Climbing sluggishly with his neck drooping the stairway raised from the ground fronting the entire face of the government building Sanjay’s mind was blank and eyes fixated in vacuum emanating commingled from yet to be broomed steps and feet covered in leather shoes until the rattle of a tea pot rolling down the flight of stairs struck his earlobes. On turning around he saw a boy of around ten in a filthy and ragged kurta and half pant whose original color was indecipherable standing still with his back towards him. Tea pot still tossed up and down the steps on its way to ground. There were no stains of tea to be seen. Boy tilted his neck left and right and then turned around to see if someone was watching him. Seeing Sanjay looking towards him at first for a fraction of second he lost the color of his face and then twitched his lips verging on an attempt at smile and capered down the stairs. Sanjay in response emerged out of his vacuum and squeezed his lips together. That was his attempt at smile. Feet knew now they had to resume their job.
A child, somewhere around seven, wearing a new sparkling white ironed kurta-pajama is cavorting through a mud street littered with dung in a ‘five thousand population’ village.
As he dashed past a huddle of villagers, all in white, some bare headed and some turbaned, again white, some sitting cross legged and some squatting, some wearing kurta-pajama and some kurta-dhoti, playing a game of cards, he stumbled upon God knows what and fell down. A thin shriek filled the ambience. Men sitting in the huddle hefted their necks up and turned their attention to the child. A few paces behind some children stood giggling or chortling. A cow chewing the cud at some distance further moved a few paces towards the child and stationed itself there, mooing as if she too were a participant in the whole drama. Huddle broke up as a man in his early forties stood up and walked towards now pouting child with his back signaling the huddle an end to his participation.
“Ohhhh stand up”, hunkering down before the child the man began an attempt at consolation. He helped the child raise himself up. Child scanned the surrounding. Everyone was looking at him with a smile that appeared to him nothing short of monstrous snigger embarrassing him no end.
“If only it were not for this cow….”, the child blubbered.
“Ok. Ok. Tomorrow I will have this cow removed from here”, the man comforted the child as he slipped his chappals (open heeled bathroom sleepers) into fingers and toes of his tiny feet. Child picked up a tiny pebble and threw at cow. At this, everyone, including the comforting man burst into laughter which further frightened the timid child.
Still stationed at her position though at a considerable distance cow stared at the child chawing the interminable saliva.
Comforting the child the man wiped tears off his cheeks with border of his kurta.
“Don’t worry. It happens.”
He lifted the child by his armpits into his hands, lofted him onto his shoulders and pounced toward the children producing a persiflagic roar from his mouth resulting in children running ahead of him, bare feet, laughing.
“Papa, take chappals. They will skid down.”
The man collects the chappals into the side pockets of his kurta, one each.
“Hoon”, the man nods.
“I will never play with them”, his tone still containing remnants of weeping.
“And papa, don’t forget to have that cow removed from there. Every evening it comes there.”
“But you said you will never play there, just now”, the man advanced the conversation ahead.
Child did not speak.
“Ok. Don’t worry. I will have it removed”, the man then burst into a rhythmic tone, “only for our Sanju.”
From the shoulders of his papa Sanju was taller than everybody they passed by. For his small eyes this was his panopticon view. He equaled the swagger of his papa with that of camel his uncle once owned. But soon Sanju ran into something taller than him.
Sanju exclaimed while raising his finger to the direction of crowd mainly of children covering almost half of the wide street they had been treading.
The centre of every one’s attention was an old lumbering saddled elephant. When Sanju had cast his eyes upon this gargantuan creature it was nodding its head in affirmation to some of the commands of its mahout in front of an old but big, wooden, painted black but broken doorstep. A woman had been arguing with mahout for not giving ride to her grandson worth her sackful of wheat. ‘Amma’ the address with which mahout sought to placate the woman had no affect on her. Children, vetting the trunk of elephant but taking care not to be too close were causing a hubbub siding woman who they called daadi (paternal grandmother). As Sanju and his papa drew near to elephant Sanju told him he wanted a ride.
“Mahout, how much you charge for a ride?”
“Who will ride?”
“Who else, of course, this little child.”
“Three rupees for a child, so expensive”, Sanju’s papa wore an expression of incredulity on his face.
Now it was woman’s turn to intervene.
“Beta (son), he is a cheat. He didn’t spare even an old woman like me. I have been fighting with him for so long a time and see his intransigence; he is not having mercy even on me. Can’t he see I can’t speak much?”
“Look, mahout. Two rupees are more than enough.”
“Bhai Saheb (dear brother), you tell me. I am a poor man. This elephant is my only source of income. See, how weak he is. Almost cadaverous. If I won’t give him anything to eat how will I feed my children.”
Sanju had been observing this haggling and pleading from above the shoulders of his papa.
“Ok. Take dassi (ten paisa) more. Now don’t say no. Give my child a ride.”
He handed two rupees and a dassi to mahout.
Without speaking anything mahout extended his hands towards Sanju, grasped him in his arms but before he could land him on the trunk of elephant Sanju was hitting the mahout with his legs.
“No, leave me, leave, I don’t want any ride”, he repeated a couple of times and once again a stream of tears was coursing down his cheeks. Next minute he was standing on the ground with children giggling. The scene of attention had shifted from that of old woman to Sanju. Every body enjoyed the humorous incident.
“Ok, let’s go home.”
Papa extended his index finger to him to be held and both were on their way home. Sanju could feel the dust and dung of a wide rough street. Once again side pockets of his papa were empty.
Sitting at his desk in a cramped office Sanjay’s heart was not at work. Puffing a cigarette his gaze was fixed at his cell phone he had purchased from his sister at half its market price. He wanted a camera phone at a nominal price. He had always been very fond of taking photographs and this phone was more of a camera than a phone.
He flung the rump of cigarette into the corner bin towards his right, pulled the drawer out, took out a file and began to thumb through it. In the beginning something kept him from applying his mind completely but soon he was lost making some sense of intricate formulas written on thin pages. It was only when phone fell off the table that he moved his eyes off file. Now the vibration was all one could hear in his cramped cabin carved out of a big room using wooden mahogany walls reaching up to roof. Call was still connected. He bent down and lifted the phone up.
