Highly Commended Story - Dhaba
“Dhaba” by Pratishruti Majumdar, Nirmal Higher Secondary School, Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh, India, is the Highly Commended story in the senior category of the first biannual Short Story Contest 2019.
The little girl gazed silently at the boy working at the tiny restaurant where her family had decided to stop for refreshments. It wasn't even a restaurant. It was what one called "dhaba", a shabby place where people on road trips, like her family, would stop to use the restroom or for a small, steaming cup of tea.
The girl wrapped her tiny arms around her waist and shivered violently. It was cold. Even though it was not snowing there, the girl knew that she would soon witness snowfall when her family would continue their journey to the upper mountains. This was what they were here for after all. They were on a holiday.
The little girl still felt cold nonetheless. Her mother had forced her into a big jacket that she did not like to wear (because she did not feel pretty in it). She had thrown a tantrum then. "I already have the sweater on," she had wailed. But now she was thankful that she had put the jacket on.
The little girl's breath made tiny dragons in front of her when she breathed out. She rubbed her hand together and blew on them to make them warm, just like her mother had taught her. Her eyes followed the boy somewhat a little older than her, serving tea and collecting the dirty glasses abandoned by the previous customers. The little girl frowned. Didn't he feel cold? All he had on was a thin cotton shirt and a pair of navy blue shorts, all dirty and patched up. He wasn't even wearing shoes. Didn't he have school today? Because if she had, she'd have to be there by eight. It was already half past nine.
Her thoughts were interrupted when her father came rushing to her side to where she stood by their car. "Breakfast will be here in a minute." he said picking her up into his arms. "Oh darling, do you feel cold? We'll get you some warm milk," her father rattled on.
"Hey daddy?" the little girl murmured. "Yes darling?" her father replied, his attention elsewhere. "Don't you think he feels cold?" she said. Her father followed her line of sight to the boy working rigorously. He would not stop a moment. If he did the dhaba owner would yell curses and holler at him to "stop being lazy." Her father's smile faltered. "I do think he feels cold, princess," he said, a strange sadness swirling in his eyes. The girl frowned harder. "Then why not put on something warm? I put on my jacket and I don't even like it."
Her father sighed. He contemplated the best way he could make his four year old daughter understand the harshness of life. He cleared his throat and spoke, "You are very young now, but when you grow up you will understand that life is not fair to everyone. People have to go through different situations either for their whole lives or for a while if they decide they want change. Life isn't smooth. Everyone struggles, some more than others. Struggles.....struggles are necessary to make us who we are. Some decide to deal with it, others give up too soon, not doing anything about it, not knowing that if they held on a bit longer things would have been different. That boy over there feels cold, he's doing something about it. He's working. But someday, dear daughter, he may get the opportunity to do more and he will not be cold anymore. All of us get the opportunity to do more, every day, all around us. We just have to learn how to see them, take them and most importantly, whatever that may take us through, never give up."
The father looked at the puzzled expression on his daughter's face and realized that he had gotten way too philosophical for his young daughter. How would a four year old understand all this? He hurriedly called out to his wife. They got into their car with their packed breakfast and were about to drive off when the girl suddenly cried, "Daddy wait!" She got off the car and ran towards the working boy as fast as her little legs could carry her, her parents too surprised to follow. She stopped in front of the boy, panted a little, took off her jacket and shoved it into his arms. The boy's mouth fell open as his initial fear turned to confusion on witnessing the antiques of the charging customer." Keep it." the girl said, nodding at the jacket between them. She further said as she turned to go back, "You know, you really should listen to your mother and wear your jacket when she tells you to." The boy was left dumbstruck.
While starting the car, the father looked at his daughter's lingering gaze on the toiling boy and thanked heavens that his daughter was too young to understand what he had said or else she might have caught on to his past, a past which he wanted to keep his family sheltered from, a past which looked a lot like the boy working in the dhaba.