The heat was excruciating. The constant movement rocked my spine. The bellowing of the engine seemed to pierce my eardrums. It felt like I was simulating the hellishness of hell in my lifetime. I had never been so miserable before.
Being born in a wealthy family, I had never really needed to, or wanted to, lead a less-than-luxurious life. Most things that other guys my age dream of achieving were available to me moments after I announced my arrival to the world. Anything and everything that money could buy, I could buy. Opulence was my birthright.
My family owned a few airplanes of their own, which were used for personal travels. Flying in an airplane used by other common members of the world was below my dignity. I never understood how some people managed to survive the way they did, toiling away for a few crisp notes at the end of the day. Not that I ever wanted to understand, or tried to. The truth is, I never needed to.
My skin felt sticky. I rubbed my face with the back of my palm and found black particles on it. What in the world was that? I saw my wife burst into laughter. “That’s coal,” she said, “this train has a coal engine.” I grimaced. Coal? What would be next?
My wife came from somewhat of the same background as I did, except that she had this uncontrollable desire to associate with common people. She would joke with the servants, which I disliked, and she would try moving around the city in rickshas and buses, which I considered foolhardy. But what I resented most was her dragging me into her experiments with mediocrity. The present situation was one such experiment, of which I had unwillingly become a part.
The wedding of Hari Kaka’s daughter. Okay, I agree he served in our household for twenty-plus years, I agree that he took good care of me as a child. But I did not see this as sufficient reason to attend the event. But my wife, sensing an opportunity to relish the exotic taste of an impoverished marriage celebration, decided to attend it. I did not have much of a choice. After all, she said, was she not attending this marriage only because Hari Kaka was so close to me?
We had flown down to Kolkata, from where we took a car from one of our regional offices. I had made sure the car was spacious, and air-conditioned. We had attended the marriage, received profuse thanks from Kaka, and I was getting ready for the ride back to Kolkata. It was then that my wife hit upon the bright idea. The driver would be sent back to Kolkata alone. We would take the train. The local train. Full of commuters. Full of everyday people, pushing and jostling for space, perspiring freely, wearing crumpled clothes. We would ride with the rest of the guests, and she looked forward to spending some more time chatting with the ladyfolk.
I had a window seat, which I took because I could not bear humans bearing down on me from all sides. To my chagrin, after the train started, I found a couple of guys hanging outside the window. The train was so crowded that I was advised not to carry my wallet in my back pocket, lest it should get picked. I had to hand it to my wife, who kept it in her big purse, which was presumably safer from pickpockets. Children wailed loudly, and people discussed personal matters in loud voices. The air was full of cheap cigarette smoke. Strange cigarettes, they seemed to be rolled in some kind of dried leaf. My wife sat on the opposite bench, happily making small talk with the other ladies, occasionally stealing a glance at me, probably to revel at my obvious discomfort.
The train pulled up at a small dusty station. The place was teeming with people, ready to embark on the train. I wondered how they would ever fit in there. I already had people standing near me, with their rear ends dangerously close to my face. I fervently wished they had no bowel problems.
Amidst the chaos, someone shouted, “Rosogolla!”
I looked out of the window and saw the reason for the cry. There stood a shriveled woman, dressed in tatters, holding a metal container in her hand. Three dirty unbathed children jumped around her, clutching her tatters, vying for her attention. She had heard the cry, and her eyes were glistening. “Babu,” she said to me hopefully, “would you like some rosogollas? They are freshly made.”
I had no intention of answering her, but I glowered at my wife. “Now do you expect me to converse with her?”
“You are the one who chose the window seat,” she said, laughing.
In the meantime, the other people traveling with us had begun to get excited. “This place is famous for its rosogollas, Saheb,” said an over-smart guy in the group, “why don’t you try some?”
“No thank you,” I replied curtly.
“Would you like some, boudi?” he asked my wife.
“Sure,” she said excitedly, as my eyes widened in disbelief. This was the person whom I had taken to the best dining places in the country and abroad, and she was actually going to eat something sold by a woman wearing tatters. She probably chose to ignore the disdainful look on my face.
Then the group started discussions on the method of payment. “Everyone keep a count of how many they have eaten. Then hand over the money to me. Please make sure you give me change.” The over-smart guy was somehow convincing himself that he was an excellent orator and had great leadership qualities. He looked and sounded even more irritating than usual.
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake, just eat how many you want to eat, and I’ll pay for everyone,” I shouted.
“Really?” I got appreciative looks from the people around, and a half smile from my wife.
Then began the process of handing out the sweets. First, she handed out cups made of leaves. Then, she plunged her hand into the metal container and pulled out the white balls, one-by-one. Whoever wanted it stuck their leaf cups out, and she would place a rosogolla in it.
Being near the window, I endured it all. Leaf cups being brandished in my face, her dirty hands passing through the window bars with juice dripping on my trousers. I was angry, very angry.
