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The Longest Day

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Little Shivam was dropped off at school by his father.

“I will come to pick you up after school,” said his father, Mr. Misra. “Keep the badge around your neck. Do not take it off. Remember your class is 3A. If you want to go to the toilet, tell your teacher. He will show you the way. Be a good boy. Have your tiffin during recess.”

Shivam’s grip on his father’s hand became tight. Mr. Misra realized his son was tense.

Just three days back Mr. Misra had returned from his village near Sultanpur with his wife and son. Shivam was coming to Mumbai, his parents’ place, after spending seven years with his grandparents. He completed two years of schooling in the village. Misraji was aware that Shivam’s future lay in a better school at Borivali, where he had rented a room in Mumbai. He managed to take a few days off from his small business and went to his village to bring his wife and little Shivam to Mumbai. While sleeping in her lap, Shivam had asked many questions about Borivali and his mother had described the place as best as she could.  Shivam was happy to be going to Borivali since his father would now be with him for longer times.

And that day early morning Shivam with his parents got down at Dadar from the train which they had boarded in Sultanpur two days ago. There were so many people on the platform. His father lifted the holdall and a trunk that contained little Shivam’s belongings along with household material. They made their way through the crowd, changed the platform, and got into another local train to Borivali. After an hour, they came out of the railway station at Borivali, took one auto-rickshaw, and after a 15-20 minutes’ drive, they were in Sambhaji Nagar.

The eastern skies were getting brighter. The entire town was waking up. Shivam’s first glimpse of the new place was pleasant. He realized there were no cocks crowing, announcing the arrival of the new morning. But there were so many houses everywhere, no river to be seen. And everyone appeared to be in a hurry to go someplace.

“You are back, Misraji?  And how are you Bhabhiji?” Vermaji greeted the family. Then, he looked at Shivam. “So, this is your son?” Verma squeezed Shivam’s cheek.

“Yes,” replied Misraji. “From tomorrow school is opening. Isn’t it? How is your Antim? This boy will sit in his class only. He took admission in the third standard.”

“He is doing fine. I have told Antim’s mother about your arrival. She will bring breakfast for you. Bhabhiji, you don’t make even tea today. You take some rest after entering the room. She will give you tea. Ok. Misraji, I am getting late. I must take my leave. Listen, child, Antim must be getting up now. Make friendship with him.”

Shivam nodded. Vermaji left in the same hurry as Shivam had seen everyone.

After passing a few doors in a house, they stopped in front of one locked door. Misraji took out the keys and opened the door. All three of them entered the room. Shivam was looking for other rooms. Father said, ”Look beta, This only is our house. This is not as big as our Sultanpur house. We have to manage. You will get a lot of friends. Play with them. And yes, you have to go to school also with them. Verma’s Antim will come very soon. He is a good boy. Yadav’s Rohit is also of your age only. He stays two houses further. You will not miss your friends of Sultanpur.”

Misraji started unpacking and Shivam joined his father.

Shivam was bewildered seeing the crowd and the number of houses. He was wondering where would be the playground, how far would be the school, how good would be the friends. And then came a small, delicate-looking, smiling boy with a jug filled with hot tea. “Uncle, this is tea for all of you. Mummy said she will bring chhole-puri very soon. So please have tea first.” Saying this he started pouring tea in small steel glasses which he had brought with him.

“Shivam, brush your teeth, wash face quickly, and have tea. We have to use this small bathroom. You may find it a bit odd but soon you will get used to it.”

In a short while another boy a little younger to them with a full smile on his face came in and talked to Antim in a language never heard before.

Antim told him ”This is Shivam Misra.” And looking at Shivam, Antim said “He is Akshay Pawar.”  Shivam returned a big smile. Shivam was happy that at least with these boys he was comfortable.  He finished the tea in the glass. In no time Akshay disappeared. Very soon the list of friends increased. Ajay, Vishaal, Satya, Chandresh…..All of them almost the same age group. Shivam finished his bath, prayers, then breakfast and came out of the room.

They started playing ‘chase and catch’ in a small little open space in front of their house. Then Rohit joined them. A bit reserved, a little bigger built than the rest of them almost as big as Shivam but sporting a similar pleasant expression on the face. They all became thick friends in no time. Shivam’s grin synchronized with the smiles of the other boys.

