English Literature – Stories – ☆ Kosi Sutluj Express ☆ Dr. Amitabh Shanker Roy Choudhury
Dr. Amitabh Shanker Roy Choudhury
☆ Story – Kosi Sutluj Express ☆ Dr. Amitabh Shanker Roy Choudhury ☆
One lakh twenty-five thousand cusecs of water! Who knows how much it is! This much is flowing through the river Kosi every day during this flood! Otherwise, every year barely five lakhs would flow in the month of September. Or say, nine lakh cusecs in the month of Kuhar or October. Just some days ago, it was a harmless snake which, a couple of days back, has turned into a giant, ferocious and all engulfing anaconda.
And now Kosi is a bit tamed. Its fast-flowing water, washing both the banks, has become a bit subdued. The river Kosi is now flowing gracefully. The colour of all its tributaries – Panar, Lohandra, Mahanadi and Bakra has turned muddy. From orange. As a python becomes listless when it preys upon a deer and swallows it in toto, in the same way Kosi too has become quite gentle now, quite docile like a child. The water level is going down day by day. Every day and every hour people are praying to their Kosi maiya, ‘O goddess Kosi, please have mercy on us. Save us from all these havocs the flood has brought upon us!’
The crowd on the platform of Harrisongunj is a bit thinner today. A few have returned to their homes. Those who could not, stayed back. Probably they are no more left with a dwelling. Or their huts are half drowned in the mud accumulated over the place. Or because of a dead and decaying animal – a dog or a buffalo, lying there, the whole surrounding is stinking so much that no one can dare to set foot even in the courtyard. Some have come back to the platform again, leaving behind their old parents or children. The flood has brought so much of sand along with its water and spread it in their fields, that now they’re not in a position to sow anything there. Some of them are going to Gujarat or Punjab, the far away provinces, in the hope of finding a place to work as a daily wage labourer.
Already the railway minister, who was elected from this constituency, has announced the ticket free travel for the people from places like Saharsa, Araria, Katihar, Supaul, Purnia and Madhepura. So, the railway track has been repaired near the Harrisongung station and again the trains are running along. No one is going to check their tickets when they will board the train. And there are people all around. Packed inside the train, and sitting on its roof too. Every train is not only extremely overcrowded, evidently, they seem to be pouring human beings.
Sitting in front of a dry hand pump, Biroja is smoking a bidi. After two days, passed without any food, this afternoon probably rice and pulses will be doled out. May be a piece of onion too will be there for everyone, of course if the luck permits. He has been roaming on the platform, asking every known face, just to get a firsthand knowledge of this. And if the information is found to be correct, he must go to the embankment and bring his daughter Janakdulari from there. His sons, Murli and Madho, are already here, playing on the platform. And his wife is waiting there on the bank of the canal with Janakdulari and Chotu, the youngest son, sleeping in her lap.
On the embankment of about a hundred-kilometer-long canal, starting from Baluabazar of Supol to Beldor of Khagaria, peoples from various places, have now made their temporary shelters. Many years ago, Kosi would flow along the route of Sursar River; gradually Kosi left that route and moved to west. When, on the night of eighteenth of August the embankment on the Kusaha gave way, from Baluabazar to Saharsa hundreds of villages were submerged or washed away. People fled their homes and villages and reached here carrying their belongings and children, with tears welled up in their eyes. They settled here for a shelter, even if temporary.
Unfortunately, that embankment place has not been included in the relief register of the district administration. So, when those official people come to distribute eatables from the government, they would come up to the railway platform only. Just after fulfilling their scheduled duty, they would return without caring for those who have been left out. Only a handful of cadres from the peasant organizations, or the sanyasis (sages) of different ashrams or some N.G.O. people are standing by the side of these hapless men and women to help them fight their dreadful hunger.
Mostly it happens that when sattu (powdered Bengal gram) or chiura (parched rice) is distributed at the platform there, the people over here have to keep a fast. And when some kind hearted people come in groups to distribute food materials here, the people on the platform just keep on looking at the signal – ‘When will this red light become green for us? When the passage of food to us, on the platform, will be cleared?’
A state of peculiar contradiction exists between the two places of shelter, when one gets to eat; the other has to keep the fast.
So it can jolly well be said that Biroja is lucky. Half of his family lives on the platform and other half is there on the bund. So, here or there, where so ever if the food is distributed, every one of his family gets at least his or her little share. And the pangs of hunger are taken care of.
Biroja can still remember the scene of that dreadful night. Everything happened so suddenly that there was hardly any time left to think and take a decision in emergency.
‘Hey, get out of your houses. The flood water has arrived at our doorsteps!’ People were shouting all around in his neighbourhood.
