Nine-year-old Zeenat likes sitting with her father on the driver’s seat of their battery-operated rickshaw. Every evening from four to six, she is a companion to her Abba, who plies his vehicle between Bada Chauraha and Phoolbagh in Kanpur.
Abba is happy that he gets these precious two hours to spend with his noorain — the light of his eyes — as he hardly gets time after work to talk with any of his children.
One Friday, when I was the only passenger they could find for the trip, Zeenat asked me if I was a student.
“I am a writer,” I said. “I write stories.”
“Really?” she turned towards me beaming. “Then you must know how to write.”
“Haha, yes and no. I can write, but I am still learning how to write better.”
“Then why did you lie?” she frowned.
“When did I lie?”
“If you are learning to write, you are a student. You said you weren’t a student.”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to say sorry.”
I wasn’t trying to say sorry, but she had settled the matter. I simply smiled. Abba laughed from where he was sitting and told me not to mind her. “Our Zeenat is like that only.”
We travelled for the next minute in silence. I was looking around the makeshift shops on the sides of the road. Baby clothes, floaters, leather belts, leather shoes, mosquito nets, balloons, bananas — all seemed to have agreed on a nonchalant cohabitation.
“Why are you in Kanpur?” asked Zeenat.
I tore my eyes away from the market and looked into hers. I felt I was noticing them for the first time. They were big. And they were very intelligent.
“I am traveling all over the country, actually. Collecting stories. I am here to meet someone whose story I want to write.”
“Really?” she said beaming again. “Then you must have collected millions of stories by now.”
“No no. Just about ten or twelve.”
“What? All over the country and only ten-twelve?”
“Yeah. Actually, I am writing this book…”
“Are you not very good at reading either?” she asked with her frown.
Abba laughed again. “Please don’t mind her. She is like that only.”
I didn’t mind her, but I was amused and curious. “What do you mean?”
“Arey, you traveled so much and didn’t read any stories on your way?”
“Abba, he doesn’t know how to read stories.”
I looked at Abba to help me out. He kept his eyes on the road and laughed again. “Why don’t you teach him, then, noorain?”
“Yes, Abba. Oye, look there.”
I followed her finger all the way to where two men were fighting.
“That is a story happening right there. Can’t you read it? Or there.”
Now her finger was pointing at a mother teaching her baby to climb steps.
“Or there.” A drunk man in rags playing with a street dog.
“Or there.” Two crows sitting on an overhead cable.
“Or there.” A group of girls giggling.
She looked at me directly again. “You didn’t learn to read like this with your Abba?”
Before I could reply, Abba steered the rickshaw sharply to the left and told me we had arrived. I got down and extended him the five rupees I owed him for the trip.
“Don’t mind her. I tell her how to read little stories like this when we are on the rickshaw. I am too poor to buy her books. So, this is how we read.”
I smiled at him. Mostly because I didn’t know what else to say. I turned to Zeenat one last time. Her eyes had already wandered off in search of some new story.
“Thank you,” I managed to tell her.
“You’re welcome,” she said almost automatically, still looking beyond me somewhere.
“I read one important story today.”
“Hunh?” She turned to me this time.
“Here.” I gently tapped my forefinger to the little place between her eyes.
After almost a year and a half of walking around the country, I have realised that I didn’t find the best stories waiting for me at the destinations. I found them hiding in the little moments that passed between my strides.
Originally published on Medium on January 5, 2017.