The vehicle's engine flooded heat into the cave like cabin. Packed in this mini bus of sorts were about 20 kids and steadily increasing. With each stop and start, it would protest the added weight with a violent shrug, but to no avail. It would limber on reined in by the driver.
Akim was the last boy to be picked up in the circuit. And he didn't like it. He stayed just a couple of miles away but he wasn't allowed to walk the distance nor cycle it. He didn't mind the vehicle either. What bothered him was the piquant aroma that greeted him. The lunch boxes of the score and more of kids would be bursting out with the smell of a hundred spices, all mixed and churned and simmering in the heat of the bus.
He despised the pungency. He would persist in respiring through his mouth as much as possible. Discreetly. He generally never spoke much with anyone around. Bending down, elbow on knee, hands fiddling with his spiky hair, he would keep counting the seconds. It would average around 555 counts for the journey he had noted. Any attempts by the others to converse would be replied with a mono-syllabic answer. It was hard to speak without letting in some of the undesired smells he knew. And the others did not.
"We are here" "Move" "Move", some boy near him was shouting. 553, 554, 5 5 5! Heaving a sigh, He got down and made his way to class. Taking in a deep breath near the garden being watered. Mud and water, reminded him of the rains and the earthy fragrance of distant lands it brought along. He wished the monsoons would arrive soon.
He saw Deena and her group of girls occupying his part of the bench and talking and laughing. He waited outside class for the bell to send them back to their seats. Shy as he was, a pack of girls were his ultimate nightmare. 1,2,3,4,5,6.. the bell rang. Relieved, he went in and sat.
"Hi Dina". My words for the day are done he thought and braced himself for what would follow. He started in his mind, 1, 2, ..
"Hi Akim, what did you do yesterday? did u watch that show on TV, you know the one i told about. Don't tell me you missed it. Oh its Ok, you can watch it again today. Don't forget. did you do the homework though? It was easy, here look"
16, 17, phew. He stopped his count. "Ah uh, yeah" "Thats nice", he said and tried to force a stretch on his lips.
"Akim, what class do we have now? Oh today is Friday no, it will be English first and math next" and just as Dina was taking off in her verbal spree, the teacher entered. The class of 50 stood and greeted her. Everyone went about the tasks of the day, the blackboard was wiped clean, the attendance screamed, text books drawn out and read.
Akim tried to follow what was being read. He was distracted. A long stray hair of Dina was infringing on his sight of view. It was dancing around randomly being blown by the wind.
He edged out of his seat more. Dina looked at him confusedly. The first 2 classes were over and Akim came out to the small ground by the garden near the main gate for the short quarter hour break. During this time he would usually wait in class. Only rarely he would go out and play with the boys. Today however he was chose to amble along the ground. He saw the gate was open and approached it. The scary watchman was not to be seen. He was a tall, heavy, dark man with a long stick with him always. He sneaked a feet out and still no one there. He was surprised. He saw his watch, still ten minutes were left. He thought of running out to the shop nearby and getting some chocolates. A simple plan but was he brave enough to risk it. He estimated it to take just a couple of minutes at top speed. And he could always tell that he was searching for his missing pen. He had one last look and ran. 1,2,3,...59,60. "Two chocolates please uncle" "Thanks!" He turned back and ran. 98, 99, 100.... He stopped in his tracks. He saw a long stick menacingly peeking out of the gate. He could just make out those burly black hairy hands wielding it, and to his horror, the gate's opening narrowed inch by inch. It was closed.
.....119, 120. At the end of the two minutes he had succeeded in getting himself locked out of school. He stood there in shock, staring at the huge black gates.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and jumped in terror. "Are you running away from class??" A boy's voice asked with a slight chuckle. Akim turned around to see a boy about his age in faded khaki trouser and a blue-checked shirt too big for him. He was brownish in complexion, unkempt hair, and dark eyes. There was a small scar below his lip on his right cheek. He looked vaguely familiar.
"No No", Akim defended. "I came out to search for my pen. And they closed the gate!".
"What are you going to do now, shall i knock on the gate? But i am sure the watchman would not like it", the boy said. "How do you know about the watchman? Who are you?". Akim asked.
