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Hope In The Ruins

The TV screen leaped to life with images of nature's fury but Anusha hurriedly changed the channel and settled down to watch a movie. She had had enough of the earthquake. Since the day it had happened in the small town of Ajitpur a week ago,
nobody talked of anything else. Anusha had unearthed some unused clothes with her mother's help.
She had even sold tickets for a charity show in her school for the affected people. She did all that to see if she could outdo Preeti in this regard.
At home, Anusha heard from her parents, both doctors, about people coming from Ajitpur to seek treatment at the city hospitals. And the TV channels were spilling over with earthquake news, predictions of future tremors and updates on relief. It was scary to see the huge buildings with ripped-out parts, the twisted roads and uprooted trees but after a while, it ceased to bother her. In fact, it had all become a little boring now.
Anusha thought happily of her plans for the week's holiday ahead. There would be no studying since the exams had just finished. She and Preeti would see movies and visit each other often. Anusha's chagrin, that night, when she was informed of the change in plans, was complete.
"Papa and I have to go with a medical relief team to Ajitpur," said her mother. "We can't leave you anywhere for a week. So you come along with us."
"Can't I stay with Preeti?" pleaded Anusha. "What will
I do in Ajitpur? I will be bored to death!"
There was a slight change in her mother's expression, a more thoughtful look came to her eyes. "Maybe it is a good thing that you have to come with us," she said, ignoring the mutinous expression on Anusha's face.
However, Preeti was all sympathy. "Of all places to go!" she said, "I mean, I do feel sorry for the people there but..."
Ajitpur was like the TV screen come to life. Anusha's mouth went dry when she saw the untidy stacks of collapsed buildings like broken cardboard toy houses. The air was thick with the dust of the stones and rubble that lay thickly on the roads. People stood around gesturing in dismay while immense cranes clawed through the mounds of wreckage. Anusha longed to go back to her secure, orderly life and could hardly wait for the week to end.
It was on the afternoon of the first day that she met Panna.
While her parents worked in the medical camp nearby, Anusha, bored and disgruntled, was wandering around the guest house garden. This was one of the few buildings that had withstood the quake made all the more cruelly obvious by the heap of rubble and debris of a line of flats
just across the fence. Some men were working hard at clearing a path through the ruins. And a girl of about Anusha's age stood near them, watching intently. She was thin with long hair that blew about her face in the dust-laden wind. Anusha's interest quickened and she strode across to join the group. The girl did not notice Anusha's presence till the latter nudged her a little.




"Did you live here?" she asked and immediately regretted the question when the girl flinched.
"I did," she said slowly and gestured towards the grimfaced men. "They are trying to find our belongings."
Anusha stayed quietly by the girl's side, a little overwhelmed by the scene before her. She learnt that her name was Panna and that she was staying with her brother and uncle at a relative's place. Her brother had hurt his leg in the quake and so she had to come alone to salvage what she could.
Anusha found it difficult to sleep that night. What if her house had suddenly crumbled and she had to scrabble in the dirt for her things? It was impossible to even visualize. Thank goodness a secure home awaited her!
Panna was back the next day and this time, the two girls talked a bit more. Panna and her brother were orphans and they used to live with their uncle in their one-room flat. His small provision store made enough to feed, clothe and educate them but the earthquake changed everything.
"My uncle is so worried," mused Panna. "But I am sure we will come out of this and live as we did before."
She told Anusha about the night of the terrible quake that had lasted a few minutes but had left behind a lifetime of sadness for so many people. They had been caught unawares and had run out into the open just before the building collapsed and they were standing on the ruins of their own home. Anusha's heart tightened in sympathy. It had all sounded so distant on the TV and in school but she almost felt a part of it now.
The girls greeted each other warmly on the third day. Anusha found it surprisingly easy to talk with her new friend—so different from the others. She spoke English a little haltingly and her old, worn-out clothes told its own story. Yet there was something about her thoughtful eyes and gentle face that attracted Anusha to her. She found herself unmindful of the heat and dirt in Panna's company. She told Panna stories of her school. Panna talked proudly of her school too though part of it had crumbled and there
would be no classes for some time. She had tried to meet some of her friends but most of them had scattered and she could only hope that they were all alive. She seemed interested in the work being done by Anusha's
parents and said, "Someday I will be a doctor like them," a determined look came on her face as she stared out across the medical camp in the nearby field.
On the fifth day, Panna did not come although Anusha maintained her vigil till evening. Her parents returned from their strenuous work at the camp only to find her anxious and edgy. She had not yet told them about Panna and they assumed she spent her days reading or watching the TV, relieved that she did not seem as resentful as before.
"I suppose she wants to get back home soon," remarked her mother. "Just as well that we are going in two days."
Panna was back the following day but her eyes were red and swollen with weeping. Alarmed, Anusha questioned her repeatedly but got no answer. A little later, the men dug out a twisted toy engine and Panna darted forward to claim it. She brought it back to Anusha, tearfully.
"This is my brother's," she said and the tears spilled onto her cheeks. "He is leaving me soon. He is going to the
village with my uncle."
"To the village?" echoed Anusha. "What about you then?"
Panna tried to wipe away her tears. "My uncle says that he can't feed both of us now. He has a bit of land and my brother will help him with it."
Anusha felt a lump in her throat and put an arm around Panna's shoulders. "But what is to happen to you?" she asked sympathetically.
"There is a home for orphans here," said Panna crying inconsolably. "He might leave me there, I don't know."
Anusha's heart seethed with anger. Panna was to be abandoned just because she was a girl! She might never return to her old school or be able to live with her brother again. She stole a look at Panna's sad face and wondered
what would become of her after she left.
And then a thought struck her with such suddenness that it left her gasping. That night she approached her parents with Panna's tale and they listened in silence, amazed at their daughter's exploits and caring attitude
towards her new friend's plight.
"We have to do something," she pleaded finally. "It is not Panna's fault that the horrible quake happened. Can't we bring her back with us? She need not stay with us if it is a problem but we can see to her schooling and other things.
And I will get Preeti and the others to help out too."
Her parents stared at her animated, hopeful face and then at each other. "I suppose we can do something," said her mother slowly. "And perhaps we could help her brother as well. But first we have to meet Panna and her uncle." She drew Anusha closer to her. "My daughter has really grown up," she said and kissed her.
Anusha suffered many anxious moments the following morning but got her reward when, at long last, Panna's eyes shone with sudden hope and her face broke into a tearful smile. A new life awaited her and her brother— something hardly short of a miracle. She walked hand in
hand with Anusha past the clutter and disorder.
"Just wait and see," Anusha remarked, "you will be a doctor some day," and Panna smiled.


Devika Rangachari

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