He stood on the porch for a while and stared at the grilled safety door, half expecting someone to open the door without him ringing the bell. He looked pale and sick. The kurta seemed to be extra huge and hung on his frail frame, drooping from his shoulders and the hem hanging low on his thin back.
A light evening breeze drifted and his white kurta swayed lightly. The breeze seemed to have made him time travel. He turned and looked around the porch. Walking a few steps, he bent down and touched the mosaic floor. He remained still in that position, his hand on the cold floor, for a while. A tear dropped on his forehand and as if the breeze suddenly stopped lingering in the porch and ran away without leaving any traces behind, the old man stood up swiftly and walked towards the front door. He took out the keys from his tiny bag and opened the lock. He stood on the door for a few seconds before walking in the dark house, loudly shutting the door behind.
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A few mornings later, Chandu cycled to the colony with Prem on the carrier behind him.
“How many more?” Prem asked.
“How will I know? You have the newspapers in your hand fool. Count them!” Chandu gibbed irritated.
“You have been halting on all stops. I no business with this. I want only maal.”
“Can you not yell that word? They will know, they will take us fool!” Chandu said.
Prem did not say anything further. He fiddled with the side frills hanging from the cycle carrier. Chandu seemed lost that day as he cycled in the colony. He was still thinking about something when Prem said, “Arre what you doing. Last house you no stopped. What happening to you?”
Chandu halted the cycle and nudged Prem. Prem alighted and Chandu followed. He wiped his forehead with his blue gamcha and looked at the last house.
“What happened,” Prem asked.
“Nothing.” He paused and again looked towards the house. Chandu thought about what he had heard in his circle. “They say this man was in jail for 10 years,” he said.
“We should not be here Chandu. Let’s go.” Prem tugged on Chandu’s gamcha.
They cycled away.
Next morning, Chandu cycled to the colony again, this time without Prem. As he speedily cycled past the old man’s house, someone yelled from behind. Chandu halted his cycle and turned back. The old man stood there, at his gate with a frown on his face.
“Come back here,” the man said arrogantly.
Chandu alighted from his cycle and walked towards him.
“Why don’t you stop in front of my gate?” the man said in a pissed off tone. “I want my subscription to start from tomorrow, you understand?”
Chandu did not like the way the man was speaking. “You talked like this to your jailer also?” Chandu said with a smirk as he took out the receipt booklet from beneath the newspapers on the carrier.
Chandu handed the booklet to him, expecting the man to yell back at him but the man said nothing. Chandu caught a glimpse of his eyes, which looked really hurt. Before Chandu could prepare himself to say anything, the man signed the booklet and turned away. Chandu looked at the booklet to see the man’s name. G-7/20 stared back at him instead of a name.
“Uncle, you have not written your name!” Chandu said as the old man was about to shut the gate behind him. He turned and looked at Chandu and said, “A name need not be an identity always” and closed the gate. Chandu stared at the gate for a few seconds before cycling away.
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Three months went by. A routine, surprisingly adored by the old man, developed where Chandu would drop the newspaper every morning at the front porch and on month ends, he would wait on the porch and the old man would pay him. Chandu still remained sceptical about the old man. He never initiated a conversation with him. On bad days, he would put the newspaper in the gate latch instead of flinging in on the porch. On good days, the newspaper landed on the porch and Chandu sort of waited at the gate for a few seconds, his red eyes waiting for the sight of the old man opening the door and picking up the newspaper. He would then cycle away whistling. The old man also, on his good days, waited to hear the whistling and on his bad days, did not bother to walk to the gate for his newspaper. One morning, on his good day, the old man waited on his porch for Chandu who was unusually late that day. When he did not come for a long time, the man walked towards the gate to see if Chandu had put the newspaper in the gate latch. But the newspaper was not there as well. Disappointed, he walked inside the house.
Weeks went by, the man did not receive the newspaper. Chandu seemed to have disappeared. Other houses in the colony subscribed to the other newspaper vendor but the old man didn’t. He waited. He wanted to wait. A few days later, the old man was sitting on his porch, deeply immersed in his thoughts when he heard a clatter on his main gate. He stretched his neck to see who was at the gate but could not spot anyone. He walked to the gate to find a little, shabbily dressed boy standing there.
“What do you want?”
“Saheb you have not paid for April’s newspapers. This the receipt” the boy said and handed a receipt to the man.
“Who are you? And where is that other boy who used to bring my newspaper?” the man asked.
The boy stood silent.
“Arre I am asking something” the man repeated irritatingly.
“Saheb they took him to jail. He was caught for maal.”
The old man stared at the boy as he tried to comprehend the news. Regaining himself, he asked the boy, “Which jail?”. The boy seemed to be scared to let out all the information but somewhere he knew that the old man would not let him go without knowing everything. So he spilt out hastily, everything he knew.
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The old man folded the piece of paper and kept it in his bag. He locked his door and took a rickshaw to the central correction home for minors.
After a few enquiries, the officials told him that they cannot let him meet the boy but if he has a message, they can convey that. The old man took out the folded piece of paper, pressed it against his closed eyes, mumbled a small prayer and handed the paper to the policeman. He came out of the correction home and sat on the bus stop nearby.
The boy was half asleep when he was awakened harshly by the jailor.
“Aye Chandu! Wake up! This is for you. Your tauji gave it. Read it” the jailer said and dropped the paper in his cell. Chandu opened the folds of the paper slowly and started reading the letter.
“They will not give you water for a few days in between. When they take you out for your evening walk, try and drink the water from the gardening pipe without them noticing. They will not call you by your name. Don’t forget your name and don’t try to memorise the number printed on your shirt, the one they will always call you by. 2 years will go by fast. I will wait outside.”
Chandu was surprised. He tried making out who the letter was from but he could not make out anything from the faded, tiny letters in the right corner of the paper, which read, “G-7/20”. He thought he had read the number somewhere before but was not able to recall anything.
As the evening progressed and the last rays of the sun penetrated his tiny cell and painted it a light orange, Chandu sat against the wall with the paper in his hands and G-7/20 sat at the bus stop outside, tears clouding his view of the correction home.
Image Source: The Better India