At 2:45pm, I reached platform number 19. The part where I got off the stairs was the rear end of the Intercity Express, and it was filled beyond capacity. I thought for a while whether to wait for the next train or to go out of the station and return after a couple of hours and catch the 5:30 Steel City Express that I already had a ticket for. And then a thought struck me, why don’t I check up on the further coaches of the Intercity and see if they’re as full too?
Well, they were not. I got into D4, a reserved compartment, but one which was practically empty. I suppose people aren’t much into reserving seats in the Intercity. And I also suppose that those who don’t are more likely to stick to the General compartment. I took the window seat closest to the door, expecting either a peaceful journey home, or a rude shooing into the General Compartment when the Ticket Examiner came.
It was 3pm now, and I was listening to some music on the iPod, waiting for the train to start when this man came and sat beside me and said something in Bengali. I paused the music, and told him that I didn’t know Bengali. He replied in Hindi that he just wanted me to straighten out his day’s earnings. He was a flower vendor and he had earned about 300 rupees that day. “I could have earned a hundred more if my arm was alright.” And he told me how he had dislocated his shoulder while climbing down the stairs of a building.
He went on to ask me why I had been to Cal, and upon being told, he went on to proclaim that Wipro must be a fairly small company because he had never heard about it. He then told me about how he had picked up parts of a pedestal fan and assembled it on his own for 500 rupees, while a new branded fan would have cost him 1100 rupees. He had read on the carton of a product once that it was manufactured by a company A, and marketed and distributed by a company B, while the brand was owned by a company C. He obviously understood the concepts of management while selling flowers on the streets of Cal every day, traveling by train for four hours from his hometown of Jhargram. He saw my sandals and said, “Woh Woodland ka sandals hai na? 2000 rupya ka hoga?” I was taken aback for a moment, after all, how could this guy, who’s obviously struggling to make ends meet, know about the brand, and guess the tagged price almost correctly? So I asked him, “Aapko kaise pata?” “Aise hi, paper mein padhe they ki discount laga hua hai. Aap discount mein hi kharide na? Kyonki iska full price bahut zyada hota hai. Margin Profit bahut hota hoga na isme?” I was silenced for a minute or two. “Waise iska logo jo hai who maple leaf jaisa dikhta hai. Wohi jo Canada ke jhande pe hota hai.”
He said it like it was such a matter of fact, that I was just left wondering if this was a con that someone was pulling on me, or was I being ‘caught on tape’. This guy just knew so much about all these things, and said it like it was so obvious, and he had learnt it all while traveling in the train for four hours, listening to his fellow passengers. I shared with him what I knew about some things that we discussed and the way he listened to me like he wanted to know everything that I had to say to him, as if he would remember it all and then write it down somewhere.
It unsettled me somehow, that a flower vendor with one functioning arm knew so much just by observing his surroundings, but what was yet to come was a major reality check. I asked him, just to change the topic, whether he had seen a proper doctor for his dislocated shoulder.
“Haan dikhaya tha. Doctor bola ki teen hafta aaram karo.”, a three week break from work, that made sense, I thought, it was a dislocated shoulder after all. Quite a painful affair, that. “Lekin teen hafta agar aaram kiya toh teen hafta ka paisa kaun kama ke dega?” he asked me. And that’s when it struck me how fortunate I was to have met him that day.
It reminded me that, having a plum job and a great b-school MBA diploma with me, I’ve got plenty to be thankful for. Sure I’ve got a big loan to pay off, and a family to take care of, but I’m well equipped to do it all. If I didn’t work for a few days, I would get by comfortably. Shyam, on the other hand, did not have the resources or the time to take a vacation, or a break from work. He would simply be faced with the simple yet formidable question of where his next meal would come from.
Granted, it would be unfair to compare myself to this flower vendor who earned a few hundred a day. And yet, he had fewer wrinkles upon his forehead, and smiled and laughed so freely, without worrying about the political correctness of his words. He was so much more free than I am, and will ever be.
So here are a few things I learnt from my visit to Calcutta.
- When democracy is devolved to where it gets its power from, the people, things can change for the better.
- Life does spring pleasant surprises at you at times, always be game.
- If you’re looking for something, and are frustrated on not finding it, look somewhere else, or just look harder, you’ll find it. (I know this is not a lesson per se, but when you’ve read Part II of the post, you’ll understand it.)
- Don’t hesitate to make someone’s day brighter. It’ll cost you little, and reward you much.
- Always keep your ears open, you’d be surprised at how much you could be missing otherwise.