Ali circled the house. It was a small one at the end of a narrow lane. It was locked. He looked around. The street lights had not been switched on and it was quite dark. The time was around eleven. Ali noticed a window that was open. He climbed on to an adjacent pipe and peeped in. It was not a window but a ventilator of a bathroom. Only the wooden framework was intact, the glass panes were missing.
Ali was a sixteen year old of medium height but very thin. He slipped in quite easily through the ventilator. The bathroom door was open. He went in. It was dark and he couldn’t make out anything. He put his hand in his pocket and removed a torch. He was about to switch it on when there was an explosion. Startled out of his wits, Ali jumped back, the torch falling from his hand.
“Rajesh.....is it you?” he heard a voice ask, followed by the same sound which had scared him stiff. He heard a click and one corner of the room was bathed in soft light. A cot was against the wall and lying on the cot was an old man. At the head of the cot was a table lamp. As Ali watched, not knowing what to do the old man raised his hands and sneezed. As the sound echoed in the room, Ali realized that what he had mistaken for an explosion was merely the old man’s sneeze. He was very frail and thin with white hair, a white moustache and a beard. For his size he packed quite a bit of power in his sneeze.
“Rajesh? Is it you? You are quite late,” the old man said, looking in Ali’s direction and blinking.
“I sat on my glasses by mistake. And now I am half blind. Anyway thank God you have come. Now pull a chair and sit. See I have already set the chess pieces for you. You know it took me more than ten minutes to set the pieces.”
Ali didn’t know what to do. Should he vanish the same way he had come or should he hang on for some time and try to get his hands on to something? The old man looked harmless and there seemed to be no one else in the house.
“What happened Rajesh? You are unusually quiet. I know it is late. But beta you are aware, I wait for our game of chess the whole day. Don’t deny me this pleasure.”
Ali walked up to the bed, picked up a rickety chair and sat in front of the table on which was arranged a chess board.
The old man had sat up and was peering at the pieces.
“I can barely make out the pieces.”
Ali reached out and picking up the table lamp placed it on the stool beside the bed. The light now fell directly on the pieces.
“Good. Now it is much better,” the old man said and picking up the knight played his first move.
In the slum where Ali lived was a cycle repair shop. it was owned by Yadav who was crazy about chess. He had taught Ali the basics of chess. And now Ali considered himself a good player.
The old man looked a picture of concentration. His brows were knit, his eyes fixed on the board, and he seemed oblivious to everything. He had not looked up even once at Ali.
“Hey Rajesh, you seemed to be improving. You are playing quite good. Your last move was a very good one. If you hadn’t moved your rook in time you would have been in serious trouble.”
Soon Ali got completely absorbed in the game. The old man was playing really well. Ali who prided himself on his chess playing abilities was now fighting with his back to the wall. He had lost this queen and both the knights. He tried a desperate gamble and a couple of moves later he was confident he had trapped the old man.
“Check, my dear Rajesh,” the old man said and added, “And mate.” He clapped his hands. Ali looked at the old man’s beaming face and then at his king.
Yes, he had well and truly lost.
“Great, I really enjoyed myself today after a long time. Now what about another game.”
Ali grunted and started arranging the pieces.
“I can’t lose to an old and senile fellow. I have to beat this old man,” Ali thought as he played his first move.
“Who the hell are you,” he heard a sharp voice and jumped out of his chair.
A short and well-built man was standing glaring at him.
“I...I...” Ali could only stammer. He was cursing himself and racking his brains for an escape. Just behind the stocky man was a door. The man advanced towards him and before Ali could back out grabbed his collar and yanked him forward.”
“Answer me you rascal. Who are you?”
“Hey Rajesh, what is this confusion? For the last half an hour you were playing with me. Who is this fellow with you?” The old man was peering at Ali his eyes going blink, blink...”
“Come on Baba? What nonsense are you talking? I entered a minute ago and found you and this rascal sitting comfortably playing chess with you. And now you are telling me you were playing with me and you are asking me who this fellow is? And where are your specs?”
“I...I…broke them beta. And without them you know, I am almost blind. When I saw this man, I assumed it was you. The door was locked from outside and only you have the key.”
Rajesh shook Ali and growled. “So you are a thief is it? You scoundrel you don't have any shame. Breaking into an old and helpless man’s house!” He slapped him hard. Ali felt as if he had been kicked by a mule.
“Wait, Rajesh beta. I don’t think he has stolen anything. And tell me what is there to steal in this old man’s house? This fellow must be a thief. But he did not harm me. He only played chess with me. And you know he plays chess real well, better than you. In fact after years I played chess with an opponent who could match me.”
“So what do you want me to do? Garland this fellow. Present him with a trophy.”
“No, no. But don't hit him. Just let him go.”
“Okay. As you say,” Rajesh released Ali and then looking him into the eye snapped. “Get lost you scoundrel. But if I see you anywhere around I’ll skin you alive and then hand you over to the police.”
