Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The School Bag

A touching story i read somewhere in blogosphere....

She sat beneath the banyan tree and beside her sat her tuition bag. Her eyes were hurt and she was angry. She kept looking at the open well few yards away. She imagined herself floating over the water the next day. Her appa*** will be angry with her for jumping into the well. Her thambi*** will miss her. Her amma*** will realize that she was after all a good girl. She pulled out her homework notebook which was neatly covered with newspaper that her amma had borrowed from the grocery stores. She looked at the handmade label. She and her brother had made it as soon as her appa had bought them their new books for that year. The label read – Kanmani. Vth Standard. She had wanted to write Kannu, just how her parents called her, instead she wrote Kanmani, the name her friends and teachers called her.

She tore a paper from the almost new notebook. She didn’t mind the torn edges that looked like rat-nibbled paper. She wanted to write her last letter to her parents before she made her way into the well early next morning. Her father had gone out of town and would be returning the next day. She would be gone by then. She addressed the letter to her appa and wrote how amma always scolded her for everything, how amma had always loved thambi and did not find time for her. She wrote about how much she had missed her appa when he was gone all the time, how she used to pretend to be studying late into the night, just because her dad would come home late. She wrote about how much she loved her thambi, how much she cared for him and how amma never used to understand that. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she poured out her frustrations.
Kannu folded the paper and safely pressed it inside the notebook along with a flower that she had picked near the tree. She tucked it inside the cloth bag and looked up at the sky. Darkness was engulfing the town and it was time for her to reach home, to savor her amma’s food for one last time. When her amma wakes up the next morning the door will be open. The kolam*** outside the house will be missing. Kannu will also be missing.
“Why did it take so long to get home?” her amma asked as she stepped into the house.
“I had to finish some additional homework today”
“Come and help me in the kitchen”
Their house was small with just 2 rooms, one living and the other kitchen. As she placed her bag beside her thambi’s bag, she saw him playing with his broken toys.
She had always dreamt of buying him new toys in a year or two. She knew she would be pulled out of school in a year and sent to work. As she walked into the kitchen she thought how her dream will never be realized. He might still have to play with broken toys.
“Tomorrow I am going to the temple early in the morning as it is Friday. So get up early with me and help me in the kitchen so that I can pack lunch for both of you and leave home. You take care of thambi and get him ready for school”, her amma said as she placed the rice pot over the earthen stove.
Kannu did not answer. She did not know how to execute her plan. She was still angry with her amma and she didn’t want to give up on her plan to give up on life.
“Are you listening?” her amma asked.
She nodded her head as she sat down with the onions. Kannu did not want to talk to her amma.
That night, the three of them sat outside the house on the thinnai*** and her amma fed her thambi telling him stories. Kannu ate her share of the rice and curry trying to follow her amma’s stories. She hardly remembered the time when she was her thambi’s age; six. She thought her amma would have told her tales as well and that she had grown up to be a big girl and have forgotten the past. She smiled at her thambi time and again and made faces so that he will laugh at her. Every mouthful of rice, her mind raced back to the letter tucked inside the notebook. “Will they search for my notebooks or should I leave it in a prominent place in the house?” her mind was still planning.
She readied the living room for the three of them to sleep beside a table fan that made creaking noises. The family was used to the noise all night. Her amma and thambi slept right beside the fan while she slept diagonally. She was used to it and she let it be because she loved seeing her thambi sleep so peacefully. She switched off the light and rested her head on the hard pillow. She did not close her eyes. She stared at the dark emptiness on the ceiling and her mind reeled back in time – what had happened few hours ago when she had come back from school.
“Where is thambi’s notebook and box?” her amma was frantically searching for them in thambi’s bag. Everyday Kannu carried both her bag and her thambi’s to and from school. That day her thambi had forgotten one of his notebooks and his pencil box and left them on the class desk.
“I don’t know amma. I just picked him from his classroom and we walked back home” there was fear in Kannu’s eyes when she answered her amma.
Her amma looked at thambi and he began to cry.
