A FAMILY OF MIGRANTS
I hail from a very typical ‘Bangal’ family, which means that our origins can be traced back to the East Bengal part of an undivided Bengal. Like most other Bangal families, my paternal ancestors faced a lot of hardships during the days of partition, fuelled by fanaticism in the name of race and religion, and had to leave everything they had and flee to Kolkata, because it was deemed ‘safer’ for the Hindus, as their beloved ‘Sonar Bangla’ (Golden Bengal) was torn apart into two; West Bengal to be included with the Republic of India, and East Bengal, to be added to the newly formed Pakistan, as East Pakistan. But those are stories for another day.
The maternal side of my family had a somewhat different story and was exposed to a very different kind of struggle. Also originating from the land that was erstwhile East Bengal, my maternal ancestors had settled down in the state of Assam, in Karimgunj, a district known to be heavily populated with ethnic Bengalis. During the 50s and 60s, the state of Assam went through major unrest where the local Assamese protested against the ‘hegemony’ of Bengalis, particularly in govt. jobs. Much of this was created by treacherous manipulation by the colonial masters and in their implementation of Bengali as the official language, but the cultural chauvinism of the Bengalis and their monopolization of jobs and privileges did not endear them to the local Assamese either. As it always happens in India, things took a political turn and ended up with widespread ethnic clashes between Assamese-speaking locals and Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims, deemed to be ‘foreigners’. A bad situation quickly escalated into a worse one, and even 75 years after independence, it keeps raising its ugly head from time to time.
My maternal grandfather, my ‘dadu’, was an established businessman who owned a decently profit-making hardware store in Karimgunj, Assam. Compared to my paternal family, who were completely uprooted during the communal riots and had to restart their lives from scratch in a very different city, my maternal family was a much more stable, firmly rooted, and well-to-do one. Back in the day, it took us almost 3 full days to travel by train from Kolkata to Karimgunj, to visit my Dadu (grandfather) and Dida (grandmother), and my maternal uncles (mamas). My father, being an employee of the Central Government, was entitled to Leave Travel Allowance (LTA) that would allow our family free or heavily discounted travel within India every couple of years, and we used to take full advantage of this generous employee benefit.
A TRIP TO THE NORTHEAST
Sometime in the winter of 1976-77, when I was barely three years old, we decided to use the family LTC benefit and travel to Karimgunj, in what would be my first ever visit to my maternal grandparents. As expected, some details from this trip are not very clear recollections for me, especially those related to the factual nitty-gritty of trains and stations, but surprisingly, the core story of this voyage remains vividly etched in my memory and sends a chill down my spine every time it comes up for discussion.
This 3-day long train ride covered close to 1,400 kms and went past some 236 stations in all, and there were three changes in train, if I recall correctly. From what I could gather, we had to take the Kamrup Express from Howrah station, in Kolkata and after a long and arduous commute through the length of West Bengal, we had to disembark at New Bongaigaon Junction, soon after the train entered the state of Assam. This is where a new train was allocated to the passengers, despite it being a continuation of the journey via Kamrup Express. We would eventually get off the Kamrup Express at Lumding Junction, and board a third train called Barak Valley Express, an overnight train that would take us to our final destination, Karimgunj Junction.
While our ticket on the Kamrup Express was confirmed from Howrah Station to Lumding Junction, our reservation was somewhat complicated. From Howrah to New Bongaigaon Junction, we had a reservation on 3 Tier Sleeper, which had one upper berth, one middle berth, and one lower berth on each side and two berths on the aisles. This reservation allowed us to sleep on full berths at night, but we had to lower the middle berth and allow others to sit on our berths during the day, when the berths were converted into seats. Back then, we did not have air-conditioned coaches yet, and we were not entitled to 1st class for a trip that involved three changes of trains. Since the journey from New Bongaigaon to Lumding was a day journey of about 10 hours, there were to be no berth reservations for this leg. But we were again reserved for 3 tier berths in the overnight trip via Barak Valley Express, from Lumding Junction to Karimgunj.
