‘I was born to be despised,’ Vijay tells Priya as he recalls the past terrible years which treated him with hunger, pain and loneliness. A tear slowly falls from his left eye.
He still remembers. He remembers the day he last saw his mother and all those days that followed. They passed by so quickly and yet so slowly.
‘Let’s take a walk,’ his mother said.
His hand was clutched tightly in hers as they walked on the pavement and in her other hand was an apple. A half rotten apple. She was going to give it to him and he was going to eat it. But there was something that seemed to be troubling her. Something that did not feel right to Vijay.
They stopped in front of a kulfi shop. She told him to wait there without uttering another word. She kissed him on the forehead and put the apple in his hand.
He watched her leave and the wind began to blow against her discolored sari and the wind blew harder and harder till she disappeared from his sight. It started getting dark and Vijay felt a tingling sensation in his heart.
An hour and a half later, a stranger, of around his mother’s age, came up to Vijay and called him his name. She took his hand and led him through a couple of lanes.
They finally reached the destination. The woman pushed open an iron gate on which was a signboard with the words “SWEET HOME” written on it. It was an orphanage and Vijay did not quite understand why he was brought there. But they went on.
Right in front of them stood a two-storied slightly gray house, with cracked walls and a quarter of the windows were broken. There was a front yard and a backyard.
They went inside. The first room was a large dining room. The old woman, whom he later acknowledged her as the directress, looked at them as though she had been expecting their arrival.
There were other children, boys and girls, tall and short; some were younger than him while some older than him. But Vijay noticed that some of the boys (or perhaps, all of the children) with shirts so short that they covered only half of their torso and him had one thing in common: protruding ribs!
He was led to a room on the first floor. There was only a single bulb to light the whole room. There were two rows of about twenty cots, one of which Vijay was assigned to. He noticed a boy in the opposite bed staring at him and he went to sleep.
Now, there were some rules in the new home that he was in; rules that were partly strict and partly incomprehensible to Vijay. Two of them somehow lingered in his head. One, if they were to be found bad-mannered, they would be locked in the darkest room, so called because there was only one tiny window and full of broken benches, which was at the corner of the building. The second, which was not much of a rule, was: if they work really hard, that is, if they managed to get two kilograms of plastic wrappers and plastic bottles in a day alone, or if they could clean the whole building in three hours alone, they would get twenty rupees.
During a mealtime the next day, someone came up to Vijay and patted him on the back. It was a boy of his age.
‘I am Rajesh,’ the boy introduced himself.
‘I am Vijay,’ replied Vijay.
‘We are in the same room, said Rajesh and a dimple appeared beside the left corner of his lips. ‘My bed is opposite yours.’
Everyday, the orphans were given at least two tasks. Vijay did whatever Rajesh would do.
They were given two floor brushes and two coarse cloths to clean the dining room along with other children. The others seemed to be accustomed to working, except Vijay.
They had been scrubbing the floor for half an hour when Vijay decided to take a short break. He sat on one of the benches and scrubbed the floor with his right leg. The cook who had been staring at him yelled at him.
‘That is bad manners! You do not know how to behave, do you?’
She took him by the ear and dragged him to the darkest room. He was locked in till it was bedtime. He smelled something rotten and disgusting and could barely breathe. He cried and cried and felt crushed. For a few times, Rajesh came to check up on him. ‘Have they given you food?’ he would ask.
Ever since he got locked up, Vijay had been having some kind of terror inside of him; little did he know, there would be more dreadful experiences.
It was a day Vijay and Rajesh were expected to go plastic-searching. They had a hope. A hope that maybe they would get two kilograms of plastics. Maybe if they got more bottles. Then either of them would bring the two kilograms to the orphanage and get twenty rupees.
As they walked, they stopped in front of a laddu shop. Vijay looked at Rajesh and said, ‘I hear people say this is the best laddu shop in Kanpur.’