BOOT POLISH (Published in THE MADRAS MAG)

April 01, 2017


  Karol Street housed them, a boy of seven with life as tangentially separate as possible from the other. The one that woke up on a maple wood bed and wore velvet slippers looked as lively as a new day in the valley of Kashmir and the other who wrapped himself in his little piece of rug over the cold Delhi nights looked five by body and thirty by eyes which moved with the brush when he polished the shoes at the Karol metro station. His cloth belt strapped Pandora’s Box engulfed his boot polishes of red and black and brushes with which he not only shined the shoes of the Delhites but their status too. His little tin box of clinking coins sat beside his prickly brushes.
“Ten rupees sir, just ten rupees ma’am. Get it done. I will shine your sandals and shoes well,” he iterated monotonously. Like hovering wasps, kids of the street buzzed around him. Few pulled his hair and few made faces. But his unwavering gaze was fixed on to the cascading pool of people which flowed down the chute like station’s staircase.
“Ten rupees sir, ten rupees ma’am, shinning, shinning sir, shinning ma’am”.
But there were other contenders too. The ones who were offering to deliver satisfactory services at the same price, the Autowalas and the Rickshawalas.
“Karol Street? Come sir, place for two, come ma’am, just ten rupees”. They howled and grabbed people out of thin air, apologized and abused among themselves over their turns to take customers for the ride to earn their bread. Amidst the coffee brewing on one side of the street and omelets frying on the other side and fruits arranged with impeccable dexterity in a juice parlor and people clamoring and complaining and rejoicing, there was our little Raj holding his brush, shouting “ten rupees only” and shivering in the winds that bit every flesh that was visible. With night draped over his shoulders, he walked home packing his paraphernalia in his wooden box. Dogs sniffed and played with him on the street, people dodged him conspicuously and winds bit him hard. His legs ached and his hands painted in colors of red and black looked bruised and bloodied which baffled the street loners when they saw him wearing a pleasant smile. But they never cared to take notice of his eyes which never smiled and had the grim of night ablaze in it.
Doors opened, closed and the wooden box was dropped in the corner of the one room house. Shivering arms rushed to the warmth of a mother’s lap and the sari wrapped him like a cocoon. Little red-black-brown fingers rubbed the eyes and a woman with vermillion smeared in her hair and bangles clinking in wrist understood that her son was hungry and sleepy. There is something about mothers that is unexplainable. Their lap cured ailments and their smiles wiped problems and their palms felt like rose petals no matter if they worked the entire day carrying bricks and mixing cement as a laborer.  There is something universal about the word mother and the picture that gets painted in the psyche. It is the greatest symphony of warmth that exists. And when they utter the word “son”, the voice seems like an infusion of ambrosia in the bruised soul. Mothers are the wool that weave into sweaters, the rotis that burn on the stove, the aroma that rises from the incense sticks in the temples, the diya that glows alike in the house of a laborer and the wealthy businessman, the jasmine that grows in the big bungalows and the Tulsi that shivers in the dirty colonies of the destitute. Mothers are the poetry that hides in a writer’s pen and the song that the cuckoos breathe. To a child, they are day, night, the air to breathe and the reason to live.
She quickly drew out a plate and arranged a roti with a little stew of potato and onions to feed him. Raj slowly started shutting his eyes and slipped into the dreamland. Like a little hermit of Himalayas, he slept wrapped in rugs.
“Arjun, wake up, it’s time for the school da!”, a voice screamed from the gigantic hall while the maid pulled the curtains to unveil the glass windows that over saw a beautiful garden of exotic flowers from the country. The little pond that housed duckling was cold and the dog never left the kennel except for food or when the thirty-five years old renounced businessman Rajesh called his name, Panther.
“Arjun, get up”, she screamed again sipping her coffee.
Little hands moved the furry blankets and the boy in his favorite jerry pajamas, slipped his feet into his slippers with all his soft toys watching him crave for warmth of motherly love.
“Arjun your bus will be here in half an hour, you better hurry up. Aunt and papa need to go to office too” the hoarse voice sounded bitter even to the maid, Radha.
“Yes aunt Nilam I am done brushing, I am coming down”, Arjun screamed while coming down the stairs. Framed photographs watched him walk indifferently towards the dining table and wait for his daily dose of cereals and milk. His indifference blazed in his eyes like a fire and all the fancy things in his colossal bungalow felt its incandescence. Remote controlled cars, trains, drones bought from Tokyo by his father felt the chills of his callous spirit and froze to death in the corners of his room. Only Mr. Turtle, the guild leader of soft toys melted his spirits. It was a gift from his mother. The last one before the cancer claimed her life two years back.
“I and your papa will be coming late in the evening. We have some important work at the office. Radha will get you from the bus stop and feed you, okay?” she said.
“Okay”, he said with cereals and milk in his mouth.
“Take your box babu, the little one”, Raj’s mother said from the inside of the house. “We are going to work and will return in the evening. She picked up the boot polish from the corner and handed it to him. The clinking and clanking of coins in the box rang in the little room and she softly whispered “papa is saving up for your admission babu. We will soon put you back in school. Had it not been for your father’s accident, you would still have been going to school. But don’t worry now. You will not have to do this anymore and will go to school like before”. She wiped the last night’s stew, which he had in the morning, with her sari and kissed him on him goodbye.
“Kanta lets go”, his father called “the laborers’ tractor will not wait for us, hurry up”.
“I am coming”, she said and they walked out of their disheveled house of hard cardboard walls and plastic covered roof.
