Thursday, 4 December 2014

It was perhaps the best day in my life . And probably the worst thing happened to many people on that fateful night. I could never celebrate the day spontaneously because of the tragedy associated with the date .Newspapers and TV channels are full of the tragedy , every year after year. But it was a lovely day. Collective sense of guilt always prevailed over my personal sense of happiness . It has been thirty years since everything happened . Even as I feel that everything happened yesterday, at one level, I am also aware of the fact that memories play tricks with us and slowly so much of memory fades away. Small little things , some faces , some names I have started forgetting. Maybe it’s necessary to relive the moments , once again. So I thought of penning down some nostalgic vignettes of life , as it was , thirty years back.

As I woke up early to face the wintry morning of 3rd Dec 1984 , I was not so much concerned about the cold weather but what happens to me during the day. Here was I , at a small hotel room on the first floor with common bath and latrine across the balcony waiting for the morning to develop fully so that I can join my new job . I had a good sleep but because I had nothing else to do last evening , I had my dinner and went to bed quite early by about 8.30 p.m. which resulted in me getting up wide awake 5 o'clock into a very cold morning.

I was accustomed to cold weather as I was from Jamshedpur but the nature of the cold at this place was different. It was not the dry cold of Jamshedpur where the trees would have started shedding leaves and bushes were getting dry for people to cut them and enjoy small bonfires in the evening. Alipurduars was in North Bengal , at the farthest corner , almost near Assam and the cold here was damp with lot of moisture which resulted in dew formation on the trees, grass , everywhere right from the onset of evening to the dawn .

How many times over the last week did I pore over the maps to locate Alipurduars. How many times did I rummage the two pages of the railway time table which gave the details of trains running on the North East Frontier Railway. What an alert was sounded throughout my friend circles to locate somebody who lived in Alipurduars or at least know somebody who lived there. We had no relatives there , actually even though we were Bengalis , we had no relatives across the Ganga and we knew nobody in North Bengal . Two of my uncles had visited Darjeeling a few years back and that was the remotest connection that we had with North Bengal.

Whatever idea I had about Alipurduars was that it was at the border of Assam and recently about a couple of years back or so it was in the news for Bengali speaking refugees from Assam thronging there to save their lives from the sectarian violence . The Calcutta newspapers carried the tales of woe from the refugee camp at Dangi , near Alipurduars. There was no direct train from my home town which was about 800 kms away. I found only one direct train from Calcutta named Kamrup Express . When I went to the Tatanagar railway station to buy a ticket for Alipurduars, the booking clerk asked me where this place was . Then after a long consultation he advised me to reach Howrah at night by the evening train , then spend the night at Howrah Station , take an early morning train called Kanchenjungha express to New Jalpaiguri and from there hop on to a connecting train named Teesta Torsha Express to a station called New Alipurduars. I was flabbergasted with so many New being added to my life but was too excited then to notice all these minor things .

So imagine the thrill of a not yet 22 years old young man when a telegram reaches him announcing that his first place of posting will be at a place called Alipurduars and he should report to the Branch Manager of the State Bank of India there to take up the assignment. The job was finalised in late August and I was supposed to join in November. I had already resigned from my job as a school teacher and relieved myself from the tuition assignments from my students. Surprisingly , nobody nowhere felt bad or minded. I was not new to jobs because I had started working immediately after my graduation and had a decent income. Actually speaking my net income from salary and tuitions were more than that which I was supposed to get as a Bank officer at that point, even in those times.

There was so much goodwill in the air, from my family, friends, acquintances , everyone. Getting a job as an officer with State Bank of India in 1984 was a good achievement for a young man from Jamshedpur , that too with an average academic record like me . Actually I had got a job in three Banks in a row . But chose SBI because it offered a little higher salary , by about Rs 300 or so. My parents were very happy. Not that they were worried about my future . i myself was also not so much worried about my own future or job . Because , firstly I was earning a decent money as teacher and liked teaching , secondly and more importantly was asssured of a job in TISCO ( now Tata Steel) because my father had completed 37 years of service there. Yes , don't be surprised dear reader. There was this concept of service being passed on in the family. My grandfather , father were Tata Steel employees and so is my younger brother. I could have been too , had I not opted to chose a nomadic life of Bank officer.

