(photo source: Alamy)

Sanjay Prasad Paudel

While selling, Bhaiya always shouted, ‘Mango, banana, litchi, and fresh vegetables!’
He continued, “It is very cheap as well as fresh.”

“Wait! Wait!! Bhaiya, I am coming!” a housewife shouted.

In no time, a crowd of housewives from my street gathered around him, all involved in bargaining with Bhaiya. He was straightforward but very handsome, with skin like the holy stone found in the river of Kaligandaki. It seemed that most of the housewives and ladies had a different motive while bargaining with Bhaiya for vegetables and fruits.

Someone cursed him for cheating them. Someone else scolded him for cheating on the weight of vegetables and fruits. But Bhaiya was so tolerant that he did not retort and just grinned at their words.

As I ascended the stairs to my first-floor apartment, I could hear the faint jingle of keys and the rhythmic clack of sandals against the tiled floor below. It was him again, Bhaiya, our neighbor from the ground floor. His cheerful demeanor always grated on my nerves, a constant reminder of the stark contrast between our worlds.
Bhaiya hailed from the dusty streets of Motihari, Bihar, his weathered face telling stories of hardships endured and battles fought. He eked out a living by selling seasonal fruits and vegetables, his livelihood tethered to the unpredictable whims of nature and market demand.

Despite our shared residence, our interactions remained strained at best. I, a newly minted officer in the revenue office of the government, Kathmandu had little in common with Bhaiya beyond the walls that sheltered us both. While I pursued paperwork and protocols, he navigated the bustling chaos of street markets and haggling customers.
Our juxtaposed lives mirrored the disparities of our society, where privilege and poverty danced an uneasy waltz. In this shared space, we were both tenants, struggling to carve out our respective slices of existence against the backdrop of economic uncertainty.

As I reached the threshold of my home, I steeled myself against the inevitable exchange of pleasantries, a silent acknowledgment of the gaping divide that separated us.

In the cool evening breeze, as the golden hues of twilight painted the sky, I’d often find myself descending the stairs of the government office, the weight of the day’s work clinging to my shoulders like a heavy shroud. It was during these moments of weary retreat that I would invariably encounter Bhaiya, his presence a stark reminder of the world beyond the confines of bureaucracy.

With a toothy grin that seemed to illuminate his weathered face, Bhaiya would call out to me in his customary manner, his words dripping with the warmth of familiarity. “Did you have snacks today?” he’d inquire, his voice tinged with genuine curiosity.

Yet, despite his well-meaning intentions, I found his inquiries irksome, a reminder of the inconsequential nature of our exchanges. With a curt nod and a perfunctory wave, I’d offer no response, my footsteps quickening as I ascended the stairs without a backward glance.

In my mind, his questions were a triviality, a mere distraction from the weighty matters that occupied my thoughts. Snacks were of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, mere indulgences in a world fraught with far weightier concerns.

And so, with each unanswered query, the distance between us seemed to grow, a silent testament to the chasm that separated our worlds. For in the realm of paperwork and protocols, there was little room for idle chatter or frivolous niceties.

The clinking of keys and the familiar shuffle of Bhaiya’s sandals echoed through the stairwell as I made my way up to the first-floor apartment. Despite my attempts to block out the noise and steel myself against his presence, I couldn’t escape the inevitable encounter with our persistent neighbor.

Bhaiya’s cheerful disposition grated against my nerves like sandpaper on skin, a constant reminder of the glaring disparities that defined our coexistence. His willingness to offer gestures of kindness, however small, only served to highlight the vast divide between us.

I could envision the scene below without even glancing back: Bhaiya, with his weathered hands cradling a bundle of fresh fruits for my baby and a selection of vegetables for my wife, despite my repeated refusals. His generosity knew no bounds, a trait both admirable and aggravating in equal measure.

I had admonished my wife countless times against accepting Bhaiya’s offerings, knowing all too well the allure of fresh produce to her discerning palate. But women, as they say, have a penchant for the finer things in life, and my protests often fell on deaf ears.