Splash…splash…! That night when the water from the river entered their village, at first they were shocked. Everyone was at a loss to decide what to do. As his neighbours were doing, he too took all of his family members to the bund, ‘Don’t waste time, Janki’s mother, quick. Let’s go to the embankment.’
That night onwards the sky became their roof overhead. And the next morning when he came to know that the packets were being distributed at the platform, he rushed there with his sons, Murli and Madho, and his daughter Janakdulari, ‘Come on my children, let’s reach there before those people leave the place.’ The result of all these was that their names were entered in the platform register there.
‘O god! O Mahadeva!’Biroja whispers to himself, ‘I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop!’ But he knew pretty well that he couldn’t do that. He is too helpless to fight against his lot. He is now sitting there near the hand pump just below the platform, and his gaze is fixed at some unseen place in the horizon. There is only one question burning in his mind, ‘Tomorrow or after that, what will happen? The flood water may take days to recede. Till then how can I manage everything? How can I feed my children and my wife?’
‘What the hell are you worried about, Biroja?’ Somebody, from behind, touched his shoulder, ‘Do as I have advised you to.’
Biroja startles as if hit by a thunder bolt. He forgets to smoke the remaining butt of his bidi. He is thoroughly shaken when the burning end of the bidi touches the tip of his right forefinger, ‘Ouch!’ He shakes his hand in the air. He blows air on his finger and puts it in his mouth just to cool down the burning sensation.
‘Just see the current rate of the maize. Last year it was seven hundred. But this year? Just see for yourself. So, they all are left in the fields to rot. Those that have been brought here in the sacks are rotting too. None to lift them from the platform. I am worried about you. I just don’t know what will you eat yourself and how will you feed your children? Just think. We can pay you four thousand. And it’s not a trifle.’
Biroja is just looking at that man in stony silence. He forgets to utter a single word.
‘Well, bhaiya (buddy), if you’re not happy with this much, five hundred bucks more can be arranged. Not a single paisa more. See, nothing will be left for me. You are from my own village, so I’m doing this for the sake of you only, although surely it will be a huge loss for me. Well, what do ye say?’ He showed the folded thing on his waist. It was quite apparent that in the folds of his dhoti there was money there. He pulled Biroja’s right forefinger and pressed it on the swell below his shirt.
“Oh!” Biroja lets out a cry. This is the finger which was burnt just now.
The man is scratching his bearded chin. It is a muggy August day; he is sweating and his shirt is wet in front and on his back. S,o he pulls up the stained collar of his shirt and looks around. Then he takes out a little box from his pocket. He sprinkles a little khaini (tobacco leaves) on his left palm and takes out a bit of lime with the tip of the finger and starts rubbing them together. When the mixture is ready after a few minutes, he blows the dust out of it for a while and offers it to Biroja, ‘Come on. The gods in heaven only know when the sacred food will be doled out to the starving people. Why don’t you realize every year this is the ‘loot of June’, a booty for many. If the embankment doesn’t give way, how on earth will it be repaired? And if it is not repaired how on earth the brother-in-law of our irrigation minister is going to get the contract of this repair work? Only we, the poor have to die. Isn’t it a fact? You must think how you are going to feed your children. How will you marry them off? So, I insist my friend, and say, just accept the deal. The yoke on your shoulder will become lighter.’
Biroja is unable to speak, as if he has been bitten by a snake. His eyes have the same feverish gaze that reflects upon the eyes of a carcass that floats in the water of overflowing Kosi.
‘You see the train is going to leave by evening. Once it departs, then you don’t have a chance any more. So, gear up. Let me suppose the deal is final then?’ The man vanishes in the huge sea of the crowd, just like a drop of water.
Daily two trains come from Katihar to Harrisongunj. The moment the train for Delhi arrived at the platform the people rushed towards it. Some are carrying on their heads all their household things wrapped in a cloth and tied with a knot. Others are carrying all their belongings in the tin boxes put on their heads. They’re leaving their ancestral homes in search of new pastures of life. Mostly young and adults they are. And some old ones are there too in the crowd. Only a few have their families with them. In this tempest of life they want to swim together. If their boats are capsized, they are ready to drown together. Life or death – they will face it together. The sage Valmiki had written about the exile of Ram, and the poet of the greatest epic the Mahabharata, Vedvyasa, had penned the story of the exile of the Pandavas, but who will write about the exile of these miserable thousands? Whose pen does hold so much fire and tears altogether?
‘Dad, let’s go and bring didiya (elder sister) here.’ Murli is rubbing his face on the sweaty back of his father.
‘This train will leave too. Don’t know when they would come with the food packets?’ Madho can no longer bear the hunger pangs. Impatiently he tugs at the sleeve of his father’s shirt.
‘Oh! They’ll come in jeep or truck. And not by any train.’ The elder Murli tries to explain and console his younger brother.
