Chand looked at the passing cars through the iron strips of the railway fence. He was waiting for more than an hour now. Every couple of minutes a train would pass by deafening him with the thud-thud on the tracks. Not that he was not used to it. He heard it more often than he could hear his own heart beating. His friend was late today. He did not know why. He did not even know her name. He could hardly call her a friend. They had never talked. Their worlds were so different, so separate and distant. But since the time she had entered his monotonous life he looked forward to Saturdays and endured all the suffering life would serve him during the week for this one day, for this one moment.
Chand was born in a ghetto situated adjacent to a suburban railway line in Mumbai. His life had been a struggle for survival from the moment he drew his first breath. His mother was a construction worker, his father used to be one before he fell from a scaffolding three storeys high. There were four kids elder to him which meant more competetion at the dinner table. Hunger was his constant companion from day one. There was never enough for the entire family. Hence the kids were often left to their own means. They begged and sometimes stole to stay alive. Sometimes Chand assisted at the tea stall near the railway station taking orders and cleaning glasses and plates for the whole day in return for a piece of bread and half a cup of tea. Life was harsh for this nine year old.
It was on a Saturday eight weeks past that he had first seen her as she stepped down from her car. She was like a fairy, and angel, though he knew almost nothing about fairies or angels he thought she might be one. She was about his own age. She had smooth balck hair, flawless fair skin and a radiant smile. She wore a clean light pink frilled frock which must have cost more than the money he had ever seen in his entire life. She had come to the temple near the railway line with an old man, probably her grandfather. Mesmerised, he kept looking at her as she let her grandfather’s hand go and ran up the steps of the temple till she dissappeared beyond the temple entrance. Something in her entranced him. She was everything he was not. She was exactly opposite of him, an antonym of his existance. He longed to see her, that was closest he could get to the life she lived. A life where there was no pain, no fear, no uncertainty about having the next meal. And after some time she came out of the temple holding her grandfather’s hand. She had an apple in her hand, the prasadam (offering) from the temple.
When they reached the bottom of the steps her gaze wandered up to him, their eyes met, almost. He was now more intently looking at the apple, having missed his morning meal as the tea stall was closed that day. Somehow she read his mind. She spoke something to her grandfather and he nooded and let go of her hand. She ran upto the railway fence where he stood and held out her hand with the apple through the gaps in the iron strips of the fence. He took the apple hesitantly, never before had anyone given him anything without begging. She smiled a shy smile and ran to her grandfather. Next moment she had gotten in her car and driven away.
From that day he waited there everyday for a week and was about to give up hope of seeing her again when on the next Saturday he saw her car park near the temple. As she got down from the car her gaze automatically travelled to the fence and she smiled. He thought she remembered him and maybe waited to see him again. As a poor kid he never really had any friend. All that happened in his neighbourhood were partnerships for joint struggle to survive. That’s why he took her to be his friend, if anyone could call that friendship. As he had expected she came up to him and gave him the fruit, today it was banana, after she came back from the temple before driving away in her car. From that day he went there every Saturday at the same time. Every Saturday she visited the temple with her grandfather and every Saturday she gave him her fruit, apple, bananas, guava, oranges, whatever it was. She never spoke to him, just gave him the fruit and ran back to her car.
Hours went by as he waited for the entire day but she did not turn up. It was late in the night when his sixteen year old elder brother dragged him home, if the small bamboo hut could be called home. He could not sleep that night, nor could he stop his tears the whole night. He weeped silently. His only friend had abandoned him. Happiness could not be long lived in the life he lived. He cursed his wretched existence. He so wished to be someone else. he wished he was that girl, going around in a car, having nice clothes to wear, good food to eat. Or maybe he could have been one of her friends, real friends. One from her section of the society, who knew her name, whom she talked to, not just gave fruits out of sympathy.
On the next Saturday he walked back to the fence near the temple. He did not half expect his friend to be back. But maybe she was sick. Maybe she would come today. Maybe she even would ask her how he was since she had not been able to give him fruit last Saturday. Maybe her grandfather would walk upto him, stroke his head and say a few kind words to him. Maybe she would never come.
Suddenly his heart leapt as he saw her car approaching. The car parked at the usual spot but for long time no one got down. He began to wonder what it might be when the car door opened and the grandfather stepped out. His friend was not there. He felt tears on his cheeks but suddenly realized with disbelief that the grandfather, instead of going into the temple was walking towards him. The old man came near him and knelt down.
“Do you remember the girl who used to come with me and give you fruits?” the old man asked.
Chand just nodded his head, he was not used to being spoken to by wealthy people . He could not understand what was happening. He just wanted to run away from there. May be the old man wanted now tell him not to come there anymore so that he could bring his granddaughter here again without a filthy slum dweller like him being around.
“Well,” The old man continued, and now Chand noticed tears in the old man’s eyes, “she was going in a car with her parents and met with an accident. She died in the hospital after struggling for two days. “
The whole world seemed to crumple before Chand’s eyes, he thought he was about to pass out.
“She wanted you to have this.” The grandfather was holding out a small stuffed rabbit about his palm’s size, “it was her favorite toy”
Chand took the rabbit in trembling hands, his vision blurred by tears. The grandfather put his hands through the spaces in the iron fence, pulled Chand closer and hugged him tightly pressing his face against the fence. Chand closed his eyes tightly. The deafening roar of the train passing behind could not silence the banshee wailing within him.