|picture rights Flickr|
The glass jar in the little tea shop was almost empty now. Raman walked right in front of the jar, with the aluminium milk can almost banging on the wooden counter top. Raman looked only for a second at the little ginger candies in the glass jar before moving towards the little makeshift kitchen in the back. Ginger candy was obviously the most popular one in the shop, as the jars of orange drops and lemon drops were almost full.
"When will you stop banging on my table with that can?" Pradeep owned the best tea-stall in the village, and anyone who passed by during the evenings would be enticed into the stall with smells of freshly fried banana fritters and onion pakodas. Mornings saw a different menu being offered in Pradeep's shop - hot appams and dosas with spicy sambar or stews.
The tea stall was also a treasure trove of gossip and news - it was left to the listener to distinguish one from the other. Raman would grab bits and pieces of both during his daily deposit of the much needed milk during both the peak tea times.
He had been bringing milk to the stall since he was six. The landlord of the little hut where he and his mother lived had demanded labor in lieu of the rent that they never paid. But atleast they were allowed to stay on inspite of the erratic rent. There was not much that his mother could earn washing clothes and Raman had no memory of having seen his father. The tea stall visitors had spoken of some factory in Madras where his father was supposed to be working.
The landlord was a wily fellow, and realized soon enough that little Raman was just perfect for carrying the milk to his various customers. Raman would not steal it, and he barely would stop to even rest his little arms and legs. This saved the landlord a lot of ulcer-causing worry. But little Raman was growing fast, and the landlord started to look for new occupations to keep him busy, while continuing to pay him pittance, or nothing at all - the rent was still erratic.
Raman was almost fifteen now, and he could fathom discussions in the tea stall much better. He knew what it meant when the men snickered about the buxom women who passed by, he knew why Pradeep brought smaller ladles and katoris for the sambar, he understood why the people who came to the tea stall looked at him with pity when they were heartily eating the hot oily snacks. Sometimes they offered the snacks to him, but Raman just shook his head. He loved the snacks, but he didn't care too much for pity. But he often wished someone offered him the ginger candy - he would probably not have refused that.
Raman waited till Pradeep poured the milk into a huge pot on the wood fire, and washed out the last drops of milk with water, adding it to the pot. "You are still working? Shouldn't you be at home atleast for today?" Pradeep never looked at him with any pity, and that probably was why Raman was closest to him. Pradeep had, however, taught him how to count money, and get back the right amount of change, which saved Raman from many a beating from the landlord.
"Why should I be home today? Is it a festival?" Raman would have to go to the landlord's house for cleaning up if it was a festival. But his mother always brought back tasty food from the landlord after the festival was over. He suddenly felt hungry.
Pradeep looked at him with surprise. "You don't know? Your father is here. I have to go to your landlord's house to give some appams there. I will give him the can. You go home."
Raman just stood staring at the wood fire, thinking of whether that was news or gossip. Pradeep looked like he was telling the truth. He then nodded to the flames dancing on the sides of the soot blackened milk pot, and ran out of the stall, through the green fields, stopping only when he reached the threshold of the little mud hut.
His mother was moving about the house with a sense of urgency that he had never seen. She went to the cot in the corner where a thin, coughing man covered in a blanket smelling of moth-balls seemed to be the center of all her attention. "Rama..... go get some water from the well. We need to help your father wash his legs and face." Raman did not budge. He moved closer to the bed, trying to make out the face of the man who lay in his bed, who by virtue of a few cells more than a decade ago, was his father.
"Rama...Go now! Can't you see father is unwell? He needs to get his dinner and then his medicines." His mother's face looked different now..... was this how she looked when happy?
"Ask him where he was for so many years, Amma." Raman was still looking at the man his mother said was his father. "Ask him why he has come now."
His mother stood up, reaching just below his eyes. She hadn't realized he had grown so tall! "Did I teach you to be disrespectful of your elders? Or do you want the Devi to punish you for not caring for your father?" Raman walked out of the hut with the bucket, leaving his mother to rub the man's back through yet another coughing fit.
Read the concluding part here