Durga yawned and looked at his father, coiled asleep on their chaarpaai, and thought wistfully about the steaming hot momos he had seen the other day near the Metro station. The wisps of steam, that vague aura of forbidden chicken-meat, the cream-coloured daintily curved dollops of greed – all of these seemed so alluring to Durga Charan Yadav that in his heart he hated being the impoverished son of a rickshaw-puller. His thoughts drifted back to the slender fairness of the momos – smooth like the skin of the film actresses he had seen in the colourful posters. Durga pulled up his shorts clumsily, the elastic had loosened considerably. Lately, he had also become conscious of the fact that he felt oddly excited whenever he thought of luscious, full-bodied women, and found his body growing taut when he saw the clips that the street boys flashed discreetly on their mobiles.
The thought of a mobile phone proved to arouse Durga more than nubile starlets and as he shook himself from his stupor, he eased himself from the crouching position, and his long, bony legs suddenly nudged his sleeping father, Kailash Yadav. Reminding him of his swine- lineage, the patriarch kicked his son and threatened him with dire consequences. Durga, who had been crouching beside his sick father and applying a piece of wet cloth on his forehead to ease the fever, grimaced and stood up, muttering a muted death-wish for his father who couldn’t even afford to buy him a mobile. Durga went out of their small, dingy room beside the Tollygunge railway station and relieved himself just behind their shovel. Birds chirping all around made him conscious that it was already dusk. Badtameez dil blared from a nearby loudspeaker and Durga saw the decorative lights of a puja pandal nearby from behind the cluster of huts that made up their locality. The young lad of fifteen noticed how small children prancing around the railway tracks were wearing crispy new clothes; women who usually keep themselves engaged in quarrelling were jovial and laughing at poor jokes their husbands were cracking, and young girls who often eyed Durga were showing off their young bodies, clad gorgeously in cheap flashy garments.
Durga Puja’s here, the boy smiled to himself, a tad self-conscious at the similarity of his name and that of the ten-handed goddess whose strange, clay-smeared body he had seen a couple of days back, atop a truck. He had giggled at the absence of the backside of the clay image. Back home, their village temple also had a deity, that of Hanuman ji, but it was complete. He had been to the city just about a month back, at the insistence of his mother. ‘Beta’, the anxious woman had implored, ‘ . . . ab bus tum hoi humaar bharosa. Torey baap ki paresaani tum hi kum kar sakat’. Durga did not understand the exact nature of his father’s ‘paresaani’, but nevertheless, he was intent on joining him in Kolkata. It was the City – to him, it was his childhood dreamland, the land of wish-fulfilment, of big houses, cars, buses, Howrah Bridge, Kali maiyya who was the deliverance from all evil. Upon arrival, Durga was initially over-awed – by the sights, by the sounds, by so many people, by such a lot of activity, and now, so much of festivity! He wasn’t sure he could respond correctly and cowered under the glare of The City which forever proclaimed – I AM. Kolkata started possessing him like a spirit possesses a human. Around him in the bustee they lived, Durga had made a few acquaintances, and most of them had displayed their puja bonanza plans – new clothes, visits to pandals, feasts, new possessions and everything screamed to him – Be happy!
Durga, the fifteen-year old, sent from his native village in Chhaapra to Kolkata to alleviate the ‘paresaani’ of his father had realised within a few days his sheer inability to do anything about his Mission Kolkata. His father’s rickshaw had been mortgaged to a moneylender and there was a slim chance of retrieving it, since his father was quite ill and couldn’t work like before. Moreover, his father told him he couldn’t pull a rickshaw anymore because that hand-pulled rickshaws were not supposed to ply anymore on the city roads and would be phased out gradually. Apparently, Kailash had taken a hefty loan for Durga’s elder sister’s marriage, thinking he would be able to pay off his debt. However, with every passing day, he found his business dwindling with people favouring autorickshaws. Meanwhile, Kailash started falling ill quite frequently, and was diagnosed with respiratory problems. The family in Chhaapra had somehow survived for a few months on the meagre income from their portion of profit from agriculture, but it was evident that this wouldn’t work in the long run. Kailash’s wife guessed correctly that ominous clouds were gathering and so had sent their son, her only hope to go to the city where his father lived with the fond hope of finding a solution, or if, it isn’t possible, at least to bring back her man back home. If they had to die, better to perish together! But somehow, she posited a faith on Hanuman ji and her son that they will get over this unnecessary ‘paresaani’. And she had despatched her son along with a local bhaiyya who frequented the City, after disposing her last earring she had held on.
