The older you grow, the memories of younger days begin returning with greater intensity. And the farther you go away from home -- the place your were born and you grew up in -- the greater the pace with which nostalgia chases you. There is no escaping them. Everything you experience today has a reference point somewhere back then, somewhere back there. Even when I saw, and read, news about Abu Salem recently, I could not help thinking about the days when I knew, from close quarters, a criminal who was not as big time as Abu Salem but big time enough to make news in the local papers.
I was in class six. Maybe class seven. The age when forbidden things look attractive, and when forbidden things are as harmless as the samosa. Parents told you not to eat such stuff or you will get cholera, something that tempted you all the more. So there was this man who would enter through the back gate of the school with a basketful of samosas during the recess, and he would be instantly surrounded by a dozen outstretched hands each holding a coin. A samosa cost 50 paise. Soon enough the nuns found out about the man and they got the back gate locked. They, like parents, were also against kids eating "outside stuff."
But the samosa-seller was a man with determination. He began standing outside the boundary wall. During recess, his head would appear from behind the wall and immediately a dozen hands would go up. He took the coins and handed out the samosa(s) on a piece of notebook paper. Since all this had to be done quickly, in case a nun would appear and chase him away, he often did not have the time to notice who was paying how much. A few mischievous students often took advantage of his hurry: they would just stretch out their palm, without the coin, and would find, placed on it, a couple of hot samosas. The days I carried no money, I was tempted to do the same, but.
I had a classmate called Vinay Shukla. Even classrooms have a class barrier, which divides students who are good at studies and students who aren't. The two classes don't like to mingle. But Vinay and I got along well, and he was one of the few I hung around with during the recess. One morning, I carried no money (when I say money, I mean anything between 50 paise and five rupees), but I craved for samosas. "You want one?" asked Vinay, "wait, let me try." He had no money either, but he went into the crowd of samosa-seekers, stretched out his hand and told the man, "Here, here, I just gave you one rupee. Give me two samosas." He came back to me and handed over the two samosas. I insisted that he have one but he refused.
Things change with the onset of adolescence: you begin to become conscious of the class barrier. Somewhere here Vinay and I began to drift. Rather, he began to withdraw. And by the time we reached the age when students also discussed science and mathematics apart from Kapil Dev and Amitabh Bachchan, Vinay had completely withdrawn himself from my life. Soon after he left the school: you could not continue there if you scored less than 60 percent in class ten.
I often ran into Vinay here and there: he would smile but not encourage any conversation. What could have talked about anyway: I would be going for Maths tuitions, with my notebook in hand, and he would be standing at a street corner with a bunch of guys who were branded as "loafers." I then found Vinay spending more and more time in that street corner, which had become their adda, the meeting place. By now he was avoiding even eye contact with me. We had become strangers.
One day, I saw a katta, a country-made pistol, tucked under his belt. On another day, I saw a huge knife under the belt. From common acquaintances, I got to know that Vinay and his gang were regularly being rounded up by the police.
That was the time of my life when, till then, I had never read a Hindi newspaper. Kanpur, where I lived, did not publish any English paper. Lucknow did, but we preferred to get the paper from Delhi, even though the news was a day stale. Didn't make much of a difference because at the time, news was once-in-a-24 hours business, not a 24-hour business. But a strike in the University forced us to buy a Hindi paper because that gave local news and I wanted to know about the fate of the exams.
One morning, while scanning the local pages, I noticed a news headlined, Badmash Munna Maara Gaya -- A goon called Munna has been killed. The report said he had been killed in a fight between two gangs. The accompanying picture showed a young man sprawled on the road. His lifeless hand still clutched a pistol and his sunglasses were intact in his breast pocket. I recognised him instantly. Munna was the nickname of Vinay Shukla.