Looking back, I think it was during my tenth sales trip to Rourkela Steel Plant, a massive steel mill in eastern India, when I first set eyes on Prabirda. That’s Prabir Mahapatra. (In Bengali, you add a ‘da’ at the end of a name as a mark of respect to an elder).
A shrunken old man, Prabirda was always turned out neatly. Spotless full-sleeved white shirt, tucked inside well-pressed black trousers, the shirt collar and pant bottoms frayed from repeated washing and ironing. He had a pressed but frayed light jacket draped over his slightly stooped shoulders. The belt round his trousers had seen better days. His black leather shoes had patches on the sides, near the toes and several layers of soles, nailed on. But they glinted and shone from all those ceiling lights in the purchase department. He must have been 70 at the least and carried himself with a sort of diffident shuffle, leaning on a stick as he walked.
A tidy man, in control….or maybe a washed-up loser, it was hard to say which was he.
That day, I found him shuffling along the purchase department corridor, an imitation leather attaché case swinging from his hand. “SAIL-RSP, Purchase Dept’ was printed on one corner of the attaché case. He had a wide, open smile, directed at no one in particular, as if saying, “and how are we today?”
As he passed by the purchase clerks’ cubicles, it was evident that he was very well known around these parts. One of the clerks piped up, “Prabirda, what have you come to sell us today?”
“Let me see,” another clerk snatched the attaché case from Prabirda’s hand, “Hey! Papers, files, notebooks. Guys, don’t mess with our Prabirda, he’s become a VIP!” They were pulling his leg obviously and he gave them back a genial smile.
I passed by him as I entered G S Narayanan-Purchase Manager’s office. He stepped aside and rewarded me with a wide smile, “New in these parts? These are all my dear friends here,” a sweeping gesture at the clerks’ tables,” Need a hand with anything, let me know, hear?”
I was closing Mr. Narayanan’s office door behind me, when I heard one of the clerks call out with a smirk on his face, “Bet those files have dirty pictures in them too!”
Another clerk chuckled from behind a pile of purchase files, “Our Prabirda, when he gets home, it’s just him and his hands to entertain himself with, huh?” The purchase hall exploded in a roar of guffaws. My eyes swiveled to the old man. Prabirda’s smile cracked for an instant, fleetingly replaced by eyes unfathomable.
I turned, greeted Mr. GSN and took my seat in front of him. “That man out there. Who is he?” I gestured toward the stooped figure, now receding in the distance along the long corridor.
“You mean Prabir Mahapatra? Good man. He was a local rep for Flender Gears. A highly dependable guy, excellent after-sales service, awesome personal rapport with everyone here”, replied GSN.
At that, a strange mellow spread over the ruthless negotiator’s face. He seemed at a loss for words, a side of his I’d never seen before. He cleared his throat and went on, “Well, in the ’79 recession, his company downsized and closed their Rourkela office, merging it with their sales head quarters in Calcutta. A week after that, Mahapatra’s wife passed away and he was left by his employers with a choice of either relocating to Calcutta or being let go. He chose the latter.“
“I suppose he’s now representing another firm here?”
“No, he has in fact been unemployed ever since”, replied GSN.
“You’re wondering what he’s doing here. We let him come in everyday. He comes in with his attaché case, does his rounds of the offices, like he’s here on official business. Everyone, from the gate security to the GM, turns a blind eye to his unauthorized entry. A sort of payback for all that he’d done over the years and the rapport he’d built with everybody, I suppose. Once in a while, we give him some papers that look official but are actually meant for the waste basket, to carry from one office to another. And he goes around delivering them. Makes him feel like a part of the team. Like he’s doing something useful.”
He nodded,” That’s about it. He has been coming in every day for quite some time now, though, of late I haven’t been seeing him around much.”
“But surely he must know. Why does he do all this? Why doesn’t he just go and live with an offspring or a relative?”
“He and his wife were childless. After she passed on, his world just seemed to collapse around him. I suppose coming in here every day is some kind of mechanism he has, to cope. Who knows? To the best of my knowledge he has no close relatives. By the by, Dutt, why don’t you see if you can find a real place for him in your company somewhere?”
