It was around 7:15 in the evening of a moderately cold November in Rohtak. A slow and comforting breeze filled the atmosphere and the leaves would wave at her touch. I was alone that day, actually, for that entire week for that matter; my parents were out of town and were to return in the following two days. I needed to buy something and thus walked to the market nearby. The street was lit up with people returning back to their homes from work, children riding bicycles and youngsters flooding it with the flashes from their motorbikes and loud music. Still the air felt light and pleasant on my cheeks. I tucked my hands in my jacket and briskly made my way to the market.
The market square nearby, is a small area lined up by various shops at the periphery and an open space in the centre, most of which is empty during the day. But come sunset and it becomes difficult to find a parking space for a four wheeler in the same area. Small stalls, mostly fast food joints, open early in the evening and the footfall increases. After I bought what I needed from the chemist and the general store, I went to one of those fast food joints, a rolls joint at the corner and placed my order. I turned around and looked at the square. The place was populated with the noise of people talking and chatting, laughter from the children and occasional sizzles from hot tawas of the vendors and then there was continuous traffic coming and going. A tall floodlight in the centre bathed the complex in a bright white light. A scooty passed near me and stopped at the next shop. There were two pretty women, one of them walked inside and another stayed on the vehicle. I straightened my back unconsciously.
My stall was jammed with people and I knew I had to wait for some time. There were chairs outside but I didn’t feel like sitting on one. I gazed around people next to me; almost everyone had their phones out. Two friends were chatting with one another while typing on their phones. Another guy stood there, his hands in his pocket and earphones plugged in. A husband and wife placed their order and went to another shop while the food prepared.
I hadn’t brought my phone with me or my better half, not that there was one anyway, because I honestly abhor the practice (of using the phone). Unfortunately I also had nothing else to do at the time and now I looked like a dork looking at people minding their own businesses. I tucked my hands back into my jacket and stood straight and gazed far wide ahead or rather pretended to. I looked from the corner of my eye and caught a glimpse of the girl sitting on the scooty. She had her phone out as well.
Less than a minute had passed when I saw a little young boy with a large trashbag at his back rustling into the garbage that had piled nearby. Finding nothing there he came towards the joint and started looking into the dustbin for anything of apparent use to him. The kid was barely taller than the bin he was searching in; to get to the bottom he almost buried his head into the thing, the trashbag looked giant on him. After a few seconds he fished out some plastic waste and flicked those into his catch with a degree of automatism and dexterity. I stood there watching him speechless.
The sight of him standing next to that object and barely breaking the height barrier tuned out everything else in my immediate vicinity. I turned deaf and blind to whatever was happening around except the kid. For a moment, there were no street vendors, there were no people around me and there was no noise. It was just this small child with a pale brown face rubbing away the snort from his nose and standing on his toes in his tattered shoes to search for anything else in the trash. I now looked at him more closely. He wore an oversized red jacket and brown pants. His hair were uncombed and his face was dry of cold; his skin and his lips were chipped and occasionally he would stop his activity to catch his breath and wipe his face with his hands. The oversized sleeves covered most part of his limb and his hands looked like little stumps with finger like projections attached to them. On one of such breaks, he looked at me looking at him and my subsequent realization broke the charm. Suddenly everything was back to normal. The sounds and sights returned. I turned my gaze away momentarily and the kid got back to looking into the bin.
I felt sad in that moment. I felt sad for the kid and I felt sad for what he was going through. It was not my place to judge him or his situation but I did. I tried to guess his age and when failed to do so, I mentally superimposed my approximate childhood years on his; I was far better off than what he was having for his childhood. None of it made any sense. From a young age we were taught that childhood is the brightest phase of a human’s life cycle on this planet. It was characterized with everything that is happy and exceedingly positive. It was what we saw in bright colors and stubby cartoons, in innocence and chubby cheeks and little man like figures, in sunshine and rainbows and green meadows and the shrill laughter of little boys and girls, the little couplets of poems and lessons on honesty and morality and selflessness in their most juvenile stages. And yet what I witnessed was none of those. This boy was nowhere happy or cheerful. He barely held up himself against the cold and the silent disgust and ridicule of his surroundings. Maybe someone threw a glance of sympathy and even felt bad for him like I did at the moment but that was just it. A glance and an unnoticed sense of pity.
