Canning Local22 mins 17.9K 22 mins 17.9K
It was almost 9.20 in the night when I heard someone calling my name. The sound was entirely faded as if someone was calling from far “Bablu uncle…Bablu uncle.” I had just served a plate of hot white rice, dal, two pieces of beguni and a bowl of fish curry for myself and was yet to take my seat on the hand-woven mat that my wife had stitched as a gift for me on our first wedding anniversary some twenty-two years ago. In her absence, this rug became her proxy during my meals, and I always sensed her beside me serving food.
“Bablu uncle…Bablu uncle” the voice was quite close now. Who is calling me at this hour?
For a place like Gosaba, 9-o-clock at night was quite late because the Sun sets at around 5 in the evening. With alert ears, I tried to recognize the voice but failed and waited eagerly for the next call. Is it Mou, Shankar’s eldest daughter? But why is she panicky? With fading age, I had started to take time to connect with my surroundings.
Sensing urgency, I started to walk towards the main door barefoot. My swelled legs did not allow me to wear sandals anymore. Before I could reach the door, someone started banging it in hysteria, and after a few seconds, I heard a loud cry “Uncle! Please open the door. Uncle…”
Anxiously I opened the door and found Mou. She was almost in a stage to collapse. Her eyes were red and wide open. Her dark and flawless skin was soaked in tiny drops of sweat, and her chest was pumping air in-and-out profusely. Perhaps, it was due to the half-a-kilometer of run from her house to mine. Then within seconds, she was in tears, and with the shaky voice, she kept repeating "Father did not return today. Please do something, please do something."
It took me almost a few seconds to understand what she just said. Shankar did not return from work today! His last Sealdah local train reaches Canning railway station at 4.30 in the evening, and he ends his day with that train. Moreover, he comes home directly from the railway station. I have known this routine of his since last several years. But he did not follow the rule today! I looked at Mou who was staring at me with hopeful eyes and was pretty relaxed by now. Then something struck me, and my gaze turned intense on her. How will she return home alone at this hour? This worry immediately replaced the reason of her visit from my mind, but then she whispered: "Has tiger…"
“Oh! You think too far Mou. Tigers’ don’t go to Canning railway station to fetch their meal.” I said cutting her rubbish dialogue. But what she had just said could have been possible too! Yes in Sundarban, we fear the Royal Bengal Tiger more than the Malaria mosquitoes. It’s too risky in Gosaba and surrounding villages to step out of a house at this hour alone or in a group. The tiger seeks no time to attack. No matter how truthfully and religiously we pray to Ban Devi, the goddess of the forests of Sundarban, to protect us from the apocalypse caused by the tiger, she would ley no ears to our prayers or sorrows.
In all villages of Sundarban, you will seldom find a family whose member is not killed by a tiger. Our eyes move 360 degrees as a watchdog the moment we step out of our house because it takes a whisk to disappear. You can feel this fear in the moist wind of Sundarban, and we feel helpless because the freshwater swamp forests or the mangroves extend its thick arms to hide the mighty tiger. In this one-sided hide-and-seek game, neither do we have a chance to hide nor can we seek.
“Uncle…uncle…what are you thinking? Will you not do something to find him?” cried Mou shaking my arm and I came back to reality from my thoughts. She was still at the door, but I forgot why she came. Why has she come here? “What are you doing here? Come inside!” I commanded thinking about the reason for her visit, and I was blank by now.
Once she was in, I locked the door carefully. She saw the food served on the ground and the mat still waiting for my touch. A shade of guilt replaced the tension on her face, which I saw and recalled the reason for her visit. Ah! Shankar has not returned today. I patted her shoulder and asked her to join me for dinner assuring everything was fine. At first, she was reluctant, but then she agreed. I served her food and offered an ordinary mat to sit. We ate in silence. She was eating slower than usual. Perhaps, she was digging a thought. I advised her to stay back reasoning the late hour and my incapability of dropping her home, and she agreed without any hesitations because it was not the first time she was staying overnight. Mou along with her other siblings have visited here several times since their childhood. With her agreement, I sighed relief and focused on my meal. Well, to be honest, these days I also cannot think multi-dimensional. It’s impossible rather! Therefore, one thought or one task at a time! Then I shifted my thoughts to Shankar, and his face started floating in front of my eyes.
