Dawn crept quietly over the sleeping Ganganagar. I saw father waddling about the house, rubbing his hands under the nipping blanket of winter. Though he was covered up with an overcoat over a couple of warm shirts, he was quivering and looked somewhat frail.
I climbed down my bed and walked to verandah. I saw mother asleep in her bed. Before she woke up, father would manage the dirty clothes in buckets, fold up the bed-sheet and blankets, keep motorcycles outside the house, bring milk from diary and newspaper from vendor, clean the rooms, and oil his hairs. As far as I could remember, from last twenty years, he had spent his morning in managing the house and readying himself for rest of his day.
As he opened the main door, a cool breeze entered the house. The roads were enclosed up with the fog and the street lights were still shimmering. Old father shivered and closed the door.
He gasped and said, ‘Beta bahut thand hai bahar. Rajai mein vapas jaa’ (Son, It’s freezing outside. Get back into the quilt.)
I nodded. Trembling, he returned to his room and shut the door behind. Lights off.
I climbed up my bed again and picked up a book of Mahatma Gandhi. I saw an image of Gandhiji in white dhoti and bared chest. How Gandhiji had managed himself in winters? He might have spent his winter days living in southern-India. I shut the book, pulled the quilt and drifted off.
When I woke up, mother and father were handsomely dressed up. I saw them running about the house. It was obvious they were getting late to their jobs. Mother came to me and scolded, ‘Khada hoja! Late hogi mein’ (Stand up! I am late.)’
Confusingly, I said, ‘Now what I would do to drop you on time?’
‘Chaa pee-laey’ (Drink your tea).
‘Ley! Haun mere chaa pean naal ki hojuga?’ (Now, what would happen if I take the tea?)
‘Mar- zaa kiteh jaa key.’ (Go and die somewhere!).
I guffawed. No one can understand Punjabi-mothers. Everyday, they ask their children to die and yet, can’t live without them even for a minute.
As I see off my parents, I was alone in the house. It had been two days since I read the book. Those two days, we (my old friend and I) explored my city, Sri- Ganganagar, buzzed around the houses of girls we were in love with. My friend shared me about his life in Delhi. He also told me that he was getting married in a year or two. I remembered him laughing while saying, ‘Teri shaadi mein to mein apne munnon k sath ayunga.’ (In your marriage, I would come along with my children.)
I took a book of Ruskin Bond and read a couple of short-stories. It was the fifth time I read the same stories. And again I felt sadness enveloping me. I took out my rejected manuscripts from publishers and observed my writings. Those were ridiculous. I felt ashamed of myself. I killed my 5 hours in watching television and in celebrating my weakness. Sometimes it feels good while doing nothing more than eating, sleeping and farting.
I got out of my bed in the afternoon and decided to bring a new book from the Gol-bazaar (main-market) to improve my grammar. I had half-a-dozen books of grammar already in my book-shelf unopened and still, I wanted one more. I knew I would not read this book too, but no one could resist my love for collecting books for my book-shelf. My book-shelf was a small box which was once used by mother to keep cooking oil. I was expecting mother would gift me a book-shelf on my birthday. If she would refuse, I would not ask from father.
In the beginning of every month, father used to pay the bills of house with his salary and then he remained with two or three thousand rupees as his pocket money. He compromised all his cravings of luxury life with our happiness by admitting us (Sister and I) in the affluent colleges. He bought good clothes for us every year and draped himself with old ones. He thought about us whole day long and had always failed to share his emotions with us. Whenever we offered him to come with us to buy something new, he had always refused our invitations
We are proud of him.
As I sat astride on my motorcycle, I began moving my way to Gol Bazaar. The afternoon sun failed to clean the streets engulfed in the fog. Roads were silent. Street dogs were rarely seen. A crew of sweepers was sitting at the corner of a street, warming his hands over the fire. As I passed durga-mandir, I observed the market which was always stuffed up with crowd was silent now.
When I reached Nehru-park, I saw a group of girls standing outside the Guru Nanak College. They were clad in white salwar suit with a pink duppatta around the neck. Some of them were in colorful caps and some were covered up with mufflers. All of them had notebooks in the hands and college-bags dangling on the shoulders. Their laughing face was a proof that roses could bloom in any season.
Among them, there was a lovely girl who was my batch-mate, four years ago. I remembered seeing boys fighting with each other for her. One of the boys even took a brick and smashed it on another.
Her face reminded me of the Hilaire Belloc’s lines that Khushwant Singh used for Indira Gandhi:
Her face was like the king’s command
When all the swords are drawn
I passed by her, remain unnoticed, and continued my way to Gol Bazaar. As I turned left from the Gandhi Chowk, I reached the street where in every shop books were sold. At the end of the road, there was a restaurant and on its left side, a police station stood.
I had never been to police station, but my friends who had visited there a few times, told me about the kotwali. When I asked, what police did with them? They laughed and said, ‘Salemadarchod hai sab k sab. Pattey maartey hai, pattey!’ (All are motherfuckers. They give lashes of the whip!)
I parked my bike and jumped off my motorcycle. I walked to a book store which displayed the books of old Indian author R.K Narayan in its showcase. No sooner I began scanning the novels placed in the shelf, a girl came and stood beside me.
She looked at me and asked while pointing towards a book by Khaled Hosseini, ‘Bhaiya! Is this a good book to read?’
