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The Toothless Grin

The Toothless Grin

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A man smiling with money and a bus ride in the background

There is always a fight between morality and greed. Read this fictional story to know who wins ultimately…

By Dr Saumya Shankar Choudhury

When I recall my extensive travels in the northeast I can recount a few life changing experiences. Although much water has flowed down the mighty Red river and much changes are perceptible in the blue hills in the ensuing two decades and more, one such episode is still fresh in my mind.

It was autumn. I boarded a night bus from Dibrugarh to Guwahati. The bus was waiting for a few passengers and it was beyond the departure time. We were getting impatient. I have come out of the impatience of youth today but back then it drew a short fuse and produced much yelling at the heckled conductor and driver. After some time, those ‘VIP’ passengers finally boarded the bus, their loud banter and laughter creating a cacophony, breaking the gentle hum of the well oiled and greased Ashok Leyland engine. The reason for this affected cheerfulness was revealed in the sweet but malodorous breath of liquor, apparently not of the single malt variety. The seat next to me was occupied by a meek looking gentleman who smiled apologetically. He was around sixty, I concluded. He curled up in the adjacent seat like a satisfied cat and immediately fell asleep. In spite of the alcohol laced demeanor, and halitosis, there was something in him which made me smile.

As the bus gathered speed I too fell asleep. I was woken up by the customary shout of the conductor near Sibsagar as the bus stopped for dinner. It was past 9 pm. There was a chill in the air. My Co passenger was fast asleep. I asked him if he wanted dinner. He mumbled something in a language which sounded like Swahili to me, but being a linguist I understood he didn’t want any. After a simple dinner of chapatis and dal, I settled comfortably in my seat, chewing betel nut, imbibing the ambience around me.

Out of courtesy I offered a betel leaf and nut to the gentleman next to me. He stirred and gently put forward a trembling ‘paw’, while holding a small bag with the other. He chewed with an obvious sense of contentment. Then he started speaking. I couldn’t help looking the other way as his breath was a final year medicine short case study. The bus started to move and gathered speed. A gentle breeze was blowing and I rolled down my sleeves feeling cold. The liquor and betel nut combination became somewhat tolerable as a cool draught came in through the window.

‘I am very happy today. And I shared my happiness with my colleagues. You see, I have finally got an alliance for my daughter. Her marriage is a week later’, he spoke without a pause.

‘I threw a small party for my colleagues for that. Please don’t mind, young man. You are like my son’, He stopped to see my reaction to his statement. I smiled back. Whatever bitterness I had for their boisterous behavior earlier in the evening, evaporated with those apologetic words. He looked at me with kind eyes. I urged him to continue. Sleep was no longer a priority. I looked forward to his ramblings.

He carried on by saying that with his salary, it was difficult to make all the arrangements. As the groom was a doctor and from an established family, and though the family didn’t have any demands, for the sake of his pride, he needed to at least ensure a good feast for the groom party as well as all the other guests. He had a modest house in Nabagraha in the city. For the marriage he had withdrawn a good chunk of his provident fund. He received the amount that morning and hence celebrated his happiness with his colleagues who were instrumental in facilitating early withdrawal.

The breeze was cold but I basked in the warmth of his simplicity and the gentle narrative. He asked me about myself and I told him everything from my birth to updates a week before. I was surprised as I seldom opened up to any stranger but with him I felt a comfort level. I usually gave evasive or misleading answers to stranger queries. To one, I had earlier replied that I was an orphan. To someone, I changed my religion and planted a polar opposite picture of my upbringing. To an attractive young lady passenger, I was the lone scion of a business family biding my time to inherit everything. But to this gentleman, I somehow couldn’t lie. So engrossed were we in our conversation, that we didn’t realise we had reached Jakhalabandha, a town in central Assam. It was almost 2 am. We got down for a cup of tea.

He had a toothless grin which reminded me of the dentist in my childhood who in spite of being really good with his skills was always subject to much skepticism due to his missing teeth.