Shankar was a lively, jovial and a colorful man. In his late forties, he was so thin that his veins were protruding out of his skin wall of hands, neck, and temple. I liked the shape of his face which was long with sharp jaws but what I didn’t like was his red teeth due to chewing gutka. “How can a man have red teeth?” once I asked to which he replied with a laugh “Am I a man?? A Royal Bengal Tiger brother! Blood made it red.” Hahaha. He was a big fan of the tiger and did not fear him at all. He would fantasise stories of confronting a tiger and defeating him without succumbing to its power. And when I ever cursed him of the dire consequences of the anger of Ban Devi, he would reply "If I find your Ban Devi someday, and if she is beautiful as you all describe, I will propose her to marry me, you see brother." Often he would say such things to irritate me, and I would curse him for using such dialogues for our goddess. But I also thought if he was like this before I met him, or if some incident had turned a wise man into an atheist?
Well, I remember the day when I first saw him. It was some thirty or forty years back when East Pakistan had called out for its freedom movement in the 1970s. During that time a liberation force, Mukti Vahini, was formed with the support of our Indian government. On one side, the liberation force was fighting the Pakistani authorities for freedom and on the other hand, millions of East Pakistanis, both Hindus and Muslims were taking refuge in India.
One day while I was strolling in the Canning market, a man suddenly fainted in front of my cycle. He was young, and his clothes were torn. He looked malnourished with dirty skin and stinking body. There were some dry scars and blood stains on his body and clothes. The impression of fear that might have deep-rooted in his soul was easily visible on his unconscious face.
I somehow managed to get him home. My wife and I nursed him with home remedies for almost two days till he woke-up, and that day was damn frightening for all of us. The moment he gained his consciousness, he started yelling with fear and with his feeble voice he kept repeating “Don’t come near me, I will kill you all?? Dare you come near me!!! Don’t even think of entering my house??? How did you get inside???” Then with faint movement, he managed to crouch at a corner of the room holding a sickle and not allowing anyone to go closer to him. He kept shouting those lines again and again till he fainted. We put him back to the bed and nursed until he regained his consciousness and started the same drama and this became a vicious cycle in our lives for some time. Our hut had only one room and a kitchen, and he had captured the place. We became a hostage in our own house!
One day when I was away, he suddenly stepped out of the room holding the sickle and sat near the kitchen door silently. My wife who was working in the kitchen was scared to death seeing him, but he waved at her not to be scared and threw away the sickle before collapsing. She sat where she was terrified like a kitten and waited for my return. When I entered the house, I saw a skeleton like a body fallen on the ground and a woman, my wife, crouching near the body with cold eyes. I did not know what to do with him or with my wife. To tell the truth, I had secretly wished his death, because we were unsafe in our own house despite saving his life. But later when I introspected my thought, I was ashamed of myself because this was not what our elders had taught us. Humanity was our first lesson. We were shown to be compassionate and to live in harmony with the environment. We were taught to be kind, to empathize and also to have courage because compassion and courage are the two sides of a coin. But my compassionate characteristic had turned to a killer instinct! Did I sympathies with this man? Did I do anything to calm him or help him embrace the new environment? Did I empathize with my wife?
That day onward, I was more patient and careful to handle our wounded guest, and fortunately, he too responded to us on a positive note. There was no exchange of words from both ends for several days, and then one day, he asked me for a place to pee. I was speechless for a moment because for almost a month; I had been nursing him. He was too weak to walk and was bedridden. Maybe he felt strong enough to care for himself, and this was good news for us. I helped him step out of the house for the first time since his arrival and took near the pond in our backyard. After that day, he was all by himself, and we became friends.
