At times like these, little Ram loved the big city. Big buildings, big buses, big cars, big billboards, and big, rich people. He was going to be big and rich one day. Much like Amithabh Bachchan, he was going to fight his way up the ladder through this big bad world of lies and deceit. He was going to wield guns, much the way Amitabh Bachchan did, and usurp all their wealth from corporators. It was a bad world, and Ram was going to have to fight fire with fire. Even as he stepped out of the theatre, he looked back at the larger than life face of his larger than life god looking at him encouragingly from the hoarding above the theatre entrance. You’ll have to work hard it seemed to tell him. You’ll have to be sincere about working hard, much like I am.

Ram did work hard. Somewhere, he identified with the mega-star, who, in one of his movies, started working at a young age, as a shoeshine boy, and worked his way up. Ever since he had arrived in Delhi, Ram had been working. His village was not forgotten, but not always missed either. He still remembered his father sitting by the fire, puffing at a bidi, putting his hand on Ram’s shoulder and saying to him:

“Your brother has sent for you.”
“Gopal Bhaiyya?”
“No. Rakesh. Rakesh has found a job for you in Delhi. A nice family that needs a young boy to look after their house. You will be their friend and will live in the luxury that they live in. You will work in a big house.”
“But Baba who will get fodder for the cows? Who will get wood for Ma?”
“That is easy work. You can make better money in the big city.
“But Baba…”
“Don’t argue. You go there and work hard. If you work hard, you will do well. You work hard and make someone dependent on you, and you will do well.”
“I will go and tell Ma. She will give me daal tonight!”
“No. Tomorrow morning you will leave with me and I will take you to the station. If your Ma finds out, she will not let you go. I will tell her later.”

After a meal of bajra roti, little Ram helped his mother wash the tawa, put out the fire and set his fathers bed on the charpai. He himself lay on a thin chatai on the floor and dreamt of big open spaces of green grass in the city, of big cars driving through these big green open spaces and large kothi’s on the fringes of these spaces. He imagined himself in these big cars, and smiled as he felt the wind pick up and ruffle his hair.

Seven months in the big city, and his dreams had changed. Cities, he now felt, were smaller and bigger at the same time. There was less space to move, fewer and smaller fields to play in, more people to walk around on the crowded streets. People talked less when there were more people to talk to. And still, this compressed village seemed go on forever.

At times Ram dreamt of his village, with vast brown fields and large old trees. Of his mother in her flower-patched blue sari, squatting in the shade outside their small house, sifting for sticks in bajra. Of his father, his thin strong face and large moustache, and the maroon turban around his head, making his face seem non-existent, except for the moustache. Of when his father, holding his dhoti in one hand and his beedi in another, telling him that he must leave for the city because Rakesh Bhaiya had called for him. Of the fifteen rupee journey he had undertaken alone, of being always conscious of the six rupees he carried with him, of the smell from the toilets on the train and the loud incessant chattering that lasted throughout the journey: discussions about the big city that
kept him awake throughout. Of Rakesh Bhaiya who came a fear-ridden ten minutes late to pick him up from the station, and how he cried as he hugged his brother.

Ram had learnt much since then. He had changed jobs twice, but the three months that he spent at the Sharma’s sometimes made him wish he’d spend the rest of his life with them. He thought of Rinku growing up and making him a partner in his business. He dreamt of driving down empty roads in a big car like Babaji’s. Then there were times when he saw movies of that quintessential shoeshine boy working his way to riches. Then he dreamt of going against the big bad world and making his own way up, without any help from anyone. He would practice punches on his pillow when he got up. He would carefully punch and kick walls in slow motion, imagining bad guys falling over. Then he would go and help Mummyji get Rinku and Bunty ready for school.

Ramu beta, Mummyji would tell him, you’re a quick learner. Ram could now make an excellent bhurji, chai and neembu paani, and wash and iron clothes. Both Babaji and Sahib would ask for Ram-ka-neembu-paani or Ram-ki-chai, and that made him feel very proud. Words of his father resonated in his head at times like these, reminding him to work hard and make someone dependent on him.

There were times of fun, of playing games like he had never played in the village. Rinku and Bunty had toys like Ram had never seen before. And every evening, they would all play in the car parking. He always did well at pakadan-pakdai, because he was the biggest among them, but he had also learnt new games like football and cricket. He had hit sixes like Kapil Dev on television. He had gone on drives in the evening with Babaji, shouted at pedestrians and cyclists along with Rinku and Bunty from their grand car. At night, before they went to sleep, they would jump all over Rinku and Bunty’s bed. After Mummyji had turned out the lights, Ram would creep back into their room and they would play hide and seek in the dark. He loved Rinku and Bunty like his own brothers, particularly Rinku. If Rinku fell down playing football in the concrete car park and hurt himself, Ram would feel guilty about not having done anything to prevent it. He would never let other, bigger kids bully Rinku and Bunty. Rinku would beg
Mummyji to let Ram go and play when there was work to be done. Yes, thought Ram, we’re brothers and we’ll be together for ever and ever.

