What is coconut chutney without the flavour of curry leaves, I think to myself, as I put a spoonful in my mouth from the disposable paper plate in my hand.
The plate feels warm on my palm. There is a nip in the air, the sun is just rising and the steaming Upma tastes like heaven. Post-race breakfast hardly gets any better than this.
But isn’t it a pity that such delicious Upma should discern the lack of curry leaves?
“The best part about finishing a race in the top ten, is you don’t have to wait in the breakfast queue, isn’t it?” The guy sitting next to me nudges me on the shoulder and smiles.
I don’t know him, but he looks like a friendly, talkative guy. He is dressed in a blue race singlet, and smacks his lips audibly as he devours the Upma from his plate.
“True,” I tell him. “I once saw a guy holding up a sign in a race that said ‘Run faster, the breakfast queue is getting longer!'”
He laughs, revealing a set of white teeth stained now with bits of Upma. “Or perhaps something like ‘Run faster, your Upma is going cold!’ ” he chuckles.
I allow myself a smile. “Good breakfast, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely! But I miss the dash of lemon in the Upma. That makes it taste so much better.”
What dash of lemon, I think to myself.
It makes me wonder how many complaints about the wonderful breakfast we could put together at the end of the morning.
More runners are pouring in at the finish now. The sun rays feel warm on my cheeks. I rub my tummy in contentment. That was a huge helping. Then I stretch my legs out in the sun, sipping a cup of milk-coffee. A bit too sweet, I find myself complaining again, and stop midway. But it is true, the coffee does makes me cringe. I shield my eyes from the sun, looking for a dustbin to dispose it off.
That is when I spot him.
He is crouching by the dustbin like an animal. At first sight he would simply go unnoticed. When he sees me looking at him, he seems terrified. He looks around, and in a flash he is gone.
I wonder if he was even there in the first place. Was it just an illusion, with the sun shining in my eyes? There is something suspicious about his sudden disappearance that makes me get up and walk towards the dustbin.
Again, he is there.
He is so frail and tiny he could easily pass for a malnourished dog. He is wearing a ragged vest and dirty shorts. His ribs poke out of the sides of the vest as he hugs his shivering body with his thin, lanky arms.
I look into his deeply set eyes, as he looks into mine.
This time, he knows there is no escape. There is fear on his face, trepidation in his eyes, and he joins his palms together and begins to plead.
“Forgive me, Bhaiya, please don’t hurt me…”
“But I didn’t even do anything,” I look at him, bewildered. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Nothing… Nothing…!” In a split second, he is gone.
I sit in the sun for a while warming myself, keeping a watch around for the queer kid. When the music starts dying down, and the crowd gets sparse, I get up to leave. And then I see him again. But when I see what he is doing, I feel a wrench in my stomach, as if someone had just punched a hard blow in my tummy as I sprinted across the finish line.
He is picking out the disposable Upma plates from the dustbin and eating from the leftovers.
It breaks my heart. I just want to walk away. Un-see what I just saw. But there is no going back.
It suddenly feels embarrassing that I thought the chutney lacked flavour. It hurts that I found the coffee too sweet.
Why! Why do some people have to struggle so hard, while some of us simply have it so easy? Whoever said we are all born equal? We are not. Because if we were, this poor kid wouldn’t have to look for scraps in the dustbin to fill his tummy on a freezing morning.
The world is a cruel, cruel place.
We live on a soft feather bed, don’t we?
And so many others are languishing on the hard rocks.
The beggar child’s face keeps appearing before my eyes, as I try to sleep. It is past midnight. My eyelids keep drooping, but sleep remains elusive. For a moment, I fall asleep. And then, again, he is right there. Crouching behind the dustbin.
Forgive me, Bhaiya, please don’t hurt me…
It is an overwhelming sense of accountability. A feeling almost moving on to guilt and remorse. I don’t know what it was about the boy’s eyes. I have seen beggars before. Obviously. In India, they are an everyday sight. But that small boy near the dustbin…
I stare at the dark ceiling until my eyes start watering. Until my eyelids start drooping again. And thinking of the poor boy, I find myself falling asleep.