One afternoon when we were lazing under a coconut tree in my backyard, and my wife was washing utensils in the pond, he told us his name as Shankar and continued to narrate his story. He wasn’t Indian. He belonged to a place called Shunamganj, in East Pakistan and the country was in a state of war to become a free nation during those days. He began with his grandfather’s story who had held his ground not to leave his house in 1947 during the historical India-Pakistan partition, and as he kept narrating his life history, we had goosebumps.
He told us how the other Hindu families, who were moving out of Shunamganj for a Hindu nation, India, had persuaded his grandfather to accompany them but he refused to leave his roots. His grandfather had faith in his Muslim neighbors and friends with whom he had grown up playfully all these years, with whom he celebrated Eid and Durga puja equally. But seldom he had known that the transition of Bengal from East Pakistan would be colored only in red. Several Muslims and Hindus had paid the cost for it. Shankar’s family was also one of them.
Shankar had heard these stories from his father. He had learned how Muslims, who once were the friends and neighbors, forcefully barged into the house one night to loot them and tried raping the ladies of the house despite their age and relation. Some were their aunt, who had cuddled them when they were born, and some were their sister who had tied Rakhi for several years. When his grandfather and three uncles tried to save the honour of the family, their throats were split apart, and their head was broken into pieces using a hammer. Unable to bear the horrific event, his grandmother killed her two unmarried daughters and three daughters-in-law, one of which was pregnant with her first child, before jumping to death herself. The whole family vanished within a few seconds that day. The only survivors were the four children, a girl and three boys, whom grandfather had locked in a secret cell in the basement near their farm.
These children stayed in that cell for several days, starving to death and unaware of the situation in the outer world. They were so frightened that they held each other close and did not move an inch. Then one day, a fakir opened the latch of the cell which was bolted from outside. How he found them is not known, but it was him who later raised the three children as one boy had died in that confinement.
The children were in shock when they entered their house. What they witnessed was horror. No one whom they knew was alive, and not even their bodies were around. The walls and the floor had a pool of dried blood stains, and the house was entirely in a mess. They could not recognize if this were their home and stood in shock. Realizing the trauma that the children were going through, the fakir took them out of that house immediately. He had not known about what could appear in this house! Had he known, he would never have brought the children back to this house.
Then the fakir took the children to his pulpiteer friend, Maulana of that village’s mosque, and requested to keep the children until the time is right. The fakir single-handedly cleaned the blood stains and transformed the house for living in a few months, while the Maulana, taught versus from Bhagwat Geeta to the children till they were under his custody despite the protest of various prominent Muslim villagers. The fakir took responsibility for the children as their guardian and moved into the reformed house with them. In his presence, no one dared to even peep inside that house. The children soon embraced him as their guardian angel and started calling him Abu Jaan. It was him all they had now, and he became their world.
With time, several influential villagers, who once were friends of their family, had demanded to convert these children to Islam if they had to live in that village, but the fakir did not agree. He kept preaching “Khuda ke bande sab ek hei!” He did not impose any religious burden on these children, and while doing so, he became an eyesore to some. But the Maulana, extended his support to the fakir as he considered him messiah for these children and no one in the village had guts to go against the Maulana.
As said time is a healer, soon everything settled down. The villagers started to mind their own business, the three children grew older and so did the fakir. The family grew as the boys got married and had children. The fakir could not have asked for more in his life.
Shankar was born to the youngest boy of the three children. But by the time he was born, Abu Jaan had left this world to begin his next journey. Shankar had grown up hearing Abu Jaan’s stories from his father, uncles and aunts. He had wished if Abu Jaan would have been alive but then old Maulana sahib fulfilled this gap. Though the Maulana himself was bed-ridden, his affection for Shankar was like a dark sky. Shankar would spend most of his time with Maulana, taking care of him because to him, the Maulana was his Abu Jaan.
But as it is also known, time is not constant; the nearby foes, who had become friends on the face to Shankar’s family, changed their color like a chameleon once again during the freedom war in 1972. Maybe somewhere the seed of religious hatred was deeply rooted in their blood. With prevailing tension across borders and within the country for freedom, one day the village once again was ablaze in the flames of communal riots. Some ruthless religious preachers called it freedom movement. The history had repeated once again in the same pattern. The neighbors entered Shankar’s house to loot and to kill, and this time, the only survivor was Shankar who was at Maulana sahib's house. He managed to escape somehow but had no courage to look for his family as Maulana had made him swear that he will not turn back but only run and take refuge in Hindustan.
