Published by the Writer's Workshop, Calcutta, India
It was nine o'clock. The boy, thin and small, lumbered up the steps of the many- storied mansion. He stopped at each floor to survey the doors of all the rooms. The shirt he wore was tattered and his skin showed through it. The pockets of his dirty shorts bulged with the weight of something in them.
On one of the top floors a door, with a bigger and brighter nameplate than any other door in the mansion, caught his attention. The boy stood staring at it a long time. Finally, moving a few yards away and sitting down on the floor, he kept an eye on it.
People were coming out of the apartments and going down the stops. The boy studied each thoroughly. After about half an hour the door with the bigger and brighter nameplate opened and a tall, rather well-dressed man came out.
The boy sprang up, pulled out two tins of boot polish from one pocket and a brush from the other and intercepting the man said, "Shoe-shine, Sahib."
The man looked at his shoes and said, "I don't need one now. Not for another two days."
The boy's countenance fell. He showed that he was disappointed.
"I'll charge you half the market rate, sir."
The man smiled, "It's not a question of money."
"I'll make you shoes shine like silver." The man refused. But the boy persisted. Finally the man agreed.
"Thank you, " the boy said, his face lighting up.
"But where's your footrest?"
"I haven't got one, sahib. I'll buy one some day. When I've saved enough."
Agilely, the boy lowered himself, crossed his legs and slapping one of knees sharply, said, "Put your foot here." The knee looked tender and the man hesitated before putting his foot on it.
"What happened to your footrest? Broke it? Lost it?"
"I never had one. Can't afford one, with a mother and three sisters to support, and earnings being what they are."
He put the polish with rapid little stabs of his forefinger, then spread it all over with energetic circular strokes of his finger tips.
"Am I not an expert?" the boy asked as he worked looking up into the man's face. He had bright elongated eyes, strikingly set off by his smooth chocolate brown skin. The man looked down at the boy's fluttering hand and said, "Yes
"Wish I had a box and a footrest. So that my sisters could at least go to school."
"They don't go to school?"
"I'm the only one in the family who earns. The others are too young."
"What about your father?"
"He left us about six months back. Didn't tell us where he was going. Used to drink a lot."
A few quick strokes of the brush to and fro, and the shoe was glistening.
"The other foot, please."
"Have you tried to save?"
"I have. But it's impossible with so many to support. And I don't want to beg or steal."
A pause followed, the silence broken only by the rapid tapping of passing feet.
"Sometimes when I start thinking, I feel I'll go mad." He spoke in a low, silky voice, as if talking to himself.
"My sisters are growing up. One of these days I'll have to marry them off. For where am I going to get them dowries? Will they have to remain unmarried for ever?"
"How old are you?"
"You talk like a grown-up."
The boy smiled, and his smile was painful.
"How much do a box and a footrest cost?"
"Readymade ones, six rupees. Eight rupees if you order. I'd like to have mine made."
"You can't save that much?"
The boy did not say anything, only crinkled his smooth face into a pale shadow of a smile. The man looked away.
By now the people were moving in a thick stream towards the stairs, but none paid any attention to the boy and the man.
After some time the man said, "Stop charging half. Why do you charge half?"
"Because I want more customers," the boy said quietly. "That's also why I go from house to house. If I sat on the footpath like the other shoe-shine boys, I'd earn practically nothing." Adding a moment later, "Your shoes are finished."
The man removed his foot from the boy's knee.
As the man put his hand into his pocket, evidently to bring out the money, the boy hesitatingly said, "Would you--er--er--mind if I say something
"Could you," the boy said, eyes fixed on the ground, "lend me eight rupees. I'll return them as soon as I can. I'm ashamed of asking, but you seem . . ." he choked and could not go on.
A smile broke on the man's face. "Don't worry about paying me."
"No. No. Then I won't take the money. Just pay me for the shoe-shine. Twenty- five naye paise. Full charge - since you want to pay it."
The man took his purse and drew out a ten rupee note. "Here, take this." Then half seriously, he added: "Pay me whenever you like. After a year or five years."
"Returning eight rupees will be hard enough. Don't make things harder for me."
"And if I say I haven't any change?"
"Then I won't take anything."
"All right," the man said as he pushed the ten rupee note into the purse and pulled out a few one rupee ones. He counted eight and held them out to the boy.
"Thank you very much, sahib." the boy said taking the money. "You've done me a great favour." The man did not remember to have seen a warmer smile than the one the boy gave to him now. He could not help the smile that came to his lips.
"Tell me your name, sahib." The man told him, then asked him his. The boy obliged him.
"And is this where you live?" He pointed towards the door. The man nodded and began to walk away.
"Sahib," the boy called after him.
"You've forgotten to pay me for the shoe-shine."
"Oh," the man said, a broad smile across his face, and stopped. Then, after paying the boy, with the pleased-as-Punch smile still across his face, he disappeared down the stairs.
As the boy stood holding the notes, he was sure that a day which had started so well would certainly bring him more than the sixty-four rupees he had earned the previous day, which was the biggest amount he had ever earned on any day in any of the cities he had been to so far.