When I met him for the first time, he was a perky little brat, jumping and playing. He told me in Bengali, “I will show you how I can hang like a monkey”.
Dressed in a cotton half pant and a yellow-coloured vest, he smiled and climbed up a pole that acted as a kind of pillar to hold up the tin shed. As I was speaking to his mother, he shouted, “Dekho, dekho”.
I looked at him and smiled. His antics made me feel nice.
“He is four years old,” Mira, his mother said.
I asked him if he attended school, he shook his head in affirmation, all the while jumping here and there. “Which school do you attend?” I asked.
“Notun school,” he replied.
I smiled at his answer. He was not sure of its name. Mira said he is very naughty and that she had great difficulty holding his attention.
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Munna lived with his parents in a shanti that formed part of a colony. Alo Colony was situated on an embankment and was bound by a highway on one side and a huge drain on the other. Shanties lined up close to each other, none of them permanent. With tin, plastic sheets, bamboos, almost anything that they could gather had been used to build up what was now their home. The embankment sloped down harshly towards the drain and on this embankment was the lived space of many. Within this small space, houses which just had one room each, lining beside and above and below each other had been built over a period of time. Small paths between the lanes, so narrow that just one person could pass through them and even then one’s body could graze against the sheds and their roofs. The rooms had no windows and were dark. A lone bulb was the only source of light. The whole place was pervaded with a smell that wafted from the dirty drain that flowed by. Mira had told me that it no longer made any difference to them, the smell. They had got used to it.
On the other side of the drain was a wall and beyond that wall were apartments, three and four storeys tall. Close by, towards the west could be seen the back of the cinema hall. Beyond these, to the further south was a huge market that had been there for more than four decades now. New shops had come up, many of the old ones were still there. When it all began, there had been only a few residential spaces, now there were many. The highway to the north of the colony had taken many years to build. Now, vehicles whizz by. A railway track on the other side has activity too. Trains pass by taking people from the suburbs into the city. A few long distance trains pass by too. The train horns jolt the place and the vehicles add to more noise these days.
Mira came to this colony after she got married, she had said. She fell in love with Ratan when she was in school. Ratan used to work at a tea shop close by her school. It was a free school and Mira’s parents worked at the local plastic factory. A few glances translated into smiles and then talk. Ratan ran away from his home in the village. He had been slapped by his headmaster at school and his parents had been angry with him too. That evening, his father hit him too. Ratan decided not to take all of this anymore. He caught a local train and landed up in the big city. A turn of events saw him landing this job at the tea shop. It meant that he now got to eat two square meals and had a place to sleep. They got married at a local temple against the wishes of Mira’s parents. Ratan had left the job at the tea stall, he could no longer stay there. These days he drives a rickshaw.
They moved to Alo Colony after their marriage. The shanty in which they lived was rented. Mira started working as a household help in those houses on the other side of the boundary wall. The lady of the house was my paternal aunt, Pishi. That is where I had met Mira. Mira would make us tea and talk with us too. Pishi liked her a lot and often gave Mira old clothes, bedsheets and things she had no use for and that Mira could use. They shared stories and snippets of conversation whenever they could. Slowly, the small little shanty in which she lived came to have basic necessities. Munna was born about a year after. Pishi grudgingly gave her leave a few days before she went into labour. With no one to help her out, Mira decided not to go back to work for sometime.
“Mashima, I will send someone else from my Colony to work in your house,” she told the Pishi.
Once she could she went back to work, taking her small baby with her. Pishi did not say anything about it. The baby made her feel nice too. She often smiled at him and his antics. When he began to crawl, he was all around the place. Munna was a precocious brat who livened up things with his antics. She got angry with him when he did mischief and broke things while playing. But then, the arrangement worked out well for all. She bought him toys and books. When she sat down to watch television, the kid was there with her. She even watched cartoons on the telly with him.
That day was like any other day. Munna was at school, Ratan at his work, Mira had just finished her work and was walking home. Black smoke covered most of the sky in front of her. There had been loud, blast-like sounds and a huge commotion. Someone said a cylinder had burst. People started to run. Mira had just come out of Mashima’s house when she ran into Mithu, her neighbour. Both had just started walking towards home, when the atmosphere turned thus. They looked up in the direction of the smoke, it came from the direction of Alo Colony. Someone shouted, “Basti te agun!” Both of them ran as fast as they could.
Alo Colony was up in flames. All that plastic meant that the flames spread very quickly. Fire fighters were hard at work, local lads kept fetching buckets of water, residents on the other side tried dousing the flames, but nothing could control it. Mira stood there, tears streaming down her cheeks, her home and all that was within it was up in flames. There were no casualties that day, but fifty one families lost all that they had. Alo Colony was dark now, only blackness remained.
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As I entered school the morning after the incident, the guard told me, “Didi, a few families have moved into the rooms on the ground floor. They will stay here till they are rehabilitated.”
The Headmaster spoke about it at the morning school prayers. Classes had to be rearranged. Students were told about it and we teachers spoke of ways in which we could help. I wondered if Munna and Mira were here too.
“Families have been provided shelter in three places,” Anoop Da said. Food arrangements were made for them and the rear door of the school was made available for their use. There were classes to attend to, but when I got a short break, I went down. They were now sitting in rows in the space behind the school building, eating. My eyes scanned them all and then I noticed a few children playing with a broken bucket. Kicking it as if were a football, shouting and running. Among them was Munna, happy at play.