"I know everything about this school. I help the driver of one of the school bus", he said. Akim now remembered seeing him once or twice in the other bus. Thats how he seemed familiar.
"I can tell him i was searching for my pen" Akim said trying to sound convincing.
"No, he wont listen to you. You will be taken to the principal and be suspended", the boy told Akim grimly. Akim wore a dejected look. He was feeling very scared now. A simple want for chocolates had turned out to be a terrible mistake. The boy saw Akim's drooping face and said, "Don't worry. When the school leaves you can sneak in and get your things. No one will know. If anyone in class asks, tell you were sleeping in the sick room because you weren't feeling well".
Akim felt like agreeing to anything now. And this boy's idea did look reasonable enough to work. He felt a faint relief. He did not know where he would have ended up if this boy hadn't turned up. "But what do I do till then?" Akim asked. "Come with me, we will roam around a bit. Three hours left still". "But where do we go?" Akim asked. "Am going to watch a movie" the boy said frankly. Akim did not know what to say. A movie? Luxury in a time of crisis?? "No. i don't want to come!" Akim almost screamed. "Why? whats wrong? You don't like them?" the boy asked Akim. "No. It is wrong. What if someone sees me? I will get into more trouble!" "Hmmm alright. Don't be seen around here then. Go and sit in that park on the next road. Bye". Saying so the boy turned and walked away.
Akim stood alone in front of the gate and watched the boy walk away. He felt very lonely. He started to worry immediately. An eerie feeling crept around him as he stood there. He saw the boy turning round the corner. I may be found in the park too. There is no difference if I go to a movie or a park he felt. And I will have some hope and courage if the boy is around me, Akim reasoned and went after the boy.
"Wait, i am also coming", Akim spoke as he approached the boy. "Ha ha, ok good. Have you been to the Empire theater??" the boy asked him. "No, never heard of it", Akim said. "Never? Hmm. Maybe you go only to those places with many small theaters in a single building. This is different, there is only one big screen. And it is way cheaper than those places. And more fun", the boy spoke
the last sentence with a smile.
"Oh, how far is it?" Akim asked him. He had heard few times of these huge theaters from his father and had wondered how really big they were.
"Just two stops away from the bus stop. How much money you have on you?"
The boy asked him. Akim checked his pocket and found two ten rupee notes.
"Just this much. Is it enough?", he asked. "Yeah, just sufficient. Ten rupees for up and down travel. And ten rupees for the movie".
Akim thought it was very reasonable. Just Ten rupees for a ticket. Unheard of. He was intrigued to see this place. "Come fast, the bus is right there, run". They boarded the bus and were off. "I do not know much of buses. Have traveled in them very less. We always go by car".
Akim told the boy. "Oh, Which car you have? I have never been in a car". Akim was surprised. So different him and the boy were, he thought. And he wondered who this boy was. He never asked his name. "What's your name? I never asked. I am Akim". "Well Akim, we are here, get down"
"I am Karwa. And this is the theater I told you of" Karwa laid a hand on Akim's shoulder and gestured with the other towards the theater. Akim saw a huge poster of the hero of the movie. It had an equally huge garland of flowers and colorful ribbons all over the theater. It was so different. The parking lot was half-empty with only two wheelers. And he notice that the next show was two hours away. The timings board said the first show was already running. "Karwa, there is still so much time for the next show, and i it will get late for me. lets not go", Akim spoke. "Well Akim, I didn't tell you the entire thing. We are going to watch only half the movie. We are going in during the interval. I know the ticket man here. He lets me in for ten rupees if there are seats inside." He winked.
Akim had never imagined this. Half a movie! And the second half in that! "But what can anyone understand by watching just the second half?" Akim asked Karwa. "Its fun. When i get time i go watch the first half. I guess what happens or might have happened in the other half. Most of the times I am right. All these movies nowadays are so similar".
