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Bursting Bubbles: Literal And Beyond (A Short Story)

posted Jun 2, 2016, 2:49 AM by Kanika G   [ updated Jun 2, 2016, 9:10 AM ]

Sweat trickled down her face and spine. The sun was beating down. It had been so pleasant when they had left for the walk, but the sun had creeped up on them quickly.

The walk around the lake had been pleasant, but her husband had slipped on some moss and the awkward fall had hurt his back. He could still walk, but he could not carry their daughter back to the hotel over a Kilometre away. Their daughter, a city bred toddler, not used to walking much, was quite tired. Maya was carrying her infant. So, how were they going to get back? They were in a pickle.

Just then a man with a cart came by, asking her if they wanted a ride. Maya had seen the carts before. They were large square open metal boxes with seat cushions placed along two opposite edges. A man held on to a handle sticking out from one of those edges and pushed or pulled the cart.

She would never have considered it under normal circumstances. Having another human being cart them around like a beast of burden, made her very uncomfortable. But now, it did seem like an answer to her prayers.

Besides, she would put only her daughter on the cart, and walk along side. It was like pushing a pram. For that matter, her husband would have carried their daughter all the way back if he had not injured himself, she reasoned.

She nodded. “Where to?” asked the man.

She named her hotel. “That will be Rs . 40”, the man said.

“Rs. 40! That is too much. The man before you offered to do it for Rs. 20.” She was at her bargaining best. She wore the poor man down and he agreed to do it for Rs. 30.

Maya put daughter in the cart. “Don't be scared. Papa and I will be walking right next to you. You can blow bubbles during the ride. Wont that be fun?” She gave her the new soap bubble solution they had bought from a street vendor during their walk.

Her daughter's eyes lit up and she smiled. “Okay mama.”

The man began to push the cart and a few seconds later a girl joined him. She could not have been more than 8. Maya was not prepared for this. It was one thing to have a grown man push her little girl around in a cart, but to have another little girl do it, was altogether different. She wanted to protest. But she did not. She did not say anything at all.

Maya focussed on her daughter instead. She was really enjoying the ride and merrily blowing bubbles. May be it was okay. At least they did not have to push 4 adults around, she rationalized, which they might well have to do, if she had not hired them.

One of the bubbles landed on the man's shoulder and burst there. That is when Maya noticed a disturbing lump on his shoulder. The bubble Maya had built around herself, to isolate herself from the misery of the underprivileged, was dangerously close to bursting too.

She could not avoid thinking about the cart pushers any more. Is that why he needs the little girl to help him out? Is that lump painful? Possibly a deformity? Maya wondered.

Her gaze shifted to the girl. She seemed happy. But how could she be? Her hair was a tangled filthy mess. Her clothes were shabby and ill fit. Her pants kept falling and she had to take one hand off the cart to tug them up intermittently. That made Maya smile. She remembered her daughter doing the same with her new pants on the walk the previous morning. But they were not the same, were they? Would this cart pushing girl ever have the opportunities and resources her daughter did?

“Mama look at this bubble. It is huge.” Maya's daughter squealed in excitement. Maya smiled at her little ones joyous expression. It was nice to see her so happy. She would have been whining and grumbling all they way, if they had made her walk. But the other little girl in Maya's peripheral vision, pricked her conscience again. Did she not deserve a carefree childhood too? This was not of her making. She was born in to it.

Why does this bother me so much, Maya wondered. She had seen street kids in Mumbai, beg at every red light. She had hardened herself enough to mechanically avert her eyes and not feel anything. So what was different now? This girl was doing a job for her. That made it personal.

She was angry too. I pay my taxes, she thought. Then I do my part. This girl and anyone like her should be provided basic necessities and opportunities, by my government, the one I pay to take care of people like her. But most of that money lines the pockets of corrupt politicians.

They had almost reached the hotel. Maya pulled out her purse to pay the man. Suddenly she remembered how successfully she had bargained. Her face burned with guilt and shame. She would have spent 50 bucks on a trinket for her little girl at the mall, without giving it a second thought. Yet, here was a possibly sick man and a little girl, pushing her tired daughter up and down steep hills, and she did not think they deserved, the meagre 40 bucks he had asked for. It was a thoughtless reflex. She must correct it.

When they stopped in front of the hotel, Maya handed the cart pusher a 50 rupee note. As he reached in to his pocket for change, she shook her head, barely meeting his eyes. He thanked her.

Later that evening, thoughts about the little girl still haunted her. Did she go to school? Unlikely. Was her mother alive? Was that man her father? May be he was an uncle. May be they were strangers who helped each other out. She wondered if the man treated her well.

Then she remembered the lump on the man's shoulder. Was it a malignant tumour? Would he be dead soon? Would the girl be able to survive without him? Would she be forced to sell her body to fight starvation?

She is a little girl, just a few years older than my own daughter, Maya brooded.

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