It was an early morning in November 1959. November is perhaps the best month for weather in Kolkata and I had just arrived on posting to 12(Bengal) Air Squadron NCC at the Jadavpore University a few weeks ago. I had not yet setup a household. My wife Leena was with my Parents in Deoghar. This posting to Kolkata was on my own request so that I could look after my ailing father a little better by being located not very far away. My boss Squadron Leader RA (Bob) Rattan called me into his office and declared that I was to go down to Ranchi over the week-end. The NCC Air Squadron at Ranchi had just received their gliders. There was to be a formal inauguration of flying activity there. The NCC Headquarters had asked the Group Commander at Kolkata or his representative to attend the function. The Colonel Sahib who was the Group Commander was not keen to make the tiresome journey; in any case he had some other more pressing plans for the week end. He had therefore asked my boss to be his representative. Bob was similarly disinclined to spoil his week end. I was young and available. I was therefore required to go.
I had no difficulty in comprehending the chain of ‘Superior Intentions’ and the resultant sequence of actions that would follow. It seemed that my weekend was about to be written off whereas I was really looking forward to a short trip home to look up my folks. After all, I had volunteered to a stupid NCC assignment only to be near my ailing father often. (That such visits also permitted me to be with my cute pretty young wife was of course just incidental!) . A quick recovery action had to be found and put in motion. ‘Yes Sir’ I said. ‘Consider it done’. I had a very innocent docile face put on while my mind raced to find a way to salvage my trip home. ‘May I leave tomorrow?’ Bob eyed me quizzically. Why tomorrow? He asked. Today is only the Wednesday! I did not allow the expression of innocence leave my face. ‘I have not handled training on gliders so far. Since I am going all the way, it might be a good idea to spend a little extra time there and gen up on glider operations and how they plan to start and progress their training’. Bob was a smart cookie. He saw through my subterfuge instantly. ‘How do you plan to go?’ he asked. I had to blurt the nascent plan out; I would go by train to Jesdih and take a bus from there. Bob smiled. Would that give you some time to look your folks up on the way? He smiled. I could only nod in discomfiture.
That evening I went over to my Maasima’s place hoping catch my cousin Bhaskar at home. Maasima was my Ma’s younger sister. Bhaskar and I were very close to each other and were very comfortable in mutual company. We behaved almost as if we were twins. I was however disappointed. ‘Khokon has gone out on one of his outstation tours – to South Bihar’ was all that his mother would say. To my Maasima, Bhaskar was still just khokon despite his twenty three years of age and a steady job as a medical rep with a renowned firm – Parke Davis! Where has he gone in South Bihar? I enquired. Who knows! Maasima retorted. Perhaps by tomorrow he will reach Hazaribag. He never tells me any thing about his detailed tour plans
I left Kolkata pretty early on Thursday and reached home at Deoghar by the evening. It was a surprise visit that brought joy. Baba was feeling comparatively better and Ma was relaxed. It goes without saying that Leena and I were happy to be together albeit for just one evening. Next morning I went to the bus-stand to take a bus that would take me to Ranchi. The journey started very early. It was dark and misty when I reached the bus-stand. There were no ‘Luxury’ or ‘Express’ buses due for departure to Ranchi in the morning hours. There was however one rickety ‘Ordinary’ bus ready for departure. I got into that contraption without a second thought. I was informed that the bus will reach Ranchi in the evening via Dumka and Hazaribag. Those of you who are old enough to have travelled by public road transport in Bihar in the fifties or sixties would know how terribly uncomfortable and slow the journey could be. The bus started its journey in a leisurely manner, stopping to pick up passengers by the road side time and again. Ultimately we were out of the town and bus picked up some speed. By then all seats were fully occupied and there were many passengers standing on the isle.
By about eight thirty in the morning we reached Dumka. There was a short halt. I got off the bus to stretch my legs. There were vendors around selling nuts fruits small eats and trinkets. There was also a small book shop selling Hindi periodicals and paperback novels. I walked over to that book shop and started browsing. I must admit that my Hindi at that stage of life was quite rudimentary. I had never attempted to read Hindi literature beyond what I had been forced to read by my Hindi Teacher at the JSW – NDA in Clement Town. The shop keeper pulled out a small novel and pushed in my hand. ‘yeh padhke dekhiye – achhi hai – khoob bik rahi hai’. The book seller was a small-made smart boy with bright eyes and a ready smile. I did not feel like telling him that I had not till that date bought a single Hindi book, though I was indeed a voracious reader of literature in English and Bangala. I inquired about the price, paid him the few rupees that he demanded and got back to the bus.
