Guest post by WALED AADNAN
“Amar naam Chatterjee!” My name is Chatterjee! sounds like a proclamation from a fiery leader of the masses at a public rally, but it came from a rickshaw wallah plying his trade in the dusty bylanes of North Calcutta and addressed to no one in particular.
As I sat on his rickshaw, the frail old man launched into an indignant tirade against the ruling political party, whom he branded as a group of turncoats, insisting vehemently and repeatedly to nothing but the evening breeze that he had always been a Congressman.
Yes, he defended, petrol prices have been rising, but surely the bosses in Delhi would admit to that! What is the point of protesting about that in an insignificant meeting of rickshaw wallahs’ union? His tone of uncompromising understanding of world affairs drew me to listen to him, rather than plug in my earphones and switch off the world.
You expect this kind to blabber from a rickshaw wallah about his domestic troubles or a cricket match the players had shamed them in. You don’t expect him to start explaining how the Parliament works. He went on about how “two thousand crores” are allocated to a given state by Delhi to solve their own problems. And when the money ran out, where did the babus go? They went to the Vishwa (World) Bank. He didn’t approve of it. He reprimanded as if the old men at their game of carrom had suggested otherwise.
Sixty two years, he said, he had stuck to an honest living. And what had the world given him? A life of drudgery surrounded by fools who understood nothing. He spoke of Tagore’s Where the Mind is Without Fear and of Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy as we crossed a bridge I had initially feared he would ram us into. His old friend Langda Shyam had died. Did the fear of death drive him to compromise with his ideals? No, he insisted, throwing in the odd English phrase. Honesty is the best policy, he bellowed at a group of bewildered women who shielded their children behind their generous Indian waists.
“Today, the world has lost the eminent singer Bhupen Hazarika,” he said solemnly. He wasn’t in touch with insignificant details like dates – the bard of Assam had passed away nearly a week ago. Chatterjee reminisced about a popular song by Hazarika, Manush Manushyer Jonne (Man is for Man). He labelled as fools all those who could not understand the deep underlying meaning of Hazarika’s lyrics. But he wasn’t a fool, he remonstrated at the top of his voice. He listened and he understood. And then he broke into a melancholic rendering of the song, drawing catcalls from a group of boys standing at a paan shop we were passing.
A taxi tried to overtake him. Chatterjee warned the driver not to honk. When he was paid no heed, he sniggered at the taxi that had by then long gone, said that he would complain to the Dum Dum thana (police station) and pocket half of the two thousand rupees the driver would have to pay as bribe to save himself from the law for the crime he had committed.
I wished my destination had not arrived so soon. He asked me why I had kept quiet all the way and not asked him to ride faster, which evidently most of his customers do. I answered that I had been listening to what he had to say, and asked if he listened to Bhupen Hazarika often. He paid his tribute to the great man, comparing him with Mohd. Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh.
Chatterjee’s philosophy of life was the same as the humanistic message of Hazarika’s songs. His understanding of politics was simple yet deep. He emphasised again and again on the principled, honest lives of Tagore and Vivekananda as being the path of salvation for mankind. He scoffed at the corruption of the taxi driver and the narrow worlds of his fellow men who did not know how politics worked and did not understand the socialist message of Manush Manushyer Jonne.
One may agree with Chatterjee or laugh him off as a mad snob. Either way, it says something about a world that a sixty-two year old man has to pull a rickshaw for a living, that the opinions of a rickshaw wallah would be ridiculed by the world no matter how sharp they are.
Chatterjee bid me farewell, and hoped we would meet again. I hope so, too.
(Waled Aadnan is a student of Economics at Presidency College, Kolkata.)