April 6, 2010
The greatest knowledge is the one that tells you the difference between Right and Wrong. -Socrates.
The tenants and the Village
There is something mysterious about my new tenants. I smelled it on the first day - the moment I saw them. However, that day, I was busy, hence, didn’t give much thought to it at the time. I had promised Vasu to meet him at his hotel. Now that I am retired, people seek my help for something or the other; in a way that keeps me busy.
I was running late; at the gate I bumped into a young couple. They looked like college students, but the girl had a mangalasutra on, and many colorful bangles - newly married, I thought - must have lost their way.
“You have an apartment for rent?” said the young man.
Then I realized – their purpose.
The upper room of our house was vacant for a while. The previous tenant had vanished, without notice and last month’s rent. For weeks, I had run an ad in the local paper, nobody turned out, till this young couple materialized.
Reluctantly I said: “My wife is in the house, she will show you the apartment.” I knew these city people would not like the apartment.
And I darted to meet Vasu. Only in the evening, when Saroja, my wife, handed over the money, I remembered the young couple.
“They have moved in,” she said.
“So soon? What are they doing in this place?”
“The husband got a job in the city,” she said.
Mangalore, the nearest city, is around 40 km from our village. A few years back, the bus, that comes twice daily, was the only link to the outer world. Nowadays though, The Konkan Railway has brought more life. The laying of the rails had created much enthusiasm and vigor - created jobs for villagers. However, it was a daunting task: the government delays, landslides, crashing tunnels and the Monsoons- Everything took its toll. But nothing lessened the spirit of the people, who had not seen such attention before. Finally, the visionary dream materialized – obstacles were conquered, nature was tamed.
The first day, when the train arrived, a large crowd gathered to welcome it. There were people from neighboring villages as well. I went with my children: Anusha and Shankar. We all waved enthusiastically at the majestic train; though it didn’t stop at our village. I had never seen so many people at our village. My father used to say, the largest crowd, he had seen at any time, was the one, that assembled to welcome Gandhiji; who had stopped at our village for a few hours on his way to Mangalore. That was a long time back. I was a young boy, I don’t remember the event.
When Ranga got the job at the station, he proudly announced to me: “Shastri Sir! I have been hired by the biggest employer on this planet.” He said.
“The Indian railways!” he declared with much delight.
Though, his job was only to hold the Green or the Red flag whenever the train was in the vicinity.
In the initial days, the early morning gong of the train abruptly stopped all village activities. Nothing moved till the train passed our village; this ritual continued for a while. Gradually the enthusiasm decreased and even the magnificent train became a part of the routine. By the time Bora, the dog, came under the train, many had even forgotten the mighty locomotive. Nobody knows how Bora came under the train. Vasu was the first person to find the dead dog. He lives on the other side of the track that needs to be crossed, everyday, to reach his hotel. On the fateful day, Vasu found the dog, on his way to the hotel, lying in pool of blood, decapitated and dead.
Vasu, like many others in this village, was my student. He was not academically excellent; hence, when it was time for his father to retire from the hotel business, Vasu was ready to takeover. He discontinued his studies, in spite of my earnest pleading. In the end everything has turned out well. Probably this was his calling.
Usually, I am his first customer. We talk about this and that till other customers start coming. Along with my usual cup of tea, he gives me daily updates, inside information, future up-comings, and the news that doesn’t get published in the paper – like Bora’s demise.
“Bora, committed suicide,” said Vasu, on that particular day.
The name didn’t ring a bell.
“The dog - Bora”
“He committed suicide?”
“Came under the train”
“Why do you think he committed suicide?”
“I don’t know,” said Vasu, “Bora was intelligent. There is no way the train, that moves in a straight line, could outwit him.”
Though I waved it off at that time, deep in my heart, I just want to believe that theory. Like some of us of the yester generation, Bora, had seen better days. Probably it got tired of the recent anti-social developments. And found his escape by coming under the train!
At least a few people would have escaped this village, if they had the means - or come under the train, if they had Bora’s courage. I cannot run away from this place - not now. I had tried once, though. After my teachers’ training, I got a job in Mysore. The pay was good. I was young, and desperately wanted to see the world beyond our village limits. However, convincing my father was a Herculean task. My mother, whose help I sought, unlike every other time, rejected my plea at the most crucial time. She didn’t want to undertake the futile mission.
