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Friday, September 19, 2014

Guest Posts Series - Vagabond

Note : This post is a part of the guest post series.


Hello! I wanted to begin the guest post series with my father's post, and I had to hold a couple of posts I have already received from my friends. Our house is a messy place. It is so messy that we have an exclusive "looking-for-lost-things" time twice every day (once pre-breakfast, and once again post-dinner). On certain days, when what we are looking for is not extremely urgent, we stop to contemplate about our house, and we realize that there are too many books (along with too many every other thing). Not all these books are my appa's, but a lot of them are. He never restricts us from buying more books, and we generously pile on books we have no intention of reading.  I believe there are books of all possible genres lying around. I have read only 10% of all these books, and I don't expect to read all of them at all. It is thanks to my father that the habbit of reading was inculcated into me, and it is thanks to him that I started writing. Among all heaps of books scattered around, I have seen a series of books on Journalism. There is no doubt that my father has had ambitions to write, so he didn't need much convincing. I asked him to write something about certain incidents from his childhood, but he was reluctant as they were too personal. When I insisted, he mixed in some fiction, and made it into a short story. Good luck trying to spot which is real and which is fiction.

Vagabond


The Volvo bus was stuck in a traffic pile up between Jaipur and Delhi for more than half an hour. “This has become a frequent occurrence on this road.  Road widening on this stretch is going on for more than six years.  Nobody knows when it will be finished”,  the young man sitting beside him was telling him in  Hindi. Kumar checked his watch. He was doubtful about catching his flight to Chennai.  He asked the young man whether Airport Metro Services had been resumed.  “I believe it has” was the bored reply he got. The young man’s attention was now turned to his smart phone.   

Kumar’s  trip to Jaipur had been in connection with an eight year old case in which he had been summoned as a witness. It was only because of his alertness that the forgery was found out and the payment on the cheque was stopped at the last moment. He had been to Jaipur for the fourth time in that year. He had expected it to be over this trip. But there was no hearing as the lawyers were on strike. A long drawn Judicial process was turning into a chase of an elusive mirage. In a country in which the wheels of justice did not even seem to move, lawyers by  going on strike put their spokes in that wheel. Perhaps they had more faith in Trade Unionism than their advocacy skills.  

There had been a time when he enjoyed travel by road and the thrills of it. But now it was getting on his nerves evidencing the fact that he was getting old. The luxury of travel by Volvo AC Bus was lost due to the intermittent hold ups of traffic. Kumar pitied those drivers who had to drive in such conditions. He got down from the bus and could see Aravalli range, a  broken and irregular line of hills.  Ahead of and the behind the Volvo stretched a long line of containers, trucks, and cars. The traffic jam was due to a vehicle struck on the lane due to punctured tyres. Someone was spreading the good news that it had been removed.  After ten minutes, slow movement of  vehicles ahead could be observed.  He got back into the bus and settled into his seat as the bus started moving. The bus  had to crawl and fight for space with other vehicles to come out of the diverted lane to merge into the wide highway. He hoped that he would be in Delhi in another 2 hours. 

But, it took more than two hours. After reaching Gurgaon the bus had to crawl in the maddening City traffic. It was humid and hot when he got down at Daual Kuan and took the foot over bridge to reach the Metro Station. The silence of the Metro Station was a striking contrast to the noise of traffic outside. Unlike the main metro services, these services seemed to be patronized less.  The near empty metro train, traversing on the track above the road by which he reached Delhi, gradually descended from over head level to ground level and plunged into the darkness of a tunnel. It was a long walk from the Metro station to the Terminal. When he reached the gate for his flight after completing the formalities, he felt that there was enough time for the boarding. 

He settled in a chair to watch the news in Television channels. Jammu & Kashmir had been hit by the worst ever disaster of the century. Cameras captured Srinagar floating in water, cut off villages, half washed bridges, collapsed houses and the irreplaceable tragedy of those who lost their kith and kin. The revenge of the nature for the stupidity of human tendency to destroy the ecosystem was of horrible proportions. The visuals stirred memories deep buried inside him.     

The boarding for the Indian Airlines flight to Chennai had started. He would be having some rest in the flight. His awful mood after a futile and frustrating day was persisting. As people formed the queue for boarding, he almost lost his temper when the person standing behind him in the queue literally shoved him  to draw the attention of the tall handsome person with a prominent nose standing before him.
“Ram what a surprise! How are you?” 

He glared and stepped aside to allow him to join his friend. They started talking animatedly in Tamil. Another Ramesh and Suresh without chocolates in their hands, he thought bitterly.  Then he saw the person who was addressed as Ram and remembered that he had seen before him at the ticket counter. He had left his Identity card in the counter and Kumar had to call him back to collect it. From the Yellow ID card he could gather that Ram was a Central  Govt. Officer. He looked younger and more handsome than his friend.            

