The Shoeshine Boy

On a summer afternoon, several years ago, I was stranded at a railway station awaiting a train. It was hot and sultry. I was sweating at each pore. A chilled Coke had done 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 the City of Joy, a book that I had read a dozen times over. It was a vain effort to take away my attention from the weather and the pain in my ankle. My favourite music on the Walkman sounded cacophonic. I was grumbling to myself about the weather when I felt a human presence in my vicinity.

I did not realise when the shoeshine boy caIMG_4022me and sat a few feet from me. He was a skeleton of a teenager. His face had the contours of thirteen and lines of thirty. He seemed to have lived those intervening years in just a few months. His loosely fitting pants were tattered and torn; patch repairs at the knees being the perpetual trademark of destitution. The button-less shirt bared his bony chest. His attire hoarsely proclaimed his poverty. I had almost ignored him when my passing glance staggered at the sight of a conspicuous glow in his sunken eyes. Cheerfulness on his face contradicted his plight and aroused my interest in him.

He was toting a wooden box, which he placed on the ground and gestured to polish my shoes. Prompted by an impulse to alleviate his sorry state, I accepted the offer, though my shoes were spotlessly clean. I had decided to pay him more than what I thought was his entitlement. Slowly and meticulously he arranged his cans of polish, bottles of dyes, shoe-creams, pieces of rags and shoe brushes. Soon he was engrossed in his work. With the air of a renaissance artist, he stopped every now and then to critically examine 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 military-man.” Without waiting for a reply he added, “Only faujis maintain dresses and their shoes so tidily.” I guessed he was creating grounds for a handsome 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. 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. I was all ears––I had asked for it.

The minute hand had travelled 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 drew a Rupee 50 note from my wallet and placed it on the boy’s polish-smeared palm, saying, “Keep the change.” I thought I had done my bit to bring a cheer to the wretched soul.

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 faujis, who sacrifice their lives for us at Kargil.”

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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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