Father loved this village. He never stayed away from it; whenever he went out, to the neighboring villages, for Kambala or Yakshagana or for some marriage, he made sure to return home for bed, lest he wouldn’t find sleep. My plans of leaving his beloved village hurt him deeply – beyond my expectations. I was the most educated person in the village. And he, my father, considered my departure, a substantial loss for the village; the village of his forefathers.
When I explained my plans, he didn’t say much. “This village needs you,” he said. I saw the pain in his eyes. He had never asked me anything for himself; I could not say no to him. I took the teaching job at the local school. That made him content.
In the end not leaving the village turned out to be the correct decision. All this happened a long time back. The river never ran dry in those days. Now, I am retired. My Father is no more. In a way, I am thankful to God; my Father was not a witness to the recent developments - that would have killed him anyway.
The village is a sinking ship that people are abandoning. The last to go was Khan; he left for Mumbai, a few months back. That’s why the arrival of the new tenants surprised me. The tenants had given 3 months’ rent in advance, which was a novelty; that clouded my intellect.
My earlier tenant, Das, the one who vanished, used to complain about one thing or the other. I spent much of his rent in meeting his demands - ate my brains all day. On weekends, he used to invite himself for dinner at our home. Hence, when he left, I must say, I let out a sigh of relief. To my surprise, these new tenants had done no such thing. What do they want? They have eloped; I am sure of that. But that is not the end of it.
An unexpected visit
Though, it’s a while now, I haven’t seen the tenants. The husband goes to work in the early morning bus – before the day breaks. Even the girl, I think her name is Ramya (as per the rental agreement), is not to be seen. She is supposed to be at home all day. However, I have never seen her any time the home or even at the window. Their room has an external staircase that I had built after Das vanished - to avoid intrusion from future tenants - is serving them conveniently.
I had not climbed these stairs since Das left. I knocked on the door. Ramya must have been in the kitchen. I heard the water running.
“Please come in,” she said, surprised; She was not expecting me.
Inside, I observed how neatly she has maintained the home. Das never bothered to pick anything, once it landed on the floor. Saroja used to give a courtesy clean on weekends.
“Just a casual visit,” I said, “How do you youngsters like this place?”
“This is a very quiet place,” she said.
“I know. It used to be still quieter.”
“Sure,” I said.
While she was in the kitchen, I continued my observation. A few books were neatly piled on the table. I recognized some of them. Adjacent to the books was a picture frame. The girl in the picture had an uncanny resemblance to Ramya.
“Is this your sister?”
She gave a thin smile; offered biscuits on a small square plate. “No,” she said, “that’s me.”
“Who is this man?”
“Harish: my husband”
Then I saw the resemblance.
“You both look different now,” I said. “Is this an old picture?”
Something dark flashed on her face, for a brief moment, was that fear? I don’t know.
After that she was not comfortable. She looked like one of the guilty students in my class. I finished the remaining tea.
“I will go now,” I said, “Thank you for the tea.”
When I was at the door, I remembered the purpose of my visit.
“We have a pooja at our home,” I said, “Some important people are coming. I was wondering if you could-“
“I am sorry. We will be busy-“
“Not a problem,” I said and took leave.
Only, later, when I was picking flowers in the garden, it occurred to me that the girl had rejected my invitation, even before knowing the pooja day.
The second time, when I went to collect the rent, the picture was gone.
Nowadays, there is not much crowd at the Hotel. Only a few months back, before Khan moved to Mumbai, we used to have great debates over many subjects. I and Khan go a long way back. We grew up together. During our younger times, we used to be the formidable opening pair of our village cricket team. A couple of times, I fondly remember, we had batted the whole innings, without getting out. He was so strong. Watching him, from the non-strikers end, hitting those huge sixes, was such a joy. It feels like only yesterday. Now, years later, Khan is only a shadow of his youth. Time has taken its toll.
After his wife’s death, Khan lived all alone. A few months back, one night, miscreants pelted stones at his window, and broke the glass. No one knows who did that or why – a convenient mystery.
Khan’s younger son lives in Mumbai; He was begging Khan to relocate to his house, for years. Khan never obliged. He had spent his whole life in the village. However, the breaking of the windows, though a minor incident, was the catalytic blow for the gentle giant. He sold all his property – it was a lopsided deal.