The movement in the plane was slow as usual. At row no 23, he observed with vexation that the Govt. Officer who was addressed as Ram was comfortably settled in the seat allotted to Kumar next to his long lost friend. As Kumar stopped to confirm his seat number from the  boarding pass, Ram asked  him, “will you  mind shifting to 23 A?” Kumar was happy to get the window seat and he nodded as if he was really doing a favour to them.  He settled into his seat. Tomorrow, by this time, he would be in Trichy.   Beside him, the friends settled and continued their conversation. 

“Are you from Chennai?” Ram asked him in English. 
“No. I am from Trichy”.
Kumar replied in English hinting in a tone that he did not want to prolong the conversation. He did not have the patience to tell him after a long life like a vagabond he intended to settle down in Trichy. He could not tell him about all the places traversed in his journey of life. Ram turned to his friend and continued the interrupted conversation.
“Ishwar, what were you asking? Yeah, I am going on official business. It is a Court case. So you have finally settled in Chennai”
“Once I would have shuddered at settling down in Chennai. Now I got used to its madness.”
“How is Aparna?  I heard your son-in-law is having a roaring practice.”
“But Aparna is complaining that he hardly has time for her and the child. Is  Karthick  still in Detroit?  It is more than five years since we met in the airport when you were seeing him off.” 
“No, Ishwar. He is in San Francisco. You know Detroit is a sinking city. I came back from San Francisco only last month. I was there for three months. Vanaja is still there”          

Kumar was really exasperated. If his son had been in Philadelphia or Chicago, instead of  Madurai, he could also boast like them. Considering the situation of the country there was no wonder everyone  wanted to escape to  some El Dorado. These two would incessantly be talking till the plane  landed. No, his  irritability should stop. It was unfair of him to grudge the success of others. He had to get some sleep and should not mind this. But it was difficult to ignore the conversation that happened at such close quarters. It seemed they were friends from childhood. Maybe from some village from Thanjavur District. Cauvery river flowed in their Tamil. To have such  school-day friends and to meet them in a faraway airport talking about distant foreign countries is another blessing denied to him. How happy he would have been for such pleasant encounters. 

He had over the years lost contact with his school and even college mates. His father was in a transferable job moving once every two or three years. When he got employment, his job too happened to be one which necessitated frequent movements. A succession of places, faces , events and impressions got super imposed in his memory obliterating those of earlier years. In his position of carpet beggary and with his reserved attitude, it took considerable time for him to break into an  entrenched group of students and by the time he struck some friendship, his father got transferred to some other place. 

Suseela had on many occasions chances of meeting her school or college friends in train journeys. “You are sullen and reserved. That is why you do not have friends”, she used to comment mockingly quite unappreciative of the fact that her entire schooling and college studies happened in a single place. He had been like a wanderer hopping from place to place. There was a probability that somebody he met somewhere in his school or college days might be in this very Plane. It could be even Ram. But when he replied to Ram curtly he closed the opportunity of even knowing that. His assumption that Ram and his friend were from Thanjavur District might be wrong. He was too tired for even petty conversations. Explaining that he was traveling as a CBI witness would require him to offer more explanations, as if he was a criminal. It is a system where criminals enjoyed more rights and powers than witnesses. He was feeling like a brooding character in an old Russian novel. Was he slipping into insanity?

The catering van and the cargo carts moved off and the plane was ready for take off. He dialed Suseela to tell her that he had boarded the plane. Outside, a haze of dust hung over the big runway. The plane started moving slowly, turned, and stopped, waiting for further instructions from air traffic controller. A big jet approached from the east, landed and thundered past the waiting plane. Now the plane moved again, turned slowly, gained speed and roared off into the sky. He shut his eyes. When he opened thrm, spread under him were the luminous lights of Gurgaon and the lights of hundreds of vehicles flowing into and out of Delhi. The flight was gaining height and speed.

Kumar tried to recall his friends of school days. But it had been nearly forty years and he rarely revisited the places of his school days. Once he had been to Bhavani, a town near Erode, but it was a very short visit to the Sangameswara Temple. He had stood at Mukkudal to watch with sadness the lean strip of Cauvery and the barren Bhavani. That was before his marriage with Suseela. Friendship could be renewed only  by being in constant touch. Of late he had started pruning his acquaintances and kept minimum relationships. In a way, he had become a recluse by choice and he had no regrets about it.     