But just as there were times of hope and brash dreaming, there were times of loneliness and fear too. He saw Rakesh Bhaiya only once a week, sometimes just once a month. He was working in a restaurant and didn’t have time. When Ram did something wrong, like spill milk while transferring it from one container to another, or knock over something in the living room, Mummyji would scold him. At times like these, he felt insecure: afraid that he would lose them
forever, that he would be turned out into the street in the middle of the night. That fear would haunt him on and on and he would see himself walking past drunken men lurching for him on lonely streets. He would see himself going from car to car, from person to person, begging for food or money. He decided, one day, that if he were to ever be thrown out of his job, he would become a shoeshine boy like Amitabh Bachchan.

Just three days ago, Sahib had slapped him.

It had been late in the evening, and Ram was returning with tomatoes from the thelas selling provisions around the corner. Bhola, the chowkidar, was standing beside the gate, looking very pleased with himself. He was standing, leaning on the wall, his legs crossed at the ankles, looking up at the sky every time he blew a whiff of beedi-smoke, much like Amitabh Bachchan did when he waited for some goonda.

“Oye, Ramu. Come here,” said Bhola frantically gesturing towards himself with his left hand. “Come here.”
Haan, Bhola bhaiyya?”
“Come here. Sit.” Bhola squatted partially, and Ram, careful not to place the packet of tomatoes on the ground, squatted in front of him.
“Which village are you from?”
“Sholapur, Bhaiyya.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Yes. Sometimes. I miss my Baba and Ma.”
“Sholapur is near Vilasnagar?”
“I don’t know, Bhaiya. I have only
been to Haldipur, besides Delhi.”
“I’m from Vilasnagar. I have a wife there and I have a son. I miss them. I was thinking about them. You know what I do when I miss them?”
“No Bhaiyya.”
“I drink and I smoke. It makes my time pass more easily. I don’t worry about them when I am smoking.”
“How old are you?”
“I am ten years old,” said Ram, beaming.
“Then you are seven years older than my son. I think you are old enough to start smoking, now.”
“Nahi Bhaiyya. Mummyji will be angry if she finds out.”
“Arre, she is not your mummy. Your Ma is in the village. Do you know what smoke tastes like?”
“No Bhaiyya. Mummyji will be angry.”

Bhola took a deep puff and blew it into Ram’s stunned face and half open mouth. Some of it went into his eyes and Ram dropped the packet of tomatoes onto the flow. A couple spilled out as Ram kneaded his eyes.

“It tastes like this.” Laughing heartily, Bhola stood up.

Ram blinked his eyes, now red as the tomatoes he was picking up. Still blinking, tears forming on the sides, he cleaned those that had dropped to the floor with the shirt Mummyji had given to him. He lifted the packet off the ground and ran inside the building. Throughout the climb up the stairs, and the wait outside the door after he rang the bell, Ram felt a sense of guilt coming over him. What if Mummyji found out? What if Bhola told her I had smoked? What will Babaji say? What will Rakesh Bhaiyya say if Mummyji told him? What will Baba and Ma think?

“How much were they for, beta?” Mummyji asked as she bent down to take the packet from his hands.

“Three rupees, Mummyji” He mumbled, half looking away, immediately thinking about washing his face and his eyes in the bathroom down the hall.

“What is this?” She said, sniffing the air. “Have you been smoking?”

“Nahi Mummyji. I was not smoking. Bhola was smoking”

She bent down and sniffed his shirt.

“You’ve been smoking, Ram. Arvind!”

Hearing Sahib’s name, Ram started seeing visions again, of being out on the street at night, of drunken beggars lurching at him. He tried to pull away, to remove the hand that now gripped his arm.

“Arvind. Ram has been smoking.”

“What?” The voice seemed to thunder down the hallway, bounding off all walls and hitting Rams ears like an avalanche of slaps.

Sahib walked stomped down the hallway like a police inspector in an Amithabh Bachchan movie. He took Ram by the shoulder and bent down to sniff the air around Ram’s head.

“Beedi,” he said. “You’ve been smoking beedi.”

The next minute, Ram found his legs give away under him, and twinkling star-like dots before his eyes as Sahibs hand made contact with his cheek.

“Today you’ve started smoking. Tomorrow you will teach Bunty and Rinku.”

Ram’s already red eyes swelled with tears.

“Nahi Sahib. I did not smoke. It was Bhola. He was smoking”

“Now you’re lying too. One more lie and I will throw you out into the street.”

