I can feel the sun’s rays on my face. I open my eyes and sit up on the small rug that serves as my bed. It is four-thirty in the morning. Time to begin my long day. I go out of my room and make my way to the building opposite to the one I live in, the building where the boys live. I want to wish my brother happy birthday, as today is his birthday, and he is going to turn thirteen.
He works with the machinery in the tea industry, whereas I am a tea plucker—I pick tea leaves from the numerous tea plants on the hills of Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. Although he is six years younger than I, he is paid more than I am since I’m a girl and he is a boy. We are greatly attached to each other because we are orphans. We always combine our salaries to buy food and to pay for our lodgings. We have to cook our own food, as the other tea pluckers are busy with their own concerns.
I walk into the men’s building and go to the room where my brother is living. “Hi Raj!” I say in Tamil.
“Hey Meena!” he replies.
“Happy birthday, Raj! I’m so sorry that I couldn’t buy a gift for you, but I will try to buy you something special at the market today if I earn enough money!” I say hurriedly.
“It is fine, Meena. I never expected any presents. We are obviously too poor for that,” he assures me.
“Well then, I’ll see you in the evening, Raj! I must get going! I have a lot of plucking to do today!”
“Goodbye, Meena!” my brother says cheerfully. Although my brother seems happy, I know he is disappointed that he didn’t get a present from me. What child about to become a teenager wouldn’t be disappointed about not getting a single gift for his birthday?
I turn and leave the men’s building and head toward my building. I go into my room and pick up my basket. I quickly slip the basket on my head and walk outdoors. I don’t stop to put on shoes, as I am too poor to buy shoes. But by now, the soles of my feet are so thick-hided and leathery that, except for a few occasional pricks from some sharp rocks, nothing bothers them at all. I look at the view from the top of the hill. The view never ceases to impress me. The rows and rows of tea plants covering the misty mountains look so beautiful. Suddenly, I remember that I must hurry if I want to earn enough money to buy a birthday present for my brother. I run down the hill to the place where I am supposed to be plucking tea leaves.
I am paid 500 rupees (the U.S. equivalent of five dollars) per basket. If I manage to pick three entire baskets of tea leaves I will probably be able to buy my brother a small chocolate cake at the market. This was going to be a tough and arduous task. I didn’t have any breakfast today, since I had to hurry to work. If I am going to pick three baskets by the end of the day, then I will have to skip lunch as well. I decide that it will be worth skipping lunch to see my brother happy.
Picking three baskets of tea leaves is going to be a record. The most I had ever picked was two baskets. I will have to hurry. I begin to pick fast. I am an experienced tea plucker because I have been working for five years, since I was fourteen. My brother and I were born in India, but since our parents had died in a car accident in India, we moved to Sri Lanka, since we had heard tales of people managing to earn a living by working in the tea industry. I had to support both of us through my wages until my brother turned eight and was legally allowed to work.
Our life is actually quite happy, even though we live in our respective crowded huts made out of clay. Although the huts we live in are pretty bare we always keep them as clean as possible. I always pick a couple of the jasmine flowers that grow at the edges of the rows of tea plants and keep them in a vase in the hut to add a little bit of color to it. The huts have thatched roofs, and although it rarely gets cold in Sri Lanka, even on the mountains, it is uncomfortable to sleep when the night air creeps through the spaces between the pieces of straw and tickles us. My brother is my only joy, and he is probably the reason I always work hard at such a monotonous and tedious job. I look forward to seeing his brilliant smile when I come home from work every day.
I work quickly, moving my wrists and fingers fast. In a couple of hours, I finish one basket. I hurriedly empty my basket at the big bin nearby and am paid my 500 rupees by the young man who is collecting the tea leaves. I glance at the sky. There are probably only six hours left to finish the job.
I work fast, climbing slopes and slipping through the narrow walkways between the tea plants. At around lunchtime, I feel exhausted, but I know that I can’t stop if I want to give my brother a present. As I brush past a tea plant, I feel a sharp, pricking sensation in my thigh. I look down at my thigh and realize that a thorn has gone through my sari and pierced my leg. The wound starts to bleed. I need to bandage the wound fast to make sure it doesn’t get infected. I look around to make sure no one is around to steal the basket before rushing off to get a bandage of some sort. No one is there! I quickly drop my tea basket and hurry to a house nearby to ask for a bandage to prevent my wound from being infected.
I am given a bandage. Hastily I apply the bandage over the wound and limp back to where I left my basket. It isn’t there! I quickly look around to make sure I’m looking in the right place. After looking around, I know I am definitely in the right place. I frown. If I don’t find the basket soon, I won’t be able to buy a present for Raj. I look at the ground to see if there are any clues as to who might have taken the basket. I spot a pink-and-purple piece of a silk sari. I stoop down and pick up the little piece. This must be a piece of the sari that the culprit was wearing! My frown deepens. I am extremely angry. How could someone just take away my basket like that? It was my third and final one for the day. I must at least have around three hours left. I have to find the culprit.
I look around at the tea pluckers. None of them seems to have a pink-and-purple sari on. I go over and ask Priya, one of my friends, if she has seen anyone with a pink-and-purple sari and explain the situation to her. Priya, startled by my question, says, “You might want to ask Mani. After all, she is always rude and snobby towards all of us. She has the temerity to do such a thing.”
