When I first saw him, he was carefully folding a white crocheted skull cap that he must have just taken off his head. He had come from a nearby “gujri” to consider the possibility of buying the junk that I wanted to dispose off, vomited out by a freshly renovated house.
He was not more than 13 or 14 years old; a thin, brown boy, a little tall for his age, neatly and rather nattily dressed in black trousers and a matching stripped black and white t-shirt; too nattily (I thought) for someone who worked in a dirty “gujri”. He answered my questions quickly and confidently, but what really struck me about him was his bright, open face, with clear, brown eyes that reminded me of melted jaggery. And a smile that flashed like lightning, even when there was no reason for it to, revealing big, white teeth.
I asked him his name.
The smile flashed, brilliant in the freshly-rain-washed morning sunlight.
“Jameel” he said, shy-proudly
Preliminary negotiations began. Rates were flung up in the air as he switched effortlessly between talking to me in Kannada and then in “Hyderbadi” Hindi on a cellphone to consult his “higher up” at the shop. (Who, he later told me, was his chikkappa or father’s younger brother). I switched to Hindi too, wanting to show off my own multi-lingual-ness and when I did, the eyes glowed with approval and, if it was possible, the lightning-smile flashed a little whiter.
My hoard of junk must have looked promising because soon, an older boy arrived; his “bhai”, Jameel told me. Then, the haggling started in earnest, picking up pace as offers and counter-offers were exchanged, accompanied by suitable expressions of horror and disbelieving scoffs of laughter while calls from the celphone kept the boss-chikkappa at GHQ fully in the know. Finally, after about 15 minutes of intense bargaining, things reached a crescendo when both parties pretended to walk away in disgust at the other’s this-is-my-final-offer-take-it-or-stuff-it. Then, magically, a deal was struck, apparently to everyone’s satisfaction. The smile went off like camera flashes at a celebrity press conference.
Now, the ‘iron’ had to be carted off to the gujri where the remaining transactions would take place. It was decided that since I didn’t know where the shop was, the older boy would cart away the junk while Jameel would be left behind to accompany me to gujri. He seemed more than happy to do so.
I went off to bathe and dress. When I emerged, rushing around looking for car keys, spectacles, purse etc.,I found Jameel was playing jack-in-the-box, popping up from this door and through that window, his curiosity getting the better of his shyness. I should have been irritated, but I couldn’t be. The smile wouldn’t let me. I opened a cupboard and found Jameel’s head had somehow snaked in from under my arm, peeping this way and that into it. Then it tilted up to look up at me and whisper in awe, “Ghar bahut bada hai, achcha hai.”
I smiled back weakly.
By now, it was time for the daily eleven-o’-clock-tea-n-biscuits. I offered Jameel some, the tea fortified by 2 extra spoons of sugar – heaped. Let me know if you need more sugar, I said. He did – 2 more heaped spoons.
Finally, thus fed, watered and ready to face the world, we set off, driving to the gujri in my car, Jameel happily squirmed into the front seat beside me.
Naturally, conversation ensued.
Do you go to school, I asked.
I sensed a sudden dimming of wattage.
No, he said. I used to
I immediately launched into my oh-but-you-must-go-to-school lecture, but then stopped almost immediately.
You used to?
Till what class?
Then why did you stop? Your father made you? (Obviously, I thought, to add to the family income.)
Baap nahi hai.
Suddenly, inside the car there was a silence that comes after a very sudden, very loud sound – as if something had exploded. In those three words spoken in that small, quiet voice, it was as Jameel had yanked a plug and let out the sad, bewildered loneliness of a child that can’t understand how and why a parent left.
We sat quietly for a few minutes, shocked and very still. I couldn’t bear to ask him the details of what happened to his father. It didn’t matter and I didn’t need to know. The smile was the first to recover; I could sense it slowly, shakily struggling back. And I tried to match it.
Never mind, I said, forcing a cheery tone. Class VIII is not bad. You should start studying again. You can do it from home, is it not?
(Somehow, we both knew that this would probably never happen. But I babbled on.)
Anyway, you can read and write, yes? Kannada?
But that’s not enough, Jameel. You must learn at least one other language. Why don’t you join night school or what about….
The words came out is a tumbling, angry rush and then stopped. By now, we had reached the gujri. Jameel muttered a response but I don’t remember what it was. The conversation died a natural death. We got out of the car. Jameel and another boy helped to haul my junk into the shop and on to the weighing machine. The chikkappa-boss did the rest, all the while grumbling that I had struck too hard a bargain. I stood my ground, he did the math on a battered calculator and paid me the money. I took it, bade Jameel goodbye and drove back home.
But I could not forget him. And now I try to think why.
Yes, it was the smile which flashed so generously and without reason. And the eyes like melted jaggery. And yes, it was the presence of a spirit so impossibly unspoilt and so irrepressibly happy.
But it was more – that it looked so hopeless for Jameel. What were the chances of a poor, semi-literate boy who was probably the main source of income for his family, to ever leave that dirty, rusty little gujri and move on to better things? He’d probably work there for the rest of his life or at best, manage to own a gujri himself. My Jameel deserved better.
Then, I thought – doomed?. Maybe Jameel is happy - and will continue to be happy. Maybe his uncle is a good man, a kind man who will see that his nephew and family will never want and will help him grow into a good, kind man as well. And maybe by a yardstick different to mine, he will have a good life and a contented one.
And who knows - even if he were to get an “education”, what would it be? “SSLC pass”? Or a useless degree from some correspondence course offered by some fly-by-night ‘school”? And would that really open doors to a better life? Or would it just make him aware of and hanker for a life that till now he didn’t know existed?
Besides, who the hell was I to feel sorry for him? All that I had to offer Jameel were some stupid, meaningless platitudes. Whereas Jameel, just by being who he was, reminded me that being happy is an inside thing, determined by you, not by your circumstance. Maybe Jameel would have felt sorry for me if he how little it took for me to feel disgruntled and unhappy.
For all of this, I can’t forget Jameel
And I can’t forget that small, quiet voice saying…
Baap nahi hai.