When Dreams Are True
by Ashwini Dhamodharan
by Ashwini Dhamodharan
Chennai = the capital/ largest city in the Indian state of Tamilnadu. This story takes place in a slum in Chennai.
Tamil = a south Indian language spoken in the state Tamilnadu
Appa = "Dad" in Tamil
Amma = "Mom" in Tamil
It’s funny how many worlds there are in one city. Take Chennai, India for example. There is a world with tall apartments and two-story houses. A world with fancy restaurants serving foreign food like pizza, burgers, and noodles. A world where there are grand malls with products so expensive that a family can live off that money for months.
And then there’s my world--tiny huts all crowded into a slum. A world where a few rupees make a big difference. A world where men, like my father, lie drunk in the local Tasmac, the government liquor shop. A world where uncleanliness is no stranger. Welcome to my world.
I’ve wondered what it would be like if my life was like the movies I watch. I would be invincibly strong and smart. I would probably live in a mansion, filthy rich, or in a comfortable apartment. There would be no money problems. My father would have a college degree or a well-paying job. My grandfather would receive proper treatment from a private hospital. My mother and grandmother would wear silk saris. My three-year-old sister would have her own room with teddy bears and toys. I would finally learn to speak proper English…
But my imagination is far from reality. In the real world, I am a weak boy, only 12 years old. We live in a tiny, one-roomed hut with a bathroom outside, near the threshold. We struggle to make enough money to live on. My father, the only person who works in the family, makes a living lifting and carrying sacks. My mother and grandmother wear well-worn saris and only buy new ones once a year. My grandfather is bedridden, unable to afford the expensive treatment he needs. And I am in an ancient public school, studying subjects like science, math and Tamil, but no English.
After school, I rush to finish all my homework and studies so I can hang out with the others boys. We love cricket. We play cricket for hours. We talk about cricket players and the latest films.
When I get home, mother serves me idly, dosa, or rice with sambar. My mother is the best cook in the world. When it is time for bed, my grandmother narrates stories, usually about Hindu mythology. I love to hear them. I would go to bed, dreaming about Rama, a banished prince who saved his kidnapped wife with an army of monkeys, or the Pandavas, five brothers who went to war against their hundred cousins.
Around that time, my father would arrive. Usually, my father makes a stop at the Tasmac before coming home. When my father arrives drunk, we all leave him alone, unwilling to trigger his irrational anger due to intoxication. My grandmother always says to me, “Don’t waste your time and money on bad habits like drinking. Instead, invest that time for your future.”
My way to do that is to dream.
“Varun, wake up. At this rate, you’re going to be late to school.” My mother shook me awake. It was a typical Monday morning. I was groggy from studying for a test.
I did my regular ‘get ready for school’ routine: use the bathroom, brush my teeth, drink coffee, take a bath, pray to the gods, eat my breakfast, and do last-minute studying.
“Damn that drunkard. Probably sleeping on the streets again,” my mother muttered to herself. Then she turned to me. “Varun, if you see that father of yours, can you give him a piece of my mind and send him here.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for him,” I said, setting off to school. Though it was rare, there were times when my father passed out on the sidewalk, drunk. I would have to fetch him the next morning.
I walked through the streets of Chennai, busy with cars, buses, and motorcycles. I was walking through the streets imagining how life would be if my dad didn’t drink alcohol when I noticed the crowd blocking my path. As I was getting closer to the crowd, I could hear the conversation of those who gathered around.
“Someone call the ambulance! A drunken man who was lying in the street got run over by a car!”
“Too late, he’s already dead.”
For some reason apprehensive thoughts started filling my mind. My heart started to pump faster. What were the chances the dead man was my father? To me it seemed like there was no way my father could be dead. Yes, I convinced myself, it could just be a random drunkard. I decided to take a glimpse at the man just to prove to myself there was nothing to be worried about. Taking a breath, I squeezed myself through the crowd.
It was like my world had come to an end. For a moment I couldn’t think or move. I was frozen in a state of shock. The corpse was covered with blood. The leg had been completely run over. But that face, that beard was undoubtedly my dad.
“Appa!” I screamed, running to his body. “Appa, wake up. Appa ,wake up.”
I kept shaking him, as if I could wake him up. I was blinded by a flood of tears. My hands, my school uniform, they were all covered with blood, but I didn’t care. I could hear the whispering of the crowd but I couldn’t focus on them. The only thing I could think of was my dad.
The passing seconds seemed like eternity. I was crying like a fool unable to think about anything but my dad.
“Varun,” I heard my dad calling in my mind, “Varun, go call your mom.”
My dad’s voice was so soothing, so alive, and I wasn’t sure if the voice was real or just my imagination. But I decided to listen to the voice and found myself sprinting towards my hut. I ignored the weight of my heavy backpack and worn-out sandals. I ignored the piles of trash and the puddles of sewage. None of those mattered now.
“Amma,” I screamed, gasping for air. My mother was cutting vegetables. My sister and my grandparents were asleep.
My mother was alarmed at the sight of my bloody clothes.
“Varun, what happened? What happened?” she kept asking, her eye wide open with alarm.
“Appa is… Appa is…” I couldn’t think of any right words. I grabbed my mother’s hand and pulled her to my father’s body.
My mother was paralyzed when she saw Father’s corpse. I noticed streams of tears flowing from her eyes, glistening in the bright sun. She brushed them away.
It was a sunny day for a funeral. I could hear the old ladies were beating their breast and wailing, “Aaaiioooo. Aaaiioooo.”
It all seemed wrong. The traditional funeral music started playing. People started to dance. The horns and the drum blared. My mother seemed like she didn’t care, like nothing happened. It was so infuriating.
