Thursday, August 21, 2008

Just another blue moon

It was early morning, about quarter past seven when my mother found out that we had run out of some vegetable/oil necessary for breakfast. Quarter past seven is when I am supposed to be slouched over a book mugging it up (snoring into it is what normally happened!). So, there was a happy spring in my step as I walked to the market a kilometer from my house, relieved to get away from the rote.

As I neared the shop, I saw two women waiting outside it. The shop keeper did not seem to notice them. He held a magazine (mangalam?) in his hands and was busily reading it. As I walked nearer I recognized one of the women to be the mother of my class mate Xavier*. She had on a white sari. “Must be on her way back from Church” I thought.

I was going to wait behind the women, but the moment the shop keeper saw me, he stood and asked rather brusquely about my purchase. I remember telling him what I needed and that is when she spoke “ho! Payyan kaashumayi vannappo Avante oru ulsaham kando!” (Look at his enthusiasm to serve the rich kid). The barb was meant for the shop keeper but it kind of stung me in the process. It was not my fault that I was “rich”.

I turned around and looked at her, but she ignored me. That’s when I noticed how poor she looked. Poor, but not defeated though. The shop keeper had made the cardinal error to reply back to her. “This is business” he said. It was exactly the opening she was looking for. Her next approach was classic, she feigned to show interest in his business. “oho, so this is how you run an intelligent business huh?” she asked, as if he was one of those geniuses at it. He couldn’t resist replying to that one. Flattery at its subtle best! Her success would decide whether Xavier would get his breakfast that day.

Everyone knew Xavier was a poor kid. He was always dressed badly and could never afford to eat even a snack from the canteen. Worst of all, he couldn’t pay the numerous little donations that we had to shell out each month to the school. Sometimes he had to stand outside the class because of this. But most teachers knew that he hadn’t forgotten to bring it, he just didn’t have it and so they would let him in anyway.

That day I met him at school, but “Hey! I met your mother” was not part of our conversation. I felt pity for him as only a child can, useless, sentimental pity. I considered sharing my lunch with him. But I was ashamed at the prospect of asking him whether he wanted it. I was even more worried whether he would feel humiliated if I asked. Other’s knowing about your poverty is not so cool.

It was one of those rare moments when I actually wanted to be poor, as an act of solidarity. A small lesson in life learnt, that being Poor is humiliating. My pity sprung out of guilt. What bothered me was that I was lucky to be born in a well to do family by no quality of mine. Xavier got the bad part and I got the juicy part to play in this drama that was written by neither of us.

That term, he was placed 4th in the class. The teacher congratulated him as if he had won an award. Xavier’s skin color stood against it, else everyone would have seen the proud blush he had. Finally the teacher said something to the effect of “your mother will be proud of you”. The smile on his face at that instant, if captured would have definitely won a Pulitzer!

Unfortunately this was the pinnacle of his academic life. Something went wrong right after that term. I still don’t know what it is. But from then on, he never did well in school and started getting into trouble. The very next year, he failed.

Once in a while I would see his mother at school and sometimes outside. Each time she looked poorer than before. Each time, I felt that there was less life in her eyes. Maybe I just imagined it all, maybe not.

After school finished I never saw him again. Years later, I met a friend in college and we had this discussion about old times. I enquired about Xavier and was aghast to hear that “avan ippo erachi-vettayitte nadakuv… paavam” (he is now working at a slaughterers place!).

One more instance in my life got added to the “If only I had done it then” folder in my head. I did not share my lunch with him on that day. I did not ask my parents if they could help him out (They may have said no, but I could have at least asked!). I did not help him with studies when he started to do badly. Fact is, I did nothing.

Could I have helped him out during that beginning phase when things went bad? To tell the truth, I don’t know. But years later that question still bugs me every once in a blue moon. And today was just another blue moon.

*Name changed