I was all of 10 years old when I first saw Rajesh More . He was much shorter than me , swarthy in complexion , had a pock marked face, sat on the first bench and trying hard to fit in though I did not comprehend the effort at that point in life . I was too engrossed in my own life and the myriad complexities in the life of a 10 year old .
At lunch time, as was customary in those days we started playing games of a physical nature which was so prevalent in the days of yore when video games and cell phones had not made their intrusive persistent appearance into children’s lives . The popular games were Thief-Police where one of the kids would be elected Police and he would have to chase and catch every one of the other kids , another popular game was langdi , this was a game very similar to the previous one except the domain was limited and the person in charge of catching was to limp with one leg . It was at this time that I got a closer look at Rajesh More , he had one leg that look shriveled . I had no idea what it meant and I assumed that it was a birth defect at the time. My parents had been very persistent in their endeavors to teach me to be sensitive to all persons of lesser fortune. And so I ignored my class mates nickname for him , “Langdya” (a term for somebody who is lame, almost always used in a pejorative sense) . For reasons that become obvious to anybody who has read Lord of the Flies , Rajesh became the perenial favorite at Langdi, he was always elected to catch the rest of the guys .I overheard a conversation between two boys who were instrumental in getting him that vied after post. “He has a natural advantage over all of us , the bum leg is not as heavy as our regular legs” He was happy to fit in and was accommodating, never complained about being picked on for the same role every single time. Ironically I also noticed that as time passed , he reacted sooner to Langdya than he did to Rajesh .
In sixth grade ,we learnt about Infectious and contagious diseases and that was our first introduction to Polio . The teacher Mrs Raman asked Rajesh to step in front of the class so that we could get a closer look at his withered leg “This is what Polio does to your legs when it is not treated in time . Rajesh , how old were you ? ”
Rajesh mutely shook his head , we took it to mean that he did not know . Some smart alecks gossiped among themselves and debated how dumb could one be, if one could not remember a life altering disease . I found myself nodding in agreement , I had been a victim of chicken pox and that had left a deep impression on me . In case , I forgot the memory, I had the scars some of which were painful when touched that would certainly jog my memory. The same smart alecks started asking if we could possibly get infected with Polio . This started a fresh wave of ostracism and overnight our pattern of games had changed and Rajesh was no longer a needed part of the lunch time entertainment . Did he feel that loss acutely ? He had belonged to a clique and now that sense of belonging had been wrenched away from him . Was it perhaps due to the teacher’s well meaning gesture that had sought to educate us that had served to sever the social ties that are so essential to a young boy .
It finally dawned on Mrs Raman after seeing a lonely crying boy alone during the lunch hour that her gesture of goodwill had turned out to be a complete disaster . She had tried to alleviate the effects by first educating us that Polio after being cured was no longer a threat to society but fear had taken root and the same education which had caused the fear in the first place was powerless to dislodge it . Next she tried to force the kids to play together with him , this had the opposite effect on the children who became abusive at him and when the threat of authority was no longer around, then his ostracism was increased ten fold .He became abusive and even people who had tolerated him , no longer wished to associate with him thereby isolating him further. The term Langdya transcended from being a mere adjective to being an pejorative insult.
I had a few fracas with him over the years but I was never close to him so staying away was an easy option .
When 8th grade rolled around , the familiar spot that he liked to sit in was empty . Some said that he had failed seventh grade and his parents had decided to end his education . I was not sorry to hear that given his vituperic fits .
Several years passed and I moved to college and one day as I was walking by the railway station , I saw a familiar limp in front of me . Memory being what it is, I was happy to see him and maybe even reminisce about our younger days . I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and I could see the joy of recognition light up on his face . At that moment , all was forgotten . I asked him what he was up to . He informed me that he worked at the Raja Bahadur mills as an operator , he asked me what I was doing , I remarked that I was in college and I could see a twinge in his eyes that I put down to contempt. It seemed cruel to me that I was going to college while he was already putting food on the table . Mind you , in case you did not grasp what I am getting at , I was jealous of him that he was actually earning money while I had to go through the monotonous meaningless motions of memorization of meaningless facts and structures and relationships. After bidding adieu , I went on with my college and my life .
Several years later , one of my friends contacted me for a get together at school . Having passed out of school barely 5 years earlier , I was luke warm but decided to go in anyway. It was an interesting evening of meeting old school acquaintances and the boys and the girls seemed to maintain the same safe distance as was customary while growing up . I was getting bored and looking around , I started chatting up with one of my friends Mukund and told him about running into various acquaintances over the years and when I happened to mention Rajesh More , he excitedly interrupted me “Do you know he is dead?”
To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. I started agog , not quite comprehending, “Dead??”
“Yes , his family moved from Somwar Peth to Vadgaon Sheri . He was trying to catch a bus and his bum leg finally betrayed him as he slipped and was crushed underneath . ” Mukund excitably told me.
That bum leg had been the demon in his life , first reprehensibly wrenching away the joys of a normal childhood then it proved to be the instrument of his oppression as he became a child and finally as he was taking his first responsible steps towards adulthood , it had betrayed him to his death.
I was crushed with a sense of grief and I ran over the few times that I had fracas with him and the one incident that I did have where I was silently in envy of his money making abilities and felt a sense of desolation surge through me . My complete and abject failure to provide compassion to a poor lonely boy suddenly cut through me like a scythe and I wondered at the meaningless of it all.
I could not help wonder about the prisons that we all build for ourselves , prisons of belief , prisons of self imposition and whilst we are powerless in face of intolerable cruelty that these prisons make us endure , people like Rajesh are trapped in a real prison, one that they try to escape but rarely succeeding . Perhaps it is time for us to help somebody overcome these physical prisons and they might show us the way to overcome our own.