Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jeep No. 510 (Concluding Part)

“No! I do not have the foggiest idea about the history of jeep ORO 510, except that it must have seen better days” was my surprised reply.
“You must be knowing that we had a very big site at Barsua where all the major work is nearly over and the site is now being closed down?” asked Mr. Ghosh
“Yes, I do!” I replied not hiding my impatience.
Then Mr. Ghosh with some prompting from his colleagues told me a story which was both intriguing and horrifying.
“Mr. R. K. Khanna used to be the site-in-charge at Barsua. He was a very capable person but was also very tough and some what abusive, which was quite common for the job he was doing. He maintained a strict discipline at site and the workers were quite afraid of him.
One day a rigger...a crane operator, Puran Singh..... a young sardarji... came drunk to site and had altercation with Mr. Khanna. Mr. Khanna wanted to sack him immediately but due to intervention of Harbans, who was the leader of riggers and was also related to Puran Singh, he was let off with an ultimate warning. However, about a month later Puran Singh was caught drunk at the site once again and Mr. Khanna sacked him summarily not paying any heed to Puran Singh’s pleadings or Harbans’ requests.  Puran Singh threatened Mr. Khanna with dire consequence while being released. Harbans also had an altercation with Mr. Khanna on that day and was warned by Mr. Khanna.
Puran Singh left the site on the same day and nothing happened for about a month. Then one night Mrs. Khanna rang me up to inform that Mr. Khanna had not returned from the site! Immediately we arranged a search party but we could neither locate Mr. Khanna nor his driver and jeep in which they used to travel! An FIR was lodged with Barsua Police station. Next day the jeep was located at the bottom of a gorge. We thought this was an accident and along with police personnel searched the adjoining area for the missing bodies in vain. Finally the police dogs were brought in to help and the bodies of Mr. Khanna and that of his driver ...both in severely mutilated condition ....were found stuffed in a nearby rain water drain pipe.
Considering foul play, an arrest warrant was issued against Puran Singh, but he could not be located anywhere....even at his hometown in Punjab. Police were also certain that it could not have been possible for Puran Singh alone to overpower both Mr. Khanna and his driver who were physically quite strong.  They suspected that he must have had accomplices. Harbans along with his entire rigger-gang was rounded up and grilled by the police, but were released later due to lack of evidence. Everybody, however, was convinced that Harbans must have been involved.
The jeep was recovered from the gorge and was sent to Kansbahal works for repair. The registration number of that jeep was ORO 510 ....the one you are using. Mr. Khanna’s driver was tribal and used to stay in a village opposite to the hill with twin peaks”.

I was shocked to hear this gruesome story but did not tell Mr. Ghosh and others that every night my jeep stopped near that village because of some unexplained reason. I did not want to fuel any superstition.
That day I could not enjoy my dinner, not due to any fault of Kalyan...our cook, but I was really very disturbed and was always thinking about Mr. Khanna and his driver and their untimely end.

Next day morning when I was again getting busy with my work, Lawrence came to me and asked “Sir, may I take the jeep for servicing?”
“Please go ahead and see that all the filters are also changed. It is too dusty out here” I replied.
That day we closed the site at about 8 PM and after dropping my colleagues when we started towards Kansbahal, it was already past 9 PM.
Lawrence, did you hear any story about this jeep” I asked Lawrence, when we were alone.
“No, Sir, I do not know anything except that it has been transferred from another site” replied Lawrence.
I briefly narrated to Lawrence what I heard yesterday night. Lawrence was aghast and very perturbed!
When we were climbing the up-hill gradient near the ‘hill with twin peaks” it was about 9:30 PM and I was thinking about the brutal killing of Mr. Khanna’s tribal driver who used to live in the cluster of huts on the left hand side of the highway, exactly opposite to the spot where the jeep stopped automatically everyday for the last one month. I was expecting the jeep to stop at the same spot even that day. Probably Lawrence was also thinking the same.


It did not stop at that spot that day and never afterwards!  I have since wondered whether it was because some mechanical fault got rectified in the last servicing or was there something else to it ... some questions always remain unanswered ...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jeep No. 510 (Part III)

With all my love for wild animals, I never wanted to be so near an angry wolf! I was very angry with Lawrence for following my command so literally! I could not shift my gaze from the wolf but from the left corner of my eye I could see that Lawrence was also having all his teeth out in soundless mirth! As if he thought it was a big joke!

