The lunchbox - Snigdha Banerjee Agrawal

Snigdha Agrawal

“Parvati…when you pack my lunchbox, please add extra bajra rotis and besan ladoos as well.  We will be celebrating Madhav’s birthday at break time.  He turns fifty today.  We plan to throw him a surprise underground party with all the bells and whistles”, Shiv said in one breath.  His excitement was palpable.  Parvati couldn’t refuse such a request for her husband’s best buddy.  She had the lunch packed, throwing in chunks of ‘gur’ and raisins, as an afterthought, before handing it over to Shiv.  Wishing him at the door, she shouted, “Don’t overdo the partying and no loitering after work.  Be home to perform the Sandhya (evening) Puja, before sunset. Need I remind you, today is “Choti Diwali? The fourteen oil lamps have to be lit”.  Shiv responded with his signature smile and head nod, as he trotted off for work at the tunnel site. 

The contractor was taking the headcount of the miners when Shiv joined them.  All forty were present, lunch packs in hand, wearing the personal protective equipment provided, taking in the last few gulps of the mountain air, before descending into the bowels of the earth.  Dark, cavernous, filled with toxic gases.  They had grown used to it by then, having spent the last couple of months below, executing the two-way ‘Char Dham’ all-weather project that would reduce travel time for devotees.  The cause more than overweighed the inconveniences they faced.  No one complained. 

Once inside, the group split into four teams, spreading out to their assigned positions.  The carbide lamps mounted on their hats were the only light to show them the way.  Barely half an hour into their work, they heard an earth-shattering sound, making them duck for cover.  Instinctively they lay down on the floor, on their stomachs, covering their faces.  Surrounded by thick curtains of dust, gripped by a choking sensation, each of them felt life ebbing, awaiting a sinister death.  Shiv’s first thought was of letting down Parvati.  How was he going to make it home on this auspicious day?  Virtually impossible.  Lying in that prostate position, he started chanting the Gayatri Mantra…Om Bhur Bhuvassuvaha, Tatsa Viturvarenyam, Bhargo devasya Dhimahi, Dhiyo yonaha prachidayat, (We meditate on the glory of that being (Savitur, the sun) who has produced this universe, who is the essence of our life existence; May he imbibe his divinity and brilliance with us…source internet).

Each word echoed back to his ears. Then followed an outpouring of voices he recognised as belonging to Ashique, from Hyderabad, Birendra from West Bengal, Jasraj from Ahmednagar, Billa from Begusarai and of course Madhav his friend from Uttarakhand, joining in the chanting.  Was his mind playing tricks?  Can’t be. It was unmistakably their voices. Sitting in confined spaces for days, conversing during break times, there was hardly any likelihood of an error of judgement in recognising their voices.  Comforting himself, this was for real, and relieved to hear their voices, Shiv willed himself to a crawling position.  He had to reach out to his teammates to check if all was okay with them. 

Ten feet away, he found Ashique, looking ashen and grey, his right leg pinned under a huge sharp-edged rock.  The light from the carbide lamp helped in dislodging the rock and freeing the injured leg, covered in blood.  Stripping off his shirt, he made a tourniquet and tied it tightly around the limb to prevent further blood loss.  From his water bottle strapped on his waist, he urged Ashique to take a few sips. “Wait here Bhai…I will be back, once I find the others.  Don’t worry, we will make it out of here, together”.  So, saying, crawling on all fours, Shiv found all his teammates, in various stages of shock and distress, within a few feet of each other.  Getting them to move along with him, he herded them to a wider part of the tunnel where he had propped up Ashique against the rock wall.  Seeing each other, they broke into peals of laughter mixed with tears of joy.  Gosh! It was a miracle, they were alive.  Once more the chanting started, this time Madhav leading the chorus, with others mouthing and pronouncing the Sanskrit words as closely as possible.

In all this milieu, Shiv suddenly remembered it was Madhav’s birthday. They were supposed to have a potluck lunch to celebrate.  The grotto in the wall where all the lunch boxes were kept was walled up with debris.  It was unwise to move around under such circumstances.  Nevertheless, Shiv made a feeble attempt. Groping in the dark, his fingers touched an object…Ah! The lunch box, Parvati had so thoughtfully packed for him that morning. What a stroke of luck, the box hadn’t been buried under the falling debris, nor had its contents scattered.   

All eyes riveted to the lunch box. But alarm bells rang loud in their heads. Madhav was the first to suggest the need to ration the food to make it last as long as possible.  The ladoos were broken into small bites and passed around, with the sudden burst of singing, “Baar…Baar…din yeh aaye…Baar…Baar dil ye gaye…tu jiye hazaaron saal, yah meri hai aarazou…Happy Birthday to Madhav…Happy birthday to you.”

 Madhav did not know how to respond to the overture.  Tears running down his cheeks said it all.

They slept shoulder-to-shoulder in darkness, night and day indistinguishable, conserving as much energy to tide them over till rescued.  Waking moments were spent sharing stories of life back home, of their families left behind across the country. News must have reached them by now.  Propelled by an unseen, unknown strength, at no point in time, did confidence levels plunge.  Out there were people single-mindedly working to get them out of the hell hole. 

 

The ’gur’ (jaggery) and ‘kismis’ (raisins) were like manna from heaven. Shiv kept thanking Parvati wondering what made her add these items to the lunch box.  Was it foresight?  Was it a mere coincidence?  Whatever!  To the trapped miners, it was a battle of survival learned through their experience of when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

---

 A Note:

---Bajra roti: millet flatbread
---Besan ladoos: traditional Indian sweet made with chickpea flour, ghee and sugar.


BIO: Snigdha Agrawal (nee Banerjee) is Bengali born, raised and educated in a cosmopolitan environment, with exposure to the Eastern and Western cultures, imbibing the best of both worlds.  With more than two decades of experience working in the corporate sector, her outlook on life is balanced, which is reflected in her writings. A versatile writer, she writes all genres of poetry, prose, short stories, travelogues, and hotel/restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor, under the pen name ‘puchka’.  A published author of four books, the latest titled TRAIL MIX, is a book of short stories for all mindsets. The book is available on Amazon.  A septuagenarian, next to writing, is her passion for travel.  Her WordPress blog randomramblings52 is where she pens her travel diaries.

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