Thursday 15 August 2013

Flash Fiction 2013, Third Prize Megha Nayar

Till Drug Do Us Part

It had been all over the social network, showing up on every other Home page and making countless stomachs roil. She had once, even in the face of a threatening deadline at work, allowed herself a full five minutes to read the story, her anxious eyes revealing the churning in her heart as she scrolled her way through. The coffee break over, she rushed back to her desk reeling. That night, while taking a walk, she decided to make a departure from her routine. No alms for Shakuntala today.

Beggars inject intoxicating substances into their unsuspecting babies so that the little ones make no noise while playing sympathy-provokers, said the article. The whole act of begging in the name of the child is a farce, it said, thriving on kind souls who immediately fumble for loose change in their pockets at the sight of an impoverished child. But the business was resulting in more and more kids being drugged, and many did not survive infancy. Give no alms, the article admonished. Encourage beggars to work for a living instead.

To her rational head, now used to drawing up balance sheets for everything, it was sane advice. No more, she promised herself. The thought of Shakuntala’s runny-nosed, emaciated kid did cross her mind, but she brushed it aside. Concentrate on the jogging – don’t bother with beggars who will kill their kids for alms but do nothing for a living. And she jogged on.

That evening though, the balloon-seller had no company. When she approached him in the middle of her nightly jog, he sat smoking a beedi on the pavement, looking expressionless except perhaps a tad morose. She stopped. That familiar feeling of empathy did not come rushing today. Instead, she felt a slow rage, even betrayal, starting to brew within. “No Shakuntala today?” she asked, surprised at how pointed she had sounded. “She’s been slowly killing that baby. Has she gone to cremate him or what?”

She’d expected him to act shocked and launch his well-rehearsed tirade on the insensitivity of the affluent. It surprised her when he made no attempt to correct her. She suddenly felt awkward. “Oh kaka! Where is the kid? Has she gone to feed him some vodka?” she tried again. No response. She could not decide what it was that she wanted more – to hear a ‘no’ and be relieved, or to hear a ‘yes’ and silently rejoice at her assumption coming true. 

Just then, she heard a pair of anklets approach. She knew it would be Shakuntala, and she turned around importantly. The beggar-woman was hobbling along slowly, but she had no kid in her arms today.

“Where’s your boy? Or have you killed him already?”
Memsahib, I left him with the dhobi so that I could come running for you. Go home, the cops are looking for you. It seems your husband overdosed himself with sleeping pills.”

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