In the corner of dimly lit and smoke filled hut, Rani was struggling to boil a broth before her parents came home tired and hungry from the field. The firewood she picked in the nearby wood was damp generating more smoke than fire. Her eyes, red and burning with nose running, the young girl of 13 persisted in her efforts to ignite the flame. She felt her lungs would burst by the repeated blowing through a narrow cylindrical bamboo pipe.
“Akka (elder sister), can I help you by blowing the pipe? You look worn and tired, “asked her brother Babu of eight years. Though lean and short for his age, he was agile and his eyes shone brightly.
‘No, I don’t need your help. Open the door fully for this oppressive smoke to escape. Get me the hand fan from that corner. Amma was using it last night. Take the chimney lamp as it is dark there,” replied Rani.
Babu gave her the fan and sat by her side meddling with the slingshot in his hands. The boy and the slingshot were inseparable.
Emaciated and bony, she was tall for her age giving an impression of a young woman. Her unkempt hair that had not seen oil for long and her ill-fitting faded clothes subdued her well defined features. Her mother stopped her from school after she came of age. The school was two kilometers away in another village and the kutcha road passed through an arrack shop. There were a few incidents of harassing young women in that desolate stretch. Babu alone attended school.
The broth was almost ready. Seeing Babu aiming at a cockroach in a corner with his slingshot, Rani shouted,” Babu, you are with that wretched slingshot 24 hours of the day. Can you not put it aside for a while? You have got addicted to it.”
“Akka, unless I practice daily my aim at distant objects will not be accurate. Do you know I got the first prize in a competition held with my friends in school? Watch me aiming at the cockroach in that corner.” Taking a pebble from his pocket, he hit it on the first attempt. Clapping her hands and hugging the young boy, Rani said,” I am proud of you. But you should spend only limited time in practicing. You must study well and come up in life.”
“Akka, I will study well, help you in your chores but please do not stop me from practicing. I beg you, akka,” pleaded the urchin.
“No you can play with it in the evening from 4 to 6 pm. I am ordering that you should keep it aside after that. Otherwise I will inform dad who will break your slingshot,” she threatened the boy.
Babu made faces at her and ran away with the slingshot in hand and pebbles of assorted sizes in his trouser pockets
The 12x12 room was all the area in the hut doing the duty of living room, bed room and kitchen. There was no running water and the common well a little away served their water needs. The folks in the village relieved themselves in the open fields under the cover of bush or rock or the banks of canal. The women generally went in the evenings in groups of two or three after the sunset when it became dark but not very late while men went in the mornings. There were complaints that some men on cycles from other nearby villages making catcalls at lone woman. There was a funny incident of two men accosting a frail old woman defecating in the open around 8pm mistaking her for a young woman and ran away when the old woman yelled at them.
It was a week later on a Sunday, Rani’s dad brought from a fair in the adjacent village a large bagful of groundnuts and chikki (bars made by mixing nuts with gur) to the glee of children. Two days later Rani was having slight pain in her tummy and drank some potion in the morning made by her mom.
Seeing her lying on the floor for long, Babu asked her, “Akka, aren’t you well? Shall I go and fetch amma?”
No, no, not necessary. I will be fine tomorrow. Do not tell her anything. Both of them would be tired after a day’s hard work,” she told him.
Around 11 pm that night, she felt an urgent need to relieve herself. Not wishing to wake up her tired parents who were fast asleep, she gently rose from her mat taking care not to disturb Babu by her side. She did not go far into the fields afraid of evil men and sat by a bush. There was a slight drizzle and moon was covered by clouds. A few minutes passed when she heard a shuffle of feet behind her and before she even got up to run, a sack was put on her head that covered her up to waist and two men lifted her like a bundle. Her shriek from inside was muffled.
The two men happy they had their quarry finally in their hands for their merriment walked carrying her towards a pump shed a little yonder. Hardly they took a few steps, one of the men dropped the sack when he was hit by something hard as if a lightning had struck on the back of his head. He fell down unconscious.
The other guy, confused at this unexpected development and unable to bear the weight of sack, dropped it and looked around to see what was happening. The next moment he wailed in pain and shock as something hard hit him between the brows with blood gushing out and making him giddy as he also. fell down.
As the sack was not tied at the mouth, Rani came out wondering at the miraculous happening when she heard,” Akka, come away quickly before they get up.”
When she saw Babu with slingshot in hand, she surmised what had happened. “How did you come here? I came without making noise and making sure you were asleep.”
“Akka, sorry, when I saw you getting up, I closed my eyes pretending to sleep. I followed you and was hiding on the other side of bush. When I heard your stifled scream, I sized up the situation and chose the biggest pebbles. They were like cockroaches and the aims were perfect, akka, though from a distance and in the dark. I knew I cannot afford to miss. Come on let us hurry home,” he said as he walked along with her proudly.
It was a week later when Babu had his birthday, Rani presented him with a packet wrapped in glittering red paper. When Babu opened eagerly, he saw it was a nicely made slingshot unlike the home made one he had. Jumping in joy, he hugged her and . asked ,"Is your order that I play with this only in the evenings holds good now?"
Rani joined him in the laughter.