Community Stories. Get Inspired, Get Underlined


By @Entropy


Early Life and Education

January 17, 1968 the world celebrated the first docking of two manned space crafts, Soyuz 4 and 5. Several thousand miles away in a somnolent village a nano-hero docked with planet earth. Sunil Kumar was born in the district of Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, India. His native village, set in a bucolic vale, enclosed by a constellation of smaller villages, captures the essence of rural India.

The area is intensively cultivated with wheat, mustard, potatoes and lentils. Until 2009, there were no paved roads and the village only accessible through a narrow mud path. Wild peacocks and cobras still roam freely and the landscape is speckled by imposing jackfruit, neem and mango trees. Blended into the landscape, they enhance the idyllic beauty of the pleasant terrain. Unlike urban India, the air is refreshingly unpolluted and blue cloudless skies are the norm. By contrast, the nearest city, Bela, is woefully crowded, dusty and seedy looking. 

The living arrangement into which baby Kumar was born was deplorable. A one-bedroom mud-hut with a kitchen and no indoor plumbing or toilet facilities protected the family against the elements. In a land where brick-and-mortar structures are no match against the sustained hammer blows of the ferocious monsoons, dirt walls are merely a veneer of cosmetics. Continuous reconstructive maintenance is a requirement. As humble as it was, he could not call these lamentable quarters home. A blood-feud forced the family to flee the village at the height of the monsoon season in 1981. Finding refuge in a one-room leaky hovel at the princely rate of a dollar per month, they laid low until the vendetta had subsided. Feeling emasculated by the abysmal circumstances, the father deserted. Hence at the ripe old age of 13 Sunil, now the de facto man of the household, found himself toting adobe bricks and digging trenches to support his family. Too demanding for his immature physique, he yielded to vending oranges, bananas and samosas at the local bus terminal. Mindful of the need for a formal education, his new position provided the flexibility to attend classes. However, the economics of survival forced him to abandon any hope of completing his High School Diploma. 

The Ground Flight

Having determined his only prayer of resurrecting a moribund life resided in the metropolis of Mumbai he decided to extricate himself from the abject wretchedness of his native village. Glamorous success stories did filter back from individuals who had excelled in that inhuman city. He too must taste that life, he imagined. Mumbai was his promise land. She summoned; he obeyed. And so, without much forethought and a grand savings of 27 rupees (about a dollar), Sunil’s single-minded agenda was to hit the teeming metropolis. Where exactly is Mumbai? Where will he stay? How will he get there? How will he live? These were irrelevant considerations. Aspiring to a richer life became his monofocal preoccupation. Although leaving meant abandoning the security of home, friends and family, his drive to succeed exceeded his fear of death. To succeed was to cheat death. The choice was dire: stay and starve; leave and risk life. One thing was clear: leaving provided a possible lunch pad to a better life. He therefore, answered his unwavering conviction: it was better to try than not. Based on this neurotic passion, he acted. Without food, funds, fare or fanfare he hastily crammed a shirt, pajama and a pair of pants into a jhola – cheap duffel bag – clasped his quivering hands in a gesture of farewell and left his sniveling mother at about 5:00 pm, November 11, 1983 to catch the Janta Express to Mumbai due to leave at 8:00 am next day. Her husband had deserted; now she was losing her last hope. Her only son and sole support was departing for an uncertain destiny. The moral fabric of her life was being ripped asunder and there she stood, helpless.

