It’s weird that I read all these stories today. This, this
. Atra’s, ano’s and Shruthi’s blog. Weird because while I was coming home from work, I remembered something from my India trip a year back – something that I had long forgotten, but which made its way back into my memory this evening. When I reached home, somehow I found other things to keep me busy - chit-chat with friends, make dinner for the night and even bake a cake! Not until I read Atra’s blog and wandered off to others, did I realize that all I was doing till now was what I’ve become so good in doing these past few years - feign ignorance to some little things that have made a difference in my life, some things that I have really wanted to say for a while...
Last summer I happened to be in India when my younger brother M, was taking his engineering entrance exams. His last exam was the Delhi College of Engineering which took place in mid May sometime. It was a hot and sweltering day in Delhi and his centre was in the Shahadra area, quite far from where we were staying. I volunteered with dad to go with him to the test centre and since none of us were aware of the way to the centre, we decided to take a cab. It didn’t take us long to find the examination centre, as although the school where he had to go to, was in some narrow, busy street to the inside of some colony in Shahadra, but people around the area were aware of its whereabouts. The exam was at 10, I think and was to get over in 2 and a half hours or so. We decided to drop M and wait there only, for him to get back.
It was one of my first few days back in India. The days when I’m the most nostalgic about it all – the crowded streets, the raw mix of a hundred different smells, a zillion somber/colourful sights and finally the loud and blaring sounds of car honks. The few days when I’m the most unguarded with respect to my emotions and let myself soak up whatever I can find in the air around me.
So, dad and I took a seat in the back seat of our cab, in shade beneath a huge banyan tree and waited for my bro to finish his exam. I think I had got a book with me to read (although I’m having a hard time right now remembering which one) and dad had got two or three different Sunday newspapers with him (his idea of complete nirvana on a Sunday morning). I sat back in the cab and looked around. We were surrounded by auto-wallahs and cab wallahs almost exclusively, with a few personal cars parked here and there. Somewhere in some cab, someone switched on Radio Mirchi – and the song that started playing was 'Chura liya..', followed by some more nice old hindi songs and then some latest pop. There was something so light in the air about me, which gave an almost rosy picture to my surroundings. If someone had asked me that very moment how I was feeling, I would have happily said – content with my life. Except that within a few minutes, I was really hungry.
Far somewhere, beyond a corner I spotted a 'rehri' selling kulche-chole. Although I could see the stall, I could not catch a glimpse of the man behind it, as he was hidden from my sight by the colony entrance gate. I told my dad that I wanted to eat chole-kulche and he immediately shooted off warning signs to me saying that I had just come, I shouldn’t eat all that, mom would get angry if she knows, etc, etc. But I was not to be deterred. Within minutes I was suffering hunger pangs to really really go eat some junk and I managed to coax dad into coming along. So, both of us started off towards the rehri-waala. What I saw when I approached the stall, was a small rehri holding a big kadai which was placed diagonally upright, supported on some canisters, a 'tava' to warm the bread up and a couple of newspaper pieces placed somewhere in the centre. From the side, stood a pole which supported a big umbrella shaped stall - beneath which I caught the glimpse of a tiny, old man briskly working away.
He had small eyes, white hair and a white moustache. I was taken aback when he quietly looked up, his eyes wore a sort of resilient look – of a person who had seen all that was perhaps in the world to see, and had survived it against all odds. He was attending some other customers, so we waited by his stand. His movements were way too agile for his age, which must have been in 70’s. He was wearing a kurta with collars around his neck, with sleeves folded a little at his arms, showing thick dark veins running from his hands onto his wrist.
He mixed some spices and sauces into his pre-prepared chick peas which lay in his big vessel, took some out on a piece of newspaper, sprayed some lemon and onion onto them and started warming up kulchas for us. He handed over 2 plates (newspapers) to me and dad. I don’t think I had even said a word till that time. But the moment I took the first bite, I was overwhelmed just by the taste of what I had put into my mouth. I hadn't eaten such yummy kulche-chole in ages, and the first bite just melted away in my mouth. I broke my silence and told him that the food was awesome. He smiled gracefully at my gesture, a totally unguarded smile - and welcomed me into his world. I started chatting with him and asked him how much one plate costed, to which he said Rs5. I think I told him it was too less for such a delicacy. He smiled again and said that he couldn’t increase the price more, as then less people wud come. I asked him how many people came on an average every day. On good days, he said even 15-20, mostly the school kids from the school right next by, and on bad days very few. I asked him if he had been coming there for quite a while, and he said – many many years. There was no remorse in his voice, only a sense of contentment with his life, with whatever he was able to earn to make his ends meet. I was amazed with his sense of pride in his work, and his ability to work so deftly even at his age. By this time, more people had come to his stand, and I was long done with my plate of feast, so we decided to go. We were leaving when I told dad I wanted to drink something, and pa being an ardent fan of tea, asked the old man if there was a nice place for tea somewhere. He pointed out across to where he was standing and said that the lady over there makes excellent tea.
