On very rare occasions these days I am compelled to travel by public transport while shuttling to and from my place of work. This is due to the courtesy extended by my employer in the form of providing me with transport, more in consideration of my age than anything else. Yesterday evening was one of such rare occasions when the office car could not be made available to me because of other pressing needs. Therefore, I decided to avail the metro for my return journey.

The tube brought me up to the station which is a little over a mile from my place of residence. On other days under similar circumstances I take a stroll to my house. It is usually a pleasure since one can take a detour away from the busy streets and walk along lanes and by-lanes through residential areas. It is here that life really flows. Children play on the pavements and whatever small openings and vacant plots still dot the neighborhood. Their mothers shout at them in their desperate attempts to compel their children to come back and start studying. They must try hard right from their childhood if they want to improve their lot. This is the wish of every mother.

Middle and lower middle class families who still form the mainstay of our society, and constitute the main stream in contemporary social parlance, inhabit the lanes that lead to my house. I very much belong to the same section of society and feel proud of it. A feeling of guilt sometimes lurches in some nook and corner of my mind at not being able to be as vociferous as the neighborhood mothers in reining in my errant children or for that matter anybody else. Shouting, though very effective, is a taboo in our society (sans our wives and mothers!).

I shall now narrate a very small story, which made me all the more proud yesterday evening. The mile or so distance appeared to me a little troublesome to negotiate at the end of a hectic day at office. Therefore I decided to hire a cycle rickshaw that would take me to my house. The rickshaw puller was a middle-aged man who happened to be at the head of a long queue waiting for customers. No sooner had the man started to pedal the rickshaw with me firmly saddled in the seat that a girl came running with her small brother in tow and stopped the vehicle.

She shouted something like “Give me five rupees for oil.” The middle aged man told the girl, who was not more than ten years old, that he would give her the money later in the evening. She disappeared as suddenly as she had come, all the time cautioning her small brother of the perilous traffic that thronged the streets.

The journey was resumed immediately thereafter. But it started a train of thoughts in me. The girl and her small brother must be children of this rickshaw puller though they looked much fairer and were dressed much better than he was. But why did the girl ask for money from their father in the middle of the road? What was the urgency for? Why did she want to buy oil? Did she want to buy kerosene for cooking? It might be that my rickshaw puller could not accumulate enough money to buy a cylinder of gas at a go. This was the case with many people who had to then look for kerosene as the most viable alternative. There were many people who had to make do with a quarter liter of kerosene in the morning and similar quantity in the evening for cooking.

But the children did not look like they belonged to such a poor family. I kept on guessing – what could be the truth? My man might not be their father at all. Probably they had hired the rickshaw just prior to me and my man owed them the five rupees because of scarcity of change when they disembarked. But then why did the girl say that she wanted to buy oil with the money? Oil was a very common name used to express many items, which might be used as a cooking medium or even for hair dressing. How could I assume that the girl wanted to buy kerosene only?

I could not ask the rickshaw puller lest he felt bad at my inquisitiveness. These people were very touchy and resented anything even remotely connected with expressing sympathies to them in their constant struggle against poverty. I knew that very well because I also felt in a similar manner.

Now we came to the end of the journey. I would never know who the children were and why the girl had asked for the five rupees. The episode would remain a mystery forever. I opened my purse and paid him with a ten-r note, for that was the fare. The man rewarded me with a broad grin and said – “This ten rupee note will make my daughter and my younger son very happy, you know. She was asking for the money when we started.”

“But she wanted to buy oil. Wasn’t it?”

“No, sir, not at all. You must have heard it all wrong. She wanted to buy a pen for her teacher and present it to her on her birthday tomorrow.”

“What about your son?” I asked.

“The same teacher teaches him also and he also wants to present a pen to the teacher. Now with these ten rupees both can fulfill their wishes.”

With these words the rickshaw puller went his way. I was at a loss for a few minutes and kept on looking at the cycle rickshaw till it disappeared round the corner. I felt happy at the fact that my decision of not trekking to my house could bring some cheer to the girl and the small boy waiting anxiously for their father a few street corners away.

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