Wednesday morning started with the sound of a fly buzzing in my left ear, and my mother yelling at me in my right.
“Just because it’s a holiday Meena, doesn’t mean you have to sleep the whole morning.”
The whole morning? I glanced at the clock. It was 8 AM. She pushed open the curtains, so the sunlight flooded into my room. Mama surveyed my room with a frown. Rolling up the sleeves of her navy blue pantsuit, she proceeded to tidy it. I don’t know why she bothered, it was just going to become messy again.
“Some sort of sleeping grippe, I suppose,” she continued, “anyway, while I’m at work I’ve given you a list of chores for you to do in what’s left of this morning”. I looked at the clock again. It was 8:01.
Picking up some clothes that I had claimed “fell of their hangers”, she waved goodbye and shut the door, her heels clicking on the wood floor. I sat up groggily and pushed of my covers that Mom had made me launder and fold myself.
Stumbling into the bathroom, I showered and brushed my teeth, then went downstairs. Our kitchen was cramped with an old grey-tiled floor and plaster walls. It was definitely not my favorite room in our tiny apartment. For years, I had asked my mother to get it redone, but she always replied that it was functional and that was enough. After a healthy breakfast of potato chips and cookies, I scanned the list Mama had pinned to the door. Mama had written in Hindi, not our local language Kannada because she thought that reading Hindi more would help me improve my reading skills, but I didn’t think that reading a lifetime of chores lists would do me much good. Every day, I was given housework to do. Every day, Mama would come home and criticize it. If she wasn’t going to be satisfied with my work, she should just do it herself, I thought. First item on the list, I shuddered when I saw the words clean the bathroom. Feeling queasy, I decided to skip it, and do it later. Second item: Take out the trash. In my opinion, it wasn’t the worst chore, but definitely not the best one.
Hauling the trash bag in the corner over my shoulder, I stepped out of our apartment, and took the stairs down to the bottom floor. Usually, there would be silence on a work day like today, but it was a national holiday for students. Waking up early for school every morning was tiresome, so I was grateful to have a holiday. Today, the apartment complex was as noisy as my last birthday party. Checking my watch, I saw that it was already 9:00 AM, I quickened the pace, I didn’t want to have to do chores the whole holiday. Opening the gate, I waved to the mailman, and set off down the road to the landfill. I despised the dump, obviously it smelled awful, but that wasn’t the worst part. Cows always left “presents” there, and I had chanced to step in them on more than one occasion. Also, the people living around there were rumored to be vulgar.
When I narrated this to Mama, she simply replied, “Rumors are rumors. When there is a real problem, please tell me.”
Therefore, I was forced to comply, and every week she sent me on the dreaded errand. Usually, my little brother went with me, but he was with Papa in the U.S. visiting our cousins. I envied him, he didn’t have to do chores, he was probably watching a movie at that moment, or sight-seeing with my relatives. According to Mama, I couldn’t go because I had my exams coming up in a month and I needed to study. Forget studying, our class hadn’t even started covering the exam material yet! Mama was always nagging me, being unreasonable and aiming
to make my life horrible.
Until I had finished every chore on the never-ending list, I wasn’t allowed to play with my friends. I was only ten! None of my other friends had to do what I did, and their parents never bossed them around. Just then, the scent of moldy food filled my nose. Sure enough, I had reached the landfill. It was a huge circular pit filled with all sorts of rancid garbage. Programs had been created in our city for recycling, but most people didn’t bother.
Angrily, I threw the trash to the bottom, and was about to head back when I heard a noise. Cautiously, I turned in a full circle, all my senses on high alert. Then, the sound came again, louder this time, and from the bottom of the dump. A girl no more than eight, was sorting through the piles of garbage. Her hair was matted, and caked with dirt. Her skin was dry, and she had many bruises. She was as thin as a stick, and looked miserable. Torn and ragged, her dress was barely discernible. Watching her, I wondered how long it had been since she had a bath. It occurred to me that she might have never had one.
Two boys, both of whom were around my age, were using a tiny magnet to pick up metals, but they didn’t have any luck. The rumors were wrong, the locals weren’t vulgar, and they were poor. I remembered the water bottle I had stowed in my pocket earlier and pulled it out. Making my way carefully down the garbage slope, I tried to reach the kids, but I slipped on a juice box and crashed into a broken bicycle. I fell face-first into the muck with a thud. Alerted by the noise, the kids saw me, and turned pale. Running through the filth, they ran over the hill, and I couldn’t see them anymore.
“Wait!” I yelled out to them, but they’d disappeared. Climbing out of the landfill, I ran home.
To my surprise, Mama was waiting when I got there.
“Where were you?” she demanded,” I called Mrs. Raman to check on you, and she said you weren’t here!”
Suddenly, she noticed my filthy clothes, and pale face.
Furiously, she asked, “What happened? Were you in a fight?”
“No Mama, I-I was at the landfill.”
I burst into tears. Mama looked surprised, I rarely ever cried, but she picked me up and held me until I stopped. I described what I had seen at the landfill, and how horrified I had felt.
My mother turned me around to face her, and said,” Those kids are from very poor families. If they don’t search for food, their entire family will starve. The boys with the magnet were trying to find metal they could sell to buy necessities for their families. Most likely they ran away from you because they thought that you would be rude to them. Many people disrespect poor families and hurt instead of help them.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Mama placed me on the ground and ushered me out of the kitchen, so she could make dinner. I thought I saw her brush a tear out of her eye.
That night, I couldn’t sleep, I felt more than pity for the family, I felt something very like guilt. All my life, I had complained about my mother and her bossing me around. Finally, I realized how lucky I was to have a mother who took care of me, and worked hard, so I could go to school, eat good food, have a roof over my head, and more. To summarize, I was a brat. The next morning, I checked off the first item on the list and resolved never to complain again.