Rohan felt his jean pocket and removed his wallet once again. Three crisp notes of 500/- and a change of 50/- all neatly laid out in a small bundle. Just right to buy the latest Mass Effect 3. The price tag had said 1295/- when he had last checked the CD at the Inorbit mall last week. He could hardly wait to unwrap the CD and load it on his computer.
“The latest limited version of Mass Effect 3 and a limited edition.” He nodded with satisfaction.
The CD was available at only a few stores in Mumbai. He had personally booked a copy at the game store at the mall, just last Friday. Arnav, his best friend had already purchased it last month. “But then nothing was very difficult for Arnav. His parents bought him almost everything.”, Rohan noted wryly.
But Rohan was not so lucky. Daddy strictly forbade mom from buying him more than one game in 2 months and that too if his grades were in line. But daddy was like that ; always laying conditions.
Mom was way cooler. But still not cool enough to openly oppose dad. Her approach was more subtle. She would simply smile and agree with daddy but later slip in a 50/- or a chocolate in his palm as a peace offering, when daddy was not looking.
So he often had to earn his special treats. He had completed odd end jobs for Mom, cleaned Uncle Verma’s car every weekend for the last two months, saved a significant portion of his pocket money and finally collected the princely sum of 1500/- bucks. His very own money.
So now even daddy could only shrug and mumble his disapproval. And today was the historic day when he would have his very own Mass Effect 3, the coolest game ever invented.
He felt all grown up, going to the store all on his own. He was 10 now and could take care of himself. It seemed perennially difficult to convince Mom of how fast he was growing up. But lately he knew just the trick.
He would look gravely in her eyes, pat her hand and say “Relax mom, I am 10 years old now.”
She would then look at him for a long moment, her eyes shining strangely, then relent with a sigh and a smile. He often pondered about this as to how somebody could seem happy and sad, both at the same time. But moms were strange anyways.
He shrugged off his thoughts and glanced anxiously around the bend of the road. There was no sign of the bus no 79, his ride to mall heaven.
It was beginning to get warm now. The hot October sun swirled overhead. Rohan removed his hanky from his pocket, careful not to drop his wallet and mopped his brow. There were few other people at the bus stop. But everybody seemed lost in their own world. Rohan wondered if they too were excited about going somewhere. But they all seemed bored and uninterested.
“So I guess I am the happiest boy on this bus stop today. Maybe the happiest in Mumbai.” He smiled to himself.
And as if to second that, the bus just then made a grand entrance. She lumbered along slowly as if to test his patience and finally screeched to a painful halt.
People clamoured to get into the bus and Rohan too made a bid to jump in, all the while careful to hold on against the wallet. Mom had warned him about pickpockets.
He finally managed to elbow his way around and got in. The bus was spilling with people and Rohan peered ahead hoping to spot someone, who seemed to making just the right kind of motions to get off the bus. Rohan was good at this. He always managed to stand near people who were about to get off.
An aunty wearing a red sari was adjusting her shopping bags and would glance out of the window every now and then. Rohan strategically positioned himself right near her seat and waited patiently.
She got off after the next two stops. Rohan helped her with her bags and she patted his head on her way out.
He hurriedly sat down and adjusted the bump of the wallet against the seat.
He then cast a casual glance at his companion.
It was a thin dark boy of about about 7 or 8. He was dressed up in worn down out grey t-shirt with a Reebok logo. Obviously a hand me down. He dint look the sorts who could afford a Reebok.
The boy smiled at him and pulled his schoolbag closer on his lap to make more room for Rohan. But Rohan was careful to keep a distance. He returned a polite smile and turned in the other direction, eager to get back to his plans for the day.
The bus ride usually took about 30 minutes and in this traffic today it might even be 45.
Just then there was a sudden jolt and the little boy’s school bag fell down and a medley of things slipped out. A few tattered books, an old worn out bisleri bottle of water, a spiderman with one arm missing, a plastic pencil box and a round tiffin box. Obviously the boy had not closed his bag well.
The tiffin box rolled over near Rohan’s foot and he pushed back his feet a little startled. The tiffin spilled open to reveal three Parle G biscuits and small piece of pink barfi.
The floor of the bus was dirty and Rohan winced when the boy nonchalantly started to put the biscuits back in his tiffin box.
“Let it be. It’s become dirty.”, Rohan advised him. Just then he thought, he sounded exactly like his mother. His mother would have never allowed him to eat stuff which had fallen down. She was always lecturing on the dangers of germs to him. It seemed to be her favourite topic.
