By Srirupa Dhar
The Kolkata morning light makes its way through the rich silk white drapes. No faux silk business here. The sun doesn’t care that the curtains look chic in their authentic silk fabric. Neither does fourteen-year-old Rik. He wakes up to the morning shine with the hangover of his late night dream pinching on his forehead. Earthshine – that’s what he has been dreaming of. His mind can’t get over the pictures of the moon in National Geographic. Such pictures are easily dismissed as not-so-spectacular by anyone, literally anyone. But not Rik. Because he finds beauty in the most odd corners and moments – to him things are most beautiful when they are at their lowest profiles. That’s how an earthshine attracted him last night – the nondescript, leaden glow on the moon’s surface leaping out of the glossy pages of National Geographic. And now his eyes register the real world around him – a world far from the silent beauty of earthshine. He looks at his own room – its grayish white walls and dovetailed ivory furniture set – pigeonholed in perfect consonance with order, method, and sophistication. Rik’s mind grows tired the moment he looks at his room and knows that he can’t find himself in it. His insides become limp. He is not ready for another prosaic, structured day.
Doesn’t matter that it is a Sunday. Rik has to schlepp along with his chauffeur – the middle-aged stocky, bearded, and liveried man – chaperoning him to school on weekdays and tutorial homes on week nights as well as weekends. Hari, the chauffeur has transitioned to city life leaving his wife and kids in a village in Bihar – a neighboring state of West Bengal. Rik has always found it strange that Hari should leave his own folks behind just so that he can earn some money and send his children to school. Who takes Hari’s kids to school if their dad is busy taking Rik around town all the time? Hari laughs at Rik’s questions: “We are poor people. We can’t afford to have a car for ourselves, let alone a chauffeur. My kids walk to the village school. They have been doing that since they were six/seven.”
Which means mine is not the only kind of life other kids lead. This is not the absolute normal. How fine it would be to walk along rivers, dirt roads, and paddy fields as they follow your footsteps and make you sing inside.
The honking of the numberless automobiles on his way to the Physics tutorial home wakes up Rik from his brief reverie. He rolls down the tinted glass windows of the silver metallic Mercedes-Benz sedan. Rik has this habit of rolling down the windows and feeling the heat of the sun or pulse of the rain. And he hears the beat of life – the honking of cars and buses, shouting of vendors as they sell their street food, and the playing of popular Hindi songs in roadside eateries. Rik finds movement in all this – an honest betrayal of who you are and what you want. The common folks are actually living a life – whether hauling themselves to catch onto the chug of life or struggling to board an over-crowded bus – and they are a happening people going above and beyond the dynamics of the mundane. Rik breathes the air outside the chauffeured vehicle in which he is cozily tucked. Rolled up windows give him an untoward god-like feel – as if he is viewing the whole outside world with a bunch of unnecessary privacy settings for himself. And Hari knows that when Rik is with him, the AC has to go off. “Some UV rays will not kill us.” Rik would often say. With his bare minimum literacy, Hari now has a vague idea of what UV means.
Rik gets a snippet of his parents waving him goodbye as he leaves with Hari for his triple- tutorial-outing. Sushma, the chef, has cooked pulao and chicken tossed in fenugreek leaves for Rik and Jaba, the maid, has packed the lunch with a bottle of mineral water. All taken care of by the household staff so that Rik manages to gulp down his lunch between his Physics and Math tutorial classes. And after Math, he will have to hop to his English Literature coaching class. A day so full and hectic demands a heavy, rich meal that will keep his brain running – Rik’s doctor-parents both believe in this. They don’t have the time to do the caring, but they certainly advocate it and make tons of sacrifices by providing their son with the most expensive of all the three vehicles they own.