Strangely, today he had been recalling his Bhavani School days as he was watching the visual images  of floods in Kashmir in Television channels. Long buried memories of an unprecedented flood in Bhavani which wrought havoc on the town sprang back. Amidst the memories of the loss of the limited household goods of his impoverished family, there lingered the happy memory of curtailed school hours which was an outcome of that devastating floods which washed away two blocks of school. There was a let up of the incessant chattering of his neighbours when meals were served.  After the meals, he gradually drifted into sleep. From a height of  thirty six thousand feet  he plunged into the depths of a dream. 

He along with his School friend Ravindran was standing in  Mukkudal, where Bhavani, a  rain fed river merged into the perennial river Cauvery. Usually Cauvery was  in full flow and the Bhavani a lean  strip of water.  But,  on this day Bhavani was in spate overflowing the banks meeting the waters of the Cauvery with an unknown ferociousness and rising palm tree high. It was a terrific sight inspiring awe and dread. All the people from the town were there watching it spell bound. In the crowd, he had lost Ravindran. He shouted for  him but could not find him. Now he was hungry and turned  to go to home. But he had lost  his way and suddenly found himself in the Jaipuir CBI Court.  A lanky lawyer showing his back to him was arguing the matter.

“Your Honour, in spite of  repeated  summons, the witness is not appearing before the Court to depose. He should therefore be punished for Contempt of Court”.
As the  lawyer turned he recognized that it was Ram, his next seat passenger in the plane. The  stern and forlorn looking Judge ordered for Kumar’s  arrest.  Four tall Police Constables, towering over him by a head’s height, came to arrest him.  He wanted to shout “this is really unjust.  I am only a witness.  It was only due to my alertness..........”   But the words were caught in his throat.
            
He had started running  but  he could not find his way  and  strangely found himself  in  IX C class room. Ponnusamy Sir was taking Maths class while a roar of water was heard outside. A School peon came to inform that the classes were to be closed. But Ponnusamy Sir who always had been very strict about attendance shouted at him. As he was shouting the class room was being flooded. Ponnusamy Sir had to relent and order the students to rush out. Students rushed out of the class. Now they were  surrounded by water and Kumar found himself alone. Somebody pushed him into the water. As he was carried by the  rushing water, no one was there to rescue him and  he was swept away in the floods. He could not help  swallowing water. He was feeling an unbearable pain and weight in his lungs and was unable to breathe. He was drowning. In the rushing water over his head he could hear the quiz master’s question.
“On which National Highway is Bhavani Town situated?”
Mocking voice of a girl -  “Rama,  you do not know the answer for this simple question”. Here he was drowning and dying but nobody cared. He made efforts to shout but nobody heard or saw him. At a distance, somebody was shouting. Suddenly pain shot from his head as somebody violently pulled him up by holding his hair.  A long silence followed which was shattered by the words.

“It was the year of the great flood”.
Kumar woke up startled and was breathing with difficulty. It was Ram who had been speaking. He was in the Plane from Delhi to Chennai.  He had been thinking  about his days in Bhavani  before he went into sleep and had a dream. He had a sudden urge to use  the restroom.  He got up and went to the rest room. As he washed his age worn face, he was still confused about the dream. The words  of Ram was not a part of the dream and their discussion was about a great flood. 

It was because of his fevered imagination triggered due to the repeated  visuals of flood  devastation in Jammu and Kashmir.  In the dream, the events of real life merged into his fears and apprehensions he was undergoing on that day. On the day of the flood, he had been watching the fury of the flood with Ravindran. But his near drowning was not on the day of the flood. That was one month before the floods. Now he tried to remember the mocking voice of the girl. Then he recalled some long forgotten events during his school days with distinct clarity.

They had been staying in the first floor of the house as tenants. The ground floor was occupied by the house owner. The daughter of the house owner had tried to draw him out of his shell many times. She ultimately succeeded in drawing to a conversation two days after the day of the quiz competition. He had been returning from the school and she stopped him before the entrance of the house. She was congratulating him on his winning the first prize when  Ramakrishnan crossed them in his bicycle. He stopped his bicycle and started coming to them. Kumar could feel the antagonism in his eyes. She did not speak to him but her eyes were mocking Ramakrishnan. He  stopped for a few seconds and glared at them for few seconds without saying anything. Then he got back into his bicycle and sped away. At that time Kumar did not know Ramakrishnan was related to that girl.  

