Of all the people in my village Shankar seemed to stand out as someone different from the rest. He was the only one among the lower caste people of my village who had never worked in my father’s farm or anybody else’s farm as laborer. His elder brother as well as the younger brother worked in our farm but he never did. Instead he worked for the Public Works dept of the government as a laborer in their road projects. This fact alone proved his uniqueness. Subsequently by dint of his intelligence, personality and sincerity at work he became the head coolie -cum-watchman-cum-caretaker of the fair weather wooden bridge constructed on the river Sona that flew beside our village.
This bridge connected two towns situated almost fifty kilometers apart on either side of the river and also the innumerable villages with thick populations situated on either side of the road for six months in a year from December to June. At the beginning of the winter season each year towards the end of November when the rainy season had already gone and with it the swollen river had begun to shrink down to its sober and humble size and self the construction of the wooden bridge started. That was why the bridge was called a fair weather bridge. Shankar oversaw the construction of the bridge, arranged laborers to work for its construction and looked after the comforts of the townsfolk who came to our village only during this time of the year as engineers or overseers to supervise the construction. After the bridge had been constructed everyone engaged in its construction dispersed except Shankar who remained as its caretaker day and night for the whole period of its existence. On 15th of June each year, at the start of the rainy season, the wooden bridge got dismantled and woods used in the bridge were stacked in a neat pile on the river bank on which Shankar constructed a makeshift tent house in which he stayed in the nights to guard over these woods for six months till these were again used for the construction next season. Otherwise he mostly stayed in a very small hut he had constructed on the river bank on government land just a few feet away from the makeshift tent.
He was very rarely employed for any other duty. So virtually he led a very laidback, leisurely life unlike his brothers who had to work arduously on other’s farms. Most often I found him sitting in a nearby chai-shop sipping chai and chatting with others. He was of my father’s age and for a long time it seemed to me that he had a stern countenance which was sufficient to dissuade me from making any conversation with him. I was comfortably mixing with his brothers as I used to do with all other laborers who worked on my father’s farm. But Shankar seemed to me a different kind of person altogether. He intrigued me. He was an enigma for me. He never feared anyone in the village. Though he didn’t own even a decimal of land except the small cottage in which his family lived yet he was completely without fear of even the biggest landowners. Though he belonged to a low caste yet he was never a great respecter of higher caste Brahmins. But he also didn’t pick unnecessary quarrels with anyone. He just kept to himself. He had a royal, leonine manner which made him a mystery before my eyes.
I can vividly recall an incident from my childhood which made him a hero in my eyes. I had a friend named Gangadhar. We studied in the same class in the village school. Though Gangadhar belonged to Teli (oil man) caste, a landowning and sometimes money lending caste, almost every morning the first thing I used to do after taking my breakfast was to go to his house to play with him. His mother had died long since while giving birth to a child after him. So I had never seen his mother. Whenever I went to his house I saw his father only. But one day his father too died. Gangadhar was only eight then, almost the same age as me. He became an orphan. He had no one from his mother’s side to take care of him. His father had a brother but he had died much earlier. Even if he were alive he wouldn’t have wished Gangadhar to stay alive because of property. It was a sad truth of life I have repeatedly observed that whenever a child was placed in a most helpless and vulnerable situation like that of Gangadhar he was more often considered as a nuisance, an obstacle between inheriting a property, howsoever small, by his own paternal uncles. Instead of protecting him they tortured and harassed him. This also became the lot of Gangadhar. His dead uncle had a daughter who was by then married and being the sole heiress of her father’s property used to stay in her parental house with her husband. So she now became the only kith and kin of Gangadhar. Gangadhar stayed with her for some days during which he was treated callously and mercilessly. He was always sad during that time. The harassment became so unbearable that one day he hid himself somewhere and didn’t return to his cousin’s house. The story of his ill-treatment was also going around the village. So a real crisis arose in a child’s life and also in the life of a village. Where else would he stay, who would feed him and take care of him? None among his own caste too showed any eagerness or interest to keep him. A meeting was