By Eiko M. Tagore*
In the City of Temples
We remained in Bhubaneswar for three days. There are more than 100 Hindu temples to visit but the highlight was the Lingaraja Temple. The temple depicts the phallic symbol of Shiva and it is visited by devoted worshippers of Hinduism.
Throughout our visit here, our cycle-rikshaw driver accompanied us everywhere. He waited for us to finish breakfast and then knocked on our door each day and stayed exclusively with us throughout the day. While pedaling his rikshaw he chatted about his background, family, and income. He was from Madras, and his wife and children lived there, he explained. He saved his earnings and returned home once or twice a year. He felt almost like family to me after hearing his stories. However, while settling fares, he changed his demeanor insisting, fussing, and sometimes wailing so that he could get a few rupees more.
Finally, our visit to Bhubaneswar was coming to an end. We had packed our bags and were waiting for our next train on the platform. Unexpectedly, our train arrived on time. At that time, a barefoot man came elbowing through the crowds. It was our cycle-rickshaw driver. “Are you leaving already?” he said while wiping the sweat off his forehead. I extended a rupee note toward him. He didn’t fuss or wail and didn’t even accept the money. He placed his hands to his forehead, and though I had shamefully thought he was going to ask for more money, he had come to bid us farewell rather than spend his precious time recruiting his next customer. “May Bhagwan keep you safe.” he spoke. I stuffed the rupee note into his sweaty breast pocket. As the train began to move, he appeared small and the tears that filled my eyes blurred his image even further away until he disappeared.
Train journey to Puri
We rode the southbound train for Madras. We planned to get off at Puri, located seventy kilometers away from Bhubaneswar taking about two hours by train. The Third-class compartment was crowded, and one could feel the body heat emanating from the passengers. Fortunately, we found open seats in the middle section of the train.
Our final meeting with the cycle-rickshaw driver gave me a renewed appreciation for human kindness. It reminded me of a story which I had read earlier. Kabuliwala, which was written by Rabindranath Tagore, is about a farmer and fruit seller from Kabul, Afghanistan. He travels to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to sell fruit every year and one day he stops at a rich man’s house. Their fiveyear-old daughter Mini is at first afraid of the Kabuliwala with his large jute sack thrown over his shoulder wearing a loose-fitting white tunic. She imagines his sack full of little children and is frightened by him. This may be understandable since it was not uncommon to encounter Afghan moneylenders notorious for underhanded dealings.
Over time, Mini develops a friendship with the fruit vendor and she delights in his company. One day he is arrested and sent to prison after trying to recover money from a borrower ending in a violent outcome. Years after serving his sentence, he returns to Mini’s house only to find that it was her wedding day. He was turned away by Mini’s father not wanting to spoil the day with a visitor from prison. Kabuliwala hands him a packet of 9 dry fruits and sadly asks him to please give it to Mini. The father tried to pay him for the packet, but Kabuliwala stopped him and explained that he wasn’t trying to accept payment but was only bringing fruit for Mini remembering his own daughter in Kabul. He reached into his breast pocket and took out a piece of paper which he showed to Mini’s father. There was a small ink smeared print of a child’s hand on the paper. Kabuliwala had kept his daughter’s handprint close to his heart while he worked in Calcutta and during his time in prison. I felt the common thread of humanity in Tagore’s Kabuliwala story and the final act of our cycle-rickshaw driver both illustrating the common bond and warmth of human kindness, and it somehow left me with a sense of sadness.
Across from our seat, there is a man who seems to be in his 50s, judging from his gray-speckled hair. Wearing a well-worn long shirt and dhoti, I guessed that he may be from Bengal. He sits with a straight back and is wearing dust covered leather sandals. There is a young man sitting next to him with a dark complexion and a small handsome face. I notice his long eye lashes while he reads a magazine. Then, there is a family with four children and a grandfather eating breakfast together. They must have slept in the train having traveled far. They sat on their blanket and holdall spread out on the seat. The mother with her sari covering her head was loudly attending to and preparing breakfast for the family. She prepared chapatis rolled with ghee and pickles out of stacked metal tiffin boxes handing them to her children. “More!” a child exclaims to which she answers “done already? This is the last one for you”. She hands the next one to the grandfather as they all chatter away. They seem oblivious to those around them. It’s as if they are eating together at home in their kitchen.
“What are you reading?” the Bengali gentleman with the speckled gray hair suddenly asks the young man next to him. “Jhara Pata”, he answers. “Is it interesting?” the older man asks further. “It’s not bad”, the young man answers. “During my days, Jhara Pata was pretty good,” he took the magazine from the young man’s hand. The young man didn’t seem bothered to have his magazine taken from him. The hot and dry red earth outside the window of the train is speckled by spindly green weeds. At times waterholes appear surrounded by banana and palm trees. Small children wave toward the train as they stand between sun drenched white structures that pass along the tracks. The Bengali gentleman flops the magazine back to the young man and yawns with outstretched arms. “Not much in there”, he says. “How about a love story from your youth?”, the young man teased the gentleman. “That’s so long ago. Love costs money and is too much work!” he replies. As most talkative Indians, the Bengali gentleman can’t pass up an opportunity to tell his story. He turned to my husband and talked at length about money-making opportunities. Then he went on about the corruption of Indian officials. “India isn’t up to the mark. Public workers are all thieves! Officials think public funds are their own money. These people only think about themselves!” he went on and on.
Passengers suddenly began to gather their things preparing for the train’s arrival at Puri. The train lumbered into the bustling large train station at Puri. As soon as we got off the train, thin branch-like arms were extended towards us with bowls and kettles. “Ma, I’m hungry! I haven’t eaten anything since morning!” children wailed in sing-song manner expressing their desperate need as if in a chant.
[This is the fourth part of a chapter from the famous Japanese book ‘Indo Tambou’ (My Indian Journey) by Eiko M. Tagore, published in 2011. The author is the spouse of late Prof. Sandip Tagore, a 2017 recipient of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in the field of arts & culture. The English translation is done by her daughter Maya Tagore-Erwin. Eiko M. Tagore currently lives in Osaka, Japan]