By Savitri Narayanan
Kunal put down his bag and squatted under the neem tree. It was not yet seven o’clock but his work was done! To distribute milk packets in a multi-storey apartment was not an easy task. Speed and concentration were the key. The ‘milk boys’ as they were called had to use the service lift. There were three different milk suppliers and three varieties of milk, like the toned milk, double-toned and the full-cream milk. Block 1 had six flats on each floor while Block 2 had eight. In front of the door the owners would have kept a bag with the required number of coupons. The milk boy’s task was to drop the required number of milk packets and collect the coupons. These were to be tallied and submitted to Ramesh bhaiyya at the milk booth. Kunal had joined the milk centre only two weeks ago so was still learning to be quick on his feet and mind. The tokens for the three types of milk were different in colour too. He just couldn’t afford to make a mistake! Very often, he lost time waiting for the lift. With all these contributory factors, Kunal soon realised that punctuality was a key asset for the ‘milk boys’ like him.
The morning’s task was complete only when the remaining milk packets along with the coupons were handed over to Ramesh bhaiyya who sat at the milk booth. Jay and Bantu were already there under the neem tree engrossed in counting their milk coupons with an eye on their lists. Kunal, too, sat down beside him with his bag and coupons.
It was Raheem bhaiyya who told Kunal about the ‘milk boys’. “It’s only about two hours’ work in the morning and you get enough for your needs,” he had said, “It feels so good to have some money in the pocket!”
Kunal thought so too but didn’t know how to!
“On the way back sometimes I buy some vegetables. You should see Ammijan’s smile when I enter the kitchen with the bag!” continued Raheem.
“Help me bhaiyya; I also want to be a ‘milk boy’ like you!” Kunal made up his mind.
Like many families in the village, money was hard to come by during the lockdown. After dinner, usually Kunal went to bed while Maji and Pitaji watched TV. Kunal often overheard them talk about things, pondering over how to make both ends meet. That night Kunal too stayed back watching TV.
“Raheem bhaiya said they need more ‘milk boys’ and he would take me along,” he announced. “Raheem is a sensible boy,” said Maji, “His guidance will do you good!”
“This is your age to learn new things,” agreed Pitaji, “But be careful while handling money!”
“There’s no money to be handled! We have to take the packets from the milk centre and drop them at the doorsteps in exchange for the milk coupons. Then we’ve to hand over the coupons and left over milk packets, if any, to the milk centre, that’s all!”
“Ramesh ji has been running this milk centre for many years now, an honest God-fearing man,” said Maji, “whatever you do, do it well – God is watching!”
“Wake me up early,” said Kunal as he got into bed,”Have to be there by five!”
Kunal realised how crucial tallying the number of milk coupons with the remaining packets was. If the figures did not match, the amount was deducted from their allowance. By 7 a.m. or so, the half a dozen ‘milk boys’ assembled near the milk centre. If the figures matched, they would run home happily. If not, they were in trouble as they were bound to pay from their pockets.
“YOU pay for your mistake, not ME!” was Ramesh bhaiyya’s favourite dialogue to those who lost milk coupons. A reprimand it surely was but there was kindness in his voice. He would make a note and deduct the amount on the payment day.
“I’ve been doing this for four years now, never lost money,” Raheem bhaiyya had said once comparing notes, “drop the milk packets, correctly on time, that’s it! No big deal!”
“Outside the lift on every floor, I check the list and distribute the packets,” said Kunal, “the problem happens when instead of toned milk we give full cream milk! One Madam called up so I went back all the way up and down the lift and lost time!”
“The packets are differently coloured, you’ll get used to it soon,” consoled Raheem bhaiyya’, “We’ve to watch out for the madams who put out extra coupons for an evening party! If we pick up the extra tokens and don’t drop enough packets, they complain to the Manager!”
“And if we drop an extra packet for no extra coupon, you’re gone,” Jay joined in the conversation, “I lost Rs 20 twice last month!”
“There’s something wrong!” exclaimed Kunal and counted the coupons again. Once again, he counted the milk packets in the bag.
“What’s the matter?” Raheem bhaiyya stopped by. He had tallied the coupons and was on the way home.
“One milk packet is missing,” said Kunal on the verge of tears, “90 coupons and only 6 packets left; there should be 7!”
“Which means someone got two packets of milk for one coupon,” Jay took stock, “it’s a gone case! Rs 20 or Rs 30 if it’s full cream milk! Either way you are the loser!”
‘How could I be so careless? What would the Manager do? What would Pitaji say? How disappointed would Maji be!”
“It’s beyond you now, Kunal,” consoled Raheem bhaiyya, “If the madam happily keeps the bonus packet of milk, you lose your money; if she l calls up the Manager to complain you may lose your job – either way you are the loser!”
Kunal was on the verge of tears. ‘Maji says God is everywhere, where’s He now?”
Just then his phone rang. Raheem bhaiyya and Jay were amused to see how Kunal’s face glowed as he stood up saying.“Yes ma’am, no ma’am, ok ma’am, yes ma’am, thank you ma’am!”
“Run run, lucky guy! She saved your cash and your reputation”, said Raheem bhaiyya, “Maji is right, isn’t she?”