It had been over a decade since Jay had walked on these streets. Much had changed since he had last been here, but to him it still felt just the same. He was taken back to the time when he had been a fresh graduate from law school and had joined a firm of eminent corporate lawyers as an apprentice. Jay had dreams of becoming a famous lawyer one day and standing in the court of law across the street and defending his client. Life however had other plans, and Jay found himself taking a one-way ticket to a far-off land. Today was only his second day here, since his return to the city of his youth. And one of the first place he had wanted to visit was this, the place where he had dreamed big dreams.
The first rule of the law firm had been to always be dressed immaculate and that meant having on a starched white shirt, neatly ironed black coat & pants and polished black shoes. Despite his meagre salary, Jay the apprentice always ensured that he followed that rule. The secret to the shiny black shoes was hidden in the basement of the building located next to his law firm. There below was a world, as lively as the one on the street above. It was the unseen land of the shoe shine men. The street being close to the courts of law had a lot of law firms and this particular building housed the famous ones. Shoe shine was good business and essential for every lawyer in accordance with their first rule.
The basement had high ceilings and horizontal glass windows close to the ceiling which peaked on to the street. Sunlight would filter in through the windows illuminating the entire place with an ethereal light. Popular music from the sixties would fill the air from the relic of a radio placed at a corner and sounds of laughter would fill the air. It was a place where not just friends but even courtroom rivals shared smiles. An otherwise dull basement was transformed into a ballroom by the men in black. The only thing missing were the pretty ladies.
By the last day of the working week Jay’s shoes had lost their shine. He would usually have waited till Monday morning to get them polished again, but he had a party to attend that evening and shiny shoes were a must have.
That afternoon during his lunch break, Jay walked into the basement and was happy to find the place quite empty. Jay looked around for his usual shoe shine guy but was unable to spot him. On making some inquiries he was informed that he was on vacation. As Jay looked around trying to decide who would polish his shoes that day, his eyes fell upon a man who had a sour expression as he polished another man’s shoes. He looked like he carried the burden of the world on his shoulders. Jay felt sorry for him and decided he would give him a try.
Jay asked him how much he would charge and the man muttered ‘The usual”, which meant, five rupees’. Jay had decided that he could afford ten rupees for a shoe polish, so he readily agreed to the price quoted. The man apathetically opened a tin of black polish and rubbed a piece of fabric over it to get on some colour. He then listlessly polished the shoes and in less than 3 minutes said he was done. Jay looked at the shoes with and incredulous expression on his face. The sides of the shoes were untouched and the back side remained as dull and dusty as it had before. It was a shoddy job.
Unhappy with the result, Jay told the man to give his shoes a ten-rupee polish and that he would pay him the money. The man gave Jay a bemused look upon his request and grudgingly repeated what he had done earlier. The shoes looked no better than they had before.
Jay felt cheated. He decided not to argue with someone who looked so incredibly unhappy. But he knew he could not possibly go to the party with such a disaster of a pair on. He started looking around for someone who would give his shoes the TLC they deserved and to bring on their real shine.
More people had now collected in the basement and as he scanned the crowd his eyes fell upon the one person who looked to be perfect for the job. He was a young boy, and he was joyfully singing as he polished a shoe. He had a sparkle in his eyes and a smile that brought a radiance to his polish stained face. Jay was drawn towards this energetic shoe shine boy.
Looking up at Jay from his seated position, the boy exclaimed in the local dialect. “Welcome sir, you have come to the right person to get your shoes polished.” On close encounter, Jay realised that the boy was perhaps no more than 12; much younger than he had thought from the distance. Jay was not sure he wanted to get his shoes polished by such a young boy. He felt it was not the right thing to do. He should be in school; where he could learn, laugh and play, not toiling away all day in a basement. The boy waited eagerly for Jay to agree and when he realised, he was not getting a positive response he continued, “Are you afraid I will not do a good job sir. Or do you think I am too young.” He gave Jay a beaming smile as he tried to appease his fears, “Don’t worry Sir, I am the best here”. The boy sure was charming, and Jay was intrigued. “What makes you think you are the best here, young man?” Jay asked. Without batting an eyelid, the boy replied with another smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes “That’s because I do my job joyfully.”
Jay knew he was at the right place, a 12-year old was teaching him about the attitude necessary to excel at work. Jay was so impressed with the boy’s answer that he told him, “You are my hero young man. Go ahead and polish my shoes.” The boy began his job and picked a tune that matched his movements.
As the boy began his work, Jay asked him his name and if he went to school. The boy replied, “My name is Raju and I do not go to school anymore as I have to come to work. I want to go to school, I want to become a graduate but my father wants me to earn money quickly and so I have to become a shoe shine boy, just like him”. He waited a few moments and then added sheepishly, “The man, that man who polished your shoes earlier, he …… he,” he stopped a bit took a few breaths and then continued, “ He is my father. I know he does not do a good job, because he does not like this job. He actually hates it. He wanted to work in the farms but my grandfather sent him to the city to make some money. And now my father is always unhappy.”
On hearing this, the peaceful activist in Jay was awakened and he knew he had an opportunity to help in some way, “Do you really want to go to school Raju?” “Oh yes I do and so does my mother,” replied Raju instantly. Jay inquired some more about Raju’s family and his living situation. Jay came from a family of lawyers and educators and his mother was the principal of a prestigious college in the city. He knew he had reached the right place; he was just the person who could help. Jay gave Raju details of an evening college close by and told him not to inform his father about this immediately. He told him to talk to his mother about his plans and that if she was okay, he would help Raju get admission into the school. Jay knew it was no coincidence that he had met Raju that day.