Durga, meanwhile, had no clue that he would have to fight this monster trouble that had prompted his sudden departure from home and . . .childhood, to be catapulted to the adult world of crisis and impossible resolution. Once in the city, his father had treated his son with all the goodies his son had fancied and that his money could buy. Kailash had a little earning from doing errands for some businessman. Durga understood that the pay his father received wasn’t too meagre by their standards but something told him that his father wasn’t happy. It was Durga’s guess that his father was sad at losing his rickshaw. His father would lie all day on the charpaai, and leave their humble abode at the dead of night sometimes, often returning pretty late. Durga sometimes lay hungry, cranky and wished he was with his mother back home. ‘What does bapu do if he doesn’t pull the rickshaw? How does he afford the arrack that he drinks, the food that he buys?’ Durga wondered. But hunger, boredom, and a congealed pain that sometimes smacked of anger and sometimes helplessness, distracted him more than his wild guesses about his father’s employment. Added to this was the mobile phone his father’s present employer had given him – a gadget Durga eyed like a glutton, but his father with singular steadfastness kept out of his reach. Durga wanted to hear his mother’s voice, voices of his playmates in Chhapra – one of their neighbours back home had a mobile, and Durga had the prized number. If only he had the mobile! Yet, Kailash wouldn’t even relent to let him hold it, let alone speak to someone.
His friends in the bustee had asked Durga to accompany them in their tour of the nearby puja pandals. This was going to be fun, he had anticipated. He had asked permission from his father, who was feverish the whole day. Durga was worried about his father, but his childish selfishness also made him a bit angry with his father. Delirious the previous night, his father had been muttering incoherently, while his forehead felt very warm to Durga’s touch. They had no money that day. Not even to buy food. The mobile had rung a few times but his father, even in that semi-conscious state hadn’t allowed Durga to answer it. Somehow, Durga felt there was more to his father’s fever than illness out of natural causes. But, new to this world, Durga didn’t know what to do. He had given his father a medicine that he had seen his father used to take but to no avail. He talked with his immediate neighbour about his father’s fever, but she had only consoled him, ‘Thhik ho jayega, beta’ and hurried along her own chores. Tapu, one of the local boys who was also in the proposed pandal-hoppers’ party had peeped late afternoon, seeking confirmation regarding Durga’s participation. Durga hadn’t been able to respond clearly. He only stated that he would go if his father was better.
Later, as his father lay almost unconscious in fever, the phone had buzzed again. Durga stole a glance at his father, sleeping as if dead. But he refrained from answering it, as he looked at his father’s frail body, languid in feverish sleep. A few minutes later, again the phone rang. Durga didn’t know what to do, and after a moment’s hesitation, carried the phone outside their single room. Leaning on the doorframe, his hands a bit unsteady, Durga answered, ‘Hello!’ A voice thundered from the other side demanding why the hell the sonofabitch wasn’t responding! The aggression in the voice unnerved the young boy. He couldn’t respond immediately. After the tirade of abuses had ebbed a bit, Durga found his voice and replied that his bapu had been unwell. The voice retorted, Marr toh nahin gaya na? Durga was astounded by this sudden snap of uncouth ruthlessness. He asked, ’Aap kaun?’ ‘Sunn, tu Kailas ka beta hai, na? Aadhey ghantey mein rail isstasan ke peechey puraani gudaam mein pahonch! Tere baap paisa letey waqt toh thhik thhak thha, ab kaam ke waqt achanak bimaar par gaya! Tu pahonchh yahaan, warna dono ko hi lurak dengey.’ The line had gone silent. But, Durga felt, the threat remained lurking somewhere . . . not in the brightly-lit alleyways of the city on this puja night but deep within him, his father’s dark, damp hut, and in their destiny that was possibly tied up to the phone call, Durga now felt, he shouldn’t have received.
