It was one of a kind day trip. We came to know about the trip from social media and got hooked on the idea immediately. The famous academic, historian and film director of Delhi Mr Sohail Hashmi is the organizer of such trips. The idea of such trips is to bring you closer to the roots and also to introduce the outsiders of a certain culture of this great country.

Rataul is a village in the district of Baghpat in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about 40 km away from the capital city of Delhi. It is just like any other nondescript village among the half a million villages in India. So what makes it so special that a day tour is organised, now almost every year, by Mr Hashmi and his team? It is the mango and the mango orchard. The village has ascribed its name to a particular variety of mango which is not only very beautiful to look into but also carries a distinct taste and aroma. The trip is also important to propagate the fact that Rataul mango is very much Indian and not originated in Pakistan as claimed.

Such a backdrop would definitely evince interest. Further, I and my family hardly miss an opportunity to travel, however far or near the place is and never mind the duration. The idea was unique, the day chosen was a Sunday, travelling and refreshment arrangements were taken care of by the organisers and except for the humid and sultry weather, it was perfect to venture into a mango orchard in a village on the fringe of a megapolis that is Delhi.

On 1st July 2018, four bus load people assembled at Mandi House just outside the Sri Ram Kala Kendra building.

The buses trudged through the Eastern part of Delhi crossing the Yamuna through the Shahdara bridge. It passed through the most densely populated, filthy, dirty and cramped for space part of the metropolis. People living in the area seemed unmindful of all these maladies and were busy in playing cricket on the landfill, the river bed and whatever space they could carve out, going about their daily chores as usual. We crossed Delhi by 10.30 am starting at 9.45 am from Mandi House, the assembly point.

As we crossed Delhi and entered UP, a short while later our bus took a turn towards Baghpat. The road narrowed as we progressed and at a tri-junction near Banthala, no one was willing to budge an inch. A flyover was under construction. We were still some distance away from our destination.

Soon we entered the rural geography interspersed with small bazaars and pucca houses of the rural folks. There were fields being made ready for Kharif season and some were whispering with early saplings of sugarcane plants. Our purpose of visiting mango orchards soon appeared and we entered the area by 11.25 am by taking a very sharp turn from the highway, at 30 degrees. The bus had to reverse once to get on the narrow road leading to the village.

In a few minutes, we reached the outskirts of the village. The coal tar road ended and cement concrete road started signalling the beginning of the periphery of the village. The four buses were parked just outside a boundary wall of a cemetery and a mango orchard. On an average, a bus carried about 35 passengers (should I designate them as tourists?). There was a black SUV all the way from Delhi which was our pilot and also carried the organisers of the tour. In all, there were about 150 people who paraded through the only street of the village for about 100 meters and reached a premise which housed a primary school, the residence of the family which ran the school and also a heritage level haveli built in Mughal style. There was also a sprawling lawn, some outhouses, a very old peepal (sacred fig) tree whose one branch ran parallel to the ground below just about a meter above and was so thick that a dozen people can sit on it. This was the outer courtyard of the house. There was another inner courtyard which leads to the arched verandah of residence of the owner Mr Zahoor Siddiqi, an octogenarian who was seen welcoming the guests, interacting with them, asked for their wellbeing and reminisced about the history of the village, the school that he and his wife started and of course, the history of mango in the area.

The group was welcomed by the host and his family members with all warmth and enthusiasm. The welcome drink was ready and personally served by one of the family members. Tea was also served.

It was about 12 noon. Our guide and the tour organiser, Mr Sohail Hashmi, an academic, a historian and a filmmaker explained in detail the purpose of the visit, the history of the village Rataul and the fame attached to the particular variety of mango which is named after the village. It was very interesting to hear him about the history of the place, how the mango orchards came up and how these were nurtured for centuries. There were more than 40 varieties of mangos on display and of course, the Rataul variety was the cynosure of all eyes. The Rataul variety is of small size with a tinge of yellow near the stem when ripe and does have a distinct taste and aroma.

As the lunch was under preparation, Mr Hashmi suggested that we should walk to the mango orchard of the family and take a look. The party followed him and it was again a spectacle for the villagers, especially young children for whom the various attires of the urban gentry are seen only in movies or in TV soaps. We reached the same compound outside which our buses were parked. Mr Hashmi was assisted by a bearded gentleman Naser, a caretaker of the orchards and so knowledgeable that he can identify the variety of a mango tree just by observing the leaves. The speciality of the orchard was that it had hundreds of varieties of mango trees beside some rare variety of wood apple tree, a ‘Kachnar’ (Bauhinia variegata – courtesy Google) tree whose flowers are of great medicinal value, a huge ‘Maulshree’ tree, again of great medicinal value (also the abode of ghosts as per some belief) and a 250 year old ‘Khirni’ tree. To enhance our knowledge of mangos, Mr Hashmi informed us that the names of the various varieties of mangos are attributed to the villages wherefrom these varieties were originated. Most of the mango trees are the result of large-scale grafting experiments by the planters. To see an original mango tree one may have to go to the Andaman Islands. Here also the visitor may find it difficult to recognize the tree simply for the reason that the mango trees are grown vertically like a palm tree and after attaining certain height the tree branches out which is not seen in the plains. The life of a mango tree can be theoretically endless due to grafting. Some of the very old trees are still surviving for the last 800 years in Delhi. With the age, of course, the fruit bearing capacity of the tree diminishes so also the size of mangos. The stories were very interestingly narrated by Naser and translated by Mr Hashmi in English for the benefit of some foreigners who were also part of the party.

About an hour was spent in the orchard. Many of us were benefited by the practical lesson given by Mr Hashmi as for us all the mango trees are the same.

The party returned to the haveli-cum-school premises. Lunch was being cooked still. We waited under the cool confines of a large room with a high ceiling of at least 15 feet. In fifteen minutes lunch was announced. The menu had mostly vegetarian dishes except for the chicken biryani. Everybody liked the ‘puris’ most as this the best item in the menu. The curries were delicious and so were the chapatis made from ‘besan’ (chickpea flour) soaked with pure ghee.

