Weather of Benaras was hot and humid, and tonight, even the cold concrete floor was burning up. Summer was on its peak, month of June was hardest to bear, and the fan was rotating slowly, with melancholic noises, which kept Seema and Rajeev awake, worried about their daughter.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Seema asked Rajeev in a low toned voice. They were lying down on the floor, with their daughter, lying behind Seema.
‘Why not, dear? I have 30 thousand rupees saved, and I guess that’s enough for our daughter’s marriage!’ Rajeev replied quietly, trying not to make much sound.
‘I’m talking about the job. Do you really want to continue with that ice-cream selling, this summer too?’ Seema hushed.
Rajeev turned his back towards her face, he didn’t want to talk about his job, he was satisfied with it, while Seema insisted him to do something else, every year.
Seema, Rajeev and their twenty years old daughter, Reshma lived along with three more families, in a rented home. His family had one room, and they all slept together on the floor. They couldn’t afford a bed. They shared kitchen, where all the ladies would make food together for all the three families, and one common bathroom where water continuously trickled from the tap.
Nobody was willing to get it mended. They tied a piece of cloth to block the water leakage, but it served as a temporary measure. Soon, within minutes, water started to drip again. Now the tap looked like a mummified artefact, covered with strands of white cloth, and trickling water, which made rhythmic sounds all throughout the day and night.
Rajeev’s profession fluctuated with season. In summers, Rajeev worked as an ice-cream pedlar, under the company named ‘Summer Delight’ who had given him a refrigerated cart pushed by a bicycle. And in winters, he worked with a friend, at his soup-stall. He was happy!
It was the summer time, and as usual, every morning he would go to the middle-man, and pick up the cart. His adventurous journey would begin as he started to wander in the city streets in search for his little customers. Usually, most of his customers were four to fourteen years of age. Children who were lured by his colourful cart, and bells that would ring whenever he would pedal the cart!
He had a son, Rajan, who died 6 years ago. His memories of Rajan were still fresh. He still remembered when his son was five years old, he would carry him along on his ice-cream cart, and he would laugh and enjoy his job, selling ice-creams in different streets.
Rajan would sometimes plead his father to give him one orange candy, his favourite ice-cream. But Rajeev would always tell him to eat the choco-bar. Rajeev had a weird habit of relating ice-creams as per a person’s financial status.
Orange or cola candies and other affordable bars were preferred by the children belonging to middle class or lower class families, while all the elites preferred a sundae or choco-bar. He always wanted his son to have a choco-bar, but Rajan would prefer an orange candy. Rajeev had to pay for his son’s demands, through his own wages, but he didn’t mind as long as it gave a wide smile on his son’s cheerful face!
Rajeev’s dream was to make both his children, scholars! The day his son first time went to school, was the happiest day of Rajeev’s life. He hugged his son, uncountable times, before sending him off to school. Watching him in a uniform, brought a wide grin to his face, he even gave some free ice-creams to kids that day from his salary. His daughter, Reshma, couldn’t study beyond third grade, because Rajeev could no longer afford the fees of both his children.
Seema made Reshma understand the complications of their family and told her to stay at home, and learn the household chores, which were more important than study, as she thought.
‘Nobody will marry you if you don’t know how to make good food or how to clean up your house.’ Seema would always say to Reshma, who fantasised her marriage since her childhood!
‘And if I’ll know how to make food, and how to keep a home tidy, will I be married to a prince?’
‘Of course, sweetheart!’ Seema told, hiding the gloom on her face, after all, she knew that no princes existed for them.
This way, Seema had managed to keep Reshma at home, and saving the money of her education, for her marriage.
Rajan was doing well in school, and at times, he would teach his elder sister, the lessons he was being taught at school. Reshma would always wait for the evening, for Rajan to go out and play with his friends. As that was the only time, she would disappear in her imaginations, with his story books!
Seema worked as a house-maid in a home, and she would often take Reshma along. Soon, Reshma also had a place to work in, a home, just near to Seema’s work place. Both Reshma and Seema would work from morning to evening, and return in the evening, and then wait for Rajan to return from school. In the evening, Rajeev would sometimes come home, to take Rajan along.
Rajan was a star to his family, the most adored and loved child. Rajeev always dreamed of him to be working in some big company, having a white collar job, owning his own home, and driving a car! His all hopes were tied to his son, Rajan, who did not make it beyond 12 years of age!
‘Wake up, Rajeev.’ Seema gently caressed his head.
Rajeev woke up, and yawned. He stretched his arms and stood up. Seema placed his cup of tea on the floor, and Rajeev drank it all in hardly two sips. After the morning chores, he went to the middle man for the cart.
Soon he set on the streets of Benaras, his hometown, and parked his cart in front of a school. There were no children in the streets at the noon time, it was the school recess, he was waiting to start his day.
Soon, the bell rang and the children came running out. It was a government school, where children were allowed to sneak out of the school premises, and enjoy the delights of the outside world, unlike the private schools where hygiene was the priority.
In the meantime, Rajeev managed to keep all the orange and cola candy bars and the ice candies, on the top, because these were the most demanded flavours outside the government school. Rajeev saw the crowd of children moving in another direction, he couldn’t see clearly, who that was, because many children had surrounded him, but as the crowd started to fade, he saw a new ice-cream pedlar, the company was ‘Ice-Cool’, the one his boss warned him about, a few weeks back.
Seeing the crowd diverted towards the ‘ice-cool’ man, Rajeev started hooting loudly, ‘Cola candies and Orange candies, at half price!’
Some children, who heard him, came running down and bought the candy bars, but most of them were still engaged with the ‘ice-cool’ man. The man who was selling ice creams, was a young one, capable to lure children with his stories and tricks, while Rajeev was turning old now. His decreasing energy and fading enthusiasm, wasn’t an attraction for the children.
