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Traveling even in the AC two tier of Shatabdi/ Madras Mail (or is it called Chennai mail now?) gives one this feeling – cut off from reality, far from the dirt, dust, larceny and prostitution of earth, this is an Avalon created by wily and successful men. I felt rather uncomfortable chaining my attaché to the seat – as if being on my first Rajdhani trip couldn’t let me off from my typical middle class extra alertness. Mrs. Vasin of D.S.P. Township, having boarded from Durgapur (She also manages a boutique), made a request to call her husband, showing that she knew of this particular facility of Rajdhani…id est, she has had many previous experiences of traveling in Rajdhani. Even though, of the three Rajdhanis that pass over Durgapur-Asansol, only the Sealdah-Delhi Rajdhani stops at Durgapur and this train had started for just over two years, only since Mamata became the Railway minister. Why, did Mrs. Vasin go through the trouble of chaining her luggage? Of course she did not.
Around fifteen to ten in the morning, an elderly gentleman entered the coach along with the railways attendant and requested for permission to check under the seats. His suitcase was missing from the A-1 coach. Mrs. Vasin was very hurt – “O my god, even in the Rajdhani these things happen, really India is –”. She kept her sentence incomplete. I filled the blanks in, in my mind – “Disgusting”.
Maybe it did not appear on my face, but yes, at that moment, a smile did sparkle within my head.
My name is Benu. See that hut at the corner of the road? That is a tea shop, and I work there. But don’t think I am an illiterate just because I work at a tea shop. I am the only one who knows how to read and write, in my family. When my father’s factory was open, I did study at the corporation school. I loved to go to school. My teachers said I had an aptitude for mathematics. But when I reached class three, one day, suddenly, my father’s factory closed. Then slowly everything in my life started changing – my parents, my house – everything. Even though our school was free, one day my father made me go to this tea shop to work. I was very hurt that day. I cried and cried, and at last my father said that he would send me back to school when the factory opened again. Since that day, for four years, I’ve been working at this tea shop from dawn to dusk, everyday.
My Master gives me five rupees for each day I work. I don’t get this money on the days I am sick, and can’t come. At the end of the week, when I hand over the week’s wages to my mother, the smile on her face makes me forget all my troubles. My Master is a good man – he doesn’t beat me. He gives me a cup of tea and a biscuit everyday, once at morning, and again at the evening. He even gives me the bread which he could not sell over the week. Other boys like me – working in the tea shops in the neighborhood get beaten by their masters for any slight mistake. But my Master has hit me only once in my four years. That day a cup slipped from my hands and broke. That was the day the doctors told me and my father that my mother won’t be able to walk again.
My Master is not a bad man, but the other, old man who works for my Master is. My Master cannot stand the sight of him because he is absent from work so frequently. And watch the fun – because my Master scolds him, he has to release his anger at me. He always scolds me, without any reason. Even his attires are shabby. I feel so angry at him. He is the reason some mornings I wake up and cannot bring myself to go to the shop. Then my mother has to persuade me, like when I was a little child, to go to work.
In the afternoons, my Master goes for his lunch after bringing down the shutters of the shop. I lie down on the bench and try to read the newspaper, spelling the words letter by letter.
Yesterday a wonderful thing happened. I saw that I was wearing my school uniform and walking towards the school gate, schoolbag slung over my shoulders. I meet my best friend Amit – he’s so surprised and happy to see me again. I tell him that my father’s factory has opened again. I will be coming to school like I did before. Suddenly the dirty old man who worked at the shop broke into my dreams with his harsh shouts and rough pushes. I hadn’t even realized when I had dozed off on the bench, reading the newspaper. Oh, only if the old man interrupted my dreams a little later. I could have seen my school compound in my dream.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I really wish that I could see my school compound once more.