| Anxiety gripped me as I braced myself for an early morning dispute with a tea vendor. The excitement of returning to Siliguri - my former locale - after many years, albeit on a short official tour, coupled with the misty winds tearing through the window vents of the Darjeeling Mail in full speed , made me completely forget that I had exhausted the last of my small currency notes while paying for my dinner at Sealdah the previous night. I placed the steaming paper teacup beside me while seated on the extreme edge of the lower berth and made a quick mental recce if anyone of my co-passengers could bail me out. But an orchestra of snoring at different pitches and volumes, emanating from supine figures covered head to toe in white sheets told me there was no such luck.
‘Eeye…..,’ I started hesitatingly as I stretched out my hand holding a biggie . My whole upper body was protruding out like a camel’s neck making sure I don’t bump my head against the middle berth whose occupant was fast asleep.
The Chaiwala , lean and lanky , was in his usual business mood. Looking the other way ,he let out one of his typical hawkers twang , ‘ Cha…ye…… Cha…ye….Garam Chaye’ hoping to wake up some more prospective customers.
I cleared my throat . ‘ Sorry, no change ……I really don’t…..’
‘Five Hundred! Matha Kharap. Give small. ’
‘Really Sorry , If I did have, why won’t I ….’
‘Then why did you order tea ? Spoilt my Bohni !’
‘Come back when you have got enough change.’
‘Will take me hours to sell fifty cups ! Rather you hand me the note. Kishanganj is approaching. Two minutes halt. Will get you change from one of the platform stalls.’
A shock-like alarm ran through me . A bitter incident from years ago in an identical scenario flashed through my mind. An incident that gave me a lesson of a lifetime. The empty feeling of being duped had stayed with me for almost a week after that episode.
And here was again a situation designed to test my solemn resolve following that debacle – never again to fall victim to my credulity.
‘No, No, No,’ I withdrew my outstretched hand.
The Chaiwala appeared contemptuous of my mistrust. ‘ Arrey! I am not going to run away. Will just go and return in a jiffy.’
‘That’s what all of them say, ’ I shot back. ‘Exactly how I once lost full three hundred rupees. In this very train. I have learnt it the hard way.’
‘Impossible! No hawker of Barsoi-NJP line can ever do such a thing.’
‘Am I lying then ? Such a thing did happen to me. I still remember that trickster’s name and that fateful day.’
‘ Listen ! Ours is not a single day’s business. We have got government license. I have been vending in this route for fifteen years now . Trust me. There’s never been any complaint of that sort. My name is Benoy. Benoy Roy . Ask anyone.’
‘That rogue too had said the same thing .’ Indignation within me rose along with the unpleasant memory of an age-old ruse . ‘Hah…big dialogues… “My name is Chandan…. Everyone knows me. ” Bloody cheat!’ I said in mock imitation.
‘Chandan! Did you say Chandan ?’ Benoy’s eyebrows arched as his eyes made two quick horizontal movements.
‘Yes, scooted with the change ,’ I said. ‘ Why ? Do you know him?’
‘Tell me, did you buy a Walkman Cassette Player?’
‘ Yes, Yes,’ I said as my mind pictured the gadget which served me for over three years and now lay defunct in my attic. ‘ But how do you know ?’
‘ You were supposed to get two hundred eighty rupees . Not three hundred,’ said Benoy .
I had indeed casually approximated the figure on the higher side . But how on earth does this fellow know? Was I being set up again? I looked closely. No , this wasn’t Chandan. He was way shorter.
‘ Well , Yes. Two hundred eighty,’ I admitted . ‘ But I never got it back. And how do you know?’
‘ You really didn’t get your money back?’
‘ How would I? . That swindler Chandan never showed up. And who are you ? How the hell do you know all these?’
‘You were with a friend, right? He was wearing a black coat and tie . Side Berth.’
‘Yes, but not a friend. I came to know him only in the train,’ I recollected.
I had got friendly with a gentleman on the adjacent seat who had introduced himself as an executive in a company. He was on his way to Gangtok seeking a better job . He had his interview that very evening and had therefore dressed up accordingly while in the train itself. In fact it was he who bargained hard for the Walkman on my behalf and got me a nice deal at two hundred twenty bucks. But ultimately it was of no use , thanks to the con trick of that wicked Chandan.
‘I gave the money to him ,’ said Benoy. ‘ Through the window . From the platform. You were not in your seat. He assured me to give it to you after you returned from the toilet.’
‘ But…But he never spoke a word about it to me. We got down at NJP together.’
‘ Your friend took the money. Call him and ask. Right Now! Have his number?’
‘ I told you he wasn’t my friend !’ I said angrily. ‘You shouldn’t have given the money to him.’
‘ I had no time to wait for you . There was an emergency.’
‘ But why on earth did you come to return the change ? Why not Chandan himself?’
‘Chandan fell and fractured his leg minutes after selling the Walkman to you. He was in great pain. So we had to take him away to the Sadar Hospital. While being carried away he called me and gave me two hundred eighty rupees .For returning to the two friends seated at S4 31, 32 who had bought a Walkman,’ Benoy recounted. Then added wistfully, ‘I still remember the details even after these six-seven years’ .
‘ Eight,’ I corrected in a low voice as if to myself.
The script that I had carried and nurtured for eight years had undergone a dramatic change in the last five minutes . The real villain of the piece had emerged – a most unlikely one at that — which required a massive shift in the conclusions drawn with regard to human guile. This demanded some serious brooding.
