The other day in a suburb of Mumbai, I was talking to Kanchan, the mighty fresh fruit vendor of Anand market.  He told me that had he not come to Mumbai thirty years ago, he would have still been toiling in village – a pauper – singing birha.  a folk song. Coarse complexioned, black skinned, a bit obese Kanchan with thick crop of hair looked nowhere near stylish folk singer. But he said he was and had long straggling locks of hair, kohl in eyes, and a subtle gloss on lips when on the stage.  His life took a turn when he fought with his wife and came to Mumbai with his maternal uncle. Kanchan began going to fruit market with his uncle and, there, he discovered his uncanny knack to know the quality of fruits.

Kanchan began burbling about his life history but I was hardly listening to him. My thoughts had flown to  Sewa, thirty years’ my senior. He had discovered his knack to compute and his life, too, had taken a turn and had changed for ever.

Sixty years ago, Sewa, 25 then, a mere stripling, had got disgusted with his scuffle with the manager of a cotton mill in Mumbai, threw his post and returned to the village. He was a weaver in the cotton mill. The whole household was mad at him him for his reckless behaviour with the manager.   Allusions came thick and fast from each one of the family. To stave them off, he had picked up a spade and joined earth-diggers digging an irrigation canal that was to pass by his village. And, he discovered his computing prowess when  the supervisor came to compute the quantum of dug-up earth and pay the labour.

Sewa would compute the amount in a snap that the supervisor would take minutes –and scribbling in his notebook – to do. He, however, wouldn’t tell the sum lest supervisor got angry and he lost his job once again. But Sewa pointed out when supervisor committed an occasional mistake. Sewa’s prowess of remembering the table of numbers came handy to him.

Though Sewa had never gone to a school, a watchful grandfather – a matchless stickler – had made him commit table of numbers to his memory. Sewa could rattle off table of numbers, not only of whole numbers, but also of their fractional cousins. He could gurgle the table of numbers of half, quarter, three-quarters, one-and-a-quarter, one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, three-and-a-half, and even four-and-a-half. In those days of yard, foot, and inch, the decimal system still decades away, the quarters, the halves, the three-quarters, and their whole number cousins, bossed the computing scenario. That served Sewa well.

The supervisor sensed that Sewa, whenever he pointed out a sum, was always right. And the rest became history. Sewa became supervisor, and later, graduated to contracting digging canals. He also laid roads, hoisted bridges, and erected buildings. And when he died, he was the top ranked contractor of his district, and a multimillionaire.

The clapping of the crowd around, at the perfect papaya cut open that Kanchan had bet it was, broke my reverie. Kanchan knew fruits as thoroughly as Sewa knew the table of numbers. They were both lucky to stumble upon turns that turned their lives for good. Had they not, Kanchan could have still been singing birha in countryside, still a pauper; and Sewa, dead a broke cotton mill weaver, when he died at 65.

When will millions and millions of people tied to chores that prohibit their natural talent to blossom, get their reprieves? Not everyone is born an Udho – a never-say-die warrior. Most people need openings for their talents to blossom.  And, if they don’t get that, they debase into Sitwas. Our nation craves that they should get their reprieves. 

Will they get that ever?

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