“Yes”, he said thrusting it against his ears.
“Did you borrow the boss’s car? Please….. for me. And yes, try to make it sharp at five in the evening. You know…..”, Sanwri, Sanjay’s wife went on and on and repeated once again everything she had ladled into his ears in the morning.
There were two missed calls Sanjay noticed after having hung up which Sanwri had not even alluded to.
Sanjay’s boss was a genial person hailing from a rich family always admiring his work. The last time when Sanjay had borrowed his car he even arranged for the chauffeur. The matter ended there so cleanly as if Sanjay had never asked for anything. Looking at the wall he was picturing a whole sequence of events which will engender when he would enter his room. When tea boy came with a cup of tea Sanjay felt a bit relieved at his sight and of course at seeing cup of tea raising steam. This restored him to some normality for a while. Every sip of the tea that he took made him stronger and less brooding. It could be pretty normal. He said to himself. People borrow things. He made himself believe. He would barge in the office, ask for the car and come out. That’s all. He told himself. But so long as the sentences he created to be uttered ran in his mind the illusion of simplicity and facility of the matter retained its shape. An interlude of silence told how lopsided this plinth of make believe readiness was. Yes, it was not easy.
The first borrowing was destined to be an aberration. Boss knew it. For a man like Sanjay borrowing a car from his boos, second time, was nothing short of taking a plunge into a well of humiliation and coming out abased. The bike that had been given to him in his dowry which Sanwri, a wife, called ‘dowry gift’ to a deserving groom, he rarely touched. So much so that it became derelict. This saddened Sanwri. She saw irreverence for her parents in Sanjay’s ignorance of bike. He saw somewhat upholding of his diffident esteem in the same act. It had been gathering dust at a service station for long. Something always held him back from going and bringing it back. The absence of bike made Sanwri only see a chasm between her family and Sanjay. For Sanjay it was an attempt to tell himself he had feet, his own feet. Today when the need arose Sanwri reprimanded him for being indolent and lazy. She never went beyond that. Initially she pressed for bike but then did not forget to advise Sanjay to borrow car if bike was not ready. Did the thought of having to brave chilling cold waves and exposure to scaring darkness on bike cross her mind? Maybe, may not. Sanwri always feared darkness and strangers more than winter. For her, bike was more of a presence than memory, more of a revered symbol than a vehicle. When Sanjay left home Sanwri told him his boss was a good man and then added to the effect that Sanjay ask service agency to deliver bike to home.
For a moment he decided to phone bike servicing centre and ask whether bike no. DL Y 2097 was ready. But very next moment he dropped the idea. Ever since bike was at the servicing centre he had felt relieved and unburdened. His home sans bike seemed more relaxing and natural to him. He remembered how once during a college play he had delivered a long monologue against dowry. But when his marriage was fixed by a mutual relation and his in laws offered a new her Hero Honda Passion his temptation got better of him. He had never ridden a bike in his life. Whatever reservations were there were washed off by overwhelming visions of his riding the bike like heroes did in Hindi movies. His silent opposition cowed down to his other side of quandary which pretended to take some solace in glistening skin of casuistry.
Couldn’t Sanjay have said no to Sanwri? No, she was the only girl ever to have come into his life and fortunately he loved her. He never told her so. The law of ‘opposite attraction’ fitted well in Sanjay’s life. For all her buffooneries Sanwri was the dream-girl Sanjay had been extremely thankful for. He never judged her flaws and strengths. He only loved her more so for her flaws. But then Sanjay was Sanjay. He had his dilemmas. Sanwri too understood this. She had a disposition which sometimes made her look foolish but sound intelligent and sometimes vice versa. She was a noble girl but little blabber mouthed on both sides of the divide and easy going. She complemented Sanjay’s brooding temperament with her light and direct nature. She didn’t even realize how easily she had thrown Sanjay into a predicament by asking him to borrow his boss’s car. Sanjay’s ready compliance to her first request only made her less prudent. So… Sanwri too was Sanwri. Sanjay accepted this. Finally, after along head aching brainstorming he decided to push the bitter pill of borrowing down his throat but this time with a glass of textual water. He decided to write a letter.
I am Sanjay Minocha. I have been working as senior service engineer in this organization for last six years under your supervision. In these years you have been very kind to me. On my part I tried as diligently as possible to be of some use to this company. One on odd occasion I borrowed your car and you gave it without batting even an eyelid. I will never forget that gesture of yours. You were extremely careful about not to remind me about your munificence again even by remotest allusion. I sincerely feel I am yet not been able to pay off that debt. Before I say anything more I want to make sure that I am not a habitual borrower. Sir, will you please lend me your car today evening for just five hours i.e. after office hours till ten p.m. But this time around I would like to pay you some money or whatever you want.
After having written the letter as Sanjay had been running his eyes through it to look for any mistake or need for editing or to gather the overall impression of letter by imagining himself as a generous person and casual reader as his boss was Mr. Rajan Aarjoo stepped in. Rajan Aarjoo, as the non de plume expounds, dabbled in poetry. He had been working with Sanjay for as long as Sanjay was in this organization. Mr. Aarjoo, somewhere around sixty looked scrawnier than he actually was owing to his sunken cheeks, dark complexion and Gandhi spectacles mulching his recessed eye sockets easily perched on his big protruding ears. Quite unlike Sanjay and others he never tucked his shirt in his pant. He was the only person Sanjay was at ease with. Mr. Aarjoo too loosened the leash of his demeanor only when Sanjay was the fellow rider.
“What thoughts are you lost in Mr. Sanjay?”
“You can see for yourself Rajan Ji.”
“Say me Aarjoo. Sometimes in your quest to shower on me your respect you make me feel old. What is age yaar (friend)?” Aarjoo shot back in a sentence that began at a high note and ended in sotto voce.
“Ok, Aarjoo”, Sanjay responded while extending the letter to Mr. Aarjoo wearing an expression on his face as if wanting to invite him to read it before the letter. Mr. Aarjoo, sitting straight on the chair across the table even made an attempt to this effect.