She was a plain-eye, charming girl who had no idea that I was not the Bhaiya of shop. It was wrong to blame her. No girl could find anything less than a Bhaiya in a boy who has an untidy beard on the face and draped in old jackets and dirty track-pyjamas.
I looked for the owner of shop who was on the ladder, searching for a book I ordered. Before I could call the shopkeeper, she enquired again, ‘Bhaiya, this one!’
Her eyes twinkled and face shone. She had a sweet, gentle voice that brought out all the love in a man.
I resisted my urge to tell her the truth and said, ‘The kite runner by Khaled Hosseini.’ I began to show-off my knowledge for books, ‘It is a New York times bestseller and International bestseller. This is the story of two brothers, Amir and Hassan, placed in Afghanistan. A good read. Khaled Hosseini is the author of two more best selling novels, A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Mountains Echoed. Like this book, the stories of these two novels are also placed in Afghanistan. By the way, what genre you want to read?’
‘Actually I am planning to go abroad, so my teacher suggested me to read books to improve my verbal skills.’ She said and tucked her hair behind the ears.
A cool breeze played on her ears and brought the strands of hair before her eyes. No sooner, she pushed it aside, again a chill, fresh wind whispered in her ears, and once again she struggled with her hairs.
‘Okay, then I must suggest you to read Indian authors first. You could read The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh or The Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Arundhati Roy has also an eloquent style of writing. My advise, start with simpler, thinner books. It would be a good idea to start with children’s book. Yes! For a grown up, it may be a problem to get interested in children’s world. In that case, I would suggest RK Narayan’s and Khushwant Singh’s books. The language is simple. And the context is Indian, which involves you in the story. If you do not have patience to read novels, read short stories by Ruskin Bond.’
She smiled and her surprise-looking-eyes complimented my knowledge. Her eyes reminded me of Sakhi, my childhood friend. Sakhi, the girl next door, liked playing hide and seek. She always chose to hide behind her house’s wall, for she was afraid of bhoots and bori vale bhai’s. After getting caught, she made her eyes as though she hid in a place where no one ever could find her. Sakhi left with her family a long time ago and the low wall she loved was still there. Mr Chandlal painted it thrice after purchasing the house.
The sunrays penetrated the fog and glistened down upon her face. Her nose ring twinkled. The effect of beautiful-she doubled. But the sun failed to stand before the chilling winters. She kept her hands rubbing with each other. And carelessly, I brushed my thick, curly hair, hoping not to look like the Bhaiya.
‘Bhaiya! I read 2 or 3 novels before. I’ve no idea what to read. I would be thankful if you would suggest me something good and helpful.’ she said.
I stopped adjusting my hairs, for now I was hence-proved-bhaiya for her. I took a few books of Ruskin Bond and Jhumpa Lahiri from the shelf and thumped them on the counter. I explained her about the writings and the places where the story set in.
‘How is School days?’ she said picking up a book by Ruskin Bond.
I too was hearing the name of the book for the first time. Not missing any chance before her, I began telling her about my own school days. I told her how children irritate the tall, fat principal and make him shout over the top of his lungs; how the seniors bunk the classes and play volleyball, and again raise the blood pressure of principal. I also told her about the art on toilet’s wall, the rides on the small shaking-train, the crush of students on pretty young teachers, the annual-fests, the first crush of a boy named Parth on her classmate, Shiny, the bougainvillea and beery trees, the kabbadi match between boys and girls and the lewd boys peeping in the skirt of girls, the omnibus, the first kiss of Parth and Shiny on their first school trip, the astonished boys and the jealous news-spreading girls.
‘And a lot more,’ said I, finishing my stories. All this while, she looked at me as like as a little girl listens attentively and merrily to her granny narrating the fairy tales.
She was too surprised to say anything. I could see her eyes seeking more about The School Days. ‘But, I think The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is better than this,’ I said in a fear of getting caught.
‘You mean, I should read that book which had the hands of a couple as its cover,’ she said pointing towards The Lowland, kept at an arm’s length.
‘Yes, it’s a nice read,’ I fetched the book and gave it to her.
While she was scanning its cover, reading the blurb and flipping the pages, a loud noise thundered on the street. The shopkeepers and customers hurried outside to know the cause. At a distance, the parked vehicles were laid down and two bulls, black and brown, were fighting near it. The brown bull swung his head and hit his horns in the black’s. The black, fat bull staggered back and fall over the cycles and motorcycles. Shouting and cursing, the shopkeepers tried to stop them. The angry black bull seems to be not interested in anyone’s talk. He stood all at once and proceeded towards brown with a shrill. The two bulls locked their heads in a fierce struggle. They sway together about the place, hitting each other on the walls. The fight stopped after full five minutes. They were exhausted and stood back. The shopkeepers hit the bulls until they disappeared from the location.
The area was devastated, cycles over cycles, motorcycles over motorcycles, everything over everything. People trotted to their vehicles; so did I. Together, we arranged the parking again. It took whole ten minutes to do so. My motorcycle was less damaged than others. A few scratches were only visible.
As I returned to the shop, the young girl was not there. On asking from the seller, he told that she left the shop five minutes ago. On further enquiry, I came to know she purchased School Days by Ruskin Bond.
I brought a book of English Grammar by Chetananand Singh for my book shelf and made my way back to home.
I hoped Ruskin Bond wrote School Days better than my-narrated-school-days.