Rhapsody of Raindrops and Rumali Roti at RDB Cinemas

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Mohan Bhargava came to the US to study at the University of Pennsylvania and thereafter got busy with work and life here. In 2004 he was Project Manager for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) project at NASA when he appeared at a press briefing at NASA Goddard Space Center. It coincided with death anniversary of his parents, who passed away when he was a Senior at UPenn. Nostalgic, Mohan decided to take a vacation to India with the goal to bring back “Kaveri Amma”, a mother-like figure from his childhood.  Mohan witnessed egregious religious and caste prejudices in rural India, but he also saw optimistic faces working tirelessly to make lives better; the beauty and humanity of these stories were something to behold. Mohan returned to the US to finish off GPM project but it was never the same for him outside of professional life. Laden with a longing Mohan decided to return and join Vikram Sarabhai Space Center in India.

Mohan Bhargava is not a real person but the protagonist of a 2004 Bollywood blockbuster, “Swades”, the first Indian movie to shoot inside Launchpad 39A, as well as the NASA HQ. [GPM is a real NASA project].  Swades achieved a cult status with a certain fan base, yours truly included; it showcases the best-ever performance by Shahrukh Khan; songs by A R Rahman with lyrics by Javed Akhtar are as hauntingly divine as they can be.

Mohan had his epiphany trying to bankroll a micro-hydroelectric power plant in “Charanpur” village. A recent aha moment of mine happened one rain-soaked night outside of RDB Cinemas in Sector V of Salt Lake City, Kolkata.

During the day Sector V is teeming with people you may have interacted with them in your life already. They are the faces, the voice, and the brains behind the call center hired gun, the chatbot AI, the software helpdesk, or your business process optimization guru. Kolkata may not be as well known outside of the country for being the hub of such activities, but no one there seems to have gotten the memo. The average age of the (wo)man on the street is under 30 and it shows. Right around the corner are three small private colleges, student body makes the average age dip further when they open for in-person instructions.

Even before day-break throngs of women are at work at pavement stalls in Sector V any given day – doing dishes, washing pavements and streets in front, cleaning up chairs, filling water buckets, etc.; they must start from their homes at least an hour ago. Shortly thereafter arrive carts with vegetables, eggs, meat, flour, oil and what not – all that before the sun is out on a summer day. They are getting ready for the first students to arrive for morning classes, starting a steady stream of foot traffic that would continue till late evening. In parts of Sector V where BPO workers clock night shifts, the hubbub continues into early next morning.

One such place is in front of RDB Cinemas which has a big BPO outpost within a minute’s walk.

Last evening of a very hectic two-week stay in June I woke up with a distinct feeling of an empty stomach. Instead of snazzy restaurants still open, or partaking of delivery services, I decided to take a stroll around to hunt for street food. I was pretty confident I could find a stall near RDB Cinemas that would serve hot food at 2 AM. What I did not take into account was the weather. Through the cover of the darkness rain clothes were hanging heavy overhead. In fifteen minutes or so it took to reach RDB Cinemas, I was soaked to my bones – the first monsoon rain of the year. Despite a torrential pour outside, it was dry under the tarp, and the smell of fresh chicken was too enticing to just walk past. Inside a glass case were freshly made rotis, and a pot gave out sweet gurgling sound of brewing tea. Pitter patter of raindrops provided a background noise to giggly voices and calls for another round of tea or chicken.

Three Rumali Rotis with two plates of Butter Chicken – all for a hundred and ninety rupees, or, barely two dollars and a half. Bliss!

Gone were days of dour faces and resigned acceptance. Gone were posters of political parties and soiled movie rags. Workers still came from same places – far flung villages in neighboring districts – and they took turns sleeping behind what could be charitably called a ‘supply closet’. The ‘owner’-cum-head cook-cum-cashier-cum-janitor, Rabi (not his real name), is young, same age as most of his clients who are barely out of college. He could be my neighbor growing up and yes, he did attend a mofussil college. Coming from a family of school teachers, his default choice was finishing college, going for a Master’s degree while waiting for a government job, or a teaching position at a school – not for him. He discovered cooking as a passion, but did not have money to attend a private culinary college nor to open a restaurant. He did manage enough political favors to claim a prized location on the pavement outside RDB Cinemas. Rabi employs four. Three are middle aged men from his village, their previous jobs varied from sharecropper to vegetable seller to artisan – they share every task with him except the cash register. Fourth is a cleaning lady Rabi shares with other stalls – she’d arrive in a few hours. All four sport recent model smartphones, Rabi accepts PayTM, and Rabi’s prized possession of a new Yamaha finds a pride of place inside the stall, while their small pickup truck is somewhere out on the street. At two in the morning, Rabi is energized, cracking jokes and goading his guests to go for another round of Chicken. Barely two years into his life as a stall operator, Rabi earns multiples of peak earning as a village primary school teacher. He will get satellite TV for his stall as soon as post pandemic life gets more normal; he wants to replace giant pedestal fans with coolers. Someday he hopes to open a ‘proper’ restaurant where he dreams his mom, by then proud of her progeny, hopefully, would sit behind the counter reading day’s newspaper.

Something has changed in West Bengal, and in India, last few years. It is customary to talk about new IIT’s, Nobel Laureates, slick new airports and so on, to discuss progress in India. I choose to take a different path. Do more people have access to clean drinking water? Do they have access to reliable electricity supply for most, if not all, of the day? Do they have access to latrines? Do schools have roofs overhead and do teachers who come regularly? Are roads maintained correctly, and how reliable are buses to the nearest railway station? Most importantly, are the youth of India still beholden to dreams of a job, a Sarkari job? Rabi, along with thousands who I did not meet, offers a refreshing response. The youth of India are ready, willing, and able to take calculated risks. That they are not just looking for a desk-job. That credit facilities are accessible so that a college-dropout from a remote village can afford set-up costs for the roadside stall. That his workers also took a chance to leave their decades-long, if underpaid, professions. That Rabi’s customers are all as prosperity minded as he is – they too did not wait a Sarkar­i Naukri after college. That they – especially women – are not stigmatized for working night-shifts. That they have discretionary income to ditch the dabba our parents (in)gloriously carried all their lives. Taking it one step further, that we have larger-scale entrepreneurs who are not afraid to try out BPO as a profit-center with access to credit that makes it possible. The list goes on.

Three and a half years back I crisscrossed India for seven days in a five-thousand-kilometer road trip. What I saw seemed worlds apart from memories of omnipresent industrial unrest. This year I was afforded a wide aperture view of a smaller target. I saw an India that inspires and encourages me at a fundamental level. Traditional models of success are losing potency, and are supplanted with the alternative model(s) known to better suit a capitalistic economy. These changes are happening organically, and are happening far and wide inside the country. Changes are happening at governmental levels where the reigning dogma today is to have public-private partnerships in matters of capacity building. Changes are happening in commercial and business circles where it is now unthinkable to reach position of influence without a thorough grounding in latest thoughts and processes. In other words, all segments of the country are growing up.

Mohan’s golden heart warms us with its glow but I cannot shake a tinge of Brown Sahib savior syndrome somewhere. To its credit, Swades is over seventeen years old, and India has grown up beyond teenage years since. If we were to answer call of Mother India today, the best approach might be to help secure commitments of capital, technology and other resources abroad and male these available under a win-win proposition. As a proud Indian, I am privileged to say that is exactly what I am doing professionally.