One late summer afternoon I was returning back from the day’s rambling around Sarugaon tea garden. I surveyed the long green carpets stretched miles after miles, sometimes wavy like a foamy sea, sometimes like a placid and stagnant green lake. My eyes feasted on the rain trees dotted the garden, and glistening plumes of a flock of white herons flying lazily over my head. Adivasi women plucked the tender buds and leaves, and men caressing the trees. Naked children roamed and played in the yards, elderly women sat silent and sad in front of their huts. The rays of the sun fell on the tin roofs, and they reflected, and it seemed to blind me. The sun mellowed, and I left the bagan. I was hungry, and my head spinned and body ached. I thought of a roadside dhaba to relax.
I entered into a newly built dhaba by the roadside. It was beautiful. The clear blue sky overhangs and bent almost over head. It was bordered three sides with green paddy fields and, dotted with tiny tin huts of poor peasants. At the entrance, a flex with a cartoon of a king with a huge moustache and a long turban on his head stood fixed on two bare iron poles. A perfect picture for a perfect name exerted its regal candour! The eatery was walled yellow head high. I made entry not through the gate, as there was no gate at all. Only a two feet cut in the wall with no sign of a gate led the dusty path to the main tin-roofed dhaba. In front of it was a beautiful garden with a variety of flowers like rajanigandhas, yellow and red marigolds, and elongated sun flowers with their heads bent toward the reclining sun, champaks, china roses, and the branches of a beautiful krishnachura hung low at the weight of its hued riot of blooms.
I went into the front hall. It was empty. Only one middle aged, pot bellied man was gulping glasses of chilled beer with sliced cucumbers and baked papad. On one side of the hall there were four khupris (small rooms). All were packed with school and college going boys and girls and men with hired women or friends’ wives. Roars of laughter from the girls or some nagging, coaxing sounds from the women were occasionally heard. Each khupri had a dirty cheap curtain in the gate and an oily smelly plastic table a couple of chairs. Scrums of leftover stained the table. A small wall fan was moving tirelessly from left to right and the reverse at a corner of the room. The owner was reading Uttar Banga, his head lowered and, eyes paced along the lines. He sat inside a square cage made of iron bars. He was silent, and occasionally cried for clearing the bill of the customers. Behind him were lined bottles of, beers and liquors in wooden shelves. He was over fifty and a little wizened with face of no explicit expression of happiness or woe. He had to give hapta (a weekly bribe) to the police for selling liquor. And there was a stiff competition in his business now as other dhabas mushrooming day and night on the both sides of the road.
All seats in the cabin were occupied. A caretaker, aged forty five or so, short lean pale white man made an arrangement seating. He called another younger man with muscular body to set a chair and a table on the front yard. Arrangement was made and I sat and ordered a bottle of chilled beer, sliced cucumber and onions, green chili, tandoori, mutton kasha. I drank. I was wafted with the fragrance of the flowers, all in bloom. I waited for the food, and meantime set my eyes at the tops of the tall trees by the side of the road where the birds carousing and readying for the night.
The owner tip toed, and took a seat beside me. The man sat still on his handle less plastic chair, and scratched a sore on his left hand with a feel good face. I didn’t follow him. The evening choirs of the birds on tree tops stole me. However, out of civility I struck a conversation with him and asked politely, “How was everything going on, man?”
The owner, otherwise, dull and with no interest in his daily doings, became suddenly lively. He told, “It was ok, saar. What could we do? No employment, no recruitment. Only some lottery agents, cattle dealers and day labourers survived. It was not as good as it was two years ago.”
I sat silent for a while, and nodded my head.
“That was the bull period of chit funds. Everybody had money, unearned. People bought houses, and farms, built shops, and they crowded all the eateries in the evenings.” I said.
The owner looked animated, his face flushed. He started, “Exactly, saar. Chit funds were closed and people lost everything—gold, farm produce, animals like cows and goats and lambs. They sold everything as money was thought to be doubled, and tripled in five or seven days.” “And that time,” the man continued as if some inner forces seized him, “all the tables were from early morning till midnight occupied. People had plump pockets and they spent it on food, liquor, clothes, mobiles, TVs, and other fashionables. I hired more cooks to serve them. They came, and drank and dined and spoke tediously who got how much, who did what, who went to Lataguri Resort, Siliguri or Jaigaon to sleep with hired girls, and doubling and tripling.”
