Abhiram Panda was very happy that the rail tickets he booked for travelling to Puri, got confirmed. When he told his wife and son, both were quite excited, particularly the ‘Chhotu’ with his visible excitement. He exclaimed,
“Aiyah! How nice! We will be able to go for Rath Yaatra this year. So many times, I had seen it on TV. Now I will be there witnessing the same directly. Baapu, you will be sweeping around the divine chariot and I will be pulling the it. Okay? I saw on TV like that. One person does the sweeping. Then on the swept clean path, the chariot moves on. When you will be holding the broom, it will be relayed ‘live’ on TV also. We must ask our neighbour Sampat uncle to record it. When we come back after Rath Yatra we can see that recorded programme.” His imaginations were flying high. It was difficult to contain his excitement.
Abhiram was in no mood to apply brakes to his son’s hi-fi thoughts and excited pranks. His wife Renu was also watching the boy and smiling at his innocent dramatic expressions. She silently dragged his toy motor car to the front room and brought one idol of ‘God Jagannatha’. She brought a long string and tied it to the toy car. The boy clapped his hands and jumped in sheer joy. He ran around hither and thither and brought a broom and gave it to his father. Then he stood holding the string attached to his moto car in which Lord Jagannatha was placed. Abhiram also happily joined in the enactment of child’s play. He slowly swept the floor. Chhotu slowly pulled the car. He also chanted as he dragged the so called ‘chariot’. Jai Jagannatha, Om Shri Jagannatha! Jai Bolo Jagannatha. He asked others also to join in his chanting.
The play went on for a while. Abhiram simply lifted his son and hugged him fondly. Cuddled and cajoled him. He turned to Renu, “See how keenly he was observing everything. This is how our traditions are protected and passed on from generations to generations. So many invaders had plundered and raided our country and tried to destroy our age-old cultural practises. Thank God! Our heritage is intact.”
He then tried to explain that Rath Yaatra was a major event for which all devotees of God Jagannatha all over world were eagerly looking forward to. “Do you know Renu, there is a word juggernaut in English Dictionary, meaning a huge powerful and overwhelming force. You will be surprised to know that it is derived from Jagannath. Our very same God ‘Jagannath’ who is all powerful and has a strong forceful hold on His devotees. Year to year, the crowd is increasing which only proves that people have immense faith in God Jagannatha and His charm is all pervading.”
Chhotu could not understand much from their conversation. except that God Jagannatha was great, really great. Abhiram told him that not all can perform the sweeping. Only the King – Gajapathi of Puri alone could do it and nobody else. He would even sweep and dust the wheels of the chariot and then start pulling it. Others could join after the king had initiated the first rolling. The king, though he was holding highest authority, had to surrender before God Jagannatha and reduce himself to a status of a servant and be a commoner just like any of his subjects. The king was expected to take care of his subjects as a servant of God. Traditions had to be followed. Once a VIP, an Ambassador from Russia was invited for the magnificent event. As a matter of honour and prestige, he was given the broom for sweeping. But the temple priests and others associated with holy rituals objected to it. Such was the convention. Agelong traditions in devotional matters should not be broken.
Chhotu asked, “That means, you cannot sweep there? I am so sorry for you. Very sad, Baapu. At least I am lucky. I will be drawing the chariot after the King will finish doing his first rounds. God Jagannatha will be happy if a small boy like me is pulling His chariot. Is it not?”
This time instead of bluntly saying no to him, Abhiram decided to show video of last year’s Car festival. Chhotu saw hundreds of strong men pulling the rope with great force amidst heavy chorus chanting. Abhiram asked him to count the number of kids pulling the chariots. At least in any one of the three chariots? There was none. A small boy like Chhotu, even if he went anywhere near the chariot, would be crushed beyond recognition. There might be heavy stampede even if one casualty occurred in the scene. There were umpteen policemen guarding all the time. Chhotu was saddened to note that he too like his father, could not perform the main activity.
Abhiram consoled him. “Don’t worry. At least your mummy should not be disappointed. She wants to visit Bhubaneswar and meet her old friends, then some alumni and then her school teachers. While she will be busy with her people, we both will go to Nandankaanan, a famous zoological park, the biggest one in Asia. We can see there a white tiger, a very rare species.” He kept mentioning to the boy, about some more attractions of the city. Along with Rath Yaatra, now his fascination grew for Nandankaanan also.
