The Boy I was Looking For

By Saurabh Patel

While waiting at the platform 9 of Varanasi Cantonment station I reviewed my situation. 11P.M. and here I was on a windy night, when the train I had to catch departs 1 in the morning; hoping to find a boy I had no business with, braving the bone chilling winds with nothing but a cotton shirt; wet with the unexpected rain which had suddenly poured on unsuspecting people roaming on the portion of the platform which did not have a shed. I was among them. Now half an hour later the winds were taking a toll on my cold prone self. But I knew if I had to find him, it has to be in the open, unshielded from the elements, that’s how he would like to describe himself. I was starting to get annoyed at myself. What am I doing here? What good it will be anyway? Questions were all I had at that moment, answers I was looking for.

ONE WEEK BEFORE... A week ago, at 2 in the morning it was raining. The train had reached its final destination, late by a couple of hours but still well ahead of its redrawn schedule. I stepped on to the same platform. It was slippery and the rains weren’t helping either. The family of five who had journeyed with me from Delhi had decided to stay at the station overnight or wait out the rains. I did not have to worry about that, just a call and the office cab will be there to pick me up. Not that I hadn’t tried to get in touch with them earlier to inform about my early arrival, but the signal reception in the moving train wasn’t great. But there should not be any problem now that I was on the platform. I dialed my office. To my horror a sweet feminine voice told me that I did not have minimum balance to make a call. NO. It can’t be; not unless all the calls I had made from aboard the train had connected with both sides being inaudible to each other. That was a probability. Not a problem, there had to be a public phone at the station. I found one not far from where I was standing. I took out a rupee coin. Just then the man from the adjacent tea stall sat up from his reclined posture smiled and said, “Chaalu nahin hai Saab, barsaat mein line bigad gai hai, chai peeyenge?” Now it was the time to panic, would I too have to spend the night on the platform? Shaking off the thoughts from my mind, I wondered how many cups of tea this phone had helped him to sell and answered in the affirmative. Didn’t know if it was the weather or the weariness but the tea tasted better and cheaper at Rs. 2. I bought a packet of biscuits and found a bench nearby and sat down to think what to do next. The rains had intensified and their roaring sound had well

left behind Tagore’s mild tapur tupur. Just then a skinny boy in white shirt and blue knickers walked towards me and smiled. He was drenched and carried something in his right hand. Although his frail figure made him appear much younger but he must have been at least 12. I dragged my bag towards myself to make room, in case he wanted to sit down. He did and smiled at me once again. Now I HAD to ask him and he did say yes to a cup of tea. We sat down together and shared the biscuits. He told me that he sold datuns. We talked for almost half an hour during which he told me about his tree climbing skills and that only village people buy his datuns and complain of over charging. In my turn I told him about some of my childhood incidents and my recent trip to Australia which brought on the subject of foreigners whom he had, on more than one occasion, been able to sell the datun for Rs. 10 a piece and seemed pretty much proud of the fact. Just then an SMS from my service provider enlightened me about their latest recharge options; I took a deep sigh at my helplessness. Before I could curse them, the man of my journeymate family came. We exchanged pleasantries. He needed my phone for a moment. Bas relatives ko choti si call karni hai, station ka phone kharaab hai. The fact that I was still there bore testimony to his remarks. I could have straightaway told him about the balance in my phone and outgoing incapacity but he had seen me dialing ferociously on the train so I thought it better to let him see it himself. ‘I don’t have ba….’ I was about to complete my sentence when I saw the screen showing Rs. 56 to my account, confused I gave him the phone. He made his call and returned the phone. I knew from the smiling face of the boy that I had an awkward look on my face. I had heard of such mistakes on the part of service providers but it was the first time this had happened to me

PRESENT... The train was now on the platform but it won’t be before half an hour that it moves. My luggage was on board. I was fast losing any hopes of meeting the boy. I got a cup of tea and helped myself to some biscuits. Maybe he’ll appear this time too. He did not.

YESTERDAY... I was going to my aunt on a regular visit. Her home was an hour of smooth drive from my workplace. But this time around, the traffic was heavier than usual and moving slowly till it came to a stop. Had it not been for the pleasant cloudy weather, I would have been shouting at the

