A helping hand

For those who have already read Reach to the Poor, Pravin and Raju are familiar characters now.

It so happened that during one of their recent visits to the town, to augment supplies to their shops, both had the feeling that it was time they visited a hair cutting salon.

They always lodged themselves at the Hazari lodge which was slightly away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was a Sunday morning and after a quick breakfast at a nearby dhaba, they walked in search of a salon. A few minutes into their walk they saw a ruffian at a distance arguing with a wayside hawker woman. It appeared that he was threatening her to part with some amount of money as weekly hafta to shore up his fortunes. The misfortunate woman with no one to seek help, it being a Sunday morning with most of the shops being closed, parted with her earnings.

The money collected, the ruffian parted soon from the place. Our silent observers at a distance, walked upto her, heard her out. They took some time to console her, helped her with some money saying they would teach a lesson soon, to the so called terror whenever an opportunity presented itself.

On their look out for a salon, they came upon a few other hapless hawkers who too had to bear the brunt of the so called Gajya the illegal tax collector.

A poor man was pulling his cart of ice slabs at a distance. They hurried upto him to make inquiries. Despite the heat and a sweating brow, he was kind to stop and help them with directions and also offered water laced with few pieces of ice if they wanted. As was their nature, they politely declined the warm offer of cold water and hurried to the salon.

The road to the salon was a bit bad and they had to take care not to fall into the many inviting potholes. As they reached the shop they could see one hair dresser and two persons waiting on one of the two worn out benches. They seated themselves on the other one and picked up a conversation as was their wont.

The hair dresser also lent his ears and the topic turned to Gajya. Most of the shopkeeperd feared him, said Jayanti Lal who was finishing his creative work on one of his customers and at the same time eager to be friendly with the visitors he asked Raju as to what they did. Pravin with a laugh said, “I burden those who come to me and he sees to it that they don’t die” . Hearing this Raju also laughed in big tones.

This is a poor locality, Sir and we do not have that much earnings to share with anyone said Jayanti Lal with a confused look. Offlate Gajya has been asking for more which we cannot give and that gives rise to skirmishes with him. I don’t mind giving him a free hair cut and a shave if he demands and he paused, maybe that offer I can give to you too. One of the bench customers, Javed looked with fear about himself and in a whisper told Pravin… He carries a knife with him, they say. Oh no, talk of the devil and here he comes….

Gajya’s frame came into view to all eyes who looked his way. With a Pepsi bottle in hand, he was idling his way to the salon. At the same time through another lane, came a ice cart pulled by an old man. One of the cart’s wheels got stuck in one of the pot holes and he asked for Gajya to help him out not knowing who he was. All eyes were riveted on Gajya as to how he would react. The irritated ruffian slapped the man and continued walking towards the salon.

Javed bhai whose turn was next whispered.. Now it is his turn, we will have to wait till he gets his hair cut and beard shaved. We, the timid always have to wait.

Raju’s blood was boiling. He would strike this bully as soon as he was within striking distance come what may. Pravin sensed Raju’s mind and decided to teach a lesson in their own way. Touching Raju he said a word which only Raju could understand. “Big boy”. Many a childhood scenes of skirmishes flashed in Raju’s mind. He smiled briefly. It was time to act.

Raju got up and stood near the dressing chair. The current customer had got down. Javed bhai afraid of annoying Raju whimpered, ” but it was my turn”.. Raju looked at him with a fearful avatar and said “Did You say something” . As if taking up the cue Pravin rose from the bench remarked, “Yes it was Javed bhai’s turn. How can you..” . Raju just laughed.

Helllooo, blared out Gajya. “Everyone will have to wait because it is my turn”. Pravin not even showing that he had seen or heard Gajya rushed to Raju and chided Raju for breaking the queue. Raju told Pravin to keep himself outside of this and tried to get himself seated. To the onlookers, it seemed Raju and Pravin were strangers or not friendly to each other.

