The Upper-Class Waiting-Room at Tundla Railway Junction had been invaded and taken over by the party workers making arrangements for a High Tea for their beloved leader before his departure for Delhi. The respected representative of the people was having lunch with a local businessman and, in all probability, would be arriving at the station in the nick of time. He might just have three minutes to spend with the workers toiling in the Waiting-Room. That would be good enough for some of them who’d be content with getting a glimpse of him; the luckier ones would have the honour of touching his feet and getting photographed with him.
The members of the Youth Wing had, within minutes, dragged and re-arranged five of the seven sofas in the room to make a temporary VIP Enclosure for the revered man and his entourage. They were conscientious comrades; rather than littering the room, they had piled up empty sweet boxes and oily paper bags which, a few minutes ago had contained hot samosas and kachoris, in a corner. They had neatly arranged eatables on disposable paper plates on a big table by the window. For the VIP and his close aides, ceramic plates had been loaned from Jai Bhole, a tea vendor on the Station. A noisy 1.5 tonne air conditioner was failing miserably in its mission to cool the room. Wrappers of Parle G biscuits went flying and started littering the room when an enthusiast turned on the fan at high speed. It was switched off instantly and the wrappers were collected and consigned back to the garbage heap in the corner.
The smell of fried snacks was vying with the characteristic smell of phenyl mixed with Pan Parag emanating from the washrooms. A cheap room deodorant sprayed by a thoughtful volunteer was failing to dominate the competing odours. The sight and sound of the room was repelling––unwelcoming, at best. “Should I sit in the waiting room or occupy a bench outside?” I wavered even as I stood in the door and eyed a vacant sofa.
A volunteer in spotless white khadi kurta, pyjama and tilted Gandhi cap, who appeared to be the leader of the team, solved my problem a bit crudely. “Sir, Netaji would be arriving soon. I’ll be grateful if you could kindly stay out of the Waiting Room until he is gone.” Although he said that with joined hands, I could feel the coercion neatly embedded in his appeal.
In the few seconds I took to get the import of his words, he saw the Air Force logo on my aircrew bag and did a volte face. “Oh my God! I am so sorry, Sir. I didn’t know you are from the Services. Why don’t you join us for the High Tea? I’ll spare you a garland. Netaji will be pleased to be welcomed by a fauji.” He was politeness personified.
His face fell when I declined and turned to leave. It didn’t bother me whether the regret writ large on his face was feigned or genuine.
A bit rankled with what had just happened, I parked myself on an isolated bench. It was hot and sultry. Mercury must’ve shot beyond 40º Celsius that afternoon. Even in shade, I was sweating at each pore. A chilled Coke did little to mitigate my misery. And then, there was this nagging pain in my ankle due to an injury sustained while jogging. I tried to sink into City of Joy, a book that I had read a dozen times over. It turned out to be a vain effort at diversion. Even my favourite music on the Walkman sounded cacophonic.
I experimented with numerous other techniques to be at ease, including Anulom-Vilom, but failed. I had shut off myself from the surroundings and was cursing the weather and the flies that were troubling me, when my attention was drawn by a conspicuous movement nearby.
I had not realised when the shoeshine boy came and sat a few feet from me. I felt he had been there awhile. He was a skeleton of a teenager. His face had the contours of thirteen and lines of thirty (exaggeration intended). He seemed to have lived those intervening years in just a few months. His loosely fitting tattered pants were secured around his thin waist by a twine; patch repairs at the knees being the perpetual trademark of destitution. A button-less shirt bared his bony chest. His attire hoarsely proclaimed his poverty. I had almost ignored him when my sweeping glance staggered at a conspicuous glow in his sunken eyes.
Cheerfulness on his face contradicted his plight and kindled my interest in him.
He was toting a wooden box, which he adjusted on the ground and spoke just one word: “Polish!”
Overcome by an impulse to alleviate his sorry state, I accepted the offer, although my shoes were spotlessly clean. I had decided to pay him more than what I thought was his entitlement.
Saleem was his name.
Slowly and meticulously, he arranged his cans of polish, bottles of dyes, shoe-cream, pieces of rags and shoe brushes. He pushed a pair of overused slippers towards me to place my feet on, while he worked on my shoes. Very soon, he was engrossed in his work. He paused every now and then, and with the air of a renaissance artist, critically examined the effect of the strokes of his brush on my shoes.
I kept aside my book. For now, I had before me, a library of some of the finest thoughts in the world recorded on the face of the little boy. Finding me interested, he chirped, “Sir, I am sure, you are a milatry-man.” And then, without waiting for a reply, he added, “Only faujis maintain dresses and their shoes so tidily.” I guessed he was creating grounds for a tip––an act, quite expected of a street urchin.
“What’s wrong with your health? You look so weak,” I changed the topic.
“I have just recovered from a long illness. They say it was tuberculosis. I have gone through hell. But, thank God! During my illness, I have lost only the muscles. The bones are still intact. In a matter of days, flesh will grow on the bones, and I will be fit again.” Unknowingly, the boy had challenged an air warrior’s ability to endure suffering. It amazed me no end that even in that dismal state of being he was daring to hope. I didn’t realise when the pain in my ankle disappeared.
“It is terribly hot,” I meandered.
“But sir, for poor roofless people like us, it is better than the rainy season or the winter …” There was reason in his judgement, which I accepted readily. I could now bear the sweltering heat. Thereafter, it was a monologue with me at the receiving end. I was all ears––I had asked for it.
The minute hand had traced a semi-circle, when he gave finishing touches to the shoes and presented them for my inspection. I accepted the pair with a nod of approval. My mind was still moving along its own set of grooves.
I slipped my feet into the shoes and drew a Rupee-50 note from my wallet. I held the crisp note between my index finger and the middle finger and extended my arm for him to take it.
“Keep the change,” I said, thinking that that would be enough to bring a cheer to the wretched soul.
The boy stepped back and thrust forward his polish-smeared palms to decline the offer. His hesitation led me to believe that he was expecting more.
“How much more do you want?” I asked grudgingly. I was expecting him to come up with some sad story to gain sympathy.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Lightning in the clear sky on that sunny afternoon would not have surprised me as much as did his reply. “Sir,” he said, “Kindly keep the money. I will go to hell if I accept a single paisa from the faujis, who sacrifice their lives for us on the borders.”
I didn’t know where to look.
Despite much ado, he refused to accept the remuneration. In a last-ditch effort, I took out my most valued possession––a beret badge, which was presented to me as a souvenir by an officer of a friendly force after a successful military operation––and pinned it on the pocket of his shirt. With a hand raised in a mock salute and a guileless smile that spread from ear to ear, the little patriot accepted my gesture of gratitude.
Not too far… in the Upper-Class Waiting-Room, I could hear the volunteers chanting, “Zindabad! Zindabad!”
[“The Shoeshine Boy” has been made into a short film (eleven-minute). Click here to watch the film. The film won two awards at the Kashi Indian International Film Festival Awards KIIFFA – 2022 –– For the Best Story (Group Captain Ashok K Chordia) and for the Best Actor (Shaktee Singh) in the Long Short Film Category]