Read #1 book on Hinduism and enhance your understanding of ancient Indian history.
Read #1 book on Hinduism and enhance your understanding of ancient Indian history.

sushmita bhowmick

Drama Tragedy


sushmita bhowmick

Drama Tragedy

At The Toll Booth

At The Toll Booth

13 mins 194 13 mins 194

Bobby Cavello was bored. It was late, almost 2am. The downpour had relented but there was a light drizzle. Not a soul within miles, if you discount the sleeping boy snoring on the cot. The monsoon was on in full swing, with dark clouds turning the days gloomy and nights stifling. Here at the toll booth, however, out of town and at the beginning of the forest lands, it was pleasant. Opting for the night shift was a choice; tossing and turning around in a one and half room space was not pleasant. The days were easier to pass; the television was a good companion, even if you were not listening, it simulated a human presence. Just as you could close your eyes and ears to 'the wife nagging' or 'the children bickering,' so could you to the television and still feel the presence. Then there was the mid-morning tea with the other retired men of the colony, under the big banyan tree. Bobby loved these sessions, the perfect antidote to his single life.

Bobby Cavello was still to be, when Robert (Sr.) Cavello had come to Ajni, a small town in Central India. It was 1934, a time when Anglo Indians were ubiquitous in the Indian Railways, and could be found at nooks and corners of the country. Robert drew a lot of attention when he came to Ajni, as the station master. All of twenty eight, his 'gora' (Caucasian) looks were goggled at. With a smattering of Hindi and of course impeccable English, Robert was initially at a loss in this Maharashtrian-dominated small town, located almost in the centre of India.

However, as most civil servants of pre-independent India would ready themselves, Robert too mastered the language, both written and verbal, as he had promised, while requesting for a far-away posting. Mending a broken heart, afflicted by one Ms. Penrose in faraway Calcutta, Robert gave his heart and soul to the little station. Soon the station acquired an 'English' garden with Delphiniums, Begonias, Daisies, Primroses, Peonies and the like. He even had a small statue of a cupid-like figure erected at one corner. With the help of his two orderlies, he ran his little domain with clock-wise precision and aesthetic taste.

Bobby poured tea from his flask and took out some biscuits from the tin he kept at the booth. It was almost 2.15. 'Those children will have to pay the return toll,' thought Bobby. Usually he allowed a grace of an hour to returning vehicles, even though official rules dictated next-day charges, after midnight. 'Why are they so late today?' Bobby mused. The gang had gone towards Katol, buying the return tickets. Bobby knew them well; they were nice kids, called him Bobby Uncle. They often went along this way, at least twice a month. One day, Bobby while handing their ticket had asked, 'is it someplace special that you go so often?' Turned out it was; 'Sharma Dhaba,' a road-side eatery very popular for its Tandoori food, was their destination.

It was a frequently visited place, about ten kilometers from Bobby's booth. Lot of vehicles made this way, especially on weekends. Today, after getting their tickets, they had stopped their car and all five had walked over to the 'naka' (booth). Chotu was on duty and Bobby was reading the newspaper. He had not seen their car pass, and so was surprised, when he glanced up to see them standing with big smiles and a packet in their hand. 'Why! It's the Pandava's,' Barry chuckled, calling them after the epical brothers of Mahabharata.

Robert's initial lodging was in the station barracks, till he married Laxmi, the petite Maharashtrian girl, who often filled in for her father, at the Railway Co-operative Store. Ms. Penrose had not taken a long time to vanish from memory; when you are young, love probably lurks at turns and corners, waiting to fill up empty spaces. So, Laxmi and Robert got married in the middle of 1936 and Robert (Jr), was born, after the correct number of months, so as not to let tongues go wagging. In quick succession came Lila (Laxmi was adamant to call her by an Indian name), while Robert , equally loyal to his British blood called her Rose. And like a Rose she was; with her mother's raven hair and black eyes and her father's golden complexion. Rose could give very little of her time to her adoring family; at the age of six, she passed away, after a short struggle to fight Cholera. It should not have been such a major thing, as children passed away regularly from incurable diseases, in this part of the world, at that period of time. But for the Cavello's, it was the beginning of the collapse. Robert, the precise, punctual, perfect civil servant took to drinking. His duties suffered, there were official summons. Laxmi, going through the day in a stance, dutiful but uncaring, occasionally beaten up by Robert, seemed to live through life, waiting for an end. Bobby, lost his closest companion, and became moody and unmindful.

