The other day, there was a panel discussion as part of IFA’s Arts Education Conference where two young people, dancers in well known choreographer Astad Deboo’s group, shared their experiences of having lived on the streets before they came into the Delhi based Salaam Balak Trust. Both had moving stories to tell, but what Pankaj, the ‘talker’ in their group said struck me hard. Describing his days of uncertainty, he said, “I didn’t know what dreams were like.” In the course of the next half hour, I wrote something inspired by that line. I wouldn’t normally put any of my creative writing here, but this one time I want to. It is the unedited writer’s cut.
I refuse to insert a disclaimer that it is short fiction. I find that it doesn’t make a difference whether I do or not.
“I didn’t know what dreams were like”
One morning, just before Naboo would start his day’s rounds and beat us all up, I saw the sun’s rays again when they glazed over the iron and steel tracks. I wondered where I would get breakfast that day. Even when the cold has crept into your bones and stayed there long after summer has arrived, the first thing you wonder about, before wanting an un-torn rag to wear, is where you will get breakfast. That’s the way it is, on the streets; what can you do?
Breakfast, maybe, if Naboo left me with any strength to walk after he was done with me, maybe, would be a piece of bread for the four and half rupees I had stashed away. Stashed away for a day just like this, when I woke up thinking of breakfast. Would Naboo leave me alone this morning? I don’t wonder. My thoughts rarely go beyond breakfast.
I am Anoo. I am 15 years old. Of medium height. With fair skin. Bright eyes. Capable of being as wild as you want me to be. That is how Naboo describes me to his friends who come by the tracks after 11 every night. For that is the time the beat man in khakhi has left to nurse his one shot of brandy he allows himself when it gets too cold. I am Anoo now. I used to have a different name as a child. But that was in another life. This life is marginally easier if I call myself Anoo.
I, Anoo, might have breakfast today. The 5:40 Mail has left the station. The station, my home, occasional workplace, my nightmares are here. But then, I want to tell you about my dreams.
I never knew the word for dreams, in any language. I didn’t, still don’t really, know what dreams are like. I suppose we all dream when we are asleep. But nights were often my work hours and when I slumped against a cold stone seat sometime in the day time, the station’s morning was so loud and busy that I only heard everyone’s conversations in my sleep. No, though. That is not the kind of dream I am talking about.
The other kind of dream, where you think of hopes and future and stuff, you know, that’s the sort I talk about. I never had those. Did I tell you? I never knew the word for dreams. Never knew what they sounded and felt and tasted in my mouth like.
It is like…oh, I don’t know, maybe like never knowing what hot rice tastes like. When you never know a taste or a smell or feeling, there is no chance of missing it. I never missed dreams. Even if I had known them, I know Naboo wouldn’t have let me have them. Like hot rice or a red shawl to cover my body or a full smile, which Naboo forbids me. I cheat though, with the smile, and allow myself one when he isn’t around and I see jasmine flowers on someone’s hair.
Things happened. I nearly died. There came and went many more trains. I hit Naboo. When a food packet someone was carrying slipped out from a tear in the wire basket, I had hot white rice for the very first time. Things happened. I ran, I came. I went away. I grew bigger breasts and longer hair. I am still Anoo though. That is because I choose not to remember what I used to be called. Things happened. The best thing that happened was that someone told me what a dream was. Jisoo once described one to me. Beloved Jisoo, my friend. Jisoo told me of dreams and what the sounds and colours and textures of dreams were like.
Things happened. I ran away, faster and further and ended up with Jisoo. We are happy, with Summi and the others. I dream now, they all taught me how to. I like it, dreaming. I still dream of breakfast. The only difference is that now I am sure Naboo will not snatch it away. I also dream of looking at the sky and not the ground and running so fast that the wind cannot keep up between the curls of my hair. Jisoo laughs and calls me a dreamer. As for me, I know of dreams now. I create for myself, and sometimes for Jisoo, a beautiful new day, every single morning.
(Feb 4, 2012)