Saturday, July 31, 2010

Daktarda -- Part Two (concluded)

Very little was known of Daktarda's past or his background. He would not talk much about them. As it happens in such circumstances, rumours flew thick and fast. One among them that gained much acceptance was that he had been a Naxalite during his college days. The Naxalite movement was just past its prime in Bengal then. It was quite normal for many among the student community of that time to still feel sympathetic towards the ultra left ideology and Daktarda being one such was no great revelation. However much I tried, though, I personally could not associate the soft, kind and accommodating persona of Daktarda with the dogma and anarchy intrinsic to the ultra leftist ideology. In my opinion, he might have voted for the ultras in the college elections or taken part in a couple of their rallies (we all did that), but a wholesome party activist? I doubted.

Another topic of much speculation was his unknown love life. Being a mouth-watering topic, it took but a little time for all to conclude that at some point of time, Daktarda had been ditched in love. There was no way to know, but to me he did not look or behave at all like one who had received a half-sole the other day and was recuperating from it. Rather, the hint of impishness that always accompanied his smile, accentuated by his lustrous crop of mustache, negated such a notion.

* * *

As I was saying, we split and went our different ways. Since that day, the world had taken at least half a dozen spins around the Sun when our family decided that life was becoming too much of a drudgery, the sun was blazing too hot, and that all these pointed that we might well take a vacation (by 'family' I mean me, my younger sister and the parents, Mr Cat excluded). We zeroed on my maternal aunt's place at Kalaikunda, a major Air Force base located in the Midnapore district of West Bengal, where her husband, a Lt-colonel with the army, was posted at that time (it is another matter that the sun blazed even harder there, but when could the sun and such things really deter the determined holidayers?).

Life at an army base moves leisurely, except of course for the men in uniform who must sprint and bark commands and all that. It goes without saying that we the vacationers, for the first few days of our vacation, had completely devoted ourselves in indulging in Mashi's divine cooking, forgetting everything else; the mid-day meals were diligently followed by afternoon siestas and evening trips to the main market of the nearby town of Kharagpur, ostensibly for shopping but actually for flogging up our sluggish and overworked digestion so that we could do justice to the delicacies that were to turn up at the dinner table.

A visit to Kalalikunda usually includes at least one trip to the airfield. That concluded, we ventured a bit further, to nearby places and even to Calcutta on Sundays to meet our relatives there and also to break the monotony.

On one return trip from Calcutta via the suburban train, somebody tapped at my shoulder and exclaimed:

"Oh my my, isn't that Shome?"

I am among those who find it a wee bit difficult to recognise even a close friend if taken out of context, and it was no surprise that I needed a few squints and a supersonic session of brainstorming before I could place him right.

"Arre, daktarda na?", I babbled, leaving the onlookers of the party in a bit of disarray. Naturally they looked askance at both of us.

In a few minutes the introduction part was over, and since Daktarda was also returning by the same train, we had all the time in the world at our disposal to exchange notes. It turned up that Daktarda had since married and was now the medical officer in charge of a primary health centre at Binpur, an obscure place tucked somewhere in the tribal belt of west Midnapore. He extended a warm invitation to all of us to his place, and the same was accepted by all, needless to say, with utmost pleasure.

It was sooner rather than later that we landed up at Daktarda's place, riding an army jonga jeep. "This stretch is full of bandits", warned our worried soldier-driver. "Do they even attack army jeeps?", I sounded incredulous. "Yes, they do... it happens sometimes... they throw logs on the road and then loot the passengers."

Fortunately nothing of that sort happened, and soon our jeep left the jungle tracks behind and entered the limits of Binpur. Being never in a Santhal village before, the sight of beautifully decorated mud walls of the huts and their sloping thatched roofs left us spellbound. The inhabitants were very poor, but amidst all that poverty the thing that stood out was the spotlessly clean tone of the surroundings.

Before long our jeep entered the gates of a large hospital compound surrounded by brick walls on all sides. It was not only large but had the signs of functionality all over it unlike the usual village Primary Health Centres. To greet us, Daktarda and his very sweet wife (to be Boudi to me) waited in the courtyard, with their only son, a little toddler, perched on its mother's lap. We were taken inside their nice little quarter and it was a sweet surprise to us to learn that Boudi was also of east Bengal origin (known as "Bangals") like us, unlike Daktarda who was a proper "Ghoti" (from the western part of Bengal). This ensured at least one good thing -- that good culinary skills could be expected in Daktarda's kitchen.

Daktartda addressed his mother as 'Tui' (equivalent of Hindi 'Tu') but his father as 'Aapni' (Hindi 'Aap'), something uncommon in a Bengali Bhadralok family but common in the interiors of Midnapore. This sounded very sweet to my ears... it showed the closeness to one's mother that naturally exists in human bonding.

As time went by, I came to know the details of the missing years. To cut a long story short, soon after our split, Daktarda joined the state health service and voluntarily opted for this posting others were unwilling to take. After coming here, he started building his health centre from the scratches. Providence too, at this juncture, lent him a hand. The brother of the local CPM leader (a tribal himself and member of the state cabinet of Ministers of that time) had no child. Daktarda treated his wife (mind you, he was no Gynecologist) and they were soon blessed with a son. Pleased, the Minister wanted to reward him. Daktarda asked of him a proper hospital to be built at Binpur, complete with operation facilities... did not ask for a single thing for himself. The Minister was overjoyed; perhaps he saw electoral benefits in that. An instance when a politician's interest converged with the interest of the common men.