It is cold. My blanket doesn’t feel warm enough. I am shivering. I wrap my arms around myself to keep warm. The stitches in my t-shirt are giving away. The wide gaping holes let in a cold shot of air. I hear my teeth chatter. It is an appalling feeling to be cold.
Knees to the chin, I am crouching. Crouching behind the dustbin. I realise I am starving. I can’t remember the last meal I ate. My head feels heavy. My eyelids are drooping. And I am zoning out.
A big man, his face distant and unclear, asks me to stand up at the starting line.
Forgive me, Bhaiya, please don’t hurt me, I plead.
But everyone around me is already at the start. Waiting for the flag-off. Ready to race. And I am still crouching behind the dustbin. Cold. Tired. Hungry.
I look around. All my competitors seem healthy. And wealthy. I can tell. I can tell from the Nike ticks and the Adidas stripes on their shoes. I look down at my bare feet. This is all I have. This, and the shivering. And the pleading.
The race is about to start. Then suddenly, the big man asks the faster runners to come to the front. There is a great deal of jostling and I am ruthlessly pushed to the back.
The big man is still speaking over the microphone. He is asking the runners wearing branded jerseys to come ten steps ahead.
What! Is this a joke? What kind of discrimination is this!
I look down at my ragged vest and my dirty shorts. I am pushed further back. I open my mouth to protest. But I can only plead. That is all I have been taught.
But I hear the big man’s booming voice again. He is calling every runner with a roof over their heads to take ten steps further ahead. Every runner moves forward. I can only watch with helpless outrage.
He then asks everyone who has had a meal in the past twelve hours to take ten more steps ahead. I think of the leftover Upma I had eaten from the dustbin. I wonder if that qualifies for a meal. Everybody around me takes ten large steps further ahead. I am left back. How can they do this! This is injustice! The others already have fifty meters of head-start over me. Why?
I don’t know. And what right do I have to even object? I am only permitted to beg and plead. And so I plead.
Forgive me, Bhaiya, please don’t hurt me…
I don’t know what the big man is saying now. I can’t hear him. I can only hear the muffled, booming voice in the distance, followed by the runners moving ten steps forward.
I can hear nothing. But whatever it is, it can’t be for me. Privileges are not for me. They are for people wearing shoes with tick marks and stripes on them. I can hear the race being flagged off. The countdown from ten has begun. I can barely see my competitors. They are already a mile ahead of me.
‘Three… Two… One…’
I want to complain. But there is nobody to listen to me.
Then the word ‘Go!’
I realise this is the start of the race. The race of Life.
And it doesn’t seem fair, but nobody seems to care that the world has a head-start on me.
It doesn’t matter where the world starts the race.
This is where I would be starting mine.
With an intense effort, I try to move my tired legs forward. And all at once I wake up with a start.
Alarmed and terrified, I look around. It is all dark. The ceiling is still dark. I am in my room. I relax and slump back to my pillow. I look at the time. Quarter to five.
What a dream it had been!
I remember watching something similar on the internet. This time it petrified me.
Lost in a whirlwind of thoughts, I get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen. Oh, what an unfair race Life is!
I can’t stop thinking about the dream. I spend a long time staring into the open kitchen shelf, lost. I suddenly realise what I am staring at, are three types of coffee jars. Each waiting patiently for me to pick one for today.
I wonder how far ahead that puts me at the starting line.
I can’t say I worked my way up in life to a point where I have a choice of the coffee I want. No, far from that. It seems strange to think that I simply got to inherit the ability to choose what food I would have every day.
How could Lady Luck be so biased?
As I get ready for my run, I realise how true it is for every simple aspect in life. Every morning I lace up, I have the prerogative to choose from at least three different pairs of shoes.
Funny, but I have a privilege to complain that the coconut chutney lacks the flavour of curry leaves.
And every morning as I decide what coffee I want to have, the brutal, gruelling, barbaric reality is that there are millions of people in the world, for whom the sun will still rise from behind the dustbin.
And morning after morning, they will sit there crouching, looking for leftover Upma.
And ten steps behind.
# END #