The wolf was letting out a much suppressed growl like dogs before they attack and every time it was letting out a growl a pungent odor of rotten flesh was filling my nostril and the wolf’s saliva was being sprayed on my shoe. We were both frozen in time....the wolf was holding its ground and fortunately my leg was paralyzed to avoid any movement which could have provoked the wolf to attack. Though my neck and vocal cord were also momentarily paralyzed, my super active brain was trying to assure me that there was no known incident of wolf attacking an adult human being! But I was not sure whether a wild wolf in this remote corner of Orissa would know about that statistic! Neither did I want to end up being a statistical aberration! Considering my diminutive figure, it might not even realize that I was a full-grown adult!  

Fortunately nothing more interesting happened and the wolf slowly lowered its guard. I could see a perceptible change in its gaze. It then closed its fangs, lowered its head and turned away. Both the wolves then trotted away towards the mountain having lost their supper because of my unintentional intervention.

Dusk came very fast and all of a sudden it became quite dark. Even the cluster of huts was engulfed in darkness.
Lawrence, why did you switch off the engine?” I demanded after getting back my composer after all the drama. “Don’t you know carnivorous do not attack a jeep if the engine is on?” I added further.
“Sir, I did not switch off the engine. It just stopped!” replied Lawrence meekly.
“OK, what are you waiting for? Just start the engine and get off from this place immediately. I do not want those wolves to come back in a pack” I added.
Lawrence immediately switched on the starter, but it failed to start the engine! Lawrence tried several times but though the starter was working, the engine was only coughing without starting. Though I did not know driving a jeep and was quite innocent about its engine, I have seen that people in such situations would always open the bonnet and peep inside. So I promptly ordered Lawrence to open the bonnet which he immediately did. After surveying a little about the possible presence of wolves, I jumped out from the other side to join Lawrence. Inside the bonnet it was darker than outside.
Lawrence, please get me the torch, let me have a look inside” I said while looking inside the bonnet.
“Sir, there is no torch in this Jeep” said Lawrence hesitantly.
“What? You do not have any torch? What about a match box?” I asked tentatively, since the whole place was smelling of gasoline and a naked flame could be dangerous!
“I do not have any match box. I am a non-smoker” replied Lawrence
“Oh!” I had to downplay this particular fault of his since I was a non-smoker myself.

There not much of traffic on the road and whatever loaded trucks were passing were not in a mood to stop and help us out. I was just waiting for some passing car from our factory to get a lift and arrange a mechanic from our transport division. With the twilight drama just concluded, I was a little jittery. About fifteen minutes passed which seemed like ages and I requested Lawrence to try starting the engine once again. Lawrence followed my advice wordlessly and the jeep started with the first start itself as if nothing had happened! I immediately climbed onto my seat and prompted him to drive of immediately.
“Tomorrow, as soon as we reach the site, you should take this jeep for a through servicing. Probably the fuel line is choked or there could be an airlock some where” was my expert advice as soon as we started towards Kansbahal.
“But Sir, I have taken the delivery of this Jeep yesterday only after a through servicing!” remarked Lawrence.
“Any way, take it to the service station once again for a through check up. Also purchase a torch and all the necessary tools as required” I replied.

Next day, before I got busy with the work, I once more reminded Lawrence about servicing the jeep. I did not want to get stuck mid way once again.

All the site people were very friendly with me and whatever I was lacking in my experience I was trying to make up with my enthusiasm. I was particularly impressed with Harbans for his personality and the command he was having over his rigger gang. I, however, found that he was very independent in his thinking and had scanty respect for my advice. He would listen to me very attentively with a smiling face and would go out to do exactly what he wanted.

