The morning was as good as it could be at a coal miners’ residential colony during a sprightly winter. The morning chilly, as was normal during the first month of a year in this part of the country. It was the beginning of another day of work at Rajarappa, coal mines under Central Coal Fields, approximately one hundred kilometres from Ranchi. Ranchi was the second largest city in Bihar at that time, in the eastern part of India. I had landed with a job in this colliery township a month ago as a member of a consulting team. More than my professional experience, my familiarity with this part of the country was considered an important criterion for me to be engaged with this assignment.
I had been to Rajarappa many times since childhood, not because of those dusty coal mines, but for the famous “Chinnamastika
” temple located a few kilometers away from the coal miners’ colony. “Ma
Chinnamastika”, a Hindu deity supposed to fulfill all wishes if one prayed at her door. It was not that I had been praying to the Goddess all those years to grant me my wishes but a visit to Rajarappa was more of an outing with someone. At times it used to be my friends, on other occasions my family and relatives accompanied me during those early years.
One would pray to the Goddess for mannat
once their wishes were fulfilled, they would return to thank and offer respect to her. The cycle was vicious. Pebbles and stones of different shapes and sizes picked up from the river meandering past the temple used to be kept on the terrace and the cornice of the temple whenever a wish was made. They were brought down during next visit, once it was fulfilled. That was the custom followed by those having a strong belief in the power of the Goddess. Of course, devotees could almost never recognise their stones when they returned and used to randomly pick one from the cluster.
Belief in the Goddess was immense, the temple complex kept on growing as the faith of the people in Ma Chinnamastika
grew. The geographical scope of her followers kept on extending and people from the neighbouring states of West Bengal and Orissa started pouring in.
Over the years, it was not only the fulfillment of wishes but any important work or achievement in one’s life that started getting associated with this temple; be it a religious ceremony for one’s newborn, the purchase of the long dreamed of Maruti 800 car or a simple marriage for those who could not afford a lavish affair. The rustic village temple affected its surroundings and larger concrete temples came up in its vicinity along with electricity, shops a market and Dharamshalas
. Other temples sprouted close by and the village transformed into a pilgrimage spot with more Gods and Goddesses making their presence felt around Ma
During my childhood, the serenity of this place had me captivated. Its secluded location, the confluence of Damodar and Bhera rivers with the Bhera making a fall in the gorge of Damodar, the dense forest around where Damodar used to get lost in the distance – these used to fascinate me. In the midst of this natural and raw beauty did the ancient temple earn its reverence.
It was not only me but also the members of the joint family I belonged to, my neighbours and friends who visited this temple regularly. They used to make an annual trip, at the very least, to Rajarappa from Ranchi in a hired vehicle, some to enjoy a picnic, others out of their respect and belief in the Goddess. The coal mines were not a place of interest for us.
We used to pass the township on our way to the temple, hardly taking notice of its existence. The coal mines were open cast, a miner was not required to go underneath to mine coal. The huge coal deposit and a well spread coal belt that started from Ramgarh and went beyond Jharia, up to Asansol, made this place commercially important. The coal deposit, one of the largest in the world, was an indicator of the huge mineral resource potential of this area. Most of the mines used to be underground mines though there were a few open cast mines like Rajarappa, popularly known as OCMs. OCMs were safer when compared to underground mines. The economy of this belt was almost entirely dependent on coal – coal mining, coal washing plants - where cleaning of coal takes place, transport businesses to transport coal, employee colonies and almost all businesses that supported human existence here. Finally, the theft of coal also contributed to the economy though it could not be considered formally.
I had completed my post graduation a few months ago and was comparatively new in the organisation. I was expecting some senior consultant to be with me. I was, however, told to hold the fort for some time as all consultants were busy with other assignments. My native place being Ranchi, everyone else in the team suggested it would be good if I went and set things in place. Hence, one fine morning, I landed at Central Coalfields, Rajarappa, with a totally different purpose as compared to earlier trips. My incentive was I would be able to visit my family and friends in Ranchi during the weekends.
I met local officials to begin the assignment. I was in an unfamiliar situation. The subject was new to me, the functioning of official machinery was different and I had to do a major part of the study in open mines – measuring and analysing vibrations of bearings for shovels, drills, dumpers and other mining machinery equipment. Condition based monitoring to
understand the working of the bearings or oil analysis was not at all related to my domain, but new employees are often taken for granted. My most valued qualification was that I knew this area to an extent. The team in Kolkata was not interested in coming to this small, dry and undeveloped coal based colony. A small employee residential quarter was converted into a guest house for us. I was supposed to be there for at least three to four months and was to be joined by two senior colleagues in a month. That is the reason the usual guest house meant for short stays was not allotted to us.
The single, stand-alone quarter was furnished minimally in the local style, in complete conflict with my tastes. Instead of a comfortable bed there was a chowki, a wooden plank purchased at local market coupled with a crude job by a local carpenter. The mattress, pillow and bed cover were uniformly distasteful and reflected the attitude of the local staff towards this assignment. Large orange coloured flowers printed on a dark blue background didn’t speak too highly of the taste of the person who had purchased the bed cover and pillows. The mosquitoes used to have a field day at night and hence a mosquito net had been provided – it was green. There was a riot of gaudy colours – yellow, orange, green and blue all around that bedroom.
