The train left the platform. After standing in this crowded compartment for so long, finally Prabir got a seat. “Thank god that so many people got down at this station”, the sexagenarian gentleman muttered to himself, “My feet was aching like hell. That too a window seat!” He prepared himself for a comfortable journey ahead with a nice breeze in his face. He took out a handkerchief from his left pocket and wiped the sweat of his forehead and neck. Looking outside he saw lush greeneries, trees of all kinds with their leaves swaying in cool breeze of afternoon. The population is this area is far less dense than that in the city, he thought to himself. So much of green all around! It is a real treat for the eyes. After working in factories for long thirty-six years, he longed for the days when he would get away from all the grease and noise of this world of mechanical equipments. He retired just a few months ago from the post of the head supervisor in an aluminium foil mill. He always wanted to buy a home in a nice, quiet neighbourhood in a suburban town. It would be a small home, for in spite of his rigorous efforts at savings, his life’s savings did not amount to too much. But that would do. He was looking for such a house of retreat for his retired life for quite some time. But, unfortunately when the house suited him, the price did not and on other occasions just the reverse. Finally he got a break-through when his old colleague Bimal informed him that there is a house for sell in the same town where one of his nephew lives. Prabir went with his wife to check out the property and they took an instant linking to the house. It was just as they had pictured, a small single-storied house with a balcony facing the east. Some retired civil engineer had made this house once. Now after his death, his son who works in a city on another part of the country has put it for sale. Prabir really liked the plan of the house, small yet compact with the architecture allowing for plenty of cross-ventilation and play of natural light. Within one month all legal arrangements were made. He got it quite cheap, he thought. It seemed that the young fellow was in quite a bit of hurry to sell the house. Finally, his long-awaited dream had come true. But, he was not prepared for what was to follow.
“Hello, hello, testing, hello.” Suddenly he heard the sound and shifted his gaze from outside to inside of the train compartment. A ‘sound-alike’ singer is setting up his equipments. He really hates these sound-alike ones. He remembered once cracking a joke to his colleagues regarding this. “There are two kinds of singers today”, he said mockingly, “some are trained-singers and there are others who are train-singers.” Earlier, there were a bunch of these train-singers who tried to imitate the likes of Kishore Kumar and Mohd. Rafi and nowadays there are some sound-alikes of Kumar Shanu. Apparently, someone forgot to tell this lot that one needs proper training and years of practice to become a singer, an entertainer; one can’t do so by just poor out-of-tune imitation of famous singers. This unwanted entertainment package has become a real nuisance in local train journeys, he thought to himself. He looked outside again in a bid to shift his attention from the impending cacophony and again the thoughts of his nightmarish beginning in his new house came rushing back to his mind.
After shifting in the new house, it took Prabir and his wife a couple of weeks to settle down and start a new phase of life. Initially he liked the locality. Most of the neighbours were quite friendly. The only glitch he noticed in the locality is that club on the opposite corner of the street. Almost half a dozen young fellows sit there all day, gossiping, smoking, when they are not out riding their bikes. From the first day itself, Prabir did not like the look of the fellows. God knows how they earn their livelihoods by just gossiping and roaming aimlessly in bikes all day. Once his gaze fell on the board bearing the name of the club. He noticed that there is no formal registration number mentioned in that board. God knows whether they have any legal registration or not, he thought. There are so many of these clubs which are springing up like mushrooms these days. One just has to ignore them, he resolved. But, alas, future had something else stored for him.
Soon after that, one day he was sitting at home in the evening, sipping tea. Suddenly he heard a loud sound of pounding on the entrance door. His wife came in, looking a bit puzzled and said, “Go quickly and see. Who are these brutes pounding on the door?” He went up and opened the door and that was his first meeting with Swapan alias Poltu-da, the local don. He had seen this fellow from a distance earlier one day, but for the first time came face-to-face. His blood boils even till this day whenever he recalls the proceedings of that evening. The gang came with a queer demand- a demand for donation to the cause of the welfare of the club, that too of a sum of one lakh. “Is this a joke?”, he initially rebutted. But soon he realised that the matter was grave beyond his wildest dream. Still the tone of threat rings in his ears – “We are giving a week’s time. Arrange the money. You are new to this area. In case you face any trouble here, it is only us who can help you out. And you refuse to do even this small favour to us? We will come back next Wednesday. Keep the money ready. We won’t go back empty-handed next time.”