That day we closed the site at about 8 PM and after dropping my colleagues when I started towards Kansbahal it was already passed 9PM. I was very tired, having got up at 4 AM and was dozing, and so was Lawrence when we reached the up hill gradient near the “hill with twin peaks”. Though Lawrence did put the jeep in the first gear, from the sound I could understand that the engine was strained while climbing the grade, which I felt was quite normal. But after it had climbed the grade and was almost parallel to the cluster of huts on the left side, it coughed a few times and then suddenly stopped, nearly at the same place like yesterday!
Lawrence, what happened?” was my startled remark.
“I do not know Sir. It just stopped all of a sudden” replied Lawrence and tried to restart the engine. But it failed to start even with repeated attempts. That day, of course, we were better prepared and Lawrence climbed down with his newly purchased torch and a tool kit. He opened the bonnet and checked thoroughly but could not locate any fault.
“Did you take it to garage to-day for servicing?” I demanded in a not very pleasant tone.
“Sir, I myself am a motor mechanic. In the garage to-day, I along with the garage mechanic checked each and every part of the engine. We even flushed the fuel tank and the connected line. There was nothing wrong with the engine” replied Lawrence, almost in tears.
There was nothing much we could do except waiting. After about fifteen minutes, some thing clicked in me and I advice Lawrence to start the engine once again. Surprisingly the engine started without any hassle!

For the next one month everything fell into a routine. At site all the dismantling work was over. Mechanical parts were already transported to our workshop at Kansbahal where they would be repaired, replaced or modified under my supervision in consultation with our client. Mr. Roy along with all other supervisors would coordinate repair and modification of the structural parts at site. When both these portion of work would be over, all the parts then will be assembled at site and then erected on the crane bays. Within a couple of days I was supposed to go back to Kansbahal and return once again to site only during last phase.

Even stopping of the jeep near the cluster of huts became part of the routine, even with Lawrence’s best efforts of finding the fault! It almost became like a tea-break except there was no tea stall nearby. I thought it could be due to overheating of the engine while climbing the slope. This theory, however, was discarded by Lawrence.

After lowering the girders and other heavy parts, Harbans left along with his gang of riggers. He was supposed to come back during the erection when we would need his help to lift the heavy equipment on to the crane bays. Though he violated safety standards at times, I liked him quite a lot and was vocal about it. One day, while taking tea with Mr. Ghosh, somehow Harbans’ name cropped in and I was all praises about him. Mr. Ghosh allowed me to finish and then added “Mr. Sengupta you are so young. It is nice that you are not a miser in praising people. But too much of praise is also not good unless you know the person thoroughly”. I could not fathom why he said that but discarded it as professional jealousy.

It was a Friday and the next day was my last day at site for the first phase, when Mr. Ghosh approached me. “Mr. Sengupta why don’t you have dinner with us to-night? Our cook, Kalyan will cook chicken curry and rice and also arrange some sweets from the Bengali shop near the station” said Mr. Ghosh. “ You can spend the night in the transit room” he added further. I heard about Kalyan’s cooking ability and did not want to miss the chance.

We closed the site little early that day and reached their Bungalow at about 7 PM. We took our showers and then sat on the garden chairs in the well maintained lawn when Kalyan served us hot tea and some home made snacks. It was a beautiful moonlight night and we were gossiping on any thing under the sun (or moon) when Mr. Ghosh asked me in a very sober voice “Mr. Sengupta, do you know the history behind your jeep no. ORO 510?”   Immediately all his other friends stopped talking and there was a hushed silence as if he has said some thing very unpleasant and terrible. [To be continued] 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Jeep No. 510 (Part II)

Kansbahal was in the tribal heartland of Sundergarh district in Orissa and was about twenty five kilometers towards Bombay from the steel city called Rourkela.

Our factory was sandwiched between the Calcutta-Bombay main railway lines on one side and the Calcutta-Bombay National Highway (NH 6) on the other.

During the probation period (first six months after joining) I was sharing a quarter (apartment) with another engineer from Kerala at Workers’ colony, called South colony which was near the railway lines. Our quarter was on the last row beyond which there was only a flat land improvised as a foot ball field followed by the railway lines acting as the boundary between our colony and the vast mountainous forest land.

Most of the carnivores, except jackals and wolves left the area when the factory was being set up, due to the destruction of the habitat. However, snakes and scorpions were in plenty.  The whole set up was very picturesque with distant blue mountains. But danger lurked after sunset. During the full moon period, the tribals in the nearby villages used to dance till late night and we could hear the faint melody of tribal folk songs accompanied by the haunting beats of madal (tribal drums). There were occasional reports of human sacrifice during the sowing season which, however, could never be confirmed.

