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The Curse of Poverty - Short Story

As the dawn light spread its fingers across the early morning, Rajji stirred uneasily.  She tended to sleep like a street dog - ever alert, with one ear open.  But she'd been tired the previous night and as a consequence had slept rather heavily. Her life was a constant struggle, filled with tasks and responsibilities. If she hadn't been careful, she might have been robbed!  She sprang into alert mode and clutched about her person.  No, everything was in place, the precious money was undisturbed.  Thanks to her employment with the bank, cleaning for one hour every morning, six days a week, she even had a bank account which one of the bank employees had helped her to set up.  What little money she had saved up was safe.....

She looked over her children.  Babu, her son lay sleeping still.  Muniya, her daughter, stirred, close to waking up.  But where was Gudiya, her youngest child?  Might have woken up early and gone to wander around.  Gudiya knew everyone around here and everyone around here knew Gudiya.  She couldn't have gone too far, that Rajji knew.  But sleeping in the open was risky.  One had to be always on the alert.  It was Rajji's dream to rent a small room somewhere nearby, close to her brother.  Maybe in a few months if she could make enough money, it would be possible.

She stood up, adjusted her sari and called her sleeping children to wake up.  The first task of the day would be to clean up, change clothes somehow.  Then wash the clothes, get some breakfast, make sure the kids were set up before she went to the bank.  Then as the day matured, she'd set up her stall. She sold seasonal items, whatever was in demand.  These days, when coolers were running, it was khus grass.  But that season was almost at an end.  She'd have to find something else to sell, to keep the life in her children.  Otherwise, her dream of renting a home and sending them to school could never be realized.

Two years before, she thought she'd had problems, but they had been nothing compared to her life now. The everyday worries of a cranky mother in law and bitchy sisters in law seemed like heaven compared to this. She, along with her husband and three little ones, had had their own room in the family home.  Village life was tough, but with your husband by your side you can hold up your head.  You are no way less than any other woman.  But when your husband dies and leaves you alone in the world with three small children to care for, you are utterly defenceless.  Ostracized by the womenfolk as a symbol of bad luck, she was often denied food and her young ones treated more harshly than the other children in the family.  Unable to bear the humiliation heaped upon her, she had somehow gathered up her children and ran to Lucknow, to her brother's place.  Her parents were no more, but since her marriage, her brother had visited her once in a while and had always shown concern for her.  Surely he wouldn't turn her away in her hour of need?

As she directed her two children to go and have their daily wash while looking about all the while for Gudiya and enquiring loudly from her neighbours about the whereabouts of her youngest, her mind wandered back to the day when she'd arrived at her brother's house, her last hope of having some kind of shelter and respect in life.

But where there's a brother, there's always a bhabhi.  Brother's wife.  Isn't it strange how the worst enemy of a woman is often another woman?  Her brother was as concerned as ever, but his wife's thin lipped resentment was palpable.  Bhaiya (Nand Lal, Rajji's brother) lived in a hut rigged up on the side of the road with his wife and six kids.  Bhabhi soon filled Rajji in on the harsh realities of city life.

"That was a very bad thing you did, leaving your home.  Now they will never allow you to come back.  What will be the fate of your children now?  We have no room for you here and you will have to break your back to earn even a single rupee," Bhabhi had said, her words laced with scorn.  Rajji looked up and saw Bhaiya and Bhabhi's eldest son, Pappu, looking at her daughters with a strange gleam in his eyes. This made her feel most uneasy.  Pappu  was a youth who barely contributed a rupee to the family finances despite being of an age to do so. He had a slightly dazed look about him, such as people had who were addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Rajji had stood up, drawn herself up to her fullest height.  If nothing else, her self respect was intact.

