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Mohan settled down in his usual place near the traffic signal. He looked up and realised she was still there on the other side of the road. He averted his eyes quickly though not before she had shifted her gaze too. It seemed that neither could face each other – the little girl in a worn down printed dress and the one- armed beggar. The father and the daughter. He willed her to leave but knew she would be there till he was done. It was the same everyday ever since that night when he was thrown out of the train. He thought he was lucky to have held on to his life heroically. However, when the same arm that helped him hold on to his life was dismembered from his writhing body, life became meaningless. It was just a ritual that started every morning and had to be completed by night. There was no joy, hope or dreams left in his life. In fact, for Mohan, there was no life left to be lived. As he walked back every night to his shed of bamboo poles and a plastic cover that he was forced to call ‘home’, he felt like he was walking into his grave. The damp and tattered blanket he pulled up to his chin felt like a shroud.
Yet, when he felt the arms of his little children wrap around him as they slept, Mohan felt alive again. He knew he needed to live if only to ensure them the few moments of peace that they relished in their dreams. He looked down at the two little faces lying next to him. He smiled as he saw their closed eye lids quivering and their lips curving up in innocent glee as they lived their cherished dreams in their sleep. This alone was the reason why he forced himself to continue this life of ignominy; the reason why he walked all the way from home to sit at this crossing, his only arm stretched out in supplication, forced to accept the rewards or the rebuke that was thrown on to it from the passing milieu.
However, today Mohan had a purpose. Last month, while going home, he had noticed the yellow dress in the shop and had stopped to ask the price.
“300” the shopkeeper barked back. “You have?” he had asked sneeringly.
The apparent disgust in the salesman’s voice that reflected his conviction of Mohan’s inability to cough up the amount added to his humiliation.
“I will” Mohan had murmured resolutely as he walked off with the shopkeeper’s snigger reverberating in his mind chasing him even in his sleep.
Mohan had started working towards his plan. He sat an hour or two longer every day at the crossing, starved himself, and also hid his earnings from Malati to save up for the dress. Malati would look suspiciously at him when he handed her Rs.95 from his daily earnings of 100. Mohan deliberately averted her questioning gaze when he explained how hard it is to get people to part with their money and that too for a lame beggar.
He knew it was not easy for Malati to manage the whole house and two children at only 95 rupees a day. Thankfully, Vicky, the boy from whom they had hired the bamboo and plastic sheet, had not increased the rent this year. It was still the same at Rs.100 a month. That left Malati with some money at the end of the month to buy their monthly ration. However, clothes were never a priority with Malati. Therefore, he knew, she would never understand why the yellow dress had won his heart.
As Mohan noticed the shining 5 rupee coin thrust into his hands, his face lit up with joy. For the past sixty days he was waiting for this moment. He got up, folded the battered and weathered piece of sack he used as a mat to sit on, and placed it below his arm. He noticed that the girl got up too and started walking towards him. Though he raised his hand to stop her he knew it was of no use. She would not listen. She had always argued that it was not safe for him to navigate this busy crossing where cars were so engrossed in racing each other that they sometimes even forgot to heed the traffic lights. Ignoring a lame beggar would hardly be any consequence to them. He knew she was right. Nevertheless, as he watched Gouri, his 11 year old daughter, walking towards him through the menacing traffic, his heart filled with guilt and shame all over again.
Gouri, however, only had smiles to gift her father with as she reached out for Mohan. He was her world. Every day she would walk with him to the crossing, wait for him on the other side pretending not to see as his arm was roughly brushed aside by the busy commuters. Once the day was over, the duo would walk to the market to buy supplies for the daily dinner. She would insist on carrying the bag ignoring Mohan’s protests. Once home, Gouri, along with her younger brother Gour, would sit gaping, listening to Mohan’s fascinating stories. Both the siblings loved these moments. These sessions, were also in a way, their education in progress as Mohan would help explain concepts like Evaporation, Deforestation, Pollution Control and even historical topics in the form of stories. This was the only time in the day when Mohan threw off the garb of a roadside beggar and became their father once again. Then at night, both children would wrap their arms around him and drift off into a deep sleep, warm in the feeling of being safe and loved despite everything.
Today, Gouri noticed that Mohan was unusually happy. There was a happy pace in his stride as he walked towards the market. She was surprised when instead of the usual vegetable stalls, he moved towards the Garment stores. As Gouri watched, Mohan strode into the shop just like a King would step into his court and moved straight to the counter which sold clothes for girls.
The salesman at the counter looked up surprised as Mohan tapped on the counter and pointed at the yellow dress hanging behind him. He happily thrust the amount, the price of the dress, into the salesman’s hands. The surprised man looked at the assortment of dirty 5 rupee notes and coins that lay scattered before him. “You a beggar or what?” he asked, his tone rippling with disgust.
Mohan felt himself swell with pride as he looked at his daughter’s astonished look, smiled and replied “No, I am a King waiting to behold my Princess!”
Somewhere in the distance, the sound of the Dhak heralded the onset of festivities. As Gouri’s eyes sparkled with tears of joy, Mohan knew he had already appeased his deity.