Almost involuntarily I extended my hand towards Benoy who dashed away with the note giving me time to reflect. The passenger on the middle berth above me had by now woken up but was still lying while fidgeting with his mobile, thus ensuring my continued inconvenience. I imagined myself as a social scientist studying human behavior whose earlier results based upon previous observations have received a sudden jolt from newer empirical evidence and therefore needed sweeping amendment . I tried to recall the face of the man . He was middle-aged, quite presentable. And came across as fairly educated in our conversations. I had held him in good esteem. Even gave him my card. And for a paltry few hundred, the fellow could…... Disgusting! Nah..…Truly no one could be trusted .Howsoever well-dressed and well-speaking. No one . Absolutely no one.
‘ Here,’ A voice startled me out of my contemplation . Benoy had returned with the change . ‘Count them. Four hundred ninety.’
‘ Thanks’ I muttered in a tone which almost sounded like sorry.
Benoy was about to rush off when I collected my wits for a courtesy query , ‘ Wait . Where is Chandan now ? Is he still vending in this train?’
‘ He’s dead. Four years now. TB.’
‘Oh!’ A dry lump in my throat reminded me that the tea had become cold.
Later that evening I found myself wandering through the congested alleys of Siliguri’s popular Hong Kong Market browsing through the fancy merchandise . I haggled extra hard at every stall but could not close any deal in my anxiety not to be hoodwinked at all cost. The eight- year old fiasco was still playing out in my mind . The misdirected resentment towards a dead man all these years added to my rage against the real offender that got away. From time to time extreme cynicism took control of me and found expression in expletives within myself,‘ Damned Suited Booted thief ! Masquerading as gentleman!’
Strolling along Sevoke Road I tried to spot the house in which I had stayed as a tenant for five years , only to find it supplanted by a four-storied apartment. But the shanty next to it was surprisingly intact.
‘ So the dhobi has managed to hold his own against the ravenous developers. Good . Good.’ I thought. This roadside laundry which I frequented also served as the dhobi’s dwelling. He lived with his wife and son.
Almost instinctively I pushed the rusted tin door, fervently hoping to experience the last vestige of nostalgic memories before this too gets erased by the inevitable process of development.
‘So……Recognize me?’ I declared rather loudly as I entered the tiny shack.
The old dhobi was alone pressing some garments on the same old wooden table with the same old giant charcoal iron-box. He looked up and puckered his face to get a better view of the sudden intruder. His wizened visage lit up with a grin . ‘ Pradip Babu! You! After so many years!’
I smiled and nodded.
‘Please sit. Please sit,’ he said frantically. You are in Kolkata now I presume. Seii je gelen…’
I sat down on the rickety mora and surveyed the nondescript room in the dim light of a low power bulb suspended by a thin electric wire from the dilapidated tiled roof . Amidst a broken mirror, a decrepit cot, and an earthen oven the only visible embellishment was an old calendar bearing the picture of the Deity of Wealth. Evidently, the bounteous Goddess has not been too kind to this poor man. In one corner of the room, my eyes fell on a device I knew rather intimately. A stand fan. A sturdy old model that once belonged to me.
The old man who was following my eyes now spoke. ‘Pradip Babu, I know why you have come. But right now I don’t have….I mean I am completely….’
I raised my palm reassuringly. ‘I have come just to meet you . After all, I have lived in this place for many years.’ I was trying my best to make the value of nostalgia understood to a man to whom the very concept was unknown.
But the old man continued, ‘Believe me, Pradip Babu, I had kept your money safely from the clutches of my son before he left me. Even when I was in dire need of money for my wife’s treatment just before she died I did not touch it. I intended to give it to you when you would come again. But it was so long. It was only last year that I became ill myself and could no longer ….. I thought the old notes will be of no use as they were launching new ones at that time.’
I was embarrassed. Before my sudden transfer from Siliguri, I had decided to dispose of this unwieldy fan and buy a portable one. This man had shown eagerness and he had himself fixed and promised a price of three hundred — a promise he could not keep even till the day of my departure. I had written it off in good spirit but it was he who insisted that he would definitely pay me ‘one day’.
‘Please forget about it,’ I said. ‘ Do you think I have come to you after all these years only to ask for the fan’s price? In fact, I am happy that the fan is still serving you well.’
‘No, No, Pradip Babu. Not the fan. I know you would be kind enough to forgo it. I meant the money which Tapan brought a few months after you left . He would not give it to me without your sign until I promised him to pass it on to you.’ The old Dhobi said. Then handing me an old yellowish polythene packet from under the table cover he added , ‘ I had preserved your money in this plastic along with my other papers.’
Tapan, who? , I asked
‘Tapan from the post office . Remember him ? Please look inside the plastic. The paper will be still there.’
I sifted through a timeworn shop license , a frayed Aadhaar Card , a few tattered medical prescriptions, and a dog-eared Ration booklet until my eyes caught my name and a few lines in an oblong piece of paper.
Dear Mr. Pradip
I am extremely sorry. It was I who took your money from the hawker on
the train two months back. Actually, I had lost my job in Kolkata and
was completely broke and desperate. But now, by the grace of God and
your good wishes, I have landed a job at Gangtok. And today, immediately
after getting my first salary, I am sending you this Money Order . I
hope you will forgive me. My conscience has been pricking me for the
last two months. But once I receive the acknowledgement I shall be
relieved to know that you will not continue to suspect the wrong man.”