The hardest thing about the transition from college life to working life is the pain of waking up early, that, and the post-lunch drowsiness.
In a flat occupied by 3 with only one toilet cum bathroom, we had to go through our morning rituals with Swiss watch precision, 5 minutes here or there could lead to a half-day absence and since all of us were staying away from home, we needed our leaves.
Yet, we survived, always somehow managing to punch our cards or get our fingers scanned seconds before the clock read 9:31:00.
The obvious casualty of this was our breakfast.
Usually, after marking my entry in office, I came out and treated myself to the most important meal of the day - a packet of Good Day biscuits and a cup of chai. I also utilized this time to button my sleeves and have my shoes polished.
There was a kid, no more than 8 or 9 years old, who used to polish shoes in the vicinity, what was odd about him was that unlike other boys of his age who were engaged in similar professions, this one wore a school uniform and had a school bag too.
One day, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him, “Kya re, instead of going to school, you’re doing all this. Do your parents know?” As soon as I had uttered the words, I realised that there was a good chance that it was the parents themselves who might have coerced the boy into this boot polish business.
Without the slightest bit of hesitation, he said “Nahin saab, I have started this on my own. You see, school is supposed to start from 9, but no one is there till 9.45, so I thought why not take this time to earn some money.” He tapped his brush against the box to indicate that I had to put my other foot up.
There was something about the boy’s earnestness that appealed to me. And while I continued to call him somewhat derogatorily as “Chhotu” and didn’t pay him any more than his usual 10 rupees, I did get him to polish my shoes when they didn’t need any polishing, and always gave a couple of my biscuits to him, even when I was left hungry. What I liked about him was that unlike many others he didn’t seem to be apologetic about what he was doing, and even if there was a sob-story, he didn’t peddle it. He did his business and went running back to school.
I asked him once what he planned to be when he grew up, “bijness man” he said.
- “But don’t you want a job instead? Businesses may not always work, with a job you can earn risk-free money every month.”
“Naah”, pat came the reply, “I want to be my own boss. Naukri toh naukar karte hai.”
The boy was something alright, even when he spoke of his family's financial woes, he spoke matter-of-factly, never seeking sympathy.
One morning, once the boy was done polishing, I realised that all I had in my wallet was a couple of 100s and a single 500 rupee note, for some reason I handed him the 500 rupee note and asked if he had change, he shook his head unhappily and tried to hand it back, "Kal de dena aap", he said.
"You give the change tomorrow", I said and rushed to my office, not looking back. I didn’t want the change, I wanted to help the boy, maybe because I had developed a liking for him, maybe because I knew that he would use the money for a better cause than I would, maybe because I was feeling particularly generous with my boss out of town and the day being a Friday, who knows.
For the rest of the day though, I felt mixed emotions, on one hand I felt good about myself that I had helped someone in financial need, another part of me said that I had treated him like a beggar, which was everything he wasn’t, and yet another part chastised and humiliated me by pointing out that I wasn’t wealthy enough to be doling out 500 rupee notes to people who were financially less fortunate than I was.
But over the course of the weekend, I forgot about it. And on Monday morning while dipping my biscuit in chai, I realised that Chhotu was nowhere to be seen. I asked the chaiwala and he was as clueless as I was.
And just like that Chhotu’s guest appearance in my life had come to an end.
I did see him once more a couple of months later, I was on my way to office when I saw him walking cheerfully, his shoe polishing kit in his hand, still wearing the uniform, the school bag slung over his shoulder.
I couldn’t help myself, I stopped the bike and called out “Oye Chhotu”, he turned around and when our eyes met the colour drained from his face, he froze for a moment but recovered quickly enough. He was soon running and within seconds he was out of my sight.
For some inexplicable reason, I felt a wave of sadness come over me, I am not sure why, but I think I lost something that day, something more than 500 rupees.
Image from here.