‘Of Heroes and Hopes’ by Naheed Muqeetulla (India)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

There was something very intriguing about the new watchman’s daughter. She was perhaps my age, about twelve years, only much thinner and shorter. She never said a word and chose to simply perch herself in one corner of the porch, while her father weeded out our lawn.

“Stop touching my house,” I yelled, as she leaned against the side of the porch.

I do not know if it was her perpetual silent demeanour that brought about this sudden outburst or simply my desire to establish an authoritative relationship, wherein I was the master and she, my servant.

She hesitated at first, not knowing if the command had been directed at her. I repeated my order, this time slightly louder. At once she stood straight, glanced at me and ran towards the servants’ station. I smiled to myself. The line of authority had been instituted.

One night, my parents and I were returning from our customary Saturday night dinner and movie. Lakshmi, the watchman’s daughter, rushed to open the gate. She seemed to be attempting to catch my attention. I feigned not to have noticed as the car pulled into the driveway. I could sense her looking at me as I entered the house and closed the door behind me.

A lazy Sunday afternoon followed. A light drizzle dampened, along with the grass, any prospects of outdoor play. I sat in the veranda, reading a comic.

Bibiji,” said a low voice. I did not look up but could see from the corner of my eye that it was the watchman’s daughter. She stood at the entrance of the veranda, with her arms crossed behind her back and her head slightly bowed. I pretended not to have noticed her.

Bibiji” she said once more. But her attempt was once again in vain. She cleared her throat and called out a third time.

I finally tore myself away from the comic to acknowledge her presence. “What do you want?” I asked.

There was a moment of vacillation, before she said, “Which movie did you watch last night? Was it the new one with Salman Khan?”

“What is it to you?”

“Please tell me bibiji. How was the movie? I want to know what the story was. How did Salman Khan look? He is my favourite Bollywood hero. One day I am going to get his autograph.”

“Well,” I said, cocking my head to one side, “if he is your favourite hero, why don’t you just go and watch the movie yourself?”

“Because,” she said, lowering her head, “I don’t have the money to do so.”

And with that statement, she hurried out of the veranda, tears rising to her eyes. I wondered as to the cause of this reaction. I supposed it was owing to her embarrassment from the lack of money. But, could it possibly be on account of my scornful attitude?

After that, I could not stop thinking about her. I tried to talk to her, but she constantly evaded me. “So this is what guilt feels like,” I comprehended. Words appeared to be insufficient in winning over her confidence, so I decided to use the next best ice breaker at my disposal – chocolate.

When I offered her the chocolate bar, she shook her head, but I knew all too well how much she craved it. After a brief spell of hesitation, she held out her hand and almost yanked the bar.

“So Salman Khan is your favourite hero?” I asked.

She nodded and smiled, revealing chocolate covered teeth.

“Mine too,” I said as I took a small book with a red cover out of my pocket and handed it to her. She examined it before looking up at me with a puzzled expression.

“It’s called an autograph book.” I explained, “When you meet him, you can ask him to sign it.” Her eyes lit up like the sets of a Bollywood movie.

“What else do you like, aside from Salman Khan?” I asked her.

She bit her lower lip and said, “I like to study. I used to go to the local government school before we came here.” She paused, her eyes darting around in search of something.

“I learnt to read and write, and also a little maths,” she continued. Then her eyes slowly drooped. “But now my father says that he does not have enough money to send me to school. It costs three hundred rupees a year.”

Three hundred rupees. I had spent more on popcorn and drinks at the movie theatre!

Dusk was soon approaching, so staying outdoors for much longer was not a possibility.

The next day after school, I went to the servants’ station armed with a brilliant idea. “Why don’t you do some work around the house and have my mother pay you for it?” I said. “That way you can send yourself to school.”

The proposal piqued her interest. “But, what about bapu?”

“Relax,” I said, “he needn’t know anything till you have all the money.”

The dawn of the following day gleamed with new hope in her life. She set about to clean the veranda with vigorous cheer. She was being paid five rupees a day and had her three hundred rupees in less than three months.