The dessert was the mangos. Four large containers were kept under the peepal tree where the mangos were immersed in water. There were at least ten varieties of mangos. One can eat as much as one wants. The ushers were there to help you identify the varieties and how to eat them. The party kept itself busy in eating mangos for the better part of the lunchtime. The arrangements were meticulously planned and executed, the credit for which goes to Mr Hashmi and his team.

There was a ‘karonda’(Carissa carandas – courtesy Google) plant which was full of the berry. I was seeing the plant for the first time and asked my wife to visit it. This was in the inner courtyard of the house. We met the principal of the school (Salma Public School) Ms Sheeba Sultana and chatted with her for some time about the school and its students. The school is open to both boys and girls and is up to class V. There are about 500 students and the family is trying to impart modern education to the children of the village. Later, when I spoke to Mr Zahoor Siddiqi, he was quite vocal about the importance of primary education, especially in villages where the religious schools get prominence (he was referring to the madarsas). Mr Siddiqi, with the walking stick in one hand, moved among the guests, enquired about the lunch, introduced the cook to some of the guests and generally talked about his family, the village and the need for peaceful living among all. The mango orchard that he owns is actually a legacy he is carrying through his heart lies in education. The school is a small effort in that direction.

Around 2.30 pm, Mr Hashmi enquired if everybody had their lunch and finished eating mangos. If this was done, he urged everybody to proceed towards the buses. Every visitor was given 5 kg mangos of assorted variety complementary. I was thinking what to do with 20 kg of mangos (all four of my family were part of the tourist party). Ishani gave her share to one of her friends who hailed from a joint family.

The village seemed to be well-off one. Plenty of cars, bikes, SUVs were seen plying on the road. What pitied us most was the filth strewn around the village. At the entry point of the village, there was garbage thrown of all types. The only village road was never swept clean, it seemed. The gully leading to the school was clean but the open drains flanking the lane were never cleaned. Blaming the authorities is easy. I felt that the cleanliness is something the villagers themselves can manage. Every year busloads of tourists visit their village for the fame of the particular variety. But when they leave, they leave with the foul smell from the stench of the garbage which seemed to be kept there from eternity. The villagers are themselves to blame for this apathy. It requires little effort to keep the surrounding clean, especially in a village.

But for this negative impact, our trip to Rataul was memorable. The organising skill of Mr Hashmi and his team was commendable, the food was sumptuous, the host’s generosity was praiseworthy and the mangos were simply delicious enough to forget the humid and sweating weather.



A Tale of Apathies

I was on a tourist visit to the state of Gujarat last month. My tour started with a visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and ended there a week later. In the sprawling premises of the Ashram, the main attraction was the house of Gandhiji. A simple house without a single sign of any luxury. It was evident that locally available material was used to build the house. The house has two entry points through one of which is closed all the time. The closed entry seems to the main entrance when the house was constructed. The wooden gate of the house is covered with bougainvillea creepers blooming all the time with colorful flowers. However, the entry in the back which faces the Sabarmati River is now abuzz with visitors. As you climb two small steps (shoes must be taken off), you are in a large verandah. The entire flooring is in square slate tiles. The roof, covered with baked clay tiles, is supported by solid wood frame. On the left of the verandah, there lies the room used by Gandhiji to receive visitors and to spin the ‘charkha’. The room is closed for visitors and one can just peep into the room through the small opening in the door to see the mattress used by Gandhiji to sit upon, his ‘charkha’ and a wooden desk used for writing. The room has four windows, two in the front wall and two in the back wall and two doors. There are just about 4 rooms in the house, all ten by ten feet size except the room used by Gandhiji which is a bit large. There is a single and simple door for entry in each room through the inner verandah and two simple iron grill windows. For Ba and Gandhiji and their skeleton support staff, it seems to be adequate. The house, its plan, the verandah (both outside and inside) and simply grilled windows attracted most of the visitors for its simplicity which was very much vivid in every corner. I found the house to demand very low maintenance. The plastered walls required whitewashing once in a year. The flooring required no maintenance except for the daily cleaning. The solid wood frame supporting the roof tiles would stay so for hundreds of years. The roof tiles are made of baking locally available clay. A befitting example of the simple lifestyle that Gandhiji professed and practiced.

The ambiance of the Ashram as a whole was very solemn and every tourist, I am sure, is touched by the simplicity of the whole atmosphere and the beautiful setting on the banks of the river Sabarmati which, thanks to the efforts of the local administration, is maintained immaculately clean.

Now come to Delhi. There is a replica of Gandhiji’s home at Sabarmati Ashram at the Gandhi Museum opposite to Rajghat in Delhi. I chanced upon the house when I entered the museum from the back gate. In fact, there was no back gate. A narrow pathway, cut across the boundary wall of the two adjacent buildings, leads from the office of the Gandhi Peach Foundation building to the museum and as directed by the guard I took the pathway to enter the museum premises. As I entered and followed the paved trail to the front of the museum, on my left, I noticed the house. For a moment, I stood still. The house is just a replica of what I saw in Sabarmati! Same size, same proportions, same height and same material, at least from the look of it. But deserted. There was not a single visitor. Dried leaves are strewn all around. The doors are closed. The gate is closed. There is no sign of life in the house. A stark contrast to what I had seen in Sabarmati. Gandhiji has long ceased living in that house. But his presence is felt in every corner of the house. There the verandah was abuzz with tourists, who especially looking with rapt attention to the spinning ‘charkha’ by one of the Ashram workers. Some are learning how to use the machine from the lady who seemed to be so adept at spinning the machine that she was simultaneously guiding and spinning threads from the cotton ball held at her left-hand fingers. The verandah of the house at Delhi was just desolate, empty and seemed to be abandoned by everybody. It hurt me. The situation at the museum was no better. When I went in (the entry is free), I found just about four visitors.

The apathy in maintaining two modern-day memorials was stark. At Sabarmati, the original place of the Ashram was agog with activities. Even if you do not follow his philosophy, the surroundings at Sabarmati compels you to think for a while about the philosophy of the great man. At the Gandhi Museum in Delhi, the atmosphere is just missing. The Rajghat, where he was cremated, is just opposite, just across the road. But it fails to evoke any such sentiment associated with the man and his Ashram at Sabarmati.


