31st May 2016
Today evening, I decided that life was brutal and unfair. And that I needed huge chunks of dark chocolates to kill this unbearable depression. After stuffing my pocket with a few bucks, I slid out of the door. In the backdrop of these glossy towers of Ghaziyabad, you’ll see tarnished houses. Sheets of plastic, tattered clothes patched together to shelter misery. I walked through those lanes, which reeked of poverty and compromises. Lined on both sides of the road, these houses remind you of slums you see on the shiny LCD screens, perched on your sofa, munching popcorns. There were stunted kids rolling in the sand, some playing with wooden sticks. A girl clad in shabby clothes sat on a swing made of shabbier clothes tied end to end in a rope. Old people sat on khats and talked. Some just lay there, squatting off flies. Life here, somehow, seems dwarf against that in the sky-touching buildings.
I passed through the darkness and stepped into the light. Just by a crossroad, a small boy – hardly 10 – sat there, grilling corncobs (bhutta ). He sat there alone, fanning the smouldering coals and waiting expectantly for a customer. His face was covered in sweat and he stared out blankly. People jogged past, never throwing him a glance. He still waited, eyeing every single one of us. And then, his gaze fell on me. The same expectant look. I clenched the notes in my pocket and reminded myself of the dark chocolate I would be relishing in a few minutes. I passed him.
I don’t know why, but my legs felt weaker than before. Thoughts flooded my mind. What if he doesn’t get any customer today? What if he’s an orphan? What if he was really expecting me to buy the corncobs? What if he hasn’t made enough money to feed himself? He was so lanky. Did I just steal his chance of eating a loaf of bread? Did I just walk away from a little boy who deserved a life better than that?
I wheeled. I went back. He was selling ten a piece. I told him to cook five. He nodded and began grilling the first two. His face carried the crumbling innocence of a child, a child who’s raised along those stinky lanes, in the backdrop of glossy towers. I dared a few questions. He said he has a family and his father makes houses. He hails from Saharsa and has siblings. And then, he turned to fanning the coals again, quietly watching the charcoal pieces glowing amber. His eyes had the faintest glint of hope. I wondered if I should give him a few extra bucks. But his face sweated with pride. He was not a beggar. He made his own money. And so, I decided against it.
While he was on the last piece, his siblings joined him. A girl – probably 8 – carried her infant brother. Her cheeks were smeared with dirt. The infant blinked quietly in her arms. Another kid, whose head would reach my knee cap, sat beside the eldest one. They were looking at me. All of those scrawny little bodies. All of those six vacant eyes. Not uttering a word, just gazing as if trying to ask a question. I shuddered.
People cry over marks. People cry over breakups. However, standing in front of those withered children, trying to meet their gaze, realizing how desperately you want to do something for them and then swallowing the heartwrenching fact that you can do nothing more than buying those corncobs, you will feel your ribs snap and your heart break. You’ll get goosebumps….
As I walked back to the apartment and the life I lived in, I watched them through the corner of my eyes. They were huddled up together, quiet and still, looking for someone who’d buy their corncobs…