In a strange way, everything Shyam Sunder stood for, seemed to go against the flow of the city, against the ebbing tide. Shyam Sunder was terribly slow, not to mention exceptionally delicate with his daily routine.
Standing under a blue tarpaulin sheet held together by four long bamboo sticks, Shyam Sunder was an istriwala, someone who ironed clothes for a living. Brought up in lower-caste family in a village in Uttar Pradesh, Shyam Sunder came to Mumbai after failing his secondary school exams. Initially, he worked as an assistant in his uncle’s retail store, but he soon, he set up his own istri shop outside Dayanand colony – a posh colony in the suburbs of Bombay where hundreds of families would soon render his services.
Every morning at the break of dawn, Shyam Sunder would open the first bundle of clothes; and patiently turn each cloth in the bundle inside out. Picking up the first cloth in the pile, he would sprinkle water on the cloth, before laying the cloth to rest on the table. Using his hands, he would spread out the sleeves first, and then the body, meticulously from top to bottom, as if it were a necessary pre-requisite before bringing out the coal iron. The cloth would then be ironed, crease after crease, twice over, before Shyam Sunder would gently return the cloth to its original state. Ironing it once again, he would fold the cloth place it on the side of the table and proceed to pick up the next cloth on the pile. This, he would repeat unfailingly nearly two hundred and fifty times a day.
During the monsoon, when you could hear the rain and the wind mercilessly rattle windows, Shyam Sunder would stand shivering alone in his stall, performing his duty with the unwavering diligence of a soldier standing atop his post at the border. Someone lesser may have hastened the process, but Shyam Sunder was unmoved and unchanged; the city had failed to do what it had done with many others – it had failed to make him one of it’s own. The discipline in his daily routine had ensured that no cloth ever went missing, and not a single cloth had been misplaced. Each bundle went back to the same family, complete and finished, freshly pressed and neatly folded.
During the course of the day, Shyam Sunder entertained many visitors, however today; Shyam Sunder had a new visitor. Standing next his shop, on a bicycle was a young boy, staring at a girl who was lighting firecrackers across the road with the rest of her family.
Nabin was a young schoolboy, barely out of his teens, who lived with his grandparents in Dayanand colony. On most evenings, you could see Nabin riding his bicycle through the lanes of Ashok Nagar – often running an errand or two for his grandmother, aimlessly wandering around by himself most other times.
Nabin’s parents lived in Wazirpur, a village 50 miles north of Delhi, where they owned a farm. Nabin spent most of his childhood in Wazirpur, but moved to Mumbai early last year, to live with his grandparents so he could use his grandfather’s influence to attend a school that would better prepare him for life.
Nabin kept to himself, in school and at home, and in many ways, he was similar to Shyam Sunder – they were both outsiders who had not allowed Mumbai to change them as people. Content and satisfied in their own monotonies, the both of them had no greater ambition – they did not wish for more. Nabin had no interest in pursuing engineering, in fact for most parts; he had no interest in pursuing anything. Nabin had no special talents either, but he never let any of this ever bother him.
However, while Shyam Sunder found meaning in even the most menial jobs he performed through the day, Nabin had until now, found no meaning or purpose in life – not at home, nor in school. He was happy passively attending school in the morning, aimlessly riding his cycle around during the evenings.
On the eve of Diwali, Nabin removed his cycle from the parking garage. Had he been at home in Wazirpur, he would’ve been bursting firecrackers with his family, but today he was on his own. Nabin took he took his usual route through Ashok Nagar.
Nabin’s grandmother had warned Nabin against taking the cycle outside. Too many families will be bursting firecrackers outside their homes Nabin, she said, but Nabin wouldn’t listen to her. He didn’t want to sit at home alone with his grandmother today. Too old to hold an argument with her grandson, she relented.
Cycling down the streets of Ashok Nagar, Nabin saw that the streets were just like his grandmother had described them – families dressed in their best clothes were lighting chakras and fuljadis while remnants of Diwali bombs lay strewn on the streets. A few times Nabin had to stop his cycle and pause for families to light phatakas or wait for them launch rockets into the sky; once or twice, his reflexes were regularly tested by irresponsible chakras. Against the backdrop of all this light and colour in Dayanand Colony, Nabin stopped his bicycle outside the colony gate, and watched a large group of twenty to thirty people lighting firecrackers across the street from Shyam Sunder’s istri stall.
Through all the smoke that separated him from them, Nabin saw a girl he hadn’t seen before, with thick long hair, light bombs the others were too scared to light themselves. He hadn’t seen her in Ashok Nagar before. Once or twice, Nabin thought the dupatta she wore around her neck would catch fire – she was not as careful as she should’ve been with it, but nothing untoward happened for the few minutes that he stood watching her. Nabin followed her as she weaved in and out of the crowd, her bright red skirt following her footsteps, right up until the moment she looked at him. Standing across the street, he was caught off guard, and he sheepishly got on his bike and hurriedly turned quickly around. When he looked back a few seconds later, she was still looking at him, her eyes sharp and piercing, and Nabin turned around and rode faster that he had, through the smoke, the crowd and the firecrackers in Dayanand colony, until he reached home.