In search of Employment

In our recent tour to a western state of the country, we met a bunch of young men and women who were from some remote corner in the state of West Bengal. Frankly speaking, we were surprised to find them here. At the first sight, they seemed ordinary folks who evoke not much interest. They were busy in their duties, doing their jobs, smoothly, efficiently and silently.

We were engaged in our chattering and savoring (or devouring!) the dinner as served by the boys and the girls. The girls were more attentive to our table and did take care of our demands (not tantrums). At last, after the dinner was over, the girl attending our table politely handed over a feedback form and a pen. The form contained usual stuff. I am a bit averse to divulge personal details (hypocrite! Such details are divulged in social media platforms gleefully). So whatever could be avoided was avoided and some morbid boxes on the form were ticked off. The girl was interested in getting her name mentioned in the form. We asked her name.


We smiled. My daughter’s name is the same.

“Hmm! That’s a familiar name among Bengali girls.”

“I am a Bengali”. She replied promptly.

“We too.” We responded cheerfully.

“Wow.” “Apnara Bangali (Are you Bengali)?” She exclaimed.

“Yes, we are.”

With a wide grin, she was joined by three of her colleagues and they introduced themselves to us. All from Bengal.

“How come you people are here from such a far distance from your place? From East to West?”

“In search of jobs, Sir.”

Oh! But that sounds to be too simple for an answer.

“Sir, we are recruited for our culinary skills.”

Not very convincing reason. There must be some solid basis.

“Yes Sir, there is. In this part of the country, the local population, being mostly vegetarian, are not good at cooking non-vegetarian delicacies.”

“The owners could not recruit locals for this reason and scouted other places of the country.”

Ah! I got it. Bengalis are sort of synonymous with non-vegetarian dishes. At any part of the country, the Bengalis are deemed to be fish-eating population.

“So, that is the advantage for you, right?”

“Yes Sir, at least it (the tag) helped us in getting the job.”

I was amused pleasantly. Good that your food habit or rather the publicity attached to it sometimes works in your favor.

Long live my non-vegetarian Bengali brethren (sisters too, of course).

Privileged & others – a train ride

Delhi to Dhanbad
Sealdah Rajdhani

30 minutes after start, the train slowed down running parallel to another train.

The refreshments were just served in the Rajdhani.

The other train was jam packed. The sleeper coaches – non ac – were crammed with people, even the lavatories. All the doors were open. At each door two passengers were sitting with their legs dangling out. Behind them, on the corridor, people were jostling even for standing erect.

Well, what is the big deal? It is everyday scenario in ordinary trains in India.

What struck me was the stark reality at that moment. The passengers in Rajdhani were munching the refreshments while the hapless passengers in the ordinary train running parallel just looked on. The kids holding the window grills had their mouths open, the adults must have been cursing their luck. Some might be abusing the system and some just looked on blankly.

I stopped eating and waited for either one to overtake the other. The ordinary train ran fast as our train stopped for few seconds. When the other train inched ahead, the passengers in that were gleeful. Running ahead of Rajdhani was their win, their medal and their refreshment. I could see the sense of pride in the wide grinning most of them.
“You can have your refreshments in an air-conditioned fast train but we would reach home earlier than you.”

It is another matter that the ordinary train was overtaken by Rajdhani after a while at its peak speed and it was just a blur. Neither us nor the ordinary people in the ordinary train bothered about each other.

Searching for Cotton Punys

I and my family were in Gujarat in the first week of March this year. Apart from the other sights, we visited the famous Sabarmati Ashram which was home to Gandhiji, the Father of the Nation. While roaming the Ashram, I observed spinning yarn with Charkha, a simple machine with which Gandhiji had dreamt of changing the economic condition of the poor of this country. I found the work very interesting and wanted to buy a Charkha. Only one piece was available on that day in the store in the Ashram so we decided to wait as we were to come back to the Ashram next week after we finish our other sightseeing in this state.

We returned to the Ashram on the next Saturday and bought the Charkha and a bundle of cotton punys. Armed with the machine I approached Lata Ben who was sitting on the verandah of the house where Gandhiji lived. She was spinning yarn and also teaching the interested tourists how to spin. She taught me for about 10 minutes, right from how to open the machine, its various parts and how to spin yarn. Ishani, my daughter did some videography while she was teaching us.

We returned to Noida the same night. After a couple of days, I tried to spin yarn using the machine. Initially, it seemed to be a tough task. However, with little patience and practice, and also some help from YouTube videos, I could learn the tricks within two days. Since then, it was a routine for me to spin at least a couple of hours every day.

I had bought only one bundle of cotton punys at the store at Sabarmati. It was exhausted in about 15 days. I thought I would be able to procure the same in Delhi easily. But this was not the case. No one sells here in Noida or Delhi – as far as Google told me. For about four days, I was idle and felt bad. Suddenly it clicked for me that may the Khadi shops sell this item. There is only one such authorized shop in Sector 27. I went there yesterday morning. The shop was closed for audit. However, I enquired from the workers inside if they store cotton punys. No was the answer. Then where I could get them? You have to go to Rajghat. Rajghat? That is where Gandhiji was cremated and it is a memorial. How come there would be any shop? No answer. I decided to explore myself. At least there was a clue.

Today I went to Rajghat. I got down at Indraprastha metro station and took a shared auto which dropped me just before the Rajghat traffic signal. As I took the footpath, I noticed the board of Gandhi Peach Foundation. I entered the premises and asked the guard if any shop selling cotton punys is there. He said no and guided me to the Gandhi Museum which was the next building. I went there, asked the guard who indicated towards a shop in a corner of the building. I went there. The shop was selling only literature items. I asked the lady behind the counter. She was unaware and asked me to inquire from the manager in the next room. The manager was busy with two more persons. I apologetically barged in and repeated my query. He was polite and told me to go to the next building, Gandhi Sahitya Sabha. I moved out of this premises and after a garbage dump could locate the building which was maintained shabbily. I entered the premises. There was no one at the counter. A very old lady was sitting in a room and chatting with another lady. I begged her excuse and asked where I would get cotton punys. She directed me to go to the corner of the building where there is a staircase to the first floor. I moved towards the corner. A dog followed me wagging its tail and left me as soon as I started climbing the stairs. It was a dilapidated building and negligence in upkeep was evident everywhere, on the staircase, on walls, on doors, and on windows.

