Short Story: Human Kindness by Haimanti Dutta Ray
I have a habit of staring at horizontal lines. Railway tracks always fascinate me.
These railway lines which align trains, crisscrossing and bisecting each other in their paths, are made of the metal – iron. It seems to be yesterday my father had tutored me on the need for a man to be made of iron, so as to overcome the pitfalls that life brings in its wake.
“You’ll never know the truth, son of mine! But when you’ll reach an age, when reflection and contemplation become your only activities, then you’ll realize that you’ve indeed come a long way.”
A long way. But how long is l-o-n-g? This conversation was held many years ago, when I had gone home for my vacations. My parents had decided that a boarding school education and discipline would smooth away the rough edges of my youth. But however much they tried, the edges had remained rough till I had maturity!
Today, I and my wife lead a life of luxury amid an opulence which we can afford. We are blessed with two children – a boy of five and a girl of two. Life has been very kind to me and I am more than grateful for that. We live in the fourteenth floor of an apartment in upscale Kolkata. I spend my Sunday mornings enjoying chicken sandwich with cups of fine Darjeeling tea, served in impeccable bone china saucers, at Flurys on Park Street.
“You won’t believe what the maid said today,” Anita, my wife, sported a greatly peeved look when we were having our dinner at night, one day.
“She said that our neighbour, Mrs. Mazumdar, has been taken to an asylum by her husband. Mr.Mazumdar, it seems, could not stand up to her tantrums any longer.”
“You should never lend your ears to such dirty local gossip. It is part of the maids’ job to relate the family scandals from one door to the next.”
As we had finished our dinner, I decided to take a stroll around our inner compound area. Trees had offered their bounty of blossoms to the fullest and the night air was heavily laden with their sweet smells. As I came near the exit gate, the security guard stood up straight and put his right fist up to his forehead – an act of salute. I decided to encourage the guy to a cozy conversation.
“Where do you hail from?”
Since the choice of security guards manning the gates of our apartment, rested solely with the treasurer and the president of the residents’ council, these men come and go without most of us knowing about their arrival or departures.
“Sir, I’ve come from Mumbai. You must have heard about Dharavi. My grandparents and my mother reside there in a small hut.”
“But of course. Are you the only one who earns in the family? Because I’ve heard Dharavi is the largest slum in the world. By your appearance, you seem to come from a well-to-do family. What about your education? How far have you studied?”
The guy, who appeared to be in his twenties, broke into a sweat immediately. Perhaps he thought this day was the last day at his job and from the next day, he’d be told to look for his sustenance elsewhere!
“I’ve studied till the twelfth standard. My father left mother when I was eleven years old. He had gone away with another woman, to build another home, God only knows where! We’ve not heard from him since. Not that I had intended to. God! Those were the days about which I’ve hardly spoken to anyone. Sir, I must be boring you…”
“My grandfather bore the entire cost of my education. I call him by the name – Man of Steel. He had once been a freedom fighter, having fought for the country in Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Today he is an old man, living life in penury. Being the only grandchild, he loves me greatly. But it was my mother who felt that shouldering the responsibility of my education all by himself, at his age, may be too much for his health. So I was forced to discontinue my studies.”
All the while during this one-way conversation, the guy kept standing. Now he offered me his chair to sit upon. I rested my right arm over his left shoulder. The uniform, which he wore, was unclean and matched with the unkempt stubble he sported on his chin.
I thought about the dozen starched suits lying in my wardrobe. Such is the dichotomy of life! We, who have what is more than sufficient for our well-being, sometimes ponder over the penury of the unlucky ones residing close to us. But it is never, almost never, the other way round. For these hapless people would not dare to dream about lifting their eyes heavenwards. They accept their fates as one accepts the coins dropped on the begging bowl of an alms seeker – unquestioningly.
There have been times when I spent oodles of money on building up my wife, Anita’s retinue of saris for her own wardrobe. My friends and colleagues often chastised me for being a man who caters to every whim and fancy of his wife. Anita had more saris than any of her sisters.
“I spend so much on our trousseau. Would it appear improper if I decide to donate a cheque of ten thousand rupees to this guy? Will I be misunderstood? Or worse will he refuse to accept it from me?”
These were the thoughts hovering over my mind, when a few drops of rain fell over my head. I decided to retrace my steps back towards my own residence and also resolved that my gesture of giving away a cheque to the needy would get appreciated by everyone.
