A few days back while cleaning my desk I came across an old pocket-diary. I had used it to record my daily expenses, while on a trip to Kolkata. A trip I had made some twenty years ago.
The trip to Kolkata had been planned at the last-minute. The train as usual was late and instead of reaching Howrah terminus early in the morning as mentioned in the ticket, it pulled in late after lunch. By the time the taxi had deposited me outside the hotel it was already four in the evening and was already getting dark. The sun sets early in the eastern parts of India and to add to my woes there was a power failure in the hotel.
At the reception desk we completed the paperwork with the help of a candle and a torch. As the lifts were also not working a small boy was called in to carry my luggage up the three floors to my room. The boy looked hardly ten years old, so I politely refused his assistance and carried my luggage up myself. By the time I reached the third floor I was completely out of breath. The passage was dark and before my eyes could get used to it, I bumped into a man coming in from the opposite direction.
He mumbled an apology and offered to carry one of my bags to my room. Too tired to refuse, I gladly allowed him to do so. His accented Hindi told me that he was from my home state of Kerala and we immediately shifted to our native tongue, Malayalam. In the room as I threw open the windows and collapsed on the bed, I noticed that he was in his early fifties. Tall, well-built, gray hair with a thick mustache it looked like he had not shaved for a few days for his chin was covered under a gray-black stubble.
He did not seem to be much interested in talking and after putting the bag down he excused himself and started to leave. I thanked him adding that I hoped to meet him again at dinner. He did not reply as he left. Glad to have the room all to myself I kicked off my shoes and went off to sleep.
A knock on the door woke me up. It was the hotel boy, who wanted to know if I wanted to order my dinner in my room or if I would be coming down to the dining hall. A glance at my watch told me that I had been sleeping for the past three hours and it was around seven. I asked the boy what was available in the kitchen and also checked the rates. The food provided by the hotel seemed to be costly. The boy noticed my hesitation in ordering from his hotel let me know that there were restaurants right outside which offered a better selection and were also a lot cheaper. This seemed like a sensible thing to do, so tipped the boy and decided to check it out myself. As it was I was alone there and had nothing else to do.
On the street, I ran into the same gentleman who had helped me earlier with the luggage. He was standing with his back against a street lamp as if trying to decide where to go. Politely I invited him to join me for dinner. He seemed reluctant at first, but then agreed as I insisted.
Over dinner, which he didn’t seem to enjoy, he was quiet and I ended up doing all the talking. By the time I stopped talking, he knew everything about me and we still had half of the dinner to finish off. There was an awkward silence, somewhat reluctantly he started.
He told me that he was a retired army soldier, and was now working for a company in Kerala as a driver. He was in Kolkata for his son, who was an electronics engineer and had been was working with a firm there. The firm unknown to its employees was involved in some illegal activities. The police raided its office and all the employees in the Kolkata office including this man’s son were arrested and thrown behind bars. The firm owners who had prior information of the raid had managed to slip out of the country.
As he was telling me all this his voice choked and tears started coursing down his face. People sitting near us in the hotel were getting a bit uncomfortable and so were the waiters who all seemed to be hovering around our table. The man anyway was not eating much; I quickly settled the bills and took him outside on the street.
On the street he continued with his story and told me how he had pawned his wife’s jewelry and disposed of a small field the only property that he owned and with that money had reached Kolkata determined to get his son out. He had engaged the services of a lawyer, who was proving to be useless. The courts had already rejected two bail petitions and had extended the jail sentence. Court hearings were scheduled every other week which the man attended hoping for a miracle.
My stay in Kolkata was for a month. I had been sent there to scout for a new office location and interview the staff that was to join once the office opened. This work hardly took me more than a few hours a day and I would soon be back at the hotel. The man’s room was next to mine and I could see him sitting near the window looking out in the distance, a sad look on his face. It was impossible for me to ignore him now that I knew his whole story. I offered to accompany him on his visits to the various government offices. He neither accepted nor refused my offer of assistance.
Even though he was more than twice my age, I was having a tough time keeping pace with him. The very thought of his son languishing in a jail just a few kilometers from where he was, seemed to infuse him with an energy which was beyond my understanding. Like a man possessed he went from court room to jail, police stations to lawyers’ chambers, but it seemed like there was no way to get the boy out.
