Horogobindo Haldar was the funniest looking man anyone could ever come across. A strikingly protruding lower lip & jaw topped with a tiny button nose coupled with a pair of beady and squinty eyes under a large shiny dome with a few strands of flickering hair perfectly sat in place to create his hilarious look. His attire, a long white kurta atop a pair of old khaki English breeches along with laced white canvas ankle keds, played their parts in completing his comic appearance.
This cartoonish image and his mad cycling spree had earned him the nickname ‘Hucchuman’ – a speeding old buffoon on an antique bicycle. All the children and youth of his village used to pull his leg by singing the funny limerick – “Hucchuman, Hucchuman, he can do what no one can. Always paddling like a madman, here comes the loser Hucchuman.”
Hucchu would get super agitated and extremely furious whenever he heard this song. He would curse the daylights out of anyone, even humming its contagious tune. Horogobindo just hated being called Hucchuman.
Cycling was the nonagenarian’s childhood passion. Hucchu boasted of having competed in a few interstate rallies in his youth. He even claimed that once he had cycled from the metropolis port of Kolkata in the east to the hilly city of Leh in the northern Himalayan mountains, travelling through the world’s highest motorable roads into the land of mountain passes. There was, however, no photos or documents to prove these claims, and everyone said they were just a bunch of flapdoodles.
Many years back, the village youth club had organised a cycle race. Hucchu was encouraged to participate in the event by the tricky youngsters who were always pulling his leg. They sabotaged his bicycle, causing him to lose badly. That miserable day, not only did Hucchu earn the last place but also the lifelong brand of a looser, which never went away. It was a cause of great sadness in him, and he always wanted to do something to correct this image.
In 1868, Englishman Thomas Humber made himself a velocipede, a bicycle propelled by working pedals on cranks fitted to the axle of the gigantic front wheel. Following which he built a substantial business manufacturing tricycles and bicycles. He continuously improved the design and construction of these machines, and gradually his creations came to be known as “the aristocrat among bicycles”.
In 1950, Horogobindo Haldar had managed to acquire a ‘1947 Humber Gents Sports Roadster 22-inch bicycle from Sir Noble Hughes, the English professor at his college.’ The man was returning to Great Briain after India’s independence. He wanted to get rid of things too cumbersome to carry back to England. Thus, the professor decided to give away his beloved three-year-old practically brand new Humber bicycle to Horogobindo, his favourite student. From that day on, Hucchuman and his Humber became inseparable.
By profession, Horogobindo had been a postman. Though he had officially retired in 1990 at the age of sixty, he got an extension and continued delivering letters till 1995, and for the past twenty-five years, he was no longer an employee of the Department of Post. That, however, did not dither Horogobindo from visiting the post office every morning, six days a week, as he had done for more than fifty years of his working life.
Horogobindo had never wanted to quit his job. He was unmarried and did not have any children. The only family he ever knew were the employees of the post office of his little village. He could never come to terms with retirement. Every day Hucchu, would plea with the Postmaster Bongshilal Banujay to give him some work at the post office. Unfortunately, Banujay babu, a stickler with rules, always turned the old man away.
“Aye Hucchu… Aye Hucchu..,” shouted a bunch of teenage pranksters from behind the trees at the side of the village main road and ducked away from view, frantically giggling with their hands covering their faces.
“No good sons of baboons, shameless hooligans, numbskull morons, worthless buffoons, wait till I get my hands on you. I would knock the daylights out of your wicked nogs,” screamed Hucchuman jutting his fists into the air while paddling away on his trusted Humber on his way to the post office. This incident was nothing new to the villagers. It happened all the time whenever Horogobindo cycled his way through the village.
Apart from Huccchuman’s frantic curses, reacting to the attics of the young pranksters, life in the village went on quite peacefully till the end of 2019. With the advent of the year 2020, the world as humans had known changed forever. The global pandemic COVID-19 reached nearly every inhabited corner of the Earth, killing over four hundred and fifty thousand people in just less than two years.
Most of the countries in the world went under nationwide lockdowns to control the spread of the virus. In India, the lockdown began on the 25th of March in 2020. Within a few hours of it being announced the country nearly turned upside down.
Restriction of interstate movement and a complete shutdown of the public transport system led to the chaotic exodus of the working class from their job locations to their homes in different cities and villages. Apart from the virus taking innumerable lives, unemployment and loss of livelihood severely crippled the country and its masses.
Like the rest of the nation, Horogobindo’s village was also adversely affected. As many villagers lost their means to earn a living and suddenly had nothing to do, lady luck seemed to shine her light on Hucchuman for good.
Now all the three postmen of the village post office, who were from different places, fleed back to their homes at the start of the lockdown. Postmaster Bongshilal Banujay was in a big soup. He had to deliver the post, and there was no one to do so, or perhaps there was someone whom he had been saying no for the past twenty-five years.