“You could as well have donated it as charity,” I told Khan, when I came to know about the deal. He didn’t say anything. This is not the Khan, I had known years back. Not the fearless Khan, who would hit a six at the first ball of the match. Tired by age and unreason – this is the Khan who wanted an exit.
I dropped him at the Mangalore station.
“You will have a wonderful time with your grandchildren,” I told him.
He gave a weary smile, looked me in the eyes.
“Sashtri, in an ideal world-” his words trailed off. He is not much of a talker.
“Don’t…don’t say anything. I know-”
We stood together, till the departure was announced. From inside the train he waved to me, his eyes were moist, or probably they were mine – I don’t know.
Vasu brought the tea and the newspaper.
“Anything new?” I asked him.
“Computer Company changed their plans,” he said.
I saw the article at the bottom of the third page: Tech Atlantis is backing out!
Tech Atlantis, the software giant of the country, had purchased a huge area of land in the outskirts of Mangalore. This was a good sign. No need for the young job seekers to go to the bigger cities. But now, it looks like, the company is shifting to a small place called Madhapur in Hyderabad. The company has not given any specific reason for this, however, it is obvious. Our district, once known for its hospitality and egalitarian values, is now highly volatile - a sleeping volcano. The business people like Atlantis are not interested in the pseudo values that the so-called saviors-of-the-culture are trying to protect. The news of Atlantis’ departure has not created any stir- a single paragraph on the third page! The developments are so subtle that we don’t even notice them.
Where is my daughter?
My thought process broke off when I saw the new tenants on the pedestrian trail that leads to the temple. The trail passes through the thicket that people usually avoid at this hour of the day.
The temple was built during my grandfather’s time. The chariot procession, at the annual Jatra, used to be a great attraction. My daughter, Anusha, eagerly awaited the colorful event. Before she was born I took part in the chariot pulling. Two thick ropes would be tied at the front of the giant chariot. Enthusiastic devotees, in two endless human lines, would pull the chariot for a furlong, to the backdrop of mystical chanting. I used to be one of the frontrunners – like a path finder. The next day I would have blisters on my palms. But on the day of the Jatra no one could stop me. And somewhere down the human chain, near the holy chariot, among the muscle men, would be Khan, sweating, pulling the ropes with all his might, to put the chariot in motion. Now, in the current days, the very presence of Khan, maybe considered against our religion or maybe against our culture. Anyway, I will never know – since in the last few years the temple feast has been cancelled.
These days the number of people at the temple has decreased. My tenants’ temple visit at the odd hour made me curious. From whom were they are hiding?
In the evening, while cutting vegetables in the kitchen, I asked my Saroja:
“Did you notice anything unusual about our tenants?”
“No,” she replied.
“The girl is in the house all the time. I have seldom seen her go out.”
My wife sighed. “Leave her alone,” she said, “she is not your daughter.”
Even today, Saroja has not forgiven me. Though she has not said it verbally – she is still upset because I didn’t listen to her. I am talking about a time, though now it seems eons ago, only a few years have been passed.
I was the principal of our school then. Anusha, my daughter, was in the final year of the college in the city. Now, I can recollect the events with greater clarity, however, in those days I didn’t notice the change in her demeanor. Initially, I didn’t notice the blank phone calls. Later, I realized that probably the person on the other side hung up only when I picked up the phone. Then someone saw her with a boy in the cinema theatre. Ours is a small village, everyone knows each other, days are long, and people wait like vultures for fresh rumors.
I don’t believe in locking someone up in the house or stopping their food. I told Anusha, there was no way the relation could have a meaningful conclusion. She was stubborn too; probably she got that from me.
In the school, I heard students whispering behind my back. Only days back they didn’t have the courage to raise their eyes in my presence. Now like a pack of blood thirsty wolves they stared at me. I could not stand their stares. The eagerness for the fellow human’s fall, even in these young children, wrenched my heart.
At home, the awkward silence at the dining table, unnecessary arguments, made Saroja weary. Finally she said to me: “why not give up, let her do whatever she wants, if that makes her happy.” I should have listened to her. But I saw the years of carefully built up reputation and goodwill collapsing like an avalanche. Saw my father’s sacrifices going in vain. I could not risk all that.
