The sound of azan from the mosque nearby woke up Pratim. His body was tired from the extra load that he had to carry yesterday. But he knew that he didn’t have the luxury to sleep any longer. Pratim got up from the floor. He looked at the exhausted frame of his mother lying on the floor in another corner of the room. Pratim went outside to wash his face and attend to nature’s call. Gulping down some water from the tube-well, he went inside to get ready. He took out the only pair of second-hand running clothes that he had managed to buy from the cheap Khanna Market. They had cost him his weekly pay but he knew that they were a necessity. Then he took out his most prized possession – a pair of blue running shoes.
The street outside was still dark. His lane was darker than the rest of the town. The town municipality cared about the downtrodden only when the elections arrived. Until then the lanes didn’t even exist in their books. Pratim crossed two streets and then started running. Even the wee hours of the morning brought along heat and humidity. Barring a couple of street dogs, there was no other form of living creature visible on the road. Lewis Sir had told Pratim that he would be waiting on the beach by 5:30 am. Pratim couldn’t afford a watch. But he had learnt to adjust his daily timing to the morning azan. The beach was a 10km run from this area and Pratim had been covering this distance every single day for the past two and half months.
While running alone, Pratim always thought about his father Anukul Saha and their village Shyamlapur. They had owned a small tea shop near the village bus stand. His mother Radha also assisted in the shop whenever the crowd grew in numbers. The room adjacent to the shop was their residence. Pratim studied at the municipality school. He managed to just – about pass in all the subjects but had been marked as the best athlete that the village school had ever produced. By the age of twelve, he had already won all the sports awards in the district related to running. Life would have gone as usual until the last panchayat elections a year back.
News had been going around about the internal conflict in the ruling party of the village. Two different groups of supporters had multiple face-offs before the beginning of the last day of propaganda. Anukul’s tea shop was the preferred place for meeting and chatting because of its central location. A fight had broken out between the goons of the ruling party in the afternoon at his shop. This time they had come armed with knives and pistols. Anukul had tried preventing them from vandalising his only source of income. A knife went through his heart instead. Radha had rushed towards the direction of Pratim’s school to stop the boy from reaching the spot as it was time for him to return home. By evening, the police had declared the incidence as a freak accident.
After few weeks, Radha decided to re-open the tea shop in a bid to run the finances of the family. In a couple of days, she had realized her hapless situation. From obscene gestures to lewd remarks and indecent proposals, the tea shop had become a favorite spot for men lusting after a widow. Few days later, when one of the goons approached Radha threatening her of dire consequences lest she refused to sleep with him, she fled to Tajpur in East Midnapore. That was the only town she had heard about from Anukul. Her mother in law came from Tajpur and Anukul often recollected snippets of his childhood spent at his maternal grandparents’ house though nothing remained now. In a town where she knew no one, they spent many nights sleeping on the foot path. With very little savings, they could barely manage a meal everyday.
During one night of heavy rainfall, Pratim came down with fever after getting drenched for two consecutive days. With no food, dry clothes and medicines, Radha had pleaded with every by-passer for help but no one came to her rescue. She had carried her son burning with temperature to the local hospital only to be turned away. All she could do was cry and keep praying. Till date Pratim wasn’t sure which God answered her mother’s prayers but an old muslim cleric had spotted the wailing woman sitting beside the body of a shivering child. He brought them to his house. Khurshid uncle, as Pratim addressed him was Pratim’s version of God. He paid for Pratim’s treatment, ensured that the mother ans son duo had food and clothes and eventually got Radha a job as a cook while they continued staying at his house. He home-schooled Pratim while Radha went around cooking and working as a house-hold help in five houses gradually.
In a few months time, Radha had saved a little to afford a small tiny room on rent in the nearby slum. She didn’t want further favors from the kind old man who had been so accommodating and helpful. Khurshid Ali Khan agreed to let them leave only on the condition that Pratim would still be meeting him once a day regularly for studies. As Pratim observed the amount of workload that Radha took upon herself, he decided to start working as well to lend her a helping hand. The local bus stand barely had any porters though the area was a preferred choice for tourists in Bengal. The coastal town had maximum influx of tourists during monsoons when the sea was at its wild best. His thirteen year frame could hardly bear the weight of heavy suitcases and bags yet he kept continuing for the sake of his mother. With his father dead, she was all that he had now.
