Jamal sat quietly in the last bench with his buddies Ganga, Vipul and Ketan. They all wore uniforms too large for their skinny frames. They all had books in front of them that did not belong to them. The rest of the class was chatting happily, oblivious to the four intruders in the last bench.
The bell rang and a great hush fell over the classroom. Chairs were dragged and books and pencils, slates and chalks came tumbling out of bags. Master Madanlal walked into the room, brandishing a cane in his right hand and a thin book tucked under his arm. Everyone rose.
“Good morning Master,” the class droned in unison and the four boys in the back bench joined in.
Master Madanlal cleared his throat, “Good Morning! Sit down. Sit down.” He paused, waiting for the children to settle down.
“Before we start our lessons, I have to remind you to be in your best behavior, because some inspectors are coming to see our school.” He turned around to write something on the blackboard.
He turned back and his eyes swept over the class and stopped at the four unfamiliar faces. He hustled up to them. “What are you doing here?”
“Our boss sent us here,” Jamal spoke up. He was the oldest of the four, with bold black eyes and a tuft of brown unruly hair.
“Hmph,” said Master, “how convenient!” He strode back to the front of the class. The kids were all murmuring amongst themselves.
“Silence. Let’s proceed with the lesson…” he said turning to the board and then turning back abruptly.
“Well all right. Let’s get it over with. You want to know why they are here?” He pointed to the backbenchers.
“Yes sir!” came the loud response.
“They work at the glass factory. Their boss will get jailed for hiring them.”
“So they don’t have to go back to work anymore?” asked Madhu.
“No. They are here just for today. Till the labour inspectors leave,” said Madanlal, a certain sadness in his voice.
“Why don’t their parents send them to school like our parents do?” That was Ramu the milkman’s son.
“Why don’t we ask them?” said Master Madanlal walking towards the last bench.
Jamal felt his stomach churn. What do they know? About being poor? About not having food on your plate if you did not get out and earn it yourself! About drunken fathers who squander away money on liquor? About mothers sick from too much work? About 10 mouths to feed?
He stood up. “We’re poor,” he said simply.
“How poor are you?” asked Chinku the shoemaker’s son.
Jamal blinked. So poor that if I didn’t work everyday my family would die of starvation, he thought.
“Poorer than you,” he said.
“My father says you got to have hope. He goes for days without a job and we think we’ll starve to death but he still sends me to school in the hope that I’ll end up better than him and will earn pocket loads of money. Of course we never starve. Some good soul comes along and gives him some work.”
Jamal blinked again. He hated the factory. It was hotter than hell and so smoky that his whole skin burned and his eyes were bloodshot all the time. What he wouldn’t do to be able to come to school everyday and play in its large grounds and sit in its well-lit, airy classrooms.
His mind wandered off to what had happened earlier this morning. His boss Hiralal, looked a mess. He was sweating profusely and his voice trembled with urgency and nervousness. He had hustled them off saying, “Go to school and spend the day there. Here are your wages.” Now if only labour officers turned up more often, say every week! The boys could get a day off without losing any wages!
He looked at Master Madanlal. He was busy drawing something on the blackboard. Vipul had fallen asleep on Ketan’s arm, who in turn was trying very hard to keep awake. Ganga was doodling away on the book in front of him. The rest of the class was busy copying whatever it was Madanlal had drawn on the board. Jamal tapped on a shoulder in front of him. “What’s that?” he asked rolling his eyes toward the blackboard.
“A map of Africa,” said the boy turning back to finish off his map.
Madanlal spoke for the rest of the hour about this wonderful place called Africa with a great desert called Sahara and lots of rain forests with chimpanzees and lions and elephants with big fan like ears. And of tribes who lived in these forests. He spoke about their simple lives and also about something called exploitation. It was something people with lots of money and education did to illiterate, poor people. Somehow it all felt familiar to Jamal.
When the bell rang, everybody jumped out of their seats and ran outdoors to eat lunch in the sun soaked grounds. The four outcasts didn’t have any lunch with them, so they just wandered around looking lost.
“Hey!” called Ramu from under a tamarind tree.
The boys continued their aimless walk.
“Hey Jamal, Vipul, Ganga, Ketan!” came the call again.
The boys turned and saw Ramu waving to them. They walked slowly toward him unsure of what to expect.
“Sit,” said Ramu . And the foursome stumbled to the ground without a second thought. One look at the schoolboys was enough to tell them that they would have to pay dearly for arrogance.
The schoolboys pushed their food towards the scraggly, emaciated kids. So accustomed were they to being pushed around and beaten up that it didn’t occur to them that the food was meant for them. They thought the boys were mocking them like Hiralal did. They just sat quietly and stared at the aloo parathas, the dal chawal and kheer in front of them. If they touched it, the boys would surely break their hands.
“Eat,” said the boys kindly. “It’s for you.”
The four boys looked at each other, the food and then at the schoolboys. They meant it! Their eyes had none of that wickedness or guile and their voices were not steeped in sarcasm. The boys dug into the food and devoted the next half hour to polishing the plates clean.
It did not occur to them to thank the schoolboys. And before they knew it, the bell rang and it was time to return to the classroom. Master Madanlal spent the rest of the afternoon asking each student to talk about his or her future.
Jamal sighed and wondered if he would ever grow up. His work at the factory made him sick. He had a horrible cough and sometimes his head hurt so much, he would beg his mother to let him stay home. His older brother used to work in the factory to repay a loan his father had taken from Hiralal. But he had died a year ago and now Jamal had to go to that miserable hell hole which was sure to take his life sometime soon.
