The Graduate -Dola Dutta Roy

posted Mar 13, 2014, 10:53 AM by A Billion Stories   [ updated Mar 13, 2014, 10:54 AM ]
THE GRADUATE


This was the last time Umesh was going to ask Sriram Kaka for the job he had promised. It‘s been some time and every time he approached the man, he promised he was going to do something about introducing him to his boss. That day never came.

Umesh was a college graduate and had done some odd jobs as a school peon and an usher at a movie theatre in a multiplex much to his dislike especially when he had graduated with good marks in Hindi. But he soon realized that a degree in a vernacular subject could fetch nothing other than what he had already done.

In his little village there was no one he knew who had finished school and he was a full fledged Graduate with a certificate stamped from the University of Patna. His family and neighbors looked up to him with respect and he was known for his intellect and hard work. He had become the official writer of words in his small community trying to promote communication between families and friends --sometimes even as the pen for secret lovers. He did it happily. But in a big metropolis like Calcutta what good is literature in the job market, that too Hindi literature! Nobody was looking for a budding Kalidasa, the great rhymester or Valmiki, the author of ‘The Ramayana’, the great ancient Indian mythology. His father would have argued but Father didn’t live in a big city with billions of unemployed youth who came to a metro from rural India with over-sized dreams and neon hopes. Each day began with prayers and at nightfall these young men came back home as wasted, blown out candles.

Sriram Kaka was a neighbor. He was friendly and seemed to have a lot of clout around. People came to him with their problems and somehow he managed to show them a way to get out of them. If they went back home happy, he was a friend for life; and if they didn’t, he was their worst enemy.

When Sriram learnt that Umesh had come from his home town in the interiors of Bihar, he took him under his wings. He was glad that the young man had a college degree and promised to help him find a suitable job that would make him rich some day. But seven months had gone by and after innumerable unsuccessful interviews and forty-seven reject-letters, Umesh could only find a position in a small girls’ school as a ‘temporary worker’ and later, his current job, as an usher-boy which was also going to release him soon. He was filling in for someone who was recovering from an accident.

Even though he knew that he was clever enough to do other jobs of a clerical nature, Umesh realized early in his career that his greatest problem was his inability to speak English the way other city boys did with élan and confidence. He could make perfect sentences in English in his mind, or so he thought, but when it came to really speaking the language, it came out garbled and it all appeared incoherent even to him. But he knew that very few people could speak and write ‘shudh’ or pure Hindi like he did. However, with great effort and practice, he mastered the few sentences he was required to say as an usher boy. Every night, before Jatin, his roommate, returned from his Club duty by the Lakes, Umesh stood in front of the small mirror and practised those lines to perfection.

Not unfamiliar with frugal living, Umesh was sharing the cost of the room with Jatin at the outhouse of a big dilapidated mansion that still held a decadent, warring Bengali family together. It was just a room but they liked to call it their ‘home’. There were some others like them, homeless, itinerant families that lodged and shared space in the outhouse too but no one had the inclination to spend any time with anybody, let alone with outsiders. Umesh was happy he got to share the room with Jatin from Orissa. Jatin too had come in search of a better future enamored by the vibrant life in the metros.

Their ‘home’ was not a palace. It was just a room with shabby, unpainted walls and two ‘charpais’ thrown in with a table and two stools as bonus. One could easily descend into squalor in a place like this. The ceiling and the corners were filled with gauzy spider webs woven skillfully in the night. The light in the room was not adequate enough to even see your own face in the mirror. The single window had shutters that could easily get unhinged by the first lashing from a ferocious Nor’wester. They chose to keep it open at all times as it would let the hot air in for them to breathe. Fortunately Jatin had a small table fan that they used to cool the temperature down in the room at night so they could get a few winks of sleep.

Sriram Kaka who lived nearby in the tiled yellow house with green painted doors and windows, was affable enough to care for his country cousin. But he had too many things on his plate. He had a sick mother, a nagging wife, a teenage son and a ten-year old handicapped daughter to care for. Nobody knew what he did for a living but some days he came home flushed with money and felt generous enough to buy some sweets for the kids and a garland and bangles for his wife. And if his mother croaked from her bed, he also gave her a bottle of the chutney she craved.