Mr. Aarjoo bended forward, extended his hand to grasp the letter, folded them, rested his elbows on the table and buried his head into it as was his habit. If Sanjay were not the victim of discomfiting thoughts the frame of Mr. Aarjoo ladling itself on letter may well have provoked a smile on his face.
After meticulously running his winking eyes from first few lines from under the spectacles Aarjoo blurted out, “I know it is difficult. But why don’t you use your bike. I just don’t understand you. And see the irony. You love your wife but not her bike.”
“You claim to be poet and you don’t understand me. That is the irony.” Sanjay sounded like a professor.
Mr. Aarjoo tried to look squarely into eyes of Sanjay. Silence ensued.
After this brief interlude he again dug his eyes into the letter.
“What? Are you ready to pay some money….” At this Mr. Aarjoo groped for words for a couple of seconds, took his head down to letter once again and continued the sentence, “or whatever you want. Why? Have you gone mad?”
The dual of astonishment and inquisitiveness gave way quickly to despair on Mr. Aarjoo’s face. This had Sanjay unsettled.
“Am I wrong in paying money?”
“Of Course. Anything other than fuel”, Mr. Aarjoo spoke as if he just wanted a question ridden with doubt from Sanjay.
“But I want to pay because…….”
Mr. Aarjoo waved his head.
“Sanjay, you are so innocent. Why would you want to pay when anyway you are borrowing……”, he left the sentence halfway.
“Thank God”, Mr. Aarjoo continued as he stressed the word ‘Thank’ while raising his hand up towards roof, “He sent me at the right time otherwise boss would have had a hearty laugh at you expense. You are lucky that he is a good person. If I were him I would have thrown this letter back at your face. What do you think of him? He didn’t mind your borrowing his car because he thought you were a good person. He is not a professional.”
All this while Sanjay had been poker faced.
“One minute”, making his countenance thoughtful by producing wrinkles on his forehead more clearer and deep Mr. Aarjoo asked Sanjay, “you want to pay?”
“Mr. Sanjay”, Mr. Aarjoo took a deep breath stressing on the name especially on tail while wringing his hands. Slouching his back towards the back of chair he continued, “you never say. If only you had told me the last time I would have saved you the humiliation of that borrowing too. Shall I tell you something? First borrowing can be aberration but second is always deemed as a weakness in one’s character. You were compromising with your years of work. Haven’t you heard that…..”
“Aarjoo, now what is option? Do you have something in mind?” Sanjay was not amused at Mr. Aarjoo’s belaboring.
“Then tell me. What you are waiting for”, Sanjay did not let his inner frustration let out and added, “don’t tell me, go by taxi. I have already brushed aside this option for more than one reason.”
“I know your reasons and I understand them. Don’t worry. Actually I have a cousin whose son drives taxi. Let me phone him. Will it work?”
Silence prevailed for a while. Having read Sanjay’s eyes Mr. Aarjoo broke the ice, “boy is my nephew”, the word ‘nephew’ lay at the core of Mr. Aarjoo’s sentence, “so it should not be a reason to avoid taxi anymore. I take the guarantee. I will talk to Sanwri if need be.”
“But nowadays taxis cost fortune. In our salary living in Delhi is nothing short of an achievement.”
“Sanjay, you are so tight fisted.” The end of Mr. Aarjoo’s sentence was followed by a broken laughter.
“What fortune? A minute before you were ready to sacrifice this, this heft of your neck, is it nothing? at the altar of your screwed common sense. You don’t ride your, yes, your bike, and then don’t think twice before borrowing a car, yes, a car. You don’t say no ever to your wife no matter what she demands and then you talk about money too. If you are so concerned about money then I think buses too ply in this city almost on every route….till late into night. Your all problems will be solved. It won’t cost…. a fortune. Shall I tell you something? Either become shameless which you can’t, I know that, but at least don’t let, your notions of great conscience interfere with your life. Only yesterday I had written”, Mr. Aarjoo was in full flow. Every word that he spoke had been swaddled in a mixture of gravity and solemnity. At noticing pondering visage of Sanjay just about to explode he ensured an audience, “and don’t stop me. Listen.” Sanjay remained mum with same contemplative visage.
“When I thought I was turning corners.”
He repeated the line twice before continuing,
“I had simply been just turning. Corners never moved.”
Sanjay did not speak.
“Please be courteous. I am twenty years older than you.”
“Didn’t you say? What is age yaar.”
“Oh yes. Thanks for reminding.”
“If only I could thank you for your sermon too. Anyway your lines were not that bad…as normally they are.
Smiles were exchanged.
“So… shall I phone him? Don’t worry. I will ask him to charge what is right. Sometimes he really cheats people”,
Mr. Aarjoo grinned.
Without waiting for Sanjay’s nod Mr. Aarjoo began to press the buttons on the phone.
“What time?”, he asked with his head bent.
“For next four minutes which seemed considerably long Sanjay was silent hearing Mr. Aarjoo talk with his nephew in his local colloquial and seeing him hefting his neck, playing with paper weight, smile and chuckle alternatively and sporadically reading Sanjay’s expressions.
“Where do you want taxi to pick you up?”, asked Mr. Aarjoo.
Sanajy took time to decide and then said, “here at office.”
Some time after this is what Mr. Aarjoo had to say.
“Ok. Final. He will be here, right at five.”
“Didn’t you hear what I told him? He knows you are my friend. So have no worry on this account.”
Mr. Aarjoo did not let Sanjay complete the sentence.
“No further discussion. Enjoy.” And a fist pounding on table registered its presence.
Sanjay would have persisted if it were not for Mr. Aarjoo’s nature that he had come to admire over the years.
Sanjay and Aarjoo are being driven in car towards Naraina where Sanjay lives. His home is half an hour by car from his office. Bhagat as the driver is called is 19 year old lank boy. He is not the nephew Mr. Aarjoo talked to but his younger brother who also studies in first year at a local college. Some times after college he too partakes some of his brother’s burden. Neither did this car look like a taxi. This was Alto LX model which Bhagat’s brother sends off as taxi only few and far between. Today as his bother was busy somewhere else and he couldn’t have said no to his uncle he sent his younger brother with Alto to drive Sanjay wherever he wanted.
