A beedi in a storm

Beedi in a storm

St-Merde! (That’s like ‘Jesus Christ!’ in Quebecois French spoken here). The way the 2010 hurricane, Irene, was made to look in the news, it really seemed like the next thing the US government would do was round up two of every living being and shove them into the USS Nimitz for 40 days and 40 nights. For weeks prior, folks on the eastern seaboard began stocking up on everything imaginable, boarding up windows and doors, building underground bunkers. Flashlights, batteries, candles, bottled water, beer, jigsaw puzzles, plywood and duct tape flew off the shelves at stores.  

In India, I doubt if Irene would be considered even newsworthy. Torrential rain, waterlogged streets, power outages and collapsing roofs are so frequent during the monsoons, you wouldn’t find a storm like Irene even in a tea cup in Kolkata. 

Summer rain, a.k.a the monsoons. If you haven’t experienced that in coastal India, you really have no idea. Big droplets, the size of marbles, coming down in blinding sheets. You could be soaking wet in a matter of seconds. Don’t bother to protect yourself. An umbrella is a joke here. One of those ‘duckback’ brand raincoats maybe? Forget it, it’ so hot and humid, you could steam and sweat to death inside one of those.  

Over here in Canada, the rain comes in a light, intermittent drizzle. It moves leisurely down the road, wetting things only slightly. You can make out the border of the advancing rain easily and stay out of it, if you’re bopping along. And if you listen carefully, you might hear it murmur to you,” Excuse me, sir, but may I cross your front lawn? I’m headed to the Oka Lake. They’re passin’ rain checks there” And the weatherman on TV will label that a ‘thunderstorm’. 

I was on foot, at the Gariahat area in Kolkata, July 2010, when the rain started in earnest. Looking around, I saw this tea stall on the sidewalk, with a four by six corrugated iron sheet over it. Besides the stall owner, his kerosene stove and utensils, crammed under it were at least 10 guys, pushing and shoving to stay out of the downpour. I scooted there and jammed myself in with the crowd. I didn’t notice any irritation or rancour among those who were already there. They just moved over silently, making space for me to join in. The air was heavy and fetid with stale beedi (hand rolled Indian smokies) smoke and sweat and the drumming on the tin roof grew deafening. This could go on for hours and I still had some shopping to do. Kurta-pyjamas, hojmi goolis, dal chini, holud, ghuris & lattai. Yes, ghuris and lattai. Why would I want to get a kite and string here in Canada for $50? 

I was enjoying every minute of my few days left on this lovely land of my birth. A couple of yards away, a sidewalk DVD vendor, a chain smoking guy in his 40s, thin as a rail, had had his DVDs spread over wooden planks, balanced over a crate. He was now scrambling to cover them with a dirty blue plastic sheet. Just a minute prior, as I was walking by, curiosity had slowed my pace, to take a look at the DVDs. Sizing me up, he had begun excitedly,”Ei je dada, Anondo Shibajinogorer nothun boi, Raambo. Chho chho khana chhobi ekta DVD te. Matro ponchish taka.”(Here, Sir, Arnold Schwarzneggar’s new movie, Rambo. Six movies on one DVD. Just Rs25.) He held up a DVD that’d feel completely at home in Mogadishu, it was so so pirated. As I started to pass him by, he said,” Acha thik ache, apnar jonno kuri. Ki? Kothai chollen? Ponero te niye jaan, bujhlen?”(OK, OK for you Rs20. Hey, where are you going? Listen, you can have it for 15, OK? Come back here before I change my mind).

Now, as the rain came down heavily, Mr No-clue-about-intellectual-property-rights sat back on his haunches, on the sidewalk, huddled under another plastic sheet, covered by a halo of spray, looking morose. He took out a round packet of Basanti beedis, lit one and inhaled. As he pulled on the harsh untreated tobacco, he convulsed in a series of hoarse coughs. Beedi still stuck to the corner of his lips and eyes puckering from the smoke, he picked up the tiny framed picture of Ma Laxmi (the Goddess Laxmi) which had been standing next to the DVDs. As he brought the picture up to his eyes, I noticed a smaller, faded passport-sized photo of a little girl stuck to the bottom between the glass and the frame. He touched his forehead against the glass and then lay it flat on the planks after carefully wiping it clean with his kurta sleeve. And he remained on his haunches, his butt clearing the sidewalk by an inch, just enough clearance above the river of rain water that was flowing down to the nearby gutter.

Don’t know why but Mr DVD suddenly swivelled and caught me watching him intently. He stuck out the packet,”Nin, beedi khan. Na? Keno khaben. Apnara shaibra amader beedi keno khete jaben.” (Here, have a beedi. No? I know. Why would you rich folk want to smoke a beedi). He turned back, with a gesture of disgust. I stepped forward, feeling like some hara kiri, “Din to, kheye dekhi.” (I’d like to try one please). His hand was a blur as he whipped out the packet and offered me one, deftly lighting it at the same time. As the acrid smoke bit into my throat, I nodded appreciatively, trying not to splutter. Thankfully, beedis don’t last long. 

After a while, as the skies began to clear and the drumming on the tin roof turned to a mild pitter patter, I gave Bablu (the stall owner, everyone was calling him that) a tenner and stepped out. I went over to DVD tycoon who was busy taking off the plastic cover, rearranging his DVDs and standing his Ma Laxmi picture frame up once again.

I bought the Anondo Shibajinogor six-in-one and insisted on giving him a fifty for it. The hell with intellectual property rights. I know a place they can stick them.

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