Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Chottu: A dedication

Navtej Sarna

ITS getting to be late morning. The dhaba wears a clean, washed and vacant look. The brass utensils shine and there is a smell of fresh vegetables in the air. The fires are just beginning to burn. Outside, the hill bazaar is busting with reassuring activity. There is the bright sun, the freshness of fruit and the cobbled street.

Chottu knows that I want breakfast. He knows it but won't be bothered. This is his leisure hour before the rush for lunch. And I do not have the heart to disturb him.

He is standing on a tin placed on a chair and peering closely into a smudged mirror. His freshly scrubbed face glistens and the oil lies thick on his hair. His vest and pyjamas are clean. He peers closer and raises his arm. His short forearm is unnaturally muscled. He holds the comb steady over the oily hair for a tense moment an then, with a deft gesture, parts it.

More deft pats and jabs to the side of his head and his short body twists so that no possible angle escapes the mirror. And Chottu, I wonder who stares back at you from that smudged mirror. Some confident lover of the silver screen, perhaps. Or a man born for riches, success and the lights. But definitely not the boy who works day and night in a busy "dhaba" in a little mountain town standing on so sharp a ridge that it can cut the twilight in two.

A tuneless whistle floats down from the face which should have cracked the mirror with its tense concentration.

The whistle transports me to various "dhabas", canteens and tea stalls. To "dhabas" on the highways where intellectual university students ate with earthy truck drivers and discovered the equality of man in their hunger. To canteens behind libraries where the tea formed pools on wooden tables and the winter hung low in a chill fog outside the windows. To tea stalls where endless upturned cups lay on the green grass like so many milestones of conversations gone by.

And in each image there flits a Chottu. The ubiquitous small boy with the loose shirt which is patched on the shoulder and almost covers his knees. The face with the bright impish smile and the sudden surly look. The stubborn child with his own mannerisms with which you learnt to put up. The disdainful waiter who will not be ordered but must be cajoled and requested. The sprite who dispenses teacups with the graciousness of kings. The proud prince in disguise who never asks for a tip and cannot be obsequious if you leave one.

A tuneless whistle very close to me wakes me from my reverie. Chottu of the mirror is cleaning my already clean table vigorously. That is his way of asking for my order. He bears me out without looking at ma and turns away. The back of his vest was printed during the International Year of the Child. It informs me that he is a happy child.