Gajya was finding it a bit difficult to make his presence felt. Today it seemed these persons were deaf and blind at least these two strangers as others were atleast passing him a glance. Maybe they didn’t know his credentials. So he shouted at Raju to get out of the chair. Pravin meanwhile was trying to pull Raju out of the chair to the consternation of Jayanthi Lal. Today it seemed he had to deal with not one but three thugs who might pull the rug from his feet if he didn’t act in time.

Pravin nearly managed to drag Raju out of the chair ignoring the pleas from the hair dresser and good old Javed bhai who had now withdrawn his case and awarded his turn to Raju. But Pravin would not let go of Raju and pulled him out. Gajya came and tried to sit in the vacant seat or so he thought but Raju on his way down pulled him down with him. Now Pravin asked Javed bhai to seat himself to which the poor Javed bhai said he could wait. Now Pravin looked so angry that Javed brother got into the chair.

This was too much for Gajya who got up and was trying to work himself into a rage but now Pravin took hold of him and gave him such a resounding slap that his face turned outside to the lane where his eyes met the poor fellow still grappling with his cart. How in a few minutes the equation has changed, he thought. “No, I will not take this beating quietly” he loudly said. You will have to pay for this and he pulled the infamous knife from his pant.

The gleaming wicked looking weapon was well sheathed and in Gajya’s hand could work wonders. It was not without its labor that its master had become himself respected out of fear. Slowly as everybody stood frozen, came the knife at Pravin but the plunge was arrested with a timely kick to the knee from Raju.

What followed was a brawl. Gajya didn’t know from where all the blows came, so thick and hard that he cowered before the lot. A few passer-by fellows also joined in the revelry. It seemed to everybody that Raju was a much bigger thug than the punitive Gajya. All the cash on Gajya was taken out by Raju and he was unceremoniously kicked and dumped out of the shop. The knife now in safe hands, Gajya had to run out for his life.

Raju bhai please be seated said all in one voice to which he laughed and walked out with a smiling Pravin. On the way they treated themselves to cold water offered by the old gentleman after having helped his cart out of the gaping pot hole. When they looked back at the salon, they could see Jayanti Lal and Javed bhai saluting. On their way back they parted with the money to those few hawkers who had lost their money earlier. “A visit to the salon can wait, Big boy” said Pravin as they walked hand in hand back to their lodge.

When it rained

The fields would sway to the wind
the children in trains waving back.

The tides would get back their surf
the farmers too engrossed in work.

When the rains hit us days on
it made pools of watery slush.

The mud would entrance the kids
who would make pots with the clay.

The sun would peep in on the dew
so the grass could retain the shine.

The grasshoppers would jump in joy
crickets playing the game of life.

The butterflies were very choosy
as to which flower they would sit.

This made it difficult for us to catch
by reading their minds in tiny heads.

Rain Series

A group of clouds came from nowhere
filled with water, they turned to a shower
it is rainy days here again, remarked some
kids left their games and did a rain dance
whatever was left to dry now taken inside
whatever needed to be wet was put outside
the rain drenched and washed the stench
bringing its own perfume that was earthen.

The clouds could now be seen fast receding
a child looked up to see them now flying away
what other task you have, to go soon so fast
please stay and pour some more water on us
to our hearts fill and to fill our pots and wells
No dear, we have other places to water well
and we better not be late, whispered the cloud
as he sped away to catch up with the others…

Friends who blossomed

The short Jasmine and the tall Lily
would talk  daily as they swayed
the gentle wind who would listen
the bright hovering sun who watched
the merciful rain falling to protect.

The moon shining bright every month
lighting them up as they slept unaware
looking over the ever so gentle beauties
blissfully lighting many a human heart
whose scanning eyes would pick them.

