Monday, February 4, 2013

Memories from another life!

Well, this narrative is going to be a bit long.  Because it dates back to 1990. That was some 23 years ago.   On the 3rd of January of that annus horribilis, I joined a new employment with a Government Bank, quite popular in the east and the north eastern parts.  It still is.  That bank, or rather its mandarins sitting at the Calcutta headquarters, in their appointment letter, ordained me, a simpleton from Madras, to proceed straight to a place called Guwahati and join duty at a branch there.  I had, even at that point of time, at least heard of the place so that was no big deal.  The big deal was finding a train from Madras that would take me there.  I found one, travelled 55 hours and the bonus 8 hours the railway gave me free by running late, without any extra cost (the railways were the real pioneers of modern day sales gimmicks - buy one, take one free;  in their lingo, pay for 10 hours and get 5 hours free!) to me.

I did manage to locate the office in Ulubari in Guwahati  and joined  duty promptly on a Wednesday, considered generally auspicious by my folks down in conservative Madras.    But my happiness was short-lived. I was, the next day, asked to proceed further north-east  in the direction of China and Burma, to report to Jorhat branch.  Now that was a challenge for me.  These exotic places like Dibrugarh, Tezpur, Jorhat etc, I used to come across at not-so-frequent intervals in the columns of The Hindu,  whenever Brahmaputra was in spate and flooded Assam.  Brahmaputra has made it a habit to wreak havoc at least once a year and all the national dailies worth their salt, would devote at least two columns to this 'news' which is how we get to improve our general knowledge on various quaint-sounding north eastern towns.  Anyway, cursing my fate, I boarded an ASTC bus to Jorhat that night at 9  in the bustling Paltan Bazar bus-station abutting the railway station in Guwahati.   I must, though, mention that the bus ride was not such a pain at all.  The vehicle as well as the road were decent enough, certainly better than some of the luxury coaches and national highways I encountered in mainland India much later.  On a bitter cold January morning, I landed at Jorhat bus stand at 4 a.m. I was apprehensive about what to expect when I disembarked.  Not knowing what to do and where to go, I spent close to an hour at the bus stand itself because that seemed relatively safer than venturing out in search of a hotel in pitch dark, in biting cold.  Day-break took its own time in coming and when it finally did, I gingerly ventured out and knocked at the first lodge I could spot, which was right across the road.  After several minutes of a  marathon linguistic crossfire, me firing in butler Hindi and the lodge keeper in Assamese- mixed Hindustani, I managed to get a double room.

The naive fool that I was!  My English  had thus far taught me that a double room is a room where two people could sleep and since I was single, and paying for a double, I get to enjoy all the space meant for two.  But in Assamese English, double room meant you pay double charge and get to share a double cot with another single  complete stranger!  Imagine my horror, when I was ushered into a room where another guy was already sound asleep in the double cot!  This is what probably they meant when they said 'misfortune never comes single'-for me it came in double size!  Anyway, having completely run out of ideas, I cast aside any hope of catching up with some sleep and quickly had a shower, locked my luggage, left it along with the luggage of the bloke blissfully asleep and came out. Presently, I located my branch where I was supposed to join duty again and there I found three other guys who too were quite lost like me but were from different geographies.  They had  also come there to join (or rather re-join)  our bank and they took too were shooed away from Guwahati just the previous day.  It felt better to meet up with fellow-sufferers and certainly much better when they  promised that they would take me to their hotel once office is over.  Surely a better deal than sleeping alongside a stranger and they kept their word. I moved in with them, the same evening.   And that was the beginning of a long journey for all of us, a journey  replete with adventures, ecstasy and the occasional moments of agony and heart-breaks.  Also it marked start of an enduring friendship among us.  It has been a long 23 years, one or two of our initial group have since even left that Bank but the friendship and camaraderie still endures.  Life in that bank took us places, it opened several new windows for us to make new friends, to learn new languages and in short, to reinvent life itself.   

Not more than 200 hours we four would have spent in Jorhat but how exhilarating those 200 hours were! Despite wallowing in near-poverty situations! I experienced earthquake for the first time in my life there. At midnight when not a soul stirred, my cot did, and my friend sleeping beside me shook me and just about managed to whisper 'Mohan, run, earthquake', before he set upon his 100 metre dash.  I followed suit, woken up from a reverie, and ran after him down the stairs of the hotel and mark my words, we both would have given  Ben Johnson, even after doping,  a run for his money.

