48 years old Hari was waiting since morning, huddled in his shawl and sitting near a bonfire lighted by his fellow rickshaw pullers outside Mirzapur railway station. It was 6am in the December of 1999 and he hasn’t got a single passenger. The business was always slack in the winters. Who would like to venture out in 2 degrees of temperature unless absolutely necessary? He called out to the tea seller for a kulhar of tea. In spite of the slow trade, he loved to be at the station in the winter mornings. The deserted station was covered in a blanket of fog. There always was a bonfire lit by his colleagues, who swapped tall tales over kulhars of milky sweet tea and bidis. The smell and smoke of burning wood in the oven of the tea seller along with fumes of petrol of stray bikes presented a bouquet of aroma, which Hari loved.
“Will you go to the Police Lines?”
Hari turned around and saw a heavy guy rendered heavier in his warm clothes, with his wife and two big suitcases in tow. He appraised them and nodded. “25 rupees.”
“25 rupees!” The man was aghast. “It’s sheer robbery! The going rate is five. Do you think I’m a stranger here? I have my bungalow near Police Lines and a shop near Welselly Ganj. I have lived in Mirzapur all my life. Do you think I’m a bloody tourist?”
“Sahab, you are right, but that’s the rate in summer and for a single passenger. Not in winter. Also, you have so much luggage!”
“I won’t pay more than 10.” The man declared with a finality. Hari shrugged and turned towards the warmth of the bonfire.
The man bade his wife to sit on one of suitcases and went in search for another rickshaw. It was freezing cold. His wife looked at the huddled rickshaw puller and asked gently, “You don’t feel cold, bhai?”
Hari turned around and grinned humorlessly. “Even I’m a human, ma’am. But, do I have an option? I have a family to feed. It’s because I’m freezing here that they are resting in the warmth of the home.”
The man returned alone. “See, I’ll pay you 15. I don’t want to search for another rickshaw in this cold. I’m sure that I’ll find one, if I want to, but let’s cut it short. Anyway, Police Lines is just three km from here.”
“Sahab, please understand! Police Lines may be three km, but you have big luggage and it’s a winter morning!”
“Look buddy!” The man said, “I’m a Business Analyst by profession and an advisor to many major industries. I’ll give you an advise for free. One should care only for a transaction, immaterial of the profit, if one wants to improve the business. The concept behind this is, quantity always shows profit. Now, if you refuse me and sit here for another hour in the hope of another passenger, you may find someone, who may pay 30 rupees for Police Lines. But, you will have earned only 30 rupees in 90 minutes. If you take me there for 15 rupees and then come back here in 30 minutes, and then get another passenger, who will pay 25; you will earn 40 rupees in 60 minutes. Even though you are illiterate, you must understand which one shows more profit in long run. A successful business is never short termed. It’s always long termed. This is how the great business houses like Tata and Ambani work.”
Hari was receiving this mana from heaven with open mouth. He didn’t know that something as humble and immaterial as rickshaw pulling can be classified as and put in comparison to those business giants like Tata and Ambani! He was thoroughly impressed by this line of reasoning. He agreed to the fare. The man winked at his wife, who was impressed and was giving him a worshipping look.
“Sahab, is this your first visit to Mirzapur?” Hari asked while nearly standing on the pedal of his rickshaw in his straining efforts to pull the load.
“I told you that I live here!”
“Arrey, sahab!” Hari laughed. “I’ve lived here all my life and so has my father and his father in turn. No one in a radius of 50km is as knowledgeable as you. This is a small place. Someone as brilliant as you would be famous like a summer sun at noon. So, is this your first visit?” He asked again pleasantly.
Flattery and white lies are a kind of Social Oil, which smoothen the machinery of life. The man smiled. “You are a very observant man. In my profession I’ve always seen that such people go a long way. You are right. I live in Boston, America and this is my first visit to Mirzapur. I’ve come to my friend’s place for his son’s wedding.”
Hari was impressed. He had only read about America in Danik Jagran. He looked behind to see how does a man from that fabled land really look like. “Sahab, when I saw you with ma’am, I immediately understood that you don’t belong to the rabble living here. And, I was right.”
The man smiled self-importantly and looked at his wife. She was suitably impressed. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Hardeo Singh, sahab. But, everyone around here calls me Hari.”
“Hardeo Singh!” the Business Analyst mused. “It’s a grand name, Hari. But you see? Hari is more suitable to your trade. Each trade has a branding, which makes it famous. If the branding isn’t according to the nature of the business and doesn’t conjure up a suitable image, the business is lost. Do you think Toyota would have succeeded as a motor giant if it’s name was ‘Japan Cars’? Toyota conjures up an image of something grand and dynamic, which is suitable for a car business. Hardeo Singh, although an impressive name, is totally unsuitable for a rickshaw puller. The more I see, the more I like you, my friend! You have unlimited potential!”