Amit – Rik’s father – always likes to be addressed with a Dr. before his actual name as if he is first a physician and then his other identities follow. Rik wonders: Why not be called Father Amit Das instead of Dr. Amit Das? At least, that would reinforce Amit’s place as my dad! But, no. Amit doesn’t opt for it, ever. His life as a surgeon keeps him held up in daily complex surgeries, outdoor patient treatments, and private practice. If he is not doing any of these, he is out of town for national and international medical conferences. Even on a Sunday like this, he has to leave for his private practice to see umpteen number of patients until late afternoon. At least, he is not on-call today. His evening is free. Ever since in medical school, Amit has not found enough time for anything except his professional preoccupations. He did find the time to marry Rita – a wedding neatly arranged between two doctor-families. Amit finds his wife’s area of expertise rather dubious. Her occupation as a psychiatrist doesn’t quite convince Amit that she is a medical practitioner. “You toy with people’s moods and simply drug their nerves with no permanent solutions to their problems.” Amit says it in a leg-pulling-jocularity, with unmistakable insulting undertones. Rita can’t allow her ego be humiliated. “What with all the numbing ruse, you do like it when the money comes rolling in, don’t you?” These are all givens in Rik’s house – a mansion in Lake Gardens, Kolkata. As the only child of Rita and Amit, he has learnt to live with such constants as well as with the marble floors, vacuum cleaners, dish washer, and domestic help who doubly outnumber the three family members.
Rik has figured out early on that he is a subject of envy of many of his relatives – relatives who would love to live a fairy tale life like Rik’s. What do they know of fairy tales, anyway? Going to school and coming home in a leather-seated high-end car which most people in the city can’t dream to afford? And socializing with adults who are worried about not being the first among peers to go on luxurious vacations to the Caribbean? The kids of these adults are all geared up to have the latest Microsoft Xbox or whatever console peeps out in the market. Talk about fairy tale where children’s imaginations are stuck within the confines of Play Stations? Rik wants to leapfrog this fairy tale, desperately.
Rik comes home from his boring Sunday tours, mentally exhausted. By the time he is home around four in the afternoon, he feels jaded to start all over with his pending school assignments. Rik sits in his room with a thirst within – a thirst he isn’t sure of what. But he feels a pluck at his heart to go off track and do something different. After having done his homework for the next day, Rik makes up his mind. He will not go to school tomorrow. But how?
As always, Hari drops off Rik at the school gate – a black iron gate that smells of metal and disapproves of kids’ shenanigans. The school watchman stands – with his vulpine eyes –breathing the mechanics of a rule-bound institution. Not easy to dodge Dilip – this rebuking old man well into his sixties and fortified with experiences of both life and mischievous children. But Rik does. He slips off the radar when Dilip is busy shouting at a rambunctious sixth grader who enters the school premises singing “Hey Jude, don’t let it go” with an ugly falsetto.
Rik seizes upon the moment. With his satchel baggaged on his back, he walks, brisk, but frightened. His gait betrays a potential truancy and a nervously-beating heart. But once within a thousand feet away from his school building, he starts to have a better grip on his nerves. He feels free at last! And Rik doesn’t give himself the bother of thinking of the consequences – the racket at home when his parents come to know of his monkey business. For the first time in his life, he is unchaperoned and that gives him a sense of ‘self’. Am I one of these myriads of people looking out for a promise this sultry August Monday morning? It strikes him that for the first time in his life, he is walking on a busy Kolkata street. His usual chauffeured automobile rides from one place to another – that demand bare minimum exposure to the asphalt of the streets – are not there to suffocate him now. This is his own moment even though he is in the midst of numerous unknown faces and constant honking of vehicles. The smell of open drains – another of his first experiences – shocks him at first. His previous observations from his Mercedes-Benz have told him one truth about Kolkata – the city can easily draw in people at the slightest drop of a pin. No, I can’t afford to throw up here on this busy Lower Circular Road. If I do, people will start gathering around me and I will be caught! But he isn’t aware that his face has a stomach-turning-sort-of-look – his cheeks shriveling down as he desperately tries to suck up his saliva to hold back the disgust he feels from the obnoxious smell of open drains. “What is the matter with you? Are you going to throw up?” Rik hears a screechy voice talking to him – the voice of a boy walking down Lower Circular Road from the opposite direction. On the crowded sidewalk this boy – younger than Rik by about four years – stands across him, a few feet away. Rik is shaken by the confrontational, yet concerned tone of this boy. Some hesitant moments pass. “Why do you ask me that?” Rik says, trying to conceal his actual urge to retch.
“Your face says it. Are you sick?” The younger boy speaks in that same high-pitched adolescent voice – a voice that still sounds girly and has an assertiveness about it. A combination of spontaneity and innocence.