“Ten rupees sir, ten rupees ma’am, I will shine your shoes and sandals”, Raj screamed trying to overcome the suppression exercised upon him by his contenders.
Day walked, scooted, scurried, dodged, complained, laughed, wept in the form of humans and fell to an eerie silence by the afternoon at the metro station. Deserted lane sucked the motivation out of him to fight the cold winds that howled like dogs over a moor and he grabbed his box to leave for home early.
He crossed the brigade of rickshaws and autos and dodged their owners who buzzed around their vehicles like flies over stale food in the garbage to sneak into the opulent colony that abutted his disheveled abode. He walked gazing at the enormous houses and their towering gates. The place looked cosmic to him. Golden shower tree with their yellow flowers and Gulmohars with their red flowers by the street made the colony look like a painting. His eyes moved from gothic lanterns at the gates to the carvings on the edges of the window to the protruding out balconies with sofas and barbeques. He walked with his eyes capturing a panoramic view of the colony lane which fueled his ambition to own such sumptuous luxuries one day. His innocent gazing was suddenly interrupted by a balloon that danced in the wind enchanting him. His hands automatically dropped the brush, abandoned the wooden box and he danced with the balloon like a mesmerized snake dancing to the tune of a snake charmer. The wind settled and the balloon sat in his open arms, reflecting his beaming facef. He has never seen a balloon so charming before.
“It is mine,” a voice startled him. He turned around and at one of those towering gates was a boy dressed in jerry pants and panda slippers.
“The balloon is mine,” his authority strengthened by the unflinching confidence in his eyes and his cold expressions on his face. Raj looked at the boy in astonishment. He was dazzling and intimidating with his neatly ironed pajamas and properly combed hair. The sweater he wore felt warm even from far and the winds bit him harder urging him to get one of those as soon as possible. He looked at his checkered shirt that had already turned mud black from red and his grey pants with broken zip which his mother mended with pins and his almost broken slippers. His eyes of a thirty years old was lit for the first time and his heart whispered, “If I could just touch those, those beautiful clothes”.
“Balloon, my balloon,” Arjun stretched his arm.
“Yes, yes, here it is. I was not stealing it, Ma promise.” He vowed against any desires of theft.
“Do you want to play with it?” Arjun asked.
Raj stood quietly for a while leering at his dress holding the balloon.
“Yes,” he whispered eventually.
“Okay,” Arjun pushed the gates closer and came up to him.
“Let’s play then,” he said.
They played first with the balloon and when Raj teased Arjun that he cannot run fast enough to catch him, they ran like free deer in the meadows. They screamed in the deserted lane calling each other losers, panted and sat down while the balloon quietly settled itself beside the boot polish box by the wall of Arjun’s bungalow.
“Okay, I have to go but I want to play with you again” Arjun said. “Aunt and papa do not usually return till late in the evening and my school bus comes at three in the afternoon”.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Behind this lane there is a small blue colored house,” Raj answered. “Okay then I will come at four to your lane and we will play there. My maid is always busy on phone with her sister Champa and will not notice that I am missing as usual,” Arjun laughed at the foolhardy of Radha.
“Okay,” Raj said.
“Here take the balloon,” Arjun offered him the balloon.
“I will wait for you,” Raj said.
Gates were opened, closed and lanes were crossed to reach the blue plastic covered house where Raj played with balloon till his parents returned from the day job.
Days passed and Arjun snuck to Raj’s “blue house” and together they played games. He discovered games of the street and in turn told Raj about board games that were taller to him and about the fancy malls that had pools filled with balls and had video games on big screen. They played in the clamoring colony and Arjun snuck in quietly after every meeting his new friend.
Clamor rose as a tsunami and flooded Karol Street the following month. Arjun’s deserted lane drowned in noise and Raj’s lively lane looked like a refugee camp from India’s partition days. People housed the street and talked endlessly about the demonetization that the government had enforced to battle corruption and bring home black money. Thousands and five hundred notes were declared invalid and the exchange of same was suggested at the banks which fancied themselves as being cashless. The uncanny devil of cash crunch was born which flung the labor class into unjust and fabricated penury. Contractors had not enough cash to pay the daily wages of the workers and little by little their savings drained out and their hopes evaporated like the mist over a hot coffee in a cold night.
Soon the condition at Raj’s place started to deteriorate. Because of the little money left rotis were made less, stews was served with caution, ration was bought with utmost care and amidst all the chaos, Raj’s dream of going to school shattered in his nascent eyes.
Arjun heard his father screaming on the phone, smoking cigarettes. Amidst the nerves stinging cold and empty stomachs making more noises than willowing men and women, Arjun reached Raj’s place at his usual play time but to his surprise he saw clothes wrapped around stove and cutleries, bags packed with clothes.
“Raj, where are you?” he called.
From behind the door crack in his checkered red shirt only washed to look redder than mud black and with black trousers that looked fairly new, emerged raj.
“Why is aunty crying,” he asked.
“I do not know Arjun. She is not telling me. She says I am too young to understand,” his eyes were that of a thirty years old again.
“We have to leave in another half an hour Raj. Tell your friend goodbye,” his father said.
“Where are you going?” Arjun asked.
“To my grandparent’s place in the village,” Raj said.
“Will you come back?” Arjun asked.
“I don’t know,” Raj answered.
“Papa can I play for some time?” Raj looked at his father who was busy packing things.
“Alright but don’t go far away,” he said.


***


The story was published in "The  Madras Mag" in their January, 2017 edition. 

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8 comments

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