Hari floundered in the flights of business rhetorics and grasped one word in three, but this he understood that it’s something good.
“Thank you, sahab. But, that name was given to me by my father. We are not hereditary rickshaw pullers, you see? I’m the first one in generations to do this lowly work. I’m condemned to do this.”
“Condemned? How can you say that! It’s just like any other line of business!” The fine senses of the Business Analyst were bruised.
“Sahab, my grandfather was a rich landlord in Mirzapur. We had hansoms and phaetons at our doorsteps. My father used to say that people stood in long queues on festivals to see my grandfather, who always paid them something or other.”
“Oh! The usual story! Rich man squanders away his wealth and the future generations are reduced to begging!”
“No, Malik. My grandfather was a living saint, if there was one.”, Hari protested in the defence of his ancestor. “His only fault was his good and generous nature. In 1952, China attacked India. Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister during that time. He called out to the nation’s young men and the farmers. My grandfather was 47 years old then. He offered his services, but was rejected as he was overage. He went to Shastriji’s home in Ram Nagar, in Benaras. It’s 80km from here. He fell on his feet and wept to be allowed to die for his motherland. Shastriji was overwhelmed by this passion and lifted him up. He said ‘It’s not always necessary to serve one’s country by laying down one’s life. You are rich. You can give something, which not many can. Everyone has life, but very few have money. Why don’t you help us in our war efforts financially?’ ”
Due to his exertions, Hari was sweating in spite of the biting chill. The man noticed this and asked him to stop near a tea stall. The roadside stall was empty except couple of huddled figures near a bonfire. The man pulled out his pack of Marlboro and offered one to Hari, who gratefully accepted it. “Then what happened?” The man was curious.
“My grandfather was the happiest that day. He was made an honorary Colonel in Indian Army and handled the Quarter Master’s duties. He threw open the doors of his Haveli near Barua Ghat and anyone in need of food or money was never refused. There always was a crowd as the government had imposed strict rationing of food and people were starving. My father was 20 years old then and he joined the army. I was born that year. It’s the fact of the world, sahab, that wars never benefit anyone except arms manufacturers and black marketeers, immaterial of being won or lost. We won that war, but lost everything. My father died near Siachin. For me, he’s just a faded image in sepia tone photographs.” Hari looked at the smoldering tip of his cigarette moodily. The man and his wife were silent, in respect of the mute grief of an unfortunate son. They resumed the short journey to the Police Lines.
“That wasn’t the end of the troubles for us. In 1960, Indira Gandhi passed the Zamindari Abolition Act and we lost all our hereditary fields to the farmers and overnight my grandfather was bankrupt. I had to leave school to support my family. Rickshaw pulling was the only job I was fit for and I started that. My father was awarded Veer Chakra posthumously, but we cannot eat medals!” Hari laughed mirthlessly, looking at the Business Analyst, who couldn’t meet his eyes. They had reached their destination.
The man pulled out his fat wallet and extracted a Rs 500 note and offered to Hari. Hari laughed. “Sahab, how can you imagine that a humble rickshaw puller will have the change of this note?”
“No, no. You keep the change, Hari.” The Business Analyst smiled. His wife was dewy eyed.
“No, sahab!” Hari pulled himself to his full height. “I may be poor, but I’m not a beggar! Please don’t forget that I belong to a Zamindar family!”
“Oh, no!” The man was aghast. “I didn’t mean that!”
“Bhaiya, please don’t say so!” His wife kept her shapely hand on Hari’s rough arm. “Please consider this as a token of appreciation from us.”
“That’s right, Hari. It’s because of the sacrifices of you and your ancestors that people like us are leading a comfortable life. You were right. Your grandfather was indeed a saint and your father a true warrior. Anyone can be rich, but to be rich and then sacrifice everything for one’s motherland requires a true strength and shows the true richness of spirit. Hardeo Singh, you must be proud of your heritage. Please accept this as a token of gratitude from an expatriate, who’s humbled before you.”
Hari stood with folded hands for some time, and then climbed on his rickshaw and left. The couple stood there in the morning chill for a long time, staring after him…
Hari arrived at Mirzapur station and was hailed by his friends. “How much did you get?” One of them asked.
Hari flourished the 500 rupees note. Everyone gasped! Hari explained the details and laughed. “I understood that he’s a tourist by his accent. He may be a business analyst, but he was no match for Hari Mallah.” Everyone laughed. Hari ordered a round of tea for his friends.
I know, my friend. By now you must be hating Hari for taking untoward advantage of a kind hearted gentleman, but it takes all kind of fishes to populate the ocean and not all of them are exotic and pleasant. Some are parasites and some are cunning.
Hardeo Singh may not be an apt branding for a humble rickshaw puller, but Hari Mallah was a perfectly suitable brand for a rickshaw puller-cum-conman.