I looked at my watch. It said 6.50. A familiar female voice announced, “the next station is Rabindrasarovar.” The compartments of the train were much less crowded than before as Tollygunge, the station after Rabindrasarovar was the last. As the train reached its proclaimed terminal I got down quickly and headed towards the escalator. Sanjay must be waiting for me at Ballygunge Lake, I thought.
Just after completing my masters I luckily got the job of working as a trainee journalist in a daily newspaper. It was a dream come true for me as I always aspired to be one. I wished to see my writing in print and to pen down my thoughts and opinions for all to see. Overjoyed and excited at the prospect I put my mind and soul to it with a passionate fervor. Sanjay, my classmate and friend for years was happy at my success but morose at the fact that he wasn’t able to secure a job yet. I soon reached my appointed destination to find him sitting on a bench near the lake anxiously looking out for me.
“Sorry, Sanjay for keeping you waiting. I had to complete my assignment at hand before I could leave,” I said.
“Shoo! I haven’t been waiting for long .Anyway, I am an idle man now,” he said standing up.
“I am feeling a bit hungry. Let’s walk down to our Funchka Bhai,” I said.
Near the other side of the lake a ‘fuchkawalan’ sold ‘fuchkas’ from his stand whom we endearingly referred to as Fuchka Bhai. He made the most delectable ‘fuchkas’ and we often frequented him during our student days.
We strolled through the winding paths beside the lake .Couples were seen romancing on benches, beneath trees and on the grass lawns; cooing like love birds and engulfed in their own world. Hawkers of all sorts selling peanuts, ‘masala muri’, ice-cream, toffees and chocolates were hovering around the place sensing commerce. Street urchins made merry; some having a swim in the lake while others played on the grounds with a ball.
Fuchka Bhai was thronged with customers. We sat on a cemented platform built around a tree munching on peanuts.
“There is no hope for me. I am an unlucky fellow,” sulked Sanjay.
“Why are you so impatient? We have just completed our masters. You are still young and have a lot of time left in your hands to get a job. You have sat for various competitive exams and their results are awaiting. I am more than confident that you would get appointed somewhere. Don’t get so disheartened and pessimistic in life. It will serve you no good.”
“Maybe so, touchwood,” he said. “But all said and done I still can’t stop myself feeling anxious especially in these times of recession,” he countered back.
From nearby the sound of chiming bells, blowing of conch shells, beating of a ‘kansha’ and the rhythmic chanting of verses by a priest greeted our ears.
The crowd which had assembled around Fuchka Bhai had dispersed. We promptly walked towards him before any other customer could arrive.
“How are you, Fuchka Bhai?” I asked.
“Seeing you after a long time,” he said. “How have you all been?”
“Oh Good! Please prepare some good ‘puchkas’ for us. I am famished.”
“Right away”, he replied smiling and delved into his bowl.
We watched him silently as he with expert hands peeled boiled potatoes, smashed them and mixed them with various ingredients and spices and boiled ‘chanas’. Through the whole act he appeared a bit gloomy and perturbed than his usual self.
“How is everybody at home?” I asked.
“Good but I am a bit upset about my daughter’s well-being and future,” he replied gravely.
“Why, what is wrong with her?”I asked curiously
“Well, I have got her married to a railway officer.”
We were both pleasantly surprised.
“That’s great. Why do you worry about her then?” asked Sanjay.
“Yes, I had also felt happy knowing that she would be now able to live a secured and comfortable life. But look at her fate. Her husband turned out to be an alcoholic. He comes home late at night usually intoxicated and beats her up. She is so shattered and terrified that she refuses to go back to her in-laws house,” he lamented.
Muktaram Jadav lived in a remote village in the interiors of Bihar. He belonged to a backward and impoverished community of farmers who worked in various places as bonded laborers. As time went it became exceedingly difficult to find work. Most of his brethren shifted to nearby cities and towns to make a living. Jogesh was one of them. Occasionally, he used to return home with money and goods for his family and it was then that he used to narrate tales about the great city of Kolkata and the opportunities it held. Muktaram used to listen to him enthralled. One day after an unsavory conflict with his parents and brothers he decided to leave his village for the city. He walked miles before he could board a bus and then a train to reach Howrah Station. He knew no one in the city and nothing about the place. Neither did he have any knowledge of places where he could find shelter nor anyone who could help him out in the huge concrete jungle. He loitered about for some time before he sat next to an old man selling barley (maize) meal. He took out a few paisa from his pouch which he had carried with him, to buy some barley meal and a glass of water to quench his hunger and thirst. He was only twenty years old then.