The staircase led me to an open terrace. There were rooms in L shape on two sides of the terrace. An old gentleman, heavy built, attired in a kurta and lungi, sitting beside a dining table under a corrugated asbestos sheet roof having a ceiling fan running at full speed, was reading a Hindi newspaper. I approached him, and after due salutations, I asked him if I can get the cotton punys here. He was affirmative and I sighed relief. I told him a little of my story and how I was searching for the cotton punys, in stores, and in the internet. He informed me that no one keeps this item, not even the Khadi stores and that is the irony.

He was Mr. Vijay Kumar Handa, must be an octogenarian, barely able to walk with his torso always in a bent position. In that gait, he walked to a room, took out the key to the store, opened the store and asked how many bundles did I require. I asked for two bundles for the present. It cost just Rs.35 per bundle. In a while, I asked him if a TV channel had made a short documentary on him and his activities. He was affirmative. Immediately I could recall that I had seen the programme on a TV channel. He was though nonchalant about the programme. In one sentence he lamented the present scenario about the exercise. He encouraged me by assuring of any assistance in future.

When I came out of the premises with two cotton puny bundles in my hand, I wondered about the situation. It seemed really hopeless. But my conscience told me to march on come what may. Maybe Gandhiji just thought like that, believed entirely and remained on that path forever.

Ajay’s story – an immigrant to a mega polis

Ajay was in class V, studying in his village school was barely 10 when, one evening he got a sound thrashing from his father for neglecting studies. He was not good at studies and detested the rigmarole of getting educated. Since there is no failing till primary level of education he was getting promoted to the next class every year till he reached class V. The thrashing was a routine since there were complaints of his poor levels in the school. Plainly speaking, he loathed and despised study. Ajay was from Motihari, a backward and poor district in the state of Bihar.

That evening’s thrashing was the last straw in his resolve to flee his village and his home. Ajay could read the letters that reached his village folks from Delhi. There were quite a few immigrant labourers from his village to Delhi who would write letters back home. There were few who could read or write. Ajay was among them and he was helpful in reading the letters. It was early nineties when the cellphone were still in its infancy and STD phone calls were both expensive and non-existent in nondescript villages like Ajay’s. Therefore a postcard or an inland letter was more in vogue than any other mode of communication. The villagers used to get the information of their dear ones at a distant place by these snailmails read by Ajay.

There were two outcomes of these letters. One was the information to the relatives to whom the letters were written. The other one was exclusively for Ajay. Ajay had started forming a fair description of the place, culture, food habits, weather, transportation, accommodation etc. about the place in Delhi where his relatives or his village folks lived. Without ever setting foot in the city he had a sketch ready in his mind and had started planning his escape. He was aware of few basics which would help him escape. He just knew the place where his folks were living in Delhi. He knew that the place could be reached by bus from the Delhi rail station. He knew the landlord’s name. He knew the nearest bus stop from where he would get a bus to reach the rail station, 30 km away from his village. He knew the train timings and he could guess the amount of money he needed to succeed the great escape. He was just a 10-year-old boy but with a meticulous planning of escape as generally expected from an adult person.

The evening he was thrashed badly, he cried to show his pain to others. From within, his resolve was now firm. He took dinner at usual time (it’s always early in villages) and went to sleep. When the whole household became quiet, he stole Rs.700 from his father’s purse. The bus for the rail station was at very early morning. He kept a shoulder bag ready with just couple of his dress. At 3 in the morning in the early winter of 1999, he rolled his blanket and pillow on his cot to fashion a dummy as if someone was asleep, took his shoulder bag and Rs.700 concealed in his body very secretively, left his house and his village for the bus stand. Not a single soul was to be seen around in the darkness. Few dogs chased him whom he thwarted by waving his bag. He told me that he was waving the bag to the dogs just to frustrate their attempt to bite him. He reached the bus stand and soon he boarded the first bus to the station. At the station he bought a half-ticket for Delhi of general compartment and boarded the train. He was free.

After a journey for more than 30 hours, he reached Delhi rail station. He just knew the name of the place where his village mates were staying. It was Dallupura in East Delhi. Ajay was aware that he should go to the nearest bus stand near the station and from there he would get a bus to Dallupura. Taking cues from people, he reached the bus stand and looked for the bus to Dallupura. He found one but got a bit puzzled that the destination was written in the board as Dallupura Extension. ‘Extension’ was a new word for him. Ajay was anything but nervous in a big city like Delhi. He was just a boy of 10 and innocently he asked the bus conductor whether the bus would go to Dallupura. ‘Yes’, replied the conductor. ‘Then what is ‘Dallupura Extension’?’ ‘Never mind, get into the bus if you want to go to Dallupura’, the conductor replied. He boarded the bus and sat beside the conductor as he knew that the best guide would be him only. The conductor took pity at the boy of such a tender age and guided him to the stop at Dallupura an hour later.

Ajay could not believe his luck. He was at Dallupura, finally. It’s three days since he has left his village, his parents, his brothers, his relatives, everyone without their knowledge where he was. Now the most daunting task was to locate the house where his relatives stayed in Dallupura. He knew the landlord’s name and that was the only clue he had. Fortune favours the brave. After asking few people in the locality, he was informed that the landlord was a big man in the area and he had rented out several houses. Soon he reached his relative’s house at Dallupura.

His relatives and acquaintances were very surprised seeing him coming all alone from the distant village. There was a natural affinity and bonhomie among immigrants. He was welcomed with open arms, bathed, clothed and fed. However, that night Ajay wept profusely remembering his home and his parents. He could not sleep properly.

Next day onwards, he observed the routine followed by his countrymen. Most of them were daily labourers working in construction sites. He was just a child so no one offered him a job. A week passed by. His money started slowly dwindling. He was aware that soon he must find some work to sustain his livelihood in the city. The landlady’s wife took pity in him and offered him the work of a labourer at her construction site. Ajay, being the only ‘educated’ among the lot started keeping account of daily expenditure of the household. Soon he was able to shortchange them and managed to earn some money besides managing his contribution to the household expenses.

