He was standing in the train. 7-years-old, maybe. His dusty hair was set rather neatly. Small nose. Watery eyes. Thick lips. Protruding chest. Skinny hands, which he stretched to catch the support rod in the train. His legs looked rather unusual — the knees were bulging out as though there were tennis balls behind the knee caps. The feet were normal, but they were black and grimy. The grime, in fact, looked fresh. One can only guess, but perhaps in a hurry to get into the train, he might have stepped into the slush of the narrow gutter between railway tracks.
But why was he rolling his lips inwards — you know, the way people do while fighting tears. Why? Why would a 7-year-old boy fight his tears? They are allowed to do that… even in public. Was it fear of attention? Sympathy?
There was no way of knowing, of course. It was then that he first looked at me. He was a brave boy. Scared at the moment, but brave nonetheless.
He was wearing a faded tee, torn at the armpits. The collar showed signs of wear too. The shorts were beige. Both were dirty. The print on the shirt was fading. But looking closely one could spot cartoon characters on the shirt. It was made for children. That’s when I noticed… the shirt fitted him rather well. The shirt was made for a 7-year-old.
There were 3 characters — papa, mummy, and a small boy. The boy had a doll in his hand. “Where is my Blankie?,” he demanded. There were some names written — only one was legible enough. “Ernie”. It seemed natural to assume that Ernie was the name of the little boy.
Did Ernie have parents like the Ernie on the tee-shirt? Had he ever held a doll. Demanded a blankie? It seemed unlikely. Else he would have run around even in that packed train, inconviniencing other passengers. He would have rushed to one window, soon gotten bored of the view, and hopped to the opposite window; lightly touching people’s knees for support as he moved between the seats with that unconsciousness that only a child can possess.
But Ernie made sure he wasn’t coming in anyone’s way. Too early in his life, he had learnt that the First Class compartment had no place for a grimy boy. He could stand there if he kept himself inconspicuous. He was rolling his lips, trying hard not to cry.
Dadar. Ernie got off the train. Where? One cannot guess. One will not follow Ernie’s fate. Ernie and his grimy feet are on their own.