As I reached the safety of my own abode, I couldn’t shake the gnawing frustration that accompanied each encounter with Bhaiya. His acts of kindness, however well-intentioned, served as a constant reminder of the uncomfortable truth: that beneath our shared roof lay a chasm of difference that no amount of fruit or vegetables could bridge.
The scene that greeted me as I stepped through the door was one of unexpected disbelief. There, perched upon Bhaiya’s sturdy shoulders, sat my baby, his cherubic face adorned with a radiant smile that mirrored the joy reflected in Bhaiya’s eyes. In his tiny hands, he clutched a cluster of plump grapes, the remnants of a gift from our well-meaning neighbor.

Stunned into silence, I stood frozen in the doorway, my mind struggling to comprehend the sight before me. How had Bhaiya managed to coax my typically reserved child into such a display of affection and trust? And more importantly, why had he dared to defy my explicit instructions regarding my son’s care?

As if sensing my presence, Bhaiya turned to face me, his expression a curious blend of guilt and defiance. “Come now, little one,” he gently urged my baby, his voice tinged with a hint of reluctance. But my son, stubborn as ever, clung to Bhaiya’s broad shoulders with a tenacity that belied his tender age.

With a surge of determination, I crossed the threshold and strode purposefully towards them, my heart hammering against my chest with a mixture of anger and apprehension. Ignoring Bhaiya’s protests, I reached out and gently pried my son from his grasp, my hands trembling with a mixture of fear and fury.

The tears came swiftly then, a torrent of anguished sobs that wracked my son’s tiny frame as he reached out desperately towards Bhaiya, his cries echoing the name “Bhaiya… Bhaiya” in a heart-wrenching chorus.
In that moment, as I held my sobbing child close, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt mingling with my anger. For in my efforts to shield my family from the perceived dangers of our humble abode, I had inadvertently deprived my son of the simple joys of companionship and kindness.

And as I gazed into his tear-streaked face, I vowed to bridge the chasm that divided us from our neighbor, to seek understanding where once there was only distrust, and to embrace the unexpected bonds that bound us together beneath the sheltering roof of our shared home.

I took a deep breath, steeling myself for the difficult conversation ahead as I sat down beside my wife, the weight of my words heavy on my tongue. With a gentle hand, I reached out to touch her shoulder, hoping to convey the gravity of my concerns through the warmth of my touch.

“Listen, my love,” I began, my voice tinged with a mixture of urgency and apprehension. “We need to talk about Bhaiya and his interactions with our baby.”

Her eyes, wide with surprise, met mine in silent inquiry, and I pressed on, my words tumbling forth in a rush of emotion. “You see, darling, there are stories… rumors, perhaps, but stories nonetheless, about people from Bihar… about how they sometimes… they sometimes…,” I faltered, struggling to find the right words to articulate my fears.

“They sometimes take babies,” I finally blurted out, the words hanging heavy in the air between us like a shroud of impending doom. “They kidnap them, my love, and demand ransom for their return.”

I watched as her expression shifted, her brow furrowing in confusion and disbelief. “But… but that’s absurd,” she protested, her voice tinged with incredulity. “Surely you don’t believe such nonsense?”

I sighed, frustration simmering beneath the surface of my outward calm. “It may seem absurd, my dear, but these things do happen,” I insisted, my tone pleading for her understanding. “We cannot afford to be naive, not when it comes to the safety of our child.”

And yet, even as I spoke the words, doubt gnawed at the edges of my resolve. Was I overreacting, succumbing to baseless fears born of prejudice and suspicion? Or was I simply a concerned father, determined to shield my family from the lurking shadows of uncertainty?

As I gazed into my wife’s eyes, searching for reassurance amidst the storm of uncertainty, I couldn’t help but wonder: would she heed my warnings, or would she dismiss them as the misguided ramblings of a paranoid mind? Only time would tell.

As the darkness of midnight enveloped our home, a sense of unease settled over us like a heavy fog. My baby lay restless in his crib, his tiny body wracked with fever, his cries echoing through the silent house like a mournful lament. Beside him, my wife and I stood watch, our hearts heavy with worry and fear.

