“Ram Prasad, serve the tea to the man on the table with the broken leg” said Hari the tea stall owner, my boss and my owner as well. No, he had not bought me but considered me his property.
I took the tea cup from Rohit, who was preparing the tea. We swapped duties, sometimes he served the customers while I worked in the kitchen and the other times it was the other way round. Rohit was my co-worker at that ramshackle, Hari fancied calling, Royal Chaiwalla.
“Boy get me some rusks as well” said the tobacco chewing man. I could smell the tobacco as he spoke, his red teeth glistened in the dark whenever he spoke.
I nodded placing the tea on his table. He picked up the tea cup, blew it to cool the tea and then sipped it with a slurp.
I asked Rohit to give the man the rusks he had demanded. Rohit wiped a freshly washed lime smelling plate with his dirty, sweaty vest and kept the rusks on the, now full of germs plate.
Meanwhile I brew the tea for the next customer. This was the peak time for business, the labors working on the adjacent construction site took a break and came for a cup of tea everyday. Since our customers were a majority of labors, the tips were lousy, generally there were not any. There were times when some people did not pay the bill at all, Hari recorded this in his accounts book along with the customer’s name. It was pointless, they never came back but he never lost hope. He cribbed about it all the time but did not stop giving out free tea.
To compensate Hari gave Rohit and me less wages, almost one fourth of what he had promised. It was hard to live on Rs 150 per month it was nearly the same as it was back home.
Baba, my father was a cattle rearer for the sarpanch of the village. We were a family of seven, I had five siblings, I was the oldest at thirteen. Our mother had died one rainy night, god alone knew how she died. Had she been alive, the family’s hardships would have been a little less. She too got some money working as the house maid at the sarpanch’s house. When she died, that money stopped coming. Baba barely managed to get one square meal for the seven of us. On bad days we all shared the meal sufficient for one person, which did not satisfy anyone.
I took care of my siblings while my father was gone, rearing the cattle. My youngest sister was six months. One night my father asked me to steal some fruits from the neighboring orchid. I refused and was beaten for it. Next night the same happened, on the third night when we had been hungry for two consecutive nights and after being thrashed yet again I relented and went to get the fruits. The caretaker caught me while climbing a tree, he came to me with a cane, I ran for my life, another beating was the last thing I wanted, my body ached from the previous three. I ran aimlessly, not knowing where I was going. Before I could realize I was at the railway station, a train was at the platform, about to move. I looked back the caretaker was still chasing me with his cane and torch. I got on the train, without second thoughts.
I sat on the third class bogey floor. I was not just running away from the caretaker now, I was running from my home, my village, my family, with no intention of coming back. Even if I wanted I could not, I did not have a single penny. My life chugged on with the train, the only difference was the train had a destination, my life did not.
The next morning I got off at the first city where the train stopped. There were beggars all around, having the same starved look as me. I did not want to be one of them, begging the entire day on a railway station platform. I walked out into the city. It was big, larger than what I had ever imagined. I walked bare feet, wearing the only pair of clothes I had. Everything looked different. I wandered the entire day and slept on the side of the road that day. I had got food, at a temple, a good man was giving food to the poor hungry people. Sleep came easily, I was tired of walking. I felt lost but hopeful. The fire in me burning, hopeful I’d have a better life here, looking forward to the new day, tomorrow.
The next day I woke up with the sound of hammers, a building was being constructed. I went in, observing everything. Men and women worked, they looked different from the rest of the people I had seen in the city yesterday. They looked like my village folk. I had a sense of belonging here, after feeling alien one whole day. A man suddenly pulled me from the back, he was huge like the rest of the city people. I wondered what he was doing amidst the laborers. He asked me what I was upto and why I wasn’t working. I explained to him how I had got there.
He asked me to start working as a labor. I was registered as a daily wage worker on the construction site.
At thirteen I had my first job, but at thirteen I didn’t realize I could not work like all the other men and women at the site. I was too young to lift the bricks, didn’t know the proper technique to lay them. I was thrown out within a week. One of the labors suggested me to work at the nearby tea stall and here I am now at Hari’s tea stall. He needed someone who worked for him on minimal wages and I needed just food, I didn’t mind sleeping on the roadside, it suits both of us. The work isn’t difficult.
Today it is the eleventh of the month. I have still not got any money. At the end of the day I go to Hari and ask him to pay me. He is doing something in his accounts book, glances at me for a second and resumes his work without a word.
“Sahib, I need my money, I have not had a morsel since yesterday” I meekly said.
“Don’t you see I am doing something, come tomorrow” he said without looking up.
I sighed, picked up the rag I used to sleep on and lay on it in front of the tea stall. Hari allowed me to sleep at the tea stall. Rohit had left, he lived at the nearby slum, with his parents. He was richer than me. I stared at the stars, the noise of the cars seemed like a monster roaring. I yawned, inhaling the smoke coming from the cars. Half hour later Hari switched off the lights and rode away on his bicycle.
The last thought before I dozed off, was of food. If Hari allowed, I made up my mind to go to the temple tomorrow. I always got good food there, but if only Hari let me go. The fire in me was now doused, the city had stomped on me and killed the fire. Had I made the right choice coming here?
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