If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 24 January 2009

A courtier and his king

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety …

Like Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor, Rahim Ansari too hasn’t been withered by age. He is a young man of seventy-five. Tall, lean, and muscular, Rahim has a weather-beaten face and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair combed back, down to the nape. Once he told me that he hadn’t taken a medicine in thirty years, by the grace of Almighty.

As regards variety, he is an electrician who doubles as a plumber. If required, he wears a carpenter’s hat too. In these underprivileged parts of the third world far away from cities, we don’t have the luxury of many specialists. In the few hospitals that we have in the district, one doctor often works as a physician, surgeon and pathologist, all rolled into one. Machines are rare here, and men who handle them are rarer. If one has to make a living wielding tools, one had better be an all-round handyman.

Rahim Ansari is also a retired dacoit. Long ago, he was provided free food and lodging for seven years by the government for his alleged role in a train robbery.

Rahim’s approach to his present profession conforms to the limited demands of his clients. He puts functionality ahead of style; his electrical wirings are perfunctory webs of criss-crossing wires with dangling electric bulbs. But the lights, fans, and water pumps work just as well, when there is power.

We were waiting in front of the railway station for a bus that would take us to our distant hamlet. As we sat down on a narrow wooden bench of a tea-stall, I asked Rahim Ansari about his family. A father of three sons and a daughter, he was rather embarrassed to mention his oldest son's name: Golden, an incongruous moniker that has stuck because of his fair complexion. Golden assists his father in electrical works. Rahim's second son runs a small grocery in their mohalla. In a poor neighbourhood, a small business cannot thrive, but he has been doing okay. I don’t remember what his third son does, but I recall that Rahim’s brow furrowed as he talked about his daughter: ‘I had fixed her marriage with a boy in Sahibgunj, but …’

‘What went wrong?’

‘Nothing … I just changed my mind at the last moment. I didn't want to send her so far away. I am now negotiating with a party from Giridih.’

Parental affection is a dangerous thing. Even former outlaws are not free from the affliction.

It was two in the afternoon. We had spent almost an hour waiting for the bus, listening to film songs blaring from paan shops and observing jostling crowds and sleeping dogs; but there was no sign of our bus. (We learnt later that the bus was delayed because its driver was getting his beard dyed.) I was hungry. It was during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, and Rahim was on roza. I asked him if he found it difficult to go without food, particularly at his age.

‘Please drink your tea, I don’t feel like having anything. Actually, fasting doesn't make any difference. We can rinse our mouth, but water cannot be allowed to pass this’, he said, touching his Adam’s apple.

Such a response is common from the Muslims that I know here. All of them are poor, and almost all of them observe roza.

Less than a hundred years ago, an unremarkable hamlet called Madhupur grew in to a small town thanks to the patronage of absentee landlords from Kolkata, who used this place as their winter resort. The babus who had once added a touch of glamour to this place have faded into oblivion. Their successors have fallen into hard times and are selling off family silver and landed property. Some of the grand old mansions here are lived in by their new owners, but most of the buildings are tragic caricatures of their glorious past. And if you walk a few miles to the villages around, you’ll find that many bungalows have been dismantled, brick by brick, by thieves. The town and its surrounding villages stand as a crumbling signpost of a brief history of borrowed glory.

I asked Rahim how those babus were. Were they snooty? Did they treat the local people badly?

‘Oh, no! They were good. Bahut accha aadmi the. They treated us well and bought our chickens at twice the normal price.’

‘Were they rich?’

‘Most of them were. I’ve even seen a King’, he said with some pride.

‘King? A real one? I’ve seen kings only in theatres.’

‘No saab, a real king. Raja P.N. Tagore; he lived not far from here. His palace has been converted into what is now the Raj Hotel.’

The Toofan Express to Kolkata had been standing on the far side of the station, on what is known as the down-line in railway argot. As we talked, it started moving with a clang.

‘The Toofan Express was called the Toofan Mail those days, but it was the same train. The down Toofan Mail used to cross this station about the same time in the afternoon. The over-bridge too was there’, he added, pointing at the railway foot-bridge across the tracks. ‘The day the King was to return to Kolkata, his valets would swarm all over the station in the afternoon. When Toofan Mail arrived, messengers would run to the palace to report to Raja Sahib. And he would say “Gaadi roko!” … Then he would start walking, with a retinue of ministers and servants.’

At this point, a slightly abashed Rahim Ansari shared with me a secret pride, ‘And I used to walk behind him, holding his big umbrella. … The king would walk slowly, he was very old, almost fifty. He would cross the foot-bridge and get onto the train. The guard of the train would follow him, hands folded. Then Raja sahib would instruct the guard, “Bill banao, late fee kitna?”'

As a law abiding subject of the British Crown, the king would dutifully pay the penalty for detaining the train. He would pay hefty tips to the guard and the engine driver too. And the train would recommence its journey.

This happened during the lifetime of the narrator. This is young, first generation history. Yet, the story seems so absurdly far away and impossible today. Toofan Mail still runs, although with a slightly different name. The coal engine has been replaced with an electric locomotive. The wooden panels of the passenger coaches have given way to steel. The stout saal slippers under the rails have been replaced with pre-stressed concrete. The train is much more crowded than what it used to be in Rahim Ansari’s childhood, and obviously, it doesn’t have room for kings any more.

26 December 2000


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  3. The other day I was standing near the door of a local train with an old uncle. As high speed trains passed by us, I regretted that I had never seen those days that Sir has already talked about in his comment. He became nostalgic and said a lot about the railways in those days, about the steam engines, about narrow gauge railway, about a few mails of today that were the best once upon a time, and the joy of riding a train. I wish I was an old man today.

  4. Not surprisingly Ray has used trains in all three of his Apu films to depict change in times. I was reading about the sorry state of Shovabajar Rajbari sometimes back and your post coincided with my reading.

  5. Surprisingly you story took me to the "Louhakapat" written by Jarashandhya ( Late, Charu Chandra Chakrabarti).Your Rahim Ansari,though a dacoit in his youth, nurtured a loving father in the core of his heart.Your nice narration reminds me of Badar Munshi,the dreaded decoit leader,who surrendered to the police knowing well that he might be hanged as one of his mates violated the modesty of the bride of the house invaded by his team.The bride incidentally reminded Munshi of his daughter who died long back.

  6. Sir, You have a great style of writing. Why dont you try publishing.Wish you ll the best.


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