Balu was a runner. He always knew he was. Clutching his orange potli close to his chest, he ran past Sabal kaku’s tea stall. The jute rope tied around his waist fought a futile battle as the shorts threatened to slip down his frame inch by inch. But Balu had to run.
The Kamrup Express was leaving Jalpaiguri station when Balu dashed past the ticket counter and onto the platform. Constable Sahib and his assistant were on their rounds and Balu knew that he had to escape their screening eyes to get inside the train. He never understood why they would drag him out of the compartment till outside the station and threaten him with a cane beating if he ever repeated the incident. As far as Balu was concerned, he was not a beggar. He was a performer.
It was only when the last bogie swayed away from the station did Balu feel free. He smiled gleefully at the thought of him defying the sahibs once more and knew instantly that he needed to start with his routine. He dug his hands into his Potli and brought out a yellow tambourine that he had named ‘Chamki’. As Balu made his way from one compartment to another, singing the songs of Shyamal Mitra, Pancham Da and countless others, Chamki would assist him with her chimes. She filled up the breaking in his voice whenever he lost breath and hid the errors he made with the lyrics. She was his companion through the journey, jingling with his every move and his every tap. Today like every other day in the past 4 years that he spent on the train, she was ready for him.
The train was a little less packed than usual and Balu could easily move past every compartment without getting reprimanded by the memsahibs for stepping on their saaris or by the babus who pressed their palms on the pant pocket everytime Balu moved past them. Balu sang as he spotted an old man with big black glasses sitting with a folding stick placed on his lap. ‘A stick is meant to be a stick. How is it a stick, if it can be folded?’ Balu thought as he continued to push ahead. The old man cocked his head towards the direction of his voice as Balu stood right in front of him and now was singing ‘Ye Sham Mastani’ for the 13th time. Counting made him feel intelligent. It made him feel like one of those school kids, who in their blue khakhi shorts and polished shoes made Balu upset.
Balu was a singer. He smiled as he sang to the old man with a crooked back, sitting beside a sleeping Mota bhai. The old man grinned as Balu started singing ‘Sheeter Hawaay’. Balu liked the grin. A smile that had unintentionally become a toothless grin making little hills on his cheeks. The old man continued to smile even when Balu stopped singing and clanked the loose change in his palm. No one gave him a paisa except the old man, who shifted a bit as he moved his scrawny palm into his chest pocket and brought out a five rupee coin. Balu took the money pinched between his fingers and moved to the next coach singing the song, now for the 14th time.
It had become a routine. The race to catch Kamrup Express and singing to this old man for that guaranteed five rupees. Balu always smiled while singing to the old man and the old man was ready with a grin of his own. The little kid always wondered how the blind old man managed to board the train everyday and successfully find a vacant seat at a time when all the babus in their pressed shirts boarded the train, packing the coaches and debating on the superficial loktantra with those they had met during their daily commute. Maybe someone always took pity on him. Balu never spoke to the old man to know his destination and he never stayed back to find out since he had to get down at New Alipurduar and board the next train back to Jalpaiguri. But Balu met him every day with a new song, the same smile and received a 5 rupee coin at the end along with a toothless grin. The old man made Balu feel important. No words were ever spoken or needed.
Today had not started well. Ratan Kaki had declared that there was nothing for breakfast. Not even puffed rice. With a growling stomach Balu watched her wipe empty tins. Ratan Kaki was not related to him but she had taken him up and given him shelter on finding him sleeping below a traffic signal. She used to sell balloons in the signal, lightly tapping on one of the car windows and moving ahead after waiting a second for the window to roll down. She always looked for the ones with little kids on the back seat, because the mothers would make the babu buy a balloon for the little one. But right now she sat wiping the empty tins and couldn’t face Balu who was drinking water from the Matka to fill his empty stomach.
Today as he ran, Balu did not feel like a runner. He stood panting inside the last coach and slowly made his way towards the middle of the train, singing half heartedly, not bothering enough to wait for chillars. He now knew by just looking at the face if a person would give him money or ignore his voice. He saw the old man who was now alert and beaming as Balu’s voice drew closer. Today, for the 35th time, Balu stood before him and sang an old song that Ratan Kaki had taught him once while cooking Khichuri outside their hut. Balu couldn’t smile today as he sang, his mind forever reminding him of the empty tins and the growling stomach. He caught sight of a memsahib carrying a three storeyed tiffin box . She saw him looking at her and frowned as she covered the tiffin with her Saree . Balu continued singing to the old man, sad and forlorn. The old man too did not smile this time. No toothless grin and no familiar cheek hills. Balu wondered as to what made the old man sad. Was he hungry too? Did he too miss the rice puffs? The old man looked away dejected and allowed Balu to take the five rupee coin from his palm. Balu felt odd. He got down at New Alipurduar and left the five rupee coin on a bench at the station. The stomach growled yet he craved for the old man’s grin.
For a few days Balu did not sing. He went with Ratan Kaki to the signals to sell some balloons. She sold more this time. She said it was because society takes pity on seeing a little ten year old kid sell balloons that he cannot afford. But Balu was a runner and a singer, not a balloon seller. The next day he ran his familiar run tricking the constable sahibs and laughing at the thought of doing so. He sang his way from the last coach till the first scanning the crowd for the familiar old face. And he found it. The old man had found a window seat and was looking out. Balu wondered what his blind eyes could see. Was their light even in the darkness? Did colours find their way in somehow? Or did his mind paint a picture of its own on the vast dark sheet? The old man registered Balu’s voice as he came and stood in front of him. Today Balu smiled through the song and as he smiled, so did the old man. The little pink hills on the cheeks and an empty set of gums. Balu was happy at the sight of it. He felt connected, loved. That five rupees at the end of it, had value.
The passengers of Kamrup Express never knew their story. But they knew they had one. A story of an old man, a little singing boy and their connected smiles. A tale witnessed by only one spectator, the mute Yellow Chamki.
P.S- This is my first ever fiction write-up and I wouldn't have done so if I was not smitten by Sid Balachandran's blog iwrotethose.com . He writes fiction so beautifully that I was forced to churn out a story of my own. I wrote this and decided to get his valuable comments before publishing it, and boy! those were some serious comments that he gave. What you see here is a short story made better because of his assistance. For that I am thankful. :)