KNOWN UNKNOWN 


Asima’s nose dived deep into the Brian Tracy’s “Eat That Frog”. She was trying to imbibe the author’s words while the berth on which she was sitting was rocking back and forth. Travelling from her workplace to  hometown is a tedious journey of two days and two nights with three halts in between , one at  Hardwar ( the famous tourist town in India ) , another at Delhi ( India ) and the last one  a few hundred kilometers away from her hometown .  The train crisscrosses five major rivers and six states on its way. The beauty of such expanse landscape is extremely mesmerizing and difficult to behold in a pair of eyes .Still she was grossly involved with the book. 

 A middle aged well built man sitting upright on the berth opposite to her was constantly gazing for about an hour or so .She adjusted her glasses now and then to ascertain the direction of that gaze, on confirmation she became restless. To calm her anxious mind she tried calling her boyfriend but the signals of her mobile turned her down .A few scornful moments passed, then something happened. As to fill in the awkward silence he asked her name .She hesitantly replied and asked him his whereabouts. A little bit into the conversation, she understood that he was a custard apple farmer, ‘Shyam’. Even though there were no further questions from her, he described his life in much greater detail. It is believed that the people from country side of tropical countries have all the warmth of the Sun enveloped in their heart and their vocal chords are unaware of the instrument called ‘Silence’. 

(Shyam’s personal account)

Shyam owns a 5 acre land in the Satara , Nagpur , India .

He divided his farm land into three sections for farming, one for custard apple, other for seasonal vegetables and the last portion was reserved for BT Brinjal. He said that by the grace of God he was fortunate enough to complete his high school, which was an accomplishment in itself as compared to his fellow farmers and friends of the same village.  His only belongings while travelling in that train were  two big sacks, the contents of  which she couldn’t guess and a sling bag slyly hanging on his shoulder . His  brown complexioned  skin  with a tinge of sun burn on the forehead  sparkled with an unexplained kindness .Clad in a semi worn out cream colored dhoti – kurta (traditional dress of rural India)  , his mouth piece was  a non-stop talking machine which has  neither a  stop button nor  a pause button. The most striking feature of his face was his effervescent smile, like a youthful river flowing seamlessly through the boulders which can cure any known problem in the world. 

As he talked and talked and talked, Asima completely forgot her anxiety, her doubtful thoughts and before she could knew, her nervousness just flew way .She even contracted his infectious smile. 

The more questions she asked the more detailed answers his answers were. 

To interrupt this intriguing conversation Asima’s phone started buzzing.
She picked up to hear “Hi cutie pie how is your journey? Had your lunch, right?” awfully disturbed by this interruption, she gave curt replies   “Ohh yes”.

(Voice on phone) “Ohh sweetie I miss you a lot, it has been 24HOURS and I miss you like hell”. 

Her face drowned in shy, couldn’t reply back and said “I will call you later when the signals are good”. 

(Voice on the phone) “Lots of kisses darling, do call me whenever the train halts at a station, (lots of kisses) I love you”.

Asima still feeling extremely shy as Shyam was curiously looking at her: “Bye, same to you too” 

(Voice on the phone) “What’s this, same to you? Give me a proper reply honey.” 

She simply turned off the call ,  still smiling but at the same time trying to hide her face from that just-introduced–stranger. 

Shyam sensed something and teased her by asking if the person on the phone was her fiancée. She thought it was best to say “Yes” than to explain her relationship status. 

She was amazed at this question and asked him how  could he guess the person on the other side of the phone, pat came the reply “I may look young, but I have seen more seasons than your age. My wife used to smile a lot when she came as a bride to my house” and thus again smiled a lot while being nostalgic. 

He again went on to explain the nuances of custard apple farming and seasonal vegetables .He doubted about the new BT Brinjal. He expressed a major doubt on the trust of the phoren(foreign) companies and asked her whether they are really reliable .

She was utterly clueless but started to console him that it’s fine to buy new variety of seeds bred by new technology. 

They may enhance his yields thus fetching additional earnings.  Her last sentence made him laugh much louder but with an air filled up of sarcasm. 

She was surprised at this and asked him “What is the matter? Why are you laughing?”

