Ribhu had brought home a stranger and I had to hurry back home from the salon. Leaving the queue meant another thirty minutes wait, the next time, but then what could be done. Reema had called, she seemed worried. And may not be without reason, for in today’s world who could take chances with strangers.
“I thought you had gone for a haircut” said a surprised Ribhu as I pushed open the door. Beside him was sitting an old bespectacled man who looked up hesitantly at me.
“I’m sorry to have disturbed you all,” he said, trying to get up, holding the table in front of him for support. “Actually, I was feeling a little sick when your son saw me and brought me here. I should be off now.”
“No, no….please be seated,” I replied meekly, completely taken aback at the sight of this frail old man. “How can one even suspect him of being a conman,” I wondered.
Encouraged, Ribhu tugged at the gentleman’s shirt. “Its still forty five minutes to ten, Dadu,” he said.
Turning his attention to me, he tried to explain the situation.
“Baba, this Dadu was very sick few minutes back. I found him leaning against the wall, by the side of the main gate, sweating profusely. They discuss so much about heat stroke in the TV…… I thought he was about to have one. So I did not listen to anything that he had to say and dragged him straight here. I made him lie down under the fan, Ma gave him a glass of lemonade and now see, he looks much better.”
“Good.” I nodded my approval at Ribhu’s actions but my eyes refused to leave the old man’s face.
“Dadu didn’t see the time correctly and went to the bank thinking it was already ten. But, naturally they haven’t opened yet. So I told him to wait here till its time. He had agreed, but see, now he is getting up already” complained Ribhu.
“Chatterji Sir?” I blurted out in a moment of recognition. “Yes of course, of course! How can I ever forget that face?”
The elderly gentleman now looked utterly puzzled. He removed his glasses and narrowed his eyes to take a better look at me. I bowed low to touch his feet and it was only after I had straightened up that he realized that he ought to bless me and touched me lightly on the shoulder.
“Bless you,” he said. “But sorry, I’m confused. Who are you?”
“Reema…” I called out elated. “Its Chatterji Sir, Reema! Remember that God-sent gentleman I had told you about……..that Taratala bus stop incident...”
Reema stepped out from behind the curtains and moved forward to seek his blessings.
“All that I have today, I owe it to him Reema.”
The visibly embarrassed gentleman could do little to hide his blush.
“Well…..I am Swapnil Chatterji but sorry I still can’t recognize you,” he said most apologetically.
“PCTL……Mr. Nath Sir....do you remember?” The old man’s eyes scanned every bit of my face but his memory seemed to have given away. I could see the lost look on his face.
I tried again. “Dhamra port……. the jetty site…..can you recollect Sir?”
“Dhamra?” muttered the gentleman. “The jetty…………….. I had visited that site I think,” he said slowly and his eyes lit up for a second
How much of our meeting he remembered, I doubted. He must be past eighty, I thought and didn’t look very fit. Oh how I had wanted to meet and thank this man! And now, here he was, right in my house, MY OWN HOUSE, every brick indebted to him!
Ribhu could contain his excitement no longer. “What’s the story Baba? Please tell me.”
I smiled at him and gently taking Chatterji Sir’s hands in both of mine, helped him back on the sofa, as I seated myself by his side. Ribhu quickly lodged himself in between.
“I can’t believe my luck Sir! Its been more two decades….since we last met. Don’t know if you remember meeting a stranger at the Taratala bus stop, but that meeting changed my life forever.” Reema had brought me a glass of water and I quickly gulped it down. Memories and words competed with each other for my attention.
“I had heard that you had left PCTL and gone to Bombay. I tried to find you Sir, but hardly knew anyone in the Head Office. There was so much I wanted to tell you Sir.
At the Dhamra jetty site, slowly over time, I was able to persuade Nath Sir to allow me to take up minor corrections in the Engineering drawings. My efforts impressed him and with his help I moved into the technical team at site. In a few months, he managed to get me an assistant draftsman role so that I could shift back to Kolkata office. Once back, I joined a part time diploma course and then there was no looking back. That beggar-like boy on the streets, whom you had helped Sir, now works at par with Civil Engineers.” I paused for a while and wiped the corner of my eyes. Sir was listening intently, possibly recalling our meeting.
“The day I completed my diploma in Civil Engineering, I couldn’t sleep all night,” I continued. “I yearned to meet you, to tell you all of this. But the mobile phone and internet had not yet come in and the world wasn’t such a small place as it is today. I simply could not locate you Sir.” My words were getting choked with emotion.
