He had never traveled before, and, when the train entered the large Kolkata rail station, he wondered why the train had entered a building. The only address he carried was that of a pharmacy, whose owner was his village chum’s uncle. He walked to the pharmacy and told the bemused owner that he had come to look for a job. The man took pity on the naïve lanky village boy and allowed him to sleep in a corner of the tiny room he rented near the pharmacy.
Dilip knew his two precious dollars wouldn’t last long and he had to find work quickly. What could he do? What would anybody trust a country yokel to do?
World War II had entered a new, uncertain stage and the Japanese army was surging through Southeast Asia, threatening Burma, now Myanmar. Dilip had seen two large signs seeking recruits for the British army. He checked with people on the street and did the five-mile trek to the army recruitment center in Kidderpore.
There was a long line of job seekers. All seemed better dressed than him, given his village tailored madras shirt, never ironed and now soiled by sweat. An hour later he stood before the English recruiter.
“Why do you want to work for the army?”
“I need a job,” he replied candidly.
“Have you had any education,” a skeptical query, doubtless prompted by his unkempt look.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in science.”
“Good Heavens!” Clearly the recruiter hadn’t expected the response. “Listen,” he quickly added, “we desperately need people who know some science. You will join tomorrow, and, after a week’s training we will send you to Burma, our radar station there.”
Dilip was thrilled. He would earn the princely sum of twenty dollar every two weeks, have free uniforms and shoes, buy food at concessional rates and earn some hazard pay.
Surprise. He turned to face another village acquaintance, apparently now an army employee in the recruitment center. When Dilip told him what had just transpired, the man's eyebrows arched in concern.
“Burma! You’d be crazy to go there. The Japanese are just about to overrun the place. Believe me, you don’t want to be a prisoner of war with the Japanese. A skinny kid like you will never survive.”
“But I need a job,” Dilip remonstrated, “immediately. Otherwise, I’ll starve to death.”
“Wait a minute. I know of a tire factory thirty miles from here. It is making truck and plane tires for the war. I know somebody there. Maybe you could be of use there.”
Within a week Dilip had a job at the plant. Within a year he had a decent job in the Technical Department as a lab technician.
Twenty years later, he was still in the factory, now a senior manager, when I joined the company as an intern. Despite the difference in age, we struck an immediate friendship. A city boy, I felt a misfit in the company town’s unique culture. A village boy, Dilip had done well in the company, but somehow maintained a psyche quite independent of the culture. That strange alienation helped us build a bridge of understanding.
Our paths later diverged. A technologist, Dilip became a successful administrator, and later a skilled lawyer. I went abroad and joined an international organization. Our friendship endured nonetheless. From the other end of the world I can still talk to him and know I have a friend.