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The Bitter Truth

by

Marya Jabeen

I prayed in silence, "Lord, let everything go even and smooth." I was with Khalid, a friend and had decided on lunching at Pů. along with four children. They were ordinary children aged between five to eleven, three girls and a boy. Their eyes had lit up when Khalid had shared with them the irresistible idea, the heavenly idea, the idea of Pů. They had all agreed in unison to accompany us. I was apprehensive but kept or at least tried to keep my fears to myself. Voicing them would have meant timidity and a feeling of lowness.

We walked to our destination like a team, the kids, shoulder to shoulder, and Khalid and I towering above them. Only a small girl child, crippled, was on the back of her elder sister, Celina. As we neared Pů., I grew more anxious and tucked at Khalid's shirt, "Are you sure it's a good idea?" "Yes!" came the confident reply. We walked in through the glass door. I had expected heads to turn for we were a unique party but the exasperated looks were a bit too much to take. Three more children had joined the band as we stepped inside. We took the corner table and waited for someone to come for taking orders. Few long seconds passed, none came. One glance at the counter confirmed my suspicion. The whole crew, including the manager, was clogged together, busy in discussion.

During this waiting period, the children were engrossed in various activities. The infant, earlier tucked in Aarti's arm, was now on the cushioned sofa, crawling and crying. Cutlery pieces were being inspected, plates looked on with fascination. The two slightly older girls were aware of what may come next and hence, sat rigid. Their eyes were constantly traveling, to and fro; their gazes grazing the space, the counter and then our tables (we had to take two). One of them would scold the younger ones for being ill mannered. She was putting refraining hands on those fidgeting with the plates, the knives and the forks.

Then came the manager. Neatly dressed and polite, but firm in words, "I am sorry sir, but these children can't sit here."

These were the children who beg for alms in the community center. Dressed in rags, faces dirty and hair disheveled, they follow the on goers for few coins or few food morsels. The faces are marked with constant deprivation and hunger. These kids constitute the profile of the other side of the society's face, poverty.

I saw their little faces droop, even though the language incomprehensible to them. The active hands now lay inert on table.

"Why?" Khalid questioned. He kept his tone normal. "Sir, if you want, we can get the food packed for them. But, sorry we can't let them sit here. They don't go with our standard." The manager had spoken these words with great composure. I felt fury rising in my throat, but saw its expression in Khalid's poised words. "Well, if we both are going to eat here, so are these children." "Sorry sir, we can't permit that, it's against our rules." "Is it mentioned in your rule book? If yes, then show it to me." The children and I sat like audiences to a staged drama. It felt unreal, this war of words, no hurling of insinuations, no loud yelling, no abuses, just plain polite words, piercing in their undertones.

Khalid's statement had caught the Manager completely off guard. When he spoke next, his voice had lost its earlier confidence. "Sir, please understand my situation, I am merely an employee and do what is required of me." Yes, ruthlessness was part of his duty and he was pleading to be permitted the use of it. Khalid denied him this favour. To the manager's great annoyance, he stayed rooted to his point. Spectators held their breadth; a light English song was playing in the background; occasionally, the chuckles and the sobs of the infant on the sofa got mingled with the polite debate. The sister would then hush the baby. Hush! And the conversation was brought to an end. The helpless manager had walked back to the counter and the birds of Pů. had again flocked together. There continued the murmurs and shaking off heads. My focus was brought back to the table as I heard Khalid take my name, "Marya Ma'am, stop getting so anxious!" I had no words and smiled meekly. He had already busied himself with the children. Talking to them, smiling at their giggles, he looked completely at ease. The kids too were treating him as a long time friend rather than a benefactor. I felt like an outsider sitting with a closely-knit family. I tried to shed my inhibitions and be part of the joyous party. My focus interrupted by the manager's call to Khalid, "Sir, our AGM wants to talk to you." He held the telephone receiver in his hand. A chair moved and I watched the silhouette of a lean body proceed towards the counter. Many pairs of ears strained to grasp every ounce of that telephonic conversation. However, music was super-imposing Khalid's voice. We could do nothing except wait; hence, we waited in silence.

Khalid came back after a while; his walk as stealthy as before, his expressions as covert as few moments back. My question was answered before it could be put into words. I saw a waiter coming to our table with a menu card. Relief flooded us. Khalid gave us a slight smile of victory. It was contagious and its progression was geometric. Tensed shoulders relaxed and the dulled air was pumped up with new life. Fingers that had, for the last few minutes, remained clenched together in fists, suddenly felt liberated and fell in movement to feel the new sensations. Lips stretched into smiles and further transcended into laughter's. Khalid and I ordered two large pizzas and a pitcher of soft drink. I was happy, excited and proud of the person sitting infront of me. The whole scene hadn't affected him much on the surface. He had remained unruffled all through and now. Even when I asked the children to be careful with the articles on the table, he told me to let them be. He was right; they were fishes let out in a fresh water lake, little puppies brought to an open ground, birds given an open blue sky. I should not obstruct their flight.

Their eyes glittered with delight. Their little bodies were caught in constant movement, restless with excitement. They stared at everything with wide eyes. Things that I had always taken for granted, were discoveries for them, the paper napkins, the polished tables, the chairs, the sofas, the forks etc. They chattered about themselves and questioned us about us. It was clear that their minds have been energized by the whole incidence.

First came the aroma. All the children clasped both their hands together and sat upright in eagerness. Balancing two pans on both his palms, came the waiter, clad in a black and red outfit. "Your pizzas, sir!" I had never before witnessed such apparent portrayal of rising adrenaline. The children were all charged up. The two grown ups, including me, started serving the kids.

They were well-behaved kids. They didn't pounce on the food as expected, but waited for us to take our shares. Then they poured a little of tomato ketch up in own plates. I watched in wonder, their mannerism. In the meanwhile, the pitcher was delivered and around ten disposable glasses lay scattered on the two tables. The two little girls on either side of me swapped with me my glass as soon as I had taken my first sip. It was probably a confirmation to the self, that I am accepted.

Khalid suddenly realized that he was very hungry. His realization made the kids chuckle loudly. The exact definition of felicity was personified in form of these brightly lit faces. And in their little hands were forks and knives! We didn't stop them from experimenting with them. Most of them gave up after two to three attempts, but two continued and succeeded. It seemed as if they had been habituated to eating this way for years. Both Khalid and I were equally surprised and congratulated them for this achievement.

They were not great eaters. Their hunger was satiated in too little food, but they drank the soft drink whole-heartedly. We had to order another pitcher. The swapping of glasses continued. After the grand treat was over, they all wiped their mouths with the paper napkins. The excitement of climbing the highest mountain and then greeting the sky could be seen in their gestures.

They had to now step out of the dream world and all these Alice's had fallen in love with this fantasyland. As Khalid settled the bill at the counter, a little figure wrapped itself around his leg. Two girls had their arms already around me. All of it touched my heart and I felt ashamed of my initial thought and hesitation.

We stepped outside and said Good-bye to the kids. They followed us till the end of the complex. They wanted promises from us for the next time. Commitments cause expectations; hence, we just waved off these demands with smiles. And then we left in silence, each one busy in one's own thought process. Both of us had taste the bitter truth and the effect lingered in our mouths for a long time.
 

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