She had our back towards us when we approached her. An almost empty bed made of long wooden strips, held her belongings – a small stove, a few steel utensils and some cardboard boxes. She was trying to ignite the stove I think, when we reached. She looked toward us and welcomed us by her eyes. We told her - two teas, and she kept the water on the stove to boil. She must have been 55, and had a wide burn scar on her left cheek extending upto her chin. She was wearing a yellow suit, with an orange dupatta, her bare face adorned by a small nose stud and she was wearing a couple of bangles on her wrist.
When she started boiling water, dad asked her why she used a stove and not a gas cylinder. She said she had tried to do that earlier, but taking the cylinder back everyday to home was a big pain and when she had tried to leave it there once, it had got stolen. She showed us how she kept her bed too chained when she went home at night, for fear of someone just taking that away too. She put some spices in the boiling water, maybe just cardamom- and within minutes got us some nice hot tea. The moment I took the first sip, my eyes met dad’s and we smiled – both of us knew that, it too was the most delicious tea we had ever had till date or probably ever will! She was pleasantly surprised, almost blushed when I told her that, while sitting by her on the side of the wooden bed. We wandered off to some conversation about her husband and kids, I think. There was a man smoking right besides her bedside, and I thought it was her husband. Somehow I did not get a very good vibe about him, although I have to admit that with my present facts, I was no one to judge. Maybe he was a loving husband afterall.
In those few moments sitting besides her, hearing her stories and staring at the old man serving chole-kulche to a little boy right opposite, I wondered how simple there lives were, tailored just for day-to-day survival – nothing more, nothing less. And surprisingly they seemed happy with it - their routine and did not ask for more and more – so different from what we had become, I had become more importantly in the last few years. For just those few minutes, I was so overwhelmed with all these emotions, that I felt totally empty within - with respect to my own (long forsaken) beliefs and ideals. The content that I had felt with my life, just moments ago vanished into thin air, leaving behind a desire to really do something – not for someone else, but for my own self...
I wanted to keep this memory alive, somewhere with me throughout my life, so I asked her if I could take her picture. She smiled shyly, albeit a cautious smile unlike that old man's, and told me that yes I could. The old man across the road smiled too. I went upto him, told him that the chai was indeed the best and sought his permission to take his pic too. He smiled again, the same open smile, with which he had welcomed me earlier - which fought its way back again, straight into my heart. I savored what was left of the day, and bade them both a goodbye. I knew right then, that long after I have forgotten my encounter with these two lives, long after on a day when I would be so wrapped up in my own world - even to think about anyone else, I would need their looks and their smiles to remind me of what they meant to me that one hot summer day.
As our cab swirled its way back to South Delhi, in a bid to forgo the traffic the cab driver tried his luck of getting beneath a highway to find a way out of the that place. There, when we took the sweeping turn to the right, I saw a young boy on my left, around 10 or 11 lying down on the tiniest of the cots I’ve ever seen, holding a book onto his eyes and reading soulfully into the page. I remembered wondering then, what it was that he might be reading and how would he have gotten it? Did he go to school or did he just pick up the book from somewhere else? I saw dreams in his eyes, or maybe I was mistaking them with my own…dreams to make my life meaningful, to myself - dreams perhaps, to do something to meet the gaze of my own eyes...As soon as we took the turn, I saw three slums lined up one against another – small, bigger, biggest - overlooking a huge pile of dirt and dust and covered by a 'tarpail' strung together by ropes. I remember thinking how someone could live even in the biggest one of those slums. I don’t know if someone actually did.
What I do know is that I closed my eyes after that - because I realized that so many years in my comfortable lifestyle had made me so cold and so numb towards any form of emotion towards people like them, so much so that my own eyes sifted through the world around me and chose to see just the pretty sights and savour just the beautiful memories, forgetting really how I got there and where I really wanted to be. I don’t know the answer to that still, but I believe that I will find it one day and can then, maybe, dare to think about all this - with a little less hurt and a little more zeal...