For a Pair of Headphones

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He had to do a lot of housework – cleaning the cars, help in preparing the breakfast and the lunch, accompanying the kids to their van, washing the daily laundry, trimming the garden in the evening, et cetera, et cetera. But his most important job was to run errands.

There was always something to run an errand for. There was no sugar left, oregano was missing, the gas lighter wasn’t working, Mrs. Verma had a sudden craving for some Banarasi pan, Mr. Verma’s cigarettes were exhausted, there was no milk for the dog, the kids wanted to eat junk, the kids had no pencil to write their homework with, the guests asked for Coke instead of Pespi, the distant relative only ate brown bread in breakfast and the household only had white, the car’s air freshener was over, and on and on and on and on.
There was always something broken, something amiss, and it was his duty to make sure that the repair was completed as quickly as possible.

It was a small town. There were no industries, no natural resources and no tourism. Just a small little agricultural town near the border, where you were either a landowner, a shop-owner or a landless farmer. His parents belonged to the last category and tilled on Mr. Verma’s land. They decided to get him an employment in Mr. Verma’s household as an errand boy as soon as he turned 8. Obviously he would work for free and Mr. Verma would provide him with the basic amenities of life. He did not mind this arrangement at all – How else were his parents gonna pay the yearly land lease?

Sometimes when the Verma household’s rich friends or relatives came for a visit, they gave him a small token of appreciation. These bits and pieces of money he received on irregular intervals was his treasury. It provided him with much-needed distractions from the drudgery of daily life. ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ – tell this to a 10-year-old boy from a village with no electricity, sitting starstruck on a rollercoaster at the local fair as all the lights in the city revolved under and around him, a place where he was allowed entry only because he could produce that piece of paper at the right counter.

He certainly had no inkling about the concepts of Adam Smith or Milton Friedman. But what he knew was that those pieces of paper could buy you everything you ever wanted or dreamed of.
They could buy you a seat at the school where the kids went to play and make friends and learn amazing things. They could buy you a comfortable life full junk food and video games. They could buy you out of the misery of Mrs. Verma’s abuses.
And above all, they could buy you a pair of headphones. That would be enough happiness for him.

Some nights, when he stumbled down on his bed after a day of taunts, abuses, cold food and extreme hard work – the only thing that kept him from crying his heart out was music. Kishore, Lata, Mukesh and the whole lot of them – classics of an era long gone. Songs of broken men and songs of heartbreak and lost love, songs of romance and songs of life and hope. Songs which he listened to inside the house as Mr. Verma played them over the indoor speaker system. And he quietly mumbled those tunes at night till sleep came over him.

He had an old music player which was once a property of Mr. Verma himself. On a fine summer morning one of the kids accidentally broke it. Actually, accidently is a bit mild – the music player was basically hurled across the room and it subsequently smashed against the wall during a rather violent tantrum by the fat kid because he wanted Fanta over Pespi. As always, Mrs. Verma put all the blame squarely on him alone so he had to listen to Mr. Verma bellow out insults targeted at him and his parents for over an hour in the evening for not having had the foresight to purchase Fanta when the fat kid had clearly asked for Pepsi.

Later on he put all the broken pieces back together and taped them. But he had no way to test if the player worked or not. The next day he borrowed a headphone from one of the older boys who worked next door. He plugged in the jack and turned it on. There were already a plethora of songs stored in the player. All of his and Mr. Verma’s favourites. He cranked up the volume of the player, and Kishore Da’s melodic voice dripped into ears like molten gold – it went through the ear canal straight into his auditory cortex – taking him into a fairy land far away; away from the present, away from all the troubles.

He had to return the headphones back after two hours. As he strolled back to his room, the music player in his left pocket and few changes in his right, he made a decision. He would save enough money to buy himself a new headphone. The older boy who worked next door said that headphones cost a minimum of 250 /-. He hoped to save enough in three months to buy a pair which was at least a little better than the worst one in the market.

And thus the great quest of saving enough cash to buy that piece of pious paraphernalia began. Getting the money was easy. All he had to do was to make sure that not a single mistake was committed while a guest was in the house. If a guest felt that he had taken good care of their demands, they would generally give him a little cash reward.
The tough part was restraining his tongue. He couldn’t afford to spend any more money on candies and cold-drinks and street food. Every single coin went into the fund. He could also no longer play marbles with other serving kids in the neighbourhood, as it took money to buy marbles and while he wasn’t very bad at this game he was bad enough to lose much more marbles than he won.

