Finally, he finds sending the money through post to be the most convenient one.
Unless his clothes are handed over to the washer immediately, getting them back by Eid would be impossible. A plateful of biriyani at Karim’s will follow his namaz at Jama Masjid. But his real pleasure lies in taking a trip to the India Gate and Connaught place with his old mates at sundown.
Courtesy visits to the nearest and dearest ones, however, remains a priority. And he’ll do so immediately after the prayers. But those relatives are steadily dwindling. Most of them prefer the country home to this maddening cityscape. Some still have their wife and children living with them, though.
In his native village, Skype or voice chat is still scarce. And the thrifty conversation over the cell with his kid, newly initiated to cycling, proves to be the only alternative. Ruthlessly enough, the rising expenditure towards long distant calls is always unforgiving. It never obliges the endless father-daughter conversation rotating around new clothes, red ribbons and dolls marking Eid celebrations. Much against his heart, he is often forced to disconnect the call abruptly.
Still, his reverie runs unvanquished. Under the feeble, yet undaunted feet of the eager child seeking a long-denied meet with his father, the borrowed bicycle metamorphoses into a Pegasus. Ignoring the prohibiting words of an unwilling neighbour, its proud hooves rampage through the mortal barriers of poverty.
His tender son too eagerly waits to meet the father he misses so much. So are his old parents. Being their eldest son, his absence always steals most of the lustre of the Eid celebrations from them.
Neither is his wife happy. Unlike their closest neighbours, she has only a couple of festivals to celebrate. The first one, Eid-ul-Fitr, follows a month long celibacy and restraint; while the second one, Eid-ul-Ajha, is often termed as the festival of Qurbani, or supreme offering.
But harsh reality curtails his dreamy expectations. A trip to the native village costs no less than three thousand rupees, just enough to treat his father’s aching knee at a Kolkata hospital, or to provide his youngest brother a computer course at a mid-level institute, or buy his sister a few books for her forthcoming common entrance exams for the medical and engineering courses, or it could be utilised as….the list is endless. Worse still, since he tied the knot, he could never afford to buy his poor wife a single pinch of gold.
To top it all, the contractor he works for is yet to receive the dues. Even the trusted labour supplier he accompanied to this distant land has straightforwardly refused a single penny towards his homeward journey for the Eid celebrations.
The terribly narrow lane branching out from the left sidewalk of the road connecting Jama Masjid with Dariyagunj owes its name, machli galli, to the fish stalls it is spotted with. Throughout the year, stinking fish offal and muck forms a thick padding on its floor. A two minute walk down this lane leads him to a stack of shabby hotels consisting of damp walls, crowded rooms and stinking toilets. Even a bath demands a long wait in a queue.
His immediate neighbourhood is dominated by either construction labourers or miniscule silk traders. Scanty pockets of these Bengali speaking people are also occupied by rickshaw pullers from Malda and Dinajpur. Their unforgiving occupation keeps them tied to Delhi, much against their wish. A visit to their native villages on Eid is considered luxury. Even then the general compartments of Farakka mail or Brahmaputra Express is full to the brim. None but a microscopic minority can afford the Sleeper class tickets. And that too needs to be reserved a month in advance. However, with a reservation one does not have to spend the night sleepless.
Once the train crosses into UP or Bihar, the reserved status of these berths vanish into thin air. Local passengers swarm into the reserved compartments, consider your reserved seat as their own, rest on the luggage stuffed with your Eid gifts and smash your crispy delicacies into an indescribable mess. Such behaviours are rather considered rules than exceptions. Any protest from you will only be answered with harsh, unruly words. If you are fortunate enough to get a gentle reply, you will rather hear, “I’ll get down in a few minutes sir.” And these “few minutes” span throughout your entire journey.
Thus, his journey in a general compartment is invariably punctuated with dashes and pushes. In case he seeks a relief to the reserved compartment the ticket checker will charge him with a fine. But a glimpse of his son on an Eid morning clad in milk white clothes will dissolve all his sufferings. Seeing him pedalling his cycle will wipe these unbearably bitter memories of the train journey off his head.
“A brief stroll with you to the Masjid will cure my aching knee.” His father had conveyed over the phone this morning. His daughter, too, will be participating in a recitation competition in the evening. It’s only because of her rigorous, yet melodious rehearsal that these dark nights have been linked to his brighter days.
Suddenly, the serpentine queue before the post office counter appear endless. Hoping against hope, he drifts towards the railway counter.
The first step towards home, however uncertain, is never too late.
(The story had been originally written in Bengali in 2012; it was translated in English by Nirmalya Chakraborty.)