Sunday, April 15, 2018

THREE OLD MEN AND A TEA STALL




THREE OLD MEN AND A TEA STALL

If you think that the title sounds very much like Jerome k. Jerome’s escapades of the three men in a Boat or a Bummel, that’s all it does. If you believe that two is company and three is a crowd, you are wrong. Well, that’s what I found out today, especially if it is a company of three old men. I was the youngest of the lot, so I am still young. And when I say a tea stall, it is far removed from the one under whose thatched roof we let loose many a tale of youthful romance, whether it be a figment of one’s own imagination or a true account of a lost love, under the perfect setting of a moonlit wintry night with only the distant barking of a lonely dog seeking out a mate that had run away with  another of the same breed. Sounds very much like the ones under the thatched hut, isn’t it? Only here there were more of them in the thatched hut. Now there were three – old, older and oldest and a tea stall on the pavement at the corner of the road leading to the beach. The old being me and the oldest some sixteen years elder.

Ever since I switched back to walking along the beach in mornings as the Chennai heat in the evening could be like being in a pressure cooker and you breathe in all the pollution let loose during the day. Though once you reached the beach, there would be respite; the familiar faces and the casual waving of hands as we passed one another, occasionally stopping for a moment or two to exchange pleasantries, especially after a break in our daily routine.

As I was on my last lap on the beach road, to an extent exhausted, the sun already shining in its morning glory, there was a gentle tap on my back.

“Hello,” he said, an old man in a yellow T-shirt, dark blue shorts, sports shoes and with a mop of silver hair on his head smiled at me.

This was the first time I saw him. He was a regular and since I was back on a morning walk, I was the stranger as far as he was concerned. Having come from behind he had drawn level and turned sideways to look at me

“I haven’t seen you before,” he said.

“That’s true because I am an evening walker,” I replied.

“It’s always good to come in the morning, the oxygen levels are high and you do not have to contend with the pollution,” he said.

By the time I could reply he had already stopped to talk to another walker. As I waited he turned to me and said –

“Go ahead I’ll join you.”

And so I went to the end of the beach road and waited for him, which he did after few more stoppages on his way. Usually, I do not break my rhythm while walking and would have continued on my way back home. But today I did wait for there was something very alive about his face; fair, with a straight and blemishless nose and eyes that seemed to bore deep into you.

He caught up with me and resumed his talking before I could introduce myself to him. It appeared that since he had already seen me minutes before I was no longer a stranger to him. But to me he still was and so I introduced myself as we continued to walk.

“Oh! I am V. Nice to get to know you. Don’t you feel the more people we meet, the more we understand ourselves?”

I couldn’t agree with him more “Yes, I also like meeting people, though usually, I do not stop during my walks. Today is an exception,” I said. He did not seem to hear me and said

“I usually have tea at the tea stall at the end of this road in the corner. Have you been there before?” he asked.

“Though I have seen it, I have never stopped for I do not have anything till I reach home and had some rest.”

Yes, I have seen that stall, small and usually with a small crowd in front of it. A meeting place for youngsters usually in the evenings. But in the morning, it seemed as if it had been taken over by the elders. There were small plastic stools and a bench on the pavement.

“Join me for a cup of tea, it’s very good you know.”

He ordered for three cups and just as I was wondering why that extra cup he seemed to read my mind and said “Well that is for a friend of mine whom I meet here every day. He should be here anytime now.”

“You know Mr. Subbu, I am eighty-four years old and meeting other people and talking to them keeps me going. Every day I make a new friend and today it’s you. I started with a salary of forty rupees and spent a major portion of my time in Kolkata. I remember the first time I went for an interview, the interviewer a six foot something English man asked me whether I was wearing shorts or a full pant” and he laughed, “I had passed only eighth standard, started as an office boy and graduated to a clerk. I worked in a number of multinational companies with my proficiency as a stenographer. You know the Englishmen knew how to recognize merit and they also taught me discipline. It helped put my life in order. My children went to Corporation schools, did well and finished their education in prestigious colleges like BITs Pilani, St. Josephs, Trichy, and Loyola. They are well placed. You know during those times the bogey of reservation was not so much and merit still mattered.”

As he was talking, his friend joined him and I introduced myself to him. D said he was from Palghat, something I had already guessed from that distinct accent whether they spoke English or Tamil. V was also from that region but sounded more eloquent and kept up the conversation from his end without breaks, I can say a monologue. I did interject sometimes. But at the end of it all, I knew more about him than he about me. But for his ramblings, there were takeaways from that meeting which made me understand the principles on which this man had lived his life, a healthy and mentally stable one with the maturity to accept life with malice to none.

