Twenty-three years had given Assu a lot to see, to endure. More than what her young eyes demanded, including food, shelter, clothing, some lives, more deaths. Yet a lot remained to be seen, which stayed hidden, quietly cocooned, somewhere in the corner of all her thoughts, manifesting as ‘dreams’. She counted them, admired them and nurtured them quietly, lest somebody steal them before they bloomed. No, she wanted them to stay as they were, forever!
As a child she had admired the coal-dust from the Jharia Colliery behind her house, which rose from the heaps dumped there by the colliery workers, growing to be little mounds. The dust rose, was lost somewhere behind the chimneys, mingled with the smoke and then disappeared. Her father was also one of the miners. And every time that he, along with other co-workers, would add to the pile of dust, she would watch with amusement as it grew big and then bigger, and every time that there was a dust storm, the upper layer would soar up with the wind, as if to touch the sky. She had grown up in that small town of Jharkhand, watching it; grown up enough to know what the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of life meant; and they meant more than watching rising coal dust, for sure. So far her life was finely dotted with more of ‘the downs’ than ‘the ups’. Her desire to study in a so-called ‘big’ school, pursue her undergraduate studies in a big city was brought up short every time.
She wanted to get out of Jharia. The place had nothing but burning coal beneath the ground. Perhaps the anger of the Earth for having dug down so ruthlessly, it burnt to devour, devour everyone dreaming and their dreams too, perhaps. But Assu knew there was something good that had to happen, somewhere, sometime. Having completed her undergrad from her own smoky, dusty town, she finally had one big chance to prove her worth, which would have put an end to her self-questioning, all of the ‘wheres’ and ‘hows’ and ‘whys’.
The dazzling daylight was no relief from the murk of the coal-dust, being filled with the buzzing of so many unwanted bees, the questions with their poisonous sting. “Haa, a girl of lower middle-class family! What will you do with so much of education?” or “Humanities has no value. A science or engineering degree can give her a career, if not, at least a good bridegroom,” To top it all was their humour, “You study so much, you won’t find your match Assu, be prepared!” Her only reply was a forced smile. As if there was something better that she could do. Yet these questions and taunts left her shaken, asking herself “What next?” The answer was lost somewhere in the same looming darkness; every day ending in the same night filled with uncertainty. She wanted to get out of the ghetto, no matter what.
It was Jharia’s ‘rising coal-dust’, which, in the absence of better inspiration, had fuelled her dreams. But those dreams were not smooth. They had cracks and piths and pitfalls, the underbelly disgusting, burning, ready to engulf anything emerging out of it. The town had a special ability to kill, to stop the breath of everything that sought life, everything that sought to thrive. It could choke everyone (and everything) with the noxious gases that would slip past the cracks to come out of the earth’s belly and cover the atmosphere with a strange fear where people would be scared to breathe. Or, if they breathed, it made sure that the poison gushed within them too, strangling them slowly. It had been there seemingly forever. The British set up private companies to mine the profit off the land, nationalised later for national interest. An announcement by a leader, known as the ‘king of the people’, to increase the turnover and production of coal to 1.5 billion tonnes by 2020 had made one of the nationalised companies go for open-cast mining. The exposure of coking coal to oxygen created flames that would grow and rise and roar. The gases gushing out – carbon monoxide, sulphur oxide – would mix with the air to flow freely, packed that they were within those mines, and then they sacked people.
Last month Assu’s neighbour Geeta Devi’s hen had died inside the basket with which it was covered, because of the heat and the gases underneath. Assu’s silver earrings, which she kept locked in a tin box on the floor, would often turn completely black. Everything seemed to keep getting darker. She had to get out of the murkiness. And why just her – even Raheem, her classmate, who tended his father’s tea stall after college – wanted to get out. All of these ‘seekers’ knew education was the sole way out.
There were of course other ways out. The Company wanted to send them to live in Belgaria, where they would be free of the fire. But there was no livelihood there. The local politicians would often come and make them aware of the conspiracy that was behind relocating people. “It is one of the ways to remove habitation so that the companies can take out as much coal as they want, without opposition,” they said. But the relocation continued anyway, even though the pace was slow, and there was not enough space to relocate the entire population. Belgaria did not have either a proper township nor means of livelihood. Only a quarter of the population could fit in the small quarters that the government had built there.
The Jharia college was shut down on the basis of the precariousness of the area, but the new building was actually a school, with less than half the necessary capacity. Many could not access further education because there was no space for it. Scavenging coal from the open-cast mines was often an ‘illegal’ yet legal way of surviving for some people there. So, the local politicians made full use of this; the union leaders often protested with various demands whenever there was an incident, but most of them were quietened either by money or power.
Assu had grown up seeing all this. Nothing of it would improve over the years, and capitalism had only worsened the problem. It was easy to be hopeless in such a place. On some days, she would be caught in the despairing atmosphere thinking despairing thoughts. Yet, there was still something left in her, the desire to change her life, her surroundings. So, the next day, as the slanting rays of the sun lay softly on the edges of the temple on the Parasnath range, and came in through her window to rest on her face, her agile mind would be filled only with euphoria for the unknown, unseen and the much wanted. Life would go on with a constant rhythm.
