This was features in the special edition: International Symposium on Women and Literature At Kolkatta.
Thank You Literoma!
The wind beneath his sails…
The auditorium roared in a thunderous roar as the emcee announced the name of the Aamte puraskaar winner for the year. Saurabh Krishna made his way from the backstage where he had been waiting for the introduction formalities to be completed as they called him to receive the esteemed honor in the field of social work. The special award initiated by the Ministry of Social Justice and empowerment was being conferred upon him. He was thrilled thinking about the avenues the award would open, for his work in the remote villages of Maharashtra. Especially since the award was to be handed over to him by the chief guest for the evening who was none other than the Marathi film industry’s evergreen heartthrob Sunil Achrekar. The auditorium was packed beyond capacity filled with fans from far and wide who had come for a glimpse of their favorite on-screen hero who was also known to be a philanthropist in real life. What they probably didn’t know was Sunil was Saurabh’s friend from college and had been in touch with him for last few years even after attaining stardom. This award was Saurabh’s biggest accolade in recognition for his work in the upliftment of tribal women and children and inculcating employment opportunities within their own domains in the far-flung corners of the districts.
The little cultural program had reached its crescendo with the wonderful performance by Saurabh’s NGO kids on Achrekar’s block buster numbers. The entire audience was gyrating to the feet tapping numbers to the finely choreographed moves by the organizers. The program ended with the talented children receiving a standing ovation by the guests as well as the excited audience. The dais was then transformed for the award event and after a little speech by the chief guest the host announced. “…we now call upon Sri. Saurabh Krishna…. A huge round of applause for the man who has changed the way the tribal live…”
As he hesitatingly trod on the dais, amidst the cacophony of loud cheers, the sparks off the flashing light bulbs clicking away to glory as people chanted his name, his eyes roamed around trying to find the all-important person. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. As Sunil Achrekar and the guest of honor, a local MLA, waited with the plaque and the customary shawl in the center of the floral decorations and spotlights, Saurabh stood still, scanning the shadowed silhouettes in the dimly lit audience…. And finally, his eyes landed on the shining almonds of his wife who stood in the right corner near the fire extinguisher as she had promised. Clad in a simple cotton saree with the palloo draped around her shoulders, Jaya was an epitome of humility and a perfect life partner…his soulmate. He was now in his element as he confidently strode ahead and accepted the adulations coming in from all corners.
The guests settled in their seats and as he took over the podium for giving his talk, he opened the folded paper from his pocket and saw Jaya’s meticulous writing blurring before him as he teared up. He looked at her…tears streaming down her smiling cheeks even as she rampantly wiped them away. She gave him a thumbs up as she walked closer to the dais eagerness dancing on her beautiful face. He knew what she had penned down. It was a set of their future plans for the tribal belts neatly numbered with predicted durations and outcomes which he had calculated and a gentle demand for funds for their NGO. As the roving spotlight edge sprinkled its shower on her, he could see her hair had fallen out of her neatly made bun and her fair face sans makeup glowed in its wake…. even after a decade of marriage and knowing each other for twice the duration, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever known. The woman with a golden heart and an iron spirit. She stood skinny and tall, but he knew how strong she was….
He folded the paper back… and looked up at the overflowing sea of people gathered to shower their love upon him. Quite a few of them his friends and acquaintances gathered over a period of time, eager to felicitate their unsung hero. “Dear friends….” He addressed the gathered crowd and they roared watching Sunil cheer up his friend… it took a while for the organizers to quieten them. It was humbling for Saurabh to be at the receiving end of such an undisguised honor. He continued. “…thank you, MLA sir, Sunil for gracing this occasion and thank you everyone for the greetings and acknowledgements…it means a lot… As you all know our NGO ‘Astitva’ has been striving for the last five years to empower tribal belts of Maharashtra and recently we have ventured further towards Gujarat. I thank all of you who have contributed on very possible manner towards the cause. I… I however…would use this esteemed platform today to thank the special person without whom I wouldn’t be here before you… I would probably be rotting away in some unknown prison corner…”
The entire auditorium was now an oxymoron as the shocked whispers quietened. The dignitaries seated on the dais too looked at each other wondering what was to surface next. Saurabh looked apologetically at Sunil… the guy didn’t know about his past except that he was an orphan who had it hard. Saurabh then looked at a startled Jaya who now sheepishly turned her face away. For all her bravado she shied away from the limelight.
“…dear friends… as some of you know I was born in this city of dreams Mumbai….in the leather belt and Asia’s largest slum…Dharavi. My parents, who were a part of a migrant community from a poor village near Coimbatore… were rag pickers who could barely arrange to feed me, their only child… let alone anything else. I was only four years old when they succumbed to the famous monsoon floods of Mumbai. I was saved in the nick of time and then on began my crusade towards survival…. I was shuffled from one relative to the other for the next few years… I had to do odd jobs at those homes to earn my keep… and in the process I lost my childhood somewhere in those shanties. But… the only thing that kept me going was my school. The local municipal school…I longed to be there. I was transported to a different world altogether… But that came to an end after the tenth standard exams were done and I was no longer on freeship… By then I had to also move to a shelter house and though I wanted to study further… my dreams were almost squashed….”
The auditorium was in pin drop silence as they waited with bated breath along with Sunil who was surprised himself, for Saurabh to reveal more about his life.
