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People often wonder why I’m so bitter. I want to tell them that I contain 80% cocoa and dark chocolate isn’t everyone’s, well, bar of chocolate? But I don’t because I have never tasted dark chocolate. It’s just something I heard from a girl who was scolding her boyfriend the other night- “80% cocoa! You know I don’t like dark chocolate, na. It’s so bitter; it reminds me of my ai’s karela.” I love eavesdropping on conversations happening on this promenade. There’s never any dearth of them and the out-of-context snippets which I catch serve to fuel my imagination when I’m idle or hungry. They’re also quite helpful when it comes to improving my English- my school doesn’t do a very good job at that and I’ve recently discovered that speaking the language boosts my sales, especially around those fair-headed people. Maybe it makes me resemble dark chocolate a little less and milk chocolate a little more. I know what milk chocolate is because a few older kids gave me a bar of Dairy Milk the other evening and I can read words in English now, if not full sentences. And this chocolate wasn’t bitter at all so I can be sure it wasn’t dark chocolate.

Those older kids were a really troublesome bunch, if I may be honest. From now on, I’ve decided to pitch my wares only to couples and gangs of girls. Girls absolutely love these Sky lanterns. I can’t tell what lights up brighter- the lanterns or their face as they set them alight. I find it quite amusing. It’s fascinating how a structure of metal, plastic and paper which they release into the air with certain haste for they’re afraid to burn their fingers, can give them so much happiness. They must be absolutely ecstatic when they eat a hot meal then, mustn’t they? That gives more lasting satisfaction than these lanterns which light up momentarily only to disappear into the darkness and sink to the bottom of the ocean. Or float. I’m not too sure since I don’t pay a lot of attention to my Science teacher. He speaks too fast and his accent is funny. Recently, in another class we were introduced to the concept of pollution. I don’t understand it fully yet but I’ve been able to gauge that it is a serious problem which will affect all of us. I think these Sky lanterns are contributing to this. I tried to express this to my father but he was rather taken aback by my audacity to criticize something that pays for my education. I could sell kulfis like Ram chacha or tea like Babu instead but Shyam bhaiya is papa’s friend and if I stop selling his lanterns, their friendship will sour. Besides, we do not have the means to buy a cart or a bicycle so I decided to push the idea to the future.

I was talking about those older kids, wasn’t I? Yes, let me come back to that. It was another night at Marine Drive and it was quite chilly. They say that Bombay doesn’t have a winter to speak of but if you have to walk by the seaface barefoot, even a small nip in the air can chill your spine. I wanted to sell as many lanterns as I could that night because with each sale, I got to experience a few moments of warmth. Also, the sooner I’d get rid of them, the sooner I could go home to where father would’ve lit a fire. This bunch of older kids seemed quite approachable so I put on my most innocent look and went to sell to them. At first attempt, they brushed me away- not unkindly, though. People are kinder to me than they are to the older vendors on the street, I’ve noticed, who they simply brush off with a sweep of their hand and with minimum acknowledgement. I tried again but to no avail. I decided to hang around them for a while to see whether my insignificant presence would irk their conscience. It did but not the way I expected it to. Two of the older kids, boys, detached themselves from their group for a bit and began to make conversation with me. I wondered whether they’d buy a lantern or two eventually if I humoured them. They asked me how old I was. I told them I was 9. They asked me whether I went to school. I told them I did. They asked me where my father was. I told him he was asleep by the big dustbin on the corner of the next street. They asked me why I was working instead of him. I told them that he worked very hard during the heat of the day. It was then that my younger brother hopped along, slipping on a banana peel. That boy was always getting himself into a mess. I took him by his arm, helped him up and smacked him on his head. Thank goodness he didn’t have any of the lanterns with him! The boys asked me who he was. I told them he was my younger brother. They asked us what we liked to do together. My brother said we liked to race against each other. The boys asked us if we wanted to race and my brother chirpily said he did. Slightly annoyed, I decided to go race him. Sometimes, you just have to humour your prospective clients, don’t you? We raced against each other, the cool wind blowing past us. We turned to make it back to the boys and I sped to outrun my brother. I did and surprisingly enough, I caught myself smiling. We hadn’t had the time to do this in a while. A few minutes later we were doing cartwheels and somersaults while the boys cheered us on. I nearly forgot I was here to sell to them. It was only when they asked us whether we wanted kulfi or chai that I remembered why I was there. I picked up the lanterns and once again, attempted to sell a few to them. They wouldn’t relent. They really wanted to get me kulfi, it seemed, but I wouldn’t relent. They gave up eventually but I was stubborn.  I tried harder and harder but soon enough, they were leaving. I don’t know why I didn’t approach other customers when they were around and only continued to pursue them. In the moment they were leaving, I felt a pang of a feeling I couldn’t quite place. Could it be emptiness? No, I don’t have the time to feel such big words. One of the boys handed me the Dairy Milk as they left. I accepted it without argument- the cold made me hungry. They left and I sighed. What a waste of time- all those antics for nothing! And then they ask why I’m so bitter.

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