Sohan Lal did not understand why he got fired. It was bad news. He came to know of it late last evening when he went to deposit his weekly collection. Gauri Shankar, who has been collecting money from him in the past twenty years, was not smiling. "Babuji wants to see you tomorrow morning" He avoided looking at Sohan Lal. "Leave the Rickshaw in the yard. Don't ask me any more. I don't know".
If Gauri Shankar asked any one to leave the Rickshaw in the yard it was a certainty that the person has got the sack. Sohan Lal has seen that happening many times. It happened to those who are fresh on the road; for reasons of drunken behavior, brawling, not depositing collections on time, failing to turn up for work and the rest. Reports always reached Babuji. Yet very rarely Babuji sacked some one who has been working for long. Sohan Lal has clocked more than twenty years. Something must have really upset Babuji.
Sohan Lal spent a sleepless night. "What is the matter?" Shokila, his wife asked. "Are not you well". Sohan Lal was not sure whether he is ready to tell her yet. As he kept silent Shokila rose up and lit the kerosene lamp. "I am going to make some tea for you"
She assembled twigs and pieces of dried wood and started to make fire. She was blowing few times until the fire was red hot and ready to sustain. As he watched his wife couched in front of the earthen stove he was beginning to feel guilty that he had not told her yet. "Babuji does not want me any more" He blurted out.
Shokila was still blowing the stove. Afraid that she did not hear him out, he repeated. "I heard you" she responded and was busy arranging cups.
Silence fell between them. Sohan Lal felt bit relieved that Shokila is informed. Several times in the past when he lost the strength to live on she refused to let him give up. Shokila kept a stoic silence as she always did in moments of crisis.
"Take this". She pushed the cup towards him. As he started sipping the tea she was looking at him intently. Sohan Lal was staring elsewhere.
"Have you started drinking again?" She asked. Sohan Lal was startled and stared at her in disbelief. "Of course, not. I never had a drop after I made the promise to you . " Shokila expression was unchanging. "Did you fight with Vikram?"..
"No, No'.I have not even seen him in the past three months'"
Sohan Lal did not know what to say. "I don't know" He finally answered.
Both did not speak. She put out the stove and the lamp. Sohan Lal finished the tea and shove the cup away.
"I have three hundred rupees. I will be getting eighty rupees this month. We can go back to our village. We will find a job to work on the fields. The monsoon was good this year, you remember" Shokila addressed him.
Shokila has been urging him in the past few years to give up Calcutta. She has started to dislike the city. Sohan Lal however never thought of leaving this place. It was his home ever since he was a boy. He is happy here.
"No'No'I am going to see Babuji in the morning.."
In the morning when he was walking out of his Juggi colony he felt a sense of emptiness. It was odd to be walking with out his Rickshaw. He often visualized that staying inside the two wooden beams protected him against all evil influences. It was a reassuring feeling. Suddenly he felt exposed and vulnerable. Half way into walking it occurred to him that he could have taken a shorter route. The pedestrians usually wriggled through the series of metallic poles that had one or two line ups missing. The poles were erected by the Government so as to prevent accidents along the railway tracks. Yet people always chose that route for ease of access. Vehicles and animals have to take a longer route to the main road. It did not occur to him that he no longer needed to detour.
When he reached Babuji's place it was still early. Gauri Shankar works only in the evenings. There was a daytime clerk by name Manohar Singh who does all sundry errands for Babuji. When he saw Sohan Lal entering the building he came out of the office.
"Sohan Lal, what did you do? ". His face was tense. "Babuji is extremely angry with you".
What did I do? Sohan Lal asked himself. "I don't understand. If you could explain'"
"The picture'The picture.. Why did you do all these?" His voice had the tone that something serious had happened.
"I am totally lost. Please explain..".
"I don't know the matter fully myself. They were talking yesterday afternoon that some foreigner had taken a picture of you and it has landed Babuji in serious trouble'"
Sohan Lal thought for a while and remembered the incident.
It was about three months ago. It was raining heavily that day. Sohan Lal never liked rainy days. The streets quickly got filled with dirty water and he did not like to tread on them with his shoes on. He wore a thick leather shoe that he bought from the Sunday Market. On a previous occasion he had to throw away a new pair of shoes as it had become useless after getting soaked in the water. Yet it is the rainy day that brought good business. Usually customers agreed to pay higher than the normal fare.
Sohan Lal saw a man with a foreigner approaching him.
"Sahib, Where do you want to go?"
The man looked at him. "Is it your Rickshaw?"