The boy shook his head vigorously.
“No it’s not dirty. See!” he showed the piece of barfi to Rohan, his eyes shining with merriment.
Rohan started to say something, but then stopped. No point explaining all this to him. These people lived differently.
The boy looked around for the tiffin box cover.
Rohan saw it lying in the aisle and bent down to pick it up.
The boy accepted it with a big smile and said a thank you. He then shoved the tiffin back in the bag and attempted to close it. But the buckle was broken.
There was also a long gaping hole on one side. It had been held together with a brave army of safety pins.
“You should buy another bag. This one will open again and again.”
“No problem. Ammi will stitch it back again. It will good as new.”, he explained with an air of familiar nonchalance.
“So which class do you study in?”
“3rd standard, Marathi medium.”
“ But we have also started English now.” He piped in the extra bit of information. Obviously learning English was very important to him.
“So are you going to school?”
Oh no! We have morning school. I am going to meet Abba. I meet him every day after class. He works at the construction site near the big fountain. We then leave together in the evening for home.
Rohan nodded politely. He wondered if he was expected to continue the conversation.
“So you dint finish your tiffin today.”,
“Oh no, I did.”
“These biscuits are for abba, for his evening tea. Mom gives me 5 biscuits every day and I keep three for abba. He often misses lunch because of the work.”, he said, his round eyes all serious.
“He says they are making a big mall. It will also have special swings for children. Abba says it’s good if I observe and learn the work now. “
“So you also want to work on a construction site like your Abba?
“Oh no! I will become a police officer like Singham. But abba doesn’t understand these things.” He shrugged his shoulders happily.
“So it’s just you and your parents?
“ Oh no! I have a younger sister. She just likes to trouble my mom and cries all day.”
Rohan smiled. Little sisters are all alike he thought.
“Dosent she go to school?
“She will from next year and then this bag will be hers”, he pointed to the bag with an obvious sense of relief.
“Good! Then you can buy another one?”
“Oh no! I don’t want a bag this year. I can carry my books in a plastic bag. Plus plastic bags are good. You tear one and you can take another one.”
“Then what do you want.”
“I want to buy sports shoes! , his eyes suddenly all bright.
“I always come first in running. But my Pt teacher says that if I want to run faster I must wear sports shoes.”
“Where did you buy your shoes from.” , he asked gravely, looking at Rohan’s red and white Nikes
“From a mall.”, Rohan answered hesitatingly.
“For how much?”
“Uhh, I don’t remember.”
“They are very nice”, he said with an open easy gaze, his voice strangely devoid of any envy.
Rohan shuffled his feet consciously and smiled. He dint know what to say.
Fortunately the conductor made an entry just then and the next few minutes they both bought their tickets. The boy carefully put the change back into his shirt pocket.
They both then resumed looking out of the window. The ride was slow and the traffic was sluggish.
The boy rested his head against the window pane and continued to stare outside, lost in his own thoughts. After a few minutes his head began to drop and he started nodding off to sleep, his mouth slightly open.
With every jolt he would wake up, look outside and then nod off to sleep again.
Rohan stole a glance at his feet. They were thin and brown and clad in rubber chappals, a tad too big for him. He wondered how he could manage to run in them.
They reminded him about the three brand new pair of shoes strewn carelessly under his bed, unused and unappreciated.
“Anyways, I can’t help it if he is poor. And Mom does always give away all my old stuff to the maid’s children.” , he concluded with satisfaction. But his mind kept turning back to those feet.
He just couldn’t shake off that uneasy vague feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The conductor cried out ST junction, and Rohan straightened up. His stop was now just two blocks away. He unconsciously put a hand to his pocket and felt the comfortable swell of his wallet.
He glanced at the boy again. He looked fast asleep, his arm carefully wound around his torn school bag, the one held together with safety pins. A faint smile played on his lips. Probably dreaming about his sport shoes.
Rohan peered out. The shining arch of the mall was now visible, its entrance teeming with the lazy swell of afternoon shoppers.
He stood up to get down and then hesitated. The conductor cried out again.
Rohan removed the precious bundle from his wallet and slipped it in the boy’s shirt pocket.
“It will of much more use here. Instead of just one CD, it could buy a schoolbag, shoes and probably even a water bottle.”
He moved towards the exit and cast one last glance at the sleeping boy.
He then got off the bus with a surprising spring in his step, lighter both in the wallet and spirit.