May 1990. A (thats the name of our main character) was 9 years old. A was spending the summer vacation at Indore, A’s native place. Everyone at the house usually slept during the afternoon after late lunches but A disliked that idea – because (1) it ruined A’s evenings and (2) A wondered why people would waste daytime sleeping. Even at the tender age of 9, A had independent (and often rebellious) opinions, isn’t that nice?
Summer is brutal in central India so streets were usually deserted until 17:00, after which cooler breeze started blowing. This particular day, A was extremely bored because even A’s cousins decided to join the adults for siesta. It was no fun playing in water alone or throwing pebbles at raw mangoes or discussing strategies to conquer the world. A decided to venture out, disobeying the orders of the elders.
It was rather difficult to take out the little bike silently, so A sneaked out of the creaking gate on foot. Temperatures were around 40 C and the sun was spewing heat akin to fire from a dragon’s mouth, which A related to the cartoon in yesterday’s नई दुनिया (Nai Duniya – a Hindi newspaper). Tucked in a corner a little distance away was a small store, which in A’s opinion was world’s most wonderful store – it had candy, toys and comic books – what else do humans need?
A was thrilled to enter the store; it was the first time A was going there unaccompanied. A saw the newest edition of चाचा चौधरी (Chacha Chaudhary – a popular Hindi comic book) and A had to have it before anyone else did. It was A different matter that the book was in Hindi and A could not read Hindi properly yet. In Maharashtra, Hindi is taught from grade 5, but since Marathi is taught from grade 2 and Bollywood’s
Urdu Hindi cultural imperialism is overpowering, A could understand some stuff in the book. A was anyway more interested in the pictures of fights between Nora, the poison man and Sabu, the giant from Planet Jupiter (चाचा चौधरी और जहरीला इंसान नोरा (Chacha Chowdhari and the poison man Nora – Hindi edition).
A picked up the book and went to the guy at the cashier, who had a big moustache and a pot belly. The guy smiled and said “३ रुपए”(Three rupees) Oh, but A didn’t carry any money! A wanted the book so that A could brag about both – buying a book and reading the latest issue. The thought of the inability to do so and finding no solution around, A was on the verge of tears. A didn’t know what to do. The world is evil, who invented money?
A tiny voice from somewhere squeaked, “मेरी वाली पढ़ लेना” ([you] can read my copy)
With a jerk, A excitedly turned the neck around before the body could turn – like the kathak dancer. There was another nine-ten year old, dressed in red, and having a typical pre-pubescent tender feminine voice. A caught sight of the Chacha Chowdhary book being waived enthusiastically.
“साथ साथ पढते है?” (Shall we read it together?)
“हॉं” (yes) A said
…and suddenly the world was a better place.
The two kids trotted to a park adjacent to the store. The hot wind was burning their soft skins like tender wood in a furnace, but both of them were eager to read the comic book. They found a bench under a tree, but the tree was not leafy, making the bench too hot and uncomfortable. A had this bright idea. Pointing to a shady place under a giant tree A said:
“उधर चल” (lets go there) (Not A Hindi speaker, and on top of that A Mumbaikar. do you expect correct Hindi?)
“क्या हम जमीन पर बैठेंगे?” (do you want us to sit on the ground?)
A didn’t understand that long sentence. So A simply ran to that place, cleared the dry leaves with little feet and gestured an invitation (I think A loved nature and outdoors since childhood).
In the blistering heat of peak Indian summer, two kids, away from home were spending some lovely time together reading their favourite comic book.
After reading the first chapter in which Nora the poison man enters the city and creates terror by killing people, the two kids paused and started talking.
“तेरा नाम क्या है?” (What is your name?) A asked
“X. और तुम्हारा?”
“कहॉं से हो?”(Where are you from?)
“मुंबई, तु?”(Mumbai, you?)
“….” (it was some place nearby)
After a while, X said, “मुझे चलना होगा ईससे पहले की मॉं चिंता करने लगे। मुझे केवल यह लेना था।” (I have to leave before mother starts worrying. I just had to buy this) pointing at the book.
A was devastated. A didn’t want this to end yet. Time seemed to have stopped and A wanted this moment to go on and on.
“लेकिन बाकी है…” (but there’s some left [to read] – in broken Hindi) A said sadly.
“कोई बात नहीं, तुम रख लो। इंदौर के दोस्त की तरफ से भेंट समझ लेना।”(No worries, you can keep this as a gift from your friend from Indore)
A was speechless… A wanted to take the book, but hesitated to do so. X insisted that A keep it. X grabbed A’s hand, thrust the comic book and was ready to leave.
Almost automatically, A uttered, “फिर कब मिलनेका?” (When do we meet next?)
X thought about it for A while and said – “कल मिलते है, यहीं पर।” (lets meet tomorrow, same place)
“ठीक है।” (alright)
Maybe X was unwilling to leave, but had to. As they were going away, A and X looked at each other and their eyes caught a moment, almost like they show in the movies. Although they had met barely an hour back, there was clearly something special between them, which made no sense. Intuitively, they hugged each other tightly. The hug lasted for a fraction of a second, what A thought was no less than a millennium. A could feel the soft hair and smell the musky body odour of X and this was the best feeling A ever experienced. It was new, and therefore very confusing. What was happening?
A stood there. Just stood there watching X go away. A wanted to run and catch X and talk to X again, but somehow A’s feet were rooted to the ground. A was choking with emotions, unable to say even a “bye”. Then A returned home, unable to understand what just happened.
What just happened? Was it love? Was X some kind of evil magician who lured young kids like the fairy tale story? A never felt this way before. These feelings were confusing. Really really confusing.
[Everyone at home was already worrying. I am sparing you (readers) of all the details, which should be quite evident]
But A didn’t care. A’s mind was filled with excitement and anticipation of the next day.
The next day:
A got up early morning, much to everyone’s surprise. A was disinterested in playing hide-n-seek or Ludo with cousins. A went to the kitchen thrice to ask when the lunch was going to be ready. A was eager to finish the lunch and go out. A’s mother on the other hand was busy packing. They had a train to board on the same day – Avantika Express.
A, so naïve, told mother that it was very important to go to the store again today afternoon and it was a question of life and death (this probably came from a recent movie A watched).
“आपण उद्या जाउया, आज नको.” (We’ll go tomorrow, not today), A announced.
“अरे पण आपलं reservation आहे ना, आज गेलंच् पाहिजे, परवा पासून शाळा सुरु होणार ना.” (But dear, we have a reservation today and your school starts a day after, remember? We have to leave today.) Mom tried to explain the facts.
“मी नाही येणार, तुच् जा. मला नाही जायचं, मला दुपारी त्या दुकानात जायचय X ला भेटायला.” (I wont go, you can go if you want. I must go to the shop today afternoon to meet X)
Man proposes God disposes. A threw tantrums around the house, cried and screamed loudly, use every possible convincing strategy A’s little brain could think of.
But the fact remained that A had to leave. Summer vacation was over and it was time to go back to own lives. But… why did all of this have to happen today???
It was the end of the world for A, there was just, just no point living further. A cried and cried until A ran out of tears. These elders just don’t understand important things.
So A went back to Mumbai with the book firmly held close to heart.
….And never saw X again.
Today, A is 26 years old. Lots of such X’s appeared and disappeared from A’s life. But this incident was a defining moment in A‘s life – nothing was the same again, and will never be.
– – –
No points for guessing who A is 😉