We were now standing on the compound of that very hospital, taking a trip around its compound. For some reason my own bosom swelled with pride.

* * *

I have not met him again. A google search might help. But I have not done so yet. My heart remains peaceful in the knowledge that wherever he is, my Daktarda would be spreading joy and health in the truly needy people, among my poor countrymen.

(It is ironical that the same Binpur now lies amidst hotbeds of Maoist activities... hope that the family, if still there, is not caught in the crossfire.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Daktarda -- Part One

Jangalmahal, Binpur, Shalboni, Jhargram -- picturesque dots in the periphery of Bengal that in our early youth seemed to surface in our consciousness only during the occasional flights we undertook to escape from our bored existence in the city. Not any more. As I take sips from my morning’s cuppa and sift hurriedly through the pages of the newspaper, news of violence and terror in these places unfailingly catches my eyes, making me wonder how the times have changed. And amidst the dark thoughts that cloud my mind, there floats in, in sharp contrast, the smiling, kind face of Daktarda, someone I was lucky enough to know once.

It was some time in the early eighties… I was just out of college and had landed a job in Calcutta. Being a migrant in the city, I needed a place to stay. My childhood friend Sajal, at that time staying in a guest house at College Street, had arranged for my lodging with him and I had moved in there just a month ago. Besides the two of us, Daktarda was the third occupant of the room. A darkish, bespectacled person, three or four years senior to us, a bachelor; his warm smile seemed to spread across his cheeks to his kind eyes. Armed with a medical degree from a reputed college of Calcutta, he ran a modest practice in the suburban town of Hind Motors. Most of his clients came from the labour force of that industrial ghetto. Many could not even pay the very modest fee that he charged, and it was quite common that he would return with a pumpkin or gourd under his arms which would go into the common kitchen of the guest house. On the days he earned more than the usual, I and Sajal (and sometimes a couple of others) were treated with a movie in the night show and then dinner at Dilkhoosh or Nizam’s.

Guest houses like the one we occupied, more known as Mess-baris, used to serve a great purpose in the city’s life in those days (and still do, I guess). An assortment of lower middle and middle class immigrants in search of cheap boarding and lodging in the city – students and clerks, aspiring professionals and unhappy executives, plain vagabonds – would flock to such spots to find an affordable shelter. Put a harassed and grumpy looking owner-cum-manager on top of the boarders and you get the complete picture. Ours Mess, too, was no exception to this general description.

* * *

It was only seven in the morning and the ever-busy College Street that had woken up as early as four with the first truckload of vegetables and bananas arriving at the wholesale market lying within a stone’s throw had fully shaken off its slumber and was bustling with life. Just below our window on the first floor, trams and double-decker buses packed with the early morning passengers rambled along; the chaawallas in the side lanes were doing a brisk business. The weather was humid but pleasant; it had rained in the early hours and now the sky wore a bright blue hue, with white puffs drifting across it – the perfect picture of an autumn morning. It seemed as if a whisper rose from everywhere around – Durga Puja not far away, not far away!

Such a morning would usually find a young man leisurely getting up and preparing for the day, but alas, not so in my case. I was huffing and puffing, to the delight of a sizeable audience that had assembled in our room to witness the daily fun.

Three forty-one, three forty-two, …. my tired feet protested and my mind felt dumb as my spot jogging progressed painfully in front of half a dozen of watchful and highly critical eyes. Comments flew thick and fast from all sides:

“No, no, not like that, you must raise the knees more… bring some spring into your steps … come on, old boy, it’s not that tough, in our time we had had to run ten rounds around the field before we were even allowed to kick the ball. ..”

It seemed when it came to physical activity, there were undoubtedly more experts than practitioners, especially in Bengal!

* * *

It had all started on a Sunday evening a few days back. While on a stroll with Daktarda around the College Square grounds, I had casually mentioned about my asthma and he had promised to cure it. He had seen one of his senior professors doing it successfully on a patient and was sure the same principles would apply on me. (The principle, in short, is that asthma cannot be cured but the threshold of an attack can be pushed out gradually by taking up incremental aerobic exercising. A time comes when one does not get out of breath under normal exertions or triggers.)

“You’ll have to chuck smoking”, D-da began (knew this was coming). “But no need to despair. You can occasionally indulge in something more pleasurable, like drinking,” he comforted me putting his arm around my shoulder.

Well, at least he was being honest and straightforward with me, and deep down I knew there was no other way.

And thus my drill started from the following morning.

* * *

Things went nicely for another three months. The treatment was showing some results already. Other than that, nothing spectacular happened except that my first month’s salary was picked by a bunch of gentlemen, a grief that were to be partially offset by D-da and Sajal by treating me generously to a series of night shows and dine-outs. Then I changed my job and moved far, far away. Life got tough, the time was fully occupied, and since I knew only one way of writing letters (which was long mails), soon the thread of friendship ruptured. Daktarda too, I assumed, must have left the place and gone somewhere else. The smiling face of him were to remain in my memory, and that was, as I thought, the end of a very pleasant association.