The girl, who always sat by the boy, who drove the car (this was how Bobby identified the individuals of the 'Pandava' group), was holding the packet. They drove an old Honda, which had seen better days, and Barry assumed it to be a hand-me-down. The kids were affluent without being flashy and most importantly, according to Barry, courteous in the way they spoke. 'What is it dear? Oh! Sweets and what's the occasion, if I may ask...ah! You two are getting engaged,' Barry had said with a knowing smile. "Oh no Uncle! We are just friends,' hastily said the pretty one of the front sit, while the others giggled. 'This is for you and him,' she continued, pointing to Chotu, who was smiling and listening. They had graduated and wanted to share their joy. Bobby had over the last two years become one of those few faces, whom they wanted to remember in the crowd that filled their lives. 'Thank you,' said Barry,... ' if we were never young,' thought Barry, his eyes merry, as he watched them drive off.

Bobby's studies suffered the worst. Maybe, if his home was more conducive, Bobby would have overcome the loss; but what happened in reality was that Robert and Laxmi killed Bobby after they lost Rose. Bobby's guardian angel luckily woke up, before it was too late, and made an appearance in the form of the new English teacher at school, one Mr. Adinath Munshi. While the three R's were rescued enough to later on give Bobby a clerical government job, the bonds of love never took roots deeper than was necessary. And so when Adinath got transferred, Bobby never bothered to keep in touch. For over a year the letters would come from distant Kanjirapally, but Bobby never opened them. Adinath, like Robert, Laxmi, Dinu (his class mate for ten years) and scores of others became faces that crossed his path for some time in his life. Rose in her absence, remained the only presence.

Chotu stirred in his sleep, mumbling something. Bobby would wake him up at 4.30. The tea was extra sweet and Bobby had some water to take off the sweetness from his mouth. Today he and Chotu had lots of sweets at dinner. They had even called the two truckers, who had crossed the booth and stopped to relive themselves, and shared some sweets with them. Chandni had wagged her tail and gobbled the ghee soaked milk cakes. She was perennially hungry from feeding her litter of two weeks. Generally Bobby and Chotu always carried some extra chapattis (bread) for Chandni. Chotu had wanted to bring the litter inside the booth, from fear of them getting run over. Bobby had dissuaded him with the logic, 'we are not here to play God; those that are fated to live, will live.' But both of them kept an eye on the straying pups, irrespective of Bobby's sermon.

Bobby never married...his parent's married life was in a state of ruins...from the time he could remember it. Rose had faded; both from the frequently-thumbed black and white photograph taken on her 5th birthday and from Bobby's active recall, leaving a bitter/sweet residue somewhere in his memory box. Of course he fell in love, numerous times over; but something had died in him and the urge for continuity, permanence, stability was alien to him, never having enjoyed such luxury. He drifted from one small town to another, mostly across Central India, and sometime in the Madras Residency.

The handsome, if swarthy boy, made through life, as British India's small-time 'babu' (an Indian clerk with English knowledge), through the euphoria of independence, and a fall in status, once the British left India. The Mary's and Geeta's, who came with the hope of marriage, trickled off, as they realized that Bobby just needed another woman to warm his bed. Bobby never missed having a family, till recently, when at this, his post-retirement tenure with the BOT Company, he grew a parental affixation for Chotu. After retiring from his government job, Bobby had returned to Ajni; he himself did not know what was it that he had come looking for. However, he did not find his parents, who the Church register confirmed, were dead. Luckily for him, the BOT Company was looking for people, for their just finished highway near Nagpur. For Bobby, it was just the right work to fill up his empty days.

Suddenly Bobby heard the screeches of an approaching vehicle. The lights were wavering in the darkness and were approaching the booth at a great speed. For a moment Bobby thought that it was another of those stupid drivers planning to save a few bucks trying to run the booth, at a time when they knew that vigilance would be down. But the car was slowing down and as it approached the last lap, Bobby squinted his eyes, to make out what was happening. 'What are they up to...and I thought that here at least were a bunch of sensible kids,' he muttered angrily, as he identified the 'Pandava's' Honda. With the same angry look he came out of the booth and when the car screeched to a stop, said, 'what do you think you are doing..han? You drunk or what? Pay the return, I do not allow delays over an hour.' The boy who always drove was at the wheels and as he rolled down the window, Barry lowered his head to look into the car.

