I used to run a general store. It was beneath a residential building, the very reason for us to select that spot; potential customers. It was like a mini market, with three rows of racks and products kept on it with the appropriate labeling. I used to wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning, pull up the shutter, broom the whole place, keep the products in their places, wait for the morning egg supplier, milk supplier to come and deliver the products, and after the morning customers used to have their run, from around 11:00 am to 05:00 pm there hardly used to be any activity. I used to get bored during this time. Super bored. There was this little kid who used to roam around my shop. He was in ragged clothes and always seemed piqued about the things happening in the shop. So one day, out of boredom, I called him in.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Where do you live?”
“Just near the other building, before this one. In the shanties.”
I gave him a chocolate for free. Few days passed and a bulb lit in my mind. I could use him to help me out in the shop. I won’t keep him as a worker, so it won’t be child labour (or at least that is what I thought to keep myself off of the guilt). I would take his help for small things like to sit in the shop whenever I went to deliver the products in the building, or to order tea. Or to give money to the tea vendor. Nothing major or laborious. So one day I called him in.
“What if I need your help in the shop? Will you help me?”
“Yes, certainly.” he said.
So that was the day he started helping me. During the low hours I would sleep and he would sit on the computer and play games. I would give him free chocolates and chips to have. Every time I had tea, I called one for him too. Whenever I had to deliver any product in the building, I would tell him to sit in the shop and look after it.
I asked him if he studied, or went to school. “No.” He replied. I asked him “Why?”, he didn’t give any answer. I thought, why not teach him computer? So I started teaching him.
During the time I spent with him, I learned a great deal about him. He was 11 years old. He had two sisters, one 3 years elder to him and one 3 years younger. He barely spent time at home. Most of the time he roamed around with his friends from the shanties and played rolling tire. He searched for valuable things from the dumping ground. Probably to sell.
One day a middle aged woman came to the shop with her little son. The kid was probably of the same age as Azhar. He was in school dress so evidently, she received him from school and came straight to the shop. While she went through the products she wanted to buy, the kid’s eyes fell on the toy car collection that I had recently bought to sell. The kid asked his mum for it. The mother denied and the kid started asking continuously for it. The mother got alerted that he was moving towards throwing heavy tantrums. So she gave in and bought the car for him.
She paid the bill and left with her child. At the end of the day when I and Azhar were packing up the products to close the shop, I, before Azhar left (which he didn’t like) took one car from the collection and gave it to him. “Go play.” I said. The next day during the afternoon Azhar’s friends came to the shop to call him out to play. Azhar, as usual, informed me and went with them. They played outside within the shop area itself. I noticed Azhar’s friends had got him a car which had a thread attached to it. Azhar was racing the car behind him as he ran here and there with the thread in his hand. I noticed the car was worn out, old, dusty, and was cracked on one side. It wasn’t the one I gave him.
“Azhar, ” I called out “Where is the car that I gave you?”
“I gave it to my sister.”
These kids are abhorred by the parents of the rich and the middle class. While their children play in private parks, clubs, and in well renovated buildings, these kids play on the streets and sidewalks. They scavenge for things from the garbage piles, above which the crows circle to find something to eat or probably dive in on an escaping mouse. And if that wasn’t enough, these garbage piles are built by the dump collected from the houses of the rich and the middle class. They practically walk in their dump.
These kids are street smart. You see a pet dog won’t be as confident to cross the street as a street dog. Experience is what the pet dogs lack. The same goes for these children. A kid from the middle class or rich won’t be able to survive on the streets like these kids do. How do I know this? I’ll tell you.
