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Republic Day Dilemma

IT was just another Sunday. Lazy souls like me generally prefer an extra hour of sleep on Sunday mornings. I jostled out of the blanket and with reluctant steps toddled to the bathroom. Once out, I settled myself upon the sofa, tucked myself with a shawl and before taking the first sip from my coffee cup, flicked on the TV. Seeing the parade on the screen it suddenly occurred to me that it was 26 January, our Republic Day. Somewhere deep within me everything got scrambled and I could no longer remain in ease.

The parade was on. Our freedom was being exhibited in strict discipline. Citizens braved the New Delhi chill to cheer the processions of the army and artisans, performing atop the colourful tabloids of different states — a picture postcard representation of India’s “unity in diversity”. This combined with a running commentary by a lax commentator, extolling the spirit of “One India”, dotted by the background tune of Saare Jahan Se Accha, Hindustan Hamara. 

For me, though, our Republic Day brings with it a different message. The golden ideal of unity among different casts, creeds and religions has turned a myth for me. Sands of time flowed back a decade in a whisker. I could recall the day vividly when I first met her. Ideals would have have tuned into a myth if I had not met her.

I was a mere apprentice then, surviving on a skimpy stipend that was trifle even in those days. Unsure, as I was, of my future prospects, I unwillingly did a crime upon myself. I fell in love. Romanticism was a luxury for those who couldn’t afford it. It is like an indigestible diet for a man surviving on pittance. I made the mistake of letting my heart rule over myself belittling my brain’s advice to remain pragmatic and prosaic in poverty.

As an apprentice I had to wake up early, gorge two breads down my throat with a glass of tea for breakfast and run to catch the 6.30 bus to be just in time at the factory gate. Missing it meant a day’s pay-cut and a volley of uncomfortable questions from my training officer, the next day. As an apprentice you had to keep your sahibs (mostly Parsees) in good humour. It was on their report that your confirmation depended.

They not only made you toil like an ox, but even forced you to do humiliating jobs like preparing tea for them every other hour. An electric heater stood upon a wooden stool at one corner on which the apprentice had to exhibit his tea making skills.

Electricity was free and so was labour; the labourer bonded by circumstances. It gave the sahibs immense sadistic pleasure to order tea and get it at the drop of a hat from apprentices who were science graduates. Ironically, the sahibs were themselves age-old intermediates. I was neither bequeathed with ancestral property nor a bank balance worth the name. So I was forced to survive with the skin of my teeth and had no shoulders to fall upon to vent my glum. Days weaned into nights and nights broke into sunny days, but it hardly affected my trampled soul. I almost became a machine, who only obeyed commands without questioning. Slowly but surely I was getting depressed. Someone up somewhere might have had some compassion on my pathetic state. Or else why should I have stumbled upon her and grabbed her with both hands?

It happened on that 6.30 bus on a Wednesday. I was late and leapt on the footboard, instinctively. But before I could make the next move to stand steady on my legs, a young girl jumped up on the bus and landed on my feet. I grimaced in pain. “I am so sorry” she apologised hurriedly. Alas! Candy knives when shoved down throats feel sweet. I looked up after a quick inspection of my feet to give her a befitting reply, but my voice throttled. She had the eyes of an angel and the face of a deity. Her pinkish white skin spewed pristine purity. “It’s okay! Are you all right?” I asked with an aura of chivalry. “Are you sure you are not hurt?” she looked curiously ignoring my question.
“No, No, I am fine”, I retorted.

The bus had a few empty seats. We went inside. She sat right opposite my seat at the other end. The more I tried to avoid looking at her the more my eyes forced me to cast furtive glances. And then staring was considered an offence in those days. Interestingly, I discovered that she was also looking at me slyly and when our eyes met both of us smiled in embarrassment. I could hear my heart beat.

Just then a fat lady embarked on the bus and thought it prudent to place her tummy in between us. As if that were not enough, her husband followed her up and lovingly stood by her side, blocking even the remote chance of a glimpse. The bus got packed in no time with commuters standing in the aisle. Just as I was about to go down I made a final attempt with all my strength to jostle and have a glimpse at my angel. Alas! She was gone. She must have disembarked at an earlier stop.