“…It was in the shelter that I came against this group of guys who ‘transferred’ parcels for money. I was tall and could run fast so I got the ‘job’. I made a little money in a year so I could enroll in a junior college… I wanted to study commerce… But it was still a constant struggle…. between learning to live and living to learn…I had to strive to be accepted a member of this so-called society…” He paused getting his bearings together. “…College in the morning and then the ‘job’ in the evening till late nights…I barely got time to study. I soon had to give up the job… I ran errands for some local watchmen and laundry men in the afternoons which helped me sail through… But when I got into the twelfth grade, I had to join a local coaching center and had no money for the same… without that I couldn’t have passed that year. I… I then… got a new job… I just had to perform once a week… and I could get the time to study as well… it was… well… chain snatching…”
The auditorium rattled with murmurs and whispers and Saurabh continued. He just couldn’t stop now though the silenced embers of embarrassment within were threatening to ignite. “…I hated myself for even considering it… I had promised myself to do it just this one time… I didn’t have a choice… I had to deposit the money for the classes within a day… so here I was a novice all set to perform my first crime… intentionally…with my heart in my mouth…Physical fights with the big guys was one this but this… this was something at a different level…and I knew the repercussions of getting a juvenile record. I remember that day in June clearly… the early showers of monsoon brought about a fresh zeal of greenery everywhere and I was allotted a bus stop where I had to do the deed in the afternoon when there were very few people… So… I had pulled over a cap to hide my face and had worn the borrowed black jacket as I stood waiting for my …prey… and I saw one… Even today I can visualise the middle-aged woman dressed in traditional Maharashtrian attire, with a nath adorning her pretty face and a thick gold chain dangling around her slender neck…” He paused again and took in a deep breath before continuing. “…I… I was all set to pull the chain form the unsuspecting woman who was walking towards me… and run before she could even recover from the shock… just like I had been taught…but then…right then I heard someone call out to me… and I …I froze…”
The auditorium now gasped, and the whispers commenced again. “…I turned around and saw my classmate and best friend of two years, Jaya, run towards me…. Jaya knew everything about me… my past… my tryst with petty unintended crime… everything…and… and she was the only person who didn’t judge me… I had mentioned to her in passing that I was getting the money next day for the classes but hadn’t told her the means… but then…she knew me better and there she was … all soaked in the rain as she came up to me and handed me a polythene wrapped bundle…. It was the money… for the classes….”
The whispers increased and people and the guests were now looking towards his wife who stood glued to the ground tears streaming unhindered down her cheeks. Saurabh looked into her unwavering eyes fixed on his and continued. “…I wondered from where she had arranged the money… She wasn’t from a well-off family…and it was then I saw… her thin gold chain and earrings were missing…she was never without them… I knew what she had done… but still, I asked her about them…I knew her strict father would have her hide for it…. But then she just smiled her radiance and said that she would handle it… So, friends…” He looked around at the now hushed up audience. “…I was saved from committing a crime from where there would have been a point of no return… I finished my twelfth and joined a night college for further studies. Since I had completed eighteen years of age by then, I got a job as a watchman for a local library… Jaya studied regular hours and often helped me with notes and stationery and even homemade food… it didn’t take us long to know we were in love with each other and finally a few years after I got a job in a bank post my graduation, we tied the knot…” The hall erupted with a loud cheers and claps.
Saurabh smiled at Jaya who continued to blink back tears. “…but dear friends, our journey didn’t stop there… I realized, that afternoon Jaya had saved me not just by giving me the money but also by being there for me in the important years of my development so… in a way it kept me from going astray. The world threw metaphorical stones and bricks at me… an orphan from the wrong side of the tracks…but Jaya…she used the very same scattered materials to build a successful foundation on which I could build a life… So… I wanted to do something for others like me. Hence Astitva came into existence…. We adopted few shelter homes near Dharavi and offered counselling to those boys helping them financially if they wanted to study… I was offered donations by a few local goons I had been acquainted with in my shelter days but I had sworn off that path years ago. Here…Jaya sold all her meagre jewelry to fund the initial phase of our crusade…. I think our honesty and decision to tread on the path of righteousness paid off and we got Astitva on steady grounds within a couple of years. We managed to keep most of those boys out of trouble and got the local public support. We then decided to expand to the tribal belts where they don’t have access to even basic necessities… like sanitization facilities… so that’s where we have been living in the last eight years. Though the idea stemmed from my heart, it was Jaya who nurtured it and poured her heart and soul into it… she has given up everything and has stood by me working relentlessly…. I am sure she was scared at the prospects of throwing away a set life in the city…but then her passion and her belief in me burned brighter and she didn’t hold herself back. Even our little son Naveen has been with us in this endeavor and I am sure he will turn out to be a great human being because Jaya is his mother. So friends… here I am… receiving this award… But honestly, if anyone truly deserves this ovation, it is Jaya… So, I call upon my soulmate Jaya Krishna to come here and share the spotlight with me…”
A stunned Jaya wanted to walk away but the volunteers would have none of it as they ushered her to the dais. With a shy smile she walked up to Saurabh and held the plaque to the huge round of claps and hoots from the crowd. Saurabh took the microphone again and spoke. “…This is to my backbone, my spirit, my lifeline, my soulmate, the woman who had been behind my success… the woman who gave wings to my dream…”
Soon Sunil joined them on the dais and took over the reins. “Friends…” he spoke after the roar died down. “…You all worship us heroes on screen…but here are our very own real-life protagonists… give them a big hand guys…”
There was no stopping the audience this time…
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