As expected, once we reached New Bongaigaon Junction, there was a lot of hustle and bustle, as we underwent this painful ordeal of changing platforms and trains to continue with our journey. The official halt was of one hour, so there was enough time, but we had to rush to a different platform to board the new train allocated to us. My father, in his late 30s at that time, was doing most of the heavy lifting, carrying two large Aristocrat suitcases, my elder brother, about 8 yrs old, was carrying a small bag and himself, while my mom, fresh into her 30s, had me in her lap and had miscellaneous items wrapped up in a bundle, somehow hanging from her right shoulder.
COMETH THE HOUR, COMETH THE MAN
We found our names from the paper list pasted to the train bogie’s exterior, my dad signaled us to enter and settle down at the numbered berths, as he started tucking away the luggage in the available spaces below the seats. That was when we encountered this warm, smiling gentleman, our co-passenger. He was about an inch taller than my father, perhaps a year or two older, of fair complexion, and had a thick bushy mustache. He addressed my father as ‘dada’ and my mother as ‘boudi’, the way people commonly address newly met acquaintances in Bengali. Seeing that my father was struggling to fit in the second suitcase, he came forward and offered help. Pointing proudly at the cardboard boxes, a total of six in number, all stacked uniformly under the wide lower berth, he exclaimed;
“These boxes are mine, just some stuff I have to carry back home for my wife and children. But let me arrange them a bit so your suitcase can be accommodated.”
He stooped low and moved a couple of boxes, placed two of them on top of the others, and made way for our suitcase, thereby making my parents very indebted right at the start of this journey. Meanwhile, other passengers had also started to enter the cubicle and everyone was busy sorting out the appropriate space for their own luggage, as my brother took a window seat with my mother next to him, holding me on her lap. My father sat on the other side, next to this gentleman who had just impressed everyone with his basic courtesy and warmth.
He was seated on the other window seat opposite my brother. Once everyone had settled in their respective seats, there was an initial exchange of pleasantries, where people shared where they were traveling to, who they were with, and greeted each other in general. It was supposed to be a long trip, so knowing your fellow passenger was both courteous and useful. There was another family of three people who were traveling to Silchar, and would thus also take the Barak Valley Express later that night. The family was headed by a man called Robi, who was in his late forties, and thus the senior most in the cubicle.
This gentleman, however, was headed to Tinsukia and would drop off at Lumding, from where he would board a different train. As the train started to slowly move out of the station, everyone seemed to be content with their fellow passengers, something important for this kind of trip.
Over the next couple of hours, this gentleman turned out to be a real crowd puller, as he entertained everyone with his warm smile and very interesting comments and stories. He was also very active and helpful, and whenever someone needed something, he would be the first one to offer help, be it someone needing a tiffin box from inside his bag in the top berth, or someone needing to fill a water bottle at a station. Some people have this natural talent for endearing themselves to others and this gentleman was the ideal example. My father and the other passengers in the compartment soon started addressing him as ‘bhai’ (younger brother) even though he could have been older, just because of his humble way of interacting with everyone. My mother and the other lady from that three-member family addressed him as ‘Dada’ (elder brother). My brother was told to address him as ‘Kaku’ (uncle) a common term to address someone in the same age group as your dad. I was still struggling to overcome a stutter in my speech, as I could only manage a ‘Tatu’ and everyone on the train found it very amusing every time I uttered the word.
While the train stopped at a few stations since leaving New Bongaigaon, the next big station was supposed to be Guwahati Junction, the biggest city of Assam, although Dispur was the state capital. It took almost 5 hours to reach Guwahati back then, a distance of just over 150 kms from New Bongaigaon. In between, I wanted to capture the window seat that my brother had made his own, and since he did not relent, I threw a lot of tantrums to persuade him to vacate it for me. My mother was not too keen on taking the window seat because the wind was too strong for her, and sensing my pleas were going to deaf ears, I decided to push my cause by using the one weapon I had at my disposal, tears! This irritated my mother, and she scolded me with the hope of dissuading me, but I was not born to be the most obedient child.
That was when ‘Tatu’ took pity and offered to hold me in his lap, as that would serve both my mom’s purpose and mine. After some initial hesitation my mother agreed, mostly because my father gave her a ‘let him handle the trouble’ look, and I gladly switched seats as ‘Tatu’ warmly held me in his arms and placed me on his lap, next to the train window.
