Nameless faces

Amarabalan.

That’s a name that stuck in my head all these years, even though I had forgotten the person. There’s very few of my classmates from school that I’ve managed to stay in touch with anyways. I don’t recall his name being mentioned in any conversation in all these years. Some of us went to school together for 12 years. And then others came in and went out of our class at various stages. Amarabalan and I were together from Class 1 to 5. I hadn’t heard of him ever since.

When I met him after all these years the other day, outside our school, I was in for a lovely surprise. And perhaps, a shock in some ways. He came, looked me into the eyes, and asked, ‘Bala, teriyuda da enna?’ *

What immediate caught my attention was his eyes.

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Most of the times, I forget names. They are most likely to be of people that I have had a happy time with, but perhaps relatively briefly. Mostly during my travels. In some town or sometimes just for the duration of a train, or bus, or even an autorickshaw ride. Nothing much more.

I tend to forget faces much less, though. They stick. I know you, I just can’t place some things. You name, may be one such thing.

This man was a rustic. We must have spoken for ten minutes  in all. In that time, the conductor had come in to say he must sit at the back of the bus. I had reserved seat in the front and the seat next to mine was vacant. I felt offended and told the conductor that he’s found a place to sit! Why make him get up? After that, I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, he wasn’t to be seen, until much later when the man had wanted to get off at, close to our destination. The bus driver just asked him to get off in the midst of traffic, hardly having pulled up the road properly. I was upset, but then I could empathise with the drivers too. It is hard. Roads are becoming like zoos.

In the brief minutes this man had spoken to me, I observed that he was a simpleton. Probably a farmer. ‘I am from Chennai, and I had come here on work. There’s no water there for us, back home. Out here, in Chinna Salem, there’s drinking water. The cattle, poor things, they suffer the most when there’s no water.’

Then there was Manivannan. This was most recently, and I had made a (physical) note of his name, and so I remember.

He had refused to turn on the meter, I refused to ride with him. He came back to me. ‘Meter pota 80, oru 20 kooda kudu.’ ** It was quarter to 11. The second time, I didn’t have the heart nor the energy to refuse. I had observed his frail body. He wore a long grey beard, and looked older than he probably was. He spoke a lot. I was tired and sleepy, so couldn’t register it all. He hails from a village in Perambalur district. If I remember right, he had come in the early nineties to Madras. A decade later, his family went back to their village. His two sons both go to college, I was told. I remember thinking that he had done well for himself. In a strange way, that made me proud.

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It came back to me, almost as if in a flash, when he stood there in front of me. Amarabalan, the name, and the face. I was in awe of the moment. I remember he had sharp eyes. He always seemed like looking at things keenly. A lot of times his forehead would be a little creased. Maybe it had something to do with ‘pepe’, a game where a group of people is after a tennis ball, throwing it around to hit each other. He was pretty damn good at it. And I used to get hit a lot, with the ball, especially by him. I must have been easy target. And sometimes, I also remember seeing fear in his eyes. I don’t remember him doing well academically, but he was a perfectly ‘normal’, ‘smart’, talented kid. He now teaches at a college. He didn’t speak too highly of his job. Apparently, he did more for the system, than for the kids. It was evident, that he didn’t like his work. And I wondered how much our schooling had to do with where he or each one of us was. After all, aren’t schools supposed to help us carve out a path for ourselves?

That morning, I had very mixed feelings. I was extremely excited about meeting everyone. They had all planned to go to school, something I was not very keen about, for some reason. I’ve felt the same way about college, too. Not that they were ‘bad’ places, not to me in any case. In fact, I am grateful for absolutely wonderful, beautiful, colourful times as a student. As I heard names, and saw a few faces standing outside the school compound, my mind was racing away.

Through the day and until the following morning, I had a blast of a time with friends. With most people, it felt very easy. Just very easy, it was that simple. There’s something about childhood friends. I just felt like, if any of them needed me to, I’d just stand up for them. No questions asked. Each of us had parted at different points of time. A handful of them, I have since been in touch with. Every one of the rest, was a delight to meet. A lot of the girls felt the boys had changed in many ways, including having grown taller! And more than one of those pretty ladies told me that day, that I had changed to have become a lot quieter. I was quite an extroverted child. We were always up to something. We played, out in the open. A LOT.

