On this April Sunday Writers’ Club podcast we chat to SWC member Brigid Whoriskey about her writing and experiences in India, and Brigid reads her heartrending short story about a girl from the slums titled NOT ME, NOT TODAY.
Inspired by SWC prompt La Huída Hacia Adelante (The Constant Flight Forward)
Try your hand using the “Constant Flight Forward” writing technique used by prolific Argentinean writer Cesar Aira. Write slowly, carefully – there is no looking back, crossing out, rewriting at all! Every word is sacred. Open one of your favourite books, randomly pick a sentence for the opening of your story and begin your remarkable constant flight forward.
Not Me, Not Today
Not Me, Not Today
By Brigid Whoriskey
Nangeeta sat on the steps of the hostel and remembered the advice her teacher, Guruji, had given her. ‘When you can’t beat the odds, change the game.’ These odds, however, felt unbeatable. Her marriage was in one week. This was her last night at the hostel. The end of her education. The death of her dreams. Many of the other students, her friends, glanced at her guardedly from a distance. She figured they didn’t know what to say. It was what they all dreaded, but dared not discuss – the girls who were promised in marriage from the time they were babies or young children; or the important negotiations, involving an exchange of rupees for a daughter.
Nangeeta looked around for Guruji, needing his calming presence, the security of his arm on her shoulder. She remembered the only time she had ever seen him lose his temper. It was after Harini was taken away for marriage. She was only 13, but it was not unheard of for a girl to marry at such a young age. Her Ma had promised Guruji she could stay in school, but her Bāpa had already promised her to a Punjabi builder. He was old, around 40, and was reputed to be cruel and to have a fondness for young girls. Guruji shouted at her Bāpa when he discovered what had happened. But Harini was the oldest girl; there were six other children, and that money helped to feed the family for weeks. It would have lasted even longer if the Bāpa had not spent so much on liquor. They never heard of Harini again. They never spoke of her, but every girl in the hostel remembered and prayed to Vishnu to avoid her fate.
They all knew that Guruji and Sareeta Mam, the house mother who everyone loved, had many talks with the hostel girls’ families, and nearly all of the girls got permission to stay in school until they finished their education. Nearly all, but in the past five years three girls had been taken, and Nangeeta was scared that it was now her turn. All the negotiations had come to nothing. This was an important marriage – money had already changed hands, and her Ma reminded her how much the family needed the match. Once again, she envied the street kids with no families at the hostel; as orphans they were somehow safer.
She looked at the hostel building wondering how she could have taken it for granted for all these years. She had lived over half her short life here – she moved in when she was seven, and she was now fifteen. As a small child living in the slum, she had no idea that a better life was possible. Her earliest memories included the long walk to the busy begging streets, where her Ma would find a good corner, and they would sit there waiting for tourists to pass. By the age of four she could judge when to give her brightest smile and when to look sad and in despair, sobbing at the side of the road with her hand out.
She suddenly felt the familiar memory of pain on her arm, and pulled her kurti over the ugly scar, rubbing it gently. She knew she should join the others and listen to music or hang out in the yard; but she found herself once again reliving that terrible night. She was four years old and made herself as small as possible in the tent, pulling her baby brother beside her.
“This is bloody useless!” Her Bapi flung the rupees at her Ma’s face “What can I buy with this? You are good for nothing!”
“Tomorrow might be better, there might be more tourists. We will try higher on the hill, near the temple. We will go there early and …” The shouting continued until her Ma fell to the floor with the power of the punch, still promising to try harder the next day.
Nangeeta was puzzled by the way Ma looked at her after Bapi stormed off to find liquor or something with the other men. The rest is hazy. She remembered the fire; the all-consuming pain; hearing someone screaming and then realising it was her. She also remembered utter confusion, and tears running down her Ma’s face as she held Nangeeta tight to stop her desperate struggling, sobbing, “Just a few seconds more”. She got sweets and didn’t have to fetch water or wash clothes in the river for days after that, but for once in her life she didn’t want the sweets and she couldn’t sleep at night because of the dreadful throbbing, as if her heartbeat had moved to her arm, bringing searing pain with each beat. But at least it was her arm, and not the baby’s. That arm earned many rupees for her family in the weeks that followed.
Some charity health workers stopped by on the begging streets a couple of days later and provided ointments and bandages for her arm, but Ma wouldn’t let her use them. A clean, bandaged arm was not an effective begging device. For weeks her Ma begged for money to get treatment for her poor daughter, and the gullible tourists obliged, turning away in distress at the sight of her festering wound. Bapā was appeased, and eventually her arm started to heal, though the visible and invisible scars of that terrible time never would.
Eventually her younger siblings became better begging bait. She taught them all the tricks so they could avoid the fire. Then she had to look after small children and make the long walk to the rubbish tip three or four times a week, scavenging for anything they could eat or steal. She didn’t like it there. The rats and dogs frightened her, as did some of the older boys.
There had been fun times too. There were lots of friends to play with and the freedom to wander wherever you wanted, at any time of the day or night, provided you brought something of value home, and found someone to keep an eye on the tinies.