He replied with a grim face while his effervescent smile vanished into thin air, “MIDDLEMEN, you see, they are like these giant rats nibbling at everything from our income to our lives. No matter how better or even best the quality of our harvest is , it doesn’t matter , we are paid a little less than one percent of our annual investment . This suffices our ever rumbling stomachs thus enabling us to live for the next farming season.”

She asked him with naïve, childlike curiosity “Then why don’t you sell your produce in the open market”.

He laughed again with his smile back, “Oh you are so innocent like my youngest sister”.

She pestered him to tell why he cannot do so.

With a tinge of seriousness on his face he replied, “You don’t know these people, they control everything whether it is money, power, politicians or market. They are like the salt in sea. To sow the seeds, to apply pesticides and to harvest we need money and who will give us the money? To sell our produce we need market, market decides price and who decides market? ”

She doubtfully replied “MIDDLEMEN?”

He said “YES, that’s right. This is the reason why I don’t want my children to take up farming. I have sent them to Nagpur for convent studies. A small 5 feet shop owner is well off than a ten acre farmer and landless peasants, don’t even ask about them.”

She thoughtfully asked “Then what about the wholesale market, Can’t you sell directly in them?”

His voice croaked with laughter and said “Ah you innocent girl! You know nothing of the farm, right?”

 She quizzically looked at him.

He quickly recovered from his laugh and explained to her “Oh my dear girl, Mandi /market yards are first stops after harvesting the farm produce. The price decision is based on quality, demand and you-know-who.”

A pregnant pause followed, he cleared his throat and said “This life is chosen by the omnipresent for us farmers. My children will definitely have different life as engineers and accountants and who knows they may be better off than me. My girl wishes to be a librarian (laughing again) I can’t imagine how crazy my own bloodline is (Laughs again)”.

Her racing thoughts subdued, she sat there motionless and utterly speechless. 

She said “If a farmer doesn’t want his children to look after the farm, then who will till the land in the next generation?”

To this he replied “Ahh GOD you know,  he has his own ways,  he will definitely find a good replacement, don’t worry , HE is more crazier than us.”

Looking at her gloomy face he tried to cheer her up by asking “Do you know why I was staring at you when you were reading that book?”

She said “No”.

He replied “Don’t be so despaired just answer my question. This is cruel reality of the world  , I am sure you have your own problems at your workplace I have my own that’s all. Above all do you know that life is a garland of troubles, smiles and tears interspersed with each other? I assure you such garland is the most beautiful one in the world. Now come on just answer my question you didn’t ask about my gaze?”

She said “I thought you felt something odd about me or my dress, anyway I got used to such stares but somewhere in my heart I still feel uneasy about it. Please tell me why did you stare?”

He replied “Hmmm, Poor girl, I can understand it is difficult for a girl to survive alone that too far away from home. Your face, It is this simple face that reminded me of my youngest loveliest sister. She was darling of all .She was very ambitious than all other girls of the family with big dreams in her starry eyes.” (Huge sigh).

She asked “Where is she now? Are you going to visit her this Rakhi(festival for brothers and sisters) ?”.

With a grim dull face he replied “I can’t, she got succumbed to the flames of her life”.

 She asked “Why? What happened?”

He said “We married her into an affluent farming family, her dreams to study high degrees got squashed but we thought it is good for us and her too”

Apart from the dowry her family demands grew and grew and grew but never ended. Unable to see us suffer, poor girl, she suffered and eventually took her life.” 

Tears swelled up in his eyes he couldn’t continue the conversation. He walked towards the washroom with some pretext.

She was now dumbstruck and her skin became pale. After a few gloomy moments he again spoke “These two sacks of mine have custard apples which will ripen soon in couple of days. I insist you take these, you remind me a lot of my youngest bubbliest sister”.

She opposed and denied vehemently. 

He insisted, prevailed upon her and forcibly handed over the sack to her. His smile returned to his face and again infected her with the same. 

She was dumbfounded at the sight of the sack in her hand. He stood up checked his belongings, gently stroked her head and rushed to the door.

She gained her senses and rushed behind him to wave Good-bye, but he was out of sight before she could say anything.

On reaching home she recited the whole episode to her parents and siblings. They were also as astonished as she was. 

Her mom told her “You got those fruits from an UNKNOWN stranger just before the festival of Rakhi , this immortalizes the saying  AS YOU SOW SO REAP , You did good to others therefore good will come to you. I am proud of you”. 

