অটোয়া, বুধবার ১৯ জুন, ২০২৪
STRIKE - Taposh Mukherjee

I always used to enjoy Hari's company as a boy. We were neighbors in Calcutta. As children we were inseparable. The only time we were not together was during school hours, as he, went to a different school. Most nights he slept at our house, and for a change when I wanted to sleep over at his house, my mother relented, never making a fuss. I remembered him being much bigger than me yet somehow we never got into any fights that I remember him winning. Now I realized I won only because he let me win. How simple and wonderful those days were, I thought aloud, as the Rajdhani Express neared Howrah station. 

I had just been promoted to Chief Superintendent of Eastern Railway, in charge of a system that was responsible for carrying over four and a half million passenger's daily, an employee base of over fifty eight thousand people, and a budget rivaling those of many small nations. I was the youngest ever to reach this position. If I succeeded here, I knew a directorship at the Railway Board was a foregone conclusion. I had left Calcutta the city of my birth many years ago when I joined the railways as a young IRS officer, after graduating from St. Stephens College, to a job that still retained some regality and splendor of bygone days. With our special perks and privileges we merrily continued to live the life of a "Pukka Sahib" ( Britisher in pre independent India), joyfully oblivious to the tremendous changes taking place all around us in the world's largest democracy. Now a days I only managed to come once or twice a year when something important came up. While leafing through the heavy agenda of meetings that my secretary had left in front of me, I smiled involuntarily at the thought of spending an evening with Hari and his family after all these years. I wondered what he did for a living. Maybe I could help him in some way. Success in modern India ran after all on the strict principle of who one knows. 

As the train slowly glided into Platform number nine, my mind focussed back to why I was really in Calcutta, and all the things that must get done to stop the impending strike called by the railwaymen's union in protest against new rules and regulations being implemented here. Calcutta the hub of eastern India and head quarters for Eastern Railway had deteriorated much since its founding days during the British Raj. Once the envy of the whole nation for service, efficiency and punctuality, it had now become the butt of all jokes. More than anyone, I knew it was not going to be an easy throne. 

Alighting from the train amidst much fanfare, I witnessed how Howrah Station seemed transformed. The filthy mess of confusion and pandemonium that accosted the average visitor to this metropolis were not visible. Turbaned coolies (baggage handlers), dirty child beggars jostling to get on to the train with their arms outstretched, private cab owners crookedly bargaining special rates for different city drops, a variety of local merchants including fruit sellers, and magazines vendors pushing their wares in front of one's face and the host of other busy bodies normally present were not to be seen at all. The platform was swept clean of all debris. Railway Police stood at attention cordoning off my special bogey at the front of the train. Calcutta certainly knew how to welcome their VIP's! Hosts of middle managers some of whom I hardly knew stood respectfully with folded hands in "namaste" greeting me. The air of pomp and festivity was only shadowed by a few thousand placard waving railway employees in the distance. With clenched fists they shouted, "Victory to the Railwayman's union, Zindabad, Zindabad" in unison. 

My meetings with the first few union bosses got no results even though I got the impression they grudgingly admired the fact that a "home boy" was their ultimate head after many years. Their demands were lopsided, wanting more than they deserved, and being able to provide very little in return. ! It seemed like the typical union mentality, all pay, no work! However they seemed to have been coached well. They would push me to the very edge of my patience and draw back each time, just before I was about to loose my well renowned temper. They did this again and again. At the end of the day I realized I had lost round one, but steeled myself to win the next, and beat them at their own game. 

Tired and uneasy I hailed a cab and gave directions to Nandy Lane, hoping my friend had not changed the way Calcutta had. After almost seventeen years I had difficulty recognizing a part of a city I once knew so well. Our large Victorian bungalow with it's spacious lawns and magnolia and bougainvillea trees had given way to a much larger multi-storied building engulfing the whole land in steel and concrete. The low three- storey walkup of subsidized housing next door had miraculously survived, though it looked shabby and weather-beaten from years of neglect. Walking up those familiar steps to the second floor, I rang the bell, a trifle nervous. 

A young girl of about four, very similar to my little Aparna in Delhi, opened the door wanting to know my name and the reason for my visit. Taken aback by her rapid questions and wondering what to say, I was relieved when a voice from the kitchen asked her to stop talking and take me to the living room to wait for her father due back shortly. I tried looking around to see if I could spot anything in the room from our childhood. My thoughts were rudely interrupted. The little girl was now standing beside me. "Have you come to see my father?" "Why did you not take off your shoes?" (A practice still favored in most Indian homes) "Do you work with him?" "Why have I not seen you before?" "Would you have some tea?" "Everybody does so when they wait for my father!" With this last statement she left the room. This little girl I thought, talked just like my little, Aparna. She judged her father to be the most important person in the whole wide world! I smiled to myself contentedly wondering what Hari had achieved in his life, and how I was going to approach the subject of helping him along, as I waited for my tea. 