***************

“Kaka,” Umesh stood outside the green painted door and called out. He waited for a while and knocked again. He stared at his own shadow on the yellow wall of the house in the light of the waning departing sun.

Rukmini Chachi answered the call. She came out with a frown creasing her brow.
“Sorry, Auntie, is Kaka home?” Umesh asked sheepishly.

“If he were, he would have answered you, wouldn’t he?” Rukmini said in an angry tone. “What is it that you want? I haven’t got all day to stand here talking to you.”
Umesh thought for a while and then stammered nervously, “I think, I’ll check back -- later tonight. Just be kind enough to tell him -- that I came by.” The door went shut before he could even finish the sentence.

Nobody was available in the tea-stall for a chat. It was early for tea time after sundown. But Umesh decided to wait around because that gave him the chance to keep an eye on Sriram’s house. He asked for a small glass of tea and sat there sipping it quietly.

“You’re home early today!” The ‘chai’ man gave a toothy smile. He was rubbing the saucers dry with the end of his shirt. Then he neatly stacked them up on the counter next to the small tea glasses and the glass jars in a row, all filled with crackers and cookies. Some of them even had bits of cake that were yellow in color with embedded raisins in them. Umesh never had the inclination to taste them.

Umesh gave him a fatigued look. “Yeah. This week I’ve got a different schedule.” He didn’t’ tell the man that this was also his last week at the movie theatre.

“Good, good.” The ‘chai’ man grinned. “I also worked for a storehouse once and kept different timings on rotation work.” He was pumping the kerosene burner to regulate the flame, boiling some water in a pan. “But it didn’t suit me. You know, irregular hours and not enough money in hand.” He put a handful of tea in a strainer and dipped it in the boiling water.” Umesh looked at him through the corner of his eyes and took a sip of his tea that was getting cold for being held for so long.

“And then?” He asked the man not showing too much interest in the matter.

“Then? Ah, well, one day I just decided that I was not going to be slaving at a place that didn’t value my efforts being a good worker. I was just a face in the crowd for them. A number. I took a loan and bought this mobile cart and everything that I needed to set up this ‘fancy’ stall,” he laughed out loud. “I started my own business.” He sounded proud and jubilant at his achievements. “In three months I paid off my loans and I also have a house of my own today.” He grinned.

Indeed he was an achiever. His was the most popular joint in the neighborhood where local men gathered for a sip of tea and gossip. Once in a while you found the area cops too -- spending their tea breaks at the stall. This added some extra glamour to his humble joint.

Umesh gave the man a second look. He was obviously from a poorer section of the social strata. His shirt was stained and had a button missing. His hair was unkempt and totally out of place. He wasn’t particular about his speech. It was a mixture of twisted Bangladeshi Bengali with some words of Urdu thrown in and the ‘Bangla’ that is spoken in West Bengal. Umesh was quite used to it by now.

The ‘chai’ man’s tone was chirpy and Umesh realized, that was the reason why his customers liked talking to him. He had noticed earlier that men talked of their woes and other people’s fancies, the change in the air and even politics with this man with ease while they sipped their tea sitting on the bench outside. And yet the man had perhaps not even been to school. What good had his own education done, he wondered! He was still struggling and had not a single achievement to his credit. He was filled with utter frustration.

********************

The evening air was hot and oppressive. There was a spooky resonance of some hellish melody playing in one of the FM channels on the radio at the ‘Paan’ shop close by. Umesh felt uneasy. He missed the evening breeze in his little village, the sight of women returning home with water and the men with their cattle. He missed being with his family in the enclosure of their small but peaceful brick country home. He felt a pang of guilt for opting to choose the city over the serenity of his humble abode under the canopy of the endless blue sky.

When the street lights had been on for some time and Umesh had filled his stomach with several glasses of raw tea, he saw Sriram Kaka shuffling through the lane going past the ‘Chai Shop’. His corpulent belly jiggled as he took jerky steps towards his house. His hands were laden with boxes of ‘mithai’ or sweets and perhaps, some fabric too. He had a nauseating fixed smile on his fleshy face and his beady eyes moved as if he was on a furtive errand. By that time there were several men around the tea stall. Sriram went past Umesh and seemed to miss him. He strutted like a winner and he looked fearless.

