Kunal Mehra, "Airplanes and Tin Roofs"

          He recoiled at the sight of the ox walking towards his stall. Its horns were big and there wasn’t much space to move back – on his right side, was an old woman selling buckets of tomatoes and marigold flowers strung together; on the left, a teenager selling tea and fried cutlets; behind him sat a pesky jeweler who refused to bargain even a single rupee on any item.

          The old woman bowed, her face down and hands held together, as the ox went by them all, luckily without budging into anyone.

          Ashish, ten years old, got up from the ground, where he was shrouding underneath his box of plastic bags, glad that the ox was finally out of the way.

          “Five for ten rupees! Ten for fifteen!”, he exclaimed, as he stood up and walked in the center of the street, carrying his bags. Most people walked past him, without even looking at him.

          Once, he had a guy yank all the bags from his hand and run away. When he told his elder brother, Sameer, about it later, it got forwarded to his father, who reprimanded him with the usual punishment: lying on the floor with his legs being lashed five times with his father’s belt. “How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t afford to lose those bags? I need every single rupee you earn. How many more gardens can I work in just so I can house, clothe and feed you? You can’t let someone steal your bags and then try to hide it from me!”, he shouted, lash after lash.

          It was the same routine every morning: he and Sameer would get up at six in the morning and brush their teeth using their fingers instead of a toothbrush. Their mom would fire up the stove – a cylinder made of dirt and filled with cow dung – and cook them an egg, which had to be split between the two of them and served on a flatbread. Sameer, being a couple years older, would always get the larger portion of the egg. They’d go out in the backyard and pour a bucket of water over themselves, trying to rinse off as much dirt as possible.

          They’d go say bye to their mom and touch her feet for blessings. She’d kiss them on the forehead, hug them and put a bottle of water and two bananas in their pockets. ‘Don’t forget to each your lunch,’ she’d remind them every day.

          And off they’d go, starting their thirty-minute walk to the market. They’d pass by the school and, as always, Ashish would run towards it, climb the wall around the campus and sit on it, watching the students come in and get in line for the morning assembly. A few minutes later, Sameer would whistle and pat him on the back. He’d climb down, his eyes wet, as they kept walking forward.

          A while later, they’d be at the store of the guy who sold plastic bags. They’d buy fifty at a time and split them amongst each other. Sameer would hug Ashish and whisper “Someday, you’ll go to school, brother, trust me. You will,” before they both headed towards their respective stalls, which were six blocks apart.

         Ashish sat down, laid the bags on the ground and took a sip of water. He swung his arm towards Rajeev, the teenager, asking him to move his cart away. It was a regular thing – every morning, Rajeev’s cart would be encroaching on what Ashish referred to as his space. They’d argue for a few minutes before he relented and moved his cart a few inches away.

          Ashish looked up at the sky. It was hazy, the smog from the morning traffic starting to build up. His mind was stuck thinking about the kids going to school. He remembered that Sunday morning, a few months ago, where he had to beg his dad to allow his mom and him to go visit the school – which was closed – for an hour. ‘I just want to see the school building, daddy. I promise I won’t enroll in school’, he had told him. A couple of hours later, they walked into the school campus, hesitant and hoping that no one would catch them trespassing. As they stopped at the building’s closed gate, Ashish couldn’t help but gaze up at the board that was hanging from the gate: it had two photographs – one, of a young student around ten years old wearing the same uniform that all the students now had on, and another, of a man in his late thirties, wearing a suit with a tie. The first photo had as its subtitle, “Ajit Sathe; fifth grade.” The second one had “Mr. Ajit Sathe: CEO of HealthTech.” Written at the bottom of the board was: “We are so proud of your achievements, Mr. Ajit!”. He remembered squeezing his mom’s hand, as she held him close for what seemed like eternity.

          His reverie was interrupted by a woman standing next to his stall. “Hey, are you going to sell the bags or not? Don’t waste my time looking up at the sky like that!”, she shouted.

          A plane was flying by. Ashish couldn’t get his eyes off it, tracking its path through the clouds. He put the bags down and started clapping, jumping up and down.

          “Airplane! airplane!”

          The woman shook her head and moved past him.

          He ran over to the old woman and pointed up at the sky. She was handing over a bag of tomatoes to a customer, but with her other hand, she ran her fingers through his hair, smiling, as she also looked up.

          “Come, sit here,” she gestured, pointing to her lap.

          Ashish jumped in. She snuggled her arms around him as they both looked at the white trail left behind by the plane, which was now past them.

          “Auntie,” he said, “someday, we’ll both fly in a plane. First, I will go to school and then to university and then to work in a big company and then to the airport and then I will be in a plane. I will take you with me. We’ll look down from the windows at this market and laugh out loud! Rajeev would still be selling food and we’d see his cutlets from the sky!”

