MY OLD FOUNTAINPEN -
It was the summer of 1989. I was employed with a firm that undertook accounts writing jobs and got us to visit the clients on a weekly basis to write their accounts. When I say “ write” I mean exactly that. Computers were as rare back then as an uncorrupt politician is today. Not for us was the luxury of entering data and have a balance-sheet ready in no time whatsoever. Long and thick registers to be entered in , totaled, tallied , checked and rechecked before anything of substance in terms of accounts would be ready.
It was on one such visit that day when I first met Roshanbi . It was a sweltering afternoon in what barely passed for an office in a dilapidated building, bang opposite the infamous red-light area of Grant Road. This Gujarati client of our firm must either have been the brokest man in town when he bought that place, or , the smartest man to invest a pittance in his business and still be conveniently placed to carry out his carnal wanderings that were safely hidden away from his wife in Kandivli. A disgruntled staff-member of his had been kind enough to share this dope with me.
So, leave alone an air-conditioner , on this background I considered myself lucky to have a rickety old ceiling fan whirring away over my head . It was around 1.00 and the boss was out as usual to tend to the hunger pangs that he almost always seemed to get either in his belly or a little lower down. Both the ceiling-fan and I were toiling away at our respective jobs when I heard someone gently clear their throat behind me.
I turned around to see a woman of about 44/45 standing behind me with a broom in her hands and an expression on her face that was at once both apologetic and impatient. Dressed in a salwar-kameez that had seen better days but worn with a poise that seemed completely misplaced in a place like that. Very frail, even sickly looking but with a face that was severe in a no-nonsense manner. Chewing on a paan in the nonchalant manner that comes only after a riyaaz of at least 30 years, she waited for me to get away from my table so that she could do her round of “jhadoo-pochha” and go to the next office. I got up and went to the window that had a great view of the hustle- bustle on the street below. Commodities ranging from cheap clothes, stale sweets, and bodies that were both cheap and stale were on display .Doing a brisk business too.
She did her stuff fairly efficiently , but did I hear something clatter-drop a minute ago ? I was not sure. Was it a furtive glance that she gave me before she hurried away to the next office ? I was not sure.
The boss came back, visibly having satiated whichever type of hunger he might have had on the day . An hour and a half full of chitchatting about “Dhanda” and “Market” passed, with me somehow trying to concentrate on job at hand and putting on a convincing act of listening to him and nodding at appropriate times. After a customary cutting chai it was time to leave. This was one place I was always in a hurry to leave , no prizes for guessing why . I gathered my belongings , shook hands with the boss and left.
It was when I was getting ready for work the next day, that I found that my old favorite Sheaffer fountain pen was missing. Did I forget it at THAT of all the places ? Oh no !
I was now faced with the dreaded choice of going back there for it , or, to wait till my next visit which was due next week. Those were the days when fountain-pens were used , maintained painstakingly and little ink-bottles were as much a part of a brief case as a laptop is of a backpack these days. That pen was a favorite for the simple reason that it was a gift from my sister , paid for from her first paycheck. Another good sisterly act from her in allowing me to pinch her own pen for a week saved me from trudging back immediately to Grant Road.
After a week I visited that place again. The boss was not exactly thrilled with my response of “ Mera pen yahan kahin mila kya apko ? to his most cordial “ Jai Shrikrishna” . He reluctantly opened his drawer and examined the contents for the missing article.
“ Nahin bhai ! yahan toh nahin , raste mein ya train mein gir gaya hoga” he offered.
After a few pleasantries , he inevitably left to take care of some “business” and I got busy with mine. Around the same time as last week , the woman came in with her broom and as I was about to clear the place for her to do her stuff , she said “ Saab, us din aapka pen yahan gira hua mila . Ye lijiye” and handed over the pen to me. Of course it was a fountain pen, and of course it was a Sheaffer , but , it was a brand new one instead of my battered old relative of it.
“Yeh toh mera pen nahi hai ! Mera pen toh bahot purana tha ! I said.
“ Malum hai ! Lekin us din galti se wo pen mere hath se gir gaya tha aur toot gaya tha”
“ Lekin yeh toh naya pen hai , bahot mahenga hai, apne kyon kharida ?
She said she knew that pen cost Rs.175 because her own daughter who was now studying in “pardes” used the same pen. She would not take any argument from me as to why I should not accept that replacement and why she should not splurge just to correct something that had happened accidentally.
She said “ Saab, if you don’t take this pen I would feel like a sinner in the eyes of Allah. I was also worried you might suspect me of stealing your pen and complain to the boss. Thank you for not doing so, otherwise I would lose a respectable job and my tainted past would once again catch up with me and then it would be extremely difficult for me to get another job like this ”
Then she told me her story, who she was, what she did for a living , how much she earned and most importantly what made her go on battling with life , against all odds.
Roshanbi was one of 9 children of a plumber. When the cheap liqueur started drinking him and his pockets dry, he sold her to a prostitute for 15000 rupees when she was 12 .To this day, ironically enough, she remembers that day as the happiest of her childhood. Because that was the day she got her first new dress, shoes, toys and a stomach that was full after she could not remember how long.
But then came the vultures who had to have their rightful piece of her meat in exchange of the currency notes they threw at her madam. Life became hell ,and then, gradually hell became her life.
Amidst several bouts of illnesses that have a very respectable term in our respectable world called “occupational hazards” , motherhood too was forced upon her as one of those hazards. A daughter who is now 20 came as a ray of hope in the gloom of her darkness. A daughter she wanted to raise “ gentleman like” . Not for her was to be the ignominy of a slime-rat , the paws of meat-packers and a life on the rack with a ‘use by’ date. Her little Saba was going to break the shackles of this life of drudgery and sin and make something of herself unlike her ‘mazboor’ mother who never had a chance at life.
A Charitable organization working in the red-light area picked up Saba as one of the beneficiaries to a program called “Asha-Kiran” and sponsored her schooling . This was just the catalyst Roshanbi needed to give up the life of a prostitute and start working in various capacities like a housemaid, Milkmaid, even a Garbage-picker. It was not easy to hold on to jobs in the so called respectable society because of her background. But she fought on gamely till the day when her Saba was sponsored yet again for higher education in the US , the land of dreams. Now she worked hard, still fought the leering glances , still got accosted by the “so called gentlemen” , but kept her head high, her conscience clean and waited for the day when her Saba would settle down with a respectable job and would send for her.
“ Wo din kab ayega , Roshanbi ?” I probably was as impatient as this doughty woman had been patient in adversity.
“ Saab, wo din pahle aye , ya uparwaleka bulawa pahle aye, mere liye toh donohi jannat ke barabar hai” Said Roshanbi.
I worked for my firm for the next 3 years and then quit the job to venture out on my own . During those 3 years , Roshanbi would always greet me with “ Salaam saab” and would sometimes ask me to read her daughters letters to her. I even wrote a few for her. With the same Sheaffer pen that even today is a fond memory of Roshanbi .
I visited this Gujarati bossman about 4 years ago, more in the hope to see how Roshanbi was doing than out of any affection for him, but was told she had left without any word or a forwarding address. It has been 18 years since I last met her. No idea where she might be today. Does it matter whether she is with her Saba, or with her Allah ?
Wherever she is, I know she is home, for the first time in her life.