Authors: Deborah Ellis
House of Anansi Press
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This edition published in 2011
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LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING
No ordinary day / Deborah
Cover photograph by Gil Chamberland /
Design by Michael Solomon
We acknowledge for
their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the
Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the
Canada Book Fund.
I would like to thank the folks at the Leprosy Mission Hospital in Kolkata, India, for letting me hang out with them and celebrate their work.
The Best Day of My Life
THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE
was the day I found out I was all alone in the world.
This is how it happened.
I was picking up coal.
No. I was supposed to be picking up coal, but I wasn’t. I was tired of picking up coal. I was tired of coal.
Being tired of coal in Jharia is no good, because coal is all there is in Jharia. There is coal in pits and coal in piles and coal in mines under the ground. There is coal on the roads and coal in people’s hair and coal in people’s chests that makes them cough and cough.
There is even coal in the air. It comes up through cracks in the earth from the coal fires that have been burning under the town for nearly one hundred years.
If you’re a man, you work in the mines or the pits, hacking at the coal with pickaxes and shovels.
If you’re a woman, you walk up the narrow steep trails with large heavy baskets of coal on your head.
If you’re a child, you run around and pick up any stray lumps of coal you can find. If the bosses see you doing this they’ll chase you, and they’ll hit you if they catch you. So you have to move fast.
On this very happy day I was supposed to be picking up coal. I had my coal bag over my shoulder. There was a bit of coal in it but not very much. Instead of running around the coal fields, I was trying to convince the shopkeeper that I had a coin in my hand.
“Let me see it,” said Mr. Bannerjee. He sat in his chair and flicked his horsetail fly swatter around.
“Oh, it’s right here,” I said, holding up my clenched fist.
“What is it? Twenty paisas? Ten? You can buy one sweet, maybe two. Choose, and then pay and go.”
I stretched out the moment before I replied. Mr. Bannerjee had a tiny television set in his shop, on a shelf next to the jars of skin-whitening cream. The picture it showed was fizzy, and it jumped up and down, but I could still see the Bollywood dancers. I waved my head the way the dancers did, trying to remember the steps to try later.
“Choose. Then pay and go,” he repeated.
Mr. Bannerjee’s shop was made of scrap wood and old cardboard boxes, and it was completely open on one side. He slept in it at night to keep thieves away. But he didn’t want anyone watching his TV unless they were customers.
“What did you say?”
“You heard what I said!” Mr. Bannerjee waved his fly swatter in bigger circles, but I wasn’t worried. He didn’t like to leave his chair. It was a bit of a game I played sometimes, seeing how long I could watch his television before he chased me away.
He knew I didn’t really have any money. I never had any money.
I managed to stay a few moments longer. Then the TV went to full fizz, and there was no point in hanging around.
I wandered down to the railway tracks, picking up bits of coal when I saw them but not putting any effort into looking.
Piles of trash lined the tracks. Ragpickers and goats poked through it.
I stayed away from the bigger piles of garbage. I didn’t feel like getting into an argument, and ragpickers sometimes guarded their territory.
I kept my eyes on my feet and shuffled garbage around with my toes. I wished I was a goat. Goats ate everything. If I was a goat, I would never be hungry.
“Hey, there’s Valli. Valli, come and throw rocks with us or we’ll throw rocks at you.”
I looked up. Some of my cousins were out on the tracks with their friends. None of them liked me. I didn’t know why.
“She won’t. She’s too scared.”
That was my cousin Sanjay. He was my size and never forgave me for the time I beat him up when we were younger. I wasn’t allowed to eat until he was finished, and then I was given whatever food was left on his plate. He started stuffing himself, just to watch me be hungry. I stood it for three days. Then I let him have it. Smashed the metal plate down on his stupid head. I got a beating from my uncle for it, but Sanjay always left at least some food behind after that.
He got back at me in other ways, though. Sneaky ways. Like kicking me at night so it was hard to go to sleep. He called me names like pig-face and dirt-brain. I tried to insult him back but my words didn’t have as much power as his. He knew he was worth more than me. We both knew it.
