Phelan, Incense Sticks & Arka ….
It is an engrossing tale of how a rag picker catches a medical student unawares and befriends him on the eve of the Pujas
Chaiti was pacing up and down impatiently in the room; it was more than four hours Arka had gone out to get her half a dozen eggs.
Arka left the mobile on his table, making it impossible for Chaiti to know his whereabouts… where could he have vanished ?
An exhausted Chaiti perched herself on a chair next to the window, eyes fixed on the road.
She had planned to cook egg curry for two of them which would easily serve four meals for a couple of days.
Next four days beginning from Saptami, the community kitchen would treat everyone with sumptuous veg plates twice a day.
“Did you see Arka in the local grocery, Pandey?” a mother’s natural anxiety for her son vented out to one of Arka’s friends, it’s more than four hours and he is still roaming outside.”
Suddenly, Arka entered, gasping and held out a pair of incense stick packets.
Chaiti’s patience broke loose and she was about to throw the packets out of the window. But for Arka’s prompt resistance, the packets would have found their watery grave in the drain.
“What the hell ? You were out for four hours. And now, you’re giving me these packets instead of eggs?”
“I know what I’ve brought –incense sticks”.
Chaiti lost her cool. “Never saw you before with an incense stick in front of any deity, or even before your dead father’s photograph. What’s wrong with you ? Stop playing cruel jokes with your worried mom ?”
“Yes.. true..very true… but believe me I was absolutely helpless,” Arka’s tone of repentance surprised his mother.
“It was all because of that poor chap …I mean Phelan; I don’t know how it happened.”
Arka’s sudden revelation of an alien name struck Chaiti like a bolt. “ Who ? Phelan ? Who’s he ? How….” Her bombardment of queries left Arka crestfallen.
Within a moment, he composed himself and requested his mother to cool down and have a seat.
“Don’t waste my time by dishing out a cock and bull piece,” Chaiti sternly warned as she took her seat.
“Pls listen to me before you uncork your anger further on me,” pleaded Arka.
Even as Arka began his tale behind the delay, Chaiti was still restive.
Having bought the eggs, when Arka was about to leave for home, he saw a boy standing in front of Debu’s house, with Debu’s mother sharply remonstrating the boy for trespassing.
“All sorts of rag-picker-turned-smart-thieves descend in the neighbourhood just on the eve of Durga Puja. Had I not been alert, this kid could have stolen some valuables from our home.”
“If you don’t leave my yard right now, I’ll call the local boys; so, better leave,” Debu’s mother was at her devastating best.
Her threat was enough to unnerve the tearful kid who was at pains to explain he just wanted to know if there was anyone inside who could buy a pair of incense sticks from him and nothing more.
Having rewarded with a verbal shove, the kid turned to Arka who was standing still, not knowing what to do.
The boy came straight to him, tugged his shirt and asked if he could buy the unsold pair.
“Oye, who are you ? You still seem to be a kid, aren’t you; why’re you selling incense sticks here?” a wide-eyed Arka could hardly suppress his wonder.
“I am Phelan; I live in the ghetto next to the highway; I collect plastic wastes and left-overs. I often remain in empty stomach by drinking water, but my two and a half year old brother Bhola can’t,” came the entreating reply.
“I am desperate to earn ten bucks today so that I can buy some biscuits for Bhola who has been crying since morning.”
“Light them up and your god will be very happy if you take these sticks…good smelling ones, you know.”
The dying urge of a ten-year-old boy to earn and feed his brother seemed to have shaken Arka, a second-year MBBS student, out of his apparent stupor.
For a moment, Arka was frozen to the spot, trying to recall what he had done at Phelan’s age. Memory of his father was nil; he could only remember his mother working almost day and night to fend for him besides herself.
Unlike Phelan, he never went out of home to sell incense sticks or anything for that matter to help his mother earn a living.
A terrible sting in his conscience almost pierced his heart. Without wasting any time, Arko decided on the next course of action.
“Phelan, don’t worry, I’ll buy them; but before that, let’s go to your home.”
