It’s a warm, sunny morning with the April sun advancing in the sky. The much awaited day in the life of Gattu is finally here! He is getting ready, and much as though he tries, is having serious trouble concealing his excitement! He is running through the house with his mother behind him trying to get him ready. She finally catches hold of him and spanks him on his back!
“Let me comb your hair, will you? I put the oil last night so that your hair would be all clean in the morning and not smelly, you rogue! Look at you – Why aren’t you wearing the new shirt which your father gave you on Diwali? Where is it?” Gattu tries hard at looking away, trying not to look in his mother’s eyes. He hasn’t worn that shirt again since the day he dropped oil on it while attempting to make a mud and oil house! Of all the things, his mother had to remember that shirt today. Hey Bhagwan, please rescue me out of this predicament! I will never, ever play with mud and oil again… But please let my mother forget it now!!
“It’s there in my box, Amma. I have kept it all neat and clean and washed and folded.” Gattu sighs and goes on to say, “but Amma, I didn’t wear it today as it is too big for me right now. We can save it for the times when I ll grow bigger.”
Amma smells a rat, especially in this ‘neat and clean’ explanation. She doesn’t have any delusions about her seven year old! And neatness is not one of his virtues… Just then, Gattu’s father emerges from the bathroom with a lungi wrapped around his waist and Amma rushes to check on breakfast for both of them. “Achcha, wear whatever but get ready fast! You have to leave now and your father is already ready.” Gattu’s sends a quick prayer to Bhagwan for saving him today albeit with a lie. He promises Bhagwan that he will make it up to Him soon by doing Puja (first he’ll ask Amma how to do it, and then he’ll perform the same!). Gattu goes looking for some ‘neat and clean and washed and folded clothes’ and finds the old orange shirt – his favourite and promptly wears the same on khaki shorts. Then he goes to the mantel where his father keeps the mirror and jumps to have a look at himself. He is too short for the mantle and has a tough time jumping up and down to catch a glimpse of himself. Anyway, he likes whatever he manages to see (!) and goes off to meet his father, who is waiting outside for him. There is a mat spread out and his father is sitting on it having his breakfast of roti and homemade achaar. Quickly, Gattu also gulps down his food. “Why are you gulping down your food like that. We don’t have a train to catch you know. Chew your food properly – it is good for your stomach… Pass me the water son.”
Gattu is too excited to pay heed to this sermon on eating habits. He doesn’t have any problem in his stomach and they are getting late. They will not get sufficient time at the hatiya- the local market and that’s what is bothering him. He can’t wait to reach there and enjoy his joy rides and sweets. He has waited for eternity for this day to dawn. “Yes Baba, but you also hurry up. We are getting late and we might even miss the bus! Then we won’t be able to go at all!”
“Gattu, don’t be so anxious. We will finish food properly, we will go to the hatiya, we will buy you sweets and give you money for your rides which we will both enjoy, and then come back home safely. All in good time, my son. Don’t you worry.”
Gattu’s father, Sitaram was a beedi maker and of late, had not been doing too well financially. That was the reason their visits to the hatiya had become few and far between. This visit itself was happening well over two and a half months. Their staple diet these days had slipped to rotis and achaar. Even dal (pulses) had become so expensive that almost no house in the village could afford it! Gattu’s Amma made homemade achaar from the old mango tree in the neighbourhood. Sometimes they borrowed the mangoes for achaar, sometimes they stole them, but whenever, she got hold of them, she made sure that she made lots and lots of it to survive their days to come… She was a good home-maker and loved Gattu a whole lot. Even though she could be annoying at times, specially regarding his infamous unruly hair, she was a good mother, and sitting in the bus ruminating about his life, Gattu felt an overwhelming rush of emotion for his father, for his mother, for his home, for his life in the village. Sitting high above, Bhagwan took note of this rush of pure emotion and forgave Gattu for the lie regarding his new shirt!
“Baba, how long will we take?”
“Just about half an hour or even lesser. Okay now, tell me, what are your plans once you reach there?” He asked his son indulgently.
“Baba, I want to buy a lungi like yours. My friends come to the village pond to bathe wearing lungis and I also want one please.”
“Oh! But you are too young to wear a lungi and bathe in the pond. It sounds ridiculous! Your mother will never allow it! Why don’t you think of buying something else? Like sweets perhaps?”
“Baba, you promised me that you ll buy me anything I want. This is not fair! Anyway, I was planning to have sweets too, but that was after the rides. I want to go on two rides at least.”
“Yes beta, I ll take you on the two rides and buy you sweets but am not very sure about the lungi! Now, sit quietly and don’t argue.”
In about twenty minutes, both father and son were there at the hatiya and what a sight met their eyes. The local market was throbbing with life and people. There was a hubbub of activity as people jostled one another in their excitement and impatience to reach first to the counter selling tickets for the rides! Sitaram was an inherently shy, unassertive man and could not keep pace with the crowd. After having been thrown out of the joy ride queue twice, Gattu took over and made his way through the crowd. He bought two tickets and came out triumphant. Oh! what pride Sitaram felt at the sight of Gattu waving their tickets in the air as he ran to hug his father!
After the rides, it was the turn for sweets and both father and son had an enormously sweet tooth! So, they had rabri followed by jalebis. Sitaram got some extra jalebis packed for Amma too.
“Baba, let’s go to buy lungi now. I am a big man just like you and my friends wear them so why can’t I?”
Sitaram shifted uncomfortably and missed Amma more than ever. It was difficult for him to say ‘No’ to his son. Two things were there; one Gattu was actually very small for a lungi and two, he didn’t have the kind of money to buy a lungi. He decided to be honest – it was always simpler.
“Beta, firstly I don’t have the kind of money to buy a lungi. See I haven’t bought one for myself since last year either. And secondly, Amma will not only scold you but me as well if I bought a lungi for you. Please understand Beta. One day you’ll be big and you’ll be wearing only lungis.”
Gattu didn’t even bother to reply to this! It just felt very upsetting and unfair – he had so looked forward to this purchase – a sign of his growing up. But no, his Baba and Amma don’t seem to think so. Phew!!!
On their way back in the bus, Gattu felt asleep leaving Sitaram to his own worrisome thoughts – of money and livelihood and family sustenance. They didn’t own any piece of land and it was getting increasingly difficult for him to support his family through beedi making. He was in debt and only God knew how they’ll come out of it! Again the idea came to him and despite all reservations Amma had against it, he saw with clarity that that was perhaps the only way out of their situation.
Gautam stirred in his sleep, as he felt the bus handle poke him in his ribs. His tongue tingled with the flavor of the jalebis and his heart was beating fast, as if still on the joy ride… He wanted to linger in this world and to stay here forever. The smell of the earth beneath and the clear sky was all too palpable, waiting to be touched and savoured… He wanted to get lost in this world, it felt safe and familiar, this was his world. But he knew it was a dream. It had felt too good to be true!
Barely a year later, poverty expelled Sitaram and his family to a nearby city, an upcoming large city where the landscape was changing faster by the day. There was constant requirement for construction workers. As is common in these construction sites, the labourers were roughly treated and poorly paid. Sitaram took up work as a construction worker, where he was deeply exploited. He found it difficult to keep pace with the demands of his monstrous contractor, and soon found his escape in alcohol. To earn and save money (even from Sitaram!), Gautam took to running errands at a local tea stall.
For Gautam, all innocence had left life.