Within a fortnight of his arrival, Ajay started earning regularly as a labourer. He would do any type of manual work. However, he kept his eyes and ears open to the skilled functions of the construction works. He learnt the electrician work and started taking up such tasks.

After about 6 months of his stay, his father arrived at Dallupura one fine morning. The news of Ajay’s safe arrival at Dallupura had reached his village within a fortnight. His parents were a worried lot till the news reached. Ajay was not at home when his father arrived. In the evening when Ajay returned from his daily work, he could recognize the ‘dhoti’ getting dried in courtyard. At once, he knew that his father had arrived. Both the father and son wept their heart out on seeing each other and hugged tight. That night the duo eat from the same plate and talked till late night. The father wanted to take the son back to village but Ajay was adamant. He assured that he would come later. His father stayed for a week and Ajay saw him off after buying his return ticket and also gave him Rs.3000, savings from his earnings so far and more than 4 times the money he stole from his father’s purse. Ajay was just 11 then.

The lessons of life quickly arrived for Ajay. He understood the power of money. He knew that not being educated has its drawbacks but at the same time hard work, in any form, pays. It’s quite puzzling that he was poor at studies but very sharp in picking up the nuances of construction work. Spending few years in various odd jobs, he attained some skill in electrical works. However, he abruptly left the electrical work. He was bitten by a bug while fixing a ceiling fan and also received electric shock one day and fell from about 12 feet height.

With the help of one of his acquaintances, he learnt the ‘jari’ work on garments and worked till 2006 in a garment factory. He learnt the tailoring work also there and could stitch pants and shirts. He left that job due to ‘computerisation’ of designs. The artwork by hand was affected by computer aided designs and it hit the manual artisans.

In that year, Ajay picked up the ‘karni’, a tool used by masons. Since he had worked in construction sites and helped the masons, he soon, was proficient in masonry works. He has been continuing as mason since then and earning about Rs.20000 a month.

Ajay had visited his native village 18 months after he had escaped. He was kind of ‘hero’ at his village who was not only the only one to make such a ‘brave’ and ‘dangerous’ effort to escape but also a earning member of the family at such a tender age. He had taken gifts for everyone in his family and gave some cash also to his parents. He was at his village for about three weeks and when he boarded the train back to Delhi, he was given a warm send-off by his entire clan. Ajay was just 12.

Now almost 18 years in the city, Ajay has made steady progress both economically and profession-wise. He is a skilled worker now earning at least Rs.800 a day. He takes up petty jobs on contract also to augment his earnings. He is married and has two sons. His family is in the village and he sends his children to ‘private’ schools in the village as there is no education in ‘sarkari’ (govt.) schools. His elder son is in class 5 and like him does not like to study. The only lure which takes the son to school is a daily allowance of Rs 5 or 10 which his mother gives him. For this purpose Ajay saves all the changes he receives during the year and delivers to his wife when he visits them annually, during October-November. Ajay is afraid that his son may follow his path. He is a father and now understands the agony his parents have gone through when he ran away from home.

There are hundreds of such stories of migrant child labourers in every big city. I came to know Ajay just last week when there was some masonry work in my new flat. He found a keen listener in me and narrated his story. I found it amazing and worth blogging.

My Co-passengers


Coach B9. Seats 25 28 – not so elderly couple – first said 25 but took 28. On pointing to actual seat, arrogance erupted: 25 & 28 are both ours!

Seat 26 29 – four luggages. Kept on corridor for sometime. Not so Elderly man: where we would keep our luggage? You are taking all! Arrogance in the same level. The young ones were humble enough and adjusted their luggage quickly to the satisfaction of the ‘arrogant’ not so old man.

It seemed to me that the not so elderly gentleman does not give an inch anywhere. Not accommodating at all. May be bitter experiences in life.

In my numerous train travels I have encountered such behaviour often. Passengers would fight over luggage space, choice of berths (everyone wants the lower berth)!

The ‘arrogant’ man returned after probably surveying the coach and facilities. He sat in a peculiar posture beside me, spreading his knees wide enough to compel me to adjust my posture. I have observed rampant use of this very irritating way of seating among many men. Somehow this has become habit for many without realising the negative impression it creates.

The lady of the not so elderly couple was sorry that waitlisted passengers could not board as the train allows only confirmed passengers to board. She was happy that one seat was allotted to one person only🙂!! She was traveling in Rajdhani express for the first time. It was confirmed when she asked her husband if the train was fully airconditioned.

The allotment of berths are difficult for me to decipher. The couple got 25 & 28 both lower berths. The duo in front of me got 26 & 29 both middle berths. It is said that senior citizens and female above 45 years of age are allotted lower berths. But this is not always the case. My 84 year old mother and my 63 year old brother were not allotted lower berths in the May trip. The logic is still not clear to me after so many years of computerised online reservation system. I am pretty sanguine of manual intervention.

In my adjacent coupe, the expected debate on Modi and Kejriwal started. A lady was happy that her electricity bill is halved and there is no water bill under Kejriwal regime. However she is at pain at Kejriwal’s meaningless outbursts against Modi. The debate took a break on arrival of refreshments.

An intercity train passed ahead when our train stopped briefly creating sounds of tabla to our stationary soundproof train.

The two young men sitting opposite to my seat were conversing in the eastern dialect of UP heard in and around Varanasi. I heard the dialect after so many years. Years ago when my aunt stayed at Varanasi I used visit her almost every year. The locals spoke in that dialect and my cousins were quite proficient in the dialect including the tone. The boatmen at the ghats of Ganga spoke in that dialect only, even to foreigners. Very sweet and easy to understand.

True to their natural instinct, one of the young men went out in the corridor and returned with ready ‘khaini’ (a mixture of dry tobacco leaves and edible lime powder) in his palm duly concealed and handed over to his friend. The familiar smell reached my nostrils and I understood the whole sequence.

The not so elderly man was fond of old Hindi film songs. He started playing hit songs from a recording of Binaca Geetmala program in his mobile phone. In the adjacent coupe, the political discussions did not resume. Instead, the ‘Sundarkand paath’ started playing from…. what….mobile phone.

Meanwhile the not so old lady reminded her husband of medicine time.

