Summer rules ruthlessly and it is cool lashing wind everyone seeks. The sun sinks in the west and all the halogen lights outside the Jharsuguda railway station were on scattering hazy red light. The gold-mohur trees looked like black monster as their shadows fall opposite the lighted parts. Birds begin to perch on the branches and chirp frantically perhaps celebrating some prize catches or they summarise their day. More birds come in as evening ages.
The outside of the station, near the exit/entry point gets noisy and serried as some twenty rickety rickshaws stand while their pullers give in to gambling in cards. The rickshaws stand in two rows leaving a middle path parallel to the exit point of the station.
Bairagi, about 40, wears a dirty singlet and a tattered half-pant, barely covering his knees. The pant has four pockets, two in front and two behind for his pack of biri, match box, money and a small comb. He curls on the seat of his rickshaw, having a cover made out of a cement sack.
Another one Lambu, about his age lights a biri and releases wisps of smoke to the air. This is his way of taking life easy. He walks to the group playing cards and enjoys the gambol as some loss while others celebrate noisily about their wins. They would tease each other; derive pleasure by banging the cards on cards.
At that time, with an obvious rhythmic sound, something like a car enters and stands outside the station building. The heavy sound attracts the rickshaw pullers.
‘What’s this?’ asks one.
‘No idea,’ other says pursing his lips.
‘I’ve seen embassator but god knows, what’s this?’ the first one adds.
Lambu shakes Bairagi and says, ‘Wake up, wake up oh, see what a monster has come.’
Bairagi says, ‘So what, let me doze.’
‘Go to hell,’ Lambu says and walks to the front of the vehicle.
The driver happens to be a proud man with a full pant and a tee shirt holding a cigarette between his lips.
‘Very good, brand new,’ one touches its hood with his palm,’ but what’s this?’
‘This, this is called auto-rickshaw.’
Out of curiosity, they check the new garland of flowers and the silvery-golden fake sparkling attached to the glass in front. On the middle of the glass and the mudguard, the reddish-yellow swastika drawings by a priest of a temple seem recent. The rickshaw pullers inspected its every part and peered into the Inside to see the interior. A crystal statue of Lord Shiva with flickering lights stood while two incense sticks burn beside it, twirling smoke and sandal aroma.
Everyone muttered, ‘nice’ and praised the vehicle. They would have relished a ride, but the arrival of a train distracted them.
‘Here comes a train,’ one says and all rush into the platform.
Bairagi waits on his rickshaw when a bird drops on his hair. ‘Shit!’ He holds his sweat towel and wipes his head. Looking upward, he mumbles some swears and flip opens his seat to bring out a bottle of water. A blackish bottle with black settling kegs on the base, he unscrews the cap and have a draught or two. ‘Ah’ He releases a hiss of satisfaction and wipes his face.
A person comes out with his wife and kid carrying an air bag himself while the wife carries an attaché.
‘Babu, want rickshaw?’ Bairagi asks coming near.
‘Yes...how much to Jhanda Chowk?’
‘20 only sir.’
The wife sees the auto-rickshaw standing over there. ‘Ask him.’
The husband walks to the driver and asks, ‘Would you go to Jhanda Chowk?’
‘Oh, yes, two person sitting inside, you please board,’ the driver says bearing a smile and rushes to the wife to bring her luggage and loads them onto the hood.
Bairagi on the other hand, looks at the auto-rickshaw and the driver with contempt but his look demands sympathy.
More people come in and sit behind the auto while one adjusted beside the driver. Seven people sit inside while two stand at the back holding a rod on the hood and resting their feet on the foot-rest. It roars when the driver pulls a lever. With a roaring sound, it leaves a trail of smoke and comes out of the station premises.
Bairagi looks at it going and thinks as if the smoke smears soot on his face. ‘My god, it kicks in my belly. I should have told the customer, rupees 10 only.’ He rues and fans his face with his towel. Releasing a deep sigh, he slumps into the seat of his rickshaw giving a jolt to the iron structure and shaking its hood pulled behind. He brings out his pack of biri, lights one and smokes in a hurry as if there was a competition.
Some five rickshaw pullers fail to find any passenger and wait for the next train. Birds of same feathers... goes the saying and they having similar plight, stood together to discuss on the instant drought.
‘Did you see, how the auto, snatched our income?’ Bairagi asks.
‘Yes, yes...it’s a threat to our livelihood.’
‘If that’s allowed here, we’ll be hard placed to sustain our families and life.’
They discuss the mechanical intrusion into the bastion of their livelihood.
‘It snatched my first customer, I know it’s been a bad day,’ Bairagi says.
Others look at him and express sympathy as a matter of fact, without knowing, the same fate can visit them tomorrow or the day after.
‘Okay, another train is late, I’ll have to take a swig or two,’ Bairagi says.
‘I’ve got a pack of hashish, don’t you worry, come let’s enjoy some drags.’
They begin to drag hashish sharing chillum. Bairagi drags hard and releases a huge ring of smoke to air apart from cough.
At that time, the auto again comes and valiantly stands along the row of rickshaws. The ramshackle rickshaws and their pullers see the threat of tomorrow.
‘There, it again comes,’ Bairagi says and picks up a broken brick piece from the ground. ‘You, you, how dare you snatch my customer?’ He rushes near the driver.
‘Me...no way,’ the driver says.
‘Who permits you to stand here? I must not see you here from tomorrow.’
‘Wait, wait...you’ve got no right to decide on my livelihood and as far as permission is concerned, I’m sure, you don’t have that also, do you?’
‘We’ve been pulling rickshaw for the last 10 years. Each and every brick used in the making of the building knows me as I’ve seen the station coming up. I’m but a part of the station and the latter is but a part of me.’