Indian life revolves around the temples. Hence en route to the railway station Sunil paused at the local Hanuman Temple and sought divine intervention: firstly, to make his destination and secondly to keep the family in his absence. Revelation of his immediate plan – to scam his way to Mumbai – he kept secret. Indian gods are flexible: they look the other way in trying times. Following his temple rituals, he timidly boarded the local train for Allahabad – the first leg in this his odyssey of uncertainties. After overnighting at the Allahabad bus station, he hopped the 8:00 am Janta Express to Mumbai, his 27 rupees intact and visibly pleased with his success thus far. On arrival at Jabalpur station, some mental accounting revealed he had spent seven rupees en route, leaving him with twenty. There he was, the young stowaway, proudly celebrating his fiscal prowess. In that euphoric moment, he was accosted by a railway inspector. Unable to produce his train pass, the overzealous officer promptly expropriated all 20 rupees. Penniless and desperate, the teary-eyed youngster clasping his palms pleaded: Try to understand mamaji (uncle) my family depend on me. I am doing this out of need. Please give me back the money. It is all I have. Unmoved, the inspector stubbornly stood his ground, but not the fellow travelers; they erupted in a chorus of empathetic muttering. Return the money to the poor child, suar (swine), they yelled disdainfully. Unnerved by the collective outpouring of unmitigated scorn, the officer grudgingly returned 15 rupees. And so after an exhausting 26-hours of evading swinish inspectors Sunil made it to Mumbai, India’s tinsel town. Bollywood lives here. In this place of dreams, he was free to choreograph his own pecuniary dance to the rhythms of Bollywood commerce. The youngster imagined his favorite movie stars and dating as they do in the movies – all coalescing into to a glorious climax where the boy gets the girl and against impossible odds elevates his family out of agonizing misery. Once again, in that reverie of youthful fantasy, a heavy hand rested on his shoulders. Come with me, the railway inspector commanded.

Sporting an urbane demeanor, the officer easily won the boy’s trust. Besides, he offered a deal of leniency in exchange for an admission of guilt. A naïve youth of rural India, ignorant of the devious practices of the big city officers, he gladly complied. Notwithstanding the plea bargain, the low-life officer promptly clapped the diminutive crook into a squalid cell but not before he had emptied the boy’s pockets. Pleading was futile; it elicited no response. Throat aching with nervous energy and absolutely destitute, the starving prisoner sat in the drab confines of that cell pondering his precarious future: it is a big city; I am small boy; alone in this inhuman jungle, what can I do? As he pondered his uncertain fate, the fog of hopelessness thickened around him. Helpless and no one to confide in, he sat there alone. In the interim, the evolving degenerate of an inspector hoping hunger would wring out unseen cash from the imprisoned wretch masterly extended his hunger games beyond the legal maximum. But milking a rock would have yielded better. As the intensity of the pangs increased the lad’s stomach protested audibly. He felt woozy and weak to the point of collapse. The futility of his food deprivation, and the ghastly appearance of the little boy evoked feelings of sympathy. In a prick of conscience, the inspector relented minimally and commanded the boy to follow a fast-striding bare-footed porter. After an interminable wait at one of the several fast food vendors, the porter finally produced a potato sandwich. Feeling energized from both the food and the gesture of goodwill the lad silently thanked both the porter and the inspector. There was another reason to thank them. En route to the holding cell, as he deftly picked his way through the tumultuous crowd, the negligent porter left the youngster lagging. Seizing the opportunity, the resilient waif fled to the open streets. Free, once more. With the excitement of freedom buoying his sagging spirits he was now determined to reach his final destination, Bhiwandi. But where is it?

Common as they are in developed countries street signs are an Indian luxury. Finding an Indian City is a monumental exercise in detective work; finding a specific address demands a miracle. To determine the precise address of a destination requires that the traveler constantly pesters strangers for direction. To the boy, most passersby generously offered specific directions: go here, turn there, swing left, keep right, up the hill, behind the mosque, pass the street temple. Others just muttered siddha, straight ahead, while a few shrugged ignorance. Summoning up the courage to ask for a drink proved formidable. Bewildered, the rural lad plodded on instinctively. Though grateful for the token protection the flip-flops offered, he felt every pebble against his raw feet. Yet, burning feet were the least of his concerns. Thoughts of a new life abounding with promise soothed those charred feet. Meandering friendlessly along the dusty back roads, smog stung his unaccustomed eyes as loneliness flooded his susceptible mind. The companionship of hope furnished the inspiration to plod on. And so, it was. After trudging through myriad of unfamiliar alleys he reached the City of Bhiwandi long after sunset, hungry but elated with expectations of a better life. In this filthy slum city of open sewers, where greenish black water oozed onto dusty lanes and children play senseless games, here it was the object of his search: his destination, the home of Mr. R. Khan.  