Biroja stands up. All the three are going to the canal. At this very moment that is the dwelling of every nine out of ten people living around the place.
Janakdulari was applying kajal (collyrium) just under the lower lids of the eyes of their youngest brother, Chotu. She runs towards them the moment she has seen them coming. She whispers to her brothers, ‘Today they would distribute over there, I guess. Isn’t it?’
‘That’s why we’ve come. Come on, quick.’ Although Murli and Madho are just little children, but they know pretty well that no one should get a wink that khichri (mixture of rice and pulses cooked together) is going to be distributed at the platform. If the news leaks out only they are to lose. So, while coming here, Biroja has been continuously reminding them, ‘Just don’t say anything to anybody.’ So, although their mouths are shut, a joyful expectation brimmed in their eyes. And their sister does not fail to read it.
“Ma, just hold Chotu.”Janakdulari puts her brother in her mother’s lap and goes out with them, ‘We’ll return shortly.’
By the time the four of them arrived at the station, a truck had already reached there with the relief materials. The men and women were jostling in the crowd just to get the little bit of his or her share before anybody else. Scrambling, abusing and scuffling continued…. The humanity was dwarfed in front of the helplessness and the hunger.
None could wait and they started eating from their thalis. Murli says, ‘Let’s take something for maiya, dadda (grandpa) and dadi!’
‘Sure.’ says Biroja and before he could stand a man’s grip was there on his shoulder again. The man was standing just behind him. He gives a wink. Biroja pushes his thali towards Madho and follows him. The man walks up to the end of the platform, and Biroja is following him like a charmed snake.
‘Hey yaar, see, Kosi Sutluj Express will be leaving any moment. Keep this. Four thousand five hundred is here. Don’t worry. In future you can meet your daughter any time.’ The man pushes a bundle in his hand. Biroja withdraws his hands.
‘No, no. What the hell are you talking? I – I can’t accept this.’ Biroja is fumbling. It seems his voice lacks its strength. So much money! Altogether! As if it is god sent. Hey Issar (O god), save me!
‘Come on. Keep this. Just think – with this amount of money for how many days you can give your family a square meal each day. Man, can you ever remember how the stomach belches when it’s full?’ That man grabs Biroja’s hand and he pushes the money forcefully in it.
Biroja has now four thousand and five hundred crunched in his fist. And each note has an inscription printed on it – just below the pillar of the king Ashoka, beside the smiling face of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, – ‘Victory will prevail for the truth!’
‘Call her. Be quick. The train is about to leave.’ That man gives him a push.
But Madho is not pleased at all with this man. He is eyeing everything suspiciously. He says to his sister, ‘Didiya, what the hell does this man say every day to dad?’ There is frank irritation in his voice.
Murli’s brows are raised too, ‘Maiya was abusing this man that day, and didn’t you hear?’ He too is at a loss. He fails to apprehend what is going on.
The Kosi Sutluj Express whistled. Suddenly that man comes running towards them. He took hold of Janakdulari’s wrist in a firm grip and he is dragging her on the platform.
Janakdulari starts wailing, ‘Babu, babu! Look, he is dragging me. Where is he taking me to? And why? Why don’t you do something, babu?’
‘Come with me, baby. You will rule like a queen there. Everything will be in your hand. You will get a square meal every day. To your fill. And I’ve already paid your father.’ God knows from where two of his accomplices have arrived and they are shielding the whole happenings. No one can see them. No one bothers.
Janakdulari is wailing. She tries to escape; she wants to cling to her father, but in vain. She wants to run to her father, but she cannot.
There were two policemen standing on the platform. Just a little while ago they were raising their lathis and abusing everybody, ‘Be off. Don’t make a mess.’ But right now they have just melted into thin air. Janakdulari’s shrill cry is drowned in the awful din of voices on the platform. The train starts moving. That man is dragging her. He jumps and gets into the train. He pulls her up.
Both her brothers are shaking their dad violently with their little hands, ‘Babu, that badmash is taking her away.’
The train is moving…..It is gathering speed…
Biroja rushes towards that compartment….He wants to get in, but….
That man was standing at the door. He hits him on his face with his fist, ‘Get off. I’ve already paid you. Go away, you dirty beggar!’
‘Janakia, my darling! Come back. Get down my baby.’ Biroja falls on the platform, from the running train.
‘Babu! Didiya, don’t go!’ Murli and Madho are running after the train. They are wailing. They want to get in.
But Kosi Sutluj Express is running too fast for them….
And the two brothers just fail to catch it.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
© Dr. Amitabh Shanker Roy Choudhury
Contact: C, 26/35-40. Ramkatora. Varanasi. 221001. Mo. (0) 9455168359, (0) 9140214489 Tel. (0542) 2204504.
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