‘Keep your emotional attachment at bay, station is for all and for no one.’ The driver smiles and casts a teasing look.
‘Youuu.’ He feels agitated and raises the brick to beat him but fellow pullers desist him.
‘Leave him Bairagi,’ one says.
‘What to leave, you better leave me.’ Bairagi untangles himself from the clutch of his friend.
Somehow the matter settles down and the auto gets permission formally by the rickshaw pullers.
As they discuss on the fracas and intrusion, another train comes into the platform. This time Bairagi, enters the station premises to get a customer.
‘Rickshaw?’ He looks with an expected set of eyes to a person getting down from foot over-bridge.
Before other of his elk, he snatches the passenger’s bag while the person walks behind to the rickshaw.
‘Where you want to go sir?’
‘Mangal Bazaar, how much?’
’20 only sir.’
‘Too much, I’ll pay 15, okay?’
‘Okay, done.’ Bairagi agrees considering the threat standing ahead that continuously takes pleasure in reducing his bargaining power.
The person sees the auto-rickshaw proudly standing there, as the driver cries, ‘Mangal Bazaar’ repeatedly.
‘Wait, wait,’ the person following Bairagi picks up his luggage from him and walks towards the auto.
Bairagi gets angry and with a great effort checks the lump of invectives in his throat. He again enters the station building bearing an expectation to get another passenger but too late it is.
This time seven pullers fail to find any passenger. ‘No, no...this should stop once for all. The auto is a threat to us,’ Tingalu says.
‘Yes, yes,’ a united voice out-sounds.
All the evening trains pass by 10 pm as calmness rules the station building. All rickshaw pullers vanish to a road-side tavern and release their angst against the auto.
Bairagi returns to his house, one shack among a row of huts, everyone’s front door facing a common open uneven space. As summer rages, rope cots lay outside. Seeing Bairagi entering with wobbly gait, his wife Khairi asks him about his income. He looks towards her with a set of drooping red and bulgy eyes and slapped her hard on her cheek.
‘You poor thing, ask me money, who are you?’
She presses her cheek wrapping her sari skirt and tries to suppress her tears. ‘Shit, today also you took wine, fie on you man!’
‘Rubbish,’ he clutches his plait. ‘you know that fooker auto smilingly snatches my income and you tell me not drink. Why shall I not? You know, how hard it’s to pull rickshaw?’
‘Okay, but if this goes on, how can we manage our family, how can our kids attend school?’
‘Like me, they’ll also drop out, no doubt? How come a mere rickshaw puller manage books, uniform, pen, pencil, sari, dress, apart from rent for this hut and the rickshaw itself? And to make the matter worse, price rises whimsically.’ He sits on a rope cot clutching his hair.
‘What’s going on, oh Almighty.’ He seems to ask seeing the silvery moon amidst shreds of grey clouds and stars.
Khairi, sits near him. ‘Look how the kids sleep, please don’t make noise.’ She keeps a lantern beside the cot.
‘Okay,’ he nods. ‘Give me something to eat.’
Khairi deals him food and he eats without any interest. Smoking a biri, he slumps to his bed. Despite cool wave kissing his body, sleep eludes his eyes. He begins to think about his tomorrow.
‘Left my native place, Titlagarh in search of job but what I get? Nothing. Now they haggle price, the auto-rickshaw makes it difficult to get customers. God knows what stores ahead.’
The next morning he gets up early and pedals his rickshaw to the station. Still to reach the station, the chain skids the free-wheel. He sets it and again rushes towards the destination of his livelihood. But to his surprise, the auto-rickshaw stands brazenly and sparkles in the ray of the rising son, in a way teasing him. He stares at the driver, listening a devotional song while a strong fragrance from incense sticks inside the auto enters Bairagi’s nose. ‘Ah.’
Bairagi wait for his first customer as a train schedules to come. The train comes in and he along with others of his calling rushes inside to get a customer each. It is a race against each other, a race for livelihood: a race for survival. The early bird catches more fly rules here also.
Again the same story, some rickshaw pullers fail to get any passenger. A sense of collected anger seethes in the hearts of the rickshaw pullers. Everyday they would discuss to thwart the wicked design of the auto but the latter baffles them silently. Every puller gets a kick each, at some point of time or other.
A week passes in the meanwhile. One evening, Bairagi gets furious as he sees some eight passengers boarding the auto-rickshaw. He picks up a broken brick and rush to the driver.
The driver looks at him and tries to save himself from the assault. But Bairagi throws it flawlessly as it bangs on the driver’s head. The driver fells down while red blood gushes out from the wound. He loses his consciousness as some people rush him to a nearby hospital while some others beat Bairagi for his audacity.
Police rush in and takes him to the out-post. Someone informs Khairi about being nabbed by the police. She rushes in gasping and asks to leave Bairagi. She kneels at the feet of the sub-inspector but of no avail. Other rickshaw pullers also plead with the inspector to leave him.
In the hospital, there happens a melee situation as the driver fights for his sense. After a day or two, he regains his consciousness. The din and bustle settles as the police inspector asks him for his account.
The driver thinks a bit, looks at his wife and kids. ‘I forgive him sir, leave him.’
Bairagi comes out from the police station but his anger still seethes. Life returns as he and the auto driver come to the station for livelihood. A silent tussle still rules and the issue remains unresolved.
A Matadoor comes in and stands beside the auto-rickshaw. The auto driver and rickshaw pullers look at it with an eye of disgust when a gust of cool hot wind kisses them.
A train enters as everyone rushes in, but to their dismay the Matadoor takes 25 passengers while the auto-driver waits for his seven passengers.