A Study in Resilience

Khan was coldly receptive. Despite his misgivings, he invited in the timid lad and offered refreshments. Between mouthfuls of steaming rice, Sunil spouted the reasons prompting his ground flight from Pratapgarh: mainly, he was seeking a job to support his hungry family. A trifle moved by the dire predicament of the hapless kid and recalling his own circumstances, Khan became more accommodating. He firmly explained, however, that the job prospects in Bhiwandi were bleak. To mollify his host, the boy hastily explained that he had a referral from Khan’s very own dad: it was not a random imposition. And so, this seedling of an economic life began precariously germinating in conditions inimical to productive life.

Finding a job, any job, in Bhiwandi is an arduous task. Despite the daunting challenge, the boy was mentally prepared to face the ordeal. In spite of the many refusals, the lad persevered. Success is never easy, he was taught. Thus after 12 days of joyless job-hunting, he had reached the limits of his endurance. With no money and less food, he raided buzzing garbage dumps for decomposing bits of sustenance. But effort is not without its rewards. Hence on day 13, the tenacious lad snagged a position as a power-loom operator at the splendid pay rate of a dime a day. The euphoria of landing the position was short-lived nonetheless. Lacking the technical skills, he was dismissed on day three. With a grand-total of three-days working experience and swimming against a surging wave of hostile rejections without income or family support, he exhausted the generosity of his host. Mr. Khan tossed him and his jhola onto the sidewalk. With nowhere to go and darkness encroaching the youngster sat next to his bag, hoping, hungry and howling with self-pity. As pedestrians pursued their routines with studied indifference, he hugged his jhola pondering his uncertain fate when a sliver of hope arrived. Muktar was an unusually tall man who sported an Ayatollah-style goatee. He displayed an affectionate smile. After asking routine questions and offering to find employment he motioned the boy to follow. To a naïve lad from the villages, all older men are uncles and accorded due respect. By simply offering reassuring words, Muktar easily gained the boy’s trust. Unlike city dwellers who caution their kids against strangers, such apprehensions are alien to rural India. With the youngster at his heels, Muktar led the optimistic waif to a cemetery housing two miniature mausoleums separated by a narrow path. Cold and weary, they bedded down on the unforgiving concrete beneath the eaves. The prospect of a job banished the boy’s gnawing hunger and early next morning, eager to see his next job he followed Muktar’s long strides. They flitted across innumerable alleys and through an endless array of sleazy dives and seamy dens infested with classless women. In those dark houses of depravity, the noxious blend of alcohol, tobacco, opium and ganja hung offensively. Hopeful but not optimistic, the lad tagged along. Exuding infectious confidence, Muktar toured these dimly-lit dens of debauchery, displaying an intimate familiarity with these niches of this vice. After several rounds of gambling, openly dealing an assortment of drugs, and cavorting with willing low-lives. Muktar proceeded to indoctrinate the lad on the tricks of the trade; an easy way to make a living, he chimed. Plodding along obediently, false hopes breathed exuberance into the existence of the wretched waif.  

Late in the day, with forlorn hope of a job prospect the youngster’s energy flagged. Exhausted and hungry, he was at his wits end: no remote attempt at finding a job came from his guardian, Muktar. May be Muktar will find the job after exhausting his self-imposed quota debased fun, he reasoned. Returning home late that evening reeking of ganja and alcohol, Muktar bedded down nearby. With his stomach churning mercilessly, drifting in and out of consciousness, the lad attempted to sleep. But sleep does not visit on a hungry stomach. Besides, he was becoming wary of Muktar’s intent, yet willing to give his friendly guardian the benefit of the doubt. No sooner had he drifted off, nonetheless, the teenager realized that his new friend was fondling him. In Sunil’s words Muktar was behaving to me like a girl. In his rural mind, homosexuality is outrageously offensive: something that only happens in far flung urban areas. Hence repulsed by such degenerate behavior, he stood his ground. Facing down his assailant, eye-to-eye-man-to-man, he yelled defiantly: You bahenchod, go find a woman. F..k you. Stay away from me you makarchod. After some tense moments with his predatory pride in tatters, Muktar clenched his massive fist threateningly. Fearlessly facing his attacker squarely, the youth stood defiantly at arms-length. Overawed by the raw courage of the feisty teen the pedophile retreated to his corner. That night the undernourished kid congratulated himself: he had won yet another round in this battle of survival – a reason to smile, he thought. To protect himself against further attacks, the boy postured rebelliously at a safe distance. Spurned, Muktar kept his distance too. But what should he do? Sizzling with anger, the tiny economic fugitive decided to flee the grasp of this predatory monster. He did, not knowing where to go. Hanuman will not abandon me. God takes care of all including birds, he comforted himself. Walking aimlessly through the night and feeling safe, the boy sat at the roadside contemplating his next move.

