June 2019, Sealdah Station, Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta). Aditya Banerjee looked through his thick lenses around the waiting hall. It was a large one with overhead fans all around. Commuters of all varieties scattered throughout the hall mostly clustered under the fans to beat the sultry heat. Aditya marvelled at his luck to have occupied a bench at a corner all by himself, possibly because of the grace of his seventy odd years, or maybe his pitiable looks with crumpled pyjama-kurta over his lean frame. He was happy with his physique though. His frame has kept him active and agile at this age.
He looked at his old fashioned wrist watch sliding his sleeve up. It announced 1 PM. The Madhyamgram Local was delayed inordinately due to a technical glitch. By a conservative estimate the train was expected in another hour. Add one more hour for journey. By no means would he reach home before three in the afternoon. Not that it mattered. No one was expecting him at home. His wife Subhasini had departed for her heavenly abode about a couple of years back. An old combined hand visited him from time to time to look after his needs. He caressed his chin to have a feel of his ivory-white stub that was left uncared for three days. His wavy white hair partially closed his view for a moment, and he brushed it back to its place with his bony hand.
“May I share some space with you, Sir?” a mellow voice waked him up from his pondering. Aditya looked up to see a suave man in neatly cut shirt and trousers in his front. He must be about five years junior to him.
“Why, for sure,” he moved a little aside grasping his canvas bag that dangled loosely from his shoulder.
The portly man relaxed on the bench leaning on the backrest, and emitted a relieved “Ah!”
The man seemed amicable. “Going up to?” he smiled friendly at Aditya.
It is a natural way of opening a conversation in this part of the world. No one takes an offence at being too much personal. “Madhyamgram,” replied Aditya. “And you?”
“Me too.” The man answered in an East Bengal accented Bengali.
“It’s your home, I guess.” The man went ahead.
“That’s right. You must be on a visit to the place. Private or personal, if I may ask?”
“Well,” the man fumbled for correct words. “It’s a bit of both, if you like.”
Aditya couldn’t ask further. He was already on the boundary of decency. He simply uttered a non-committal “Oh!”
If Aditya thought it was the end of conversation, he was wrong. The chatty man continued. “I am Bishnu Choudhury.”
“Aditya Banerjee here.” Aditya folded his hands.
There was a glitter in Bishnu’s eyes that didn’t miss Aditya. He wondered if Bishnu was familiar by any chance. He tried hard to remember, but nothing clicked. “How long have you been at Madhyamgram?” Bishnu asked with increased interest.
Must be about ten years. I retired from that place as a postmaster.”
“Postmaster, indeed?” exclaimed Bishnu with an air that suggested being a postmaster was the most coveted thing in life.
Though a bit perplexed, it was nothing to deter Aditya. He loved his job, and had no constraints in showing the same. “You bet,” he blinked satisfactorily, “I always wanted to work for post office. You’ll be surprised I prepared for its qualifying examination in a remote jungle while working as an aide to a forest contractor at an age of eighteen.”
“That’s intriguing. But what made you land up in the remote woods at that tender an age?” there was a childlike curiosity in Bishnu’s eyes.
The question pleased Aditya. He had always loved the struggle he had undergone, the honesty he had worked with, and the satisfaction that he had drawn out of his happening life. He thought the posterity could always pick a leaf or two out of his life. Not that he didn’t try with the youngsters. Some didn’t listen, and some didn’t bother. He looked fondly at Bishnu. Yet he remained cautious. “It is a long story. Maybe it will bore you. Let’s rather talk about you. What do you do for a living?”
Bishnu brushed aside the question with a wave of his hand. “It is a mundane thing. I run a family business. No adventure over there. And getting bored? I assure you not an iota of boredom will engulf me when I listen to some life as intriguing as that of yours.”
Although a touch baffled, Aditya was happy to begin. “It all started in the small hamlet of Khalishkhali in undivided Bengal.”
Bishnu interrupted apologetically at this point, and called a tea-hawker moving around in the waiting hall to order two cups to tea. He sipped with relish from his cup. “Please continue, Sir.”
And it continued. From his early childhood in the remote Bengal village to the Second World War. From early pranks in school to his first job as a bank cashier. It hovered around the topics of Independence War, Hindu Muslim conflicts, the divisive and power-mongering leaders, the Radcliffe Line and India’s division. He talked of his hardships immediate post-independence. It went on to the lovely memories of keeping a tiger cub as a pet during his jungle days. The post office, his part as a trade union leader, his enthusiastic telegraphing skills- everything featured. It shed some light on the travails of his personal life as a parent, and as a husband.
The topic could continue for an eternity, but it had to stop as their train was announced. In between, there were two brief breaks when the two elderly men had to move to the washroom in turns. Best part of the narration was, Bishnu listened spellbound throughout.
“Did you ever try to pen down your unique life?” Bishnu asked at length.
It touched a sore string in Aditya’s heart. He did, and it was a painstaking effort of one year during which he wrote everything of his life in a hard covered, red notebook. In addition to being an attractive read in Bengali, he had inscribed his name and address on the front page, in case it was lost. He had knocked the door of all possible publishers, only to be discouraged. Some asked for money, some for recommendations, and yet some others showered him with advice against the temerity of attempting to pen at such an advanced age.
“Yes, I did. But it didn’t work out.” The part he omitted was his notebook being stolen with some other items kept in his folio bag.
The local train was entering the platform. They proceeded towards it. Aditya advanced in a hurry. Then he saw Bishnu missing from his side. He was smiling standing a little behind.
Aditya came back to catch up with him. “What happened?”
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “I’m not going.”
“But I thought you had a dear job to do there!”
“You’ll get all your answers soon.” He shook hand with Aditya and started walking out. “Wish you a nice journey.”
Bishnu remained a puzzle to Aditya, but not for long. The compartment was relatively empty. He searched his canvas bag for a hand-towel to wipe off the beads of perspiration trickling along his neck. Surprise of surprises! His hand felt something like a book within the bag. He pulled the thing out. It was a book indeed. It had a cultured cover page bearing the title of the book in Bengali that roughly translated as: Odyssey of a Postmaster. In the author column was- Aditya Banerjee! It was published by Ananda Publishers, a famed name in Bengali publication. He turned the pages. He recovered a small hand-written note and a sealed envelope from within the leaves.
Aditya opened the note with shaking hands. It was written in neat Bengali letters, possibly in a hurry.
I knew it all; I mean of your colourful life. I just wanted to verify. You saved me some trouble. I wanted to surprise you by reaching your home personally with your book that just have been published. I discovered your notebook on the seat of a city bus a few months back. Out of curiosity I leafed through the first few pages in the bus itself. It got me interested enough to go through the entire content. Not only was it in a league of its own, but it was a treatise to contemporary literature. I got it published, and I am sure of its commercial success as well.
At this point it is imperative I introduce myself. I am Bishnu Choudhury, the chief editor of Ananda Publishers. You must be aware of us.
Finally, my idea of surprising you changed the moment I knew it was you. I slipped the book into your bag in your absence. Incidentally, a cheque of 50000 rupees is also kept as a token of my gratitude to you. More is supposed to follow in case the book is a larger commercial hit.
Aditya felt the touch of the envelope in his pocket. It was reassuring.