Braving the stench and filth of the ghetto, Arka finally made it to Phelan’s dark and dingy shed after a 15-minute trek along the highway.
Bhola and his emaciated mother were lying on a tattered mat next to a pile of empty plastic bottles. The kid was playing with a broken doll amidst a heap of dirt and sludge-like stuff on the earthen floor.
Arka was about to throw up, but controlled himself twice; his medical knowledge fortunately bailed him out of the crisis.
Phelan went running to Bhola, dangling the packet containing six eggs. His mother, shocked at the sudden appearance of a guest in Arko, tried to stand up, but failed.
“Ma, Ma, he’s Arko dada…gave me these eggs, also promised to buy incense sticks from me. He’s very good, you know,” gratitude oozed out of Phelan’s voice as he prepared to light the kitchen fire to boil a couple of eggs.
One for Bhola and another for his ailing mother; three day’s sumptuous meal for both of them, Arka was told.
“I don’t need eggs now; I’m fine. I’ll have muri(puffed rice) till I earn at least Rs 50,” Phelan said.
Arka wasn’t prepared for this shocker; he took Phelan close to him. “I’ll bring medicines for your mother and eggs too for all of you. Don’t worry.”
Not accustomed to such kind words in life, Phelan tried to protest. “Why ? No, no, you don’t need to take all that trouble. I’ll work harder; bring two pots of khichdi from school. We’ll manage with that…”
Phelan’s stunning sharpness left Arka groping for words. He just glanced at his mother and with a sudden, swift turn, took Bhola into his lap and burst out crying…
“From today, you and Bhola are my two brothers and your mom is my Kakimoni(aunt) … I don’t want to listen to anything…” kisses rained on Bhola as a sobbing Arka began tossing him up.
Recovering soon, Arko, the would-be-doctor, carefully examined the ailing ‘Kakimoni’ and found that she had been suffering from severe malnutrition.
Promptly he set about cleaning the little ghetto. Sacks of plastic bottles were taken out; dirt and slush partially removed and Phelan was firmly asked to ensure this order.
Once the cleaning was over, it occurred to Arka that he was to have delivered eggs to her mother who must have been waiting for hours and obviously worrying.
“Phelan, I’ll be off now, but will return in the afternoon with medicines for Kakimoni. But you don’t skip your quota of egg… right…”
“Ok, Arka dada …no issues at all..” Phelan replied happily.
As Arka stepped out of the ghetto, sharp came Phelan running… “Dada, you’ve forgotten the sticks…light them up before your god who will bless you.”
“The smell of sticks is good, you’ll love it, believe me.. …but this smell for me is akin to that of rice; that’s my god, you know…”
Arka’s pace of narration halted briefly as he paused for breath. Chaiti, who was listening to him all this while with rapt attention, won’t however allow him to stop even as she kept on wiping tears.
“What happened after that ?”
“What … after that? I went to the grocery again, took six eggs on credit from Debuda and came home. We’ve to pay him up in the afternoon…”
“No, you better go now; get the medicines and bring them here. We’ll have lunch together,” Chaiti forgot to scold his son and was more restless than ever. “We’ll go pandal hopping with them on Saptami…”
“There you are… Ma…” Arka failed to hold himself back and the mother-son duo embraced each other in a way as though they had met after decades.
Within ten minutes, Arka took his cycle out and after paying Debuda’s debt, went straight to the ghetto. Before Phelan could realize what was happening, he simply bundled Bhola on his lap and asked Phelan to be the pillion rider on the cycle.
On the way, Arka asked a rickshaw puller to pick up Phelan’s mother from her ramshackle shed and ferry her to their place.
Chaiti had meanwhile readied the room where Arka had no problem in dumping his new guests.
“Hey, you naughties, go and have your bath. I’ve to take you out to buy new clothes. Tomorrow is Saptami, we’ll all wear new clothes,” Chaiti trotted off while lighting the burner of the oven.
“I’ll gift you two new incense stick packs for your goddess. Please tell her to cure my mom,” Phelan sounded apologetic to Chaiti.
Illustration by Sid Ghosh
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world