It was Gupta uncle’s gift to Gaurav on his birthday. “You are a big boy now, you must start saving money”, he said, as the scrawny boy reached for the clay piggy bank.There was a coin in it already. It made a loud clinking noise when he shook it. “Take this”, Papa said, handing him another coin. He dropped it in gently and shook it again. This time it was louder.
Gaurav soon grew an obsession with his piggy bank. He would ask for his weekly pocket money in coins. He would pick up the loose change on the bookshelf, the bottom of drawers, on Ma’s dressing table. He stopped buying panipuri at the stall outside school. He couldn’t wait to get back home and drop each coin in, slowly, one at a time before he resumed his search around the house again. It kept him occupied in the evenings, when the other boys played gully cricket. He would sit on the sidelines, watching them cheer, yell and curse as wickets fell and boundaries were made. He would never get picked on a team. “Too slow, too weak” they would say.
Every night before he went to bed, he would hold his piggy bank to his ear and shake it. And every night, it would be a little heavier. The sound getting softer, but more powerful. One day, his coins didn’t slip in. He shook it, hoping it would make some space. But it was full.
It was time to break it. He watched as countless coins scattered across the floor. More than he had ever imagined. ‘At least 100 rupees in loose change!’ Gaurav estimated, feeling a sense of pride he hadn’t felt in months. He picked up the coins and handed them over to Ma. He had no use for it. He had scored his century.
Nihal has failed the math assignment. Please make sure he does his homework.
Third note this month. Aai had had enough. “I will not sign it, you show it to Baba”.
“Please Aai, last time! It won’t happen again” Nihal begged, following her into the kitchen. She ignored him, making her way to the kitchen counter to peel the potatoes for dinner. Nihal needed to act fast. Baba would be here soon. He tugged at her saree.“I’ve heard this too many times Nihal”, Aai finally spoke, giving Nihal some hope. “I just want one last chance Aai! Please! I promise!”
She looked down at her son, his tear stained cheeks, red eyes, sniffing softly between his words. She felt a strong burst of affection for him. She wanted to pick him up and smother him with kisses, but she fought it.
“Last time I’m doing this. Next time, I will tell Baba”, she said looking into his eyes with as stern a look as she could muster.
That evening, Nihal called Prakash. “I’ll need your help tomorrow” he whispered.
“5 rupees per question you copy”.
That morning before the assignment, Nihal handed him all the money in his wallet. He kept his eyes on the ground on his way home, trying his best to ignore the smell of samosa chaat, the growing mob at the panipuri stall and rhythmic chant of the sugarcane juice uncle. It was going to be a hard week. He pictured the look on Ma’s face when she sees the marks from this week’s assignment, and suddenly, it was all worth it. Suddenly, the chaat seemed less tasty, the sugarcane juice less sweet.
Prakash held his sister’s hand on the way to the Mela that evening. He looked around, enamoured. Horse rides, merry go rounds, cotton candy, toys, fortune-tellers. His eyes darted across the place, teenage girls buying bindis, aunties bargaining, teenage boys sheepishly picking bangles for their girlfriends. One day, he would open a stall at the Mela, he told her.
“Birds for sale”, said a board in one corner. His eyes widened as he went closer. Love birds, talking parrots, doves everywhere. In different colours, shapes and sizes. It was beautiful. “How much?” He said, pointing to a white dove. “130”.
He counted the money in his wallet. He had only 120. “You can have this one for 120”, she said, pointing to a similar dove with a black spot on its wing.
When he turned around to show it to Anu, she wasn’t there. He panicked. “Have you seen my sister? She is 4, this tall?” he asked the lady at the shop. She shook her head. He scanned the growing crowd at the Mela, his heart beating so hard it hurt. He walked fast, but he didn’t know where to go. “Someone must’ve taken her” he thought, his eyes swelling up.
Just then, “Dada! you bought a bird!” came a squeaky voice from the Bangle stall. “Anu!” He screamed, bursting into tears, the anger and relief overwhelming him. He picked her up and left without another word, glaring suspiciously at anyone who gave her a second look on the way home.
That evening, Prakash went up to his terrace and set the bird free. It flew away instantly, soaring into the sky without looking back. It knew exactly where it was going. Prakash stayed back on the terrace a while longer, watching it disappear into the horizon. He felt lighter.
He made his way to his room to see Anu sleeping softly. He threw his arm around her as he drifted into sleep, hoping his dove had found its brother.
“Here, take this. Don’t loiter around”, Ma said, handing him 100 rupees and a grocery list. Sameer absent-mindedly trotted through the gully. He walked past the panipuri guy, the sugarcane juice uncle, even Fun Time Toyshop without a second thought. When he was about to cross the road at Lakshmi Theatres, something caught his eye. Madhuri Dixit.
Her eyes, her smile, her hair, her hips. He stood there, staring at the poster of Beta on the wall, caught under her spell. He looked down at the crisp hundred rupee note in his hand. He didn’t need to think twice. He walked up to the counter, said “One ticket, uncle”. The bespectacled man wondered where the voice had come from, he looked over the counter to see a little boy standing on his toes expectantly looking back at him.
Dhak Dhak Karne Laga.
She tugged at his heartstrings with every move, tear and smile. He watched her, speechless, oblivious to the couple kissing in the row ahead of him, the loud aunties who predicted what would happen after every scene, and the several wolf whistles that resounded through the small, rundown theatre. He walked back home slowly, humming the songs, the sound of her laughter ringing loud in his head.
“Where the hell have you been? And where is my stuff” Ma yelled, grabbing his ear when he rang the doorbell. He winced, trying to break free. “Wait till your father comes back, no pocket money for you this week!” She gave him a tight slap across his face. Tears stung his eyes, as he made his way to the room. The poster of Madhuri Dixit on his wall greeted him. He looked at her, accusingly at first, until her smile melted his heart.
Anything for you, Madhuri. He thought, suddenly indifferent to the sharp sting on his right cheek.
That night, the boys fell asleep with the strange sense of satisfaction you get from having everything you could ever want, despite an empty pocket.
And the panipuri guy packed up his stall, oblivious that he was four customers short.