A bright red cap, white kameez salwar and droopy moustache distinguished the toy seller from his comrades. They sold clothes for babies, street food, chai and menial objects outside the maternity hospital gates. The day went by watching people going about their businesses; some occasionally buying his own ware, cheap plastic toys. His birth name had been Ghulam Muhammad but due to the contractile nature of the common Kashmiri mind, it had been shortened to Gula. At first he was embarrassed about his name but grew accustomed to it.
Gula was an eccentric poet choosing ‘Shadab’ as his pen name. His poetry mostly involved human behavior because he spent all his days sitting under the shade of the mulberry tree that grew at the corner of the footpath, watching people move about, as he peddled his ware of cheap plastic toys in a droning remorseless voice. They seldom paid heed to his call and purchased a toy, mostly a gun or a kitchen utensil set, due to the nagging of their children. In this hullabaloo of life, he understood human behavior in its purest form. People revealed their true colors in their naturalistic aura. Attention suppressed the mind’s inner urges.
He witnessed angry customers shouting and swearing at him for selling them low quality stuff, hijab-clad ladies softly asking for a doctor-set, elderly women wearing colorful pherans, buying dolls and toy soldiers every day. With such vivid experiences involving humans, Gula had become a pseudo-expert with people. One look at a person’s face and Gula would know whether the person was angry or calm, timid or vocal, shy or loud-mouthed. He had progressed even further, so much so that he could even determine a person’s occupation by their words.
Regardless, one afternoon Gula was sipping a cup of noon chai with Amlal, the tea vendor next to him when a small child came to him holding a twenty-rupee note. The child was wearing a pheran and was looking like a ragamuffin. He tried to speak but being at a loss of words timidly pointed towards a toy gun. Gula understood the child’s thought but he found himself unable to tell the child that the twenty rupees he had weren’t enough and that the gun cost fifty rupees.
He thought for a moment and finally asked “Dear, where is your mother?” “I don’t have a mother” the child replied. “Then who are you with? Gula asked. “Nobody”, the child answered. “Then where did you get the money from?”, Gula asked, bewildered. “I saved it”, said the child innocently. Amlal put down his cup of tea and got up from his seat. “Leave now, we don’t want you here. Leave”, scolded Amlal pushing the child away. Tears started welling in the child’s eyes as he started to cry. Amlal slapped him hard. The child ran away crying, tears dripping down his cheeks.
“Amlal, why did you do that? He was just a small child. He was lonely and we should have helped him rather than sending him away”, said Gula, feeling sad for the young child. “My dear Gul Saeba, you don’t know anything. Such children, I know their lot. This is the way you ought to deal with them. I was duped by one such child. He asked me to show him the way to Rajbagh and I did. Next thing I know, he had stolen my wallet. It’s all a business you know, all a scheme…”, said Amlal firmly. Gula had a strange buzzing sound in his ears. He was extremely angry at the wrinkled old man sitting in front of him. Maybe someone might have tricked him, but it gave him no right to judge anybody else.
Gula stood up and said “Amlal, that child seriously needed help. I saw the look on his face and at once knew he was innocent. He did not even ask for anything. I too understand people by their faces”. “Okay, sure. Do whatever you want, just don’t came back to me whining about how you lost all your money to a six year old trickster”, Amlal replied steadfastly. Gula picked up the toy gun the child had wanted and walked in the direction the child had gone. After walking for a few minutes, Gula found the child sitting on a small corner of the footpath.
Gula approached the child, who upon seeing him started to run but Gula called after him, “Wait my child, wait for just one minute”. The child sensing remorse in Gula’s voice turned back and walked up to him. “I am sorry for what that Uncle did to you. He mistook you for someone else. Here, take this gun. You wanted this right”, said Gula, handing the child a small toy gun. “The child started rummaging his pockets for money but Gula stopped him and said, “You don’t need to pay me. Just keep it”. The child was at a loss of words. Tears started dripping down his cheeks as he embraced Gula. Just then, a man came from behind and said, “Ah, I see you’ve found my nephew. Thank you very much for keeping him safe. I was so worried about him”. “Oh, it’s nothing. Besides your nephew is such a fine little fellow.” Gula replied. “Now, come on jigar. We must leave or we will miss our train”, said the man smiling at Gula. He once again thanked him then took hold of his nephew’s arm and started to walk away. The child, holding the gun in one hand waved goodbye at Gula. Gula too turned, and started to walk back. He walked for a few meters and bent round the corner. As he turned, his hand went into his pocket and his wallet wasn’t there! Gula thought he must have dropped it and started walking back when he heard a loud voice. “Just five hundred rupees! What the hell were you thinking, targeting that fool? If you make such mistakes again, I am going to starve you for a week.” Amlal’s words kept circling in Gula’s mind, “It’s all a business you know, all a scheme.”
Syed Ahmed Ibaad Bukhari