That was how it started and during the next five hours or so, I grew particularly fond of ‘Tatu’ as he cared for me like his own child. He played with me, fed me some biscuits bought from the train platform, and even at one point, when I insisted on wanting to pee, but was reluctant to let go of my window seat, he stood me up at a train station, pulled down my shorts and made me take a leak through the train window. I know, it’s kind of disgusting, but back in the day, it was not so unusual for a small kid. Meanwhile, there were many new passengers in our cubicle, who had boarded at the stations in between for shorter commutes, and I am sure many of them assumed that I was Tatu’s child.
TIME FOR LUNCH
It was soon decided that we would have lunch at Guwahati station, even though it would be a bit late in the afternoon. But being a big station, there would be more and better options for lunch, and Tatu suggested that we should all try the Dosa that was sold at one of the most famous stalls in Guwahati station. Even the other gentleman nodded in agreement that the Dosa stall he mentioned was really worth it, and so it was unanimously decided that it would be this famous Guwahati Dosa for lunch.
By this time, we had all become familiar with each other and were like one big family. Tatu, whose real name was Sunil, was a Police officer in Jalpaiguri and he was going home to meet his family, his wife, and his three-year-old son, and that further explained his deep affection for me, a kid of the same age as his own child. He also declared that he had earlier been posted in Guwahati and therefore knew that station like the back of his palm. The much-publicized Dosa stall was on platform 7 but it was still unclear which platform our train would be allocated to. But everyone in the cubicle had already decided on their Dosa orders and while most wanted Masala Dosa, there were some rare orders like Plain Dosa and Idlis. Sunil Kaku excused himself and visited the toilet, so he wouldn’t need to waste any further time when we reached the Guwahati station.
Just as he returned from the washroom, the train slowly cruised into the huge Guwahati station, and as luck would have it, our train was allocated platform no. 3. The other passengers had already collected the money needed to purchase the Dosas, and my father had also prepared a handwritten note with names of each passenger, their respective orders, and the amount they had paid, to keep track of it all. As the train came to a halt, my father rose up to accompany Sunil to this famous Dosa stall on platform 7, but then he explained why it was not necessary for him to come along since he had to quickly change platforms, order the food, collect it, and return with the Dosas, before the scheduled halt of 20 mins was over and since my father didn’t know the platform well, it would only delay this quick assignment. Most others including Robi babu agreed, and not even once did anyone question the handing over of the collected amount, something around Rs. 60 back then, to this person who had been a complete stranger just 5 hours back. The man had earned so much goodwill during these five hours, that to even think that he might be a cheat and could make a run with this little money, made everyone feel guilty.
So it was decided that Sunil alone will go and buy us all the coveted Dosas and other orders, and return well within the 20 mins of the allocated halt time. Robi babu cautiously reminded him to keep an eye on the watch and in case he ran late, just to board any compartment in our train, as he could always find his way back to us in the next station. The only thing that was important was that he caught the train before it left, the Dosas can wait, if needed. Sunil smiled at this and replied;
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back in no time. Meanwhile, Robi babu, please keep an eye on my boxes below the berth. Don’t let someone run away with them. My wife will kill me if I reached home without all of them.”
Just as he stepped on the platform to buy our Dosas, I pointed at him through the window grills and started crying aloud;
“I want to go with Tatu!”
My mother tried to distract me by pointing at the cardboard boxes left under the berth;
“Tatu will be back soon and then he will show you magic, do you know what is in that box over there?”
But I was not a kid to be easily distracted. My single focus at this point was to be with my ‘dear Tatu’ and I was not taking no for an answer. The man himself seemed completely confused and undecided, and looked kindly at me and then pleadingly at my parents.
Meanwhile, I made such a ruckus with loud screams and incessant sobs that my father finally looked at my mother and said;
“Let him go, what is the big deal? They will be back in 15 minutes. Besides, who can handle him better than Sunil bhai?”
Robi babu also agreed with my dad, and asked Sunil if he would be able to handle a child as well as the dosa mission that he had undertaken on behalf of everyone else, to which ‘Tatu’ confidently replied;
“Don’t worry about that, I will take care of him like my own child and bring him back safely. He will be in my arms all the time and we will all eat our dosas together in a few minutes from now!”
