April 29, 2010


I am made up of sticks. They stack upon each other, creasing into crosses that squeeze out little fleshy triangles of being, a naked body of a crude structure with ends stabbed firmly into my heart.

Stick Five: Compassion.

I’ve seen him outside my window everyday. He is old, like my grandpa, with wrinkles that caress his face except, unlike my grandpa, they have no flesh to sit on, only bone. Everyday I watch him for the minute that my bus hums at the signal, dutifully impatient to drag me to school. He recognises me now. He smiles when he sees me. I smile back. I want to be a good person.

I know he begs because I’ve seen him, walking towards the cars in front of us, asking for money with the expression I know so well: practiced plea. He does not solicit too much (age must have some dignity, even in starvation). I’ve watched him step back as lights click to green and watched his skin change until it is plea no longer, only exhaustion. He has done this for a long time.

I want to be a good person.

So today, I decide. When the bus pulls up at the signal, I am ready: I have my five rupees in my hand. He is standing right outside my window. He sees me and smiles. I smile back and extend the money. I am nervous. I do not know why. He folds his hands into a namaste, a thank you, and smiles.

‘Nahi beti. You are a child. Aap hi rakho.’

The light clicks and my bus revs up and I move on, still clutching my five-rupee coin and I know I can have an orange lolly today. He is still there, smiling. I wonder what he will eat.

Sticks Fifteen and Sixteen: Right and wrong.

The work starts on a Tuesday. No one knows when it will end. They come and set up stalls, temporary ones, but then temporary has been known to mean years. Suddenly there are people on the pavement outside, washing, bathing, talking and tearing up the road. Suddenly, there are strangers.

I jump off the bus and find a mound of gravel. I dump my backpack and search for shells: you can always find them if you look hard enough.

She comes to the gate and watches me. My daddy cut himself trying to untie their stalls: was it her rope that made the cut? My pulse quickens.

She is in front of me now, in the compound, her shadow draping me. I don’t look up, go on shifting the sand. She isn’t meant to be here: maybe if I don’t look up, I won’t be blamed?

‘What are you doing?’ she asks timidly.

My pulse explodes. To reply is to be partner to her crime, to not reply is to be rude. Pretence is impossible. ‘I am...’ I stop. I do not know the word for ‘shells’ in Hindi. I point. I go back to searching. Five seconds later, she interrupts me again: a shell, extended on a grubby palm, the prettiest I have seen yet.

Forty-five minutes later, there are seven of them. They have made it into a game. I, by universal law of ‘coming first’, am the leader. Shells are offered to me for inspection. I accept everything. Occasional fights break out (he stole my shell, did you see?) but I settle them quickly, in broken Hindi. They never laugh. We are friends.

Fifteen more minutes pass and I should leave. Would I be here, same time, tomorrow? I say yes. I run up and ring my doorbell and Meena answers and it is late, very late and she is worried and where have I been? and angry and collecting shells! and I must Never. Ever. do that again, did I understand?

I am waiting for the bus with my sister. A boy spots me from across the road and runs to call her. She comes, excited, baby on her hip. I stare at the road.

The bus turns the corner. They are all there now, the younger ones smiling and pointing. I move to get on the bus and, for a split second, we connect eyes. She beams and readjusts the baby to free a hand. She waves.

I reach out my hands to pull myself onto the bus. I do not wave back.

I am these sticks. It’s like Jenga: building, adding, changing, moulding, subtracting, pulling me taller, more complex, more unstable, until I am built, teetering on reality, and am told, go on now. Live.

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  • Tashan, this is is realllly good. Loved the "Impressions" piece too :) by Uma Shirodkar on this entry
  • Brilliant stuff love. Wish I'd seen this earlier. by Kirk Lobo on this entry

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