Monday 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 Shortlist, Shravya Gunipudi

If Only

She stood in the corner of the street, away from cold stares and heartless whispers as she shuddered under the raging thunder. The noise of pointless pencil heels and the dazzle of temporarily luxurious jewellery distracted her, almost for a second, till she remembered her own blistered toes and torn clothes and looked away, knowing she would always be so very close to the immaterial materialistic part of human life and yet be so far away.
No matter how much she tried to reach out, to delicately brush her fingers across all the lavishness she desperately longed for but could never have, she was unable to get close enough. Her past kept clouding her own judgement and her clarity of purpose.

“Stay away from the rich people,” Her mother warned, wagging her finger at her. “They’re the one you need to be watchful of. And don’t go anywhere close to the other people of our kind on our streets. They’ll manipulate us and steal our change.” 

She had nodded, taking in all the words of advice her mother tried to give her, yet not understanding what she was supposed to do out on the streets. If she wasn’t supposed to interact with the rich people and if people of her own kind were to be stayed away from, then who was she supposed to go to? Was it the middle class, the content souls of the Indian Society? Would they pardon her or show her some mercy? Perhaps they were what the true definition of a common man really was. Perhaps they were the ones who would show her the way.
She watched as her mother coughed out blood. 

With tears in her eyes, she let her mother embrace her one last time.
She still remembered how the strong arms around her had suddenly gone limp and fallen to the floor. She remembered the shattering of her mother’s glass bangles and the piercing noise they made as they broke into a million pieces. The blood on her mother’s wrists would forever stay in her memory, that she was sure of.
Now, she only had one choice and that was to take up her mother’s profession.
Strange how her mother’s last words were of caution. If only they’d been words of love. She’d have been much happier. But love in her family was rarer than money.

I watched from a distance, sitting in the comfort of my car, how the expressions on her child-like face remained intact, not deceiving the depth of her emotions. Looking back now, I wish I did something back then. Anything. But I didn’t. That is why this story is here today to be told, about how we often miss the most important moments in life, moments that are meant to help others. That day will remain etched in my memory forever.

At the tender age of five, she watched her father beat her mother up and throw her to the corner of the room. She’d been terrified, then, almost scared senseless Once or twice she’d thought of getting up to defend her mother but realized with great helplessness that her strength would be of no match to the beast she hated to call her father. The tears in her mother’s eyes had been a symbol of women all over the country to that young child, mainly because those were the same tears in the exact crouched position that she’d see in her neighbour's eyes, her aunt’s eyes and possibly in all the eyes of the women she knew. That, she felt, was the greatest degradation. To have the ability to cry was a gift, one that no one cherished the value of, but to no be able to control that gift, that turned into a curse. 
Five years later, at twice her age, she now stood and watched as her community hurriedly buried her mother in the soil without any proper rites or rituals because they didn’t really deserve any. Because, a decent death only came to those who had the money. That was another strange thing, that money, a piece of paper that had no importance once the breath of a human being ceased to exist, had the power to decide the comfort of his soul’s rest.

The lightning flashed across the sky, playing hide-and-seek with the world as it winked in a flash of a second, depriving the people of clarity. It reminded her of the sadistic jingle of coins that came from purses branded with money that could have instead been used to feed children like her and the crisp sharpness of notes that had the face of a man she would never be able to learn about. A man who fought for the country without an inkling of the state it now was in with the alarming rates of malnutrition and poverty that affected the people, more so the innocent children who did not know the horrors of their lives.
A man who died a little too soon before he could see how much transformation lit up the lives of the rich and buried the hearts of the poor.
A man who would not expect nor want the cruelty that was stepping on children struggling to afford even one meal a day, let alone three.

Men to her were the ultimate enemies. Her very first example of a man was her own father. She didn’t know if he qualified as a ‘man’. She didn’t think testosterone would suffice. This was so much more than that. What happened to being a loving son, a wonderful husband and an amazing father? Her own dad wasn’t even one of these things and of the three women in his life, his mother, his wife and his daughter, two were already in the grave and the only one left wished she could be.
She remembered the riches, the happiness that money had brought them back when they were all together. Back when her mother was still tolerant of the abuses because of the marble kitchen and the closed washrooms that came with it. Because of the money that she could use to wipe away the blood that ran down the corner of her lips every time her father decided that her face was perfect to practice tennis with his rough hands. At that point of time, she wondered if money really had that kind of power, if it was enough to let someone else empower your senses.
Now, she realised, yes. Yes, it was. 

I watched as she stood, trying to take shelter from the harsh rain drops that would pierce her delicate skin, wrought from the exposure of the terrible mixture of pollution and human hatred. But as it actually began to pour, people seemed to finally see her, or so she thought, till they rushed towards the iron ledge she managed to hold on to for herself. As they pushed her out of the tiny space of comfort she would get for weeks to come, she looked up at the pairs of eyes that refused to see beyond the obvious.

She walked away in the rain, shivering as the water got through the numerous tears in her clothes and found their way towards her hauntingly obvious ribs and the inward curve of her abdomen while, in a painful contrast, most other kids her age were healthy from eating off plates instead of garbage cans.

Immediately after her father had left her, she watched as her whole life turned upside down, not because of the lack of a man in their lives but because of all the things he took away from them including the ground under their feet. From feeling the warmth of her slippers and sleeping in the cosiness of her bed, she’d come to get used to the rough gravel beneath her feet and the cold floor damaging her protruding bones from the skin that was unable to cover her body.

His leaving had led to a disaster. It was the reason she had to beg on the streets today.
She didn’t want him back, no, that wasn’t what she wished for. But if only her life had some respite, some end to the darkness of the tunnel she called life. 

As an inward shudder escaped her and she heard her stomach growl from hunger, she felt herself go dizzy till she gave in to her boiling skin and the pain in her bones, falling to the floor in a dead faint. People walked by aimlessly, some crossing her limp body but none thinking about stopping to help. It was hardly minutes before I got off the car and rushed by her side but by then it was too late.
Her battered heart had given up on her.

I pressed my heart to her chest, ignoring the fact that my suit was now soiled from the dirt and the muck of her body.
“No!” I shouted, drenched in the rain. “Please God, no!”
But it was over. God won.
If only I had helped her earlier.
If only I had been there when she needed me.
If only I had been a good father.
If only.

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