Saved For The Best

Art by Biswajit Das

For the smallest coin in your pocket, you could buy something from Lala’s shop. There was no child who was turned away because he or she didn’t have enough. From the many jars filled with colourful treats, you could start by choosing your favourite, but then you needed to have the exact amount for it. Or you could start with the amount in your pocket, and let the Lala decide what you could buy with it. That was how most of the children discovered their favourite. That girl who always had a piece of cloth cut into a square pinned to her frock to stem the flow from her nose during the winter cold and the unpredictable spring had always had a taste for the shreds of tamarind rolled in sugar powder, but on that day when she fell short by a few paisas, Lala offered her the hard-boiled sugar marble. Of course, all children had the right to refuse and return when they had enough to buy what they had set their mind to, but which children will refuse a smaller, or even untasted joy now to save for something bigger later? So the girl took what she was given and ever since she was known to prefer that to the tamarind treat. And she wasn’t the only one. For even when children turned up with nothing more than what had been returned to them the last day when they had a little more than they needed, Lala would offer them from the last jar that was packed to the brim with a grey coloured powder that never drew them towards it, unless they had money for nothing else. What was best about his churan was that the Lala could pick anything from a pinch to a fistful, wrap it up in a piece of paper torn to size from the oldest newspaper at hand, and give it in exchange for what was held out in tiny, grubby hands eager for the exchange. And that’s how the children discovered that their little town was going to get an amusement park.

It was after a game of marbles during their winter vacations, when the children had decided to pool in their money and buy some treats and head over to the abandoned limestone quarries and into one of the caves that had been dug up by the miners many, many years back, and discuss ways to go through the vacations without having to do their homework or take tuitions that their parents often threatened them with. The powdered treat, the churan, was finally agreed upon because nothing else was agreeable to all, or if it was, it was getting difficult to split equally between them. The churan was everybody’s favourite because everybody had at some point or the other been extremely short of cash and it was this humble grey powder that had kept them in good spirits. Lala counted the money and decided he wouldn’t be able to fit the amount of churan that would come for this much money in a piece torn off from a newspaper. So he measured it out in a full page, folded it in a cone and turned down the upper ends before handing it over, making a mental note to buy more of this on his weekly trip to the city to replenish his stock.

The children walked away, past the bazaar through the narrow streets that were lined by shops of the butchers and set a little away from the main bazaar, and towards the point where the roads stopped abruptly like an obstinate dog who refuses to budge any further. But it was beyond this that the children felt that they had come into a world that adults had no use for, and it is where they often gathered to discuss affairs that adults had no use for.

A little ahead, where the hint of a road was flanked on both sides by rocks and stones broken from the quarries above when a government order had stopped work for what the miners felt, initially, was a welcome and temporary respite, but soon turned out to be one full of despair and a sense of permanence. But to the children it suited fine, as it had for the locals who were tired of waking up to truck rumbling through their small town in early hours as they ferried limestone to distant lands, leaving the workers who came from outside and never seemed to fit it, and the plume of dust from the constant breaking hung in the air, unseen till it settled in on their windowsills and in their lungs from where even the cough couldn’t force it out. Over one of these slopes the children set their feet and like mountain goats climbed nimbly to where one of the shallow caves stood, with stones set in a circle by children who had come before them and had now grown too old to return. On these stones, the children sat down, each equal in stature and in share of the churan, even if some had contributed a little more or a little less to the funds. Between them, they rolled open the paper, and bent low over it so the wind couldn’t take away from their share, and the oldest among among them started cutting it into smaller piles, one each for the number of children present. And as the pile separated into smaller ones, and as they were pushed to the ends of the newspaper, the big, large colourful advertisement in the centre came in full view. The bright red Ferris wheel at the very centre was surrounded by pictures of jugglers and of toy cars mounted on spinning wheels on children their size sat and whirled around, their frozen grins brought back to life as the children picked them up. The larger images done, the children now started pointing out to the many wonders packed away in smaller illustrations, and pictures. Of a fire-eater at the far right, an air-gun to the top left, a dragon boat that swung like pendulum was at the very bottom of the page. And many, many more were being spotted as the wind, sensing the guard was down, crept in from between the hands that were imitating the many things that the advertisement was showing, and at first from the edges and then boldly from the centre, picked up some the treat and carried it outside, and from there far away. But the children didn’t seem to mind it. They had just had a taste for something they had never experienced. Something that would make them do things they had never done. And the first person to notice it was Lala.