Everyday he would get up and ask his parents about how many more days of waiting were left. For him the count-down already started. Daily he would nudge his mother to pack up his belongings and be in readiness to leave. Finally, the red-letter day dawned. Chhotu’s joy knew no bounds. He was all set to travel. At the railway station, he was awe struck by the length of the train, having as many as 21 coaches… Oh! so lo….ng! He wondered if all coaches could be within the platform or if some would be outside. He was much bothered about how people would get into those coaches which were hanging outside. He had many more doubts. They might be trivial for others. For him all were ‘big if and what then’? Every now and then he would pester his parents with some odd query or other. Renu was patient enough to answer him. But she too, found it very difficult to put him to sleep. Finally, she had to silence him by saying that rain would move only if he slept. But he on the other hand, insisted on seeing the train chugging out. He was also worried that his window seat would be lost to him if he had dozed off. At last after getting lots of assurances, the boy rolled on his bedding. Due to excessive excitement and also due to hectic running around during the whole day, he soon fell into deep slumber.
In the cosy comfort of Airconditioned three tier coach and with no outside noises disturbing, Chhotu and his parents had a good sleep. But early in the morning, vendors with tea coffee came in and went out. That was enough for Chhotu to sit up. For him, every little thing inside and outside the train was a matter of curiosity and amusement. His attitude and enjoyment were major attractions for other passengers around him. They found it very interesting. The inquisitive boy kept pouring questions. That way, he thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the journey.
The train stopped at one nondescript station. It was not a scheduled one. A train from opposite direction had to cross this train. During that brief halt at the station, an old couple got into the train. Both appeared to be very poor. The lady seemed to be insane. They sat down at the entrance. Surely, they did not possess any reserved tickets. In normal circumstances, they would not be allowed to enter airconditioned / reserved compartments. The Railway Reserve Policeman warned them and asked them to get down as soon as the train stopped at the next station. They were therefore sitting at the entrance only.
When Chhotu came for using the toilet, the lady soon arose and tried to catch him calling, “Chandu, Chandramohan, my darling! Arrey Chandu Chandu, my dear.” Abhiram was shocked to hear the lady calling out to his son in a mad agitated tone. The lady with her hands stretched out to the boy, was behaving as though she found her long lost child. The old man with due apologies told him that she lost her senses and anytime she saw a small kid of five to seven years, she would immediately rush to them and grab them. It was very difficult for him to control her and bring her back. The public hurling abuses, the police threatening them, some parents even beating the lady, he had seen it all… He had been going through this turmoil for the last ten years. Only God Jagannatha knows when their sorrow would come to an end.
Abhiram went to his berth. He opened his suitcase and took out a photo smaller than a post card size. An innocent boy of seven years with a bewitching smiling. On the backside was written the boy’s name and date. It got smudged and faded too. Abhiram kept the photo in his pocket. He looked at Renu and she too guessing his thoughts nodded convincingly. Chhotu was very much scared as a strange old clumsy looking lady called out to him and was trying to catch hold of him. He was sitting timidly on his mummy’s lap and holding her tight.
Abhiram went to the old couple. He wanted to know about their past and the lady’s abysmal behaviour with small kids. The old man with reluctance narrated his troublesome life and ill-fated misfortunes. For him miseries never came single. They were well off ten years ago. But as ill luck would have it, during Jagannath Rath Yatraa, their only little son, Chandramohan left them. They searched and searched. In the sea of ocean, it was difficult to trace a small little boy. They went to police station to lodge complaint. The police did not pay attention to them as they were too busy in making proper bandhobust – that is security arrangements for one VIP from Russia. Repeated requests from the agonised parents irritated them. They simply told them to leave their address and if any missing child was found they would see. The poor parents were left with no choice. The lady cried and cried and with every passing moment, she wept bitterly. “Aiyo! My child hungry now, aiyo! my child sleepy now, Aiyo! My child scared now Aiyo! My son asking for me now… Her lamenting went on. The police drew them out as though they were a big nuisance.