One Saturday, I asked my parents if we could take Lakshmi to the theatre with us, since there was a new movie with Salman Khan playing at the local cinema. My father seemed hesitant, but my mother appeared downright shocked at my apparently absurd request. “How can you take a servant to the theatre? Where would she sit?”

I looked at her as if she had asked me what colour the sky was. “Next to me,” I said.

“Listen, darling, it is okay for you to talk to the servants within the vicinity of our home. But when you are out in public, you cannot associate with them as if they were your friends. Why, what would all the people think?”

As appalled as I was with this attitude, I was determined to have Lakshmi watch the new Salman Khan movie. So, I rented the DVD of the movie from a local store. It was perhaps the second most thoughtful act of my entire life.

When she had amassed the sum of three hundred rupees, she approached me with the dilemma of what to do next. Armed with the money and a tentative determination, she and I sallied forth to talk to her father.

Bapu?” Lakshmi called, her voice cautious, yet resolute.

Her father looked up from the grass he had been trimming and wiped the beads of sweat off his forehead.

Bapu, can I go to school?”

Her father seemed to think he had misheard her. “What are you saying?”

“I have the money for it. Bibiji has talked to the local school’s headmistress. I can start next week. Please let me go bapu.”

“Where did you get the money?”

“From bibiji.”

Turning towards me he said, “We don’t need your charity, bibiji.”

“Oh it’s not charity. She earned this money through her own hard work.” No sooner had Lakshmi started to explain what had transpired, how she got the money and how she longed to go to school, than her father held up his hand to signal silence.

“We have talked about this. You cannot go to school. I have not raised you singlehandedly to see you throw your life away over silly things like education, just as your mother did.”

Hearing the commotion, my mother rushed out and was alarmed to see me “associating” with the watchman and his daughter. She grabbed my hand and without a single word, pulled me into the house.

The next morning, I saw Lakshmi weeping as she carried her belongings away from the servants’ station. I rushed towards her and cried after her to stop. As she and her father headed for the gate, I yelled, “Do not give up. There is always a way. If you cannot go to something, bring that something to you.”

That would be the last time I saw her, before my mother’s voice stopped me dead in my tracks and I was forced to retire back to the house. Later I would learn that one of the servants had informed my mother of how the watchman had been disrespectful towards me, which had resulted in his being discharged.

***

Twenty years passed. As I sat eating dinner with my husband and children, there was a knock on the door. My daughter told us that it was a woman, asking for me.

“Yes, may I help you?” I asked.

“Hello bibiji.” The manner had changed, but the voice was the same.

I did not know how to respond. I stared at her for a long time, before locking her in a tight embrace.

She was in town for a conference. She told us of how she “brought” the school to her, as she studied at home and passed her exams. She had started working at a small company, before slowly making her way up the career ladder.

Despite much beseeching, she refused to stay for the night. As she stood at the door to say goodbye, she rummaged in her briefcase for something.

“So tell me,” I asked teasingly, “is Salman Khan still your favourite hero?”

She finally found what she was looking for. She handed me a tattered book with a faded red cover, along with a pen.

“No,” she said, as the hint of a tear appeared in her eyes. “No, it’s you.”

Glossary:

bapu: father
bibiji
: a Hindi term used primarily by maids and servants of the Indian subcontinent to refer to their mistress and women they work for.
Bollywood
: the Indian film industry
rupee
: Indian currency

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Naheed Muqeetulla is a 24 year old writer and entrepreneur from India. She is co-founder of the online shopping website, Mastibids.com, but claims that writing will always remain her true passion. She graduated with honours in Finance and Accounting from St. Francis College and received gold medals for her academic performance in Accounting and English. She has penned many articles, poems and short stories, including Morality, Mortality and Masculine Frailty, which was a finalist in the Figment Paulo Coelho Fable Contest 2011. Through her writing, she wishes to explicate various social and religious issues, particularly ones relating to women, their oppression and gender bias. She also feels very strongly about the lack of education for girls in India. She hopes that someday she can make a difference in their plight, no matter how small.

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