"Well alright, I have come so far. Lets watch half a movie" Akim said. "Ok wait here, I will go and speak to that man" Karwa left, and Akim was looking at the posters of past movies being displayed in a glass window on one of the wall outside. They were all quite old ones. He remembered
the names of one or two but hadn't seen them. They all had a '150 days', '200 days' in brass letters pinned above them. They must have been very popular movies Akim thought. It had been just a few minutes when Karwa returned. "He is going to let us in a minute when people come out for the interval. We have to sit in the first row. Give me the money". Akim handed over the ten rupee note. Soon people came out and they both went in.
Akim saw the imposing huge screen instantly. It was almost twice as big as anything he had previously seen. And there were no Air-conditioners here. Only rows of fans on either side projecting perpendicularly from the walls. And there were no normal seats either! Plastic chairs that one could move around! No one were sitting in the first row he guessed by observing that the chairs were all still aligned in a straight line. "Come, we will sit in the center" Karwa told Akim and leaded the way. They both sat down in the middle. Akim felt very tiny in front of the huge
screen. He looked at Karwa. He was beating on his arm-rests a rhythm with his hand and fingers. "Where do you live Karwa, don't you go to school?" Akim asked. "I live very close by to your school. No, I stopped going to school two years back when we moved to the city. My parents came to work. They work in those places where they build huge buildings. I may go to school again
next year." Akim was nodding his head. "I know to read and write a little though", Karwa added. Akim remembered the two chocolates, he felt like a thief when he thought what these two chocolates had made him gone through. He offered one to Karwa. "Here have one". "Oh a chocolate. Thank you Akim"
The movie resumed with an applause from the audiences along with a few high pitched whistle. "Do you know how to whistle like that Akim?", Karwa asked. "No i don't", he said. "Neither do I, my friend has promised me to teach how to. Ok now, shhh, lets watch". Akim was lost in the sights and sounds over-powering his senses. He almost felt being merged into the screen, like it was drawing him closer and closer, about to swallow him. He looked at Karwa once or twice and saw him laughing with his mouth wide open and enjoying. Now and then he would clap his hands if he found it very funny. Akim forgot about his problem at hand and he too enjoyed the half movie.
The movie ended and soon they were on their way back in the bus. "So this is what you do after the trip to school Karwa?" Akim asked him. "Not always, just once a while when i can afford it and I do not have work. The driver usually makes me clean the bus after the morning trip, and doesn't let me go out of sight. He just makes me sit along with him and the other drivers. They all make me do some small work for them" "Oh OK, and what do you do after work?" Akim asked again. "Just go home and wait for my parents to come. I will be playing with friends till then" Karwa told Akim. "And what do you do after school, Akim?", he asked. "I go home, eat a snack and watch TV. I don't play much. Not many friends nearby" Akim answered. "Ok, maybe I will see you sometime soon then. We can play cricket at the field near school", Karwa told Akim. "Sure Karwa, that will be nice". They got down and they were back near the school. "Just ten minutes left. Go in after some people come out ok, don't go immediately" Karwa instructed Akim who was nodding. Akim thought he will leave 5 minutes after the bell, time sufficient for everyone in class to empty out. "OK Karwa I will do that. Thanks for today". Akim told him. "No problem Akim, see you soon. I better go now, the driver man will be searching for me", he said smilingly. "OK, bye, see you soon" Akim waved and both shook hands and parted.
The bell soon rang, those gates were opened, Akim was hiding behind a tree few feet away. He went in as planned, none of his classmates came across him. He got his things from class and came and sat in his school-bus. Soon it was on its way. Akim tried looking in at the other buses for Karwa but he wasn't in them. He must still be behind or left earlier Akim thought. He was silent than usual at home. He did not want to show his excitement within. They may suspect something and question him, he was afraid. In bed he thought of the day's adventure. Of Karwa. Of the half movie. Of the huge movie screen. Of the plastic chair. He had his first adventure. He had ventured out on his own with Karwa and seen things totally new to him. He had met a new friend. He slept with a feeling of contentment that night.
His school bus arrived the next morning and Akim got in. None of the others seemed to give him attention. Akim's excitement had not ebbed. He spoke first for the first time to a boy next to him. "Have you seen a half-movie?" He asked with a glitter in his eye. He was not respiring by his mouth today. He took in and felt the aroma of the score and more lunch boxes mingling in his nose.
And he took in another deep breath.