By Subodh Ghosh
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
A mention of the station’s name would make it clear to just about anyone which place is being referred to and how far it is from Calcutta.
Rayer Haat station. One needs to travel about a mile from here to reach the city crowds. There’s a market. A look at the market reveals there must be a mid-sized town nearby, a town that has everything. Court, hospital, theater, college. If one stands close to the market, the names of the roads become visible along with their appearances. College Road, Hospital Road and so on. Even from this distance, the advertisement jingle blaring out of the theater loudspeaker can be heard.
Only when a passenger train arrives, does the station come to life with an uproar; it’s always quiet otherwise. Forever silent. At most times of the day and night, the station’s life droops with a lazy drowsiness. Two big Nagkeshar trees stand on the platform. A peanut seller sleeps under them. When the sharp whistle of a train’s arrival blows, he wakes up with a start.
On crossing the station gate where tickets are checked, one comes across a staircase, which leads to a pebble-strewn area—packed with a few taxis and around ten cycle rickshaws. The clamor reaches its peak when the passengers jostle their way across the narrow gate to land at this open space. The horns of all taxis and rickshaws start blowing together, accompanied with shouts and calls. “Come here, sir…here, Ma…this way, Babu. Three annas for market, four annas for town.”
Taxis call, “Come, come. One rupee to go to the town.”
All the taxis and rickshaws get passengers. There are always a few travelers who prefer to ride the taxi and don’t hesitate to pay a rupee for a mile.
The rickshaws stand in two rows facing each other. This row includes Bhagyalakshmi, Koto Moja, Joy Ma Kali, Pakshiraj, and Mon re Aamar. That row has Chol re Chol, Shukh Shanti, Urboshi, Ashirbad, and Pranaram. Besides, this row’s Bhagyalakshmi and that row’s Ashirbad are always face to face, as if seething with wrath against each other. Bhagyalakshmi’s Nitai slowly smokes his bidi in, his eyes glaring at Ashirbad’s Ramcharan. And Ramcharan chews on roasted grams while glancing at Nitai from the corner of his eye. The other eight rickshaws display no such tussle. Karali, Bhanu, Siddiq, Girdhari and others wonder why such malice exists between Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad. No one understands why Nitai throws such nasty glares at Ramcharan. And why does Ramcharan answer back with his lip-biting mean stare either? It’s a mystery.
In terms of income, neither of them lags behind the other. If one of them earns less in a particular week, he makes up for it in the next. On days when passengers come for a dip in the Ganga, Nitai makes a little more money. But the very next week, Ramcharan’s rickshaw draws countless passengers to the fair.
Nitai and Ramcharan are both stout men. It’s difficult to say who would win if both actually engaged in a duel. Nitai wears a short shirt and a dhoti. Ramcharan dons a vest and a half pant. They appear to be of the same age as well. Between twenty and twenty-one.
For as long as these two rickshaws stay in their respective rows at the stand, facing each other, both suffer a silent anxiety. Nitai constantly looks towards the station gate. Ramcharan does, too. Passengers swarm in from the gates and scatter near the stand. They approach the rickshaws. But neither Nitai’s nor Ramcharan’s eyes betray any eagerness to grab passengers. Both of them look with great hope at the gate, expecting the arrival of someone special. Perhaps the person would come; yesterday’s arrival was by the five past ten train. Will it be a no show today?
When the ticket checker’s figure moves away and the last passenger is seen crossing the gate, both Nitai and Ramcharan sigh with relief. The person hasn’t come. The anxiety contest lulls a bit, and both of them focus on other passengers.
Bhanu, Siddiq, and Girdhari try to figure it out. Nitai and Ramcharan are no strangers to each other. In fact, there used to a time when they were thick pals, until only six months ago. Neither even wants to exchange a simple word with the other. Six months ago Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad would stand together in the same row. There have been occasions when on seeing Urboshi standing beside Bhagyalakshmi, Ramcharan created a ruckus, pushing Ashirbad next to Bhagyalakshmi. Bhanu would remark, “Ah, these tw are just like Ram and Lakshman. Can’t stay without one another.”
Not every day, but at least thrice a week, a girl alights at this station from one of the passenger trains. One look at her reveals her background, the reason she comes to the Rayer Haat station on those three days, and the place she intends to reach.
She goes to the town. Carries books. All the rickshaw-wallahs know she studies in the town college.
But where does she come from? Many know that as well. Bhanu says “She comes from Jaigarh. There’s a new township at Jaigarh, near Tribeni.”
The girl comes and goes back alone. In the evening, she would board any rickshaw in the town to catch the five-fifty train. Urboshi, Pakshiraj, or Mon re Aamar would bring her from the town.
The responsibility to take her from the station to the town, however, rests only on two rickshaws—Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad. Nitai clutches the cycle’s handles strong; Ramcharan’s feet get fidgety on the cycle’s paddle. Both blow their horns as if gripped by a fervent resolve.
As soon as she approaches the stand, two rickshaws leap out of the assembly of vehicles. The front wheels of the two rickshaws collide. The clash of the rickshaws blocks the road. The girl can’t move.
Not that she needs to. Either Bhagyalakshmi or Ashirbad speeds out of the stand with its horn shaking the quiet air with a victory song and then race through the roads. Empty roads flanked by small bamboo bushes and old shrines. The rickshaw runs past big mango trees and the mirth of bird calls. Market, College Road, College. The rickshaw’s journey stops; either Bhagyalakshmi or Ashirbad.
Bhanu laughs, “Like Nitai, like Ramcharan; both are shameless”
Siddiq consumes his khaini and says with a smile, “Both have gone crazy.”
Indeed, it is as if they have gone mad. Nitai’s sad eyes suggest that whenever Ramcharan takes the girl on his rickshaw with a pride and crushes Nitai’s soul with the blow of his horn. For a long time, Nitai stands with a still look. As if he has forgotten his ability to toil and his doggedness to earn money.
The same crazed look takes over Ramcharan’s face, too. Whenever the girl climbs up Bhagyalakshmi. A long plait dangles on her back; on some days it is a wide knot, green slippers, and a colored sari. Sometimes it’s striped, sometimes dotted, sometimes, printed. Bhagyalakshmi races with a breeze; the girl’s earrings shake in a whirl.
The moment Bhagyalakshmi disappears into the shadows of the mango trees, Ramcharan blows the dust off Ashirbad’s seat with a thud and talks to the approaching passenger. “Where will you go? How many people? I won’t take more than two passengers, Moshai.”
Who knows what has happened? It has been many days, nearly a month. Winter’s chill has given way to spring’s breeze. The mango trees are laden with florets. But where’s that girl?