His voice boomed over the silence of the night, as he pulled away the blanket I was hiding under. I snapped out of my reverie and suddenly felt the chill of the cold night air. But my cheeks burned. I had been caught red-handed in a forbidden act.
“I was just looking at the pictures“, I said, sheepishly.
“I’m going to tell Maa and Baba“, he said.
“Please, don’t!” I started to cry. If he told them that I was trying to read his school books, I would be doomed. And just like my hopes, the little kerosene lamp I had under the blanket, died.
“They’ll force me to marry someone old! Please Bhaiyya (brother)! I was just looking at the pictures”, I wailed.
It was the truth. I loved leafing through my brother’s school books. There were so many colorful pictures in them. How I wished I could read what was written in those wonderful books! My brother could read because he went to school. Something I didn’t get to do. Only because I was a girl. My parents, like many others in the small town I lived in, thought educating a girl was pointless. Girls have to get married and serve their families anyway. What good would an education do? Why go to school when a better use of their time would be to learn housewifely chores, cooking and sewing.
I’m not sure if it was because he saw me crying, or the fact that I would be married to someone my father’s age unsettled him equally, but that night, my brother didn’t tell on me. What he did do however, is hatch a plan. A devious one, quite literally. My mother would wake me up really early every morning. After a cup of tea, I would walk barefoot for about half an hour to fetch water from the water pump. My brother’s school was just a short walk from the pump. His plan was that I set off to fetch water, take a shortcut and walk to the school instead, where I could hide behind the mud wall of the one-room school and listen to the teacher talk for about an hour, go back to the pump, fill my buckets and hurry home. I would be late but not so late as to arouse my mother’s suspicion. He would help me read at night after my parents were asleep. It was fool-proof and our little secret.
I woke up at the crack of dawn and did exactly what we had planned. School was as fascinating as I had imagined. Days went by and my interest in reading only grew. In the summers, the sun would mercilessly beat down on my head while I crouched behind the little school room, listening intently. On the really cold winter days, I couldn’t feel my feet. But I persisted because I was happy. Being able to read opened up a whole new world to me. I read road signs, I read billboards, I read movie posters, I read everything there was to read. A pleasant assertiveness came over me, I felt invincible!
The plan worked like a charm for a few years, until we were caught. But my dear brother saved the day again. He pleaded, he threatened and he reasoned with them. And it worked! I was allowed to take my board exams and if I made it, I would be allowed to go to college in the next town.
My brother had trained me well. I passed my exams and I ended up going to college and getting an education. I’m back in my little town today after what seems like ages. A familiar chill is in the air. My feet are cold. As I pass the old school, I see her. A little girl crouched behind the school wall with empty buckets and pots, her bare feet cold and numb. I smile at her. I’m here to inaugurate a new school, just for girls.
I would not have seen this day if it hadn’t been for my brother. It’s amazing how one person’s courage, one person’s refusal to abide by rules can move an entire society towards progress. I’m proud of how far I’ve come. I’m proud to have made my parents’ fears about me come true.
This is in response to Yeah Write’s weekly fiction prompt “On the really cold days, we couldn’t feel our feet”.