The unfortunate assassination of Indira Gandhi elongated my waiting period by about a month . As I enjoyed the Durga Puja and Diwali with my friends , basking in my new found happiness and glory: time flew quickly and suddenly I started feeling the pangs of separation from my family , friends and Jamshedpur . I had never been to boarding schools or hostels and led a pretty sheltered life since childhood even in our middle class existence. Blessed with a caring family and a multitude of uncles and aunts , I never had any reason to feel neglected . And I also had very good friends who were very supportive of me. So life was cosy and as the D-day approached , I suddenly started feeling slightly nervous. And though mature enough for many other things , I was just in my early twenties.

To understand and appreciate the life and times that I am writing about , consider the facts that TV was still Black and white and DD1 only , that too for a limited period only. Computers were just coming in and some people we knew were getting trained on computer language. Data punching operators were the computer jobs that were in vogue. Nobody probably gave a thought about mobile phones. I had the privilege of watching a pager in action at faraway Vellore when I went there to donate blood to a guy who was having a heart operation.. Booking of train tickets were done manually and onward connecting reservations were made by telegrams which sometimes took more than ten days to be confirmed . Microwave oven was in sci-fi movies only . Nobody was aware that Sharukh Khan could be the name of an actor. A small car named Maruti was a rage with stylish people and mainly seen in Delhi. In Jamshedpur , they were yet to come. Sivaramakrishnan was the new whizkid of Indian Cricket and everyone predicted a great future for him.

I left Jamshedpur on the 30th Morning by the evergreen Steel Express, early morning . I was entitled to a first class travel , but the train did not have first class . Instead , I got a ticket for AC chair car . That was the first instance of AC travel by me . A lot of friends , about 10 to 12 came to see me off . Wondering what these rascals will do at the station, I had not encouraged my family members to come to station. The boys were creating a racket at the platform . Everybody insisted on entering the AC compartment , sit on my seat and creating ruckus inside the train . Lot of backslapping was on . Those days everybody smoked everywhere . I had brought a 20s pack of Charms with me .Very soon it was finished. Someone ran to get a new pack for me. A couple of guys entered the railway announcement cabin and with the help of a friendly announcer , soon congratulations to Mr Arunangshu Paul on starting his journey to join SBI was announced in three languages, English , Hindi and Bengali and repeated thrice. I noticed my youngest uncle at a distance standing alone. He was the only member of my family to have come. He was more of a elder brother to me . And I was very close to him like a friend. Sensing the revelry around me, he was not coming near . He raised his hand at a distance. I felt a squeezy feeling in my heart. My eyes clouded.

I was pushed into the train by the band of brothers on the platform and as I stood at the door of the compartment , the train caught up speed and in a couple of minutes the platform, station and friends , everything became distant. Little did I know at that moment that with passage of time Jamshedpur would also become a distant dot in my life.

After reaching Howrah , I went to my uncle's place and spent the day in Calcutta. Next morning, again very early I boarded Kanchenjungha Express. This train also had no first class and I travelled AC chair car , once again . I was getting used to AC travel , you see. By evening I reached New Jalpaiguri and found Teesta Torsha express waiting . This time I boarded a first class compartment as I had the booking . But within a few minutes realised that I was the only passenger in the entire compartment. Winter evening was setting in and it was dark all around outside the train. There was no sign of a guard or TTE . Suddenly all sorts of horror stories came to my mind . Particularly the train sequence of Jaani Dushman . Then it occured to me that if not ghosts or ghouls , robbers can easily loot me off my meagre belongings . I was so nervous and afraid that I decided to change compartment at the next stop. In the present state of fitness level, it would be unthinkable and as I write this I realise how silly but strong I was . Carrying a trunk , a big bag in my both hands and large rucksack on my back , I got down and entered the adjoining second class compartment easily. Fear is a great motivator , I realised with practical experience.