When Sriram had almost reached his home, the yellow building with the green painted doors and windows, there was a sound that was deafening and a cry that was heart wrenching! In a moment, a motor bike sped out of the lane and before anybody could figure out what had happened, Sriram fell to the ground crushing the boxes he carried under his weight.

Umesh suddenly felt he couldn’t move. But he saw that after the initial shock people were running to the man who had collapsed in front of his own house. He thought of the job Sriram had promised him evaporate in front of his eyes. He thought of the promises he had made to his father -- recoil in shame. And he also saw his mother’s saddened eyes showering him with fathomless affection.

He turned to the ‘chai’ man who stood their looking stunned. But he shook his head and soon got back to routine. The man gave a look of concern to Umesh and said in a whisper,”This was bound to happen some day.”

“What do you mean?” Umesh was dumbfounded. His Adam’s apple was bobbing in his throat as he tried to make some sense out of what the man was saying.

“The company he was keeping …. it had to happen.” The man was being honest.

“I don’t understand,” Umesh felt his shirt stick to him in the heat and sweat. Perhaps it was something more than that. He was getting an anxiety attack.

“You see,’ the 'Chai' man came close to Umesh, “Sriram was mingling with doubtful company.” Umesh stared at him in disbelief. ”Nobody knew where he went, who he worked for. But he would talk big some times, and the path that he chose was obviously very, very slippery, you know.” The man nodded in an all knowing fashion.

********


Umesh sat motionless in his dark room. The body of Sriram was taken for autopsy. There was wailing still coming from the yellow house with the green doors and windows. Jatin walked in with an aura of disbelief still plastered all over his being.

“You got the news?” He asked impatiently and turned the light on.

Umesh just inclined his head. Jatin was rattling off some truths that had been unearthed about the dead man. But Umesh had switched off. After some time, Jatin realized that Umesh was unusually quiet. He came close to him.
”Are you alright?” He bent over to take a look at his face. Umesh looked frightened and thinner than he actually was. He nodded absently. Then he suddenly looked up and said quite firmly,”I’m moving out tomorrow?”

“Meaning?” Jatin was shocked.

“I’m going back home. This is no place for me. I cannot belong here.”

Jatin stared at him in silence for some time and then moved away. He went and sat on his own bed and said very slowly and grimly, “Yes, you‘re right, we don’t belong here.” He sighed and stretched out on his bed looking tired.

Much later, when Jatin had gone to sleep and Umesh had finished packing, he wondered if his parents would be happy to see him back. He was returning home like a wounded soldier accepting defeat where there was no pride or honour. But that’s where he belonged. He had no other place to go.

****************


There was a rap on the aged, fragile door. It was repeated several times and by the time Jatin woke up, Umesh had opened the door.

A police officer stepped in and glowered at the two young men fiercely. “Which one of you is Umesh Sharma?”

Umesh felt his knees giving way. He moved back and fell on his bed. Jatin raised a finger to point at him. It was an involuntary and an unconscious act.

“You went to see Sriram Chaubey today?” The officer barked.
Umesh had lost his tongue. He felt his whole being shaking inside. He just nodded.

“He comes from your hometown?”
Umesh found his mouth go dry. He just tried to wet his dry lips.

“How well did you know him?” The Officer’s face looked ominous.
Umesh tried to say that he was too young to know him when Sriram had left the village many years ago but words wouldn’t come out of his mouth. He just shook his head vehemently.

“So you’re denying any knowledge of the man now.” The officer’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re under arrest. Come with me.” The officer let two policemen come in to escort Umesh to the Police Van waiting outside.

The whole neighborhood woke up and watched in hushed silence. They saw a pathetic looking, dark, scrawny village youth being dragged from his den to the police van. Umesh saw TV news channels flashing his baffled face as the young man who knew the deceased well and was taken for interrogation by the police. Deep in the village community centre, he knew that his neighbors and family would recognize him on the screen as the proud young fellow who had once left for the city with big dreams but ended up being questioned in the murder of his neighbor. They would not learn that this man had once promised him a bright future because he was an educated young man, a Graduate, different from many he worked with and the sky was the limit for him. Umesh just happened to believe him.

************************




-Dola Dutta Roy

Photo by:
Submitted by: Dola Dutta Roy
Submitted on: Thu Mar 06 2014 11:32:38 GMT+0530 (IST)
Category: Original
Language: English



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