Their life spans so short to us humans
who would enjoy their beauty one day
not even  bothering to look over them
bodies of two friends lying withered
their memories fading into quick sand…

Childhood Memories

Coming back to playtime during school days in the late 70’s in Mumbai. We did have the physical training classes but the instructor was always missing and therefore were free to play any of the games that we liked to. Some of us used to run around the school building in a “Catch me if you can” game, some used to loiter around the playground and others would visit hawkers who used to descend during that time, while some used to be in the classroom, playing with paper made balls and whatnot’s.

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Pic Courtesy: FSLIndia.Org

During recess time, there used to come, a few hawkers who could understand our weakness for sweets, especially the chikkis(sweet made of groundnuts and jaggery) and the cotton candy, the sugar balloons that we used to call them during those time. The chikkiwala (hawker who sold the chikki) had a chisel with him which was used to chisel out portions of chikki from his large circular plate, which he used to keep on his bamboo stand, away from our prying hands if not from our eyes. I thought during those times the chikki was costlier than gold, the way he used to hand it over to us for our 5 or 10 paise coins.

The process of making the cotton candies was enchanting for us, as the hawker used to make it a point to do the preparation in front of our eyes, so that most of us would come out and stand around him rather than going to any other optional hawker who offered his services to us on that day.

Since we used to reach home by 1 PM, there was plenty of time after lunch for a quick nap, and then to look up your books, or keep it for the evening and dash off to play with your friends from the building blocks for a game of cricket, marbles, bow and arrows, where both bow and arrow was made of discarded umbrella frames in the rainy days, or roll a metal ring across the roads barefoot and maneuver them brilliantly. These rings were from automobile frames, and so on..every metal thing in those days had a value as far as kids were concerned..

After such games or a round of story telling where kids used to gather around a story teller, who was one among them, and the sun setting would take them to their homes to ponder over their books and deciding priorities as to which homework needed to be completed based on the strictness of the subject teacher. By 8:00 PM most of us used to hit the bed to be in shape for another day at school that started at 7:00 AM.

This was the regular routine unless one fell sick when he or she had the complete dayin bed to give free way to the thoughts that used to hover in the mind like butterflies around a flower.

Then came the short vacations in the form of Diwali and Christmas, when one used to pay visit to relatives staying in the same city, and spend days with the cousins going to parks and beaches. Most of the time in such visited houses was spent in reading since most of them used to go to work and we would have to wait for them to take us out, when they returned from their respective offices.

The Summer vacations were a time when most of the kids used to go to their native homes that used to be in the same state or in different states. There were also a few who had no native homes to go to, so they stayed in the city and played all day except for going home for certain breaks. Since it was hot, some parents did not allow their wards to play in the sun, so playtime was restricted to, in the morning and the afternoons when the shadows came on to the playing grounds. During the rainy season, the ground would be transformed to a football ground. During a long lasting shower, this could become a mixture of fine clay, when some of us would try our hands at pottery.

During summer, when the bullock carts came laden with ice meant for restaurants, that was covered with saw dust and jute blankets to keep it from melting, all of us would rush behind him. As he took his knife to cut out the ice block, we stood in attention, to gobble up the pieces of ice that would get scattered on his cart. Come marriage in nearby community halls, we would rush to savor the ice cream and the cool soft drinks, unwelcome visitors though we were, the host never did mind us visiting such reception parties…

Drowned

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You have been warned : Do not go further, there is danger ahead.

The still waters beckoned me as my little footprints made their imprints upon the hot dry sand from the now setting Sun which was once at its zenith only a few hours ago. As the cool waves lapped at my feet tickling me, needless to say,  they were now beckoning to get in more of my self into the blue expanse lit only by a distant horizon and a few stars making their appearance.

I could feel the embrace of the heavy stillness around my waist pushing me ever so slightly, in all directions, four directions I had been taught in school. I never had experienced so much soothing, as if somebody had applied the healing balm all over me. The timid mind had made its plunge into the deep even before, though the body ever so careful made steps with my tiny legs that had now started to complain to me that the water though helping it to hold on was also pushing the weight of my fear into the quick sands that were quickly forming. But as egged on, as I used to walk with parents, I persisted to walk ahead into the inviting spectacle.

