Mrs. Kamini Khetrilies devastated in her bed without makeup, her eyes puffy, eyebrows not pencilled, her hair loose and undyed, making her look much older. The crow’s feet usually cleverly camouflaged, spread defiantly around her eyes. Her friends sit in a semi-circle around her bed, clucking.
“Kamini, look at you. What have you done to yourself?”
“Yes, get a hold, Kamini.”
“You know we have connections. We’ll move heaven and earth and find your Sameer for you!”
“Take my word, Sameer will come back on his own. Adolescence is a tricky age. These kids get all kinds of weird ideas into their heads, sometimes.”
“She’s right. When the money in his pocket runs out, you’ll find him walking into the house.”
“How much money was he carrying?”
Kamini is not in a position to respond.
Today is the third day, and there has been no news of Sameer.
Together with Mrs. Khetri,they form an elite group.Their husbands are either senior government officers who pocket money from big corporate houses for moving their files orwangling illegal permissions, or flourishing businessmen who transact shady deals and earn mega profits, but dodge the Income Tax department.
“Sameer, you should never eat with your mouth open and make chewing sounds. The proper way to eat is to take a small morsel, close your mouth and chew it slowly and silently,” advised his mother for the umpteenth time. She was the beautiful, wealthy widow of a celebrity television producer and director, who had succumbed to a sudden heart attack at forty.
Sameer did follow his mother’s advice mostly, but sometimes he would get lost in the delicious taste of a dish and forget her instructions. Besides, this was not the only counsel foisted on him. His mother was keen to make him a perfect gentleman, with sophisticated and fine etiquette.
“When you walk, you should not move your neck like radar, staring at people or things.”
“Always cover your nose while sneezing.”
“And cover your mouth while yawning or coughing.”
“Never sit on the edge of a chair or slump in it.”
“You find this advice tiresome and unnecessary? But one day you will thank me for it, Sameer.”
Sameer had accompanied his mother to the dinner at the Katarias. The table had been laid and Mr. Kataria occupied the seat at the head of the table.Dinner over, it was time for dessert. A large bowl,brimming with fruit-cream was placed at the centre of the table. Sameer had a sweet-tooth and fruit cream was his favourite. He took a second generous helping and then a third, while the Kataria children had been content with only one. Every time he took an additional helping, his mother went paler. Mrs. Kataria said,“Oh,did you like it, Sameer?Do have some more.”
But she did not notice that Mr. Kataria, who was a slow eater and liked to relish his dessert at leisure, had not yet taken a serving and the bowl was empty. When he found that there was nothing left, after Sameer’s third helping, he could not control his temper. Scraping his chair noisily while getting up, he hissed, “Glutton!” and left the room.
That day his mother did not get angry with Sameer, nor did she scold him. She threw herself on the bed, buried her face in the pillow and cried silently, her body racked by waves of sobs. It wrenched at the child’s heart strings,while he stood at the door and watched guiltily.
He firmly resolved to listen to his mother and do everything as per her wishes. And for a few days, he behaved flawlessly.But it was impossible to be as perfect as his mother wanted him to be, always.He wanted to yank himself free to breathe, sneeze, eat and drink the way it pleased him. Sometimes a mad impulse seized him to guffaw. He wanted to scream in the lane for no reason whatsoever; or drink his tea in the saucer, making slurping sounds, just like Phirtu, his friend from the nearby slum, did.He envied Phirtu and his friends who were free like the breeze; their bodies were agile and alive, while he felt lifeless.
One day the driver didn’t turn up and Sameer took the school bus. As he was walking home from the bus stop with his heavy bag, Phirtu was playing with an old bicycle tyre. He saw Sameer and offered to carry the school bag for him. Sameer gave him a chocolate and the two became friends. Every day Phirtu met him at the start of the lane into which the car turned from the main road and Sameer gave him a chocolate. Sameer requested the driver to keep it to himself.
Once Phirtu took Sameer home. It was a one room house. Phirtu’s mother had just come back from the factory where she worked. She was overwhelmed that a sahib-childwas her son’s friend. She affectionately patted Sameer’s head and fed both of them sattu(flour made of roasted gram)mixed with gurwhich Sameer relished more than any other dessert he had had. Phirtu’s four-year-old younger sister, Tumpi, sat at a little distance on the ground and smiled all the time at Sameer.
Sameer took out his purse and gave a hundred rupee note to Tumpi who looked at it with awe. But Phirtu had seen that the purse was bursting with money. One day, he said to Sameer, “I’ve a dream. I want to become an actor. I’ll go to Mumbai.”
“But how can you become an actor?”
“You saw Sallam Daag film?”(Slum Dog Millionaire).
“Director took slum children. He trained them.”
“Will you come with me?”
“I don’t know.” But actually, Sameer was quite excited. Why not? This was his chance to change his life.
The train chugged into the Churchgate Station. Phirtu and Sameercame out of the station along with the huge mass of people. They went to a small roadside stall and having eaten some snacks – rather unhygienic Sameer thought — began to wander the streets of Mumbai, as Phirtu wanted to go to a film studio.
As night descended on the city, pavements were claimed by the regulars who had made them their homes. Sameer looked at these people — half-clad or covered in tatters, their hair matted, and bodies famished and shrivelled.Both of them were dead tired from walking around and sat on a vacant spot on the pavement, but immediately someone on their right cleared his throat, spat in front of him and shouted, “Ei chhokra log, idhar baithane ka nahin.Chalo, chalo idhar se” (Get away from here).They tried another place, but soon a beggarly man materialized, shouted abuse at them and physically shoved them away.
By now Sameer was frightened and on the verge of tears.He began to think of his mother who scolded him, no doubt, but was always eager to provide him with all conceivable comforts. He also thought of the well-furnished,secure home from which nobody could throw him out. He said to Phirtu, “I want to go home.”
Sameer could see that Phirtu was reluctant to abandon the film project so quickly.
“Sameer, let’s wait for a couple of days,” Phirtu pleaded. “We should be able to locate a film studio soon. Now that we are here, let’s see the city.”
Sameer grew desperate.“No, no. Iwant to go home.” His high-pitchedvoice attracted the attention of a passing beat policeman who got suspicious and asked, “What’s happening?”
The two looked at each other in consternation. The policeman took them to the police station. After a few enquiries from the children, the Station House Officer rang up Sameer’s mother.
“How are you Sweetheart? Are you alright, beta?” Kamini asked Sameer in a tremulous, tearful voice.
“I want to get back home, Mom.”
Dr. Subhash Chandra retired as Associate Professor of English from University of Delhi. He has published four critical books and several research articles. He has also published short stories in Indian and foreign journals. He is on the Advisory Board of Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific (ANU, Canberra).