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“But you know Probability better than me,” I wailed. “Please, do the exercise by today evening, so that I have time to copy. I need to submit it tomorrow in class.”
Gopal looked apologetic. “I won’t be able to finish it by tonight. But I promise to give it to you early morning tomorrow. Will it do?”
“Ok, fine. But give it to me sharp at 8, ok? I don’t think I will wake up before that.”
I felt relaxed now that my Maths homework for tomorrow had been taken care of. I rushed to switch on the television set. I could not possibly miss a World Cup soccer match for some Maths homework!
Gopal was the best friend I had. He was in the same class as me, but a different school. When my family had shifted to this city, the shy me failed to make many new friends, both in my locality and my new school. Gopal had been my friend since then. I admit that he was more brilliant than me, of which I took full advantage of. He did all my Maths and Science homework for me; in exchange of the English essays and answers that I prepared for him. He taught me how to fly a kite, in exchange of my cricket lessons to him. He also took me to the neighbourhood pond for a swim, in exchange of all my spare stationary. Ours was a perfect symbiotic friendship – a lot of give-and-take. But, in addition to all the favours that we kept doing for each other, we also shared a deep bonding. We trusted each other with all our secrets, always covered up for each other before the elders for any wrong-doing and always shared food. I used to pass on all that I hated, like milk and fruits to Gopal and received churan and hazmi from him. My mother never had a clue why, despite the diet she was providing me with, I remained scrawny as ever!
“How much did you get?” I asked, flushed with excitement. “I got a neat 80 percent.”
He was smiling broadly, happy for my achievement. “You deserve it after all the hard work. I also scored well; 75 per cent overall.”
“How much in Science group?” Gopal was particularly brilliant in Science.
“83 in Physics, 88 in Mathematics. But Chemistry and Biology were not too great.”
I thumped his back loudly. “Well done, my friend. This is absolutely superb.” I was happy for his achievement at the State Board Examinations, as well as for myself. I was very glad that he had done so well. I was also glad that he didn’t score more than me, of which I was really worried of. After all, what would people say if the servant scored more than the master’s son?
Yes, Gopal was a servant at our place. He helped my mother in all the household chores and yet, found time for night school. He had a determination – to battle against all odds and to break the shackles of poverty. He used to tell me, “I do all sorts of jobs only to finance my education. They may be menial, but I need the money. One day, I shall be someone with a different job, some money and yes, lots of prestige.” If there was something he really cared or aimed for, that was not money but prestige.
He had lost both his parents early and was being raised by an alcoholic bachelor uncle. He often used to say, “I wish baba and ma were alive. They would never have let me work at this age.”
I used to admire his grit and determination to challenge his destiny; but at the same time, I was quite jealous of his intelligence and had a secret desire to score over him. I used to dub it as healthy competition, but deep down, it had a lot to do with my fear of “What will people say?" The fool that I was, I never realized that Gopal, with his background would always be at a disadvantage, and always one step behind me. I, never for one moment, gave a thought about how he felt about my life full of support, monetary comfort and loving parents. Did he ever compare our situations and feel unlucky? Was he jealous of my life? I did not know and never tried to find out, either.
Gopal was a very hardworking boy. He used to come to our house sharp at 6 am and start helping my mother in the kitchen. Then he would finish the cleaning, washing and mopping and go to a nearby shop. He would dust and mop its floors and then have lunch at some roadside place. He used to do all other sorts of odd jobs in the afternoon and then go to night school. He had done shifts at a nearby pesticide factory, because of which he used to fall ill often. The poisonous atmosphere there forced him to quit and instead he joined a steel factory. He was good with all things mechanical and was well-loved everywhere for his intelligence and good manners. As and when the expenses for his schooling increased, he used to take up more and more odd jobs.
Just after he took admission in his school after the Boards in the science stream, he requested my mother to give him some more free time in the day. He had by then, taken up work on contract basis as a labourer at a construction site. He was very happy and excited about it. The pay was good and he was getting to learn first hand, how to build homes. He had already found his true calling and set his aim to be a civil engineer. Every night, after a long, tiring day, he used to prepare hard for the Engineering Joint Entrance test.
I often used to wonder whether he would become the first civil engineer who had previous work experience of a mason, too.
Sri looked perplexed. “Why are you telling me this story, Sumit? What has it got to do with the present situation? Are you saying that you are doing what you are doing because of this servant friend of yours?”
“Sri, please try to understand. I am not trying to be great or something. I just feel that this girl Reena may have a bright future if given the right opportunity. She may have the life which Gopal could not have. She could be the child that we shall never have. May be, I am doing all these not because of Gopal, but for my own sake.”
Agitated, Sri exclaimed, “We can always adopt, but never a poor maid girl! We will go to the adoption centre and adopt a baby. But how can you even suggest that we adopt a 10 year old maid?”
“If I don’t do it, I shall never be absolved of the guilt of all these years. Please, Sri, try to understand. I have never had a moment’s rest since that day. It always comes back to haunt me.”
As I was pleading with my wife, I could see that day as vividly as if it was happening right then and there. Because of his skills, Gopal had been promoted by the contractor from just a helping hand to a full-fledged worker. He used to tell me stories of painting the building wall, while hanging mid-air in the bamboo structures. I was extremely fascinated and wanted to see this feat for myself.
I reached the site in the afternoon, after school. Gopal, in his excitement to show me his expertise, started climbing the temporary bamboo structures. I looked on awestruck, as he nimbly climbed up all the way till the eighth floor and hung his paint bucket. At that moment, a childish thought struck me. I felt he had the best life. He did not have to worry about hundred mundane things in life, except how to earn to continue his studies. Up there, he seemed like a free bird, ready to paint his own destination.
I cried out aloud. “Sumit, what happened? Why do you look so pale? You have never shared this particular pain of yours till date. Please tell me,” I looked into her eyes.
“Sri, while the foolish me was busy contemplating whether Gopal had a better life or not, high up there, he suddenly faltered on a wrong footstep and failed to regain control. Then, right before my eyes, he fell on the ground with a deafening thud. One moment he was up there, smiling and waving at me; the next moment he was lifeless, in a pool of thick, black blood, and his eyes wide open in shock. In those eyes, I could clearly see the disappointment at having lost out on life so early. Each night, he visits me and asks how’s life, and each night I say how sorry I am for him. I say sorry to him for always being so selfish in our friendship; for never looking at life from his perspective; for admiring his struggle but never realizing what exactly it entailed for him. When I saw Reena and her brilliance for the first time, I immediately saw traces of Gopal in her. Right now, she is a mere house-hold maid, but with her intelligence, she can grow up to be somebody respectable if we help her.”
With a tear-chocked voice, my wife squeezed my hand. “We shall help her.”
“Its an honour for our University to have Ms. Reena Basu institute the Sumit Basu Memorial Gold Medal for Overall Excellence. We are proud to have amongst us today, the renowned economist, Ms. Reena Basu, herself who shall now deliver a short speech on her father, her own inspiring life and her work.”
More of Gopal, to inspire all
That dreams are but future reality
More of Reena, to show all
That they just need support and not pity;
A bit of help and some loving words
If the society shows them
More and more Sumit will
Turn the wheel of the game;
The menace that is child labour
And lack of education
Will be a thing of the past, if
Each one, just teach one