Another ethereal experience was that 'Chandni' we viewed in a picture hall.  That was one Hindi movie I enjoyed to the hilt, and up till then, I had hardly watched any Hindi movie in my life, save for the occasional 'Yadon ki Bharat' in Triplicane Star Theatre.  Sridevi's histrionics and Shiv-Hari's lilting music, experienced in that Jorhat cinema hall, without any Dolby or DTS, still gives me the goose-bumps.  The 200 hours were peppered with sundry other humourous events - like the night we went over to a senior Manipuri union leader's house to get advice on how to get reimbursement of the little fortune we had so far spent on hotels and travels.  Advice we got aplenty along with sympathy, the  union leader, constantly smoking from a hukkah bar,was no miser.  with either.  Like the day in office when one of our bosses was literally running mad searching for a file which was lost.  Knowing his temper, the entire office was that day searching for that lost file and we too pretended to.  The situation was just hilarious.

I do believe in the credo that a rolling stone gathers no moss but having already traversed more than 3000 miles from home, I was in no mood to roll any more but would rather fancy gathering  more moss.  But that was not to be.  Within a week, all four of us were  ordered to march to Cachar!  Cachar?  No, certainly I have never heard of such a place even in The Hindu's occasional two-column updates on the grim flood situation in Assam.  And Cachar could as well have been somewhere near Timbaktu for my three friends too.  Strangely, we could  not find any train from Jorhat to Cachar, no such station existed.  Little did we realise that trains would run only to places which exist! Yes, we came to know much later that Cachar is only a district of which a town called Silchar is the Headquarters! Meaning, trains run to Silchar and not Cachar.  So we were in fact given marching orders to  Silchar - not that it made any difference, our bosses could as well as have ordered us to march to Mars!  To this day, we cannot fathom why the Bank did not order us to join duty at Silchar in the first place but thought it wise to plan our itinerary in such a way that we would spend a night in Guwahati and eight more in Jorhat before landing up in Silchar.   But that was how our Bank did things and the Bank is known for its unique ideas!

And so Silchar it was for us now.  Nothing much to speak of that town, if you would call it one.  To be brief, Silchar was, at that point of time,  one of the dirtiest, most umkempt places on earth.  It was  full of two things - rickshaws and Machar (mosquitoes). What a nice lilt-silchar and machar.  Life was uneventful, yet quite eventful  for the next 6 months for the four of us, to be joined by a fifth & sixth  guy here. (yes, you guessed, they too had a lost look on their faces before joining us). Uneventful our stay in Silchar started until, after a few days in a hotel which made our already light wallets much lighter for our comfort,we decided to rent a  house in Silchar and share the cost and the spoils.

And it was thus we found ourselves in Ambikapatty, Silchar.  Ambikapatty is to Silchar what Anna Nagar is to present day Chennai.  Upmarket and posh by Silchar standards!  The house we took up had some added advantages as well as disadvantages.  The disadvantage was that the landlord stayed in the same house in another portion.  The advantage was that he had two lovely daughters!  Would any one in his senses in contemporary urban India rent out his house for six bachelors, four of them unmarried, especially when he is   father of two beautiful girls?   But our land lord did, despite the 'land-daughters'! And we grabbed the house, despite the land-lord, for this little disadvantage was far outweighed by the obvious advantage mentioned earlier.

What fun it was in the house!  It had three rooms, which we grandiously named as the drawing room, the bed room and the kitchen.  In fact it was a drawing room without any furniture, a bed room without any bed and a kitchen without any stove or utensils.  We furnished the house very sparsely to the extent our incomes would allow.  We did not even venture half a mile anywhere near luxuries like cots or chairs.  We focussed only on the essentials like mosquito nets and odomos creams. Each working day was routine - 6 a.m. woken up by SP Balasubramaniam belting the number - "hum ye lungi uthathi, tumko disco dikhathi.." well, that was the alarm we had set in a tape recorder for we had no alarm clock.  After a hard day's work, returning to our den by 7 in the evening.  And on Sundays, the house was turned into a big dhobi-ghat to wash the dirty linen in public. Afternoons spent inside a cinema hall - watching inanities in the guise of movies like 'Beder Meye Jyotsna', a Bangladeshi production (a super hit, equivalent to our Jagan Mohini) and 'Maine Pyar Kiya' (Was that the same Salman Khan we now see?).   We did not know how time flew by for the next six months!  All six of us,  managing in 600 square feet!  But who cared! Life was one big picnic, one reason could be we were all single, at least the majority of us were!  Two were married and had left their spouses back in Delhi, though they made occasional visits.  Those married singles were much naughtier and raucous than the unwed singles among us and it was quite a task for us to maintain decorum, what with the lovely land-daughters loitering about. But nothing untoward happened, lest you start imagining things.  We remained singles successfully till the end.

