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It’s lunchtime hustle in the canteen by the river. Chotu flits between tables – clearing used cutlery, filling glasses of those who have recently arrived and attending to sundry requests from guests and orders from his officious colleagues. As I walk in, he greets me with a quick nod of his head, “Namaste, Aunty.”  His courtesy, I soon gather, is customary. It comes so effortlessly to him that it seems to have grown with him and settled naturally in his juvenile bones. As I follow his gentle manners and agility packed in a small frame, I notice an over-sized digital sports watch on his wrist that he adjusts to position now and then. It sits awkwardly, as if it was his only claim to glory in life. The rest of it, as I can see, is a childhood lost amidst clanking plates and wipe odours from table tops. “Chotu, don’t you go to school?” I ask him on the last day of my stay as he puts the tumblers on the table. His striking aspects, which I have begun to admire greatly in three days, deserved to be channeled elsewhere. “No, I dropped out.” “When and why?” I can’t mask my dismay. Last year, after eighth. Father died….” My face fell. That same old story, that repeated narrative, of saddled lives in small bodies. I sip some water in an attempt to douse that queasy stir inside. Somewhere, something has to change. In bits, in little shifts. To bail these little limbs out of premature decay. For this world to seem better. “Who all do you have in your family?” I dig further. “My mother and a younger sister.” “What does your sister do?” I ask with trepidation. I am not sure what to expect. I prepare myself for another crushing account of frayed childhood dreams. “She goes to school. I pay her fees and buy her books.” I don’t miss the glint of pride in his eyes as he says this with clear emphasis. I break into a smile, my admiration for the industrious little thing in front of me swelling and touching the edge of my soul. Before I can say something, he sprints to a table at the far end of the hall. I consider beckoning him for a picture before I leave. But I let it be. He is my personal hero. I don’t want him to be reduced to a poster boy with a patronizing tagline. As I walk out of the canteen for the last time, I see rain clouds gathered over the foothills of the Himalayas. Sunlight seeps through the breaches in the overcast sky. Sometimes, hope resides in ‘chotu’ spaces, with only an over-sized sports watch and a sacred river bearing mute testimony.

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