He said “Mr. Subbu there are three things you should remember and principles on which one should approach life – 1) if you lose all your wealth, you can still make up for the losses and regain your material status 2) if your  health is affected you can still go to the doctor and try to set it right 3) but most of all, you should remember that once you lose your character it can never be retrieved.”

In between, I made sure that I rang my wife and told her that I will be delayed. The tea was excellent with a dash of ginger to make it that peppier. V made sure to compliment the tea stall owner which I believe he did every day.

As there was no sign of V slackening I got up and excused myself “I should be leaving now, but thanks for the excellent tea.”

“Don’t say thanks. This is something we pass on to each other: me to you and you to others, the chain should keep on going, only then will goodness will prevail,” he said.

D told me he was seventy years old and before he resorted to a life in retirement, he had been a trade union and had been an MLA in Kerala.  I told him I retired from the bank and now spent my time writing. But throughout the entire conversation when V was on to his monologue D had been mostly silent. Maybe to provide V a sounding board and to enjoy the excellent tea. The tea stall owner I realized would be privy to many such conversations of different motley groups. His job was not to listen but to continue serving tea which he did with great pride and every time a compliment came his way it would make him happy. So, before we left I did just that and he returned the compliment with a smile.

D also got up to go and he accompanied me, till after some distance he turned right and I turned left, each to his own destination.     


Saturday, March 31, 2018

THE FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD TAILOR



THE FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD TAILOR

When I was a young boy, well that’s how any story starts, isn’t it? I could not get off the beaten track to tell my story of the friendly neighborhood tailor. There have been many of them, so it naturally should be ‘tailors’. Not only tailors, there have been doctors and barbers, vegetable vendors, the milkman and the grocery stores etc. so the neighborhood was always well endowed with friends and suppliers of services, whose faces we knew, knew their names and sometimes the problems in their families when in a moment of desperation, they would share with us. Not that they did not know what happens in our own household. But that was how it was, the world revolved around the neighborhood. Now the only thing the servant maid shares with us is how her husband had come home drunk, beaten her and taken away the money she had kept in a tin box with the friendly Tasmac outlets (Govt. liquor shops) strewn around the neighborhood, with the sole intent of gaining some pity and some money. Now with the supermarkets, the dairy outlets, ready-made garment shops and the online stores where you can order anything you want: the faces have been lost and names unknown and neighborhood gossip.

I still remember the milkman, a tall black giant of a man who would bring the cows in front of the house to convey to you that the milk was straight from the cow’s udder. But in the kitchen, my mother would invariably complain that the milk was diluted. We never came to know how he did it. But when he came to collect his money which he did twice or thrice a month and stand in front of my mother, scratching his head and asking for an advance, my mother would let him have a piece of her mind. He would stand grinning, all his thirty-two teeth prominent on his black face and ultimately leave after getting what he wanted. He continued till we left the place and on the last day, he bid us farewell with tears in his eyes. That was the first time I saw a giant of a man who would enact the role of Hanumanji in the neighborhood Ramnavami festival, could also cry; a twenty-year relationship having come to an end.

There were so many of them whose services were rendered during those years without any growling, bargaining or cheating. Loyalty and faith was the ground on which these relationships were built. But coming back to what I started writing about the friendly neighborhood tailor.

I can still visualize that lean, miserable looking pockmarked face which had stitched all the shirts and pants my father wore and later mine. I do not know when my father started giving him work but he was there till we left Vizag after my father’s death. He had come and shed tears, real ones. Maybe he was way ahead of times for his measurements were either too tight or too loose, never right. My father would always try to get them altered and ultimately end up wearing loose fitting clothes. Once when in all my childhood innocence I asked my father why he did not go to another tailor, he would smile at me and say, “Poor chap, he has been there for such a long time it would be unfair to desert him, and he is a very loyal and trustworthy fellow.” Yes he was, but he would take on much more than he could handle and would always end up never meeting his deadlines. The result was that every time my father went to collect his clothes the tailor would come running out of his shop saying “Sar sar sar I will definitely have it ready by tomorrow” but tomorrow never came, it would be ready only a week later. My father would scold him in his broken Telugu and he would stand with that miserable look on his face and scratch his head. It was then I learned that to say sorry one should scratch the back of one’s head. Of course, I have never attempted it, especially now with no covering on my head. My father’s heart would melt and all forgiven. Anytime we passed by his shop there would be crowd of customers shouting at him, and to each one of them he would repeat “Sar sar sar I will definitely get it ready by tomorrow.”