The school bell rang again. Some children fled to their homes, while a few managed to head back to the school. Disappointed, Rajeev pedalled his cart, and went away from the school, congratulating the ‘ice-cool’ man for his good business.
In the streets of Benaras, Rajeev was pedalling hopelessly, lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t know where he was riding. But suddenly, he found himself on a familiar street. A street, where his son took his last breath! He was petrified. He still imagined what it was like, losing his son, in front of his eyes, watching him dying hopelessly, no help, no support, just him, and his son. The day was hardest to bear for his entire family. Seema couldn’t stop cursing Rajeev for he was the one who took him along on a ride, and he was the one, who left him there forever!
Rajeev was brought back to his senses by a loud honking car, which was coming at a fast speed. He immediately spotted a child, playing on the street, totally unaware of the car approaching towards him with honks of death. Rajeev left his cart in the middle of the street and ran towards the child, he jumped and pulled him apart, and within seconds, the car thrashed the frontal pillar, and the front mirror was smashed. People gathered around to witness the accident, the driver was unconscious, bleeding heavily, and there was no one else in the car. People took the man to the hospital and within minutes, the crowd dispersed.
Rajeev kept hugging the frightened child, till he normalized and thanked him for saving his life.
‘What is your name, son?’
‘Tanmay Vashisht!’ the child proudly announced.
The name rang a bell in Rajeev’s mind.
‘Son, what is your father’s name?’
Rajeev shuddered and was pushed aback. His memories jolted him, and tears started flowing down his eyes.
‘Come son, let me take you home…’
Rajeev picked the boy, and placed him on the top of his cart. The child was enjoying the adventurous journey. Soon they reached his home.
‘How did you know my house, uncle?’ Tanmay curiously asked.
‘Because, I have a connection with your father!’
Tanmay was confused. Jivan Vashisht was a prominent industrialist and Member of the Parliament. How can a common ice-cream vendor know him?
Tanmay jumped from the cart and Jivan saw his son approaching their gate. He immediately rushed out to see who accompanied him, and was shocked to see Rajeev standing, waving a goodbye to Tanmay.
Jivan called Rajeev, inside. He refused to come, and folded his hands, asking for a leave. But Jivan went outside to meet him.
‘How are you, Rajeev?’ Jivan asked.
‘Dad, uncle saved me. A car was approaching with fast speed, but uncle almost ran into the car to save me.’ Tanmay described the entire scene by using his tiny hands and Jivan was horrified.
‘Are you alright, son?’ he picked up Tanmay in his arms, and hugged him tight.
‘Absolutely, dad!’ Tanmay jumped off and ran inside the home.
Jivan almost fell into Rajeev’s feet with moistened eyes, thanking him for saving his son’s life.
‘I’m sorry, Rajeev. I’m sorry for that accident 6 years ago. It would have been my son, today, but you selflessly saved him. Please forgive me, Rajeev!’ Jivan was pleading in front of him.
‘Saheb, for me, all kids are like my own sons and daughters. It doesn’t matters whether it was Tanmay, or some other child.’ Rajeev folded his hands in front of the politician.
‘But it takes a lot of courage to face your child’s killer.’ Jivan was choked with his own words.
He was reminded of the car accident of 6 years ago, where he was the driver, and Rajeev’s son was the victim. His car was out of control, and it crushed Rajeev’s son to death, on the same street, on which his own son’s life could have ended today. Rajeev knew it was an accident, as everything happened in front of his eyes. But that day, he couldn’t save his son. Instead of filing a case against Jivan, which he knew he would lose as the man had massive political power, Rajeev left him guilty of the crime, by doing nothing, and calling the accident, his son’s fate.
Thereafter, Jivan offered him huge amounts of money, but Rajeev’s honesty never allowed him to take even a single penny. Jivan offered him a job, but Rajeev refused that as well. His self-respect didn’t allow him to be victimized in any sense. Jivan tried to make up for that accident, but Rajeev left him guiltiest, by not accepting anything he offered. That act changed Jivan’s life completely, and he started working selflessly for the public and common people of Benaras. But today, once again, when Jivan was dragged to the same streets in a different way, he couldn’t help but cry for the poor child’s death, 6 years ago!
Rajeev pedalled his cart, and turned around, cycling with all his might he rushed through the crowded streets of Benaras, happily!
‘Why are you home so early?’ Seema asked.
‘And why have you brought the cart? What’s wrong? Why are you so happy? Had a good sale today? Or you finally decided to leave that stupid job?’ she fired questions at him in continuation. He chose to remain silent, and just smiled.
After a few moments of awkwardness, he spoke up.
‘I saved a kid’s life today…’
Seema held him from his shoulders, ‘Are you okay?’
‘He was Jivan Vashisht’s son!’
Seema immediately left his shoulders and shuddered. The vile memories of their past started haunting her, she hugged him tight, and started crying.
‘It’s okay…we’re not getting him back, Seema. He’s gone! It’s okay…’ Rajeev caressed her, but she kept crying.
Reshma entered home.
‘What happened, appa? Why are you home so early? And why is she crying?’ she pointed towards Seema.
‘Nothing, just a speck of dust entered my eye. Did you get your salary?’ Seema asked.
‘No, memsaab is going out of town tomorrow, she said she’ll return next week, and then will pay me!’
Seema got up in disappointment, and went to the kitchen. Reshma followed her.
‘Maa, I know something is not right, tell me!’
Seema told her everything, how her father saved the politician’s son. Reshma rushed out and hugged her father.
‘I’m proud of you, appa! You saved one son, and you saved one family of the gloom of losing a son, I’m so proud…’