While a smooth curving flyover on the national highway cleanly bypassed the town of Moradabad, if one had to go there, it had to be with purpose. The unending markets on either side of the congested roads screamed with the clamor of commerce. Motor workshops jostled easily with shops processing grain and pulses, gur and khandsari . Ancient eateries frying jalebis and kachauris vied to generate more heat and smell than the myriad brass metal units outflanking them. If one managed to reach some crossroad at some juncture of this endless commerce, the policeman could, with a whimsical flick of his hand, as easily send you to Bareilly as he could to Rudrapur.
Now Rudrapur, some 75 kilometers away, was a different story altogether. In 1971, it was a sleepy agro-market town of just 25,000 people, serving no other purpose but to slow down tourist traffic making its way determinedly to the cool hills of the Kumaon. Just thirty years later – thanks to a concerted drive by the government to develop infrastructure for promoting industry – and armed with the money and clout to make this happen – the town now stood transformed.
It wasn’t just the industrial plants that were set up – including big names – but the supporting industries that followed. On their heels came the housing complexes, malls, restaurants and hotels, training institutes and colleges, hospitals, slums, traffic snarls and congestion. By 2011, the population had climbed more than 6 times to 1.6 lakh and growing. As sleek malls ran up many floors, competing with each other through screaming promotion banners, the locals, fattened by selling land in this boom time, followed big city migrants in shopping for high-end brands, eating branded pizzas and burgers in between.
My tribe of professional financial marketers arrived well in time to pursue all who could use loans – for agriculture, machinery, cars, housing, personal et al. Rudrapur was easy target. More difficult for business were neighboring towns like Moradabad, Shahabad, Haldwani, Rampur – from where hailed the new migrants of Rudrapur – laborers in industrial units, waiters in hotels, salesmen in shops, beauticians in parlors. With money being sent back home, some member of their family may now be ready for a loan for house expansion, a professional training course, a motorcycle, a cottage industry, a tractor, even a godforsaken television.
Moradabad always felt heavy with the chaotic energy of established commerce. Driving, my eyes searched for the signboard promoting Ghanshyam’s English language coaching school amid other competing signboards, all crowned by a tangle of electric cables looping up to harness power from the main transmission lines. Earlier Ghanshyam had tried to build on the promotion of the clinic for sexual weaknesses next door – ‘Sexual weakness? Come Inn’ – by promoting the same message: ‘English language weakness? Come In’ but had withdrawn it as too crude, and settled instead for the tame assertion: ‘Learn English language in 45 days and 90 hours’.
Through my networks I had already learned that Ghanshyam had bought a small plot in nearby Chandausi town and was considering a housing loan. He never took the loan but in the process I learnt the story of this young man who rose from a backward caste in a small village south of Moradabad to open a highly successful English coaching institute in teeming Moradabad, also offering personality grooming classes to boot. By holding contests conferring ‘best personality and best runners-up’ awards to young men and women aspiring for big city jobs, Ghanshyam got them to vet their own readiness for the snags that lay ahead. His institute did not just foster dreams of money for there was money here for the established, but an exit to money and a different life, possibly a gentler life with some independence from family and social strictures, maybe even refinement.
I had first met Ghanshyam in his small airless front office where young aspirants hung about filling forms, studying course brochures and posters. In a dark face with unstartling features, his eyes startled me with their light green-brown focus. His clothes flashed with excessive ‘personality’ – a shirt of clinging material with pink and blue diagonal stripes, tight black corduroys and square-toed shoes. Visible at his neck were a couple of silver link chains with Shiva pendants.
As a bank professional from Delhi temporarily posted at Rudrapur, I began my sales pitch to him on home loans with the brash assertion of a big city man. Ghanshyam’s light eyes focused on me with a strange awareness, as if alert not only to each word that I spoke but also to my tone, my mannerisms, and my facial expressions. He plugged me with the shortest of interjections so as not to break my flow. My sales pitch dropped when I saw that my target had no sense of unease, only the humility but greedy watchfulness of a shrewd learner.
