A small town in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai was waking up slowly to a new day. The early morning joggers returned home in track pants and high-topped sneakers, the newspaper delivery boy balanced on his moving cycle and threw the rolled-up papers that landed at the entrances or in the balconies with sheer perfection, a skill that he had honed over the years. The house helps arrived with the dustbins as the kabaadi came whistling with the trash-cart. School buses lined up outside the apartments and the moms, all keyed up, shouted for the drivers to wait for a minute as they stuffed the lunch boxes, force-fed the kids, brushed their hair or hurried back inside to get the water-bottles their kiddies had forgotten.
Anju dodged all of it, everything that came her way as she grabbed her bag with both her hands and ran. She had to catch her breath when she finally arrived at her school. No wonder it was still closed. She had turned up quite early. It wasn't like an ordinary school with enormous buildings or air-conditioned classrooms. They had colorful mats to sit on the floor and an open roof for endless light and air. They got books for free and knowledge for life. Anju loved all her teachers, especially her Rohini didi. She was young and cheerful and always had a bright smile on her face. She was always the first one to reach the school, and today Anju had something very special to share with her, secretly though. She settled down on a step near the entrance, and fixed her eyes at the turn afar, counting seconds in her head. A few minutes later, Anju spotted her from a distance. She quickly stood up and whisked her skirt with both her hands. Even Rohini had noticed her as she drove closer.
'Hi, didi,' Anju greeted her as she watched her park her Scooty and tilt her head to the left to remove her helmet. As always, she was looking stunning in her peacock-blue salwar and the matching jhumkas. There was hardly a thing about her that Anju would not admire. 'When I will grow up, I'll be like Rohini didi. I will be a teacher,' she would tell her mother. Anju's mother had never been to a school. Two years back, when a group of young men and women came to their locality, visited every household and requested them to send their children to the school that will educate them for free, she outfought her husband and decided to send Anju to the school.
Rohini came closer and adoringly ruffled her hair. Anju was every teacher's dream. Her dedication and intelligence had shortly made her the peer-expert. Her friends from her locality would amusingly call her Chhoti-madam. Anju liked it there, in her school. Had it not been for her mother, she would have stayed there, even after-school.
A ten-by-ten space enclosed by tinfoil on the sides and asbestos on the roof, if you call that home, was where Anju lived with her mother in a nearby slum. Her father would only come to sleep at night. And also to beat her mother at times. He was a rag picker, and would spend most of his day in a local tavern unless he would run out of cash. He barely earned anything himself. He would come home back to claim his wife’s hard-earned money. And if she ever said she did not have enough cash, Anju’s drunkard father would beat up his wife. Her mother, who was always very meek, would never say a word. It looked like she had long stopped responding and that she was only dragging herself every day. Even Anju got used to it. But last night, when her father held her mother by her hair, thrashed her with his belt and kicked her again and again, Anju was terrified. She hid behind a trunk and did not come out even when his father fell asleep, not even when she heard her mother moaning in pain.
Anju skipped a few beats as she followed Rohini inside. 'Didi,’ she sounded nervous, ‘I have a request. I came early as I thought I would share something with you.’
Rohini pulled a chair for Anju, 'Sit...now tell me what it is.'
Anju was unsure how to put it. What if it annoys her! She thought. But then, doesn't she always encourage us to read? Didn't she tell us that day, "read anything that you get to read..."? That found her enough nerve to speak her heart out.
'Didi, do you know, what my mother says?' Anju curled up her lips, 'she says, I should study really hard and get a decent job for myself...so that I can live a life far away from our squalid lanes. She says, only education can find us freedom. And you know, I have promised her, once I get a job, I will buy an apartment for both of us.’ She paused for a second trying to read her eyes and spoke again, ‘but didi, can't she find her freedom too? Can't she join us? Can you not teach her all that you teach me? Even I want her to find her own freedom.'
Rohini felt a lump in her throat. She did not know much about her mother, but she knew how most of the women in their bustee led their lives. She grabbed her hands and nodded her head, 'you’re right, Anju. Even your mother should join our school. In fact, we will love to have her.'
Rohini smiled seeing her eyes shine, ‘muchi!’
'Great!' Anju jumped up, ‘can I quickly go and tell my mother? I'll come back before the class starts, promise...'
Anju was waiting for Rohini to nod, and the very next moment she zoomed out of the room. She ran and ran and did not stop. She had found a ticket for her mother...a ticket to freedom.