“Bhagat, stop here, I have some work here”, Mr. Aarjoo said tapping lightly on his shoulder. Bhagat pulled up the car on one side of a road. Some meters away stood a bus stand. Few people rushed towards car mistaking it for a taxi.
“Ok Sanjay, see you tomorrow”, Mr. Aarjoo shook hands with Sanjay and issued a departing instruction, “Bhagat, take care. He is very special to me.” Bhagat just nodded his head. “Can’t you see? Its not taxi”, Sanjay could hear these words of Mr. Aarjoo interspersed in a smile as Bhagat drove off past a crowd of six to seven people.
Sanjay was relieved to have worked out a solution to his predicament thanks to Mr. Aarjoo. Though he wanted to reach home as soon as possible he did not feel a pressing urge. Only the thought of Sanwri made him want to reach in time. Sunk back into left side of the rear seat his gaze was staring the people walking on the pavements, buildings which looked taller today and bus stands the ordinariness of which he could avoid. Everything was different from the window of car from that of window of a DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) or blue line bus. It was not his first time on the car but traveling in a car was still a prized opportunity which came whenever it did Sanjay’s way bringing with it a special privileged feeling. Everything that flanked the road seemed like a film whizzing past his eyes when seen from distance and a bit of detachment too. Peering into these sights he fell asleep.
Among the crowd was an old man Sanjay had once been so friendly with. The string of a jhola (small bag with draw strings) containing some papers entangled in fingers of his right hand and a cotton jacket hung on emaciated shoulders. Sanjay could recognize the bus stand as well as the man instantly. This was the same bus stand where he used to wait for bus to get back to Gurgaon after watching a film in his engineering days.
“Stop”, he spurted out of his mouth and reduced the word to a single syllable. Bhagat couldn’t have stopped the vehicle in the flow of traffic at once but still he tried his best and pulled up the car on one side of the road. By the time he took a halt bus stand was some fifty to sixty meters behind. He flew himself out of the car and rushed to the old man, around seventy five slightly build, of average height, bald, shriveled and bespectacled, dressed in dhoti and kurta and holding a newspaper in his left hand.
“Hello Sir”, Sanjay said looking squarely into his eyes wearing a big smile.
Old man craned his neck as Sanjay was at least half a foot taller than him and tried to identify him. An expression of puzzlement ran over his clean shaven visage.
“Sir, I am Sanjay, your student. Remember. You taught me English. First year, engineering college, Gurgaon, some twenty one years ago. You told me to write poems.”
Still old man was unable to recognize Sanjay.
“Sir, you are…. Mr. H.K. Gera. You taught in Gurgaon, in... late nineties.
“Oh yes, Sanjay. I remembered”, then the tone dropped a bit, “I remember”, before attaining the typical septuagenarian tone, “you were amongst those few who did not forget me after first year.” Sanjay felt relieved.
“Sir, we were fortunate to have you around.”
“So many years after. What a surprise. You seem to have grown even taller”, the old man, Sanjay’s former teacher, observed. “But you have straight hair now. In engineering days your hair was curly”, after observation old man continued with explanation, “But back then you were eighteen year old young boy.”
Sanjay was quite surprised at hearing about his physical characteristics especially hair from his old teacher who always gave career advices to his students.
“Sir curliness is still there. I have had a hair cut. That’s why they seem straight” he offered his explanation and continued.
“You too seem to have lost your health. You were quite a sturdy man. Does Age matter Sir?”
“Sanjay, more than age matters, age scatters. Everything.…..” Rest of the sentence drowned out in the honking of a bus that also caught old man’s attention.
“Come sir, I have car, I will drop you off at your home. I know it is on the way”, Sanjay was happy to have been able to do something for a teacher he had not even bid good bye properly while leaving his school.
“Which direction are you going?”, old man asked.
“Towards Naraina, Sir.”
“Sorry Sanjay. But now I am going to Sirifort Auditorium to see a movie. We are going in different direction.”
“Ok sir. I will drop you off at the next bus stand. From there too you can catch the bus.”
Old teacher dilated his lips to try to smile but held back.
“Bhai Saheb, will you please tell me which bus I should catch. I have to go to Lal Quila (Red Fort)”, a young stranger broke in asking Sanjay.
“Bete (son), you cross the road using underway”, old man answered before Sanjay could say anything, “and catch bus number seven, two, nine from that bus stand, over there.”
“Yes, Sanjay, every bus takes a halt at this bus stand. At this age don’t you think it will be difficult for me to chase down the buses?”
“For a while it occurred to Sanjay to drop his teacher off all the way to Sirifort but then the thought of Sanwri waiting held him back.”
“Sir, how are you doing? You haven’t bought a vehicle yet.”
“Sanjay I am fine. I don’t travel much. My son is abroad. Daughter is in south. I live alone here with a servant. Why do I need a car? And then I don’t know driving.”
Sanjay thought again to give the man through whom he had interacted with Robert frost and Charles Dickens in real sense for the first time some company by turning the direction of taxi towards Siri Fort but again the thought of Sanwri was breathing down his neck. For a moment he also contemplated telling Sanwri to call off their plan for the sake of his old teacher who he held in high esteem. Though somewhere in his heart he believed Sanwri might agree but he couldn’t make up his mind.
Old man breached this brief streak of silence.
“Sanjay, I liked it. You took the trouble of pulling up your car only to see me. I will have to commend your eyes and mind for you recognized an old forgotten man lost in scrum from your whizzing car”, Sanjay was shaken for a while at hearing ‘your car’ but he let the mistaken impression stay on. “Not many do that”, old man raised his hand and tapped Sanjay’s shoulder.
Sanjay bent down to touch his teacher’s feet and felt relieved at having been able to do that for he never did touch his own parent’s feet ever. May be it was distance that made him do so. Old man again patted Sanjay’s back saying, “I am happy for you. Best of luck and don’t forget, life is beautiful.” The thought that his doing so must have made his old teacher happy made him happy too.
