The Embroidered Shawl
The Embroidered Shawl
The Embroidered Shawl
Winter was at its furious best. The air was enveloped with a cloudy fog. Smoke emancipated from the mouth at every word uttered. Small bonfires were lit at every street corner and people gathered around it to have a little respite from the wrath of the extreme cold. No matter how many clothes worn, it was just not enough to beat the chill.
There was a spring in my feet inspite of winter dominating its presence all around. It was yearend and I was planning to surprise my wife and son with an unexpected visit. I could imagine their happy faces, excited at seeing me after three whole long months. My posting to Varanasi had forced me to stay away from my family as we did not want to disturb my son in his education. So they stayed back at Patna which was my native place as well. I was lost in my thoughts when the auto-rickshaw stopped near the railway station. I paid the fare and advanced towards the platform with a renewed vigour in my steps. The spring in my gait was partly to beat the outside chill and partly because I was looking so much forward to see my family.
There was more than the usual crowd at the station. Most of the trains were running several hours late due to the dense fog. Others were being cancelled or stranded somewhere. I rushed to see the digital time-table and find out the position of the train I was to travel by. Oh no! It was running almost six hours late. That means the train would arrive at around 1 am. I felt disgusted beyond words. That not only meant meeting my family after another six hours but also an agonising wait at the station for the time. I dragged my strolley to find some place to sit. The waiting room was already flooded with people. The floors of the rooms were also jam-packed with waiting passengers. I cursed and walked away to find another suitable shelter.
At the far end of the platform, the crowd was thin. There were just a few people sitting around a bonfire they had lit to warm themselves. They had all covered themselves with shawls and were chatting amongst themselves. I stopped and looked at the bonfire. It looked so inviting and I felt tempted to sit for a while and warm my hands.
“Come, come, Sir!” one of them called out to me.
“Train delayed, eh?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yes, six hours late,” I wanted to strike up a conversation.”
“Come and sit here and wait. The fire is going to last that long.” I required no more coaxing. I joined them and felt a lot of relief in my now numb hands and feet.
“Going where?” asked one.
“I am off to Patna to join my family for New Year,” I beamed.
“Oh ho! Good! But the weather is so bad... almost rotten!! complained another. We talked about various things to ward off sleep ranging from weather to politics, to everything a common man is interested in.
The others were busy talking when my mind wandered off to the little gifts I had bought for my wife and son. I had never before got them any surprise gifts and was a little apprehensive about whether they would like it or not. For my son there was a jacket from a popular brand. My wife loves shawls, so I had bought one with beautiful embroidery on it. Women in general are choosy and fussy as far as their personal grooming is concerned. So I was not sure whether my wife would like it. Nevertheless, it was better than going home empty handed and listening to the forever complains that I never get anything for her. My auditory nerves had got accustomed to hearing about how all husbands bought gifts for their wives and how she was so unlucky to have this unromantic husband who never cared to even accompany her to shop; leave alone get her anything all by himself. I smiled as I thought of catching her unawares.
My thoughts were interrupted upon by the sudden emergence of a small boy in front of me. He wore tattered clothes which were probably more dirty than torn. It was a size too large for him and I noticed his bare feet which must be very cold. His sweater looked quite worn and old and in all possibility not warm too. He was eyeing the fire with so much greed as if he could engulf it if permitted. With bare head and toes and barely anything warm to cover himself with, it was quite natural that he was drawn towards the heat.
“Hey, what do you want? Don’t you dare sit here,” shouted a man in our group. The boy looked at him with an expressionless face but did not make any effort to stir from his place.
“Are you deaf? You think we have alighted this fire to warm you?” another exclaimed in disgust.
“These street urchins are people you should stay away from, Sir,” one of them gestured towards the boy and told me.
“You never know when they would run away with your bags and belongings. All are born thieves.” Then he shooed away the boy as if he were a stray dog. The little boy did not utter a word. He just moved away a little and sat on the floor hugging himself tight. He did not look like a thief, I thought; but still I did not say anything.
The others got busy in their gossip about the upcoming elections in the national capital and which political party stood a better chance to win. I saw that the boy was chattering his teeth and obviously having nothing to warm himself. He looked as if he hadn’t had anything to eat for a good while. I don’t know, why, but my heart went out to him. Probably it was because I had never before had the time to watch poverty at so close a range. One crosses by beggars and street urchins without giving another look or thought to them. But here as I had sufficient time to while away, my eyes and thoughts kept moving to him. “Hey! You still here? Run for your life lest I hit you hard,” one another from our group lifted the stick he was using to dig into the burning logs. The boy gave a startled look and slowly got up to leave.
I had this sudden urge to take out the shawl which I had bought for my wife and cover the little boys’ frail shoulders. Nevertheless, the more practical side of me thought the better of it. It was an expensive gift for my wife not to be wasted upon donating to beggars. There are umpteen homeless and poverty struck people in India. What difference would it make if I tried to help just one of them. The government should do something for these people instead. I averted my eyes from the slowly moving boy to the fire that was brightly lit and now very warm and comforting. The boy had disappeared behind poles and I joined the conversation with my newly-made friends.
The trains were coming and leaving the platforms. The announcements told me that my train had further got delayed by another three hours. That meant it would be early morning before I could board the train. Time was tricking slowly and I leaned on my bags and took a nap. When I woke up I found that the fire was almost dead now. The men around it were no more; probably had wandered off to where they had to go. I checked my belongings and got up to leave. As I walked some way I noticed a crowd on the platform. They were gathered around a small corpse of a boy, stiffened with cold and curled hard as it to protect himself from the bite of the harsh weather. People were coming to look and then moved their own way. Few stopped by a few minutes to talk about the merciless weather. Others were expressing concern over how much more time would the municipality need to remove the body. I was just staring hard as I recognised the boy to be the same one who I was tempted to gift my wife’s shawl. Just then my train was announced and like all others, I too moved away to reach my own destination.
“What, is this the shawl you have bought?” my wife opened it wide and looked at it. The euphoria of my sudden visit had died down and both of them were scrutinising their gifts.
“Don’t you like it?” I asked.
“No, no, it’s good.” My wife tried to sound cheerful.
“Actually, I have a similar one. The embroidery is little different, but you can’t say one from the other. Don’t worry, we can use it to gift it to friends and family. As it is, we have received so many invitations for the upcoming wedding season.” She folded the shawl and kept in on the shelf meant for would-be gifts. I saw the shawl as it sat perched high on the other things.
My wife went away to bring me a cup of tea as I unfolded the newspaper. “Fourteen people dead so far in North India due to the freezing weather,” screamed the headlines. I looked at the shawl and I thought of the little boy, now dead. He was just another number, I figured.