Vimala was a ragpicker. She was thirteen, but she had never been to school. She got up early in the morning and went about rummaging around in trash cans and garbage heaps for something useful.
Vimala would collect paper scraps, old rags, plastic items and other apparently useless objects that had been thrown away. She would then take these to various shops that dealt in waste material and sell them off. On her lucky days, she would stumble upon bottles in a relatively good condition. These could fetch her up to a couple of rupees per bottle!
However, she seldom got a fair deal at these shops. The shopkeepers argued with her, even bullied her. She could only make a meager sum every day. She handed this amount to her mother in the evenings. Her father would often fly off the handle if he felt the money she had made over the day wasn’t enough.
‘Why you, lazy good-for-nothing ass?!’ he would yell at her. ‘Is that all you could make in this big city?’
It wasn’t uncommon for him to follow this verbal abuse with a physical one.
When on her rag-picking duty, Vimala sometimes felt thirsty. She would stop by at some house to ask for water. More often than not, people chased her off for this impudence. However, some kind souls did condescend to give her water and some leftover food from the previous day. It was on these scraps that she lived, never spending a penny from the money she earned.
On one such day, she had been on the move from dawn to midday. Vimala felt terribly thirsty and hungry. She was now on the outskirts of Pune, where only a handful of houses were scattered over a wide area. She stood by the gate of a newly built house and called out to check if anyone was home. An old gentleman stepped out and came over to the gate. He looked at her with a lot of interest. Not used to people being curious about her, Vimala politely asked for some water. The man walked back in and brought her a large vessel of water. He was also carrying a brand-new packet of peanut candies.
Vimala was surprised. No one had offered her anything new, unused before. In fact, no one had ever even allowed her to touch their vessel of water! They would simply pour the water and expect her to drink it from her cupped hands. And there was this kind man, unperturbed by social convention.
‘What’s your name, dear?’ he inquired. By then, Vimala had already started wolfing down the candy.
‘Vimala, sir,’ she replied.
‘That’s a nice name,’ said the elderly man. ‘You look like a very smart girl. You don’t go to school?’
‘No, sir,’ replied Vimala. At this, the gentleman remarked that the girl would have done quite well at school. She could have easily outscored most of her classmates. Vimala replied that she couldn’t afford to go to school. Besides, she needed to make money to feed her family.
‘Would you like me to get you enrolled? I’ll arrange for your school fee, uniform and books,’ the man asked.
‘My father will beat me black and blue if I go to school. He expects me to earn for the family.’
‘How much does your father earn?’
‘He doesn’t work, sir,’ she replied.
‘So… you are feeding your parents?’ It wasn’t a question.
‘Me and my brother, yes. He’s also a rag picker. His name is Raju.’
‘And I presume your father also has a drinking problem. Does he also beat up your mother, brother and you?’ asked the old man. Vimala bowed her head. Her silence confirmed his fears.
‘Alright. If you’re hungry, feel free to drop by. You can bring your brother, too.’
Vimala left, but not before expressing her immense gratitude to the kind man.
From that day, Vimala became a cheerful girl. She would take her brother, and later two of her friends, Lakshmi and Bunty, to the old man’s house. Raju was suffering from polio while Bunty had a fractured leg that never seemed to get better. Both the boys had a hard time walking, but were otherwise no less buoyant than Vimala herself. The elderly man fed all of them.
‘Whatever money you make, share it among the four of you. That way, no one will have to suffer,’ he suggested.
Previously, he would sell his old newspapers to a local collector. Now he gave them free to Vimala and her friends.
At the paper shop, the owner asked Vimala where she got those papers from. When she mentioned the old gentleman, the shopkeeper nodded, ‘That must be Professor KV.’
‘Professor Krishna Verma,’ the shopkeeper explained when he noticed the confused look on the girl’s face.
From that day, the shopkeeper stopped haggling with her; he paid her the fair rate for the papers. Meanwhile, Professor KV even urged some of his friends to give their old newspapers to the girl. The Professor also made sure that her gang never went back on an empty stomach.
More relaxed than ever, Vimala would often sit under a tree and hum some tunes. She was frequently joined by her friends, too. On one such day, Vimala began tapping a stick at an old metal plate she had picked up from a trash can. It made a dull sound. She accidentally dropped the plate into the fire she had lit to burn some waste material. When the flames subsided and the metal had reasonably cooled down, she pulled the plate back out. This time, hitting it with the stick produced a different sound – a better sound. A wonderful thought had suddenly popped into Vimala’s head.
She placed the plate over the fire for a few minutes. Then, pulling it out, she hammered it at several places. When she next tapped it with the stick, different parts of the plate gave off different sounds. Vimala kept experimenting. Soon, she was able to produce a series of sounds on the musical scale. She had no knowledge of music; it had all been instinctive.
Vimala then tried a hollow reed she had plucked near a pond. Then came a tin box, and then a coconut shell, followed by a string from a tennis racket. She even tried a car hubcap. She later trained her friends to play these “instruments”. Before long, they were playing a kind of music that was so unusual, yet so melodious.
About a month later, Vimala and her friends played for Professor KV at his place. The Professor listened quite intently and was very impressed. He lauded Vimala for her talent. He also encouraged her and her friends to keep practicing on a daily basis. The quartet nodded.
One day, KV dropped by at the group’s usual practicing spot. He was accompanied by another man.
‘No, no, don’t stop. Keep playing,’ said KV after the group paused to greet the Professor. The group went about their routine, banging, strumming and blowing, producing joyous music in the process. The stranger smiled and nodded as he listened to that unique, self-taught band’s performance. He tapped his feet to the beat of their music. His fingers kept swaying from one side to another. He even moved his shoulders in what seemed like some sort of a rudimentary dance.
About half an hour later, Professor KV turned to the man and asked, ‘So, what do you think about it?’
‘It is, well, a very unusual kind of music, yes,’ the man said. ‘It’s a bit like calypso. The contrapuntal impact is quite impressive, too. Of course, there are a few rough edges, but nothing that can’t be set right with some practice.’
‘That’s good,’ said KV. He then walked over to Vimala and said, ‘Do you know who this man is, Vimala? This is Vidyasagar, the famous music director. He happens to be an old student of mine. I asked him to come down here to listen to you and your friends.’
Vimala and her friends looked flabbergasted. They were too embarrassed to say anything.
‘Is the plan okay?’ KV asked his student.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Vidyasagar. ‘We’re going to audition them in Mumbai.’
KV chuckled, ‘So, Vimala, off you go to Mumbai. You and your gang, I mean. Don’t worry. We’ll get you all groomed for the auditions. We’ll also provide for your parents while you’re away. You have to leave in a couple of days, so make sure you’re ready for the challenges that lie ahead. Who knows, someday you might become rich and famous.’
Overwhelmed, Vimala knelt before the Professor and touched his feet.
‘Now, now, get up,’ KV snapped. ‘Go on. And do take a bath, all of you.’
‘Take care of my girls,’ the Professor said, turning to Vidyasagar. ‘By the way, what do you think would be a unique name for this unique group?’
‘How about The Rag-Pickers?’ Vidyasagar said with a smile.
‘No, I have a better one – The Raga-Pickers,’ remarked KV. Raga, of course, meant “melody“.
The group laughed as they walked away, eternally grateful to the man who had reshaped their destiny.
…now that you’re here
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As fond of writing a good story as he is of reading one, Pravin is one of the most promising writers at Ameya. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.