For the next three months he lived a stoic’s life. He didn’t even go to the annual fair, which was kind of annual tradition for him even if the tradition was only two years old. The fair had all the breathtaking rides and the tasty food items he could think of, it sometimes also featured the magician and the clown and the lion jumping through the ring of fire and you could always find beautiful girls roaming around the fair grounds, laughing at the silly games and the sillier boys ogling over them. He missed all of that this time. While everyone was enjoying, he was lying awake in his bed and all he could think about was the day when he would come back from the market with his new headphones in one hand, and then how he would plug the jack in and turn up the volume and listen to the beautiful songs till sunrise.

After three months of a hard-fought battle with temptation and desire he finally saved enough. Now, he couldn’t wait to get into the shop and go through the racks till he found the pair that he was looking for. He would then proceed to choose the color although he had already decided that he wanted a white one. It seemed as if spending some time inside the shop pretending to choose a color was quite necessary, because everyone seemed to do it. So he would just stand there and look at all the available options pretending to be deep in thought and then go on to choose his predecided color anyway.

The next day, he could barely contain his excitement. After completing the daily chores, he put on his best clothes – which were actually the old clothes of the fat kid from the time when he used to be thin – then pocketed the player and the cash and went out. But just before he could step out of the doorway someone’s cold arms were thrown against his spine.

“Where are you going?” Mrs. Verma’s shrill, high-pitched voice caught him dead in his tracks.
“Nothing, just outside.” he hesitatingly tried to keep the conversation short.
“Somebody stole 350/- from my purse yesterday.”
“It wasn’t me.” The conversation was quickly transforming into his personal worst nightmare.
“I never said it was you.” The sadistic glee on Mrs. Verma’s face was hard not to miss.
Before he could say something Mrs. Verma took out both the cash and the player from his pocket in a jerking motion. He tried to stop her but all in vain.
“322. Hmmm. So you already spend some of my money and now you were going to spend it all away. You little rascal.” Mrs. Verma’s face went red with anger while she quickly took account of his savings of the past three months.
“No, Mrs. Verma. This is my money. I have saved it during last three months to buy a…” The slap’s impact was so hard he almost felt his teeth fall off place and threw him against the open door.

“You son of a pig, you filthy bastard, you wretched insolent dog. We feed you, take care of you, treat you like a king when you deservedly belong to the gutter and then you proceed to steal from us.” She hurled more slaps and kicks on his face and his body, hurling abuses all the time. He never even got the chance to say his side.
“If I catch you doing this the next time, I’ll beat you till you are dead. Understand this. And even your beggar parents won’t come to save you. Remember this you dirty piece of filth. Now go and iron my clothes. And if there is even a small burn, I’ll iron your hands myself.”

She went inside the house but not before throwing the player away like a piece of trash. It struck the wall once again and broke into a million more pieces than before. This time a simple tape won’t work.
He slumped onto his knees. Waterfall of tears started streaming down from his face in an incessant flow. The kicks were causing hurt and the slaps still stinged like hell, but it was not the physical pain which made him cry. He could withstand immense physical pain.
It was something else that made him cry. The money was not important. Nor were the candies or the fair or the marble games. Nor was the sadness caused because of the broken player or the now unattainable headphones.
It was just a feeling of emptiness at the bottom of his stomach that made him cry and cry and then cry some more. It was a feeling of utter defeat.

The fat kid passed by him on the stairs and hurled some cheap insults. He didn’t flinch or even raise his head, just kept it hidden between his knees as tears kept rolling down his cheeks. But if he would have raised his head, he would have seen that the kid was stuffing his face with some burger he had just bought from the nearby fast food joint using the money he stole from his mother’s purse last night.

Currently, 4–5 million child labors all across India are forced into every kind of work, from menial household chores to dangerous factory jobs. Even though such practices are illegal, there are people who regularly employ children as workforce. These kids never receive proper education and are deprived of a healthy childhood. The biggest irony is that the majority of employers are themselves highly educated and extremely rich.

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