          She smiled and shook her head. “My dear, people like us can never get on airplanes. Those are for rich people…like that one,” she said, as she pointed at a guy sitting in the back of a car checking his phone, while his driver was out buying groceries.

          “No auntie…we can do it. All I need is to go to school. Mr. Ajit did it…and he went to our town’s school. Once you are in an airplane, all your problems go away. They dissolve in the sky. That’s why there’s a white trail behind the plane – those are your problems flying away from you. I know it’s true.”

          She patted his shoulders. “You are too sweet. Ok dear, now go to your stall. You don’t want to miss your customers.”

          “Yes…and because I will be working in a big company, I will not have to sell bags anymore. My family will live inside a home, not in a hut in a slum. My mother will not have to walk three kilometers to the well to fill up buckets of water every morning, and she’ll not work as a servant in three homes every day. I just need to go to school…”

~

          Every night had its own routine, too. His mom would cook flatbread, a vegetable, a small pile of lentils and rice. They would sit in a circle around the cow-dung-fueled stove as they ate dinner. After the dishes had been washed, she’d kiss them goodnight. ‘May God be with you,’ she’d say, with sadness and love fighting for space on her face.

          Bed, for both brothers, was a couple of soiled white sheets laid down on the dirt. They slept on either side of the stove. Ashish, turning away from his brother, would take out a piece of paper from his pocket and start drawing: a hut with a leaking tin roof and drops of water dripping down; flat tires and rocks sitting atop the roof; a patio made of broken bricks, on which they had breakfast every day; the creaky rusty ladder leading to the ‘second floor’ of their hut where his parents slept.

          On the bottom half of the page, he’d draw a home with a concrete roof, a gas stove, one bedroom with tiles on the floor, a small refrigerator filled with mangoes and yogurt, an indoor bathroom. Between the two drawings, he’d sketch out a tiny school and draw a line, going through the school, connecting the top half with the bottom. He’d bring the paper close to his lips, kiss the school, and stuff the paper under the sole of his shoe, before drifting off to sleep.

~

          The next afternoon, while he was eating bananas for lunch, he walked up to Sameer’s stall. “I’m leaving these bags next to you for a few minutes. I need to use the bathroom.”

          “Ok. I’m counting the time,” Sameer replied.

          Ashish started running. He didn’t stop at the public restroom, though. He kept going until he reached the school. It was around noon and the students were out in the campus, having lunch. He walked up to a boy who was sitting alone under a tree.

          “Hello. My name is Ashish.”

          The boy looked up from his tiffin. “I’m Praveen.”

          “Don’t be afraid of me, but I’ve been watching you every day from over there,” he said, as he pointed to the wall around the campus.

          “What?”

          “Do you want some money?”

          The boy stood up and walked back from him. “Who are you?”

          “Look…we are the same height and weight. I think your clothes will fit me very well,” Ashish replied.

          “I’m going to the principal’s office,” the boy said as he started walking away.

          Ashish ran towards him and pulled him by the hand. “No…listen to me. I can’t go to school. My father won’t allow me. He wants me to work every day. But I want to attend school, even if it’s just for a few hours. I don’t have the money to buy the uniform, though. And, I haven’t applied to the school, because my father won’t even take me there.”

          “So…what do you want me to do?”

          “I’ll give you two-hundred rupees; you give me your uniform for a few hours; I’ll go to school from morning till lunch and I’ll return your uniform as soon as the lunchtime bell rings. No one will notice that I’m not supposed to be there…it’ll only be a few hours.”

          “Two-hundred rupees?”

          “Yes, two-hundred.”

          The boy scratched his head and then sucked his fingers. “You sure you’re not lying?”

          “By God, I promise,” Ashish replied, as he folded his hands and gestured towards the sky.

          “Ok, I will meet you tomorrow morning outside the school at seven-thirty.”

          “I can’t meet tomorrow. I need to work for a week to make two-hundred rupees.”

          “You don’t even have two-hundred rupees with you?”

          Ashish looked down, his face sullen and brows furrowed. He rubbed his fingers across his nose.

          “Well…I’ll see you one week from today. Don’t be late. I’ll have my uniform with me, but I’ll only share it with you after you’ve given me the money. And I know how to check for fake notes, ok?”

          “Yes, I promise, I’ll be there.”

~

          It was seven in the morning, but it was already sizzling hot. The sky was clear blue and both brothers had a towel over their heads for some shade. As they walked past the school on their way to the market, Ashish kept walking straight.

          “You’re not going to sit on the school wall today?” Sameer asked.

          “No. I’ll be working a lot today. You can go home without me in the evening, as I’ll be working late,” Ashish said.

          “Why?”

          “I want to make more money.”

