The Ragpicker

“O Goddess Chhath! I bow in obeisance offering my prayers to you. Please do accept them and pardon me for the long years of absence. O Goddess, you have always been in my heart and my joy knows no bounds that I have been able to come here after fifteen long years. Hail Goddess Chhath!” Aaji kept muttering with folded hands as she went round and round in the same spot, among the sea of people around. It was Chhath Puja; a very popular puja, performed by the people of the state of Bihar in India. Seven year old Rohan, stood there next to Aaji watching this huge spectacle. He had seen nothing like this before.

Rohan lived in Japan with his parents and grandparents. His grandparents, Sushila and Ramesh, hailed from Bihar, India and had moved to Japan on work. His father married there and never came back to India. Rohan was born there. His grandmother expressed a strong wish to come to India that year, to perform this puja that she used to do years back. Rohan’s grandfather made arrangements to bring his wife and Rohan to India. Rohan had never been to India before so his grandparents wanted him to see his native place. So they came to Patna and Rohan had gone to the river Ganga with his grandmother to see the puja. In this puja, standing in water, people worshipped the rising as well as the setting Sun.

Rohan had never seen so many people together. He felt a bit scared. He saw his grandmother, Aaji, just turning to step out of the river. Rohan quickly held on to the corner of her saree. Aaji looked at him, cast an enquiring look and pulling her saree, walked away. Rohan, nonplussed, tried to catch up with her but was pushed back by a wave of people. “Aaji, Aaji,” he cried but his cries got lost in that huge crowd. Why did his Aaji pull her saree away from his hand and leave him in the crowd? Why did her look feel as if she did not recognise him? Struggling to find answers, he got totally lost in that swell of people. He was howling but it could not be heard in that ocean of sound.

Aaji stepped out of the water after performing her puja, but did not know where to go. She remembered nothing. Who was she? Where did she live? In her confusion she got very scared and started to sob asking people for help. Some kind soul took her to the police where she sat sobbing, unable to answer any of their questions. The police kept her there, in the hope that her family may come to find her. That is what eventually happened. When Aaji and Rohan did not return to the hotel that they were staying close by, Rohan’s grandfather set out to find them and reached the police station. Seeing his wife he felt relieved, but to his utter dismay, she did not recognize him.

“Thank God Sushila, that I found you. I got so worried when you and Rohan did not return to the hotel; but wait, where is Rohan?”cried the scared grandfather.

“ Rohan? Who Rohan? and who are you? I don’t know you,” a visibly disturbed Sushila cried.

Ramesh, her husband, could not believe his ears. Had this coming back to one’s motherland, and that too to fulfill one’s cherished dream of performing the Chhath Puja, overwhelmed Sushila? Ramesh showed the passports that he thankfully always carried with him, to the British officers at the police station and led Sushila out and reached their hotel. Rohan was nowhere to be seen. Ramesh could not leave Sushila alone in that state. Where would he find Rohan? He then took Sushila to a hospital for a check up. After examination and some tests, the doctors told the bewildered Ramesh that his wife suffered from Alzhimer’s disease. Now Ramesh could recollect quite a few instances when Sushila would not remember something at all and attribute it to advancing age. Nobody, remotely thought otherwise. Probably, the condition got aggravated gradually and in such an overwhelming environment, she got a more serious attack and Sushila could neither recognize Rohan nor Ramesh. Medication began, but where would Ramesh find Rohan?

Not being able to trace Rohan anywhere, at last Ramesh sent a telegram to his son in Japan, asking him to come immediately. He kept looking for Rohan everywhere but alas! could not find him anywhere. That evening, the 6th of August, 1945, brought one of the most horrifying news of the mankind — the bombing of the Hiroshima. Ramesh’s son lived in Tokyo but he did not know that ill luck had gotten him and his wife on a short holiday to the mountain villages of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, so the telegram sent by Ramesh never ever could reach him.

Rohan had a different predicament. The little boy, lost in the crowd, fell prey to a stampede and lost consciousness. The crowd carried him away from the main shore where seeing him lie on the ground, some one took him to a nearby hospital. He was kept there for a week or so and then he was being taken to an orphanage in a bus, when he managed to run away. He was devastated. How would he ever get to reach his family, he shuddered at the thought. He found his way to the shore nearby, with the hope of being re-united with his grand parents. A rag-picker offered him shelter which he readily accepted. Henceforth, he would go around with the rag picker, picking paper and rags the whole day and thus he became a rag-picker.

Rohan was brilliant in academics from the time he was small. He loved reading. Even now, he would try to read what ever he found. One day Mukta, a school teacher, was sitting on the beach, when she saw him reading a torn magazine. She kept watching him for a while then called him to her. Knowing about his misfortune, she asked him if he would like to study. Rohan took no time to show his willingness. A few days later, Mukta got him admitted to a local government school. Rohan’s life turned a new leaf.

On not hearing anything from his son, seeing his wife Sushila’s unexpected medical condition and above all, losing his grandchild Rohan, Ramesh was in a deep sea of trouble. He could not handle this situation for too long and suffered a massive heart attack. From the hospital, both Ramesh and Sushila were shifted to an old age home, ‘The New Home,’ and that became their permanent shelter. This was about twenty five years ago.

Rohan outshone all through his school and college and won scholarships. He chose to study medicine and became a renowned doctor in the field of Neurosciences. Presently he was doing his study on Alzhimer’s and ‘The New Home’ was one of his sample studies. Late night in his study, Rohan was going through the case files of the residents who were suffering from Alzhimer’s. He felt sleepy. Enough for the day, he thought, as he was going to shut the file. Something caught his eye. A photograph! He looked carefully. He was wide awake now. It was his Aaji’s picture. He could not believe his eyes. He quickly checked the name. Yes, it said Sushila Devi. His hands were trembling when he held the file again. After about twenty five years he had traced his Aaji. He just sat down and shut his eyes. The memories of a seven year old boy came flashing by. He could not sleep the rest of the night.

Dawn broke and Rohan could not wait to leave for work. He had to hold himself hard to wait for a few more hours to pass, before he could reach his Aaji. Finally he reached ‘The New Home.’ He found Aaji and stood in front of her. Aaji looked at him with blank eyes. There was no recognition. Rohan held her hands and kissed them. Just then someone came on a wheel chair.

“Who is this Sushila?”he enquired in a barely audible and trembling voice.

Rohan turned to look at him. Even the twenty five years failed to wipe away the memory of his Dada from Rohan’s mind. There was no way of course for Dada to recognise this handsome young man, as his little Rohan.

“Dada, I am Rohan,”gushed Rohan.

Dada could only look at him with gaping eyes.

Author of the book “The Heart Speaks”, Medium writer since 2018, top writer in fiction, short stories. Loves writing, dance, music, children. Learner for life..