Sanjay returned back to car. “Come Sanjay, I had been waiting for you.” Old man ensconced in the rear seat welcomed Sanjay with so big a smile that it verged on literal contortion of every muscle of his wrinkled face. Bhagat was listening to a movie song Sanjay never liked. But a particular note played on flute struck him. Old man tilted his neck towards Bhagat and said, “Lets’ go Bhagat. We are getting late for movie. I don’t want to miss the beginning. My son phoned me once it was a great movie. Though I have seen it on television but it would be different once splayed on big screen.” Nobody spoke for a while. Old man continued. “Years ago I had recommended a film to you. Did you care to see it Sanjay. Which was it?”, he fumbled for the name for a while then said, “yes, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, alone, like me, but beautiful. She too loved poetry. Fast, fast, fast, I don’t want to miss even a second of Life is beautiful. Let me tell you Sanjay. You have grown dour. Tomorrow I am going to Sriram art gallery. Accompany me. Did you hear me? Accompany me.”
Old teacher almost hollered and his tone was no longer affectionate but first containing a shade of exhorting and then towards the end of his monologue it had become hectoring. The thought of Sanwri was rattling as much as the car engine in Sanjay’s mind.
“Sir”, Bhagat called out.
“Sir”, with first syllable of ‘sir’ trailing off Bhagat increased his voice a notch up.
“We are in Naraina. Tell me now which direction to turn?”
Sanjay woke up. Feeling a little fazed and sleepy he cocked up his head to his side and felt relief at not finding his old teacher by his side. He was alone. Even after wriggling out of bitter sweet dream it took him some time to pull himself together.
“Oh, where we are?”
“Naraina”, the softness of voice almost buffeted him.
“Ok, ok, keep going straight and then take the side road. Don’t climb the fly over.”
Sanjay told him trying to get over residual thoughts of his old teacher.
“How was the traffic?”
“Till now we were lucky not to have caught up in jam.”
“Yes…, I know… I am…”, Sanjay muttered to himself with broken words running together which went unheard with Bhagat.
“Now you have to turn right from second corner on the right.”
After driving slowly for some time Bhagat had to stop the car.
“What happened”, Sanjay asked even as he could see a large crowd at some distance blocking the road. The entire distance between them and crowd had been bridged by cars.
Sanjay looked at his watch and raised his brows.
“So what do we do now? It seems to be a procession moving at snail’s pace. And it is already forty five minutes past five. It was half an hour distance, even by our standards”, the uneasiness and first tinge of frustration made Sanjay less formal.
A religious procession was underway. It was an unusual combination of honking and religious songs.
“How long will it take? Any idea”, he asked Bhagat.
“No idea, sir, it could be one minute or one hour. You were to go to some party. I was told by Bhaiyaa (brother).”
“Yes, But now it seems unlikely, that too when we are almost home.”
Bhagat heaved up his neck to see Sanjay and traffic behind them in front mirror inside and said, “Sir, I have one idea. How far is home from here?”
“Hardly half a mile.”
Tapping the centre of steer wheel Bhagat began.
“Sir, then do one thing. Why don’t you call madam here? We had better we pull up the car here at one side. That’s all I can manage. We can’t move more than that. It won’t take madam much time to get here. Just tell her”, Bhagat jerked his neck out from the window, “we are…. here at Shahji Misthan Bhandar (Sweet Shop) on the driveway alongside flyover as we enter Naraina. If the jam loosens up by the time she turns up I will go otherwise I will hire you another taxi.” Seeing a disgusting expression on Sanjay’s visage Bhagat continued, “sir, you don’t worry about money. You will have to pay only me. We have contacts.”
“But Bhagat, now mid way…”
“Sir, you just call. You are Aarju uncle’s friend. That’s why I am doing this.”
“It is ok now but.. while coming back……no, it won’t work.”
“He doesn’t have to stay there. You tell me the address. Before you will leave I will reach there. So I will bring you back. How long will this jam remain….”
“Now don’t waste time sir. Phone madam.”
“But what if something prevents you from reaching in time”, Sanjay had been unhappy with this new arrangement. Everything had seemed settled sometime back and now all his plans had gone haywire.
“Sir, I promise. No matter what I have to do, within two hours I will be there. Be sure.”
Sanjay had to agree with Bhagat. There was no other option. The fact that Bhagat was not a professional taxi driver but a student with his hair neatly combed threw further weight behind his advice.
Sanjay phoned Sanwri and asked her to reach Shahji Misthan Bhandar alongside the fly over.
A child in home sewed cotton half pant and sleeved shirt wearing bathroom chapplas is walking along side the corridor wall in the school running index finger of his right hand over the wall. He stops at one place for a while and starts reading the words dimensioning 2 into 1 aloud to himself with his finger still cruising through them, ‘A’, ‘R’, ‘I’, ‘S’, ‘E’, ‘A’, ‘W’, ‘A’, ‘K’, ‘E’, ‘A’, ‘N’, ‘D’, ‘S’, ‘T’, ‘O’, ‘P’. Here he runs into a teacher. Teacher scowls at him saying, “what you are doing here. Aren’t you supposed to be in class? Truant number one. Scram.”
Child is now standing at the other end of corridor but still not in class. A swarthy complexioned woman with a toddler in her hands walked up to her and handed him her toddler saying, “just one minute”. Next minute he listened to the ringing of the bells which almost ripped his earlobes apart and a swarm of children overwhelmed him. He was standing still holding the toddler whose nose was baked with phlegm in his arms in the midst of children raising hubbub so high that neither could he hear the weeping of toddler beyond a slight sensation nor his heart beat now throbbing at a brisk rate. While telling the toddler his name was Sanju and asking what was his, his eyes were looking for that peon woman.
It is forty five minutes past six. Sanjay and Sanwri are in a taxi being driven by a man around sixty with while dense beard and grey oily hair combed back hemming in a swarthy brooding complexion.
“Chacha, play some songs if you have.”
Sanjay breached the silence. Some moments after Himesh Reshmiya’s twang was filling out the insides of taxi.
For some time song continued until Sanwri interrupted, “Chacha, please turn off the radio.”
There was more of a request in what Sanwri said than an illustration of opposition to Sanjay’s wish to listen to songs. Driver pressed the knob.
