Ten year old Anjali had never heard of Cinderella before. Neither had she seen the flat thin TV screen that magically hung on the wall in Shreya di’s house where her mother was a maid. The TV looked bored to Anjali, as if tired of hanging there, in want of life and adventure. Still it opened its eyes in a jiffy as the remote was pointed at it. It nonetheless obeyed its master quietly and played the cartoon ‘Barbie as Cinderella’.

“But your ma must have told you about her!” Shreya di looked down at the poor younger girl from the comfortable bed. “Mine did.”

Anjali turned her eyes towards the bemused face and closed her half parted lips to form words. “But Ma didn’t tell me.”

Ma was in the kitchen, her deep loud voice mingling with the rushing water from the basin onto the utensils that clattered a bit too much for the untrained ears. It was Sunday, the day her mother took her to houses she worked in. Any minute she would call her to help her wash the clothes that would, in time, fray and tear at the ends. When they were old enough to be discarded they would be new enough for Anjali to be worn to good places. She quietly waited for such moments, sometimes wishing the clothes to go bad quickly. She was also scared to wish such things and later she said sorry to God, hoping he wouldn’t punish her. An hour later they would then go to Sengupta Aunty’s house, where on Sundays, for all the household work that she provided, she and her mother would be served fish curry cooked in mustard seeds. She loved the fish just like the cats did, if not more but that day she was ready to let the cats have her share. She wanted to sit and watch the movie, see Cinderella’s fate.

But if only fate were as generous as Shreya didi!

Generosity to her was the bouquet of monotonous yet exciting evenings in her mud house when the sun spread its orange rays on the tin roofs of the huddled huts, shimmering like answers to the hopes and prayers that rose above like the only answer that ever could brighten the poverty struck small circumference that was fed daily, that grew fatter and rounder and stouter daily. Oblivious of it her infant brother wailed on the muddy floor outside their muddy hut, irritated by the muddy flies and muddy mosquitoes, frustrated with the muddy growling stomach that he didn’t understand. Ma was inside, burning the logs and sticks that they had collected that afternoon while returning from work. Only after the rice was put up to boil would her brother be attended. Anjali pitied the neglect but pushed the thought away with a hum, knowing that she and her siblings must have been brought up in a similar manner. They had made it through. So he would make it through. It was so obvious, so natural.
Hence she turned away and did what she loved the most about the evenings- chasing the chickens. She ran barefoot after them with the other children from the other huts, feeling unconsciously high and energetic as her feet sprang full length after the two legged stupid bird that hardly made use of its wings.

‘If I had those wings’, she thought, ‘I would never have wasted them like this. I would have soared high like the eagles.’

She also had another thought to go by every time. It was more of a prayer. ‘Please, O please God’, she would pray in her mind, ‘don’t let the sun set. Don’t let baba be angry on ma again.’

But the prayer was seldom listened to. She wondered if it was because she had evil thoughts about Shreya didi’s clothes.

Baba, her father only let her sleep soundly some nights. Other nights his boisterous slurry musings and lurching footsteps made her cringe. She waited for the careless knocks on the tattered termite eaten wooden door to end. Soon the sounds of the knocks were replaced by complaints and shouts. Behind the thin brown curtain that separated their very small rooms, her father hit her mother on the chest, pushed his knuckles against her nose and pulled her hair. Her ma shouted in pain and anger, still not used to the everyday routine. On the other side of the curtain Anjali held her sister close to her heart and waited for the noise to end. Her brother was yelling again, completely neglected.

“Your school does you no good.” Her ma always said, wanting Anjali to stay back and learn the work of a maid.

Yet everyday when her tiny frame got lost in the oversized white shirt and blue skirt, safety pins holding the skirt tight on the waist and replacing where the buttons had fallen out, she felt a tinge of excitement in her heart, forgetting the tragedy of the night. There were no shoes so she wore her pink flip flops to school. Her satchel was torn and needed mending, but her mother had no time to stitch it or tell her about Cinderella. Her father who was grunting in his sleep rolled over, a little disturbed by Anjali’s excited footsteps. So she tiptoed inside the room to find the eraser on which she had carefully and correctly written her name in English. He never escorted her to school like dads in brick houses did. But she was content with the fact that she went to a school and that her father was too lost to hold her back.

Normal mornings, Anjali hummed Bollywood songs as she hurried to her school. This morning she was lost in Cinderella’s thoughts, wondering what happened to her in the end. If only Ma had let her watch.

What happened to her?

Did she finally get saved from that evil witch?

And who was that handsome prince? Did he have a role in her life?

With unanswered questions she arrived at school, sat down with other children to recite the same literals in Hindi and English, do the same subtraction and addition written on the board and write down the tables up to ten. As Anjali rocked to and fro on the floor of the dim classroom, reciting a poem along with the entire class, her mind kept going back to the princess on the run. She wanted to ask her teachers sitting on iron chairs at the door. But she was scared. They did not want to be interrupted while knitting or talking on phone.

Therefore in the evening she did not bother about chicken chase when she knocked Shreya didi’s door. But Shreya didi had gone cycling with her papa.

“Oh…” Anjali ducked her head and nodded dejectedly.

“Anything I can do Anjali?” Shreya didi’s mother asked her when she had turned to go. “Don’t hesitate.” Aunty smiled a motherly smile.

That evening Anjali listened satisfactorily to the mesmerizing tale of a young princess who is finally pulled out of the shackles of tragedy by a handsome prince. That night when her parents shouted and hit each other in the adjacent room once again, she pulled out the fairy tale story book that aunty had given her and narrated the tale to her frightened little sister, flipping the pages to show her the pictures drawn on them so that they could visualize better.

“Will the prince save us too?” her sister looked up when she was finally done listening.
As Anjali closed the book and placed it back in her black torn bag, she smiled.

“Yes. One day! Yes!”

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