Scared Shankar kept running, escaping several violent attacks and with only buzzing words from horse’s mouth “Run my son run…go to Hindustan…this place is not for you…run my son run…Hindustan is your home…” Since then Shankar kept running and walking without knowing where he was heading to, carrying zeal to survive unless he fainted one day and reached my house.
His story disturbed me to the core over and over. There he was who had lost everything to something superficial and was fighting for survival all alone in this world. If only listening was so painful then how could one measure his pain, who had gone through this trauma all alone! I had several sleepless nights after that day, and so had my wife. None of us ever spoke about asking him to leave us. Perhaps, we had accepted him as our family by now. Moreover, how inhumane it would be to ask a victim like him to go! All he needed now was love, care, and emotional support. We empathized with him and supported him joyfully to recover fully.
After he recovered, he wanted to work and contribute to the house expenses, but how? He was a college student in East Pakistan and was well read compared to us. Most of the people in Gosaba are fishermen, and a few are traders or rickshaw pullers, and the rest have migrated to Calcutta for bread and butter. Not knowing how to start, I advised him to learn the skills of fishing with me to which he happily agreed.
We started sailing in the Gosaba river together in my small boat early in the morning when the water level was high due to high tide. It's easy to float in high tide but staying still on water for long hours under scorching Sun is not comfortable at all. Fishing is a job that requires patience which Shankar lacked. So he stopped coming after some days. Since I was earning decent in those days, I was not worried about him getting any work immediately. I wanted him to get accustomed to this new environment and new people. Every morning after our first meal, he would go and would return after Sunset. The whole day he would explore the countryside and would keep narrating stories of what he saw and how he felt.
Our days were passing steadily without any hassle until one day my wife disappeared. Yes, after I returned home one evening, she was not there. I thought she might have gone to neighbours’ house because I could see cooked food in the kitchen. When Shankar returned, I sent him to check on her in the neighborhood as it was dark, but she was nowhere. That was alarming. With a bunch of villagers, we searched for her in entire Gosaba but no luck. Then the villagers assured us that she might have gone out for some urgent work in their absence and would return by next morning. But I started having an ill feeling. Something was not right.
At home, I again rushed to the kitchen to inspect. She had cooked the food, and it was untouched, which meant, she had not eaten lunch. Used vessels were also not visible in their usual place. She must have taken them to wash near the pond. Holding a lamp, I went to the pond and found the utensils spread here and there as if someone has thrown them on each corner and this was an unusual scene. My heart started beating harder, and I did not want to think about what I was thinking.
I walked towards the nearby bushes and lowered the lamp to investigate further, and to my shock, I found blood and scratches on wet mud as if someone was trying to catch hold of it. A few broken branches lay there also. My heart sank. I came back silently and closed the door. When Shankar inquired, I asked him to leave me alone for some days.
I did not tell about this incident to anyone, not even Shankar. It remained a secret of my life. When she did not return, villagers started gossiping about her. Some said she ran away with her lover or she went to her father’s house forever, or maybe tiger took her away. But Shankar sensed it. One day, he gave me a piece of her sari soaked in blood and a portion of flesh clinging to it and said: “Your Ban Devi couldn't save her!” OH! He had always been looking for her and finally found it in bushes near our farm. “How could I just let her disappear without letting us know?” he said with tears in his eyes. That was when perhaps my end began. Shankar had brought something that had opened the gate for the torrent of emotions that I had been guarding so far. It was no easier for me, and I had to explode but how.
Not knowing how to help, one day he dragged me with him to wander, and I let loose of myself. We walked from Gosaba to Canning. From Canning, we boarded a local train to Sealdah. From Sealdah we walked on the roads of Calcutta, slept on a footpath, cleaned cars to earn some coins to fulfil our stomach, participated in political rally hoping to make some money or get some food, and what not. Then finally after a few weeks, we boarded Canning local from Sealdah and returned to Gosaba. But during this time I was not in my senses at all, and I simply followed Shankar without any question hoping to get nirvana.
