Muniamma hobbled out of her hut on a pair of crutches to study the massive billboard.
The government had installed it a week ago, to hide the slum from international guests and television cameras during the Commonwealth Games.
They have done well to conceal their guilt, she thought.
It was not the first time she was rendered invisible, hidden from kindness and good fortune, and barricaded from mercy. It wouldn’t be the last.
From the time she could remember, she was told that the untouchables were destined to a life in the slums. They were only worthy of living next to broken drain pipes that leaked shit and slime, and junk that poisoned their soil and drinking water.
The advertisement, which featured athletes of different nations running towards the finishing line, also blocked their access to the main road.
An extra thirty minutes to get to work at the laundry was inconvenient, but Muniamma was more worried that her dear granddaughter, Rani, would have to take the old shortcut through the land fill, to get to school.
A few weeks after school had started, one of the parents discovered a path through the garbage dump adjoining the shantytown.
It was a mountain range of rotting dead bodies, decaying waste from restaurants, tattered clothing, resilient plastic, diseased needles and dark brown soil abused by toxins leeching into it. In the day, rag pickers and birds and cows with sores all over their bodies harvested its harmful fruits. Ancient trucks that ferried people and trash created arteries of filth that in time became roads.
Cardboard signs guided users through the maze of garbage to the school. Soon, starched bright white uniforms traversed the route in the morning and frenetic beams of light from steel torches sought the way back to the slum after sunset.
That was until a pack of wild mongrels attacked Abu Salim the tailor, on a cold February night. They found him with his throat ripped out, lying amongst broken soft drink bottles.
The dump was a scary place at night with its dark mounds and eerie sounds. But the men in the slum gathered their lanterns and knives and looked for the dogs, but didn’t find any.
A month later, the animals mauled a child, but she managed to escape with injuries.
An agitation was held in front of the Municipal Corporation Office under the leadership of a local activist, and the Mayor annoyed by damning press reports, sent his workers to round up stray animals in the area.
After that most people still braved the path in the morning when the waste pickers were around but no one risked the trip after dark. The kids started using the main road to return home.
But now with the billboard cutting off the route, they had no choice.
“At least it gives us shade from the sun in the morning Amma,” Rani said interrupting her thought.
Muniamma smiled at the little one and stroked her hair. “Get ready for school, darling.”
Rani’s parents died in a fireworks factory accident some years ago. The little girl was the sole reason for her existence.
She went to the kitchen and prepared lunch for Rani—chappathi, yoghurt and pickled lime.
Rani came into the kitchen tying her curly hair with a band. She looked unhappily at her lunch box, grabbed it from Muniamma’s hand.
“Amma, I am leaving,” Rani said, slinging a school bag over her shoulder.
“Study well, my love. When you become a teacher one day and make lots of money, I will buy expensive fish and meat from the market and make better dishes.”
Rani kissed her hand.
“Tell you what. I will bring sweets back from work,” Muniamma said.
“Can’t wait,” Rani squealed with joy and waved her goodbye.
Muniamma watched the little girl leap over rivulets of filth and cow dung in her white top and green skirt, her anklets leaving a sweet trail of music in its wake.
“Do you want me to come with you?” she shouted.
“No,” said Rani.
She asked the question everyday and received the same answer.
Muniamma smiled at the sweet nature of her little girl who knew grandma could never will herself to enter the street where the school was located. Waves of pain shot up her crippled leg as she recalled the trauma.
As a little girl Muniamma was fond of racing boys in the neighbourhood on her rusty bicycle decked with red ribbons. One day she accidentally rode into that same street, the domain of high caste businessmen several decades ago.
The boys halted at the entrance, but she ignored them and the glaring shopkeepers and pedaled faster. Then someone kicked her.
She landed on her side, legs straddling the bike. Her body pulsed with pain and she tasted blood. It took her a few minutes to recover from the shock.
“How dare you cast your impure shadow on this street?” the man who brought her down, said.
A little crowd gathered around her.
“Teach her a lesson so that the other vermin wouldn’t dare step here.”
Someone threw the man a wooden log.
Muniamma pleaded with folded hands and tears in her eyes. She tried to sit up, but the man pinned her left leg to the steel frame of the bike with his foot.
She screamed as he lifted the log and slammed it into her leg again and again. Her cries brought the busy street to a halt.
She looked around and begged for mercy. Many looked away, some smiled at her with relish.
There was a loud sickening crunch and Muniamma lost consciousness.
The man carried on till he was exhausted. Then he dropped the log and walked away. The crowd dispersed, disappointed that the show was over.
The world passed by, careful not to step on her blood and flesh.
Finally a rickshaw puller took her to the hospital.
Muniamma shed a tear as she recalled the horror. Some things had changed since then, a lot hadn’t.
Muniamma made her own lunch, packed it into a cloth bundle and left for the laundry.
