That one, there. The one who’s always looking up up up at the tops of things? Falls in every crack in the sidewalk? Always forgetting that she’s on the ground?
That’s Banu. Banu, who is not like the rest of us.
For a long time, we thought Banu was slow. Not slow in the feet. Slow in the head. We’re not even sure how she’s still in class with us, she’s failed so many subjects so many times in so many ways.
The rest of us, we figured everything out pretty fast. The answer to school is simple: mug. Mug, mug, and then mug some more.
Poor Banu. She was never good at mugging. Ask her to add two plus two, and she’ll cower like you’re waving a lathi. As for the ABCs, she never got past B. We’re not even sure if she can write the second half of her own name.
Some of us think it’s because of her afterschool activities. And I don’t mean debate club or field hockey or Model UN – those aren’t for kids like us, or for Banu. After school, Banu goes to construction sites.
Now let me tell you something. You know the only thing worse than a slum like ours?
There’re always a couple of kids at our school who follow their parents from site to site. You can tell as soon as you speak to them: chopped up hair, hollow eyes, words thick like ragi mudde. They never stick around for long–most don’t even buy school uniforms. They just show up every day in the same outfits until the pants get too short or the blouse gets too tight. Start wearing whatever their older sister or brother was wearing the week before.
Not that we mind having them around. We can always roll our eyes at each other over their heads, raise our eyebrows at their bare feet and skinny elbows.
After all, if you can’t be better than somebody else, what’s the point?
At first we think Banu is having an affair. Not that Banu has ever cared about anything much but the tops of things–trees, buildings, skies. But what else is there at a construction site? The sound of jackhammers? The sandy air? The smell of 10,000 village dreams burning?
Then Banu starts coming home with pockets full of rocks and sand and nails and metal rods. Everything she takes is broken or thrown in the rubbish.
And that isn’t even the strangest part.
The strangest part is that Banu starts building.
I know what you’re thinking. So what? The girl makes a few towers, maybe ties some rods together. That’s what children do. They build things.
But Banu is not like the rest of us.
Most of us never notice. We’re too busy mugging our seven times eight equals fifty six and Gandhiji was born on October 2nd and johnny johnny yes papa. Sometimes we wonder about a thumping or a rattling or a crunching, but mostly we just carry on.
While we mug, Banu builds. Starts going off behind the bushes where the tallest and sturdiest coconut trees take root. Imagines an empire along the banks of the river of sludge flowing down from the hospital.
She builds a fort with metal spikes and pebble-sand towers and a moat big enough for a dragon or two. A palace with windows made out of broken bottles and a gate that slides open and closed. Rows and rows of flats with parking spaces and letter boxes and balconies lined with black iron railings. A farmhouse with a wire fence and two bedrooms and a kitchen with the fixtures for one of those brand new ignition stoves. She even builds roads, and let me tell you, Banu’s roads are stronger and straighter than any of the roads in Bangalore.
In fact, her whole city is stronger and straighter than Bangalore. Makes Bangalore look like it was stuck together with Fevicol and broken promises.
Don’t ask us how. She just does it.
It’s not that she builds to show off, either. We only find out because Yousef steals Joy’s bag and runs off and we chase him into the clearing where Banu looks at us with eyes like Bangalore potholes.
Yousef stops and we all run into his back, but not before Joy gives him one tight slap.
It’s like walking in on Bhumi while she’s becoming the earth. We just stare and stare and hold our breath.
Until Joy says, “Banu, you’re a builder.”
Until Kabini says, “I told you there was no boy.”
Until Prema says, “All this time you never told us.”
Not that it matters. In slums, everyone finds out everything eventually.
We go to a government school.
I’m guessing you go to a private school. Which means you have a lot of stuff that we don’t: new books, maybe? Toilets? Water? (The drinkable kind, not the mud puddle kind.)
But there’s one thing we have that you don’t.
Lots and lots of fat, juicy, scurrying, burying rats.
You know what rats like to do?
You know what rats like to eat?
The radishes in the school garden. The registers on teachers’ desks. The pipes at the water pumps. The pais that the little kids sit on.
See what we mean by everything?
Janaki Madam–that’s our headmistress–she doesn’t like rats. That’s why she pays people to come and put traps and poison and whatever else to scare them away. Though if you ask us, Janaki Madam is scarier than any poison we’ve ever seen.
But even Janaki Madam can’t hold off a vermin scourge with just a government school budget.
These rats? They’re clever, mostly. (Definitely didn’t go to government schools.) At first, they leave bite marks and the occasional dropping, but they don’t show themselves. Not even a flash of paw or twitch of whisker to be seen.
Slowly, though, they start to get bold. We hear them shuffling behind the walls in the middle of the day. We catch their pink noses poking out from cracks in the plaster. We see their fuzzy behinds disappearing into burrows they leave wide open right where the oldest, nastiest boys play cricket after stopping by the liquor store on Sunday mornings.
And then, when still nothing happens to their scaly tails? That’s when the boldness really begins.
They smell the free government breakfast or the holiday meal served once a year on foil plates. Besan ladoos and chicken biryani. Donated by the rich guy who went to our school and miraculously made good. Proof that he didn’t forget the rest of us, even though, let’s be honest, he probably wishes he could.