I was afraid to throw rocks but I couldn’t let him see that. And I couldn’t let his friends see that I was scared. If they did, they would be on me faster than a goat on garbage.
I walked quickly into the middle of the pack and picked up a rock.
Just looking at the targets made me shake.
On the other side of the tracks, a stone’s throw away, monsters lived among the garbage dumps and dung heaps. Their faces were not human. Some had no noses. Some had hands without fingers that they waved in the air as they tried to protect their heads from our rocks.
But I didn’t care, as long as they stayed on their side of the tracks. They were unclean, foul creatures. They carried the sins of a former life, and if you got too close, they would turn you into one of them.
That’s what my uncle said.
“You eat too much!” he would scream, when the pain in his chest got bad and he had no money for drink to make it better. “I’ll break your arms and send you down the tracks to beg with those animals! You are a curse to me!”
And then, in the night, his voice quiet and his breath in my ear, telling me to make no noise or the monsters would grab me in my sleep, drag me away and tear me apart. And I would tremble and bite my lip and pray to the gods for the sun to rise.
I slowly pulled my arm back to get ready for the throw.
I closed my eyes and let my rock fly. I didn’t know if it hit one of them or not.
One of the stones came flying back at us.
Sanjay bent down to pick it up.
“Don’t touch it! You’ll turn into a monster just like them,” one of my cousin’s friends shouted. “That’s one of the ways they get their victims.”
Sanjay picked up another rock instead. They were all too busy throwing and laughing to pay attention to me.
I slipped back until I was behind the group.
The boys had dropped their coal bags to free their arms for throwing stones. Their bags had coal in them. Coal that would look better in my bag than it did in theirs.
I crouched down. In an instant I grabbed one of the coal bags and started to run.
I managed to take a few steps before a kid slammed me with a thud into the dirt.
“Thief! Coal thief! Coal thief!”
The others piled on top of me. I swung my arms and kicked and tried to get away. But I couldn’t throw off so many kids.
They worked together, pounding me and pulling my hair. They lifted me up. I saw the ground fall away.
“Throw her to the monsters!”
“Let them eat her. That will teach her!”
I screamed. I tried harder to get away from their clutches. I pulled and twisted, but they hung on tight.
They carried me over the railway tracks, getting closer to the monsters with every step.
And then they threw me.
And I landed. Right in the middle of the monsters.
I landed on monster arms and legs and laps and elbows. I was smothered by rags and dirt and bodies.
I could feel them reaching for me, grabbing at me, bumping up against me. I knew they were getting ready to eat me or tear me apart.
I screamed. I breathed in filth and foulness and felt like I was going to throw up.
I could hear the kids laughing on the other side of the tracks. They would stand there and watch me be torn to shreds and devoured, and they would just keep on laughing.
I punched and kicked and twisted until I broke free and rolled away, hitting my head on the track rail. Then I jumped to my feet and ran.
I ran with my eyes full of tears. I stepped in dung and pushed people out of my way, but I didn’t care. I bolted across the tracks and screamed as a train whistle blew.
I left the tracks and walked back to the coal fields. I walked until the shakiness left me and I could feel a bit of victory.
I had escaped from the monsters. They hadn’t eaten me.
And then I kept walking because I had no place to go, no place where people wanted me to be with them. I kept on walking because I didn’t know what else to do.
Then I heard the bell.
It was a bicycle bell, ringing over and over, getting closer and closer.
Along with the ringing, a man’s voice called out.
“School today! Free school! Everyone is welcome at my school! Come to school today!”
Every few days the teacher came to our village. On the back of his bicycle was a box with a school inside it — chalk, maps, school books. A piece of chalkboard was tied across the top of the box. He rode his bike through the village, ringing the bell and gathering children together.
The teacher always set up his school on the empty bit of land behind the tea shop. All my aunt’s children were allowed to go except for the baby. There was always a baby. And there was my oldest cousin, Elamma. It was her job to take care of the family.
Elamma did not like me. She couldn’t go to school, either.