called in the village where all the elders assembled. I was sitting at the back to see what was decided for my friend. Many proposals were submitted but each was objected or rejected by someone or the other. It was also proposed by some that each family of the village would feed Gangadhar by turn one day every month. That proposal was going to be accepted. Suddenly Shankar who was sitting silent all the while stood up and said that he would take Gangadhar with him to his home and raise him as his own child. He said he didn’t like the prospect of a child going from house to house daily begging for his food and keep. What about his education? What about his comfort, safety and sense of belonging? To whom would the child relate? Shankar said he would see to all of that and he needed no donation from anyone. All the people present were stunned at his declaration. Some feebly protested pointing at the prospect of a higher caste child being brought up in a lower caste house but as none wanted to take the responsibility of an orphan on himself Shankar got my friend in his custody. That night Shankar became a hero in my eyes. Subsequently Shankar’s house became my daily haunt because wherever my friend stayed that became the dearest place for me too. Shankar and his wife had no child till then, though they had been married for four years. They actually took care of my friend like their own child. This I could see because I was always welcome in Shankar’s house. Gangadhar never complained against either of them. Shankar was a large hearted man, probably the largest in our village. But Shankar was not to be found in his house except during the meal times. He went as soon as his meals were over to where his duty called him, the hut beside the river from which he watched over the bridge. So he remained a distant, aloof figure for me for a long time, almost throughout my childhood, though I was all admiration for him from afar for his many sterling qualities.
This distance between him and me went on till I visited a Hindi film, the very first film in my life, when I was in class nine and I was fourteen years old. That film and its songs made such a deep impact on me that thereafter I became a film addict and an avid listener to Hindi film songs. Howsoever I requested my father to buy a radio he never obliged. So I went to Manoranjan’s house. He had recently married and had got a radio as dowry among other things. Manoranjan and his brother Bhukul were my friends and their parents were generous enough to allow me to sit on a chair in their house and listen to Hindi film songs for hours broadcast from Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylone.
During this time Shankar also bought a second hand radio and played the same stations playing Hindi film songs in his small hut on the river bank. One afternoon finding Manoranjan’s house locked I ventured to Shankar’s hut to listen to the radio. That was a very brave act on my part as I used to fear Shankar till that time because of his stern countenance. But I had no other alternative. I had to listen to the film songs. So as I found his radio was playing I ventured in to his hut which I had never done before. His hut was situated at the top of a high bank on the river and one had to climb a few mud steps to make the ascent from the road below. As I entered his hut he saw me and showed me a stool to sit on. No words were exchanged. I just pointed at the radio and he understood my purpose. I sat there for almost two hours and when I left his hut he had been already asleep on his rope and string cot. That day I discovered that his stern countenance was only a façade. Internally he was a kind hearted man. I can never imagine my father allowing anyone into our house for such a long time to listen to his radio, had he owned one.
Thereafter I was a regular visitor in his hut. During the school vacations I used to spend many hours of the days and also the nights in his hut till the radio stations stopped playing film songs at eleven. I soon found out that as the evening wore on a group of six villagers assembled there and played cards. Shankar had perfected the art of playing cards using his leisurely life to his advantage in these hours. He was deadly serious and became a different person while playing cards. He would shout at his co-players if they made any mistakes. I dreaded him most during these times. I had never known that playing cards could be such a deadly serious game. There were no bets placed or no money was ever put to stake. But at the end of each deal he would analyze the moves of his co-players thoroughly and point others’ mistakes almost with military like precision. I never participated in these games with such serious people. Sometimes seeing them shout at each other pointing at the other’s mistakes, for very soon the contagion from Shankar had spread to other players too, I secretly laughed at them for their seriousness. Sometimes I marveled at the ingenuity or foolishness of men at being so serious for such paltry things. But honestly they could also be right if they thought me foolish for how anyone could be so serious at listening to music that one refused invitations for a game of playing cards with six live persons!
