Tales begin with the much adored “Once upon a time..” line, but mine in this case is not a tale but an incident. Then again, thinking back i do not see much in the incident but a laughable good five minutes. However, in the frame of time that it happened those five minutes shook me to the core. Here is how it went :
The exact year or the class in which i was then are sketchy now, I used to walk to school daily and it was a good 15 minute walk from home. The road was more or less a straight one and it went through a residential area occupied by the well-to-do, which meant that sparing the occasional jogger or one out walking a dog the road was more or less empty in the mornings. As for me, i was quite a paranoid kid then with all the notions of kidnappers and strangers offering you sweets filling my head for good reason, I walked to school alone !!! One fine morning as i was walking to school and when i was passing a particularly deserted stretch of road, I felt someone coming up behind me and looking over my shoulders i did confirm it. A middle aged guy definitely not a Malayali in ragged clothes and with a haggard face carrying a dirty satchel ( it’s been years now, but the imprint of the face and the way he walked are still fresh in my mind !!!). I did look back a couple of times again and yes he was right behind me. Wonder of wonders, there was not even a living soul in sight let alone even a stray mongrel. I could see the school building up ahead but it was too far off and the watchman was but a dot from where i stood….
I slowed down and stole a glance behind and to confirm my worst fears he did slow down too…pretending to tie my shoe laces ( which were knotted prim and proper by the way) i stopped altogether on the road and hoped against hope that he would pass by, but no one passed by me. Then came the inevitable contact, i sensed someone standing right near me and looking up i saw him smile with his betel stained black teeth. I would have gone pale then and am quite sure of it, the tales of kidnapping and so forth ran pell mell through my mind. What followed then was incredulously a dialogue between him and me, which went as :
Him : Taariq kya hein aaj ?? ( What’s the date today ??)
(I was learning Hindi in school then and was able to pick up the words and make sense of them, but given the situation even English would have sounded Swahili to me )
Me : duh !!! err….. ( I dont think this needs translation :P)
Him : Taariq ?? Taariq kya hain aaj ?? ( He would have been thinking : Kid, are you dense ??)
( I remember having a watch from whose face the date jumped out at me & if it had a life it would have went : ” hey, hey kid..am here…hello..am here…yea yea the D A T E…look at me”, but then i chose to ignore it. I made a show of looking at the watch but nothing registered and it did not make sense either & the first word that came as a pop-up to my mind was..)
Me (blurting out) : Maalum nahi….bilkul maalum nahi… ( I have no idea, no sirree..no way am i knowing a thing called date…)
(He looked thoughtful then, scratched his chin and said..)
Him : Achcha, theek hai ( Oh, alright ..)
He walked on and I stood on the road not knowing whether to laugh or cry with relief. He walked on and i remember him walking past the school gate with barely a glance inside. I was broken out of the reverie when i heard the school bell going off in the distance…I ran to school and was I happy to see the watchman who looked surprised to see me giving him a smile…Classes began but still the images and the words stayed with me.
As a footnote : When i got out of school that day, I walked in a crowd and yes I did look this way and that while walking…but obviously i didnt see the man. To this day, i have never seen him…and with his life I dont think he would ever read this blog. But my friend, you gave the fright of my life and had you asked one more question, I might just have wetted my trousers there….and wouldn’t that be embarassing or what ???