Rik is overtaken by the uncanny resemblances between the boy and himself. The idea of throwing up vanishes from Rik’s mind. Rik stares at his doppelganger – his own smiling eyes, thin nose, small, pointy ears, and cordate chin – who seems to say: “See yourself”. Save the short height, dark skin, thick, curly hair, and screechy voice of the younger boy, you cannot tell the two apart. They can easily pass off as brothers. Rik’s clean, spruced-up school uniform gives away the main difference between the boys, though. The dissonance in their social classes is unmistakable. “Why are you staring at me? Haven’t you ever seen a boy? And why are you not in school? I see you are wearing your school uniform.” A spate of questions – spoken with unstoppable flow and bubbling energy. Rik feels amused at the boy’s attitude – an attitude trying to, but falling short of being impertinent. A touch of childish exercise of unlicensed authority. Rik finds this fun. Suddenly he takes off his satchel that has been saddling his back all this time. He makes a gesture of throwing it away on the sidewalk, not caring for it in the least. “What are you doing?” The younger boy shouts and his eyes suddenly stop smiling. With a look of disbelief in both his eyes and voice, he tells Rik: “You are lucky to wear those clothes and carry a schoolbag. But looks like you don’t know how lucky you are! And why are you throwing the backpack here? Don’t you get that people might trip? There are so many people walking – kids, older folks, blind beggars begging so that people might drop a coin or two in their begging bowls. Can’t you see all this?” Rik’s conscience feels a pique; he suddenly feels ashamed of his life-long self-pity and blasé about the privileges he enjoys. This boy is tapping into Rik’s consciousness and that is definitely doing something to Rik. Taking out his embroidered handkerchief, Rik wipes the beads of sweat from his forehead. His silky hair smells new – the amber and vanilla fragrance of his shampooed hair is now cowlicked with the sour smell of sweat and the heavy stink of the muggy air. “Why do you care for what I am doing?” Rik speaks for the first time to the little stranger. “Because you should respect what you have. Many people don’t have what you have and they would love to be you.” Rik’s thoughts go back to his middle-class relatives who will be ready, anytime, to exchange their lives for his.
“But my life is not always what it seems to be. I am not happy. I feel stuck with the same people and places, each one mindlessly acting as part of an unforgiving mechanism. They don’t know where they are heading to. They simply follow a dull routine. They are robots. Not humans. I don’t want to be one of them.” Rik spills out his heart to this complete stranger. It then occurs to Rik that he does not even know the boy’s name. “By the way, who are you and what is your name?” Rik asks, this time with more interest in the boy. “I am called Anaath.” What a sad name to have! A Bengali name that means ‘orphan’. Who would name their child Anaath? Lost in these thoughts, Rik hears Anaath asking him his name. “I am Rik.”
“What a funny-sounding name!” Anaath laughs out loud with the dimple on his right cheek denting his face and giving it a mischievous charm. “What is so funny about my name? Do you know that Rik is the name of the verse collections of the Rig Veda? The Vedas are the ancient philosophical scriptures of Hindus. So, you see my name isn’t funny at all!”
Anaath looks confused. “I don’t know what the Vedas are. I don’t know anything. You see, I am poor and illiterate who lives in that slum across the street. Why am I even talking to you, really?” Rik’s heart pricks. The spark of life in the boy is suddenly demurred and Rik sees contours of pain textured on Anaath’s young face. Rik smiles, generously. “No. You do know many things that I don’t know.” Anaath spots the dimple on Rik’s right cheek. “Ah! You look so much like me, don’t you?”
Rik smiles again, this time with an inner urge to bond with the boy. “Shall we be friends, then?” Rik’s words – more of a request and less of a command – stir Anaath’s heart. “Do you mean it? Then I will take you to my uncle!” Anaath’s voice gets back its exciting pitch and élan. Rik finds no reason to hesitate. Almost by reflex, he says: “Sure!” And why not? This time no one is wheedling Rik into a friendship based on the video games Rik has – the highly-sought-after “Forza Horizon 3” or “Gears of War 4”. Kids who Rik know prefer punching buttons on their favorite Xbox games all day than playing cricket in the open air. Rik warms up to Anaath’s plea for friendship, artless, and unguarded. The two boys walk towards the slum about half a mile from where they met. As they cross the street, they close in on their newly-created camaraderie and look out for open hearts within the arteries of the congested city.