Famished, his stomach growling incessantly, unable to banish the hunger pains relief appeared in the form of food. Yes, irresistible morsels of coarse grains scattered randomly to the neighborhood pigeons. A gift from God, he exclaimed excitedly. Squatting, he meticulously gathered up the grains separating the grit from the *** he savored one-by-one, husks too: his first meal in more than two days. But periods of gloom are forerunners to rays of hope. As he was feasting on his avian banquet of one, a passerby approached. He had espied the youth in the company of the pedophile the previous day and felt persuaded to caution against associating with the seasoned reprobate. To soothe his emotional wounds and hoping to elicit some salve of goodwill, the boy confided in the stranger. Confirming the stranger’s worst fears, the unfortunate teen fitfully narrated the traumatic events of the previous night. Sensing imminent danger, the passerby requested that the boy join him. However, considering the events of the previous night, the boy grew apprehensive. Muktar appeared friendly too. He too was trying to help. This is an unkind city; even pigeons are accorded better treatment. I am a refugee in this dense human jungle. Should I or should I not go, he debated silently. With nothing to lose, the teen hesitantly accepted the gesture of goodwill and joined the stranger in his unspoken quest. In silence, with the luckless kid in tow, the man led rapidly albeit with a sense of purpose. After a grueling unexplained manhunt through pot-holed lanes and reeking back-alleys, they stumbled upon Dinanath. Following a brief exchange, Dinanath recognized the predicament of the youth. He immediately took him in as his guest and arranged a job in his textile manufacturing facility. Greater euphoria the youth had never known, except that soon after landing the job he was summarily dismissed. Without training, he was simply unable to operate the complex equipment assigned to him. 

As if nature compensates for its perceived injustices, streaks of prosperity are always preceded by periods of misfortune and although Sunil was once again jobless and homeless, it did not last long. Out of thin air you may say, yet another guardian angel seeing the plight of the wandering kid offered assistance. He assisted the boy finding a job and shelter. And so, with a place to sleep and a job to provide vital sustenance the tide of fortunes began surging inexorably when to his utter bewilderment he found himself locked out of his residence and job. On May 17 1984 a spasm of arbitrary Hindu-Muslim violence erupted in the City of Bhiwandi. In all, 278 were senselessly slaughtered and 1,118 wounded. Without uttering a word, to protect himself and his assets Sunil’s employer and benevolent host fled Bhiwandi leaving him to his own devices. Defying death, the defenseless youngster roamed the streets seeking out shelter and left-over crumbs. God listens to the eloquence of effort. As has happened so many times prior, God dispatched His Angel of Mercy once more. This time in the form of Muslim gentleman who not only shielded the boy against the likely onslaught of his fellow Muslims but secreted the vulnerable youngster in the bowels of a mosque. In this sanctuary of peace, Sunil bided his time until the untamed flames of sectarian animus subsided.

