It was a winter evening and as usual I went out in warm clothes to have something spicy. Yes, he was there, the bearded man selling chowmein by the roadside in his four-wheeled cart.
“Namaste sir” he greeted me as usual and offered me a chair. It was not as crowded like other days though there were two or three waiting to receive their parcel. Some have parked their vehicles and were on their mobile when he blinked his eyes off the smoke while stirring hot chowmein in the pan. His assistant served food to some and also was busy packing for the customers.
When it was my turn and I began relishing the hot egg chowmein, I saw a few students of mine heading towards us. They were on their way back from some coaching classes. Parking their cycle, they placed order. I covered my ears with a shawl and withdrew to a dimly lit corner. Since they couldn’t recognize me, they were quite natural in their talks and behaviour. They went about discussing some problem in Maths, a hangover of the coaching class. Since two of the three were getting impatient about the wait, they were passing comments on the vendor. One said,“Ask this fellow to speed up yaar.” Another added, “Tell him that we have to reach home and prepare for Physics test tomorrow”. The third one chuckled and added, “Wah..the right person to discuss your exam worries with!! Whether physics or chemistry, what difference does it make to him?” I looked at the bearded vendor and saw no expression on his face. He was almost through. Now he served them as his assistant was busy winding up. Though I finished eating, I waited for a while after paying him. While my students relished the hot stuff, he got ready to close for the day. When one of them came to him to pay, he asked, “Are you studying science? Which class?” With a shocked expression, the boy said “class xii”. “So, you have a physics test tomorrow, right? I could sense that u r pretty worried about it.” That was it. I could see the faces of the three musketeers close together below the bulb staring at him in wonder. I am sure it took them no time to digest the food. “Have you read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos?” I knew his question pierced through them like a nail. Though the “NO” didn’t come out orally from the boys, it was evident in their eyes. “At least any of his popular science books?’’ Now again, the “NO” came out accompanied by a “SORRY” miserably through their eyes. “Bhaiyya, sorry Uncle, sorry sirji… how do you know about all this?” “Dear friends, I am a graduate in Physics. I couldn’t continue my studies due to financial constraints at home. But I still have a passion for science.” I found them wriggling in guilt and discomfort. Turning to me, he said, “Sir, I have got some good collection of books on science. Please find out if it can be sold to your library or any one is interested in buying them.” “Sir!!!!” A smoke of shock came out of the three seeing me, like the hot frying pan sprinkled with water. I was now close to them and took the shawl off my face. “Sorry” they said in unison and rushed off into the darkness, heavy now, unable to hear another word from him or to face me. “You did a wonderful job” I said, while he smiled caressing his beard. “I would find out if any one is interested in buying those books”. “Thank you, sir. Gud nite”. “Gud nite.” On my way back home, I remembered the words of Carl Sagan,
“I went to the librarian and asked for a book about stars … And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light … The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. It was a kind of religious experience. There was magnificence to it, grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.”(The next morning, the three musketeers shared their experience in the class in my presence) by Santhosh Kana (This story was published in the ‘Indian Ruminations’, a journal of Indian English Writers. April, 2012.)