Masterby Rumjhum Biswas
Kalipada sitting on his haunches, an idle bidi in dirty-greasy fingers watched the trains passing by Haur station. The whole country was ablaze with golden emotions, none of which touched Kalipada. It being a holiday, the world was slacking. Kalipada, being no different loitered around the station. It was not like he had to stick to any schedule on other days, but the whole country was on holiday, so why not Kalipada? On other days he travelled ticketless to Sealdah, finding his way through roads and lanes, scavenging among the refuse piles of Kolkata, where there were others like him, his professional colleagues. Kalipada didn't care about the reason why it was a holiday. Independence days came and went as they pleased. It didn't matter to Kalipada who ruled or who followed. He, a low-caste, an out caste Dom, was above all that. He and his ancestors, by virtue of being beneath everything and everyone were beyond the attention and notice of progress and opportunities. As a matter of fact they were exempt from everything in the country. And that very reason put them beyond the reach of the powers that be. The logic though strange appeared infallible to Kalipada, more so because his father had told it to him.
"Kali," he'd said, his eyes squinting at the advancing curls of smoke, as he took a long masculine pull at his bidi. "Aeons ago white bastards grabbed and pillaged our lands and women. Took our wealth and our identities and gave us false ones. That is hidden in our history for our ancestors' ancestors didn't even dare, so decimated were they, to keep any visible record. Besides our ways are the ways of the open road and words that float free. Those ancient incidents merged into our oral tradition and lore; we became outcasts in our own place. But because it happened so long ago we took it to be the truth. And then in modern times, whiter bastards than they arrived and took from them. So what's the difference? I tell you Kali, it's the same story with different players. Whose independence? And from what? We are the audience watching the same dramas unfolding with different actors for centuries." And he'd coughed up gobs of phlegm with his bitter laugh, spitting out onto the dusty soil below the string cot, his cracked soles rubbing it into the ground with more force than necessary.
Kalipada's father, who had scavenged in and around an industrial town, whose owners used to be Englishmen, had absorbed a lot more political knowledge than was perhaps good for him. He had Marxist leanings and had listened to hot debates in toddy shops (where he had lost his liver) amidst clouds of bidi smoke that claimed his lungs. Despite the exposure to smoky Marxism, he was able to get a grasp of their own history from ancient songs sung from father to son and mother to daughter and from the bits and pieces of rituals they still clung to, but whose true meanings were already obscured. Nevertheless, the knowledge that they, the lowest of the low in the sub-continent were actually the original inhabitants was something they carried in their DNA. This was a fact that Kalipada knew and never in his lowest moments thought to question; simply put he knew, as did his father and his before. That knowledge was nevertheless a useless talisman that they wore around their souls. In their everyday life, they were the keepers of the dead, the scavengers, the sewage cleaners, shunned by all, even under the protective umbrella of "Harijan" so lovingly bestowed upon them by Gandhiji.
The Independence Day celebration had brought with it the usual paper and plastic flags, fluttering from high perches or pinned onto the breast pockets of people's shirts and tunics. The flags would lie scattered about the streets, platform floor and the railway track by tomorrow, to be swept away by either wind or broom. The loudspeakers were forcing patriotic songs down people's ears for now, and these would be replaced by Hindi film songs with nationalistic leanings, like the songs from Hindustan Ki Kasam. The station master had hoisted the flag earlier in the morning and tea and snacks had been distributed. Kalipada had been smart and come in early, loitering nearby. Finally he had gotten his reward, a packet containing two samosas and some jalebis. He would have liked some tea as well, but since nobody offered him any, he scrounged among the discarded paper cups, collected the liquid from each cup and drank the by-now-cold tea. People were more generous during marriage ceremonies. Well, he was lucky to get the packet of samosas and jalebis, the railway cleaner, a man little higher than Kalipada in rank and circumstances had shooed him out soon after. Kalipada left mostly because he knew there was nothing more to be got. The trash on Independence Day was practically useless, unless you literally went down on your knees and gathered the thin pins used to tack the flags on to pockets and lapels. Those sold for two Rupees a kilo, but searching for them was a pain unless you had a child's nimble fingers and sharp eyes.
Kalipada scrutinized the railway platform for stuff that he could use or sell, picking them up with his bare hands and sometimes feet. The railway dogs, no better than he, chased after him and Kalipada raised his sack at them in mock attack. Sometimes they foraged together among the dustbins for half eaten food items. Once when Kalipada had sat down exhausted and rested his back against a pillar, two of the railway dogs came and sat with him until the guard man chased them all away. Dogs and Kalipada were strays in the game of subsistence. Dogs were better friends than men, and Kalipada didn't need any Englishman to teach him that.