Sanwri pulled out a small circular mirror from her handbag and began to notice once again, as she had done immediately after getting in, any damage done by dust and wind to her make up on her way to Shahji Misthan Bhandar. She dug her lower teeth into her upper lip and vetted the shade of her lipstick. Then she cocked her face sideways, lowered her eye ashes and tried to discern chemicals plastered to her face. Contrary to what was running in her mind, to Sanjay she had become even more beautiful after cruising through layers of dust. The full neck pink salwaar kameez she had preferred to sari made her look elegant, young and attractive. She let her mid size hair loose on her back after passing them through a hair band. A matching stole hung from her shoulders. Her complexion which fell somewhere between wheatish and dark but more near to wheatish than dark exuded a radiance of pulchritude. Her face was neither circular nor elliptical but a beautiful marriage of twin shapes.
To Sanjay she was his Madhu Bala. He often thought if he had ever gone for love marriage he wouldn’t have found as beautiful a girl as Sanwri was. Now even after being mother of a seven year old child she looked as slim and svelte as she was when he had seen her first time in that kitschy drawing room of her parents. On that first day when Sanjay had wanted to admire her long tresses but couldn’t she returned the precluded compliment by showering encomiums on his long curly hair. But she was very forthright in criticizing his drooping moustache which he later shaved off. She told him she was once a student of arts in her college when he talked about his engineering degree. After marriage when Sanjay told her she looked like Madhu Bala which he really meant Sanwri blushed but without exhibiting even a faint shade of it and told him in the same vein never to liken her to Madhu Bala but to Kajol since she was her favorite heroine. She never told him which Bollywood hero he looked like though Sanjay deemed himself nothing short of a charmer during his college days and even now was a natty and tried to be a dapper with in his means. A Bollywood parallel as declared by his wife whom he dotted on wouldn’t have made any dent to his sense of selfhood.
Now in taxi this long pulled face of Sanwri saddened Sanjay in the beginning but when she did not give in to his silent romantic expressions he thought she was taking it too far. He made one last effort by inquiring after about her brother who was a plus two student and was trying for a seat in any of the Delhi university college. Sanwri only nodded while peeking at the road side rabble and discerning whatever the pace of taxi allowed. Deep down she had been trying to have the window of the car with its glass rolled up present to her a world she could forget her ride in rickshaw at least for today. Sanjay stuffed the head phones of his mobile in his earlobes and Sanwri could hear a slight voice of a female singer crooning something with lots of aalaaps (modulation of voice).
Sanjoo (Sanju), the voice trailed off for the first time. Sanju, second time it was an abrupt end to the last syllable of a voice right above his shoulders. As he turned around with a rolled malpooa (sweetened thin dough fried on a griddle taking on a chapatti like form with wavy patterns in it) in his one hand send specially for him by his maternal grandmother he saw his mother wearing a salwar kameez holding a large iron bowl by its edges between her fingers of one hand and a broom in the other towering above his thin frame draped in readymade T-shirt and half pant. He had been munching on malpooa while doodling something on a paper. “Go, bring bhindi (ladyfinger) from Somi”, the tone was affectionate now. Sanju scrammed off. Somi, a portly mid aged shopkeeper barely fifty meters from Sanju’s home had been busy lighting agarbatti (incense stick) in the shop when he arrived. “Quarter bhindi”, Sanju blurted out in a way which was dull if he were not a child.
With a smile on his face Somi shook his head indicating non availability of bhindi. Before Somi could utter one another word Sanju had made off with a carrot in his hand.
“I will teach you a lesson. I won’t let you enter my house. How will you see chitrahaar (a television programme featuring filmy songs) today”, Somi’s voice entailing less of threat and more of banter trailed off Sanju to some distance. Before it died down it had worked on Sanju who was back in shop to return the carrot. Once again before Somi could react he had scampered off.
“Then I will cook doodh wali kadhi (curry made using milk) today.”
This pronouncement on part of Sanju’s mother was more than enough for him to skedaddle into to the room that was least lit and frequented. More than kadhi it was doodh (milk) that had troubled him.
Party was on when Sanjay and Sanwri arrived at Mr. and Mrs. Cheema’s home. They had been late by an hour and quarter. Mr. Cheema was the principal of the school where Sanwri taught. Though invitation had said it was birthday celebration of Mr. Cheema’s grandson but actually birthday was a month away. Cheema’s only son who was Sanjay’s age was an IIM professor in Guwahati in Assam. Because next month he would be away Cheema and his wife came up with this idea of celebrating their grandson’s birthday a month before or it can be said they just found an excuse to chip away sometimes frightening and sometimes monotonous but sometimes beautiful surfeit of tranquility of their life. Mr. Cheema was a sprightly elderly but deep down the loss of one son and absence of another was eating into his convivial and enthusiastic personality. When Sanjay and Sanwri showed up Mr. and Mrs. Cheema rushed to the gate to greet them but Ajitesh, their son was nowhere to be seen. Sanwri pulled out a mid sized box from her hand bag and handed it to Mrs. Cheema which she declined by saying that it was child’s not hers or theirs. Mr. and Mrs. Cheema walked them inside to the main hall where party was in full swing.
“I hope you didn’t face any problem in finding address”, Mr. Cheema enquired.
“No sir, it was easy”, Sanwri blurted out with her trademark smile.
“I had been wondering since we had been waiting for you.”
Greetings were exchanged as Sanwri introduced her husband to Mr. and Mrs. Cheema.
“Has the cake… been cut”, Sanwri couldn’t resist asking despite catching Sanjay’s attention and scorn mid sentence who till now had been examining the house.
“Yes, bete”, Mr. Cheema managed an answer. “Actually Ajitesh is leaving by night flight today. So…….”,
“You didn’t bring Aru. This is wrong Sanwri. He would have been so happy to be here amongst children”, Mrs. Cheema saved her husband from spinning an excuse exhibiting a genuine proximity to Sanwri. Both of them had met a couple of times at school. Aru studies in Sanwri’s school.
“Actually he is at his grandfather’s”, Sanjay responded to Mr. Cheema.
“Where is Yash? Let us hand him his gift”, Sanwri queried Mrs. Cheema.