At the end, he smiled and shouted to someone to bring me a cold drink. Then said, “Till today, I never knew how a loan is sold. Today I learned. You are my teacher, sir.” He brought his palms, bowed his head gratefully and invited me to attend a class he was about to take. I wanted to drop him like a hot brick, prickly with a sense of class and wasted time, but found myself following him into a back room, a flick of a curtain away.
The room was full with young men and women seated separately, packed together on benches, a common table running before each row. Amid giggles and whispers and poring over cell phones, there was an air of anticipation. Everyone stood up when we entered. Ghanshyam made sure I had occupied a comfortable cushioned seat at the back before waving his students to sit. A single fan stirred desultorily in a windowless brightly lit room, walls strident with posters. These carried images of Goddess Saraswati seated on a lotus with her veena. There were others which exhorted: “Don’t think in Hindi, think in English”; “Speak English as native speaker speaks”; “3 things to get to the top – KNOWLEDGE, APTITUDE, SKILLS”.
Ghanshyam paced the room with powerful energy, the students’ eyes hooked to him. He first made the class pronounce a few nouns after him: garbage, mountain, spouse. Then with the instruction that he wanted a negative answer to his questions, he thundered, “Did you throw the garbage?”
The class roared back, “I did not throw the garbage.”
“Did you climb the mountain?”
“I did not climb the mountain”
Ghanshyam broke off to gently ask a girl in the front row if she knew a word that could rhyme with mountain. Before she could reply, voices shouted, Fountain, fountain. Holding up a silencing hand, Ghanshyam asked the same girl if she knew the word fountain. She giggled and spurted, “Phuhara ”. With a slight upward flick of his hand, he encouraged a clap for her. Then, bellowed to the class, “Do you have spouse?”
The class roared back, “I do not have spouse”.
He taught a practical working English, restless with energy. Articles – definite and indefinite – were mostly missing from his sentences: “Are you doing job in Rudrapur?” “Will you jump into river?” “Tiger is climbing tree”. The class repeated everything he said with intense involvement. At the end he said he would teach them how to sell a house loan. He took a deep breath and began. My own pitch to him was repeated before my very eyes with scarcely a word missing. After the students left, he grinned at me, confident but self-conscious. I gaped at his audacity. He did not balk but asked shyly if he could be in touch with me. I wanted to dismiss him but couldn’t. I found myself muttering my number. He promptly gave me a missed call and asked me to save his.
He hailed from the village of Palanpur near the town of Chandausi from the backward caste of Muraos. His father worked on and off as a wage laborer at a mint plant at Chandausi and his mother as a farm hand in the village. They owned no agriculture land but a small house with three rooms made of concrete walls with a thatched roof and a toilet outside. With three siblings, he fully understood scarcity, and from his backward caste status, he understood how to wait – among the last in queues at weddings, in food lines at the local temple, at school events. Though he knew nothing other than being underfed, poorly clothed, never heard, he chafed against this silently. Compelled to walk barefoot for miles each day to the nearest secondary school, he found a way out: on peak cultivation days he helped as farm labor, earning ‘spending money’ of Rs 60 a day. The feel of firm rubber slippers on his feet was his first victory over want.
“I just knew that I could not remain poor like this,” he said to me on one of his many visits to see me in Rudrapur. “I had to earn. I had to earn. So I worked on other people’s farms, took care of other people’s livestock.”
“What about your studies? I hear teachers in villages don’t come to teach. That they are not enough and many don’t teach at all.”
“In our primary school, first we had a male teacher who always came drunk. Then we got a lady teacher who left because her husband died. Then we had no teacher. Then we got one who taught all five classes together with one assistant. The post for second teacher was never filled.”
“How did you learn?”
“Whatever I learnt, I read out to others. Whatever we were made to practice, I practised it twice. Mostly at school, as at home we hardly had current.”