Raju had done an outstanding job, the shoes looked as good as new. Jay took out a crisp fifty rupee note from his pocket and handed it over to Raju. When Raju started looking for the balance change in his money box, Jay told him to keep the change. “Five rupees,” he said “are for polishing my shoes Raju, and the balance are for inspiring me and bringing a real smile to my face today.”
Jay had re-lived several months in just a few minutes as he stood at the street stall sipping strawberry milkshake. It tasted just as it had those many years ago when he would skip lunch due to urgent work and make do with a milkshake. The stall was exactly as he remembered. The only change was that the old man had retired and his son was now in charge. The young man had been older than Raju had been when he had met him. He used to help his father at the juice stall even in those days when Jay had visited there. The young man had expanded the menu and there were a lot of interesting items on it. But all Jay had wanted was the creamy milkshake with chunks of strawberry in it.
As Jay reminisced those days long ago, he could not help but wonder what had become of Raju. Did he make it through school and go to college and become the graduate he had always dreamed of becoming?
Unfortunately, Jay would never know. He had kept in touch with Raju for all the months that he worked at the law firm and later he had moved overseas and had never returned here, till today. All he knew was that Raju had been attending school and that he was happy there. He loved to learn and was smart and hardworking. He found joy in all things that came his way.
Jay was just finishing his milkshake when he saw a familiar face in the crowd. The man had taken a turn around the corner into an alley. Jay pulled out some money from his pocket, gave it to the stall owner and headed towards the direction the man had taken, repeating “Keep the change” as the owner told him to take the balance.
The man had been wearing a white shirt, and a white shirt is so easy to spot in a crowd. He stopped two people as he moved ahead thinking they were him, realising only later that they were not who he was looking for. The lunch time crowd was filling the street and it was getting difficult for him to look around in the crowd. Reluctantly he turned back and headed for the main street.
He spent some time window shopping and finally stopped in front of what as a young boy he had always thought of as, the best store in the whole wide world. It was a book store, the one that had fascinated him for as long as he could remember. As he entered, the familiar smell of new books filled the air and brought a smile on his face. The place had been aesthetically refurbished and had a wonderful air about it. Soft yellow lights lit up the place and the walls had art work based on the covers of famous books. By the ceiling-high windows in a corner was the children’s area. Carpets in a variety of shapes filled the space and large pillows in bright colours were strewn all over. The place was teeming with little kids who listened with rapt attention as a young lady with an animated face read aloud from a book. Jay stood in the corner and listened and soon enough he too was transported to the land of the little ghost who was trying to befriend the people of the town, but everyone seemed to be afraid of him.
He was brought back to the present by a tap on his left shoulder. He turned around to find a young man looking at him with a big smile. Though Jay could not recognise him, Jay returned the smile. Was this young man someone he used to know, a fellow college student, or maybe a colleague or a client perhaps? Though he tried hard to refresh his memory, Jay could not recollect ever having met this gentleman. “Hello, do I know you?”, Jay finally asked politely when he realised the man was not saying anything. “No, you don’t know me, but I know you. You are a lawyer who worked in the firm in that building down the road. You are a legend in our home,” he replied. “Aha!!! So, you were a client, were you? What case did I handle?” Jay stated. “No sir,” was the prompt reply. “You used to know my brother. I am who I am today, because of him. And you sir, changed his life.”
Interesting, thought Jay, but he still had no clue who he was talking to. There was a movement from the corner of his eye and as he turned, standing there in front of him was the very man he had been trying to look for all afternoon. He had not been hallucinating after all.
They all sat down in the café at the book store and Raju narrated the events of the past many years. He told them how he had finished school, graduated from college, got a masters degree in management and was now a manager at a bank. Regardless of all that, he said his greatest achievement was not that he had qualifications or a job, but the fact that he had opened new doorways for his younger siblings. He had inspired them to dream of the possibilities in the world beyond shoes and polish.
Raju took out his wallet and pulled out a laminated fifty rupee note, the same one Jay had given him so many years ago. Through the years, that note had reminded Raju of all that he was capable of. When the going got tough, he had pulled out that note and held it to his heart and told himself, that there were people who believed in him and he could not let them down. Raju had started a revolution of sorts amongst the kids of the shoe shine guys. He had been a role model for those kids who had dreamed of doing more with their lives than being shoe shine boys.
Raju informed him that his parents had moved back to the village some years ago and his father was finally happy to get his hands dirty in the soil. Tears filled Jay’s eyes as he heard the story. He had no idea that an afternoon conversation with a young shoe shine boy could have impacted the lives of so many.
Hours passed and it was getting dark outside. As they got up to leave they changed contacts and keep in touch. Thanks to technology they would now be able to do that.
He was now an assistant professor in a popular university in North America and he knew he now had a story to share with his young students. He would tell them Raju’s and how little we know of how the world works. What little act of ours today, what little smile, or gentle touch, would hold in it the power to change the life of another for the better. We need nothing special to do this and yet, what extraordinary results they can create. What incredible gifts we have to share with others.
On his way back to his old family home, Jay contemplated on the events of the day and how an otherwise ordinary day had turned into an extraordinary one. His eyes filled up and a smile tugged at his lips as he thought how some of the greatest lessons in life are learnt outside the classroom.
Note : This story is inspired by real-life incidents. Raju does live amongst us.