I can never forget the day when my father and I on our evening walk passed by his shop and found him sitting outside and crying. When my father asked him the reason, he revealed that since he did not meet the deadlines for a bridegroom’s dress, the family had come and dismantled all his sewing machines and went away with them. On further questioning by my father, he said that the wedding was on that very day. My father could do nothing much except to console him.

Times changed and when we came to Madras after my father passed away, I found all my trousers were too loose and drainpipes were in. I remember my mother repairing them at home as per the prevailing style. It was luck that I did not need to stitch new pants. It was not the same when the drainpipes became bellbottoms, I had to get a new wardrobe. Amitabh Bachchan had done the damage and people were strutting the streets with their bottoms, sorry that should read pant bottoms waving in the wind as they walked. Well, that’s another story for another day. Now I have once again found a friendly neighborhood tailor who alters my pants mostly reducing the length of the pants bought from the not too friendly neighborhood super-store.


Why did I now remember the friendly neighborhood tailor of my childhood days? My father passed away on 28th March 1963 and that day he was there, our friendly neighborhood tailor as miserable as he always was but there were copious tears streaming down his face. I understood what my father had long ago understood that for all his faults he was a human being with a soul, a good man.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

THE COCKROACH VIGIL – by Devika Rajan BOOK REVIEW


THE COCKROACH VIGIL – by Devika Rajan

BOOK REVIEW

This a delightfully allegorical short novel. It reminded me of Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’ in which the unnamed narrator, a dog, recounts a number of episodes from its past, to rationalize and resolve the basic questions of its existence. Here the cockroach has been made real by naming it. The fact that it is a cockroach which is the protagonist, dawns on you slowly as you read.

Laroche and his niece were by the kitchen drain. Laroche had a view of the outside through a crack – the real world outside and not just the next room.

.. But their egg cases were secure

The entire setting is surreal with a nuclear holocaust as a result of the misadventures of a country. The entire wiping out of life in the future appears a possibility. While Laroche the cockroach narrates how through time immemorial despite being under threat of annihilation and being trampled upon, they had risen again and again. Here is where the allegory gets stronger alluding to the fact that despite the conflicts between the strong and the weak, the ruler and the ruled, the Gods and the lesser mortals, humankind can emerge stronger and resilient if we could only get rid of our prejudices and irrational beliefs. I particularly liked –

“You elders don’t value yourselves. We don’t need gods, we don’t need validation from others”

“Let go of the past!! I will not allow it shape our future! When we come back, we ourselves will be the gods. Uncle, LET GO OF THE PAST.”

Ultimately the cockroach teaches us the art of adaptability and ultimate survival instincts under any conditions.


This book though a short read leaves its impact on the reader and will for a long time.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

AUTUMN LEAVES – Seasons of Life A PREFACE



AUTUMN LEAVES – Seasons of Life

A PREFACE

Looking back, the seed for this book was sown nearly two months ago as I was listening to Nat King Cole singing ‘Autumn leaves’. His hauntingly captivating voice captures the poignancy of loneliness and a lost love.

‘The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands, I used to hold

Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.’

The falling leaves for me symbolized the drifting away of relationships, of life itself. Autumn or the Fall has always fascinated me with its colors but at the same time, there was a despondency that it would soon come to an end. I quote a passage from my book ‘I am just An Ordinary Man’ –

‘I watched as the leaves fell from the tree near the balcony at her house, once green then golden yellow, brown and then on the ground. The tree stood barren and stripped; waiting for winter, to be covered white with snow, the rejuvenation in spring and glory in summer to once again the fall. The cycle continues. Isn’t it very similar to the processes we undergo during our lives? Then would winter signify the hibernation we undergo after death to be rejuvenated and born again during spring?’

While I grappled with the existential questions in my first book, in the second book ‘Darkness and Beyond’ I had explored being part of a larger process, a process of experiencing, for no knowledge of life would be complete without introspection and experiencing. The book was about all that: each chapter a slice of life, in search of a meaning that would define existence; in search of the ‘Beyond’ of this ‘Darkness’. Beyond all this was the offer of hope that there is always light at the end of darkness.

I asked two of my friends their views as to what Autumn symbolized for them. While one said it was the full attainment of all that life can offer you, with all its colors it was a ‘beautiful life’. The second view was that it represented sadness as after all this achievement the leaves would turn brown and fall to the ground, a symbol of our approaching end. Two divergent ways of looking at life itself. While the first reveled in the present moment, the second despaired at the approaching darkness.