And so it happened, that on one seemingly ordinary day, Samya, her childhood friend who was now studying in Delhi, called her up and informed her about the opening of the application process for the MGCU (Mahatma Gandhi Central University, New Delhi), one of the best for humanities. Forms for the entrance examination were available everywhere and she could write the exams from her hometown too. That saved her of a lot of trouble for there was no burden then, of travelling to Delhi. That would have made her an unwanted burden for somebody else, who would have had to take her to Delhi for she was a girl, “not capable of travelling alone”; didn’t the next door granny pour out her usual-unusual wisdom of girls travelling alone?! Delhi would have been far, too far, and so too would her dreams! But now! There was no second chance, she had to get the forms. With a deep smile she got up, dressed and went to the nearest railway counter where the forms were available. She filled it up as soon as she could, and posted it, to MGCU, New Delhi, the magical words that had loomed in her head since childhood. Delhi was the world for so many of her dreams as, she had seen, it had been for so many who landed in her magic land! Nobody at home knew about her trip to the station today, for they knew ‘Delhi was a bad, bad place’ where their daughter would never go. But she knew something good was going to happen, somewhere, sometime.
It was 15 May 2017. Assu’s end-semester exams would soon be over, ten days after which she would be writing her entrance exam for MGCU. Her preparations knew no limits. She did everything she could. From asking friends and classmates to the most unapproachable of teachers. And though the cyber cafe was far, she managed to go there at least twice in ten days to get as much material as she could. Of course, her trip to cyber cafes were scorned by the mohalla-wali auntyjis, for “Who knew why she went there? Huh?” but she knew something good was to happen, somewhere, sometime. Otherwise what lay in store for her was nothing less than a nightmare, “the rishta that her bhabhi had brought for her”, and a lousy wedding with nagadas, and the never ending dystopian world that they inhabited, the darkness within and outside. Her own dreams would lose their voice somewhere amid the darkness and so many haunting noises. No! She would not let that happen. She would like to do something for this city – which she hated and loved. But only if she could do something for herself first. Was it possible? Yes it was. ‘Destiny lies in our hands too,’ she had read it and heard it. She had believed it!
Finally the day arrived. She was all set to travel from Jharia to the big town of Dhanbad. “Dhanbad Dhanabad,” the tempo walla was shouting. She and Raheem hired one as soon as they could. Soon they was travelling to Bankmore, KV and Hirapur, KV, their respective exam centres. Soon enough they parted ways and Raheem went to his, and Assu to hers. Assu’s face was turned towards the sky and she felt heroic, as though she had already cleared the exam. The small town makes you feel a ‘big’ hero for the most menial chore, and here she was all set to write her exam, that did feel big, like real ‘BIIIG’. Baap re! She had prepared well, had put on her lucky red kurta, was fed with the usual ‘all-time-shubh-muhurat-food’, dahi-chini that her mother would feed her every time that there was an exam or an interview. Everything was done, except for a small, little thing. Her pen with which she was to write the exam! Yes, she had heard really mean things about how a gel pen should not be used to write exams. Her ball point pen had gotten lost a day before, and the exam was on Sunday, when shops were closed. But had two nice black gel pens. Hell, those gel pens shone like swords, they could fight anything, even stupid myths. And there, as the bell rang, she took out her shiny black gel pens and started writing her exam. And the answers came to her magically. She was happy, the exam ended well and “All’s well that ends well” “Didn’t Shakespeare say just that!” She knew it to the core, or so she thought. She went back with a smile of satisfaction. Her dream was to come true!
The next day was a usual one with sunshine hovering around the dark black coal mountains and peeping in from the corner window, falling on Assu’s face. She woke up and prayed “God let there be no rain today.” Her paper should reach MGCU, Delhi, safely. The sun shone brightly in Jharia, really bright. Her prayer was heard. At the Dhanbad railway station, there was a lot of hustle – bustle, the answer papers for MGCU were to be sent to Delhi today. There were guards all around, guarding the papers while the afternoon sun shone directly on their faces, urging them to hasten their work or else it would burn their faces. The train was yet to come. The papers were neatly stacked, all tied up and packed, kept on the platform, only waiting to be loaded, carrying the fate of a thousand dreamers. One of the guards was a little tired of waiting in the sun. Crushing tobacco in his left palm with his right thumb hardly helped his tiredness, nor could his boredom be crushed; entertainment after all, was a rich man’s affair. He looked up at the sun and prayed “God, show some mercy, make it cloudy, let it rain.” Soon there were dark clouds all around. It had been a hot humid day, rain was bound to come. It came and soon, soaking into the dry earth. The guard sniffed the smell of the fresh wet earth with a smile. His prayer was heard! He looked up and let raindrops trickled down his face, as much as he could, at least something was for free. “Aaah!” broke out from his dry lips, there was a sigh of relief, though momentary, for soon the head gead started shouting, “Hey remove the papers, take them in.” Who cared about his dry lips, or the dryness within, there was more for the world to see, than the chapped lips of crappy men! Soon, all the packed bundles were being pulled mercilessly to be saved from the rain. The last bundle however could not escape it, the rain fell gently on the top and a few drops seeped in lovingly, caressing the topmost answer paper. The one written with the ‘Shiny Black Sword’, the gel ink, was touched by that ‘lucky’ rain drop that had made its way in through the crack, ‘gelling’ up with it as if without guilt. The roll number could not escape the rain and now was hardly visible, except for a splash of black that was still trickling, enlarging itself till it knew where to stop. The name had a few letters left, “As…” it read. The rest of it had washed off, perhaps to purify itself of the illusions it was caught up with.