Every one of them has had his or her life. They’re all doing their things. Some work for others, others make others work for them. Many of them have been married. Some had really grown up kids! I remember all of them as being unique. And when it came to school, I look back and think that it was mostly about coping. Parts of it were fun, no doubt. I remember liking some of the subjects too. And then there was time with friends – playing, just meeting, talking, flirting with the girls, during outings and what else not.

One of them had travelled roughly 3000 km, all the way from Assam. ‘I loved school days. Mostly my friends. I love you all. I had a tough time trying to study, though. I couldn’t get a lot of what we were expected to learn. You did,’ he told me. I was shocked to hear that after all these years. In my student days, I remember I had thought this fellow coped better, honestly. I really didn’t study all that much.  We had a lot of other things to do, like I mentioned earlier. And then there were things like reading, music, ‘extra-curriculars’, or Scouting. I guess for me, they were all key parts that not only helped me learn a great deal more, they helped me cope with the whole idea of a classroom.

Back then, I was a mixed bag. I did a lot of shit. I remember one teacher. She got hold of me while I was returning from the playground. I think it was my last year at school. She took me around, and showed me to a few of her colleagues, and exclaimed, ‘Look at his shirt. They’re supposed to be grown up, and look how they play so much to soil their shirts.’ I used to like her. I think I coped fairly well with the studying part. I understood things, mostly. Or so I thought. And then I had learnt some tricks that helped me do well in examinations, thanks to my teachers. I was even appointed ‘monitor’, in my primary classes. Looking back, the term looks abhorrent. Later, it became ‘leader’. Just as ‘miss’ had become ‘madam’. In both cases, the connotation of the terms didn’t change much. My job was to ‘shepherd’ others and let the teacher know who the rogues were. Each of them would then punish us appropriately.  I wish someone explained the meaning of the word ‘leader’. I look back with a measure of guilt, that all I did was to be policing, and I never thought of helping my buddies out. It seems to me that we were taught competition more, than cooperation. All the cooperation, we mostly learnt ourselves, outside the classroom, mostly in playgrounds and so on.

I look back at my experience at school & college, and it makes me want to cry. Especially because I am now exposed to ideas around education. I wish kids don’t have to constantly struggle at school. I wish it wasn’t just about coping, but truly learning and discovering oneself. This isn’t to say that I had ‘bad’ teachers. As I remember it, most of them were perfectly nice people. Most of them perhaps wanted good things for us. Yet, I can’t help but think how limited they were in their views & consequently in doing their jobs. And I won’t blame them at all. Every teacher is but a product of the same system that is badly in need of transformation. All these thoughts are without doubt, in retrospect. Especially given that I’ve come to understand education somewhat better.

I am grateful for my work now. It adds a lot of meaning to my life. What keeps me going, is that somewhere, we may trigger some teacher may open her eyes, and change her mind a wee bit. It may just be trifle, yet I find it important to keep going. If we want a better world for ourselves & our kids, then there’s no better place than to start with our schools. Else, schools will remain places where thousands of nameless faceless entities do nothing more than struggle, and somehow find their way out. And it is high time that changed. So that another Amarabalan can discover himself.

* ‘Do you remember me?’

** ‘If I use the meter, it will come to 80. Give me 20 more.’

 

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If God could see

“Saar, nalla irukkiya?” #, he would ask. His countenance would bear a wide, semi-toothless grin. Whatever teeth he had, were heavily stained. Among his meager possessions was a pouch – of betel nut and leaf that he would incessantly chew. He had a mild squint, and it took me a bit of getting used to. Initially, I wouldn’t really know who he was talking to. Whenever I went back to that building in which we had spent a few years, I would feel welcome, and mostly because of him. He would, almost always, greet me with a warm smile.

Saamikkannu * was his name. I always thought his parents had given him a beautiful name. Even if in this case, it was a bit ironical. For he couldn’t see much, or hear, for that matter. If someone called out from the building, he would look everywhere else except in the direction where the call came from. He was a tiny, frail looking man and I suspect he wasn’t as old as he looked. His apparent frailty made him look like he was in his seventies. I had never bothered to ask him how old he was. Now, I would perhaps never know.

