Kham Bahadur Stores.

It’s 24th December, it’s a cold evening right before Christmas, and I’m standing at the edge of a lake staring into the freezing water.
Temperatures here touch 8 degrees in the coldest days of January. Right now, it’ll probably be something close to 15.
It’s the evening before Christmas and some houses have balloons of a huge star on their rooftops. It’s the evening before Christmas, and Chacha is smiling through his stubble of grey beard.
20 years ago, there was a riot that broke out in a valley of Nepal, and families were forced to give up their last hope of a life in their homeland and move to places with no memory of it’s own.
23rd September, three months ago, chacha refuses to sell me cigarettes.
You’re not old enough for cigarettes, he tells me.
26th December, two days from today, chacha’s only son would get himself arrested for drunk driving on his bike.
At this moment, chacha’s smile warms the evening. Merry Christmas chacha, I say. His smile widens.

20 years ago, a family arrives at this old town, still colonial in its spirit, with the railway servicemen babus and their missionary school educated kids and their love for benarasi paans. The family consists of an old withering father, and his 45 year old son who used to work at a textile mill back in abandoned Nepal. The father coughs a lot, and spends sleepless nights hallucinating about his own death. The son finds work at one of the missionary schools, as watchman first, then gets promoted to a peon. There is no female figure in the house, and the son marries a month after he is made the school peon. The bride, in her early 30’s, had given up hopes of being married, and is too shy to tell her husband her name properly.

7 years later, another Christmas, the son leaves his job as a peon, and opens a tiny shop right outside the school gates. Kham Bahadur Stores, the painted sign above the shop reads.
Kham was the name his grandfather had given him. His father died 3 years back. Bahadur means brave, in Hindi.
Over all these years, only memories remain, and they are broken and replaced by new ones. But Bahadur Chacha becomes a permanent fixture in the minds of all students who frequent his shop. Every year, he turns a little older, and another batch of students pass out, and they all buy candies and biscuits and laddus and cigarettes from Chacha.
One year, there’s an idol immersion in the lake beside his shop, and one of the kids who was with the group, slips and falls into the waters.

His feet get stuck in a curve of the idol, and in a moment, he’s getting pulled into the waters with the heavy idol holding him down, till he can’t breath anymore. The other guys are standing, frozen with shock and fear, unable to scream, unable to jump in and get their friend now slowly drowning right before their eyes.
And then, there was Chacha, running towards the lake in his stubble and lungi, and jumping in before anyone really knew what was happening. He frees the boy, and swims with him till they are both gasping and panting for breath, but now on the dusty road.
Overnight, people are suddenly coming over to congratulate Bahadur Chacha, and the school rewards him with a gold plated memento to recommend his act of bravery.
Chacha still sells cigarettes and candies, and his beard turns entirely grey as the memory of his bravery slowly fades away from people’s minds.

The school hires twenty six new teachers, and fires four. Eight retire. Three find better jobs somewhere else. Fourteen teachers marry. One files for divorce, and charges her husband with a domestic violence case. One goes away to Australia, and returns six years later. Chacha slowly becomes the beacon of safety in a part of the town where at least thirty muggings took place on the roads around the lake, because it was completely deserted after 8 in the evening, and one baby was found floating in the lake, dead and bloated, after her uncle strangled and dumped her following family quarrels.
Chacha became the one person who would always run to the rescue of anyone in need. Over the next few years, he prevented numerous cases of muggings, and brought home a German Shepherd the retiring principal of the school was giving away.
Several alcoholics were saved from either drowning in the lake while intoxicated, or being robbed and killed by thieves preying on their incapacitated state. One man who got hit on his head over some property dispute he got into, and left on the road to bleed to death, was rushed to the hospital after Chacha found him.

24th December, I stand beside the lake, and there are streetlights and regular police vans patrolling the area now. People take shortcuts from the station through this road at midnight, without the slightest fear of getting mugged or raped or killed. The area looks very different from how it used to, even a decade back.

Chacha smiles at me.
Merry Christmas chote babu, he says.
Every ex-student of the school was always chote babu for him.
Chacha smiles a lot, I remember.

Even when there would only be sadness around, Chacha would smile and tell us to hold on.
2 days later, his son would be arrested for a drunk driving case, and Chacha would say, ”

I tried. But he didn’t learn. Maybe life will teach him now.

And he’d smile a sad smile. But he’ll know his son isn’t a bad kid. That soon, he’ll realise his mistakes, and turn over a new leaf. That was the most important thing about Chacha, the belief in the existence of goodness, and the will to fight for it.

Bahadur, means brave.

And his biggest act of bravery, was to believe, no matter what the circumstances.

24th December, the evening before Christmas, I look at Chacha. Some people are the waves which rock our boats when they come. But some, are like a lighthouse, always there, standing tall and proud against the lashing severities of the ocean, guiding sailors to safe lands, and holding on to the belief in good.

Chalte hain Chacha, I call out before leaving.
Chacha smiles.

Some smiles warm the coldest nights.

Some smiles, are like Christmas themselves.

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Dyspeptalk #22

When a bomb goes off  at midnight amongst a thousand people who were cheering their teams a moment ago, or singing along to their favourite bands, or just toasting the homecoming of their child after graduating art college, it takes a lot more from us than just lives.

It takes from us the ability to empathise.
It creates norms where we learn to round up the body count, where almost 2oo bodies seem a little less tragic than 226, or 264.
It takes from us the ability to sympathise.
Where Beirut and Baghdad and Paris and Yemen and Mumbai aren’t just victims anymore. Where they become segregated. Where we can ignore cities with a hundred dead people, because they didn’t have it bad enough.

It takes from us our beliefs.
Our theatres. Our concerts. Our football matches. It takes all of that away, and leaves us with war poetry, and war literature, and a generation that’ll always hear bullets when they close their eyes, not an applauding audience.
It takes from us our safety.
And we are constantly looking behind when we walk home every night. And we treat every other religion with suspicion. Where our neighbours suddenly become ticking time bombs. Where the war dies out, but the battles rage everyday.
Where every second kid is arrested for carrying grandfather clocks in their bags because someone thought it was a bomb.
Where some kids will.

It takes from us our humanity.
Our smiles. Our love. Our prayers.
It breaks us in places we shall never recover from. So that long after the terrorists have become extinct, we will still know how it feels to hate, to fear, to live our lives in landmine fields.

It takes from us everything, except our sheer will to rise up, and fight back.
It takes from us everything, except the belief that goodness exists, and it is worth fighting for.
Prove the bombs wrong.
We owe ourselves that much.