Two months into the job, Pratim had come across Lewis D’Souza at the bus stand. He had arrived from Kolkata to inspect the Government allotted space for his sports academy. Tajpur was barely 200 kms from Kolkata and an ideal spot for his residential sports academy. Lewis was a retired army man who had last worked with the Sports authority of India. Pratim had found him to be warm and compassionate. He had helped Lewis find a hotel accommodation. When Lewis asked Pratim to accompany him the next day to the allocated plot, Pratim agreed. He had stopped visiting Khurshid long back for studies. These days he barely had any energy left for studies after carrying loads of luggage throughout the day.
The next few days went about with Lewis completing the Government related formalities for the academy while Pratim continued his job. A week later, Pratim took him to the sea beach after Lewis had come to the bus stand searching for him. With increase in temperature, the tourist flow had reduced. Lewis was not the kind of man who enjoyed nature or its serenity. Instead he preferred to take a brisk walk on the beach. It had been months that Pratim had last run. He had forgotten about his sportsman abilities. Seeing Lewis walk, he decided to run on the beach. He had lost himself in the sea breeze and didn’t know how far he had come or how long he had been running when he noticed Lewis smiling at him while walking towards him.
The next few days Lewis observed Pratim as he ran on the beach. He made up for the working hours that Pratim lost while focussing on his run by buying him household staples. After a week, Lewis came up with a proposal for Pratim. In three months, the state conducted sports competition was about to begin. Lewis wanted Pratim to participate in the competition in both the 5k and 10 k running categories. He would pay the entry fees as long as Pratim trained under him for these three months. All he wanted in return was an assurance that Pratim would give his best in becoming the first winner from his sports academy. Knowing that Pratim could not afford the mandatory dietary maintenance required during this period, he had decided to extend financial help in the form of scholarship towards Pratim. Pratim had promised to think about it.
As Pratim discussed the offer with Radha that night, he had realized that he couldn’t afford to stop working as a porter. Radha was forced to quit two household help jobs as she was detected with severe breathing problem and instructed by the doctor not to carry out any heavy work. The money as a cook from other three houses wasn’t sufficient to run the family and pay the rent.
Next morning, Pratim entered into an agreement with Lewis. Lewis could sponsor this food and clothes but Pratim would take care of his family expenses by himself. He was to spend the entire morning training with Lewis. After that he could resume his work as a porter. He would again meet Lewis for training in the evening. As Pratim reached the beach this morning, he saw Lewis jogging from a distance. Pratim sat down on the sand while untying the lace of his faded blue canvas shoes. Lewis Sir had offered to buy him a pair of sneakers but he had politely declined.
After Pratim had won the first prize in three categories of sprint – 100, 200 and 500 metres in the last race that he ran for his school, his father had visited the district town to buy him a pair of running shoes from Bata. The boy had been running barefoot or in slippers until then. While leaving their village overnight, Radha had managed to pack only a pair of clothes and money while Pratim had carefully hidden the pair of shoes in his school bag. The faded pair reminded him of his father and his strong belief in Pratim’s dreams. He always felt a sense of power whenever he put the shoes on. It was as if his father was present in person to cheer for him.
Pratim took off the shoes and placed them neatly on the beach. He pushed them a little away at a safe distance from the water before turning to walk towards his mentor. To him they were the reason of his existence, the memories of his father’s love and the key towards fulfilling his dreams of a better future. A future where his mother needn’t have to work in different houses to make both ends meet and he could become a successful athlete. He had kept the wishes hidden safely in the folds of his shoes while the outside world kept attempting to snatch them away as the waves of the sea. But he and his pair of shoes had turned out to be similar survivors of tough times .
This post is the third entry to the Write Tribe festival of words (24-30 Jun 2018) #write bravely. You can read the first two posts here.