THE GOLD WRAPPER


      The anticipation in 7-year old Kumar's animated face was such as to make any onlooking adults smile and children envious. His hands shook with excitement as he carefully and gently extracted the large chocolate bar wrapped in a golden-coloured wrapper from its case. An old regular at the next table let out an audible sigh, as if resenting yet another reminder of his old age.

      Kumar's family lived on the outskirts of the town, and they ventured into the city in only about once a month. Kumar had to cajole and plead with Mother for over two weeks to go out shopping. He had to think up many things to be bought before she gave in. He had been longing to have that chocolate since he saw an ad for it between the disney cartoon shows on a sunday morning five weeks ago. It cost many times more than the chocolate bars Father often brought home in the evenings. But it had the highly coveted(among second-graders) metal foil wrapper, fabled to be real silver on one side and real gold on the other. The adults, with their usual stupidity, refused to believe their 7-year old sons in this matter.

      Having that chocolate became a necessity after Ashok, his rival at school, showed the gleaming wrapper in the folds of his english reader to the admiring multitudes during recess two weeks ago. To worsen the situation, he had offered with sicking condescension to give a piece of the second wrapper he had at home to those who agreed to conduct themselves accordingly.

      Kumar detached the wrapper, and meticulously smoothed out the foil(careful not to touch the gold) on the table before turning to the chocolate bar. The chocolate itself tasted quite like the other chocolates he had at home. Having finished her piece of cake and her cup of coffee, Mother became impatient to be gone. She was tired from shopping, and it was getting dark quickly. Kumar quickly gobbled up the remaining chocolate, not wanting to wrinkle and soil the gold wrapper by wrapping sticky chocolate in it.

      As they stepped out of the bakery, the chilly breeze took away Kumar's breath for a moment. Mother noticed it, and insisted upon him wearing his sweater. Ignoring his pleas to be careful, and weighed down with her new purchases, she pulled the sweater down roughly over his head, to be responded to with howls of anguish and outrage.

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      Kumar felt unconsolable as he feverishly tried to smoothen the foil on his knee, intermittently wiping away the tears still running down his cheeks. Mother had stopped trying to appease him. A kind-faced motherly lady, dressed in something expensive and red, standing next to them was trying futilely to cheer him up. She was chewing on some tobacco, and it gave her full lips an unnatural color, reminding Kumar of the Duchess of wonderland. The few other people standing about them at the bus-stop seem to have noticed nothing. Then Kumar noticed in the dull streetlight over his head a girl about his height walking down the desolate street towards the bus-stop. This did what the lady's kindness could not do. The sound of Kumar's crying stopped, though he still snuffled occasionally. He stopped handling the wrapper and stood straight. He did not want to seem a crybaby to any of his peers.

      The child came to a stop in front of the stocky bald man closest to her approach. Her right hand slightly extended out to him, and her head tilted up, she called out "Ayya(father) ..." The stocky man seemed to be engrossed in some invisible attraction down the dark street.

      The slight breeze blowing down the street seemed to have suddenly turned very chilly. The people around Kumar shuffled on their feet, wrapping their shawls tighter. She called out again, "Ayya, give me 10 paisa," she put her left hand to her stomach, "I have not eaten anything today!" The unknown attraction grew in its allure. Some others fidgeted and looked at their watches. The girl moved on towards the next person. Even before the girl spoke, the tall man in white waved his long hand, "move on girl, move on." She stood silent for a minute and called out once again "Ayya!," but he did not seem to notice her. Next, it was an elderly couple. The old man seemed angry, "go away girl! Go away!."

      She moved down the group, standing lesser and lesser time in front of the next person. Her voice seem to grow quieter and more dispirited. As she slowly came closer towards the streetlight behind him, Kumar noticed she was barefoot. A tattered frock many sizes larger than her barely hung on to her shoulders, held by a single safety pin on the back. Kumar could see the small of her back through the gap beneath when her back was turned. She pulled at the oversize collar everytime it slipped down her shoulders. She had deep shadows under her dull and tired looking eyes. There were deep pits between her shoulder-blades, which Kumar tried in vain to find on his own shoulders under his many layers of clothing. Shoulder-length brown hair hung in rigid clumps around her. Kumar wondered whether it would grow down to the ground if she did not have it cut, whether her mother ever force her to cut it. As she drew closer, he realized she was covered over and over again in dirt. She wiped her nose on her sleeves every few minutes. She was very skinny, and looked younger than himself. She had an oversized bangle of some unclear colour on each of her narrow wrists. Her head seemed strangely large in proportion to her body.

      She reached the Lady in Red, who glanced at the girl, turned around, spit some tobacco juice at the lamp-post and stared past Kumar with a severe frown on her face, as if the girl had disappointed and displeased her exceedingly. She looked neither kindly nor motherly anymore. Kumar instinctively turned towards Mother, and found she was slightly behind him. He quickly reached her and held her hand close on his side. In a short while, the girl reached them and looked up at Mother. Kumar looked up too. Mother was watching an airplane's blinking lights in the sky. The girl looked at Kumar. Her eyes dropped, lingered on his shoes for a moment, rose up, flickered at the gold wrapper, and came to rest on his sweater. She seemed to like the bright pattern of Elephants and tigers on it. Kumar did not feel proud as usual, but instead felt a little ashamed. He noticed she was shivering a little. Kumar suddenly felt chilly. The girl called out, "Amma(mother)!", and then looked at Kumar, as if in appeal. Kumar gave Mother's hand a small pull and looked up. Mother was following the airplane with her eyes. She seemed engrossed. Kumar quickly looked down, and became busy in the Gold wrapper. His fingers were moving, but he could not think. The airplane took a long time to vanish. By the time Mother looked down, Kumar found the girl had moved on, and the Gold Wrapper had become a ball in his hand. He looked at it for a few moments and let it drop to the ground.

      Having appealed to the only person on Mother's other side, the girl sat down on the ground behind them by the small concrete seat behind them, trying to shield from the breeze. A bus turned the corner up the street, and everybody around gave a sigh of relief. "At last!", some cried out with the pathos of Andromeda rescued.

      After settling down beside the window, Kumar looked out. The girl was up and picking up the ball of foil. She looked up at the windows on the bus, and catching Kumar's eye, slowly turned away and sat down on the concrete seat. As the bus moved away, he saw she seemed to be engrossed in something. He saw a glint of gold in the dull streetlight overhead. She was smoothening the Gold Wrapper.


      Note 1: 10 Paisa is about 0.2 US Cents. One meal for a child would cost about 25 cents by indian standards of living/poverty.

      Note 2: Though the story is a collage of a number of my own experiences, I feel confident my portrayal changed neither their effect nor their context.

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