Lower Circular road cuts several alleys – murky, narrow, and stinky. As Anaath leads him along those meandering alleys, Rik takes in a new, unknown world, a world embedded within, yet different from the city he lives in. Kolkata mothers divergent worlds, worlds that couldn’t be farther apart. Rik has always been cupped in a gorgeous mansion that looks out to the myriad dazzling city lights, lights that callously stand against smoggy winter skies and unforgiving poverty of the city slums. And today Rik is walking that naked squalor, a squalor that stares on his face and proclaims a shame. A shame of both the dearth and plenitude in his hometown, the capital city of West Bengal. Rik is mystified by the slums that house these shanties, where women are collecting water from a street tube-well, infants with snotty noses are sheltering themselves against their mothers’ bosoms, and men are fighting over their turns to use the public toilet. These slums are lit by darkness, with no sunlight even slyly cracking through their walls. The turbid urine-y smell leaks out of everywhere and there seems to be no effort to get rid of this revolting, unhealthy stench. There is a feel of an air that is clogged, an air that has never had the luxury of a crisp freshness. Rik sees and smells poverty here. Poverty can be intimidating; it threatens the meaning of life itself. So candid in its nakedness, but at the same time, so inscrutable in its density. Anaath lives here. He breathes this air and yet he has the spark of life in him. Rik follows Anaath, with absolute silence. The reality of this place is slowly sinking in Rik’s mind. At fourteen, he has never known such starkness. Not even read descriptions of such a place in any novel. Or wait a minute! Could Fagin be from one such place – the Fagin who disrupts the world of the helpless poor like Oliver Twist? The Dickensian world brings to us the past – London in the nineteenth century. But here is Rik in 2016 standing amidst filth and despair, both breeding in his own city.
Anaath observes that Rik’s face is increasingly giving in to a pallor, a pallor of disbelief and fear. The unknown and the sparse – so blunt and absolute – alarm Rik. “I believe, you have never seen any such place in your life?” Silent moments pass. Rik can’t answer. Anaath carries on: “And these folks haven’t seen anyone like you, at least anyone like you walk in their neighborhood. Try not to feel awkward at their stares. They haven’t seen kids in such school uniforms and backpacks. These are all new to them. You are new to them.” Rik takes a quick look at his white shirt with the school monogram loudly embroidered on his left pocket, his black trousers, and his pebble-grained, calf-leathered backpack with a fur crest. These are normal for him: something he sees and lives every day. “So, where are we going? You said…your uncle. Does your uncle live here? And where are your parents?”
The last question is a put-off. Rik sees the spark suddenly gone off Anaath’s eyes. But it comes back soon. As if Anaath forgives Rik within seconds – forgives Rik for asking him about the worst truth in his ten-year-old life. “I don’t have parents. I never had them. My uncle, Rahim Chacha has brought me up. He lives here and I live with him. He means everything to me.”
The shock that Rik has been bearing on seeing this slum is now burdened with another jolt. This little boy, who could have well been my brother, is an orphan. He has never known his parents. How can that be? “Are you wondering why I don’t know my parents? Well, you see, I have no memory of my parents. No memory at all! I don’t know what they look like or if they are alive or dead. All I know is that I had been sold to someone living in this city. I don’t know who sold me. Robi – the man who bought me about five years ago – runs a snack shop in Maulali, not very far from this area. He needed help with the cleaning of utensils, serving of snacks to his customers, etc. and I could serve his purpose. I was only five, or at least that’s what Robi told me. He obviously needed to call me by a name. He thought Anaath would be the most suitable name for me. After all, I had to have a name that carries the burden of my fate and laughs at my parent-less identity.”
Rik feels a whiplash. How much of it does Anaath bear every day, this feeling of being an orphan?
