The impact of pandemonium was spreading like an incurable disease around the world. A series of tragedies had bombed humanity, reducing it to anxiety and despair. The world economy was battling recession induced by the Subprime Credit Crisis of 2007, a devastrating earthquake in Sichuan (China) had claimed over eighty thousand lives, our beloved Mumbai was hit by a series of co-ordinated terror attacks orchestrated from foreign soil that had no parallels in the city’s history and many Indian corporations responded with mass retrenchment to counteract the menace of a struggling economy as the bloodbath of their stocks had continued unabated on all the major exchanges of our nation.
During those volatile times, I was on the edge of loosing my employment with a reputed financial firm. Many professionals were on the verge of being jettisoned from their vocations as all leading corporatings were down-sizing. Most of my colleagues had become posthomous as a result of these policies and their empty work-spaces reminded me about my own mortality in the professional world with every passing day.I was doing my best with the rest of the survivors to remain bouyant in those troubled waters. Each one was vying to remain professionaly relevant as the onslaught continued without remorse or consideration.
As the days rolled by, the opportunities of sustainence turned bleak and hope was beginning to crumble into dust. On one of those days when everything smelled depressingly repulsive, I was seated on my usual desk trying to absorb the humiliation and chastisement that I had endured in the morning review session from my immediate bosses. It was raining molten asteriods on my mental surface as the Sales projections were a far fetched impossibility beyond the scope of achievement. I was burying my face in the computer screen, pretending to be busy, hoping that my antics would help me elude my bosses and their piercing gaze. While continuing with the sham, my phone rang. The caller introduced himself as a prospective investor to my momentary respite.
Since, my prospective client was located in an off grid rural pocket of our lush green countryside; I had to make the travel arrangements. I entrained with a crowd of jostlers,smiling laborers and daily wagers, perspiring profusely as the train rumbled passing one station after the other. The train compartment was literally stuffed with people like a bloated sausage of pounded meat. There was barely enough place to position my feet properly. I stood wedged between two large jute sacks of rice and an entrapping crowd circling me like a closely knit pearl ring. The crowd comprised of some of the poorest, that included vegetable vendors and masons. The emblems of poverty engraved boldy on their scrawny bodies and oven baked skin drained out of life and blood by the thorns of life. Astrange India unfolded before my eyes, where economic disparity was stark and naked.Each one of us had to gasp for breath or push one another to breathe in fresh air. Everyone was competing to squeeze into a comfortable spot where there was some free flow of air. Finally after the passage of an idle hour, my stoppage arrived and I literally fenced my way through a human barrier and popped out of the compartment into an almost empty railway platform.
The smell of fresh air and the sight of paddy fields in a distance was a genuine consolation prize after a harrowing ride. The board on the platform read Surjapur (Place of the Sun). Excepting a few villagers taking a siesta underneath the soothing shade of a fig tree, the entire concrete stretch was nothing more than a desert land without a soul. A few dogs curled up underneath the vacant benches but the rest of the stretch stood deserted. As previously agreed, I called up my prospective customer and intimated him about my arrival. It was a carpet of unobstructed green on all sides silhouetted by a cloudy horizon and a few hutments dotting a verdant landscape which added a typical pastoral charm to it. I began to wonder, if I had been wise to journey this far; an investment from these quarters seemed like an improbability.
Sometime passed and then a man arrived with a bike at the spot where I was directed to wait. It was at the other side of the level crossing near an abandoned tea stall. I was gestured by him tooccupy the back seat. The reminder of the distance was negotiated riding pillions with my emissary. After traveling on an earthen road for a couple of miles; we reached a clearing beside a pond with a thick film of green algae floating on top.
Excepting a cluster of palm fronds and a couple of mango trees it was largely barren. As we began walking further, we reached a mound from where I could see a line of brick hutments with thatch eves for roofs and a two storeyed structure of concrete on the other side. I began to follow my trasporter on foot; he walked past a pile of baked bricks towards the concrete building in sight. I was struck by the sight of an enormous chimney, five storeys tall, standing like a watchtower amongst the unsettled dust and piles of bricks stacked in neat lines. A miasma of dust was floating all around us like a wraith. I walked past a few people covered in a layer of white soot with clothes tied on their heads like turbans.They were going about their work in bare feet and their hands heavily invested in coal dust. The dust covered some of the laborers like a gentle veil alienating their mien from a stranger’s curious eyes.Th men were bare and half naked from head to toe excepting a pair of trousers or torn vests stained in black soot. The air was acrid and you felt the burnt smell of coal and soot in every breath.The women were in their traditional sarees balancing bricks on their heads walking unsteadily under the burden of excess weight to the brick delivery points. Excepting the difference in costume, it was challenging to determine a man from a woman due to their emaciated look. I was finding the air unbreathable as dust was hovering all around us. Those lives walking beside me with their bent backs, heavy loads on their heads and jaded faces made me wonder if I was in a labor camp.
(Continued in Part – II)