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~ a short story

“Uncle, some rice, please.”

Paru’s voice was soft. She held out the tattered cloth bag. Sankara Pillai looked up from the bill book and at her through his gold-framed glasses. A scrawny thing in her faded frock. She resembled her rascal dad, Pappi a lot. He frowned when he remembered how the fellow had run away stealing some cash from his shop. That’s what you got in return these days from your employees who you pay well. Ingratitude. He absentmindedly rubbed his chest, bringing his hands to rest on his considerable paunch. The morning’s breakfast had been heavy. He must tell Bhargavi to go easy on the oil. And the chillies. But right now, the girl. He brought his giant eyebrows together and looked at her sternly.

“Have you got money, Paru?”

He felt the girl cringe visibly. He quickly turned his gaze to the many rings on his fingers. The one with the diamond and ruby had cost him a packet. It was specially blessed by the priest of the village temple to ward off evil. The one with the emeralds had not come cheap either. That was bought as suggested by the family astrologer.

“No, Uncle. Amma said to chalk it up to her account.”

He didn’t hear it at first. Paru’s voice was almost a whisper. Sankara Pillai frowned again.

“But she has run out of credit. I can’t let her have anything more till she pays up.”

He saw Paru’s lips tremble at his gruff voice. What did the villagers call him behind his back? His employees too. Something about his voice being like coconut shell being rubbed on a rock. Not to mention the other one about him being a miser who’d rub salt on an open wound. Rascals, every single one of them. He’d heard them laugh raucously from behind the stacked bags of rice. They hadn’t known he was back earlier from his lunch because he didn’t want to meet Bhargavi’s father who was visiting. The drunkard was always trying to cadge money from him on one pretext or another. How he could be the father of an angel like Bhargavi, he did not know. Sankara Pillai brought his wandering mind back to find Paru gazing at him with her too wide eyes in a pitifully emaciated face.

“Come on, run home, Paru. No point standing here.”

The customers waiting behind her in the queue were getting restless. Some further back were craning their necks to see who had come begging for rice without any money.

“Oh, it is that squirt, one of Chellamma’s offspring.”

“Yes, that wretch Pappi’s daughter.”

“There are a couple more after her. Or are there three?”

“Mark my words. They are not good news. Every single one of them… going to grow up to be a thieves!”

“Yeah. Bad seed. What else can you expect?”

Sankara Pillai waved his hand for Paru to stand to one side. Every word of the conversation had reached Sankara Pillai. Paru’s eyes were moist. He ignored it all and started attending to the next customer in line.

“Go home, Paru. Get some cash and come back. Things here are not for free for anyone.”

Paru walked out of the shop with slow steps. Sankara Pillai’s eyes watched her as he called out to his assistant to pack five kilos rice and two kilos of sugar for his customer. He knew Paru’s mother was out of work and ill. Then there were the little ones, now fatherless. But what could he do? He couldn’t just give away things for free. The others would also want the same and then where would he and his family be? Sankara Pillai turned to the man standing in front of the counter whose turn was next.

“I’ll be back in a minute. I’ve to open the stockroom for the boys.”

The man nodded his head and went back to gossiping with his friend behind. Sankara Pillai went to the back room, keys jangling. He quickly opened the huge lock on the door to his stockroom to the left. Then, instead of going back to his billing, he stepped out through the door leading to the backyard. Just as he thought. Paru had only reached as far as the tamarind tree. She was dragging her feet home.

“Paru! Hey, Paru! Here. Come here, girl.”

He saw the dazed look on Paru’s face when she turned and saw who was waving at her. She stood rooted to the spot staring at him with those awfully large eyes of hers. Sankara Pillai grew impatient.

“Come on. Hurry up, girl! What are you standing there and gawking for?”

Paru seemed to wake up from her stupor. She quickened her steps. Soon she was standing before him, a wary, questioning look on her face. Sankara Pillai dipped into his shirt pocket and brought out a couple of notes. He pressed them into her tiny palm.

“Go on to the front of the shop. Now you can buy the rice and whatever else you want.”

Sankara Pillai slipped in through the backdoor whistling tunelessly, still jangling the keys. He didn’t see the smile bloom on Paru’s face or the look of wonder as she counted the money. He was by then back in his seat and writing out the bill for his customers. His heartburn seemed surprisingly better. Maybe he would ask Bhargavi to make fish curry for him tomorrow, spicy hot. Out of the corner of his eyes Sankara Pillai noticed Paru join the queue to buy ration. 

©Shail Mohan 2018