“Can I have a cigarette?” said the man in a husky voice. His hands trembling as he stood at the store which had a hand painted panel on it, saying Jai Hindustan in orange color.
The old man placed his unsteady hands on the glass table as he stood, where customers stared at him. A strange smell followed the old man, it had a young couple standing in the store, cover their noses and look the other way. Ravi, the storekeeper examined the old man and looked away.
When the old man had no answer from the other side, he tapped the wooden table with his knuckles and said “Please can I have one.” looking in to the Ravi’s eyes. Ravi was new to the job. The store was earlier taken care by this father. His father had died in a riot not long back. His friends called him a martyr. They said he got the biggest fish of all. Ravi never understood what his father’s friend talked and was least interested. Ravi had to leave college and take care of the store, which he had informed his father he would never do.
“Go away, this is for customers, go away now, will you”. Ravi waved his hand in air, as to push him.
The old man moved back holding the corner of the back wall. There were not many people at the store. New customers entering avoided looking at the old man. The old man was now looking at the food behind the glass display.
“Can’t you give me some food then?” old man asked again with a feeble voice.
“Get lost you,” shouted Ravi, losing his temper, raised his hands this time. Old man took a step back but slipped, falling backwards, leg over his head.
As the old man gathered himself on the street, there was a trail of blood from a cut on the side of his head. The old man took out the rugged cloth from his pocket and dabbed it on the wound. He looked up but no one was watching. The old man dragged himself to the lamppost outside the store. He put his head back to the post and sat with his legs wide open in the bright sun under the open sky. The wind was dry and weather hot. He stayed there all afternoon and evening. Watching several people pass by him without getting noticed, as if he was invisible.
Late in the evening, movement at the store had started to die down. Ravi started preparing to close the store and began cleaning. He came outside to put the garbage in the dustbin. He noticed the old man from the morning, lying outside close to the lamppost.
He looked at the old man and didn’t see any movement. He couldn’t see his face as his head was down and his uncut hair covered his face. Ravi felt a shiver. He wanted to go and check, but did not have the courage to do so. He hoped that the old man was alive, and looked back at the cigarette box of which he requested one in the morning. Ravi went inside his store, took a cigarette out of the box along with some bread and water, and went towards the old man. He bent down and saw that old man’s eyes were closed. Ravi put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. Old man’s tired eyes hardly opened. The cut on his head had swollen, Ravi looked at him closely, his clothes full of shreds. He looked unwashed for days and probably survived on the food leftovers. But there was something in the old man eyes, which showed that he did not belong here. Ravi put the cigarette in to the old mans mouth and lighted it for him. The old man moving slowly took the cigarette out, and raised his hand as if to acknowledge him.
Early next day, the morning sun blazed in to the silent river of Sabarmati. The water stream flowed above Gandhi Bridge, without even being recognized if it was the same water that crosses every year.
Ravi parked his Vespa at the side of the street. The traffic on the streets this early is light, allowing him to park without being bothered. He went close to the barrier over looking the river and grabbed the railing. He watched the current pushing the water below him. Not long back he had let go of his fathers remains in to the same river.
A tear ran through on the side of his face. It dissolved in thin air, as his father had not so long ago.
He turned towards his Vespa, unhooked it from the stationary position and left for his store.
When Ravi arrived, the pavement was clean. The morning trucks had taken the garbage and the streets were shining as new. There were no traces of what had happened yesterday. Ravi opened the store and got ready for the new day.
He saw some movement across the street where there were people surrounding the corner- wall across the street. But Ravi didn’t pay much attention, avoiding it as daily chores.
People chuckled and curiously watched. As the old man moved across the pavement, back and forth, on his knees, for a second, and on his legs another. Old man had a red colored brick in his hand. Grey stone at the pavement emitted the glass from the red brick. The old man used his thumb and fingers to put in the shades and to lighten the color. He was preparing a sketch. And as the old man kept working on it, the drawing became unmistakably a replica. A replica of the shop across the street, and all the details in the shop made alive as he kept working.
People crossing by recognized the shop from the drawing instantly and praised the similarities. The old man seeing that more people were gathering, stood up, threw the stone away, and walked the other way. The whole day, there were people walking on the pavement looking at the sketch and the shop across the street. Some people were excited and clicked pictures of the drawing. Several people went to the shop to check what the storekeeper sold and inquired about the drawing. Ravi stayed busy the whole day and decided he would not miss to check the drawing after closing. In the evening when he walked across, he was amaze to see the detailing in the picture and the beautiful handwork. He looked at the picture and then looked at his store. He did that several times and each time he looked the sketch became more and more real. And looked around to see if he can find the old man and apologize for yesterday and thank him for this beautiful gesture. But the old man was nowhere to find.
The next day in the morning, Ravi’s eyes kept looking for the old man, but he was not seen. He went again to the sketch in the evening and sat besides it to see the details. It was started to fade away, but it had already created an impression in the young man’s head.
Not long after that, one morning Ravi was packing food in a newspaper bag for his customer. His eyes caught a picture of a handsome man. He stopped and unwrapped the newspaper. The person in the picture must be in his early fifties, with a blue suit and a tie. He stretched the paper and placed it on the table. The person in the picture was smiling, and his eyes had a spark of a genius in them. And Ravi immediately knew that he had looked at those eyes before.
The article was about a famous artist named Rahim Ali Khan − one of the richest Muslims in the state and a prominent artist of the country. Newspaper informed that he went missing before six months. It was confirmed that he was mentally unstable when he left his house. The shock of losing his wife and two young children had devastated him. He was in the United States for an art exhibition when the city was hit by riots before a year. And he lost his family, not to find their bodies too. It was also confirmed that after the incident he had left the house several occasions, and was found normally with pictures of his kids and wife, asking people in the neighborhood if they had seen his kids playing somewhere? Or have they seen his wife somewhere?
Mr. Khan left his house one evening thereafter, but not to be found since. After that, his sister had made several public requests, but has fallen flat on the deaf ears of the state government and local administrators. Till-date there is no news about his where about.
Ravi’s feet trembled as he finished reading. His mind wandered to something that he had seen earlier. He ran towards the sketch the old man had made the other day. The drawing had faded; several details in the drawing had melted in the grey stones of the pavement, but not completely. The storekeeper bent on his knees, to find what in particular had caught his eye. Moving his fingers on the ground, slowly, as he went down at the end of the drawing, he found what he was looking for, a small sign with initials that said: “RAK”.