"What you say is right, Bhabhi.  The problem is, my in laws resented sharing the house with us.  Even without us, the house is overcrowded.  They wanted to occupy my room and did everything in their power to make my life unbearable so I would leave.  I tried very hard not to let them bother me, as bhaiya had advised.  But in the end, I just couldn't help it.  Every time I turned my back, one of my children was crying.  Someone was beating them, or blaming us on something that had gone wrong."  Bhabhi's eyes were cold. "I don't expect anyone to make my life easy for me.  I am willing to work," Rajji had said.  There was also the unspoken implication that she needed her brother's protection.  Just the protection of his name would be enough.  There were many wolves out there who thought that a widow was fair game.  But at least those predators would leave her alone if they knew she was Nand Lal's sister.

"See my son, Pappu?"  Bhabhi waved her hands towards her son.  "Such a fine boy.  He can't get a job anywhere.  If he can find it difficult to get work, how will you manage, with three brats hanging out of you?"  Bhabhi was adamant.  Rajji looked again at the young man, still more boy than man really.  She personally thought he was spoilt beyond redemption  by Bhabhi.  The precious eldest son.

"Can't he drive a rickshaw?" Rajji asked.  Bhabhi glared at her.

"To get a rickshaw, first you need money," she spat, looking at Rajji as if she was the stupidest person on earth.   Rajji nodded, understanding.  She called her children and got ready to leave her Bhabhi's poisonous presence. She was truly alone in the world.  She went to look for a patch of the pavement to call her own.

And now, back in the present.  Rajji had a few pieces of bread and a bit of pickle to enliven the taste.  She was ready to share out the meagre breakfast, but there was still no sign of Gudiya.  "Hey, has anyone seen Gudiya this morning?  She woke up before I did and I haven't seen her since," she called out to some people nearby, who slept on the same patch of pavement.

"No, we haven't seen.  Have you gone around to look for her?"

"Yes.  It's so strange.  I think I'd better go to the thana (police station).  I think she's missing."

"The thana won't give your complaint the time of day unless she's been gone for two days or more," came the reply.

"Hey Rajji, I heard your Gudiya is missing.  So is my Pappu.  I haven't seen him since yesterday afternoon."  It was Bhabhi standing before her, anxiety shadowing her features.  Rajji shivered.  She had seen Pappu yesterday evening.  He had come to see her as darkness was falling.  He never spoke to her in front of his mother.  But yesterday evening, as she was packing away her stall, he had been full of charm and flattery.  At least at first.

"Bua, I need your help.  Please listen to me," he'd said, smiling.  Resentment had flared inside her.  She knew he had come to ask for money.  He wouldn't use that tone otherwise.

"Oh, yes?  And to what do I owe this kind visit of yours?" she'd asked.

"Buaji, I need some money," he wheedled.  "I owe some money to a man.  Only five hundred rupees...."

Five hundred rupees.  She had to work like a dog to get five hundred rupees.  Precious money to keep herself and her children from starving.  And this idiot had incurred a debt of five hundred rupees and wanted her to bear the burden.  Would he pay her back?  Never.  He'd done this before.  Crept over under the cover of darkness, away from his mother's prying eyes.  First it was fifty, then a hundred.  When she went to his mother to complain, she'd received short shrift.  "You're his aunt.  He can ask you.  You gave him freely, we never pressurized you.  The poor child has no job.  Are you trying to embarrass us?  Come on, let us call him and ask him did he take your fifty rupees.  I'm sure he never took your money.  Hai, Pappu, Pappu....." Rajji had walked away, the tears stinging her eyes.

Yes.  Last night he had come back again, still owing her money, to relieve her of even more of her hard earned cash.

"Saala!  Haramzada! Paagal!  What the hell do you mean, coming here all nice and sweet and asking for money?  Why don't you ask your precious mother to give you money?  She has my brother to provide for her.  Who do I have?  No one.  Why should I give whatever little I have to pay for whatever foolishness you have got yourself involved in now?  Get away, I'm telling you!  Leave me!"

The young man's face had changed its expression. Instead of hurt bewilderment, a slightly wild, vengeful look had appeared.  A finger of fear clutched at Rajji's heart.