“I want to be a computer engineer like my uncle in Mumbai,” Ramu said.
“But your father is a milkman Ramu,” said Lal
“So?” said Ramu turning red.
“But Bapu says I must take up pottery like him or there won’t be any potters in our village,” said Lal.
Master Madanlal laughed. “Nonsense. You can be whatever you want to be. It takes a lot of effort and guts to skirt the beaten path and chalk out your own destiny. But if you do what you love and are good at, it will give you the greatest satisfaction in life.”
The whole class fell silent as if absorbing the purport of their master’s words. The rest of the class spoke of their wild dreams and the foursome hemmed and hawed hoping their turn wouldn’t come. But it did. They all stood up and said, “Glass factory workers.” It’s all they ever knew and all they would ever know for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to change a poor child’s destiny.
That night sleep didn’t come easily to Jamal. He thought of school and what the master had said about chalking your own destiny. But his parents had always said don’t dream big, you can’t fight your own wretched destiny. But what if I ended up like Bhaiya he thought. What if I died puking blood? Jamal shuddered. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to go to that stinky factory.
Next morning he got up, drank some watery tea and headed off toward the factory. He passed by the school and the noisy children playing in the grounds. He stopped. His heart skipped a beat. He turned and ran straight to the school.
Ramu spotted him and came running to him. “Jamal, no work today? Labour officers are still here?” he said in a gush.
“No,” said Jamal. “I need to see Master Madanlal.”
Ramu took him to the master’s room. Jamal’s throat was dry. He clutched Ramu with his sweaty hands. “I don’t want to go to the factory. I don’t want to die!” Jamal said.
“You can come to school,” said Ramu.
“But Hiralal and my parents?” said Jamal, wincing at the thought of the hard cane landing on his back fifty times.
“I’m sure Master will find a way. You should talk to him. Tell him all. He can surely help you.”
Jamal mustered up his courage and walked toward the Master. The Master looked up from his newspaper. He looked surprised for a second and then broke into a smile.
“What can I do for you Jamal?” he asked
“I’m scared Master,” said Jamal, big tears welling up in his eyes.
Master walked up to him and squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll help you, if you promise to be brave and turn your back on your past forever.”
“OK then. Let’s go to town and attend to some business, shall we?” said Madanlal, picking up his bag and books from the table.
Jamal had no idea where they were going or what business they were going to attend to. But he felt he could trust someone for the first time in his life, especially this man with his big honest eyes and gentle voice.
Back in Jamal’s house, Hiralal was visiting, without any notice.
“Where is that boy? Sick again?” he thundered as he burst into the hut.
“No. He went to work this morning as usual. Why? Is he not at the factory?” asked Jamal’s mother.
“If he was, would I come here?” said Hiralal menacingly. “You better send your husband to fill in for him. Debts don’t get cleared if you and your son play games with me all the time.”
“Where could he be then?” said Jamal’s mother, another wrinkle appearing on her already creased forehead.
“Must be lying in some ditch for all I care,” said Hiralal stepping outside. “I’ll expect you or your husband there in ten minutes or no coolie for today!”
Later that evening, Jamal’s mother waited at the door for him but he didn’t return. When his father came home drunk she told him about Jamal.
“Good riddance. Only 9 mouths to feed. Get me my dinner. I’m hungry,” he drawled.
“You horrible man. All you do is drink and eat. While my children and I bear the burden of this family…” sobbed Jamal’s mother, running out of the house to avoid being battered by her drunken husband.
The next morning when Hiralal opened the shutters to his factory he saw Jamal waiting outside.
“You! You think this is your father’s house for you to waltz in and out of as you desire. Let’s see how you’ll keep up your disappearing acts after I’ve flogged you 50 times with this.” Hiralal brandished a prickly cane.
Jamal smiled at Hiralal. Hiralal stared at the boy. He charged at him intending to knock him to the ground. But before he could, two men appeared from the side of the building. Hiralal froze and his face lost all its colour. These were the same men he’d seen a couple of days ago. The inspectors.
“Hiralal, you better come with us. Tell your workers to go home. We are shutting down this factory as of today,” said the thin tall inspector with a big moustache.
Jamal watched the two men lead Hiralal away, to their jeep parked behind some mango trees. Jamal ran home. He knew his mother would worry about him. When he got there she was weeping as she kneaded some dough. His little sisters were wailing but she couldn’t hear them. She was weeping the loss of her son. He probably ran away unable to bear the torture at work and the constant bickering at home, she thought. Jamal ran into the hut and put his arms around her neck. She dropped the pot of dough and turned to look at him.
“Jamal, you’re back!” she said, holding his face with her sticky white hands.
Jamal hugged her without saying a word.
His mother pushed him away and said, “You better go to the factory or that Hiralal will skin you. He was here yesterday and he’s very very upset…”
“Ma, I’m not going to the factory. I’m going to school,” said Jamal dancing around his mother. Even his sisters stopped their wailing to listen to him.
“Don’t be foolish Jamal…” started his mother.
“How can I go to the factory if it is closed Ma?” said Jamal, stopping his dance to face his mother and peer into her confused eyes.
“Closed? God be kind to us. But how?” said his mother searching Jamal’s face for an answer.
“It’s a long story Ma. But all you need to know is this. It involves me, Master Madanlal and a few labour inspectors from Lucknow.”
His mother stared.
“Now can I go to school or I’ll be late. Master Madanlal has kept a place for me in the first bench. He says smart kids hold their destinies in their hands!”