"Not mine. But I run it"
"Sahib wants to take your picture." The man waved at the foreigner. "Is it OK with you? "
The foreigner was tall and had two bulky bags. He opened one of them and took out a camera. Sohan Lal's eye widened in childlike curiousness and started to giggle.
"Are you taking photo, Sahib'"
"Listen' Can you bring your Rickshaw over this side ..Just over here"
The next few minutes they gave direction for Sohan Lal to position his Rickshaw in a vantage angle. Sohan Lal could not hide his happiness.
"What did you say your name was'Yes.. Sohan Lal'Take that grin off your face.. We need you to be calm.."
Sohan Lal paused for few seconds to let go the cough that was bothering him in the last few days. Earlier that morning he ignored Shokila's plea to keep the overcoat with him. He found it to be cumbersome to wear especially when pushing the Rickshaw. The foreigner opened his bag and took out a light green plastic sheet and gestured him to cover himself. He asked the other man something in English and Sohan Lal understood that the foreigner was trying to ask him something.
"How long you have been coughing, Sohan Lal ?"
"About a month Sahib"
"Did you check up with a doctor?"
Sohan Lal replied in the negative. The last time he saw a doctor was when a doctor visited his colony. Lots of things happened during that time. The drainage system was cleaned and the colony got two hand pumps installed for drinking water. A neighbor told him that a Minister was visiting the slum.
"Are you ready Sohan Lal? Stay still'..I asked you to stop grinning. .."
Sohan Lal was taken off guard by the brilliance of the flash. He expected some kind of light to come on when they clicked. He had not anticipated that it would be so powerful. Momentarily he was blind and another flash followed quickly after the first one as they had clicked for the second time.
Sohan Lal watched the foreigner nodding his head in apparent satisfaction. Following that he wanted to know lot about Sohan Lal. It was about his child hood, how he landed in Calcutta, how he lived here, how much money he was making and the rest. Sohan Lal also was beginning to feel comfortable in the conversation.
"Sohan Lal, When was your happiest moment?"
Sohan Lal did not understand the question. The man repeated the question rephrasing it.
"Did you ever feel very good in this place?"
Sohan Lal thought for a moment. He has generally been happy these days. Oh, yes'There was this one special occasion. Should he tell them? Sohan Lal felt bit shy to narrate.
It was a long time ago. He went on a month vacation to his native village to get married. He knew Shokila before. His folks in the village had already fixed his marriage when he was eight years old. When he brought her to Calcutta she was awestruck. She had not seen a big city before. Sohan Lal impressed her in every way with his knowledge on city routes. He kept a surprise for her. In all those years of growing up in a village, she has heard of cinemas but never been to one. Sohan Lal knew this and one day he took her to a newly released Hindi movie. Every time there was an interesting action on the screen Sohan Lal would look at Sokila's face to watch her reaction. The dim view of her face in the scattered light that reflected off the screen showed a child like enthusiasm. Sohan Lal was pleased. On the way back from cinema he stopped by a road side stall to have dinner for both of them. He ordered several items at once despite Shokila's protests. Sohan Lal was on the top of the world.
He had not forgotten that day even as years passed by. It was one of his happiest moments. But how can he tell them all these. They may even ridicule him.
Sohan Lal hesitated for a moment and answered "I am happy everyday Sahib"
Sohan Lal's thoughts were interrupted when he heard the screeching noise as the iron gate swung open. Babuji has just arrived. His car was entering. The noise of the engine assumed pitch in the enclosed space and Sohan Lal, for the first time since he first heard the news, started to feel his stomach caving in.
"Stay here until called. I have got to go" Manohar Singh whispered into his ears and rushed to open the door for Babuji. "Namaste ji". He saluted. Babuji got out of the car, gave Sohan Lal a fleeting look and briskly walked inside. Manohar Singh followed him carrying his suitcase.
Sohan Lal spent next few minutes perplexed, staring at the peeled paints on the wall. He was unsure what to expect next.
In what seemed like a waiting period that lasted forever, Manohar Singh opened the door ajar, stuck his head out and gestured Sohan Lal to come in. Once inside he took a corner and stood with his hands crossed.
Babuji did not respond.
Sohan Lal looked at Manohar Singh. Manohar Singh returned his glance as if he had never seen him before in his life.
Sohan Lal did not like those moments. He had the foreboding that something is not going right. Everything around him was intimidating: The silence. Manohar Singh's sudden unfriendly expression.
"How much money they gave you?"