“Come Sanwri, come Sanjay”, Mr. Cheema invited them to centre stage where Yash was having fettered fun with other children of whom he knew none.
On her way to Yash Sanwri ran into many of her colleagues and greeting were exchanged with Sanjay saying a hello to each of them in an almost hushed tone.
“Hello Yash, how are you beta”, Sanwri was once again in her usual vivacious mien displaying a smile which Sanjay relished from sidelines. Within hearts he thanked Yash for causing Sanwri’s first original smile of the day for him.
He remembered how furious she was when he told her to get to Shahji Misthan Bhandar on phone. She had been waiting for car to be brought right up to the door of their apartment as Sanjay had done once earlier a year and half ago. Today she had not made up and readied herself to be seen wobbling on a rickshaw or three wheeler. It was a dimly sunny and windy day. It was not only the prospectus of buffeting dust and smoke laden wind messed up her mood but the very image that made her a commoner today. For a while she had even thought of shelving the plan but she did not want to bear the humiliation of concocting some excuse to Mr. Cheema next day in school. ‘Nowadays everybody is discernible enough.’ Though she could have got a three wheeler easily from the corner she walked fifty meters more to get a rickshaw. It was not to save money but to escape direct upfront wind. If open rickshaw was unwanted and sluggish but less punishing vis-à-vis three wheeler, as she thought, present of first half of day then car was protective, fast but short lived future of later half of day which she had not lost sight of. When she reached the spot told by Sanjay she did not speak a word even when he asked her to walk a bit more to reach the corner of driveway. Sanjay could see and understand that he had destroyed Sanwri’s day which she had been quite excited about since morning. At seeing the car she pulled herself in like a luggage and let the bustling of surroundings get absorbed into her carefully done eyes.
“Happy birthday to you”, Sanwri repeated this phrase in her rhythm three times after handing the gift to Yash. Yash accepted the gift, felt a little uncomfortable at being kissed by Sanwri and then flashed a bashful smile. When Sanwri was done Sanjay paced forward, feigned a smile, got hold of Yash’s chubby cheek, jerked it a bit and said ‘happy birthday beta’, again in a barely audible tone. During all this Ajitesh was conspicuous by his absence though his north eastern wife had been standing alongside Yash and greeting every guest with a grin that also displayed her uneasiness and shyness in the crowd.
Behind the house in the space between house building and boundary arrangements had been made for buffet. Sanwri had long stripped herself off her doleful visage. Standing alongside Sanjay, gobbling a rasgulla down her throat she could see Mr. and Mrs. Cheema utterly enthusiastic for this festal day greeting every guest, helping them become comfortable, pressing them to have more of helpings. In all this Ajitesh’s absence struck Sanwri as something of a discordant note in an otherwise full throttled harmony. She had never seen Ajitesh and his wife before though once Yash had been brought to school by Mr. Cheema. Sanwri didn’t have the heart to ask Mr. Cheema about Ajitesh’s absence.
“I am just coming”, Sanjay told Sanwri.
“Where are you going”, She spat the sentence somehow chewing a helping and puckering her brow.
Sanjay actually meant washroom.
“Do you know where it is?”
“I will ask someone.”
“You can talk to any one of your colleagues.”
“Don’t worry”, Sanwri assured Sanjay, “but come soon”, and hurled a parting smile.
A teenager of seventeen wearing a vest and a pajama is splashing water on his face.
“How much”, a moaning voice interrupted Sanju,” will you wash your face. Move aside, hero..”, before taking on a light tone.
Sunidhi forced Sanju from before the washbasin and mirror.
“Sunidi”, Sanju hollered out in an angry tone and pushed her aside and again began to stare at his reflection in the mirror. But Sunidi did not budge from ribbing him.
“My dear brother”, Sunidi continued her banter, “Sanjay Dutt, O… Sanjay Dutt.”
“Stop Sunidhi”, Sanju again reprimanded Sunidhi and began to run his fingers through the few whiskers he had begun to observe below his nose and on his chin.
“Sanju, your father had left a message for you before he left home for shop”, his mother had just sauntered in from outside. “Don’t forget to have your certificates attested from Harbans Singh principal. So don’t waste any time. Have bath and then set out for town and have your work done before college is closed. It is not guaranteed you will find him at his home.”
Mr. Harbans Singh, a sixty year old handsome Sardaar, always wore a bright blue turban. Looking sagacious with his white beard with some whiskers plaited and tied up on the chin he once had been a head master in Sanjay’s village before becoming principal of local college in the town. During the years he spent in village he had befriended some of the villagers of whom Sanjay’s father was one. Before Sanjay’s father had left the message he had already intimated Harbans Singh about Sanjay’s need to have some of his certificates attested. In addition he had also requested Harbans Singh to give Sanjay some good career advice.
When Sanjay reached Harbans Singh’s college there were already some 15 to 20 students waiting outside the door of office to have their certificates attested. It was holiday for students. Most of the staff members were holed up inside the staff room and some could be seen braving June heat under the shadow of a big peepal tree. Sanjay walked in the corridors and sat down on a bench placed alongside the inside wall facing the garden. One hour after when all students had their certificates attested but Sanjay Mr. Harbans Singh came out, moved towards shed, kicked his scooter off and vanished. Sanjay remained unseen by him. Within minutes peon shut the door, locked it and walked towards a room. Again Sanjay remained unseen. Parking himself on the bench with considerable distance between his back and back of bench he could see a gardener riding his bicycle towards him. The gardener mounted himself off his bicycle and whizzed past Sanjay. None spoke to him. Again he remained unseen. Neither did he go to anyone. An hour after Harbans Singh returned and chanced upon Sanjay sitting on bench with polythene containing his certificates wedged between his legs.
“Sanjay, when did you come? Weren’t you supposed to come over to me in the morning? That’s what your father told me.”
“Yes sir”, that was more of a whisper than a sound.
“Ok, come in.”
“Will you come out”, Sanwri was knocking the door of bathroom before it turned into a bit of rapping. She wanted to holler but a sense of decorum kept her off it. She whispered in a tone where every single word was like a rubber bullet innocuous but hard when released from catapult of Sanwri’s mouth.
“What were you doing?”
