One of the essential victuals in the school bag in those days was a loaded, circular, stainless-steel tiffin box to be in readiness to appease hunger pangs at lunchtime. In the one I carried, there would invariably be curd-rice, with nothing greater and inviting than a lowly, lamented slice of sour, tangy, oily lemon pickle as a side dish.
On that day, as I trudged wearily to the school, I checked the lunchbox involuntarily. The lid was intact and the contents had not leaked or spilt out, soiling the books.
The Board High School, which was my seat of learning, was spartan, offering no frills. Not even a hall for the students to take lunch. We had to push off to the garden at the back of the school, where a leafy canopy of trees, whose botanical names baffled me, provided us with shade and shelter. Before I squatted, I looked sharply to see if there were ants that delighted in foraying into my anatomy, through the half-trousers, to bite at will wherever and whenever they pleased. As abundant caution, I also looked up to see if there was any congregation of crows who would choose to ‘bless’ me while I was eating.
Soon, I opened the lunchbox listlessly. The curd-rice was there but not in all its creamy colloidal glory at the time of packing. It was like lumpy clay in a metallic mould. The slice of lime pickle that resembled a bright cherry atop a scoop of ice cream had sunk deep, leaving a mini oily spill as evidence.
To add water to loosen the coagulated mass was the work of a moment. Before I could take my first morsel, with a need-based liking, there was a commotion. Many boys who were lunching at a distance were hurrying out. The reason was a news flash that Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru would be passing through the highway abutting the school, any moment. The scramble was to have a look at him, the Muhammad having come to the mountain.
I was on the horns of a dilemma. Should I abort my lunch, suppressing my wolfish hunger, and join the line-up for the PM? Or finish the bland but habituated bill of fare? Illogically, the scale tilted in favour of getting over with the luncheon monotony that was permanent than to crave for a transient excitement. Eventually, when I rushed towards the highway, the boys were returning. Pandit Nehru had gone. I could have postponed, not sacrificed, my lowly lunch for the man who had sacrificed a lot for the nation.
Detested at the foul-up in priorities, I looked at the lunchbox I had carried absentmindedly. Though empty, it felt heavy. But not as heavy as my heart.
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