Children of the Coal Mines: A Short Story
Clouds were swirling over Ladrymbai after the monsoon rain; the sun sparkled on the Meghalayan hills. Inside in the Starbucks cafe, Amyra was anxiously waiting for her friend.
Suddenly, Shyam burst through the doors with the morning’s paper in his hands. ‘It’s there, they’ve published it!’ he shouted across the room excitedly.
Amyra rushed towards him and opened the front page. Her story was there.
The headline ran, ‘The Coal Children of Meghalaya.’
She smiled at Shyam. They had done it at last.
The boy sprang out of the window and walked gingerly on the thin cement ledges, before swinging over to the drain pipe. A book was clasped in his hand. His eyes fell on the nearest classroom beside him and he nearly fell off. A brown eyed girl was staring straight at him, bewildered. He was thirty feet off the ground.
He groaned and tossed the book back through the window, he had been seen. He then slid down the pipe halfway and then leaped off the edge. A twenty foot drop.
The girl screamed.
Inside the classroom, a torrent of people rushed to the windows as the bespectacled teacher irritably lifted her nose from the history book and went over to the screaming crowd. Of course, none of them except Amyra had seen the jump. Nevertheless, they were shouting for joy, glad for a distraction from the painfully monotonous history class.
Amyra pressed her nose against the panes. The teacher dangerously looming above her.
‘What are you doing, girl?’ she thundered.
‘Look out!’ Amyra squealed, ‘There’s robber climbing our window!’
The teacher peered down. Far below, a small scrawny boy was looking around, bewildered. He suddenly bent down and picked up a dusty sandal off the ground.
‘Oy you!’ hollered the teacher.
The boy looked up.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘It’s my sandal. One of my mates threw it over the gates. I don’t have another pair. The guard was sleeping, so I climbed over to get it.’
‘Your friend is one of those boys in the mine?’
‘Ya, we all work together.’
‘Well, don’t you dare step in next time. Ask the guard.’
‘That fat lazy lump won’t… ‘
‘Never mind,’ the teacher bellowed over the laughter, ‘But watch it next time.’
The boy nodded and sauntered back, over the gates and past the still sleeping guard. Amyra was fuming. That liar. But now who would believe her story?
The class settled back into their seats with startling speed as the teacher turned and walked towards her desk. She picked up the ruler. Painted yellow with fading black marks, it had hardly ever been used for measuring anything, except the raw bruises on students’ hands when it was done with them.
In the classroom, paint peeled off the walls; the whirring fans on the ceiling were likely to go out anytime, within the next hour. The blackboard was dilapidated and bore permanent chalk marks. In modern age, a good Classroom was not a big ask, but it was the best Ladrymbai could offer.
In a place where time stood still, neither the teaching nor its methods had undergone much change. Amyra was painfully experiencing it.
‘So,’ the teacher said quietly, yet menacingly, ‘Amyra, you won’t stop your mischief. You again disrupted the class. Step out.’
Amyra wearily walked up to the desk. Her hands were already scarred with previous beatings. The fragile skin would break and erupt blood, again.
‘Now,’ the teacher murmured, ‘hold out your hands.’
Amyra trudged up the isolated path towards the market as swarms of children ran towards the other direction. The sun was setting amongst the bulbous white clouds, bathing the hills, valleys and the dark ground beneath her feet in a shimmering light. Her hands were stinging and coins jingled in her pockets, she knew she wouldn’t be expected for at least another hour.
Heaving her bag on her shoulders, Amyra walked towards the cafe.
Pulling out a blue scarf from her bag, Amyra draped it around her neck. It wasn’t so much so for the cold, but that it was her beloved news reporter’s trademark style. If she ran away to Delhi now, Amyra wondered, would the papers like TOI accept a fifteen year old onboard?
The problem was her parents. Her father was a mining official and throughout her childhood, they had travelled through half the country’s main mining cities. And now it was Meghalaya.
She couldn’t admit it wasn’t beautiful. Though the town itself was engulfed with endless coal burrows, the Jantia hills stretching in front of her were breathtaking. Mist swirled around the darkening as valleys, small rivers and brooks intersecting at places.