It was a painful sight to see the way the accused were treated. A police van would back up near the temporary jail adjoining the court. A long line of men awaiting trial for various cases would be pushed out. Some would be in handcuffs, while others had their hands tied together with ropes. Like cattle they would be herded into the temporary cells awaiting their turn to appear before the judges. The man would rush forward as soon as he saw his son, only to be pushed back by the policemen. The boy who was about twenty would slowly shuffle towards the cells, eyes cast on the ground not wanting to see his father or face the world in such a state.
In the courtroom, the handcuffs would be removed for the duration while they were presented before the judges. Those lucky enough to get bail would walk away free, while those not-so-lucky, would be handcuffed again, and herded back to the waiting police vans.
The father would be running around trying to get some foodstuffs to his son. The rules allowed relatives to bring food and a change of clothes to the prisoners. The problem was that the food and clothes had to pass though the hands of the policemen and bullies first before reaching the prisoners. You had to bribe each of the policemen to get things moving. Pay too less and the money would disappear and no one would get any help. Pay too much and then they would realize that you had a lot of money and would ask for more. It was sickening to see the father negotiate with the corrupt policemen, some of whom even used to put their hands in the father’s pocket to take the money out. He showed no sign of emotion, smiling and joking with the policemen, consoling and comforting his son, it may have been his army training coming to the fore.
Once back at the hotel as the father in him would slowly take over and go over the scenes of his son stepping out of the police van with his hands tied together, he would burst into tears. The man seemed to hardly eat or sleep. Every day I had to force him to come along and have something to eat.
Some days at two in the night, he would come over and knock at my door. With tears in his eyes, he would tell me stories of how he had brought up his son. He would tell me how he had been a strict father and had managed his family of five, including his three children and wife on his meager salary. He told me how he never had the money to buy his children different toys and used to ask them to share amongst themselves. The boy now in jail was his eldest, while below him there was a boy and a girl. The younger children adored their brother. The father told me how his eldest son had never complained or came to him asking for costly presents or clothes like other boys his age. The story of how he had stood first in the district had even got a mention in the local newspapers. This son was the hope of the family, the father had even dreamt of retiring soon now that his son had a job and had started to earn. All those dreams were now smashed. The father repeatedly asked me the same question, as to what wrong had he or his son done, to deserve this fate? I was about twenty-two then and had no idea how to react in such a situation. All I could do was to hold his hand and try to comfort him as he sobbed.
There was a massive church within walking distance of our hotel. The man was a Christian; so I suggested that he could go there as it would help give him some peace of mind. Having been a soldier he was not very enthusiastic about the idea, but I dragged him along. So even though I am a Hindu, for the first and only time in my life, I went into a church.
I was a bit scared of offending my own gods, so I occupied one of the benches in the last row of this empty church. I watched the father make his way up to the statue of a young man, nailed to a cross and looking up at the skies. The father knelt down before the statue and remained there for some time. While back in the corner, I was not sure what to do in a church. I did something which came naturally in a place of worship. I closed my eyes and prayed to a different set of gods. I prayed for this man and for his son and for a miracle to happen for this family. A few days later I had to return urgently back to Mumbai. The man hugged me as I was leaving and took down my contact details. I also wrote down his number in the little diary and then got on the taxi which took me to the railway station.
That weekend while in Mumbai I got a call from the father. His son had finally been granted bail. The court ruled that the employees were not to be held accountable for the misdeeds of their employers and had let everyone free, while issuing orders for the employer’s arrest. The father and son were on their way back to Kerala. He had called me from the railway station. The father also said that at the time when he had met me he was on the verge of committing suicide and it had been my presence there that had somehow held him together. I didn’t know if he really meant it or was just making it up, but that choked me up. I wished them all the best and put the phone down.
The diary had bought all these memories flooded back. As I thumbed through the pages I found the phone number of the father which I had jotted down sitting in the taxi on my way back. I thought of calling him and immediately picked my cell and dialed up the number.
I could hear the dial tone and then the phone ringing thousands of kilometers away, then the sound of a man answered the call.
“Hello,” it was a voice which seemed to belong to an old man.
Something inside me clicked and I disconnected the phone. There are some memories in life which are best left forgotten. Painful episodes from the past which sear you so deeply, that you would not want to revisit them even in your thoughts. I would like to think that the family has moved on, the father would by now have retired and living if not a comfortable at least a peaceful life. The son was a smart and intelligent boy, who I am sure must have started a different career and would be thankful to God and to the great family he had for standing by him during that most horrible phase of his life.
So I quietly tore up the phone number and threw it away.