I felt the pang of reproach on me as he kept looking into the dustbin. By now he saw me again looking at him and probably thinking that I might bark at him for his chore, he got down from his toes, adjusted his trashbag and prepared to leave.
“Oye bacche!” I called at him.
He turned around and looked at me for some time. He didn’t speak anything and kept looking.
I came closer to him and asked, “Kuch khayega?”
His eyes widened and he kept looking at me as if nervous to say yes.
I asked again,” Khayega kuch?”
By this time most of the people around me stopped what they were doing and started to look at me. Not directly though, but you know when you are the point of attention in a crowd. The boy noticed the crowd looking at him as well and he nodded at me saying yes.
“Kaunsa roll khayega?” I blurted out nervously due to the abrupt consciousness of an unwanted audience. Of course the boy wouldn’t have known which roll to pick. Nicely done Arvind, I said to myself.
The boy looked at the shop, then turned around and said, “Koi sa bhi” and I felt relieved.
“Anda kha leta hai?” I asked and he nodded yes.
I asked him to sit on one of the chairs and went back to the counter to place an order for an egg roll as well. The owner too was hearing our conversation and he silently wrote down the order and asked me to wait for some time. I turned around and noticed that the boy was still standing near the chair and now looked uncomfortable. I walked up to him and asked him to sit again. He obliged on my third attempt. He placed his trashbag close to his chair and propped himself onto one. The chairs weren’t very clean but those were the only ones to sit.
“Naam kya hai tera?” I asked him as he looked away from the shop.
“Abdullah”, he said in a raspy voice.
“Achha”, I said, “kitni umar hai teri Abdullah?”
“7 saal”, he said.
I did the math. Seven years in the past from 2020, it was 2013. My friends and I had passed our twelfth class and had successfully passed out of the school. The new avenues of our future were before us. Coaching, colleges and careers. I took a drop that year to prepare for my medical entrance. My parents and I shifted to Mumbai. Many of my friends got admission in college. I relived the entire year in a moment and tried to draw a parallel as to how I was living during the time he was born. The following years, I completed my MBBS, I made new friends and learnt new lessons in life. In 2013 his family would have been happy on his birth. He must have been a cause of celebration for them back then. He must have enjoyed the attention and care of his mother and father as all infants do. Was he fed appropriately while he grew up? I don’t know. Did he enjoy growing up then? Maybe. His father must have carried him on his shoulders around like mine did. He must have had played joyfully and freely without the worrisome baggage of poverty and deprivation; his parents wouldn’t have let it come close to their son, I hoped. But that was then and circumstances change. Now seven years later, both of us sat across each other.
I could also now clearly remember what I was doing in the seventh year of my life. It was the year 2002 and we lived in a small town named Chachhrauli which sat approximately 20 km from our nearest district Yamunanagar. I was in my second class in school and was having the best time of my then life. I had started to learn how to ride a bicycle and had earned countless scars as badges of honour for the same. I remembered eating the bush berries and accidentally swallowing the seed and mumma and didi joking that someday a tree would sprout in my belly and its branches would grow out of my nostrils and mouth. I remembered the small quarters where we lived and the TV serials that we would watch. The school playground and the teachers there. Sarabjeet ma’am and Shikha ma’am and my friends and etc. etc. none of which related to a trashbag full of waste and a cold harsh winter with oversized and tattered clothes.
I nodded in apparent acknowledgement to him. He still wasn’t making eye contact and shuffled in his seat. I kept silent because of the flashbacks in my mind and the sound of the awkward silence muted the noise of the square. I turned and looked at the girl on scooty. Her partner had returned and she turned on the engine and they rode away into the crowd. And there they go, I said to myself blankly.
Peeling away from the distraction, I again looked at him. He had his head tucked in his shoulders and looked cute.
“Abdullah kahan rehta tu?” I asked breaking the silence.
“Bepas pe”, he said.
I couldn’t think of any place nearby of that name. What does Bepas mean? There was no society or a village of that sort around. Not that he could make a trip from a nearby village daily with this chore, I thought, but still. He apparently sensed my confusion and said, “Chok pe“
Only when he added “chowk” to the description that I realized he meant Delhi Bypass. That still was a good 3 km hike for him on one side from where we sat which meant a 6 km trip full circle. Probably he walked twice that distance in one day to cover his daily quota.