“Oh yeah… Mani! She is probably the one who took the basket! She’s always so rude and stuck up. Well, I am going to get it back. Thanks, Priya!” I say with strong determination.
Priya nods. I wonder why she isn’t looking me in the eye, but I push my thoughts about her away and focus on getting the basket back from Mani. I half-run and half-limp as I rush over to where Mani is plucking tea leaves. “Hey Mani!” I say casually.
“Hey Meena,” she says, puzzled. “What are you doing here? You almost never talk to me!”
“Well, Mani,” I begin, “I have come to see you about my missing tea basket.” I explain the story to her.
“Meena, I know you think that I probably took the basket because I am so snobby to you, but I promise you, I didn’t take the basket! Priya did! I saw her!”
“Priya? You dare blame Priya, my best friend?” I screech, incredulously.
“No, Meena, I am telling the truth. I saw Priya take your basket. But she doesn’t know I saw her,” Mani says gently but firmly.
I look into her eyes and I can tell that she’s telling the truth. Now I know why Priya was acting strangely in front of me.
“I am very sorry for having blamed you, Mani!” I say sorrowfully. “I just couldn’t guess that it would be Priya.”
“It’s fine, Meena, I’ve been bratty to you from the moment I ever met you. But I am sorry for that. I mean to turn over a new leaf,” Mani says earnestly.
After hugging Mani, I hurry off to find Priya. I see her plucking tea leaves in a far corner, her back towards me. That’s good. She hasn’t seen me coming yet.
I limp as fast and as quietly as I can to where she is, but even though I try to be as quiet as possible, I make a noise. Startled, Priya turns around. During this moment, I happen to notice that the bottom of her sari is pink and purple. I scowl in anger.
“Hel- lo M- M- Meena! Y- you’re back!” she stutters and smiles shakily.
“Hi, Priya!” I say gruffly. “You know why I’ve come to you! Mani saw you take the basket! Please give me the basket, Priya! I must get going, and I have no time to deal with you betraying me!”
Priya starts to cry. “I’m sorry, Meena! I took your basket because I need the money! Please forgive me! I want to be your friend again!”
I am furious. She could have at least admitted that she had taken it when I had come to ask her about it. I snatch the basket out of her hands and turn my back on her and stalk away.
But before I go a few steps, I feel someone pulling at my arm. I whip around, annoyed. It’s Priya! Priya, of all people! She knows I don’t want to have anything to do with her! “Would you please let go of my arm, Priya? I think you and I both know that I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore!” I exclaim spitefully.
The grip on my arm tightens. “Meena! I won’t let go until you forgive me! I really want to be your friend!” Priya says.
“Fine, I forgive you!” I say, really annoyed. Frankly, I would say anything at that point so that I could continue on my way.
“Wait, then let me help you carry that heavy basket for you!” Priya says happily. She snatches the basket out of my hands and with one quick motion dumps all the tea leaves on the ground.
“Pri-ya! How could you be so spiteful and rude?” I screech. I am close to tears. My “friend” had betrayed me twice! “You know that I am in a hurry! Why would you ever do such a thing to me?” I yell at her angrily.
“You really think I like you?” Priya asks rudely. “Well I don’t!” she responds. “Ever since I’ve met you, all you ever talk about is that brother of yours! I don’t have a brother like that, and the fact that you are, or were, going to buy a present for him just irritated me! Anyway, good luck picking up the tea leaves!” she retorts. She runs off, laughing maniacally.
I sigh, heartbroken. I have to hurry! Suddenly, I am aware of someone calling my name!
I turn and see Mani running towards me excitedly. She is carrying a full basket of tea leaves. “Meena, take this! I want to be friends with you! I just witnessed what Priya did to you! She is out of her mind! You are perhaps the sweetest and kindest person I have ever known!” she says as she pushes the basket towards me.
“Oh Mani, thank you so much! I am forever indebted to you! Thank you very much!” I tell her as I put the basket down and open my arms to hug her.
“Oh Meena, I’d do just about anything to be your friend!” she tells me enthusiastically.
I break away from her and, after saying goodbye, I hurry over to the bin and collect my money. Although my thigh is sore, I am happy. I now have 1500 rupees.
I run downhill to the little market. I quickly buy the necessities for dinner. I only have 700 rupees left to buy my brother’s present. I look amongst the cakes in the refrigerator and finally select the one I want. I look at the price. It is 680 rupees. I am happy that I can afford the cake. I know my brother will be pleased with his present. I ask the sales clerk to box the cake and wrap it with pretty wrapping paper.
When the sales clerk finishes her job, the cake box looks so gorgeous and sparkly. I am sure that my brother will love the gift. I quickly pay for everything and run out of the store.
I walk up the hill. Although my wrists are tired from all of the plucking, and my thigh hurts, I am overjoyed that I can make my brother happy. When I finally reach the men’s building, I run into my brother’s room and surprise him with the gift.
“Raj! Look what I have bought for you! Isn’t it beautiful? Please open the gift!”
“Meena! Thanks for the beautiful gift! You shouldn’t have wasted money on me like this!” He tears open the gift.
I wait excitedly to see what he thinks about the cake.
“It’s beautiful, Meena!” he exclaims. “Thank you very much for this amazing cake! I can’t wait to eat it!”
He moves to hug me, and smiles. I grin and hug him back. I am glad I skipped lunch and breakfast and looked for the basket despite my sore thigh. It was worth doing anything for the sight of my brother’s smile.