Monday, April 25, 2005

Little Joe Camel

The railway station at Benaras is not ordinarily a place where I would spend any length of time, leave alone an entire day. However, my mother and I were awaiting the arrival of my sister and thus this seemed to be the logical location to meet her. The train, in a fit of whimsy, had decided not to let it be known when exactly it would arrive. The announcements droned on that it would be here within the next half-hour, positively. This was kept up for five hours.
Meanwhile, my parent and I stood around or sat around, trying not to melt completely in the thick, humid heat, and instead try to preserve some resemblance to our former selves so my sister would have the least difficulty in recognizing us. This was our most onerous task, apart from trying to keep up a pleasant outlook during this endless wait.
The platform itself presented a fascinating glimpse of life that can be seen only on the platforms of Indian railway stations. Let it be said that one must succumb to clich├ęs and describe the scene in terms like “bustling”, “buzzing” and “alive.”
There was this stall selling knick-knacks, books and cigarettes close to where we stood. I noticed a small boy, not more than eight, come up to make his purchases. He was alone and evidently had been for most of his life. He was in tattered, over-large clothes and looked like he was from Northeastern India or Nepal. He saw me looking at him and gave me a gap toothed smile.
He then bought what he had come to buy: a pack of cigarettes. While I was trying to frame a suitable reprimand to the stall owner for selling nicotine to a child (even if he was buying for someone else), the little boy fished out a matchbox from a capacious pocket.
He cupped his hands around the cigarette that had arrived in his mouth with the smooth motion of the habitual smoker. He lit up. Maybe he felt my eyes on him. He turned around, and with the cigarette still between his lips, gave me a fat and undeniably conspiratorial wink. Then he turned around again and was gone.
I felt like I had just watched one of those movies that you end up wishing you hadn’t. The cigarette seller yawned and scratched his ear. My little friend and his cigarette had disappeared; there was a faint cloud of horrid smoke where he had stood.
I could think of nothing to say.

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