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Around the Block

A Short Story

Venu, a 9 year old boy had an idyllic life. He lived in a large corner house with an expansive garden. Most of the time, he could be found outside playing with his friends or climbing the easily accessible large Mango tree. It’s branches provided a sheltered space to play pretend hero games. A few falls and scrapes here and there were quickly forgotten with the excitement of daily play. In the big open space in his garden, he played cricket, gilli dhanda, marbles and pambaram. Venu was a happy boy. 

Venu’s house was on a street on the banks of the Thirumanjana Kaveri, a tributary of the Kaveri river. Not quite on the banks, but a road separated it from the huts that lined the banks. When the river was full, it was another perfect play area for Venu and his friends. To get to the river, Venu had to make his way through the huts and made friends with the children of the hut dwellers. It was a happy community despite the economic division between concrete and hut dwellers. 

The hut dwellers were day laborers, fishermen, construction workers, goat keepers and more. Venu was thick friends with many of the kids in his neighborhood. Together with many of his peers that lived in concrete houses, they would play games during school breaks. Many of the games happened in Venu’s backyard.

Venu’s thatha (grandfather) lived about half an hour away. Thatha would ride his bicycle to see his daughter and chat with her everyday. He would bring a small bag of vegetables and fruits that he picked on the way from his house to Venu’s. It was a good 30 minute bicycle ride amidst a sea of people. Venu loved his thatha for that and longed to ride a bicycle himself. 

Venu’s older brother had learnt how to ride a bicycle sometime ago. Venu had watched him with excitement and was quite impatient to get on a bicycle himself. However, no one came forward to teach him as they thought he was still too young. He was also seen as one prone to injuries and no one wanted to take a chance.  

He begged and pleaded with many of his older friends to have a turn on their bicycle. He tried to trade cricket batting chances for bicycle rides. His friend Murali graciously offered his bike for half an hour one day and Venu earnestly started the first of the 3 step process. To learn how to bike, a lad had to follow the 3 step process. The first step was the monkey pedal, the second step was the bar straddle and the 3rd step was to sit in the seat. To attain the 3rd step one would have to physically grow up so one could round the pedal with their feet.

When Venu was a boy,  they didn’t make and sell many junior bicycles. As Venu sees it now, kids go straight to sitting in the seat model and there is no looking back.  “So much easier, but much less fun”, he says.

The monkey pedal was a convoluted and risky maneuver. The left hand grabbed the left handlebar and the right hand reached over to grab the right one. One steps on the left pedal with their left leg and jiggers it back and forth in a half circle so the bicycle starts moving. Once it attains motion, the right leg quickly snaps over to the right pedal under the triangular frame. Then, it was a process of balancing and risk taking to be able to do just half circular motions or full ones. Graduating to a full circular motion on the pedals usually took weeks and weeks of practice. At the same time the handlebars have to be held steady so the bicycle could be steered correctly. 

Venu’s thatha parked and fastidiously locked his bicycle daily.  He was very possessive about his bicycle. Venu pleaded with his thatha “thatha, thatha can I please take your bike for just 5 minutes. I won’t take it far”. His thatha would say “No Venu, it’s too big for you. Here are some ripe guavas instead”. Sometimes it was a fair trade and Venu would run back into the garden biting into a juicy guava.

This went on for a few weeks. However, Venu constantly itched to take his thatha’s bicycle for a spin. On one fine morning, just as thatha was parking his bicycle. Venu greeted him and distracted him with some gibberish. In the ensuing distraction, thatha forgot to lock his bicycle and went inside to chat with his daughter.  Venu swung into action.

In the same street, there lived Krishna Iyengar. He was a vadhiyar and performed many religious ceremonies for families. Krishna Iyengar also served as Venu’s family’s vadhiyar. Venu liked the portly man very much as he was very soft spoken and didn’t constantly keep telling kids what not to do.

Gingerly opening the front gate and pushing the bicycle onto the road was no easy task. Once there, it was a quick one, two, three, four on the left foot and then a hop through the gap onto the right pedal and Venu was off. Venu was giddy with excitement and also nervous with fear. It was 8:30 in the morning and he was supposed to start getting ready for school. He thought everyone in the street was looking at him when in reality people just went on about their daily life. In no time, he took the first left turn and breathed a sigh of relief as he entered a low traffic street. His legs felt smooth and he had a good control of the handlebars. He felt good. 

