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Sunday, 16 April 2017

480) Leisure Time Short Stories (1): Friends at the Crossroads:

480) Leisure Time Short Stories (1): Friends at the Crossroads:

(This short story first appeared in our blog It is being placed here for wider coverage)
When I was posted in Hyderabad during my assignment there with a Bank, I was staying in Somajiguda. Every evening on my way back home from the Bank Branch where I was posted, I used to stop at a busy cross-roads traffic signal. 

As my little red Maruti 800 would vend its way through the traffic snarl which would invariably build up, I noticed a little girl dressed in rags trying to sell an evening newspaper to all the cars that had stopped by. After making futile attempts with four drivers ahead of me, it was my turn. “Sir, newspaper, only two rupees” she said and proceeded to drop one copy into my lap. “Hey, what am I going to do with it, it is in Telugu, and I don’t even know the language”. 

The traffic light had turned green and I wanted to get back home as quickly as possible and the motorists behind my car were honking away for me to drive on. She signaled to me that she did not know any other language than Telugu and a just a smattering of English. Perforce, I had to fish out a two rupee coin and give it to her.

The next evening while driving back from office, as usual,  there was the inevitable, rather long, red traffic signal and the moment she saw me her eyes lit up in the hope of a confirmed newspaper sale but this time I was prepared for her. I fished out a handful of toffees and chocolates from the gloves compartment of the car and pushed them into her hand.

She forgot about the newspaper sale, immediately pushed one toffee into her mouth and pocketed the rest , perhaps for later or perhaps to share with her little brother and sister or even her friends. A shy smile was followed by a muttered ‘thanks’ and a wave of the hand when I drove by on the Green traffic light.

The next day two of her little friends had joined her. There was also a physically challenged  lady and a 16 year boy whom I later learned was called Jehangir because he was the only one who could speak Urdu, a language I could converse in and who made a living selling car and feather dusters (the others could only understand Telugu which I was still in the process of learning). But a few words all of us understood like “Chocolates”? ‘‘Toffees?” “Biscuits” and “thanks” the last one with very pleased grins all-round. 

Then it became a routine. Apart from toffees, chocolates, biscuits, small toys etc. whatever I could remember to carry every evening after my busy office routine ,or more like, whatever my Branch Steno and my  messenger could lay hands on upon my instructions, would be distributed among this motley crowd of children which kept growing in numbers as the months passed by.

The moment my car would stop at the red light my ‘friends’ would drop whatever they were doing and make a beeline for the red Maruti . Sometimes, on account of office pressures, I would forget to keep the handouts in the car’s gloves compartment, and I would say, “there is nothing for you today”. There would be disappointment all-round but no protests!!

The little red car was easily the most recognized car at the traffic signal. So much so that whenever I would go in any other car, no one would recognize me till I had to virtually hang out of the car to give out the chocolates. My accompanying junior officers would often caution me “Sir, you should not encourage these beggars, they are upto no good". But I knew differently. They were just trying to make a living within their small means compelled by their circumstances and the toffees/chocolates etc. were just one of the highlights of the day for them.

 On New Year’s Day, I carried Telugu calendars for them. Jehangir was particularly pleased with his Urdu one. I had even ordered a few extra packets at the customary office lunch on New Years day, which I gave out to my ‘friends’ at the traffic signal.

Jehangir knew that I did not much care for the yellow dusters that he would sell to me occasionally, so he managed to find pink, blue, brown, red and other colour dusters for me. Some of them looked hideous, but because he had gone to great lengths to procure them, I would always buy them off him pretending to like the colour very much.

Then, one day I broke the news to them. I had applied for early retirement and would be leaving Hyderabad for Pune in a week’s time. I carried extra chocolates and toffees for them. The last time that I saw the little girl, I gave her a big packet of biscuits and through sign language indicated to her and her friends, that I would not be traveling on that road anymore. She had understood. I still remember seeing them in the rear view mirror, and in particular the little girl  standing with her bunch of newspapers looking at my car speeding by, oblivious to the traffic going around her. I wonder if she made a sale that day. I still do not know her and her friend’s names.

An evening  earlier, my wife and I were passing by after an office party and we saw Jehangir at the cross-roads still selling his cloth and feather dusters. My wife showed an interest in the feather duster. “How much do I pay you” I asked. He replied “You are leaving Hyderabad, Sir. For you, it is free. It is a gift from all of us.” I knew he used to sell them for Sixty rupees, so I pushed that amount into his hand. He returned thirty rupees immediately, insisting that he would only collect half the price. The duster is still in use even after all these years at our house. I saw a similar one in a Pune Shopping Mall costing one hundred and twenty five rupees!!

About a year later while taking a turn at the North Main Street at Koregaon Park crossing, near the Osho Ashram  in Pune, we saw a little underprivileged girl knocking at the windows of cars stopped at the traffic signal. It had been a long time since I had given toffees to children at the crossroads. My wife reached out and checked in the Gloves compartment of the car. Yes, there were a few toffees. I rolled down the window and called the little girl over. There was a quizzical look on her face. Perhaps she expected some money. The look immediately turned to that of a pleasant surprise as she saw the  toffees.

She immediately popped one in her mouth and pocketed the others, perhaps to share with a little brother/ sister later. There was a grin on her face. The tense look of harassment of one trying to make a living on the streets had vanished and she had become a child again. She continued waving out to us till we had sped away.

She seemed an intelligent and smart child condemned by circumstances to waste her life on the streets; nevertheless her grateful smile had made our day, and most of all there was a new friend at a new crossroad!!


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