Chhotu... nothing usual about this name... At an average, those living in Northern India come across atleast one Chhotu in their lives. And the most common ones are those who work on apna nukkad ka chai shops.
My first meeting with Chhotu was in 1999. It was winters (December to be precise) and i had just started off as a writer for one of the biggest national dailies. Fresh from Delhi and just a few months out of college, life for me had a different perspective.
My pro-active outlook, courtesy my initiation to the socialist world (thanks to my Alma mater Gargi College and some friends from JNU) made me always stand up for the rights of such "Chhotus", considering them to be the children of lesser God. That I still stand up for rights is a different story altogether.
Okay, so coming back to Chhotu. This is how he looked. About 12 years of age, short, stout. Dark complexion, completely tanned. A bright smile with teeth shining like the Page 3 aunties new diamond neckpiece. Wearing a torn pants (which obviously belonged to someone else since it went much below his toes and he had folded it to hold it in place) and a baniyan, he always kept two pieces of cloth in his hands, alongwith the chheeka (a six-cup holder, common for all roadside chaiwalas) whenever he came to serve us tea in our office. He was the chaiwala boy, working 24X7 at the Bhargava tea stall situated at Rana Pratap Marg.
Since he loved the atmosphere of a newspaper and desired to be a famous 'lipoter' (that's how he pronounced reporter) someday, he was a regular to our office. There was something about his smile that attracted you to him instantly. Even if you did not wish to have tea, his sweet "didi le lo na, adrak ilachi maar ke banayi hai, ekdum feeresh", flashing his pearlies, made you reach for that glass of the divine syrup.
Everyday, while leaving at office at 5.30 p.m., I, alongwith a few collegues made it a point to have our last cuppa of the day at Bhargava's. And if Chhotu was around, we made it a point to ask the stall owner to send him to serve us. Standing outside the shop, under a tree, we find out an opportunity to sneak some moments from his 'oh-so-busy' schedule and talk about him.
His real name was Rajkumar and he belonged to Hardoi. A few years ago, he had come to Lucknow alongwith his Chacha (paternal uncle) in search of work so that he could support his poor family. He had studied till class II and could join alphabets to form words. Rest all about him was very cliched.
But what was interesting about him was his reason to become a "lipoter". "Hamare gaon mein ek lipoter hai didi. DM ho ya police, sab uske aage chhup rehte hain. Kuchh nahin karta, par har mahine ghar mein anaaj aa jaata hai..." In his life of 12 years, Chhotu had been initiated to the negative side of journalism. The real picture was far away from him.
I always liked his inquisitiveness which he showed when I came back to office every afternoon to file my report. "Didi, aaj kis Policewale se mili aap?", "Arre didi, aaj kis police wale ko hadka diya aapne?"... It was difficult for me to make him understand that I was a culture reporter, covering plays and music festivals, and that cops and crime were out of my domain. However, since he barely interacted with the crime reporters, he had no clue who the actual "criminals" were.
Slowly, Chhotu became the centre of attraction for all the girl gang in office. One day, he asked a senior colleague of mine, "Didi, ye hepy birlday kya hota hai?". We all laughed at his innocence, but told him that the day when we are born is celebrated as one's birthday. While we were still smiling, i suddenly saw two tiny droplets rolling down his bright eyes.
All our laughs just vanished. "Kya hua Chhotu?"....
"Didi, mera birlday toh koi manata hi nahin... main paida nahin hua tha kya?"
His question may have sounded simple, but deep inside, it clearly reflected the two spheres that have been there since time immortal - the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor and the urban and the rural. In one simple question, Chhotu had not just questioned the economical differences that have risen across the length and breadth of India, but also, the lifestyles that still reflected the disparity.
We all decided that after two days, we would be celebrating Chhotu's birthday. A plan was churned out, and together we all managed to woo Chhotu's employer to give him a day off. We gifted him two shampoo sachets to have a bath (although he insisted that he bathed and brushed his teeth everyday), a new striped shirt and a pair of denim shorts and even got him a black belt. The neighbourhood hajjam (the hairdresser whose salon is the tree with a mirror and a chair in front of it) was all the more happy to give him a new haircut, complete with the spikes in front (they had just come in fashion and Chhotu loved it) free of cost, setting it with gel.
We got a simple cake from nearby bakery, some muffins and patties for Chhotu. In the afternoon, we assembled at the garage of our office, where a small cake-cutting ceremony was held. The entire girl gang, along with some other colleagues, joined Chhotu's first ever birthday party.
That day, his pearlies flashed even brighter. His round cheeks glowed with joy. Some senior colleagues even gave him some money (a Rs 10 note and some, even Rs 50) which he neatly folded and kept inside his pocket. Not wanting to share any of his gifts including the muffins, he was quick to stuff two at a time to finish them all, something which made us all laugh. Giving us all a quick hug, Chhotu smiled and said, "Thankoo didi... Aap log bahut achchi hain.." We went home with a smile that day.
After a month, I changed jobs and shifted to another organisation. No longer did I get an opportunity to meet Chhotu. At times, when I did get an opportunity to go to the old area, I tried to look for him but was told that he has left this shop. Slowly, Chhotu vanished from my memory as time took its charge and also, the charge of my memories.
It was the winters of 2008. I was heading back to office (this was my third organisation in Lucknow) when suddenly, I alongwith a friend thought of making a stopover at a famous chaiwala near Mayfair cinema hall. We ordered 1 X 2 tea and bun-makkhan (this outlet serves one of the best combo in the city), standing next to our scootys. A young man, 20 something, lean but with a round face, came to us with our order.
There was something familiar about him. The pearlies... perhaps. The bright shining eyes... maybe.
Suddenly, before I could realise, he bowed down to touch my feet.
I was shocked. Realising that my reaction would have caused trouble for him, he was quick to say, "Didi, main Chhotu... Bhargav tea stall wala. Pehchaana...!!!"
My brain flashbacked to 1999. Within a few minutes, I could recall him. I smiled. "Arre... tum? Ab kahan ho Chhotu... kya kar rahe ho...??"
He quickly informed me, "Didi, main yahan kaam karta hun. Paisa theek milta hai. Open school se Xth ka exam bhi de raha hun."
I was happy. Finally, Chhotu was finding his foothold. He was trying to fulfil his dreams and perhaps, had even grownup to the harsh realities of life.
But it was his quick last sentence which sums up this entire story. "Didi, main ab apna birthday bhi manata hun doston ke saath. Har saal. Apni kamai se..."
Having found financial independence, Chhotu, in his own way, had moved to the other side of the sphere. From the have-nots, to the haves.
till next.... have fun and take care...