“How did the blue shirt get burnt?!”
“The iron must have been too hot.”
“Oh? And your attention of course was completely unshaken.”
Ram Lal didn’t respond. His wife’s fluent Hindi rattle continued to be heard outside their little hut at the end of the road. I slinked away, deciding to return the following morning with my little bundle of clothes to be ironed.
The two of them lived on ironing the neighbourhood’s clothes, and that is how they managed to earn two square meals a day. Also in the hut were their two children, the elder boy, Munna, close to finishing school. From what I had heard, he was a bright chap, with an inclination towards art. It was about his future-to-be that the household was perennially at loggerheads. While Ram Lal aspired to create for his son, a life of dignity and contentment, his wife panicked over how their dreams overreached their means.
One summer evening, his wife came along to our house, with a bundle of ironed clothes under her arm. She looked tired, her face drained of colour.
“What is the matter with you?” I enquired, offering her a glass of water. The heat was nowhere close to diminishing, even with darkness rapidly approaching.
She gulped the water in one go, visibly thirsty. We had known the couple for several years now; Granddad had seen Ram Lal as a little boy holding on to his father’s arm.
“Memsahab, do you think I don’t care for my son’s future? Every night, I pray to God that all my husband wishes for him, comes true. But how can I turn away from our reality?
I refilled her glass as she paused for breath.
“Today, I delivered clothes to one of the houses we have been serving for years. The lady told me she wouldn’t need our services anymore.”
“They might be moving…” She cut me off before I could complete.
“My husband burnt a blue shirt of theirs.” I almost nodded in remembrance. “She told me it had been a cherished gift and I had burnt away irreplaceable memories. All because of my husband’s single-minded attention to Munna’s studies. How am I supposed to answer to such situations?”
I told her to speak to Ram Lal about being more cautious with his work. But I also told her to acknowledge the effort he was putting in for his son, despite all odds.
The next time I passed by their hut, the coal-iron was nowhere to be seen. In its place stood an electric iron, in all its new-package elegance.
“How did this come about?” I smiled to his wife, who seemed in a jolly mood. Her younger son giggled at me, busy playing with a plastic car.
“My husband has been working a shift in the construction those builders are doing across the street. He got this from the proceeds and guess what,” she said happily, “we have had no burns ever since!”
I was astounded. Ram Lal had been forever lean. With increasing age, he had shed further weight and on an average day, walked about with visible collar bones. “Exactly what sort of work is he doing there?”I asked hesitantly.
“Oh, he has learnt to read and write from Munna’s school books. He has been staying up at night practising. Those people have given him the task of adding up every labourer’s daily wages.”
Ram Lal came in just then, wiping sweat off his brow. His satchel had a thin notebook, a pen and a sheaf of what looked like college brochures. He smiled when he saw me.
“Hello Memsahab, what clothes did you need ironed?”
His wife winked at me, whispering into my ear. “After I told him off the other day, he has this renewed interest in our business. The only part I don’t like is his staying up late nights. I am afraid he might fall ill.”
The two sat for a quick lunch as I walked ahead to the market. I could hear them discussing how they would buy cauliflower for dinner. It was Munna’s favourite vegetable.
As days went by, I saw Ram Lal work triple shifts. He would iron away in the morning, emptying the bundle of clothes. In the afternoons he would proceed to the construction site and come back before Munna returned from school. When I would walk past their hut in the evenings, Ram Lal and Munna would both be poring over books, with his wife cooking or ironing in the background. Within each day that passed rapidly by, he managed to accommodate all he cared for: his daily income, his family and of course, his son’s education.
“He would know best, Memsahab. He is an officer.” Ram Lal’s wife said to me one morning, out on her daily collection rounds.
One of her cousins was home for a couple of days, complete with his descriptions of the hard realities of life. According to him, there was no point allowing Munna to pursue a career in art. “No money in all that, sister. Tell him to run your business better!”
For days in tow, there was a lot of animated chatter when I would go for my evening walk. Much of it, I thought, reflected Ram Lal’s building irritation and his wife’s building agitation. In the meanwhile, Munna’s board results came out. Ram Lal rushed to our house that morning, a little packet of flowers in his hands.
“Munna topped his class, Memsahab! With the highest marks in Arts!”
He met Granddad and offered him the little packet of flowers. “I went to the temple a while back, Sir. It is all due to God’s blessings.”
“And your hard work, Ram Lal. Don’t let yourself be affected by what the world says. Your son must do what he has a gift for.”
“Oh certainly, Saab.” He winked. “I managed to err, remove all disruptive forces last night. I said something about bringing the coal iron back and setting our cousin to work. The poor guy vanished at sunrise!”
Granddad laughed heartily and Ram Lal looked pleased as punch.
Today, Munna is a fully-grown lad, with a lovely wife and two children, who wait each evening for him to come back from office. Ram Lal is as lean as ever, his collar bones still visible. The younger son is now in high school, eager to learn. Though Munna tells Ram Lal to rest and move into a pukka house, he will hear nothing of it. However, he continues to practise reading and enjoys holding the camera Munna bought for the family last festive season.
In making time for all that mattered most to him and working harder than ever to fulfill goals that the world thwarted him against, Ram Lal continues to inspire me. On warm summer evenings, I still trudge out for a walk in the park. Amidst all the pomp and show in the city, there is little as comforting as the glow of a tiny reading-lamp on Ram Lal’s jute bed and his freshly-ironed bundle of clothes.
*written for Chicken Soup for the Indian Entrepreneurs Soul