Durga was speechless. Who was this? Was this the businessman his father worked with? Why was he so rude? Why had his father taken money, and that too even before finishing the work? What was the work? Durga’s young mind could fathom that whatever be the work, this was his father’s chief ‘paresaani’. This was why his father had been unwell, delirious, helpless,in this humungous city where no one bothered if he lived or died. The tear- smeared faces of his mother, his elder sister just married yet anxious about her parents and her little brother, and even the humble home they had – all flashed before Durga’s eyes momentarily. This was why his mother had sent him here. Did she apprehend any of this? Durga made up his mind to go and check out for himself the undone job his father was supposed to perform. He cast a glance at his sleeping father, the gentle snores assuring him that the parent is earning some well-deserved rest! He felt happy inwardly that he has ultimately got the chance to prove his worth, to prove that he can live up to his mother’s expectations.
He asked a number of people, busy in their festive frenzy, the route directions for the old godown, behind the rail station. Uneasy in his eagerness to be on time, Durga almost ran the last leg of the darkness that existed between him and the abandoned godown. Away from the colourful lights, the din and the bustle of a city draped like a bride, the place seemed like a graveyard, cold, unfriendly, inscrutable and eerily awaiting its next inhabitant. The sound of an approaching engine tore apart the stillness, only to return a few moments later. Durga wondered whether anyone had played a prank! The next moment he realised the absurdity of his thoughts – Who would know it would be he who woud pick up the phone? Not his friends, surely. His friends – ah yes! They must have waited for him to join them and then have started pandal-hopping by now! Durga found a truant tear-drop, escaping his composure; he regained his hold, and advanced towards the slight flicker of light he could espy. Momentarily, he found himself wincing as some strong hands overpowered him and gagged him, dragging him across the rough shrubbery. After what seemed like a long period of excruciating pain, Durga awoke to a strong yellowish light that made him aware of his new position – a number of menacing-looking eyes fixed on him in a large dirt-covered musty-smelling hall, littered with an assortment of machines, boxes and a number of other huge packages. The men were obviously waiting for him to regain senses, and when he did it was not without an awareness of pain all over his frail body. He had been badly pulled and dragged over. The sensation of pain, however, subsided when he saw a girl, lying beside him, awake, looking fearfully at the same faces on which Durga too had focussed his attention, His head throbbing with a dull pain, Durga tried linking his present condition to the incidents of the recent past, and realised that one of these dreary faces must be the Voice. Fleetingly, he tried to think about the phone – where did he leave it? His father would be angry if he didn’t find it on awakening. However, this stream of thought was upset by a sobbing sound that emanated from the girl beside him. Durga watched her closely, or well, tried to. She was a bit younger to him, fair, with curly hair, some of the ringlets pasted on her forehead in glistening perspiration, but what struck Durga was her desperation to free herself from the ropes that bound her wrists! She was trying her best, kicking, sobbing, gasping and grunting through the gag on her mouth! And the captors, watching both him and her were obviously enjoying the show! Durga realised the fatuity of her exercise but also applauded her valiant efforts. He felt a bit ashamed at being so laid back. What would they do to her, to us? He wondered! It was then that he heard a man shout at them,’ Bahot hua! Ab chal, jaaney ka time ho gaya!’