By the time I got to the tea-house yard, the teacher had set up his chalkboard. He covered the chalkboard with words and numbers. When he ran out of room on the chalkboard, he picked up a piece of coal and wrote on the mud brick wall.
“She’s not supposed to be here!” One of my cousins pointed at me. I was leaning into the folds of a banyan tree at the back of the yard, out of the way.
“Education is for everyone,” the teacher said, as I knew he would. He continued with the lesson.
The teacher liked me.
I remembered what he taught us and, if I was around when he took his meal break, he gave me extra lessons while he ate his rice and dal.
Once he gave me a notebook and a pencil.
My cousins took them from me soon after, but I had them for a little while.
I formed letters and words in the dirt with a stick. I could read some English and Hindi words on billboards and packages. I knew how to add up money, although I never had money. I knew that the moon traveled around the earth somewhere up there in the deep, dark sky.
I leaned against the banyan tree and watched. And listened. And formed my letters in the dirt and did sums in my head.
That’s where Elamma found me on the best day of my life.
She hit me. Hard.
“You’re supposed to be working.”
The baby on her hip started to cry.
The children in the yard thought we were more interesting than the lesson the teacher was trying to teach. They left the bit of chalkboard and formed a ring around me and Elamma.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” they chanted.
“I’ll work later,” I told Elamma. I couldn’t hit her back because she was holding the baby. “The coal is not going anywhere.”
“You’ll work now. I have to work. Why should you get to go to school when I can’t? I’m the oldest! I should get something for that!”
She hit me again, which wasn’t fair because, as I’ve said, I couldn’t hit her back.
“You are welcome to come here, too,” the teacher said. He was trying to get everyone back to the chalkboard. “Bring the baby.”
“And who will do the cooking? Who will do the laundry? You’re a man. You think these things happen like magic.” Elamma turned her back to the teacher, grabbed me and pulled me away.
The children laughed and pointed.
“If you let her stand here again,” Elamma called back to the teacher, “my father will run you out of the village.”
I had to laugh at that, even though it made her madder. Her father spent all his time coughing up blood, hitting my aunt and drinking up all the money my aunt made carrying coal.
I knew Elamma wanted to hit me for laughing, but she couldn’t hit me without letting go of me, and if she let go of me I was going to bolt. So I got away with laughing at her.
But not for long.
She dragged me through the village. She was strong from so many years of lifting and carrying babies.
“Where is your coal bag?”
I froze. I looked down at my side, hoping the bag would magically appear.
“I dropped it,” I whispered.
“Those things cost money. Where did you drop it? And don’t tell me you don’t know.”
“It’s with the monsters.” I could feel myself start to tremble. “Across the train tracks.”
Elamma shifted her hand from my arm to the back of my neck and marched me through the village. I tried to squirm away but she dug her fingers into my skin.
She dragged me to the railway tracks, to the rags and boards and piles of garbage where the monsters with no noses lived.
“Go get it,” she said.
“I’m not going back over there.”
“Go get it.” She pushed me to the ground.
I was free. I could have run, but where would I go?
“If you come home without it, he’ll blame me,” Elamma said. “He’ll beat you, but he’ll beat me worse. You know he will. So here is your choice. Go and get the coal bag, and come home with it full of coal. Or don’t come home at all.”
I thought of the stuffy little one-room shack where we all lived and slept. The cookstove smoke made the coal air even thicker. The room had mosquitoes and spiders, flies and ants that no amount of sweeping could get rid of. The whole family slept squished together on the dirt floor. There was hardly ever money for kerosene, so when the sun went down, the nights were long. It was a long way to the community toilet and the little ones often didn’t make it.
The shack always smelled bad. Always.
But sometimes we had enough food and we played games like seeing who could stare the longest. My aunt taught us songs about animals. When my uncle was sober and not coughing, he would pretend that the little ones could hit him and make him fall over.
It was home.
I didn’t know how Elamma could keep me from going back there without my coal bag. I just knew she would.
I stood up and took a few steps forward to the middle of the tracks. I waited there for a moment, half hoping a train would come and run me over.
“Get moving,” Elamma said behind me.
I took a few more steps. I saw the monsters watching me.