Graphite-stained fingers caressing one of the last three beedis, Manoj waits. Sitting on the parapet across the gates of the society complex, he waits; without tapping his feet, flicking his fingers, or even blinking. Staring into the gate, through which Maa enters every morning, clean, fixed up, to cook meals for the families who can afford cooked meals every day.
Rationing the smokes through the month, the week and the day, Manoj knows he cannot afford a beedi so early in the morning. They will sit and sway in his second-hand shirt pocket, the last one waiting till he walks to CST station. The last one will simmer on his lips as he waits with recycled paper and pencils, vending out portrait sketches to couples heading towards Marine Drive. The sketched paper will first be fondled with care, hands pressed into each other, doubly assured about love, and then forgotten into the depths of handbags by the time the couple is done with each other’s attention and each returns to a different roof, still alone despite the assurance.
Manoj too had held hands, made promises. He knew he was lying even when he had promised Sujata that artists earn enough for two. Their love was cliched, and hence never enough to inspire him. Growing up together in a chawl, families who are friends and accept that they cannot change the future, would have made for a happy marriage, but Manoj needed to sketch. He could not afford colours yet, and so painting was a dream for the next life.
In this life, he wanted to capture the flight of the birds, the patience of the trees with his Nataraj pencils, till they were reduced to stubs shorter than the beedis in his pocket. Sujata could not wait, actually it was her parents who did not believe in sketches when the stove is empty and stomachs sizzle with hunger. Sujata was married last year. He looked away when she passed through the society gates. He stared at others, Maa coming and going twice a day, Mr Mehta and his wife on the backseat of their Ertiga. He could be the one driving it, every morning, in sharp uniform, crisp like fresh drawing paper. He had been offered the job on various occasions.
Now, after watching him wait like this, even Mr Mehta would stop. He would wait, let Maa see that he was not ungrateful. Just helpless. When Maa came out, he looked at her, and then at the beggar sitting a few feet away. She is Maa, she knows his gaze. At least Manoj is not begging. An artist’s self-respect is not being bartered. There is still hope, a possibility. Maa blinks, walks away, home because there is work to be done.
Manoj puts the beedi back with the other two. Gets up from the parapet, goes to the beggar and stands before him. The other raises his bowl expectantly. Manoj pats the three beedis in his shirt pocket for assurance and begins the walk.