He stood awe-struck, staring pop-eyed at The Thing. It blinked little green and red lights and mysterious little beeps, burps and disembodied human voices floated out of it. “Didi! Kee bhalo! Kee aschhi? Baba re!” My answering machine had just met Gopal. A little brown man with the blackest, widest, shiniest eyes of a little child and a huge grin whose hopeful intensity never faded no matter how half-hearted my greeting or how grudgingly narrow my door opened for him. Gopal, the little Bengali who had come to Bombay with nothing but bits of his beautiful Bengal in his luggage. With which he planned to lure the gold out of a city whose the pavements they said were lined with it. Having left behind one wife, one old mother and one little son in a little village near Calcutta. And having squashed himself with six other men into a tiny, hot, airless room of a Bombay chawl where he dreamed of bright-green paddy laughing crystal-cool raindrops all over him.
Gopal sold Bengal sarees. Which he wrapped in a huge, dirty-white cloth and carried door-to-door. Sarees that were gossamer, iridescent breaths of his Shonar Bengal. Vermillion of Ma Durga’s tongue splashed with the glittering black of her beautiful eyes. Fluffy-white rice laced with the hot, haldi curry of maccher jhol. Brinjal purple, studded with little gold specks of mustard. Jasmine-fair feet flashing the crimson seduction of alta. Burnt-pink misthi doi wrapped in the fragrant brown embrace of a little mud-pot. A swollen-gray Hoogly, pregnant with rain, dotted with delicate pink lotuses. Six yards of enchantment. Saree lengths of sorcery. And they never failed to bewitch me. In spite of my almost rude declarations of no, absolutely no intentions to buy, Gopal would grin his hopeful, little-boy grin, ask for a glass of water, pretending to drink it, slowly, surreptitiously unwrap the dirty-white cloth and let the magic out….
“Didi, dekhen! Bahut shoondor. Aap ko bahut suit karega!”
“Bhalo. Lekin nahin chaiye. Zari border? Office mein nahin chalega…..”
“Didi ab bhi service kaarta hai? Shaadi nahin karega?……….”
That’s when, sarees forgotten, we’d swap bits of our lives like two school kids sharing their lunch boxes……a bite of paratha from mine, a sliver of pickle from his. Life was a bitter-sweet, khata-meetha packed lunch. And Gopal never failed to humble me with his uncomplaining, unwavering faith in it. No matter that five years of pounding the mean streets and he wasn’t earning anymore than he did when he first came here. Or that his pathetic little client list never grew. Or that he was not any closer to going back to his little family. One day he’d make it, he told me. One day the worm would turn, didi. I couldn’t take it anymore. Go back, I told him. Be poor but in the free, happy air of your village. Eat a little less but with your wife and son. Go back. This place will swallow you up in one merciless gulp. Go back before it’s too late. And as I spoke, his eyes would glaze over and the grin would fade a little and sadden….. Then suddenly - snap! He’d be back. Full of hope. His eyes shining with dreams of the golden tomorrows which he was sure would come.
And before long, there’d be two more sarees in my cupboard and his grin would’ve changed from desperate hope to contented satisfaction. Then, he’d once more lovingly wrap the dirty-white cloth around his beautiful bits of Bengal and set off again to pound his sweetness into the mean streets. And long after he was gone, his shining black eyes and little-boy grin would linger in the air, gently mocking me and saying, “Oh ye of little faith………..”