At dawn, when all the boys with whom he used to play cricket in the ground are still asleep, Balu is woken up by his senile father. The sixth child in his father’s brigade, as the old man used to call his children together, Balu was the youngest. His two elder sisters were married and although their marriages weren’t marked by proper processions Balu’s father had slept peacefully on both those nights as if he was finally unburdened of some colossal weight. And it had even seemed to Balu that his father might start walking with an erect posture, which the old man never did, and rather, soon after the third sister had arrived at the age where marriage seems but an inevitable option for a father in the families like his, his father had taken to bed. As if dilapidated. Not physically, but fatherly.
The two brothers, both older than Balu, and younger than all the three sisters, had run off to a city, four years ago, promising their father that they’d be back with handsome amounts of money and would marry their third sister off with an orchestrated band and a proper procession, something that the family couldn’t afford for the two elder sisters, but neither had returned since. “Will they ever return? Were they both still together? Were they, in a country where the poor were killed so easily and wiped of the face of the earth, by the help of money and greed alike, even alive?” these were a few of the many questions that his father reiterated every night before he slumbered. Like litany. Only that they were not Christians. And neither had Balu ever stepped into a temple. With which faith did he belong then? In a country, where one can easily be nameless but has to adhere to one of the many faiths, it was so hard to believe that he had lived for 19 years without conforming to anything. But can a shattered soul ever conform to anything so abstract as a faith?
“Am I an unwanted? Am I a result of people staying longer than necessary in places where they should not, especially after a certain age?” these questions also often surfaced in the well that his mind was on the tea breaks he took during work. But in cases like his, the third boy child in a series of six children there are no correct answers. There are only assumptions. And a few assurances. Considering he knew his father was a teetotaller and so he was definitely not one of those born-out-of-last-night-was-vague-and-live-in-a-perpetual-regret-beings. He was convinced of having being conceived in full sobriety, albeit clandestinely, with his siblings around their copulating parents in the same room. But that was not uncommon at all. His friend Bhola, when they played cricket the last time, had told Balu that when he woke up in middle of the night, he saw his father on top of his mother, and Bhola swore on his mother’s life that his father was moving, thrusting and retreating, thrusting and retreating, and then when his father sensed that Bhola had woken up, he just froze and lay atop her mother as if both of them were dead. Bhola soon pretended as if he was asleep, for he knew, that the sooner they would resume, the sooner would the act finish. Bhola knew what was going on. Even Balu knew. All the children knew. And they all pretended as if they didn’t. And that even when their fathers placed a hand on their mothers’ mouths, the screams, of pain, or of pleasure, that inevitably escaped their mothers’ mouths and buzzed after hitting their fathers’ palms still reached them and told them that the act was on. But they all learned to live with it. For it was a way of their poor lives. Of how they themselves had come into being.
‘Uth re Bhaaaloooo!’ shouted his father from the bed, that the old man now permanently occupied, asking Balu to get up. And when Balu didn’t budge, the father picked his stick up from the bedside and nudged Balu with it. This act sickened Balu. Every time his father did this to him, touching his body with the stick as if he was not a human but a cow. But cows, he later corrected himself, were sacred in his country and were revered upon, and so the only possible analogy left at his disposal was then with the dogs.
‘Main Kutta hun kya?’ he shouted, a shout that sounded more like a squeak, and got up at once. Most of his days began like this, with the same question, ‘Am I a dog?’, and only after he brewed some tea for his father, for he always drank tea outside the house, would he head out of the house on his crumbly bicycle, that broke down every now and then, just like his spirits.
The Gandhi square, the busiest square of the town, was the hub where the newspapers printed in the cities arrived on the bus. These Newspapers were then sorted and given to fourteen other people like Balu, to be distributed to the subscribers. This square was two kilometres away from his place.
He reached the Gandhi square on time and took his lot. He threw a glance at the statue of the smiling Gandhi, who had been smiling for as long as he had remembered seeing the statue of the old man cladded in Khadi, and the stick in his hand, by which the old man, Balu had heard his proud countrymen say, had thrown the Britishers out of the country. But the stick soon reminded him of his father’s stick, and the way he was woken up every morning, and so he withdrew his gaze from the Mahatma and looked at the clock beside Gandhi’s statue. Its legs spread at an ugly angle and pronounced that it was 5:15.
He started the day’s work and began his way towards the homes where the deliveries had to be made. The first house, and the one he seemed to like the most, not because of the way it was built but because of its owner, belonged to Mr Dixit, who until a couple of months ago, was always up by the time Balu reached his doors and waited on the balcony for Balu to deliver the newspaper. And while picking the paper up Mr Dixit always flashed a smile at the young man, and that smile had made Balu feel that all the jobs, even as trivial as delivering a newspaper, contributed in some way to people’s happiness. And this in itself was so reassuring to him. To his being. To what he was doing in life.
But it had all changed now. Since the last two months, Mr Dixit had turned into an entirely different person. He was never there on the balcony waiting on Balu. Was his interest in the newspaper diminished? Had Balu offended Mr Dixit in someway? But how could delivering a newspaper, doing one’s job, offend someone?
Balu was convinced that Mr Dixit was always up by the time Balu delivered the paper, standing by the curtain, as if ashamed, as if scared of meeting Balu in the eyes, and it was only when once Balu had thrown the paper and decided to wait before someone opened the gate to the Balcony and picked it up, did he see Mr Dixit coming over to the balcony, picking the paper up, and making his way immediately inside the house. This puzzled Balu, the sudden change in the man’s behaviour. The man he used to look forward to meeting every day during his job, the man who had kept him going during his bad days at work. And the same man, who had meant everything to him, perhaps even more than his father, and who, now, no longer smiled at him.
And now, after having shown him the ray of hope, Mr Dixit had turned into a recluse. And did he ever think of Balu now? What was to become of young poppers like him if they were devoid of rich people’s smiles? But he kept doing his duty, he kept delivering the papers, hoping that someday, he might get to see that smile. Or he waited for the day when he’ll muster enough courage and go upstairs and accost Mr Dixit. But today, just like every day, there were some more deliveries to be made.
Might be continued…
The image associated with the blog post has been downloaded from google.com