Everybody was worried; it was half-past three in the afternoon. Sky was dark and sombre with thick black clouds. Wind was not strong but was cold; a heavy downpour was expected any time soon. The mother was moving about outside the house; waiting and expecting as if her presence outside would give her some kind of a divine vision to spot the child. The father was worried, distracted but has not come back from office. The mother was sanguine about something evil but had no courage to speak it out, though there had been umpteenth telephone conversations in the last two hours with her husband. Everything was still except those ominous dark clouds; it was silent except for the steady whiz of the wind. She was waiting since morning for her son to come back home.
Rajan was an ordinary adolescent, you will find anywhere. Happy go lucky, rebellious and energetic with a desire to do everything at the same time. He was not bad in studies either, he could comfortably score well in examinations, though that was not good enough for his parents, and they wanted more like most parents. He would do everything that boys of his age would do, starting from internet surfing to playing cricket or riding cycle at high speed. He was barely 14 and in class VIII. He would not understand many ‘why or how’, did not care about them much either, he wanted to be an adult and a leader of his peers. You may say he was childishly ambitious and would accept a challenge more to prove that he is no longer a child. He was obstinate like most in his age, but he was not disrespectful or arrogant. He would demand from parents and cry sometimes, but would not accept that he is not an adult yet. A confusion of the age!
His father was angry, his mother was somewhere in between toleration and anger. They would not allow him to go with the neighbourhood boys. They are not good, though they could not explain what is ‘not good’ about them. Just they do not like him to go, again he is too young for the adventure, it is an overnight thing, so they would not allow him. The more the parents refused, the more he wanted to go, it was after all the last Monday of the season and so many of his friends are going. The mother wanted to convince and coax that there is time for all these things, when he will grow up and be responsible, but nothing would pass through. The father in a calm voice said that groups often go for different purposes, they smoke hemp or take other intoxicants, become unruly and even resort to vandalism. It is dangerous to go with these people, anything may happen, even there is always a threat of injury or death. But he would not budge, he will go with the neighbourhood boys, after all it was sravana and such an opportunity does not come always.
The parents often give in and in this case they also caved in, in spite of all anguish and displeasure. Rajan knew they were reluctant, fumed and unhappy but nothing is going to stop him after all his prestige is at stake. He was excited about the adventure and expectant of his role in the peer group. The house was charged with tension, his mother asked for food, but he would have none as planned earlier. He quickly picked up one cotton towel and a torch and stuffed them in to a cotton satchel bag, put on a pair of clean trousers and a sweatshirt and rushed outside fishing a few notes out of the hands of his mother. He had no time for anything, it was about sunset and the sky was dark as ever. A slight drizzle would be good for the walk, his friends have advised him, and they were to meet as soon as possible near the shop at the end of the street, buy the ritual odds and bits and then have to start.
They met and started with a very cheerful expectation of an adventure, it was group of seventeen boys of varying age and perhaps Rajan was the youngest. There were one or two regulars were also there, like in every group and naturally they were the leaders of the pack. The vehicle they boarded was a rickety transport wagon with an oddly fitted tarpaulin roof. Two large sound boxes were at the end and a thin cotton sheet spread for the passengers, every one boarded it. A little poky for an ordinary day, but it was special and Rajan could not even notice that it was uncomfortable with smells of rotten vegetable, human sweat and cheap powders. The vehicle rolled and with it everything and everybody. It was quite a journey to the river ghat three miles away. They were to lift water in small containers and carry it to the temple twenty three KMs away. That part was actually exciting, as he has been narrated earlier.