After secondary school, Ghanshyam enrolled to study commerce at a college at Chandausi. Since electricity was erratic in the village, a few boys from the village got together to hire a room in town so they could study for their exams. It was at a talent show in Chandausi that Ghanshyam found his voice. He had taken part in singing and acting and dancing competitions before, imitating the best talent on TV shows. He had won no prize. It was at a debate on the impact of the internet on youth that his voice came out as his own. He spoke as if he knew that if he himself could figure out what the internet could teach him, he could transform his life. The audience was stirred and clapped several times. As Ghanshyam had gazed at the audience, he had been oblivious to the applause – something that he ordinarily craved. He not only won the first prize for Rs 500, but the job of promoting these competitions with a private event company on a seasonal basis.
Ghanshyam returned to his village as a teacher – a period of respect for the first time for him and his family. His students wanted him to speak to them in English. This made him feel limited and restless. He left the village and coated himself with every kind of finishing school skill that he could – from learning sales promotion to desktop publishing. He found a job in Delhi selling religious pilgrimage packages to travelers at 4% commission. It was here that he took classes in English coaching and tested out his English speaking with clients. When he was satisfied, he taught at an English coaching centre at Chandausi and then started one of his own there. By the time he moved to the bigger town of Moradabad, he had caught the imagination of hundreds of boys and girls who not only needed to learn English quickly but also possess the lifestyle skills for better negotiation.
Ghanshyam worked hard to equip them for a world that had always been out of his own grasp. His background gave him no reference points for learning, no role models to emulate. Everything had to be learnt from the media and internet, through self-help books and by acutely observing certain people in the way they spoke and conducted themselves.
Over a snack in a fast-food joint, he confided, “I heard that if you read aloud in English for 20 minutes every day, your mouth muscles get strong to speak a new language. I did this for 90 days. I also watched the mouth movements of people who speak English well and imitated them in the toilet. There were always words I could not pronounce. I carried a list of these. Sometimes I could ask someone for help. But mostly I had to listen to the sound of these words on the net – that too in a foreign accent!”
“What sort of books did you read?”
“Only books on personality development. No time for anything else. I read ‘How to win friends and influence people’ seven times. It gave me masala for daily practise: how to handle people sweetly; how to win people to your way of thinking; how to change them.”
I wondered how Ghanshyam won people over to his way of thinking when he neither had the time nor the chance to develop his own thinking through wider reading, wider exposure and interactions. He could not afford to read history or science or economics for even to cope with English and an English language-driven personality was a struggle terrifying in itself. I felt Ghanshyam’s utter loneliness in a world completely alien from his own – his father a daily wager, his mother a farm laborer, his siblings drawn into the magnetism of their brother’s frenetic upward thrust to free himself and them from centuries of oppression. All of it boiling down to a new home in a bigger town that aimed to free them from the perpetuity of poverty, and the relief of being called Ghanshyam and not ‘Aiee Murao’.
The other incremental steps were in upward mobility: from no slippers to slippers, from a radio to a television to a video player to a cellphone; from a call-receiving cellphone to one that could store a hundred numbers; a laptop followed by a motorcycle. A home currently on rent in Chandausi would in time lead to the reality of the family’s own urban home, Ghanshyam’s own bedroom and toilet, space for his van. A house and a van, a house and a van: dreams of the future that hammered in his mind, allowing for no other. With not much depth to his English or to his knowledge, I wondered how far he could go to break class and knowledge barriers. Far, if he had someone who could work alongside him – a girlfriend, a wife – a woman who loved him and had a similar drive and ambition. Perhaps together they could get somewhere.
Ghanshyam’s mobile rang to the tune of the immortal love song, jab pyar kiya to darna kya. He turned his face away to respond with deliberate matter-of-factness, but giggled to the caller.
“Girlfriend?” I asked when he had finished.
He looked genuinely surprised, shook his head, giggled again.
