It was 5 am. One of the busiest docks in Mumbai, Bhaucha Dhakka was already up and running. No one knows how long has this port followed the same routine. The rush starts at the Dockyard station where hundreds alight from distant suburbs. You could see them running across the foot over bridge every morning, men and women of all sizes rushing about their daily business. Daily wage labourers, fishermen and fisherwomen rush to board the shuttle service BEST no. 41, waiting at the end of the overbridge, that takes them to the Dhakka as the locals call it.
The dock itself smells of all things dank and deep. Fresh and dried fish being traded everywhere, some newspaper vendors and the quaint snack shops complete the picture. A place with an ancient routine and yet some newness everyday. The old wooden benches seemed to have stories of conversations of ages ago. Every part of the dock, a piece of history itself.
It was in this ancient place that Bhola had set up a brand new tea stall. He was one of the many enterprising North Indian migrants in the city, trying to make a place for themselves in the city of dreams. Everyday the hustle and bustle reminded him just how much he loved to be a part of this city that never slept. He had just finished attending to two deck hands of one of the many catamarans that ferried people when Sona jumped onto the table at the stall. Sona was one of the many cats loitering at the dock. Apart from stealing fish from the many baskets kept at the dock, Sona loved to lap up the milk that Bhola offered her everyday. She had been a weak kitten when she had walked in one rainy day. Bhola had taken pity on her and had fed her hot milk and since then it had become a daily routine. In a friendless city, Bhola and Sona were what each of them had for themselves.
But today was the day when this delicate friendship was set to change forever. As Bhola was stroking Sona, he heard a voice calling out. ‘Suniye, do chai dijiye.’ Bhola turned to find two college students standing at his stall. The owner of the voice, a beautiful looking young girl. The freshness of her face seemed odd at this run down dock. A sense of it all being unreal descended on Bhola. ‘Do chai bola’, her voice shook him out of his thoughts. The girl was looking slightly irritated at his lackadaisical attitude. Bhola quickly got back to work and gave the girls the tea. Sona seemed to be whimpering loudly in the backdrop and the girls threw a dirty look at the cat and then an accusing glance at Bhola for letting dirty animals into the stall as they left. ‘Safai ka dhyaan bhi nahin rakhte yahaan ke log’, the girl muttered as she left.
That brief exchange changed something within Bhola. Try as he might he couldn’t get the girl out of his head for the rest of the day. At night as he fell asleep in his little slum room, he wondered if he would see her again. It was strange for him to feel infatuated so soon.
The next day was business as usual at the Dhakka. The same sea of humanity going about their work. For Bhola though it was a different day. It was a day filled with anticipation for him. Would she come again? He was serving tea as usual but his mind was restless. Well it didn’t seem as she would come, but Sona was there right on time. As the cat settled herself on the table as usual, Bhola felt a mild irritation for the first time. He really looked at the smudges of dirt on the table her paws were leaving, the greyish brown fur and the slight smell that emanated from the cat. ‘Maybe the girls were right. I should discourage this cat from coming here’, he said to himself. He poured Sona an extra hot saucer of milk today. The cat whined slightly with the first lick, but instead of going away, she just settled herself for the milk to cool a bit and continue feeding herself. This irritated Bhola a little more. Just as his irritation was mounting he heard that voice again. His heart almost jumped with joy.
The girls were there again. Seemed that they came from some village near Rewas and had taken admission in a Mumbai college. The girls lacked the finesse of the South Mumbai college girls, but made up for it with the freshness of their faces. Bhola could not help but stare at this girl, but like every infatuated man, he would look away if she looked in his direction.
Soon it became a routine. Bhola would give the girls their morning tea and would spend the rest of the day mooning over the girl who he had by now gathered was called Deepa. Deepa would come each day with her friend and Bhola started connecting every good thing happening in his life with her. His tea stall seemed to be getting more popular and he felt it was all because he started his day looking at her beautiful face. But one thing that bothered him was Sona. The more he started liking Deepa, the more he wanted to banish the dirty cat from his stall. Invariably Sona would end up coming to the shop at the same time as Deepa. This irritated him no end. He tried hot milk, putting some salt in the milk everything that would irritate the cat, but she seemed to be somehow tied to his shop and wouldn’t leave.