The bus started the final leg of its journey. The autumn weather was very pleasant although the temperature seemed to have plummeted. I shut the window of my seat tightly, wished my co passenger good morning and slowly fell asleep.

The autumn sunshine was in my face and cheeks in a crimson hue when the bus stopped at Paltan Bazar, the final destination those days, instead of the inter-state bus terminus at present. I stretched my arms, not willing to disembark with the haze of sleep refusing to let go of me. I started to gather my overnight bag and then I noticed a bag lying on the adjacent seat. It looked stuffed and heavy. I grabbed it and opened the chain. There was a Gamosa, a few papers and wrapped neatly in a vernacular newspaper were bundles of cash in hundreds and five hundred rupee notes. It seemed a good amount. I glanced around. There was not a soul in sight and I was the last to get down. I had cleverly put the bag inside my much used duffel bag which now oddly seemed heavier. This was the time of insurgency in the state and a young student carrying a huge amount of cash always drew a lot of suspicion. I felt lucky akin to the feeling of winning a big lottery. I was always short of money. The meagre monthly money order was too paltry to last the whole month. By the last week every month I had to borrow from my friends. Below twenty bucks, we seldom returned but then nobody was willing to dole out a loan of less than fifty.

I whistled to a passing auto rickshaw and perhaps for the first time in my life didn’t bargain the fare. My head was full of plans of what to do with the money. Oh those coveted things I could finally get a Walkman, a new pair of jeans, a stone wash jacket, a new pair of shoes, that long due journey to Delhi… I could fly instead of the three day train journey from Dibrugarh. And buy all those gifts for her which I couldn’t afford which my middle class upbringing could never imagine.

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I reached my parent’s home in Maligaon lost in plans, clutching the bag containing the newly acquired booty. I paid the auto-rickshaw fare without a care although it was twenty rupees more than the normal rate. I went to my room and after a quick wash fell asleep. I had a dream where I had enough money and goodies. At the end of the dream there was this man with the toothless grin, waiting with a small ‘bota‘ with betel leaf and nut, outside a decorated wedding pandal adorning a small house.

I woke up from my sleep and took out the bag. I was feeling a bit disturbed. I counted the amount. It was thirty three thousand in all. One part of me decided to let go the money. After all it was ill-gotten… another part sang a differ tune….the old man was after all careless. He deserved to lose his money. But I had to meet him, and tell him I found the bag. There was only this amount which I found in the bag. I would take the rest. Or confront him and ask him for a percentage as a reward for returning the amount….around fifteen percent. Still it would be a big amount. I would put a decent amount in the family deity’s small box where we put coins and currency notes during pujas and other rituals. Then I would ensure a near clear conscience.

But the toothless grin refused to leave my mind. I couldn’t eat my breakfast. Something was bothering my usual relaxed being. My chest felt different. A little uneasy.

Without a word I got out of the house with his bag, cursing under my breath all the time. The mutterings didn’t stop even as I boarded the bus to Chandmari via Gauhati Club. I got down at Silpukhuri and walked to Nabagraha in a daze. I felt better with each step although different questions began to take shape in my mind. Nabagraha area was by no means a small one. Surprisingly I seemed to know exactly where I was heading, as if someone was giving me directions via satellite. Only the other day, Prof Goswami of Psychiatry was explaining the signs and symptoms of Schizophrenia. Someone controlling your mind and all those stuff. I was being engulfed in a new atmosphere of self doubt when all of a sudden I saw my co passenger from the night bus standing outside a modest Assam type house beside a partially done wedding pandal, which was exactly the same as the one from my morning dream. He smiled at me, the same irritating toothless smile. A girl, not much older than me was by his side and had obviously been weeping. I handed him the bag without hesitation. ‘Deuta had been saying you will come to give the bag. He never believed otherwise’, she wiped her tears, but they seemed to flow freely out of relief and my eyes too moistened at the same moment. However, the confusion in my mind and the unregistered load on my chest vanished that instant. It was a life changing experience and although I let go the money, I felt richer in more ways than one.

The grin didn’t stop.

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