Author – Swapnil Pandey
My family was going for an outing. As it was summer, everyone had vacations. Leaves weren’t a problem for me though. I had a long break. A one year break. Perks of flunking Maths 4 consecutive times, you see. An entire year wasted. A career flushed. My world had collapsed. But my parents had no qualms about putting their ashamed son for public display. They were going on a trip. With Relatives. With Cousins! Embarrassment doesn’t even start to depict the exact emotion I was going through.
After 5 hours of non-stop driving, the family decided to take a break for lunch. The elders voted in favor of a Dhaba. They wanted to relive the old times. What would be my nostalgic moment, I tried to think- ‘Failed Exams. Every year.’
The Dhaba looked like what was left of flood-hit Mohen-Jo-Daro.
“Chotu yaha aao!” shouted the owner, “jaao order lo,” he pointed at us.
A kid wearing an over-sized half-shirt and a bell-bottom pant came up with the menu. Sarso da saag meal was decided. Damn you nostalgia!
I didn’t miss studies. I didn’t miss college. I just missed my friends. Our outings, our meals. The Italian Restaurant – that might still be there. Meanwhile I tried to break a Baajre ki roti that would rather be Iron Man’s armor. Enraged, I threw the Bisleri bottle on the road. Left my thali, got up from the stone-age khatiya and stormed back to our car.
“Change the car’s rear tyre. It might flatten out soon. There’s the garage. Be useful for a change,” dad smirked. I should have been an orphan.
I drove the car across the road towards the garage.
“Bhaiya ye tyre change kardena“, I said to the guy.
“Chotu!” he shouted.
The same bell-bottom pant kid came running down the road. While crossing, he picked up the bottle I had thrown. He crushed the bottle and put it inside a dustbin. He came back and stood before me, smiling.
“Dono jagah kaam karte ho?” I asked.
“Yes sir. I manage. Sometimes there’s a problem. Then I prefer the Dhaba. Most important is to feed people, Ammi says.” he replied in English. Whoa!
“Where did you learn English?” I asked curiously.
“You are supposed to be able to converse in English when you are 10. And I am 11 years old.” he replied. His grammar and tone was near perfect. I was startled.
“Your English is very good. I bet you do well in studies,” I said
“Thank you sir! I try to retain my rank. Not that difficult though. The 2nd ranker girl is almost 20% behind”, he laughed and continued, “But yes, I can boast that I was a District topper in 4th standard scholarship exams. I also stood 2nd in Navoday Exams last year.” he beamed.
Such a bright kid! I was intrigued.
“Wow! That’s really great! Why do you work? You should concentrate on your studies.” I said.
“Ammi always says, ‘If you do your work honestly, nothing can hold you back.’
I am very lucky to have her. Sadly, Abbu wasn’t as lucky. Nobody taught him anything. So, he stumbled in life. He was not at fault. He was just a victim of circumstances. He began drinking, smoking. And it’s true. As they show in theatres, smoking kills. My father died while I was still an infant. Ammi brought me up. With time, ill-health caught up with her too. She’s sick most of these days. But it’s ok. I work. All these years, she fed me. It’s my turn now. I am big enough. And as I said, I manage. Easily,” his face shone like the sun.
I was bewildered. I just kept staring at him.
“I want to be an IAF Pilot sir. I want to wear that blue uniform. Make my country proud. Make my mother proud. I read all the newspapers we get at Dhaba as scrap. That keeps me updated. Improves my general knowledge. Garage work makes me strong, Dhaba work makes me fit. This is not work, this is my training.”
He smiled. I was shell-shocked.
“Why did you pick up that bottle on the road?” I had to ask this.
“I have seen such thrown bottles being picked, resealed and resold. I make sure to dispose water bottles whenever I see one. Again, this is shown and promoted everywhere. But people don’t care. We fight for our rights but run from our responsibilities.”
A whole new realization dawned upon me. The tire was replaced. I sat inside and started the car.
“Buy yourself a blue shirt. Every training should have an apt uniform.” I gave him a 500 rupee note.
“Thank you!” he said politely, taking the note.
“I wish to see you fly one day,” I said.
He just smiled. A smile that could pierce through the toughest of hearts. Even that Baajra roti.
Everyone had lunch. It was time to resume the trip. My cousin drank water and threw the bottle on the road. I got down and picked it up. I tried to look for the kid but couldn’t find him. Maybe he was off to his work. Off to his dream.
Birthday parties, clothing brands and social networks. Crushes, dates and affairs. Bikes, muscles and looks. These are just material things. Mere tools that might help us enjoy life. Enhancements are considered when necessities are fulfilled. We have to expand our horizons. See the bigger picture. Look beyond tools. There is life. There is death. There’s family. There’s future. There’s dream. There’s hope.
That kid. He was a superhero. I can never thank him enough. I will be in his debt. Forever.
From that day onwards, I didn’t just grow old, I started growing up.
This story submitted as part of our Short Story Contest