You Break It, You Buy It : Bonus Winner | Season 5

– Nyla Kunal Bajaj

I was never the brightest. I only learned how to read my first words when I was seven. Till then, the world was a blur of symbols, of printed letters with no meaning, at least not meaning that I could glean.

The doctors said that my reading would come with age. My parents tried desperately to help, but even with my face scrunched tight in concentration, the letters just didn’t make sense. It clicked. Just like that.

“You break it, you buy it,” I whispered, letting out cotton-white brumes into the cold air, my eyes still fixed on the sign behind the shopkeeper long after the words had left my lips.

By? Bye? Buy?

I’d heard the word before; it meant different things each time. I stared up at my brother with a doe-eyed look. “What does it mean?” I asked. “Buy?”

His gaze flitted toward me. “To own,” he said, turning back to bargain with the shopkeeper.

To own.

I couldn’t grasp why, in order to own something, it had to be broken first. But then again, if you’ve only been around for seven years, most things don’t make much sense.


In the third grade, I met a boy. He sat next to me with his hand forever raised, often pre-empting the teacher’s questions. Somehow, his answers were always right. He could read, too. And fluently.

I hated him.

I remember the day he brought a map to school. He unfurled it on our table during break, in the midst of classroom banter. I squinted at the small text.

“It’s a map,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure everyone knows that, Amir,” I mumbled.

Everyone else was still talking. I doubted they had even noticed the map.

Amir ignored my comment and pointed at a large shape. “What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s written right here,” he said, pointing at a scramble of letters.

I opened my mouth, trying to form the word before closing it.

“Uzbekistan,” Amir read out.

He was so annoying, thinking he was smart just because he could read one word that I couldn’t.

“Right,” I said. “Uzbekistan; I knew that.”


“It’s like a puzzle, isn’t it?” I said softly, tracing the shape of South America with my finger. He frowned. “This bit,” I continued, pointing at the triangular-shaped edge jutting out of South America, “would fit.” I moved my finger to the missing cutout of Africa, “right here.”

He put his finger on the same point as mine before looking up with a small smile. “Yeah, I guess it would.”

From that day on, Amir brought his map to school every day, and as my knowledge of the countries grew, my hatred for him diminished. We cut out the shapes of the continents, trying to fit them together somehow.

We started playing a game, Amir and I. He would point at a country, and I would tell him what it was. His finger wandered around the map before stopping at one. Broad in the middle, narrowing to the bottom—a triangle surrounded by water. India. Home.

“Oh, come on,” I laughed, “that’s too easy!”

“Fine,” he smiled. “This one?” he said, pointing at a boot-shaped country.

“Italy,” I guessed.

“You’ve really gotten good at reading, huh? How?”

I laughed, shaking my head. “Can’t say.”

“Can’t say?” he grinned, folding his arms. “Then don’t expect me to get my map to school tomorrow.”

“Fine,” I relented, stretching out the word. “The shapes. That’s how I know.

“You memorised the shapes of all these? There’s like two hundred countries, no way.”

“Words are way harder,” I said. “I’ll take shapes any day.”

“But words work the same way,” he insisted. “They have shapes, too.”

“What language are you learning, Amir?” I quipped. “Hieroglyphics?”

“No, see,” he said, pointing at a country.

“Uzbekistan,” I interrupted. I’d come a long way from when I first saw that country on the map.

“No, look at the word,” he said. “The ‘U’, it’s large, long, and curved,” he explained. “The ‘z,’ it’s small, zigzagged, and then the ‘b’ is large again, with a round bottom and a thin top, like a spoon? Or half an apple, maybe?”

“Thanks, Amir, but I’ve tried memorising the shapes of the letters.” I sighed.

“Then look at it as a whole—the shape of the whole word, the way the letters rise and fall, see? I like the spaces they occupy and the spaces they leave empty.”

I looked at the word carefully. Letter by letter. Uzbekistan. It was really just alternating big and small letters. I grinned at him. “Yeah, I see it now.”


By twelve, I knew how to read and learning about the world still intrigued me. World history class was my favourite, a combination of geography and history.

My favourite topic? The colonisation of India and how the British broke the country into pieces to rule it How the Indians fought back without violence

My favourite part of class? The looks Amir and I shared every time one of us got an answer right were a mixture of a nod and a smile. He was my best friend. I loved him more than I could explain.

After school, we both got on our bicycles and headed to The Tree. We’d built the treehouse the year before. It was small, and Amir had done most of the work. I helped with the interiors and found an old rug and camcorder. We documented videos of our times in The Tree, with music playing in the background. Amir had brought his dad’s guitar to the treehouse, and we tried to figure out the messy chords by ear.

I knew I could trust him with anything. So I did. With everything.

Sometimes, now, I wonder if I had known Amir from another life. I am convinced that if he hadn’t brought his map to school that day, we would still have ended up being friends, somehow.|


Usually, people say that it’s three words that change everything. For us, it was two.

“I’m moving.”

We were fourteen. I thought he was joking. But then I saw his chin tremble, and I realised it was true. Tears fell like thick rain, and I hugged him so tight that I was sure I was suffocating him. But I refused to stop, to let him go. How could I?

“Where?” I yelled, although he could hear me just fine. He looked away. I shook him by the shoulders. “Where, Amir?”


I had sensed that already in the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze.

It was far. Far, far. Like no meeting, far. Like far beyond where my legs could pedal on any bicycle. And god, I would pedal for hours if it meant I could meet him at the end of it. But he was going across oceans, maybe, and there was no way to get there on two wheels.

My stomach turned. “Stay.” My voice gave way.

“I can’t.” His voice broke too. “It isn’t up to me.”

“The Tree,” I pleaded, “our Tree, we can just stay here. We’ll figure something out, won’t we?”

His eyes met my gaze. “I wish,” he said softly. “But you know we can’t. Not this time.” And though I refused to admit it to myself, I knew there was nothing we could do.

I spent every minute of that last week we had around him. That didn’t make it hurt any less when I saw his car turning out of the lane. I ran as fast as I could behind it. I could see him waving and yelling from the window. I kept waving back, tears staining my cheeks, long after his car was out of sight.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing him.


“Your order,” the shopkeeper says, handing me the groceries.“Happy fifteenth birthday!” he says, and I thank him. My eyes focus on the sign behind him.

You break it, you buy it.

I understand what it’s supposed to mean now. But I understand the seven-year-old me’s interpretation, too. I guess some things do come with age.

Whether it’s the continents that Amir and I pieced together, broken into countries so that people can own them and rule them, Or the British are ripping India asunder to control it. Or how, when I was fourteen, Amir brke my heart and owns it even now.

Stupid, really, but it’s true.

Yeah, you break it, you buy it.

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