There was distraction to the ladies listening to ‘Sundarkand Paath’ because our not so old gentleman was listening to the old Hindi Film songs quite loudly. So the ladies started chanting the lines from ‘Sundarkand’. The music stopped all conversations. What a way to stop all kind of conversations (including the ever increasing political debates)!

A little later the not so old lady started viewing some recorded serial. They had carried a Jio network device. They were oblivious to the noise and was not using earphones. Copassengers had to bear with the disturbance. I remembered an old sign in rail coaches prohibiting playing radios if it disturbed other passengers.  No such signs are visible these days. The not so old couple are from the days of that notice but obviously they never noticed neither cared.

Tea and refreshments served. Our not so old elderly couple had all but continued complaining about over-weight and other related ailments.

After dinner the gentleman revealed his age while boasting something about his travels. He was 62. I was right. They were not so elderly. These days person of all ages dye their hair. So it’s difficult to ascertain age these days.

Science played its role while we all were retiring for the night. A gentleman was snoring loud sleeping in the side upper berth. The snoring sound echoed to my ears as if someone was sleeping just beside. The arc of ceiling of the coach brought the sound.  I remembered Gol Gumbad of Bijapur. The earphones came handy. I had to plug my ears to limit the savagery of his snoring.

The quality of tea was a problem for the not so elderly couple. The lady regretted that no other tea hawker with readymade tea was available unlike other trains. They found the tea to be very light. A solution was found by using two tea bags for one cup. The lady was still sceptical.

I parted with them now. The journey for them was another 4 hours. Could only imagine their reaction on the quality of breakfast and further events. They had entertainment ready with the Jio device and it already serving them when I disembarked the train.

Don’t become a bystander

A responsible citizen has many roles to play. One of the roles is to voice concern or act responsibly on an event or incident. His/her role should not be limited to a mute spectator or play victim of circumstances. The citizen needs to rise, react and respond. History is replete with incidents where a lone citizen first voiced a concern and slowly the voice became vociferous. Such vociferous voice was soon joined by the chorus and the combined voices became a movement.

To start this piece of the blog on such a serious note is just a preamble to what I see every day within the confine of my society and at large when I hit the road.

Let us begin with an example. The other day, I saw a taxi having 4 passengers drove dangerously. The driver had no respect for the traffic signal nor did he have any concern for the accompanying traffic. It grazed past my vehicle from the wrong side with a little but noticeable scratch. My concern is not the rash driving habit of the driver. I am concerned about the 4 passengers’ safety. It is my experience (and many would vouch for that) that passengers in a vehicle are least bothered as to how the vehicle is driven. Their only concern is to reach the destination in the shortest possible time. They are least bothered about their own safety. The 4 passengers were totally oblivious to the consequences of the dangerous driving. They did not care to jump the red light by the driver. They did not care that the driver was overtaking vehicles from the wrong side. They did not care that the driver was ignorant about pedestrian traffic. They did not care to admonish or alert the driver about the careless driving which was putting their safety in jeopardy. This is a daily scene in any vehicle you see on the road, especially the commercial vehicles. The passengers remained just bystanders even when their own lives were in danger.

I have also observed the parking habits of various people. They would park their vehicles as if either they own the parking space or there would be no other vehicle. We observe this unbecoming behaviour regularly. But I have not observed anyone objecting to such a behaviour except for the parking attendant in paid parking lots. That too obviously for business reasons. The bystander syndrome affects all of us here too.

The malady has serious consequences. We have seen accidents on roads where people coolly leave the scene (after duly performing the role of a bystander). Seldom anyone offers help. These days some bystanders film the incident in their smartphones just to circulate the same in social media. It does not help in mitigating the suffering. A bystander is of no help. He is rather a hindrance.

Among the many stories emanating from the great epic ‘Mahabharata’, at this point, I remember the story of the ‘Yaksha’ who asked five questions to ‘Yudhishtira’. One of the questions was what the greatest riddle in the earth was. ‘Yudhishtira’ replied that every day people die. We all are witness to this phenomena in our daily lives. Yet, I, as a bystander, believe that I am alive without realising that I would also attain the same fate, for sure. This is the greatest riddle. A bystander neglect incidents on the same reasoning.

The bystander syndrome is all pervasive. We are ‘bystanders’ to the filth, dirt and stench around us. Someone throws garbage on road. We are mute spectators. Someone spits in the open. We are bystanders. Someone defecate openly. We are bystanders. Someone damages public property. We are bystanders. Someone defaces walls. We are bystanders. Someone humiliates. We are bystanders. Someone does not do his/her job. We remain bystanders and don’t protest. Someone show cruelty towards animals. We are bystanders. Someone is taking undue advantage of his/her position. We are bystanders. The list is infinite.

So what one should do? At least, make a beginning with yourself. Even on one occasion if you are voicing your concern, you are not among the ‘bystanders’.

The list is infinite.


It has occurred to me many a time to write a profile on Beli. She has been our maid for the longest period. A frail lady (not weighing more than 90 pounds at any point of time) helped my wife in cleaning the house, washing clothes and doing the dishes. From an early morning visit to the last visit in the evening, she completed her tasks without any criticism from any of my family members. Her bell in the morning woke up the entire family. Only my wife would get up and open the door while all others would leave their beds depending upon the urgency. Beli’s task in that hour included doing the dishes and broom the Puja room. She would leave for another house thereafter only to return after a couple of hours to clean the house and help in washing clothes. My wife would dutifully provide her with some refreshment before she leaves at that hour. Her last visit for the day would be in the evening. At any given time, Beli would manage such work for at least 4 to 5 households. In between, she would visit her one room tenement to cook for her family, bath herself and come back to resume her jobs. She has been methodical and never gave any opportunity for complaints. Always smiling, she did her job to the best of her ability.

Beli came to this part of the country in search of work in the early part of the last decade. She came from an obscure and nondescript village in another nondescript district in the state of West Bengal. Migrant workers, in search of jobs, came in hordes when the city started developing rapidly in early 2000. The menial jobs were in demand, especially the household jobs. For a housewife, a maid is a blessing and a boon at the same time. The poor from the local populace were not much interested or skilled in such jobs. Mostly peasants, the local populace somehow despised the job of cleaning someone’s house or doing the dishes. The women folk of the migrant labourers took the job rather enthusiastically as the jobs were aplenty and it added to the family income. The rentals were high, cost of living in a town was already a matter of strain to the family and the lowly paid jobs of the men in factories were not sufficient to run the household. Many migrant men took up the jobs of rickshaw puller where the income was not steady and factory jobs were scarce. Hence the women of the house joined their husbands to supplement the income to eke out a moderate standard of living.

