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Newton’s Cradle 

Written by Kaushik Jasti

Humid summer nights in Telangana consume comfort. The scooters and autos that zipped past kicked up dust onto those that roam the edge of the busy street. Shakti cupped her hands around her ears to muffle the boisterous traffic screeching down the dirt-laden Indian roads. Her sweat bound the linens of her kurti to her skin. Mosquitos gnawed at her exposed wrists and arms. The aggressive smells of street vendors cooking food and open gutters caused her head to ache. She had never been to India.

Evening prayers echoed through the speakers of a nearby mosque. The melodic hymns overlapped with the abrasive sounds of the village. Her mother gripped her hand as they trekked through the overstimulating environment. She missed the serenity of her quiet suburban neighborhood in California, but her mother had arranged for this summer excursion to get her acquainted with the family they had left behind. Grateful for the chance to reconnect with her cultural heritage and family roots, Shakti spent her life preparing to be amazed by the beautiful scenes her mother painted in the stories she told. 
Many miles spanned between them and the comfort of her temporary home with her grandparents. Subtle images of the differences in lifestyle between the two worlds she immersed herself in engrained themselves into her memory. Shakti was intrigued by the unfamiliarity of the area her mother grew up in. Strangely, she felt an intimate relationship with the earth she walked upon despite never having done so. 


Her eyes darted from person to person as they passed. She saw exuberance amongst the youth and wisdom amongst the elderly; however, Shakti fixated on the most peculiar individual. Seated at the corner of an intersection, he was a frail decrepit man with frayed cotton clothes blackened by time. His gray beard caressed his naked chest as his head hung low. His skin clung to his protruding ribcage; she wondered how much time had elapsed before his last meal. Although his legs remained crossed, his deformed fingers wrapped around a stick to support the weight of his weak body. As Shakti and her mother walked by, the scent of the jasmine flowers tied in her hair lifted the man’s head. His empty eyes met hers. Shakti froze. The details of his face were more apparent. His broken eyes were two different colors. His cracked lips parted, revealing several missing teeth and a decaying smile. He reached behind him, withdrawing a silver pan which Shakti identified as a container in which sambar and dal had been served in. Shakti’s mother glanced away instantly after studying his disheveled posture. She made sure to face away when calculating the right moment to cross the street.

As they passed, the man held out his disfigured pan, muttering incomprehensible phrases in Telugu. She broke the uncomfortable eye contact to peer into the depths of the container. She tilted her head curiously when she saw the pan held shiny silver coins of different sizes. Her innocent face lit up with excitement, for she mistook the gesture as an act of kindness. She reached in to grab a handful of coins and pocketed them in the folds of her clothes before her mother tugged at her wrist harshly.  

Shakti wanted nothing more than to feel hot water fall on her face from a shower head. She dreaded cleansing herself with water collected from a bucket. Her tight sandals compressed her little feet over the next mile. Relieved to be close to her grandparents’ home, her longing for her true home grew. The stories she was told did not resonate with her. Shakti felt disconnected from the world around her, and she struggled to find the same appreciation her mother did. Her desire to learn about her family was overshadowed by the overwhelming unfamiliarity of India. Her unspoken complaints were interrupted by the jagged edge of a staff pinching her from behind. She screamed and ran behind her mother. 

She drew deep breaths as she watched the elderly man hobble towards her. This time, however, harshness etched across his wrinkled face. His eyes, once empty, brimmed with hostility. He growled obscenities at the young girl, and the language of the songs her mother sang to her now bore sharp tips that stung. Daggers sharpened by rage pinned Shakti’s voice to her throat. She closed her eyes and felt herself shrink. Every beat of her palpitating heart pounded between her ears. When she opened her eyes, blurriness from tears spilling down her face drowned the world’s vibrance. 

Shakti’s mother stepped between the man and her daughter; her furrowed eyebrows conveyed fervor – a desire to protect her child. His accusatory tone faltered in response to the mother’s ferocity, yet he repeatedly demanded compensation. Confused by the request for money, Shakti’s mother turned to face her daughter, towering over her speechless. The fear painted across Shakti’s face shattered her heart. Shakti reached into the folds of her clothes for the coins she had taken earlier and held them out with her head hung low to the ground. Her mother violently stripped the coins out of her hand and profusely apologized for her daughter’s misdemeanor. She then withdrew cash from her purse to settle the dispute. The man, grateful for the compensation, thanked Shakti’s mother, bowing his head before staggering away. 

The crippling feeling of guilt from mistakenly taking money from the beggar washed over Shakti. The concept of unforgiving poverty had never crossed her pure, naïve mind. She couldn’t help but sob at the injustice. It’s not fair. I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to. Words of remorse filled her head, and the event seared itself into her memory like a branding iron. Her mother’s reprisal melted into affection. Shakti’s mother crouched down to wipe the precious tears cascading down her tender face. Her mother’s protective, forgiving aura nurtured the wounds inflicted by ignorance. The unexpected destitution Shakti witnessed made her appreciate the security and luxuries afforded to her in California. Her comfort blinded her to the realities of Telangana. She held her daughter close to her and stroked her hair back as Shakti wept in her mother’s embrace. Transcending the shock of a new world, her mother’s limitless love and care protected Shakti from the harassment of the foreign land. No matter where she was, her mother’s love would always be with her. 

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