He saw five frightened faces; the three boys had cuts and bruises over their faces, while the pretty girl had her dress torn at the shoulder. 'What happp......' Before he could finish, the boy said, 'Uncle just open the gate for now...there is a car chasing us....we had some altercations with a group of men, who were passing obscene comments at the girls… please don't tell them the way we take.' Bobby acted fast. He operated the switch to lift the gate, and the car veered off taking right from the crossing. Bobby settled inside the booth, nervously looking around. Chotu rubbed his eyes and started to get up. 'Is it 4.30 already?' he asked bleary-eyed. 'No, don't get up,' hissed Bobby; 'Whatever happens lie down and cover yourself,' he said, pushing the bewildered Chotu and spreading out the rug that covered him. The screeches of another approaching car made him look out; there it was. 'Have to do something, to get them delayed.'

Bobby was glad that he had Chotu, as a duty partner. Chotu could well have been his son had he married and settled down. A bright young fellow, he was studying in private to give his college exams, while working at night to support his mother and two sisters. Bobby admired Chotu's gritty struggle and his positive attitude towards life. Once he had bought some college books for him, second-hand of course. Chotu had accepted but told him politely but firmly that this was his struggle and he would like to fight it. After that Bobby only brought the once-a-week Saturday night dinner treat for him. This Chotu accepted gladly, as he loved Chicken and he could give the bones to Chandni, who would appreciate it with an elaborate tail-wagging and cooing session.

Bobby went out of the booth, as the vehicle approached. He kept his face normal and acted, as if irate, to find a car approaching the toll gates at this speed. The car braked but not before it knocked the kerb and damaged the unoccupied booth on the other side of the road. 'Oo ho ho, what are you up to sir?' Bobby hollered angrily, and looked inside the car. Four people in their thirties sat in the car. From the look of them Bobby knew they were trouble. Obviously drunk, beyond his senses, the driver, a mean-looking fellow said, 'Don't you raise your voice, you old bugger. Where did the other car go?' 'Which car? Lots of cars cross the booth...I do not look after them to find which way they went,' Bobby said mustering all the courage, he did not feel. 'Don't tell me there were lots of cars at this time of the night.

The Honda, which was just before us. Two delectable whores in the car, and you want me to believe you never saw them? Can't you get it up any more, old mouse...,' the driver jeered, as he got out of the car. There was drunken laughter from inside the car and more swear words that Bobby's fear-fogged mind could not register. 'You see this?' said the man waiving a gleaming pistol; 'now will you tell me which way they went? If you are trying to save them, don't bother....I will see to it that the whores get what they deserve...they don't know who they have crossed paths with. have two sexy chicks and me and my fellas just want to appreciate their assets and you turn on us...US!!!' he was shouting drunkenly. Bobby found himself staring into the eye of the revolver.

As he looked straight into the cold gleaming metal, and the hard eyes behind it, Bobby calculated that almost 10 minutes had passed, giving the Honda nothing less than a lead of 15 kms. He also prayed that Chotu remained inside and under his cover. There was no way the man could see inside the booth or guess that someone was sleeping. All the noise had probably woken up Chandni, for Bobby heard a familiar soft howl. He prayed that Chandni remained out of sight. ' that you say, I know which car you mean…the black Honda...right?' Bobby stretched his response in what he thought was a good act. 'Yes old fool...' the gun was touching his forehead, the metal cold against his skin. 'Can he see the perspiration on my forehead?' thought Bobby....'theyyy wennttt straight, towards town..' he mumbled. The barrel pressed hard and the man gave a rough nudge on the side of the face. Bobby could feel the blood trickling down his cheek. 'Not lying, no?' said the man; 'nooo...I am telling the truth,' said Bobby. The man turned around to get into his car, and Bobby pressed the button to lift the gate. 'But, it’s better that you don't live to tell the tale, what say, old man...'

It is said that at those last seconds before you die, your life plays past in slow Bobby watched his life rewind...he and Rose in the railway station garden...his father sitting in the evening and smoking a pipe...his mother arranging the fresh-cut blooms in a vase in the drawing room.. Rose being carried away in a small coffin... Adinath sir taking him for a stroll.. Dinu and him going for their first movie.. a fleet of rosy faces with names he did not remember...Chotu smiling and enjoying the chicken...Chandni feeding her brood....and then the spool ran fast....... Not bad, he thought, not bad at all.....he fell as his legs folded beneath him. There was no pain....he wondered why....things seemed to be moving inside the booth, which extended into a long tunnel...blurred and smoky....Somewhere someone was calling his name....there was music and joy....laughter and life...Bobby closed his eyes…his last vision was that of Chotu's anxious face...his last thought was of a pretty girl...and Bobby Cavello died happier than he lived.

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