As I reached my flat, before changing my clothes, I related to Anita about my decision. She, much to my bewilderment, agreed it would be a very nice gesture. So I retired to our room, with the decision that I would hand over the cheque the next morning.
“There is no need to inform the committee. It is a goodwill gesture. I don’t think any questions will be raised.”
Anita, my forever supporting wife, appeared to laud this very first act of my human kindness with joy and active support.
For some reason, after a long time, I enjoyed a restful slumber at night. When I woke up the next day, the sun was shining brightly. Its rays were pouring in through the windows with such intensity that I shut my eyes at first. After brushing my teeth and having the mandatory cup of tea, I decided my act of benevolence should be completed sooner than later. To this end, I wrote down the cheque and resolved further that I would insert the name of the beneficiary – the young chap whom I met the night before – after sharing a few moments with him. So after changing into a decent pair of clothes and before taking my bath for the day, I took the elevator to descend to the ground floor again.
The rules for security guards in our apartment necessitated them to work in shifts. So when I descended downstairs the guy, who was managing the entrances the night before, stood on duty. He raised his cap and stood to attention once more.
“Hey lad, I simply forgot to ask your name yesterday. You see age makes a man wiser. But the opposite – wisdom dissipates with age – also holds true. Now, tell me how do you call yourself?”
The smile hovering around his lips seemed to be reflected in the tall trees which were glistening with the bright sunshine on their leaves and the chirping of unknown birds from their branches. The chap wished me a “Good Morning, Sir!” in a way in which one wishes one’s near and dear ones.
“Yes. Good Morning.”
“Sir, my name is Shashikant Yadav. At your service, Sir! I hope you had a good sleep last night. The air was cool after the humidity of the past couple of days.”
Shashikant Yadav appeared to have had a bath already. His hair was still damp and clung around his forehead like a tiara of gleaming jewels.
“Yes, it was much cooler last night. Now, to the agenda at my hand…. You see you have impressed me a lot. By our conversation last night, I was shocked to hear that you came here after discontinuing your studies. That’s not right, chap! But to help you a bit, I’ve brought a cheque which may help you buy a couple of books and restart again from where you left off.”
Saying that, I wrote down his name in block letters and handed over the cheque to a stupefied and dumbstruck, Shashikant.
“The guy is perhaps thinking about leaving his job here and considering going back home with the money,” I thought. Shashikant’s eyes, I suddenly noticed, had become moist and soon he was wiping them with the ends of his shirt collar.
“Why? Oh why…?”
It seemed that he had become too emotional upon receiving the money from my side.
“There is no need to worry. No one will know about this, if that’s what you’re thinking about. You’ll not lose your job because of this. I’ll make sure that no one comes to know. But even if they do, this is a gift from my side. Shashikant, do not pull a full stop to your studies because the need to earn a livelihood is more important. Listen to me, and you’ll have reasons to thank me later onwards in your life.”
I had said what I had come over to say. This guy had impressed me a lot. There was a genuine sincerity in his eyes and this was the reason why I felt a parental affection towards him. But what he said, left me flabbergasted, to say the least.
The cyclone Amphan had recently devastated parts of the city of Kolkata, besides creating havoc in major parts of the rural districts of West Bengal. This had come on top of the CoronaVirus – Covid 19 – pandemic pandemonium. Big trees were uprooted and almost all the telephone and electric cable wires were severed causing panic among the citizens as large areas had plunged into total darkness. Thousands were rendered homeless and there was a sense of prevailing doom all around. We were lucky. Our area had emerged unscathed and was the least affected in the city.
“Sir, I want to donate this money to the Cyclone Relief Fund. You see, sir, I have never put any of my efforts for a noble cause ever. Now that you’ve given me this money, instead of spending it, I’d like to help those who have become needier than me.”
For the first time in my life, I was humbled by a person who was younger than me.
The journey of writing, for me, began with sending articles to newspapers, mainly The Statesman. Having an English Literature background was a big help indeed. Writing for blogs, and contributing articles and short stories paved the way ultimately for the publication of IN LOVING MEMORY (Rupali Publications of Kolkata, 2015) and THE CIRCLE OF LIFE & OTHER TALES (Locksley Hall Publishing, 2018). Creative writing, which started as a hobby, soon became a passion. If people get reading pleasure out of my writing, then I will consider that all my efforts have been worthwhile.