In the south of the coal capital of India, Dhanbad, lies Jharia, a block with large underground and open cast mines. Jharia also infamously boasts of fire raging under its minting fat belly of natural resource; coal mines that have been fuming with fire for years now.
Lakhan worked in an open cast mine in Jharia, day in and day out, surrounded by the smell of fire, smoke and gases and with a perpetual feel of heat on his skin. Lakhan, like many others in Jharia, was dark not because of genetics but because of the layer of soot on his burning skin. Disease and death were never far behind in the dark, orange and grey lanes of Jharia’s slums.
A lean and lanky 35 year old, Lakhan was born an orphan with no knowledge of his roots or arrival. A pujari found him as a baby on the mandir steps in the outskirts of Jharia. The skinny pujari took the baby into the mandir to keep away from dogs and other wild animals tearing into the scrawny baby’s bones. He would feed him with prasad from the temple, clothe him with the duppattas that devotees tied at the temple jaali and managed to scrape him away from danger. It was the pujari who named him Lakhan, and Lakhan grew on the streets.
“Namaste!” Lakhan would shove Verma Ji, a temple regular, as he would rush out of the temple to the streets dropping his thali everyday. “Kuch khane ko de do” he would beg some devotees at the temple. Kumar Saab’s pocket got picked ever so often at the temple and, Raju and Sarita, Kumar Saab’s children were beginning to play with the vagabond Lakhan.
“Do something about that Lakhan, Verma Ji, he spoils the peace at the temple.” Pleaded Kumar Saab one day.
“I agree, something needs to be done about that boy Kumar Saab, let’s talk to Pujari Ji.”
A few days later, Kumar Saab came up with a benevolent plan. “Let’s enrol him in the local government school. I’ll bear the initial cost,” Kumar Saab proudly announced to Verma Ji. “Mrs. Kumar has a mannat and this will cover that.”
“Very good, Kumar Saab, it is so kind of you to do so much for an orphan. God will bless you greatly,” confirmed Verma Ji.
‘At least, that would keep away the beggar boy from the temple premises during the day,’ thought Verma Ji.
‘That saves my kids from Lakhan’s dirty company,’ hoped Kumar Saab.
‘That pesky Lakhan will no longer be my trouble,’ thought Pujari Ji in relief.
That month, seven-year old Lakhan started school. Upbeat about his good fortune, Lakhan happily welcomed a new disciplined life.
However, the happiness did not last long. He soon sensed the pujari’s apathy. Food and clothing were no longer offered to him; he felt guilty asking. Shelter inside the mandir felt intrusive and unholy and he realised he was unwelcome.
Within a week of starting school, Lakhan moved out of the street and started living with some boys from his school in the Kujama slums. Livelihood came from thefts that began as food stalking and slowly graduated to coal in small quantities. Eventually, theft and drugs became a part of teenager Lakhan’s life.
In the midst of all this, Lakhan met Suman, with her curvaceous hips and her almond eyes. Her anklet, bangles and earrings adding the much needed tease to Lakhan’s testosterone.
“Ye kali kali aankhen...tu ru ru,” sang Lakhan every time Suman shimmied past him with a basket of coal on her head. “Mujhe neend na aae, mujhe chain na aae...,” hummed Suman in return one day. Their love blossomed and Lakhan sang her ballads and gifted her flowers as they secretly met outside the mines. Their bodies sizzled with anticipatory heat just as Earth under their thick rubber chappals. But, their love was killed by Suman’s father who married her off to Deepu Bhuiyan. Deepu had a family.
Lakhan soon learned that love was an emotion meant for people with families. His ancestry or the lack of it would always pose a problem. He was an outcast in this arena. Kanchan, Savitri, Kanta, none were allowed to douse his sorrow and desire for longing. The girls’ fathers invariably chose families for their daughters.
To Lakhan, it seemed strange to desire ancestry and lineage. It seemed to raise an expectation of a long and hopeful life, when life in Jharia was momentary. Considering everyone lived inside a ball of fire, most ancestry grieved of grandparents who either fell in a hot ravine or big fissure spewing fire or whose house and self got swallowed in a mine fire.
'Huh! Well! Bygones are bygones,' thought Lakhan and moved on in life scavenging coal for the illegal coal market. With each passing day and failed love affair, Lakhan continued in hope of the next alliance culminating in marriage. He secretly wished for a life of belonging and regard.
But, it was not to be and Lakhan toiled day in and day out, wandering aimlessly through the hutments in Kujama. With each passing year, his friends got married and nurtured families.
Maturity and old age creeped in on Lakhan; his bones and lungs had started creaking and wheezing. Theft and burglary were not going to be easy anymore. Most people in his village managed to escape illness and death in fire pits for about 50 years. So at 35, Lakhan was beginning to feel the last lap of his life and he decided to take up employment at the mine. Sorting out coal at the open cast mine in Kujama would give him the much needed steady income and some peace.
“This is easy work,” said Lakhan to Deepak one day. “And more peace of mind as well. With children and a wife, better to get less than get caught in some theft by the company supervisor,” chimed in Gopal who had also started work in the mine lately.
