Mukund was one of my best friends—we had been studying together in a private school for five years until we wrote our Board exams. Unfortunately, my classmates called him as ‘Dabba Mukund’. I felt bad whenever I heard some one called him by his sobriquet. It was object poverty and financial crunch that gave such an appellation to Mukund.
It always happened like this during lunch recess on all school working day—a tragic sight indeed. Mukund, with his frayed trouser, creased shirt and unkempt hair, would stay put in Mr. Angan’s room [he was our English teacher] to get his quote of a lunch dabba[dabba: usually a cylindrical tin or aluminum container] from the teacher. Mr. Angan, a kind-hearted, empathetic soul, would always bring from home a dozen of lunch dabbas and distribute them to the poor students who came from the nearby slum.
Mr. Angan was a hefty man with a big, twirly mustache and thickset whiskers. But, he was humane; a Good Samaritan. The teacher did not stop with supplying a lunch dabba to Mukund every day. He would take pains to visit Mukund’s slum, meet his parents and exhort them to continue to toil for Mukund’s future. The teacher took extra care in grooming the boy as he saw in him best potentialities of achieving great feats in life.
“A poor boy. How studiously Mukund pursues his studies with grit and determination not succumbing to the pangs of hunger and the taunts of his classmates,” Mr. Angan would always speak high of my friend in the classroom without mincing words.
Mukund would always keep himself aloof from other students. However, he liked me most and shared with me all his thoughts and feelings. He said to me once:
“Easwar, I know some students call me Dabba Mukund. True, it hurts me. But, being poor, I have no option but to carry the cross. My parents are only coolies and most of the day we’ve gruel for our lunch; he paused, looked at the sky and then continued. “But for Angan sir I would have, by this time, died of hunger. God save him and his family. Yes, right now I’m concerned only with my studies and I don’t give a damn to how I’m called.”
The final examination was over and it was time for us to leave the school. We had a farewell meet in the classroom. There were fun and laughter all around. Mukund became the butt of students’ taunts.
A boy, he too was a slum dweller, came over to Mukund and stared at him in the face. He then bloated: “All these years you got a free lunch from Angan sir. Will you at least return the empty dabbas to him? What are you going to do for the teacher from whose lunch boxes you’d grown like a guinea pig?” The class went into raptures. Mukund was sitting unmoved; not minding the sarcasm thrown at him like missiles. Though Mukund took the taunts in his stride, I could see his tear-choked eyes, which he tried to hide away from me.
We then parted, wishing each other good luck. Unfortunately, I had, in the hustle and bustle of life completely forgotten Mukund. It was over ten years I met Mukund and that too on his wedding day. He was now a software engineer, had grown in status. A week before his wedding, he called me over the phone and invited me to his wedding. When I was a bit confused about the identity of the caller, Mukund laughed and said: ‘Easwar, don’t you know me? I’m Mukund … Dabba Mukund.’ With so many other things to occupy my mind, I had not given Mukund a thought for years; but now, with a little shock, I remembered.
Mr. Angan greeted me with folded hands when I reached the marriage hall. The teacher was now thin; his big, swirly mustache shrunk and went gray. Mukund ran over to me helter-skelter, when he saw me talking to Angan sir and shook hands with me rather passionately. He was in a groom’s attire, sporting rose flower garlands around his neck. He had now grown tall, a bit sturdier. His eyes were gleaming now and they were no longer somber as they did during his school days.
The Bride came when Mukund and I were talking about our old days. But to my shock, she was limping her way through the aisle of the marriage hall. I knew later that she was the victim of childhood polio that had completely ruined her left leg. Mukund called her by his side and said: ‘Easwar, she is Anjali, Mr. Angan’s daughter.’
A pleasant surprise swept me off my feet. I was excited, stood dumbfounded. I was still staring at Mukund with all the reverence at my command as if he was an Angel. “I’m proud of you, Mukund. You’ve done an excellent job … a humane act.” I fumbled for words, shook hands with Mukund again. Overwhelmed with emotions, I felt my eyes became moist.
“That’s what we call gratitude. Mukund, it needs a mind of gold to give life to a physically challenged girl. Marrying Angan sir’s daughter is more than what you got from him.” I hugged my friend.
Mukund blushed. Taking the Bride’s hands in his, he said: ‘I’m always conscious that I had grown only out of Angan sir’s dabbas. The help and support I got from him cannot be repayable. I remain indebted to him until I breathe my last. You told me about gratitude, yes … slum dogs are more grateful than those living in palaces.’
‘Great! Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul’, I thought while taking leave of Mukund and his wife.
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