Six men confined within 600 sq. ft. was perhaps too much even for the Lord and that's why he sent away two guys to different branches, some 50 kms. away.  But come Saturday, all the six would land up at Ambikapatty by 5 p.m., soak in the atmosphere, soak in something wetter for the next two days, which would give a high, play cards with stakes (we always found  money for this activity) all day and night, never bother with mundane chores like bathing and eating and fly away to their respective branches by Monday morning!  And start dreaming about the next rendezvous six days hence.

Life in Ambikapatty, brought together six people from six different parts of India - Delhi, Agra, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Madras and Delhi. (two were from Delhi and they were as different as chalk and cheese.  That's why Delhi included twice).  Iniitally we could not even converse in each other's lingo. Converse we sure did, but  conversation from the heart in the initial stages was too much to even attempt.  And each of us had to now learn to converse in Sylheti, that unique dialect Cacharis speak.  I remember that Sunday afternoon when we had an unusual visitor to our house, who took the liberty of entering straight into our kitchen when we were busy (what else) playing cards.  Unusual because the visitor had four legs and two horns!  And no decency to ring the bell before entering!  A COW!  Imagine our plight then.  We had to drive her out which was an uphill task by itself but even more uphill was to call out  our ever benevolent landlord for help because we could not speak Bengali!  We just could not express in proper Sylheti, the calamity that has just befallen us  to our Land ka lord (meaning landlord!).   After much dumb charades and valiant attempts at conversation in a medium which would be understandable by both parties, my Sikkimese friend just blurted out "Goru Duke Geesey!"  ( A cow has entered!)  The cow was driven out but what adulation and envy the Gangtok boy  got from the rest of us! Learning Sylheti in flat five months! Now that is quite a task!  A time would eventually arrive when I was also quite comfortable with the lingo that even now I get compliments from  my old Cachar friends about the near flawless Sylheti I used to speak those days!  (Can't resist this  little ego-trip, forgive me!)


Six months was neither short, nor too long for us to evolve and learn life.  In those six months, the land-daughters were properly and adequately seduced (in a gentlemanly way, let me remind), gallons of beer and whiskey were adequately consumed, hundreds of mosquitoes were adequately swatted and thousands of cigarettes were adequately puffed. All during those six months in Silchar.  And more than anything else, we all learnt the ropes of banking during those six months.  And we felt like emperors!  Effortlessly debiting and crediting others accounts for lakhs!  For once we all felt like God!  We can, just like that, debit a guy for a lakh and credit another one!  I cannot create money but I can transfer money, and hence I am half-God!  For God is but money! Is not Lakshmi, the Goddess, venerated as money all over our land?  And we practically lived all day amidst mounds of Lakshmi i.e. bank notes.

Phew, what a life!  What a journey!  And when did we all lose the joy of living?  Why is it now that we look back at the vast expanse of sand that lies behind us and wonder about what could have been?  Lost in families, lost in career aspirations, lost in compromises, we seem to have lost everything.  At the end of the magical journey of six months,  we all went different ways, meaning, posted at different branches, far away from each other.  But we still maintained contact with each other. Only, the weekly or monthly meeting place shifted from Silchar to another dream-place called Patherkandi some 90 kms away, enroute Agartala.  

And I was banished to a place called Chargola, all alone. Where I would be spending the next 5 years!  Where I would be taught the basics of rural lending by a wonderful branch  manager!  Where I would meet souls like Ayub Ali, the humble rickshaw-puller.  Where I would listen to soulful renditions of Rabindra Sangeet by even common-folks.  Where a run-down thatched hutment near the Cachar Sugar Mill would be my abode for two years which would also burn down one day, leaving me homeless!  But that is a sequel of which a detailed account would follow.

We were not drafted to the military but our lives were no less harsh without the attendant perks.  We were not from some five-point-someone type IITs but lack of fancy degrees did not diminish our zest for life.  We were not certainly flush with money but we lived life King size in Assam.  I cannot imagine what would have happened to me had I not taken up the job with the Bank and travelled to Assam on that fateful day. In hindsight, life would have been smoother and easier but it wold have been plain, placid and listless.  In short, life would not have been life, at least for me!  It would have just remained a vegetable existence.

Image: 1 road-cum-rail bridge at Katakhal, near Silchar (courtesy, the web) 
              2  Here goes, five of us.  Turning the clock by 23 years.....Mathur,Mohan,Nagpal,Tshering & Bhutia.....
                  - thanks to P.Wangdi (Bhutia) for somehow retrieving this from his junk....