Sitaram, the hawker had sensed that this youth was yet another immigrant who had travelled to the city in the hope of greener pastures .He got chatty with him. Muktaram learnt that this old man was from his own state and he seized the opportunity to ask for help.
“You can stay with me and help me in my work,”said Sitaram who could do with the help of an assistant. Thrilled by his luck he readily agreed.
Sitaram lived in a slum at Chitpur Road. He occupied a one room shanty with a verandah. Every morning at the break of dawn he gathered all the ingredients to make the barley (maize) meal in a big aluminum bowl placed in a cane basket which he carried on his head to sell throughout the day. He then prepared a breakfast of a few ‘rotis’ and vegetable curry which he ate before leaving for his daily work.
Whenever he ran out of stocks of barley he frequented the Bara Bazaar whole sellers shop to purchase his goods which lasted him a couple of days. Now after Muktaram arrived he took over the task of cooking meals and cleaning the room they lived in. Sometimes he would accompany him to learn about the trade and help him when necessary.
There were other menial workers who lived in their slum. Some of them worked as wheelbarrow pullers who carried goods from one place to another; some were hand-drawn rickshaw pullers and others worked as porters at Howrah and Sealdah railway stations. Their work was laborious and physically taxing and at the end of the day when they returned home they were completely exhausted and hungry too. Gradually Muktram became friendly with all of them. If anyone was incapacitated he would offer to help out. He worked as a porter for some while but he found it to be a very arduous which he didn’t enjoy.
It was when one day a porter friend left his work and decided to go back to his village that his life changed forever. A new occupant came in to reside in their slums. His name was Shambhu and he sold ‘fuchkas’. Every morning he would rise very early to prepare the dough with which he would make ‘fuchkas’. It was from him that he learnt the tricks of the trade. Cooking and feeding others always fascinated him. He felt that this was one trade which he liked engaging in and would bring him both money and satisfaction. At first he followed him as a helper to Harrison Road where he stationed himself to sell ‘fuchkas’ to passer-byes. Shambhu suggested that he start his own business. This was something which was in his mind for some time and after being supported by him he plunged into it. At first he started selling his ‘fuchkas’ at Bowbazaar where some office goers and school children became his regular customers. But there he faced frequent harassment from the policemen who demanded free feeds. At the advice of one of the regular customers he started selling ‘fuchkas’ at Ballygunge Lake area. His business picked up steadily there. Within a few months’ time, through word of mouth his list of customers increased and he did roaring well. He now started thinking about his future and every month he saved some money in a bank. At last he was ready to go back home to surprise his family and friends,
He brought clothes and gifts for his entire family before he left for his village. When he reached home everyone was overjoyed to see him.
“You have grown to be a man and established enough to maintain your own family. I won’t let you go until I get you married,” declared Muktaram’s father. So within a month’s time he was married to Bibha, a local girl from their village. After marriage he spent a few weeks at home and then leaving his newly wed wife he proceeded to Kolkata. He had now an added responsibility and felt he should devout more time to his business so that he could eventually bring Bibha to live with him. Luckily his business looked up and one day he purchased an old little house at Tollygunge. He brought Bibha to stay with him and soon she gave birth to a daughter and a son. He wished his children to be thoroughly educated and then work in an office or a company. With that hope he admitted them in a school and then a college. His daughter who was elder among the siblings even went to a university to do her masters. He was indeed a proud man and all his friends envied his fate.
During one of his visits to his native village he met a fellow passenger in the train who was looking for an educated bride for his son who was a railway officer. He grabbed the chance to speak about his daughter and they arranged for a meeting between the two. Eventually they got married and all were happy.
But fate had a different story. The boy turned out to be a drunkard and the girl had to return to his father. Although Muktaram was aggrieved by the turn of events he resolved not to mope and give up at the hands of fate. He decided to continue his struggle. After all life is a battle field.