“I will run back to school and check” Kannu said as she headed towards the door.
“Wait! Who will go to the tuition? We are not wasting money on your carelessness. What if someone flicks the notebook and box?” her amma was clearly mad at Kannu.
“Now what do you want me to do? I didn’t know thambi had left it behind”
“Don’t talk back!” her amma was enraged. She held Kannu by her ear and stared into her petrified eyes.
Kannu was silent and looked back into her amma’s eyes. She wanted to push her away and run away from that house. Her eyes welled up and her amma’s grip on her ear loosened. She had a stinging pain run down her earlobe.
“You will not forget anything from school ever. You must check your belongings and that of thambi’s also before heading back home. Next time you leave something behind, I will not let you inside the house”
Kannu was angry. She thought it was a very harsh punishment that her amma will be imposing. She looked at her thambi as she picked her tuition bag. He was playing with his broken toys oblivious to the hurt in his sister’s eyes and heart. She was hurt and she wanted to teach her amma a lesson for always finding fault with her. Instead of walking into the tuition class, she sat beneath the banyan tree and wrote her last letter to her family.
As she closed her eyes there was a knock on the door and she opened her eyes with a startle. Her amma woke up from her sleep and switched on the light. Kannu squinted her eyes and looked at the man at the door. It was her appa and her happiness knew no bounds. She jumped at him in joy and broke down. He hugged her and pacified her. Her amma walked into the kitchen to heat the leftover food.
“I thought I will not see you” Kannu said as her eyes were still moist.
“Kannu, appa is here and you will see me quite often hereafter. Promise” he said and hugged her.
“I was harsh with her today” her amma said as she placed the plate on the floor.
“I’m sure Kannu would not have done anything” her appa said.
Kannu felt jubilant and looked at her amma as if to convey that she had appa to support her.
“She left behind thambi’s notebook and pencil box back in school. She might not understand that it is hard to buy another notebook and box this year”
It made sense to Kannu. She knew her parents worked hard to send them both to school.
“Kannu, amma is not angry with you. I just want you to be careful of our belongings. Just like your belongings you will always take care of thambi
also” her amma said as she sat beside appa and placed a plate of diced ripe mangoes.
“Can I take one?” Kannu asked.
“Sure” her appa passed the plate to her.
Kannu was happy. Her anger was replaced with the sweetness of the mangoes. She wanted to tear off the letter right away, but she had to wait until morning to do it. She went to sleep with a smile and the fact that it was Friday the next day. She already thought about how to spend her weekend.
July 16. The day dawned with a million orange flares on the sky. It looked different, the dawn. Kannu and her thambi walked to school. Her dad had left home early that day and her amma had gone to the temple. As they walked down the dusty road, she told her thambi of how appa had come home the previous night and how she got a chance to taste the sweet mangoes that her amma had hid in the rice drum.
At her class, while the teacher had excused herself to go out for a while, Kannu opened her bag to pull out the letter and then realized that it was in her tuition notebook which was at home. Her heart began to beat faster. She imagined her amma open her tuition notebook and read the letter. She wanted to run back home to destroy the letter. She hurried to the classroom door to run out before the teacher was back. The door was locked from outside. Kannu knew something was unusual that day, that moment. She placed her ear on the door. The cries were getting louder. She stood there motionless and the cries were getting scarier. She looked down beneath the door. Black smoke engulfed her legs as if a spirit had just been set free out of a lamp. She turned back and saw the other students in her classroom. They were oblivious to what was happening outside and kept playing. In less than a minute the room was getting smokier and the kids were coughing and some were choking. Kannu began to hit the door faster. The place
was beginning to feel warmer. Kannu realized that something outside the classroom was on fire. She quickly turned around and saw for other entrances to that classroom. She found a grilled gate that had a narrow passage to the ground floor.