So it was decided, much to my elation, that I will go with this gentleman and we will quickly return after buying the food from the other platform. So ‘Tatu’ came back inside the coach and took me in his arms, as my father gave him the final instructions to be careful and not let me off his lap at any point. I was simply thrilled and my tears were already a matter of the past.
We stepped off the train and into the platform as Sunil brought me close to the window so I could bid goodbye to everyone in our coach. Then someone reminded us that time was running out and we needed to make our move or it might get too late to come back with the food before the train departed. To this, ‘Tatu’ immediately nodded in agreement, and after the final words, he turned towards Platform 7 and started to walk.
That was when my mother, who had turned silent ever since the decision was made against her will to let me go with Sunil, suddenly stood up, rushed to the door of the train, and stepped into the platform. She ran towards us, amidst a collective gasp from everyone else, and shouted to the peak of her voice;
Sunil was already about 12 meters away from our coach, warmly holding me in his arms, but he stopped and turned back, as my mother scampered to him and almost embarrassingly yanked me off his arms and held me firmly to her chest.
“Sorry, but my son is not going anywhere! Sunil da, please go and buy the food yourself.”
Things happened so fast that Sunil was taken by surprise, as was everyone else on the train. There were some feeble words from the other passengers, “Boudi, jete din naa” (Sister-in-law, let him go!) and Sunil himself insisted that it won’t be a problem for him and he would bring me back safe and sound, but my mom was at her adamant worst, as she paid no heed to anyone and returned to the coach holding me tight in her arms. I started to cry again, and my dad wanted to intervene, but even he somehow felt that it would not be possible to reverse my mom’s decision this time.
THE BENEVOLENT MAN
Sunil’s image, at this point, was like that kind man offering help, despite being helpless himself. Eventually, everyone reminded him of his primary mission objective and gestured for him to go and get the dosas. After glancing at his wristwatch one last time, he turned in a dejected manner and started walking slowly toward Platform 7.
As he disappeared into the crowd, I realized that I had lost this battle and gave up on my crying. All this while, my mother held me firmly in her arms and refused to respond to some of the random criticisms of over-protectiveness that were thrown at her by this pool of judgmental passengers. Robi Babu even declared a strong correlation between a Bengali mother’s possessiveness and the reason why Bengalis often grew up to be a timid, risk-averse bunch of self-doubting individuals.
Even before the hush-hush remarks had completely died down, we felt a sudden jerk as the train started to move on its way out of Guwahati Junction. I was staring out of the window all this while, and was the first to quizzically ask “Tatu?” the moment I felt the train move. The concern was immediately replicated by everyone else and a couple of our fellow passengers even walked to the door to see if they could catch a glimpse of Sunil rushing back with his hands full of Dosas, scampering through the crowd in the platform. But he was not to be seen and as the train finally picked up speed and left the platform behind, it was collectively agreed that he must have been late to board the right coach, but almost everyone believed that he was too smart to not be able to board the train, and that he must have jumped into one of the other coaches and that he will find his way to our coach as soon as the train halted in the next station, some 15 minutes later. There were some questions as to where the poor man might be, but there was no real doubt that he was on his way back to us.
WHERE ART THOU?
As luck would have it, the next station came and went by, and so did the station after that, and it had been over 40 minutes since we had left Guwahati Junction, but there was still no sign of the man or the dosas he had set out to buy for all of us. At this point, a young guy in his early 20s came to our cubicle, pointed at me, and asked;
“Where is the father of that little boy?”
As everyone looked at my father, he responded with a tone of surprise;
“That’s me, what is this about?”
The young man gave a puzzled look and mumbled;
“I mean the fair guy with a mustache, who was holding the boy in his arms.”
After he was asked to sit down, he explained that he was from two cubicles down the aisle and his name was Vinay. He also narrated that Sunil had come to their cubicle a few minutes before reaching Guwahati station, and told them that he had been given the responsibility to buy dosas for everyone in the compartment, and if anyone from their cubicle also wish to order something for lunch. He had also declared that he was my father and since some of them had seen him holding me next to the window seat, no one had raised any doubt. So they collected some Rs. 25 and handed it over to him, requesting him to buy some dosas and idlis for their cubicle. But now that it was three-quarters of an hour since we left Guwahati station, people were concerned and had asked him to go and find out what was wrong. They were not overly worried, since they thought that Sunil had left his son back, so it was just a matter of time before he showed up.