          “What…you want to buy a big car?”

          “No…I just want to make a little more money.”

           “To make Daddy happy?”

          “Speaking of Daddy…don’t tell him about this. I’ll be working late every day for one week. If he asks where I am, tell him that I went to play cricket with friends in the evening.”

          “You know you’ll get beaten for that, right?”

          Ashish ran ahead of Sameer. “Leave me alone. Bye!”, he said as he waved at him.

          He settled into his space, took out some bags and got right in the middle of the road. “Five for ten! Ten for fifteen! Twenty for thirty! Best bags in the market!”

          He ran up to a man sitting in a car and knocked on the window. A gust of cool air rushed out at him as the guy lowered the window. “Sir, you want plastic bags? They are very cheap and top quality.” The guy waved his hand at Ashish, beckoning him to move away and closed the window.

          It was late afternoon and he had only sold six bags, far below his daily average. He looked over at Rajeev’s stall, which had a line of people queued up for afternoon snacks. Rajeev was trying to manage it all – frying cutlets, counting cash, pouring tea into cups, washing pans – but he seemed overwhelmed.

          Ashish watched as the line slowly cleared and Rajeev sat down with a cup of tea.

          “Want me to help you? I can wash the pans and pour the tea,” he asked Rajeev.

          Rajeev nodded. “I can’t pay much though. Thirty rupees for two hours.”

          Ashish jumped up and clapped. “Yes, I will do it! I’ll start now.”

          And thus passed the entire week. He’d leave home at seven in the morning and work till eight in the evening. He’d stuff the extra money from working in Rajeev’s stall, under the sole of his other shoe, the sole rising a few millimeters every day. Every night when he got home, it’d be the same ritual – him lying face down, swears and belts lashing out at his mind and his body. “Cricket, huh? You can’t help your mother cook food? Who told you to play cricket?”

~

         His fingers were shaking as he stood in line for the morning assembly. He wanted to look up at the sky and wave at it, but he knew that the prayer was about to start soon. Everyone closed their eyes and stood up straight, their hands held together in a Namaste gesture, as they recited the prayer. He didn’t know a word of it, so he silently kept repeating “I will go in airplane. I will go in airplane,” hoping that no one would catch him not singing the prayer out loud.

          Later in class, the student next to him had opened his history textbook and was underlining sentences as the teacher wrote notes on the board. Praveen had been nice enough to lend him his books, so he opened his copy, but he had no idea what to do next.

          He looked down at his new, well-ironed shorts. Never before had he worn such clean clothes. He ran his fingers over the buttons of his shirt, feeling the newness of each of them. He looked around and everyone was wearing the same clothes. He thought of Ajit’s photo and his mind went straight to the airplanes. ‘Mr. Ajit wore the same clothes that I have on now and he sat in the same room as me and he studied the same courses as I am today. I will go in airplane one day.”

          He stole a look at the watch that the student next to him had on. It was almost noon, lunchtime. He knew his four dreamy hours were wrapping up, and soon, he’d be out in the market doing his regular thing. But now, in these precious few minutes that were still his, he was on the same plateau as everyone around him, as was Mr. Ajit, at one time. Plastic bags, food cooked over cow dung, leaky roofs, two bananas for lunch – that reality was obscured by a new one of clean clothes, crispy pages of textbooks, waves of hope and confidence.

          He hadn’t understood a word of what the teachers had spoken or written, and neither had he talked to any of the students, afraid that his lack of English skills would alert someone to call the principal and have him kicked out. What he did soak in though, was feelings. He felt a sense of belonging, an uplifting of his self-esteem, a reminder that he too could do it, someday, maybe.

~

          It was lunchtime and the students were spread out all across the campus, some having lunch while sitting on the steps leading to the school building, while others sat on swings, their lunch boxes swaying back and forth in their laps.

Ashish walked out of the school building, his pace slow and his eyes gazing down at the floor. Tears filled his eyes as he realized that in a few more minutes, he’d be handing back the clothes to Praveen and switching into his worn-out pajamas and crumpled t-shirt. He buttoned up the topmost button of his shirt, as he thought of Mr. Ajit’s photo with a suit and tie.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a plane flying over the school. He looked up and, without a second thought, laughed out loudly and started running wildly around the campus. He held the books close to his heart with one hand and threw his other hand up in the air, waving at the plane, as the other students stared at him, surprised and befuddled. “Airplane! Airplane!”. Behind the plane, was a long steady stream of contrails, slowly diffusing into the clouds.

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Kunal Mehra is a multimedia artist who likes photography, filmmaking, writing and hiking. He grew up in India and has been living in Portland, OR, since 2002. His writing has been published by the Press Pause Press, The Mindful Word, and Across the Margin magazines, amongst others.