The life of a ‘watchman’ in this city can be cruel. They are mostly old men, retired from their active professions, whatever it may have been. In most cases, they may be a ‘burden’ to the family and they are perhaps trying to earn some money and respect along with it. The people in the buildings seldom want to pay well, and that’s the reason why there are mostly old, practically infirm men, employed as ‘watchmen’. In reality, their job is mostly to open and shut the gate a hundred times in a day. Sometimes, in the middle of the night when people wake them up, honking incessantly. And then they are also used for odd jobs – to buy something for someone in the apartment, to take messages and so on. Their primary job – of providing ‘security’ to the building – is mostly a joke.

Life didn’t seem particularly kind to Saamikkannu either. He slept in a little nook just near the gates of the apartment building on most days. He would buy his breakfast from a nearby tea shop. His lunch would be delivered in a box to him, apparently from his ‘home’. One meal a day. Dinner would be from the tea shop again, unless one of the tenants were kind enough to give him the leftovers from their lavish kitchens. It was, quite literally, a nook. In the summer, he would sleep outside on a mat. During the rainy season, it would be particularly difficult for him. His nook had a roof but was pretty much just that – it was open on three sides, the fourth being the compound wall of the apartment, thankfully. And the windy rains here would make it impossible for him to sleep there, as the nook would be flooded. During those days, he would carry his mat and sleep inside the building, near the stairs. I tried persuading the others in thee building to make him a decent room, but to no avail.

Owing to his poor eyesight and hearing, people weren’t too kind to him. Not that we needed a reason. He was only a ‘watchman’. A kid in the block would call him ‘Spiderman’, perhaps because he would wear one of those ‘monkey caps’ even in the slightest chill here, and that would make him look even more comical than he was. One would hear him being screamed at almost every other day. Once, a car parked right outside the apartment complex had its windows smashed and the battery stolen and our man was sleeping sound until the morning, when the theft was discovered. Imagine his plight when in the morning, the owner of the car wouldn’t stop screaming at him!

Why am I writing about him? I heard today, that he had died. When the news came to me, I found myself crying. I am sure he would be missed now that he is gone. I wondered how people discovered his death. I felt a deep sadness imagining finding him on him dead one fine morning, on that mat beside his nook. Thankfully, it was not to be so. He had apparently died when he had visited his son.

There was something genuine about his grin, every time I visited after having left the building. In a world where just about everything is measured in monetary value and efficiency and whatever else, he stood nowhere. He served very little ‘purpose’. Yet, when I am asked about people in general, something makes me look into their ‘heart’ as much, if not more, than the ‘head’. Kindness is rare these days. He was always kind to me, and I am certain I did not deserve it. I can only be grateful now. I am glad life was kind to Saamikkanu atleast in his death, in whatever small way.

# – Hope you are doing well

* – God’s eyes

Money, money, money

Another days draws to a close. As summer approaches, the afternoons become uncomfortable, even in the air conditioned confines of the work place. As I step out for a cup of tea, I notice the late afternoon sun shining on one side of my face. I dread the month of May, as I do every year.

As I wait for my cup of tea, I notice a group of kids, probably going back from school. There is a clamor that fills the atmosphere as they stop off at the shop nearby. The kids are jostling against each other, now looking through the wares in the shop, now arguing about what to buy. It takes a considerable while before a decision is made, and one of the kids pulls out a few coins, in return for which he procures a handful of sweetmeats.

“For many years now, I have noticed how one of the kids has some money, and is usually in demand among his friends. And it is he or she who calls the shots”, observed the shopkeeper.

Rightly so; for though just about every kid in the group was trying to suggest as to what ought to be purchased, it was finally the one who dug into his pockets, who took the final call. Immediately after the purchase was done, the other kids were after him, vying for their share.

“I shall give each of you your fair share”, the little one, all of 12 declared. And as he was walking away, the other kids were in a hurry to keep up with him. One could see how the body language of the different kids had noticeably changed. The one who actually made the purchase now had a tone of authority in his voice, while the others had a subdued air to them. Schools are a microcosm; and to one who observes, they beautifully reflect interesting aspects of individual and collective human behaviour.

