Friday, 28 March 2014

What Ronjon Biswas Can Do

Ronjon Biswas with wife Shopno and his parents.

I’m imaging the morning. Bird sounds arrive, to discover a new day in the rediscovery of the limbs of the yard’s trees beyond the window. Scraping and pot-clanging of the kitchen variety arise; and perhaps the squelching beat of clothes being washed will wander up from the household pond’s makeshift ghat. There should be the sound of voices creeping about, discussing morning matters in sleepy tones. Do the waking fussy quacks of ducks and first contemplative cow groans bring greeting to the day?

There must be other signs. The coolness of air is a giveaway to mark the winter, while the sunshine’s warmth can easily represent the other seasons. Sometimes it might be that the damp kisses of wind-and-rain find their way, through the window, on the forehead, on the cheek. The firmness of the wooden bed and cloth feeling of bedcovers are among the welcomers surely, not less than the shuffling of feet, the finding of sandals in somewhere-down-there places on the cool mud floor.

What is morning like in Rundia village? What are the usual signs that greet 45-year-old Ronjon Biswas as he starts each day?

“My husband can do everything,” says Shopno Biswas. “He can catch fish. He can cut paddy.” His father Porimal Biswas says it was Ronjon who found those lost jewellery items at the bottom of the pond when nobody else could.

It’s already afternoon by the time we’ve arrived in the village of Narail Sadar Thana and the crowd of family members has gathered in the yard. They’re excited to share experiences of Ronjon’s abilities. From him the family takes pride. And it’s a sign of love, isn’t it – all that focus on the things he can do? Yes, as sure as the swishing sound of the broom that must shuffle about that house each morning there’s love in their descriptions of him.

Acceptance seems to have long ago taken up residence in the Biswas household, to have triumphed over that unimaginable despair and brokenness that must’ve engulfed the family originally, when Ronjon, as a three-year-old child, became blind.

The Biswas household in Rundia village of Narail.

They blame chokh utha, conjunctivitis – a common and usually mild disease that clears up without treatment, though eye drops or rinsing the eyes with fresh water might be of help. As likely it was trachoma which is sometimes linked to poor sanitation and conditions familiar to those living in poverty or indeed, as refugees. Whatever the exact cause, it took just twenty days for blindness to take hold – as short a time as that.

There’s history’s turmoil in his blindness. The last sights he saw were not of Rundia but of India. It was 1971 and like many Rundian families, his had left for India’s safety upon hearing that the Pakistani army was on its way. Uprooted, after fleeing for their lives, it was in the chaos and uncertainty of the refugee encampments of Duttapukur near Barasat that Ronjon’s world grew dark. There was no chance for treatment.

After liberation the family returned to Rundia, but in Rundia there’s not a great deal of assistance for a child who cannot see. Ronjon could not attend school – and of course he had to learn his way about the house, his way through each day by himself, with his family’s help.

When he understood there would be no recovery for his son’s eyes, Porimal Biswas held no hope for him. How would he survive as the years passed? Besides, there were two other sons and four daughters to think about.

As a child there were some in the village who did not wish to mix with Ronjon, but Rundia being as it is, the villagers began to accept him. “Sometimes people made problems,” says Ronjon, “but mostly people loved me.” I suppose villages are often like that.

It was when he was already twenty-five that Ronjon’s life really changed – and we can thank one Amal Bose who had recently purchased a salo machine, a water pump for irrigation. Seeing Ronjon sitting in the yard without much enterprise to his day, Bose decided to take Ronjon as his helper. They went from field to field giving irrigation services to village farmers, and Ronjon had soon enough learnt how to start the machine.

From there his confidence grew. “He finds his way to the field himself,” says his father, “He can negotiate the between-field aisles and it has never happened that he accidentally irrigated the wrong field.” More remarkably, Ronjon learnt how to fix the machine – by sound.

I’m imagining I have Ronjon’s abilities – that I would actually know a carrying shaft from a wheeze pipe. It might be something if I could remove the magnet cover, attach a ring to a piston or point to the cam pinion when asked. At the very least it would be a step forward if I could identify the head – the one on the machine as opposed to the human body. But like most of you I’d guess – with apologies to any mechanics reading this – these are not abilities which I have.

How does he do it? Is it only with sound? He must feel, smell and taste the white smoke rising that might indicate a broken piston or valve, so another mechanic told me. There’d be heat if the radiator was without water and the machine won’t start at all if the nozzle goes or the liner is finished. In between all that should be the various sounds – an odd metallic clank and subtle degrees of the motor’s chug-chug-chug to indicate ailments.

I could not say with any degree of certainty how he can take an engine completely apart and put it all together again. And I imagine the other villagers of Rundia don’t know either. But they bring their malfunctioning irrigation pumps to Ronjon at the first sign of trouble and there can be little doubt it’s a talking point, a source of pride not solely for his family but for the whole village – what their Ronjon can do.

“The day I learnt to fully repair a machine,” says Ronjon, “was really memorable for me.”

Ronjon at work, repairing a water pump machine.

The irrigation pump repair season runs during the boro paddy season, from December to February. It’s when Ronjon can make 2,000 taka per month, while at his busiest with machine repairs. He receives a further 300 taka per month in disability pension. It’s not enough to cover family expenses Ronjon estimates at around 5,000 taka per month – and outside of peak irrigation season his income still falls to around zero.

“My dream is to open a salo repair shop,” says Ronjon.

It was nine years ago that he got married. “He can cut straw,” says Shopno. “He can operate a mobile and return a missed call. He can climb a coconut palm and take a coconut.” As if words were not enough his family encourage him and Ronjon starts up the palm tree.

When any villager attempts this feat it’s impossible not to hold one’s breath until they are safely down again – those palm trees are tall. But sure enough, a few minutes later and without incident, the taste of refreshing green coconut water has arrived to greet Rundia’s afternoon.

What Ronjon Biswas can do.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: What Ronjon Can Do

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