“I’m Raju, and one day I’ll be the king.”
Laxmi heard her brother as he bent his head and stepped into the hut. Sitting down, he opened the packet carefully as if it were a treasure. As she gaped at the contents, Raju declared,” here is rice and chicken curry. A special treat for my lovely sister.” He cleaned his hands and fed her each morsel with all the love he could muster. Hungry, Laxmi, did not appreciate the taste but felt immensely happy as her tiny tummy filled.
“Who is a king, and when will you be a king?”
“You’ll know when I start your schooling soon.”
“Who will take me to the school, Anna?”
“Don’t worry. Our mother died in childbirth, and our father is in jail, but I’m here to look after you.”
Raju kept his word and put her in school. Laxmi liked the school from the first day and diligently learnt whatever the lone teacher taught her. She understood her teacher but not her brother. The school provided a midday meal, and her brother brought something to eat nightly.
“Where do you get this food from, Anna?” she asked.
“You need not worry about it. You go to school, learn your lessons, and be cheerful. I want you to get the schooling that I didn’t get.”
Laxmi also noticed her brother dug a hole in the ground, put a small box in it, and kept some money daily. Whenever she asked him what it was, he dodged her question until she was fourteen. By then, she was in the tenth class and the star pupil of the school. She became the teacher’s pet, and whenever any person of some consequence visited the school, the teacher displayed her as a product of his teaching skills.
When she finished her tenth, Raju hugged her and said, “I’m going to give you a precious gift. We can build a house and shift from this thatched hut.”
“I can’t believe it. How’re you going to manage it?” she asked, snuggling closer in his embrace.
“The money I’ve been keeping in the box underground is now enough to buy a small plot. I’ve finalized the deal with the owner of the tea stall who owns the plot. Now you are going to pass tenth and cannot stay in a hut, can you?”
“Of course, I can. There is no rule to say tenth pass children cannot stay in a hut. I’ll stay wherever my brother stays. I’ve no one except you. I heard our father died in jail.”
“It’s true, but I didn’t want to tell you,” he said, crying his heart out.
After a while, Laxmi asked, “You’ve been dodging my question. What’s your work? How did you get the money to put me through school?”
“OK, I’ll tell you if you promise not to keep the secret.”
“I promise,” she said and held his hand.
“I go to the town, work for a few hours as an assistant to a doctor, and the rest of the day play cards.”
“If you waste your time playing cards, how do you get to save money?”
“Silly girl, I play cards for money. I have a lucky hand, and I always win.”
“Gambling is wrong, Anna. Why don’t you try your hand at some other business? Since you say you have a lucky hand, you may earn money in business and in a proper way.”
“Now you’re tenth passed, but don’t teach me. I want to achieve my aim of putting you in college and getting a suitable groom for you. No more discussion on this matter, please.”
After that, she never raised the matter with him. She loved him and could not get into an argument with him for any reason.
Fortunately, for her, the government opened a junior college in the town close to her village. The town had a connecting road, and buses plied regularly. She had no problem in joining the college and commuting between the college and her hut.
Raju started the construction of the house when she joined the college. It was a puny plot of two hundred square yards. One of his friends had drawn a plan for a single bedroom house with a small backyard. A mason had finished the foundations at a minimum cost, and soon the construction began.
Once a week, Raju used to come with some money, and they would buy a few bricks and a bag of cement. Thanks to the lessons she learnt in school, she helped her brother in building the small house, brick by brick. By the time she finished her first year in college, the bedroom, kitchen, and a miniature hall took shape.
Laxmi helped her brother at every step in building the house. After finishing the work with the bricks and cement, she used to spend an hour clearing the debris and making a garden in the rear. After leaving space for a toilet, she could find enough place to form a garden of six by six feet. She planted a total of ten plants of brinjal and tomatoes and watched with glee as the plants took root and grew.
One beautiful day she found the trees bearing vegetables. When they grew, she cut them and prepared a brinjal curry with tomatoes and served her kind and affectionate brother. Raju, lost in his thoughts, did not notice the significance and gulped his food.
“Did you find any difference in the taste of the curry?” she asked, eagerly waiting to hear a compliment.
“No, is there something special about this typical curry?”
Disappointed, she felt like a deflated balloon and said, “The vegetables are from our garden, a garden that I’ve been making for the last six months. I’m thrilled my efforts paid off. It’s not much but enough to make a curry for both of us.”
“Whatever makes you happy makes me also delighted. I’ll also lend my hand from now on. Our house should be ready by the time you pass the twelfth,” he asserted.
“Thank you, Anna. I don’t know how I’d have managed without you,” she said, hugging him.
“You, silly girl. What is a brother for? Don’t mention it again.”