The little girl's words had unnerved me. I began to question the apparent gulf that had existed but ignored between the two of us as children, would it adversely affect us now because the innocence of childhood no longer existed? Remembering my shoes were still on I quietly went out and left it in the veranda. Coming back I noticed a photograph which I had missed earlier. The photograph had yellowed with time, but the people and the event were very much alive in my mind. It was the opening of the new Kakurgachi line with a huge WDM2 diesel locomotive recently imported from Canada, with my father the chief engineer flagging it off with a green flag, with two diminutive boys, me and Hari in front. Below it was the emblem of the Chitteranjan Locomotive Workshop, which still builds a variation of the same locomotive even today. There was one common bond between our two families; they both worked for the Indian Rail system. My father, a chief engineer finally retired as a deputy general manager, uncle, as I addressed Hiru's father was a baggage handler, shunting between Calcutta and Burdwan. 

Engrossed with the photograph, I failed to hear her come in. I turned back to see a home spun woman of about thirty, of spectacular rural beauty, the kind of clean and simple beauty only found in the villages of Bengal. She had set out on the small coffee table some home made snacks and a cup of tea, but remained standing. I enquired if she was, Mrs.Basak, and would she not join me for a cup of tea while we waited for her husband? She seemed both puzzled and shy and looked at me quizzically. The first question out of her mouth was "are you from the police "? I laughed out loudly! "Whatever gave you such an impression?" "You don't work with him," she said shyly. When I had explained that it is true we did not work together, but knew each other many years ago and that I was in the city to pay him a visit, she relaxed, and took a chair at the corner of the room. 

She explained that her husband was usually home by this time but lately there was some trouble at his place of work and some times he got delayed. "What kind of problem" I enquired casually without wanting to intrude? This time Dolly, Hari's daughter, quipped in about this bad new man in her father's office that was trying to move her father to another city and reduce his pay. That was indeed a very bad thing I agreed, but nothing still made sense to me. A move usually meant a promotion where salaries went up, not down. "I know a lot of people; maybe I could help your father" I suggested. "Where does your father work?" "He works with the trains. You don't know that?" I almost spilled my tea in shock! Why had it not occurred to me before? In a country where finding a job is most competitive especially for entry-level positions, an insider's plea could go a long way and Hari had to take advantage of that or perish. Like father like son we had both followed our parent's footsteps. 

Perspiration blotted my forehead and trickled down my spine, things were getting clearer by the minute! To stop the rot that had obviously overtaken Eastern Railways, one of the first things I prioritized after taking office, to break the backbone of key union leaders, I had issued orders posting them elsewhere. I figured that this way the corruption of black marketing in tickets and the usual bribe one had to pay to get a reservation would be greatly curtailed, the public better served, and efficiency and discipline within the organization greatly improved. It was all well thought out and planned through a series of discussions and meetings with the mandarins in Calcutta. Though the list was given to me for final signature the name H.Basak transferred from the highly lucrative (for corrupt railway personnel) Howrah/Burdwan sector to Cuttack/Shiliguree had not figured prominently in my scheme of things. To me it was just another name. The loss of pay was transparent now! I was enemy number one in this household! What a fool I thought to myself! 

Weighing the benefits of a polite and timely escape against the thought of confronting someone I had considered a friend till now left me drained of energy. I don't recall how long I sat there lost in contemplation and agony. "May I enter sir?" Yes, yes. offcourse", I answered startled! Bureaucratic tradition still stood between us. Standing in front of me, was the boy in the picture, my childhood friend Hari. For a long agonizing moment we stood there apart not knowing what to do. The thought that neither of us were strangers in this house made me finally stride across the room to grasp his hands firmly before locking him in a long embrace. The feeling of coming home once more rushed through my system. The feeling must have been mutual as tears of happiness and relief rolled down our eyes uncontrolled! 

We sat cross legged on the floor Bengali style till late into the night talking about small unrelated things that had taken place in our lives, jumping from one to the other impatiently. We had so much catching up to do! Curled up on the floor Dolly was fast asleep beside us. We had hardly discussed any business, except Hari's hilarious rendering of what might have happened if the coaching he had administered to his underlings at the union of not upsetting me too much went unheeded at the meeting. 

The large unruly city of Calcutta was just beginning to stir out of its sleep when I finally took my leave. Hari remained standing on the steps while I bargained with an unwilling taxi driver to drop me off at the Grand Hotel for much more than the one way fare. Looking back as the taxi sped away I had a hunch, my problems with the union were finally going to get resolved, though nothing had been said, or commitments made. I remembered fondly how he was always protective of me when we were children. My visit after all these years confirmed that nothing had changed but me. He was still going to go on protecting me at all cost. Me who came as the benefactor returned benefited. It was not at all the way I had expected things to turn out. Instead of relief a strong sense of guilt enveloped me as I headed for the showers.

Taposh Mukherjee
Ottawa, Canada