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The Lights Changed - Short story by Poile Sengupta

The Lights Changed – Short story by Poile Sengupta

I had meant it as a joke. A joke made up for a small ragged boy who sold newspapers at the Janpath crossing. Every time I cycled past he would run after me, holding out the English paper and screaming out the evening’s headlines in a mixture of Hindi and English words. This time, I stopped by the pavement and asked for the Hindi paper. His mouth fell open. “You mean you know Hindi?” he asked. “Of course,” I said as I paid him for the paper. “Why? What did you think?”

He paused. “But you look so… so angrez,” he said. “You mean you can even read Hindi?”

“Of course I can,” I said, this time a little impatiently. “I can speak, read and write Hindi. Hindi is one of the subjects I study in school.”

“Subjects?” he asked. How could I explain what a subject was to someone who had never been to school? “Well, it is something…” I began, but the lights changed, and the honking behind me grew a hundredfold, and I let myself be pushed along with the rest of the traffic.

Samir on Cycle

The next day he was there again, smiling at me and holding out a Hindi paper. “Bhaiyya,” he said, “aap ka akhbaar. Ab bathaaiye yeh subject kya cheez hai?” The English word sounded strange on his tongue. It sounded like its other meaning English – to be ruled by someone else.

“Oh, it’s just something to study,” I said. And then because the red light had come on, I asked him, “Have you ever been to school?”

“Never,” he answered. And he added proudly, “I began working when I was so high.” He measured himself against my cycle-seat. “First my mother used to come with me but now I can do it all alone.”

“Where is your mother now?” I asked, but then the lights changed and I was off. I heard him yell from somewhere behind me, “She’s in Meerut with…” The rest was drowned out.

“My name is Samir,” he said the next day. And very shyly he asked, “What’s yours?”

It was incredible. My bicycle wobbled. “My name is Samir too,” I said.

“What?” His eyes lit up.

“Yes” I grinned at him. “It’s another name for Hanuman, you know.”

“So now you are Samir ek and I’m Samir do,” he said triumphantly.

“Something like that,” I answered and then I held out my hand. “Haath milao, Samir do!”

His hand nested in mine like a little bird. I could still feel its warmth as I cycled away.

Newspaper Seller

The next day, he did not have his usual smile for me. “There is trouble in Meerut,” he said. “Many Muslims are being killed there in the riots.”

I looked at his headlines. Communal Riots, it blazed.

“But Samir…” I began.

“I’m a Muslim Samir,” he said in answer. “And all my people are in Meerut.” His eyes filled with tears and when I touched his shoulder, he would not look up.

He was not at the crossing the day after. Neither the day after nor ever again. And no newspaper, in English or Hindi, can tell me where my Samir do has gone.

Poile Sengupta [Edited by Githa Hariharan and Shama Futehally]

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