The Rewards of Toil

Except for marriage, it is fair to say that at the tender age of thirteen Sunil has been through crucible of life. It was therefore time for the divine pendulum of natural justice to swing in his favor. It did. Hence after the riots quelled and against the odds, he was invited to resume the job he was forced to abandon. To consolidate his position, he worked steadfastly at mastering all aspect of the power-loom. To do so, he spent his spare time observing more skilled operators and undertook tutoring the less experienced ones. In the process, he became proficient in all facets of the textile manufacturing process and a reliable resource of technical expertise. In a ringing endorsement of his acquired skills, he was elevated to head jobber’s position. Confident in his abilities and secured in his position, the aspiring capitalist decided to cover his growing assets with a comprehensive insurance policy. But it was not the security of the policy that appealed to his pubescent instincts. It was the job of the sales agent. To his uneducated mind it appeared glamorous: the next bastion to conquer, he thought. Ascending the salesman throne, however, demanded the pursuit of a higher education. But success demands effort is his adopted mantra. Unphased, he completed the required courses with night time studies. Armed with the requisite qualifications, and the help of an acquaintance, the venerable Mr. Salim Khan, Sunil landed the coveted position of an insurance agent. His relentless drive had begun to fructify in ways he could not have imagined. In the first month of his reign on insurance throne he outperformed all his more seasoned colleagues and with each subsequent month his sales performance soared. With commensurate increases in commissions Sunil, the waif, morphed into an entrepreneur. He purchased a small a textile manufacturing plant which he later sold at a decent profit to concentrate on insurance sales. 

Modest Achievements

The physical attributes of Sunil are unremarkable. Lightly tanned, short and stocky with a square face and high cheekbones, he sports a lush mustache which complements cropped wavy hair, interspersed with wisps of grey. Blessed with superb symmetry, in his youth he would have been strikingly handsome. He speaks a heavily accented pidgin English and has the genteel expressiveness of professional salesman. The soft contour lines that belie his steely determination, however. Today, atop a treed knoll overlooking a picturesque lake, Sunil lives with his extended family. His five children have neither X-boxes nor iPhones but they do share a computer with internet access. They are adequately attired, well nurtured, genteel, and attend private schools. Sharing the same flat is his elderly father. He is small business proprietor now. Since those nascent days, Sunil has consolidated his role as the sole LIC agent for the Bhiwandi area and commands small platoon of enthusiastic Amway distributors. Still working 13-hour days, seven days a week, he cycles to work most days. To drum up new business he can be seen plying the busy streets of his adopted hometown on a Hero Honda. When not on business calls, you would find him at his unpretentious walk-up office entertaining a steady stream of visitors. Over heavily sweetened milk-tea, they discuss insurance coverage, nutritional supplements and a wide range of Amway products. Burying the Muktar affair deeply within the caverns of his memory, he believes he is indebted to the Muslim community: one of the reasons they form significant majority of his clientele. Through palpable sweat he owns a house in his native village and a couple condos in Bhiwandi. In a country where girls are a liability, Sunil singlehandedly supported the marriage of his sisters by sponsoring their wedding outfits, jewelry and accoutrements for the grand celebrations. Though his achievements are modest by western standards and can easily be dismissed as less than mediocre, the up-thrust of Sunil initial ground flight has flung him into an orbit well beyond the reach of the common Indian. Considering the treacherous uphill climb, his lack of formal training, age and the depressing employment conditions, the flames of his accomplishments flicker blindingly. In this context, Sunil would form an acceptable role model for the impoverished Indian striving to drag himself out of the oppressiveness of destitution.

Sitting on a Hill

In indecent contrast to Sunil, Muktar stands out. An unmarried man of obtuse morals, he was attracted to lure of an easy life. Blessed with an enviable physique and affable disposition, the able-bodied Muktar nurtured a talent for manipulating women and children. To this end he became a sex-mongering-drug-dealing-conniving ****. As a social leech, he preyed on the weak and unsuspecting, including children. Impervious to shame, the incorrigible parasite lived off the community. He neither uplifted himself nor contributed to the social weave of the community. By so doing he defeated the very purpose of his existence. In the end, this self-serving vulgar human trash died as he lived – in a cemetery, broke and alone.

Less robust and with a nominal education Sunil’s story celebrates the triumph of the human will. Risking life and limb and against incomparable odds he clambered out of the cesspool of paralyzing poverty. In the process, he endured imprisonment, hunger, starvation, homelessness and sexual molestation. His sublime effort to extricate himself from the blight of destitution deserves the highest commendation. That he has succeeded is a study in the rewards of sustained effort. This unstoppable tenacity in the pursuit of self-worth has enabled him to vault the cliff of inconceivable penury to land atop the knoll from where he descends daily to earn his living and serve his community.

This Chapter was excerpted from The Eloquence of Effort:

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