As I was leaving the shop, I couldn’t but help ponder at the shopkeeper’s observation. I wondered if in today’s world, money really is power, more than it probably ever was in the history of mankind.

the stain

it was yet another busy morning. i rode my way to the workplace, in the midst of the boob-to-butt traffic, humming a tune here, whistling a line there and attempting to keep my sanity in the midst of all the noise. i stopped off at the usual pit stop, the tea shop just before reaching my workplace, for the usual smoke and cuppa.

“make it nice and strong”, i requested the ‘master’. that is what they are called – the ones who make the tea or coffee. i understand tea is made and served in a hundred different ways. in this part of the world, there is one stove, on which water, along with tea leaves in this huge strainer, is brewing. on another stove, there is milk, boiled initially, and simmering – just warm enough to make a drink. tea is usually served in a transparent glass, unless the customer insists on a disposable plastic cup – something that i personally despise, and avoid. i’d rather bury my notions of hygiene – indeed, the cups are just given a bare rinsing in most places – than to consume another one of those despicable plastic thingies that would ultimately make this earth one bit more polluted.

when a cuppa is asked for, the ‘master’ usually throws in some sugar, half a measure of the decoction through the strainer with the leaves or dust as would be the case, and another half measure of the milk. the milk is usually diluted with a lot of water. the most interesting part is this admixture is then flung between a small mug, and the glass in which it would be ultimately served. the glass is held in one hand, below waist level, while the mug – with the tea – is raised in another hand, above the head, and is then tilted, till the tea falls into the glass. in its flight, the tea usually covers a distance of atleast a meter. the idea is to mix the content, while also frothing it up a bit. how they accurately do it, i am not aware, but this is a common sight in every tea shop that has caught my fancy for years now.

but i digress. the location of the ‘master’ is just at the entrance of the shop. the shop itself has a couple of tables inside, with a few chairs for those who preferred to be seated for their drink, and probably a snack. i usually prefer to stand out, in the open. today, i notice a young man inside the shop. he was tall, fair, dressed in an impeccable white shirt that was cripsly ironed out and a trouser to match. i thought he was incredibly good looking.

just when the ‘master’ was about to bring me my cuppa, this young man chooses to rush out of the shop, for some reason, and collides with the ‘master’. there was a good amount of tea that had spilled on his white shirt, leaving a dark brown patch. for a moment, there was just silence, nobody spoke. i looked on – the young man was just looking down at his tummy, where the shirt was stained. the ‘master’, he looked like he had seen a ghost. i could say that in those few seconds that elapsed, there was terror in his eyes.

in a moment, the young man looked up at the ‘master’, his eyes softening, and said, “go on with your work, it is ok”, while just placing his palm on the other man’s shoulder, as if to comfort him.

my tea arrived, and as i sipped it, i lit up, and wondered how i may have reacted had i been the one in the white shirt. i knew for sure that i’d have lost my temper, screamed, and stormed out of the shop, cursing the whole world till i got to work, and would have probably carried that mood through the day.

“it was nice of you to just smile if off”, i told him. he looked at me, and didn’t say a word, just smiled. i felt grateful, for the smile, and for the little lesson in life that he had taught me.

the birthday party

the strangest thing happened today.

as i walked out groggily in the morning to pick up my sachet of milk from the grocer nearby, i noticed a bunch of canines feasting on a box. as i neared them, one of them – this scrawny little creature that i have on occasion had the good fortune to feed – looked at me, wagged his tail excitedly, just for a brief moment, before digging into his meal again.

“he seems to know you”, the young man, who i had presumed was feeding the animals, said.

“i have favoured him a couple of times. dogs remember, they always do”, i replied.

as i looked down, i realised, much to my surprise, that it was actually a cake the dogs were eating.

“that is an expensive diet”, i exclaimed, almost involuntarily, and added, “and probably unhealthy for the animals too”. not that they were otherwise in the pink of their health. these were, after all, quite far fetched from their home bred counter parts – who were well fed, groomed, and most importantly, fortunate enough to have ample attention. i suppose for these hungry fellows, on the contrary, anything would go – they weren’t expected to live too long anyways. they weren’t exactly wanted. so as long as they lived, they might as well rid themselves of their hunger, among all the other miseries that their wretched lives and us humans had subjected them to.

