by Atul Sharma
Sitting in a corner of the Kashmere gate bus stand in Delhi, Ramu’s eyes noted all children about his age --- twelve.
He sighted a boy in red sweater. And his feelings kindled regarding the red sweater. His eyes brightened up on imagining himself in a bright red sweater holding the hands of his parents. Alas! It could never be true. He loved red colour. It brought immense joy to him. And he loved a sweater in this colour. It brought a kind of thrill to his heart.
Then the rash honking of horn by a Haryana roadways bus and a rain of abuses by its driver brutally dragged Ramu out of his lovely daydreaming. He pushed his wheel cart to a side on which he sat cross-legged to allow parking space for the bus.
He looked at his clothes that were in tatters. A grey sweater so old and full of holes that its existence proved futile in the harsh winter of December. His bare feet collected the entire chill in its surrounding, transmitting it to his head and giving it an ache.
He pushed his cart to the tea vendor Kishan, held his steel glass in his hands with his hungry eyes searching for any signs of mercy in the eyes of Kishan. Kishan fed Ramu as per his mood. Sometimes he seemed to care too much for him and sometimes he bombarded Ramu with choicest of abuses.
Kishan threw a look at Ramu’s begging bowl and seeing a few coins in it asked:
“Hand me some.”
Ramu did not budge from his position, maintaining his posture as he knew soon leftover tea in the Kishan’s kettle will make its way into his glass.
Soon it happened making the glass half-full. Ramu took a small sip; he wanted the tea to stay longer in the glass so that he could savour its taste and warm his hands for a long time.
“Now bugger off,” shouted Kishan as Ramu was blocking way of his paying customers.
Ramu gulped hurriedly the last sip and pushed his cart to a side.
His eyes fell on Kalua, his boss. Kalua had many beggars like Ramu under his command from whom he collected earnings in the afternoon and evening.
Soon he found Kalua standing in front of him. His skin was so black that his black moustaches were nearly invisible and his white eyes always looked distinct from his face.
“Bastard where were you in the afternoon,” demanded Kalua.
“I was… was here,” stammered Ramu.
“Don’t you dare lie to me.”
And a cheek freezing slap made its way to Ramu’s face. The force of the slap stung Ramu. It was very cold and a tight slap was only going to aggravate the situation for Ramu.
“Never budge from your position,” ordered Kalua as he bent down to collect all the coins in Ramu’s bowl and moved on.
Ramu’s eyes became moist but he looked heavenwards to contain his tears.
Again, the sight of the red sweater made Ramu happy.
This time a kid around two was wearing the red sweater who was with his parents. The kid had a fair colour and the red sweater provided a faint red glow to his cheeks. The parents were finding it difficult to control the kid’s enthusiasm in the bus stand.
“It might be his first trip,” wondered Ramu.
The kid was running here and there giving his parents a tough time. Then the kid stood before Ramu. Ramu gave him a big smile. The kid showed his teeth in return. Ramu’s hands automatically touched the red sweater and he could feel the softness of the wool. It was a brand new sweater. The kid’s mother with a jerk brushed off Ramu’s hands and she hurriedly picked up the kid. The kid gave out a loud cry. And the mother, frightened by Ramu’s appearance placed a soft slap on the kid’s face.
Ramu felt bad for the
kid. He felt himself responsible for the slap.
“I should not have touched him,” regretted Ramu.
But he knew he didn’t did it deliberately. He was just a slave of his instincts at that time. He always wanted a red sweater but he knew no parents other than Kalua. And Kalua could never afford to have a clean and good looking Ramu as he was supposed to beg, to stir pity in the hearts of those who looked at him.
“One day I will run and wear a red sweater,” decided Ramu.
Kalua could think far ahead of him and he had made sure that Ramu could never be immunised for polio and this resulted in an invalid Ramu fulfilling the requirement of Kalua.
Kalua stole infants from anywhere. He even stole one day old from the hospitals. Some of them, the good looking ones were sold to couples desperate for a child and the unfortunate ones like Ramu were destined for bus stands, traffic lights, railway stations and crowded markets.
The mother made herself comfortable on a wooden bench with her back towards Ramu. The father went to buy tickets. The red sweater baby placed his chin on the mother’s shoulder facing Ramu. Ramu was relishing the blessed scene from a distance. The mother was lovingly patting her son. And every pat released a full smile from the boy spreading joy in the world.
Just then, Ramu’s whole body went into a kind of paralysis. His stare froze. He saw Kalua leaned against a round pillar. He was standing a few steps away staring at the child. The mother ceased to pat her child. She was now sitting erect hugging the child more tightly. A sense of anxiety spread on the child’s face. A rush of passengers who had just alighted from a Punjab roadways bus blocked Ramu’s vision. They were all loud and cheerful. And they were supposed to behave in this pompous manner as they were Punjabis and moreover they had a newly wed couple accompanying them.
After a few minutes of restless waiting all the passengers walked ahead providing Kalua with a hindrance free vision. The scene was same with Kalua still staring at the baby. Kalua’s eyes for a second changed their course, took a full round of the bus stand and then stopped midway to meet Constable Hari Ram’s. Kalua winked at him. And the bastard Hari Ram who beat Ramu frequently for fun and when drunk even snatched his earnings, disappeared into the washroom.
Now Ramu became worried. He knew what was about to happen? Ramu’s forehead created beads of sweat on it in the chilly weather. He knew that after a few minutes the child would never look so pretty. The child will always yearn for a red sweater. The child will become like Ramu for the rest of his life. And he prayed frantically that none of this should happen.
As Ramu was busy with his thoughts, Ramu heard a frightening loud sound. A tyre may have burst. But it looked like many tyres have burst together. Ramu’s eyes ran all over the bus stand and he saw that the Punjabi’s had lighted a few crackers. They were clapping and their joy knew no bounds. But this created total chaos in the bus stand. People panicked, ran for their lives. Babies cried for their mothers.
Ramu’s eyes searched for the red sweater kid. He was safe in the hands of his mother but the father had not arrived yet and the mother was frantically shouting for him.
Ramu saw the disgusting Kalua run towards the red sweater kid. He gave no time for the mother to act, a fist blow in the stomach of the mother, some wails, shouting and the kid was in the hands of Kalua.
Ramu shouted for help as he saw Kalua escaping with the red sweater kid. And he knew that another kid has lost his red sweater forever. ****