By: Debraj Bhattacharya
Susan looked out of the window of a café on a cold and foggy afternoon in London and wondered whether her life had any meaning. Was she simply a bundle of molecules floating in time and space without any purpose?
She was having coffee with her best friend Gloria. Andy, her boyfriend till yesterday, had texted a message to her that Susan thought she should share with her.
Gloria read the text. It said that Andy was moving to Shanghai for professional reasons and it would not be possible for him to continue the relationship as he believes that long distance relations do not work. “I am sorry. I need to move on.” The message concluded.
“What a jerk.” Gloria said. “Didn’t even have the decency to meet and say good bye.”
\“Is life just a cruel joke?” Susan asked, hiding her tears behind her dark sunglasses.
“Oh, come on, don’t be so philosophical. Wish I could smash his face.”
\Susan, dressed in bright red, to compensate for her gloomy mood, said, “I really wanted to settle down, you know. I told Andy that I have had enough experiments; I am thirty; it is time to settle down.”
\“And what did the jerk say? When you said you wanted to settle down?” Gloria lighted a cigarette.
“He agreed. Can you believe it? You know what is terrible? I am disgusted with myself. That this moron can do so much damage to me. I thought I am strong and independent.”
Gloria squeezed her arm and said, “Ah, well, why don’t you take a break and do something different? May be some other place? May be get out of this gloomy, foggy London to begin with. You are in the NGO sector, you have the opportunity to go to other countries. Don’t you?”
“That’s true”, said Susan. “That’s why I went to Sussex to study Development Studies. I wanted adventure. Then this handsome prince came into my life and I thought of settling down, having babies, safe job in an international NGO, and all that middle-class shit.”
“You should not be apologetic about that, come on.” Gloria said, finishing her cigarette.
“Well, perhaps no. But will I get a break?”
“Have a word with your boss. Isn’t she nice?”
“Oh yes. But you know, dumped by boyfriend is hardly worth talking about. Not a serious issue anymore.” Gloria did not answer her directly. She smiled and said, “Let’s go for lunch.”
Susan’s boss, Elizabeth, turned out to be an angel. She said, “There’s an opening at the British Council, Calcutta. I can put in a word for you. Teaching English to street kids. How does that sound?”
“That sounds great. Thank you.” Susan said.
“I was there for a couple of years. Wait till you face the heat, the dust and the traffic jam.” Liz said. “But maybe you can go up to the Himalayas when Calcutta gets on your nerves.”
It took Susan a couple of months to settle down amidst the heat and humidity of Kolkata. The shift in location certainly helped to reduce the pain of Andy’s betrayal. Once or twice she could not resist visiting Andy’s Facebook page, but then she said a firm no to herself.
The big advantage of Calcutta was that there were plenty of people who knew English and who were familiar with British life. She started to develop a special interest in the colonial past of the city – the monuments which still stand in the city such as the ones at Dalhousie Square. She had never heard of Job Charnock before, the person who apparently founded the city. There were plenty of experts too on the history of the city, lot of books, and it seemed that the only thing that was missing was the pub. Besides she could be in touch with Gloria and others on a real-time basis thanks to the internet revolution. She settled down at a small apartment at Salt Lake, a satellite town to the east of the city. She found it to be leafy and quiet. “Thank u Gloria”, she wrote in whatsapp, “it was a cool suggestion.” Gloria replied that she was planning to visit during winter.
Susan’s work took her to the Sealdah railway station and its environs where a local NGO worked. Kolkata has two stations, an old one named Sealdah and another smaller one called Kolkata. There is also the Howrah railway station, across the river, in the city of Howrah which is often informally seen as part of Kolkata. The two stations, Howrah and Sealdah, are nerve centres of the city, connecting it to rest of India on the one hand and the suburbs on the other. Susan knew about “population density” as a concept but to actually see the Sealdah station during rush hour was a numbing experience. How could so many people squeeze together in shabby local trains which were not even cleaned properly? She was surprised to see that people were hanging on within those trains and somehow also managing to smile and play cards. Vendors, known as “hawkers”, were selling all sorts of goods and incredible discount prices. Beggars were singing songs. “Sea of humanity” is a cliché, but she could not find any other expression to describe the scene during rush hour.