It became mandatory for him to fetch money to keep the house lamp burning because I had closed myself in my shell in those days. For our survival, he chose Canning local but how, he had no idea.
For the first few days, he travelled to-and-fro to observe the journey. He found several hawkers selling toffees, tender coconuts, fruits, books written in Bengali, jhal moori, cosmetics and much more. He saw beggars using their skills to beg like singing, beating two stones in a rhythm that created a melody and dancing. Amidst this, he observed that several travellers were stuck in their thought, gazing out of the window like a dead soul and suddenly standing like a robot when their station arrives.
Shankar also made friends with some hawkers and was astonished to find that a few were doing well in life. "If you work with dedication and if you spend your money wisely, you can make it.” said one. He even met the head of hawker union in Canning and expressed his urge to be one. The chief explained to him the rules, did the needful and wished him luck.
Shankar tried doing something different in Canning local like entertaining the bored passengers. As a trial, on his first day, he selected a partially crowded coach. Then to attract people's attention he made a loud, weird cry. Once curious eyes were on him, he started narrating a story by sometimes singing and sometimes doing mimicry. He made sure that with his movement, he covers the entire coach to catch 100 percent attention. Surprisingly, people were glued to his story. A few even applauded after his second or third mimicry. Meanwhile, a station arrived, but he did not stop. A few passengers, who were to get down, offered him some rupees that he happily kept in his pocket and those who got up, made a way to see what he was doing. The coach was buzzing with laughter and claps. It took him two stations to complete his story and then money was showered on him. The tedious journey had turned to joyful. Shankar had skillfully utilized Bengali dialects that he had known and had used his knowledge on various subjects. He thanked everyone and moved to another coach as he was dying to count his first earning. He was confident that he had made a right amount and after calculating what he had received, he had tears of joy in his eyes. He was holding eighty rupees in his hand. He sat there for another two-three station and then went to another coach that was partially crowded.
Shankar had found his source of earning. Every day in Canning local, 10 am to 4.30 pm, we would entertain passengers with different stories and made 200 rupees on an average. As only two of us were there, it was enough for us. In fact, he was a good saver also. He would come home directly after the last local, had tea with me and would narrate what he saw or experienced that day. He had become a star hawker of Canning local. Even several times international passengers had accompanied him to our house for a cup of tea. Their praise for his storytelling art made me proud. He once told that a journalist from Calcutta had interviewed him and it would flash on a prime local newspaper. Slowly I had started recovering from my grief and Shankar was all I had now.
With time, him and me, both grew older. One evening, he returned with a girl. The girl was too young and timid. “Who is she?” “My wife!” I was shocked. He had fallen in love with this girl in Canning local. She was in college and used to travel to Calcutta every day. They fell in love, and because her family would not allow her to marry a local train hawker, they eloped and got married in Ban Devi’s temple in Gosaba.
“Are you an adult?”
She nodded her head to say yes.
”What does your father do?”
“He is police sub-inspector.”
I looked at Shankar and fear gripped me. But he was least bothered, and I did not want to ruin the happiness he had got. So I accepted their marriage and my family grew. They lived with me for a few months and then she was pregnant. I advised Shankar to move to a separate house of his own as my house was small and as a woman, she may have wanted her personal space. Perhaps, I wanted my private area. He understood my feeling and soon bought a small hut in the same locality with his saving. After a few months, Mou was born.
“Uncle get up. How long will you sit there and eat?”
I looked up and saw Mou waiting to remove my plate. My God! The baby has turned into a beautiful woman. But why is she looking so pale and what is she doing here? Mou helped me to stand up and clean the floor. While I washed my hand, I was wondering what she was doing in my house at this hour. I had forgotten the reason for her visit, and even she did not utter a single related word that could have helped bring my memory back. That night, I told her story about how I met her father and how her father met her mother in Canning local.
Next morning when I woke up, she was not there, and I did not see Shankar ever after that day. Did he not return home from Canning local?