Shivam noticed many boys, though they spoke Hindi, were from various castes. Nobody mentioned anybody’s caste and they all gelled well with each other. There were some other boys too speaking different languages. Shivam came to know Akshay Pawar, Vishaal Waghmode, Vipul, etc. boys who spoke Marathi which was easy to understand as it sounded close to Hindi. The first day itself was full of incidences, shattering the ideas which he had carried with him from village thought to be eternal.

One more day passed by and Shivam got familiar with his new way of life.

The day arrived when the schools reopened after a long May vacation. Antim and all his friends got ready, wearing school uniforms and their ID badges around their necks. Shivam’s father said,”Today we will go a little earlier than the rest of the boys as we have to complete the admission formalities. We have to collect the school badge too.”

His mother said: “Beta, be attentive in school. Take your tiffin during your lunch break. Do not fight with other students. Be with Antim. Is he not your good friend?” She was worried how Shivam would get along with his new environment. Shivam held his father’s hand and started off with him

The road was very crowded. Motorcycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws and cars were going at break-neck speed. After  a  10 minutes’ walk, Shivam reached the school. Misraji took him to the school office and soon had him admitted there. Shivam was given a badge with his photograph on it. When Misraji took him to his class, Shivam was getting tense about the teacher and his new classmates. Misraji looked for Antim, who had spent last year in this school. Antim was already in his seat with another friend. Shivam had to take the last bench as the rest of the seats were full.

Misraji made him sit there and said, “Take care, Shivam. I will come in the evening to pick you up after school.” But Shivam did not want his father to leave. “Do not worry, Shivam. All boys are good. During lunch break, sit with Antim to eat tiffin. Ok?” It was difficult for even Misraji to leave Shivam alone in the new school. He controlled himself and pulled off his hand from Shivam’s grip. He left the school without looking back.

The teacher entered the class and started teaching maths. Shivam already knew those sums. His grandfather had already taught him. He raised his hand to answer the teacher’s questions which made a good impression. During  lunch break, Shivam had tiffin with Antim and Rohit.

The first day at school passed off well. Soon, Shivam became popular at school as an intelligent student. In the evening, when school was over, all the children ran out of the school. Shivam looked for Antim. Antim and Rohit were coming out of the school together. Shivam joined them. “But Misra uncle is going to come to pick you up, Shivam. You will have to wait for him. We will go home now,” said Antim. He caught Rohit’s hand and set out for home. Shivam waited for his father to come. He was getting anxious as the minutes were passing. In a short while Shivam saw his father coming. He felt a relief. “Come on, Shivam, let’s go. Where is Antim and Rohit?”

“They left on their own.”

“Okay. Today being your first day at school, I decided to come to take you home. From tomorrow you will go home with them. Our house is not that far from here. Just 10 minutes will be enough for you to get home.”

Soon, they reached home. Shivam took off his shoes and socks and entered the house. He washed himself and prayed in the small marble house specially made for offering prayers. he had snacks and when he was thinking of sitting for studies, Ajay came to his house.

“Shivam, let us go to play.”

“Where will we go?” Shivam asked.

”Here only. This only is our playground” Ajay said.

“But I was thinking of finishing homework.”

“No. Not now. We will play first. Then after some time, we will complete our homework.” Shivam was one more member added to this group who played together, then studied together, had their dinner in their respective houses almost at the same time. Shivam was little disturbed with this collective way of living. Everybody was independent though they were staying almost together. Shivam was trying to put different observations together. He remembered how his grandfather was so much concerned about the caste of his friends. He used to tell Shivam to play with only the Brahmin boys. But here, nobody is bothered about caste. Even his father had taken food cooked in non-brahmin Vernaji’s house. Shivam was getting confused over things right and wrong. So many people were staying in such a small area in their small houses. After dinner, he had a walk with his friends in the nearby area. Shivam observed the people spoke different languages, ate different types of foods but wore almost the same type of clothes. Almost all men wore pants and shirts irrespective of age. There was hardly any person wearing dhoti. Elderly ladies were wearing sarees but differently draped. Shivam thought this city had so many people, speaking different languages, having different cultures, so many castes but staying together as a single family. They stay in small houses but live as a unified group.

