I first met Essar (it could be a name in any of the several Mundari dialects spoken in the general area, but I assumed it to be a distorted form of Īśvar—as it was more likely to be—obviously unrelated to the industrial group of that name) through one-armed Lulla. And how dignified he was, Essar, I mean!
Lulla Mahato was a useful errands man in the Gamharia factory of the company that I was then working for (I had to keep body and soul together, after all, since I retired from a series of grey jobs in the last ten years)—receiving and despatch clerk and office boy rolled in one. He had lost his left arm from the elbow in an infernally inequal battle with a cheap and temperamental machine with jagged teeth, rigged in a one-car garage in Sirhind, where used-and-discarded juggernauts—imported, of course—were taken apart to serve as models for desi behemoths. Lulla’s monster was being broken in like a bucking bronco by the powers that were. That was thirty odd years before my time, when he was a casual worker on daily wages (if and when he was picked up from the queued up many on a particular day by the shift in-charge), and not yet twenty years of age on paper then—actually less. He would also have lost his only livelihood then and there, but for S.N. Singh, the then (and much later, in my time again) union boss. Lulla, eventually, was confirmed with a dubious designation but many responsibilities.
Lulla (that, obviously, was not his given name, but an unkind sobriquet in view of his missing arm) commuted from his native village near Chandil by bus. We shall call it Panchpahari—the village of five hills. It was predominantly a Bengali-speaking bhumija village, an ambiguous label for an indefinite caste. The caste actually embraced a whole lot of original inhabitants of dubious origins, not under the Schedule for backward tribes. Some of their surnames indicated that in some earlier period their ancestors had held important sarkari posts, albeit in the era when local rulers subscribed to Buddhism. Maji (or Majhi) was clearly a corruption of Abahatta majjhim and Saṁskṛta madhyama: an intermediary (for tax collection?). Mahato might have once been mahattara: a Maji’s superior, perhaps, and with an ambit of greater responsibility! There were a few families of adivasi tribes—Mundas mostly—in one disadvantageous corner of the village, though they did not belong to what was once their own territory in another hilly region, and were considered the lowliest of low by many.
By the time I had joined this company, the roads to anywhere in Seraikella-Kharsawan, the district that went by that name, beyond the old and tired bridge over river Kharkai (might have once been Kharakāyā, to indicate the sharp current when in monsoon spate) was a continuous mass of pot-holes, held together by a hint of tarmac and lots of good luck—a far cry from the well-maintained roads in the company town of Tatanagar-Jamshedpur. And the fledgeling state of Jharkhand was being managed by one bloc at the helm at a time, in wild yo-yo swings, with nary a sign of stability.
No one could predict when the bus services would be disrupted, and for what reason. Caving in of a culvert, accidental or subversive, was a regular feature. More often it was a tyre-burning rasta-roko by the youth wing of whatever party had reasons to protest. Monsoon floods were rare in the region but that too stopped the bus service sometimes. Lulla’s attendance record looked dismal as a result. The others could always pedal down all the way; he didn’t have the option.
That morning when I set out for work from my sanctum sanctorum in Sonari, it was drizzling. The city centre at Bishtupur was wet and well-washed for a change. The traffic nearer the bridge—the one over Suvarnarekha was yet to be built then—was slow, as usual. News came just after lunch that the narrow bridge was blocked. Apparently an eager-beaver six-wheeler misjudged the size of the eighteen wheeler that was coming from the other side, and got wedged between the raised walkway at one end of the bridge and the juggernaut. All the realm’s imaginary horses and all the realm’s men couldn’t pull Humpty and Dumpty apart to let the traffic flow, for both the vehicles were badly damaged in the misadventure. That meant that I was trapped till they cleared the stranded traffic on both sides and do some serious dissection to separate the errant trucks.
The only other way home was a detour through the highway via Chandil, well nigh forty kilometers more than I had bargained for. My driver, the temperamental Malkhan Singh, insisted that we leave early. In my wisdom I offered Lulla a lift back and rest of the day off.
It was still drizzling when we reached the spot where a half kilometre detour would lead Lulla to his home. Malkhan would have missed the dirt track but for Lulla, who offered to walk from that spot on, but how could I let him in such weather! “The car might get mired in the mud,” protested Lulla. “Wouldn’t you offer us shelter if it did?” I quipped.
We ploughed through what was left of the reddish track to his doorsteps, and Lulla offered us tea. It wasn’t quite three-o-clock yet but very dark. Masses upon masses of heavy rain cloud promised more rain; I wanted to leave early but couldn’t do so without offending Lulla’s feelings. Someone took out a few moulded PVC chairs to the front patio for us to sit. After a round of introductions with the members of Lulla’s extended family and a bit of tête-à-tête, two women brought us tea and biscuits. Before my first sip an ancient person emerged from one of the inner rooms. He was introduced to me as Essar-baba, and occupied the vacant chair by my side.