The year Nineteen Ninety Five, a very cold and bitter January evening in Bokaro Steel City
It was a day-off for all the Management Trainees.
The day before, we had the finals of the Bokaro Steels Limited Inter-department Cricket Tournament where the MTs had eventually lost to the last-time champions and favourites ADM, and I had broken my right hand index finger while keeping wickets. The effect of the pain-killer tablet and the two pegs of Old Monk had, so far, contained the damage.
The MTs, a handful of them, were occupying my room, giving me company with the Monk and discussing trivia, which included how to bunk the next day and yet score the attendance. All at once, someone came in and announced that I have a call from Calcutta. The bloke also did mention, with a wry smile, that it was a lady who sounded very special.
This was big news, since she hardly called me. Usually, I did the weekly chores by trying to reach her landline from the STD booth outside the hostel. Our discussions were quite limited; she did not yet announce our relationship to her parents, and a 10-minute STD call would drain away fifty rupees from my pocket.
Scampering down to the telephone in front of the Trainees’ Hostel reception, I found she was still on the line. She was calling from outside her home, “বাড়ি থেকে সব কথা বলা যায় না”. In essence, I learnt that she was to travel to Jamshedpur to her cousin’s place the week after, and I must meet her at Jamshedpur railway station on the given date and time. She would be travelling alone, her mother was already in Jamshedpur. I was to escort her from the station to the residence of this cousin, yet remain unnoticed – she did not want to land up in explanations and an unwanted disclosure of our partnership.
She also had mentioned that I should not call her landline within the next few days since her father would be at home. It was winter vacation, the university would be closed, and the Old Man would be sleeping off the days and evenings, and the phone was in his room under his custody.
That would be all. She hung up and left me scampering in my mind over a thousand thoughts.
I didn’t have much to do except manage a day off for the rendezvous. That would not be so easy, getting a pre-sanctioned leave. More prudent would be to drop out and later apply for a medical leave.
Nonetheless, why was she so abrupt in the call? Why does she want me to travel all the way from Bokaro to Jamshedpur, only to play escort for half-an-hour’s ride? Or, was there something between the lines?
I had been well acquainted with her capacity to spring up surprises and ঝটকাs. Could it be something like a run-away plan, বাড়ি থেকে পালিয়ে? Staying away from the crowd for a day or two and then return as one unit, properly matched and bonded? Too filmy, she would not go that far I prayed. Such an adventure would leave an effect on a Richter scale of 7+.
Anyway, “যা থাকে কপালে, জামশেদপুর গিয়ে দেখা যাবে”. Came the day, I was seen at five in the morning at Naya More bus stand boarding a semi-dilapidated private bus which would ferry me and my questions right up to the doorstep of the answers, i.e. Jamshedpur.
The ride was proving to be a torture. There were not many people though so early in the morning, still the bus was on the brink of falling apart and the road was definitely not as smooth as হেমা মালিনীর গাল. The jugalbandi was throwing me upwards and then catching me onto the hard-bound seat. And time again my right hand would bang into the iron rod adjacent to the window leaving me with a terrible pain. Somewhere after crossing Purulia, the bus stopped adjacent to a roadside dhaba. The driver disappeared behind the bushes and I disembarked to unwind my stretched limbs and to look for a cup of tea.
The day was still very young and nascent. The rays of the morning sun, penetrating the thick fog, were settling down gently on the lush green surroundings. The road seemed to appear out of nowhere from the fog and dissolved again into it. The ‘chula’ in front of the dhaba churned out coils of whitish smoke which landscaped the surroundings more surreal. On a wooden table, where the provisions of the makeshift tea stall loitered, stood also a transistor radio. As if to arouse the day, Kishore Kumar was singing out ‘Ruk jana nahin, tu kahin haarke’. Digesting every bit of the melody and the mysticism of the ambiance, I lit up my first cigarette of the day and sipped into the steaming cup of tea.
There was, however, a small bubble of anxiety. I had assumed that starting at five, I would comfortably reach Jamshedpur within ten o’clock – adequately poised to receive Ispat Express at Jamshedpur station at around ten-thirty. It was almost seven when we started again from Purulia. The bubble was just growing up a little and I could feel a small tweak at the back of my mind.
I had a back-up comfort plan as well. She had mentioned that she would take shelter at the Waiting Room in the station, rather than drifting about on the platform or outside the station. So even if I would be that few minutes late, it should not be a big problem for her to manage herself.
The ride was becoming quite intolerable. The bus was now crowded, and at every intermittent stop more and more people were getting on board. I was squeezed against the window by my fellow passenger – a heavyweight দেহাতি, wrapped from head-to-toe in a dark brown চাদর – who occupied more than half of the two-seater. I had tried to gain some space by nudging him with my elbow, but he did not budge an inch.
The road condition was progressing from bad to worse; at times it felt as if the bones were to separate from the flesh and pierce out of the skin. My fellow passenger, however, remained unperturbed. Just after he had boarded, the bus conductor had come across to collect the fare, “टिकट टिकट”.
There had been no response. Glancing at the hooded figure of my fellow passenger, assuming he might be sleeping, the conductor left him undisturbed and receded. He came back again a second time, maybe after half-an-hour, and repeated, “टिकट दीजीये”, this time a little louder than before.
There was no reaction either. The chap did not move an inch, nor did his চাদর.
The conductor was getting a bit curious, he tried to bend and look through the hood but could not achieve much. He probably gave our man a benefit of doubt, and doing so again retreated. He returned after a good one-hour or around. This time his body language was quite aggressive and determined. Authoritatively, he thundered, “क्या हुआ, टिकट कहां है आप का?”