Between Dumka and Hazaribag the road got bumpier and dustier. I got thoroughly bored. My attempts to read the Hindi paperback did not proceed beyond the first ten pages or so. It was close to midday as we approached Hazaribag. I had never visited this town and did not know anything about it. It was however not too small a town and was an active tourist centre for the lower middle class of Bengal. The bus was scheduled for a longish ‘lunch break’ there, for about half an hour I was told. I had my lunch packed with me. The idea of a long halt in middle of the day did not excite me. Then I remembered my Maasima telling me on the day before yesterday that her son Bhaskar might be at Hazaribag to day. Would it be possible for me to find my cousin in a strange town in less than half an hour? That would, I felt, be a challenge. It was supposed to be small world that we lived in.
I got off the bus as it stopped at Hazaribag not knowing how to begin my search. There was a pharmacy on the road just across the bus stand. I walked in to the pharmacy and headed for the guy who looked likely to be the senior man around. Have you seen Mr Sen of Parke Davis here? I asked without any preliminaries. The gent looked up and studied my face for a short while and then responded: Oh PD’r Sen-Babu? Yes he was here in the morning, at about ten I think. But he is long gone. Strike one. I felt elated. Where would I find him now? The gent was not sure. He would be here some where, he said helpfully. As I exited the pharmacy, another man who was sitting near by came up and told me that I might inquire about Sen Babu in the two other pharmacies down the road. These pharmacies were not very far away. I trotted down the road and repeated my inquiry to no results. Crest fallen, I started my journey back to the bus.
On my way back to the bus I was accosted by the gent who had been sitting on the steps of the first pharmacy I had visited and who had directed me to the other pharmacies around. Sen Babu naahi mila ka? He had crossed the road to come and face me. By his accent he was clearly a north Bihar resident earning his rozi-roti in Hazaribag. Aawo hum aapko lei chaltey hain. I looked at my wrist watch. I had spent only about ten minutes off the bus so far. I let this man lead me on. He left the main road and entered a small lane that led us on to another road parallel to the main bazaar road. After a few paces he poked his head into a small room that had the signboard of a doctor. He gave a cursory look into the room and came away. A few yards later we came to a larger signboard for a medical doctor. My man invited me to go in and have a look. I was standing just outside the door of what seemed like a doctor’s waiting room. As I hesitated, I saw the outlines of Bhaskar sitting in one corner. I called out to him gently. He saw me at the door and came running out.
I waved goodbye to my Good Samaritan while I updated Bhaskar with my situation. ‘I am on a bus going to Ranchi in a few minutes. Would you like to come with me? I shall come back on Sunday.’ Bhaskar took microseconds to decide. He grabbed my wrist by his right hand and hailed a passing rickshaw by his left. A two or three minute’s ride brought us to the shanty that passed for the medical rep’s hostel. Bhaskar dropped his bag, picked up a towel and ran for a shower while shouting ‘Bhaat Baaro Jaldi’ in the general direction of the kitchen. By the time Bhaskar came out of the bath and put on his clothes again, two plates of Daal Bhaat Sabji were on the table. We gulped the food and ran to the bus stand laughing at our own unreasonable zest. We found the bus ready to depart, its thirty minutes’ halt being just complete. We got in and reached Ranchi by the evening.
Mike McDonald was commanding the NCC Air squadron at Ranchi. A heavy built light eyed high spirited boxer, Mike was from the 56B pilots’ course and we had spent some time together in the flying training environment. Mike had fixed up my accommodation in the annexe of is own home and that room already contained two beds. There was no difficulty for Bhaskar to muck in. We attended Mike’s show next morning, spent the day and night at Ranchi and came back by Sunday.
When I now narrate my numerous stories about the world being a small place, some of my friends opine that these only indicate how stratified our society is. Each stratum is so thin and narrow that it is easy to find any one in that given stratum. I of course beg to differ. I think it is our ability in identifying the distinctiveness of each person we try to locate that makes the difference. In this particular case, though there was perhaps a population of about half a million in and around Hazaribag, selecting the criteria of ‘visiting medical representatives’ reduced the pool to be searched to a handful. Additional criteria like company=Parke Davis, name=Sen quickly reduced the search to a unique identity. Use of pharmacies as searing ground quickly produced the results desired.
Still, finding one person in a strange town and connecting up with him in less than half an hour would surely support my thesis of the world being a small place.