My temporary home in Rajarappa was at the end of the colony and next to it passed a railway line that connected the coal washing plants to the main line at Barkakana, another mining town which was a railway junction. More often than not, the goods train idling on the track and waiting for reasons unknown to me used to be my only neighbour. The grunting of the diesel engine often kept me awake until late in a place otherwise devoid of a night life. I used to think why out of all places was I here and why out of all places had the rail engine chosen this spot to share its loneliness with me. I never got to see the crew and used to wonder where they stayed and how the materials inside the wagons were taken care of.
There were stories galore about frequent thefts in the colony. I was always apprehensive of an attack by thieves, being the only soul at the far end of the colony. The colony was dotted with such stand-alone single storey quarters and my accommodation was the last one, just before that rail line. It was an ideal situation for thieves. Though I had very few personal belongings to lose, the instruments I was carrying for conducting vibration analysis, something like the Electro Cardiograph equipment meant for machines, were valuable. Serious complications would have followed had they been stolen, as they were official property and key to the execution of this assignment. It was another fact that I was unaware of how to run the analyser exactly and understand the vibration graph that was generated as a report. It was not my expertise and I was only a proxy there. Hence, I had to pretend to run the analyser until an expert would arrive at Rajarappa. The isolated accommodation, the difficult and unknown job combined to make me feel low. But who knew that morning, something far worse was waiting for me.
The morning had just begun. There was a nip in the air, quite usual for a winter morning. There was nothing that excited me as far as this job was concerned. I had been putting the probe of the analyser on the bearings of the shovels or drilling machines for the last few days, as directed. Anyway, I had learned to do whatever was expected of me though my heart was not on the job.
I was ready for the day and left the lonely quarter at 9am for the guesthouse, where breakfast used to be served. Toast, some butter, a bit of jam and a deep fried omelette. At times, butter would not be available in the local market and then one had to live with oily alternatives. A fixed breakfast at the same table, a couple of reminders required to get the tea – that was part of my daily routine to start the day. Oil used to drip from the omelette. The smell of raw mustard oil soon became a part of life, so did the cook and the waiter. At times, the cook himself would double up as the waiter as the latter used to go on leave frequently. It was worse when the roles were reversed. Only with countless reminders, would bread with some butter or jam get served. Gradually though, I was getting used to some of the interesting aspects of local life. It was observed quite often that as soon as the miners would get their salary or any other payment like overtime or bonus, they would not come to work for the next couple of days at least, enjoying
, a local drink fermented from rice or country liquor bought with the money they received. It was a social problem not new to me as I had seen such instances since my childhood.
I had not walked even a hundred meters from the quarter when I was for a surprise. I saw Babu, one of my relatives staying in Ranchi. He was riding pillion on the motorbike of another relative, Uttam Da, who stayed in Rajarappa. Uttam Da had tried to make my stay a little comfortable in this forlorn place by inviting me to his residence where his wife served homely food on quite a few occasions. Why of all people, Babu, in Rajarappa and that too so early in the morning? I could not think of any reason. Before I could think, he was in front of me. He alighted from the motor bike and stated without context
“Bouka is no more.”
Those words hit me like a bullet; words failed me. I felt as if I was unable to see anything clearly, realising that my eyes were full of tears behind the dark glasses. I could only ask,
He replied, “I don’t know exactly. When we tried waking him up around 6 in the morning, there was no response. He might have passed away during his sleep.”
This was devastating news for me. It was so unexpected. I had met Bouka only last weekend when I was in Ranchi. He had not been keeping well and my uncle had taken him to the doctor last week. It had not appeared to be serious at all. I never thought that would be my last meeting with him. It was so unpredictable. We never know what awaits us round the next corner.
Once it was confirmed that Bouka was no more, Babu had immediately left Ranchi to inform me as there was no direct telephone number where I could be contacted. Babu reached Rajarappa and tracked down Uttam Da. Uttam Da accompanied Babu to inform me. I had to leave immediately.
We were dropped at Gola Road – a small junction on the highway where we could get transport to Ramgarh and further to Ranchi. We got place in a Trekker, the most commonly used mode of public transport in this coal belt. It resembled a Jeep; open from almost all sides, with a lower seating position when compared to it. Its unique feature used to be its carrying capacity. It had a huge appetite and it could devour passenger after passenger. I remembered an incident when one such Trekker was stopped by the superintendent of police on a special drive against overloading. He asked all the passengers to come out and counted – he only stopped at thirty eight. He could scarcely believe it. Passengers all around, to the left of the driver, to the right of the driver, on the toolbox outside the vehicle, five or six seated in the second row seat which could fit only three. The seats in the rear, those facing each other, were even more cramped, a few were on the roof with others hanging and holding the supports wherever available. At times I used to get surprised by the skill of the driver, who in spite of sitting at least a foot from the steering wheel, his legs reaching out diagonally to fish for the brake pedal, clutch and accelerator, used to manage this feat. Unless one took a closer look, it was difficult to see who was driving, as it might be a passenger actually sitting in front of the steering wheel. The police superintendent was so impressed by the loading capacity of the vehicle and skill of the driver that he let him go and told him most unexpectedly, “If some law allows me, I would recommend you for an award. I don’t know whether the Guinness book has any provision for such a record.” As the Trekker left for Ramgarh, I tried hiding my tears behind my dark glasses and my thoughts started racing back through time.