vignette

Renewal

It was day two of my new job today. After a day of classroom discussion and planning meetings, I was finally walking back home from a busy day. A busy day. I have not experienced such a thing in the last two years because I have only spent time doing the things I want to do. It felt good to have a busy day. I was walking down the road I have walked on for as long as I can remember. Past the modern school that has transformed from a small pathshala in to a grand establishment in the span of my lifetime. The Delhi winter is just peeking around the corner. The evening sun was large and the very hint of a nip in the air gave me that feeling of renewal that only a change of season can bring.

I heard from behind me someone calling out.

“Babu! Babu!”

I looked back to see a richshaw pull up from behind and stop by my side. It was a familiar face. I knew it right away. Especially the toothless grin. For as long as I can remember, he had never had any front teeth and always smiled with only his canines making him look silly. He had less hair and it was grayer.

“Remember?” he beamed.

“Yes of course! Are you kidding?” I replied with excitement.

“Where were you all this time?” I asked.

He said he had gone to his village. I did not bother asking for how long he had been gone for because I honestly did not remember. He carried on reminiscing.

“The gentleman from number 7 flat. He also remembers me. I used to drop his kids to the bus stop when they were young. He asked me on baqr-eid whether I wanted some meat. I said Sir I am a loner. I won’t be able to cook it.”

He said this last with a shrug. I asked if things were all right in the village. I got the feeling maybe he needs some help but he seemed energetic and well so I did not want to offend him. He was smiling a lot. The same toothless grin but his eyes seemed to shine more from age.

“Well, now I’ll see you around I hope. I have to be going now.” I said.

“Where are you going? Study? Duty?” he said.

I said I was going to my work.

“Oh! You’ve become a professor!” he said.

“I’ve become a professor!” I echoed. I did not bother to add that it had only been two days. He went into a bit of a reverie. He said it was a thing of happiness that the kids he took to school in his rickshaw for years were now all doing well.

“Someone is a professor, someone is a doctor, someone a big man in the police. I’m very happy.” he said.

I realized I still don’t know his name. He offered to drop me if I was in a hurry but I declined.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” I said with genuine hope.

 

 

Detective Professor

Recently a good friend of mine contacted me. He is Bengali and upholds the tradition by being a dedicated scholar and a thorough intellectual, so I jokingly call him “professor.” Professor is an old friend from back when I did a short stint with Tata Consultancy. We then again found ourselves in the same neck of the woods when he enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I would often drive up into the mountains to spend the weekend with him. He lived in a tranquil, old house with some roommates right by the boardwalk. He has since then moved back home to pursue further research in computer science at IIT Bombay. He was browsing at a book fair in Kolkata where he came across a book. He has always been a big reader, making recommendations and writing critique. In a stupendous display of memory and presence of mind he spotted a photo on a book cover that he recognized as one I took years ago. It was an old man I had met in Connaught Place who sat by the pavement. He had moved me so much that I had gone back a year later to see if he was still there. Professor made the connect and even remembered that I had taken the photo in Connaught Place.

“Wasn’t this photograph taken by you in CP a long time ago?”
The message popped up on Facebook messenger. Indeed it was. He said he didn’t see any credit but had not been through the fine print so it was possible it was buried somewhere. On further research it turned out that the publisher is based in Telangana, was incorporated in 1948 and takes great pride in printing material with a “consistent emphasis on quality.” To make matters ever more dramatic, they published all of my elementary school English textbooks. Quite a reunion.

The reason to not get indignant is that there is someone that has a larger right to that photo than I do. The subject. And I can guarantee you my dear, he does not give a darn. The only correct course of action here is to tell a little more of his story before we start either squabbling over rights or making magnanimous displays of nonchalance. The man in the photo is a shoe maker (why he is on the cover of a book of dalit literature I have no idea, unless the cover designers just assumed he was dalit). A shoe repairer, to be precise. He came every day to sit at the very same spot from 23 miles away, undertaking a bus journey that lasts 2 hours each way. He made just about enough every day to pay for the ticket and a meal. Other than the presence of his shoe repairing equipment, there was nothing else about his demeanour that even remotely suggested that he was sitting on that corner by way of some business. I think he just gets by by sharing tea and meals with the hawkers and sellers who share the street with him. I could tell that he enjoyed their love and sympathy. This was his world, where he came and sat everyday and sometimes repaired shoes.

I asked him if I could take a picture and he noted that several people over the years “from foreign lands” have taken pictures of him. I remember I immediately felt silly and awkward having had the bubble of supposed originality burst so unceremoniously. Felt acutely aware of the glare of the on-lookers knowing that they thought of me a a foreigner in my own land. I hesitantly offered him some money and he took it without question.

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The Flight of the Lioness

Deep in the forest at dusk, the last of the birds have gone back home. A small bird baby cries in fear as the two parents fuss about him. The young lioness wanders away. The baby falls asleep. Darkness is approaching fast and the lioness is restless. She walks over to her den but stops at the entrance. This is no longer her home. She looks around. The forest becomes very silent. A pang of fear. She walks inside and lies down in her usual spot, protected by rocks and a small bush. The forest that feels alien now. She has already left. Only her body remains, trying to pass the long night. Dawn will see her begin her journey. What until then? The ground is cold and sleep does not come. She gives up. Might as well take a walk. A memory lurks at every flower. The smell of damp wood. The little fox twins would frolic in her path underneath this tree. From behind the giant oak, she would watch the beasts run across the field in the distance. This stream marks the spot where the elder lioness would rendezvous with her to take her running in the caves. All of that really happened. Once, it was real. This is the fork in the path where she parted ways with her mother yesterday. The young lioness weeps silently. She paws the ground where her mother stood, looking back at her for the last time as the rest of pride disappeared into the yellow grass. Tears make the Earth wet. The lioness weeps for everything that was. Home. Family. Innocence. Every sob releases the breath stuck in her breast and makes room for the courage to find her own. Exhausted, she lies down at the fork in the path and rests her head in the dirt. Above the grasses, there is vast sky. The stalks looks so tall point straight up at the stars as if showing her the way. She takes a full breath, finally. And sleeps.