Good morning Ernakulam, Kerala. Another silent city of grey air that touches Vajra where it shouldn’t and brushes off the red cries of the children of the slum.
To her left, the mingling spices of newly made vadaas and dosas are served on a silver platter. Vajra can feel the shop uncle smirking from the trembling of her stomach. To her right, she can still see more shrivelled hands reaching out than any number of cars moving on the road.
The children of the slum are awake, bright and early, for another set of beaded sarees and ironed pants to walk by and ignore them. They watch their nonchalant faces avoid the stacked red and blue houses like building blocks, crumbling from the weight of holding a population of almost a million.
The men of the rickshaws do not spare a glance at the scattered piles of dog crap and plastic wrapping when they zoom past to their own destinations. Too consumed in their own mighty problems to offer a helping hand.
None of them would dare to see the defeated posters of “Keep India Pristine” or “Give Hope to the Poor” wrapped around jutting ribs and scarecrow legs; Vajra’s temporary clothing for the coming days of monsoon.
But out of all who race past, none of them get to see the relief ascend on a her withered shoulders when there is enough scraps of roti or burned rice, hidden between the folds of the waste; a place none of them would find their remedy for hunger.
It is only another day for the daughter of the slum to sit near the opening to their home, waiting.
It is in the midday heat of a ruthless sun, Vajra watches a young girl’s midi skirt get caught in her bait of mud.
The children of the slum can smell OCI blood from a metre distance. Vajra wonders if the young girl can feel a group of drowsy eyes and mouths scan her when her mother cleans off the dried dirt with an unstained hand.
Both of them seem like aliens to her, with their complexion of brown the only similarity. Vajra often doesn’t see any OCIs walk past their slums nor has she seen a pair speak in a hurried rush of English, the only words she can decipher from the jumble is a “not here” and a “go”.
Slipping into a random classroom has some of its advantages.
The rest of the children of the slum watch until it’s time. When the air no longer reminds them off last night’s waste deposit and when the golden hand of Allah or Krishna offers them the opportunity they’ve been starving for since last month.
Then they leap into action; a flurry of protruding bellies and fraying rags flying through the dust in hopes of a full meal tonight, and maybe the lioness trinket one of them saw in a shop’s window.
Unfortunately, there can be only one winner.
Vajra hisses at her competition and the other slumsters retreat with envy, falling back into the tree’s shadows and play fighting but stitching an unseen golden noose onto the ankle of the winner to remind her of the golden rule:
what a daughter gets is what she gives to the rest of the children of the slum.
The mother brushes off the dirt on her daughter’s skirt with a hasty manner; Vajra knows she can already sense her light footsteps creeping towards them.
A Malayali born in the heart of Kerala would never forget a beggar’s footsteps.
“Don’t look at her, mola.”
She only says that in Malayalam with a feigning distaste of the mud-soaked hems of her silk churidar as she straightens her back from kneeling.
Vajra knows the warning bell is ringing but instead, she looks at the young girl.
Large, 50-cent brown eyes meet a pair of dark, one-lakh rupee brown ones.
Vajra can see shock pooling in the girl’s eyes as she stares at her, and Vajra thinks a white man’s country probably doesn’t have any half-naked children sleeping on the sides of the road with signs of malnutrition drying around their small mouths.
The girl keeps on staring at the scar peeking between shards of Vajra’s black hair, a gift an aunty gave her when she drank from their tank.
Vajra also sees a flash of sympathy pass through the young girl’s eyes and her chest becomes giddy when the girl sneaks a glance at her mother’s purse. Both of them know a note of ten rupees is lying effortlessly at the very bottom of the designer purse.
But her mother only scowls at her as she desperately tries to remove her daughter anywhere, trying not to carefully step on a pile of dog crap with her stiletto heels.
“Chechi, chechi. Please give me money for some food.”
The young girl opens her mouth to speak and then instantly closes it, so Vajra grabs her arm for an extra effect, her stained hand coming in contact with unspoiled skin.
The mother gasps at the contact.
Instructions say to grab your child as swiftly as possible, immediately disinfect the patch of skin so no sort of diseases are transmitted, and yell at your child for allowing this to happen, maybe even adding a pinch or two.
And that is exactly what she does.
The mother’s fingers strangle around Vajra stick-thin wrists, asphyxiating the skin to leave behind white marks and ripping it off her daughter’s hands.
She’s yelling, pointing, pushing the starving girl onto the ground, condemning her for even daring to look at the upper crust.
Then she drags her daughter away from the trembling stomach, away from the smell of the dog crap, away from the children of the slum, and the young girl only follows after her.
Vajra thinks both of them does not understand that they both may be from different soils, upper class or lower class, the slums or from a suburban house in the inner city, but they are still sisters born from the same earth.
But she can only watch from the hardened floor, a pair of repentant one-lakh rupee brown eyes skirt and the fluttering of a muddied midi skirt dodge their way through a growing crowd before losing sight of them.
The rest of the children laugh at her, one even saying he could have done so much better.
The beaded sarees walking past, the men of the rickshaws zooming off, and the shop uncle cast their eyes away at the exchange.
- vadaas and dosas: Indian street food
- OCI: Overseas Citizenship of India, an immigration status
- mola: child
- Malayali: the poeple of Kerala
- Chechi, chechi: sister, sister
- Malayalam: the language of Kerala
- Ernakulum: a city in central Kerala
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