It was only seven in the morning, but the rising sun of the April month has made the heat unbearable. Salim leaned down at the paan shop at the corner to pick up the new match-box sticker. Immediately, he heard Amma’s yelling from his back, “Don’t pass the time, you- good for nothing! Your Abba may arrive anytime. He needs tea the moment he arrives home. You know it!”
Salim increased his pace, but his steps slowed down again as he reached the main road. The morning time usually sucked him. Especially Monday morning. He, Umar, Zafar, and Kanu used to go to Kankaria lake every Sunday. The enjoyment and fun they used to have on the lakefront were good enough to surmount the heat, thirst, or hunger for the whole day. Salim longed that every morning he should be able to go to Kankaria.
But he had to fetch the milk in the morning. His Abba, used to drive auto rickshaw in the night at Kalupur Station. He needed a hot tea after the sleepless night when he reached home. After his breakfast, he used to go to his small roadside shop at Pankor Naka. Salim used to get a little opportunity to see his father. Unlike Zafar’s Abba. Salim liked Zafar’s Abba very much. A teacher in the municipality school, he used to read books to Zafar and take him for trips to the garden, zoo, or museum. He never shouted at Zafar, his only child. These things amused Salim.
As Salim turned to the road, he heard a frail female voice, “Dikra, please listen.” She was Kantaben, the lady in the first bungalow at the Shantinath Society. Salim’s home was located at the periphery of Juhapura. Shantinath society, comprised of big, old houses, was in the vicinity of Juhapura. He was able to see the big veranda, fenced by marble lattice from the gate of the compound wall. Frail old Kantaben was calling him from the stairs of the verandah. Salim knew her. Kanu’s mother was a domestic help at Kantaben’s home for decades. As Salim approached her, she spoke in a calm voice, “Dikra, will you please buy me some groceries…, and milk?” Salim nodded in reflex. She gave him a small list and cash, and said, “Please keep the change.” Salim further nodded and moved towards the shop lane, thinking about what could be her age. She was still sitting on the big wooden swing in the verandah, with a string of prayer beads in her hand. She smiled at him and said, “Please keep the things here on the platform.”
The next morning, Salim paused at her gate. Kantaben was sitting on the swing, with eyes closed and a calm smile on her face. Salim stared at her with mesmerization. She spotted him as she opened her eyes and called him inside. He went inside from the compound wall. As he stood in the verandah, he could see the Sheesham furniture inside the house. The roof of the veranda was balanced on marble-coated pillars, and it had cool and clean marble flooring. Jasmine and rose blossomed in the verandah, and the calm and soothing presence of Kantaben had a magical effect on Salim. He kept wondering how the interior of the house would be when she spoke, “Will you please bring me some groceries and milk whenever needed?” He nodded with affirmation. She was pleased. “You are a good boy, not like the other mischievous youngsters here, “she said in a comforting voice.
Salim felt embarrassed. He was used to shouting and abuse at home, and neglect in school. She put her hands into her Batua and gave him some money out of it. She was sitting on the swing when he returned. She shared some change with him and asked, “What is your name? Where do you live?” Salim told her his name, where did he live, about his father, mother, and also that he has six siblings. “Six! We are only two sisters, and she has migrated to America!” she exclaimed. Then she started talking about her Ba, Bapuji, her sister, and their childhood for a long time. Salim hardly understood anything. But he liked the way she spoke. She kept on talking, unaware of whether this eleven-year-old child will understand anything. After some time, Salim said, “I need to go home.” Kantaben said, “I liked talking to you. You are a good boy.”
Salim bought some jalebi for the home with the money Kantaben gave him. Amma was startled, “Where did you get the money to buy this?” “Kantaben from the bungalow gave it.” He said shyly. His mother kept looking at him with amusement, forgetting to roll the rolling pin in her hand. His eldest sister Kaneez was washing utensils. She stood up at once. “Kantaben?” Amma’s voice was sore. “She asked me to bring some grocery and milk and gave me the remaining change.” He said.
“Good, Kantaben seems to be pleased with you,” Kaneez said with sarcasm.
“You don’t need to take any money from those people. I know these people very well.” Amma shouted.
“Amma, he did not steal the money. She gave him for the work he did for her.” Kaneez said.
“Shut up. You don’t need to show your wisdom.” Amma said. The memory of his brother – who died in the riots three months ago-came alive in her mind. Nobody spoke of Kantaben after that at home.
But Salim kept on his shopping ritual for Kantaben.
One day, in the afternoon, Kantaben offered him tea. She also gave him nankatai to eat with the tea. Salim liked it very much and told her as well. She was pleased with satisfaction. “I made it especially for you. Good that you liked it.” Salim was embarrassed. He hurriedly finished eating and came out of the house. Slowly, his inhibition died, and he liked speaking to her. No elder at his home had talked to him with such dedication and affection in his life. His mother had no time for him; she was always busy with household chores or ironing clothes. But Kantaben had ample time to talk to him. Salim started telling her everything about his school, his friends. She listened to him with keen interest. Sometimes, she explained to him why not to do certain things, the importance of good deeds and integrity in life. When Kaneez got engaged, Salim rushed to break the news to Kantaben. Aarif, Kaneez’s fiance, was their cousin from Modasa. He was supposed to drive an autorickshaw in Ahmedabad after marriage. It was necessary to look for a house for Arif and Kaneez before the marriage. Kantaben thought for some time after listening to this. Then she said, “How much space would they need? I have two spare rooms at the back.” And defying Amma’s reluctance, Kaneez and Arif came to live in Kantaben’ s house.
Two years passed by. Kaneez took up most of the domestic work at Kantaben’s house and was paid generously. Kantaben had very few visitors. An old soni used to come every month to give the interest money on her deposits. A middle-aged lawyer used to come once in a while. A doctor frequented her every fortnight to treat her for her long-standing arthritis. Salim used to take care of most of her household jobs. Her sister called her every fortnight from America.
Salim felt very melancholic whenever he thought of her debilitating condition. Her sister came to visit her, and two days after she arrived, Kantaben died during sleep. As per her wish, the body was donated to the medical college. Her sister was much energetic as compared to Kantaben. She finished all the formalities quickly with the lawyer. The bungalow was sold to a builder within two weeks of Kantaben’s death.
That night, everybody was quiet at Salim’s home. Amma was ironing clothes, and Kaneez was rolling rotis. Kaneez suddenly spoke, “The old woman did not leave us a single rupee.” Amma said, “ I have always warned you. Good, you learned a lesson.”
Salim suddenly felt very nauseating and rushed outside the home. It was a cold breeze outside. He started walking until he reached Kantaben’s bungalow. His heart was filled with unfamiliar emotions. Suddenly he understood what Kantaben has given him. He was not able to express it, but he realized it deep within. Kantaben has taught him to think like a human, trained him to see good in life. She was a silver lining to his life. He felt that even if her bungalow is demolished, her loving memories will help him to live a good life. He understood that her love, affection, and her care that made him think like a good human being was the biggest treasure she had left to him.
Nearly a month after Kantaben died, Salim started crying profusely to mourn her death.