An Indian Summer Night

by Akanksha B
(Odisha, India)

Location: 18° 55' N, 72° 54' E


A heavy mist hung low in the valley. It was a queer summer night, a moonless one. Periodic flashes of lightning lit up the black sky, sending shadows dancing across the crushed rock route. The haze was so dense that it blocked one's senses, burning off their visual sense.
The clouds cried at unnotified intervals, sometimes pouring as if it was the remainder of the universe and sometimes teasing with a low drizzle.

Through the dense, blinding fog, the light rays from a small lamp penetrated the cloak of white, giving travelers that little spark of promise. All the trucks and buses had been stranded that night because of the impregnable fog. Then they drove to the station, where the small lamp lit in all its glorification, and stayed there for the night.

It was a modest tea shop. The proprietor had been clever enough to not shut down the shop at one time he had found out the fog descend down from the stacks. He had asked his boys to stay back as he knew that many truck drivers would stop by. With over thirty years of experience in hunting down that small roadside tea stand, he knew how to handle uncanny nights as these. He had experienced those days when no one would stop by for a sip of his masala chai and he'd secretly store the prepared drink for the following day. And then he had experienced those foggy nights that drew every truck driver towards his cubicle.

A small smile dawned upon his scrawny face as he envisioned a big, burly man walk towards his cubicle. He was letting the cat out of the bag with a gangly boy who probably passed off to be the assistant.

They called for their seats along the lowly camp bed in front of the low, broken home. The asbestos had rusted out, but a minor percentage of it covered the roof of the shop, supported by old bamboo sticks as a base. The owner lit the stove, quickly blowing away the smoke from the pot and pouring the milk into it.

Through the smokes and thin layer of mist, he saw another driver to make his room towards the store.

"Boys," he knelt down and shook the three young children who had dozed off on the floor. Their eyes fluttered open slowly, adjusting to the light around.

"Y-yes master?" they muttered in a slightly doubtful voice as they sat up, rubbing their eyes and yawning.

"We have many customers," the owner said carefully. "Hence I want one of you to stay back with me and help assist the customers and I want two of you to hasten to my household and ask Amma for flour. We'll make them some quick food as well."

The three little boys nodded quickly as a trace of happiness lit up their faces. More customers meant more money. So there master would pay them a few more pennies that night. Faizal and Suraj decided to get the flour. They were a few years older than Akhil, who stayed back to serve his master.

Akhil hailed from an extremely poor household. He had passed all his childhood at the slum where they used to be. The hustle bustle of the town had drowned their cries. Their homes had been like catacombs, trapping them and hindering their access to the world outdoors.

At a time when Akhil was supposed to be receiving a school bag on his shoulder and playing with papers and books, he was digging into garbage dumps and drawing out reusable material as if it were gold. With the margin of their slums nearly suffocating them, all their dreams rose and submerged with the evening sun.

His mother, who used to work at one of the high rise apartments located near their slum, used to fill him in with the stories of the outside world. She used to tell him about the number of cars her employer took in. She told him of the new dresses they wore everyday and of the foreign language they talked. All that used to fill Akhil's little heart with an immense delight. He desired to tread into that realm and exist like those people. Then he went away one day and was picked out by the possessor of the tea shop who hired him.

Akhil was a hard working kid. He would work overtime to earn a few extra pennies. He would eat the stale rotis his employer would give him. He would put on those rags and never dispose them. He would sleep under the unsteady roof of the tea shop, even in the toughest of storms. Often the great unwashed, who stopped by at the tea shop, would acknowledge this little male child of eleven taking orders from the customers and doing them efficiently. Some would ask them to sit there and they'd question him about where he came from and his family. They'd pick up the little boy talk excitedly about his family and how he was going to gain a lot and get a large flat in Mumbai. Some would laugh at his unrealistic dreams while some would sympathize with the family he was conducted in. But Akhil would smile at every customer and fall back to doing his work, without an ominous tone in his heart.