Azhar’s mother sells fish at the local market. She sells all kinds of fishes, from the rarest to the most common. One fish was very common in Mira Road. It was easily available so in a very short time its demand went low. So now, this fish was sold everywhere except Mira Road. This fish was found in many ponds located in Mira Road itself. It had been months that this fish had stopped selling. Now the people were demanding it again but the population of the fish had dropped considerably as people stopped rearing them. But, Azhar made friends with one Bengali man. That man was a fisher. He was still rearing the fish. The Bengali guy supplied these fishes outside Mira Road as now they were in high demand there. Every afternoon he came to the pond located in the same area in which my shop was to fish. Azhar sat with him and made good friends with him. He was teaching Azhar how to fish. For the time being as Azhar didn’t know how to fish, he gave 2 or 3 fishes to him which he reared to keep and cook and eat. Azhar took these fishes and gave them to his mother. They sold for a good price as his mother was the only one who sold them. No one else knew where this fish could be found, because fish rearers had long forgotten about it and the Bengali man was in no mood of letting others know about the pond. Before the other rearers would start rearing and bring the fish in the market, Azhar’s mother would have done a great deal of business.
Azhar told me one day, that he will start fishing soon and then collect and rear the fish for his mum.
These kids become responsible from a very young age. They see drug addicts destroying their life. They see the police harassing the shanty dwellers. They hear about young children getting abducted. They see drug dealers roaming in their locality. They see the government demolishing their shanties. They even see many young girls getting sucked into prostitution.
Who wouldn’t get a reality check by witnessing all this?
This 11 year old kid was way mature than the other kids of his age because he knew, like many other kids of his status, that if he doesn’t do anything to balance out his life, he will remain in the garbage that he already is in.
One day it was raining heavily. I felt quite melancholic due to the weather. But the weather was stimulating too. I felt like having tea. I called up my mom and told her that she hadn’t got the tea yet (by 11:30 my mum used to bring tea everyday to the shop for me). She told me it was raining heavily and that she had work to do at home so she couldn’t come to the shop at that moment. I went outside the shop while Azhar sat on the computer playing games. I called out to the tea vendor but the heavy rain kept my voice from reaching him.
Just then one customer came to the shop. He brought groceries to the cash counter. I stood behind the cash counter and calculated the amount which came to 450. He was having 50 rs less. Actually 60 rs less. He lived in the building opposite to my shop just on the second floor, with the window facing towards the road side, the side at which my shop was. He called up home and told his son to get 60 rs. His son declined, saying that it was raining too heavily and the wind was heavy too, due to which his umbrella would bend and so he couldn’t come to the shop. This customer then said to me, “I live just opposite to your shop. You see that window on the second floor? That’s my house. Please take down my address and phone number. Later on when there is no rain come to my home I’ll pay you or call me up I’ll come to the shop and give you the money.” I, probably it’s a sign of a not so good grocery dealer, agreed to it.
The man thanking me went his way. I stood at the entrance of my shop and felt the cold breeze caress my body and enjoyed its wind flowing through my t-shirt. I took a step outside and the young female owner of the dance class, which was next to my shop, was standing outside with two of her colleagues. She was about my age, probably 2 years younger to me. I asked her, “No class today?” I had to speak a little loud for my voice to reach her in the cacophony of this shattering rain and blowy wind. “Yeah no class,” she replied, “Heavy rains you see. None of the students turned up.” “Good. Good. You deserve a break too!” I said, and she giggled while nodding her head in disagreement.
I walked into my shop and saying “I feel like having a tea man... no worries, we’ll have cream biscuits,” and I walked towards the first rack where the biscuits’ section was. “Won’t you Azhar?” I said and when I didn’t get any reply and was done picking up the biscuit pack I turned around, “Seems like you are too engrossed in the game.” I didn’t see Azhar. “Oh man. Where has this kid gone in this rain?” I thought. I went outside the shop munching on a biscuit. Soon as I thought about offering the dance teacher a biscuit I saw Azhar coming towards me from across the street with a thermos in his hand. As he came, his little umbrella was completely bent and he was completely drenched.
“Are you mad?” I said in a friendly tone, being surprised at his act.
“You wanted tea right?”
They are considerate. From their experiences in the world they become people friendly and feel one with everyone. It helps them move ahead and continue living in this world. If we add up education to this quality they will become successful citizens. They may live dirtily, they may be mud stained, they may smell bad, but they are ready to work their asses off to earn. Something which we all yearn for after all the years of education that we receive. Only problem is we don’t look at them as worthy of anything. And they aren’t aware of how important it is to be educated. That was one reason I wanted to teach Azhar computer.