Beli came with her husband and three children, two daughters and one son. The couple was landless labourers. Her husband was not trained in any particular skill. So he started with rickshaw puller’s work which fetched him irregular income. Beli had no choice but to start working in nearby houses/flats. They lodged themselves in a one room tenement at an adjoining urban village at an astronomical rent of Rs.1000 in early 2000. Astronomical by their standards! Though rooms with lesser rent were available, Beli preferred paying a little extra since the building had toilet facility. Beli, for herself and also for her two minor daughters, did not like the idea of open defecation, one of the many qualities of Beli. So she agreed to pay a little higher rent. She has enlightened already without realising that such a thing will become a state-sponsored movement much later.

The wages for doing dishes, washing clothes or cleaning/dusting households were mostly fixed by the society managements. In our area, there are no individual houses. Group housing societies have constructed flats for their members and such jobs were available in these households. I remember the rates prevailing in 2003 when we started living in this area. It was Rs.250 per job per month. So for one household, maximum Rs.750 was earned by a maid if she did all the three jobs. Considering the households and the composition of each family, a maid could manage only 4 to maximum 5 households. This was really a backbreaking job. Fortunately, though the rates were fixed, certain households were benevolent. They paid a little extra to the maids with the twin purpose of earning goodwill and ensuring loyalty. The attrition rate was high among the maids. There are various reasons for it. However, the behaviour of the households was the most important reason. The maids came from a poor background. But they did not accept nonsense. Any rude or unbecoming attitude was enough reason for any maid to say good-bye. A little extra amount every month was a boon for the maid. Apart from that, residents like my wife, who gave a little refreshment every morning to Beli, also took care of extra payments or gifts during festivals, arranged for school dresses for their children and took care during illness. My wife lent her advance money at times for some sudden requirement to be repaid at leisure. Beli was at ease in working in our home particularly for two reasons, one she has the liberty to take leave as and when she needed and secondly she could talk to my mother in her mother tongue. My mother, who is also from a remote village in North Bengal liked to talk to her, endlessly.

Beli took special care in educating her children. There were opportunities for her minor daughters to supplement the family income. There was a demand of minor servants at houses who would take care of the aged family members or babysitting by staying either full-time or part-time till the other members return home. But Beli didn’t like it. She was of the firm opinion not to push her children in the same trade. She started educating her children. Both her daughters covered primary school education. The elder one was given vocational training in sewing. A tall girl by her age, her elder daughter was smarter among the lot. She did start working in houses but not as a maid but as a cook. The son’s education was continued till school final. Now he works in a local factory.

Beli was ahead of her age in finance management. She had a bank account (much before the hoopla of ‘financial inclusion’ started) and she saved whatever she could. The household expenses increased over the years. Of course, the remuneration was also hiked but the gap remained. Beli managed within her means. Her husband’s finances never improved. He remained a rickshaw puller and irregular in earnings. A lethargic man who depended heavily on his wife’s earnings.

She had an ambition of having her own pucca house at her village. The family’s only possession was a thatched hut at their village which required repairs every year. Due to floods, the living condition in a mud hut with thatched roof was pathetic. Beli wanted to change. With a trickle every now and then, she saved enough to build the house consisting of just one room. It was her accomplishment. She was now not afraid of floods.

As it happens in villages till date, early marriages are common. Beli withstood the pressure. She married both her daughters after they reached the age of eighteen. This was also an accomplishment for her that on her own she arranged the money for their marriage. She was also instrumental in bringing the son-in-laws to this city to get them suitably employed as there was not much opportunity in their villages.

I have booked her railway tickets online sometimes as the agent who booked tickets charged extra for no reasons. I observed that she liked to travel in reserved compartments, though many of her compatriots travelled in unreserved compartments for the sake of less fare. She continuously aimed at improving her living standards and imparted the same thought among her children.

Beli has now left the job of cleaning the houses or doing dishes. Because of her frail health, it was becoming difficult for her to do those laborious jobs. She was a good cook and started cooking for few households where the money is good and the job was less strenuous. But due to her loyalty to our family, she continued doing the job until last year. She arranged a substitute for us and then she left the job. Even now she is available in case of any need.

Beli now pays a rent of Rs.3200 for the same one-room tenement. Rs. 200 is extra for having an attached bath cum toilet. She cooks lunch and dinner for some houses. In our building, she does it for two houses. One house has 3 girls for whom she buys vegetables and other stuff required for cooking. With her pleasant smile and no-nonsense attitude, she easily becomes a necessity in whichever household she works. Beli has started construction of her house at her village. In fact, she has managed to acquire a small piece of adjoining land to build a two-room house. She is proud of her achievements.

Beli had turned a grandmother before she turned 50. Taking long leave, she went to her daughters’ village to help labour and subsequent care of the mother and child. She has built a reputation of good work and unflinching loyalty which helped her to take back her position once she returned to the city, every time. The households, where she had worked, are always ready to avail her services even she has been absent for long periods, sometimes months together.

I sum up this writing with a bow to Beli who is a symbol of survival instinct in an alien condition. When arrived, she was just unaware of anything and everything about the place. The language was foreign to her, the people were unfriendly and hostile, the customs were opposite to what she has learnt so far when she arrived, women were (and still are) ogled, exploitation by the local villagers of the migrants were in vogue, the households where she was employed were looking for opportunities to get extra work done without paying, there was no fixed timing of work – all at the whims of the household, there were filth and stench where she lived (the landlord has cow and buffalo sheds near their tenement), the husband’s income was not dependable, there were three minor mouths to feed at least twice in a day and there was no future or certainty.

Beli survived and flourished against all odds.