It was raining as expected, not the harsh shower, a little more than a drizzle though. It was dark and the road was full of portholes, puddles of water everywhere, difficult yet challenging to negotiate in the dark. The group was scattering to twos and threes depending on age and speed and nature of conversation. Energy and endurance also segregated them in to groups and Rajan was alone at the end. He pushed on for a while and could not see any one in the darkness. His feet were sore from walking barefoot, shoulders heavy and painful and he was breaking down gradually. He did not know or assume his location, there was no light or a soul in his vision, he was scared but the distant drone of the loud music wafting down kept him going. He knew he cannot rest and thought what to do. He remembered about the money in the pocket, but his pants are in his satchel bag in the vehicle, he was wearing the cotton towel, that is drenched. He decided that he would walk on and see what happens while remembering the stories he had read of friends and mistrust in the school. He was no longer angry, his despair at first turned to anger, though at first. Now he was scared, perplexed and confused, worrying about returning home, the astuteness of completing the task was long been melted in the rains.
He forgot time and space and all the pain in his body and just walked on like somebody lost in wilderness and in search of human habitation. His mind wandered to small incidents in the family both good and bad and of the last argument he had while coming on this exploration. He thought of his cousins and the things they did in the summer holidays, about the school, his teachers. All the time sensing the fading music, that was his life line. And suddenly he saw it, a light far off, he started racing with renewed energy as if his ordeal is to end at the shores of an oasis. He knew no one there, and all were quite grown up, but they cared for him, gave some hot fries to eat, a dry towel and a space to sit down under a tree. He sat down and tilted back on the tree and again thought of his resolve and of pouring water in the temple and closed his eyes to feel the relaxing wind on his face. Rain has stopped and a very slow cold wind was brushing him, kind of lulling his tired body to sleep.
He did not know how long he slept, but he woke up in the desert, there was no oasis. The camp had vanished, other than the half-burned woods, ashes, smell of smoke, plastic and dirt mounds not a soul was in sight. It was quite late in the morning and the sun was quite harsh, he was sprawling with his cotton towel in disarray under a tree on the bare ground. He arranged his towel and got up and realised that he was in some kind of a school on the middle of a motor-able road. Now he wants to go home, he had had his adventure, the pain in the body, legs, shoulders and hands bears testimony to that. He had no sense of time, no money and no decent dress. He was angry, fragile, worried, hungry and ashamed. But he wanted to go home, no matter what, and did not know how, but he must go back.
He started walking again on the road and thought there must be people, a shop or a village nearby as there is a school and he walked in that hope despite blisters on the sole and sharp pain searing though the body. After while he saw a few kids splashing in the muddy water at the side of the road, collecting white polished pebbles, he went nearer and asked the name of the place and started sobbing. They were surprised to see him, and took him to the sweetmeat shop nearby.
Madhu was a black, fat, potbellied almost looking similar to that ugly monster-like character out of a comic page, but strangely children like him. He would not bark or howl at them, if they play around his shop or wash up from his water drum, would give a piece or two of leftover sweets now and then. He has no children of his own, his wife has left him long since to marry again and to have children. He was unhappily happy and living off the earnings of the shop, which his father had established in the village. He was washing off the dishes before closing for a hour or two for preparing his own meal and evening business. The children briefed him all at the same time pointing to the still and shocked Rajan. Madhu smiled showing his black charred teeth and beckoned Rajan to sit on the wood plank bench on the outside, while he washed his hands and came out. He asked where is his home and Rajan said he wants to go home in the town, he has no money.
By 2 o’clock dark clouds have surrounded the sky, indicating heavy rain, but Rajan has been fed and confident that he would reach home sooner or later. Madhu had told him a bus would come around 2 o’clock. It was about time, the only thing Rajan was worried was about his dress. Madhu had given him some money and was in the shop with instructions that as soon as he sees the bus, he must call him.
It was dark but not later than 4 PM when Rajan saw his mother standing outside the house, worried and moving about. The divine vision of the mother also saw her child at the same instant, she started crying and Rajan ran forward and cried holding her mother all his pride about being an adult vanished as vapour in to the rainy sky to come back later. By the time the mother and child entered the house, his father came in and the sight of the child in that condition halted the outburst of anger pushing him in to an understanding silence. Later that night when his wife narrated the story of Rajan’s passage and return from adulthood, he thought God still exists in some men yet and the world is not as bad as he thought. He decided to thank the children and Madhu personally someday.