After having snaked through several little lanes and alleys, Anaath points out to a single-roomed shed – roofed with a fragile asbestos covering and floored with rugged dirt – and says: “That’s our home.” Rik enters the little room that is about 10 feet by 7 feet and has a small opening for a window. A predominant moldy smell houses a small clay oven in one corner, tagged along with few utensils and two pillows wrapped with a cloth (that serves as a blanket) in another corner. Rik is almost sure that Anaath and his uncle both sleep on a piece of cloth laid on the dirt floor and use the community toilet in the area. The pictures and accounts of slave cabins in American plantations flood Rik’s mind at the moment. And he thinks of the ivory bed and silk drapes in his room in Lake Gardens, a room just few miles away from the room he is standing in now. The gray-haired sixty-ish-year-old man smiling through his buck teeth must be Anaath’s uncle, Rahim, who means everything to the boy. “Chacha, this is Rik, my friend.” Anaath says in his high-pitched voice – this time perhaps more excited to welcome a guest in his humble home. “Shall I call you Chacha, too?” asks Rik. On first glance, Rahim is amazed at the resemblances between Anaath and Rik. But what surprises the old man more is why a boy, wearing such ‘proper’ clothes, should be in his home asking permission to call him “Chacha”. Rahim speaks in a rusted voice: “Who are you?” Before Rik could answer, Anaath barges in: “Chacha, he is my friend. I met him this morning and so I brought him here.” Just then another man, older than Rahim, comes in: “Rahim, is Anaath home? I have brought his favorite coconut balls. And…” The man stops as he sees Rik. The man’s eyes betray first a shock at the uncanny similarities between the boys’ faces and then almost a suspicion of danger, as if Rik is the harbinger of some ill news this morning. “My friend, Rik.” Anaath continues: “Rik, this is our neighbor. I call him Dadu.”
Rahim spreads out the white cloth that has turned almost charcoal-gray on the floor. He asks Rik and Dadu to sit on it. Rahim and Anaath sit on the bare floor; the cloth isn’t wide enough to seat four. Dadu has a face loaded with history. He does not look anything like the roly-poly gray-haired grandpas Rik has known. As Dadu takes out the coconut balls – confection made out of coconut flakes – from a paper bag, Rik observes the big, rough hands of this old man, hands that tell the story of a hard life. Dadu’s thin frame is fortified by stern eyes and a determined chin. Rik is slightly intimidated by Dadu, but feels an instant warmth towards Rahim.
The coconut balls initiate a chain of friendship between Rik and the two older men. The creamy feel of the confection melts into Rik’s mouth and loosens him into the genial aura of this one-roomed mold-smelling room that, by no means, can be called physically cozy. Rik’s runaway schoolboy story naturally reveals itself. Both Dadu and Rahim look interested in what Rik has to say. The fourteen-year-old tells Dadu and Rahim about his mindless life at school and home and his current escapade. Both the men tell him that excess can sometimes be a curse, but one has to accept what one gets and make a life out of it.
“I want to be free.” To Rik’s assertion Dadu says: “Who does not want to be free, my boy? I wanted to be free once – free of war, free of famine, free of hatred. But the world wouldn’t let me have this freedom. I had to leave everything I owned – land, money, people, and my home back in 1947 when India gained independence from the British. The colonials left, but our countrymen kept fighting amongst themselves – the ‘Partition’, as they call it. What was this partition for? Partition of the country between the Hindu and Muslim population. I lived in what is now called Bangladesh, East Pakistan, that is. Being a Hindu, I couldn’t live there anymore because of ongoing riots between Hindus and Muslims. I was only fifteen at that time and I had to leave with my sisters – all young women in their teens or twenties – who were susceptible to dangers of dishonor and rape. I had already lost my father, when I was nine. We owned land and had a flourishing life there. But my mother, three sisters, an older brother, and I had to leave everything behind and settle in this part of the country that is dominated by the Hindus. My brother was eighteen and he was our family head then. When we moved here to Kolkata (then called Calcutta), I worked as a servant or a manual labor so that we could all eat bare minimum every day. A meal a day was not always guaranteed, though. We were what is called “refugees”, who had to leave home to make a home away from home. Bangladesh wasn’t a separate nation then, but part of India. Bangladesh was the eastern part of the state of Bengal then, which had mostly Muslim people. When India gained independence, the north-western part (also dominated by Muslims) became a separate country called Pakistan and present Bangladesh became East Pakistan. You see, Bengal – the state in eastern India – with its eastern and western parts were all one before 1947. But now the state is divided into two nations, nations speaking the same language of Bengali but divided by their separate religions. What did all of this bring us? Any added happiness or freedom?”
Rik listens to this old man’s voice that is laden with the deep sorrow of separation and homelessness. Dadu continues: “I still smell the fresh early morning when my brother and I would bathe in our village rivers and watch a school of hilsa bounce and dance in the dazzling warm sun. That was freedom, my dear! And all I wanted is to have a life like that, a life happy in its utmost simplicity. But that was not to be. Our lives became so insecure, especially the women were under constant threat. We finally built our lives around here, in this city of Kolkata and I know I will die here. But before I die, I want to visit my home in the village. Those childhood memories – even to this day when I am eighty years old – pierce my soul craving for freedom. Did we, Indians, really gain freedom? May be from the colonial masters, but not freedom from hatred.”
