“I bet there are three-eyed monsters and man-eating trees on the other side of the great river,” said Shyam.
Shyam was the only one I was close to, besides my mom. She was my world. Shyam and I used to come here every morning to watch the sunrise. We sat under the great banyan, by the banks of Ganga river.
I loved how the birds chirped in the morning and everything got so lively when the first rays hit the valley. How shiny and bright the Himalayas became as the rays penetrated their perennial snow. How the water changed colour when those rays gleamed over it. How the sky appeared when it was just the right amount of dark and bright. How the world reveals its true colour — from being serene and quiet to chaotic and lively — with the stroke of dawn. I loved how the rays reached us through the branches and leaves of the banyan. It felt the right amount of warm after a cold and foggy night.
“My mom says it’s beautiful on the other side. There are lots of beautiful places with people just like us. I’m going to see it all and meet all those people,” I said.
“You mean beautiful places with ugly people like us. And no, you’re not. You are gonna die here by my side in this village. Sandwiched between the Himalayas and the great river. Can’t you see there is nowhere to go? And you know Mr. Reed, our professor, said he crossed the great sea to be with us. He is lying. He scaled the Himalayas as a kid and met the Sadhus who gave him all the knowledge and wisdom required to master the ungodly language — English. He turned white because of all the snow and ash they rubbed on him,” he said.
I loved talking to Shyam. We talked about everything: from life beyond the great river to the mystery birds which appear only during summer and disappear during the winter; about the magical world inside the women’s washroom which held them mesmerised for so long before they had to return to our world. My guess was they gorged candy submerged in hot water springs. Shyam believed their washroom was just like ours, but they hated our world, so they just sat there killing time.
“Let’s go; my father would have left by now,” I said to Shyam as I got up. I patted my shorts to remove the soft river-bed sands. It was hot so I knew my dad would have been long gone. Cold lemonade was waiting in my house for the both of us. I loved my mother’s lemonade.
We ran through the forest, through the yellow rustic fields, through the village temple where we greeted Panditji. Villagers used to worship him but I hated him. He used to hit Shreya, his daughter, for having fun, behaving like boys. He even made her quit school and learn household chores. Why aren’t girls allowed to play Kho-Kho or jump into wells? I’ll ask my mother.
“Get up. People your age don’t sleep. They never sleep. They work all the time,” yelled Yadavji as he smacked me in the head. I was angry at first; I’d been dreaming I was about to meet my mother and drink her lemonade after a long time. But then I thought Yadavji might be right. It was his shop that I was sleeping in and people needed tea first thing in the morning. My job was distributing tea for Yadavji.
It was still dark outside. I splashed my face with water and brushed my teeth using Mango leaves. Yadavji placed a kettle to boil and added water, milk, tea, sugar and ginger. He stirred the boiling mass. He then placed few drops on his palm and licked them after blowing a few times. I hated when he did that.
I then took tea to the people who worked in the bazaar — Manish market, Dadar, Mumbai. There were lots of people from different parts of our country and a variety of shops. But the shop I loved most was Ismail Bhai’s. He owned a pet shop and had all kind of animals. He sold fish, turtles, squirrels, exotic birds, cats and dogs, and every other kind of animal you could possibly Imagine. He is a Muslim. My mother had warned me to stay away from them. But he was nothing like my mother had described. In fact, he was the best person I met outside of my village. Maybe my mother was told the same thing by her mother but she never got the chance to leave our village. I’ll tell her how wrong she was when I meet her after I die.
I’d left my village when my mother died. I stole 486 rupees from my father’s wallet, everything he had. I even looked in the many small compartments where he kept change and cards. I left very early in the morning. Shyam was the only one who knew. He protested at first but agreed after I promised to visit him every now and again. He warned me about the three-eyed monsters and man-eating trees before I left.
When I go back, I’ll tell him that there are no monsters and carnivorous trees. It’s much worse. There’s hunger, poverty, repetition and regrets. He was right about one thing though; ugly people live in beautiful places.
I’d boarded the first train out of my village. It took me to Delhi. On that train ride, I learned about Mumbai. They said it was crowded with people like me who are looking for a job. So I took the first train out of Delhi which headed to Mumbai. I was scared to see so many people. It was hundred times more than our village fair.
I had only 113 rupees left. I calculated that I needed to eat one vadapav every day for 13 days until I run out of money. I was down to my last 23 rupees when Ismail Bhai found me. He took me to Yadavji’s place. Yadavji paid me 386 rupees, every month. He provided me with food and allowed me to sleep in his shop through the night.
“Hey, kid. Where is my cup?” shouted Ismail Bhai as he saw me returning with empty glasses after my morning round.
“Ismail Bhai, where is Bruno?” I asked as I noticed his empty cage. Bruno was a black Labrador pup. At least, that is what Ismail Bhai told me.
“I told you to not get attached to things from my shop. I remember how upset you were the last time, when I sold Max,” he said.
“I understand, Ismail Bhai, don’t worry. He is with people who’ll love him and feed him biryanis,” I said with a defeated smile.