“Kabse reh raha hai bypass pe?”
“Aur usse pehle?”
“Saare ghar wale wahin rehte hain?”
“Kaun kaun hain ghar me?”
“Mummy hai, pappa hai, bhai hain”
“Kitne bhai hain tere?”
“Do bade hain aur ek chhota”
“Behen nahi hai koi?”
“Calcutta se kaise aaya idhar?”
“Mama leke aaya”
“Mama ka kaam hai idhar. Woh leke aaya do saal pehle.”
“Aur Calcutta me bhi kabaad uthata tha?”
“Toh wahan kya karta tha?”
“Kuch nai. Pappa ka dukaan tha. Band ho gaya. Mama idhar le aaya”
He sat comfortably now and grasped the edges of his chair firmly and was swinging himself back and forth. Occasionally he would look past the banyan tree nearby and then quickly look back at me to mask the distraction. I peered across the table to look and found no one. I continued.
“School jata hai Abdullah?”
“Jata tha. Ab nai jata”
“Band ho gaya school. Koi nai jata”
I remembered then that the schools, even the colleges and offices were closed because of the lockdown. The classes were held online and obviously he couldn’t afford to attend one.
“Kaunsi class me hai?”
He again looked towards the tree as before and waved something with his hands. I followed his gaze and this time saw a couple of other boys standing away in the dark. All of them carried trashbags and as they saw me trying to look at them, they huddled away out of my visual field.
“Woh bacche kaun hain?”
“Bhai hai. Bula raha hai”
“Kabaadi wale ke paas. Uske baad ghar”
“Kitna deta hai kabaadi wala?”
“Bhai ko malum hai”
“Tumhe nahi milte paise?”
He shook his head, “Bhai ko malum hai”, he said.
Just then the owner called me for my order and I stood up. It was an egg roll and my order wasn’t ready yet. I took and brought it back to Abdullah.
The moment I handed it over to him I was aware of the people looking at both of us. They had become silent. It was that kind of feeling you get when you miss out on something that could’ve been yours to take had you shown a little courage. Like feeling bad about not volunteering on stage just because you were nervous and the one who did gets appreciated. Or the kind when you could’ve offered the seat to another person who stood nearby in a bus or a train or metro but didn’t and then someone else close to you stood up and now you sank in your own. Is it guilt? Or regret? Maybe a mix of both. It doesn’t matter much, later on. We all have a general idea or a strong undertone of morality in our day to day lives which has been grilled into us since our childhood by our parents but it usually doesn’t surface because of the biases we carry with us regarding our presence in the society at a given moment.
I, on the other hand, felt much larger than myself at that time. One because, I had surmounted that fear of ‘’what would people say”. And second, because in that moment I was being true and proud about what my parents and teachers had taught me about morality and kindness. I could feel a genuine happiness brewing inside me and it was nothing short of blissful. It is not anything to boast about and I am honestly not. It just felt so good and great, not the act itself, but that I did it out in the open, in the public and after I had subdued my fears and insecurities. That was what swelled me with pride.
As I handed it over to him, he got up from the chair and started to pick his trashbag. Before I could protest, the owner called me for my own order. I asked him whether he would stay and he said that he’ll eat with his brothers. I was happy that he held his principle of sharing among siblings. By the time I came back with my order, he had left.
I sat there eating and contemplating on what had happened. There wasn’t much to chew on the latter. I was just too happy. But as minutes passed, the pendulum swung and the mind went back to thinking about what would happen to him. Not in a philosophical sense per se but rather as in consideration of the time and hour at that moment. It was almost eight ’o’ clock and I thought that he was to go to the kabaadi wallah before going back home. It was getting cold and I was hoping that his friends don’t bully him into submission of the food he brought with him and that they shared instead, even though there wasn’t enough for all of them.
I finished my food, paid the owner and started out of the square. As I left, I gave one last glance towards the banyan tree, now visible clearly, but found no boys around and turned away. The street was relatively silent and there were no kids or youngsters animating the long stretch of road. The street lights glowed monotonously and the breeze felt sharp on the face. Suddenly I felt a warm streak of liquid running down my cheek. I placed my hand to check: a tear had escaped from the corner of my eye. I stopped, wiped it and walked away to my home.