Rani was the eldest of the four children. Her mother’s health was fainting with asthma. Following her mother’s illness her father had gone in search of a job to another city, but had never returned.
The responsibility of the family fell on Rani’s little shoulders. The twelve year old Rani had to go out and work in two houses before and after school hours, to support herself and her poor family. She would return tired, by 7.30 in the evening, often with an empty stomach. She would happily keep the food she was given in the houses where she worked for her little brothers and sister and she would satisfy herself with the leftovers. Even a portion of that she would keep for her mother and only then would Rani eat. In spite of all her problems, Rani’s enthusiasm in studies did not diminish. As there was no electricity in her home, a hut in the slum, Rani studied her lessons under the streetlight. The only earthen lamp they had would often go dry. Her poor mother could do nothing to help her daughter, except weep helplessly and pray for a good day for them.
One evening Rani was at home as one of her Memsahibs had gone out of station. She was delighted to spend an evening with her three siblings – two brothers and a sister.
“Akka, are you not going to work today?” asked her little sister Pinky. It was unusual to see Rani at home.
“No, Pinky,” said Rani happily. “I’ll stay at home today and play with you.”
Pinky sat for a while thoughtfully and then said in a soft voice. “That means today we don’t have anything to eat, I think.”
That made Rani very upset. She wondered why God had given her such a miserable life with so many responsibilities. When children of her age enjoyed childhood pleasures and parental love, some unfortunate children like her were destined to toil from dawn to dusk, just to fill their stomachs and those of their families with some leftover food.
With an aching heart she got up from her seat and went out without any destination in mind. When she reached the bus stand an idea struck her. She sang a sad song about her own life describing how her little brothers and sister were waiting at home for her arrival, to fill their stomachs.
A lady who was sitting in her car after her shopping and was about to leave, heard Rani’s song and called out to her. Rani walked up to her and stood there hopefully, and narrated her sad story with tearful eyes.
“Do you like to come with me, Rani? I have a daughter of your age. She likes songs. Could you please keep her company and sing for her? I will give you good food and salary” said the lady, who was almost her mother’s age, and had some unspoken pain hidden in her smile.
“I would have come, Madam. But I don’t want to leave my little brothers and sister alone with my ailing mother, and enjoy myself with your daughter. Secondly, I don’t want to miss my school.”
“You don’t worry about your school. I’ll keep a good tutor for you and teach you. Also every evening you can go home to see your little brothers and sister, and come back next morning. Is that alright with you or do you want anything more?”
A ray of hope danced in Rani’s eyes.
“I will ask my mother and let you know,” said Rani after a moment’s thought.
“Okay, Rani. Come, let’s go to your home just now. I’ll speak to your mother.”
Rani was very happy to travel in a car. For the first time in her life she was traveling in a car. She wished her brothers and sister were with her to share her joy.
The car stopped a few yards away from her house as it could not go further on the narrow street. Mrs. Nair walked with Rani to her house.
Rani’s brothers and sister, who were playing in the mud, stopped their activities and stared at the stranger approaching with her sister.
“Madam, these two are my brothers – Kitchu and Vitchu and my little sister Pinky” Rani introduced them patting them affectionately.
By then a sickly looking woman with a torn sari and shabby hair came out and stood by the door, looking surprised.
“Ma, I met this Madam at the bus stand. She’s a nice lady. She said she will give me a job in her house. Can I go?” asked Rani happily.
Instead of replying to her questions, Rani’s mother was observing the stranger from top to toe, then she invited her inside. Mrs. Nair was made to sit on a torn mat. In the mean time Rani went in too and prepared a glass of black coffee. Rani’s mother was surprised to see the lady taking the coffee from Rani and drinking it.
“Even though she looks highly sophisticated she is a simple person,” thought Rani’s mother.
Mrs. Nair explained her plans to Rani’s mother and promised to send her home every day in the evening.
She gave an advance of Rs.1000/- to her mother. She initially refused it, but later accepted with reluctance.
Mrs. Nair went back to her car and brought two packets of bread and some apples which she had brought for her home and distributed this among Rani’s family members. She enjoyed watching them eat the apples. By then Rani’s neighbors had assembled there and began to whisper.
“There must be something fishy. Otherwise why should a big Madam come to your hut?” said an old lady softly.
“This lady must be taking Rani to the Gulf countries for sale,” said another woman in the crowd.
Rani’s mother was not perturbed by these comments. She had developed a strong faith in the Good Samaritan, whose dignified face showed no trace of any cheating habits. Instead, she could find only love and compassion there.
The next day Mrs. Nair’s car came at 7.30 in the morning to pick up Rani. Collecting a small bag, Rani prayed before Lord Murugan’s faded photo that hung on the wall. She took her mother’s blessing and giving affectionate kisses to her siblings, she left her home and got into the car, and sat next to Mrs. Nair. When they reached Mrs. Nair’s house Rani’s eyes searched for her daughter playing somewhere. She was stunned to see such a beautiful house with huge Alsation dogs guarding it, and servants ready to serve people everywhere around. For quite sometime she found it difficult to take her eyes away from the enchanting beauty of the garden.
Rani had her own doubts as to whether the rich and pampered daughter of this lady would accept her as her companion. She felt as though she was in a wonderland which she had seen only in dreams. With all these mixed feelings Rani was hesitant to put her dirty feet on the shining floor, when Mrs. Nair beckoned her to follow her.
Mrs. Nair led her to a well-furnished room where her daughter Neena, was lying on a bed. She was a beautiful looking girl, well dressed, holding a Barbie doll against her chest.
“This is my only daughter Neena. She has been paralyzed and in bed for the last three years, following an accident. Rani, I want you to keep her company and sing for her. Everyday by 10’ O’ clock her teacher will come to coach her. I will ask her to teach you too,” said Mrs.Nair with a pale smile.
Rani felt very sorry for Neena.
“God has given her a lot of wealth for a luxurious life, but has forgotten to give her health. In my case God has given me normal health and some talent. Two extreme ends of life!” thought Rani.
After a hot water bath, Rani was given a clean dress to wear, and some food. When she appeared in front of Neena, the latter could not believe her eyes. Was this the same shabby ragged girl whom she had seen a few minutes back? Neena gave her a welcoming warm smile and asked Rani to sit beside her. Mrs. Nair requested her to sing a song, the same song which had attracted her. Rani obliged, but this time she had no tears in her eyes, instead the tears were in Neena’s eyes.
“How lucky you are Rani! At this young age you are capable of looking after a family. See my fate. Even to get up from the bed I need someone’s help.” Neena sighed heavily.
Only then did Rani realize that she was fortunate to have a healthy body and was far better than the bedridden rich girl. She prayed to God silently for all His blessings.
You've portrayed the characters with an innate sensitivity, Lakshmi. I could almost feel the sense of helplessness that Neena feels looking at Rani, who is healthy. Also, your story comments fabulously on the way children can apply their mind and think sometimes!
Thank you very much Sneha, for your encouraging comments. Until we see children like Neena we won't realise the importance of health over wealth. Yes, children are often smart enough to apply their mind than we think.