The old man continued, “My wife refused to come from Puri. Chandu Chandu Chandu. All the time same lamenting … Aiyo, he will be hungry. Aiyo he will be asking for me. Where can we get him? She became sick and in her mental depression, she lost her balance. I became penniless. I could not leave her behind and go to my village and carry on my farming. For whom I should do? I lost my son. My wife is unsteady and sickly. God Jagannatha was making fun of us and we were destined to be destitute. But every year, we come to Puri for Rath Yaatra with a fond hope of getting back our son. The merciful God is yet to open His eyes on us and shower his blessing.”
After a long sigh, he looked at Abhiram with a puzzled look. “Why are you asking me all this? Everyone goes away with a scornful look in disgust. But you? What do you want from us? Are you police? Do you want to put us in jail? I am not worried. I have endured many bitter sufferings. Do whatever you want. Only one small request. Please, please do not separate my wife from me. She has nobody. No one to care for her, on top she is not in her senses.” He closed his face with his two hands and cried bitterly, then sobbed while his body shivered.
There were others also who were listening to this sad tragic story. One passenger held out a hundred rupee not to the old man. Others also wanted to give some money. Abhiram stopped them and told them that he would take care. He went back and brought some food. He made the old couple to eat. Now he found that the lady was having fever. She needed medical attention. By then the train slowed down as a station was approaching. Abhiram went to Renu and asked her to pack up. Before the train would stop, the Railway Reserve Policeman came to warn the old couple to get down. Puri was quite a few stations away. But along with the old couple, Abhiram and family also got down there itself. The old man politely refused unwanted mercy and sympathy, as he had already learnt to resolve to his destiny. But Abhiram insisted on helping them out of the way. He said that was as per God Jagannatha’s orders.
Abhiram asked the station master to guide them to a local doctor. The old lady was given some temporary medicines. He advised that she needed a treatment for longer duration with lots of laboratory tests and check-ups. Only after a proper diagnosis, a proper treatment could be administered. Initially, he was angry for neglecting the illness all these years and coming to him only at the last stage. Abhiram was not keen on telling the background story to all and sundry. But Renu did not like some strange doctor finding fault with Abhiram for not taking care of this old lady.
She told the doctor that it was a long story. She told him in brief that the patient had lost her son some ten years ago and became mentally sick. The irony of fate was such that the missing son had come into fold of Abhiram’s parents who also were frantically searching for the boy’s missing parents. On one side, one set of parents was searching for missing son. On other side, another set of parents was searching for the parents of missing son, now with the boy in their custody. Both the parents could not meet each other. That was destiny.
Renu continued. Chandu the missing boy grew up as Abhiram’s younger brother. But every year Abhiram’s parents would go to Puri and pray to Jagannatha for the parent-son meeting. They would meet the police also. But as usual they laughed at them. Even advertisements in local Newspaper did not invoke any response. Last year Abhiram’s mother passed away and she handed over her vow to her son to continue the parent-son meeting.
Abhiram told the rest of the story. “Even before Jagannath Rath Yaatra is yet to start this year, God Jagannatha has showed us the right path. Our rath yaatra ends here and we are going back.”
Doctor asked, ’Where is the missing boy?”
“Oh! Chandu. That’s the crude tragedy. He is no more. We lost him. He was a swimming champion. But very unfortunately during his college picnic, while trying to save a drowning girl in a flooded river, he swam her to safety while he was caught in a whirlpool and miserably sank. He met his watery grave there.”
Hearing this the old man lost his control and was about to cry loudly. The doctor took him aside and asked him to control himself as it might have terrible adverse impact on his wife. The old man pleaded with folded hands, “Please don’t tell this to my wife. She cannot withstand.”
Abhiram assured him, “Our Chhotu is her Chandu, as she has already said it and that will be so. Doctor kindly, give me necessary tips on ‘Dos and ‘Don’ts’ for handling her case. I have never dealt with anyone who had a mental setback. We could not save her son. At least the parents should be saved. We have that moral responsibility now. By the way, when is the train for us to go back? You see, now we need five tickets.”
Doctor was amazed to see a rarest of rare cases of humanity in action. ‘Who said doctors are with noble souls? Here is one specimen of God in human form.’
Doctor asked, “Why return journey? What about Rath Yaatra?”
“Our Rath yaatra ! Already over. Now we are going back.”