Watching local trains was not of course what Susan’s job was. She was supposed to teach English to a group of young boys and girls who were looked after by a local NGO. These children had left their home and lived in and around the station. There were various reasons for leaving home – violence by parents, neglect by step mother, sense of adventure, false ideas about exciting life in the stations, so on and so forth. Once they start living illegally at the station, they fall in love with the trains, make money as porters and beggars, enjoy various forms of substance abuse and sex. It is a life they get addicted to. However they also love the care and attention that they receive from the local NGO’s drop-in-centre. The NGO looks after their health, gives them training on various issues, tries to introduce a certain amount of routine discipline, negotiates with the parents with the hope of reintegrating them back into the family. Different organisations working with such children have different methods, Susan learnt in a workshop.
What came as a surprise to her initially was that the children preferred to live in the platforms rather than in the safety of the NGO’s shelter home. They, at least most of them, preferred to retain a certain amount of independence from the NGO, Child First. This was common to the experience of all such organisations. The children got used to a certain kind of freedom, which included sex and addiction to glue sniffing, and therefore did not want to become subservient entirely to the routine of the NGO’s safe shelter. It was always the endeavor of the NGO to attract the children towards a disciplined life but some inevitably remained stubborn and fiercely independent.
Sultan was one of them.
Within a week of starting to visit the NGO, Child First, Susan became a popular teacher. The young boys and girls, about twenty of them, of various age groups, loved the novelty of learning English from a white English lady. She was vivacious, she was enthusiastic, she loved to be with them. The children were initially somewhat shy and apprehensive to see this new lady but soon they began to feel comfortable in the presence of Susan didi (elder sister). Susan did not know their language, neither Bengali or Hindi, and they didn’t initially understand what she was saying. Hence Susan had to start with the direct method of teaching and use lot of gestures to explain what she was saying. She also made the group speak aloud. Once they started to speak aloud, and get some rudimentary words and expressions right, the children began to feel more confident and started to enjoy themselves. Susan wrote to Gloria – “all my depression is gone…I am feeling great…super busy…xoxo”
Gloria wrote back – “so happy…enjoy…xoxo”
Few days later Susan found that there was a teenager sitting in one corner of the class. He was quiet, had intense but somewhat blank eyes. It was his first day in the class. He didn’t participate as much as others did, seemed to be somewhat aloof. He had thick, curly hair and somewhat exaggeratedly long nose. Susan wasn’t sure whether he was listening to what she was teaching. However, since this was his first day, she didn’t say anything.
After the class, the head of the NGO, Mr Alokesh Sen, told Susan, “You have achieved a miracle. Sultan attended your class and kept quiet for the whole period.”
Susan was surprised. “Why? Why is that a miracle?” she asked. “Well, he is the wildest of the lot. We have failed to bring him under any kind of discipline. He is intelligent, manages to earn some money. But he is also into glue sniffing and other forms of addiction. We are worried that he may become a criminal and go completely in the wrong direction. But you seem to have cast a spell. Let’s see whether he comes tomorrow or not.” Mr. Sen said.
“That’s sad. Where did he come from? I mean what is his story?” Susan asked while sipping her tea.
Alokesh said, “We are not sure. He is the only kid who has not disclosed his background. In fact, although he calls himself Sultan, we do not know whether this is his real name or not. He is intelligent and can clearly survive. He has leadership quality, which is why we are worried that he may end up in crime soon.”
Susan was surprised initially but then she thought that indeed that is a possibility. She remembered watching the movie City of God on Brazilian favelas.
“Can I be of any help?” She asked. “Unfortunately, I am not an expert in these issues.”
Mr. Sen looked at her, smiled and said, “Let’s see whether he comes to your class tomorrow or not. If he does, then we shall start thinking further.”
“I hope he does.” Susan told herself, as she returned to her apartment, tired and exhausted.
Three months passed. In the meantime, Susan picked up a fair amount of Hindi and Bangla. She was surprised by her talent for picking up the languages. Sultan also became a regular student, much to the surprise of Mr. Sen. He was of course delighted and told Susan that he didn’t know how he could thank her. Susan said, “You have no idea what a difference this class has made to my life. Trust me, I am doing this for my own selfish reasons. Can’t remember the last time I felt so good.” Mr. Sen smiled.
Sultan not only started to attend the classes, he in fact began to do well. Mr. Sen had told Susan that he is intelligent and Susan could see that once he put his mind to it, he started to pick up the language rapidly.
Learning to speak in English, for these boys and girls was not just about picking up another language. It was also about empowerment since in Kolkata, English was the language of the elite. Traditionally only they knew how to speak in both chaste Bangla and proper English. To be able to talk to the upper class in English is a dream that the poor always nurture but never manage to fulfill.
