It was a cold December morning.In Lucknow the temperature dips to about 4 degrees centigrade and with the fog playing havoc with the visibility I felt a cup of hot tea was my only chance of survival.The Physics practicals started at 7:30 AM and there were 15 minutes for me to get my fix.I liked the lab a lot not because of the experiments we did there but the equipment we had in the lab.Most pieces declared their origin to be ‘Great Britain’ and were probably imported 75 years ago when the Lucknow University was started. As I dropped the pendulum and watched it come back to its original position at the center of the hinge,I could not help but wander if my grandfather had found out the value of acceleration due to gravity working on the same pendulum.
Taking my gloves and Muffler off I entered the ” science canteen”.The classification was less scientific and more statistical taking its name from frequency distribution of art,commerce and science undergraduates who made it their rendezvous.The canteen was no match to what we see in movies these days.The gap between the Physics and chemistry department which had a courtyard and a covered gallery served as the canteen.The courtyard had an earthen furnace in a corner on which a staple serving of tea and samosas was prepared by the manage/contractor who was assisted by two boys – one for collecting the cups and plates and the other for washing them.A large chunk of Pundit population required that all cutting,pealing and cooking be carried out by Lallan Misra the Brahmin canteen manager himself.In this high seat of learning caste played an important role- from elections to hostel allotments to love lives and shoot outs.A brahmin science graduate was the best you could be to put things into perspective.
“Aur Lallan , kya chal raha hai ? ” (howdy Lallan?I inquired making myself comfortable on the stool next to his place near the furnace which looked tempting at the moment.He maintained a grim expression on his face which looked even more ghastly in the orange yellow reflection of the light from the furnace.He passed me a glass of hot tea withot saying a word.Before I sipped it I just inhaled deeply not for the flavor but for the steam to open my blocked nostrils.
As the fog cleared a bit I could see a shadow in a corner.It was Chailu squatting on the floor and washing the cups and plates from yesterday.I had never registered that someone would be cleaning all the cups and plates.It was obvious now that someone did.I noticed that he was not more than 10 years old or may be his emaciated frame put my guess on the lower side.He was wearing a torn black sweater and a brown colored knicker.Both pieces of clothing were insufficient to help him dodge the chill.My gaze was fixed on him and I was watching his every move almost in slow motion.He had a tub full of ‘dirty’ cups and plates and two buckets -One was filled with soap water and the other with clear water.Both of them cold.Very cold.In my trance like state I could see that his hands were hesitant and each time he was forcing himself to touch the water.A few moments would have passed when Lallan shouted “Maa….,tumhare haath tod doonga”(Bastartd I will break your bones) and hurled a piece of wood from the furnace which hit Chailu on his left thigh.He jumped away,could not control himself and stumbled.Quickly he gathered himself and as if to avoid another hit from Lallan started washing the cups with false enthusiasm.
I recalled how I snuggled up in the warmth of the Quilt when I was his age and how my mother waited at me making sure all my demands for hot parathas,Jam and bournvita milk were fulfilled before I headed out to the school armed with a tiffin loaded with my favorite goodies.
A tear had swelled in his eyes and in mine too.
The cup of tea in my hand was warm with heat or with hatred I didn’t know.The tears in my eyes were of guilt or of anger I had no clue.The restrain in my hands was of pragmatism or cowardice I had no idea.I gave a dirty look to Lallan and rushed out of the place.While walking away I caught Chailu’s eyes for a moment.I was not sure if I was more embarrassed or him.
Years passed.I completed my graduation and did my business management frequently visiting the “commerce canteen” for the next two years.Went out to New Delhi in search of a job and never came back.I wriggled up the corporate hierarchy,raised a family,bought a house and a car as life kept me rolling on its roller coaster ride.
One day I had come to Lucknow for a meeting and it got postponed at the last moment.The guy I was supposed to meet had an office in Niralanagar quite close to the University so I thought let me go and check things out and relive some of my old memories.I entered the University and after roaming around aimlessly for a while looking at strange faces I decided to go to some place familiar.It was December but as it was around 9: 00 AM the chill was a bit lesser.I sat on a chair “inside” just to feel the old times when we used to spend hours trying to put a matchbox in an empty glass by flipping it with the thumb.I wanted to see if there was a trace of my hands on the tables which doubled up as drums in our Jim Morrison Jam sessions.I was curious to see if R & A that I had scratched at the back of the window panel had been replaced by another set of initials.
I sat there and ordered for a cup of tea and a samosa.The price had risen marginally by 50 paise on each item so the cumulative increase was a rupee.Not bad at all I said to myself.To while away my time I started looking at the furniture around me.I lifted my gazed to check out the fans,the paint on the walls and the ceiling and the man on the counter with an earthen furnace.Nothing had changed except the canteen Manager but even he looked familiar in a strange way.
A young student entered the canteen.He was about the same age as me when I was an undergraduate.He had muffler and gloves on which he was taking off as he entered.In a casually confident manner he took the stool besides the canteen manager who had a grim expression that looked even more fearsome with the reflection of the flame from the furnace.He gave a cup to the young man who had just come in and kept staring in front.It looked like he was watching over someone.My eyes traveled in the direction of his gaze and I could not believe my eyes.It was Deja vu or what?There was a 10 year old boy sitting in the corner and washing cups.He had a tub full of cups and plates which he was dipping in a bucket of soap water and then in a bucket of clear water.Both of them cold.Very cold.Suddenly the canteen manager got animated and shouted
” Beh…d ,saala kal aayaa nahin ki bukhaar hai aur aaj der se aaya hai to haath nahin chal rahe hain harami ke”.(Bastard took an off saying he had fever and has come late today only to pass time) He pulled out a piece of wood from the furnace and as he was going to hurl it towards the boy the young man sitting next to him held his hand.”Paagal ho gaye ho Chailu”(Chailu,Have you gone mad ?) he screamed as his other hand transformed itself into a slap which landed across Chailu’s cheeks.It seemed to me like a moment in eternity.Time froze until Chailu came to his senses.He kept staring the guy holding his hand as if he had seen a ghost.He was petrified not knowing what to say or do.The boy washing the dishes was looking back with a mixed expression of disbelief , joy and self respect on his face.
Someone had lifted a big burden from my chest so I could breath easily again.Someone had broken the tradition of the ball of mud going around the ball of fire in a circle.Someone had gathered the courage to stop the pendulum from coming to its original position.Someone had defied gravity.
I felt as if I was free . I could fly and with me I could take away the boy washing the dishes in the corner.
I walked out of the place reworking the definition of gravity in my mind.By the time I was out of the gates I had summed up “Gravity is a force that binds all objects to the earth and is responsible for inertia – the tendency of objects to stay as they are unless a force is applied on them.”
It may not be a very good definition I thought, but it was correct as far as I was concerned.