This morning, I met Shakthivel.
A chirpy young boy who should have been at home,readying himself for a day at college or some special class which the kids of today seem to attend in scores.
But instead, he was waiting patiently outside Chennai's Central Railway Station at the crack of dawn.He couldn't have been a day over 16...Well scrubbed and neatly turned out too...No morning breath about him...Nor the stench of stale hooch.
His appearance and an air of timid innocence distinguished him from the rest of the brash, uncouth porter brigade.
As I alighted from the cab with my strolley and my bursting-at-its-seams laptop bag, he approached me diffidently, offering to put me on my train. The child charmed me.
And I would have handed over my luggage without a second thought, if it hadn't been for my uptight conscience which angrily berated me for considering child labour.
As I debated the point with the voices in my head, the lad looked pleadingly at me.
" But you are just a child" I protested to him " You should be in school studying...Not spending your time here carrying loads"
" Madam, I have no father. My mother struggles to make ends meet by working in 3 houses. I have a sister and a brother, both younger to me. The little I earn helps. Studies is a luxury for me now. If everyone thought like you Madam, my siblings and I would starve at the end of each month"
His words touched my heart.
Gagging my protesting conscience, I asked him to name his price with no intentions what so ever of haggling.
But, a mere 40 rupees was all that he asked for.
" Only Rs. 40? Are you sure? "
" Yes Madam. I do not cheat. You have just one bag which you want me to roll instead of carrying on my head. And you want to carry your laptop bag. This is no work at all. How can I ask you for more?"
For once, I had no answer.
To ask him to raise his price just because he seemed a child would offend his dignity.
And so, I nodded mutely and we set off at a leisurely pace.
As we entered the station, I half-expected Shaktivel to sidestep the metal beepers as most porters do. But, much to my surprise, he carefully rolled my case to a baggage screening machine in a dark corner and instructed me to join the queue at the beeper.
It must have been the look of surprise on my face, because all through the remainder of our journey to the train, Shakthivel kept up a steady stream of chatter about the need for porters' participation in securing their respective railway stations.
"This is where we earn our living. We earn our bread and butter here. It is our duty also to take care of the station and protect it. It is not enough that police has put machines to scan bags and check people. We must also help them by ensuring that each and every load we carry is scanned. Even if the passenger is not interested"
And then with a crest-fallen face, he continued "But what to do Madam? Not all porters think like that. They want to pack as many loads as possible into their day and do not bother about scanning. They think it is a waste of time...But my friends and I are very particular about it" He concluded on a more resolute note.
Our interlude should have ended here, because we had, by then, reached the platform.
However, the train was late and as we stood on the platform waiting, Shaktivel gingerly picked my laptop bag and then turned to reproach me "Madam, this is heavy...you should have let me carry it..."
I could barely suppress my smile "Its OK. I carry it to work every day and am used to its weight...Will you have some coffee?"
A shy smile wreathed his brown face as he quickly shook his head.
Again, the awkward smile and bob of his head.
" Milk?.."" No Madam, you have..."
" Well, I cannot have coffee if you refuse to keep me company, so what will you have?"
The lad stared down at his feet in obvious confusion, probably wondering what to make of the eccentric lady." If you do not tell me what you want, then you will have to drink what I get you...So isn't it better that you tell me what you like? .."
" Madam...tea...Shall I go bring?"
" No, you watch my bags...I will go get it"Minutes later, we stood beside each other, companionably sipping our cuppas. I ripped open a packet of cream biscuits and proffered it to him. For a few moments, he hesitated, unwilling to help himself before Madam had done so.
But hunger or perhaps the fear of offending the 'pythiakari'* Madam overcame his inhibitions.
As he self-consciously bit into one, I slipped one out for myself and thrust the packet back into his hand. The lad protested feebly but upon my insistence that he retain it, Shakthivel carefully tucked it away inside his pocket. " For my brother and sister, Madam...They will enjoy it too" he offered by way of explanation.
For the second time this morning, the boy touched my heart.
His generosity overwhelmed me.
But before I could say anything, the train chugged in.
As Shakthivel went about stacking my bags safely, I rooted about in my cluttered purse for the promised 40 rupees. Despite my rooting, all I could find were notes of 100 & a few Mars bars.
As I looked up to explain that I was short of change, I realised that Shakthivel had vanished.
A quick glance around the compartment found him helping a frail old man hoist a rather large carton on to the rack above....And he returned back with a broad smile, without as much as having demanded a penny for his efforts.
I mutely handed over a 100 along with all the Mars bars in my bag.
" This is your boney**, isn't it?" I enquired to the round eyed boy who could only nod in amazement "Well, I don't have change and the chocolates are for your siblings..Now don't argue with me about the money.."
He left, shaking his head in disbelief.
As the train pulled out of the station, greed reared her angry head " You gave away all our Mars bars??? Are you stark raving crazy?? Now what do we eat when we need our serotonin fix???"
" She did well...We did not need the Mars bars..Just think how happy the kids will be...And besides, where is your Christmas spirit?..After all, it is a time for giving...." retorted my conscience
As the two chided each other, my thoughts went back to the humble porter boy who,despite his limitations and troubles, went about his daily life making the world a warmer, safer place. If only there were more like him...
For a brief moment, I felt a warm glow within as I recalled the smile of happiness which lit his face as he put away the biscuits and chocolates.Yes, I had done well indeed...
*Pythiakari = Mad [ Tamil]
**Boney = The first remuneration of the day which is deemed to be auspicious. It is believed that a good boney will ensure that the day would be profitable and vice versa. The term is popularly used by small commercial establishments and locals who offer services like cabs, porterage, etc.