Her whip hits me on my back between my shoulder blades, right beneath my neck. I wince in pain, but like all the other kids I clench my jaw as tightly as I can. The lesser I scream the quicker it will be over.
I try to focus on the yellow grease spots on the tiled floor in front of me, but that doesn’t help. The pain is numbing out all my senses and I’m afraid I’ll pass out like last time.
She hits me with accuracy because her leather whip touches the same spot it touched last time and the time before that. Maybe she has practice or maybe I’ve gotten used to the pain that now it hurts the same in every spot.
Her name is Nilana, but everyone calls her Didi. She’s very ugly because she has that huge scar on her face. It starts from the middle of her forehead, crosses the bridge of her nose, and cascades down her chin. I feel disgusted by her, not because she’s ugly, but because she smells like the sewerage drains. Like someone who hasn’t taken a bath in weeks.
Half of Didi’s face is burned. The other kids say it was Wasi who did that. He caught her having an affair with some guy outside of our district. So, he threw acid on her face and burned her.
Didi catches me staring at her burnt flesh. Her anger transforms into rage, and the whip this time collides with my face. A deep slicing pain cuts through my cheek. Tears start to well up in my eyes, but I refuse to let them fall.
Every limb in my body feels numb now, but I don’t move. Not even an inch. I stare at the ground and wait for her to stop. She does when she gets tired. My white face is a mosaic of different colors and shapes. I look more like the other kids now.
Everything around me is spinning; all I see are black and blue circles and the blurry images of the kids leaning against the walls.
Didi moves away from me and goes on to the next girl. The whip from her hand loosens and she heaves in a breath. She’s tired now, and all the other kids are spared.
The first person to be hit is always injured the most because that’s how Didi takes out all her anger. The rest of the children get away easy because Didi gets tired after the first few children. Didi doesn’t always hit us because she’s mad or we did something wrong, sometimes she hits us just to give us these scars.
According to her logic the more wounds we have the more money we’ll make.
“People will pity you,” she would say when she felt bad for someone. “Rich people have a soft spot for kids. They’ll feel guilty and guess what they’ll give you more money.”
I hate Didi and everyone here. The beans I ate from the cart in Koyla Bazaar are coiling in my stomach. I try to get up on my feet, but my knees sink beneath me and I fall. Darkness is starting to invade my vision; no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to focus.
The pain from my back is radiating up to my stomach, and I throw out everything I ate in the past few hours. Everything around me dissolves and I am welcomed by a soothing black abyss.
I wake up to Sahil sitting across from me. His legs are crossed, and he’s chewing on a piece of tobacco.
“I don’t like you.” He spits on my face. He’s the same age as me maybe a little older. Like me, his clothes are ripped, and he has bruises and scars scattered across his face. A few of them are old but a whole bunch of them are new.
Sitting upright, I lean against the wall hoping he would go away but he doesn’t. He suspiciously stares at me for a while. I do the same.
“How old are you?” his voice softens now.
“Ten,” I say looking at the cuts on my arms. New bruises are starting to appear while the old ones are fading away.
“I’m twelve. I’m the oldest kid here. Everyone listens to me. Do you understand?”
Nodding my head, I inch closer to the wall. He senses my uneasiness, but he doesn’t seem to care. Instead, he moves closer to me, and I can feel his warm breath fan my face.
“Rule number one don’t ever stare at Didi’s face. Rule number two don’t make friends. Rule number three if you want to survive then keep your head down and become invisible,” he says his rules with such authority that I find myself nodding my head even though I want to ask him a bunch of questions, but I’m scared to open my mouth.
“What’s your spot?” He’s asking me like he actually cares.
“Lihari street. The big signal, in front of the Oxford building, close to Madiha library,” I say trying not to make eye contact, but my eyes drift back to his.
“You’re a newbie. I work in the Sigrat community, in front of the Bahriya complex. I’ve been here since I was five,” he says it like he’s proud, but I see a glint of anger radiating in his eyes.
Most of the kids here start begging on Lihari street, it’s the only street where no one really cares. It’s crowded and it’s filled with impatient people. The girl that was blind in one eye was hit by a car the other day and no one cared. They walked right past by her as if this was nothing but a minor inconvenience. No one even stopped to check if she was okay.
They buried her body in a cemetery near the sewage in Lihari chowk because no one came to claim her body.
Begging isn’t hard. All you have to do is make a pouting face and cry. No one really cares and because of that no one really gives money. But the more money you make the more food you get. As time progresses you’re given a new spot to beg on.
Foreigners, especially people from Europe are the easiest to persuade. They sometimes care, and they ask questions. But the answers Didi taught us are all lingering on the tip of my tongue. The lies come easily. My parents died. I have no place to live so I beg, even though that’s not true.
My Maa and Abba got a divorce. Abba didn’t want to keep me and Maa couldn’t afford to. So, she sent me to the city with Saad. He promised her that he would put me into a school so one day I could be something in life, but he lied, and she believed him. It’s been six months since I’ve last talked to her. At first, Saad took me to the PCO in the nearby village every week so I could talk to her, but then gradually he stopped.
“When did you get here?” the boy asks breaking my chain of thought. There’s a fine layer of dust resting beneath the tips of his nails and he’s chewing on the tips. He’s disgusting. He smells worse than Didi.
“About a year ago,” I whisper glancing up at him.
“Do you wanna go back home?”
The word seems odd. I feel something warm brew in my stomach.
Yes, I want to tell him. I do. But instead, I nod my head.
A smile tugs at his lips and it’s not the genuine smile that people give when they are happy for you, it’s the one that has something selfish hidden behind it.
“Fine. I’ll make a deal with you. You help me and the other kids, and I promise I’ll get you back home.” He extends his hand, bending his elbow a little to not hit my face.
“What do I have to do,” I ask shaking his hand.
“Nothing much,” he says encouragingly. “Just help us kill Didi!”