Rik’s eyes are misty. The more he hears Dadu talking, the more he takes to the old man and feels the superfluous nature of his own parents’ mansion and school curriculum. No history book can teach him the pain of having to migrate forcefully and lose everything except perhaps the will to live. Rik also understands the depth of friendship, a friendship between people transcending all barriers of religion and age. Anaath’s uncle’s name gives away his Muslim identity. But Rahim Chacha has befriended Dadu without any qualms about religious differences. And what’s more surprising is that Rahim is not Anaath’s uncle. Rahim is not related to any one of those present in the shanty Rik is sitting in.
“You son of a b****, who do you think you are? Who is going to pick up those dishes lying there?” Robi, a middle-aged man proud of his predatory air, howls at five-year-old Anaath. Sitting in Robi’s snack shop, Rahim’s attention is drawn towards this tiny boy going back and forth with tons of used dishes from deserted tables to the kitchen sink. The boy is weighed down with the china that belongs to Robi, the ragged vest, and gasping breath that belong to himself. Anaath runs back again to collect some more used china, this time with a reply to his boss’s orders. “I was coming back to this table anyway. The customers just left.”
Robi’s ego is piqued. “You even have a mouth to retaliate?” With his angry words, Robi thumps Anaath on his nose. Unable to bear the brunt of the blow, the child falls to the ground with a bleeding nose and heart. Rahim immediately gets up from his seat and protests against Robi’s aggression. No one else in the snack shop cares to join Rahim in his protest. The ten or so customers remain seated and silent, with either a complete nonchalance or an interest to see what turn this incident takes. And none of them forgets to continue gormandizing the samosas that Anaath has served them. Rahim’s objection comes as a double jeopardy to Robi’s attacked ego. Robi starts a brawl with Rahim and injures him on the face. Rahim realizes that this is getting into a nasty fight. He doesn’t retaliate, but takes Anaath away from the shop. For at least a week or so, Robi threatens Rahim in many ways warning him of the worst if he does not return Anaath. Rahim just whisks off Robi’s threats. “What do I have that I am afraid to lose? I have no family, no wealth, nothing. And I decided that I will take care of this helpless boy.”
That is how Anaath and Rahim became inseparable.
“I always wanted to send Anaath to school, but, you see, with my meager income from carpentry, I am unable to do that. The best I can do is teach Anaath some skills in carpentry. I work at a carpentry store and I take him with me there so that he can learn the trade, earn some money, and get a free lunch. Mondays are my off-days. That is why we are home today. Anaath had gone out in the morning to get me some milk paint that my supervisor has asked me to buy. Of course, my supervisor will pay for it. Nowadays, Anaath keeps telling me to rest on Mondays and he tries his best to help me out as much as he can. And this Monday morning the boy came back with you but no milk paint.” Rik listens to Rahim, dazed. Here is what you call a ‘hero.’ A man with nothing, but everything, everything that is humane. Unconditional love and moral courage both come so naturally to Rahim. If I have ever found the meaning of religion, it is here – in this room where people befriend and love each other fearlessly and simply out of humanity. The love here conquers caste, class, religion. I think I’ve found my freedom here today.
Hours pass, but not until around two in the afternoon does it strike Rik that he has to go back to his school gate pretending that it has been a regular day, get into the Mercedes-Benz, and return home. Rik dodges well, waits for Hari to pick him up at two-thirty, the usual pick-up time. In the car, Rik’s mind is so full with the realities of Anaath’s life – his anonymous past and hard present – that the usual street crossings don’t seem to register. The same way back home, but everything seems meaningless. Every bit of his home – his parents, his room, his study – is so fastidious over wrong priorities and impervious to the oxygen of plain happiness. Rik looks at the furniture in his room only to think that someone like Rahim Chacha must have tirelessly worked into the wood, shaping and reshaping it, and giving it a distinguished entity. The spectral presence of those unknown craftsmen hang around Rik’s room like gods shining from a distance in their anonymity. Everything around the house takes Rik’s mind back to the shack he visited this morning and its stark contrast with his own home, contrast in both look and spirit.