“it was for a friend. she was supposed to cut it last night and all that. just refused to turn up, and hardly spoke a word about it”, he volunteered. he was young, but looked fatigued. he had the look of a burdened man.

there was an uncomfortable silence that followed. we both watched the dogs lap up the last bits – lick the box clean of any bits of cream that remained.

“i don’t understand why people make such a big deal of birthdays – i find them bourgeois”. i hadn’t known what else to say. i am usually at a loss to say nice things to people, especially at a time of discomfort.

“i don’t either, but she wanted it, it was her idea. said she’d like a cake, and that she’d like to cut it in the middle of the night, and that i ought to sing for her”.

the early morning sun was just beginning to shine upon us. in the yellow glow, i noticed little drops of tears glistening in his eyes.

“well, you sure made their day”, i told him, pointing at the dogs, and added “it is going to be a beautiful day” as i walked away, wondering if the poor dogs were at all aware of the little chat that transpired between us. sometimes, i wonder if i’d rather have lived blissfully ignorant life, a life of instinct, something more like those hungry dogs.

friend of my bosom

even though i don’t read too much poetry, i was reminded of one of the few poems that i have read and much enjoyed, and very closely related to.
the reminder came after the following sms exchange with one of my friends –

bum: dude, that absolute feeling of comfort, of taking for granted, one doesn’t get with too many people apart from family. you have given me that, and I can’t express gratitude in words. take care, my dear friend.

the dude: is this the bum getting sentimental? chill dude, I am family 😉

anyways, the poem is here for you, in case you haven’t read it already –

The Old Familiar Faces
by Charles Lamb

I have had playmates, I have had companions,
In my days of childhood, in my joyful school-days,
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.
I have been laughing, I have been carousing,
Drinking late, sitting late, with my bosom cronies,
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.
I loved a love once, fairest among women:
Closed are her doors on me, I must not see her –
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.
I have a friend, a kinder friend has no man;
Like an inmate, I left my friend abruptly;
Left him, to muse on the old familiar faces.
Ghost-like I paced round the haunts of my childhood,
Earth seemed a desert I was bound to traverse,
Seeking to find the old familiar faces.
Friend of my bosom, thou more than a bother,
Why wert not thou born in my father’s dwelling?
So might we talk of the old familiar faces –
How some they have died, and some they have left me,
And some are taken from me; all are departed;
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

from crow shit to Cosmic Intelligence

Little birdie in the sky,
I looked up and it shat right in my eye,
I didn’t laugh, I didn’t cry,
I just thanked god that cows don’t fly.

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I was reminded of this little rhyme I had read some place, I don’t remember where. I don’t even remember it verbatim, but this is good enough I guess. There were differences of course. It didn’t drop right in my eye. And more importantly, I didn’t thank god. In fact, I was cursing, frowning and complaining. It was when I just stepped out for my morning smoke at work. I was feeling nice and fresh, at least physically. The smell of the deodorant had not worn out, yet. What was done was done, and do I was wondering how I’d go about cleaning up.

And then I got thinking. Most events fall upon us like crow shit. They happen when we are least expecting them. Or they happen when we are expecting something completely otherwise. Expectations…they make us so miserable. We know it, and yet we can’t stop expecting. From happenings, from other people, and from life in general.

Somewhere, I guess I tend to attribute the events of my life to my own actions. It isn’t entirely wrong – for we do shape what we think to be our destiny. Or atleast that’s what the atheists seem to profess. Then again, there is something more to it. Why am I born blind, if I were indeed born blind? This is more metaphorical. I can see, physically. In most cases, I can see beyond that too. And yet, I turn a blind eye to what I perceive to be the truth. Now, why would it be that way, I wonder?

I digress. In ‘Forrest Gump’, he says, “Shit happens”. So when things happen quite unlike we want them to, how do we react? I can remember how often I have asked myself, in vain, “Why is this happening to me?” Or heard from others, how they have always been denied the things they have loved / wanted.

In pain, in pleasure, in good times and bad, I have decided to accept the events of my life, as they are. I may not understand why things happen to me, but I have utmost faith in the Cosmic Intelligence. I know whatever happens must have a reason, aspects that all fit into the jigsaw in the larger scheme of things. In Vedanta, this is called prasada buddhi – the attitude of accepting everything in life as a divine blessing.

I am grateful for all that has happened to me, and for all that is yet to come. I am grateful for what we call life.