I was beginning my school-teaching career at Haldia, a coastal town in West Bengal, and had asked the domestic help to get me a rickshaw to there. Soon at my door was a lean, stooping man in shirt and lungi. "I am Ananta, the rickshaw-puller," he said with an intent look and so began an association that was to continue until my transfer from the place.
Ananta would be at the gate at 9.40am every day, so punctual that I could set the clock by him. Never ready in time, I would jump into the rickshaw and declare: "Ananta, I am late." He would speak not a word but pedal with the speed of wind and get me to school at the stroke of 10.
When rains lashed the coast, the crouching figure in black raincoat would still stand patiently by the rickshaw, waiting to take a teacher to school. I decided to ask the quiet man if he would keep my aquarium and look after the fish during the summer vacations. He agreed without a fuss.
I returned a day before the school reopened. Ananta came in the evening to enquire if I was in station. Eyes down, he passed me something saved in folded paper. I was bemused at the content, a dry goldfish! Ananta knew that the mind worked in strange ways. What if I thought he had made a profit by selling the big goldfish? Only this could explain the trouble he had taken.
My trust in him, however, grew day by day. He never went back on his word and his sense of responsibility could put anyone to shame. I entrusted him with the responsibility of collecting my daughter from school. He was Ananta Kaku (uncle) to her. I didn't remember him being absent or ever sending a replacement, so it was surprising that one day he sent another man to take me to school. Running late as usual, I had no time to enquire about this unusual turn of event, since all my senses were focussed on reaching the school in time; but I decided to ask him on my way back.
He said he had been at the port for a ship that had arrived from Cuba. I had heard about a donation campaign to help the Cubans suffering under the international embargo; but what could be Ananta's business at the port? He said he had been in a queue to donate a brass plate to the Cubans. The plate was his mother's. My immediate reaction was typical of many. I told him he should have kept the plate. Silent, he pedalled along. After a while, he answered. He said the plate had been lying in a trunk for years; maybe it could be useful to a hungry family that could sell it for food. It was his hunger to serve.