Short Stories TerminalSeries

The Forgotten Hero

It was the Independence Day. The family was back from the early morning flag hoisting in the society. After that, the two bedroom apartment became unusually busy for a holiday. The mother was engaged in the kitchen, coming out from time to time to demand a new item required for the cooking and poor father rushing back to the market for the third time. And Moon, their teenage daughter was excitedly completing her new poem to gift it to the special guest, who was arriving in the afternoon.

The rich aroma of freshly cooked dishes wafted down the kitchen and saturated the home with spicy perfume when the doorbell rang. Moon’s father dashed to open the door.

“Oh, the smell of your food is beckoning me from the other side of the road. The whole society is by now drooling over your kitchen”, the guest announced in his pleasing deep voice, as he opened his shoes to walk inside the house.

Moon’s mother was beaming in front.

“So where is my little princess?”

Moon peeped from her room, rolled her wheelchair gently to reach the visitor, who was already walking up to her.

“How are you story-papa?”

“ I am just fine my doll. So what’s exciting going on ?” And then lowering his voice added with a wink, “Any progress with the cute guy of the class?”

“Oh, you!” Moon blushed pink and hit him mockingly.

This is the best thing about her story-papa. Unlike others, he never judges her for her medical condition. Suffering from cerebral palsy from a young age, her life as a wheelchair user has always drawn the attention of others in the form of sympathy. But, she wanted to be treated like any other normal girl. And her story-papa, Arun Roy,  does just that and she loves him for that.

Mr Arun Roy is a globetrotter. After experimenting with various odd jobs, he finally hit the jackpot with his shipping business. Not exactly related by blood, he was the best friend of Moon’s late grandfather. A live bank of unique experiences and a great storyteller, Moon’s story-papa is always a hit with everyone he meets. But, he has a special soft corner for this little girl so whenever he is visiting Kolkata he drops by to visit her. And Moon too looks forward to his visits, eagerly waiting for his stories.

*************

“15th August always reminds me of that brave old heart, I met years ago in the airport.”

The family was sitting in the balcony after a sumptuous lunch, chatting away in glory.

Smelling a new story, Moon asked with wide eyes, “Which man, papa?”

“ It was long ago. I was a young lad in my early twenties, trying to prove my worth as a ground staff of an airline company,” Arun lit a cigar and taking a long puff continued.

“ At that time my duty was at a baggage counter at the arrival. Every day I met different kinds of people moving in and out of the airport. Some crying, some happy and some too insignificant to notice. But, that one person drew my attention. An old man.

The old man was a shrivelled, toothless creature, with back slightly hunched. The deep wrinkles had carved a map of his life on his still agile and mobile facial features. Walking with a cane, he used to visit the arrival section every Thursday afternoon. He received no one, but his twinkling eyes, framed by thick white eyebrows, seemed to wait for someone special. After a futile wait for an hour, he used to leave the spot. The ritual left me speculating on various probable causes. The story maker inside me would cook up various sob stories around the curious old man and discuss with my colleagues. With no other way to confirm the validity of my stories, one day, I mustered the courage to finally confront the oldie.

“Excuse me, you seem to wait for somebody, every week. Are you searching for someone?”

Then, with a pause, I added. “ I work at this airport. I can help you if  you want.”

But, the old man did not answer me. Without any words, he just looked at me. The blood flecked eyes seemed to be watching me from another world. Then giving me a snort of disgust, he just walked away slowly.

The sudden rudeness paralyzed me for a few moments. I could do nothing but see him walking away with a slight limp and board a car waiting for him in the distance. A young girl helped him to get in the car and drove away.

**********

The incident made me even more curious to know the actual story. So next week,  I decided to follow him.

The much-awaited Thursday arrived. It was an August afternoon. Independence day was around the corner.  The monsoon sky was dark and vengeful. Large pillows of gravel- grey clouds blotted out the old- gold sun. Rain soon started boring down mercilessly on the concrete heart of the city and I feared the worst. Maybe he won’t be able to visit today amidst the brewing storm. He was already late for his schedule. But half an hour later washing away all my doubts, he was there. Waiting at the same spot with a long black, wet umbrella and his walking stick.

“Can you hold my back till I am done with my inspection?” I asked my colleague earnestly.

“ Yes, but, don’t forget my Biriyani.”

So managing my work for the day with a just deal, I was out on my mission. The torrential downpour had stalled for the time being, but still comforting raindrops were pouring down, hesitantly and politely. Putting on my raincoat, I followed the car on my bike.

The slow and steady journey on the slippery road halted in front of an old age home. The young girl helped the octogenarian to get inside the building.

I was weighing my next step. Going inside the home with my query was not looking like the brightest idea. In the meantime, the rain had stopped. The sky suddenly settled and a sense of cleanliness caressed the atmosphere. The grey woollen smudges did not part completely – but the sun was peeking out timidly.

“What do you want? Why were you following us?”

I was so lost in my planning, that I did not realize when the girl had sneaked up behind me. Being caught and directly questioned like this put me in a fix.

In an embarrassed tone, I fumbled with my words and was heard something like, “ He visits every Thursday… I asked him the other day. He snorted, sorry, I  mean he did not answer. I work at the airport. So I thought…I mean no harm. I hope you understand. I was just curious.” I confessed at last.

The girl was now smiling warmly.