“I told you,” he said to Mummyji, “I don’t want a rag picker to be in the same house with my kids. All they are, is a bad influence.”

Nahi Sahib. It was Bhola. He was smoking and he blew smoke into my face… and my mouth and…and my eyes,” stammered Ram, still on the floor.

“Let’s settle this, once and for all.”

With that, Sahib bent down and pulled Ram up off the floor and dragged him down the stairs, to the gate, where Bhola stood, not smoking anymore.

“Sahib” said Bhola, his stance firming up, and his hand clipping his forehead above his right eyebrow.

“Bhola. Were you smoking?”
Nahi Sahib,” looking straight into Sahib’s eyes.
“You don’t smoke?”
Nahi Sahib.”

Sahib stepped closer to Bhola, and took a quick, deep breath, like a snort.

“You’re lying. You’ve been smoking. I can’t stop you from smoking, but if I ever catch you lying again, I’ll have you thrown out, one way or another. Do you understand?”
Ji Sahib” Bhola’s gaze was focused on the ground in front of him.
“Did Ram smoke? Did you teach him?”

Ram looked up at Bhola, in appeal. Bhola, understanding the gravity of the situation, looked up at Sahib.

Nahi Sahib. I was just joking with him. I just blew some smoke on his face.”
“If I ever, ever, find you doing that to my kids, or to Ram again, I will make sure that you never work here again, or in any of the buildings nearby.”
Ji Sahib. I’m sorry. This will never happen again.”

Quietly, Sahib walked Ram back to the drawing room and sat him on the
sofa, beside him.

“Ram,” he said, looking straight into Ram’s fear-filled eyes, “we treat you like our own son, but never forget that you are working for us. If I ever, ever, catch you doing something, anything, that is harmful for us or for our kids, that will be the end of your time with us. Won’t allow anything that will harm Rinku and Bunty. Do you understand?”

Ram nodded, and quietly went back to work. Mummyji patted him on the back a couple of times that night, reassuringly, but Ram felt overwhelmed with fear of being left out alone in the street in the middle of the night. He didn’t sleep much, and entered a cycle of depression that seemed never to end. For the next two days, he didn’t chatter incessantly in the kitchen, like he used to. He didn’t eat
much food, or play, with Rinku or Bunty. Mummyji, worried about him, asked the neighbours maid, Shakuntala to take him to see ‘Mukaddar ka Sikandar’ after lunch.

As Ram exited the theatre, all seemed well with the world. He was ready for another beginning, for renewed friendships, for trips around the city, for whizzing around the car park with Bunty and Rinku. Ram loved the city, full of adventures and experiences, full of bad guys to beat up. So, holding onto Shankuntala’s hand, he skipped around back and forth on the way home. He was particularly chirpy in the kitchen, so much so that Mummyji, smiling, told him Bas kar!

After Mummyji and Babaji had had their routine tea, and Rinku, Bunty and Ram had finished their cups of milk, Rinku and Bunty wanted to play. Ram had to clean the dishes, but on Rinku’s insistence, Mummyji let them go out to play in the car park. This time, they took the cycle out, and as always, Ram, being the largest drove it because he drove it fastest. Rinku and Bunty took turns sitting in front of him, on the handlebar. Ram loved the feel of the wind in his face, and this
time, he drove it faster and faster.

Occasionally, he would drop his feet to the ground, and the ground seemed to push them back up. Rinku, sitting in front of him, his head stretched beyond the handlebar, shut his eyes and yelled ‘Yay!’ at the top of his voice. Ram, too, shut his eyes momentarily, before realising that he was closing in on the wall that enveloped the parking area. He swayed a little to avoid the wall, but he was going too fast and drove right into it. Rinku, at the last minute, turned his head and shut his eyes, screaming. Rinku’s head rammed right into the wall, and started bleeding as he lay sprawled, the half under the cycle. He needed attention, fast. Bunty ran up to calling out to his mother. Fear gripped Ram.

Visions of Sahib’s hand coming down on his cheek played over and over again in Ram’s mind, the non-existent pain in his cheek making him forget the pain of the bruises on his elbow and the slight cut on his knee. Ram would be on the street that night. He would never see Rinku and Bunty again, and go home to his village a failure. Who would hire him, after what he did to Rinku? Sahib’s warning to Bhola repeated itself, until Ram could not think of it anymore. Rinku was wailing, and Ram couldn’t see him in such pain. He wished he could do something at that moment to transfer all that pain to himself. Something, some
hurt, not only to make h
imself suffer for causing such pain to Rinku. Something, anything, to take his mind off the rest of his doomed life of failure. Without a word, Ram walked up to the wall and banged his own head hard against it.

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