“What does one do? I take time. You know that”, Sanjay responded pensively but calmly.
“Ok. I think now we should take leave before cold becomes unbearable. It’s more than one hour now. Fog too will rear its head soon. Mr. Cheema must be there in main hall.”
Sanwri held Sanjay by his elbow and almost dragged him.
“By the way how was the party”, and then she added, “and bathroom. You never spend so much time in our bathroom.”
“Exactly.”, the word popped out of Sanjay’s mouth and then added, “I had better I start.”
“Yash was looking good na, I too will buy the same dress for our Aru on his birthday”, Sanwri lifted his neck and let out a stifled scream,
“Where are you?”, and made Sanjay look at her.
With Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth lying flipped open before him on one corner of a big table the young boy had been staring a girl, almost fair, with locks combed back and tied with a rubber only to rest calmly on shoulders, small lips, naturally made up eye brows and slim frame burying her head into Tagore’s Farewell Song. It was a full week that he was stuck in the second section of the book. Last week when he had seen the girl for the first time in college library she was browsing technical book section. Second time she had R.K. Narayan’s Guide in her right hand with a finger dug inside. Since that day for first few days he made it a point to spend more of his time in library and less in class. When she was not there he would wait for her to come reading his favorite books. If it were not for her he could have completed the classic of Tolstoy by now. But now reading was either before her or after her. In the last week he had come to know that she was Aakanksha, a first year student, communication engineering, three years his junior in same course. She would divide her time only between classes and library. Unlike him she was not a hostler and resided in sector fourteen in Gurgaon. She went to canteen rarely. He never let his longings for her overwhelm him into following her everywhere. He learnt her time table by heart. Now he went to library accordingly. Between an important class and her she was the preferred and undisputed choice. Never ever did he get near her and tried conversation or couldn’t. He loved the sight of a sylph in salwar kameez reading a book in a mood as solemn as possible. Though at occasions when she giggled with a girl he relished as if he had discerned an element of extra ordinary beauty in an enchanting work of art.
When he tried to get a copy of ‘Farewell Song’ issued he was told that there were only two copies and both had been issued. Next day he was reading Farewell Song in the library exhibiting a price slip of a local book store. Today not only did he want to see Aakanksha but wanted to be seen reading Tagore by her too. But it did not happen.
He had been skipping at least two lectures daily and labs too. Within a month’s time his father told him about a letter telling them about his short attendances in some subjects. He knew if he went like that he wouldn’t be able to appear in the semester exams. Now he decided to attend enough lectures so as to avoid being detained and catch glimpses of Aakanksha at the main gate when she left the college everyday and in between if possible. But very first day he felt as if he were making pass at a girl he was sure he loved and he abandoned this way of glancing her for good. Soon came a day when he had to choose between Aakanksha and lectures. May be any one else could have had both but not Sanju. He loved Aakanksha but never told her. He hated lectures and decided to attend. He could never complete boyhood section of Tolstoy’s book.
“Bhagat”, Sanjay called out all of a sudden, “stop the car.”
Sanwri who had been quite gregarious till some time ago before letting a slight nap set in her eyes woke up.
“What is here? What did you say?”
And then said, “I heard… stop the car. Are we home? This soon.”
“No, but near.” Sanjay responded.
By this time Bhagat had pulled up the car.
“Ok. Go and come soon”, Sanwri guessed Sanjay was feeling the call of nature, “it is pretty dark outside and cold too”, and then went back to her sleep.
Sanjay got off the car, closed the door and told Bhagat, “drop the madam off at home”, from rolled down driver’s window.
Bhagat was about to speak something but before that Sanwri jolted herself out of her just closed eyes and shot back with a sense of fear and trepidation, “where are you going?” “Nowhere.” Sanjay said calmly. “I was just thinking that I should walk a bit.”
At this Sanwri too spurted out of car, “have you gone mad”, she was fuming but contained herself and said, “everything is freezing, its dark and it is winding cold. I am shivering. You will catch cold or fever” and continued, “no, no.” She caught hold of Sanjay’s elbow and tried to sweep him towards car.
“Bhiyaa, start the car.”
“Bhagat, hold on.”
“Sanwri”, Sanjay said with a calming smile on his face, “we are only a half a kilometer from home and see where darkness is? Street lights are on, bazaars are bustling with people, shops are still open”, silence ensued, “it is only half past nine. And I have some work in bazaar too. Sanwri, please try to understand. I don’t know why but I have to get off the car. I want to reach home on feet, walking or may be running, but not in a car. I know it is sounding weird but let me have my…. cobwebs blown away.”
Sanwri did not pay much heed to Sanjay’s explanations. “Ok. This wind is piercing down my flesh. Come inside and then speak.”
“That’s what I am saying. I want to touch this freezing cold. May be I want to feel it. You go inside. I will be home within twenty minutes.”
“No. Stop mucking around. Come..”, Sanwri was formal before remembering something, “What had you said? Something about cobwebs, touch.”
“Forget about that. You go now”, Sanjay did not want to get into any conversation.
“I don’t know. But I want to tell myself something and for that I need to walk home on foot. I have begun to love this cold. So I just want to…in its midst. Sorry I can’t explain any more.”
“Foot and walk”, Sanwri repeated these two words for some time.
“Ok”, Sanwri was now considerate. “I too will walk; we both will walk home together.”
Even before Sanjay could say anything she issued the command to Bhagat.
“Bhaiyya, you go now we will go on our own.”
“No, no, Sanwri. It is not that near.. nor.. that easy. You go by car.”
“How would it look like? Nor will I feel good about it”, Sanwri complained.
“It will look nice. I arranged this car for you. Don’t turn it down. For me. Don’t be mad. I have three layers of clothing over my body. You are in just a salwar kameez and a shawl. Don’t worry, Bhagat is a good boy. He is Mr. Aarjoo’s nephew.” Sanjay stopped talking.
For a while neither one of them did speak a word even. Sanjay’s gaze was fixed at Sanwri’s face, bent a little, gazing into road, engulfed in somewhat but not wholly scattered darkness and vapors of fog. She was trying to make further sense of this sudden eccentric behavior of Sanjay though she had begun to have her own ideas. But was