The next day started as usual. Many persons got up to fetch milk from milk booths. Some got busy filling water in their drums from common taps giving water at a particular time. There were common places for doing morning duties shared by so many persons. Shivam thought, despite sharing so many things with so many people, there was no trace of unhappiness on their faces. How did they manage to adopt this type of living? My grandfather was so much rigid whereas my father had changed so much.

Shivam got ready for school. His father had left for his work much earlier. But Shivam was prepared to go to school without his father with his friends. He came out. Antim was already waiting for his friends to start for school. Antim came close to Shivam and looked at his ID card hung around his neck. “Nice,” he said.

Soon Rohit, Ajay, and all others got together and started for the school. They reached school in time. The bell rang and all boys got into their respective classes.

The first period was for maths. The teacher started with multiplication. Shivam knew how to multiply. For the questions asked by his teacher, Shivam was ready with answers. So again it made a good impression with the teacher. Shivam sparkled in the class.

At around 11:30 a peon entered the classroom with a note for the teacher. After reading the note, the teacher’s face turned extremely worried. The peon started closing the windows. The teacher said, “There is some problem in the city. We are closing down the school. We are informing your parents to come to pick you up. We will send children home with their parents only. Till they come you will be here only. To avoid trouble, we will close the windows. We will stop the studies. You children keep quiet and wait for your parents to arrive.” The teacher closed his book and started to go out of the class. Just then another teacher entered the class and spoke to the class teacher, “There is a serious problem in the city. Some miscreants are beating all the north Indians. They are shouting “north Indians go back to your states. Mumbai is for the locals only.” They are beating the north Indians with sticks, hockey sticks, etc. We closed down the school for safety. But the principal told us to inform the parents of students of lower classes to come to pick up their wards. It is not safe to send these boys home on their own. We will have to take care of students till parents come and take their children home. Everybody is worried. We do not know whether they would attack schools.”

“Shhh. Speak low. Students should not hear this. They will get frightened.”

But the children had heard the conversation. Instantly panic spread in the class. All smiling, innocent faces turned tense and scared. Shivam could not understand what was happening. Beating up the north Indians means we Hindi speaking people? Why? What did we do wrong? He remembered his village where crowd fighting was un-heard of. Shivam started imagining crowds with hockey sticks entering the school and beating up all the children. He was terrified of the idea. He hoped his mother or father would come early and take him home to safety. Every moment was felt like an hour and the tension was getting him bogged down.  Shivam wanted to be with his mother. He felt like crying. The same was the condition of every child in the school. All the windows were bolted from inside. The children were quiet and waiting for their parents to pick them up. Shivam was extremely upset and cursed himself to have come to Mumbai with his father. He hoped the day ended soon. But every moment was passing very slowly as hours. He was praying to God to see his mother soon. He saw Antim and Rohit were also tense and tears were in their eyes. Shivam tried diverting his mind by thinking of sums of multiplication. But the idea of some people brutally beating the children was not going off his mind. How could some people be so cruel who share so many things of life with other people without considering his caste or the language he speaks? Shivam was wondering when would he be with his mother?

Finally, Shivam saw his mother coming along with Rohit’s and Antim’s mothers.  He rushed to his mother, held her saree, and started sobbing. “Do not cry, Shivam. Nobody is going to harm us. Be brave. Come, let us go home.” Antim and Rohit also opened out their sobs holding their mothers’ sarees. Slowly they all walked home. There was no change outside the school. Everybody was busy with their work. The same rush as in the morning was present all over. The area was as busy as he had seen earlier. When they reached home, his mother held Shivam close to her chest. Shivam burst out crying. “I do not want to stay here. We will go back to Sultanpur. “

“Listen, Shivam, there are some bad people who create such trouble. But many more good people are around us and nobody can harm us. Do not cry. Have lunch now and sleep near me. Nothing is going to trouble us. In the evening go out and play with your friends.” Shivam had lunch and after his mother finished her work and came to lie down for some time, he slept very close to her holding the end of her saree. He had sound sleep for a couple of hours. When he got up, it was evening. Antim and Rohit came to call him to play. Shivam realized the day was getting over. He was so happy that nobody came to beat him up. The longest day of his life was getting over. He freshened up and went out to play with his friends.

Image by A MH from Pixabay

Vijay Likhite

The author is a B.E. (Electronics) from Mumbai University in 1971. Owned a manufacturing unit. A few science and technology based articles in Marathi were published in Sunday Edition of local newspaper.

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