Chatterji Sir smiled endearingly and put his arms around Ribhu. “Today, your son returned that favor, if that is what you think. I really felt as if I would die of the heat. What a worthy child he is!”
Ribhu gave a shy smile.
“I’ll get some sweets,” offered Reema.
“Sweets are a strict no-no for me dear. Blood sugar.” Sir refused in the most apologizing tone and glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost ten. “I must leave now,” he said getting up.
I felt reluctant and urged him to stay for some more time. He obliged for two more minutes, then started getting fidgety. Clearly, age was not on his side anymore. I could not make out how well he remembered me or Nath Sir or his other colleagues at PCTL. And even if he did, I’m sure I was just another acquaintance to him. Afterall, we had met only twice.
Today, I wanted to do all I could, to help him, but there was not much to be done. Though he protested, I accompanied him to the bank and from there to his daughter’s house, where he was visiting. Reema and Ribhu were to leave in the evening for Reema’s brother’s place. Four weeks of summer vacation for mother and son. So the rest of the day passed in active preparations for their journey and it was not before night that I could finally dwell upon those long passed years.
------------------------------------ ------------------------------------ ------------------------------------ ----------------------------------
Winter had arrived early that year. The sun was almost down and the chill could already be felt. I stood at one corner of the busy pavement and watched the people emerge from the various buildings, some chatting leisurely, some hurrying to the bus stop, some engaged in heated discussions with passersby, each one occupied. The hawkers on the pavement increased their pitch so as to be heard, despite the cacophony of the birds returning home. Few more hours and another day would be gone, another wasted day. I would return home, head hung low, to my ailing mother and from the look of me she would understand that her son had still not managed to get a job. She had kept telling me all through the past three years while I was still in college, to try and get into some part-time job, any odd job – paper boy, mechanic, running errands for a big shop but I kept requesting her to not hurry me and let me complete the ITI course for draftsmanship.
“A professional course is what is needed for thousands of commoners like us to even attempt a start at a better life,” a college senior had advised and his words had touched a chord in my ambitious heart. Ever since my father left us, I had seen my mother struggle each day just to be able to bring home two square meals. Added to it, was the burden of my education, but she had stood me through, all these years, sometimes borrowing from the people in whose homes she worked and at times from friends. But I had been an unworthy son. It was only when her ailment got so bad that she was restricted to the bed, that it finally dawned upon me that I had to turn bread-winner. Ma had done much more than her physical capacity. I couldn’t let her starve now. I would have to forego my dreams of a better life. An empty stomach dreams only of food.
In the past one week, I had visited every busy hub of Kolkata begging for a job - any job, peon, guard, sales boy, shop assistant and even that of a sweeper at a posh residential complex. But no luck, even the beggars seemed to be making some money but I returned home empty hand each day.
A kind looking gentleman moved towards a sweets shop with a friend. I watched them as they ordered and relished their snacks and my stomach growled. In some time they stepped out and were moving towards the zebra crossing. Without another thought I dashed towards the man.
“Excuse me sir, can you spare a minute please.”
The man turned around surprised. “Me?” he asked.
“Yes sir, only two minutes of your time.”
“Some new style of begging” whispered his companion. “Lets go.”
“No sir. I don’t want to beg. Can you give me a job sir?” I blurted out.
The men were taken aback. My haggard dishevelled look obviously didn’t give me the credit of being even literate.
“I’m a graduate sir………science and am also doing an ITI course. I desperately need a job sir. Can you please help? I can take up any work, even that of a sweeper.”
My words seemed to touch the kindly gentleman. He gave me one long sympathetic look and taking out a tiny writing pad from his pocket, scribbled something on it and handed it to me. “Meet me in my office tomorrow morning. There that building.” He pointed to a multistoried building across the road with a glow sign saying “PCTL”.
I stood there dumbfounded with the paper in hand. The man patted me on the shoulder and smiled. “Lets see if anything can be arranged. I’m not sure of what kind of openings we have now, but I’ll try.” The earnestness in his voice moistened my eyes.
“Don’t lose that paper. I have put down my name and few more details. Show it to the security guard at the gate and he will let you in. I’ll leave now.” Saying so, he patted me once again and left. I was overwhelmed with emotion and couldn’t utter a word.