“It’s going to be okay, my love,” I murmured, my voice tinged with false reassurance as I reached out to touch her trembling hand. “He just needs some time to rest, that’s all.”

But my wife’s eyes, wide with concern, betrayed her skepticism, her gaze fixed on the door below as if willing someone to appear.

“Maybe we should call Bhaiya,” she suggested hesitantly, her voice barely a whisper in the stillness of the night.
I recoiled at the suggestion, my instinctive resistance flaring into anger as suspicion clouded my thoughts.
“No, absolutely not,” I snapped, the words dripping with accusation. “We don’t need his help. We’ll manage just fine on our own.”

But my wife, undeterred by my protests, persisted in her plea. “Please, just this once,” she implored, her voice tinged with desperation. “He might know something that could help our baby. We can’t afford to ignore his offer of assistance.”

Her words struck a nerve, igniting a firestorm of doubt and insecurity within me. Could there be more to her insistence than it seemed? Was she harboring a secret allegiance to Bhaiya, a bond forged in the shadows of suspicion and mistrust?

The thought lingered like a bitter taste on my tongue, poisoning the air between us with its toxic presence. And as I stood there, torn between loyalty to my wife and the gnawing grip of jealousy, I couldn’t help but wonder: would our family ever be whole again, or were we destined to remain forever fractured by the specter of doubt?
As I stood in the doorway of Bhaiya’s humble abode, the weight of the midnight hour bearing down upon us, I felt a strange sense of vulnerability wash over me. But Bhaiya’s warm greeting, though initially tinged with surprise, quickly melted into a genuine welcome as he ushered me inside.

“Bhaiya, I hope I’m not disturbing you at this late hour,” I said, stepping cautiously over the threshold.
“Not at all, my friend,” Bhaiya replied, his voice carrying a hint of concern. “Come in, come in. What brings you here at this time?”

“We… we needed someone to help us,” I confessed, my words hesitant as I struggled to articulate my thoughts.
Bhaiya’s brow furrowed in concern as he led me to a nearby chair. “Of course, sit down. What’s on your mind?”
I hesitated for a moment, the weight of my worries pressing heavily upon me. But in the warmth of Bhaiya’s presence, I found the courage to speak.

“My baby has got a fever,” I began, my voice barely above a whisper. “I don’t know how to handle it all.”
Bhaiya listened attentively, his eyes reflecting understanding and empathy. “Life has a way of throwing challenges our way, my friend. But remember, you don’t have to face them alone. I’m here for you, always.”

I nodded gratefully, feeling a sense of relief wash over me as I poured out my heart to Bhaiya, knowing that in his wisdom and kindness, I would find solace and guidance.

Ascending the stairs with Bhaiya in tow, I watched as he approached my baby’s bedside with the ease and familiarity of an old friend. “Hello, my friend,” he greeted the little one with a gentle smile. “I have not played with you for many days. Where have you been?”

To my amazement, my baby responded, his voice soft and sleepy with the haze of illness. “Bhaiya, my parents said I have a fever. That’s why I’ve been absent,” he explained, his words tinged with innocence and trust.
Bhaiya wasted no time in assessing the situation, his experienced hands checking my baby’s fever with practiced precision. With a reassuring nod, he assured us that all would be well, his confidence a beacon of hope in the darkness of uncertainty.

As my wife busied herself preparing food for our baby, Bhaiya launched into a tale, his voice a soothing melody that captured our son’s imagination. With each word, he wove a tapestry of wonder and possibility, transporting us all to a world where dreams were made manifest and miracles were commonplace.

And as I watched my baby’s eyes light up with wonder, his laughter ringing out like a symphony of joy, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude wash over me. For in that moment, beneath the watchful gaze of our benevolent neighbor, I knew that we were not alone. We were a family, bound together by the ties of love and shared experience, stronger than any fever or fear could ever hope to diminish.