After I finished with Mr Narayanan, I headed to the cafeteria for a tea before I entered the sprawling steel plant for meetings with users at the various mills. When I entered through the swing doors, the massive hall and the serving counters were empty. Except for one man sitting hunched at the corner of a table at the far side. It was Prabir Mahapatra. He was sitting at the edge of a chair, a glass of tea in his gnarled hand. The smile that seemed glued on to his face in the purchase offices was gone. He was staring down at the floor. I got myself a tea, walked over and sat down across him. Even though he must have felt the table move a bit, he didn’t seem to notice and continued staring down.
“That’s a nice attaché case you have there. You take really good care of it, I can see that.”
His head jerked up and the shy smile switched itself on,”Why, thank you,” he paused, as if to collect himself,”and you, I saw you in the purchase department today. Is your work done?”
“Not yet. I have work inside the plant. I’m leaving by the Howrah Mail midnight tonight.”
He turned toward me,”You mustn’t feel sorry about the way they were making fun of me back there, you know. They are nice folk. They mean well.”
“Not a problem. You should see the guys at the office back in Jamshedpur. We’re pranking each other all the time.”
He smiled at that. “Have you ever visited the Blooming and Slabbing Mills when they’re rolling the slabs?”
I nodded,”Many times. And I’ve never got over it. The slabs ramming in through the rolls. As if they have a life of their own. The sparks and all. Those grimy guys in their hard hats and goggles, screaming into their headsets”. I smiled at him,” I’ve heard a lot about you. Maybe we can work something out. May I have your whereabouts? You know, just in case something does come up?”
His eyes clouded for a micro-second and then brightened once more,” Sure.” He scribbled on a slip and passed it to me and I tucked it into my breast pocket.
We chatted a while longer and then I excused myself, bringing my hands together in a namaskar and rose. When I reached the swing doors, I turned and saw he’d gone back to staring at the floor.
The Rourkela Steel Plant, built with German technical guidance, has an elongated layout. A central main road, with the mills on either side. The coke ovens, blast furnaces, the steel melting shops, the blooming and slabbing mills, the hot strip mills, the cold rolling mills, the pipe plant and the fertilizer plant (a steel mill generates high grade fertilizer as a by-product). Just outside the perimeter is a large lake that provides fresh water for the mills.
I had a taxi I had hired for the day. Sucha Singh, the driver, drove me around all day long. He took extra care to see I was comfortable. I paid him higher than he expected. I visited him at the small hovel he shared with his wife and toddler son, on every visit to Rourkela, after I was done with my work. Not out of any sense of duty, but only to be amazed at the generosity that only folk who have nothing can display.
As we passed by the blooming and slabbing mills, something seemed to click inside and I reached out and touched Suchaji on the shoulder,” Can we stop here a minute?” He swung the old ambassador taxi around and drove in and parked next to the entrance to the mill offices. There was an ambulance standing outside but we didn’t give it much thought. Indian steel mills those days hadn’t heard of the concept of ‘employee health and safety’. Must have been an accident in there. When you’re inside a huge manufacturing unit handling molten steel, with scant regard for safety, what can you expect? Anyway, the accident must have been fresh, since the crowds were just beginning to gather around.
It didn’t take us long to figure out roughly, what might have happened. A man, possibly a mill employee, had lost his balance somehow, from the bridge and landed on one of the red hot slabs just exiting the mill rolls on their way to the cooling beds. It’s a 50 ft drop, directly on semi-solid steel slabs that are still at around 900 degrees celsius. There’s no way to survive that fall, I can tell you.
Sucha Singh and I entered the shop floor area and went and stood by some mills rolls on the side. The mill had fallen silent, the reheating furnace doors had been shut. The roller tables were still. Just below the bridge, we could make out a charred heap, still smoking, right on top of a slab that was already starting to change from orange-red to grey-black, as it cooled. The mill foreman, the guy who operates the mill sitting inside the control cabin, was being led out. He could hardly walk and he kept repeating,”He…he…just jumped, he…he…just jumped…”
“Must be some nut case. We get two or three of these every year,” Sucha Singh muttered through the corner of his mouth.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said and we started walking out, just as the first-responders passed us by, with the charred heap on the stretcher. I could barely make out one arm, which was raised, in a grotesque sort of victory sign.
Sucha strode ahead to the car and as I turned to follow him, something blackish on one corner of the stretcher caught my eye. It was a badly burnt attaché case.
The ‘SAIL-RSP, Purchase Dept’ was barely visible on it.