Her father wanted her to join government service while her mother was content to see her married in a good home. Amyra was desperate to prove herself to both of them. Prove that she was worthy of being a journalist. But for that, she needed a story to report.
Amyra neared the market. It was a long, crowded lane of colorful stalls and shops built haphazardly, a loud buzz was coming from faraway. The black market was nearly a mile further down, and she knew the poor mine workers and other locals would be gambling there.
The sole reason her father had permitted her to visit the cafe was because it lay just on the outskirts.
He warned her about the hundreds of mine workers slaving underground. An entire nation living underneath the earth. Most were poor, uneducated, desperate. She couldn’t venture too far.
Amyra looked up at the cafe’s sign. In cheesy white letters against a red background, it announced ‘Starbucks cafe’.
Amyra had to smile. Though she doubted that it was a ‘genuine’ Starbucks, but in her eyes it served coffee just as well as its illustrious counterpart, if not better. And at certainly much cheaper rates.
Inside, the cafe was booming with noise. Her head was aching, so Amyra took a seat on an the outdoor table. A young waiter materialized within no time and whipped out a notepad.
‘What would you like, ma’am?’ his English was surprisingly clear.
The locals of Ladrymbai comprised of Nepalese, Bihari, Bangladeshi and Meghalayan folk. But the Christian influence was clear; so everyone spoke English, albeit broken.
Amyra looked up. The waiter looked down. Both recognized each other and recoiled in shock. Troubled eyes looked back into angry ones.
Before he could make a move, Amyra caught hold of his wrist.
‘You’ll lose your job if I tell them you were stealing at the school,’ she whispered dangerously. ‘So sit down.’
He resignedly sat beside her, murmuring, ‘The boss won’t let me rest here.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care.’ she slapped a note on the table.
‘That’s a waste of good money. Five boys in the mines could be fed properly with that.’ he whispered.
Amyra looked at him. Up close, he looked just as thin and scrawny but his face was mature. He had high cheekbones and a mop of black hair which gave way to sparkling black eyes. He had a certain intelligent air about himself.
‘Why did you throw the book back?’
‘You saw me.’ he said simply.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m ran away from home three years ago.’
Amyra nearly fell off her chair. He seemed slightly amused at the effect.
‘We were a poor family and I wanted education,’ he continued. ‘I heard of good money pouring into Meghalayan mines and so I ran off with a bit of money. Took a truck ride with other boys and got here. Most boys spent their money downtown in a jiffy, and there we were without a penny, before you knew it. Slaving in the mines was the only option left. Most guys are in their teens. Life has been hell.’ Shyam murmured, almost talking to himself.
‘In India, a child laborer dies every six seconds. No immigration laws, terrorism, trafficking. No one cares. It’s underworld business.’
Amyra sat still, stunned. He had spoken in perfect English. She never thought workers can be so well informed.
‘You know,’ Shyam broke her thoughts. ‘You are lucky to be doing what you want, in life..’
‘What do you want?’
Shyam smiled, his eyes brightened. ‘That book in the library, ‘Everything About Ores’
We’ll meet here tomorrow at nine pm.’ he got up
‘But — Wait, how will you read it?’ Amyra hesitated ‘How do know all this?’
Shyam got up. ‘I found my methods to study. There are a few kind people in this world.’
Before she could stop him, Shyam had melted back into the cafe.
She was surprised how easily he’d believed she would come. Nevertheless, she would. For Amyra had found her story.
The skies were rumbling and thundering outside. Amyra crept out of the open windows and landed on the ground, clutching a small handbag to her chest. The book was inside.
She had barely managed to pry it out of the large bookshelf while dozens of children gushed outside, heading for the gates at the end of another school day. The clock was ticking.
It was minutes away to nine when Amyra rushed out to the street. Her parents were deep asleep inside the house. They would never know.
She sprinted across the long, isolated road. Faint and scanty lamp posts flickered overhead as cold air whistled in her ears, the massive Jantia hills had completely disappeared in the shadows.
The market was only fifteen minutes away from their residence and the mining site fell midway. As she neared towards it, stray stones were already appearing in the path and she could distinguish mounds of coal in the dark, further away.
Shyam would have headed straight from the mines here. She ran faster, perhaps he was already waiting for her at the cafe.
