Playing with fire

Chandamama, Nov 2007

At six, Venkat felt that he was such a lucky boy. He had two of the best friends anyone could have : Karu, who whom he adored was only a few years elder than him and Shanti his little pup, who was twice as mischievous as Venkat.
Amma had brought Karu home one day, when she returned from a visit to South India. Karu had lost both his parents and Amma had said that they were going to be Karu’s family henceforth. Karu was from a small town called Sivakasi. Here in Pune, he seemed completely out of place at first. He dressed differently, he spoke differently and even smelt different! He had never been to school and Amma was now teaching him to read and write. But Karu had a heart of gold, and Venkat who always wanted to have a brother was so glad to have his company. Slowly, the soft spoken Karu came to be loved by everyone; even Shanti adored him.
Yet often, Karu would look sad and distant. He would sit quietly and look out of the window. At these times, Venkat would climb into his lap and ask Karu to tell him a story. Mostly Karu would speak of his home town. He told Venkat of the glorious Siva temple there which contained a Siva lingam especially brought from Varanasi. He spoke of the fields around the town where he loved to wander when he was young.
One day, Venkat asked him, “Karu, would you like to go back to Sivakasi sometime?” With a stern voice and horror on his face Karu replied, “Never, never again!” Venkat was surprised with this response and decided not to ask him this question again.
Soon it was holiday time. Diwali was around the corner and Amma started preparing for the festival in many ways. First she would have to clean the whole house and give away things that were not being used by the family anymore. Then she would prepare delicious sweets for the festival. Finally she took Karu and Venkat out to buy new clothes for them. These days, Karu was exceptionally quiet and did not want to discuss Diwali at all.
Out in the bazaar, Venkat suddenly remembered what he wanted for Diwali. Of course, they had to buy tons of firecrackers. But every time he tried to stop at a firecracker store, Amma would keep walking. She just didn’t seem interested. Karu watched Venkat in a stony silence.
That evening when Appa came home, Venkat started to complain about the afternoon. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Wont we have any firecrackers to celebrate Diwali this year?” As Venkat threw a tantrum, Karu seemed crestfallen and slowly left the room. In a few minutes, Venkat heard Karu sobbing pitifully. He ran after him to find out what was wrong.
“Karu, Karu, don’t cry! We will both have firecrackers this year”, said Venkat. ‘You’ll see how much fun it will be’!
“But Venkat,” Karu replied, “I don’t want any firecrackers! That’s not why I am crying.”
“You don’t? Why not?”, asked Venkat.
Still sobbing, Karu opened his shirt to show Venkat something. To his dismay and surprise , Venkat saw that Karu’s back was covered with scars of deep burns. He was shocked!
“How did this happen to you Karu?,” he asked in utter disbelief.
“I never told you this Venkat, but I actually used to make firecrackers. In Sivakasi, many children are employed to make firecrackers. Since my family was very poor, we all had to work in these factories to be able to have enough to eat. Often the conditions in the factories are very poor and there are frequent accidents. My parents both died in one such explosion, which burnt my back completely,” narrated Karu, tears now streaming out of his eyes.
“I never want to see another firecracker in my entire life”, he said.
All this was too much for little Venkat. He quietly returned to his parents and climbed into Appa’s lap. “Appa, have you seen Karu’s back?”, he asked. It must have hurt him a lot when he got burnt mustn’t it? What are we going to do?”
Appa replied in calm voice, “You have to make a choice Venkat. You should also know that firecrackers are very harmful to the environment as well as to our own health. The toxic gases they emit into the air cause severe breathing problems and many children suffer as result.”
“But they are so much fun, Appa. I love the fancy lights and even enjoy the sounds sometimes,” said Venkat.
“ Venkat, we will leave the choice up to you. You have seen how Karu has suffered and know what problems are caused by firecrackers. Do you think the fun is worth all of this suffering?’
Venkat did not know what to say.
The next day was the last day of school and by the time Venkat reached home some kids in the society had already started to burst their crackers. As he entered the house, he heard a whining sound. It was little Shanti – but where was she? Usually she was the first to greet him when he returned home, her tail wagging happily. Venkat looked high and low and finally found Shanti hiding under his bed. She was trembling and seemed to be in pain because of the sound of the firecrackers. It took Venkat a long time to calm her down.
Now he was really upset. These firecrackers didn’t seem so great after all. ‘In any case’, he thought, ‘how will I enjoy playing with firecrackers when both my best friends are not enjoying them?’
He went upto Amma and said, “I have made up my mind, Amma. No firecrackers in this house from now on! We will only celebrate Diwali in ways that everyone can enjoy!”
“So how about a few more sweets for Karu and me?!”, said the little boy with eyes full of mischief and glee…

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