“Who are you?
Do you want to know?”
Abdul was making his way through the squeezed-in streets of Old Delhi when I had asked this question of him. The fat sweet shop owner passed a sharp glance at him as he entered his shop to begin the day’s labour. As always, I was most disinterested in the chores Abdul was running through the damp shop. His urge of cleaning all the tables and waiting on the customers was incomprehensible to me. He had been doing that every day with the same energy since the 5 years that I had known him. “Why do you have to keep doing this? Do you really believe THIS is all you can be?” I would inquire, but in vain.
At home, I have always enjoyed the freedom to pester him for his indifference towards me. Mother has been really ill lately. She’s coughing half the time of the day and sleeping in the other half. So, every time she gives instructions for the things to be brought from the market I speak in his head the loudest I can. It is delightful to see his face redden with anger as he feels embarrassed to make his mother repeat her words. Oh! How much I enjoy my glorious moments!
But there is something exceptionally wrong with him today. I have been hovering in his mind since the morning and yet he hasn’t silenced me even once. I troubled him during his afternoon sleep and especially during his precious sneak into the school for over hearing lessons. Yet, he did not respond. Perhaps he would think something after this plum of a person scolds him for coming late.
“Welcome Sahib! Have you arrived already? It’s just 3 pm. Why don’t you take some rest and return by the evening?”
“That is in fact a good idea, Abdul! He is letting you take a few hours off by himself. Just say YES and leave.”
“I am sorry, Murari ji. My mother was not feeling well today. So, I stayed back with her to take care of her for a while.” And like every day, Abdul has put his wrong foot out today as well. But why should I care. He’ll have to take its humiliation all by himself. It is not as if I am bound to this plum man.
“Everyday the same excuse! I curse the day I employed you in service…….” Here we go again. I don’t understand why he even goes into the effort of repeating the same banter. It would spare me so much pain if he just checked Abdul’s reason with his mother. “Of course, he isn’t lying! If only you could care to investigate, you selfish man”. I don’t understand any of……
“What have you done Abdul! Where do you think you are going?”
“What is happening to you? I can’t understand a word you are thinking in the midst of your anxiety. I need you to calm down.”
“Home? You’re running home? How do you think that can help? You have just shoved the plum man and run off with a box of his jalebis. How do you think he’ll bare that!?” He isn’t listening to me again.
But why should I worry for mother’s scolding. He’ll be the one culprit of the theft of jalebis. He’s been the one who has betrayed his conscience – mislead ME – and served his interests. The Law would not spare him. The plum man might already be looking for a policeman!
But what would I do? I can’t even present my case.
Here’s mother! I’m sure she’ll teach a lesson to Abdul.
She looks frailer than she was when we left her for work. A drink of water might just rejuvenate her spirits and make her sturdy enough to beat this Abdul!
“Go ahead! Offer her a glass of water.”
Mother doesn’t look so well to me. Her hands are shaking and her voice is failing.
“She should better lie down, Abdul.” She’s pointing at the jalebi box. I think she’s asking where it came from.
“A Lie! What a liar you have become Abdul! I wish I could tell mother how you bought that box by exchanging a fist with the plum man”
She’s asking for a piece of the sweet. I don’t blame mother. She looks too tired to scold him right now. Maybe a bite of the jalebi might make her feel better. I think the only place where Abdul’s and my thoughts intersect is – in the smile of our mother. Perhaps, the Plum Man does have something to be proud of. His sugary sweet has indeed lit Abdul’s face. For the first time in today he is finally thinking about his reminisces – the good old days when father used to bring these jalebis on the first day of the month. I haven’t seen mother smile at us like this ever since father left us here.
That was then. And here we are now. With mother lying on the same old cot and smiling at us with the same touch of sorrowful warmth. She raises her hand to bless us. Only I can see that this blessing could never be more misleadingly disguised.
“What do you cry now Abdul? When you know it was you who chose to embitter her final breaths with the stolen bite?”
He isn’t thinking anything anymore. Where must he be going? The street outside is as alive as it can be during the twilight. He stood there in the middle of the bazaar and looked around him. Faces with innumerable masks leading to oblivion. And there! Mother shined down at us in all her glory. The stars were shining and brighter still, because mother could always illuminate her company. Yet, has anyone found her there? Why would the world care of another passing in the realm of unattainable sweetness? Murariji’s shop is open and full of customers who cannot notice him passing by.
In the squalor of the Past, the glimmers of the Present are serving to set new touchstones for the Future. While here he stands.
Down here were the peccable tangs of sweet life and up there the impeccable scintillate of eternity!
“You stand in their midst – as their temporary custodian.”