The long walk through the dump and on the road was tough on her body. She stopped several times to give her good leg a rest.
When she arrived, she signed the register and entered the large courtyard with a waist high cement tank in the middle. Men in white vests and sports shorts and women in their saris slapped clothes against flogging stones rhythmically. Sun rays caught in constant spray of water and soap, created mini rainbows. The air smelled of detergent and wet garments.
She picked one of the numbered stainless steel buckets and joined the others
To forget the pain in her leg, she willed herself into a trance washing the clothes, watching the dirty water and suds drain into an outlet that took it to the black river flowing just outside the compound.
She had lunch with her dearest and longest friend at the laundry.
Chanki was greedily smoking her favorite brand of beedi.
“What’s that on the side of your face?” Muniamma said pointing to the red welt.
Chanki blew smoke.
Muniamma coughed. “Not to my face, you idiot.”
Chanki grinned, displaying her yellow teeth.
“Did the old man beat you again?” she said placing a hand on Chanki’s shoulder.
“And I gave him good. But to get back at me he peed in his bed.”
Muniamma gave her a half smile.
“What’s bothering you today,” Chanki asked.
“Nonsense. I saw you mumbling prayers.”
“I am worried about Rani. She’s been walking through the dump to go to school. The dogs … ”
“The corporation killed them all. I was there. They took most of them away in a van. The ones that resisted were beaten with wooden clubs or kicked to death.”
Muniamma gave Chanki a disapproving look.
“They deserved it,” she said, “for killing poor Abu Salim and mauling Saroja’s girl. She still can’t see out of one eye.”
“We don’t have the right to take a life.”
“You wouldn’t say that if something happened to … ” Chanki stopped, “I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
Muniamma got up, “Time to get back to work.”
She hated to think something nasty would happen to her darling.
She didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the day, but waved goodbye to Chanki at the end of the shift.
She bought some candy from a nearby store. She couldn’t wait to see the delight on her angel’s face.
The sun disappeared in a hurry and her failing eyesight made it difficult to see the potholes and exposed drainage. The constant stream of high beams and honking on the road numbed her senses.
She paused for a second before entering the landfill and trained her light on the surroundings. Dark hills of waste like the surface of an alien planet. She listened for the sound of animals, but all she could hear was the rustling of plastic bags.
She was glad Rani walked to school and back with a group of children.
She moved as fast as she could through that blasted landscape, oblivious to the pain.
Muniamma knew Rani wasn’t home because the house was dark.
She lit a kerosene lamp and shouted the girl’s name as looked around the house.
There was no response.
“Have you seen my little Rani?” she asked neighbors. They shook their heads.
She asked the group of girls that Rani usually travelled with. They hadn’t seen her.
The old woman sat down and let out an anguished cry, “Rani.”
People came running from nearby homes.
“It’s nearly 7 now, what is my little girl doing? Where is she?”
“She must be playing with friends somewhere. We will find her soon,” others consoled her.
“Rani is always home before I get back. She is a good girl. She wouldn’t worry me.”
She sat at the same spot clutching the bag of candy she bought for Rani and wailed. She refused to have a drink or accept a word of solace till her granddaughter was found.
A search party was organized, but they failed to find any trace of her in the slum.
Then someone suggested they should look in the land fill. The idea conjured feelings of dread, but they took iron rods and torches, and scoured the wasteland. They even searched the roads that lead to the school and the building itself.
There was no sign of Rani.
The men returned exhausted and dirty and they stayed up all night in their huts, worrying about the little girl.
Muniamma fell asleep after hours of crying.
She had a nightmare of Rani being chased by hounds the size of cows with red eyes and sharp teeth. Muniamma shouted and banged her crutches together to draw their attention. She pleaded with them to take her instead. And they did.
The next day, a few hours before the “parade for peace” was to pass through the main road, a traffic policeman found the half eaten body of a child.
He radioed it in.
A crew arrived immediately and removed the corpse. A cleaner poured chemicals on the road and scrubbed the spot.
He rushed the job on account of urgency, but it didn’t matter because when the large procession of bright smiles and flags and colourful sports jerseys and expensive suits and flashing light bulbs passed by, nobody noticed the large dark stain in the middle of road. n
Chitra Divakaruni: The setting and description were well done.
Bharti Kirchner: Timely topic; poignant; holds the reader’s attention till the end.
Nikesh Murali’s work (which includes comics, poems and short stories) has appeared in more than 80 publications worldwide. His poems have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French. He won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Asian region in 2011. His poetry was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He has completed his Masters in Journalism from Griffith University for which he was awarded the Griffith University Award for Academic Excellence in 2005, and his Masters in Teaching from James Cook University and a Bachelors degree in English Literature and World History from University of Kerala. He is working towards his Doctorate in Creative Writing.