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 came 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.