It is almost nine. I just decided that it's late enough, locked the shutter, and am mounting the bike. After all, most people don't really venture out in the midst of this epidemic, after eight. I am about to kick-start the engine. Right on time, someone calls my name, almost a whisper.
Another minute late, and I would be gone, riding off to my home. I turn back. Master-da creeps out of the shadows. Despite the mask, anyone here would recognize him, just by his eyes. He is that well-known around here. Gour Master, a teacher at the local government school, is a well-respected and honoured man of the locality.
"Areh, Master-da! At least carry a torch. You gave me a fright," I say.
To be honest, I stand shocked for a moment, not knowing why Master-da would creep up in the dark. But, I shake it off. It's a dark corner, anyway.
"I just came to see you. You are done for today, I see," he fakes a smile.
"Yeah, I just packed up. Anyway, what did you want to talk about?" I enquire. He looks quite shaken, and I genuinely want to know how I can help him.
"Actually," he clearly takes an effort trying to conjure words. "Actually, we... my family... we need help...umm... with rations. I heard, the government is providing aid." Master-da is staring down at his own feet, as if trying to avoid eye-contact.
"Yeah, that's okay. If you would have come fifteen minutes earlier, I could have enlisted your name. I just shut the store. Tomorrow at nine, just get yourself enlisted. The rest is straightforward. I'll keep you informed about when to collect." I keep looking at him, trying to figure out the uneasy vibe that he is radiating. I still don't know why he won't look at me while speaking. It's almost as if he is ashamed. Wait, is that it? Is he ashamed to ask for rations?
For all the time I have known Master-da, I have only known respect for this man. He is an honest soul, a hardworking family man, and an influential teacher to all who have ever taken a seat in his class. A man of discipline and character, I have never known him capable of an emotion like shame. I remember that one time distinctly when he rejected bribe with a straight face, when the local politician, Singh's son failed in some test. He stood ground and reasoned until he convinced Singh that it was only to promote growth of the kid. It's that sense of morale that makes me wonder in disbelief why he feels ashamed right now.
"Actually, you know what, you needn't come for enlisting," I break the silence. "I'll enlist your name tomorrow, first thing. I think a fresh supply of pulses are inbound tomorrow. I'll give you a call about when to collect. Just bring a copy of your Aadhar Card then, so that I can fill in the details for documentation."
"Here," he pulls a file out of his handbag. "I have a copy, right here. Keep it now itself." He shoves it in my hand, almost hurriedly.
"Okay," a let out a confused smile. I put the file in my own bag. "I'll give you a call tomorrow. Lift?"
"Thank you, but no, I'll walk. Thank you, Bhaskar-da." He turns and takes a step.
I mount the bike. I strap the helmet on. I kick-start the engine into motion. "Bhaskar-da," Gour Master calls again. I turn back at him. "Will it be a problem if I can't collect on time, and come around this time tomorrow?"
"It's okay. Let me confirm the time first. If there is any problem, just give me a call," I smile at him. "Goodnight, Master-da."
I ride off, as he walks home with his handbag by his side, the mask on his nose, and a general grim in his manner. It will take me another seven to eight minutes for me to reach home. The cool breeze is hitting across my lower face, despite the wind-guard of the helmet. I still can't grasp what was wrong, but something definitely was, with Gour Master. True, the times are challenging for us all, but lack and need of rations at home was not all. I could feel something else off about his personality today.
And then it suddenly hits me. His personality! He is a man of pride and honour. We all know his financial conditions, but he never asked for anyone for help in his lifetime. He is a man who would prefer to die of hunger than to spread his hands for alms.
Almost by instinct, I turn my bike around, and speed to Master-da's place. I stop by the south-west corner of his house before making a turn towards their front door. From the living space window, a clearly audible conversation catches my attention.
"But, if you don't go on time, the supplies might even run out," I hear his wife. "Why don't you unders..."
"I can't, Disha," Master-da voices, clearly holding back tears. "If my students see me begging for food, I will forever remain a beggar in their eyes. I have never accepted anything more than what I am rightfully paid." He stops for a moment, and clears his throat. "Bhaskar Ghosh is a good man. He'll keep aside some quantity for me, if I ask him to. How much food do we have left?"
I push my bike a certain safe distance. I had heard enough. I rub my blurred eyes before I start the engine and ride home. The cloth bag on my side flutters as the wind hits it, with Master-da's Aadhar Card inside.
Written by: Aninda K. Nanda
Behind the lens: Aninda K. Nanda