I prayed all night so that I could see her the next day and even rehearsed a number of times what to say when I meet her. Fortunately, I was not late the next day, but my prayers went in vain. Suddenly she appeared from nowhere in the bus stop on the sixth day. I smiled at her and she smiled in return. For a few moments we kept silent. I tried to recall my rehearsals but my memory betrayed me. I looked at my wristwatch. It showed 6.37am.

“The bus is seven minutes late already”, I uttered to myself looking at her, giving her a chance to avoid my soliloquy if she felt like avoiding it. “Yeah! I am already late”, she said.

And thus a confab started between two souls willing to make friendship. Before the bus arrived everyday we talked about ourselves. It arrived preciously three and a half minutes after we started our conversation each day. The seats for ladies were separated by an aisle that allowed glances to be exchanged. But within that three and half minutes I had come to know she was a student of zoology. She had practical classes to attend to every Wednesday. Normally she availed of the 8.30 bus on other days. I told her about my job prospects if I happened to scrape through the coming exams but withheld its negativity, for obvious reasons. The best foot should naturally be put forward in these cases.

Those few minutes on Wednesdays offered me sustenance from boredom and indignity. Gradually I came to know that she was from a Gujarati Brahmin family of strict vegetarians. I sulked as she told me that she came from a conservative family. But it didn’t deter me to build castles in the air. I waited for some positive indication from my bosses regarding my confirmation to finally place the proposal for marriage.

One day we decided to get down together a stop earlier so that we could talk for a little while for she was not allowed to go out alone anywhere except to college. On that day she said that she had talked about me with her parents and with their permission would like to invite me on her birthday. I was elated and quickly threw the portents of language barriers into the wind. I picked up an expensive bouquet that dug deep into my already shallow pocket but I couldn’t care less. When she introduced me to her parents and grandma, I touched their feet and sought their blessings. Some other relatives and friends were also present but I was probably the only Bengali around.

We sat on the floor mat for dinner when her mother suddenly said in broken Bengali:
“Sorry, we don’t eat fish. We are pure vegetarians.”
“I don’t like fish either”, I replied.
“Chhaio machhi nathhi khaye soon? Jhoot kae che soon?’ (The boy doesn’t like fish? Is he lying?), said her grandma in Gujarati. was unaware that I had worked with Parsees and understood Gujarati fairly well.
“Te hame logan ne impress karu e kaeche, (the guy is trying to impress us), said her father wearing a satirical grin.

I felt deeply hurt by such a demeaning gesture. I felt the warmth of adrenalin running into my face. I checked myself and replied looking at her grandma in Bengali: ”No, I am not lying, I do not like the smell of fish”, then turning to her father said, “Sir, I have no mind to impress you.” It was their turn to experience adrenalin flow on their faces.

I sat through the rest of the dinner fiddling with the food. All along I thought that even if language barriers had been broken, cultural barriers proved tougher to break. As I was about to leave my friend apologised on her family’s behalf. I nodded half-heartedly. I never saw her in the bus stop, ever since, probably due to remorse or some other problem I know not what. She was obviously ashamed at the prospect of facing me and preferred to bunk her practical classes. Two months later I gathered that she had been married to a Gujarati, Brahmin financer in Maharashtra and, as was only to be expected, the groom was a strict veggie.

All of a sudden my trance broke amid the heightened tune of our national anthem: Punjaba, Sindhu, Gujarata, Maratha, Dravida, Utkala, Banga….I felt a lump in my throat. A peculiar feeling of deprivation and disgust filled my heart. I flicked off the TV for I couldn’t bear it any longer. Impulsively, I threw the remote on the floor, vowing never to watch the Republic Day parade again. I found my heart in the broken pieces of the gadget on the floor.

Contributing Story Teller Amitava Chakrabarty, marine officer of Kolkata Port Trust and a freelance writer/ poet. [email protected]

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