As the days and weeks slipped by, the familiar rhythm of life settled back into its routine, each passing moment a gentle reminder of the preciousness of time. And then, like a beacon of light in the darkness, his birthday arrived, a day of celebration and joy that filled our hearts with anticipation.
In years past, we had marked the occasion with quiet reverence, content in the simplicity of our familial bond. But this year was different. This year, fueled by the ambition that burned bright within me as an officer of the revenue office, I longed to celebrate his birthday in grand style, inviting friends and relatives to share in our happiness.

As a bureaucrat, I understood the importance of social connections, of cultivating relationships that could open doors and pave the way for future opportunities. And what better way to do so than by hosting a lavish party in our own home, a gathering of esteemed colleagues and respected acquaintances?

With each carefully crafted invitation sent, I felt a sense of anticipation building within me, a quiet excitement tinged with the promise of prosperity and prestige. For in the world of government bureaucracy, every social gathering held the potential to advance one’s career, to forge alliances that could shape the course of a lifetime.
And so, as we prepared to welcome our guests into our home, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride swell within me. For in celebrating my son’s birthday, we were not only honoring his presence in our lives but also laying the foundation for a future filled with promise and possibility. And as we toasted to his health and happiness, surrounded by the laughter and camaraderie of those we held dear, I knew that this day would be remembered not only as a celebration of one life but as a testament to the power of connection and community.

As my wife and I sat down to compile the list of invitees for our son’s birthday party, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of unease as I reached for the pen to cross out Bhaiya’s name. I could sense the weight of my decision hanging heavy in the air between us, my wife’s eyes widening in silent protest as she watched my hand move across the page.
But before she could voice her objections, I hurriedly interjected, my words rushed and urgent as I sought to justify my actions. “This is a very special party,” I insisted, my voice tinged with a hint of desperation. “High-level bureaucrats will be in attendance, and in such auspicious company, Bhaiya’s presence would be… inappropriate, to say the least.”

As I spoke, I could see the flicker of understanding dawn in my wife’s eyes, her initial resistance giving way to reluctant acceptance. And though her gaze lingered on the crossed-out name with a hint of sadness, she nodded in acquiescence, conceding to the logic of my argument.

As I spoke, I could see the flicker of understanding dawn in my wife’s eyes, her initial resistance giving way to reluctant acceptance. And though her gaze lingered on the crossed-out name with a hint of sadness, she nodded in acquiescence, conceding to the logic of my argument.

With a sense of relief washing over me, I made a mental note to ensure that Bhaiya received his fair share of the festivities, even if his physical presence would be absent from our gathering. After all, he had been a steadfast friend and neighbor, and it was only fitting that we extend our gratitude to him in some way.
And so, with the list of invitees finalized and Bhaiya’s name relegated to the margins, we set about preparing for what promised to be a celebration to remember. And though a part of me couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at the exclusion of our humble neighbor, I knew that in the grand scheme of things, sometimes difficult decisions had to be made for the greater good.

We marked our baby’s birthday with joy and laughter as friends and family gathered to shower him with gifts. The celebration flowed smoothly until a power outage interrupted the festivities. Amidst the chaos, our little one went missing, sending us into a frantic search. As the night wore on and our worry deepened, suspicions fell on Bhaiya, but my wife remained steadfast in her belief that our baby would be found.

Echoes of “Where are you, baby?” filled the air, overshadowing the once vibrant atmosphere of the party. Just as despair threatened to consume us, Bhaiya emerged, laden with an old bicycle and a basket of provisions. It was then we learned of the true extent of his heroism.

While everyone else was caught up in the celebration, our baby had tumbled into a well, his cries drowned out by the DJ’s music. Without hesitation, Bhaiya plunged into the darkness to rescue him, emerging triumphant but muddy, holding our tearful child in his arms.

In that moment, it became clear that Bhaiya’s presence meant more to our baby than any number of gifts from our guests. His simple act of bravery, coupled with a toy helicopter that brought boundless joy, humbled us deeply.
We apologized profusely for not including him in the festivities, but he brushed it off with grace, revealing that the toy he had given was intended for his own child back in his village. In the bustling city, he found solace in the knowledge that he had been given the opportunity to be a father figure to our baby in his absence.

(Paudel holds M.A. in Anthropology and M.Phil in English.)

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