CHAPTER 1- THE STRANGER
Toot toooooot….. chug chug chug chug… the rapid grinding sound of the wheels gradually slowed down and then ……. twooshhh ! The train came to a halt, at Howrah station, Kolkata.
Several men in red caps and uniforms, clustered around the tracks, on the platform, eagerly waiting for the train to arrive since a long time. Now, on its arrival, they started rushing towards it. Quickly taking their positions outside the compartments, they looked for an opportunity to get hold of a customer, who would help them earn their bread and butter for the day. Yes, they are the famous porters who serve passengers on a daily basis on the railway platforms, in India. Popularly known as coolies.
Soon suitcases and bags of different shapes, colors and sizes started popping out of the gates with their owners holding on to them . The porters approached the passengers individually, reaching out for their baggages saying , “Coolie chai ?”* , in the native language of the place.
So, you are in the city of joy…… welcome to Kolkata . Located in the heart of West Bengal, Kolkata, once home to a majority of Bengali speaking people, now have residents from all over India, who speak different languages and belong to different cultures and communities . Yet all over the city, traces of Bengali culture can be seen, be it in the high ceilings or large windows of the houses in North Kolkata or the famous Bengali addas on every corner of the streets….or in the popular street foods of Kolkata, like puchkas, or in the stalls that sell fish cutlets, fish chops, fish kobirajis and a variety of other vegetarian and non-vegetarian savories. The city that is known for its popular sweet – rasgullas, and that boasts of their love for art and literature, classical songs and dance….Kolkata is exactly how every Bengali’s paradise would be.
Pushing through the crowd , making their way, some people rushed towards the train to receive their family or friends. Some of them scanned through the list of names attached beside the entrance to each compartment, while others simply jumped in, glancing at every corner to spot their near or dear ones . Several passengers started leaving the train. And then, from one compartment a green metal box with orange and yellow floral designs on it peeked out. Jhhannnn…the clinking sound of multi colored glass bangles accompanied it. They were worn on the skinny hand that held on to the box . Grasping the side of the gate with a firm grip, a beautiful dusky skinned girl leaned out to take a look at the station. Scratching her oily scalp from which dangled her hair braided into plaits, she looked around pretty confused.
“Ki holo ? Taratari namun” , someone from behind yelled at her, asking her to get down. She nodded and stepped down from the train and moved aside quickly to make way for the man behind. The man frowned and looked at her with disappointment and hurried towards his destination. The girl stood clueless, in the middle of the platform, not knowing which direction to follow.
She was draped in a colorful printed cotton saree which she tucked high up over her navel. As she stepped down from the train the anklets she wore produced a music most pleasant to the ears….jhannnn jhannnn …jhannnn jhhannn…
A coolie asked her, “Didi, coolie chai? “* She looked at him with her large dreamy eyes, not sure about taking his help. She asked him blankly, ” ka taka neben ?”*
“Durgaaa o Durgaaaa !”, and then, clinked two steel plates and they flew to the ground . At a little distance from the plates were two shiny wet feet , wrinkled with age . A woman clad in a white saree, sat on the floor beside an open tap, washing utensils in the cold tap water. She was sitting in the courtyard of her humble home amidst the woods, in Nawabganj, Bangladesh. Glancing towards the door, she called out her grand daughter’s name again and said,” Durgaaaa ! ki re naibi kokhon, khaibi kokhon ?”* She was calling her for a while now. It was late in the afternoon and Durga did not take her bath or eat her lunch yet. But, the little girl was busy . Yes, very busy.
Her tiny bare feet kept running and running across the green grass. As a child, she took pride in climbing trees, bringing down guavas from the neighbor’s trees by throwing stones at the branches, and then, taking the first bite from the one she first plucks. Acquiring her favorite fruit like this, gave her so much joy , the thrill she experienced can never be put into words. This was special and the memory of this lived on with her , even when she grew up. Besides climbing trees , she had a big list of highly preferred activities like riding swings , trying to catch the best fish from the pond and then, take it home to her grandma, stealthily walking into the kitchen and eating all the pickle her grandma prepared and also the delicious guava jelly she made. Sometimes she would make a tasty food, herself (and she thought that was wonderful, as that implied, she is a big girl now). Now, about the taste ….. only the goat and sheep could say. These goats and sheep, grazed in the fields surrounding her home. Durga would mix all the edible ingredients from the kitchen, the only component from outside being grass. And the animals seemed to enjoy the entire recipe, licking the bowl clean. These were to name a few from her never-ending list of fun activities for the day.
Hearing her grandma’s voice , Durga waved goodbye to her little gang of friends and left for home. She was playing with them outside and was having too much fun but grandma was calling her and she must go. She ran indoors and asked her grandma,” Amake dakchile kan ma? “*.
So let’s meet Neera – Durga’s grandma. Durga referred to her as ma. She took care of little Durga, after the decease of her parents . Her mother, Uma, passed away from heart failure. Then, a few years from her mother’s tragic demise, her father, Bhairab, was traveling back home from another city on a bus, which met with an accident on the way, killing quite a few passengers. Sadly her father did not survive the accident and with that, her fate brought an end to her share of parents’ love, care and cuddles. But, then God was kind to send her an angel- her maternal grandma, Neera. She took care of her and loved her as her parents would have, if they were alive. Her grandma now, is her world.
“Dakbo na? Khali khela aar khela . Nawa nai, khawa nai , dawa nai . Ki doshyi maiya re baba. Ekta katha shone na. Jaa giya chaanta shaira fal”, she scolded Durga for being so engrossed in play, that she forgot her daily activities . Durga ran to the bathroom and splish ! splash ! She started sprinkling and splashing water from the bucket all over. Neera yelled again to remind her not to waste water. Durga grinned mischievously but, finally calmed down for the day and took a refreshing bath, like an obedient little girl.
The winds hit the trees hard. The sound of thunder scared Durga and she hugged her grandma tight. It was a stormy night and was raining very heavily. Durga was trying to sleep but every time she closed her eyes, the big roar from the nature’s mouth robbed her inner peace away. So her scared self, held Neera as tightly as she could.
Knock ! Knock! Knock!
At this time of the night ? Startled, Durga and Neera glanced at each other. Who would be out on the streets in a stormy night like this?
Durga grabbed Neera’s hands and nodded her head from left to right. She did not want her to go and check who was at the door. It could be a Ghost, right ? The one that dangles it’s legs from the tamarind tree, yes, the one from grandma’s story. But, Neera moved her hand away and told her to wait . She walked quickly to the door and asked loudly, ” ke ?”* No one answered. She did not open the door and was returning back to Durga, when again, ‘knock, knock ‘. This time the sound was of a lower volume , a heavy thumping on the door. It seemed as if someone was struggling to knock . Curious , Neera unbolted the entrance. She saw there was no one. Frowning she began to lock the door, when she saw a pair of shoes near it. She peeked out, to behold a sight … a sight most terrifying – wearing the shoes was a man, lying down drenched in rain and blood. She screamed and backed off, and Durga seeing her grandma’s reaction ran to the door and looked outside. Terrified, she hugged Neera and cried.
Glossary- (The words and sentences with the asterisk )
- Coolie chai?-Do you need a porter ?
- Amake dakchile kan ma?- Why were you calling me mother ?
- Didi – Sister(elder), usually addressed to women with respect by people unknown and not related to them; Coolie -porter ; Chai ? – u need ?
- ka taka neben? – How much money will you take ?
- ki re naibi kokhon, khaibi kokhon ? – When will you take your bath (naibi) , when will you eat (khaibi) ?
- ke ?- who is there ?
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