This story takes me 20 years back when I was doing my masters in Sociology at Calcutta University. As part of our research work for our curriculum we spent a considerable amount of time for a few weeks with the street dwellers. The class was divided into teams of two and we covered all main places of Kolkata where you could find those temporary hutments with plastic sheets and bits of tarpaulin. From Ballygunge Phari to Moulali, from Rashbehari to Shyambazar, we covered the entire Kolkata.
My research zone was Ballygunge Station and the area around it. Armed with our long questionnaire, something which had taken us days to prepare and something that made us feel daunted and apprehensive, we would set off in the morning peeping through the plastic curtains or just catch hold of a random woman washing her utensils at the roadside tap that never ran out.
Within a couple of days all our apprehensions vanished and we were welcomed into the huts or the mats on the footpath, offered tea made on the mud ovens, even chicken curry made from the remnants of the chicken they collected from the butcher shop.
Some took time out from their rag-picking schedules to answer our questions and some politely declined and gave us another time and place where we would be sitting on a bench at a tea stall and he or she would make an appearance at the given time. We were often surprised at their sense of time, insightful answers and the warmth that was always there.
As weeks passed from morning till evening we were spending time on the footpath – sometimes on the mat, sometimes on the wooden bench and sometimes on a bare raised platform. By the end of two weeks we knew almost everyone by their names – who belonged to which family, who earned how much, who beat his wife most, who was the most quarrelsome and who jumped into cars that came in the dead of the night.
But on most days our attention was taken away by Palash. He was around six - seven years old, had a hunchback, a temper that flared up at the drop of a hat and when he cried his shrill voice sounded so menacing that it would keep ringing in my ears long after I had left that area.
Palash was an uncontrollable child and adamant beyond imagination. After his birth, his father left his mother seeing his son’s deformity. She worked as a rag picker to make ends meet but all her frustrations were directed at Palash which resulted in rampant beatings – though a bit controlled in front of us.
When Palash wailed, her mother also wailed, in a more normal voice though, blaming the Gods for her misfortune, expressing her dread about the boy’s future.
A lady belonging to an NGO came to teach the children of the area thrice a week and the classes were held on the footpath right next to the mounds of newspapers and plastics the rag pickers had collected.
It was fascinating to see the lady engrossed in her work nonchalant to her surroundings and the children enjoying thoroughly sometimes with the crayons and sometimes writing down the alphabets on the make-shift blackboard.
The lady and Palash’s mother tried to interest him in the class. Palash seemed to enjoy the craft classes and nothing else. He could keep cutting the coloured marble papers for hours with a pair of scissors. But once he had given the pieces shape he wasn’t interested in those anymore. He would often toss them in the air and ran after it as they sailed in the wind.
The last time I saw Palash it was raining cats and dogs and we had taken shelter under an extended balcony. He chose to stand outside and when his mother urged him to get into the tent they occupied, he just refused. I realised Palash did exactly what he wanted to do and no one could dissuade him, not even his mother. At that moment he wanted to stand in the rain and that was it. His mother slapped him hard. He started crying, in that screechy voice, that reverberated along with the thunder. But Palash stayed put getting drenched to the bones.
It was our last day. We hurried home as the clouds parted. We never went back. All our questionnaires were filled up. We now had all the data needed to tabulate hence, there was no need to sit around on the footpath anymore
I was in a salon to get a haircut for my son. I saw a man with a hunchback snipping away at a customer’s hair with practiced dexterity. The young man would be in his mid 20s. I kept staring at his face trying hard to match it with that young boy I had known for a few weeks two decades ago. Nothing matched except for the hunchback which had grown. He had spiked his hair golden brown, was in the salon uniform of black T-shirt and red trousers and had a smile on his face.
I groped in my mind for the name. While paying at the counter I asked the cashier, ‘Can you please tell me if this gentleman’s name is Palash?’
‘Yes, madam, it is. Do you know him?’
I just smiled and nodded.
‘Like the Hunchback of Notre Dame he is known as the Hunchback of Ballygunge here,’ she said.
I looked for sarcasm in her words but couldn’t spot any.
‘He can weave magic with his scissors,’ she quickly added, probably realizing what was on my mind.
My last memory of Palash standing in the rain was quickly replaced with this new one. Of him working at a stylish textured hairdo.
Happiness does come in strange places in strange ways.
Amrita Mukherjee's latest book is Museum of Memories, a collection of 13-soul stirring short stories. She has worked in publications like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and The Asian Age in India and she has been the Features Editor with ITP publishing Group, Dubai’s largest magazine publishing house. An advocate of alternative journalism, she is currently a freelance journalist writing for international publications and websites and also blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com