“Chetan Bhagat ka book ekdum superhit hai Sir! Aur bhi hain, dekhoge?” I urged to the suited man before he disinterestedly rolled up his car window and sped off. I chided myself for deserting my father’s book stall and following the usual herd to the traffic signal in hope of some quick sale. He would be so livid if he found out that I had walked away with the books! But then, when is he ever happy?
Hi, I’m Arjun, an 11 year old boy coerced into entering adulthood much before time. My Dad
has a works in a book stall in the famous Churchgate area of Mumbai. Although he’s in-charge of keeping accounts and maintaining records I’m inclined to believe that he doesn’t know mathematics. Why else would a person bring five children in this world when he was the sole bread-earner? I’m told that our family migrated here few years ago in search of livelihood. It’s obvious that we haven’t made any real headway on that front yet.
I’m the eldest one and only after three more boys did God grant my mother’s wish of a daughter. Our neighbours’ excuse to have four daughters preceding a son is the same. Funny, isn’t it? My father assumes that my two tiny hands are big enough to help feed the seven mouths in the house. Their eldest daughter, and my friend, too works as a nanny at some family’s place nearby. She comes home late and exhausted. Our moms are overworked house-helps and get paid a pittance.
I had to leave school midway to assist my father in the book stall. Apparently, his laidback attitude and afternoon snoozes had consistently resulted in theft and loss of opportunity. An alarming discrepancy in the inventory wildly shook things up. Thankfully, my innocent face managed to calm down the owner, albeit temporarily. With a heavy heart, but willingly, I traded my school books for the books whose covers I couldn’t yet read.
Our book stall is on a pavement, one amongst many makeshift ones that keep springing up around here. There’s stiff competition and we don’t live in denial of it. Interestingly, people have a meaningless habit of inquiring rates of the same books at every stall. It took me a while to realise that we sell cheap reprinted versions. I also found it curious that our customer base ranges from college kids to old Uncles and Aunties too. By the way, did you know that school kids of my age receive weekly allowance? I’m not even aware if and what I’m paid to work.
Please don’t misapprehend that I’m sharing my story with you to gain any sympathy. Believe it or not, I like what I do. Unlike many other kids I sometimes play with, I respect Vidya (knowledge) and Saraswati Mataji. I remember telling my second grade teacher that I wanted to make Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu comics like Pran. Their comic book that I had acquired with a sleight of hand from a raddiwala was in tatters but is my priced possession nevertheless.
Luckily, now I’m surrounded by many of them and read in my spare time. We keep both new and used books in various languages. As of now I can read Hindi, Marathi and broken English. How and where my father learnt to read, I wouldn’t know. He often loses focus but is updated on titles and always seems to know what sells. He’s reticent and distant yet his pitches are rarely fruitless.
When I see books with torn pages or broken spines it leaves me heartbroken. Once when I was carefully putting together a half-torn Sidney Sheldon book page with cello tape a sweet Didi approached and asked my father for the latest CAT preparation books. Within the time he fetched them she had extracted enough information from me to write a book on my life! Even while she selected and paid for them her smiling eyes never left me. “Study!” she said as she lovingly ruffled my hair and sashayed away.
I love observing people; the college girl walking hurriedly and missing an open manhole by a whisker, the teenage boy who browses or reads for free for 15 minutes and doesn’t buy any book, the office-goer Uncle who munches on a wada pav under the shade of an umbrella or the heavily-wrinkled oblivious beggar lady sleeping on the roadside. Mumbai is a bustling city and every person seems to carry a story within him. Don’t people like these become characters in books? I wish I could articulate what I felt. Sigh!
Suddenly though, a big thing happened with me. The sweet Didi I told you about earlier works with some NGO for kids. She visited yesterday along with a couple of her friends (didn’t buy anything!) and told my father about some RTE Act which gives me the right to study in the best schools in Mumbai. Seemingly, I fulfill their eligibility criteria but some paperwork is required.
My father, ever the spirit dampener, created a huge hue and cry over it. So much so that few inquisitive onlookers quickly got transformed into a small crowd. The hapless Didi fought tooth and nail with him while my stone-hearted father heedlessly barked unnecessary orders at me. Through stolen glances I detected her determined expression turn into hurt and then resigned. Who will bear his expenses? How will I feed my family? What if he can’t cope up? She had no answers to the questions he belligerently badgered her with.
I was reminded of the scene from Harry Potter in which his wicked Uncle and Aunty pull all stops to keep him from going to Hogwarts. Watching the dubbed version in Hindi on television had triggered my imagination like never before. Who knew some day it would be my reality? He was an orphan and I feel like one, that’s the only difference. How much I craved to immerse myself in his books every time I laid my eyes on them. If only wishes had wings!
Hopefully there’s a Dumbledore out there to save the day for me. Tears rolled down my eyes. Magic, I have seen it happen. What if it’s just a story? Some day I will read and experience it too!
Used two prompts in the post: Tears rolled down and Magic, I have seen it happen.