“Beep, Beep, Beep.”
Neelu pulled the sheet away from her face and opened one eye. “Uuuuuh! What is that noise?” Her head swung around the room until her eyes landed on the clock. “That…that…that thing!!! Why is it so loud?” Neelu knocked the alarm off and snuggled under the sheets again. She lay there, her eyes all scrunched up and wrinkly.
But then a delicious aroma drifted into her room. The smell of food did what the alarm couldn’t. She shrugged her sheets off and stretched her body like a bow.
“MMMMmmm,” Neelu sniffed and filled her lungs. Slowly, her wobbly legs found their way to the kitchen.
“Maaaaa,” she hugged her mother! “Good morning! Paneer Masala! What a lovely smell to wake up to! My nose guessed the menu today,” Neelu laid her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“Oh, my lovely child,” said Ma as she held Neelu tight. “Guess why I made your favorite dish today?” She asked.
“Because it is our Big Day! November 14, Children’s Day. Yay!”
“Yes, it’s Children’s Day. I wanted to make this day special for you. And so your favorite lunch. I made enough so you can share it with your friends. Don’t Ragavi and Tony love paneer masala too?”
“Yes, Ma. Ragavi says your paneer masala tastes like heaven and Tony…, he always demands a separate box for him,” chuckled Neelu.
“I know how much you kids love it. I’ll pack a special box for both those,” said Neelu’s Mom beaming with joy and pride.
It was time to get ready for school. So, Neelu went to bathe and change into her uniform. When she came to eat breakfast, steam rose from the sambar. No one…no one could make soft idlis like her mother! The little girl devoured her food.
“It is going to be a great day, Ma,” said Neelu. “No classes today. Our teachers will become kids for a day. They are going to stage shows. It will be so much fun,” Neelu’s smile widened as she thought about what was to come.
“Don’t forget to give the trip money to your class teacher as soon as you go to school. It is a lot of money, and you don’t want to misplace it anywhere, okay?” Her mom reminded her.
“MMmmmmmua,” Neelu kissed her Ma as she stepped out the door. “I’ll tell you all about it when I get back this evening.” Her mother stood in the doorway until Neelu was out of sight.
Mmmmmm,” Neelu hummed as she rode her red bicycle to her school. She enjoyed riding. The breeze tickled her face, her skirt blew back, and it felt like she was floating in the clouds. There, she could see the rainbow. All she had to do was reach out and touch it. Neelu raised the handlebar.
Thump. Thump. Thump!
The bicycle crashed to the ground, taking the school girl with it. Her bag flew off the back. Notebooks and papers peeked out of the open flap. Neelu tried to move her tangled legs from under the bicycle. But when she heard a whimpering sound from behind, she stopped and turned. A little boy lay there. All around them were mashed and broken samosas!
“Oh my God, what will I tell Dada today?” The boy’s eyes welled up and his shoulders shook.
Neelu looked at him and his tattered clothes. He looked too tiny to be carrying so many samosas. His weeping eyes showed fear and anguish.
“Ooh! I am sorry! This is my fault. I was so excited to go to school today,” She sat next to him and put her hand on his shoulder.
“My Mom will be upset when I go home. I can’t sell these samosas. How will I buy dinner for us without any money?” wailed the exhausted boy.
“Listen, it’s not your fault. I will go with you and explain to her that it was my mistake,” said Neelu. A thought niggled at the back of her mind. “Why are you buying dinner anyway?”
The boy dusted the crumbling samosa pieces off his shirt, picked up the wicker basket, and hugged it under his arm. “When I sell the samosas, I buy idli or dosai for my family with some of the money. That’s our dinner.”
“You mean you buy food with the money you earn?” asked Neelu, her eyes popping.
“Yes, I do. I help my father,” he nodded. Tears rolled down his face as he realized they might have to go hungry that night.
“I can give you my field trip money. That should make up for what you lost here, okay?” Neelu comforted the boy and opened her bag to take the money out. Soon the two children were walking towards the samosa stall outside her school.
“What’s your name? Your stall is new, isn’t it?” Neelu wanted to know more. She had seen other children working on the road before. But she’d never had to talk to them about money or food. Was it guilt or pity that someone younger than her had to work to eat?
“My name? My name is Chinna. Yeah, we came here just two weeks ago. My family moves a lot. Sometimes my mother and father help build houses. Sometimes we sell food outside busy places,” the boy folded the money neatly and slid it into the oversize pocket on his shorts.
“Oh! So, it’s like you are on vacation all year?” asked Neelu excitedly.
“Well, we go to school for the whole year. In the end, we must take an exam. Once the exams are over, the school is closed for many weeks. It is called summer vacation. That’s when we visit other places, our relatives and all.”
“Really? I have never been inside a school. I watch all the kids go to school from outside the gate.” His calm acceptance made Neelu feel uncomfortable. “What do you mean, you’ve never been inside a school? Don’t your parents send you to one?” They had come to the zebra crossing. Neelu grabbed Chinna’s hand with her free hand as they crossed the street.
“No, I must help my father. My mother used to work, but now she must stay home and take care of my brother. He is sick, and she takes him to the doctor. If I go to school, who will help my father?” Neelu looked at Chinna from the corner of her eye. The little boy seemed so sure about what he must do to help his family.
When they neared the school, they saw colourful streamers and flags strung over the vast playground. Chinna’s eyes lit up. “Hey, what is so special today? The security guard and others put these flags up last evening. Is an actor coming to school?”
“An actor? Nooo! Don’t you know what is so special today? Today is Children’s Day!” exclaimed Neelu.
“I know Independence Day. What is children’s day? What will you do in school for Children’s Day?” Chinna asked.
Neelu fell silent. How was she to explain to someone who had never been inside a school why the teachers would make it a special day for their students? How would Chinna celebrate Children’s day?
“Chinna, you said you know about Independence Day. Have you heard of Jawaharlal Nehru?”
“Who is he? An actor?”
“NOOOO! You have actors on your brain! Chinna, he was our first prime minister, and he loved children a lot. Today is his birthday. So, we celebrate his birthday as Children’s Day all over India. To tell you the truth, we kids like it because we don’t do any work today in school. Our teachers will put on some shows for us, and there’ll be a special party. It’s really a ‘no work’ day for us. That’s why you see all these decorations.”
“I wish I could come inside and join you. But the guard over there always shoos me out,” said Chinna in a soft voice. He looked up at the girl’s face hopefully, but she knew that Chinna could not come in to sit with her in class. Neelu was overcome with grief. “How can a child be deprived of celebrating Children’s Day?” The thought brought a lump to her throat.
When she let go of Chinna’s hand to park her bicycle inside the school grounds, the security guard closed the gate. Neelu looked over her shoulder. Chinna was standing there, his eyes filled with longing. The school gate stood like a wall separating them from the other’s world. What could she do to change it?
Neelu saw the happy faces of children running here and there. Laughter and the eager chitter chatter of kids sounded all around her. Would she be able to forget the look in Chinna’s eyes?
Neelu made a decision. She ran back to the gate. “Chinna! Chinna! Come back here tomorrow evening, okay? I’ll meet you after school!”
Chinna nodded happily.
Yes, she and Chinna lived in different worlds. But she was going to reach out to the other world somehow. She’ll talk to her mother when she gets home. There had to be a way!