The traffic policemen at Mamura crossing

I need to drive through the Mamura crossing if I am not taking the NH 24 to go to any part of the city. I have gone through the crossing numerous times and at all possible times of the day and night. Most of my drives are during the peak hours. And at these hours one can assess the situation in and around the crossing. Otherwise, during the odd hours like early morning or late night, smooth ride through the crossing is a certainty.

During the peak hours, I need to wait necessarily for 5 to 10 minutes in this crossing. The waiting time for the light green for me is 150 seconds. During these seconds, I can advance only a few yards once the light is green for me. The assorted vehicles ahead of me move at a snail’s pace. So at least after 3 such attempts, I am successful in negotiating the crossing. From any direction, there are at least 50 to 100 vehicles forming a chaotic crowd up to 500 meters (sometimes a kilometer). Then there are pedestrians let loose from all directions. There is no pedestrian movement facility provided at the crossing. So the hapless and hurrying pedestrians take whatever space available to them to cross the roads. This affects the movement of the vehicles and the resultant chaos.

All these explanations above is to make one understand the most disheveled and messy circumstances during peak hours. Still, the site of the traffic policemen is the only succour in the commotion. I have keenly observed that actions of the traffic policemen at the crossing. They are a lot of about 4 people, 2 among them would be actual traffic constables and two would be drawn from the home guard and private guard pool. Private guards are stationed to help in the construction of the metro line that is coming up across the crossing.

There is no traffic island from where the traffic police can direct traffic. As normally expected, the traffic police would stand on an elevated spot in the middle of the junction where from he would manage and guide the traffic. The elevated spot is supposed to be protected and also provide shade to the traffic police for protection from rain and sunlight. Such a luxury is missing at this crossing. The policemen are constantly on move from one corner to the other corner of the crossing. The traffic signals notwithstanding, the commuters pay no heed to the signals. There is also a provision of timer fitted in the signals. Instead of waiting patiently considering the time available to the colour to change, the commuters show all negative reactions. If there is still few seconds left for the colour to change from red to green, the impatient traffic would approach the middle of the junction blocking the way for the oncoming traffic. Same is the case for the traffic who, sensing that the time is running out for them, would step up the gas to cross the junction hurriedly causing a further commotion. The policeman would move from one side to another side sensing the timings of the signal to turn from green to red. He would have to wave to the oncoming traffic to stop. The traffic would not listen. They would continue to surge ahead. After a hectic effort for about 10 to 15 seconds, the traffic would be forcibly stopped by the policemen by abusing, shouting and waving the stick and then the traffic from the side for which the signal is already green would start rolling. Since they have lost few precious seconds, they would also not budge once the light turns red. Thus the vicious circle goes on.

Imagine the plight of the policemen. During the period from 8 am to about 10 am in the morning and about the same period in the evening, the traffic policemen would be thoroughly busy. They are standing throughout. There is no option for them to check the traffic violations during the period. Traffic violations are aplenty. Basic traffic rules such as two-wheeler rider without helmet, 3 or more on a two wheeler in place of the permitted two, auto-rickshaws carrying more than the permitted number of passengers, car drivers without the safety belt on, trucks plying during no entry time zones, vehicles jumping red signal, vehicles violating one-way rules, illegal parking or waiting at the junction, bus drivers not driving in the designated lane etc. are just not possible for the traffic policemen at the crossing to enforce. They are just busy in clearing the crowd. They have to shout, cajole, verbally abuse and pretend to hit the violators all the time during the period. The policeman carries a stick or cane. I feel that the cane or the stick is just an extended part of his arm as nobody is really afraid of the beating. As he cannot extend his hand to waive the crowd to either stop or move, he uses the stick which is visible from a distance in the turmoil at the junction.

I have often seen the visibly upset and heckled policeman drinking water from a plastic bottle at a corner of the crossing looking hapless at the endless flow of unruly traffic from all directions. The stare of his eyes tells all. He knows it is unmanageable. He knows that his efforts are thankless. He knows that the surrounding traffic has no empathy for him. He knows that he is treated more as a traffic hazard than a person who is entrusted with the responsibility of driving out that hazard. He knows that there is no acknowledgement for his efforts. He knows that the superiors will pull him up for even a trivial issue in traffic management. The water in his bottle is hot and hardly quenches his thirst. For many jobs, there is time to visit the loo or to have time off to have a cup of tea or bite a little snack. He has no such luxury. He shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders and dutifully resumes his job.

As I said elsewhere that the sight of the policemen is the only succour in the melee, this is the only solace in the whole hullaballoo. There have been quite a few occasions when there is no traffic police in sight (for whatever reason). You won’t be able to realise the commotion unless you are caught in such a situation. I have gone through such a situation a number of times. From my experience, I know that I need to quickly turn back and do it as fast as possible for I know that if I get stuck there, God knows when I would be out of the mess. At times I am not so lucky to turn back for a number of vehicles have already occupied all the space around my vehicle. At all times, a single traffic policeman comes and manages the situation. The general public, many of them are knowledgeable and respectable gentlemen, turn onlookers of the melee and do not venture to loosen the knot, the traffic jam that is. The uniform does all. A skinny or a pot-bellied gentleman, in an attire of traffic police is able to accomplish what a sea of mankind juxtaposed in that commotion could not achieve.

The traffic signals are supposed to replace manual control of traffic movement in a junction. In this crossing, the signals work with a timer device. Traffic should flow effortlessly at this crossing without any hindrance. Disappointingly, that is not the case. Traffic police are needed to enforce the discipline. I have observed at many traffic junctions where the automatic signals with timer are working and no traffic police are posted, commuters give a damn, they just do not follow the signals routinely.

The purpose of this blog is to salute the traffic policemen, to acknowledge their efforts to maintain order and to thank them for a ‘smooth’ passage every time I cross through the junction at peak hours. We are quick at pointing fingers at them charging them with corrupt practices. But we forget that this is we who actually initiate such actions. We are not patient enough to wait for the signal to turn green, we step on the accelerator pedal as the signal is turning yellow instead of slowing down, we are not patient enough to allow the legitimate passer-by’s from other directions, we are not ready to stick to the designated lane, we are not ready to obey the basic traffic rules while, surprisingly, expecting others to emulate the same. In short, we are to take the blame solely on ourselves for the daily rigmarole of commotion at the crossing.