Suddenly, a piercing scream filled the air. Amyra halted.
She knew that voice.
Without a moment’s consideration, she pulled out a torch from the handbag and strode off the road, into the mines. She stumbled over the coal ground and delved deeper into the coal maze. Darkness was everywhere and her torch only illuminated a few feet ahead. Amyra could hear her heart pounding.
The screams grew nearer and then suddenly they were muffled. She saw another light burning in the dark and she could hear sounds of a struggle. She quickly switched off her torch and crouched behind a tall mound of coal, looking at the scene. Amyra gasped.
The electric lantern was thrown on the ground. A tall, thin man had pushed the scrawny boy to the ground and clamped his mouth shut. It was Shyam. Amyra stood paralyzed.
‘Give it over, now.’ the man said through gritted teeth, relaxing his grip. ‘Where is it?’
‘I swear, I don’t know. I really don’t have it.’
‘Liar!’ A sharp slap echoed in the air. ‘It was me,’ the man whispered dangerously. ‘who gave you a destiny. I picked you up from the streets and gave you good work. This is how you betray me?”
‘Good work?’ Shyam chuckled weakly. ‘We hardly get any money. Nor do you feed us and we live in a dirty shack. If a boy dies in the mines, you don’t even inform the family. We’re poor and don’t have money to run away, so you prey on us.’
Another slap cut across his cheek.
‘Enough of you. The bosses want working hands in the mines; as long as they’re there, I don’t care how old they are.’ the man snapped. ‘You need the money we pay you, otherwise you and your families would starve.’
He gripped Shyam’s collar, ‘Now tell me where the diamonds are. I know you’ve found something down there.’
‘I swear, I haven’t found anything.’
‘Alright then,’ the man leered. ‘There remains only one way of making you talk.’
He pulled out a knife from his pockets and brought it close to Shyam’s face. But before the blade could cut the skin, Shyam brutally bit his hand. As the man backed off, howling, Shyam jumped on top of him.
He punched frantically but soon the man pinned the boy under his elbow His face was red, eyes glowing with anger. He raised the knife and jabbed at Shyam’s throat, but the thin boy had slid away from his sweaty grasp before the knife came near.
Suddenly a painful grunt emanated from this man’s throat. There was a knife handle protruding out of his chest, drawing blood. The man blinked, faltering on the ground for a few seconds before finally collapsing.
Shyam looked at him, stunned. The eyes had stopped moving and blood was pumping out at a furious pace. His eyes fell on the corner and he nearly fell over in shock.
Amyra stepped out from behind the mound. She looked strangely calm.
‘Oh Amyra,’ the boy whispered.
She walked to the body and plucked out the knife, unflinchingly. She removed the silk blue scarf from her neck and wrapped the knife.
‘Come on,’ Amyra said heavily. ‘Let’s talk at the cafe.’
‘Amyra I didn’t kill-’
‘I know you didn’t. Come on.’
Shyam nodded quietly. But before following her out of the mines, he picked up a small coal slab buried near the pit. Amyra hid it in her handbag.
She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.
Amyra casually brought out the crimson book from her handbag and passed it over the table. Shyam smiled weakly.
‘Now I know why you wanted it,’ she said, thoughtfully. ‘It was for the diamond. You needed to take out the coal from the slab. So that you could sell it.’
‘It wasn’t for the money,’ Shyam replied. ‘This is my chance to escape. I can finally get an education, maybe even find my family.’
‘But what about the other children in the mines?’
‘What can I do? Nobody knows anything about us, our lives. If I don’t even try to succeed,’ he whispered, ‘it’ll put them back even more.’
Amyra sat up and looked at Shyam.
Here he was, a wisp of a boy but with so much desire. She could see the hunger in his eyes, he respected school in a way she never could. Though circumstances tirelessly tore his life apart, she could see his dreams glimmering in his eyes.
Even with nothing, he continued to dream. And there were so many like him. These children with no childhoods.
‘My father will know about this and we’ll help you out.’ Amyra said. ‘But more people need to know about this.’
Shyam’s face brightened with hope.
‘I will tell this story.’ she said firmly. ‘One day, it’ll be all over the papers.’