Short Story by: Juggernaut
Some people get inspiration from reading Bible, Gita or Khuran, while others read biographies of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln for inspiration. Strangely, as a boy Juggernaut read Indian railway guides for excitement and inspiration. Indian railway system is vast and slow moving. If one were to write a slogan to promote Indian railways “Slow but Safe” or “Better Late than Never,” best depicts its operation.
The Railway department publishes railway guides for information on departing and arrival timings for each train, scores of them, for each region. For a particular train, one can find arrival and departing time for each station, the train is scheduled to stop. This is voluminous data given the number of trains that run across the country carrying millions of people in a day. Juggernaut’s father was an ardent collector, collector of books (any kind including Railway guides) and other stuff. On a quarterly basis, every time, a new railway guide is received at home, Juggernaut would grab it for safe keeping to read at leisure. The front and back sections of each guide carries advertisements of various motels/hotels/restaurants etc. These are the sections that Juggernaut loved the most to read.
Just from reading town names like Bhubaneswar, Khurada Road Junction, Kanpur, Itarsi Junction, Varanasi or Udaipur from Railway guides, Juggernaut got excited and fantasized travelling to various towns far away from home, living there in cultures with different languages and eating local cuisines. When most students apply in-state colleges for graduate studies, despite good grades at undergrad level, Juggernaut opted for out of state colleges in places like Bhubaneswar, Varanasi, Udaipur, towns hundreds of miles from home town. That’s how he ended up in Bhubaneswar.
Bhubaneswar is a modern city built around Lingaraj temple, known for ancient Kalinga type architecture, depicting Lingam, a symbol of God Shiva. Some people in town, wherever they live, after morning bath would turn in the direction of Lingaraj temple for a quick prayer like Muslims turn towards Mecca for prayer.
Misra, Routray, Behera and Das were Juggarnaut’s classmates at the campus. Misra was a gold medalist at undergraduate level and he wants to repeat his performance at graduate level by whatever means. His rotund body gave a priestly appearance but he laughed like a villain. Routray was Misra’s sidekick, a fair skin person with loose limbs. While walking, his arms moved diagonally to his body thrusting it forward while his weak legs followed involuntarily. Routray looked more oriental with his deep set narrow dark eyes and facial hair spread intermittently. Behera was always humming the same tune, again and again. From listening repeatedly, Juggernaut developed a brain worm from it (a condition in which a tune is played involuntarily in somebody’s mind). Das was from a tribal background, a small man perpetually grateful and humble to all the professors, all the time. Among this gang of four, Juggernaut’s dream of living in a different culture took an unexpected journey.
Misra didn’t waste time to let Juggernaut know was the boss is while it was in a class room or laboratory or in the dorm. He boasted openly that he and he only were eligible for the gold medal at the end of the course. At the end of the first semester, Juggernaut scored the highest GPA followed by Misra, a close second while the rest were far behind.
At the end of second semester, Misra’s score came pretty close but still couldn’t surpass Juggernaut. With only few semesters left to complete the entire curriculum, Misra turned desperate.
One evening, Patro, a fellow graduate student appeared at Juggernaut’s room in the dorm. “Do you know Biju Patnaik?” asked Patro.
“Yeah, I know of him, a big time politician.”
“I can meet him, anytime I want,” said Patro, pointing his finger towards the sky as if Biju Patanik lives in heaven.
“Do you know you broke Mrs. Gandhi’s nose?” asked Patro.
“No,” answered Juggernaut.
“I did,” boasted Patro.
“Is Biju Patnaik asked you to break Mrs. Gandhi‘s nose?”
“No, I am telling you that I have close connections to big time politicians,” Patro was not joking.
“Considering what happened to Mrs. Gandhi, foreigners should be careful in this place,” “If I were you, I listen to my classmates and behave accordingly,” advised Patro.
Patro was a graduate student in a subject that deals with communication and transfer of knowledge from laboratory to the field to benefit general population. Apparently, his communication techniques were simple and direct.
