It was a chilly night. Not much probably, because he was not having goose bumps as he came strolling by the dark lane, at this hour. The garbage dump gave away a foul smell; his nose puckered a bit, as he rounded the corner that led to his home. He was munching a half-rotten carrot that had fallen from one of the sacks when Abir Bhai was unloading them from the delivery truck.
He smiled a bit; his playmates hadn’t noticed him sneaking out with that carrot, or he wouldn’t have had even half of it in his possession. From the distance he saw smoke billowing from the ramshackle hut which was his home, meaning he was right on time, his mother was in the process of preparing dinner. He lived in one of the poorest and most unhygienic lanes in the slum, and was habituated to the cold, the heat, the rain and other forces of nature, as well as the filthy creatures that came with it, since his birth.
The whole day he scoured the huge cement walled dustbins of the city with his companions (somehow he always found it cleaner than those of his slum; they were not dustbins made of cement, they were just dumps). He was new to the profession; he had just turned nine, and was learning fast. His companions were already earning money, and he wanted to earn money too.
“Not that soon, kid, you are too young, you don’t even know what things to pick and what not”, Hassan would sneer at him. Hassan was the oldest in their group; he was fourteen. He considered himself a kind of leader, and often snatched away the goodies that the other children picked up. But he looked up to Hassan, he even parted his hair like him, and watched him closely as he talked, ate or walked. He thought that Hassan was sometimes too rash and inhuman; he didn’t like when he beat the other boys or mouthed curses at people. But he was young, and he took to Hassan as his mentor, though only professionally.
As he neared his house, he heard another voice, speaking in low tones, besides his mother, and blood boiled up within him. It belonged to the drunk rickshawala, Kadam, who had started pestering his mother since the day his father disappeared. Kadam wanted to marry his mother, but he wasn’t a good person, since he already had a wife and a daughter he didn’t care for. Kadam couldn’t stand him, and he too disliked him, for he kept coming even after his mother had made it clear that she wasn’t interested in him or his proposal.
These days, Kadam had been showing signs of being violent, often when he returned home, he would find the house in a mess, clothes and utensils strewn everywhere, and his mother crying in one corner.
Scared that the same thing might happen again, he ran the remaining steps to his home, and pushed the door open. His mother was sitting by the mud chullah, and there was Kadam, sitting beside her, his greedy eyes on his mother, his low voice cajoling her. His entrance made his mother look up, immediately she hastened up to him, leading him inside. This stopped Kadam’s speech, and he seemed angry at his arrival. He knew his mother felt safe when her son was at her side, even though he wasn’t much of a physical help to her. But he was all that was left to her in this world, as she was all to him.
Kadam rose to leave. He gave a huge yawn, stretched his arms as if he was sitting there for a long time, and said, “Back so soon, boy?”, and laughed sarcastically. Then he put his right hand in his pocket, and took out some coins. “Here, take this, buy some food and feed yourself, how thin you have become,” his greedy eyes on his mother again. “And feed this little wretch too,” saying this he made a gesture of taking his mother’s hand to give the money. His mother was clutching onto him, and before she could react, he slapped away Kadam’s approaching hand. His eyes were blazing, he hated this man, he wanted to burn his rickshaw, he wanted to hit him.
He didn’t realise when Kadam pulled him by the hand towards him, and hurled him on the floor. His mother’s shriek made him look up, he was blocking her way, not letting her come to his aid. Then as if nothing had happened, that man took his mother’s hand in his own, trying to force her into taking the money. He got up and grabbed him from behind, and was slapped and kicked. At last, Kadam threw the coins on the floor, and left, swearing loudly, saying that he had had enough of her son, and he would come again tomorrow.
That night, before going to bed (he could not eat a morsel), he picked up the coins from the floor and counted them. One five-rupee coin, one two-rupee coin and four one-rupee coins. After counting with his fingers, it totalled to eleven rupees. For a moment, his eyes shined at the thought of him having so much money. Then he put the money in his pocket and went to sleep. His mother had not noticed perhaps; she was silent and preoccupied with her own thoughts.