"How dare  you speak to me like this?  You are only a woman.  You'll pay for this," he said.  "My mother says you are fit only for selling your body on the streets," he added, as he'd walked away.

"Saala!  I'll break your head for saying that! Don't dare come near me anymore, ever," she'd called after him.

"Amma, what happened?  What did Pappu Bhaiya say to you?"  Her children had arrived back from playing, just catching the end of the scene."

"Arre, beta, nothing, nothing.  Come on, let's go to sleep," she'd said.

Back to the present.  Both Pappu and Gudiya.  Missing.  If Gudiya turns up, I'll go to Pappu and apologize. I'll give him fifty rupees and request him to ask no more from me.  He is young, I'll make him understand.  I was so tired, it had been a long day.  Just let my Gudiya be all right, I want nothing more, she mentally bargained.

Down at the thana, the police rubbished her complaint.  Her daughter had probably got up early and went to relieve herself somewhere.  Children were irresponsible, she was probably safe with some friend, oblivious to the consternation of her mother.  "She'll probably turn up by lunchtime," she was told.

As Rajji left the police station, in the company of  her children and some concerned neighbours, Bittu, a young lad who slept on the pavement nearby ran up to her, breathless.

"Rajji didi, the body of a young girl is lying near the Shivji Mithai Shop.  It might be your Gudiya.  Do you want to go and see?"

Rajji's scream pierced the skies.  She pulled the pallu of her sari firmly over her head and set off, running, towards  the Shivji Mithai Shop.  She ran across the road, oblivious to oncoming traffic. She ran like a demon, pushing through people and never stopped until she reached the shop.  The sight which greeted her was some torn clothes - which she recognized as Gudiya's - scattered about and some dogs had gathered around a carcass. With a shriek, she kicked and pushed the dogs out of the way and looked into the face of the tiny girl whose naked body lay in a pitiful condition, almost mutilated beyond recognition.  She flung herself down on the body, in a vain and belated effort to protect her little one from the dogs.

"Gudiya, meri Gudiya.  It's me, Amma.  Open your eyes, speak to me.   I won't let anyone hurt you.  O, Gudiya, Gudiya."

But Gudiya's little voice had been silenced forever.  Unaware of her Amma's tears and crying, the child was indeed oblivious to the consternation of  her mother.  Rajji looked into her daughter's ravaged face and knew that Pappu had indeed taken his revenge.





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Comments

  1. Very nice story line and well narrated. Very realistic too.

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  2. That had me gripped from start to finish. A wonderfully written story but with a sadly believable ending.
    Maggie x

    Nuts in May

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  3. This is so powerful, Maria and so well written. I've been back to read it twice xx

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  4. Ramana, Maggie May and Teresa, thank you so much for appreciating my story.

    Although the characters, names and dialogue are fictional, the story is not. Just a week ago, a four year old girl was kidnapped from beside her mother as she slept on the pavement here in Lucknow. Her battered body was found next morning. A disgruntled relative is thought to be the culprit.

    I haven't been able to stop thinking about this, I've been praying for that poor woman and her children. Writing this story has been a way of getting it out of my system.

    This incident took place not a mile away from where I live.

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  5. I was drawn into your post from the beginning, Maria. It's well written and very interesting. My thoughts are with the mother. I hope someone has come forward to offer her help and comfort.

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  6. That makes it even more poignant, Maria. My thoughts are with that poor mother xx

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  7. That's so sad, Maria - both the truth and your story.

    It's easy to think we're hard up when we have less cash than we'd like, but if we have a safe place to live and food to eat we are better off than many.

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  8. Fantastic writing, Maria, had me on the edge of my seat, and I really felt an empathy with each character (unlike me, i usually only feel for the "goodie").
    I'm so sad to read your comment that this happened close to your home. Hope somebody will help that poor woman, and that some good will come out of it.

    ReplyDelete
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