Woh canteen wala Baccha…

He is a young little thing, not more than 10. I know nothing about him except the fact that he is a helper in the hostel canteen. It’s easy to not even notice him, lost as he is in the multitude of scrawny, barefoot kids running around the shanties of the labour which is out in full force as the construction of the campus continues. I must have seen him a dozen times handing out the dishes ordered by perennially hungry students over the canteen counter. But like I said, you can easily forget the fact that he exists.

But last night, I did manage to acknowledge his humble existence. It was dinner time and I thought that a helping of yogurt might make the tasteless food easier to consume. So I sauntered over to the small canteen nestled in a corner right outside the main mess, and without looking, asked for a cup of yogurt. Or so I thought. Because though a voice answered my query, I couldn’t see anyone. I arched an eyebrow at this divine intervention in my quest for yogurt, but just then, I spotted a pair of big brown eyes staring up at me from the other side of the canteen counter, and a sheepish smile. He was so tiny that he couldn’t even reach the top of the counter without standing on tiptoes, and then too he barely managed! I couldn’t help but smile as I repeated my query. He replied, “Haan didi, dahi hai na!” and padded over to the mini refrigerator in the other corner of the small room. If the counter had been high for him, the topmost shelf of the fridge was nothing short of the Everest summit! I watched in amusement as he stood, then stood on tiptoes and finally began hopping in an attempt to see whether there was any yogurt, though with the typical innocence and bravado of the young, he had declared that what I wanted was very much there. But I also suspect that he has been taught to Never give a direct NO for an answer, as the loss of a customer is a loss of a tiny bit of the revenue the canteen generates. For someone who is still in the single digit bracket of age, and who cannot take anything in life for granted, least of all money, this is nothing short of a big calamity. From where I stood, I could see the neat line on yogurt cups on the shelf, and I said the same to him. Upon hearing me, he stopped hopping and turned to look at me with bewildered eyes that clearly seemed to ask, “But how do I reach there?”. I took in his small frame. Big brown eyes set in a dark-skinned face, a shock of brittle brown hair running in all directions on his head, parched lips, and small limbs seeming all the more thin in a frayed maroon sweater, grey trousers and sandals, all of which had seen better days. But it were his eyes and smile that defined him in my memory. The pure innocence, not yet corrupted by the ways of the world, the easy smile, the expressions of happiness, surprise, bewilderment, confusion and concentration that went through his eyes like the ever-changing colours in a prism…

As he faced his nemesis i.e. the topmost shelf of the fridge, I could see a mix of everything mentioned above reflected in his cute eyes. Luckily for him, the man who runs the canteen came to his rescue and took a cup of yogurt and handed it to him. He again padded back to the counter where I stood, and meekly placed the cup there. I put the money in his tiny brown hands, the harshness of the winter evident in the form of dryness of skin, and he quickly brought back the change. I smiled and thanked him. Again those eyes shone and his lips broke into a merry, happy smile as his smile replied shyly. I took my purchase and headed back to where my friends were sitting in the mess. I tucked into my dinner, but my thoughts were still at the canteen counter.

I see him everyday, doing his chores, running around, getting yelled at by the canteen-man. I see him in his maroon sweater everyday. Tomorrow, I might ask him about his parents. I might ask him where he’s from, I might ask him how he ended up here. I might ask him whether he goes to school. I might even offer to help him with his alphabets and numbers.

But Today, I will ask the canteen wala baccha for his name…


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