The compartment was not crowded . People sat there scattered here and there in small groups. From their converstions I realised that not many people took this train because of its late running and night travel . Also most of the people would get down after a few stations and the train was scheduled to reach New Aliurduars around 10 p.m. One by one the stations passed. The number of people boarding was lesser than those getting down . The night was getting darker and colder. I wrapped my muffler around my head , wondering what lay ahead for me.

When I reached New Alipurduars station, it was about 10.30 p.m. at night. On that cold night , I trudged with my luggage and somehow tried to reach outside the station. As if to welcome me, all street lights went off as a loadshedding schedule started. I could locate two cycle rickshaws outside the station with kerosene lamps on their handles. I had gathered from some passengers during my journey that the station was a little away from the town and there were only three hotels in the town. One good and the other two very ordinary. I approached the cycle rickshaw and asked the rickshawpuller to take me to the better hotel and as a careful measure suggested by my father asked him for the fare.I was surprised that even at that time of night and inspite of the luggage I carried, the rickshawpuller charged a very reasonable fare of Rs 5/= from me , as indicated by the co passengers of Teesta Torsha.

There was no room at the better hotel and I was taken to the second best hotel of the town by the rickshawman at an extra charge of 50 paise. It was already past 11 p.m. The door of the hotel was closed. As I knocked there was no immediate answer . After a couple of minutes that seemed like eternity , the dooor opened with a lot of clicks and clanks indicating it was bolted well from inside. The man who opened the door with a lamp in his hand smelt like a distillery . He was plainly irritated to be woken up from his slumber. Meekly I asked for a room which he said would be available. Those days in such places , attached bath was a luxury. So I did not have any problem to get into a room. After all it was a room and at Rs 40 per day it was the best that I could opt for on that cold dark night. As I paid the rickshawman who had brought my luggage meanwhile , the electricity went on and as if by magic the sight of lights gave me immense courage. I entered the small room with a cot with bed and a small table . There was some hooks on the wall and nothing else. The heavily alcoholic man stood at the door.

I looked at my blue HMT watch and took a chance. "Can I get some food , Dada", I asked. Gruffly, the man called somebody as a sleepy teenager appeared . As the man , or rather manager of the hotel , as I gathered the next day , ordered him to provide some food, the boy shook his head and said that only some rice and Fish curry could be had at this time and that too would be cold . I understood that it would be the leftover , rather remainder that was supposed to be recycled the next day. But I was hungry and it was really cold. So I agreed . As I went out to wash my hand and face in very cold water, food appeared. Cold rice and Ilish in mustard curry . Somehow , I still carry that taste on my tongue. It was delicious on my palate . The cold food seemed heavenly as I had not had anything since noon except tea twice and a few cigarettes. Satiated after the meal , I laid on the cot , wearing the same clothes which I was wearing throughout the day . Somehow , I removed my shoes and socks and lit up the final cigarette of the day . After finishing it, I just closed my eyes and never knew when sleep came over me .