Right now however, an Englishman was eyeing him with interest. Kalipada immediately became alert. The man wore shorts, sports shoes with the laces almost to his ankles and carried a sack on his back. He was white and that made him an Englishman regardless of his mother tongue. What did he want with Kalipada?
"Allo," said the man and waved a camera.
"Picture?" said the man taking aim.
A bulb lit up in Kalipada's head. "Paisa," he said matter-of-factly, making the requisite gesture with his thumb and index finger.
The Englishman grinned knowingly, and delving into his pocket took out a wallet. This was a mistake. Kalipada craned his neck to see how much he was getting. But Potla was quicker than a black kite. He made a grab for the wallet and ran for his life.
"Stop thief," shouted the Englishman. He made wild gestures at everyone. "Hey! Stop him man!"
Some idlers looked around, laughed and went back to their card games. Some made half-hearted attempts to chase Potla, as a mark of concession to the Englishman who was after all a guest of the country. One or two made sincere attempts, but they were not locals. Today being a national holiday most of the railway staff was on leave. That apart how many employees could a tiny station like Haur have? The majority of the people at the station were like Kalipada.
The Englishman looked at Kalipada imploringly, as if the latter was obliged because he was the reason why the wallet was stolen in the first place. This was not fair as Kalipada hadn't asked for his photograph to be taken. Nevertheless Kalipada weighed his options. Potla, though not a friend, (a crook like Potla could never be anyone's friend) was a colleague of sorts. He was not a professional scavenger like Kalipada, but a freelancer, a man of many parts and a free loader as well when it came to the three Ts of life - toddy, tender loins and taka or paper notes of money. Once, when Kalipada was contemplating taking in a woman he'd met in the land fills near the railway station, he was rudely woken up to the fact that she was already pregnant with Potla's seed. Of course Potla never acknowledged it, even though the brat turned out to be an exact replica of him. If it had been any one else's, Kalipada wouldn't have cared. But to become official father to a boy whose real father was hanging around and leering at every opportunity was something that he wasn't going to put up with. But he didn't hate Potla.
Hating a real person, a man of flesh and blood, someone you met every day and who was connected with your own life was not a sensible or even a plausible thing. Potla may have cheated Kalipada, but they belonged to the same set. Whereas, the others, and by this Kalipada included all who were not scavengers or destitute people, no matter how kind and generous, were the enemy class, the white bastards. It was all right to hate the white bastards whether Indians or foreign. That was a genetic thing, and made sense because, if they hadn't been rich, the likes of Kalipada wouldn't be in this state. This was a piece of mixed up leftist ideology that Kalipada had absorbed partly from his father and partly too from the conversations floating at roadside tea shops. Ideological hate or not, at this time Kalipada felt nothing for the Englishman standing in front of him. The man was getting more and more hysterical as the precious seconds ticked by. Kalipada looked at his distress and mulled over how he neither hated nor loved him; that this master-class human didn't matter to him. There was nothing in it for him. He may as well close his eyes and sleep, except for a faint trace of emotion, the only one in his mind towards the white man. The feeling was of hope, even though the wallet was gone.
Haur was a small place, where everyone knew everyone. If someone gave serious chase, Potla would definitely get caught. The English man had begun to run now, since he understood correctly that no one was going to really and truly help him. There were no signs of any policeman, so he may as well try to get his wallet back by himself. He didn't know who Potla was; somewhere deep inside his heart he thought he would be knifed to death in a deserted alley. This was India after all, where devils and saints went arm in arm. He threw an imploring look at Kalipada as he took off after Potla. Their eyes met and then and there, something shifted inside Kalipada, and for no good reason he decided he would help.
"Dada!" said Kalipada. "Dada!" And then as a spurt of memory brought a word to his lips, "Brother! Ishtop!"
This worked. The Englishman stopped. Kalipada caught up with him and they continued together. Kalipada led the way because he had a hunch where Potla was headed. On the way he tossed questions at urchins, beggars and other scavengers. Soon word spread that Kalipada was helping a white man get his wallet back. The string of people following the Englishman and Kalipada grew longer with each corner turned and every enquiry flung. Someone must have notified Potla, because when they turned up at his hideout, he was nowhere to be seen. By this time there was a roaring hullaballoo. The whole of Haur was agog. An off duty constable came by. He spoke with gravity with the Englishman, took notes and commanded one of the bystanders to bring a chair and tea. He shook hands with the Englishman with great seriousness, glancing quickly around to se who were watching. After him a smart urchin came up to shake hands, and then another and another until there was a veritable queue. From the crowd stray English words, unrelated to each other, were flung into the circle at whose centre the Englishman sat, like coins thrown at a roadside deity. Some bystanders - the teashop owners, rickshaw pullers and labourers - who were better off than Kalipada, and owned cell phones, took pictures of themselves with the Englishman. The Englishman kept looking up at Kalipada from his seat on a plastic chair, and spreading his arms apart in a wide and questioning shrug. Kalipada basking in this sudden limelight, even the constable hadn't yelled at him, began asking everyone with a new found tone of authority whether they had seen Potla. Many had. Many had even seen him scooting off in as many directions, so Kalipada sent out the urchins as scouts. Some of the older men started an argument about Potla's actual whereabouts. Kalipada listened for a few minutes before turning to the white man. He explained in sign language that he was to remain while Kalipada went in search. The man nodded. But before Kalipada could make a move, the crowd parted and Potla, looking dishevelled and disgruntled, but not at all frightened, returned. He was flanked by muscular rickshaw pullers and load bearers, the latter employed at the railway station. Urchins brought up the rear guard. One of the load bearers fished out the stolen wallet from Potla's pocket and he was unceremoniously thrown at the Englishman's feet. The Englishman was alarmed. He didn't want the wretched thief beaten to death. He had got his wallet back, and now the men were making signs at him to open it and check.