Our man this time showed some movement. The head was raised slightly, and through the চাদর came a muttered response, “पैसा नहीं है”.
The conductor would not take it lightly now. One could feel that he was clenching his teeth. He held himself back from exploding, quite remarkably, and bellowed again, “पैसा नहीं है तो बस में क्यूं चढ़ते हैं? मजाक समजे है का?”
Our man must have thought it prudent to provide some more explanation. This time the response was in a somber tone, but very lucid – “पैसा कहां से आएगा – अभी अभी तो जेलवा (jail-wa) से निकले हैं, घर जा रहे हैं”.
The response had completely changed the situation. The conductor retracted without any single word uttered further. Our man continued to remain as composed as ever. I squeezed myself more towards the window to stay away as much from him as possible, and with my left hand tried to reach out to my back pocket to check my moneybag – it was, quite reassuringly, still there. Just before entering Jamshedpur, our man pulled himself up from the seat, gave me a glance through the hood, and moved towards the gate of the bus. The conductor had seen him coming, he promptly withdrew away from the gate. The bus was slowing down due to traffic, our man dropped out of the running bus without a hitch and that was the last time we saw him amongst us.
I checked my watch, it was almost ten-thirty. I looked anxiously out of the window. It appeared that we had entered the main city, and within minutes the bus came to a halt at the main terminus of Jamshedpur. Quickly I scurried down. An auto-rickshaw had pulled up alongside, I jumped into it and signaled, “स्टेशन चलिए”. In another ten minutes I was in front of Jamshedpur station.
There was the usual buzz of activities and people, so typical of a busy railway station in morning hours. Not finding her anywhere near, and without bothering even to buy a platform ticket, I barged in.
Platform number one, where Ispat Express had arrived half an hour ago, was empty. Some people still clustered around the tea stall, a few hawkers were still loitering around, some folks reclining on the platform benches probably waiting for the next train to arrive – but no sign of her anywhere. The Waiting Room was a few meters ahead to my left. An elderly lady was sitting outside the room, she didn’t bother much as I entered and looked around.
She was not here either. In fact, there was hardly anyone inside.
Bewildered, I came out. Did the elderly lady see a young girl coming in after Ispat Express had arrived? No, she didn’t remember. Where did she go then?
I was searching every nook and corner of Jamshedpur station, every platform, food stall, ticket counter, auto stand, rickshaw stand, you name it. She was nowhere to be seen. Completely exhausted, I decided to settle down for a while and give a good thought on the present scenario. Taking a cup of tea from the platform vendor and lighting another cigarette, I rested myself on an empty bench. Mind was working furiously to sort out the options and the possibilities.
Case One : she didn’t come at all. Probability : very low, she would have let me know. But, what if she tried to reach me but couldn’t? Possible. So, how to find out if she was still in Calcutta? Call the landline number. If, even after a few calls she did not pick up the phone, it would imply she was not there.
Case Two : she came and she left without me. Possible, she knew the address, so getting on to an auto rickshaw and reaching there not a major issue. She was horrible with Hindi, but she was smart enough. Then again, why would she do that? Why not wait for me, even if I was half-an-hour late? No answer.
Case Three : she came and landed into some sort of trouble. Grey zone; better not to think about this.
There were a couple of STD booths outside the station. I approached one of them and entering the cubicle dialed the landline number. After a few rings, a male voice answered, “হ্যালো…”. I hung up and dialed again. This time the phone rang for a while before it was picked up, and the Old Man asked again, “হ্যালো, কে বলছেন?” I put down the phone. After going through the same sequence a couple of times more, I didn’t want trouble the Old Man any further. Now I was more or less sure that she was not there.
I hung around the station premises for another good couple of hours, just to make sure that if she came back, maybe from a shop or restaurant or someplace else, she would find me there. Nothing much happened though. Eventually, it was the last bus from Jamshedpur which ferried a completely confused and exhausted self back to Bokaro around midnight; and I pulled myself into my room and dropped on the bed.
The next morning, with the thoughts still confused but calmed down a bit, I went through the situation in hand once again. And then, some light could be seen at the end of the tunnel.
She did mention a return date, a week or ten days away. Therefore, if I could escape from Bokaro for a couple of days, meet her in person in Calcutta, and make sure everything was okay and she was in one piece, the promised reunion could still be possible. Moreover, I had to know from her the complete story, it was too much of a suspense.
I boarded the Bokaro Steel City–Howrah Passenger on the evening before the scheduled date of arrival of my lady. The entire night in the train was spent speculating if the plan would work. Early morning, disembarking at Howrah, I went straight to the Retiring Room and checked in for a day. After freshening up and having a good breakfast of ডিম টোস্ট and চা , I strolled across to the platform in which Steel Express from Jamshedpur was to arrive in another thirty minutes.
The train finally arrived, people disembarked and people streamed across me. In a frantic search for the known face, I looked left and right, but in vain. Desperation was setting in – what next? The taxi stand! I ran through the crowd towards the exit. The queue at the stand was long and serpentine, it was impossible to pick out a known face amidst this sea of commotion. Just as I was about to leave all hope and let out a curse, someone tapped my shoulders from behind.
She was there standing right behind me. I could see a faint smile, carefully disguised with a look of surprise. “তুমি এখানে কি করছো?”
I thought of giving a befitting answer, but chivalry is something which men cannot shred off. Without saying a word, I bent down to pick up her bag, opened the door of the taxi in front of us and guided her in.
The Howrah Bridge was falling behind as we sped across.