The imminent demolition was closing in on the small colony Ashray like a dark storm approaching at a steady pace. Sleep had eluded the hutment dwellers most of whom earned their daily bread by selling vegetables, pulling rickshaws, hawking tea or peanuts in trains and railway platforms or working long hours in fields as labourers.
Often, they sat on the threshold against one of the door frames, their knees clubbed together, wry faces tucked between their palms, hair dishevelled, ears even failing to hear when trains rattled past at regular intervals.
They were in perpetual dismay, not only for themselves but also for their dependants, the prospect of losing their hearth and home, their means of livelihood and facing an uncertain future.
Sensing that moving to a new habitat was almost a fait accompli, the majority of them were doing their daily chores as stoically as goats chewing leaves a minute or two before getting butchered.
Those who dared to challenge the authorities — generally young blood — were led by Rishi Singh. He owned a small eatery that did brisk business. Tall, fair-skinned and stout, he was no rustic halfwit.
He had complete control over this group that stuck to its old stand, “First rehabilitate and compensate us properly before you bring your bulldozers.” As they discussed the matter, loudly or in a hushed tone, seething undercurrents of anger came bubbling to the fore.
“Will the project be completed in time without trouble or tears?” There was a big question mark over it although the laying of another track and extension of the station premises was in progress.
However, the issue seemed a bit of a storm in a tea cup in public parlance outside the colony.
“Why should the project remain stalled just for the sake of 70 -odd hutments coming up illegally on railway land?”
“On humanitarian grounds.”
“Well, hadn’t the railways overlooked their existence for more than 25 years?”
“Correct. But why did political parties pamper them and arm them with photo identity and aadhaar cards?”
“Don’t we need development?”
“Right you are. But should development happen at the expense of the poor?”
“Long back the railways had acquired the land mostly from the poor and paid them peanuts. Again, some poor people are going to be homeless. Whose development is it, anyway?”
“But the hutment dwellers have no legal right.”
“They’ve a moral right. They have contributed to our economy for so long and integrated into the local community. Why not let them start their life anew with adequate financial help?”
“What fun! You appear from nowhere and build shacks or shops on another’s land and when threatened with eviction, you demand rehabilitation and compensation.”
“Why didn’t the railways evict them 20 years ago?”
“Ah, thereby hangs a tale.”
This being the general tenor of the debates, the situation resembled somewhat like the lull before a storm.
Rishi laughed up his sleeve. The old saying “Even gods can’t say what is there in a woman’s mind” came to his mind as his glance fell upon Pralay Ghosh whose lust for women made him an enemy to his detractors within the party. Given a choice, Rishi would like to revise it a little —”Even gods can’t say what is there in a lecher’s mind.”
Rishi turned his back pretending not to have seen him though he knew Pralay had eyes like a hawk
“He must be picking his nose,” Rishi mused, “and mooting some game plan to corner his rivals”
Rishi was right. Seated smugly in a chair just outside Rama Snacks, Ghosh was doing exactly that behind a newspaper, his head leaning a little towards his right shoulder blade, his stretched legs swaying uncouthly. A person in his mid forties, he was a little shorter than average height with a tough, stocky exterior.
“Hey, Rishi, where are you going?” his tone was warm and genial, his eyes shining.
“Where the tiger is dreaded, it becomes evening too soon,” thought Rishi, “Dada, you.” Rishi responded with feigned warmth but brisked up his pace.
“Relax, young man, relax. Why move like lightning on a Sunday?”
“Sorry, Dada. I’ve to buy meat for my eatery.” He felt amused at the sight of the two cloth bags hanging from Pralay’s left shoulder. A joke went the rounds that all his solutions to people’s problems were in them.
Pralay knew everyone by name and stood by those who sought his help although not without extracting his pound of flesh. Rishi, however, didn’t harbour any illusions about him. What annoyed him most was that Pralay had a streak of egregious self-importance in him.
Pralay resumed, “So early? You know when the two meat shop owners get about their business, don’t you?” His short, spiky brown hair, flecked with grey, bristled in the breeze.
“Come and have a cup of tea.”
“Okay. But my home minister will kill me if I’m late.” Rishi sat on a bench by his side.
“Afraid of your wife? Be a man. Face her fury with your fun.” They fell about laughing and indulged in a little exchange of pleasantries about the prices of vegetables or about the winning streak of the cricket team under the captaincy of Virat Kohli before two cups of hot tea and biscuits were served to them. As they laughed heartily at the jokes they shared with each other, Rishi’s tension was dispelled.
Pralay was in no hurry. While he crunched his biscuits noisily and let his tea cool, Rishi dunked a biscuit into the scalding tea and put the soft stuff into his mouth before sipping.
“Dada, now you’ve to excuse me. I need to do all the stationery and grocery shopping today. And you know the Sunday rush in the bazaar!” Rishi tried to be comfortable with him without any inhibition.
