Generation vexed

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By Suleman Din

The little boy in a dirty, ripped shirt watched me as I gulped down my can of Pepsi. He was barefoot, wearing a pair of dirty grey shorts. He had a burlap sack slung around his shrunken shoulders for garbage collecting. His skin was dark as dirt, smooth and burnt from toiling too long in the sun, but his eyes were eggshell-white, oval and wide. His presence made me feel guilty for enjoying the ice-cold froth, on a night when all of New Delhi felt like a sauna. With the temperature touching 40 degrees, the electricity in the city had decided to disappear, shutting off much-needed ceiling fans and air conditioners. People and animals were wandering about aimlessly, trying to cool down.

My friends and I were inside the bazaar of Basti Nizammudin, a suburb of New Delhi. I like of roasted chicken breasts, wafting from behind the stall where I got my drink. Barbecue coals snapped and sparked with every drip of fat from the rolling spits. Some hungry dogs collected nearby, their tongues wet and wagging from the aroma. The owner yelled at the boy to leave so he wouldn’t beg from us. Having finished my drink, I tossed the can towards the open street gutter, which was a lasagna of shit, piss, oil and rags, curdled into a thick, black ooze. The smell mixed poisonously with the chicken aroma.

To my surprise, the boy raced after my can, and plucked it from the gutter. He turned it upside down, and tried to shake out the remaining drops from the tin. He held the can like a trophy, mouth open, tongue outstretched, hoping for a drop. His bony, grasshopper-like limbs jerking the can on its end was a sight I couldn’t bear. I bought him a can of his own, which made him so happy he could well have received manna from heaven.

Pepsi has advertisements everywhere in India, even on huts. I saw the familiar blue, white and red circle all over, making me wonder who bribed some poor peasants to have the Pepsi logo painted on their mud brick home for a few rupees. I remember him every time I drink a pop. Here was something I never thought about in my life, something I had come to expect, just a loonie in the vending machine. How much did it mean there, in the decaying back alleys of India, in the calloused hands of a gaunt, ragged child.

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