The destiny of man is in his own soul.
“Ca ca carrot…”He stammered his eyes dull, he gazed at me with uncertainty. I was taken aback. A little uneasy, I stared at him as I stood at that corner bhaaji – vegetable stall. The stall stood right next to Motu Uncle’s small house, which he seemed to be managing today.
“Half Kg ma’am or is it one Kg of carrots? They seem quite fresh, perfect for Gajar Halwa! Will that do?” I heard a cheerful voice from behind me question, I was startled by her. I had not noticed her before. She seemed just like me, her attire and her style of speaking. She seemed just like another customer at the stall. Yet she was talking on behalf of Motu uncle.
Yes, half Kg. HALF KILOGRAM please,” I repeated to him slowly, looking back at her hesitantly.
“What’s wrong with him? And who are you?” I asked her.
The man seemed a shadow of his former self! I could barely recognize him. I tried to take it all in – the tiny stall, his clean yet disheveled clothes, his shrunk figure and above all his empty gaze. “He was always so full of life! Such a Jolly fun man! I just can’t believe this. I happened to be passing by and thought about visiting him, giving him a surprise. And I am the one surprised and not a pleasant one at that…” I rambled.
“I did not even know that he runs this stall now. What happened to his rickshaw? Is this your stall?” I asked her.
“Oh so you know him too! You know him from before?” She gave me a long stare squinting her eyes slightly, ignoring all my queries.
“Of course, Motu Uncle is my rickshaw-Walla kaka.”
Suddenly she broke into a smile. “Bina, isn’t that you? Battery Bina? I almost did not recognize you without your battery oops glasses!”
I paused and then rushed to hug her.
“Kalpana? Kinetic Kalpana ?Is it really you? It’s been so long! Look at you!”
“Eat more ca ca carrot,” We heard him say. And we both turned to look at him, half smiling, remembering those days long gone by…
“Oye Battery – how did you get chasama – glasses? Eat more Carrot! Bas and bye-bye chasama.” Motu Uncle had teased me, when he had first seen me with that chasama. I had been in fifth grade then, the first one in our rickshaw rewarded with less than 20/20 vision. And he had continued teasing me all through those years, lecturing me about my eyes and carrots.
“You know whoever gets most marks in our rickshaw, gets Peru– Guava. And Battery Bina it is! She is our rickshaw sitara yet again!” He always announced with great gusto! And I was all smiles! No wonder I was unaffected by the bullies in school and later in college too – Motu uncle had prepared me totally! Yes he definitely played a big hand in preparing me to face those later years too. And he prepared so many others, all of us who travelled by Motu Uncle’s rickshaw sure were most lucky.
“Kinetic Kalpana did it again! Great goal! Milind don’t you dare boss over her now!” He threatened Milind, my rickshaw-mate with a grin.
And it was the same Motu uncle who wiped Milind’s tears when his father had to fly to England for one whole year.
That was our Motu uncle, he was our guide and our guardian all rolled in one. And much more! Always full of life, he was our tormentor yet our savior. I practically grew up in his auto rickshaw, as did most of the other kids – literally and figuratively. First I was amongst the little ones sitting at the back in the ‘balcony’ seat – behind all the kids where customers usually put their luggage, that’s when I was in nursery. And over the years I moved from the back to the front. Eventually I was the tai – big sister sitting on the main seat with some little kid on my lap travelling to school. I probably had more fun in his rickshaw, than in school. I probably learnt more in that yellow and black auto rickshaw than in school! What a ride we had back then!
Come hail or sunshine, Motu uncle was always there. He would pick us from school and leave us home every day during those school years. He was there when our parent’s could not make it for that one important hockey match, cheering us on. Of course we had to be prepared for all the shouting for all those fouls we had made during the match, later, on the ride back home. He was our monitor scolding us for unpolished shoes or missing name tags. And he was there when that fat kid bullied us and ate our Tiffin. Of course he was not there when we were late for school, third time in a row. We sure had to follow the clock to be in his rickshaw!
