February 13, 2008

a story, unpublished

something i witnessed during my recent mumbai-visit stayed in my memory, and haunted me for a long time.

last month, when i watched taare zameen par (tzp), for no reason related to that movie, i remembered that scene again. i wrapped it in a fiction story and sent it, one by one, to two publications. wrong choices maybe, because, forget about any feedback on the story, neither of them responded at all (this, after we’d already exchanged emails). or perhaps they thought i was offending aamir khan’s original intentions, or that i was taking the realism a bit too far. perhaps they simply didn’t like the story. whatever. one thing’s clear…. i need tuitions on how-to-know-who-is-the-right-publication-for-your-story, and once that is clear, how-to-market-it-to-them. any published writers out there, hint, hint 🙂

well, anyway, i cannot keep this buried in my pc anymore. tzp is already yesterday’s news. and stories have to be told. so here it is, *sailee ki kahani…saare zameen par.

*(sailee, afzal. not their real names. the shaunchalay at nariman point, very real.)

saare zameen par

sailee loved aamir khan. afzal loved sailee. in their young 12- and 14-year-old lives, it was their friendship that had survived the displacement of their slums, the death of their parents in the lathi-charge, the humiliation by the police, the nights without food, their puberty. and there was their love of films.

after his day job at the sulabh shaunchalay at nariman point, afzal worked evenings and nights at the local theatres in the city. the role of a black-ticket-marketeer was not a permanent one. it had its share of risks and profits, but it was fun. and moreover, he was doing it so someday, he could take sailee to see her favourite star. first day, first show. taare zameen par. and he wanted to do it in style.

the kids were both excited. this would be their first ‘date.’ for sailee, as dusky as her name, afzal managed to borrow a lovely, deep-pink chiffon kameez from his friend who worked at the dry-cleaners. the dress had a mending job to be done, but the tear was hardly visible to the naked eye. besides, it would not be collected from the shop for another four days. from her own meagre earnings (for it canot be called a salary) – from cleaning car windshields, and selling mogras and magazines at the signal opposite hotel ambassador – sailee bought for herself, for the first time in her memory at least, a soap and a shampoo. but the municipality tap that she shared along with other slum refugees had running water only for an hour in the mornings, during which they all filled their buckets. where would she have a good bath now, at this time in the afternoon?

afzal thought about it. “why, you can use the shaunchalay!” he said. indeed, it was the only way. and in between two crammed latrines, amid the dirt and slime leaking through the drainage pipes on that hot afternoon, sailee filled up the leaky orange bucket with water from the toilet taps, crouched in the middle of the narrow passageway and scooped water over her head, using one of the coconut shells that the narial-pani vendor often so carelessly littered behind.

outside, afzal sat at a desk, collecting one-rupee coins from anyone who wanted to use the public facility. luckily, there were hardly any ladies coming in that day, and the gents could barely glance over to the somewhat-well-concealed ladies’ lavatories. secretly priding himself for having given sailee the chance for a luxurious bath, he hopped over to the other side of the road to buy them some mid-afternoon snacks. it would have to be ragda patties, he thought, spicy, tasty, hot, just the right thing after a bath.

afzal was away for about four minutes. during this time, there was but one woman who needed the public toilet. she came away stunned, not understanding which of her feelings were most dominant – relief for having emptied her bladder at last, or shame, at the plight of a young girl having to bathe like that. sailee pretended not to notice anyone, and continued with the scooping of water. it was not until the soap slipped out of her hands and fell into the indian-style latrine, that she lifted her head and noticed him standing there. and then she felt his eyes. eyes that studied her smooth-fresh-smelling body, and caressed her long hair and naked skin. sailee shivered. millions of tiny little goosebumps erupted all over her. and the eyes, unabashed and hungry, lapped up even those with pleasure.

it had taken less than a minute. for a girl who was bathing in her own naivety, dreaming of simple treats like aamir khan and the movie that evening, to come down to reality, how vulnerable it was, how cheap and how easily available.

that night, throughout the movie, afzal held her hands in his and wept. no, she hadn’t told him anything about that afternoon. it was the movie that made him sob…the heart-warming songs, the dyslexic boy ishaan, and his so-hard-to-break-father.

afzal wept, because he missed his own parents, his own brother. he wished he had a father who demanded to know his marks, he wished he had a mother to wipe away his wounds with the end of her saree, a teacher to set free his imagination, if there was one, he checked himself. the letters that were like greek and latin to ishaan awasthi were not any simpler to read for afzal either. he wished he had an education.

and sailee? her eyes were dry. unfeeling, like big black pebbles stuck still in their white envelopes. sailee had grown up just a few hours ago. every passing reel in the film made her aware of a deep hurt and anger bubbling inside her. the false promises made to her parents when they were alive, the teachers who wanted a school built over the land, the man who came with the bulldozers, a childhood spent washing away the bird-shit off cars, the never-appeasing hunger for food, for love, or for a soap to wash her skin with, a place to bathe in privacy… ‘every child is special.’ with every song, she became aware of the hypocrisy. this was the real world, she decided, where sailee and afzal and many thousands like them were born and perished each day. no flute-player in a red and yellow clown’s cape was coming for them.

“but i thought you liked aamir khan,” a confused afzal said, walking a quieter-than-usual sailee back home on the sepia-street-lit mumbai night. “i was wrong,” replied sailee without lifting her eyes. “i hate him.”

to sailee. may you soon find a place to bathe in privacy. from, the nri woman who was just visiting mumbai.

1 Comment »

  • bluespriite said:

    That was lovely.. hope you get that publisher soon…

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