We are not here to judge which view is correct for both represent the reality of living.
I came across a very enlightening passage from Hemingway’s book ‘A Moveable Feast’ which I have used in my book under progress ‘Autumn Leaves – Seasons of Life’

“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”

This book deals with the reality of aging and loneliness; the reality of moving away from relationships and the disintegration of what was once a family unit. It also explores the renewed search for roots in the generation to follow. Here I have made a departure of projecting into the future and accepting the reality that an individual’s search for the meaning of life can never end.

That’s all I have now, for I am one-third of the way towards completion which may take me a few more months. But I thought should share with my friends the satisfaction and joy of sitting once again to write. I write because I live through the different characters I portray in my books. Ultimately, I want to present to my readers something they can identify themselves with and ask their questions and find their own answers.


So friends, bear with me for this premature posting, for it is the support and encouragement extended by you that is taking me on my journey. Thank you.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A VACANT PLACE



 A VACANT PLACE

I come to Hyderabad every winter as it is pleasant and a bit cold which I like, unlike Chennai where I stay. For the past four years I have been doing this since my daughter moved over here and the best thing is, it is relaxing and I love my morning walks in the garden near the house. I do fifteen rounds and it takes me about fifty minutes to complete and then head back home.

There are regulars and there are new faces I notice though I do not stop to talk to any of them except perhaps a ‘Good Morning’ or a smile of recognition, a courtesy I extend to a select few I have had the pleasure of seeing the previous years. I know some would have wondered where I had vanished the rest of the year leaving a place vacant in the garden. One of them did venture to ask ‘What happened? Where were you?’ I replied I live in Chennai and come only at this time of the year, a seasonal bird. I know what thoughts arise when one notices an absence be it of a man or material. Common to both would be the premise that they have shifted elsewhere, the most positive thought that could occur. But something of a more serious conclusion in respect of the man or woman especially the older variety would be that they have ceased to exist. Well that exactly how my mind works also.

Though I walk alone, for I like to be with myself or listening to the music on my Ipod, I do notice things I pass – the trees, the flowers, the birds, the stray dogs, the monkeys and of course the people. Each one of them inhabit my world of walking though I choose to remain silent. Over the last four years if there is one recurring image, it is that of the old man. You may think that I am obsessed with old people and old age especially if you have read my book ‘Darkness and Beyond’. But one can never deny the fact that as you age, you inch towards thinking more of the beyond.

But other things aside, I could not help notice the vacant place on the bench which I had passed so many times during the past years. In the Chapter on ‘The Old Man and I’ I had related something similar but the setting was different – I quote

“As I walked out of the park, I turned back to see him, a lonely figure on the bench as the dusk settled. The night was slowly creeping in. That’s what life is all about – the dawn, the light of the day, the twilight and then the all-consuming darkness.”

Now here it was a different scenario – the sun was slowly rising, clearing the morning mist and the day had just begun. But to me it appeared that the darkness which had preceded had consumed something and thus the vacant place on the bench.

I write this a month after I noticed his absence and therefore I have come to the conclusion that he had passed away to the beyond. He was a regular, at least eighty years and odd, impeccably dressed and a sweater to keep away the cold. Of short stature and a crop of white hair on his head and a cleanly shaven face, he reminded me of Jiddu Krishnamurthi. He would walk slowly towards the bench dust it with his napkin and sit erect. As I passed him on my rounds he would be busy with breathing exercises and then slowly get up from the bench stretch his arms and legs stopping only when someone passed him by. He would then move on to the lawns and stand facing the sun. the last thing that I would hear as I made my way back to the gate to leave I would hear his laughter loud and clear repeated rhythmically.

This was what it was over the three years but was missing this year. Though I find others occupying that bench, for me without that old man it was a vacant place. I knew that he was a permanent resident, not a visitor like me who was just a periodical occurrence.
That day as the thought struck me that he may have passed beyond and I was slowly walking towards the gate of the garden I met the young man and his wife both regulars in the garden. While the young man would be exercising vigorously, his wife would be taking her walk. The last time I was here I saw them walking hand in hand taking their rounds in the garden. She was pregnant and I guessed in an advanced stage. So now I was pleasantly surprised and happy to see a young toddler in between them holding on to their hands and taking his first steps in the garden. I waved at them and smiled.
I quote once again the last words of the old man from my book ‘Darkness and Beyond’ –

“You remember that the last time I met you I said that the night is creeping in. I know that it will soon envelop me and take me to the ultimate darkness. I do not know what lies beyond, but since light fades into darkness and the darkness melts away with the dawn of a new morning, I believe that there does exist something beyond this darkness and that is the hope I carry with me.”