“What about you? Had you lost any money?” I said as a way of friendly gesture, and passing time.
The man did not speak first, thought a while reading his speech. Meanwhile, some customers would leave and, he went to collect the bills. He came back soon to the table and shared his undoing, “I had lost 25 lakhs. That was not my money. The people of my neighbourhoods had a good faith in me. They offered money, one 2 lakhs, another 50 thousands, another one lakh and so on. They didn’t know anything about the chit companies like Saradha, Coral, I-Core, Global, Sunshine, URO, Ramel, Shristhi Abha, Rahul, Zenix, Tamanna, and many more. They gave me money by selling everything—cows, goats, bulls, sheep, even utensils. And they were all poor peasants and my neighbours.”
Out of sheer enthusiasm he suddenly ran back to his cage, and brought a notebook, sullied and brittle.
“What’s it?” I wondered!
The man said nothing, and opened the notebook and I found the list of some ineligible coded entry. Some names were stricken out, that meant they were paid back, and others not, those remain unpaid. “Saar, my life was spoilt. I had to give forty thousand as interest per month in banks I took loans. I also mortgaged my wife’s gold, and sold two cows and a calf.”
The man with a lost look continued, “I couldn’t not be able to do anything more for the children. They were of school-going age. I somehow managed running this dhaba, and the earnings from it kept me living. And whatever extra, after paying the salary of the staff and all, and the hapta (weekly bribe) to the police and the party local bosses, remained, I paid the banks. The principal amount remained untouched. I could do nothing. Only, if my children, after graduation, could earn and save me. I had never done such a stupid thing. It was a single mistake that ruined me.” The man said at a stretch, and sighed deep. His voice choked, and his eyes became moistened with swathes of tears.
“No trouble in your family?” I sympathized. He was really in trouble. And a strain of anxiety and hollowness struck deep in his face, and made him aged more.
“My wife berated me at day and night. It was not her fault. She was brought up in a poor family and had to bear many difficulties in childhood. His father chose me as a wise and intelligent groom, and as I had a business, I could keep her well in gold and saris,” the owner said.
He explained, though over-shrouded with the pallor of grief and remorse, “My wife was not a problem. I could somehow manage her. But I had a marriageable daughter pursuing M A. She needed a job. But to have a teaching job in school became extremely difficult for us. How could I collect again Rs. 10 or 15 lakhs for her job? No money, no job, saar. Moreover, I had to arrange her marriage shortly. Yesterday some elders of my village talked about her marriage. They found two or three school teachers for my daughter. But all of the would-be grooms wanted a working bride to be fair and beautiful. They needed a bride who could earn for them. There were other eligible bachelors, small traders, lottery agents, civic police, etc., but their qualifications did not match with my highly educated girl. I couldn’t find a match for her. The thought of her sat heavy and wrung my heart. It twisted me day and night. I couldn’t sleep, often at dead night I wept.”
“Don’t worry. Everything be fine. Just were the ways of God. And He wouldn’t let you behind.” I stressed.
Perhaps, this faith in the invisible workings of God worked on him. He became much relieved. He took out a ruffled handkerchief and cleared the moist swathes of her eyes with trembling hands. The pallor of fatigue and anxiety was erased a bit from her face and he could see a ray of hope, a silver lining. He thanked us again and again. And with ease of gait and humbleness he walked towards the box, and resumed his day.
I dined under the canopy of stars. More people came as twilight glided to night. Stars bloomed one by one, and quickly made an intricate tapestry on the skies. Crickets sang incessant from the adjacent fields, and one owl made a sudden flight over my head. I made a plan to pass the night seeing its nocturnal beauty and, counting the stars idly sitting under the glistening sky.
I sat still for half-an hour. I heard the occasional cries of some night birds and rolls of laughter from some cabins, scented the cool air, saw the dances of the stars. I changed my mind, and paid and stood to depart. The owner rushed and with a pale smile on his face pleaded to pay visit again. I shook hands and, promised to meet him again.