Manik was excited that he was to spend his holidays with his grandparents. He was to travel on the Ispat Express…

The train started off like a rather reluctant dinosaur and then slowly gathered speed. Twelve-year-old Manik looked around. Half the AC-Chair Car of the Ispat Express was empty. For the first time he was going to Kolkata to spend one month with his tatiya and ammamma. He was excited. He had always met his grandparents only when some family marriage and function was taking place or when they came to spend a few days at his house. He had had to share them with his parents, cousins and assorted relatives. Now he would have them all to himself — for 30 days! He would get to eat ammamma’s payasam, boorulu, laddus and of course, the lip smacking, throat tingling rasam. And tatiya would be there to tell him delectable stories of every kind, from horror to humour. He had also firmed up plans to go sightseeing and visit the places his neighbour Tapas had told him about.

He looked at Jeevan Patnaik uncle, his co-passenger and chaperone. Patnaik uncle, his father’s colleague in Rourkela Steel Plant, was a short, fat and balding man with a couple of chins but hardly any neck. He had been given the task of ‘escorting’ Manik and ‘delivering’ him safely to his grandparents. He was now comfortably settled in his seat, had closed his eyes, and was creating noise pollution with his mouth half open and nostrils quivering.

Paalish, boot paalish, champi,” Manik heard a voice. A dark, skinny boy, around his age was sitting on the floor looking at him. He had large, round eyes, a blob of a nose, buck teeth and unruly hair. For an instant he reminded Manik of his best buddy Dawood Khan, except that Khan sported more flesh and was obviously cleaner.

“Saab, can I paalish your shoes, only five rupees. I’ll make them shine so much you will be able to see your reflection in your shoes and comb your hair,” he said flashing a toothy smile and removing a brush, a flat box and a dirty piece of cloth from the dirtier bag he was carrying. Manik mentally named him Doosra Khan or Doosra.

“Hey you, get out! Or I’ll get up and throw you out!” Patnaik uncle, who had apparently been disturbed by Doosra, snapped a dark scowl on his large and fleshy face.

“Why are you shouting saab? I am not begging. I am only trying to earn a little bit of money by working hard,” Doosra replied.

“Don’t give me all that nonsense. I know your kind. This boot polish business is only an excuse to pick pockets or steal luggage and vanish. Now are you going to get lost or shall I whack you one?”

A lesson to learn

Doosra started shuffling and only then did Manik notice that he had only two stumps for legs and he was using his hands to propel himself.

“Uncle, that boy is a cripple. You shouldn’t have shouted at him.”

“Listen young man, I have seen the world. You cannot trust such people. You start taking pity on them and before you know it half your stuff is gone and you are left standing like a fool.”

Manik was about to say something, but decided against it. He knew it was no use arguing with someone like Patnaik uncle.

He turned back. Doosra was sitting in one corner of the compartment. Their eyes met and the boy flashed his toothy grin as if to say that he knew Manik was on his side.

After some time, Patnaik uncle got up apparently to go to the washroom. As Manik watched, he stopped beside Doosra and gave him a coin. Doosra shook his head.

When Patnaik uncle came back Manik asked him about the transaction. “I offered that scoundrel two rupees and he said, ‘I am not a beggar.’ See the arrogance of the fellow. It is the fault of all these movies which your generation is exposed to. Every street urchin thinks he is a hero.”

An hour later, the train entered Howrah station. On either side, Manik could see swarming crowds — people scurrying in a mad rush — so unlike the leisurely pace of Rourkela station.

The train finally lurched to a halt. “Come on, pick up your stuff,” Patnaik uncle said. As they were proceeding towards the exit they heard a shout and turned back. It was Doosra.

“What is it?” snapped Patnaik uncle.

“You have left your mobile behind,” he said pointing to his left where the phone was being charged.

It took a couple of seconds for Doosra’s words to sink in. Patnaik uncle went to his seat and removing the phone and charger placed them in his pocket. And then, after hesitating for a moment, removed a 50 rupee note from his pocket and offered it to Doosra.

Doosra shook his head. “No saab, no bakshish. I would be happy to polish your shoes and earn my money.”

Patnaik uncle looked at him for a moment and then sat down. He removed his shoes and handed them to Doosra. For the next five minutes Manik and Patnaik uncle watched Doosra polish the shoes with great care like an artist busy with a work of art. Manik glanced at Patnaik uncle a couple of times, but did not see any sign of impatience.

Finally Doosra was done. He handed over the pair of shining shoes to its owner. Patnaik uncle gave him a five rupee note which he pocketed with a smart salute. Then Patnaik uncle did something which caught Manik by surprise. He bent down and gentle ruffled Doosra’s unruly hair.