The Shoeshine Boy

A street urchin shares a lesson in patriotism with an Air Warrior. (Now an international award-winning short film)

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.

The Shoeshine Boy

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]

And the award goes to …

Straight from a Goof’s Heart: Guru Nanakji & Golf

My drive from the third tee and the conversation following it changed my life forever.

That day I had landed at the golf course without a plan; I often do. Bansi, the Starter let me tee off with another golfer waiting to start.

He was a Sikh gentleman. He must have been in his early seventies; his grey hair and thick glasses suggested so. In his appearance, he resembled the legendary Khushwant Singh. He walked slowly and deliberately. He swung equally slowly with a perfect follow through. He must have been a very good golfer in his heydays. He was hitting short distances but his ball was following the path intended and directed by him. On the first hole he missed a five-foot putt and a par by a whisker. I barely managed to get a bogie.

On the second hole he got an easy par; I missed it narrowly.

The third fairway at the Race Course Golf Course is narrow in the beginning and widens in the later part. There are OBs on either side. One has to hit a long straight drive to be in a comfortable position for the rest of the par-five hole. He cleared the first hurdle comfortably.

It was my turn to tee off. I placed my ball on the tee; walked back a few paces to align myself and took stance. I thought of some of the 50 and more elements that go into making a perfect drive: the grip, the stance, the swing, the follow through, the transfer of weight, eye on the ball etc. I must have done really well at that because it was a long and straight drive, way ahead of the Sikh gentleman. There was instant accolade from him. “That’s a marvellous hit,” he said.

As we walked down the fairway to play our second shots, he appreciated my drive. The praise from the otherwise quiet man filled with joy and pride. Outwardly I didn’t express much; I wanted to be modest; look modest.

“It just happened. I didn’t do anything. I just struck the ball, said “Wahe Guru” and prayed that it went long and straight.”

“Come on! You can’t get this good result with prayers alone,” he said. “You surely have worked hard for it.”

I tried to look even more modest. That’s when he narrated this story and I reproduce it:

“A Sikh youth was looking for a five-rupee coin that he had accidentally dropped in wet mud. He was praying to the gods to help him find his coin. There was a peculiar thing about his prayers­­––he was praying to all the gods other than the Sikh gods. When a curious bystander asked him, why he was remembering the other gods when his prayers could be (obviously) responded better by Guru Nanakji or other Sikh saints, he said, “Come on! Don’t expect me to ask Guru Nanakji to go into the mud for my five rupees. I’ll bother Him when I have a bigger problem or need. If I keep bothering him for petty things, He might not come to my rescue when I actually need Him.”

Returning to my good drive and prayers to Nanakji, he chuckled and said, “Don’t bother Guru Nanakji for small things in life. Save your prayers for the day when you are in dire need of His intervention.”

The message was loud and clear. That moment onwards, I have always done my bit; and done my bit well, and never nagged God for small favours.

Pray, I still do.




One Anna

In the early sixties one anna used to be big money for a little kid in a small sleepy town likeAnna Ujjain. It was equal to six naye paise. It had the power to buy half a dozen candies, or to hire a bicycle for an hour, or to buy a bus ticket to travel half way across the city. An anna wrapped in appreciation could do much more.

Read on to truly appreciate the power of the copper-nickel coin.

I was barely five then. Dr Lalit Khanna had given me the coin in appreciation of a poem I had copied on my slate at the behest of my sister under whose tutelage I had learnt to form the letters of alphabet. I had gone around showing off my handwriting to every moving thing in my small world. I was fishing for compliments. Dr Khanna appreciated my handwriting amidst a group of three adults as he presented the coin to me.

When I grew up, I realised that there was nothing great about how I had written the poem that day. My handwriting wasn’t all that beautiful; I had just arranged the letters and words neatly in straight lines. Dr Khanna, the great motivator that he used to be, wanted to encourage me. The reward let my innocent mind believe that my handwriting was actually beautiful.

It marked a turning point in my life. That moment onwards, everything became a writing instrument and I used all the blank spaces on any piece of paper that I came across, to write. Writing became a passion. The word ‘calligraphy’ entered my vocabulary much later in life, after the art had become my hobby.

Thanks to Dr Khanna, I have a cherished hobby.