The possessor of the tea stall never understood what the pushing force behind Akhil was. While the other two boys would always hesitate before volunteering to do a work, Akhil would gladly take it up.

As he poured the tea leaves into the brimming pot, he saw Akhil take glasses of water to the customers. They gladly took a glass and patted the little, dark boy on his head. Akhil collected the glasses back and carried it to the closing of the store where they used to wash the utensils.

"Akhil beta," the owner called.

"Ji sahib?" the small boy was beside him in a blink of an eye.

Patting away the beads of perspiration that covered his brow, the owner poured the boiling tea into the little earthen cups. Then he transferred the cups to a plate and gave them to Akhil.

"Go, give them," he said.

The small boy nodded and walked to the customers, with a little bounce in his steps.

Every bit the night dragged by, more people started crowding the booth. Suraj was busy making rotis at the rear of the shop while Faizal took them to the customers. Akhil served tea to the new customers and occasionally helped Suraj.

"Beta listen?"

The burly Punjabi driver called Akhil. He stirred in his camp bed and stretched his legs, letting out a rich hint of respite. The drives gave him a constant ache in his knees, only for him, money came before health. How could he handle himself without money?

Akhil walked to the man and settled down at the foot of the cot.

"What's your name?"

"Akhil."

"Where are you from?"

"Mumbai."

"Since when have you been working here?"

"Two years."

"What do your parents do?"

"My mother works as a maid," Akhil said and paused a little before talking about his father. "And my father is a drunkard."

The very honesty in the child overwhelmed the human. While people were always looking for excuses to cross up the bad things done by their household members, Akhil spoke the true statement.

"Only," Akhil added quickly, "I'll earn a pile and then we'll survive and endure in a flat."

Oh, the wishes and dreams of a child's spirit!

"I'm already saving up. I have already kept a hundred rupees in two years."

The man felt a little smile cross his features on hearing the zestfulness in the lad's voice. It was unknown how people managed to preserve their dreams alive. When he had been around the lad's age, he had desired to become a pilot. But as he rose up and realized the ways of the universe, he knew that his dream of becoming a pilot was an unrealistic one. If he could earn something a day and go back to home without a hungry stomach, that was plenty for him. He saw the same flicker of hope and dreams in the eyes of the young boy who sat there.

"Do you think your dream will ever come true?" he asked, involuntarily. He had been so misplaced in his thoughts that the words escaped his lips.

"Ma used to tell me every night that our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them."

The man smiled at the small boy and ruffled his hair playfully.

"Your mother has told the truth, " he said thoughtfully.

A few minutes of silence passed by, the gentle sweep of the breeze resonating in their spikes. Akhil looked around at the drivers who had settled into their cots and were looking up at the thin layer of fog that surrounded them.

"Sahib, do you require anything else?" Akhil asked.

The man quickly shook his head. Then he pulled out something from his Kurta and slipped it into the hands of the little boy.

"What is this?" Akhil asked, instantly as he felt the boundaries of something prick the inside of his palm. The man smiled as he closed Akhil's fingers slowly.

"Keep it in your pocket. Don't spread it until it dawns."

Akhil nodded obediently and promptly stole his hand into the pouches of his tattered pants. Then, standing up, he wished the man a Goodnight and walked back to the shop to take a short nap.

He woke up in the morning to the sound of his owner sweeping the front of his tea stall. The customers were all gone. The trucks no longer were lined across the route. The home felt empty once more.

Akhil's eyes scanned the area looking out for the Punjabi man who he had spoken to the late night. Then he recollected that the man had demanded him to only check his pockets in the forenoon. Quietly digging into his pouch, he plucked out the few ten rupee crumpled notes that the man had given him. His eyes gleamed with an unnamed emotion.
Those were a small amount, but for a boy who had the zeal to carry through his dreams, it was a huge sum of money. It was as if he had struck a giant spring and was closer to his aspirations.

Meanwhile, somewhere down the mountainous route, the truck driver smiled to himself. Indeed, all dreams could come true if everyone had the courage to pursue them. All dreams could...
***

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