“Poor Boy” a short story :
As he was searching for his jeans, he noticed his black shirt folded neatly and kept on one side of the cupboard. Though he had thought of wearing something else for the birthday party since the black shirt was his favorite, he changed his mind. And he looked good in them too. But of course, that was beside the point. As he entered the house, he observed that it wore a very festive look. The house was well lit with 3, 40W bulbs; yes the room was quite well lit for standards back in the late 80s.
He was that quiet observant boy who never spoke until was absolutely necessary or when he felt the overpowering desire to share his thoughts.
The birthday boy wore a sheepish look, clearly quite uncomfortable in those shiny muddy colored pants and a shirt which had a brown and green colored leafy print. Quite hideous for any occasion by the current standards, but back then in the late 80s this was the style. But with the conical birthday cap perched on top of the head in size, a tad too small and the string digging into his chin, the boy clearly looked quite flustered.
With the gift, wrapped in the shiny golden wrapping paper, John saw the birthday boy, his class friend, all restless and worked up. And, he so wanted to burst out laughing at the irony. On his own birthday, the poor boy was like this, all buttoned up to the chin, in that hot and humid climate. While all the other dressed up the way they wanted and were running around, he stood there as if he was glued to the spot. But John was quick to realize that this was neither the place nor the occasion to be the way he wanted to.
Transfixed with a sad smile on this face and eyes had a faraway look, Madan, the birthday boy wanted to leave everything and play like all his other friends were doing. But the mother’s stooge that he was, he dare not move. John hugged him and wished him a very happy birthday. Though he wanted to join all the fun he did not want to leave the poor boy alone, standing like a half-smiling stranger at his own birthday party.
From the kitchen, a constant stream of vessel noises and women giggling was wafting back and forth, in between the music player straining cheap Hindi songs which would vaguely remind you of dabbawallas (a roadside eatery in India) or panwallas (local Indian cigarette shops).
John knew that the boy’s mother had called her friends too and all had assembled in the kitchen for the latest gossip session and to compare notes, he smiled inwardly. How he hated these small talks. He deliberately stayed away from all of this because he never wanted to talk about people behind their backs, ridiculing them, making fun of them, and criticizing them when they were unaware of what actually happened. At such a young age of 10, he was a lot wiser for boys of his age.
Moreover, now there was practically no one who could even do that so to speak…
As Madan’s mother was arranging the candles on the birthday cake, she nudged her husband to help her and the boy as well and not just stand there smiling foolishly. As a well-trained dog on cue, he understood the meaning of her ‘not so discreet nudge’ and quickly did what he was nudged for.
Meanwhile, his father had called all the kids inside, signaling them with his waving hands that it was time for them to be inside. She was very proud of her boy; her firstborn, fair, well-fed (overfed in fact). She wanted to show off him to the world as she held him close to her. However, John was a special case. She caught hold of him and made him stand beside her.
She held him by the shoulders willing him not to move away from her. While the kids were busy singing the customary “happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Madan”, his mother was slyly eyeing John. She kept running her hands through his hair. Here was a boy who she wished was hers, dark with a lithe body, chiseled features, and a head full of hair. Madan’s mother did not have much hair left as is the case with many women who complain of thinning hair and other related problems post-childbirth or as they advance towards their mid-thirties.
Her problem thus became her fixation. She was obsessed with people with a head full of hair. John was one such boy with straight shiny hair which was neatly trimmed and looked so good on him.
Once the cake cutting task was over, the children were made to sit beside each other to eat and talk amongst their friends. She was careful though and did not let John sit with her son. She instead led him to the sofa where her friends were sitting and asked the boy to sit and have his cake and chips. With that, she went inside the kitchen to bring some more of the food for the little kids
Little did she realize that the young boy could hear almost all of what she spoke to her friends? Her constant reference to him as the ‘unfortunate soul’ who was growing up without love and care. “Oh! The ‘poor boy’ putting up a brave front in front of the world but does not have anyone to look after him with all the love and care in this world. It is such a pity that he only has his father to take care of him and his sister”.
John inwardly seethed with anger. He hated those words. Words full of pity, full of sarcasm, words meant to ridicule him for his condition. It was something that he did not have control of. What transpired on that fateful night was something that a boy of mere 7-8 years could never have grasped in terms of the enormity of the situation but nonetheless could have never wanted it as well. He lost the woman, he loved the most. The woman who had breathed life into him.
Nobody realized the pain that a mere loose talk was caused by the boy. John could never fully comprehend the situation. Why was he labeled as the ‘poor boy’? With clothes better than what his friend wore, with his relatives both from his father and his mothers’ side fulfilling all his wishes how and why was he the ‘poor boy’? Only because he didn’t have a…?
For John, the bravest thing that he could do was to live his life in whatever little way he understood the word called ‘life’. For a child who was forever lovingly fed by his mother as a child and even as he grew up, the loss of his greatest anchor meant to pick up the shreds of life and continue walking, never to give up. And that included easting food on his own, sitting along on the dining table, once he was back from school without a single tantrum or a tear. Of course, he wanted her to be back in his life but in no way was he a boy who required a fake motherly affection from people around him, especially when they did not really mean it.
For now, the bravest thing that he did was to get up and leave. He went to Madan, smiled warmly at him, and told him that he was leaving as it was getting dark and he also had his homework to do. It wasn’t his fault if his mother loved gossip and did not care for other’s feelings. As he walked out of the house, he realized that now is the time for him to check who had his back and for how long.
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