Prabir felt the burning sensation at the back his ear, even today, sitting in this train, just by recalling that moment. He took a few deep breaths and tried to calm himself down. Just then that song entered his ears. This is one of his favourite songs, from a movie- the first movie that Prabir and his wife Saswati saw together after their marriage. The fellow, who is now singing the song in this train, is not bad, he thought. He is more or less in tune, has a deep soothing voice. Yes, the pronunciation could do with some improvement, but overall far better than any of the other train-singers. He tried to remember the details of the day of his first cinema-hall visit with Saswati, but his mind kept on drifting towards that horrible episode of his life.
Saswati got really scared after hearing such a demand. Poor thing! Her voice almost choked when she pleaded to him, “Please go to the police and inform them. We are new here. What would happen if those goons harass us again!” But Prabir thought it prudent to discuss the matter with other neighbours before going to the police. He first called on Ajit, who lived in the house just opposite to him. After hearing Prabir’s dilemma, Ajit recounted, to the utter horror of Prabir, his own experience when he came to this neighbourhood a couple of years back – “What can I say Sir? We faced the same threats. After my daughter’s marriage, we settled down here. I had never heard of such audacity where I used to live before. These rascals! I straightaway refused to pay them a single penny. Why should I? You would not believe the language in which they spoke. Then started the nuisance. Every day in the morning, I saw piles of garbage dumped in my front-yard. Often late at night, these rascals rang the bells and pounded on door. One day, I was out with my wife to attend a family gathering. On returning we saw the glass window of our bedroom broken and broken beer bottles strewn all over the balcony floor. You can understand my predicament. I could not bear it any longer at this age.” “But why did you not go to the police then?”, intervened Prabir. “The police! Don’t talk to me about the police. Yes, I went to the local police station. Do you know what the police inspector told me? He said – ‘These are small matters. Why come to us? Reach a compromise among yourselves.’ There you have it. That’s police for you! So I tell you, pay those rascals or else you will be doomed. I would say you rather have got a better deal. I had to pay one lakh and sixty, apparently because my house is two-storied.” That strained Prabir of the last drop of resistance he had. So, he had to succumb to those bunch of…….. “Sir, dear sir, could you please help this poor brother with whatever little you can afford”. On hearing these words, Prabir turned his head. That train-singer is now out for money-collection. “Sorry brother, can’t help”, replied Prabir. And just then those blood-red eyes of Swapan flushed in his mental vision. “All right, your wife requested us so much, so we are reducing our normal charge. Settle for seventy thousand. That will do. For now.” How he felt while giving away that bundle of notes to these goons, he can’t describe in words. His hard-earned money out of the little savings he had made over the years. A portion of it gone! Just like that. Saswati consoled him – “Leave it. Forget the whole episode. Just think that you have donated the money for charity.” Charity! Suddenly a thought dawned on him. A realisation that came to him just now. Really! He never looked at it that way. Actually that goon Swapan and this train-singer are the product of the same failure of society and government. A huge percentage of the population today can’t find employment. Is it entirely their own fault? Or as civil society, we have also failed them. But look at the difference between Swapan and this fellow. One has taken up the ways of hooliganism and extortion while the other is trying to make a living in an honest manner. Perhaps he had a dream to become a singer from childhood but his parents could not afford formal training for him. Had he been born in a different family, Prabir might be hearing him over radio now. Who knows! Who can tell what potentials are being wasted every day? At least his fellow has chosen a path of integrity. But how easily he could refuse the fellow when he politely asked for a little help! Just contrast this to the arrogance of Swapan and his demand as if it was his birth-right. Prabir quickly made a decision. No, this is not right. If he does not help this fellow now, he would be turning his back on honesty and integrity. This would be tantamount to encouraging immorality. He stood up from his seat. The train was just stopping at a platform. He pushed the crowd and rushed towards the gate. That young singer-fellow was about to get down, when Prabir caught his hand and slipped a note between his fingers. The fellow stared at his own hand, bedazzled, looking at the Five-hundred rupee note stuck between his fingers. The train had stopped. A frenzied crowd was trying to enter the compartment. The young fellow jumped off the train; his moist eyes glistening with gratitude. Looking at those eyes, Prabir felt very relieved. The train had started to move again. As seconds ticked by, the platform receded. Still in a daze, Prabir turned towards his seat and just then he realised that his seat had meanwhile been taken and there was no empty seat elsewhere in the compartment.“Not a problem”, he muttered to himself. He felt a strong flow of energy and vitality in his veins. It would not be a problem at all even if he had to make the remainder of his journey standing all the way.