It was a premature morning. The sun was rising behind the hills. The cock awoke and prepared itself to cry out its alarm. The birds chirped about the sky, the women waddled about the house and the milkman serviced the streets. Kalu, son of the baniya who ran a grocery store, came out from his house and hurried off in the direction of the maidaan to play cricket. All along his way, he practiced cricket while throwing imaginary balls in the air.
‘Are you going to the central library?’ said Julee, pulling the hem of my shirt.
‘Yes! Don’t you want me to go?’ I asked bending a little towards her.
Julee brushed her nose with the black tie she wore over a blue school uniform. She was a bespectacled, little, fat girl who lived in an old house behind the maidaan with her family. Her school was about two kilometers away from her house, near the central library. As she was stout, she hated covering the distance on foot. Whenever she saw any familiar face lingering by maidaan she asked him to drop her at school. She wished she too had a bicycle like her friends, Tina and Alisha. Once, she asked for a bicycle on her birthday, but her poor parents refused to gift her one. Julee cried for two whole days and then her daily-routine went on.
‘You can go but after dropping me to school.’
‘All right!’ I said and put her bag on the back of the bicycle. She jumped on the crossbar of the bicycle and crossed her legs. I pedalled and took a straight path towards her school.
‘Where is your motorcycle?’ she asked while looking at Kalu who was running behind to ball across the maidaan. As Kalu came near a large peepal tree, he made a powerful dive on to the ground and caught the ball. Bowler and fielders cheered. The wah-wah of Kalu resounded across the field.
‘It is with my father,’ I said. ‘He’s gone to the office. Don’t you like my bicycle? I know how difficult it is to sit upon the crossbar, but the ride on the bicycle has its own fun.’
No response. She gazed the boys playing in the maidaan till we passed by a large building and the little lads disappeared behind it. She took her tie and swept her nose once again.
‘Kalu is your classmate, right?’
‘Yes! He is an awaraa chokra. He seldom comes to school.’ she coughed as we came by Ramesh’s stall where he was busy frying hot chilies.
‘How could you call him a loafer?’
‘My mother says so. Kalu doesn’t need to go school. His father owns a shop, so he could sit in it.’ Julee said. ‘My father is a milkman and girls don’t sell milk. So I don’t have any choice other than going to school.’
She stopped to retrieve her breath, ‘Moreover, I can’t ride father’s bicycle because I am a bachhi. And I think father would never buy a small bicycle for me.’
Julee sighed under her breath and felt sad. She took her tie and started rolling and unrolling it. Sinking into her “cycleless-world”, she looked straight ahead. She too wanted to go to school on a bicycle like her classmates, Tina and Alisha.
‘Bicycle is not such a good thing. In fact, it is worthless,’ I said. ‘In summer, it is difficult to ride under the blazing sun. And in winters, you can’t think how hard it is to pedal in the mist. Walking is better than cycling. While cycling, you can’t ride without your hands supporting the handles. But, while walking, you can shelter your head with your hands from the sun’s rays in summer, and in winters you can rub it together to keep your body warm. I am going to sell this bicycle. I don’t like it anymore.’
The little girl remained heartbroken.
‘Arey Janaab! Where are you going?’ shouted the old tailor, Master Ali, standing at the edge of his small shop. He was the oldest being in the village and knew almost everyone. He called everyone Janaab, even the women. A round cap on the head and an unruffled plain white beard made him resemble him the maulvi ahab of the masjid. His son had left him behind in the village and moved to the city, and never returned to see him. Master Ali suffered from night blindness. He would open the shop early in morning and close it early in the evening it would be. No one knew what he did after dusk fell.
I halted my bicycle at his shop. The old Ali held Julee’s chin and asked ‘Janaab! What happened? Janaab, why are you so gloomy?’
Julee didn’t reply and gently bowed her head.
‘Janaab, don’t you want to go school? Janaab, if you don’t like going school, you could come to my shop. I would teach you tailoring for free,’ said Master Ali. ‘Good children become even better and then migrate to cities, leaving their parents behind, Janaab.
‘Master, it is not like you think. She loves going school. She is sad because she wants a new bicycle,’ I intervened.
‘Oh! Janaab in that case you must go to school and learn something to earn some money. Janaab, good children become well and could buy a bicycle too,’ Master Ali smiled. Julee played with her tie and kept quiet. ‘Janaab, Don’t worry. I’ve got something for you. Wait a moment, Janaab!’
Julee lifted her head for the first time. Skeptically, she waited. Master Ali called out for Shanu and asked him to bring Puchu. Shanu, the washerman’s son, was a ten-year old boy and worked for Master Ali.
The sweet little boy came out from a small room with a parrot perched on his head. Suddenly, a smile came across Julee’s face. The smile was not for the parrot but for Shanu instead, for she remembered Shanu offering his bicycle to her every Sunday. As Shanu came by us, Puchu cried out gazing at Julee, ‘Janaab… Janaab… Why are you so happy?’
Everyone laughed and the stout girl was happy again.
‘Do you like parrots?’ asked the little Shanu clothed in dirty rags.
‘Yes, I like…’
Before Julee continued, Master Ali said, ‘Janaab, you could play with Puchu whenever you come here. Puchu is very shararti. He is nalayak but would never leave me and fly away, Janaab.’
‘All right Master!’ said Julee with a smile fixed to her lips.
‘Master Ali! Now, we shall leave. Otherwise, she will get late for her school.’ I said.
‘Okay, Janaab!’ said Ali. ‘But don’t forget to visit Puchu again.’ Master Ali kissed Puchu like a grandfather would.
A soft smile passed between Shanu and Julee. . I pedaled fast and didn’t stop until we reached her school. Julee was happy, and all along our way from Master Ali’s shop to school, she played with her fingers and tie, and sang the Christmas songs.
‘Now go to your classroom and study well,’ said I.
She jumped off the bicycle and shouldered her bag. ‘All right. But please don’t sell your bicycle,’ she beamed. ‘Till I grow as tall as you and buy it from you.’
Julee turned around and merrily ran towards the ground where students were assembled to sing their morning prayers.
I gazed at her till she disappeared in the swarm of students. I pedalled once again and moved in the direction of library.
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