Ramu was a runner. He always knew he was. Clutching his orange potli close to his chest, he ran past Balu kaka’s tea stall. The jute rope tied around his waist fought a futile battle as the shorts threatened to slip down his frame inch by inch. But Ramu had to run.
The AP Express was leaving Hyderabad station when Ramu dashed past the ticket counter and onto the platform. Constable Sahib and his assistant were on their rounds and Ramu knew that he had to escape their screening eyes to get inside the train. He never understood why they would drag him out of the compartment till outside the station and threaten him with a cane beating if he ever repeated the incident. As far as Ramu was concerned, he was not a beggar. He was a performer.
It was only when the last bogie swayed away from the station did Ramu feel free. He smiled gleefully at the thought of him defying the sahibs once more and knew instantly that he needed to start with his routine. He dug his hands into his Potli and brought out a yellow tambourine that he had named ‘Chamki’. As Ramu made his way from one compartment to another, singing the songs of Kishore Kumar, Pancham Da and countless others, Chamki would assist him with her chimes. She filled up the breaking in his voice whenever he lost breath and hid the errors he made with the lyrics. She was his companion through the journey, jingling with his every move and his every tap. Today like every other day in the past 4 years that he spent on the train, she was ready for him.
The train was a little less packed than usual and Ramu could easily move past every compartment without getting reprimanded by the memsahibs for stepping on their saaris or by the babus who pressed their palms on the pant pocket every time Ramu moved past them. Ramu sang as he spotted an old man with big black glasses sitting with a folding stick placed on his lap. ‘A stick is meant to be a stick. How is it a stick, if it can be folded?’ Ramu thought as he continued to push ahead. The old man cocked his head towards the direction of his voice as Ramu stood right in front of him and now was singing ‘Ye Sham Mastani’ for the 13th time. Counting made him feel intelligent. It made him feel like one of those school kids, who in their blue khakhi shorts and polished shoes made Ramu upset.
Ramu was a singer. He smiled as he sang to the old man with a crooked back, sitting beside a sleeping Mota bhai. The old man grinned as Ramu started singing ‘Duniya mein rahna hain to kaam kar pyaare’. Ramu liked the grin. A smile that had unintentionally become a toothless grin making little hills on his cheeks. The old man continued to smile even when Ramu stopped singing and clanked the loose change in his palm. No one gave him a paisa except for the old man, who shifted a bit as he moved his scrawny palm into his chest pocket and brought out a five rupee coin. Ramu took the money pinched between his fingers and moved to the next coach singing the song, now for the 14th time.
It had become a routine. The race to catch the train and singing to this old man for that guaranteed five rupees. Ramu always smiled while singing to the old man and the old man was ready with a grin of his own. The little kid always wondered how the blind old man managed to board the train everyday and successfully find a vacant seat at a time when all the babus in their pressed shirts boarded the train, packing the coaches and debating on the superficial democracy with those they had met during their daily commute. Maybe someone always took pity on him. Ramu never spoke to the old man to know his destination and he never stayed back to find out since he had to get down at Khagaznagar and board the next train back to Kazipet. But Ramu met him every day with a new song, the same smile and received a 5 rupee coin at the end along with a toothless grin. The old man made Ramu feel important. No words were ever spoken or needed.
Today had not started well. Ratan Kaki had declared that there was nothing for breakfast. Not even puffed rice. With a growling stomach Ramu watched her wipe empty tins. Ratan Kaki was not related to him but she had taken him up and given him shelter on finding him sleeping below a traffic signal. She used to sell balloons in the signal, lightly tapping on one of the car windows and moving ahead after waiting a second for the window to roll down. She always looked for the ones with little kids on the back seat, because the mothers would make the babu buy a balloon for the little one. But right now she sat wiping the empty tins and couldn’t face Ramu who was drinking water from the Matka to fill his empty stomach.
Today as he ran, Ramu did not feel like a runner. He stood panting inside the last coach and slowly made his way towards the middle of the train, singing half heartedly, not bothering enough to wait for chillars. He now knew by just looking at the face if a person would give him money or ignore his voice. He saw the old man who was now alert and beaming as Ramu’s voice drew closer. Today, for the 35th time, Balu stood before him and sang an old song that Ratan Kaki had made him memorize while cooking Khichuri outside their hut. Ramu couldn’t smile today as he sang, his mind forever reminding him of the empty tins and the growling stomach. He caught sight of a memsahib carrying a three storeyed tiffin box . She saw him looking at her and frowned as she covered the tiffin with her Saree. Ramu continued singing to the old man, sad and forlorn. The old man too did not smile this time. No toothless grin and no familiar cheek hills. Ramu wondered as to what made the old man sad. Was he hungry too? Did he too miss the rice puffs? The old man looked away dejected and allowed Ramu to take the five rupee coin from his palm. Balu felt odd. He got down at kazipet and left the five rupee coin on a bench at the station. The stomach growled yet he craved for the old man’s grin.
For a few days Ramu did not sing. He went with Ratan Kaki to the signals to sell some balloons. She sold more this time. She said it was because society takes pity on seeing a little ten year old kid sell balloons that he cannot afford. But Ramu was a runner and a singer, not a balloon seller. The next day he ran his familiar run tricking the constable sahibs and laughing at the thought of doing so. He sang his way from the last coach till the first scanning the crowd for the familiar old face. And he found it. The old man had found a window seat and was looking out. Ramu wondered what his blind eyes could see. Was their light even in the darkness? Did colours find their way in somehow? Or did his mind paint a picture of its own on the vast dark sheet? The old man registered Ramu’s voice as he came and stood in front of him. Today Ramu smiled through the song and as he smiled, so did the old man. The little pink hills on the cheeks and an empty set of gums. Balu was happy at the sight of it. He felt connected, loved. That five rupees at the end of it, had value.
The passengers of AP Express never knew their story. But they knew they had one. A story of an old man, a little singing boy and their connected smiles. A tale witnessed by only one spectator, the mute Yellow Chamki.
Image Courtesy – Save the Children
Words to follow
Potli – sac
chillar – pennies
Khichuri – Porridge
Matka – Pot