam, please,” Pramod pleaded.
Ramu arrived at the scene but he had no guts to intervene. He had already gone way past the said date to complete the task, he did not wanted to risk his payment. He could only stand and watch, maybe pray for the little guy.
“Mamma, please stop this,” Ashish said as he walked back to the backyard with his mother.
“What are you doing?” Sarita questioned her mother taking away the broom and guarding Pramod.
“This untouchable was corrupting my boy,” Anuradha said.
“Madam, I…” said Pramod taking a break from his sobs, “I swear I did nothing”.
“What harm can he do, mother? He is just a little guy,” said Sarita.
“And all men are equal. No one is untouchable,” Ashish quoted his teacher.
“But he is not a Brahman,” said Anuradha not able to believe the mindset of his own bloodline.
“Mother, please. This is not 1960’s,” said Sarita to Anuradha.
“Come, let us clean you up,” Sarita invited Pramod inside.
Pramod did not move. He was looking at Anuradha with squint eyes while Anuradha was mum. Ashish held Pramod’s hand and dragged him inside. Sarita followed them. Anuradha stood there, frozen by what has just happened. She stood silently, watching a lower caste enter her house for the first time in all those years.
“What are you looking at? Go and do your work,” Anuradha channelled her frustration at Ramu.
As Anuradha walked inside her home, she was not comfortable. Pramod sat on the couch along with Ashish, feasting on juicy mangoes which she had specially got for Ashish from village farms. She preferred to stand away in one corner maintain sufficient distance.
“Do you go to school?” Sarita asked as she walked with two bowls of kheer.
“Yes,” said Pramod, still avoiding eye contact from Anuradha.
“Mummy, he is in the same class as I am. I want to buy him books from the money I have saved,” said Ashish to his mother.
“Yes, you most definitely can,” said Sarita and Anuradha’ red face turned more reddish if that was even possible.
It was the last day of examinations; students were rushing out of the school main gate, they were all happy to greet to the Diwali vacation. Parents were waiting for their children.
Mid-term examinations were done and over with and it was time for vacation. There was no glum face in the crowd this time. Pramod was walking home. Yes, he had to paint some fences to accumulate money for further school expenses but he at least had a new school bag full of new books which smelt way better than the old books he had been reading all these years, cleaner uniform and a fancy ‘Spider-man’ water bottle hung around his neck…
Photo Credits : Indian broom by Gilmil : http://www.fotocommunity.com/pc/pc/display/32659207