He gave details of her easily. Her name was Radhika. Like him, she was also from a backward caste. He had known her for over three years. She had been his student at his first English coaching school at Chandausi. She was now a teacher in a private school in Moradabad. She called him Sir. So did the students at her school where he gave coaching classes in computer literacy. Radhika and he sent text messages to each other every day – proverbs, quotes for personality development, inspiring story snippets. They talked often, mostly on their mobiles, sometimes at her school and when he asked her to help with his institute’s events.
“She says she has changed a lot after she met me. She says I have changed her life. She says she has personality now – thanks to me,” Ghanshyam said, matter-of-factly.
“Do you love her?” I asked, equally matter-of-fact, hoping to jerk out of him a spontaneous response.
He did not look embarrassed, just surprised. He looked away blankly, and then giggled. “I cannot marry now,” he said, suppressing a giggle. “I must build a house, buy a van, think of adding another business. Then only I can love and marry.”
“But you can tell her your feelings, your plans,” I pressed. When I got no response, I said with deliberateness, “Or she may marry someone else”.
Again he looked surprised, giggled a little. “I don’t think she feels like that for me.”
“But you said she told you that you changed her life.”
“So? That does not mean love or anything. She is also making her life. Today even men from backward castes are looking for educated wives, working wives.”
“But is she the right girl for you?” I urged, suddenly aware of the importance of what I was asking him to admit.
“Yes,” he said unhesitatingly, then fell silent.
I met Radhika at a personality contest Ghanshyam organised a few months later where I was asked to be on the jury. Short, pretty and bespectacled, she had the same agile alertness as Ghanshyam. Assisted by a group of young men and women, she was obviously in charge. I observed her speaking to each contestant, confirming the facts of their background. She oriented them on the timing for their entrance on stage, the cues for their dance numbers and repartees, and how they should approach the jury for answering queries. She joked with the girl contestants who wore saris and jewellery as if dressed for their own weddings. She made all the announcements on stage, including the names of the semi-finalists, finalists and winners. And when it was obvious that they had run short of a winning sash, she stripped off a stage banner, stapled up the two ends and slipped it over the head of a beaming winner! When Ghanshyam introduced me to her, she smiled at me with the warmth of someone who had known me for a long long time!
Over the next few months, we met on and off at Ghanshyam’s institute. Off stage, she was shy and did not speak much. It was obvious to me that she adored Ghyanshyam, though played as matter-of-fact as he did. Only their giggles escaped their masks of indifference. Meanwhile Ghanshyam’s business expansion dream was coming true. By paying a licensing fee, he had bought the franchise of a computer company to offer an online English language software module to student users. As I waited for him one evening at his institute, Radhika came in, aware of the fact that I was in Moradabad.
She came quickly to the point: “My parents have found a boy for me. Our horoscopes are being matched,” she said, her voice edgy, yet dull. She took off her spectacles to wipe them with the same edgy dullness.
The shock I felt at her words was unexpected. “Where is the boy working?” I asked hopefully. Maybe he had a good office job in a town like Rudrapur or a big city like Lucknow, even Delhi. Maybe she would be okay. Ghanshyam had obviously not spoken to her of his plans, his plans for both of them. I saw he had not found the depth to factor in anything more than a van and a house into his life. Maybe it was my view that lacked understanding – the understanding that for Ghanshyam love was a luxury, not a need even if it had the potential to spur his life.
“He is part of the family trade,” responded Radhika. “Making and selling gajak in Chandausi, for export. In their family, women don’t work. They say they don’t need to.” She had finished wiping her spectacles. She pushed them roughly back onto her forehead, bent to pick up her bag, swept low to touch my feet and swiftly left.
I did not wait for Ghanshyam. I left too, my heart heavy with regret.
It was Ghanshyam who came to me a fortnight later, unannounced. His face looked shattered. “Radhika has left me. She has got engaged,” he announced expressionlessly.
I let him weep, quietly at first and then with great gulping sobs. His shoulders sloped in desolation. By the time he left, his shoulders had squared and there was a familiar spring to the way he swung his backpack onto his shoulder. It was Radhika who had been the image of complete devastation.