The Ball Maker
Remember the tale of the little girl selling matches on the street who ended up dying of cold? Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon; many children around the world are being crushed by the curse of child labor. Because they are often too young or too weak to be heard, it is our responsibility as adults to speak up for them and shed the light on this problem.
My eyes followed the ball closely, waiting for it to tear into the net. I didn't really care who scored, as long as the ball settled in. Everyone was cheering loudly, but I wasn't listening. All my senses were focused on that white ball getting kicked back and forth between the two ends of the playing field. Seeing it smeared with dirt and treated so savagely made me think of how many hours it took to stitch it together. I wondered if it was one of mine.
The small coffee shop where the village men gathered to watch football matches was a tiny room with yellow walls that smelled of sweat and cheap cigarettes. I called it the Den, although I don't know how or when I came up with that name. I used to sneak there after work because my mother didn't let me go, always telling me I was too young. That was a year or so ago, when I used to attend school. My mother would brag about me to her neighbors, saying I would be a famous doctor one day and that we will move out of this "desolate nondescript village," as she called it.
Many nights while my sick father lay in his bed in the next room, we would sit in silence; my mother sewing in her chair and me leaning over my notebook, earnestly doing my homework. She would raise her eyes to look at me, but I never felt like she was really seeing me - her smile and the sudden glitter in her eyes made her seem as if she was looking out to the ocean while daydreaming of something more beautiful than I could ever imagine. Once after a long pause she said to me, "You know what, Maniram? You'll go to school, learn your lessons, and then you'll go to the best collage in India, where you'll study to be the best doctor in the country. You'll make lots of money, and once you do, we'll move out of this rotten cell and go live in Mumbai."
My mother always had very high expectations of me. I was afraid to let her down. Each time I remembered my mother's dreamy gaze, I would become keener to rise up to her expectations. For as long as I can remember, my mother has wanted me to be a doctor more than anything in the world; that's why I found it hard to understand how she ended up asking me to leave school.
"Maniram," my mother said hesitantly, her eyes drooping. "You know how much I want you to go to school and be a doctor." There was a long pause before she continued, "But, as you know, your father has grown very sick, and I can't afford the medicine any more. My work is not paying even for the half of it. I need your help."
The very next morning, my mother took me to see a man she called the contractor. Located in an old building, his office was a small, gloomy room that reminded me of the coffee shop in some way. There, behind the desk, sat a man about my father's age, but much bulkier than he was, clinching a cigarette between his lips under a heavy mustache. He took a look at me, studied my hands for a while, and then asked my mother a few questions that I don't remember and didn't understand. After, he opened a notebook that lay in front of him, took a pen in one hand and the cigarette in the other, then let out a curt sigh and wrote something in the notebook.
"Okay," he said after a brief pause. "Bring him in tomorrow. I hope he's a fast learner; I'm having a lot of trouble with dense kids these days. They work half as fast and cost us twice the effort to teach them!"
"Don't worry, sir, my son is a very clever boy," my mom said, and then pressed her lips together as if to keep herself from saying any more. I imagine she had a pressing urge to tell him I was going to be a doctor someday, and that we'd move out of here forever and I wouldn't have to work with him any more.
The next day, my mother took me to the factory in Meerut to start work. I was very nervous at first, but my tension eased a great deal when I saw that there was many children my age. My mother got to her knees so her eyes were level with mine, looked me square in the face, and told me in an assuring tone that I would be all right. I suspected from her tone that she herself wasn't feeling that way, and the trembling of her lips when she kissed me confirmed my suspicion.
In the factory, a man showed me what I was supposed to do. He handed me pieces of rubber, leather, and bundles of threads and needles. "The more balls you stitch together, the more money you make," he said as he bent down. "If you need to know anything, you can ask the other kids, but try not to bother them with too many questions; they also have work to do."