It took a day or two for Lala to realise that the children were not stopping by. He was sure they were still being given small coins by their parents and their grandparents who lived with them, and bigger notes by relatives who came from far to visit them. They still loved the treats he had on offer, for they all slowed down as they passed his shop, and looked longingly at the jar that now stayed full for longer. He suspected that some of them, or all of them, now had enough for even the costlier ones that they only bought when they were with adults. Because some even gazed at the colourfully wrapped chocolates and treats on the end of plastic sticks and the swirls of colourful candies that could only be bought in pairs. But not one child would stop. And often they could be seen rushing in a group towards the far end of the bazaar. But from there, followed by no adult or their eyes, the children would run up to the cave and dig out the newspaper with the advertisement for the Jumbo Fun Park and decided what each would do, and then count the money and discuss if it was enough, and share the coming of a fresh batch of relatives and slot them as those who were generous and those who were not. And from there, they would walk back through the bazaar and over to the other side where the part of town that the tourists thronged came into view. There, they would take the road to the left that went past the local library where their fathers could be seen from the windows reading the newspapers, or standing next to the tea-kiosk for a chai and smoke. From here, the road wound down to a park where they had often come to play in their earlier days but was now under construction for some years. Earlier, they had been a little upset when they were asked to leave by serious looking adults from distant cities dressed in business suits and serious expressions. But now that they knew their purpose they would smile at them and would never mind if their smiles were not returned. And then they would head back home, mentally counting the money they had saved thus far.

And so the winter vacations dragged on, through the early rainfall to the December-end snow and the cold, cold January month and then the sunny, blue-skied February. Till it was time for March and the school, bags were being dusted and dried by their mothers and the homework were being checked by the fathers, and the children spending more time indoors finishing what they thought they had a lot time for. But the structure at the park was now coming up. They all found time for a quick visit to the site. The delay being sugar-coated by the fact that they would have more saved for the day when the rides came up.

But where were the rides? There had always been things wrapped under blue tarpaulin, packed to the edge of the park as other structures were being built. But now the covers were off, and with only a week left for schools to reopen, the children saw they were chairs and desks and wooden panels and steel racks, and one of them stepped close to the railings that were built on the sides of the park to keep others out and asked the man closest to them if the rides were coming in anytime soon? The man looked at the child, but this time he smiled. His work was almost over, he had lived through the severe winters of this place that had no life for someone who was used to seeing so much in the city, and it was March, when the sun was finally out. There was a sweet smell in the moisture-laden air that swept down from the hills above, and the young girls of this place had shed their heavy shawls and were beginning to show their faces with the red of their cheeks standing out over their fair skin.

“Rides? What rides son? This is the local railway booking office. Now you can book your train tickets from here, and board it from the city. Isn’t that great?”

The boy couldn’t believe what he had heard. They had the newspaper, they had seen the address. How could it be? Had they mistaken the address? He asked the rest as they raced through the bazaar and past the butchers’ shops and over the point where the road gave way to stone-strewn path and over the rolling boulders and into the cave and from under one of the stones they brought out the paper and scanned the address and there it was: The Park below the Library. OPENING SOON.

The children were running back down the boulders, over the stone-strewn path to the roads past the butchers’ and the bazaar on their way to the park to ask the man what he meant by lying to them when one of the fathers on his way home caught them and asked them why were they running around like street urchins when they should all be home finishing their homework? And then he saw the newspaper and took it from them and asked them what were they doing with it. The children realised they could ask him to clarify as well. He was, after all an all-knowing adult, and besides, they had no choice but to tell him if they had to go past him to meet with the man at the site.

The man heard them, trying to make sense from the many voices that were speaking out of turn and out of sync. And then he pointed out the date on the top left corner of the newspaper, so small and of so little consequence in its dull grey colour, especially in front of promises of colourful wonders and delights, things that they had dreamt of for so long. It took them a while to realise that the date put the newspaper and the advertisement to almost seven years back. Under that, the COMING SOON read like a broken promise. But still, the Jumbo Fun Park could be COMING LATE, but it should still come up. Why was a railway booking office coming up in its place? The man sighed, shook his head, and explained that the town people had gathered and decided that what they needed most was a place they could make their railway bookings from, without having to take a 2-hour journey to the city to make reservations for another journey, just because that was where the railway station was. It was a hard-fought victory for the locals. And where did they ever get their hands on this newspaper that was making this senseless and useless idea of some businessman sitting in a distant place and thinking all their town was good for was to make money out of. He crumpled the paper in his hands and threw it over the railing that separated the edge of the road from the khud below. And as he walked away, he told the children to return home. The children also wanted to do nothing else, than to return home, take out all the money they had saved, and rush to Lala’s shop for the last of the treats, for they had seen that most of the jars now stood empty.

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