people ahead me. It was a habit I picked up in Delhi and found it quite useful there. It was then that I spotted him making his way through the maze of vehicles stranded in the traffic. At first, I only felt I had seen him. Where? When? I could not recollect. Then, he saw me too and smiled. That was it. I knew that smile and smiled back. This probably prompted him to come up to me. “Aage checking ho rahi hai, police gaadiyan rok rahi hai isisliye jam laga hai”, he told me. I would not have reacted to the unsolicited information, but something in the back of my mind told me to be worried. “Kya main andar baithoon?” That was a daring question. I would have turned him away, but the sheer courage on his part to be able to ask me the question prevented me from doing so. I opened the door for him. I tried hard to figure out why I was having that ‘turn back and run away’ feeling. I was pushing my mind to remember something, but what? The boy was making it more difficult. “Mera ghar yahan se thoda aage hai, main to paidal hi chala jata par phir aap dikh gaye”. What did he think of me? A cabby, a do-gooder or a friend. I desisted from further thinking and gave him my ears. “Abhi paint kharidne aya tha par rang khatm ho gaya. Ghar ka darwaaza rang rahen hain, bahar main aasmani rang aur andar bhai hara rang kar raha hai”. He did not stop there. Smshaad Ali lived, with his uncle, a weaver by profession, and a younger brother. The brother used to go to school till very recently, but had to discontinue after the death of their aunt and cousin which had destabilized the uncle mentally. He could not remember well and had frequent short term memory losses and cried almost all the time. The boys used to lock him up whenever they ventured out for his own safety. Poor fellow. The traffic started to move slowly now. This was relieving. I had some packing to do and wanted this particular visit to be short and quick. That was the reason I used my brother’s new car instead of my old warhorse Maruti 800 which had been giving me odd troubles lately. Now I remembered, I had taken my driving license out of the M800 and placed it on the table so that I don’t forget to take it with me in the new car. I distinctly remember seeing it on the table when I fastened my shoelaces but had no memory of picking it up. The check post was just two cars away and there was no question of turning back now. A hawaldar came round, looked at me apparently oblivious to Smshaad’s presence and asked for the car’s papers. Just for the sake that I do not say ‘I don’t have it’ plainly; I put my hand in the dashboard locker and produced the car’s papers. To my utter amazement, there within the folds of papers was my driving license. I did not know how it got there. He casually inspected them and returned them to me. Whatever happened to my ‘remembering distinctly’, I just put it all aside and gave out a silent sigh of relief. “Shayad aapki memory bhi chacha jaisi ho gayi hai”. The boy joked and smiled. I was ready to laugh at anything now.

TODAY...

Reflecting back at yesterday’s events disturbed me. Maybe the boy was right when he joked about my memory. I never told him about my fear of forgetting the license. How could he have known? And all this never occurred to me before dropping him to near his house in a ghetto basti. I wanted explanation. I had to get to this boy. And that had to be before I leave for Delhi tonight. I picked my luggage, got an auto rickshaw and left for the boy’s home hoping to catch him there. He had shouted gali mein teesra makaan before disappearing into the street. But the door of the third house wasn’t neela, not even recently painted. Still, seeing no better option I knocked the door. The uncle answered the door and my query. “Smshaad Ali ka ghar to yahi hai.” Then why had he looked confused. He invited me inside. He looked much older than I had imagined. Life has taken its toll on the man. He placed some water and gur before me and seemed to be in his lucid intervals. He disappeared for a moment and came back with a black and white photograph of the boy. The feature in the photograph looked no more than a year old, yet the photograph itself looked ancient. “Bhaiya”, the man began in a wavering voice, “mujhe padhana chahte they…. “ .So, Smshaad’s father wanted Smshaad’s uncle, who was sitting before me, to study. But why was he telling me all this. Was he slipping into his memory loss? Did he remember what I had asked? Out of courtesy, I decided to sit there till he completed his story, not listening though, I was just waiting for Smshaad. The boy’s father sold datun too, came under the wheels of a train and died forty years ago and today was his death anniversary. I consoled him. He looked fine for most part of time I was with him. Only that, I think he could not recall what had I asked him and started a different tale altogether. That was all I had gathered all through, half of which was of course untrue as the boy was only 12 and his father couldn’t have died 40 years ago! I pitied the man. Twenty minutes later when he had still not completed his story of which I had no trace of, I stood up and asked for his permission to leave. “Jaana chahte ho to jao par adhoori kahani se tumhari jigyasa aur badhegi hi”. His closing remarks made me wonder if I should have stayed just for the wish of a lonesome man. But I thought better to look for this Smshaad Ali at the place he most probably could be, the railway station. I had a train to catch too.

PRESENT… The train gave a jerk. Slowly it accelerated. But before it left the platform completely, it came to a halt. The platform was deserted at that time of the night but few who were there ran towards the engine. After a couple of minutes of confused commotion, I stopped and asked a passerby. “Datun bechne wala ladka gaadi se kat gaya hai, body hata rahein hain tabhi chalegi gaadi”. I almost

shouted in horror. Could it be Smshaad? Poor boy. I thought, Why did it have to be this way. First the father then the son. How could fate be so cruel? Then suddenly a thought came across my mind. No, this is can’t be true. Yet it seemed to explain something. But it was inexplicable itself. Maybe the uncle wasn’t mad, he wasn’t making stories. He wasn’t the uncle in first place. Maybe, yes that is it. I know it now. He was the brother Smshaad talked about. His brother never said that it was the father who died. Smshaad was dead. Not now, but forty years back. Then whom did I meet twice? How and why did he help me on both occasions? If I would have been in any problem today, would he have come as my savior today also? Would that have saved him from his fate? I closed my eyes. Could the timelines have blurred for forty years? Did Smshaad’s brother know what was happening? Did Smshaad visit him? Maybe yes, he wanted me to know the whole story. Was I dreaming? I had wanted answers, but ended up with more questions.

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