Any good narrative has a sub-plot; this short story has many.
Mofijul Rahima Sheikh, 22, had started work in the family craft of weaving, in his village in Bengal. He earned about Rs 200 a day. He was already married, to 18-year-old Rafiza Bibi; they had a baby daughter. He was not content with a subsistence income. He dreamt of Kerala, where, he had heard, you could earn Rs 400 or more a day as construction labour. It was not an innovative thought; Bengal has become a migrant economy and Kerala, with its booming NRI housing industry, had become the latest destination of choice for young Bengali men.
He had, however, to finance the trip. He needed at least Rs 600, and that was not as easy as it might seem. Moneylenders charged punishing rates of interest. Mofijul got a loan from a childhood friend for which he was deeply grateful.
It is the poor who come to the help of the poor, if they can.
Mofijul found shelter, at a rent of Rs 1,000 for a bed in a room with a dozen other men. He had only a hundred rupees left when he got work; twelve hours of hard labour. But at the end of the first day there was the satisfaction of earning twice the income in Bengal. On his way back from work he saw a physically challenged person selling lottery tickets. Out of sympathy, he bought one ticket for Rs 50. It was a gesture: once again, proving that only those who have experienced poverty truly understand it and reach out. Mofijul did not hope to win anything; he just wanted to help a ticket seller whose condition was clearly even more miserable than his. He was stunned when he learnt that he purchased the winning ticket of Rs 1 crore.
An amazed, and perhaps bewildered, Mofijul called his family on his mobile. After disbelief had evaporated, he got some good advice. Mofijul was told to go to a police station and spend the night there so that he and his ticket could be safe until he had submitted his claim. The Kerala police were extremely considerate. They gave the young man shelter and security, and then escorted him to a bank to deposit his ticket.
Half a billion Indians survive like Mofijul, in the twilight of uncertainty, worried about the next day’s meal for the family. The plight of Muslims in rural Bengal is haunting: 80% of them, according to a recent survey, live on or below the poverty line. They have been betrayed by those they put into power.
Mofijul returned to his Bengal village, a celebrity. The press, inevitably, asked him what he would do with the windfall. His father, a dreamer of the ultimate Bengali dream, said he would build a house. Relatives suggested he could open a sari shop: it was a trade they understood.
But it is his wife, Rafiza Bibi, who understood how this money could change their lives and shape India’s future. “No one in my family studied beyond Class 1,” she said. “My daughter should go to an English medium school.”
* Half a billion Indians survive like Mofijul, in the twilight of uncertainty, worried about the next day’s meal for the family. The plight of Muslims in rural Bengal is haunting: 80% of them, according to a recent survey, live on or below the poverty line. They have been betrayed by those they put into power.
* Those on the poverty line have no surplus or savings. They must borrow even when they want Rs 600. This is the literal definition of a hand-to-mouth existence.
* Weaving has been the pride of Bengal for generations, an art that brought the world’s merchants from the era of Julius Caesar [as recorded by Pliny, the Roman historian] through the Portugal of the middle ages and Elizabethan Britain to India’s shores. Bengal produced at least 150 kinds of textiles. Bandana, calico, chintz, dungaree, gingham and taffeta are words of Bengali origin. Today a taanti, or weaver, earns just Rs 200 a day. He can get twice or thrice that sum by carrying bricks on his head. Something is wrong somewhere.
* One of the truly great inventions of history is the mobile phone. It cuts across class, empowers the poor and enhances their quality of life. No one leaves home voluntarily; only hunger forces you to do so. Not too long ago, distance meant silence. The only hope was an occasional postcard. Today a daily conversation keeps relationships warm, and families informed. It is a miracle for young men and women who saw their fathers once a year, perhaps for a couple of weeks, but today know instantly if their child is suffering from a cold. Technology is in harmony with democracy.
* Tribute is due to the Kerala police station. I can name more than one state where an anonymous holder of a lottery ticket might consider a police station the last place to seek protection.
* The Roman goddess Fortuna is generally portrayed as blind. When she showered her blessings on Rafiza Bibi, Fortuna had her eyes wide open. Everyone else wanted something for the present. Rafiza sought the future.