Once they had the shortage of a partner and this time Shankar himself invited me to help them by participating in the game. I had to accept his invitation and oblige a man who had gladly tolerated my intrusions into his privacy at all hours of the days and nights for months. As I sat with them I begged apology at the outset for all the mistakes I was sure I would commit in the course of the game as I was a novice. To be honest with them, none shouted at me nor pointed any of my mistakes with sharp tongues. Even Shankar who was a terror at tearing other players apart was an image of peacefulness and calmness that evening. If anyone offered me any advice or pointed at a mistake it was done with a quiet friendliness and a genuine interest in improving my play. Sometimes I wonder if they had been happy that night when they returned to their homes as I had deprived them of their usual quota of excitement because I strongly suspected that those meticulous analyses, those shouting at each other and pointing each other’s mistakes formed very integral and essential parts of the game itself. After that evening fortunately there had never been any partner shortage and so I never had to play again. They played cards and I listened to the radio. That arrangement was probably the best for all parties concerned.
Time passed. I passed the school examination and left my village for the town to study in a college. In the college hostel common room there was a big and costly radio set and I almost monopolized on it as I listened to the music and songs of the Hindi films from it most of the time while all around me table tennis, caroms and badmintons were played. Two years later a friend gave me a book to read which again changed my life as that Hindi film four years back had done. The book was Somerset Maugham’s “Of human bondage”. That was the first novel in English I have ever read. The book had such an impact on my life that I yearned to read more and more such books. I was eighteen then. Since that time I have been reading books, especially by western authors. I am almost sixty now but my fascination for such books has not diminished a bit.
When I left village my contact with Shankar also dwindled and almost came to zero. During the vacations when I returned to my parents’ in the village, occasionally I would come across Shankar and I would smile at him and we would exchange a few words. We both were not very demonstrative of our emotions and frankly very shy with each other. Even during those days when I used to visit his hut daily for listening to his radio, very few words were exchanged. Then in the college and university years my preferences changed. From a music addict I became a book addict. Then there remained no need to visit Shankar’s hut again. During vacations I read Tolstoy and Chekhov, Hardy and Jane Austen, Melville and Hawthorn, Emerson and Thoreau. In the midst of all those readings many times I forgot to take my breakfast and meals. What to speak of Shankar?
My days in the university also came to an end. After a few months of teaching in a private college I got a government job in Bhubaneswar. I joined in the job and after a few days I returned on leave to my village for a few days. Then something happened in the village which has remained permanently etched in my memory and frankly occasioned this article to be written.
That was the last day of my leave. I had to return by any means and join my duty next day. Only one bus plied between my village and the railway station at the nearest town twenty kilometers away. The bus had left in the morning towards the town in the opposite direction and it was to return in the evening and reach our village at six to halt for a minute or so to collect passengers and leave for the town where I was to catch the train. That evening I reached at the place where the bus stopped, exactly at the place where Shankar would pile the used woods of the bridge in a neat stack a month later, half an hour before the scheduled time. I had with me a 25 K.G. bag of rice loaded on the carrier of a bicycle and some clothes and to assist me in riding the bus and bring back the bicycle a younger brother had also accompanied me up to that place which was almost half a kilometer from our house. There was a lot of rain during that day and the village road was muddy. So the bicycle was not brought for the purpose of riding on it, but to transport the bag of rice to the bus.
We waited for the bus sitting in the village chai shop of Padu where Shankar was a regular customer. Shankar was there. We exchanged smiles and I let him know that I was leaving for Bhubaneswar to report to duty the next day. Padu asked me how was Bhubaneswar. I said things were costly there. He said never mind about costs, what mattered was that the things were available as and when one needed them. In the village even if you had money you won’t get the things you urgently needed. I was surprised as always at Padu’s intelligent analysis. Having spent seven years of my life in the city by then I had ceased to notice this plus point of the cities. Just then I found an uncle of mine sitting among the people. I smiled at him and a few words were exchanged. Suddenly on an impulse I asked him something which I had never asked anybody before. That too in front of an assembly! I asked him how much salary he earned. I knew I had made a faux pass. But his unusual and strange response saved me from a lot of embarrassment. He shifted in his place and leaving his relaxed, laid back position suddenly he sat straight. He was a short tempered man and I thought he was getting ready to shout at me with some choicest rude reply. But sitting straight he replied with all seriousness that no organization, no governmental department paid as highly as the State Electricity Boards and he was paid very handsomely. He went on saying how important work he did in the office etc. but I was only feeling relieved that I hadn’t hurt him in any way. I had been just foolish.
