Fireflies, Flaming Trees, and a Child
Category Winner | Non-Fiction
Author: Nikhil Kumar
Season 6
Fireflies, Flaming Trees, and a Child

Fireflies, Flaming Trees, and a Child Crushed Under the Invisible Ladder of Caste System

Every summer, my family would take me to our ancestral home during my vacations in school. Travelling to my ancestral home was akin to time travel. We would start our journey by train and then switch to a Bus, a car, and a tonga (horse-driven carriage) to reach my village. These fragments of a few days would transpose me to a distant and foreign land.

In the summer of 2002, when I arrived at my ancestral home, a boy with piercing eyes stood on the other side of the road. His upper body was bare. He was only wearing navy blue shorts, which I presumed were his school uniform. I got down from the Tonga and went inside. He followed me and sat on the veranda floor.

I took out a tennis ball from my pocket and gestured if he would like to play. In a flurry of unease, he got up and started running. I followed him. He kept looking over his shoulder to check if I was following his trail. He led me to a litchi orchard where everyone was playing cricket.

A group of boys who called themselves ‘Tigers’ welcomed me. They apprised me about a cricket match to be played next week between the Tigers and a neighbouring village. They invited me to play for their team. One of the Tiger members turned to that little boy and declared, “Kaalu bring him to the mango orchard tomorrow.”

Fireflies and Flaming Trees

The Tigers assembled in the mango orchard with their herd of cattle. Kaalu guided me there but ensured an orbit of unapproachability radiated from him. Who would guard and attend to the cattle while the Tigers play cricket? The Tigers swiftly agreed that Kaalu would be responsible for their cattle.

The orchard was shrouded in darkness when Kaalu raced into the orchard. Weary and tearful, he informed one of the Tiger members that he had lost his cattle. The member raised his hand to beat Kaalu but hesitated. “You can touch Kaalu to beat him,” quipped the bowler. Swayed by the statement, the heavy hand of the member came crashing on Kaalu’s back. A wave of agonizing cries burst out of Kaalu’s throat.

Lying on the terrace that night, I asked my cousin about Kaalu and the missing cattle. “We found the buffalo in a nearby cornfield and admonished Kaalu to be more careful,” said my cousin. I turned sideways on my bed and saw fireflies assembling on a giant tree. The ethereal tree gave an impression that an invisible forest fire had swept it ablaze. It was in flames. As my happiness receded into a dream, only a few glowing embers were left on the tree, waiting for someone to fan them.

A child crushed under the invisible caste ladder

On match day, one of the Tiger members could not make it to the ground and we were a player short. Despite facing persistent assaults and the wrath of Tigers, Kaalu looked at our captain with hope.

The Tigers held a long discussion with the opponent team and decided that Kaalu could play but on certain conditions.

New Rules of Cricket:

1) Kaalu can play but cannot bat or bowl. (He was not permitted to touch the ball or bat.)
2) Kaalu can only field. To field the ball, he must use a stick. (A small branch of the mango tree was broken and given to Kaalu)
3) If Kaalu touched the ball, it would be taken to a nearby swamp and dipped in water to purify it.
4) Kaalu would not receive any money if we won the match.

A commotion ensued whenever the ball touched Kaalu’s skin. Someone would smack and castigate Kaalu for not being vigilant before collecting the ball and carrying it to a nearby swamp to purify it.

When the Tigers won the match, Kaalu screamed rapturously. The Tigers huddled together to celebrate the victory, while Kaalu clapped and jumped outside the team circle to rejoice in the glory.

One who acquires everything by sacrifice

The next day, while I was strolling in the litchi orchard with a packet of cream biscuits, I spotted Kaalu sitting under the shade of a tree. He was carving a pattern on the floor with his stick. When I offered him biscuits, he did not respond. When I requested again, he slowly unfolded his hands and indicated subtly to place them on the ground. When I placed some of the biscuits on the grass, he picked them up and started running toward the sugar cane field.

Kaalu entered the field and sat on the ground. In his soft voice, he told me to sit down. While we munched on the biscuits, I could see he was not relishing the biscuits. He was alert and paranoid. He kept looking back to ensure no one was watching us. He acquired everything by sacrifice.

After we finished eating biscuits, Kaalu said, “No one here plays with me. Can you give me your tennis ball before you leave tomorrow?” I nodded in agreement. We decided to meet in the sugar cane field tomorrow. I put my hand out for a handshake, but Kaalu did not move. He then reluctantly raised his stick and touched my shoulder in agreement.

A small branch that made someone equal enough

The next day, I went to the sugarcane field and waited for Kaalu. He did not come. I placed the tennis ball on the ground with a gentle prayer in my heart for Kaalu to find his gift.

The dusk was ready, and the sun was pouring down on the horizon. As I sat inside the Tonga to leave behind the uncanny serenity of this place, a jungle crow kept cawing ominously in pure anguish. When the Tonga chugged away over the dirt road, I focused my attention on the small branches of the mango tree that made Kaalu equal enough to play with everyone.

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