After that, Raju also helped her in the garden. Raju planted a mango sapling and built a fence of bamboo sticks joined by a wire he found lying unclaimed in a nearby yard. Laxmi added a hibiscus plant in the corner.
By the time Laxmi reached the halfway stage in the second year of the college, Raju had made arrangements with the mason and laid a roof over the house. He could not afford a concrete ceiling but made do with the brick, mortar, and a few steel rods.
“Why’re you in a hurry, Anna? We can wait for a few months and have a proper roof over the house.”
“Perhaps you don’t realize it. You have now grown to be a young and beautiful woman. I can’t keep you in a hut as someone may take advantage of our situation and assault you.”
“Don’t worry, Anna. I can take care of myself. We girls in our college keep talking about it and devise plans to protect ourselves from such attackers. She took out a small bottle of pepper spray that one prosperous girl distributed to all her friends. She also showed a small knife she took out from her undergarments.
“I appreciate your foresight, but I can’t trust the males. Most of them are lecherous, and a young girl of sixteen is easy prey to them.”
“You’re also a male, but you don’t appear one like them.”
“You don’t know me well as you notice only one part of my life. That apart, I don’t want to argue with you. I’ll be pleased when I see you sleeping in your room safely.”
Knowing her brother well, Laxmi didn’t press her point and went along with his plans. Raju worked harder, returned late in the night, and finished the construction of the house. It was not a mansion, nor it had any vast spaces or ornate decorations. Although small with one room, kitchen, and a hall, it seemed like a palace to Laxmi. It was thousand times more comfortable than the hut they had lived all their lives.
On an auspicious day, Raju shifted to the new house. He asked his sister first to enter, putting her best foot forward and occupy the lone room in which he had placed a cot with a mattress on it.
“This is the bedroom for the princess,” he declared triumphantly, stretching both his hands.
“Thank you, Anna. I never thought I would get a chance to escape from the hut. Now, how about a room for the prince, my brother?” she asked, planting a kiss on his cheek.
“The prince must wait for a while for the wheel of fortune to turn faster. Come, I want to watch you on the bed. As for me, I’ll sleep on the floor in the hall.”
A torrent of tears, some sad and some happy surged up in her as she jumped on the cot and took a sleeping position. Raju watched her and promised to get electricity, potable water, and additional facilities during the next year. “Above all, I have to pay higher fees for the college,” he added.
“You don’t worry about fees, Anna. I’ve been granted a scholarship. You should get married and occupy this room with your bride.”
“Everything in its time. If the wheel of fortune keeps moving, all your wishes will come true. No need to hurry things up,” he spoke with confidence.
Laxmi did not know the wheel of fortune had been moving slowly for a few months. The garden prospered as the mango tree took root and started growing. The Hibiscus plant brought forth the first flower. The fortune ended there. Raju had stopped bringing the food packets home. The college did not provide midday meals. Laxmi took children for tuition and earned money for the daily bread. She became the provider and made sure Raju had enough food when he returned home late.
Once she heard a disturbing noise in the middle of the night. She heard Raju talking incoherently and the sounds of a scuffle. Rushing to the hall, she found a drunk Raju in a severe argument with three ruffians. It was all about money and pending debts. She heard the hoodlum threatening Raju to take away the house unless for the debts.
She desperately wanted to go and tell the three attackers she would take the responsibility and resolve their debts, but Raju pushed her into the so-called bedroom and closed the door. “I can handle it,” he asserted.
That was the beginning of the end. The scene repeated nightly. Raju, in a drunken stupor, invariably assured them he would settle the debts within a week. “My fortunes will pick up again. I am sure about it,” he told his sister.
Laxmi passed out of the college with flying colors and topped the University. Her friends enqired about her choice of college for further studies. “Let’s wait and watch,” she said as a stock answer.
She waited in the night to tell her brother of her achievement and how grateful she was to him. She prepared rice, and a curry of brinjals and tomatoes garnished with coriander leaves all from the garden she and her brother had assiduously grown. She waited the whole night, but in the wee hours of the morning, the three ruffians who had earlier threatened her brother arrived.
“Where is my brother? Why has he not returned?”
“I don’t think he’ll come home now. During a card game of high stakes, he borrowed money and lost heavily. A scuffle occurred, and your brother hit a lender badly. The fellow is on his death bed, and the police took your brother away. He will have to do a minimum of three years in jail. One more thing, we’re sorry, but we got the house as part settlement of the debt. You’ll have to leave it before Monday. Remember Monday morning; we’ll come to take possession of the house,” they said and left.
She woke up Monday morning. She thought of her future now uncertain. Her brother was in jail. And, soon, the bedroom, the house with the tiny garden she and her brother had planted together, would be gone. She had a strange feeling and asked herself, “where do I go from here?”
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