Those rats smell the crumbs left on the plates and payasam slurps left in the tumblers. And they make a decision: in the middle of the day, they decide to run across the room, humans be damned, and feast.
And if they have to cross Maths Miss’s feet to get there, treading over her bare toes with their cold, pointy claws, then so be it. Annual ladoos are worth the risk.
Let me ask you this. Have you ever seen a grown woman jump up on the only desk in the whole room, not even caring when her sari hitches itself up around her bare belly in the most undignified way?
Have you ever heard the echoes of a shriek that is pure, unadulterated fear?
Have you ever seen a headmistress fly into the room faster than an August evening wind, her eyes blazing with the fire of a thousand vermin funerals, wielding a spade so expertly that she makes a crack in the wall where she just misses an uppity rat’s behind?
Well, we have. And it’s enough to make you believe that all those stone Kalis are too tiny to hold the fury in a single human woman’s heart.
“This has gone too far,” Janaki Madam says, pushing her loosened gray hair behind her ears, correcting her tilted spectacles. “These rats think they run the place.”
“Might I suggest an exterminator, Madam?” Maths Miss squeaks from on top of her desk, “or at least a bureau to hold some of the most tempting materials?”
“With what money, Sushila?”
“I can help,” Banu says.
“Who’s that?” Janaki Madam and Maths Miss ask.
“It’s me,” says Banu. “My name is Banu.”
Now don’t pass judgment. It must’ve been the third or fourth time Banu spoke in class. Ever. So how are the Headmistress and Maths Miss supposed to know? The scrambling scratch of rat feet is more common than the whisper of Banu’s voice.
“You?” Maths Miss asks, probably remembering the score Banu got (or didn’t get) on our last exam.
“I can build something. To hold the records. To fence the radishes. To block the burrows.”
“Please,” Maths Miss scoffs.
“She can, Miss,” says Joy. “You should see the way she builds.”
“How much will it cost?” Janaki Madam asks.
“Nothing, Ma’am,” Banu says. “I’ll source the materials myself.”
“How much time do you need?”
“With the right team, I can do it in three days.”
“Then name your team,” Janaki Madam says, “and start today.”
Of course, the team is obvious–if you need something done, you ask us girls. So for three days, Banu becomes our forewoman, school becomes a construction site, and we become construction workers. We don’t mind, though, because we all skip lessons. Plus none of us are afraid of rats–we’ve protected each other from much worse than a bunch of over-achieving fur balls.
So we build.
And we build and we build and we build.
We build a fence around the kitchen garden with long pieces of wire Banu finds in the garbage pile behind the new showroom on 100 Foot Road. We install shelves with doors using pieces of wood and metal Banu drags from the houses they are bulldozing behind the posh flats made of glass. With the leftovers we build a trunk for the pais and toys for the little kids.
Banu finds new pipes for the water pump. She finds sand to stuff into the burrows on the compound grounds. She even finds plaster to seal up the cracks in the walls and along the floors where rats might hide, and paint to cover up the handiwork.
“Where’d you get this, Banu?” Deepa asks, tracing the newly filled cracks with her fingers.
“Behind the hospital,” Banu says.
“In the waste?” Leela shrieks.
“Doesn’t that spread disease?” Kabini asks.
“Probably to the rats,” Banu nods.
“But what about us?” Rukshana asks.
“Stop it, all of you,” Joy snaps. “You’re builders now. Don’t question. Just build.”
Our feet are dusty and our backs ache. Our cheeks are coated in grime and our hands are scraped and rough. Our hair smells like sweat and paint and twisted metal.
But by the end of three days, it is a whole new school. Just like Banu promised.
Our midday meals are full of radishes. The little kids are snug and cozy on their pais. All the paper goods are nibble-free. The space behind the wall gets quiet.
Until one day, Janaki Madam says, “They tell me there’s a terrible rat infestation down at the new shopping mall.” She pushes her lips together so she won’t smile, and sticks out her hand to Banu. “Well done, child.”
Banu grins and shakes Janaki Madam’s hand. Because this, of course, is the surest sign of victory: the rats have given up on Ambedkar Government School. They have moved on to posher places. Places that would throw us out.
Where they went is not the point. The point is that they went, and it’s all because of Banu, and her builders.
Just then a raggedy looking thing in a faded patta pavade and dusty feet shuffles into the room, two pathetic brown pony tails sticking out from her chopped up hair. Her lips can’t hide her two front teeth. Her feet are too big for her legs, like her body was meant to grow more, but just didn’t have the strength.
“New student?” Janaki Madam asks.
“Another of those construction kids, is it?” Yousef says. “Or is it a rat?”
Normally, the rest of us would’ve laughed. After all, if you can’t look down on someone, what’s the point?
But today is not a normal day.
Joy leans across her desk and smacks Yousef across the face.
“What, yah?” Yousef turns red, maybe from Joy’s hand, but probably from her eyes.
“Don’t call her a rat,” Joy says. “Here, new girl,” she pats the space on the bench next to her. “Come sit next to me.”
The girl smiles her buck toothed smile.
“Are you…” the girl begins hesitantly.
“I’m a builder,” Joy says. “Just like you.”
by Mathangi Subramanian
Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature