Ballabh lights his beedi and sits under the tree. The sweltering Delhi Sun has sapped his energy. A few of his fellow-labourers are lying under the shade with their faces covered by their hand towels. It’s lunch break. He brings his mind forcefully back from Rini as the mason shouts,
“Enough of resting, saalon! Get back to work”.
Ballabh takes the last puff, throws the stub on the ground. He then splashes the tepid water kept in an open tank on his face, wipes it with his worn-out hand towel which he later uses to tie as a turban on his head. He picks up his spade, moves to his allotted trench and continues to dig the dirt. His mind digs into his past.
Rini, where he had lived for 38 years of his life. Rini, where his young widowed mother had raised 4 children. Rini, where he gave up his studies to become a construction worker at 15. Rini, where he had set up his home with Hemwati and had two children. Rini, which had turned into a home he could not go back to.
The sun sets. Ballabh scribbles his name in the wages register as Balu. He collects the wages, which is less than the amount on the register and heads to a nearby Arrack shack.
Hours later, alone in his temporary shelter made of tin sheets where the heat makes it impossible to sleep, he slumps on the floor. He is dead to the noise from the busy road nearby.
Hemwati was 18 when Ballabh’s mother had chosen her as the bride for her son. The wedding was a simple affair.
Mother had passed away soon after.
Hemwati was wise beyond her years. She made Ballabh feel at home like never before. Her nature was in sharp contrast to his mother’s. She was calm, patient and respectful to Ballabh.
Time passed. Ballabh’s brothers moved away to nearby cities and the sister was married off.
Ballabh’s firstborn was a daughter. She was strong like her father and sharp like her mother. Ballabh wanted to give her everything that he could not have as a fatherless child. They named her Soni. When he thought he couldn’t be happier, a son had arrived. Girish became the apple of their eyes.
Ballabh worked as a construction worker in NTPC Tapovan. They lived a frugal life but were happy in a way young and healthy families are. Girish turned two.
Ballabh’s brothers had come home to celebrate Diwali with their families. It was an annual tradition to celebrate Diwali together. The ladies doled out malpuas in the kitchen as the brothers bought the firecrackers from the stalls set up in the village.
The earthen lamps were lit and kept at the threshold of the house in the evening and the children started getting impatient to light the firecrackers.
The limited stock of the firecrackers got over sooner than the children’s expectations. The children continued to look up at the sky to catch glimpses of fireworks lit by other households.
Soon, women went inside to prepare the dinner and the brothers got busy talking about their lives.
“Aaaah!” a shriek pierced through the air. Ballabh darted in the direction from where it came. His heart stopped for a moment as he looked at Girish. The child’s hands were a mush of black and red. Blood was dripping from his left eye. He had picked up a half-spent fountain that had exploded.
After numerous rounds to the hospital in Joshimath Girish’s wounds had healed, but the vision of his left eye was completely lost and that of the right eye was very weak. The doctors had ruled out any further treatment at that point of time. They had recommended a corneal implant to be done much later, only when the child turned 13.
There were no fireworks for the family on next Diwali or for that matter for a decade. The brothers and their families still came once in a while, but not on Diwali.
Soni had turned 15. She was feisty as ever and wanted to move to a nearby town and work in a boutique. Girish turned out to be a surprisingly good scholar. He wanted to be a doctor.
It broke Ballabh’s heart to realise he will not be able to arrange finances to help Girish.
“I have failed as a father. I am as good as dead to him.” he kept saying to himself and at times to Hemwati.
“Don’t say such inauspicious things, something will turn up. Have faith in God.” she used to respond.
On 7 Feb 2021, something did turn up. A glacier burst in the Tapovan area of Uttarakhand. A massive flash flood had heavily damaged the dam.
The labourers working in the Tapovan tunnel perished. Ballabh was one of the workers.
Ballabh’s family was visiting his brother’s home in Ranikhet at that time. Soni had wanted to look for employment in one of many boutiques there.
Paramilitary forces were not able to recover Ballabh’s body. The family never heard from him again.
The rattle of the loosely stacked items of a moving truck jolts Ballabh from his stupor. He comes out of his shack. Even at midnight, the air is warm and smoky, in stark contrast to Rini.
Ballabh lights a beedi again and relives the fatal day.
He had reported to work on that day but had felt squeamish. He had been missing his family. He knew the supervisor would not agree to a day off. He would have to sneak out. He could catch the bus, visit his family and come back by the next morning.
By the time the bus had stopped at a roadside dabha for a tea break, the news was blaring from the radio. He could not believe it. Had it not been for his impulsive decision, he would be dead.
As the bus moved further along the winding road, he had started thinking.
‘I am dead to the world now. Hemwati will get the insurance amount from NTPC. That will be more than I can earn all my life. Soni can run her own boutique. Girish can get his vision back and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. I can be a better father when dead than I can ever be when alive’
Tears had rolled down from his eyes.
He had gotten down two stops before the bus got to Almora.