The girl paused and renewed her efforts with more gusto. Durga joined, not knowing where they would have to go. Where would they be taken to? Who was the girl? Why did these peoplekidnap him, the son of a penniless rickshaw puller? What would they do to him ? He thanked his God that they are not trying anything with the girl, as he had heard about being done usually to girls. Durga thought about his parents – will they ever know what happened to him? Will his father try to search for him? How may he be right now? Despair engulfed Durga as he struggled to free himself like the valiant girl beside him, but his thoughts were disrupted once again when one of those men ordered him, ‘Tera baap paissey liya hai, ab tu usska kaam kar. Iss ladki ko thikaney pounchha dey’. What was the address he was talking about? Had his father taken money to transport the girl somewhere? Where? What would happen to her? The intensity of the girl’s sobs increased but soon she was taken away, followed by two other sturdy dubious-looking men to a waiting vehicle, only to be shoved together on the floor of the small truck. Another man climbed up beside them, and spoke tersely. Durga and the girl listened in utter disbelief and shock. They would be taken together far. They would be safe if they cooperate with their captors and obey their orders. Durga had just to chaperone the girl to a designated place, and hand over the girl to another group. The girl grew hysteric – a resounding slap forced her silence and may be, submission. Durga saw the girl lay limp at his feet, blood trickling past her lips. Somehow, he was reminded of his father, still in illness. He felt powerless. Soon, he heard the strains of a crowd, blaring microphones, and caught the glitters of festivity whizz past their truck. After sometime, the vehicle screeched to a halt. Two men pulled away the girl again, sprinkled droplets of water on her and made her stand. They also wiped, although roughly, the blood trails near her cheek, and readied her dupatta that had been fastened across her waist.
‘Mast hai, lekin! Achhi bhaaww bikegi’, one man lisped to another, as Durga froze! So they were planning to sell her, and he was forced to act as the transporter. Soon, the other men joined and in very precise words, explained to Durga what he was expected to do. He was warned that any smart move on their part would mean sure death. He was supposed to escort her and no more. A few hours and he would be free. Durga looked at the girl – almost unconscious, her head reclining on one side as she was supported by a man’s strong arms. Soon, they were led to a station, quite empty, for it was pretty late. New to the city, Durga immediately, however, realised that they have travelled a bit away from the main station of the city. Durga felt the shafts of a chilly breeze; he also saw the girl shiver a bit, but still almost sleeping. The arrival of the train set the station into a mild flurry of activity, but strangely, Durga felt more secure as he and the girl were bundled inside a dark, general compartment, with instructions to stay close, and to get down when, next morning they will be met by other members of their group at a particular station. The train started chugging out, and the men got down hurriedly. Regaining a wee bit of composure, the girl now reclining on his shoulder, still asleep, Durga tried to awaken the girl from her stupor. ‘Ehhh, utthh, utthh!’ After a few efforts, the girl opened her eyes, looked around the near empty but dark compartment, and possibly tried searching for her captors. A faint smile spread when she realised her newly-gained liberty. Durga hastened to explain what he had gathered, the girl again shivering in fright, trying to run, possibly to the nearest door. Durga restrained her, and explained the train was moving fast.
And then very slowly, the two hapless young ones, devastated by the magnitude of their predicament, bruised, battered, fell into a sleepy conversation, cosy in the newfound warmth of companionship that only crises can generate. ‘Tera naam kya hai re’ Durga had asked, and she had replied, ‘Aparna’ . ‘Ghar kahan hai tera’ Durga quizzed, ‘Kaun hai terey ghar mein?’ ‘Hajaribagh . . .’ Her voice had dwindled to a whisper . . . ‘Ghar mein bas ma hai. Ma mujhey Apu bulaati hai. Aapka naam kya hai, bhaiyya?’ The last word echoed in Durga’s ears. Far away from where they were, in this journey to nowhere, as the train with its sleeping load, whistled along, Durga remembered another fair face, a red bindi on her forehead and reddish-orange vermillion at her hair-parting, his sister – Apsara, Apu to the family. As Durga felt himself very responsibl NO CHANGE he determined to do all he could – to make a frantic effort to escape. Durga looked at Apu, and then outside, where the dark countryside framed by the window, was slowly shedding away its nocturnal gloom. Tired, sleepy eyes looked at white kaash flowers, blossoming beside the railway line, as the purplish haze of dawn brightened gradually to an azure morn. Did they feel the train losing speed? Was the train approaching a station? Durga tugged at Apu’s hand and sped towards the nearest door, inching away from tired travellers, ensconced in sleep. ‘Chal . . .’Durga whispered audibly through his resolute lips, as he decided to jump with Apu, near the clumps of the kaash blossoms. The dawn brightened a bit as the train slowed even more, awaiting a signal, conniving with two young childrenon their way to their freedom.