Asima was still not satisfied with her mother’s words, her heart pinched, she felt she was not worthy of that sack of fruits.

 As the festival concluded she went on to prepare for another journey back to the workplace. This journey was not as eventful as the previous one. Her thoughts lingered on Shyam, on his story and his virtuous words.

Asima opened the door of her lonely house with no-one to greet but for the dark rooms, her heart sank .She was too tired for even a cup of tea , threw her bag and lay down on her bed .She could neither close her eyes nor sleep but kept staring at the only night bulb lit in her room. Her thoughts still whirled around Shyam. Her eyes dozed off in the wee hours.

The chirpings of house sparrows woke her up. It took time to regain her senses and quickly rushed through her chores for a day after vacation at office.

Days passed by, months flew and thus another year, Shyam’s   memory went to back burner at first and then eventually faded into oblivion. Another holiday season knocked her door. 

 Asima prepared for another journey for her home, she enthusiastically packed, unpacked and repacked, planning in between how to spend every moment with her parents and siblings. 

She rushed to the railway station an hour before which was her usual habit for every journey. Observing each and every passenger and taking a mental note of their peculiarities, smiling on some, pitying for some and hating some others.

 As the train arrived she carefully secured her luggage and counted hours and closed her eyes all smiling by herself. 

Next day morning she reached Delhi, which means another phase of waiting before her train arrives. The train arrived but for an hour late, she hurriedly took her luggage and waded into her berth anxiously looking for her berth. Secured her luggage, counted her belongings and peeped out of the window wishing for the train to chug away as fast as speed of light. 

A sudden jolt at Nagpur woke up Asima from her deep sleep. Sheepishly rubbing her eyes she bought a local newspaper being sold by a hawker and a steaming cup of tea. She lazily turned the pages of the paper while sipping her tea. She tried to skip the local stories except for the headlines, but one name tucked away in a small paragraph sounded familiar to her. She couldn’t recollect when and where did she hear the name. Glancing at the blurred photo on the page something struck her. She deeply felt that she saw this man somewhere. Reading in detail the contents of the paragraph she was awestruck to find that she knew this custard apple farmer. He was no one other than Shyam, yes, Shyam , she read and re-read to confirm whether this man was the same person she met a year ago. On reading the entire article she was aghast, Shyam, is indeed the same person who committed suicide.

The reason for ghastly step was BT Brinjal, his crop failed not once but twice thus unable to bear the burden of debt he took his life away. His body was found lying still in the middle of his five acre farm.

Asima rubbed her eyes in utter disbelief. She was shocked and can’t imagine the person with beautiful smile and never-to-say-die attitude has failed in battle of life. Her thoughts whirled around her head and his words whizzed around her ears. Tears rolled down her cheeks for a long time which she could not keep track of.

Though she couldn’t be in touch with this unknown person, she felt like as if his own brother was no more. Her heart cringed and she couldn’t help feeling a part of her soul being tore apart. She knew no one and puzzled, on whom to put this blame upon. She thought about the middlemen, moneylenders, seed sellers and the government machinery, which among these are responsible for the failure of a strong willed farmer. She contemplated that suicide is the ultimate option for weak minded or depressed, but Shyam, he was not to be counted in either of these.

Shyam belonged to a genre of his own. His smile can win the toughest battles, then how and why did he succumb to a battle, was a grave question which ate her up all through the journey. 

The questions , she thought , are unanswerable , maybe he was right ,there’s no place for a hardworking farmer on this earth , maybe our society doesn’t need one , maybe we are the one to blame the collective failure of each and every farmer’s hard work. They are some of the bravest and toughest soldiers our nature has produced.

Human civilization started off on the backbone of farmers, the same backbone which we are hell bent on breaking it. Farmers everywhere not only in drought hit areas like Vidarbha, Maharashtra even water rich areas like deltas are falling to the prey of suicides. This is simply not because they are weak or immoral or depressed or want to escape from the realities of life, it is only WE who force them to do so.  

Asima mourned for a  period longer than she could remember. Every custard apple hawker, vendor and farmer reminded her of Shyam. 

She thought “How many Shyam’s are we going to lose before we can open our eyes?”.

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