She ran towards the gate and pushed it hard. She was sweating profusely and the kids were running frantically. The screams were deafening and Kannu did not want to give up. She wanted to live. As if to remember something, she quickly turned around and ran to her desk. She quickly put her pencil into her box and put everything else into her bag, swung it on her shoulder and ran to the gate. Some more kids joined in jostling the door open. Luckily the door opened and the kids ran down the narrow passage which was already engulfed in fire and black smoke. Kannu did not stop to look back at the kids who were already caught in the hungry fire’s mouth. She ran to the 1st standard classroom to pick her brother. The class was empty and her mind went blank. She did not know if they had a class elsewhere. She couldn’t think. She quickly ran down into open air outside the school. The thatched roofs were on fire all over the school and she looked up. The 11’oclock sun blinded her eyes. Amidst all the mayhem she spotted her thambi who was standing along with his other classmates and wailing. As soon as he saw Kannu, he ran to her and hid his face in her hug.
“Where is your bag?” she asked him.
He did not reply out of shock.
“Let me go get it” she said and pushed him away from her. She gave her bag to him. He began to cry even louder and pleaded her not to go.
“I will come back” she said and ran inside the school. Nobody noticed her as there were lot more kids who needed attention. Fire brigade men came out carrying kids who were half burnt. Some were burnt beyond recognition.
A kilometer away from the school, Kannu’s amma walked out of the house. Her eyes were moist. She had read the letter that Kannu had left in her notebook. She wanted to let Kannu know how much she meant to her and that she had always been rude to her so that she understands the responsibility as a girl child. As she looked up she saw smoke engulfing the bright and windy day. She knew something was wrong. It wasn’t too late for her to smell death.
She ran towards the school and stood there not reacting to the fire that gallantly swallowed the school. She looked around. Every kid looked like her
son and daughter. She moved inch-by-inch fearing that someone would be carrying her kids like charred material. Her head went dizzy and she stood at a place not moving any further.
“Ammmmaaaa!” she heard her son scream somewhere. Amidst all the chaos and mayhem, her son’s voice felt like cold drizzle on a sweltering mid day. He dropped the bag and ran to his amma and hugged her. She wailed and the sound of her own cries deafened her.
“Where is Kannu?” she asked as he buried himself in her.
He did not look at the school. His little index finger showed the direction of the school.
She stood up and saw the school building. The fire was put out and the whole building looked like an ugly man smoking like a chimney pipe. The school was painted in black, as if to have engulfed death on itself. She dreaded walking in. She made her way into the school in spite of people stopping her at the gate. In search of Kannu. Her daughter who misunderstood her love. She covered her nose with her saree as she walked in. Bodies were strewn all over. Kids aged eight to ten years lay there like burnt roses. She stepped one body over the other in search of her daughter. She kept telling herself that her daughter was waiting outside for her to come back after this ordeal. She walked into Kannu’s classroom and did not find her there. She did not recognize few faces but her heart knew she was not there.
She walked down the same narrow passage where Kannu had earlier run along with the other kids. As she decided to step out of the school again, she was reminded of the bag that thambi had while he saw him outside. It was Kannu’s. She quickly ran towards thambi’s classroom, beating her hands over her chest. She knew Kannu was there. She wanted her to be alive. She stepped into his classroom and looked around. There was only one body among the charred tables. Kannu. Beside her were traces of the burnt and tattered bag of thambi’s.
*** Amma (mother), appa (father), thambi (younger brother), kolam (dotted ranagoli generally drawn outside the house using rice powder), thinnai (raised platform outside the house, generally beside the steps or either side of the steps)
Disclaimer: The germ of this story was instilled on my mind 4 years ago when I saw the live footage and pictures of the Kumbakonam Fire tragedy on July 16, 2004. I froze watching the footage. Although the story is based on the tragedy, the characters are purely fictional. This story is for those kids who perished for no fault of theirs. God bless their families who might still be reeling under the loss of their loved ones.
More on the tragedy: Eighty-three children aged between eight and ten years were on Friday charred to death, 20 of them beyond recognition, while over 27 others received serious burns when a major fire raged through their school in this town of Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district.
The dead included 28 boys, 38 girls and the bodies of others were charred beyond recognition....

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