“You want to ask the man I was accompanying,  why he visits the airport every week. Well, that may be tough, he is usually not so cordial with strangers.”

“Yes, I think I know. So…”

“So, since you are so curious and decided to dedicate your working hours to solve the mystery I think I will help you with the real story as much as I can.”

“That would be great. Can we sit somewhere then?”

And we sat at the nearest cafe and shared a story that changed my idea of patriotism.

**********

Arun took a pause to light another cigar.

Outside the sunshine had lost its brightness and the colours of the balcony were softened.

The story was resumed with hot tea and snacks.

“ We sat in a small, secluded cafe, nearby. And she narrated the story I was seeking.

“ My name is Rina. I work in a hospital and Thursday is my off day. So every Thursday I visit this old age home to meet Ghosh uncle.

Ardhendu Ghosh, is one of the many long lost forgotten freedom fighters of our country who never got their due accolades. During his youth, he was an active member of Azad Hind Fauj and worked very closely with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. He even lost one of his legs in the British confrontations and till date uses a prosthetic one .”

“Time moved on and India was a free country. But his struggle was far from over. The country he fought for despaired him time and again.

Once a man of great determination, today leads to a painful grief-stricken life. His only ray of hope comes from the weekly visit to the airport where he waits for Netaji and his own grandson. Though these days he really  cannot differentiate between the two.”

I was stumped.

“He waits for Netaji! But he is…”

“Dead. But, no one saw his last mortal remains so the debate goes on…”

“But, after so many years? And what about his grandson?”

“Well, that is the real clue. After independence like many other INA members, Ghosh uncle also kept hoping that his leader would be back soon. But, that dream remained unfulfilled.

Patriotism ran in his blood. His son soon joined the Indian army. Ghosh was leading a content and proud life with his son, daughter in law and little grandson. But, his happiness was short lived. His son became one among the 1600 martyrs during the Bangladesh Liberation War. His daughter in law could not bear the grief and soon followed her husband’s step. Ghosh Uncle then raised his grandson alone, inculcating all the right values and education. And his grandson, Mayur, didn’t disappoint his dadu either.

Mayur was a bright student. He came first in the boards exam and the happiness of his dadu knew no bound. Then went off to study in IIT Kanpur. He could select any branch of engineering, but he decided to study Civil Engineering in one of the most prestigious institutions of the country. Passing out with flying colours he could have taken up jobs in the USA or study management to earn crores like his other classmates. But he was not like others. Civil engineering, job satisfaction, helping the country – his dreams were different.  Else who would sit for the IES, Indian engineering services, after completing MTech?”

I could see the fire in her eyes by now. A helpless fire.

“His determination and intellect soon landed him on the job he was aiming. He was chosen as the project director of the much talked about Quadrilateral Road project of the Government to connect the major metro cities of the country.

Everything was okay until now. But then the conflict started. The conflict of the ideology he grew with and the reality he faced. Mayur started having a disagreement with the corrupt engineers and the administrators who had already sold themselves off to the syndicate. He suspended a few engineers and forced the goon contractor to rebuild a 6-kilometre long road. And then he started receiving threats. But the Braveheart did not deter from his duty. He shared his fear with only two persons. His grandfather and his fiancée. Both of them encouraged him never to leave the path of honesty. I guess they were yet too naive to learn the rituals of the real world.”

Did I see a drop of tear in the burning eyes of my narrator? However, she didn’t stop and continued.

“And then he made the gravest mistake. He wrote a letter addressing to the then Prime Minister about the ground reality. Describing in details how the goons and the corrupt engineers and leaders are playing with the fund allocated for the dream project of the Government. He was worried about the future of the project and he took that final step.

The result was egregious. No one ever knows till date if it actually reached the PMO office, but the news did reach the ones who were blamed in that letter.

That morning he was about to reach Kolkata by flight. His grandfather went to the airport to receive him. But he never came.

Later, his mutilated body was discovered in a dirty alley of the city he was working. Shot in the head. Ghosh uncle never recovered from that shock. He stopped speaking with anybody, suspects everyone around him as the killer. His only respite is the weekly visit to the airport.  Since that day he waits in the arrival to receive his grandson or his Netaji, his idol. In his clouded sense, both are one and the same now, saviour of this crippled country.

His fiancée ran from one office to another to seek justice, to punish the culprits. But, all in vain. Years have passed. The file was closed for lack of evidence. Not a single killer was arrested. Mayur was wrong, dadu was wrong, there is no place for honesty in this country.”

By now Rina made no attempt to hide her tears. She was crying profusely.

“ How do you know all this?”

“I was Mayur’s fiancée.” She said strongly.

I was perplexed. The tragic story of bravery moved me beyond words. And it made me question. Are we really independent? What is the purpose of such independence where your morality is strangled and murdered every day? Aren’t we living like zombies, killing our good senses and for what purpose? My heart went out for that old soul Ardhendu Ghosh who sacrificed his limb, his son and grandson for the country and in return received only injustice.”

Arun stopped his narration and looked at the others. Not a single eye was dry in the room.

“Can I be brave like Mayur and his dadu?” Moon broke the silence at last.

“Of course you can. You have to. You are not weak. The country still waits for such brave hearts.”

Outside the sun had settled. The sky was studded with sparkling stars. The conch shells of the evening prayer from the neighbourhood was announcing the advent of another fight, of good over evil. This time good will win. It has to win.

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