This is a short story I wrote for my college magazine about twelve years ago.
It was called voluntary work but it sat before me as an unavoidable compulsion – an obligation to help extend the range of charitable acts performed by my benevolent father, the charity-loving and exasperatingly generous doctor, loved and respected by one and all - -whatever you please.
Perhaps he thought it an overwhelmingly noble gesture to have his only daughter teach poor orphans in her spare time; I thought it only overwhelmed my free time, which I’d have rather used for a million other things actually worth my time. In fact, I believed charity began at home, and I forever found myself wishing that my father had been more charitable with my time, with which I was allowed to do things I thought were good and not he alone. I, for one, believed his glamorous image as the perennially donating doctor was a total sham compared to reality.
But I was the only one who thought so. So what I was stuck with, basically, was a dreary two hour session everyday, filled with five or six orphaned children eager to have me teach them fractions or read out abridged Shakespeare, and let’s not even get down to the geography lessons and the tiresome map marking experiences, and the dim differences between solids, liquids and gases.
As if this wasn’t enough, one of these needy orphans nearly always stayed back or made extra visits during the weekends to discuss her lessons or, shall we say, eat my head.
I wasn’t even allowed to tell Pramila that I’d had enough. Father would see to that. He believed there was something special about her, if she yearned to learn as much she did. I, on the other hand, firmly thought she was incredibly stupid since she was only about five or six years younger than I was, and she was still learning things like LCM and GCD from me. There was nothing special about her unless scientists discovered that they’d found a bird brain inside a human head and put her aside for ‘special’ studies.
She called me ‘akka’ in a shrill and rather raucous voice, generally filled with an awe and respect that I took from her effortlessly and continued to look down upon her.
Since she’d grown up on the streets, the only languages she knew were Kannada and slang Kannada, which is the main reason she saw English as this saintly epitome of knowledge.
It was something that staunchly stood in the middle of her own version of divine paradise. It was something that floated above her, something you had to fly up to reach and she loved the whole idea of it. I personally agreed that it was something very above her and they didn’t make helicopters that went high enough for her to grasp it.
She wrote poems whenever she could manage (seeing how she was always free, there was a crushing amount of these poems) and she would beg to read it out to me. I allowed it sometimes and each poem she sincerely read out to me hardened my belief that if these were called poems, poets all over the world would unquestionably stop writing them forever.
Don’t get it wrong; I did not hate Pramila. In fact, I secretly liked the strange vulnerability and innocence around her, the odd sincerity and determination she possessed. Maybe it was because these were traits that children on the streets usually didn’t hold. And maybe because I wasn’t any of those things in the slightest, and there is always that queer attraction to things you didn’t have or things you weren’t.
And as it happened, she was unavoidably ‘good in the heart’ or whatever lame phrase you’d like – so she made certain I had errands for her to run, and that I awarded her some chores about the house. She gladly acted upon all I told her, and if someone craved for an accurate demonstration of gullibility, here it was.
I saw her, mainly, as a boring little creature that did not change my life in any way, and never would.
Perhaps I could mention a proverb I’d crossed. Judge not a man by the manners he displays to his superior but by the manners he presents to his inferior.
Judge away all you want. This is who I was (big surprise). I didn’t bother to spare Pramila time of the day and honestly, I didn’t care what happened to her.
“Akka, I’ve written something. Can I please read it out to you?” Her voice was amply decorated with politeness and pleading.
I tore my eyes away from the T.V. and turned them upon her, to find her sitting on the carpet, a few feet away. I grunted in order to present a positive reply and hardly looked when her eyes lit up excitedly.
In a fervent voice, she held out before her a crinkly piece of paper, “It’s not a poem.”
“Is that the name of your poem?” I asked tersely, with a curt smile.
“No. No, akka, I’m just telling you that this thing I’ve written is not a poem.”
“I see. Go on, then,” I yawned.
She cleared her throat importantly, “It is my understanding of the world, akka.”
I snorted. “Wonderful.”
“The world is a collection,” she began with a waver, “of people and their work and their words and their ideas. Each and every item in this collection is unique and makes an important difference to this collection. The specialty of this collection is that it is not the same for more than a second. New people with new auras and ideas enter this collection every second and the same second, old ones leave forever. Sometimes their ideas are left behind a little longer. These items have an effect on one another, on their auras, their emotions, and then on their ideas. Rapidly, this collection morphs to a new state and it doesn’t ever stop. The old items leave impressions on the remaining ones and sometime change their ideas and those ideas affect other ideas and so on like a chemical reaction, like different frequencies of light merging together to form new color of light – and so if you see the world the way I do, it is a big round planet shimmering thousands of different colors every millisecond – like a disco ball that’s running on it’s own, with nothing to fuel it and nearly nothing to stop it…”
There was pause. And intakes of breath. I looked at her slowly. “You wrote that?”
“It was an idea, Akka.”
I dropped my eyes and looked away abruptly. “You copied it from somewhere,” I accused.
“No, Akka!” she said earnestly.
“Auras….rapidly…morphs….shimmering…merging… they’re all some pretty big words for you…” My voice could’ve given the Artic and Antarctic sizeable competition.
“I looked for these words in the dictionary… you gave me your old dictionary, akka…”
I hauled in a deep breath. “You think the world is a collection of colors, do you?”