“Hucchu… Oh shucks, sorry sorry, I mean Horogobindo babu, are you ready to serve the department of post once again,” exclaimed the anxious postmaster addressing the ninety-year-old. “Wait, do not reply. I know your answer is yes. After all, for the past twenty-five years, you have been pleading with me to give you a postal assignment,” twaddled Banujay babu before the old man could respond to the question.
“You are Hucchuman… Oh shucks, sorry sorry, I mean Superman, your speeding cycle will save the village. I cannot make it official. You know I cannot employ a ninety-year-old, but I will pay. There are so many deliveries to make, and it will only keep on piling by the day. No one else can do the job. No one knows every street, address, and name of all the residents of this village apart from you. I say you start from today.” Saying these words, Postmaster Bongshilal Banujay fell on his knees, pleading with the old man to accept the assignment.
Next day morning Horogobindo stood in front of the blotchy antique wardrobe mirror in his dingy little rented room of a home in a godown’s basement and smiled as he placed his old postal skullcap on his head once again. He ditched the white kurta to wear his official old Khaki bush shirt. It did not fit like before and hung loosely over his shoulders. He did not mind – it was all he had wanted.
Decked up and rejuvenated with newfound purpose and a chance to redeem a glorious name, Hucchuman paddled away to deliver the post in his village amidst an unprecedented global viral carnage.
Then for the next two and a half months, Hucchu dedicated himself to delivering the post as he had never done before. From morning to evening, the oldtimer delivered letters, parcels, answer sheets, mangoes, medicines, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) & COVID testing kits, money orders, and pensions to the old folks who could not leave their residence.
During this time, Hucchuman and his Humber became a sign of strength and belief in the village. Whenever people saw him, they knew he was not only delivering something important to someone but also delivering hope amidst all the sorrow, sickness, and death.
Though Horogobindo was pretty fit, cycling beyond his usual routine, that too with the postal load was causing his health to gradually deteriorate. Wearing a mask all the time was further posing breathing difficulties. The old man, however, overlooked all his increasing physical complexities and continued with his noble duties.
To the surprise of everyone, he even accepted and encouraged everybody to call him ‘Hucchuman.’ Suddenly, he had found much meaning in the name and realised it was a name everyone knew and said all the time. He just needed to give it meaning, and now with his heroic postal service, Hucchuman was no longer a loser but a hero in a noble service.
By the mid of May 2020, many in Hucchuman’s village had already lost their lives. Doctor Onimesh Ghosh, the only village physician, did his best to save as many lives as possible with his limited resources. His tiny two-storey home and clinic, was now where the most critical COVID patients in the village came to take their last breath.
“I need to put her on a ventilator within the next twenty-four hours, or else she will surely die,” sighed doctor Ghosh to Hucchuman, pointing at a middle-aged lady lying on a white cot. Hucchu looked around the room. There were many other patients there. He had come to deliver a batch of medicines, which had finally arrived to bring some comfort to the suffering.
“I have this ventilator but can’t make it work without replacing an essential component that is busted. Unfortunately, the spare part is lying in a warehouse in Kolkata with no one to deliver,” said Doctor Ghosh with much despair in his eyes.
“Give me the details. I will get the part for you,” spontaneously spoke up Hucchu. “It’s more than a hundred kilometres to Kolkata, how will you make the journey,” enquired the surprised doctor with a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Do not worry doctor babu, Hucchuman and his Humber will not fail,” replied the old hero with a smile across his comic face.
True to his words, that day Hucchu paddled more than two hundred kilometres on his trusted Humber and got the component in time for Doctor Ghosh to get the ventilator going and save the women’s life.
The next day morning Hucchuman was found, eternally resting on his bed in his dingy little rented room of a home in the godown basement, by the owner of the place. It seemed the journey to Kolkata was too much for the old lungs to bear, and Hucchuman peacefully breathed his last on his own cot with his trusted Humber on its main stand beside his bed.
Doctor Ghosh was able to save many more lives with the ventilator in the coming days. All the other deliveries that Hucchu made through the initial days of the COVID lockdown, during the last two and a half months of his life, positively impacted the lives of so many in his village.
Since March 2020, when millions of Indians were stranded inside their own homes, more than four hundred thousand workers of the India post dedicated their services to deliver letters, cash, medical supplies, and essential goods to the masses. Among all of their stories, perhaps the humble tale of Hucchuman and his Humber stands out as the tallest.
Today if you happen to visit Horogobindo Haldar’s little village in the southern fringes of Kolkata city, do visit the local post office. For there, you will see a 1947 Humber Gents Sports Roadster 22-inch placed on a cordoned concrete pedestal at the centre of the crossing and the following limerick inscribed on the stone below it – “Hucchuman, Hucchuman, he did what no one can. Paddling like a hero, he saved so many lives. We shall always remember the cycling legend Hucchuman.”
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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