“You can’t avoid it. Sundays are always special for gastronomic delights. People make a beeline from quite early in the morning, and there’s no point in trying to beat the rush.”
“Well, could you spare a few minutes for me? I want to discuss something with you. Let’s talk somewhere less public!” Pralay’s sudden seriousness sprang a surprise.
“Now or later?”
“When and where?”
“Are you free this evening?”
“I don’t think I have any engagement.”
“Why not come over around seven to the station — it’s just two minutes’ walk from your stall. I’ll give you a call, right?”
“Good. See you later.” Pralay dashed off as he found a number of people were moving towards him. They would soon mob him and enquire about the fate of their aadhar card, pan card, voter card, health card and dole payments.
Rishi too moved along in his direction wondering what Pralay wanted to talk to him about and that too in secret. He’d an intuitive understanding of the whimsicality of a political activist or a politician in the making like Pralay.
“There must be a reason for his apparent eagerness to talk to me for so long,” he felt, lying in bed after lunch, but couldn’t figure him out.
“Is he trying to befriend me just to seduce Rani or play some other dirty trick on me?” he wondered. Pralay had got to be ill-famed for having several extra-marital flings, but, as if they were not enough, he’d set his eyes on Rani, the daughter of Rishi’s neighbour.
Her college education had been a kind of liberation for her. Barely two years into her marriage, she got legally separated from her husband for reasons not clear to her parents and wanted to stand on her own feet. She got to know that without the backing of the local party, the job of a primary teacher would always elude her.
Pralay first met Rani in Rishi’s hotel. He watched how shamelessly Pralay was surveying her slender female body with his eyes as she requested him to consider her case on a priority basis.
At the appointed place in the station complex, Rishi found no trace of Pralay. He thrust his hand into his trouser pocket and found to his dismay that Pralay’s number was not stored on his mobile.
“Strange!” he muttered, nettled. “How can he vanish into thin air after telling me to meet him here about this time?”
It triggered him to hop over all the three platforms. On further reflection he prolonged his hopping — from one end to the other — to the fourth platform, which remained almost free of trains arriving or departing with only goods trains being let to pass through it or made to wait here for ages like labourers serving their masters without ever questioning their decision.
There were a few concrete, circular benches scattered across the idle platform that had turned into a rendezvous of sorts, particularly for love birds, promenaders, idlers and retired folks, thanks to the integration of rail officials and their families with the local community. As this part was not so brightly built, he couldn’t instantly identify any of the faces occupying them in small groups.
He approached the blokes engaged in delicious chit-chat. “Excuse me, have you seen Pralay?” He asked rather shyly. But no one bothered to answer him. But as he moved away from the group he heard a sneer, “Definitely he’s with some woman.”
Rishi walked forward to the farthest corner of the platform hoping that Pralay might be somewhere round. It was almost dark there. From there he could see the piled-up soil meant for the elevation of the land that looked like a treacherous hillock.
He looked vacantly reflecting, “Who will have the last laugh? Sly politicians like Pralay Ghosh acting at the behest of the railways after getting their palms greased? Will we be eventually driven out of Ashray?”
Just then he could hear a commotion breaking out in the sleepy hutments. Rishi began to run as fast as he could, his eyes red-hot as burning coal at the sight of Ashray being set ablaze.
To add to the woes of the settlers, a storm lashed the area and the fire began to spread. The commotion turned into a sky-rending shouts and cries, “Fire! Water! Water!”
He exploded, “So God, you’re on their side too! Well, I’ll see how you can save the lives of hyenas like Pralay.”
Did God smile at his outburst? Rishi was in for another surprise. The storm instantly brought thunder, lightning and rain that started pouring down in torrents.
He stumbled and fell hard to his knees several times but was unaware of the extent of his injuries. He still ran and by the time he reached Ashray, he was completely drenched and devastated, his face unable to withstand the blitz of the rain, his shirt sticking to his body.
It just took 10 minutes for the fire to subside completely and an hour for all the roads to be submerged under knee-deep water.
Wading through the accumulated water he stopped by the Shiva temple, close to his eatery, after hearing a chorus of indignant voices. In the dim and flickering candlelight he found a few youngsters slapping and kicking someone tied to a pillar of the temple.
“Rishi, my brother! Please have mercy on me. Please save my life. They’ll kill me.”
“I. . . I . . . set fire to a hut only to scare you. Believe me, I didn’t want to burn the whole colony,”
“Dada, you see how Lord Shiva has foiled your dirty plan.” He then cried out,
“Stop, I say, stop! Don’t beat him anymore.”
“But Rishi, your eatery too has been completely gutted like three other huts. He deserves no sympathy,” said an angry youth.
“Okay, Okay. We’d hand him over to the police.” Unable to say anything more, he walked past the youths, his legs shaking and his endurance ebbing.
“Rishi, please, please . . .”
The yells of Pralay didn’t reach his ears. It was still raining like they had never seen.