One week after that event, Kumar along with his parents went to the house of Ramakrishnan. They had been there to thank Ramakrishnan who rescued a drowning Kumar. It was a huge house  having a big Central Hall with four rooms on the four corners. His father was in conversation with Ramakrishnan’s father. His mother could easily chat with Ramakrishan’s mother as if they had known each other for a long time. He was  standing in a corner with Ramakrishnan; lost for words and awkwardly shaking hands with him. “He is very shy”, his mother was telling Ramakrishan’s mother who was busy giving coffee to the guests.  Ramakrishnan, who  had saved him from death and could have been a friend, but never really became a friend - a  face erased from his memory by time and distance. If he met Ramakrishnan now, it was doubtful whether he could recognise him.  How ungrateful he had been.

He returned to his seat. The conversation was still continuing. He closed his eyes and started reminiscing  about the flood. It was rumoured that the flood was due to a breach of canal brimming with rain waters. The breach was caused  by villagers upstream Bhavani who feared that their village would be inundated  The town was cut off for two days. When the waters receded taking away two blocks of the school, sediments of the flood were left with an awful smell in every article in the house. Along with stories to be told and retold of  the great flood. 

One of the haunting memories was the washing away of a house. They had been watching from the first floor of his house the increasing levels of water.  The newly constructed unoccupied  house was obstructing the full  flow of Bhavani which had entered the town and was draining through various channels  into Cauvery. The force of the water splintered the house into two. One part of it fell and after a lag of few seconds another part fell and was washed away. 

His recollections were sharply intruded  by the conversation between Ishwar and Ram.
“We have decided to sell the house. His business had  run into losses. You know, they have their own ideas of business and do not change. I had to convince him to  come  and settle at  Chennai. That is why I had to come to Delhi -- for getting the consent of my uncle for the sale of the house”.
“It is really a big house. I remember during your sister’s marriage, the house could accommodate the entire marriage crowd.  Oh! How I wish to visit Bhavani once.  Maybe this November when the Cauvery is  in full flow, I should make a visit. In that great flood of  our school days, your house accommodated many of the people from inundated houses.”

Kumar was startled on hearing this. They were talking about Bhavani. Or was it the dream that was continuing? It is inconceivable on a flight  miles away and  after nearly forty two years three people were dreaming about the same event.  Either he was in their dream or they were in his dream. Or  else they were also in a film directed by Shankar based on Film Inception. But it seemed too real to be a dream. Why, this Ram could be Ramakrishnan! And he was saying that  Vanaja was in USA.  Now he remembered the name of the girl with mocking eyes  -  it was Vanaja.   

“But Ram your house was bigger. What a time we had there! I still remember the hide and seek games we played in that house. Oh that big Central hall! Pity your father had to sell it long back. Last time when I saw the house, demolition work had started. Yes, we will visit Bhavani and see all those places where we played and fought.  At one time you were a hero of the town when you rescued one boy from drowning. How you were feted and treated for that heroism. This was in spite of your disliking for  that boy because he got the first prize in the School quiz contest. A very sullen and shy boy who had few friends.  He just vanished away. "
“Ishwar, I was never a hero.  With a detached sense of seeing things from a distance  I realize how childish I had been in many of my actions. My reaction on loss of first prize was churlish. But there were times, I was afraid I would lose something more. .........”

Ram, Rama, Ramakrishnan.   He was sure that this was the same Ramakrishnan -   his saviour.  There was  an untold part of the story of that day which was known only to two people.  He was feeling a breathlessness as he visualized that day of his near drowning. The drama of that day played once again in his mind.

He was watching the silent flow of Cauvery from the bottom most step of the banks. There was no one else. Suddenly he heard steps behind him. Before he could turn somebody pushed him into the water. As he fell and struggled into the water he thought he saw a lanky handsome boy with a prominent nose standing on the steps of the desolate bank. The initial exultation in Ramakrishan’s eyes now gave way to  a panic as the implication of his act  dawned on him.    

It was forty two years since that day and on that big Central Hall. Other than “Thank you”, Kumar had not found any words to utter. He and Ramakrishnan  had been standing there apprising each other like two adversaries in an arena.  Kumar couldn't imagine why the loss of the first prize could mean so much. Now, on a plane from Delhi to Chennai the answer to a question which was elusive to him for all these years became apparent to him. It was not the prize. How blind he had been.   
And  it did not matter. So much water had  flowed down the Cauvery since.  
The plane was  slowly descending.  There was  an announcement about the landing at Chennai in a few minutes.  He saw below the lights of Chennai emerging slowly out of the infinite darkness of the sea and night. 
“I do not even remember his full name. It is some Kumar.....”  Ram was muttering.
“Ram, I think it is Krishna Kumar.  No.  But  it started with a K”
“Kesava Kumar”. 
Shocked  childhood friends turned to face the silent passenger at seat No. 23 A offering his hands to Ramakrishnan.
Lights started dimming and the landing begun.


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