Time passed while I waited for the bus. But the bus showed no sign of coming. It had already passed two hours after the scheduled time. Some said probably the bus had got either stuck in the mud somewhere on its way to our village or having seen the rains that day the return journey of the bus might have been cancelled. Some advised to wait for some more time while others said it was no use waiting anymore. I was feeling tired after so much waiting; so I decided to return home. I loaded the rice bag on to the carrier of the bicycle again, hung the bag with the clothes on to its handle and pushed on the bicycle through the muddy village road in the dark night. My younger brother was to be seen nowhere. Soon the wheel of the bicycle got jam packed with mud because in the night I couldn’t see which part of the road was dry and which was a puddle. Pushing the bicycle through the mud was exhausting. By the time I reached home I was dead tired.
I unloaded the rice bag etc and took them inside. Everyone was surprised at seeing me back after two hours. I said the bus didn’t come and immediately went outside to clean the bicycle. It was something my father had taught me when I was a small boy. He had said that just as I didn’t like to go to bed with muddy feet so also my bicycle didn’t. Since that day I had been cleaning my muddy bicycle before I took rest. So I drew bucketful of water and cleaned the bicycle. Just as I was going to bring the bicycle into the house to park at its place a childhood friend named Pranakrishna came running and panting and said to me that the bus had come and was halting at the chai shop. He told me to hurry. But I had no more energy, inclination to negotiate the road to the bus stop again. So I expressed my helplessness and told him to go back. After all, what was the use of putting up so much effort again and to find at the end that by the time I reached there the bus had left. I wasted a good five minutes at arguing with Pranakrishna. But he would have none of it. He insisted that I leave for the bus. So in the end I had to obey. Again the rice bag and the cloth bag were mounted on the bicycle and we ran for the bus. This time Pranakrishna seeing my condition volunteered to run the bicycle and so it was lot less exhausting for me. I just put my hand on the rice bag so that it didn’t fall down on the mud. All the while I was wondering why the bus would wait so long for a nobody like me.
When we reached the bus stop I found one of the most heart-touching things in my life. Shankar was standing with folded hands at the door of the jam-packed bus, which had cut its engine off clearly to wait for me, and with supplicating voice pleading to the conductor, ”Please forgive me for once for making you all halt. The boy waited for you here for two hours. He has to join his duty at Bhubaneswar tomorrow by any means. I shall be ever grateful to you for this. In future if ever I can be of any help to you please don’t forget to mention. Please forgive me for the inconvenience.” Now I knew why the bus had halted for me. I wished to hug him and say many words of thanks and gratitude. But being shy and ever short of right words at right time I just smiled at him and rode the bus with the bags. The bus left immediately. Throughout the way I was thinking only of Shankar. He who feared none and never behaved in any servile or obsequious manner with anyone, howsoever rich or higher caste anyone might be, had now supplicated before a conductor and driver of a bus with folded hands for me! The sight would never go out of my mind. I can never be grateful enough to him.
I know it is beyond anyone else’s power in the village to halt a jam packed bus for well above fifteen or twenty minutes. But only Shankar could do it in a crisis. Just as once he had given shelter, food, security and a sense of belonging to my friend Gangadhar not for a day or a month but till he became eighteen and was able to fend for himself. I have also not forgotten how he played the role of the bridegroom’s father when he married off Gangadhar to a girl of his caste and how happy and proud he looked!
I don’t think I can ever be a man like him. I don’t know whether I will even ever see a man like him. If this article inspires anyone to be generous and large hearted like Shankar I shall think my writing of this article has been rewarded enough. That will also be a suitable tribute to his memory.