A Mid-day Meal at Midnight
With "Slumdog Millioner" attracting criticism that poverty sells, I thought I should try my hand in portraying poverty in one of my blogposts. I know poverty as such will not catapult any trash to literary success overnight. In order that it attracts the notice of the readers, there has to be something ineluctable, rather irresistable about it. I've read Vikas Swarup's book "Q & A" some three years ago. I had enjoyed its literary format, the charm of urban living, even in hovels has been so very beautifully portrayed.
Mangat Prasad would not do anything that was wrong--call it his fear of God or his timidity, he was sure to stay miles away from any act that could goad him to repent. People believed this and Mangat had never ever given a chance to anybody to believe otherwise.
Well, society demands cost for everything, even for living an honest living. Mangat Prasad was too poor to afford that. A square meal for all the seven members of the family was all that he craved, but he was not lucky always. So, he was answerable for his failure, all the while and to everybody--to his quibbling wife and snivelling kids, to his impatient debtors and neglectful relations. 'Is this the way you've decided to maintain your family? My children go unfed, they're so very wretchedly dressed, but look at neighbour's children. How blissfully they enjoy,' Malti, the emaciated middle-aged wife of Mangat, used to lash out at her husband as hunger in her own belly rumbled.
Mangat could not have ignored them all the while. One day the exhortations of Malti worked on him and he sat down to take a hard look at his principles. That day he was suffering from fever, but the urgency of the matter needed his quick decision, a feverish decision: whether he would allow his family to rot in hunger or adopt some quick means to alleviate its sufferings.
And what was the quick-fix? Eureka! Suddenly Managat felt he had found out the answer, something that had been eluding him for years: he decided to steal.
Madho Singh, the shopkeeper of the village, was a person of means who had never ever thought of insuring his shop. Let alone insuring, he had no dog to guard his shop. When he was himself the guard, where was the point in spending money on the security of his establishment? At night, he used to sleep on the floor of his shop with its doors and windows closed.
And Mangat knew that. It was no easy task to steal from the shop. So he headed for the school. It was in his knowledge that there was stock of rice in the school for mid-day meals. He decided where he should steal without being noticed.
The task was even easier than he thought. Not a street dog was there at this hour of the night to accost Magat. But then there was no big stock of rice; it was only a small bag weighing two to three kilos at the maximum. With the bag of booty he rushed out.
Curiosity had the better of him. 'I should know exactly what I've stolen. Malti won't be happy with so less, still…let me have a look,' Magat mumbled. Soon he reached the light post, the only incandescent light illuminating the sleepy village. There he opened the bag.
'Ah, what a pity! Are they feeding children this sort of wretched grub? The whole stuff is full of pebbles and chaff,' a sigh of disgust escaped Mangat's ravenous belly. He sat down then and there and started picking the stones out of the rice.
It took him just half an hour to make the rice clean. 'Aha! Now the children would find it tasty. Students should eat rice better than this or how else do they remember those difficult lessons in the school?' Mangat uttered a rhetorical question.
The novice of a thief headed back to the school. But this time Madho Singh was on his way. It was unusual for him to go out of his shop at night, but people used to say this about him: Madho had, of late, started practicing black art for coaxing evil spirits into showering wealth on him.
'Mangat, why are you roaming at this hour and what's that in your hand?' the village shopkeeper challenged.
'See, Madhoji, what these people are up to. They just feed children rice full of pebbles and husks. Isn't it cruel of them to give this trash to children in the name of mid-day meals?" Mangat responded.
For a second, Madho Singh, the village shopkeeper got confused. Why should Mangat get critical of mid-day meals at midnight? So he snatched the bag from Mangat and started examining it.
'And how did you get this rice?' Madho Singh asked.
'I've cleaned this rice for the use of children. Even hungry children shouldn't be given adulterated stuff. Let's go to the school and return it,' Mangat said this as a flicker of dry smile crossed his face. A rumble in his belly reminded him that he was hungry. His worry about his hungry children and angry wife began to worry him again.
A. N. Nanda
Labels: short story