He was learning quick. He didn’t know the terms of most of the icons on the screen. He didn’t even know what the term ‘pop up menu’ meant. But he learned what a right click does and what a left click does. I even taught him to scan bar codes of the products. He learned what a POS (Point of sale) system is. He learned that after scanning the bar codes the system registers the bought products and then a bill is generated. He learned that after the customer’s ATM is read and the money is debited, two receipts are generated. He learned that one receipt is given to the customer while the other is kept with us for the record. He understood that the receipt which we keep should be signed by the customer for a proof that the patron has paid the bill.
But I wasn’t contented with this progress of his. I wanted him to learn English. But I didn’t have any money to spend for his tuition fees. “After all, that is the work of his parents isn’t it?” I thought, “I’m not a messiah...” But I wasn’t comforted by this fact. With proper knowledge of English he could learn the computer faster and he could look ahead towards a brighter future.
Once, my mom called Azhar’s mother to the shop. She hired his mother for cleaning work. Then from that day onward his mother used to come everyday at 10 o’clock to clean up. I was saved by the cleaning work. “Great,” I thought. Then one day I broke the silence and asked his mother why she doesn’t send him to school. She told me “Sir, the school fees is very expensive. We were sending Azhar to the tuition but he isn’t interested. And the tuition fees is expensive too. It’s 500 rs and we can only afford to send our youngest child to the tuition. We are not having enough money to send him now.” I asked Azhar the same evening why he isn’t interested in the tuition“The tuition teacher is very rude and strict. And if I go now, my younger sister won’t be able to. So I choose not to.”
I understood the problem somewhat. You need a proper teacher too. I could reckon by what Azhar told me that his tuition teacher might have been partial towards children like Azhar, and that’s what might be making children like him hesitant towards tuition and classes. I lost hope then. I couldn’t hire Azhar at the shop for work. I still somewhat tried my own attempt at teaching him. Teaching isn’t an easy job I understood, and in some days after teaching him simple sentences, I gave up.
It was rainy season, and I had no plans to continue with this shop. Grocery business is not a business. It’s just a running shop which takes time to pickup. And running a grocery shop is not even that much profitable unless it’s a big supermarket. I think even supermarkets might not be that much profitable. It’s good for those people whose entire family is dedicated to the shop. You have to be at the shop 24/7. And some of the grocery running families live in the shop itself. You can’t pay attention on anything else if you have a grocery store. I didn’t even know why I opened a grocery store on the first place. I’m an educated person and I should be using my intellect in some other field which favors my mindset, attributes, and education.
I had no plans to continue. Even my mother didn’t. We were closing the shop and it was our last week. On a bluesy Monday afternoon, it was raining heavily. It had been raining for half an hour. I was sitting just outside, at the entrance of our shop on a plastic stool smoking a cigarette. Cigarette smoking is always fun in rains. The cold temperature with the warm smoke entering your windpipe, going to your lungs and cosying up your body... it’s just pleasurable. After I stubbed my cigarette, I took my flute and sitting on the stool I was playing a tune when I saw a thin, short heighted person walk towards me with an umbrella. His contour was getting sharper and clearer in the rainfall as he closed in. Suddenly his face was revealed and it was Azhar.
“Hey hi Azhar. What are you upto? Where were you till now?”
He had a plastic bag in his hand with which he held the handle and a card in his other hand. The plastic bag was filled with 3 fishes. He handed over the card to me. “This is for you.” He said. The card had a picture of a feather with an ink stain at the tip and an open ink bottle, both of which were lying on a paper. I opened the card and read the printed lines -
“Many teachers come and go, but only a few touch your soul.
If there’s any learning that I would again want to go through, it would be by none other than you, my teacher.”
And below, these lines were written in red ink-
“To the wurlds bast teacher, with luve, Azhar.”
“You wrote this?”
“Yes. I asked my friend who goes to the tuition to phrase in English what I wanted to write. It turned out I was right.”
“Good. Good... You want to have a chocolate?”
“Great. Which one? Dairy Milk, Kit-Kat, Milky bar?”
“As always, Kit-Kat. You know, the rest I can do without.”
He always said that.