In early December, three years ago, I boarded a public tempo to make it to school in time. School buses have their history of negligence and errata, and mine had failed to arrive at all. No one being home, I had to fend for myself. Bunking was out of question, for exams were on their way.
I sat impatiently, waiting for the tempo to fill up – a hazy hope considering it was early morning and winter had set in with its infamous bone-chilling winds. I looked out of the window and saw cars whiz by, with richer, luckier, without-a-worry-in-the-world schoolkids being escorted by parents or chauffeurs. Needless to add, I felt very lonely and uncared for. While these students made it on time thanks to doting parents, I was left here trying to cook up some excuse for perpetual late arrivals. Atleast it would make me one hell of a story writer, I thought, sarcasm seething at my own situation. “Cooking up a story”, nice one that was, I thought, relishing its bitterness almost masochistically.
So I waited, knowing that once I reach, I would be chided for indiscipline and laziness while those enjoying all the luxuries their parents shower on them would be upheld as wonderful “responsible” kids, despite my varied attempts at telling the simple truth or making up fantastical excuses ranging from satchel tear under book load to police raid next door.
It was then that I noticed a little boy of twelve sitting next to me, in the tempo, trying very hard to peep into my satchel and also gazing at my uniform as if it was a rare treat for his eyes.
As against my neatly polished shoes and trim clothes, this boy was dressed in filthy rags and had no shoes on. I could also notice sharp little cuts on his feet which showed signs of continuous bleeding. A wave of sympathy and utter helplessness hit me; I tried initiating a conversation with him.
“Hey, what’s in that bag?” I asked, noticing that he was carrying a bigger-than-himself sack.
He looked at it, chuckled nonchalantly and said, “I work in a liquor shop which pays me Rs.300 a month and also allows me to carry home the empty bottles which I then sell for a rupee each. Today, my bag is full of bottles!”
He added this latter bit of information as if it was some job perk to be stated with pride. On further prodding, he said that he lived with his mother and whatever he earned, he handed over to her. Having been given an outlet to talk, the boy ruefully said, “These tempos cost so much money, I wish I hadn’t lost my slippers last night… But it was too painful walking home bare-footed with these glass shards poking me.”
I understood that on this particular day, he was traveling on a vehicle because the previous night some drunkard had manhandled him and in the resulting commotion, he had lost his pair of slippers. He contemplated, sadly, over the “immense” loss of money it would be to him, in making this trip.
I offered him a sandwich which he devoured. He looked up at me, smiling a smile that shone through his eyes, a dazzle of happiness on his face and yellowing teeth bursting forth into a grin. As our destinations came closer, all I could do for him then was to pay his fare but, he refused and quite vehemently so, to take any more money from me which I had offered so that he could buy himself shoes.
As I began walking up the school driveway, noticing other schoolgirls chatting, fidgeting, walking around with those smiling faces; it struck me that I had learnt a very important lesson from that boy.
There I was, cribbing about the lack of a car to take me to school, considering the tempo a huge nuisance; and here was someone much younger than me, with the responsibilities of family, for whom the very idea of using a vehicle was a prized issue. There I was, bitterly fighting back tears at my parents’ “uncaring attitude”; and here was someone who selflessly earned to provide for a widowed mother. There I was, wondering what light existed in my life with these shadows all around; and here was someone, who taught me that, the shadow proves the sunshine.