However, her memory of the fun times were overshadowed by the hardships of day to day living in the slum. The agonising ache of hunger in the pit of her belly when food was short; the ever present fear of the fire; the misery of monsoon when the slum was half flooded; and the cold winter months, when there was never enough clothes or blankets to keep warm. She thought that was just her life, the hand she was dealt, she did not know there was anything better.
It all changed when she was seven and walking home one day from the rubbish dump with her friend Lekha. They met Guruji and he walked back with them to talk to her parents. The next day he came again, and the next. He explained that they had a hostel where she would be fed, cared for and educated. She would eventually get a well-paid job and be able to help the family. The students in the hostel had sponsors who paid all of their costs. He had three new sponsors, so could now take three new students into the hostel. Her parents eventually agreed, it was one less mouth to feed. And just like that, life changed for Nangeeta, Lekha and another slum boy.
She looked around at the hostel, the yard, the mango trees and the school and recalled how they had loved it all from the moment they arrived. There was always enough food, and Sareeta Mam was kind and looked after you if you were sick. Nangeeta loved the frequent praise she received for the quality of her work. “You are a clever girl and very hard working,” Guruji had told her “and you are kind to your friends. Keep this up and you will do very well”.
Nangeeta looked up to the sky, seeing the dark rain clouds gathering over the hills in the distance, echoing her own growing unease. She wanted to stay in the hostel; to continue in school and work hard. She wanted to have a future as a nurse and to help her family. But if she married she would have to move to Rajasthan, away from everyone and everywhere she loved. Like all new brides in the slum, she would live with his family, in their one roomed tent. She had only met Daman once, with his mother, who was a stern woman, illiterate, and primarily interested in Nangeeta’s skills in begging, cooking and childcare (for his three children). She thought he was old, ugly and cruel – or if not cruel, he was at best disinterested. His first wife died a year ago, she didn’t know how, and that terrified her.
“Please let me stay in school,” she had begged her Ma. “I want to become a nurse. If I do well in my examinations I can go to nursing school. My sponsor will pay all my costs until I finish, and then I will be able to help you and Bapā,” she pleaded. “Guruji said I can get a good job and earn money. I can help the family.” But her pleas fell on deaf ears.
“You are almost 16, I was pregnant with you when I was your age. You have a duty to your brothers and sisters, this is a good match”.
Guruji would try until the last minute, she knew that. But she also knew her parents. The odds were against her.
She looked longingly at the hostel and the school building beside it. Niraashaajanak. Hopeless. The feeling was threatening to overwhelm her. A new bride in her in-laws home is less respected than the cow, if the family have a cow. She is the lowest member in the family hierarchy. Outsiders look at the slum families, the ‘untouchables’, and think that you can sink no lower. But that is not true. A marriage to Daman would mean the loss of her dreams, her hope, her self. She would disappear. She might even die like his first wife – either at her husband’s hands, or maybe her own.
She remembered the words ‘When you can’t beat the odds, change the game’.
She made up her mind. She would try once more to tell her parents she could not marry Daman. She would not have that life, in the slum in Rajasthan with a man who might be cruel and a family who might not care for her.
The day she left the slum at the age of seven to live in the hostel, she felt something she had never felt before: Aasha. Hope. That hope, born in the hostel, had grown into dreams of a better future. Her grades were good. She had potential. She could have a career, a good life. She was not ready to give up those dreams.
She would try to beat the odds by talking to her parents one more time. Guruji and Sareeta Mam would help. And if she couldn’t beat the odds, she would have to run away. She would change the game and find another life.
There was a commotion at the gate. Someone was coming. It was her Bapā. Had he come to take her a day early? She tried to keep her defiance strong, but the flame was flickering and fading as her father spotted her and walked determinedly in her direction. Outside the gate she saw her two uncles and knew without doubt that they were here for her. She saw Guruji running across the hostel yard, pleading with Bapā, but he was shouting NO. She looked in horror as her uncles entered the yard. The other children were staring at her. Too late, she saw Lekha running towards her shouting, “Run Nangeeta, RUN!”. She sprinted towards the side gate, but it was futile. Her uncle was faster and he grabbed her by the arm, making her wince in pain.
She pleaded with her father – “Bapā, Krpya”. Please. But his face showed no compassion, no mercy, no hope. She screamed out for Guruji, but the tears in his eyes told her he had lost, even though he kept pleading, fruitlessly, as they dragged her away. Her heart sank; the fragile hope she had nurtured, died inside her.
She could not beat the odds, and she had failed to change the game.
Meera nam Nangeeta he. My name is Nangeeta.
I want to have a future.
Will nobody help me?
Unicef estimates that, at least 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married in India every year, making it home to the largest number of child brides in the world . Save The Children reports that one girl under 15 is married every seven seconds, some as young at 10, often to men a lot older than themselves, in countries such as India, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Tong-Len is a charity that helps slum kids in Northern India to have a secure future through education, shelter and health projects, and was the inspiration for this story. If you would like to learn more or to make a donation you can do so here.
 Opening line taken from “The Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Brigid has always loved writing, but a career in financial services got in the way. She now has a portfolio career as a coach and non-exec director – and makes time for writing. She has almost finished a children’s book (full of elves and magical creatures) and is working on a young adult novel. She loves the weekly inspiration and challenge of Sunday Writers Club.