A strange summer

 Or that’s what Ashwin felt. Normally, the day after school closed, and even before his report card was out, Ashwin’s Ma enrolled him in swimming classes. And he spent the hot weeks joyfully splashing about in the cool waters of the neighbourhood club’s pool. This year, for some strange reason, she hadn’t made any such arrangements. He needed to ask her about it…sometimes Ma was forgetful.

The other summer schedule involved Sidda, the boy who washed all the cars on the road. After school closed, Sidda, whose mother also worked in a few houses on their lane, timed his car washing so that he arrived at Ashwin’s house last. So, after washing Ashwin’s father’s car, he stayed on to play cricket.  But this year, Sidda seemed to have become rather lazy. He only arrived at their home a couple of days in a week, leaving Ashwin bored. “And even when he does come — late, that too — he smells so bad! I don’t feel like playing carom or marbles with him,” Ashwin grumbled to his mother. He’d expected Ma’s sympathy. And maybe an offer from her to talk to Sidda’s mother about Ashwin’s ‘lazy and dirty habits’. Instead he saw his Ma frown.

It was the frown he only saw on her face when he’d done something dreadful. Like the look she had on when he’d broken the neighbour’s car mirror. “Maybe she’s angry with Sidda,” he thought, confused. But Ma’s look was not directed at an absent Sidda. Poor Ashwin discovered it was aimed at him. Whatever had he done, he wondered in panic, as Ma led him firmly to the dining room with an ominous command, “I think we need to sit down and talk, young man.” When he heard that tone, Ashwin didn’t feel like a ‘young man’ at all. He wanted to turn and run.

“So you think Sidda has become lazy this year, huh, Ashwin?” Ma asked him quietly. Ashwin certainly felt so, but wasn’t sure if that was the right answer for Ma, today. He hemmed and hawed a bit, before Ma continued, more gently this time, “The reason he doesn’t come every day is because we asked him not to, son,” she said. “Why? What did he do…is something missing from the car?” Ashwin asked, relieved that Sidda was probably the reason for his Ma’s strange mood. “No, son,” Ma said wearily, “Sidda is a very honest boy. We felt washing the car every day during an acute water crisis was not fair.”

“But now poor Sidda will not get any car-wash money,” Ashwin interrupted. Ma smiled at him, “No son, we still pay him the full amount, even though he comes only twice a week.”
Ashwin thought awhile, “Why can’t he come and play with me on the other days…since you’re still paying him?” he asked. Ma laughed out loud, “But haven’t you been the one grumbling about Sidda smelling bad?”

Ashwin was quick to reply, “Let him have a good bath before coming, Ma.” That frown was back on Ma’s face…oh, this was so confusing to Ashwin. She continued sternly, “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to wake you up at 5 a.m. and take you for a walk,” she snapped, before stomping off. Ashwin groaned. Five o’clock on a day when he didn’t have exams? Why was Ma being so cruel? He most certainly would not wake up! But the next morning, at 5.15 sharp, he found himself walking briskly with Ma, down the quiet dark streets of their layout.

In a few minutes, they had reached the slum where Sidda’s family lived. Here, the whole world seemed to be awake. A serpentine queue of women stretched into the distance. Each one of them had buckets on their hips, as they waited for their turn at the tap. Ashwin stood shocked.

Ma, with her hand laid gently on his shoulder, said, “You know son…Sidda’s mother gets up at 4 a.m. to stand in queue for water and she can only get 4-5 buckets for her whole family. The municipality releases water for just two hours every morning. She has to wash dishes, clothes, swab the house and get the whole family to bathe with just that amount of water.”

Ashwin was speechless. No wonder poor Sidda couldn’t be clean. He looked up at Ma, ashamed at himself. “Can’t he come home and bathe, Ma?” His mother had an odd look on her face when she said, “But son, we don’t have enough water either…we’ve cut down on car washes; I water the plants only twice a week and now we wash clothes too, just once a week.”

Ashwin’s face took on a guilty look, before he said, “Ma, if I cut down my three-bucket bath by half, can Sidda have a bath here?” Ma hugged him, and smiled, “Son, if you cut your three-bucket bath down to one bucket, even Sidda’s mother can bathe here every morning.” He hugged Ma back, “Okay, that’s a deal,” he said, “I promise.” He now knew why Ma hadn’t sent him for swimming classes. He didn’t want to go either.

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