The Watchman was tired.
Tired of faking a smile to everyone who passed in and out the gate with hardly a glance for him. But he had been doing this for years now, day and night, and it came automatically, the stiff widening of the lips that he called a ‘smile’, that created no strain to the lines on his face or to his eyes. True that not many acknowledged it, but he did it every time, nonetheless.
He was about to close the gate when the Mother with her two-year-old on the stroller appeared. This time the lines on his face softened for the little one, and the tender smile that touched his eyes was genuine. He was rewarded with a smile and a wave of the tiny hand. The Mother did not stop as she usually did for the chubby little hands to get a shake from the Watchman, and with a polite glance, pushed the stroller on.
“Evening walk?” the Watchman asked as the baby waved merrily to him. He loved the little one from the time the Mother and child moved in to the apartment about a year ago. He would see them come out twice daily, in the morning when the Mother goes to leave the baby with a sitter and proceeds to her office, and in the evening when they both go out for a walk.
The iron-wallah had his hands and table full. Sunday was the day he would get the most number of clothes to iron. And it was evening, he had to finish his cloth-pile and return the dresses to their homes. He had not stopped even to have his lunch. But when a starched, stiff, well-pressed red and green cotton saree passed before his eyes, he had to look up.
“Here comes my walking advertisement,” he thought as he admired the woman pushing the stroller. “How lovely the saree looks! I’m sure people are bound to notice.”
“Who is she?” asked the carpenter winding up his work for the day, seeing him ogle at the woman.
“Single Mom, stays in the apartment yonder. I iron her dresses for her,” he said with a touch of pride.
The carpenter walked over to the chaaywaali’s.
The evening crowd had gathered around her small portable shop, and she was swiftly pouring chai into little paper cups for her customers. She paused a moment, the tea kettle frozen in mid air, to peer at the Mother and baby passing by, the little boy enjoying the sights and chuckling to himself.
“Horrid woman,” whispered the chaaywaali to her husband, shaking her head at the passing couple. “Walks by twice every day and never stops to even smile.” She turned her back on the unfriendly Mother and child.
The traffic cop on duty was having a lousy day. The lights were behaving, the rush hour was under control, even the usually unruly the auto-drivers were exceptionally decent. He squinted his eyes towards the Interceptor at a distance, they seem to be having no fun either. He did not have to yell at anyone today, his vocal cords were given an unexpected rest which he did not completely enjoy.
He walked away from the lights and surveyed the service roads. Indicators, horns, road rules, pedestrians – nothing could be more perfect. He spotted a woman with the stroller at one end of the service road.
“The highway at rush hour is not the best place for a walk with a baby,” he muttered to himself.
A bus apparently defying speed limits caught his eye. He waited for the Interceptor to signal its doom, but either the guys were sleeping or the bus was just within limits. That was certainly not the pace at which he expected a bus to approach traffic lights. The driver was clearly planning to hop before the light turns red. He scowled as it shot past.
“The next one to do this encounters my wrath,” he swore, curling his fist.
He turned around and saw the woman carrying the child edge closer to the road, keeping her eye on the flowing traffic.
“No, Ma’am. Not a very good idea…” he muttered to himself, shaking his head in disapproval. “You need to cross the road at the signal… This is not good…”
Some cops are born with a policeman’s instinct; some acquire them over years of training. When he spotted the stroller by the road-side, he had already started running. It was a few seconds later that he even bothered to ask himself why. But he never questioned his instinct, only acted on it.
When he was about a hundred metres from her, calling out and waving frantically, the woman took one deep breath, held her smiling baby tight and stepped right on to the path of a long distance bus that was hurtling towards the traffic lights.
The memory of the empty stroller by the roadside would haunt him for years to come.
Published by the Mag