During the days that followed Diwali, Nabin roamed around Ashok Nagar, sometimes trying to catch another glimpse of her, his evenings suddenly full of promise. The first time he saw her again, he spotted her walking down the street that led to the apartment where he had seen on the eve of Diwali. She was with another girl, and Nabin, on his cycle, immediately looked away, lest he catch her eye. Seconds his curiosity got the better of him, and as he turned his head to look at her just before he crossed her and she looked back, her eyes as sharp as ever, but in that moment he knew that she had recognized him too.
Neeharika lived in the apartment that stood across the gate from Dayanand Colony, where Nabin had seen her during the eve of Diwali. She was a college student, who took the same 5pm BEST bus to come back home with her friend every day. After the first meeting, Nabin avoided the route for a few days, but slowly he mustered enough confidence to ride his cycle down the road that led from the bus stop to her apartment.
Riding his cycle, he would spot her from afar, first pretend not to notice her, and then attempt to catch her eye right seconds before he crossed her. Soon, this became daily practice and Nabin ensured that he left home at exactly 5.23pm, just in time to share 3 seconds of undivided attention with her every evening. He could swear that her gaze had grown kinder as the days passed by.
Six months after Diwali, Nabin wrote his final exams and packed his bags, ready to go back home. As he sat on the bed, he realized that it was very likely that he wasn’t going to come back to Dayanand Colony. He would do well in his exams, he knew and there were a few good engineering colleges around Wazirpur in the outskirts of Delhi. His parents would want him to stay at home after being separated from him for two years.
Nabin wondered if he should speak to her, maybe ask her for phone before he left. He had never approached a girl this way before, and he sat on his bed for hours contemplating, nervously biting his nails. At 5.23pm, he got onto his bicycle, but he had no plan in mind.
As he reached the entrance of Dayanand Colony, he paused next to Shyam Sunder’s istri stall. Dropping off a bundle of clothes that his grandmother had given him stall, he continued to cycle on the road where he had seen her everyday for the last 6 months. Breathing deeply now, he pedaled his cycle, his heart beating louder each second.
When he finally saw her, he pressed his brakes abruptly a few hundred meters away from her. He knew he had to do something, and he got off his bicycle on the other side of the road, but he panicked and his feet refused to move as she approached him. Suddenly, he felt a strong urge to tie his shoelaces, and he bent down crouched behind his cycle, and waited until she had walked past. Slowly, he turned around and stood there watching her back, his feet still glued to the road, until she saw turned left to enter her building. She hadn’t noticed him, crouched behind his bicycle on the other side of the road.
Nabin immediately got back onto his bicycle, but now there was nothing to be done now.
He rode back to the entrance of her building, stopping across the road where he had seen her first. Maybe if she knew that it was his last day, she would come to the balcony, but how would she know. Nabin parked his cycle and sat on the wooden bench across Shyam Sunder’s istri stall.
Maybe this was the end of his little love story, maybe this was how it meant to meet it’s end. He hadn’t even looked at her, during his last evening there.
Shyam Sunder snapped the young boy back into reality – the clothes were ironed, it would cost him a total of twenty rupees. Nabin put the clothes at the back of his bike and slowly dragged his cycle home.
Twenty minutes later, Nabin was back, standing at the entrance of the building again. In his hands, he held a folded red skirt. Nabin walked up the stairs, in slow anticipation, his eyes searching for flat number H – 12.
The istri wala had swapped grandmother’s green kurta with a bright red skirt, and Nabin had been promptly instructed by his grandmother to return the skirt to it’s rightful owner. Shyam Sunder directed given Nabin to go to flat number H12 in the building across his istri stall.
Gently Nabin knocked on the door, and she opened the door.
“Hi,” he blurted.
“The istriwala has replaced your skirt with my grandmother’s kurta. I wanted to return your skirt.”
There was minute’s silence as they looked at each other.
“Come in,” she said, her face turning red.
Downstairs, Shyam Sunder opened a new bundle of clothes, and turned each cloth inside out.
Sprinkling water on the new shirt, he laid it out on the table, using his hands to spread out the sleeves, and then the body, meticulously from top to bottom as if it were a necessary pre-requisite before bringing out the coal iron. The discipline in his daily routine had ensured that no cloth ever went missing, and not a single cloth had been misplaced. Each bundle went back to the same family, complete and finished, freshly pressed and neatly folded. The city would never make him one of it’s own.
– Adithya Narayanan