The next day, he got up as usual and went out. He didn’t know what he was going to do with the money, he hadn’t made any plans. He decided to take the day off, he wasn’t in the mood to work. Instead, he went to the bazaar, to the sabji mandi, to Abir Bhai, with whom a customer was haggling over the price of a kilo of potatoes. He watched them both intently; the customer, a middle-aged man, wearing glasses, in a white shirt and black trousers and Abir Bhai, potbellied, moustached, wearing a dirty vest and smelling of sweat. Instantly, his hand reached out to the money in his pocket. After watching them for a long time, he came to a decision; the man in the white shirt and black trousers had to be right. After all, he was going to pay the money and he had every right to bargain. Money did not grow in trees, it had to be earned, wasn’t it?
He began to walk aimlessly, to wherever his feet took him. By now, he was feeling very hungry. Earlier, he used to look longingly at the food stalls by the roadside. He fancied himself eating chaat paapris, phuchkas, jhaalmuri and the like. Today, he could really have them; he had the money. Thinking this, he went to a stall nearby and stood there, waiting for his turn, a bit self-consciously. The vendor was preparing a plate of aloo chaat. He watched the man slicing up the boiled potatoes and arranging them in a circle around the plate, adding crispies and other delicacies into it, then finally topping it with chaat masala (the spicy mix that made his mouth water everytime) and a dollop of tarmarind chutney. He admired the deftness of the vendor, he was so fast!
But the plate of aloo chaat didn’t seem his money’s worth. He felt that its quantity did not equal the price. He started having second thoughts. Money was not to be wasted in something that just tastes good in your mouth but doesn’t satisfy your hunger, wasn’t it? And he was sure that the vendor didn’t wash his hands after pocketing the money, he just started to prepare another plate for the next customer.
Not interested in eating anymore, he started walking back towards his home. Maybe his mother was home today, she might also have taken the day off. She worked as a seamstress in a big cloth factory. Then he could have lunch at home, there wouldn’t be anything special to eat, but he loved his mother’s cooking. Why, that day when he had turned nine, she had cooked such a delicious rajma curry that he had licked off the whole bowl in a go….
He was so lost in his thoughts that he bumped into Hassan just as he was turning a corner. The bump hurt him, he fell down and his head started reeling. “You dolt! Daydreaming idiot! Two eyes don’t seem enough for you to see or what!” Hassan was annoyed, but not angry. He looked at him. No, he was definitely not angry. He decided to ask him a question. Smiling sheepishly, he got up, dusted his shorts, and said innocently, “Hassan Bhai, suppose you had eleven rupees with you, what would you do?”
Hassan narrowed his eyes and said, “Why?” He just shrugged. Hassan gave a wry smile. “Listen kid, eleven rupees is nothing now. I wouldn’t even look at it. I would spend it the same instant the money came into my hands. And what is there to think? For the things that you fancy, eleven rupees are too less. So, there is no point in thinking about how to spend the money.” Saying this, he left.
He was at a loss now. He did understand what Hassan said, but how could a person with eleven rupees not think? Hassan was right, he had earned more than this but he had spent it all without thinking. That’s why he never knew what it was like to have money in your pocket. What it was like to feel and touch it.
He smiled again and started walking. His thoughts wandered to his mother again, and he began to feel worried. Maybe by now, his mother had discovered that he had taken away the money without asking her. Maybe she was angry. Maybe she would shout at him when he got home. Or be upset with him and not say anything. Or would hold him and cry. He began to walk faster, almost running. What if that scoundrel was back, what if he was disturbing his mother again, what if he hurt her, what if….??? Now he was running, as fast as he could.
He banged open the door and rushed in. His mother was there, sitting on the bed, sewing. “Where had you gone off? I asked the others, you were not with them, where were you? Now go and wash your hands and then come to eat.” He stood there without answering, happy that his mother was home as he wished, and relieved that she had not asked him about the money. He didn’t move till his mother turned her back on him to bring his food. Then, very quietly, he tiptoed to the bed and put the money under the pillow. After that, he went off to wash himself.
That night, after his meal, he lay down to sleep contentedly. Kadam hadn’t come, and he didn’t have to worry. He knew his mother would return the money, but it didn’t matter to him anymore. As long as he remembered how it was like to see the world when you have money in your pocket, nothing mattered. At least, not for him, because the last thought that came in his mind before he fell asleep was- he had been eleven rupees rich for a day.