Ali heaved a sigh of relief and started walking towards the door when the old man spoke.
“Beta where did you learn to play so nicely?”
“In the slum where I stay.”
“Can you come and play with me every day for an hour or so? I’ll pay you.”
“Baba have you gone mad? The first chance he gets he will slit your throat and walk away with whatever you have in this house.”
“No, Rajesh he won’t. And even if he does how much longer do I have to live. You know after the death of my wife Shakuntala I have had only one interest in life - Chess. And if by spending 30-40 rupees a day I can get some one good to play with, I think it is worth it.”
Rajesh shook his head in disgust.
“Baba, I think you are crazy,” he said and walked out.
From the next day Ali became a regular. Every morning around nine he would come and stay till around twelve or one. Baba would pay him forty rupees for his efforts. In the afternoons and evenings Ali would be busy in his usual rounds looking for pockets to pick or homes to break in.
He came to know that Baba, whose name was Shankar Das, had been a clerk in the income tax office and had retired thirteen years ago. He and his wife had no children and after her death he had been left completely alone. Rajesh was his friend’s son who visited him every evening and played chess. He also attended to Baba’s many requirement’s - getting groceries, doing his bank work and taking him to the doctor whenever the need arose. A part time maid servant came for doing the cooking and other household chores.
Baba would often ask Ali about his childhood, his present life and dreams.
“Baba, I too would have liked to study. But I was an orphan and grew up in slums. I learnt stealing and picking pockets very early in life.”
“Why don’t you try earning your living by honest means?”
“How? I can’t read and write. Who will give me a job? Years ago I worked for a scooter mechanic. I think I have an aptitude for that kind of work. I soon became quite good at it. But one day I had a fight with the mechanic.”
“He used to treat me quite badly. One day he abused me and I walked out. After that I got disgusted and went back to picking pockets.”
“Can you not start a repair shop of your own?”
“I’ll need a minimum of thirty thousand rupees. From where will I get that kind of money?”
Baba remained silent.
A few minutes later Ali was in the railway station near the reservation counter. It was eleven and the place was very crowded.
Suddenly he saw a man remove a wallet from his back pocket. His back was to Ali. He took out a few notes and replaced the wallet. It was thick and fat. In a flash Ali moved forward and mingling with the crowd reached the man. He was now looking at the reservation chart. Ali brushed against the man and within a few seconds he did his job. The wallet was now in his pocket. Just then the man turned and he got a jolt. He looked just like Baba. He was of the same age and had the same gentle and frail looks. Ali cursed himself. He couldn’t pick the pocket of an old man who looked so much like...like.... his Baba.
In an instant he made up his mind and turning back reached the old man. As he was slipping the wallet in his pocket, there was a shout and a tall and burly man caught hold of his neck and started raining blows on him.
“You thief, you rogue. I’ll bash you up.” Soon others joined him.
An hour later Ali found himself in the lock up. His body was aching all over. He tried telling that he was only replacing the wallet but no one believed him.
Three months later Ali was released. He went home changed and almost ran to Baba’s house. He saw Rajesh locking the door.
“Rajesh bhai, where is Baba?”
“Where were you all these days? The old man was looking for you desperately.”
“Where is he?”
“D...died! But how?”
“He had a stroke.”
Ali felt faint. He steadied himself. He did not know what to say. In all these years if there had been one individual with whom he had felt a sense of belonging it had been Baba. And now he too was gone.
“Wait a minute,” Rajesh said and after unlocking the door he went in. A couple of minutes later he emerged with a box.
“This is yours. Baba left it for you.”
Ali mumbled a thanks and taking the box stumbled home.
On entering his house he sat down and opened the box. It was a brand new chess set - in sparkling white and shiny black. He arranged the pieces and started playing ....tears rolling down his cheeks.....
After sometime when he was replacing the pieces he saw a small knob at the bottom. He fiddled with it and slid back to reveal a tiny compartment. It contained a small plastic packet inside which was gold chain. He felt it in his hands - it was quite heavy. Immediately he went to Sadat’s shop which was at the other end of the slum. Sadat dealt exclusively with stolen goods.
Ali showed Sadat the necklace. Sadat looked at it, his eyes widening.
“Where did you get this? You broke into a jewelry shop?”
“That is none of your business. Tell me its worth.”
Sadat went into his shop and emerged ten minutes later.
“I’ll give you twenty thousand.”
“Who are you trying to kid? This must be worth nothing less than forty thousand. See how heavy it is.”
“I’ll not give you more than 27.”
They haggled for some time and settled for thirty one thousand in cash.
Two months later in a lane behind D.N. Road a small scooter repair shop was opened. On the cream colored signboard was the name: Shankar Scooter Repairs. Its proud owner was the former pick pocket and petty thief Ali.
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