I used to get up at 5 AM to be ready for the morning shift starting at 6 AM. But that day I had to set my alarm at 4 AM. At about 5 AM when I was ready and sipping my first cup of tea, I heard the distant sound of a Jeep and came out to see a Jeep approaching our apartment.

“Are you Mr. Sengupta?” asked the driver stopping the Jeep but without switching off the engine.
On my affirmation, the driver switched off the engine and came out to greet me.
“Selam sab (sir), I am Lawrence, Lawrence Minch, your driver” said the man with a broad smile.
I closed the door of my apartment, gave him a friendly nod and got into the front seat of the Jeep.

The Jeep had a fresh coat of paint... jaundice yellow colour (typical colour of our company’s vehicles) and also new upholstery and a new canvas covering but I was sure that it had seen better days.

Lawrence was a tribal with a medium disposition. With his square jaw line, a small chin and closely cropped curly hair with a ridge at the centre, his face was like an imperfect hexagon. His face was absolutely impassive with blood shot eyes which could be due to lack of sleep or after-effect of Hariya (country liquor made from fermented rice and Mohuwa fruits / flower) . He was wearing a factory issued khaki uniform with a railway surplus navy blue jacket.

We took the unpaved perimeter road, skirting our factory and came to North Colony on the other side of the factory and took the concrete lined “Mahatab road” cutting across North Colony. After about a kilometer drive on the excellently maintained Mahatab road we hit the Calcutta-Bombay National Highway (NH 6) and took right turn towards Rourkela (in the direction of Calcutta).

In those days NH 6 was only an apology for a national highway.... a two-lane narrow road, full of unevenness and potholes with unpaved shoulders becoming treacherous during monsoon! A few kilometers down the road was a small habitat called Kalunga known for its Catholic Church and a first aid centre. The surroundings were mostly barren with jagged rocks on both the sides of the highway -remnants of hillocks which were blasted while making the highway. At a distance, say about half a kilometer, ran Sankha River parallel to the highway on the left hand side. Low level hills or hillocks could be seen on both the side of the highway with the distant mountains on the right-hand side always covered with a misty bluish haze. A few kilometers away from Kalunga, on the left flank of the highway, at a distance, there was a hill with twin peaks acting as a beckon while returning to Kansbahal. All my friends with profound knowledge in human anatomy used to find feminine resemblance but I would rather prefer calling it as the “Hill with twin peaks” only. The highway more or less followed the undulation of the terrain and took a stiff gradient downward parallel to the hill with the twin peaks. Just before the gradient, on the right-hand side, about two furlongs away, there was a cluster of mud houses. These were bordered with low level hedges which merely demarcated the area but did not provide any protection against any  trace passers. Occasionally we could see tribals tilling on very small patches of land with rickety bullocks and goat-kids jumping on cluster of rocks like “Kopjes” in Africa.

About eighteen kilometers away from Kansbahal, the Sankha river running parallel to the highway all along met river Koel as well as a hidden river Saraswati at a holy confluence called Vedavyas near a small settlement called Panposh to form river Brahmani and then ran perpendicular to the highway. At Panposh, the highway is bifurcated.... straight segment going towards the Rourkela railway station, old city  as well as the steel township and the perpendicular segment going towards the Rourkela Steel Plant and the Barsua mines.

On reaching Panposh, we took straight road ahead since I was supposed to pick up some of my colleagues from Steel Township. Our sister-concern ECC, expert in erection and commissioning work, had just completed a major work at Barsua and deputed some of their supervisors and workers to our site for helping us. The leader of the group was one Mr. Ghosh. He along with three of his colleagues ...all Bengalis....was housed in a 3BHK bungalow in the steel township. One room in that bungalow was converted into a transit house for officials from Kansbahal or elsewhere in case of emergency.