“Yes, they say the atmosphere is made of nitrogen and oxygen and other things but I was thinking it is full of ideas - all on different frequencies, some taken and some waiting… maybe to jump into somebody’s head…”
I smiled. She stared at me, my smile bringing a smile onto her lips. “So apparently, a stupid idea was waiting on a low-level frequency, waiting to jump into some idiot’s head and it found yours,” I stood up and walked away.
I knew she was unbearably disappointed. But I was unbearably aggravated. The thought that she could have possibly thought something of that sort up and all by herself got on my nerves for some reason. Some things come too close to impossible, and when it does, you can’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep.
“We have,” said the professor grimly, “a class full of people dying to emerge as a journalist, an author… a screenwriter, scriptwriter…. All writers! Yes?”
The class barked back a ‘yes, sir’ with a resolute passion and ardor.
“I have explained the agreement we have had with Times of India. They are searching for new talent. You have all been searching for opportunities. In short, you are searching for each other. This event might be the turning points of your lives.”
The class waited with bated breath and a hundred pairs of sparkling eyes bore into him.
“You have all been trained. You all possess the flair for playing with words. No one doubts your linguistic abilities. But is that enough?” he roared. “No. They are searching for people with rare ideas. Special ideas. Sheets of paper have been passed around now. In less than hundred words, you will write whatever you please. These words must contain something exceptional. If they do, these words will change your life. You have fifteen minutes. Begin.”
A curious raging excitement rushed through the class. Papers were keenly straightened up and pens feverishly click-clocked on the desks.
Vaguely, I pictured Pramila’s theory of ripe ideas traveling in the air around us, waiting to be harvested. Maybe my idea was buzzing right past my ear. I could nearly hear it. I had to pick it up. No, how stupid. She was a street child. It was a street child’s theory. Maybe I could write about street children. Wow, Times of India would certainly award me for my originality.
I really needed something. I saw people around me scribbling away furiously on their papers and my heart jolted in tension and desperation. I grew impatient. I could not think. If my brain was a factory, it was certainly experiencing an emergency shut-down. . Minutes ticked by without the least mercy. Six minutes… five… four… come on… three… minutes…
Then, I picked up my pen and swallowed. I wrote. I see the world as a collection of people, and their work and their ideas………
“They found a body. Thirteen year old girl.”
My heart clenched in infinite horror. “It couldn’t be Pramila.” It was as if my throat was wrenching back my voice, because it hurt when I spoke.
My father slipped on his outdoor glasses and ran a hand through his hair. “I have been called to check the body. I’ll be back in an hour.”
When he left, I noisily burst into tears. It had been four days since I’d seen Pramila. The last time I had left her, she’d been sitting cross-legged on my carpet, clutching her bit of paper – stumped when her piece of writing had enraged me, bewildered when I’d left the room without giving her so much as a glance.
She hadn’t turned up for the next day’s lessons. And for the lessons the day after that. When an enquiry was made at the orphanage, my father learnt that she’d never returned.
It wasn’t long before they realized she was missing. No one had the vaguest clue where she was. My father had some announcements made and had approached the police to conduct a search for her. But all these attempts had been in vain.
Sobbing, I seized the newspaper lying before me and glanced at it mournfully, once more. A wave of nausea hit me when my treacherous eyes met my own. It was my photo, equipped with the article spread callously over that section of the paper – ‘I see the world as a collection of……..’ I’d been conferred with various titles like ‘potential genius’ and ‘fresh intellect’. I craved to tell them what I truly was, and suggest an appropriate title for them to assign to the wretchedness that was me. ‘Unpolluted evil’, perhaps. Or ‘wicked tyrant’. I imagined Pramila found lying dead in some deserted ditch and shrieked and tore up the paper with a possessed sort of rage.
Through a thick veil of tears, I watched Pramila’s theory land home and brought to life. The world’s collection had changed. If Pramila had left and was gone as an old item, she’d left behind an item whose ideas had transformed drastically. Whose colours had swiftly changed. Whose world was now a different collection. A collection with a missing piece, the absence of which caused guilt to burn in me and melancholy to overwhelm me. What I wouldn’t do to grab hold of the previous collection…
I nearly screamed in fright. Face wet and eyes still pouring, I looked up. My heart leapt. It couldn’t be… but it was… it was Pramila! Standing timidly by the half-closed door…
“Oh my God? Where have you been?” I screeched at her.
With some coaxing, I was able to understand that she’d hidden herself for the last four days. She’d assumed that she had made a terrible mistake that evening, though she wasn’t sure what it was, that had angered me beyond anything. She had been afraid to come home after that, frightened to have to face my unexplained wrath.
“Come here,” I told her softly. I received her with outstretched arms and did not let go of her, but carried on with sniffling on her shoulder for a long time.
“Akka…” she murmured, perplexed. “Akka, I was reading the paper.”
“Yes, I saw my photo in the paper. It said I was missing. What’s happening? What have I done?”
“Akka, I saw your photo in the paper too…”
I felt my heart sinking in shame. “Yes…”
“I read – “
“Yes, I know!”
“Does this mean you liked it?”
“Yes, I did. Very much. It’s beautiful.”
Her face broke into an enormous grin. I added, “I believe your theory. And I believe that right now, I am a shining white colour amongst the collection!”
I was sorely tempted to tell her how I had understood her theory through a practical demonstration. How I had thought she’d died, and how I had connected her theory with everything.
But I didn’t. I don’t think she even knew what irony meant.