I was weary and done with this life. The night seemed so quiet, like I was all alone. It was hard to believe that a few hours ago, my father’s funeral took place. I went to the bathroom, angry with everyone: myself, my mother, my father, the world.
A huge sob startled me. There was someone crying in the bathroom. I knocked hard on the metal door.
“Coming,” a voice called. It was my mother who came out of the bathroom. She had obviously been crying and had wiped all her tears off.
I’ve thought of my mother as a strong and brave woman. She cooked for all of us, she took care of everyone, she did all the household chores. But at this moment, I was blown away by her strength. Mother was in much more pain than anyone else, yet she always showed a strong face before everyone. She didn’t want us to worry.
My mother's face was so sad and composed that I wanted to run up to her and tell her to cry her heart out. Instead, I walked up to her, and laid down with my head on her lap, as if it were a pillow. I was feeling something I couldn’t describe with words--it was like my mother was going to protect me. I fell asleep feeling safe, something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I went to school the next day, despite my mother’s protest. I want a diversion from all these problems and I didn’t want my studies to be affected.
Before I left for schoo., I asked my mother, "Amma, how will we survive?”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll find a job today.”
“Amma, the milk is barely enough for four,” I observed as my grandmother made our daily coffee. My mother’s new job is in a tiny old factory, where the hours are long and the pay is low. My grandmother does most of my mother’s household chores now, but Mother still comes home exhausted.
“That’s all we can afford. You should drink the coffee. I’ll do fine without it,” my mother offered.
I struggled at school that day. I could not focus on my class work. Instead I thought of the family situation. At this rate we were going to starve. I had to to do something.
I toyed with my pencil. Should I take a job? Should I give up my education, my future? or should I ignore everything and focus on my studies?
That afternoon, the funeral musicians came, demanding payment for Father’s funeral. My mother sent them off with a cup of coffee.
I lay on my mother’s lap. She played with my hair.
“Amma, are we so poor?” I asked, staring at the ceiling with the blue paint chipping away.
“Yes,” my mother said in a lifeless tone, “yes, we are poor.”
I had never thought of getting a job at this age. There were some other boys who dropped out of school, but not me. I wanted to focus on my studies. But at this moment, I decided if my family were to survive, I had to get one.
“Amma, I don't want to go to school anymore. I don't like it,” I lied. "I want to take a job.”
“No, I want you to get an education and have the chance in life that the generations before you never got. I want you to be a father your children can be proud of. I don't want you to end up like me,” she calmly explained.
“You can't force me to go to school,” I said, hoping to convince my mother it was useless to argue with me.
“I’ll just drag you if I have to,” she threatened.
I had hit my limits. I was confused, tired, and most of all I was angry with the unfair world. It was my mother I took it out on.
“I hate school! I hate my life and I hate you! I hate you! You want everyone to listen to you and be your slave. But we aren't. I'm going to get a job. I'm twelve years old now. I can make decisions for myself!”
I walked away, not willing to face my mother. Deep down I felt guilty for overreacting, but my reaction was justified.
My mother was my motivator. Her goal had always been my goal. But now, her real goal was to keep us alive.
I wiped the beads of sweat from my forehead. Even though a month had passed since I had been employed, it was tiring to lift the heavy sacks across the market. The other boys have been doing this forever. Some of don't even have a family to go back to.
They never got the chance to study and go on to make their own path in life. I, on the other hand, had that chance but I threw it away.
Every day, I see the students in their uniforms walking home. A pang of jealousy hits me. Sometimes I wish I had never taken a job, but then I think about my laughing sister, my hard-working mother, and my tired grandparents, and I start working harder than before.
My uncle once gave me a trunk, a small, worn-out thing that is sometimes used as a chair. Inside the trunk, all my valuables are safely hidden. I have the only key to open it. Deep down in my sea of treasure lies my greatest treasure of all: my school textbooks.
When no one is looking, I take them out of the trunk, sneak outside and study like crazy. I dream of going back to class even more bright than when I left. But I know I won't go back to school.
Today I made a goal of finishing two pages of the chapter. At this rate, I am ahead of my former class. I went home from work thinking about atoms.
My mother was waiting for me at the door. It was obvious I wasn't forgiven for yelling at my mother. My mother hadn't actually spoken to me since I yelled at her. It was driving me insane with guilt.
“Do you truly not want to go to school?” my mother asked when I got inside.
“Yes,” I replied, uncomfortable with the lie. The delicious aroma of my grandmother’s sambar was floating around the house. I became hungrier than before.
“Varun, answer me honestly: Do you really like not going to school?” she asked again. A hint of suspicion arose in my mind but I brushed it away.
“Yes,” I replied again, nervously .
“Then why were you reading this yesterday? I saw you sneaking out to read your school books!” she said, taking out the textbook I had hidden in my trunk.
Maybe I was just overwhelmed by all the secrets my heart had been holding, but I decide no more holding back my feelings. I would just be honest. A stream of tears began sliding down my face. My mother wrapped her warm arms around me.
“You’ve grown so much since your father died. That heart of yours is as strong as a full grown man. You’ve given up your dreams so this family can survive. It's all my fault. I'm a failure of a mother.” My mother’s voice broke into sobs.
For a while, we were just sobbing. My mother’s arms were protecting me from the outside world.
After she calmed down a bit, Mother said “Tomorrow, you are going to re-enroll in school. Nothing is more important to me than my two children’s future and dreams. We may struggle now, but someday you'll have a good job with a nice salary and I don't care how hard I have to work to achieve that.”
That night, after eating some delicious dosa and sambar, I went to bed dreaming about my future. I was going to survive this cruel world. I was going to make my mother proud.