If ever life takes you to Ajmer, which it can for a variety of reasons ranging from tourism to religion, do pay a visit to Akbar ka kilt (the Fort of Akbar). Unlike typical forts of Rajasthan, this one is not atop a remote craggy hill. It is smack in the middle, forming the edge of what used to be the city several centuries ago, and has now been engulfed by the forward march of humanity.
This fort, though non-descript and not in any manner well maintained, is where the British East India company took root in India. Thus, Ajmer, you see, is where it all really started.
But our story is not about this. Our story today, is about what stands directly across the fort gate, along the narrow gullies that meander further into the old city, tucked between a bangle shop and a bandhni saree shop. A juice center that has stood here for two decades selling every liquid refreshment that milk and fruits can concoct.
Regulars of the bazaar, portly shopkeepers whose great grandfathers setup shop during the Raj, to pallu-clad damsels who were once newly-wed in the city and now know every nook and cranny, to government officers who are here on transfer and dislike the city for no real reason — will vouch for this juice center. The thick lassis and exotic juices to kill the summer heat and the elaichi and masala chai to cut through the bitter cold — Ratnakumari juice center has something for every season.
For several generations of bazaar-goers now, a stop by the juice center is part of the ritual. There is hardly ever any place to sit — and if you are lucky you can take a muddha (a bamboo chair) and sit by the shade of the fort wall. Gossip is as thick here as the fruit flies in the air, and this is where, over sips of chai or lassi, you exchange the local currency of information. If you happen to be a Bengali, and can prove so by speaking in fluent Bangla to the owners boys, your drinks are free.
By now, dear reader, you might have assumed, as most first timers to the juice center do, that the owner of the shop is called, or has a dear family member called Ratnakumari. Father, Mother, or even wife perhaps — in whose memory the shop has been named. Regulars will be prompt in correcting you — no one in the family, let alone the owner himself is named Ratnakumari. Our story today is about this name.
Jogen Bannerjea (or Jogu da as he was fondly called) was in a bad mood. Durga Puja was exactly three days away and the lead female cast had suddenly been taken ill. As cultural secretary of the Bengali Association of Ajmer — the body that took care of religious and cultural events year round for the 1000-odd Bengali diaspora in this hamlet — it was his task to ensure that during the three evenings of Durga Puja, the Bengali community had a healthy dose of cultural experiences.
A Bangla play each evening, and one open cultural night, where every Bengali of the community got a chance to get up on stage and show his or her prowess over music or literature. This was the mandated requirement of a Bengali Durga Puja and the onus of it, for the past 5 years had been on Jogu da’s shoulders.
“Is there no one else who can do this?”, he looked at the others in the cast, assembled at the Bengali dharamshala — the center where all Bengalis assembled for pujas and festivals — for one of the final rehearsals.
“Renu didi is already doing two plays and she said she cant take up the third role at this last moment. She wants to be downstage with family one day. We have asked others in the samaaj but no one wants to go up on stage at such short notice”, Amal said.
“We need the lead actress. We have to find a solution Amal.” Amal was Jogu da’s assistant director for as long as anyone could remember.
But the question was as much for the others as for Amal. They all knew that they had to find a replacement tonight or the unthinkable would happen — no theatre on saptami evening— the first day of Puja! Everyone shuddered at the thought.
“Jogu da, there is a man at the gate. He wants to meet the secretary”, it was Mithu, the keeper of the dharamshala. Mithu had grown up in the dharamshala. His family had been hired when the dharamshala was built by a Bengali patron and dedicated to the community, almost a 100 years ago.
“What does he want ?”, Jogu da asked. He had fallen into a silent reverie, lost in the haze of his cigarette smoke, through which he was watching the sculptor give finishing touches to the Durga Pratima.
“He has just arrived in the city. He came from the station. They sent him here because he can only speak in bangla”.
This was a common thing. Tourists, visiting family, lost souls — anyone who landed up at the Ajmer railway station with a strong Bangla accent, and went enquiring to the station master, was promptly put in a horse tonga or cycle-rikshaw and sent to the Dharamshala. There was always someone there who would take care of the person.
“naam ki (whats your name) ?”, Jogu da asked, while the others formed a loose circle around the newcomer.
“Salim ullah Khan”, he said in a quiet but confident tone. He was a boy of perhaps 17 or 18, with a satchel on his shoulders and was visibily famished.
“Baari thekey paaliechish naaki (Have you run away from home)?”.
The boy nodded. Then looked up teary eyed, “Maa baap nai. Chacha bolechey ganjaaar bebsha kortey nahole merey deybe. Tai paaliye eshechi. Teen din petey kichu porey ni.
(My parents are dead. My uncles wanted me to go into the ganja business or they would kill me. I dont have anyone left in Howrah, so I just got into a train and came here. I havent eaten anything for three days).”
Malati was sitting by the window of the railway bungalow. It was later than usual today. Jogen was normally home by 11 PM. But today it was close to 1 and there was no sight of him. True, the puja was just 2 days away but she worried about his health. She was about to go lie down, when she heard the sound of the lambretta coming up the lane. It had a distinct noise, like a muffled machine gun.
The scooter was a new acquisition for them — a big thing for the entire colony, since no one knew anyone who owned a scooter. She disliked it. It made them stand out and she didnt like that. Nor the fact that it made so much noise at night that everyone few blocks away might wake up. But it made life easy for Jogen — cycling 15 kms each day to work was proving hard for him at his age.
She opened the door to the verandah and stood waiting while Jogen parked the scooter. She could see the young boy, standing next to Jogen, unsure of what to do next. He looks the same age as her son Dilip, she thought.
“Malati, this is Salim. He just got here by the Howrah mail. He has no one in Ajmer. He will stay with us until he can find a job and a place”, Jogen said, putting down his office files and lunch box.
“Go wash your hands both of you. I will get heat the food and get it to the table”, she said. Malati was used to this. In 20 years of living with Jogen, she knew that she had married a man who would do anything to help people.
It wasnt that others didn’t — everyone in the community put people first. But Jogen was different. You could land up at any time on their doorstep and Jogen would come with you — friends or strangers, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that someone needed help. Sometimes she worried about it — all the trust, time and money. And Jogen would laugh and say, “Arey ki achey kopaley, dekha jaabey shokaley. (Whats in our destiny, we will see the morning).”
As they finished dinner, a simple meal of fries, dal, eggs and rice, Jogen said, “Malati, you know we have finally found a replacement for sharmishta for saptami’s play. Guess who it is! Our own Salim mian. He used to do jatra in school — and played the role of sita in Ramayan. I did an audition — eke baarey perfect!”, Jogen was obviously very excited.
Malati smiled. She knew that this young boy of 17 had won her husband’s heart and trust, by one simple audition. She hoped it proved right in the long run. But she kept her thoughts to herself. All she said was, “Konta, oi ratnakumari’r role ta o korbey? (He will play the role of Ratna Kumari then ?)”.