After picking my colleagues we headed for our site office  inside the Rourkela steel plant. By the time we reached the site office, Mr. Roy was already there, trying to organize the site office and take control of about hundred workers!
Amongst the various people I met that day I was quite impressed by one Mr. Harbans Singh, a sardarji who was the leader of a group called “Riggers” who were specialized in erection and transportation of heavy machineries. Harbans was very handsome and talkative and gave the impression of self confidence. Most of the time, however, he was with his group of fellow riggers...all sardarjis.. and was not mixing with others except very casual “Hi”. He was supposed to be with us only for two short spells... once during the beginning to lower the heavy girders and other heavy equipment from the high crane bays and then again during the end, to lift all those heavy girders and other equipment, repair and modification, back to the crane bays.

That day we did not do much work except setting up the office and having a short meeting with the steel plant authority regarding schedule of completion and the facilities we require from them to accomplish the job. My boss Mr. Avatar Singh also joined us during the discussion with our client.

“Biplab, you better advice Harbans about the procedure to be followed to lower those girders” was his first remarks as soon as we came out from the meeting.

“ My God, I did not even lift or lower anything weighing more than five kilos in my whole life, how could I advice Harbans who is supposed to be an expert riggers!” I thought but  did not want to dishearten him by translating my thoughts into words! Mr. Singh had fantasy about IITans!

That day we were let off by about 4 PM. After dropping my colleagues at their bungalow I headed for Kansbahal. It was just twilight when we reached the steep up hill gradient near the “Hill with twin peaks” and I was thinking of taking a shower and go to my favorite Bengali club “Milani” for an evening “Adda” (gossip) when I was startled by the cacophony of drum beats, hammering of tin cans, shouting, and baying of goats! Looking left towards the cluster of mud houses I saw all the children from the cluster, womenfolk and their goats huddled together and creating the cacophony. On the right, just on the other side of the highway were two animals which looked like grown up Alsatian dogs from a distance.          

Lawrence, stop the car near those dogs! Let me see what the reason for this commotion is all about ?” I commanded my driver.

Literally following my command, Lawrence stopped the car after climbing the slope, nearly running over the dog nearest to the highway which instinctively jumped away a little to avoid a collision and bared its fangs. To my horror I then noticed that they were not dogs but mountain wolves and my right foot which was resting on the footboard just outside the jeep was less than a foot away from the bare fangs of the nearest wolf!  [To be continued] 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Shapmochan (Curse redeemed) as published in NGI, USA

Though i have not written any blog for a long time, i have written an article "Shapmochan "(Curse redeemed) mainly due to insistence of  my daughter's (Sudeshna, Rini) friend from USA. The article is published in NGI, USA in their August 2010 issue. It is in page 8. 

It was summer of ‘72 as I landed in Saarbrucken, Germany on a scholarship. That was my first visit abroad and also my first flight in an aircraft! From the first day I was overwhelmed with German efficiency and affluence. I, however, got my first shock about German perspective of India when our teacher for German history, Frau Schmidt (Mrs. Schmidt), a diminutive German lady, quipped one day “When ever you are hungry, it must be very easy for you to pick up fruits like apples or mangos from way side trees while walking down the road!” I could realize that even for educated Germans, all the aid receiving countries, be it India, Burundi or Rwanda, are in the same category. 

 Since that day, I along with a handful of Indian batch mates became obsessed with projecting the proper image of India and became her unofficial brand ambassadors!  I don’t think I have ever loved India so much! To prove our superiority we concentrated on individual excellence in every field possible.  I don’t think I have ever studied so much in my five years in IIT than during those two years as a student in Germany. Even my Hausfrau (Land Lady), Frau Niehoff whom I used to call Muti (Mother) became so much worried that she forced me to join a dance school!

 I used to prepare probable answer to FAQ on India and challenge people where ever I met, be it in grocery shop, post office, university or even at dance school. But my effort was mostly limited in influencing only a handful of close friends and Niehoff family with whom I was staying as a paying guest. But there was nothing positive happening in India for the outside world to stand up and take notice.  For the vast majority in Germany, India remained a little known third world country! Either it was unrecognized or recognized as the land of tigers, elephants, fakirs and snake charmers! As a student I did travel extensively in Europe and found identical opinions everywhere!   

