It was like coming down on a slide, only much faster. He came down so suddenly that his shirt buttons broke and his shirt opened up around him like a parachute. He suddenly became horrified. If he fell on the land, he would be smashed beyond recognition. If he fell in the water, he would drown for he had never learnt how to swim.
He saw some land materializing beneath his feet. It grew larger and larger, till he understood.
This was Africa!
He was heading for Africa, right in the heart of it. He was reminded of the African countries he had learnt about in school.
The landing was surprisingly soft. It didn’t hurt him at all. On the contrary, it was just like stepping down from his tumbledown but warm bed at home. Then he heard a cry.
He tried to look where the cry came from, and then he saw, on the ground beneath him, plowing in the sand, a dark-skinned creature. It did not look like anything he had read or learnt about. It was much smaller than him, about half his size, and its bones almost jutted out of its skin. It didn’t have any fur like other animals had, and it seemed to be in a great deal of pain.
Hank moved closer to the creature. He touched it, and the animal winced, as though even that mild touch pained it immensely. Hank bent down, and very carefully, turned the creature over.
And he was aghast!
The creature was not a creature; it was a boy. A human child. Its eyes blinked with unspeakable pain, and tears flowed out of it. Its nose and mouth was full of snot, and sand was caked all over its fingers and chest.
He was so thin that Hank could count his bones.
“What are you crying for?” Hank asked softly.
The boy couldn’t speak, but there was a faint flicker of hope in his eyes. Maybe the boy hoped that this visitor could help him. With that in mind, the boy spoke one word — “Food.”
With that one word, Hank became aware of the pain the boy had. He carried his schoolbag still, and he opened his lunchbox which his poor mother had so lovingly packed for him. He opened it, and looked at the simple butter and bread sandwiches inside. He gave one slice to the boy, but he was too weak to even hold it. So he sat there, next to the child, and fed it. The boy ate without a word. Hank gave it another slice, and another. Finally, he gave him his whole box, and the boy, though not fully satiated, looked at Hank with eyes full of gratitude.
Hank felt a tear arising in his eye too. Who will feed him tomorrow?
Just as this thought had entered his eyes, Hank felt himself being lifted in the air again.
Once again he was in the air, among the clouds, looking at the earth below. The lights lit the planet, but now Hank knew at least one place where there were no lights. He imagined if there was any way he could plant them in the heart of Africa.
He began to descend again. As the land began to materialize, he again began to guess what this was. This time it was the little island nation under India.
As Hank landed, he found a hundred eyes turned towards him at once. The eyes belonged to children, none of them older than him, but they were brown and their clothes were in much worse condition than his were. And, unlike him, they were doing some work. Hank tried to see if this was some kind of school that he hadn’t yet known about. Then he realized — the children weren’t studying, they were working. They had, on the floor in front of them, small rolls neatly arranged in rows.
What kind of work was this?
The children looked at Hank for a moment, and then continued with their work. Hank watched in amazement as their deft fingers moved quickly stuffing the awfully smelling powder into the thick leaves. They worked ceaselessly, making several rolls in a minute, and Hank looked at them, fascinated.
“What place is this?” he asked the nearest boy.
The boy didn’t stop his work, but pointed at a board hung from the wall. Hank looked. The board, written in ungrammatical English, read: Star Beedi & Cigarette Factory.
“Why are you not working?” the boy asked Hank.
And, just like that, a stout elderly man, who wore nothing but a kind of a draping around his waist, which was folded at his knees, came up to the child that had spoken to Hank.
“Who are you talking with?” he boomed.
Hank hid behind some boxes, averting the man’s gaze.
“No one,” the boy said softly and looked down at his beedi.
“Do not lie, you miserable creature!” the man shouted. “Do you think I am a fool? Am I paying you for chit-chat?”
And, having said that, the man lifted his heavy arm — which was probably heavier than the entire weight of the lad — and landed a smack on his cheek. The boy was thrown away at the impact, flung to the farthest corner of the room. But he said nothing. He just got up, almost immediately as if he didn’t feel the pain, and came back to his place. Just as immediately, he began rolling the beedis again.
When the man left, the child began to weep.
“Who was that?” asked Hank.
“You go away,” said the boy. “I have to finish 500 beedis before nightfall. If I don’t, he will come again.”
“But why are you working here? Where are your parents?”
“My parents sold me to this man,” the boy said.
Hank was stunned on hearing that. Could parents sell their children? He thought of his father, old and battered at his job. He thought of his mother. He couldn’t imagine any parent selling their children.
“How many beedis have you completed?”
“310,” said the boy.
Hank sat down beside him. He rolled up his sleeves and began copying his action in making the beedis. His eyes stung and his fingers began to pain. His white fingers were chapped after merely 10 beedis.
“Leave it, you cannot do it,” the boy said.
But Hank carried on, and by nightfall, he managed to make about 35 of them. The boy looked at him gratefully, but he had no time, for the man entered the room again.
He started from the first boy in the row. The poor sod was three beedis short of his quota. At that, the man brandished something that looked like a belt, and landed a swift blow on the poor boy’s back.
“How many have we done?” asked Hank.
“481,” the boy said with a wretched smile.
Hank never found out why the boy smiled, because at that very moment, he felt himself flying into the sky. The earth again dropped miles below his feet and he found himself falling which the same dizzying speed that he was now getting used to.
He landed on a very rough patch of land, and he yowled because he stepped directly on a jagged pebble. But, his voice was drowned by a much louder sound that surrounded him from two sides. Something whizzed past his head and he instinctively bent low on the ground. Then he saw, to his great horror — he was right in the middle of what seemed like a battlefield. There were armies on either side, and he was right there, caught in the crossfire.
Crawling on the floor like a reptile, he took himself to a safe place behind a rock. From there, he saw the people firing at each other. They were heavily dressed in combat gear and he could not see anyone’s faces, but they looked young. Too young.
His attention was suddenly diverted by a sudden exchange of fire that seemed to be taking place just a few yards away from where he hid. He turned sharply, and saw two soldiers hiding behind bushes on opposite sides of the clearing in front of him. Both of them had huge rifles pointed at each other. They appeared to hesitate for a moment, both unwilling to shoot at each other.
Then one of them took a shot. The bang deafened Hank’s ears and the flash blinded him. Slowly, he opened his eyes and saw — the dead soldier had rolled close to him. His helmet was now off, and he could see his face.
What Hank saw them left him mortified.
For the soldier was merely a boy, only a few years older than himself.
The firing had now stopped. Perhaps the war was over. One of the armies had overtaken the other, for there was no return firing from the other side. Evidently all their soldiers must have perished. Hank felt a chill running through him. All of them must be boys. Just like him. Wielding guns, and fighting for an unknown cause.
The victors let out a huge cry of relief. Hank saw them come out of their hiding. They took off their helmets. And, once again, Hank was mortified. The victors were barely children too. Under the war paint, their faces were clean and shiny; most of them did not even have proper mustaches yet.
They assembled around an adult, their leader. He spoke to them in a foreign tongue. However, Hank saw how he spoke to the children with a fury. There was poison in those words, and that poison made animals of those children, ruthless killing animals. Children killing children.
Hank was happy when the thing happened again. He let himself go completely as he was hoisted in the sky. There was nothing in his mind now, except a prayer — a prayer to be back home once again.