He hated waiting for the bus at the stop below his office. At this time of the evening, several lakh salaried employees like him left the office. All were always in a hurry to get back home after a hard day’s work.
One’s position in life could be anything he had mused; but, in the evenings, what mattered was your position in the queue for the bus. In case one managed to stand with the first few in the queue for the bus, one could not only be assured of catching the bus but may also get a seat.
At one time, from Mantralaya to Bandra, he used to catch the local train but he had to walk great distances on either end from the local stations. Also, trains at this time of the evenings would be crowded. The only people who’d get seats at Churchgate would be the ones who’d travel backwards from Grant Road and Charni Road to Churchgate and then wait for the train to restart for Borivali.
It had taken him years to become a Head Clerk in his office in the Education Department; and now, instead of being a mere Godbole, he had become Godbole saab. He liked the ring of the title saab. It gave him an authoritative stature in the office. Minister madam trusted him so much that she had given instructions that all outgoing mail put up to her for signatures should be whetted by Godbole saab and should bear his initials just below the signature block.
He had met Anjali twenty years back and they were married for thirteen years now. She had given him everything that he could have asked for except for one thing that she had not been able to bear his child.
He had taken her for checks by gynaecologist several times. The gynaec had not been able to find anything wrong except to tell them that their anxiety was probably the cause. It may or may not have been; but, as time went by, it actually became the cause. The more time passed, the more was their anxiety at not having to have a child.
In their holidays, they had been to several holy places to pray for Anjali to become a mother and for him, Vikas Godbole to become a proud father. They had also been to Sri Sai Baba at Shirdi. But, they hadn’t been fortunate.
Just at the time they had almost given up, they found that their loneliness and anxiety had actually reunited them in more matured love. They longed to be with each other. She was at home during the daytime. She tailored clothes for the children and actually earned more with this hobby of hers than he did as a head-clerk. However, from the time he returned from office late in the evenings until next day after breakfast, they were virtually inseparable. They played Scrabble, went for walks on the sea-shore after dinner, and they watched television together. Once in a week they went to see either Marathi or Hindi movies.
Finally, God decided to be kind to them and she was expecting. Indeed, it was due anytime now. And that accounted for his rush home in the evenings as if his life depended upon it. Nowadays, thanks to Anjali’s condition, he was always the first or at least amongst the first few in the queue.
Standing in the queue everyday, he used to see an urchin approaching the queue for alms. He was a boy of about eight, unkempt, his nose dripping mucous, dressed in his tattered shorts and invariably in the same yellow shirt that obviously had seen better days. His feet were bare. He went from one person to the other, touching them on their trousers or sarees and suits, lifting his hand from their clothes, bringing it repeatedly to his forehead and saying, “Saab/memsaab gareeb ko kuchh de do. Subah se kuchh nahin khaya. Aap ka bhala hoga“. (Sir/Madam, please five something to this poor boy. Haven’t eaten anything since the morning. God will bless you.)
Most people turned their faces away from the boy and ignored him or just shooed him away. Some even began animated conversations about how beggary was the curse of India and how one had to be careful about such ruffians: “Before you can say Jai Ganesh, such guys would flick your bags and run away. You can’t trust these thugs.”
Vikas too had busied himself looking here and there in the first few days. However, once when the boy had tugged at his trousers hard, he looked down and looked straight into those pleading eyes; these were intense and bore into him. He could never look away after that. He was hooked. He would take out some coins and give the boy and now they had become friends; a degree of intimacy had set in as if they knew each other from ages.
He liked looking into those deep eyes searching his face for recognition. The looks changed from pity to joy when the boy sighted him. A smile would form on the corners of those young supple lips as if thanking him for what he was going to receive: a coin, a currency note, a toffee, a biscuit; invariably, Vikas Godbole got into the habit of carrying something for the boy.
Those eyes, those deep and eager eyes haunted Vikas. He was trying his best to read them, to figure out what story they carried for him. But, every time, he thought he came close to it, the bus arrived and he rushed home to be with the love of his life Anjali.
One day, immediately after his pay-day, he bought the boy a new shirt and a pocket comb. And today, the boy had changed his looks somewhat: hair were combed and he almost looked clean. As he approached Vikas in the queue, his heartbeat quickened. If it hadn’t been for the others in the queue who continued to sneer not just at the boy but also at the reckless habit of Vikas Godbole to show affection towards a street urchin, he would have wanted to hug him and pick him up in his arms. Vikas knew instinctively that he would be buying the young boy many more clothes and things in the future.
He reached out in his pocket, took out a few coins, and handed over to the boy. One of them slipped from his hand and rolled over to the road. Impulsively, the boy ran after it. He couldn’t have let go of a coin on a day when he needed it most to buy an ice-stick to add to the joy of wearing his new shirt for the first time in his life.
A speeding car had just overtaken a scooter and busy as it was in overtaking, it failed to react to the young urchin running after the coin. There was a screeching noise of the brakes, a fearful howl, the sound of metal meeting flesh, a scream, several shouts, blood and a body lying under the car, that of the urchin, honks, more shouts…….and then the sound of a siren.
Vikas broke from the queue and ran towards the car. Everything happened in a flash even after that. The car reversed a little, a cop appeared on the scene, an ambulance appeared, took the boy away and a police van took the car driver away. The police man parked the car involved in the accident on the side to make way for the traffic.
Vikas tried to get into the ambulance with the boy but he was pushed out. Later, when he had missed his bus and just sat on the kerb, he was trying to come to grips with what had happened. It was certainly his charity that had killed the child. He would never forgive himself for it. Should he have gone with the ambulance or with the police van? But, that would have required telling them what the child meant to him. In what way was he related to the child? Did he really mean that much? Was it simply because of those deep and keen eyes?
Vikas had no idea of how long he sat at the kerb and how much he cried. One hour, two hours, or even more; he had lost count of time.
Finally, it was dark and he resignedly caught a bus home. All throughout the journey he kept thinking of what could he have done before and after the accident. Could it have worked out any other way?
He reached home and found the door locked. It was unlike Anjali to have left home in this condition and that too without informing him. He reached into his pocket for his phone and then saw that there were as many as seven missed calls from her in a span of three hours. He got panicky and knocked at the door of his neighbour to enquire from them where Anjali was since she often informed them before leaving home. They informed him that she had gone into labour and had to be rushed to the maternity hospital.
He went running there. He was in a trance. He prayed to all the gods known to him whilst running.
The nurse told him that it was a difficult delivery but the good news was that his wife had given birth to a healthy male child. Could he see them? He was told that it was late and Anjali had been totally exhausted. He could go home he could come in the morning to see them.
He didn’t go home at all. He sat on the bench in the corridor and reminisced about his life with Anjali. He couldn’t believe it; he was a father after all those years of hopelessness. He prayed for her, prayed for his new-born son. But, every now and then his thoughts returned to the urchin in his new shirt, combed hair, his reaching into the pocket, taking out the coins, one of the coins rolling on to the road and the boy rushing after it for the last time in his life.
He hardly slept except for a few times when he dozed off due to sheer fatigue.
In the morning, he was taken to her bed. Both she and the child were awake. He hugged her and cried and then with tearful eyes he looked at his son.
Those deep and keen eyes looked back at him…..as if…..as if…..they hadn’t ever stopped looking at him.
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