Ever since that August day, every Monday morning becomes a journey to this shack. Rik learns about carpentry. He now knows that ‘shellac’ refers to resin flakes that are dissolved in alcohol and used as a wood finish, and a ‘pilot hole’ is used to prevent splitting. For about two months Rik happily repeats his visits to the slum and some of the people from those alleys now smile at him with a warm familiarity. The ammoniac smells cease to revolt Rik’s senses. Because they have an association with Anaath, Dadu, and Rahim – the smell of love pervades Anaath’s shack. The more he sees of these three selfless and genuine people, the farther Rik moves away from the peach walls with their seamless textures of Lake Gardens. Rik wants to give back to the slum from which he takes so much. He tries to teach Anaath the alphabet of both the English and Bengali language. One Monday, Anaath takes Rik to the carpentry shop to show him around. Anaath tells Rik that he is saving his meager apprentice money to buy a warm comforter for Rahim this coming winter. Rik is moved at the gumption of this boy, younger than himself in years, but not in mind. Rik feels ashamed of who he is – he, with his hopping tutorial classes, robotic school, and ivory bed. Such mindless sham before Anaath’s innate goodness, a spontaneous goodness nurtured with unconditional love. Rik is also impressed by the artisanal nature of the craft of carpentry. He realizes that the poor, illiterate carpenters – chamfering, scribing, and yoking – are engineers of a special kind. And then, it happens on one such Monday at the carpentry shop.
Rik suffers his fortnight’s autumn break like a punishment. No school for two weeks means no visits to Rik’s favorite trio. The October glories with its white flowers, clear blue skies, magnetic beats of barrel-like drums, and the gorgeous city lights all cheer up Kolkata to a sense of renewed joy. There is a happy rhythm to the lives of people, dressed in new clothes, redefining the color of life. The Hindu holiday of ‘Durga Puja’ is here. Rik wonders whether Anaath has any new clothes to wear during the holiday. No one knows if Anaath is a Hindu or a Muslim. But how does it matter? Anaath, Rahim Chacha, and Dadu have broken the barriers between religious difference. Their bonding reiterates the joy of ‘Durga Puja’, perhaps every day. Anaath may not afford to buy gorgeous clothes, but he carries the color of life itself with him.
Rik has never been so ready to go back to school. The first Monday after break stirs him to a new excitement. Anaath takes him to the carpentry shop, this time only to come back with no promise. Amar, a friend of Rik’s father, happens to be present in that shop to order some furniture. The man is more than shocked to see Rik in his school uniform, laughing with a ragamuffin. “What are you doing here, Rik? You should be in school.” Rik gives Amar a cold stare. “What is it to you?” Amar is way too important to take this insult from a fourteen-year-old and that, too, before a lot of people, including a dirty child in rags. Amar is a man of action.
Rik returns home that day to a catapult of anger. His parents hurl him with severe reprimands and lambastes. Amit chews his son out: “You think you can get by in life playing truant with a filthy boy, who has a half-baked brain and belongs to the streets? If I throw you out of this house, you will be a bloody beggar like him. Only then you will know what it means to have money, to eat good food, and go to a decent school.” Rita sounds cooler, but colder. “Don’t try to mix with maggots. You will become one.”
A trounce, ugly and nasty, waits for Rik. There is severe vigilance over him, twenty-four hours. A look into his school records of attendance and failing grades re-verify Amar’s information. Amit and Rita are, for once, united in their sixteen years of marriage. The delinquency of their son is a blow to their self-importance. They both feel collaborated in suffering this betrayal by their son. Rik has proven a shameful appendage in their lives, as if it is time to cut off this useless tail parasitically feeding on their hard work and social status. How can a boy of fourteen belie their efforts at bringing in tons of money just to give him the best? Amar, whose ego has been bruised by Rik’s attitude, is now out there to spill the beans before the entire society. Rita’s and Amit’s son is a runaway from school, a friend of a low-class boy?
Rik’s school authorities are informed of his Monday escapades. ‘The Beggar’s Mate’ – that’s how Rik is singled out in school now. Any of the browbeating or reconnoitering can’t sap Rik’s spirit, though. His life is worsening to an abysmal fall, a physical fall that implies losing Anaath, Dadu, and Rahim. But Rik holds on to the essence of humanity that his three friends bring to life every day. Life is about struggle – struggle for freedom, struggle for love – and I will never give up. No matter what.