 There were instances which could be considered funny or humiliating in whichever way you want to take it. Once I was staying in a small village near the picturesque city of “Neustadt”. The village was so small that it did not have any hotel but only a small family run restaurant where the owner allowed me to stay in his guest room. The villagers had not seen any foreigner, particularly some body knowing German and used to come to the bar in the evening to have a word with me. Though the restaurant owner had a roaring time, I really had a harrowing experience! Every day I was barraged repeatedly with funny questions like “Do you know rope trick or snake charming?”; “Could you see wild tigers or elephants also on the roads in Kalkutta (Calcutta)? “Do you have modern houses in Kalkutta (I wanted to say “No! We all stay in trees except German consulate which is modern!)?”  The height was, however, when a school girl asked me “Where is your head gear with lots of white feathers?” I then realized that nothing has changed since the days of Syed Mujtoba Ali (Who was in Berlin just before WW II) and the “Indians” were still being confused with the “Red Indians”! Germans were not only confused about my country but even the continent!

 I worked mostly with German MNCs and used to travel quite frequently to Europe. I could find that the things took a turn for the worst in eighties when our economy was stagnating and the focus was shifted towards China which was opening up. India was practically written off as a corrupt and bureaucratic country which could not live up to its potential.

 Things, however, started looking up with the advent of nineties with the opening up of the Indian economy and the globalization of world economy. There was a lot of anxiety as well as euphoria about the possible outcome of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s economic prescription.  Though the corporate world was interested in India as a possible market, for the common people in Europe, however, India remained mostly unknown and at best insignificant.

 In 2000, though China was the dominant player, the economic liberalization and globalization were having a positive effect on Indian economy and the corporate world started looking at India as a rising economy. Goldman Sachs Report on economic potential of “BRIC” countries by Roopa Purushathaman created much of a hype and euphoria! I also joined a globalised German MNC and my urge to fight back the early humiliation helped me bring the Indian operation within the top fifteen within the very first year. Though the standing of our Indian operation rose within our worldwide corporate setup and I was travelling all over the world to explain to others about our turn around  and the future potential in India, I was still restless to understand how the common people all over the world, particularly in Europe perceived about India.

 Profitability through extensive computerization of our Indian operation was appreciated world wide in our organization but it also created lots of heart burn and rivalry amongst our overseas’ colleagues who always thought that they could only teach us about the best practice and not the other way round. I became quite used to their remarks as long as they recognized us.     

 “How do you feel being second in world ranking?” asked Ehud, my Israeli friend famous for dry humor and working with our set up in Holland.

 “In what? In population? After China?” I replied cautiously

“No. In software development. After Israel!” replied Ehud laughing.

I just gave him a dirty look which could have surely killed him if I had Yogic power like in olden days

 Much water has since flown through the Ganges and India is now recognized by all economic forums as a rising economy next to China. I was, however, not sure how it is now perceived by the common mass in Europe and the rest of the World. 

It was summer of 2005, almost thirty-three years to the day I first set foot on Europe, as I landed in Malpensa airport, Italy for my business appointment at Milan. I did not ask for the office car and wanted to take a taxi.

 “Do you know English or German” I asked the taxi driver before boarding.

 “I know English and can also manage in German” replied the middle aged driver politely in a heavily accented voice. As is the practice in Europe I wanted to take the front seat but the driver opened the rear seat for me.

“Are you from India” asked the driver, looking through the rear view mirror, after we have left the airport area. Malpensa is quite far off from Milan.

 “Yes?” I replied hesitantly, expecting a barrage of questions on rope tricks to tigers. “My God! Not again!” I silently prayed. 

“Oh! The software superpower! My salute to you!” said the driver in a genuinely appreciative tone without any trace of mockery.

“My God! You have made my day!” was my spontaneous exclamation.

 Though I have nothing to do with software, except for its utilization, but I felt extremely elated by the recognition of India by a common taxi driver in Italy! Truly I felt that the curse was redeemed (shapmochan) after so many humiliating years!

 Though our problems are far from over, I am confident that the new generation Indian need not remain handicapped carrying the burden of non-recognition. Without any control tears started rolling down my cheeks.

 “Anything wrong” asked the driver in anxious voice, looking through the rear view mirror. He could not understand the mood swing of his middle aged passenger from elation to crying!

“No, it is alright! You just gave me the greatest recognition in my life!”