I settled in my place on the floor. It was dirty and nowhere near comfortable. I began stitching, while stealing glances at the boy next to me. I was trying to pour all my concentration into the work, having my sick father in mind and holding my mother's dreamy gaze in front of my eyes. For a moment, I even thought she was observing me from her chair. Hours went by and I still didn't finish my first ball. My vision began to blur and my back ached from bending over, trying to work as fast as I could. When I couldn't bear the haziness and pain anymore, I let go of the needle and leaned my back against the wall. My eyes welled up with tears as I thought of how slow I was. It was at that moment when the boy next to me decided to start a conversation that soothed me a little. "Tired already?" He said half-jokingly. "Don't worry; it's always hard at first. But you seem to be doing well so far. You know, none of us can finish more than two balls a day."
His words were comforting; for I knew I wasn't a slow worker. But for three rupees per football, I thought I should make five or six balls a day to make the job worth it.
I continued going to the factory and stitching balls day in, day out, and within one week I was able to produce two balls a day. Often when I finished a ball, I would hold it up to the bars of light coming through the small window at the top of the wall, feeling a great temptation to take it out on the street and kick it with all my might. I've always been fond of football; the neighborhood kids and I used to play with balls made of worn-out socks. However, there was no longer time for me to play with that ball, even though I had made it. I often consoled myself by thinking that when I became a doctor I would buy one of these balls. I heard they were sold for 100 rupees each.
At that thought I found myself starting to pick up speed, causing me to prick my thumb with the needle. Not making a big deal of it, I put the needle aside and sucked the blood from the small wound. Eventually I grew used to those kinds of accidents; they were bound to happen as I worked as fast as I could. The first time I pricked a finger I panicked, fearing it would get infected. But by then my hands were studded with punctures. Some of those punctures did become infected, making my hands look like a rusty sifter.
The World Cup tournament began a few months after I started working in the factory. One evening after I was done for the day, I decided to sneak to the Den. There had been much talk about this particular game. It seemed to be a very important one. To tell the truth, I didn't care who was playing, I just wanted to see the ball rolling on the field. I could hardly believe that the balls I was making would be juggled by the feet of world-renowned players! All eyes and cameras would be following one, waiting for it to rest in one of the nets. What I found most mind-boggling was that after being kicked around and smeared with dirt, the ball became many times more valuable than it was when I first stitched it together and held it to the bars of light with pride. For some reason, this made me remember the needle pricks in my hands and I felt them starting to ache.
I stayed in the Den for an hour or so, watching closely as people around me fanatically ranted and called names. I didn't know what all the passion was about and I didn't even try to find out, for I was too busy counting the balls thrown onto the field. I couldn't believe the number of balls used in one match; if one ball flew out of the field, they threw in another one immediately like it was nothing. I thought about how many people and children my age were making footballs out there. I tried to do the math in my head all the way home, but I still couldn't figure it out.
Lost in my thoughts, I didn't realize when the match had ended and fans of the two teams were celebrating and engaging in fights in the streets. When I reached home, I opened the door as quietly as I could. Everything was as when I left that morning. My mother was sewing in her chair, my father was groaning in the next room, and the same heavy silence filled the place. Who said silence has no sound? Maybe we've just grown too familiar with it that it becomes very hard to hear.
My mom didn't ask me anything, and just responded to my good night with a curt nod. I figured she didn't want to shatter the silence around her, or she had just lost the desire to speak. I headed to my room with my thoughts still spinning in my head. As I lay in my bed, I tried hard to shut them out. In the past, I would stare at the ceiling and indulge in daydreams before finally giving in to sleep, but this stopped when I started working in the factory. I was usually too tired to think. Even when I had some energy left in me, I would force myself to sleep because of all that lay ahead of me the next day. But that night, I couldn't block out the burning questions in my mind: what would become of me in the future? how would my life turn out?
I can't remember when or how I fell asleep that night, maybe when my brain was too exhausted at last from all those thoughts. All I can remember is that when I closed my eyes, I wished with all my heart I would never wake up.