The second left turn came up. This was a four way crossing and if he navigated the left turn smoothly, Venu could feel calmer. He spied his mother’s close friend waving at him and giving him a big smile. Though Venu liked her, it was not a time for politeness. He had to turn left.

Thankfully, he did. Now, Venu was coasting. With his heart beating fast, Venu looked forward to the long straight road before the next left turn. He saw many of his school friends already walking to school. His friend Viji waved to Venu from his veranda and egged him on. “Go Venu Go, Dei super da” he said.  Not wanting to lose focus, Venu had no choice but to ignore him. Later on that evening during Cricket, Venu thanked Viji for his encouragement and proceeded to tell him the whole story.

The 3rd left turn was coming up shortly. The house across this intersection had always been a mystery for Venu and his friends. It had high fences with bushes covering it. The owner of this house was also not cooperative in returning cricket balls that were hit into his yard. Venu handled the third turn with ease. He spotted SK, a friend of his brother waving to him. “Venu, great da” he said. Venu was thrilled because there was a rumour that SK had a girlfriend. 

The next left turn was going to be tricky. The road was in bad condition with many potholes. Roosters and goats took up half the road. The hut dwellers also encroached on it and many were still asleep. What the heck did they do at night anyway, that they are not awake now, wondered Venu. It was a tightrope walk for Venu, but he was focused. He made the left turn and now he felt he was in the home stretch.

“I’m going to tell your thatha”, screamed Pitchai from his veranda as he looked at Venu gingerly on his bicycle. Pitchai, a friend of Venu’s uncle lived a few doors from Krishna Iyengar. “What a party pooper”, Venu thought.

Venu got slightly distracted. Looking forward, he saw Krishna Iyengar comfortably ensconced in his easy chair. 

After his morning rounds, Krishna Iyengar liked to bring out an easy chair and relax on it in the open space in front of his house. Venu always questioned the wisdom of doing so as there was so much noise from sheep, people and other things on the road. Venu had wanted to ask Krishna Iyengar about this for a while but never really gathered the courage to do so.

Just then a rooster decided to scurry across the street. Venu got rattled a bit. His legs started feeling like lead now. He started breathing a little harder. 

Illustration by Jayashree Krishnan

What was he supposed to do? A lot of forces were resisting him. In a bid to get away from the situation, Venu pedaled a little harder. 

In a flash, the world turned bad for Venu.

“Aiyo”, screamed Krishna Iyengar as Venu crashed onto the easy chair. The easy chair tumbled and Krishna Iyengar tumbled onto the ground out of control. The bicycle ended up on the road and Venu ended up on Krishna Iyengar. It was not a pretty sight. 

Within seconds, a small crowd had gathered around them. Pitchai ran toward the scene and started examining Venu and Krishna Iyengar. He helped steady both of them. He declared that neither of us had sustained any injuries. Krishna Iyengar’s portliness had helped cushion Venu’s fall and the easy chair had helped mitigate Krishna Iyengar’s tumble.  

Venu was breathless, but still apologized profusely. After surveying himself, Krishna Iyengar promptly dismissed the boy softly. “Good thing. I am not hurt”.  You go home now. Be careful”. “What a nice man”, wondered Venu.

Scanning himself, Venu could see a few scratches on his knees and elbows. Some grease marks lined his shins. Grabbing the bicycle, Venu started pedaling slowly back home.  

Thatha had still not finished talking to his daughter. The coast was clear to park the bicycle, run to the outside pipe, wash up and head into the kitchen.

“Venu!, it’s time to eat and go to school.”, said Venu’s mother.

“Okay Amma, here I am!”. Venu said.

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Gut wrenching read

I cried after the first two chapters.

I felt shocked after reading the next two.

A rage came over me after reading the rest.

Then sadness that some women let their own down, when they could have definitely helped, even just a little bit.

Finally, a realization that someone was this brave to share their story to the public and make it a seminal moment.

With two daughters, I pray that they never have to face similar situations and if they do, that they fight back hard.

Recommend it to your old enough sons to read and internalize.