During dinner time at dorm cafeteria, Juggernaut was about to have his dinner one evening, he felt somebody pulling him from behind. Juggernaut was pulled from his seat only to face Misra holding Juggernaut’s shirt collar. “If we don’t attend a lab, you won’t attend the lab, as simple as that,” Misra was furious.
“That’s right,” screamed Routray.
“If we all were to skip a class, you follow us,” Misra tightened his grip and dragged Juggernaut away from the dining table where several students were having dinner.
Routray appeared to be possessed, his fair skin turned red. He started marching up and down moving his long arms so fast, as if he may trip himself on his week legs, ranting about domination of some sort.
It was the intervention by Nayak, a senior student, a heavy set man with strong arms that set free Juggernaut from Misra’s stranglehold.
Back in his room, Juggernaut thoughts went back to his life back home. He could have stayed back and attended a college with his former classmates, it was all his doing. It was not exactly what Juggernaut expected from his travels. But then, he found solace at most unlikely place, a roadside café near the campus.
The roadside eating place was an unofficial campus cafeteria where most students have their breakfast, lunch and dinner, since the food at dorm cafeteria was expensive but bad. Juggernaut ventured into this place after some hesitation since the place was shabby. But here, the students ignored each other; they were busy eating and getting out to attend the classes.
The place was operated by Patnaik, a big man with large fat belly, and friendly smile. Patnaik was originally from a border area where he picked up few words that Juggernaut could understand. Outside the lab, Juggernaut spent more time at Patnaik’s place.
One of the employees of Patnaik was a blind man. His duty was to manually operate a big stone grinder to grind various ingredients to make dough to prepare “Bora”, a crispy deep fried pancake. The blind man perspiring heavily sitting on a stool was always grinding by rotating in a circular motion a heavy stone pestle placed in the large hole carved into a huge stone block. With no vision, he managed the entire operation like a chemist in a laboratory, placing the ingredients and necessary water to grind into dough with favorable consistency to make “Bora.”
It is here, for the first time Juggernaut tasted the sweet delicacy “Chhena Poda.” Most patrons order two or three bora, a cup of chai (tea) and a piece of chhena poda as a desert. A bite into a piece of chhena poda and the mouth feel while eating it so satisfying, one can forget the world outside. It is made from home made cheese called chhena, mixed with brown sugar, raisins, nuts, and spices, and baked in a shape of a pound cake until the outer surface turns golden yellow to brown from caramelized sugar.
After attending classes, Juggernaut went straight to Patnaik’s place to eat and spend time talking to Patnaik or the blind man, both spoke a language (with strong unusual accent) Juggernaut somehow understood. This place, though untidy particularly in rainy season became a second home for Juggernaut, an escape from his tormentors. Eating bora and washing it down with strong chai, and always ended his meal with a piece of chhena poda. Juggernaut started smoking cigarettes, two cigarettes a day, Cavenders brand. A picture of a man in the uniform on the cigarette packet attracted Juggernaut to the Cavenders brand.
Juggernaut became a regular at Patnaik’s place; it was his comfort zone and chhena poda was his comfort food. One day Misra and Routray visited Patnaik’s place for a snack only to find Juggernaut talking loudly with Patnaik. They were surprised to see a self assured Juggernaut in unlikely surroundings; they were subdued and polite to Juggernaut who was in a boisterous conversation with a burly man like Patnaik.
Juggernaut decided to drop out of the competition for the gold medal to let Misra have it. This calmed down Misra and allowed Juggernaut to have peace and quiet time.
“Do you like chhena poda,” asked Juggernaut, few decades later, at a social gathering, just to start a conversation with Mrs. Sathpathy.
“I hate it,” she said.
“And I am not from Orissa either,” she added grudgingly.
May be she was in a bad mood, perhaps aslice of freshly baked Chhena poda, would really put her in a good mood, after all, it was chhena poda that gave an escape from traumatic times in my past, thought Juggernaut.
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