Susan paid special attention to Sultan, not just because he was a good student but she remembered what Mr. Sen told her about him. He was difficult to discipline and there was a chance that he would drift towards a world of crime. Susan found it challenging to bring him towards a respectable life. May be, just maybe, she thought, he would be a changed person before she leaves. She dreamt of seeing Sultan joining the hostel of the NGO and taking vocational training and finally getting a decent job with the help of the NGO. Who knows, she thought, one day he might even become an important staff of the NGO, bringing more children like him into the fold of respectable life. He was handsome, had leadership qualities and when he was not intoxicated Sultan had a charm which was difficult to ignore.
One day, after the class, Sultan wanted to talk to Susan alone. She was a little surprised but nonetheless agreed. Sultan said in a mixture of three languages that he would like to take her out and show her the railway station which was his world. Susan wasn’t sure exactly what to say, but finally said yes, thinking that this may further help her to develop a bond with him. May be this will help her to convince him to join the hostel of the NGO. So Susan said,”Great, sure, when?” Sultan said, “Tomorrow. Morning. Six.”
Sultan had his way of convincing the Railway Police Force to go to places inside the station where normally outsiders didn’t have access to. With infectious enthusiasm, he showed Susan where the trains are garaged, where they are washed, how the engines come and join with the compartments, how the station functioned from morning till night. He took her to show how the signals work, how the station starts to prepare for the major train, the Rajdhani Express from Delhi, coming in the morning. He introduced her to the different kinds of people who lived in and around the station – the coolies, the vendors, the police, the guards, the ticket checkers, the “hawkers”, the magazine sellers, the fruit sellers and even the “flying” prostitutes. Everybody loved him. He also showed her around Sealdah area, the many kinds of retail shops, and then not far away the College Street, the city’s book market, and the thousand and one small eating joints. She was amazed to see how much detailed knowledge Sultan had. He even knew the pickpockets.
They went around for the whole day and Susan didn’t knew when time flew. “Thank you, Sultan, she said, I learnt so much.” Sultan smiled. She took a photograph of that smile. As she went back home, she felt that there was something special about his smile. In a cruel, wicked world, it was a smile full of innocence and honesty.
At the end of the hot day Susan was completely exhausted but also very happy. She needed a bath. When she came out she saw on her mobile screen that there was a call from Sultan. She called him back wondering whether something was wrong or not. She said, “Hello, Sultan, did you call?”
“Why, anything wrong?” She asked, worried.
A few seconds of silence. Then Sultan said,
“I love you”.
Susan did not know what to say. He had hung the phone.
That night Susan could not sleep. It was partly because of the sudden and unexpected phone call from Sultan. She should have dismissed it as teenage infatuation and gone to sleep quietly. But she could not. The troubling part was that she actually liked what Sultan said. It was unexpected and shocking but she had to admit to herself that she fell in love with the innocence of Sultan; his shy smile and his penetrating eyes.
She skyped Gloria. Gloria was excited to receive her call. “Hello, hello, what are you up to? What’s happening? Is it very hot?”
“Ah…well…yes.” Sussan said.
“Why not go up to the hills?” Gloria asked, trying to talk while washing the dishes.
“Yeah…well…may be…” Susan was trying to find the right words. She wasn’t sure how to break the news. Gloria sensed that Susan was feeling anxious. “Is anything wrong? Are you ok?” she asked.
“Well, I think I am in love Gloria…” Susan finally said, somewhat bluntly. Gloria almost jumped in joy. “Oh! That’s great! Who’s he? Bengali intellectual?”
“No.” Susan said. Gloria laughed, “Then who? Suspense, suspense.”
“Sultan.” Susan said.
“Sultan? Who is he?” Gloria was taken aback by the unusual name.
“A street kid. He is in my class. He is seventeen.” Susan said as calmly as she could.
Gloria’s jaw dropped. She could not speak for a few seconds. Then she said, “Listen, Susan darling. We have to talk. I am coming down as soon as I get the visa. Please don’t do anything silly till then.”
Susan didn’t get the chance to do anything silly. That night an express train ran over Sultan who was sitting in one of the tracks, intoxicated and dreaming about Susan. His crushed body was discovered by the Railway Police.
Susan became stone cold when she heard the news. Gloria came within a few days and wanted to take her back. She said no but agreed to a trip to the hills with her.
After a couple of weeks, Susan resumed teaching. Her students, after all, were still struggling with their prepositions. And she was struggling to find some meaning in her life. Her class gave her something to hold on to. The kids made her feel that she was something more than a bundle of molecules drifting aimlessly in space and time.
She printed and framed a photograph of Sultan and kept it next to her bed.