By: Neha Sharma
Sarika arrived with her hair tied into two braids with bright pink ribbons, a sack with printed orange marigolds and her skin covered with recently dried up chicken pox. More than a few strands of hair stuck out of her braids and her eyes were swollen up as though two mosquitoes had feasted on her eyelids. Her dried up tears left streaks of brown dirt smudged on her plump cheeks. A fly persistently buzzed around her head and repeated to return on her swollen lips. She looked through the rusted metallic gate. There were a few children laughing and playing in the courtyard of a big building. It was nothing like she had ever seen before. Colorful laundry hung from almost every window. She opened her tiny palm and straightened out two papers, a paper with an address scribbled on it and a used one-way train ticket to Mumbai.
She scratched the dried up scabs on her legs and then remembered the small pink medicine her aunt had put into her sack before packing her off on the train to Mumbai. She pulled out the bottle from her sack, doused some all over her legs and put it back inside. There wasn’t much in her sack; just three dresses, an old photograph of her parents and a stone she picked up before she left the village.
A hefty man trotted towards the gate. His big dark shadow reduced in size as he approached the gate. Breathing heavily he said,
“Sarika, come inside,” he dragged the sluggish gate open.
“Have you eaten?”
Some women in the train compartment gave the little girl some chai, biscuits and a temporary shoulder to cry on when they saw her wailing uncontrollably, without a parent, in the overcrowded train compartment.
“I’ll show you our room. It’s small but that’s Bombay.”
Bhai walked in front of Sarika to the second floor of the chawls to room number 48. There were clothes and empty tea glasses lying around the tiny room. Bhai cleared out some clothes from the sofa and Sarika crumpled into one corner of the sofa. Bhai went into the kitchen to bring the little girl some water but before he could finish pouring the water, Sarika broke down into tears wailing so loudly that within a few minutes the people in the neighboring rooms came out into the hallway to see the face of the child who wept this loudly. Tragedy never went unnoticed in the chawls.
A few heads popped into room 48 and they saw Bhai standing with some water in his hands and Sarika rolling on the floor in pain.
“What’s going on? Who is this girl?” one woman from the crowd said.
“She just came from the village. She’s my distant cousin. Her parents died so she’s crying.”\
People watched her rolling on the ground, until one woman made a move to pick her up and hold her in her arms. Others followed. Some children also surrounded room 48.
Sarika clung to whoever picked her up. She was still new to the thing called pain and hadn’t a clue on how to deal with it.
“Go get her some warm milk.” The woman said.
Bhai had no milk in the house so one of the neighbors warmed some milk, added a lot of sugar and gave it to Sarika.
She sipped the milk but kept breaking down.
“Let her cry. It’ll all come out.” Another woman said.
“But what happened?” another voice asked.
“Poor little girl. What happened to her parents?” another person in the crowd asked.
Sarika cried more and wrapped herself closer into the arms of the woman who consoled her.
“They were in that gas tragedy…” Bhai started.
“Shhh…don’t say these things in front of the little girl.” Hushed another woman.
“It’s okay, this is your new home now. We will look after you. Now you have so many mothers and fathers.” The woman who held her said.
Sarika seemed to be drugged by pain, as there was no change in her wailing sounds. But as it is with children, crying often has a sedating effect on them. Soon the crying dimmed to a soft sound of sleeping.
The woman gently laid Sarika’s head onto the pillow that Bhai handed her and covered the sleeping child with a bed sheet.
The people crowding room 48 slowly left for their own rooms. Bhai switched off the lights and lit a cigarette. He was older than Sarika but still just a teenager himself with no clue how to care for his distant orphaned cousin he had never met before.
Sarika didn’t leave the room for two weeks. She used to watch the children playing in the courtyard and listen to their laughter but she still hadn’t stopped crying. Bhai cooked one meal everyday for her and the rest of the time one of the neighbors brought some food for her. She ate quietly and went back to a corner in the room.
By the time, Sarika was ready to leave the room and play with the children her tragic story had become quite ripe with some people in the chawls who followed the tradition to gossip irrespective of the story being traumatic. They spiced up every story and enjoyed taking bites of it together. Within two weeks, there was plenty of information about the loss of lives because of a gas leak. Cyanide poisoning was the word floating in the chawls. Unfortunately, the children who heard pieces of the story from the adults couldn’t filter them; instead they generated more creative stories. The first line that dropped was by a boy who was also eight, the same age as Sarika. While they were playing with marbles in the courtyard, the boy spoke.
“Your Ma and Pa I heard became garbage on the road, piled up this high,” he stretched his arms as high as he could while standing on his toes. “Cows, dogs, birds, other people are all in that big garbage pile. Their legs became big like elephants and their brain burst! Why did you leave and not try to find them?”
Sarika shrieked and ran away. Some other children who saw her reaction laughed.
“Garbage,” Sarika repeated to herself. “Ma and Pa are garbage.” She repeated and ran around the chawls yelling and crying these lines. This amused some children even more, so they added some more to the story.
“You Ma and Pa drank poison and died while walking, that’s why you can’t see them again. You will never see them again!”
The stories didn’t cease for a long time. Sarika would react in the same way, shrieking and running round around the courtyard. Nobody told her what had really happened to her parents and why she was sent to Bombay.
It was in one of those times that she was running away from the children that she stumbled upon a secluded area near the chawls that was full of things broken beyond repair. At first glance the place resembled an old communal garage abandoned by the people who had once used it. Sarika carefully cleared a path to go deeper into the garbage garage. Nobody ever bothered to clean that place up. She saw an old children’s bicycle covered with dust and with one tire fallen off. Next to it was a sofa with the spring popping out, an amputated three legged stool, and many other objects disfigured to the point of being unrecognizable. Sarika wiped the sofa and collapsed on it. This would be her place from now, she decided. Looking around the land she saw the grey blue ears of a teddy bear sticking out. She got up and dug out the teddy from inside a drawer that belonged nowhere. It was missing both eyes but was still soft. She hugged the teddy and scoured for more toys. It was then that she developed a queer habit of rummaging through garbage.
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