This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 24 Aug 2013 and won INR 500
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
Kachra sauntered through an avenue of trees with bright green leaves and stout trunks that bore nodal tumours. It was a shady and cool path that opened to a lake which looked like a brown void, the sun bouncing off its surface, while insects chirped in the bushes. As he strolled further, he felt the cool and glistening pebbles underfoot while he tapped Gillu’s shoulder. He was by the edge of the lake, smelling the apparent water and peering into its depth for dragonflies.
“You are late,” Gillu said and he clapping as the pebble thrown by Hira created strong ripples in water.
“Where were you?” Hira asked, his brown cap tilted to one side.
“I was… looking for a ball or something, to play,” Kachra exhaled as he put his ragbag down.
“Ball? Who needs that? No looking for anything today, it’s our holiday. Even ragpickers can demand a holiday,” Kesha snarled scratching her thighs beneath her torn frock. Her lips were knitted.
Kachra sat on the withered log, which had its dead roots in the water, with his friends. They were five – Kachra, Chimki, Kesha, Gillu and Hira – kids who had their kholi in the nearby slum and worked together. Today they had a leave and were sitting beside a lake.
Chimki stared above as she saw a reflection in the water. “It’s too bad, we are dead,” she announced rubbing her eyes. The sky grew grey as if God had puffed off his cigar and a sheet of dusty air passed their face.
The other children looked around but their faces were still blank. They nodded in unison but didn’t take the pain to comment anything. Kesha was still fondling the white mushroom that had grown on the log and Gillu was still applauding the ripples.
“Not dead. It’s lovely!” Kachra smiled. “Really guys, don’t you feel like flying kites?” he asked as his eyebrows knit together.
No response! Sigh!
He did a cartwheel, pillowed his head over their ragbags and shut his eyes. The swaying aerial shoots of the banyan tree and a flock of birds flying in the sky made a beautiful scene. He wished he was an artist who would sit in the grass, beside the side of this lake and paint the nature.
He wished! But he knew the poor cannot dream. They were ragpickers; discarded cans, empty bottles, cast-off pots, whatever – they would haul them all into the gunny sack that they slung over their back.
But Kachra wasn’t a poor soul. Instead, he smiled as dust caressed his cheeks and beneath his ears. He grinned while his dreams flew to the time when they had bought their first kite and a lataayi. Hira’s brother had sold them that blue kite for forty five rupees which they had a hard time paying; but the joy, the smile on their face had made up for all their desire. They would skip their work, come to this lake and fly the kite all day long. Fighting for their chance to fly the kite and reaching home with bruised arms and legs, and sometimes face, was very common till Gillu’s father threw the kite.
But it was past now! History!
Realising that the gust had long gone, he opened his eyes. The sun, a semicircle of the giant yellow disk, was peeping out of the serene sky and the bulrushes with grass-like leaves swung aside. Kachra dusted his oversized kurta and walked to the lake again with a smile that was as bright as the sun. His eyes fixed on his friends again; they were doing what they were doing earlier – nothing. Dipping his hands into the cool water he suspired. While he hummed an old Hindi song, a flash of orange and brown caught his sight, “It’s a fish! Guys, see. I see a fish. Big fish!”
Hira turned to him and saw every other child’s eyeing Kachra with a grin on their faces. These silly and exciting things that Kachra had learnt recently were making him lose his ‘charm’ in the group. Adjusting the jute rope that he had tied round his loose pyjama, he snapped, “Kachra, there is no fish. This is the Place of the Dead; fish cannot make it to this place. I have seen the sea monster eating up everything.” He enacted like a behemoth and grimaced, “I’m the oldest, so listen to me and be quite! There’s no fish in the lake.”
Kachra frowned as he stood up, “No way! I am older than any of you guys. My father has white beard, not yours!” He looked for a stone, but he knew Hira wouldn’t engage him. Pulling up his sleeves, he looked at all of them – all different ages, none of them elder to him except Hira. A thin line of hairs had begun jotting over his lips and his stomach bulged.
