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CIMA Gallary

Fading face in a crowd

A reporter’s life is a crowd of faces fading in and out. Over 14 years of flurry, few faces have left a more definite imprint than that of Chayan Mondal — gentle and kind, strong-willed and righteous. And few scenes would leave a more lasting impact on this mind than that of an uprooted coconut tree lying by a pond that had, over a month ago (April 26), crushed the life out of the lad who was so full of life.

Chayan, 24, was no celebrity. Son of a well-to-do farmer, he hailed from Usthi, 47km from Calcutta, near Diamond Harbour. The geography graduate wanted to see the world. He also wanted the sightless to see. In November 2010, he had set off on a solo bicycle trip across all 29 states to spread awareness on eye donation. That is where we had met, at the modest flag-off event. All he had with him, other than his cycling gear, was a list of eye banks and cornea donation pledge cards that the city-based International Eye Bank had handed him, and blessings from well-wishers. When he pedalled off, there was no knowing when he would be back.

But he did in February, after 461 days of cycling over coasts and hills. He said he stayed at police stations, army camps or temples, whichever opened its door. And when none did? He paused, naming a couple of police stations which kept him waiting for hours before turning him out. In those hours of despair under the night sky, he said he remembered the words of his idol Swami Vivekananda.

He was more forthcoming about the friends in the villages of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. And of the tea and instant noodles that admiring bikers bought him at Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road.

His club, Sonarpur Arohi, I had heard, had given him a hero’s welcome on his return. But other than a few media mentions, little else happened.

In March, when The Telegraph got associated with a cycling event, we invited Chayan as a guest. He offered to cycle from home to the Salt Lake venue. What was 60km to a boy who had covered 27,000km, often travelling 90km a day? Every colleague who cycled alongside him spoke highly of the modest boy who also gave away prizes to kids.

I got the devastating news from the eye bank secretary. As I walked into Diamond Harbour Hospital hours later, a 150-strong crowd was waiting to take him home. “O Usthi-r rajputro (he is the Prince of Usthi),” said one of them. The hospital had never seen cornea collection. Chayan’s became the first, collected by a teary-eyed team that came all the way from Barasat at the behest of the eye bank he supported.

As they followed him home, I walked to the accident site. There was no storm, not even a gust, yet the tree had fallen — that too at an angle different from the one at which it was inclined for months. It fell first on the electric wires, plunging the area into darkness, and then on Chayan. The lad fought all the way to the hospital — a good half hour after the huge tree could be moved. Then the lights went out.