Saturday, 6 June 2020

'The Lunch Box' by Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar

A boiled half-egg, bright yellow in the center, jumps out of my lunchbox as if it was waiting to be freed. I catch it before it hits the ground. Two squished half-buns and one flattened half-egg are still inside the plastic box. 

I lick the salted butter off one of the half-buns wondering how my lunch doubled today. We couldn’t have grown rich overnight.

Every morning, my elder sister, Reena, boils an egg and butters a bun. Then, she cuts the egg and the bun right through their centers with Mother’s old, but sharp, knife. After sprinkling pepper on the yolk, she packs one half-egg and one half-bun in her tiny lunchbox and the other set in mine. Mother sleeps in because she sews other women’s dresses and blouses till the first light of dawn. The whir of her rickety sewing machine has always been our lullaby. Reena and I help her by fastening buttons and stitching buttonholes in the garments after school while other kids play hopscotch or skip ropes. 

Father labors in the cornfields, from dawn to dusk, to send us to the grammar school meant for rich children because he believes good education is the key to a comfortable life. Once you get high-paying jobs, he says, you will have platefuls of food and trunkfuls of dresses.

I feel my left toe pierce a hole in my sock and touch the roof of my tight shoe. Thankfully, no one can see what happens inside a shoe. 

Reena, a year older, gets a new uniform and a pair of new shoes each school year while I am given her old ones. This year, Mother had to redo the hem of Reena’s old pinafore to make it touch my knees. Thus, the bottom inch of my dress is a chocolate-brown while the rest of it is the color of weak tea. I scrub and scrub the dark part with soap on Sundays but it refuses to fade.

Yesterday, I noticed a bunch of my 6th-grade classmates pointing to the discolored edge of my pinafore. I wanted to box their ears but did not. 

I sit on a bench and take tiny bites of the egg, let it linger on my tongue, and savor the sudden good fortune. As I lift the second half-bun, I see Reena, by the row of faucets, in the playground. Her right hand is under a faucet, forming a cup, from which she is drinking water; her empty left hand is behind her back.

Yesterday, when walking home from school, my stomach growled so much I told Reena I wished I had no sister, so I could eat a full lunch.

My eyes sting and my hands tremble. I replace the half-bun in the box beside the half-egg and run towards my sister.

'The Lunch Box' was first was published in Strands Litsphere in June 2019.


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