I’m 11 years old and I’m about to enter seventh grade. Thanks to our school’s policy to not teach the regular NCERT English readers that contain rather boring lessons but to teach the text books issued by the Oxford University Press, we have very cute, small and interesting reads as our English texts. The contributing authors included big names like Hemingway, Doyle, Satyajit Ray, R.K. Narayan, Oscar Wilde and much to my delight; Isaac Asimov and Roald Dahl. Short stories by Asimov and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate factory’ by Dahl continue to be my favourites. However the story that impressed me most was one by an unknown Indian author, Shekhar Joshi. I rarely had emotional overflows reading a story…stories amazed me, puzzled me, made me think, made me sympathize but rarely gave me tears. And the ones that gave me those, remained etched in my memory. One by which I was deeply moved was ‘Charlie and the Chocolate factory’ about which I shall write someday later. The other one was from my very own English text of seventh grade, the one by Shekhar Joshi. I still have the text with me and it has travelled with me across the state and I must’ve read the story more than fifty times. I post it here and hope that some of you will share the same emotions that I had when I read the story as a kid of 11.
Jagdish Babu saw him for the first time, at the small café with the large signboard, in the market place. He had a fair complexion, sparkling eyes, golden brown hair, and an unusual smooth liveliness in his movements-like a drop water sliding along the leaf of a lotus. From the alertness in his eyes, one would guess his age at only nine or ten, and that’s what it was.
When Jagsish Babu, puffing on a half-lit cigarette, entered the café, the boy was removing some plates from a table. By the time Jagdish Babu had seated himself at a corner table, the boy was already standing in front of him. He looked as though he’d been waiting for hours for him-for a person to sit in that seat.
The boy said nothing. He did bow slightly, to show respect, and then just smiled. Receiving the order for a cup of tea, he smiled again, went off, and then returned with the tea in the twinkling of an eye.
Jagdish Babu had come from a distant region and was alone. In the hustle and bustle of the market place, in the clamour of the café, everything seemed unrelated to himself. Maybe after living here for a while and growing used to it, he’d start feeling some intimacy in the surroundings. But today the place seemed alien. Then he began remembering nostalgically the people of his village region, the region, the school and the college boys there, the café in the nearby town.
Jagdish Babu flicked the ash from the cigarette. In the boy’s pronunciation of ‘Sahab’, he seemed something which he had been missing. He started to follow up the speculation-‘What’s your name?’
‘Very well, Madan! Where are you from?’
‘I’m from the hills, Babuji.’
‘There are hundreds of hill places-Abu,
‘Almora, Sha’b,’ he said with a smile, ‘Almora.’
‘Which village in Almora?’ he persisted.
The boy hesitated. Perhaps embarrassed by the strange name of the village, he answered evasively- ‘Oh it’s far away, Sha’b. It must be fifteen or twenty miles from Almora.’
‘But it still must have a name,’ Jagdish Babu insisted.
‘Dotyalgaon’, he answered shyly.
The expression of loneliness vanished from Jagdish Babu’s face. When he smiled and told Madan he was from a neighbouring village, the boy almost dropped his tray with delight. He stood there, speechless and dazed, as though trying to recall his past.
The past-village …. high mountains … a stream … mother …. Father ….. older sister ….. younger sister …. big brother.
Whose shadow was it that Madan saw in the form of Jagdish Babu? Mother? - No. Father? - No. Elder or younger sister? - No. Big brother? - Yes, Dajyu!
Within a few days, the gap of unfamiliarity between Madan and Jagdish Babu had disappeared. As soon as the gentleman sat down, Madan would call out-‘Greetings, Dajyu!’ ‘Dajyu, it’s very cold today.’ ‘Dajyu, will it snow here too?’ ‘Dajyu, you didn’t eat much yesterday.’
Then from some direction would come a cry of ‘Boy!’ Madan would be there even before the echo of the call could be heard.
‘Anything for you, Dajyu?’ he would call out repeating the word ‘Dajyu’ with eagerness and affection of a mother embracing her son after a long separation.
After some time, Jagdish Babu’s loneliness disappeared. Now, not only the market-place and the café, but the city itself seemed like home to him.
‘Madan! Come here.’
This repetition of the word ‘Dajyu’ aroused the burgeois temperament in Jagdish Babu. The thin thread of intimacy could not stand the strong pull of ego.
‘Shall I bring tea, Dajyu?’
‘No tea. But what’s this “Dajyu, Dajyu” you keep shouting all the time? Have you no respect for a person’s prestige?’
Jagdish Babu flushed with anger, had no control over his words. Nor did he stop to wonder whether Madan could know the meaning of the word ‘prestige’. But Madan, even with no explanation, had understood everything. Could one who had braved an understanding of the world at such a tender age fail to understand one, unimportant word?
Having made the excuse of a head ache to the manager, Madan sat in a small room head between his knees, and sobbed. In his situation far from home, his display of intimacy towards Jagdish Babu had been perfectly natural. But now, for the first time in a foreign place, he felt as though someone had pulled him from the lap of his mother, from the arms of his father, and from the protection of his sister.
Madan returned to his work as before.
The next day, heading for the café, Jagdish Babu suddenly met a childhood friend, Hemant. Reaching the café, Jagdish Babu beckoned to Madan. But he sensed that the boy was trying to remain at a distance. On the second call, Madan finally came over.
Today that smile was not on his face, nor did he say, ‘What can I bring, Dajyu?’
Jagdish Babu himself had to speak up- ‘Two teas, two omlettes.’
Even then instead of replying, ‘Right away, Dajyu’, he said, ‘Right away, Sha’b’, and then left as though the man were a stranger.
‘Perhaps a hill boy?’ Hemant speculated.
‘Yes,’ muttered Jagdish Babu and changed the subject.
Madan had brought the tea.
‘What’s your name?’ Hemant asked, trying to be friendly. For a few moments silence engulfed the table. Jagdish Babu’s lowered eyes were centered on the cup of tea.
Memories swam before Madan’s eyes-Jagdish Babu asking him his name like this one day … then, ‘Dajyu, you didn’t eat much yesterday’ … and one day, ‘You pay no attention to anyone’s prestige …’
Jagdish Babu raised his eyes and saw that Madan seemed about to erupt like a volcano.
‘What’s your name?’ Hemant repeated.
‘Sha’b they call me “boy”, he said quickly and walked away.
‘A real idiot,’ Hemant remarked, taking a sip of tea. ‘He can’t even remember his own name’.