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A Long Way To Calcutta

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Our bus rattled to a stop by a roadside shelter in the mellow winter afternoon. We all clamoured to get out all at once, to get away from the stench and humidity of the interior.
The gentle breeze was a welcome respite from the putrid bus smell where two girls had been repeatedly throwing up their breakfast.
I scrubbed my hands with my sanitizer and took a sip from my mineral water. Though I was loaded up on snacks, I thought it would be safe to buy some more. You can never have too much food, I said. Plus, I wanted to get some candy in case watching those two girls puking made me feel queasy.
I walked briskly to one of the several highway side shops selling all kinds of odds and ends. Each shop was painted in gaudy, bright colours, much like the bus we were travelling in. The snacks selling there were mostly cheap, local duplicates of famous brands, apart from some hone made fare.
I walked into a little stall where a small boy, no more than four years old was holding shop. He was dressed up in several layers of clothes and a red thread towel around his neck, on which he blew his nose every minute or so. He had made a game of balancing different weights on both sides of the balance beam and comparing them. His colourful little shop was crammed with all kinds of groceries and snacks. On the floor lay a half eaten pack of biscuits and a cheap book of alphabet. I smiled indulgently at the boy as I approached him, “what have you got there?” I asked.
“If I keep two of the small ones on this side and a large one that side, they stay at the same level” he shared the secret with me.
“Isn’t that great” I whispered.
“Yes it is, I’m excited to tell baba about it”, his eyes twinkled.
“My name is Aditi. What’s yours?” I leaned towards the kid, as he sniffled into his scarf.
“My name is Rohit but everyone calls me Golu. Do you want some bhunja?”
I looked at the jars on display, perplexed.
“Sure, what do you have?”
I played along.
“The ground nuts cost eight coins, and the grams ten coins, and the rest I don’t remember. They cost more than I can count.” Golu stated flatly.
“Baba recently admitted me to school. Its behind the lotus pond near the temple. And baba also taught me to count coins, so that I can sit at our shop when he goes to feed the hens. Baba tells me that I can give people food if they give me coins in return…many many coins.” He stopped between theatrical hand gestures to wipe his nose.
I listed with rapt attention.
“What will you do with the coins?” I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Oh, I will save them for a long time”, he climbed up onto the stool where he was sitting. “I will save my coins so that I have a lot of money, and when I do, I will visit my parents in Calcutta!” He finished grandly, jumping off the stool with his hands out spread.
“Your parents live in Calcutta?”, I asked incredulously.
‘Yes they do. Baba told me.”, Golu arranged all the weights according to size on top of one another. “They went there a long time ago. They sat in a bus like that one, the one you came in. When we have enough coins, baba and I will also sit in the bus and go to Calcutta.” His large eyes glistened with childlike happiness and excitement.
A hoary old man walked in before I had time to reply.
Golu ran up to him and clung to his arm. The old man lovingly pushed him aside and took position on the lone stool in the shop. “Where are you going madam?”, he asked me politely. “Calcutta”, I replied.
“You are going to Calcutta? Do you live there? Do you know my mother and father?” Golu peeked from behind his Baba, flushed with anticipation. “Run along now, Golu”, the old man patted his grandson.
“Golu’s parents died when he was a year old. It was a year of terrible famine, and the over work and exhaustion took its toll on them. Golu is all I have left now.”, the old man’s smile faded. “I haven’t had the heart to tell him yet, I’ll wait until he is older.” Baba picked up the biscuits and the book and placed them on a shelf in the wall. “He kept asking me again and again, so I told him that they rode one of these buses into the city”, he sniffled. I started at the old man in speechless wonder.
My train of thoughts was interrupted by the little tornado Rohit storming back into the shop.
“Aditi, when you reach Calcutta, will you give this to my mommy and daddy?” Golu held out some wares in his tiny palms. On a dirty little sheet of paper, scribbled in the uneven enthusiasm of someone just learning to write, the whole alphabet, with a missing H and P, numbers 1 to 10, the 3 and 6 inverted, a couple of marbles, an egg and a few coins.
“Tell them I am learning to read and write, and will write them full letters soon. The egg is from our hen, it’s very tasty, and those marbles I love to play with. And give them those coins, they might need them.” He said earnestly.
My heart melted at his innocence. I took his hands into mine and squeezed them.
“Let’s not trouble this fine lady, Golu.” Baba interjected.
“It will be no trouble”, I declared. “I will find your parents and give them your gifts. I will also tell them how great a kid you are and they are lucky to have you.”
Golu squealed with glee and flung his arms around me. I hugged him tightly, soaking in his innocent love.
The bus driver honked, indicating it was time to move. I bought alot more snacks than I needed and got up to leave.
Golu looked at me expectantly.
“I’ll be sure to deliver your message first thing when I get to Calcutta” I promised.
“Thanks” Golu beamed.
I walked back to my smelly, humid bus, clutching those priceless gifts in my hands. I turned back to catch one last glimpse of Golu, sitting in his little shop amidst all kinds of odds and ends.
Even years later, when I look at that hastily scribbled alphabet and those shiny coins, I think about a hellish trip in a hot bus as it snaked through rural West Bengal, green farms, bright shops, and a little boy in a highway shop, saving up to see his parents, and I know what true love is.

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