And then she began to count. “Babu, I have handed out fifteen sweets already. That makes thirty rupees.”
“Okay,” I said.
Then she handed out a few more. “Babu, now I have handed out twenty sweets. That makes it forty rupees.” I kept quiet.
She hesitated on the next one. “Babu, you do have this much money, right?” This much money? This much? I just controlled my rage and motioned in the affirmative. She continued doling them out, and everyone kept eating.
My wife incredibly ate four, and then declared that she had to go and wash her hands. She got up to go to the bathroom, as the people moved and shifted to allow her to find her way.
The others were still eating. The woman was dipping her hand deep into the metal container now. She was excited, but very nervous. “Babu, I gave out forty pieces, I just have two more left. That is eighty rupees.” She was almost shouting in excitement, and her dirty children were dancing around, joyful at God knows what.
The over-smart guy passed a comment in between mouthfuls, “Thanks to you, Babu, looks like they will eat a full meal tonight. Look at them jumping with joy.”
The train whistled as she handed out the remaining two, and closed her container. She got very nervous. “Babu, eighty-four rupees, fast, fast.”
“Just hold on,” I said, rather irritated. No one spoke to me like that. How dare this beggarly woman. All because of my wife’s thirst for adventure.
As she fidgeted nervously, I reached into my back pocket for my wallet. I could not find it. Stunned, I patted it again to make sure. Then it struck me. I had handed the wallet to my wife. She had still not got back from the bathroom.
“What happened, Saheb,” the woman asked nervously. “What happened?”
“Nothing … Just hold on,” I said, looking towards the bathroom. All I saw were people. Crowds of people squeezed against each other. “Call her, call her quick”, I said to the other people in the group.
“What happened,” the over-smart guy asked.
“Call my wife”, I said. “Fast”.
He looked at the people blocking the way. “You don’t have money to pay her?” he asked incredulously.
“Babuji, hurry up, babuji,” the woman cried, as her voice started shaking with fear. “Please, babuji, I am very poor, please pay me, babuji.”
It was unbearable. “Oh, shut up,” I told her, as I shouted at the over-smart guy, who was motioning to someone in the crowd, “Did you see her?”
“Yes, she is coming.”
The train had begun to move. The woman burst into tears. “My money, Saheb, my money,” she cried as she clutched the window bars and began walking with the moving train. Along with her, the kids began wailing and walking with her. I looked on helplessly, not knowing what to do, and wondering why my wife was taking so much time.
The train was gathering pace, and the woman was crying louder. Everyone was looking, with desperate looks on their faces, but no one did anything. She started running with the train, with arms outstretched, wailing. Along with her, the kids were running. I pressed my head against the window bars. Her metal container fell down, and she stumbled on it and fell. One of the kids stumbled too, and the other two stopped running. As the train sped away, I saw her raise her head and scream. I did not hear what she was saying. I just saw her clutching her fallen kid and beating her forehead, crying and beating her forehead. I kept watching as the train sped away.
“Suresh,” my wife’s voice came from the back, “what happened?”
I turned and stared at her blankly. “My wallet was in your purse,” was all I could say. I did not want to see the look of surprise on her face or the expressions on anyone’s face. I just wanted the journey to end.
As we reached our destination, our driver was waiting at the station, ready to take us to the airport. He picked up the luggage, and we got into the cushioned, air-conditioned car.
As we drove along, my wife looked at her watch. “Do you want to get some lunch first? We still have a couple of hours for the flight,” she asked. I nodded.
We were sitting in an upscale restaurant. The manager had specially come down to greet us, and had instructed the waitress to make sure we were very comfortable. My numerous companies being patrons of this place, they respected my wealth. I always got special treatment when I visited.
As the young waitress stood quietly waiting for my order, I glanced through the menu. My eyes went to the dessert section. They were serving rosogollas.
A turbulence rose in my heart that clutched at my throat and threatened to mist my eyes. Three little kids, sitting beside a weeping woman in tatters and crying. Crying out of hunger. Rubbing their eyes with their little hands and wondering why they were going to sleep hungry that night. Just one reason. Some babu in good clothes had cheated them of eighty-four rupees. He had taken their rosogollas and had not paid them. Their mother had cried and begged, but he had not yielded. He had shouted at her. Not paid her. He was the reason why they were starving.
“I think I won’t have anything today,” I told the waitress.
“Thank you”, she said and moved away.
“Why?” asked my wife, surprised and concerned. “You have not eaten anything since the morning. Are you not hungry?” I did not answer. She repeated her question. I still did not answer. I just sat there, staring into nothingness.
Those kids were afflicted with hunger, and I was responsible. The vanity of wealth was wounded and bleeding. A quirk of fate had reduced the king to a mere swindler.
Pranav Bhattacharya is a financial analyst who lives in Los Angeles.