December evenings come with an early twilight and a nip in the air. Wonder how Anaath is getting on in this cold. Could he finally buy a comforter? Dadu and Rahim Chacha, with their old bodies in their moldy, dark homes? Just as he is lost in these thoughts, Rik hears the guests trailing in. New-year’s-eve party is a must-do on Rik’s parents’ social calendar. It is one of the social responsibilities of this doctor-couple, a responsibility they have been loyal to for the last ten years or so. All his life, Rik has grown sick of these fractals – his parents housing oaky Chardonnays, diaphanous dress codes, bawdy jokes, and social sham. This year Rik is even more tired of these elite guests – not sure either of themselves or human values – flocking to his Lake Gardens home. The home where Rik is a captive. He stays in his room without bothering to pose a fake smile at his parents’ friends. At least, this evening, he doesn’t have to deal with kids bothering him, those kids with their lust for video games.
Once in a while fragments of conversations eddy into Rik’s ears. “So what came of that bastard from the streets?”
Amit’s voice sounds jubilant and proud as he answers Gora’s question. “All the credit goes to Rita, actually. She got hold of her friend, who is a member of parliament in Delhi, the country’s capital. That friend made his connections here in Kolkata take immediate action. The people in that slum were warned, threatened. The entire slum was scared, when the shack of that bastard boy was put on fire. Am sure there were some more houses destroyed in that fire. The old Muslim and that bastard had to run for life. We had to prove Newton’s third law, you see!” A roll of laughter ensues.
“Wow! You did well, Rita! Where is this slum?” Gora asks sipping his Martini.
“Somewhere near Maulali. Don’t know exactly. Do you think I had visited that filthy place?” Rita’s voice comes through, triumphant.
Rik feels the whole house caving in on him. He is fortressed – a prisoner of criminals who are themselves captives of their stinking minds. Minds that have no place for shame or guilt, no place for the humane. These minds can easily trespass with their clawing talons and invade into the womb of selfless goodness.
The exchanges between these ill-breeding minds continue. Rik hears of the mention of a recent incident in Kolkata. “Did you hear of that uproar about that restaurant off Park Street called ‘Mocambo’? Amit asks Amar.
“Oh! Yes! Who doesn’t know that? It is all over Facebook. Why the hell should a chauffeur be allowed to enter a restaurant? Tell me! And this woman who started all this hue and cry is not from Kolkata. What business does she have to harass a restaurant that didn’t want to seat a bloody automobile driver?”
Sunil barges in. “Yes. What happened exactly?”
Amar replies: “There was this woman who came for some business trip to Kolkata. She was driven around by someone called Suresh. Apparently, he had not eaten all day and when this woman took him to Mocambo to have a meal together, the management refused to let in Suresh, saying that they don’t have tables available. Actually, they did have tables and they were seating guests, who came after Suresh and this woman. Mocambo does not have any dress code, but how can they let in someone from the lower strata of society?”
In a tone rich with fake pity, Amit says: “Oh! Even chauffeurs like to have their share of yummy food! How can you be so harsh, Amar? Isn’t a driver a human, too?”
Another burst of laughter.
“That girl needs men like you and me. She should spend one night with us and then forget all about social inequality.” Gora says, soaring the other men into paroxysms of giggles.
Rik thinks of Art Garfunkel singing “Bridge over Troubled Water”. Rik feels weary and small. He turns off the lights of his room. He tries to sleep, but can’t. His mind keeps wondering about the name of that story he read in his early childhood. The story of a full-grown dog finding a helpless kitten in the woods and bringing the baby cat home. The master of the dog has no clue why his pet does that. But he lets the cat stay too. The kitten with unique hybrid colors of black and white lives along with the black dog, thinking the dog to be her mom. Years pass and the dog and kitten continue to live in perfect harmony never feeling a difference in their looks or interests. The kitten slouches against the dog, knowing that here is someone who will never fail her.
Rik can’t recall either the name or the author of the story. But he decides to google words like “black and white kitten”, “black dog”, “story” and find out the names of both the story and its writer. Rik will not let the story lose all its traces. He will make the story come alive and not let it lie as a dormant picture in his mind. His window looks out to the lights casting a dazzle over the city.
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. in English Literature at the University of Kolkata, India. She obtained another Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus, where she is part of an amateur dramatic society.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Humanimal and the Planet Earth’ , edited by Dr. Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, Kazi Nazrul University, Asansol, West Bengal, India.