Dusk was falling fast.
Chhotu hurried up, eager to reach home quickly. Under the weight of his school bag, walking fast was difficult. But he kept moving. Today could be a special day.
His mother was standing at the entrance, as usual. The sound of her child's feet was music to her ears.
The boy, in his eagerness, rushed past and headed straight to his mattress. His hands quivering with excitement, he lifted the torn pillow and took out the small box beneath it.
Inside it were some coins. Carefully he started counting. Then he took out another coin from his pocket and added it to the small pile. "10 rupees, 75 paise" he said. His face fell. Still another rupee and a quarter short.
He looked at his mother, who was smiling with a mixture of amusement and understanding. Answering his look , she said "It's ok. You will save enough soon. Come now, I have made hot onion poha. He should be coming anytime now. You can listen to him while eating."
Sure enough, almost as if on cue, it started. Chhotu ran up to the only window in the room and stood on his toes, struggling to see.
The flute man was on time again. He was walking along the road, playing as usual. A mellifluous melody reverberated through the air. It produced a feeling of peace and tranquility in Chhotu, such as he seldom experienced. A feeling that would transfer him to another world, a world which was pristine, unblemished, a world so pure as could never be imagined.
He had seen and heard the flute man many a times on different days. A thin, ragged figure, with his trademark stained kurta and a white cap. He carried a pole from which hung flutes of different sizes and colours, some more attractively decorated than the others, some long, some short, but all capable of producing rapturous sounds.
Chhotu had his heart set on buying one of those flutes. He already knew which one wanted to buy. It was painted silver in colour, with a golden thread hanging from one of its ends. Getting one was his dream. He sadly looked at the coins still clenched protectively in his fist. One day, he would have enough.
It had never ceased to amaze Chhotu as to how many different tunes the flute man could produce. Most people would usually play film songs or folk songs. His tunes were entirely original. At times, enthusiastic and cheerful. At times, sad and melancholy. Clearly, they reflected the thoughts which possessed him. Nevertheless, the flute man would always play, oblivious to the reactions of the people walking on the street.
One day when Chhotu helped out his neighbouring vegetable vendor in carrying some vegetables, the old man gave him some money in gratitude. His heart thumping with joy, Chhotu realised he finally had enough money to buy a flute.
He sat anxiously, waiting for the flute man to turn up. Soon, one of those magical instruments would be his.
He waited the entire evening. In his restlessness, he couldn't even eat properly. But the flute man didn't turn up. Disappointed, he went to sleep.
In the morning, he heard people talking outside.
"Poor fellow, was so young. Always played so nicely"
"It's a wicked world. Who can stand before His will?"
His mother was sitting just outside with a sad look upon her face. As she saw Chhotu coming she beckoned to him to sit on her lap.
Ruffling his hair reassuringly, she said "You know, that flute man who used to come everyday...They say there was an accident last night...A truck hit him...The driver lost control...He was blowing the horn as a warning but the flute man didn't realise...He was deaf you see..."
Chhotu looked at his mother with a frozen expression, bereft of any reaction. He went back inside without a word and stood on tiptoe at the window. There were no melodies. There was only the sound of silence.