"Kaun Babuji ?"
Babuji's face was serious. Sohan Lal felt uncomfortable with his deep stare. There was unmistakable hatred on his look. He looked towards Manohar Singh for explanation.
"The Angrez who took your pictures. Kitne paise diye woh log?"
"They did not give me any money. They told me to keep the plastic sheet"
Babuji was silent for a while. He continued staring at him.
"Sohan Lal, are you not happy here'" Babuji asked.
"Of course, Babuji. I am very happy here."
"Did not you get Dhoti, Sari and Sweets during Durga Puja?"
"Of course, Babuji. I got everything'"
"Did I not pay for the medicine when your wife was sick in the hospital? Did I not rescue you when the police took you in the Thana for carrying those illicit liquors in your Rickshaw?.. Answer me.." . Babuji's voice was getting to a shrill.
The next few minutes Sohan Lal listened to a spate of invective from Babuji. He stood stunned and speechless.
"Forgive me if I have done something wrong'If only you could tell me.."
As he was speaking Sohan Lal failed to notice Babuji reaching out for his drawer. He vaguely saw him taking out something and flung in his direction. Sohan Lal was too late in his reaction. As he closed his eyes in natural reflex he felt a soft object hitting him on his face. When he opened his eyes he found himself staring at the cover of an English Magazine. There was his picture in full color in the cover page. Sohan Lal stood dumbfounded. For few seconds he was at a loss for words. He bent down and picked up the magazine and gave a closer look.
It was unmistakably Sohan Lal.
In all his life, rarely, if ever, any moment of extreme despair brought an unexpected cheer. For the next few moments as he watched his own image he forgot all about his present condition. The imminent threat to his job, the menacing look of Babuji, the physical tiredness owing to the fact that he hardly slept the previous night, the circumstances that drove him to the belief that he had committed some sort of sacrilege - all seemed to have disappeared in that single instant. His eyes widened and a smile crossed his face.
He looked up in puzzlement and uttered "That is me, Babuji'"
Babuji was furious. He stood up with a ferocity unseen of before. "How dare you tell me that you did all this'. Do you understand what I can do to you'"
Just then the telephone rang. Babuji gave Sohan Lal a look full of venom and hatred. He then turned around and picked up the phone.
Sohan Lal looked at Manohar Singh. Manohar Singh lifted his eyebrow cautioned Sohan Lal to be careful.
"Ji. He is right here. I am speaking to him'"
Babuji paused, covered the mouth piece with his right hand and gestured both of them to stay outside.
Sohan Lal, still clutching to the magazine, was led by Manohar Singh to the front yard.
"Mantriji baat kar rahen hai'" He whispered in Sohan Lal's ears.
"I don't understand a thing. Please explain me'"
"You did a stupid thing. The people who took your pictures are foreign journalists. They have written very bad about Babuji and this Government. They say Babuji is keeping people like you and others in bonded labor. ..Under inhuman conditions'"
"That is not what I told them. I told them I am happy here'."
"They don't look at it that way'They see how you live here.." Manohar Singh paused again. "Very bad, very bad'The opposition party is asking serious question in the Assembly. They want Government to close down Babuji's business'"
Manohar Singh went inside. Sohan Lal thought for a moment. Inhuman conditions! Is he really leading a life that is below human being's dignity?
Once again he looked at the magazine. The sight of his picture filled him with happiness. He must show it to Shokila. She has only seen film stars' pictures appearing in magazine cover.
As he looked at the closed door of Babuji's office his mind was full of conflicting emotions. He could hear Babuji's distant voice talking animatedly on phone. This is not the first time that his job is threatened. It has happened in the past for other reasons. Each time he asked for forgiveness and promised not to repeat his mistakes again. Each time he was reinstated with severe warnings. Should he ask for forgiveness once again? What was his crime any way?
He then remembered Shokils's words that morning. May be she was right. This place is unfit to live any longer.
Sohan Lal carefully placed the magazine in the inside of his shirt. He wanted to make sure that it did not get wet in case it rained. He opened the gate discreetly and stepped out.
Just then he heard Manohar Singh's voice from behind.
"Sohan Lal'. Where are you going "?
As Sohan Lal turned back, his eyes caught his Rickshaw that drove him all these years, parked in the yard. His hands rose up involuntarily as a gesture of bidding good bye to his bondage.
"I am going back to my village'".
He started walking briskly.
Vasudevan Raghavan, 36 years of age, from the United States is a Chartered Accountant by profession with an active interest in computers.