Listening to that, almost everyone in our cubicle started to show some unease, but Robi Babu smiled and reassured us;
“You guys don’t really think that he took our money and ran away, right? Seriously? Look below the berth and there are some 5-6 boxes with his entire belongings. You think the man will leave all that behind for some 70-80 bucks?”
THE IMPATIENT LAD
It did make sense to everyone, but Vinay seemed somewhat restless, and he suggested that we should go and find the TTE (Traveling Ticket Examiner). Seeing merit in his proposal my father agreed to accompany him, but Robi Babu nodded his head sarcastically, to imply that it was a shame how easily humans lost faith in fellow humans. My father hurriedly left with Vinay.
Some ten minutes later, they returned with not only a TTE in a black coat but also 2 armed jawans from the RPF (Railway Protection Force). They had been apprised of the entire story by my father and they had decided to come down physically and check it out.
After inquiring which boxes belonged to Sunil, one of the RPF constables suggested that we should open one of the boxes and see what is inside. Robi babu, sympathetic as ever, strongly objected to this, but Vinay wasted no time and immediately stooped down and pulled one of the boxes out. He yanked open the cardboard cover and everyone in the cubicle leaned forward to take a look.
It was stuffed with scraps of newspaper lumped into small bundles to make up for the space. Everyone looked at each other and the young man pulled out the next box, and the next, and kept doing it with all the six boxes. They were all stuffed with paper lumps!
Everyone in the cubicle let out a deep breath almost at the same time. My father gave Robi Babu a nasty glance and the older man looked really embarrassed. The TTE sat down and asked us one crucial question;
“So this man went to buy food for everyone, all by himself, collected Rs. 60 from here and another Rs 25 from there, and no one even thought about accompanying him, or even suspected that he might just run away? Although I do agree, given that he seems to have meticulously planned this and has invested over 5 hours in building his credibility, the return doesn’t seem to be too high!”
So people took turns to tell him how kind Sunil had been all day, how he had declared himself to be a policeman, how he had taken care of the child all through the journey, and how he was supposed to even take me to the dosa shop before my mother had played the spoilsport. At this, the TTE looked at me and nodded his head in disbelief.
“Now it all makes sense! His target was not the 85 bucks he took for the dosas, his target was to take the child with him. There have been stories of a gang picking children up from trains and sometimes even drugging passengers to steal their children. It’s suspected to be operating from Dibrugarh, where they sell these children, perhaps to the mafia who run these child trafficking racquets.”
There was a stunned silence in the whole compartment.
The TTE looked at my mother and continued;
“It was your mother’s instinct that saved your child this time, Boudi. Lucky you! Things could have been very different and I shiver to think about it.”
My mother had broken down into an inconsolable sob by then, and almost everyone, including my father and Robi Babu, had just realized how close a shave it had been.
For the rest of the trip, not only the train journey but for the entire month-long trip to my grandparents, my mother never really let me out of her sight once, and no one dared to protest against her decision. This incident remained an oft-discussed story for decades in our family and as I grew older, I realized how lucky I was that day, and how these sudden instincts play a role that can completely overwrite the story of our lives.
Incidents happen all our lives, and I have loads of memorable stories and personalities to recount, both good and bad, but ‘Tatu’ remains a character from the past, that I will perhaps never be able to forget completely!
Wonderful narrative, as always. Enjoyed reading till the end. Carry on Tatu.
Thanks for the kind words, but let ‘Tatu’ not carry on 🙂
Just awesome. Keep writing.
Thanks for the warm encouragement!
Such a great story. Mama extremely exciting and you narrated very well
Thanks a lot. Keep reading!
Lovely storytelling , simple language , free flow . All golden rules compiled well. Kudos mama
Glad you liked it. Hope you’ll keep reading.
Luckily due to auntie, we have you as our friend.
Lucky or not, only time will tell 🙂
But thanks for reading.
Great narrative, lucid style, as Feluda would say – unputdownable! The prospect of ‘what could have been’ adds another dimension to the story. Nice job Mama 👏
Thanks for the kind words. I am delighted that you found it worth a read.