In the foothills of Himalayas, listening to the chirping of the birds my mind was growing restless in the midst of a calm and stunning setting. The serene atmosphere failed to provide rest to fast whizzing thoughts. Sleepless and restless, I was thinking about last night’s journey.
I was at the Mayfair Himalayan Spa Resort, a spectacular celebration of luxury and heritage located in the hill town of Kalimpong in Bengal.
From my otherwise busy schedule, I had to take time out to attend the parliamentary standing committee meeting on coal and steel in Kalimpong.
I express my gratitude to Naveen Patnaik ji, the chief minister of Odisha, for reposing faith in me and giving me an opportunity to represent the state as a Rajya Sabha member.
Everything was perfect, but then a strange whirlpool of thoughts disturbed my otherwise calm composure. I want to share the experience of this night with all.
I had to take a train to Calcutta on the night of August 28 and a three-hour car drive from Bagdogra airport to Kalimpong after a flight from Calcutta to Bagdogra the following day.
This train journey was very comfortable, but I could not catch up with sleep.
Images swirled across in my mind at one moment and flashed across in the other.
I was mentally taken to a journey of life 26 years ago. I was lost in the past train journeys and one particular trip stood out.
From 1992-95, the formative years of KIIT-ITI, I had to travel to Calcutta four times in a month to procure lab materials and equipment. I did not have money to buy a ticket for sleeper class, let alone the air-conditioned seat. My journeys to Calcutta were mostly in general class in Jagannath Express without getting the luxury to sit.
I would stand the whole night many a times, sometimes near the smelly toilets and compartment doors, occasionally closing my eyes out of a desperate need to sleep.
If the luck was great, I managed to usurp just enough space to squeeze in my slender body or get an offer to sit, after standing for three to four hours. There is one journey to Calcutta that is etched in my memory sadly amidst the horde of several difficult ones.
One such journey I do remember was with Mr P.K. Sahoo, founder staff of KIIT-ITI who had accompanied me in the August of 1992.
Both of us took a tiring long journey to Calcutta by train in general class. We reached Calcutta in the morning. Our place of stay was not booked, nor did we have money for one.”My friend’s house is a stone’s throw away. We can complete our morning rituals there,” said Sahoo babu in a composed tone.
Beggars have no choice. In those days, my condition was more pathetic than a beggar because I did not have the luxury of mercy. I accepted Sahoo babu’s plan at once.
We started walking towards Sahoo babu’s friend’s house. We walked for an hour and a half, getting wet in the rain, through the busy streets of Calcutta, with rickshaw pullers making weirdest of sounds to clear their path and we reached a place which was a quintessential Calcutta slum.
The roads were muddy and we splashed mud as we tried to avoid potholes.
Calcutta gets waterlogged during the monsoon. As we walked, it continued to rain and the overflowing drain water took toll on our energy.
While heaps of garbage welcomed us, we found food rotting in one of the heaps close to his friend’s house.
I have been nurtured in no different conditions. Hailing from one of the poorest households in a remote village in Odisha, I had lived in such conditions.
There was no proper toilet or place to take bath at his friend’s place.
“After walking for an hour and a half, should we take bath here, Sahoo babu? I don’t see any washroom here,” I asked him.
“I am sorry. This is my first visit too. I didn’t know it was like this,” Sahoo babu rumbled. “Sir, let’s take bath in the river Hooghly,” Sahoo babu said.
So, we walked to the banks of the river. It was a walk for another one and a half hours. The stench was overpowering. The whole place smelt of fresh defecation.
Whenever I travelled, my usual practice had been to use the waiting room toilet at railway stations. This is not to say that they were any better.
Without thinking twice, I took off my clothes, wore my ” gamucha” (a thin cotton coarse towel).
I forcefully shut my eyes, ears and nose, took a dip and changed into fresh clothes. I have lived in utterly poor conditions and this made me digest the pain of the surroundings and go ahead with the work as planned.
We then went to the purchase the equipment for KIIT-ITI at Bowbazar. When we finished our work, it was already evening.
As we could afford only one porter, both of us carried the equipment on our head and shoulders till we got into a bus. While coming back, I asked Sahoo babu: “Why didn’t you book a room in a hotel? It would have cost us Rs 500.”
Sahoo babu’s was prompt to reply in a convincing tone: “Sir, we are struggling to get money to buy equipment for our institute. Even Rs 500 is too big for us. We are taking loans and utilising it for KIIT-ITI. How can we think of spending it for our comfort just to get a clean toilet?”
I had no answer. I was in a state of denial.
Fast forward to 2018. Twenty-six years later, I was in the same train and divinely blessed with the comforts I had never thought of. This time I was in an AC first class compartment.
I would have taken the flight to Calcutta, but my engagements in Bhubaneswar compelled me to take the last possible train to Calcutta.
The station master came to see me off. My staff and colleagues came to see me off and the train attendants extended unmatched hospitality.
I went to the toilet, cleaned up, and did not have to do my bedding because the attendant had made all the arrangements. However, I could not sleep because I was reminded of the night on the same train to Calcutta and my state of helplessness.
My heart was swelling with gratitude to the Almighty who made me work so hard and achieve for millions and myself.
I thanked all gods for giving a life of comfort to me. I also thanked our chief minister for assigning me this important role as Rajya Sabha MP. I was trying to sum up life – “If your intentions and work are good then privilege, position and recognition come automatically. The whole universe conspires to give back to one who toils for the greater good of humanity.”