"Checking please. Checking, checking," they cried in unison. Kalipada also pointed at the wallet, almost touching it in his eagerness. The Englishman obliged. He seemed satisfied that everything was intact. He looked up and smiled and was greeted in turn by dozens of grinning happy faces. Somebody clutched his feet. Potla had been commanded to ask for forgiveness by the constable who had miraculously returned. The Englishman extricated his feet and turned to Kalipada, who took this opportunity to raise Potla up by his hair. Revenge was sweet. Potla glared at him, so Kalipada turned to the constable.
"Dada," he said. "Criminal is yours."
The constable gave Potla a few cuffs for affect and looked at the Englishman for direction. "Sir, police station coming please," he said.
The Englishman looked alarmed and then as understanding dawned, took out some notes from the wallet. The constable accepted the money, grinning as he led Potla away. Kalipada's face darkened. The crowd was beginning to disperse as the drama had already reached its climax. He knew that the constable would extract his cut from Potla before letting him go. Kalipada hoped that Potla had no money on him. That would keep him behind bars for a while.
"Thank you," said the Englishman, startling Kalipada.
"Oh? Er…"Kalipada was at a loss, but soon memory came to his rescue. "Mention not," he said, adding, "Please." Kalipada looked around him. Such a pity there was fewer people to hear him say the English words. But he was even less prepared for what the man did next. He actually put one hand out and took Kalipada's. The urchins, some of them at least who were still hanging around, cheered.
The Englishman pointed at himself and said, "Prescott. Scottie. Call me Scottie."
Kalipada smiled widely, "Kalipada. Kali."
"Kali? Goddess Kali?" said Scottie looking puzzled.
Kalipada beamed and nodded vigorously.
"Hm," said Scottie as he digested this. "Tea? Chai? Chai, Kali?"
Kali beamed again and nodded. The urchins led the way into the tea shop. Now the crowd grew again. Scottie faced rows of beaming faces and he too beamed back. The tea shop owner grinning to split his lips poured piping hot tea from a kettle while a large square pot bubbled on his portable coal stove. It seemed to Kalipada that the whole town had gathered there to have tea, but Scottie apparently didn't mind. He was making gestures that suggested that he wanted to take a picture of the scene. The crowd grew even bigger, but Kalipada was at the centre of it all. Scottie produced a tri-pod, which he unfolded before placing his camera on it. Using his hands he gave directions, and the people jostled to comply. But the camera seemed to look at Kalipada straight in the face. Beaming, he too looked straight into the camera. He sat straight and proud, a clay cup of milky tea in his hand, an ankle resting on the other knee. Scottie appeared to be very pleased with his pose. He took several quick shots, and then a group shot with all the bystanders. After that, one of the tea shop owner and another of Kalipada and the owner together. At last, he took what to Kalipada was the clincher, a picture of him and Scottie. In order to do this seemingly impossible task, Scottie first motioned the people to stand away, he set the camera and quickly came to Kalipada's side. There was a clicking sound and a collective "aah" from the wonderstruck crowd. Kalipada's joy knew no bounds.
Before leaving Scottie thrust some notes into Kalipada's hand's, despite his protests. But when Scottie lightly hugged him and patted his back, Kalipada was almost in tears. For days after that he was the talk of the town. Even the tea shop owner smiled and said "ki re Kali?" It didn't take long for the money to get over, and soon Kalipada was back to where he started. Except for the touch, the memory of it. When Scottie had touched Kalipada, it was as if his DNA had woken up and straightened his back, firmed up his neck, and brought the light back into his eyes. Kalipada thought of his father and his heart swelled. If the old man had been around his back would have straightened up as well, and his eyes would shine. Oh how they would shine. Like fireflies dancing in the coal black night.