It hurt a little though. I’d played with that pup for well over a week now. Sometimes I wish I was locked inside those cages and people who love me bought me so that even I could eat all the biryanis I wanted. Over 4 months, I got close to Ismail Bhai. He told me stories about places where his exotic animals came from.
I ran back to the shop as soon as I thought about Yadavji. He did not like if I take long on my rounds. I took a few more teas and went again.
I distributed it throughout the bazaar and at last, came again to Ismail Bhai’s shop.
“What took you so long?” he said. He was feeding something to his fishes.
“Ismail Bhai, how much for Coco?” I asked.
“You started again,” he said.
“No, this time I’ll buy for sure,” I said.
Coco was a white parrot with red crown. I wanted to buy him ever since Ismail Bhai told me that it’s a great deed to grant freedom to a bird. It keeps you in God’s good books and brings you luck. It’s written in their holy book, the Quran.
“Kid, Coco is 1400 rupees. He’s shipped from Amazon forest, in South America,” he said.
“But I don’t have that much money. I have saved 798 rupees,” I told Ismail Bhai. I immediately regretted the times I had Gulab jamuns and chocolates from Patel Bhai’s shop. If I had saved every penny Yadavji paid I could’ve granted a bird its freedom.
“Okay, you can have the bird, but you are gonna have to return its cage,” he said.
I was so happy. I don’t remember how the day went. I eagerly waited for the night, so I could go to Ismail Bhai’s shop and buy Coco.
As soon as Yadavji left for the day. I took money from my secret stash, locked Yadavji’s shop and ran to Ismail Bhai’s shop.
“Kid, I hope you know what you are doing,” said Ismail Bhai as soon as he saw me with a bundle of cash in my hand.
I was too excited to say a thing, my eyes were transfixed on Coco. Ismail Bhai took the cash and handed me the cage.
I ran with the cage to Yadavji’s shop before Ismail Bhai could say anything.
I played with Coco for a while. I talked about my village, my mother, about Shyam, about Ismail Bhai. I hoped that maybe Coco could understand me and talk about me once he was with his friends.
After a while, I realised it was time. I opened the cage and held Coco. He was so soft. I kissed him one last time and let him loose.
But Coco never flew. He circled the same place and entered the cage. What is wrong with the bird? Why doesn’t he fly to his friends? I couldn’t afford a bird. I loved him but I can’t feed him. I also have to return the cage. Where will I keep him? Yadavji barely lets me in his shop. If I bring in a bird he’ll surely kick me out. I removed Coco from his cage again; begged and pleaded with him to fly. But the bird simply refused to fly. I sat there all night crying.
“What are you doing here so early?” Ismail Bhai said, the next morning as he pulled me to my feet by my arm.
I was sleeping in front of Ismail Bhai’s shop, right by the steps.
“Coco does not want to be free, Ismail Bhai. You can have him back. I cannot look after a bird. I don’t want my money back either, just take care of the bird,” I said handing him back the cage.
“Why would Coco want to fly, son? He gets his meals and a safe place to stay. His freedom comes at a cost. He might die of hunger or be hunted down by a predator. That’s a big price for freedom,” he said as he reached into his cash counter and handed me my money. I wiped my face with my sleeves and stuffed the money into my pocket.
“Also, I might have clipped his wings,” he added, with a sheepish smile.
“He is just like me, Ismail Bhai. I wanted to go to Goa to enjoy the sun and the beach. You said the people there are lovely. I want to meet these amazing people,” I said.
I had always wanted to visit Goa, ever since Ismail Bhai told me all about it. He went there on his honeymoon a long time ago, even before I was born. He had said that people wore bikini and shorts while they bathed in the beach water. And nobody bothered or judged them. I wanted to know how that felt. People give me all kinds of stares and pass comments when I run around in my torn shorts, distributing tea. My pyjamas are torn near the knees. They have been through a lot. Maybe I’ll buy new pyjamas once I reach there.
“Why didn’t you go then?” asked Ismail Bhai as he hung Coco’s cage back in its spot.
“I don’t know, I am scared. Maybe I’ll find something I’ll love there and do it for the rest of my life. If not, I’ll go to some other place. I know I don’t like to serve tea. I’ll come to meet you once I found something I loved. How do I get to Goa?” I said.
“There’s a train that leaves from Dadar station platform №7 in about 20 minutes.” He looked at his watch. “Kid, visit me even if you didn’t find something you love,” he said.
I left his shop and walked towards the station. All the familiar people were setting up their shops. I wondered how many of those people found something they loved. Most people don’t.
“All that talk about light and gods hand confused me shitless to no end. What is wrong with me? There is no light nor hand. I’ll visit you if I find something I love and even If I don’t,” I shouted to Ismail Bhai just as I was about to disappear along the bend. I wanted to tell Ismail Bhai the truth before I left. He talked about God’s hand, destiny, fate, light — it made no sense. Maybe someday it will. I could see him laughing hard. I turned my back and continued walking.