Watermelons in summer

By Suman Khanna Aggarwal

So, summer has finally come, mused six year old Krishna, as he sat next to the dustbin outside the house where his mother worked as a domestic servant. It was a blistering hot afternoon in June but the little boy did not feel the heat. In fact the hotter it got the better it was – as the watermelons would be accordingly, much more sweet, juicy and tasty.

A pleasant sound broke his reverie ”“ it was the clatter of plates and dishes as the cook cleared the table and brought them to the kitchen to wash. Ah – the long awaited moment had finally arrived! The cook would now throw the peels of the watermelon into the dustbin outside and Krishna could avail himself of his treat. For, as soon as the servant turned his back, Krishna would hang over the dustbin, reach his little hand in and come up with the peels of the watermelon! He would then run away with them, sit under the big neem tree near the garage and merrily eat what was left of the pulp, savoring each bite till he reached the absolute green skin of the peel.

Today however, the little boy glanced furtively around, his big innocent eyes full of apprehension lest anyone see him, before reaching for the peels. Moreover, he could no longer sit under his favorite haunt – the neem tree,  as yesterday, the Mem Saab  of the house had seen him there and had promptly delivered a long lecture on hygiene and even complained to his mother. With tears in his big eyes and a wrench in his little heart he had thrown away the peels, as though parting with dear friends. To top it all his mother had scolded him thoroughly, spanked him and even deprived him of the customary one rupee she gave him daily to eat ”˜sweetened ice’  from the ”˜Burfwalla’

So today Krishna sat under another tree in the far side of the compound and cautiously savored his delicacies. As he ate, his thoughts turned to the story his mother had told him about the beloved Lord Krishna’s antics – stealing butter from all the houses in the neighborhood and running away to eat it in a quiet spot. His little intellect failed to understand how people willingly let Lord Krishna do makhan-chori, and considered themselves blessed in return that he had stolen butter from their homes,while grudging him leftover peels of the watermelon which they had already relished.  After all, was he not also a boy like Lord Krishna- dark like him and even his namesake?

After discreetly leaving what was left of the peels in the hedge, Krishna ran swiftly to the neighboring house, where two peach trees heavily laden with fruit, were his current best friends. He would talk to them and of his little joys and sorrows as he ate the peaches. The hot sultry afternoon was the best time for siesta for the rich and consequently the best time for Krishna to fill his perpetually hungry stomach with ripe peaches while the rich slept in air-conditioned rooms inside. Luckily the branches were low and within his reach, low enough not to attract the Mali’s attention.

As he sat eating the peaches he wondered if he would get any dinner at night. Each afternoon Krishna wondered and usually guessed right about the one and only meal his family could afford. If his father came home drunk then the chances of his father bringing money home were almost nil. Consequently all of them would go hungry to bed, after being kicked around, a little.  If the Memsaab was pleased with his mother then she might bring home enough for five hungry mouths to eat. But today the time would hardly pass for Krishna, for he had heard his mother say that she would come home late as there was a dinner in the house where she worked and she had to stay on and help. That meant ”“ A FEAST- a platter full of leftover delicacies that the rich had eaten! Unfortunately the dinner finished very late and hungry Krishna was fast asleep with the blessed sleep of six year olds by the time his mother came home!

Poor Krishna was usually the one to get the worst of everything in the family. When his elder brothers had reduced their clothes to rags, they were cut up to his size.  His older siblings managed to get occasional tips by doing odd jobs – but Krishna was entirely dependent, even for a miserly two rupee coin to spend at the annual  mela, on his drunk father’s sobriety and his mother’s meager savings. On Diwali he consoled himself playing with used patakas and on Holi by playing with plain mud water in place of coloured water and ash for coloured powder!

Nevertheless, his little heart was always gay and it took very little to make him happy. He would be thrilled with the multicoloured butterflies he caught and at the sight of the glowworms at night. He had plenty of friends – both kids and adults. An old woman, whom everyone called masi, was extremely fond of him. She would save little tasty bits for him from her share of food, which she got from the house where she was employed as a baby-sitter. She had also been a midwife and had been instrumental in bringing Krishna into the world. He had been the last of her cases, as she was too old now for such work.

Krishna’s one great ambition was to have a good square meal, consisting of all the food he liked best, followed by a big sweet watermelon as desert. It was pathetic to see  the hunger in his eyes, as he watched rich boys munching apples while going to school.

One day when Krishna woke up in the morning he could not lift his head without being dizzy. His body too felt hot and his limbs heavy. It was quite late in the day and the room was empty. His parents had gone to work and his brothers and sisters to school. He felt a raging thirst, bur could hardly get up and drink water and from the surahi keptin the corner of his jhuggi. At last when his thirst became unbearable, he dragged himself painfully across the floor, to the corner where the surahi was kept. With feeble hands he tried to pour out the water. ”¦ not a drop came out. His mother had forgotten to fill the surahi before going out to work!   He was too weak to call out to masi living in the neighboring jhuggi.  He tried to walk out to in order to drink water from the tap outside, but fainted.

When he came to his senses, his mother was holding a glass of water to his lips, coaxing him to drink some.  Masi was sitting next to him feeling his forehead. His eldest sister was fanning him.

It felt strange to have so many people fuss over him. He raised his head and drank the water. It had never tasted better before. Though it was mid June, he felt feverish and chilly. His mother covered him up with a torn dirty blanket.

After a while he was given some bitter medicine and then ”“ he could not believe his eyes – his mother was actually bringing him a cup of milk to drink and a rusk to eat with it. Supported by Masi’s arm he tried to drink the milk and eat the rusk- but it tasted bitter. Nevertheless, he was forced to drink up all the milk. He felt sick after drinking it and soon vomited it all out. By now it was night and his head was throbbing painfully. He could hear his father curse his mother as she urged him to fetch a doctor.

No doctor came. There was no money. For two days Krishna lay in a delirium. All sorts of homemade mixtures were tried on him but to no avail. On the third morning his fever had risen alarmingly.  

In his delirium, he felt his mother pick him up in her arms and take him to the Memsahib’s house. He wondered why his mother was crying. He could feel her hot tears on his cheek. The Memsahib’s brother, who was a doctor, examined him. His diagnosis was – severe food poisoning. Everybody was at a loss to know what could have been the cause until it was remembered that the dirty dustbin from where he had been eating the peels of the watermelons was the source of the infection.   

The week that followed was one of the sheer agony for the six year old boy. He could not digest anything. Consequently he became weaker day by day. The medicines that the family could afford did not work. Gradually he became conscious for less and less time each day.  Masi, who watched over him day and night as she nursed him, heard him babble in his delirium about  watermelons and peaches, about becoming rich and owning a garden full of watermelons which he could distribute generously among his friends feeling as rich as a king!.  Poor soul –  he who had known no respite from hunger, felt satiated in his dreams, as he lay dying.

When there was absolutely no hope left they lifted him from the bed and put him on the floor. Some ganga jal (holy water) was forced between his lips. Dimly he saw the familiar faces around him. They all were crying … but now he felt strangely at ease. He wanted to tell them not to grieve…as he had never felt so peaceful before.

Through his dimming senses he heard Masi say through sobs…”My Krishna will go straight to heaven… God claims early the children he really loves”. On hearing Masi’s words Krishna smiled. He had always pictured heaven as a big place with fields and fields of lovely, big, ripe watermelons in summer and apples in winter.   … And God to supervise that everyone got their share!

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