I woke  up in the morning with a start  feeling very cold and  found that I had slept through the night with all my clothes on , even the belt. To stave of cold I had also wrapped the blanket around me . The morning was really cold .  I tried to lie down within the blanket for some more time but nature's call forced me to get up . Groggily I went to the common bathroom across the corridor and relieved myself . As I washed my face with the cold water, all my sleep went away.
It was about 10 a.m. in the morning , when I finished my breakfast of two pieces of buttered toasts with a cup of tea. I had a bath , which was actually a wash really because there was no provision of hot water for bath in the hotel. At the counter , I now completed the formalities of registration on a old register. The manager was now more sober and asked me how long I would stay. Learning that I had come to join SBI worked like magic. He seemed to be knowing some people working there . Learning that I was a newcomer  and came from Jamshedpur , the steel city , he became very respectful . He told me that he would change my room to a better one , rather upgrade it in todays lingo . I could stay here as long as I wanted. Advance won't be a problem , he assured. That was the first taste for me , of the power that SBI wielded in the country.
It was a Sunday but I was eager to visit my place of work . So I asked the diections from the manager. It was about 20 mins walk , he said but advised me to take a rickshaw and pay a rupee .  Then I remembered that I had the address of someone who was a relative of a friend of  some guy I knew at Jamshedpur. I was advised to contact that family and refer in case of emergency. They lived at a place called Alipurduar Junction railway colony.  I decided that I should visit them later in the afternoon or evening . Then I gathered  from the manager that the place was a little distant and the SBI branch was  somewhere mid way.
I decided to walk to the branch . It was a cold but sunny morning. Not much people on the roads except some who were returning with vegetables from the market . Here and there I could see people enjoying the sun on the street as also at their homes. Coming from Jamshedpur, the one thing that struck me first was that  many of the homes were made of wood and had a tin roof .  The maximum height of the pucca buildings were three storeys , that too  a few as the market area ended.  On my way, I found there was a cinema hall named Amar talkies. I noted the place  because it was to be the source of entertainment in the evening , I thought.  Little did I know that I would be living very near it for the next six months.
Very few scooters crossed me and even fewer fourwheelers. I noticed that  a couple of buses crossed me as did some trucks. Also a lot of Nepali looking people were there around. Cycle rickshaws and cycles were the more prevalent mode of transport in the town. As I reached the bank branch, I found it bolted , naturally, it was a holiday. It was a two storeyed building and by the side of the main road  separated by a drain.   A nepali guard was standing behind the grilled door.  He saw me standing and peering inside the  branch and asked me what I was doing there. Like a silly joker ,I just mumbled that I had come to work here to which he patronisingly advised me to come the next day and meet the Branch Manager Saheb.
I was coming away and stopped to buy cigarette near a small shop on the roadside in front of the branch.  There was a tea stall nearby and some guys were having tea and enjoying the sun . I thought of having a cup of tea and went near them .  I found a young lean man, maybe in his thirties , with hair covering his ears in the popular Bachchan style of 80s staring at me quizzically. I ignored him and sipped my cup of tea. I noticed , he said something to which the whole group around him, about five of them, suddenly felt silent and started looking at me.  I felt somewhat uneasy and nonchalantly tried to stare back.
" Have you come to join the Bank ? " the man said. It was a big surprise for me . I nodded and said "Yes" . A bigger surprise was waiting for me.  " You are from Jamshedpur and you are Paul , isn't it " he went on. I was floored . I wondered how he knew my name and  where I stayed. Suspiciously , I again affirmed his query. This time I added  " How do you know ?"
" We have to keep track of so many things " , he said smugly with a smile and looked at the group with the feeling of a man proved correct. Everyone were smiling .
" Come tomorrow  to join "  one of them said . Then the first man added " Where are you staying " . I gave the name of the hotel.
" Must be a bachelor " he continued.  " will you live alone ?"
I was getting more uneasy with these questions but they all looked so friendly . Just then somebody came in a scooter and called out the first man " Binoy , what are you doing here . I need to speak to you. Come over "
He got up , saying  " this new person has come to join our bank "
" So you get a new member . is it ? " the man on the scooter said.
" Only if he agrees to stay. First let him join and then decide "
I could understand that these guys were not to be afraid of and they were actually discussing my welfare. Maybe they worked in the bank itself . But it puzzled me no end as to how that man called Binoy came to know about me before I introduced myself .  I took leave of them politely and took a rickshaw towards the railway colony to meet some relative of a friend of some one I knew in Jamshedpur .
to be contd..

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