Kachra walked up to Hira and decided to hit his soft spot – ask him how his elder brother had sold his bat. If anything could start a fight, that could.
But he couldn’t ask. He noticed Hira’s eyes shining and focused. His attention was locked on the stream. Peebles fell off his hand and his lips curved an oval; he was hypnotised by the wonder he had discovered. Kachra gasped, “You saw it too, didn’t you?”
Hira seemed shocked out of his reverie and twisted his neck to Kachra with an honest surprise. Unknowingly, he dropped his chappal in the water.
Souping her nasal fluid, Kesha stared at Hira, “You’ve been here since the ancient times of that old man on currency notes; if anybody could have seen a fish, it would be you!”
Hira stood up, little fists curling at his sides. It was very rare for Hira to stand up. Kachra was the only one who would walk around with his stick and collect different leaves and flowers while others just enjoyed skipping their work and staring at the lake and bushes past it.
Adjusting his brown cap, Hira fumed, “So what if I saw a fish? It doesn’t mean anything! And it was way before you all were born. Not just fish, I’ve seen alligators and starfish too, but it was before you all showed up and ruined everything.”
Every face in the group was wide-eyed and blank. We ruined everything? Did we picked up everything and put them in our ragbag? Lordy, Kachra threw a pale stick at Hira, “You blame us? Us?”
“So what if I do? None of you actually care, anyway!” Hira crossed his arm and stood in front of the rest.
He was about to show his anguish and pride of being the eldest before Kachra jumped again. “I care! Rather, you guys care about anything!” he spun his head around. “And it was a fish! An orange one! But none of you will ever know this. You know why? Because you all are just dumb. There’s no fun here, even if it’s really beautiful.”
He grabbed Gillu and Chimki’s hand and pulled them onto the ground. “You all just sit here and scratch your head. Day and night! None of you even know how to climb a tree. It’s so boring with you guys!”
Stunned, they both rolled and started to dig the ground while Kesha collected few pebbles in her frock. Kachra, too, started picking pebbles and leaves in his kurta.
Seeing this, Hira walked over to Kachra and stared him in his eyes, “You can’t win. There’s nothing to win. We won’t work for you.” Hira ushered other children past Kachra and they, now, stood beside him, waiting for him to lead them. “Kachra, I don’t know what you think you are going to accomplish but listen, I – ”
Kachra grabbed Hira’s shoulders and shoved him in the lake. With a splash, Hira landed on his back and insects buzzed off. He gazed at Kachra as he stood before him, arms crossed, and triumphant.
The other children made a sound like they had experienced an orgasm. They had never seen his Hira like that. Hira had always been their leader. They wondered what he would do now. Will he stand up and start collecting pebbles for Kachra? His dearest brown cap had fallen down too. Will he punish him? Who will be their new leader?
But to their amusement, he sat, in the water, silent. None of them dared to move. And then Hira looked up at Kachra, straight into his eyes, grinned and started to laugh. Boyish giggles came from the one who was believed to be aged a hundred years. It was an age old laugh, but the laugh of a little boy.
Had a stone hit his head and he went insane? The group quivered in stunned silence.
But not Kachra.
He laughed right back and jumped beside Kachra, splashing some more water on his body. And then, it was just two little boys sitting in a stream, laughing.
Kesha was the first to laugh along. She souped her nasal fluid again and jumped into the water. Now all five of them, The Ragpickers, the children were splashing water at each other.
They were all waving their hands in the lake just when an orange a fish with brown spots jumped out of the water, breaching the space above their heads. It seemed to hover as it reached the apex of the jump. Water formed a misty ring around it that glowed in the light of the sun. And when the fish landed, its tail slapped the water, spraying droplets over the children.
And when the water landed on their cheeks, they smiled.
“We are now going to call you Raja, you will lead us now,” Hira looked over at Kachra and crowned him his beloved brown cap.
“No! I’ll won’t lead, neither will you. We are friends,” Kachra retorted, placing his hands over his shoulder. Gillu spattered some more water on their faces and the place echoed with their laughter.
__ THE END __