(from the unseen slums of Bengaluru)
As I stood outside the little ‘variety store’ near my PG* sharing a smoke with my roommate, I heard a sweet little voice repeating a single word while the same reply came from another voice each time. This other voice sounded tired, very tired. Taking a sip from the glass of hot chai* in my other hand, I turned around to see what was going on. My eyes settled down upon a bundle of messy hair in tattered clothes with skin dark from layers of grime. In front of him sat a lady who surely was his grandmother by the looks of it. I couldn’t decide which was dustier, the pavement or the grandma.
As they sat on the verandah of the shop, sharing a single cup of hot sweet tea and half a packet of ‘paav’* between them, the kid kept pointing at the numerous packets hanging outside the store one by one and kept saying, “yeh?… yeh?… yeh?…”* and each time the answer was the same, “naa babu (no dear)… not that one…”. And each time she fed him some of that bread dipped in the hot tea. I stood transfixed. Something inside me made me want to cry out loud but I couldn’t. I looked around and everybody else at that shop seemed impervious to those two. All except me. It was as if they had come to haunt only me.
I turned back to the roommate, trying to concentrate on the almost cold glass of tea and the half-smoked cigarette. I finished the tea in a single gulp and threw away the cigarette. I wanted to get away. I returned the empty glass and prepared to leave. But my roommate wanted a packet of chips! He asked me to tear him one from the garlands hanging outside the shop. I had to turn around again. Turn around again to see that running nose, the messy hair and the innocent pair of eyes they hid partially underneath them. It seemed as if someone was screaming something far away inside me, something unintelligible. I thought of buying one of those colourful packets he kept pointing at and give it to him. I wouldn’t be able to buy a cigarette for that night but it didn’t matter then. But what if the grandmother said no? What if she mistakes my act of supposed penance for sympathy? There were too many questions. I tore off a packet of Lays’, handed it over to my roommate along with two ten rupee notes to cover for my share of chai-sutta*. I left the shop as fast as my feet could carry me.
That night I couldn’t sleep.
Neither did I ever go back to that shop again, nor did I ever smoke. Because every time I caught a whiff of burning nicotine, that runny little nose and those innocent eyes come back to haunt me. They still do and they always will.
*PG: paying guest
*paav: little square buns
*Yeh: means ‘this’ in Hindi.
*sutta: Hindi slang for cigarette