Ever since we moved into the new apartment, I fervently desired to know – just once at least – what it felt like to be her son. Every morning sharp at 6 AM, Mummy would walk me down to the corner of the road to wait for the school bus to pick me up. It was at this corner that she would sit on the pavement with a basket selling vegetables.
Tall, thin and dusky, draped in a bright colored synthetic saree, with a wide unabashed grin and eyes that were so alive.
“Shifted into the new apartment?” she asked us.
“Yes,” Mummy nodded.
“You must buy your vegetables from me,” she insisted with that grin.
Mummy nodded again.
“I have a son just your age,” she informed me.
Mummy smiled. I spotted my school bus rumbling down the road. It chugged to a halt and the conductor opened the door to let me in. As I reached to haul myself in, she enthusiastically waved at me and the rest of the children sitting in the bus. Most didn’t respond. Neither did I. Not that it ever deterred her.
It became a ritual. Every day the short walk to the bus stop. Then she would regale us with stories of her son.
I learnt they were a family of three living in the slums on the outskirts of the city. She would hitch a ride on a van everyday with her basket of vegetables and reach this spot by 5 AM. After selling the vegetables, she would return home by 8 AM to be with her son. Her husband would look after their son in her absence.
“Joy…that’s my son’s name,” she said. “Joy in our language. Bangla. It means victory.”
“Joy in English means happiness,” I told her.
“Really?” she exclaimed. “I’ll tell him that today.”
Every day I got to know a little more about Joy.
“Do you know he loves to eat besan ka laddoos?”
“He simply adores playing Snakes and Ladders.”
“Have you admitted him to a school?” Mummy asked one day.
“No, not yet,” she replied.
I was envious. I was 8 years old and already in Standard 3. Joy seemed to be always playing at home.
“You must hurry,” Mummy immediately replied, reproof in her voice.
She nodded in agreement. “I will,” she promised. “It’s just that there are no good schools nearby. I’ll have to wait till he is a little older to send him to a good school. But,” she continued, her eyes lighting up as she talked of her child. “Joy is a really intelligent child. He understands everything on the phone.”
As I hastened to catch the bus, I wondered if Mummy found me intelligent and whether her eyes lit up as she talked about me.
Time flew past and my vivid imagination drew a picture of Joy in my mind. Dark, cherubic, with a wide unabashed grin and eyes so alive. Living in a two-roomed slum but pampered by his parents. Playing and eating the whole day. The day I got a C in Maths, I ardently wished I was Joy.
“I’m going to make egg curry for Joy,” she had told me in the morning. I would’ve given anything to be eating egg curry now instead of worrying about Maths.
I trudged home that day and asked Mummy if I could eat egg curry.
“Did you get your Maths paper?” she answered.
I sighed. Joy must be having a lot of fun today.
It was during the week before Diwali that she disappeared suddenly. She didn’t come to sell the vegetables. She appeared on Dhanteras looking haggard.
“Joy is sick,” she informed us. “Down with a fever. I’ve shown him to the local doctor but it hasn’t helped.”
“Why don’t you show him to the big hospital here?” Mummy asked, pointing to the street that led there.
“Is it expensive?” she queried.
“I’ll pay the charges,” Mummy replied gently.
She nodded gratefully. “Must be the evil eye. Someone must be jealous of my Joy,” she said with firm conviction.
I looked the other way feeling guilty.
Diwali dawned and preparations for the evening puja were in full swing when the doorbell rang. She was standing with a tear streaked face.
“It’s Joy. He fainted. I had to bring him today,” she said.
Mummy understood immediately. She went to the bedroom and brought out her purse. She took some money and slipped it into an envelope.
“Here,” said Mummy as she extended her hand to push the envelope into her hand. “Where is he?” Mummy asked.
“Outside with my husband,” she answered.
Mummy accompanied her as she hastened downstairs taking the elevator and I followed them.
An auto rickshaw was waiting at the gate. An anxious looking man sat holding a sleeping child inside. Joy. He was nothing like I imagined. Dark and thin, he looked sick. Yes, of course, he was sick, I told myself. But his legs. Like sticks. There was something wrong with them. I stared at them. Mummy bent down and touched Joy’s forehead.
“High fever,” she said. “It’s Diwali. There will be very few doctors at the hospital. I’ll call them. I know some people there.”
“Mummy!” I cried. “Joy’s legs.”
The look of anxiety in Joy’s father’s eyes changed from anxiety to anguish.
“He doesn’t walk,” he mumbled.
Mummy didn’t say anything. “Hurry,” she simply said.
We returned quietly to our flat. I clutched Mummy’s hand and she held it tight.
Mummy made a few calls to the hospital. We learned that Joy had to undergo a few tests and it was Malaria. He would recover soon, they reassured Mummy.
Diwali passed and school reopened. Mummy and I didn’t mention it, but we both waited expectantly for her at the bus stop every morning. Nearly ten days passed before she appeared with her basket of vegetables. Complete with her unabashed grin and eyes so alive. She waved to me as I clambered into the bus. I smiled and waved back.
We never asked her what was wrong with Joy’s legs and she never did tell us though she continued to chat about him.
No, I didn’t want to be Joy anymore. I knew my Mummy’s face lights up everytime she talks about me. I started dreaming of miracles, that the God who everyone prays to would cure Joy’s legs. That one day I would become a great doctor and cure Joy’s legs or that I would be so rich that I would take Joy to America and get him treated there. I didn’t know which would be easier for me.
I was told you didn’t need to be good at Maths to be a good doctor, so that sounded like a feasible idea.
- besan ka laddoos: a spherical sweet made with flour, sugar and clarified butter in the Indian subcontinent
- Diwali: A Hindu festival
- Dhanteras: A Hindu festival a couple of days prior to Diwali
- puja: ceremonial worship in Hinduism
Loved this sweet story? Enjoy these other heart-warming tales from the MockingOwl Roost contributors from South Asia on this Diwali holiday!
Sushma R Doshi
Sushma R.Doshi completed her graduation in History from Loreto College, Kolkata. She went on to acquire a Master’s degree, MPhil and PhD in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She dabbles in writing fiction and poetry and her work has been published by Contemporary Literary Review India, Muse India, Borderless Journal, Literally Stories, Impspired, International Human Rights Art Festival, Syncopation Literary Journal, Green Shoe Sanctuary and Spillwords amongst others. She currently resides in India.