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The Red Ruby

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 By HARJIT LALLY

Today may be my last day on earth. Or, it might linger on malignantly into another and yet another till the last breath of my life oozes out slowly and gradually. As the cold and bone chilling winter of 1973 comes to an end, here I am, gazing at Deepak from a distance, whom I have watched for the last fifteen years.

He stands there before me with a long face, waiting…… waiting and waiting. This is the usual place of meeting his girlfriend. Near the fifth pillar of the long verandah of Astley Hall that covers come twenty odd shops in a row. On the other side of the pillar is the heavy wooden door of Napoli Restaurant. Every day, before going in for a cup of evening tea, both of them give me a smile and walk in. As he was walking up and down today, he dropped a 20 P. coin into my begging bowl, double the amount he has ever given me.

Enthusiastically, he said, “Amma is this ring alright? It is a Red Ruby. Today I want Preetika’s and my love to be bound by this.”
With my chattering teeth and shaking head I whispered, “May God bless you.” I am very happy for him. Yet doubt assailed, or is it my intuition?

It is for the first time he has spoken so many sentences to me. I have been seeing him go to school and pass this way ever since he was a child. I can never forget the day when his friend once chucked a stone at me. It hit my forehead. Blood spurted out of my wrinkled leathery skin. I screamed although aware of the fact that no one would bother to stop to hear me. It was this little Deepak who took out a clean white hanky from his pocket, put it on my wound and said sympathetically, “Here.” As if frightened, he ran away. Ever since, my hawk-like eyes have followed every movement of his; I have sat or stood under this shady tree near the Napoli cycle stand – come winter, summer or the dripping Monsoon. Because, he went to school and came back this way. At times, he would drop a new paisa coin or some food from his tiffin box into my begging bowl.

A week after the stone-hurling incident, my father died. Before dying, he confessed that he was not my real father. He had stolen me, when I was a 2 year old baby girl. The gang of rogues did not agree to his plan. Instead, they beat me up; taught me to shed crocodile tears; beg from person to person. In the beginning it was very difficult to pretend. Sometimes, the tender face of my real father floated before me and I would rebel. But the pangs of hunger gnawed and I became stone-hearted. Thus, I became an inveterate beggar, drawing pity and money out of each customer. The mutilated copper begging bowl I have had for the past sixty years became my constant companion and multitudes of people, young and old, my targets, on whom I kept a strong vigil. I also shadowed Deepak, the flame, the torch bearer, the cynosure of my life, as he grew up.

He grew up to be thin and tall. With a satchel of books swung on his back he would stop by to play marbles; look in my direction, smile and walk off. Every day, I would stand outside his school gate to see him come out, because I shuddered at the thought of him being kidnapped.

Soon, a young girl started accompanying him on his way back from school. I felt a little envious. They were two playful children, now preparing for their High School Examination. At this stage, Preetika entered his life and mine, too. I watched them go to college also; sometimes walking and sometimes cycling. Often, in the evenings, dressed all in white he would go past roaring on his motor-bike. She would sit behind him with two rackets in her hand. They were deliriously happy together and in love. She seemed to bloom like a blushing rose day by day. This is the place where they regularly stopped by for a cool drink. Always gave me an extra coin on the day their results were announced.

One day, when I put out my hand for a paisa, Preetika said, “Oh what a lovely long fate line you have Amma. Show your right hand.” Eagerly I put the bowl down. Stretched out my right hand. Hopefully expecting a turn of the tide, I said “Dekho Baby.” She just nodded wistfully and walked away saying, “Fate line has vanished…”

In college, Deepak grew a long drooping moustache. For a minute I did not recognise him the day he shaved it off. Often they went strolling, hand in hand in the Gandhi Park nearby. I would stand at the gate awaiting their return. Then, stealthily, I would reach Napoli, the place of their rendezvous, before they did. There, the heart-warming smile from both of them would make my day complete. I had known no softness, no love, no emotions, yet it yielded to their rich glowing love.

Today, Deepak and I are eagerly waiting for her arrival. She has been delayed. What could the matter be? There, there….. She alights from a big car. Judging from the radiance of Deepak’s face I know it is her. But, I wonder who this sophisticated young man with her is? I have seen him only once before.

She walked up to Deepak and said something. Both the boys shook hands. Deepak’s pale upturned face contorted. He waited for them to go in. With a storm of emotions surging inside him he walked up to me and dropped the Red Ruby Ring into my bowl and said, “Amma take this. Preetika and I don’t need it anymore,” and walked off hurriedly.

With the ‘thud’ of this ring I have died a thousand deaths. The Red Ruby stone appears to me like a big drop of blood. Is it the same blood that had oozed out of my forehead when a little boy had thrown a stone at me? Or is it a drop of blood from my heart dripping for Deepak? I cannot tell, I cannot say, I stare at it and envision a thousand faces of my clients. Out of which emerge only two happy ones. Preetika’s fading away, and the unhappy quizzical eyes of Deepak staring …staring … and staring.

Inside Napoli, the cacophony is deafening. I am helpless. I dare not go in and ask her what transpired. How can I, a beggar women approach a rich sophisticated lady inside there, or even when she comes out? Seventy years of my life I have begged for money; beaten on my stomach; shamed and heard lecherous remarks, “You have beautiful eyes come to me at night.”

Many times, “Kaam karo gi?”(will you work); “Jao kam karo aur kamao” (work to earn your living).

I have had no answer to give them, except to look up pleadingly and beg for more. Can I, today, beg for love??? No, not for myself but for Deepak. I wonder!!!

(Ms Lally was a teacher, model, fashion designer, in the 70s. She was best athlete of UP in 1959. She walked the ramp for the first time in Doon on her fashion show ‘Hipnotique’).