A drop trickled down my eyes and made its way straight to my mouth. The sudden taste of salt brought me back to the present and I got up to straighten myself. I had been slouching on the sofa and my back hurt. What luck to have come across Chatterji Sir that day, I muttered to myself. My mind went back to the incidents of the morning and thinking of Ribhu’s humane act, my eyes moistened again. Sir had called him a worthy boy. I felt so happy.
Reema had left enough food in the fridge to last me a week. I took out a small portion of a curry and two rotis and had a quick dinner. Then, making myself a cup of tea, I pulled a chair to the verandah. Fortunately, this portion of the house didn’t face the city roads. The verandah faced a decent sized garden and play-area for the children. It was all quiet at this hour. Occasionally, the low voices of people taking after-dinner walks could be heard.
I had thought of calling over some friends but later decided not to. Today I wanted absolute solitude to simply reflect upon my life of so far. The night was warm and most people had already retired into the comfort of ACs. I had also purchased one last year, but the thought of ducking under a cozy sheet in a wonderfully cool room didn’t appeal to me today.
The sweat trickling down my bare back brought a strange tingling sensation and I was suddenly overcome by a deep sense of gratitude for all the goodness on this earth. The orangish full moon on the night sky took me back to another memorable night when Chatterji Sir and I, stood on an under construction jetty, with nothing but the sea all around us. Sir had come on a site visit and it was once again by sheer chance that he, a high ranking official and myself a labor supervisor got to spend a few private moments, very precious moments of my life.
The minute I saw him arrive at the site, I kept looking for an opportunity to talk to him. That day at the head office, I had hardly been able to thank him. I had to keep waiting most of the time and then, Sir handed me a telephone to talk to Nath Sir. After another long wait, I was told to report at Dhamra site and was handed over an appointment letter and a train ticket. I found myself aboard a train the next night. The hours in between passed like a haze. I vaguely remember handing over the care of my mother to the neighbors, convincing my skeptical mother about the sudden turn of luck and assuring everyone around, that I would send money as soon as I got my salary.
Meeting after meeting kept Chatterji Sir occupied the entire day. He passed me several times but was always busy. The evening lights came up and I knew that soon I too would be heading towards the quarters. Perhaps some other time, I told myself.
When it was completely dark and the full rounded moon rose high up in the sky, I suddenly felt exhausted and pined to spread myself on the earth. Without any conscious thought, my legs picked up the direction of the jetty. I could see a lone man, perhaps the last of the group of exiting workers, trudging slowly across the metal plates. I crossed him without a word and steadily moved towards the far end, almost two kilometres into the sea. I loved this spot of solitude and sat there for a long long time, quietly watching the calm all around. It felt like I had become one with the moon and the sky and the sea and a strange sense of peace engulfed me.
Suddenly a voice spoke up behind me. “Talking to the moon?”
I almost jumped up in surprise and turned around. It was Chatterji sir. I must have been really engrossed in my thoughts to not to have heard him walk up the metallic path.
“I also didn’t notice you, till I was almost here,” he said. “So, do you like it over here?”
“Oh yes sir. How can I not like it?” I replied. “Thanks sir, I owe it all to you.”
“That’s ok. What about your studies? I remember your mentioning something about a technical course to me. Could you complete it?” he asked
I shook my head. “No sir, I was only in the first year.”
“But I have no regrets sir,” I hurried to add. “I’ve got more than what I could ask for. My mother lives today because of this job that you gave me.”
He said nothing and shifted his gaze to the sea and we both stood quietly by each other for some time. I wanted to thank him in many more words but the infinite calmness of that night had a strange quietening effect on us. After a long time he spoke.
“I don’t think it has been a smooth ride for you so far, but nevertheless, you ARE here today, isn’t it. You mustn’t give up your dreams, neither the resilience to make them come true. One has to be ready all the time. Opportunities will come. Just grab them.”
I don’t remember what conversation we had thereafter. Only the moonlit magic of those few minutes have remained etched in my heart all these years. Opportunities indeed came my way and I did not let go of my dream of a professional degree. Ma lived to see her son become an Engineer but could not see him settle down to domestic bliss.
I took in one deep breath and got up. It was well past midnight and tomorrow would be another demanding day at work. Whether I have been able to fare well in life’s exams, I don’t know, but Ribhu will, I think. Like Chatterji Sir, he too has a humane heart, a heart that is sure to leave its mark on those it touches.