Avinash knew this would be the last train to Phoolan Pur. He told his friend Kalash to pedal faster on his cycle-trolley through the earthern lanes, wet with drizzle, of their village Bansipuri, 30 kilometres away from his desired destination – the town of Phoolan Pur – and hundreds of kilometres that were unknown to him, but that would lead to dream city, Mumbai. He needed to reach Jamnapur station to buy a ticket to Phoolan Pur, board the vendors compartment on any train destined for Phoolan Pur station, to meet with a wholesale merchant friend of his father’s, who had been buying rakhis from the family for nearly three generations.
“Faster, faster!” Avinash screamed desperately at Kalash, though it was his own fault for not being at Jamnapur station by 10 O’ clock that night. Since his father passed away due to cardiac arrest in February of this year, Avinash had come close to cursing him for teaching him his art, but not his trade. Avinash had no head, but more crucially, no interest in the business of selling rakhis and other festive products his family had always been employed in making all year round: fire crackers for Diwali, large water pistons in myriad colours for Holi, even mini-raths for children to play with during Rathyatra.
His father, Ganesh Thapar, had more in common with Avinash than either would have admitted. He did not have a head for business either, and having lost his brothers either to the eternal rest or to well-paid city jobs, Ganesh had to take some of his time away from meticulously crafting festive objects, and apply it to working at figures. He hadn’t managed to teach his nineteen-year-old son the latter, because he didn’t understand it any better himself.
Avinash was late for the last train to Phoolan Pur not because of any sloppiness on his part, but for packing his rakhis into a flimsy synthetic bag that also happened to be the biggest and sturdiest bag in his house. It was a bag that had come with the ten kg rice he had bought from town, though how such poor material had managed to hold the bountiful grain that would feed his family for two months was beyond him. His father had preferred the old Bengal jute bags himself, but those were ratty, and their wooden handles could not last another festive season. It was either this inferior synthetic make, or some old gunny sacks which smelled so abhorrent, they were sure to stain his rakhis with bad odour.
He had made them by hand, just as his father had, just as his father had before him. Maybe even beyond that generation, though no one knows much about the family during those times of illiteracy and the British Raj. He didn’t know if they had always made rakhis, or had more conventional jobs like his neighbours had in farming, dairy, literate jobs like teaching, banking etc. His family was not even like the local theatre group because, unlike them, his father worked in the privacy of his home, and never showed his work to anyone except the wholesale merchant. Provided he did see it, for Avinash had never seen him look into the bag as he paid his father. No one saw his handiwork, and those who did, did not know it was him.
“Agar koi kaam pyaar se karo, toh uski keemat bar jati hai. (If you do some work with love, its price rises up.)” was a maxim his father would tell him often, from the time he was a child, helping his father arrange his supply of beads, threads, sequins, rhinestones and others to weave his rakhis. He wasn’t as enthusiastic in making other festive objects, though he’d repeat the maxim even when Avinash helped him print boxes for firecrackers using pictures of the most popular Bollywood heroines from that year. His father would spend hours going through magazines to find the right pictures, not so much to get any sensual pleasure out of it, as to find the most unique, artistic pictures of that particular actress. Even to Avinash’s untrained, unsophisticated and essentially boyhood eyes, it was clear his father had taste and diligence and a clarity of purpose doing his work: for the love of it.
But, he was gone, and it was up to Avinash to make rakhis to meet his quota and deadline of July 18th, 2016 – a month before the Rakhi festival, and sell them to his father’s friend. He was dissatisfied with his work, stressed by trying to work neatly, creatively, to maintain the merchant’s interest and unwritten contract, to feed his family of four, with his mother, younger brother and sister, none of whom had any interest in learning the work. He did his best, but his eye for quality ensured that he knew they weren’t good enough.
He left Kalash and his trolley, and rushed to the Jamnapur station ticket counter, carrying his big shopping bag full of rakhis in one hand, rummaging through his lightly wet, canvas messenger bag with the other, looking to shell out the exact fare of 15 rupees even as he groaned at the station’s large wall clock that read ‘10:12.’ He inched closer in the queue, but he knew his time was up. The teller shrugged as he asked for his ticket, telling him he’ll be better off waiting for the 6:08 train in the morning, and should buy his ticket then, as the ticket is only valid if he commences his journey within an hour.
To be continued…
Rakhi: A rakhi is a ceremonial wristlet, usually tied on the brother’s wrist by a sister during the Rakshabandhan festival, but has often served as a symbolic gesture of brotherhood and solidarity.