The boy with a backpack was ten years old, give or take a year.
He had bright, intelligent eyes and a cocky assurance about him. He wore a tan jacket and khakhi full length trousers, in protection against the chilly winter winds. He was carrying a backpack which he refused to put down. From time to time he would hitch his large backpack into place importantly, glancing at me from the corner of his eyes as if to say, “See how responsible I am?” He was waiting for the train to arrive at the gloomy, small town railway station with his hassled mother, as was I.
Why was his mother hassled?
Well, if you are the mother of a ten year old energetic boy who was intelligent AND a smart-ass, being hassled would be your default state. At that age, and for a few years more, boys are into this annoying mr-know-it-all phase. That is the phase during which even your doting mother wants to bounce a couple of bricks on your head every half an hour just to take a bit of vinegar out of your system. Motherly kindness, you know!
With boys, you always know where you stand. Right in the path of a hurricane.
~ Erma Bombeck
That the boy was full-swing into his rather virulent form of mr-know-it-all was apparent to me in about two ticks. I looked on interested, while pretending to be busy with my phone. I didn’t want the child latching on to me. Boys in the throes of their know-it-all-ness are always looking for fresh meat. They naturally want to impress as many people as possible. I had no intention of becoming a part of his statistics.
He paced importantly about the railway platform, hitching his already hitched backpack into place. He’d go over to the edge of the platform and peer importantly into the gathering dusk. Though he didn’t say so, it would have been obvious to the meanest intelligence that but for this selfless exertion on his part, the train would never arrive. Then we’d all have shriveled up and died, waiting for a train that never came. So tragic, right?
“Aman,” his mother bleated plaintively, “where did you keep the key to the lock on the suitcase?”
The boy looked at her loftily, speaking ONLY with his eyes. It was obvious he considered the query beneath his dignity to answer. The mother, already hassled, was not amused.
“Tell me where the key is!” she snapped.
With an infinitesimal jut of his chin in no particular direction, he again answered with his eyes. I’m sure he was trying to train (pun not intended) his mother. But the mother wasn’t having any of it. I distinctly saw her hand twitch. I was in complete sympathy with her. For two pence, I’d have had a go at the boy myself.
The boy accurately discerned the danger quotient of the look emanating from maternal eyes and reluctantly muttered, “Its in your bag.” With that he scooted off. He was out of her range. She could neither deliver a well-deserved clout nor query him further.
The poor woman was carrying two voluminous bags with more pockets than a rich man has relatives. Since the brat was out of ear-shot and the train was about to come in any minute, she saw no point expecting detailed instructions from her progeny. She feverishly commenced hunting down the missing key.
Once she was done unlocking the suitcase and the subsequent rummaging about, the boy returned, with bells in his hair. He was grinning happily. Something told me he had no recollection of where he had inserted the key. From the look of relief on his face, he probably did not know if he had indeed remembered to keep the key at all!
With admirable composure, the mother said, “Take out the woolen cap from your backpack and put it on.”
With dangerous and reckless vim the boy curtly said, “No, I wont. I’m not cold.”
I distinctly saw the mother’s hand twitch, in sympathetic detonation with my own. Then she smiled, more to herself than to him. It was the kind of smile one produces when one chuckles at an amusing inner vision.
“Look,” she said solemnly, “we’re taking the super-fast train. Once we board, there will be no time for you to open your bag until we reach Jabalpur.”
There was something about the woman’s voice. It thrilled with a wild sense of adventure so powerful, the boy was ensnared. He turned to her, goggle-eyed, jaw dropping open in wonder.
Call me fey, but in his eyes I saw the high drama of the scene from Mission Impossible. His face wreathed itself in a grin as wide as Shiva’s arms. Without a word, he unhitched the backpack, dug out his somber woolen cap and donned it. Even with the cap, he totally looked Tom Cruise-esque. True story.
The mother? She smiled serenely. She had got him, at last. The boy never knew he’d been got. She turned to me and grinned conspiratorially.
We never spoke a word; there was no need.
Boy With a Backpack