He was our navigator and our cheer leader. Though uneducated himself he encouraged us to excel, to give our best at school. He rewarded us and teased us mercilessly. He helped build us for those life’s little battles, for those big challenges. And all with a dance and smile, only fun and laughter could enter his rickshaw, gloom left behind. In life we probably cross paths with so many. Yet there are but a handful, besides family, who remain in our hearts forever. This is particularly true during those budding years. Yes we do remember our best pals and think about that one champ or that little mousy girl in school who is now a CEO. Yet most adults just come and go, most teachers even. But Motu uncle always remained with me, in my heart, forever.
But life happened. I got busy as did my other friends, I am sure. We all moved on, losing touch somewhere along the way as we progressed from student hood to parenthood. I had changed Cities, Countries even. Those years just slipped away. College, University, from a working girl I was soon a working mom. Those years had flown by in a blink. During the early years I was in touch with him and my rickshaw buddies mostly thanks to his family. We were always welcome to their one-room house especially on the first day of the Ganpati festival. Motu uncle himself served us the prasad – those mouth watering modaks. And he always had some tricks up his sleeves. Once our rickshaw buddy Shubham had even eaten eleven Modaks at a stretch on a bet! My mouth always longed for those yummy modaks every Ganpati festival, during those distant years. And each time I saw a little one enter her rickshaw with a skip; my heart would skip a beat. And whenever my little champ grinned back at me from his yellow school bus window, those days and those memories flooded back to me. And I couldn’t help but smile thinking of those wonder years, those wonder rides.
“Ca ca Carrot, ” I heard him stammer. His familiar yet distant voice brought me back to reality, brought me back to today.
I was in Pune only for a Short visit from California, as always. But this time I had made it a point to visit him. Bracing for yet another scolding for all those missed years and yearning for his blessings, I had come armed with chocolates. I had almost not come even today. Maybe I should have not come even today, I thought. My hopes were all shattered. I could not bear see our Motu Uncle in this state. This was not our Motu uncle, surely.
“Carrot, eyes good, carrot good!” He gave a toothless grin to a five year old passing by. And to the lad’s amazement Motu uncle juggled two carrots.
“Good carrots!” giggled the little kid, tugging at his mother’s hand, urging her to the stall.
Kalpana and I stepped back a bit to make way for the duo. And my heart lightened a little as the boy’s eyes lit up when Motu Uncle made a potato mountain just for him.
“What’s wrong with Motu Uncle? What happened? I don’t think he recognizes me at all. He is so different.” I turned back to Kalpana.
“Motu uncle had an accident years ago. I guess you are visiting after a long time Bina?” I nodded in response.
“He was hit on his head and…” She paused, bending to hand back a lemon which had rolled from the little kid’s hands as he had tried to juggle it just like Motu Uncle.
“They went through a lot, his family…” she continued. I stared back gloomily.
“Around three years ago, some of us and many of his friends from the Rickshaw panchayat we all chipped in. We all helped setup this vegetable stall. Mostly his wife is here and he just helps her. He is okay, just does not recall much and…”
I swallowed hard and turned my back. I could not help it.
“He has given us so much, hasn’t he Bina? In a way he was a father figure to us all. And you know what…” She continued with a twinkle “Motu Uncle has not changed a bit! Really!” I couldn’t help but gasp at those words. And my face surely betrayed my feelings.
“He has grayed a lot of course. Maybe he’s lost some weight and a little more. But look at him, isn’t he still a hero, the hero?” She continued ignoring my expression.
“ He is not bed ridden. He is not a vegetable but sells them instead. He is still a Champion especially all the little champs’ Champion! Just look! Just look at him and at that kid’s smile…”
I turned on her insistence. And as I turned I heard the young lad clapping. He surely seemed to be having a great time with the vegetables thanks to Motu uncle, surely enjoying them for once! Pointing at his mother’s fingers and back at the bhendi – lady finger, he was all smiles. Yes, Kalpana did not have to say more. The child’s radiant squeals and the loving expression on his mother’s face said it all. I could not help but nod in agreement, tears filled my eyes. Not sad tears, but happy tears. And as I gazed behind them at the vegetables – I was mesmerized by Motu Uncle’s antics with them. Motu uncle had made little Smiley faces using the vegetables. Tomato eyes, Carrot noses and cucumber mouths were all smiling back at me, cheering me up even winking at me! Yes Motu Uncle was still the same – still our inspiration, still our very much our Motivator.