The Rich Man
by Meenakshi Kumar
(New Delhi, India)
Pavitra had stepped into adulthood; her life`s journey from childhood to maidenhood was linked through innumerable memories. If memories could take a physical form of a mean of communication, she would have boarded it to reach her dearest friend in Amritsar.
Pavitra loved train journeys, not because it connected two distant physical territories, but for the reason that it connected two dearest locations; Punjab and Bihar. Both the places were closest to her heart; being sources of most fond memories.
The train tearing its way through the thickest and the thinnest sheet of atmosphere, scurrying from one station to another, in the greatest hour of darkness and the hottest hour of day, would rush in its wildest passion, at its super speed, to reach its destination at scheduled time. It rocked through rivers, ravines, mountains and ridges emanating sounds like the musical instruments; passing through yellow velvety sheets of fields of mustard full of mustard flowers, the vast expanse of green and golden wheat fields and the picturesque beauty of nature made Pavitra marvel at the unparallel natural creativity. The train then would halt at station platform in a city to take a terse break and for the people to board or get down from the train. The human voice made the halt at platform distinguishable; the tea sellers crying their lungs out in their local tongue. ‘chai…chai lelo..garama garam masaledar chai' the peanut sellers, and the sellers of local street specialties were pacing to and fro the train windows, like a trained salesman, waiting for a second on every window, expecting an order.
Pavitra cherished all those sounds, she would try to get the maximum view out of the grilled window and rejoice its memories later. The happy and sad faces could easily tell the ones waiting to meet their dear ones from those departing from them.
The train entered the boundaries of Punjab. The land flaunted its economic development; the TV antennas mushroomed the roofs of houses in towns, when television was still considered a luxury in many states of India, the electronic gadgets was a part of comfort or even necessity in the households of Punjab. There were tractors outside the houses in villages and water gushing out from the tube wells, and finally was the final halt at Amritsar. Amritsar was the end of Indian territory and after Amritsar it was beginning of Pakistan`s area. Wagah border in Amritsar separates the Indian Territory from neighboring Pakistan.
Some porters in their red and white coloured dress had already boarded the train before it came grinding for halt. The station bore an unusually deserted look; the `men in khaki’ the cops, were in majority at the station.
The family came out from the platform to the main entrance of the railway station, to find a transport to carry them till their home; there were hardly any cabs and rickshaws in sight..
Mr Sharma, Pavitra's father went to look for a cab, and the family waited near the replica of Golden Temple kept in the middle of entrance to the railway station. Even the miniature form of the replica looked serene and gracious, reminding the actual glory of the structure to the devotees. Pavitra had visited Golden temple many times with her family. She folded her hand and bowed before the replica, as a mark of reverence; and her mouth filled with water remembering the taste of `karah parshad’ the matchless taste of the sacred offering given to devotees after the `darshan’ of the sacred shrine.
An old tonga wala was sitting on the staircase waiting for passengers; dressed in kurta (a long collarless shirt), a dark printed lungi (two meter cloth wrapped around the waist with a knot) and a sullied turban. There were very few travelers coming out of the train. It was evident that travelling was being avoided by people. There had been greater incidences of killings, of innocent people, on buses and trains. The days were that of disturbance caused due to terrorism. The cabs and autos were missing from the station.
The takers for tonga; the ancient day chariot pulled by a horse with seat on both sides sharing the same backrest, was decreasing day by day. The traditional and
slower means of communication have borne the brunt of advancement of technology. The survival for the people earning their living through traditional occupation was becoming difficult.
Tongawala had his monopoly that day as there was no other transport available. Normally, he could hardly manage to carry passengers in city; only the passengers travelling to nearby villages hired a tonga, for economical reasons.
He said, “Bibi jee, aj nai milni koi sawari tuanu, aj ta gadiyan de hartal hai”, meaning Madam you will not get any cab today because today cabs and autos are on strike and a huge protest march had to take place against the increase in number of innocent people being killed indiscriminately by terrorists every day.
The illiterate daily wage earner was trying to woo a passenger such that he could manage a square day`s meal for him and some fodder for his horse. He barely had anything to risk and so he was out for his earning even amidst the anticipated disturbance. Any activity was of concern for him only to the extent it affected his living.
By that time Mr.Sharma was back fretting at his futile effort to look for the cab. Mrs. Sharma started telling him about the procession, as told to her by the tongawala and said `let`s hire this tonga otherwise we might miss out on this also`. They had no other option left and tongawala could easily read this frustration on their faces. He started lifting their luggage to put it in tonga before they even asked for it.
Mrs Sharma lifted her hand to signal him to stop to negotiate for freight lest he would charge them an unwarranted freight. Mr Sharma could read his wife`s mind; he pressed her hand, to prevent her from doing that. He murmured, you yourself told me that we might not get any cab today then where do you have the choice to negotiate for the fare? We will have to pay what he asks, understand!!!
Mrs Sharma nodded in affirmation.. Yes!
Tongawala had taken charge of the entire luggage and got seated on the driver seat. He pulled the strings of the horse and with a light whip, the horse started to trot on the empty road, which lacked the hustle bustle of the normal days. The empty stretch of black pitch grand trunk road showed clear as there was almost no traffic on the road. The road built by Sher Shah Suri hundreds of years ago still maintained its mark of excellence.
Tongawala was singing a folk Punjabi song and at times he would also narrate stories about the Bhangra and the Giddha (the local Punjabi dances)preformed at his village. He invited Pavitra's family to his village for the Baisakhi festival and witness his son`s performance.
With all the talking of Tongawala, the distance of their house was over as if in no time. Tongawala dropped them at their home, and also helped them in putting the luggage in the house; even though Pavitra's family had not solicitated for it.
On being asked about the fare, tongawala demanded not even a penny more than what was due to him. Mr Sharma was taken with the honesty and considerateness of the old man and offered to pay him some tip.
Tongawala kept with him only what he had demanded and the extra money, he placed back on Mr Sharma`s hand saying,` let me be happy in what is due to me, I do not want to get used to getting tips when I am approaching sunset of my life; it will spoil my habit. I don`t want to part away with the wealth of contentment by getting used to money more than what is due to me.
Mr. Sharma looked at him with astonishment. A single penny can cause people to be on each other`s throat. The whole world is up in arms when it comes to parting of money and wealth, even doing things beyond their means for material possession, but the man refused what was being gladly offered to him because this meant compromising with his value.
Mr.Sharma felt himself belittled before Tongawala because of the man who was rich with the wealth of contentment and happiness. ****