Yes, life goes on – A Vacant Place and A New Hope


   

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

AND THEN I BECAME BALD




AND THEN I BECAME BALD

I don’t remember when it happened. It was so subtle, strand by strand, hair by hair, and then, there was nothing. In case you are still wondering about what I am talking about, I do not blame you. It happened to me also, I did not realize what was happening. I still cannot say when I became bald, but now I know I am.

Once upon a time there was a clean-shaven youth with a crop of luxuriant hair on his head. And that was the face his wife saw before she married him. All earlier attempts to grow some hair above his upper lip were shot down by a glance of disapproval from his mother, after all how could a boy from an orthodox brahmin family grow a moustache. If he had been born in an earlier era he would have been forced to shave the front half of his head with long tresses of hair at the back rolled up to a knot ubiquitously called ‘Kudumi’ and the three horizontal lines of the sacred ash ‘Vibhuti’ spread across his forehead. Well I guess I was lucky I missed that era.

Remember the Rishis of yore who never had the time to crop the hair on their head or face as they were deeply immersed in penance. Of course, that did not stop the scantily clad Apsaras from dancing in front of them and upsetting their spiritual quests (pardon me for any blasphemy on my part, but that is not my fault for I have grown up watching all those mythological films and led to believe that was how things were in the realm of the Gods, Devas, Rishis and the Kings who always seemed to hold court to the swaying of the dancing girls). And then there were the monks with not a hair on their heads also on a spiritual quest. I then understood that the quest for spiritual enlightenment was all about hair, with or without.
There was a time when premature baldness was the subject of ridicule until a smart bald man came up with the catch phrase ‘Bald is Beautiful’. Those were the days when ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ was being aired on the television. While this was catching on I came upon an article about five years ago which reaffirmed my belief that baldness is not only beautiful but also sexy (you can very well imagine why). I quote the first few lines and that was enough and I did not proceed further for fear of finding something to the contrary –

“Think of Bruce Willis, Andre Agassi or Michael Jordan, and you’ve got three famously strong, masculine men with plenty of female fans. They also have something else in common: they’re bald.

It’s often said that bald men are more virile. The popular theory is that they have higher levels of the male hormone testosterone, which makes them more masculine and increases their sex drive, but they lose their hair at a younger age than average as a result. The truth, though, is a little more complex.”
Since it said the truth was a little more complex I did not proceed further. I did no further research and since that day I have had long conversations with my beard while gently caressing my pate late into the night.

But of late when I go out shopping, to movies, to parties or just a stroll, I find Rishis and Monks (with finely chiseled French Beards) once again, and of course the Apsaras are there.

It all happened one fine (?) day ten years ago when I was in Mumbai. I have always been proud of my beard, so I thought keeping him good shape would contribute to my well being both physically and mentally (yes, I would keep worrying when the remaining strands on my head would disappear). I bought myself a beard trimmer and proceeded to ensure that he had a decent and uniform growth (nothing like the Rishis whose beards looked unkempt and unwashed). Well I did succeed for he looked real smart – uniform and the right length as desired by me. Happy that the trimmer had done a fine job I cleaned it by brushing off the remaining strands of hair on it and kept it aside. It was only when I looked in the mirror to admire my well groomed facial hair that I noticed the uneven growth of hair on my head (at that time I did have some noticeable growth on the sides and the back of my head: I still do, but to a much lesser extent). To set this right I picked up the trimmer and ran it through those portions I felt were not uniform. After the first run I noticed to my horror that there was a patch of ‘no hair’. In my hurry I had forgotten to clip back the depth adjustment cutter on the trimmer. I now had no option but to run the trimmer as it was, through the remaining hair on my head. And that was when I first became completely bald. Of course, when I came out of the bathroom, my wife had a curious look on her face which did not need any words to translate “So where has all the hair on the head gone?”


You see I had long ago made a compromise in my spiritual quest (Whisky or Old Monk) and took the mid-path to realization by becoming half a Rishi and half a Monk. So, what would you call me now – Rishimon or Monkrish? I wouldn’t mind for now I am at spiritually elevated levels only three pegs down.

Friday, December 8, 2017

SECRETS OF THE SOUL – 17 DELIVERANCE



SECRETS OF THE SOUL – 17
DELIVERANCE

I seek the secrets of the soul,
From within the depths of the ocean,
The pearl within the oyster,
Emerging headlong through the tunnel
Into the light, from the womb,
The first cry, the first sigh of deliverance,
And the umbilical separation,
Freed into a world of conflicting emotions,
To find its way, through the chaos,
Through this labyrinth of relationships,
To grow, live, to ultimate decay and deliverance,

But the ghost it continues to stay.