‘Was it age or illness getting at all of us,’ Lakhan would often wonder.
As the years passed, his coughs increased. There was blood in his sputum and breathing was becoming difficult. Maybe, he was carrying too much coal over his head per load.
Lakhan’s body had acquired a natural bend with age and trudging back to his home was becoming painful for his legs. The blisters on his feet had started bleeding now. “Need to buy thicker chappals, these ones have started melting. Now-a-days everyone is out to make a quick buck; these did not even last 15 days,” cribbed Lakhan to himself one night.
'As is, the ground in the mines feels hotter these days. The floor at home also feels like its on fire. Perhaps it will crack open soon. Maybe, I should shift my mattress outside the house at night, what if the floor cracks while I am asleep,' Lakhan thought as he carried water home one morning.
Gopal and Deepak had wives and children who would bring home water from miles away, but Lakhan was alone and had to manage home and work himself. The lack of a companion was now emotionally and physically daunting.
It was in the middle of one such night, that Lakhan heard screams down the street. “Fire, fire!”
“Oh no! Another house on fire!” Lakhan ran out.
“Gopal’s house,” screamed Deepak as he ran past Lakhan towards the end of the street. Lakhan ran with the lone bucket of water in his house. All the neighbours ran with the buckets in their houses. But it was too little, too late. Screams, chaos, orange flames streaked the night sky. Gopal’s house was burning. The floor of his house had shifted in the middle of the night and his five year old daughter had fallen into the fire pit.
The next day, a ceremony was performed without a body. Gopal came back to the mine on the third day to take his mind off his loss. But, Gopal was never the same. He was lost and aloof and seemed a tad bit delirious.
“Let him be,” suggested Deepak as they squatted outside Lakhan’s hut for a smoke post work one evening. “The loss of a child that young is difficult to deal with Lakhan, you would know if you had a family. But he will get used to it. Hmm, everyone does in Jharia,” Deepak said as he crushed the cigarette butt under his right foot and left.
The fire seemed to have zombied most people living in that street. As days passed, Deepak and most neighbours got busy protecting their families as best they could. The incident seemed to have aged everyone and people became more aloof and quiet.
‘No one comes to talk to me these days...not even Deepak. Hmm...everyone is busy with life. Huh....the days of our childhood,’ Lakhan would often reminisce.
Over the following months, Lakhan’s breathing troubles increased. The doctor did mention that the breathing trouble and the blood coughs were related, but Lakhan had no money to continue the medicines. The blood coughs had reduced anyway. His stomach pained more often these days. With reduced digestion, he would skip work most days and lie in his house the whole day. But, if money did not come in a day Lakhan would need to go hungry. So he would ramble back to work the next day and often pass out near the mine by night. No one seemed to notice his absence in the basti.
He often felt delusional, cheated by life. ‘Suman, Kanchan, Mai....’
People in the basti stopped talking to him; they had their own fires to douse. Children in the basti started throwing stones at him as he walked to the mines. ‘Ah children! What innocent souls. If I had mine, they would have taken care of me in this old age, got me medicines, cooked me food, enquired after me when I don’t return home at nights. Hmm.’
The mine, as usual, was hot, smelly and spewing gases, dust and smoke one day. At dusk, most workers started heading back home. Deepak checked on Lakhan as he left the mine in the evening. Lakhan confirmed he would be leaving soon.
But as Lakhan was about to leave, he felt a sharp pain flash across his stomach. It crunched up his body and threw him on the ground. He lay there writhing in pain. But, no one saw him. It was already dark and the smoke seemed a lot thicker than normal to his delusional eyes. In the distance, there seemed to rise an orange light, ‘or was that fire, in the horizon.’ He could soon see flames rising high above the mountain tip of the mine, as he lay in the heart of the well.
Lakhan struggled to drag his seemingly heavy cluster of bones up the mine, but the excruciating pain in his stomach paralyzed his strength. He was helpless. He could hear the rumble beyond the vicinity, somewhere far somewhere near. The rumble rose in pitch and decibel. It was increasing.
‘Move Lakhan, move for your life. Move that stupid body Lakhan. Move, move, move.’
An intense flash of pain and red and orange.
At the basti, news spread of a landslide in the mine caused by a fire. People rushed to the mine to douse as much fire as they could. Thankfully, the mine was closed and the workers had called it a day when the landslide occurred.
“No missing person reported, no loss of life,” declared the company the next day.
Over the next few days or so, the rubble was cleared and as much coal as could be retrieved was loaded onto trucks, a charred body, buried under coal, got scooped into a truck, as well. The Dhanbad rail carried the coal and the body to multiple factories across the country.
At one factory gate, as a truck of coal was being ransacked by smugglers, someone screamed out. “Dead body, dead body!” And, the smugglers left the crime scene deciding against their coal that day.
An unclaimed body lay under blocks of coal, orphaned in death.
|Image: www.freeimages.com/Adnrew Fearns|
This is a work of fiction and all characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
© 2016 by Donna Abraham
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