The construction site looked like a huge maze, filled with the various sounds emanating from men and machinery. Men and women toiled for their livelihood on various levels of the building. They all looked alike – their faces and bodies covered with dirt and dust. The children, mostly toddlers, were dumped on the dunes of sand and cement with crude, handcrafted toys to accompany them.
Bholu, a frail looking boy of seven sat comfortably one such pile. He was oblivious to the chaos around him and was playing the dutiful king to his faithful subjects – soiled rag dolls in various sizes and shapes that surrounded him. He shouted orders at them, but the voices faded in the commotion. Unfazed by this, he continued to play, lost in his own world.
His reverie was broken by the shrill horn of a school bus that zipped past him raising a dense cloud of dust. This left Bholu coughing and it took him moments to look past the muddy mist as it slowly subsided. His gaze was fixed in the direction where the van went; his ears could still hear the happy voices of boys and girls in it, singing and laughing. His ‘companions’ were waiting for him on the sand dune, but he chose to ignore them.
The cloud of dust had settled, but his mind had not.
Bholu lived in a hut. His home was one amongst the many thatched roofs that had cropped up outside the city in the last week. Why they had moved there, Bholu did not know.
A week ago…
The council had finally arrived at a conclusion. The meeting had lasted for an exhausting two hours and the members had decided that Republic Day this year would be celebrated in all its splendor – the best ever till date. The Chief Minister himself would be presiding over the function held at a prestigious school and the council wanted to show him a ‘model’ city.
The big day was arriving in a week’s time. The city had to be swept clean – demonstrate ‘Swacch Bharat‘ – in the short span that remained. It was unanimously decided that the slum dwellers who occupied a considerable portion of the far end of the city had to be removed. That was the biggest hurdle. The rest was easy, they convinced each other.
- Also read The Peepul Tree [Short Story]
January 26th morning
Bholu ran inside the house and frantically tried waking up his father. His father had had a tiring week and desperately wanted to rest. A holiday was like an oasis to his parched and aching body. Ramu was annoyed with Bholu for disturbing his sleep. He sat up and looked at his son, his eyes still half-open and red.
“Why don’t you go out and play, Bholu. Let me sleep”, said Ramu, controlling his desire to yell at the small boy.
“Bapu, the children were singing and shouting Republic… Ganatantra, what does it mean?” asked Bholu, eyes shining with curiosity.
The last thing Ramu wanted to do was get into an extended questioning session with his son. But Bholu had no intention of letting go without asking the question that had troubled him for a week. And any amount of convincing on Ramu’s part was in vain. Ramu finally made got out of his bed and accompanied his son outside to show him the answer.
Half an hour later, Ramu and Bholu stood outside the magnificent school building which shone with like a newly decked bride. Luxury cars lined the entire periphery of the school and the gate itself was heavily manned by sturdy looking security guards and the Chief Minister’s private guards. The loudspeakers amplified the captivating speech by the Guest of Honor, who was speaking passionately about the importance of democracy, the value of freedom and the power of people.
Bholu looked at his father who stood silently taking everything in. His eagerness could be controlled no longer. Ramu was drawn back to reality when his son tugged at his hands and pulled him towards the gate.
Suddenly, Ramu felt small. He was a nobody among these powerful people. Yet he did not have the heart to deny his son, so he took unsteady steps towards the entrance.
“Hey! Who do you think you are? Get back and keep moving”, a voice boomed.
It was one of the security guard waving his baton menacingly at Ramu and Bhola. Bholu scampered behind his father, clutching his hand. He could feel his father’s hand shivering in fear.
“Function… Bholu… Sahib, we want to see too”, was all Ramu could muster in a trembling voice.
All the men laughed out loud as if Ramu had cracked a joke. They mocked him for being foolish to come all the way at the behest of his young boy. One of the men came towards him and thrust a laddu in his hand.
“You do not belong here and these celebrations are not for people like you. Take this sweet and walk away. Freedom comes at a cost and I am sure you cannot pay for it”, he said jeeringly. He waved his baton again and it was a sign for Ramu to walk away.
Bholu held on to his father’s hand as they walked in silence. Tears rolled down from Ramu’s eyes. He had failed to answer his son’s only question.
Bholu needed no more answers.