There is a good – or bad – reason I still cannot forget that day in October in Delhi. My left leg still has this sudden terrible pain from time to time. Minnie has recovered better, although she was the main intended victim.
The day started off very well. It was one of those delightful October mornings of Delhi with that special nip in the air which you can feel in and round the Navratra festival days — or at least used to feel till the pollution became just too bad. I still remember that Mummy had a fast that day and had cooked her special saboodana dish normally reserved for fasting days — to be eaten once in the day — and I had carried a bowlful for Minnie’s mum too. Then from there, we went to school together.
This was the day of the big extempore speech competition. Our headmaster had said extempore is what really matters and there was a lot hanging on winning this particular contest.
In the end Minnie, won it easily. I cheered and cheered when she went to take the prize.
The contestants were given a really interesting subject — they were asked to speak on a very useful person around them who also happened to be highly neglected. Some contestants couldn’t even get started, at least not properly, but Minnie took just a few seconds to identify Shyamu as her subject. She is brilliant, isn’t she?
Shyamu was the sanitation worker in our colony. A short and quiet man who kept to himself, he used to come early in the morning, do all the cleaning and then vanish into his small hut-like house on a plateau full of wild growth of trees, bushes and grass. He lived there alone. His wife had died some time ago, and earlier their daughter had left for Bulandshahr after her marriage. He was paid a very low wage and although someone had raised the issue of raising his salary, no action was taken.
Minnie spoke with feeling at the contest that day that the man who provided the most valuable service of keeping the colony clean, working very hard and without any fuss, reporting for work even when he was not well, had been most neglected by people who took him and his services for granted, without contributing to his welfare in any way.
What Minnie had said was very true, but family members and neighbours were busy in celebrating and congratulating her for the prize she had won instead of thinking about doing something for Shyamu. Probably the thought did not occur to anyone.
The day was spent in celebrating and preparing for Ramlila, the drama performance based on the epic story of Ramayana. This performance was organised every year at the temple grounds, but this year a special effort had been made to improve it. Our school dramatics society was also involved in this now. This was also the first time that girls were being selected to play the female roles. Earlier, these roles were also performed by men dressed up as women!
As the performance was in the evening, I was assigned the duty of taking Minnie to the performance site every evening and accompanying her back every night, carrying some of her heavy costumes – a duty I accepted very happily. The temple and its open-air performance site were located at a distance of less than a kilometre from our home, linked by a busy road.
We were just a little late on that evening while leaving for the temple. Just as we reached the road, we were stopped by security men who had appeared in huge numbers suddenly. A car carrying a prominent minister had had an accident just a little further down the road, and the entire stretch had been cordoned off for security reasons.
We were already late, and tense. As we pondered which alternative route we could possibly take to reach the temple quickly, the most obvious one appeared to be to leave the roads altogether and instead use a seldom-used path on a plateau. We used to sometimes go to the plateau to pluck berries, but had never walked the entire length to the temple. There had been no need. However this short-cut was just half a kilometre or so, and we reckoned we could cross the distance in about 20 minutes.
It was getting dark now, but the lights from our homes and the temple flickered in the distance, as also the streetlights on the main road. There was enough light to guide us on the wild path, we discussed, and started walking up the plateau briskly.
The first few minutes passed well enough. Then suddenly there was an electricity cut, and the entire wild plateau was plunged in total darkness. We groped to find our path, and lost our way. As we stumbled here and there, there were no lights in the distance which could give us even a sense of direction.
Then suddenly we heard steps.
Minnie shuddered, whispered — Mahesh, I can hear someone walking behind us.
We stopped, then looked back. The sound of steps behind us also stopped.
Probably only a rustle of leaves, I said and tried to calm down Minnie who was trembling by now. Probably my voice was trembling too.
As we started walking again, the steps behind us could also be heard again!
I turned sharply and said, “Who is there?’
Suddenly someone leaped from the darkness and kicked me in the stomach. I fell down heavily near a boulder, my left leg caught under it with a cracking sound of a bone breaking.
Then helplessly I saw the same figure plunging towards Minnie and tearing at her clothes. She shrieked, and so did I.
After a few seconds which appeared to be eternity, someone else emerged running from from the darkness and got the assaulter away from Minnie with one big push. Now it was all between the two strangers as the two of us were reduced to onlookers. Meanwhile, the temple generator had been switched on and so we had sparks of light again.
We could see that the short man who had come to the rescue had now got on top of the bigger and stronger assaulter and was pounding him first with his fist and then with a small stone he had picked up while grappling.
I was helpless with my broken leg still caught under a boulder, but Minnie showed great courage and presence of mind. She got hold of a much bigger rock and hit it hard on the head of her assaulter. A gush of blood flowed and the man passed out. He must have regained consciousness only after some hours.
I was fortunately wearing a kurta, and this was quickly used to clothe Minnie.
Minnie now took a better look at our badly bruised saviour. She shouted, “Oh, is that you Shyamu?”
Shyamu quietly told us in his unassuming voice that he had seen us climbing on to the plateau from his hut. Then he saw a known goon following. Becoming concerned, he had decided to follow, maintaining a distance. Then the lights went off and he heard us shrieking. Following the direction of our shrieks, he had rushed to the exact spot just in time.
My eyes are use to seeing much more in the dark compared to your eyes, he said quietly.
Later, of course, our parents made sure that Shyamu got some reward for his brave rescue. Minnie and me, we decided together that we would do much more for him when we would have jobs of our own.
After a few years, when we were married, we were busy in setting up our new home. Our parents had also left their old homes after retirement from government jobs.
Then one day, Minnie suddenly reminded me of our unpaid gratitude to Shyamu. It had been already almost two years since we had last seen him.
So one day, we went back, full of nostalgia as we drove past the temple, the residential quarters and finally reached the plateau. Getting out of the car, we walked over to his house, again discussing our plans to help him.
But as we reached the house, it was in ruins. It was not even locked, just appeared to have been abandoned. The kitchen garden he used to maintain carefully had not been tended for months.
Alarmed, we went to inquire about it from our old neighbours.
“Oh Shyamu,” Sharma Uncle said with disinterest, “he died about six months back.”
Minnie and me, as we drove back, both remembered the subject of her extempore speech at the school that day — the most useful person who is also the most neglected.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071 and Navjivan, collections of novellas and short stories in English and Hindi.
The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.