When the plush waves pushed with me playfully, I tried to balance with my hands trying to use them as paddles, oars or fins, oh I could see my vocabulary was slowly failing me. The shadow of fear that had appeared quite some time ago in my messy head was now standing next to me, not helping me, but standing still, waiting for me as my mother did, to take care of my ablutions.

I looked out to the beach, how far was I away from the people walking upon it, the playful children creative as they could get with the sand. I could see some navigating the now invisible thread of their playfully wielded kites and the hawkers trying their best to get in a morsel or two of the food in their cans into the mouths of the visitors. Shout I did as as I was slowly drifting away, the sea taking  with it, poor me, as it retreated for the evening but all I could manage was a croak. Was it because of the salt that had gotten into me or had  I become an amphibian after settling in this water for some quite some time. My skin needed to breathe, my pale self not helping,  the fish scurrying desperately getting away from a stranger who never knew or learned to swim like them. There was no log of wood for me to hold on, nor one to write my last wishes for the dear people whom I left back on the beach.

Had they noticed my absence, the dusk fast giving away to darkness, my head and frail hands that bobbed up once in a while, was it visible to them, to anyone who gazed at the deep sea or the arc of the horizon, I knew not. The body got heavier by the minute and whatever air in me gave way to the water now gushing in with a pinch of salt. Water, I was taught was life giving, but my small body could never handle too much of it. The ocean was now feeding me what it knew best, to intruders who had never understood how to step into it. Oh dear mother,  if only I had listened to you and had not wandered off into the deep water when you were not looking. I sent you on an errand so that you could not see me running into the vast expanse of bluish water which had always enchanted me, a place of wonder where a lot of my imaginative characters dwelt.

I know the lunch with the wonderful curry you fed with your hands seems to be, my last feed of the day as I now rest myself on the floor of good old nature, bidding bye to all my worries, my unanswered questions and rest now. My tired body has sunk, buried by a thin layer of sparkling sand, a blanket against the increasing cold of the heavy rumble above me. How I, fervently wish, I might be a floating log tomorrow for my loved ones to reclaim and rebury along with their fond memories of me…

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The Lost Garden

It was an October evening and there on the playground made green by the lush grass and the receding rains were butterflies hopping from one shrub to another on the lookout for that elusive flower that could provide some nectar.

A group of children were huddled together making huts of mud and sticks where the sticks came from twigs, discarded ice cream sticks and dried branches. In that group were budding potters, architects, masons and designers. They surveyed their creation and now made walls of clay. They planted some twigs that now looked as trees in the tiny courtyard. In that group was a boy who was telling stories of long lost kings and warriors to eager ears as the huts were being built.

The sun which was shining so bright on glazed leaves when they had started off was now beating a hasty retreat behind the large block of buildings in which they lived. A miniature well was getting dug and some kid brought water from the nearby tank and poured it into it only to see it disappear. The next generous lot of water persisted in the freshly dug well to make things look complete. They surveyed their creation and sat for some time as the storyteller among them was fast finishing his story partly because it was getting dark and also it was getting difficult to feed his imagination that was now running wild as the script.

There was some sand that had been dumped for construction by a shop long back and this was used by another group of kids who were designing roads and tunnels across and over it.

A puddle of water made by the overflowing tank in the morning had some kids busy digging canals and launching paper boats. This all looked funny to elders and adults surveying the group below from floors above but nevertheless it meant so much to the children who always descended on this play field and got creative every day to make most of the strip of land to feed their imagination.

With the disappearance of such strips of land in metro cities, imagination that was once put to constructive use in such a lost garden, was now restricted to new games that came up for the new generation…

Wonderful foggy night scene at a playground, BBD Bagh, Kolkata, India
Brett Cole Photography