His nights now were full of two thoughts. How to get closer to Deepa and how to get rid of the cat. One day though it seemed that his wish was granted. Deepa finally spoke to him. Though it was just a casual chat about how the weather was turning slightly chilly and how his tea was a life saver in this weather, it was all Bhola needed to feel over the moon. He started thinking Deepa liked him too. This pleased him but even that day while leaving the girls threw a dirty look at the cat. He shooed Sona away as he smiled sheepishly at the departing girls.
From that day onwards he started giving Deepa and her friend something free with the chai, a toffee, a piece of cake and when the girls asked he said that it was because they were his loyal customers. The weather was getting cooler and though Mumbai didn’t really have a winter, early mornings could be quite chilly. Sona seemed to spend more time at the stall trying to get some warmth from the heat of the burning stove. Bhola was no really losing it with the cat. Her presence was like some bad omen to him. If on some day he had a fight with some customer or someone commented on something lacking in his shop, he blamed it all on the cat’s unlucky presence. Deepa and her friend continued to frequent the shop and one day while he was shooing away the cat she told him, ‘Why don’t you get a stick tomorrow and beat her away? The cat is really a nuisance.’ You know I had never thought of this, thanks for the suggestion’, Bhola replied.
The next day when Sona pounced on the table, Bhola was ready he took out a stick and beat the cat and chased her away. Sona squealed and whimpered and ran away. It was a very cold day and the cat really seemed to have needed the hot milk, but Bhola was determined that he would not let the cat spoil the cleanliness of his shop. She could get the milk from somewhere else. The cat had received enough blows from his stick. When Bhola returned he was greeted with the smiling faces of Deepa and her friend who had seen him chasing away the cat. ‘Good you did that’, she said. ‘Anything for my loyal customers,’ Bhola replied with a smile. Deepa’s affirmation wiped away the remaining guilt of sending the cat to fend for herself on such a cold, damp day.
After the girls left, Bhola realised that one of the customers had left a bag at his shop. He seemed to have gone in the direction of the bus stop. Conscientious as he was Bhola asked the newspaper vendor who sat near his stall to look after it while he rushed to the bus stop to find the customer. He finally found him waiting for the bus. The man thanked him profusely for returning the bag. Bhola declined the offer of being paid for his honesty and was going back to his shop when he heard a familiar giggle. ‘That tea boy is really smitten with you Deepa, he does anything for you’, the friend was saying. Bhola stopped in his tracks, he wanted to hear what Deepa would say to that. He was standing slightly far away and the girls had not yet noticed him. Deepa was giggling, ‘Yeah I noticed that the first day itself, the way he was looking at me. I just felt like playing along. He looked like such an idiotic infatuated puppy. And look don’t we get freebies everyday from him. I am sure someday if we have some problem at the dock, he will come running to help. I don’t want to be mean, but you cant help but string along such fools’ she laughed as she walked away.
Bhola’s ears were ringing as he returned to his stall. It was like someone had just taken out his heart and squeezed it of all the blood. The disillusionment was terrible. ‘And it was for her that you beat up that poor creature?’ His guilty head asked him constantly. He shut his shop and went about looking for the cat, but she was nowhere to be found. Disheartened he went home early that evening, but couldn’t sleep a wink. The next day he was up early and reached the dock to his stall. He kept on looking out for the cat but couldn’t find her. Just then the newspaper vendor came to set up his stall. He looked at Bhola and said, ‘That cat wont trouble you anymore. I just saw her bloody body on the curb of the road. They say she was run over by a car sometime ago. A dead cat, not a good omen to see early in the morning on your way to work.’ Tears were Bhola’s only reply.