Best Friends Forever!
He sat sulking in the corner on the verandah of his house. His eyes were red from crying and he angrily wiped away yet another tear from his chubby cheeks with the back of his tiny hand. He must’ve been 5 or 6.
We were visiting a little village in Uttarakhand where I chanced upon this little boy as I walked past the main village square. It was the weekly market day and all the other children looked happy. They had accompanied their parents to the market, helped make the necessary purchases of groceries, vegetables, clothes, fodder for their cattle, etc. Their patience and good behavior had paid off with their parents having bought them a treat or a toy to take home.
All the other boys were busy showing off their slingshots, new bats, cricket balls, toy cars or whatever else had caught their fancy and recently become their own property. The girls were giggling and laughing too. There were new dresses, bangles, bindi packets, dolls to take home. That’s why, when in the midst of this happy boisterous crowd, I saw this miserable little fellow, it made me stop in my tracks.
His verandah luckily doubled up as a tea shop and cold as it was, I was very much in need of something hot. His mother must’ve seen me from some hidden depth of their dark house. She came out hurriedly, wiped the wooden bench for me to sit on and started making some tea. As is the case with children of that region, he looked up at me and sat watching me curiously.
I smiled and he slowly shyly returned my smile. Then he glanced at his mother and the grumpy look came back. I couldn’t resist the temptation to get to know more. Giving a shot at small talk, I asked him his name and told him mine. I asked if he went to school, which standard he was in, what his favourite subject was, if he liked school, etc. His mother smiled indulgently as he slowly opened up to me and started responding.
We were quite enjoying the conversation and he readily shared the pack of biscuits I offered him as I drank my tea. Our conversation veered to favourite pastimes and suddenly his face turned gloomy again. Not wanting him to cry again, I turned to his mother.
“He’s lazy”, she said. “One would think a boy his age would love to play cricket, or gilli dandaor go fishing in the streams with the other boys. But NO. He just likes to sit and read books! According to him, his books are his friends. And right now, he’s grumpy because his “friends” have not come visiting”, she finished haughtily.
By now the grumpy look was back on the boy’s face and I couldn’t help wanting to know what troubled him. After all, here was a kindred spirit who loved books and got in trouble, simply because he loved to read. I had grown up with a similar story. I too, loved books and reading more than anything else and though my parents were supportive of my voracious reading, our so-called-well-meaning-relatives whose kids had never touched a book gave them and me equal grief over my “being lazy and inactive.”
I really wanted to cheer the little fellow up. But I couldn’t understand what his mother meant by saying his friends hadn’t come visiting. Before I could stop myself, I’d asked what it meant. The lady explained that an affluent man who owned a hotel in the region had recently started a mobile library which came through the village on market day. Children could borrow a book or two for a week and exchange it for a new one the next market day. Today, someone had announced that the van of books will not be coming through. Her son had been sad enough and had asked her to buy him a story book. She and his father had refused the “extravagance” and now the little boy was throwing a tantrum.
I paid for my tea and biscuits and the lady went back into the house to do her work. As I turned to say goodbye to the boy, I saw tears well up in his eyes again. And I thought of how very lucky I’d been to have parents who understood the fact that their daughter enjoyed books and thought of them as best friends. I was not only fortunate but extremely grateful that my parents had never refused to buy me a book, regardless of whether it was a reference book, story book or picture book. The book shelves at home had been overflowing with books but I was never told to stop buying books or that they were an extravagance which was of no real necessity.
In that instance, I decided it was time to make a new friend. As I put my purse back in my bag, I saw a new children’s book I had bought recently and had been reading over and over again. It’s the most difficult thing to do for me – part with a book – but as I handed it over to the little boy and told him, “here, this is for you”, the bright smile on that face was enough for me to know that the book had got a best friend forever.
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