The very next day, a fishing boat, found her body. The couple had tried to commit suicide. Though they rushed the victims to the hospital, they could save only the boy.
And my wife has not forgiven me. Now I see my daughter in every young woman. Nothing can be worse than the death of your child.
My son, Shankar, has come from Mangalore. He comes only when he is in need of money. Very often he comes up with a scheme or an investment plan. Last time he sold me a few cheap household items for an exorbitant price. It was some kind of a network. You need to sell the same things to the people in the chain below. I didn’t see the logic in that. I don’t have the energy, or street-smartness, to convince any potential members, why they should buy these expensive unheard products, when better products are available at a cheaper price in the market.
Saroja has lost hopes on him too; though she makes an unsuccessful attempt to hide it. She prepared a feast; and somehow convinced our tenants to join us for dinner. That was surprising. It was a quiet dinner. Somehow, we were all uncomfortable in each other’s company. As expected the tenants didn’t say much. Shankar did much of the talking.
“I am thankful to you guys,” said Shankar, to the tenants, “you give company to my parents.”
I am used to this phony talk. He is incapable of differentiating his parents from potential customers. He has this salesman tone all the time.
“Appa, you should give this couple a discount. After all money is not everything.” I didn’t know what to say.
Then he gave a curious look to the new couple. “I have a feeling, I have seen you somewhere,” he said.
I looked up from my plate. For a moment I saw something dark, a shadow on Ramya’s face.
“You guys look different now,” Shankar continued, “Probably I have seen you long back.”
The tenants kept quiet. They were quite shocked. For a moment an awkward silence ensued.
“The food is excellent,” said Harish, finally, his voice quivering. After years of teaching, I know when a student feels uncomfortable and wants a change of subject. And I know when to let the student save his face, “Indeed, Saroja,” I said, “food is very good.” We quietly finished dinner.
The man from the past
Sometimes, after my evening walk, I sit for a while at the park bench. A car stopped just in front of me. And a couple with a small baby stepped out.
“Hello Sir,” said the man. He must have been my student at some time. Children grow up so fast. It is difficult to identify them when they come to me years later. Sometimes, it makes them a bit sad, when I don’t recognize them instantly.
“I am sorry,” I said, “I must have taught you some time in my life. But I cannot recollect your face. Though I think I have seen you somewhere.”
“I was not your student..”
“Oh! Have we met before?”
“I was the ..” The man could not complete the sentence. The words were lost on him. Then it came suddenly like a bolt – where I had seen him before. I had seen this man in the hospital, years ago. The nurses were rushing him to the operation theater. He was the one who tried to commit suicide with my daughter.
All those emotions rushed back. I could hardly control myself. “Please leave…” I said.
The couple reluctantly left. The woman came back and sat beside me.
“My husband is not a bad person,” she said, “He was young and foolish. Though we cannot change what has happened. He repents everyday of his life. He just wanted to apologize.”
I could not bring myself to say anything. When she didn’t hear anything, she quietly left.
Right and Wrong
Years back I had done only what I thought was right at the time. My God, knows, I have never been biased. It was always my utmost priority to be fair when justice was sought from me. Because of this I could have a clear conscience.
Now, I don’t know what is Right or what is Wrong. God, don’t put me in a position where I need to judge people. These were my thoughts when I approached the house. This is when I heard a loud noise and a wild shriek from our tenant’s apartment. I ran and busted the door open with all my might.
Shankar was in one corner. Ramya struggled out of his embrace and ran inside the bedroom: wailing and dragging her sari.
“Appa, I can explain,” said Shankar.
“Leave my home; right now,” I said.
“Don’t ever come back.”
Shankar left. I was alone for a while in the room.
Inside the bedroom, I heard sobbing. Ramya was sitting at the edge of the bed. I sat with her. I must have sat there, like a ghost, for the good part of an hour. The sobbing had stopped.
“I knew Harish since childhood,” She said. “Last year we were planning to get married. My brother had sent us a handycam from US – a marriage gift. We were together one day. We were drunk. One thing led to another and we had intercourse. We foolishly taped it. A few days later, a friend borrowed the handycam. We forgot to switch the tape. The video was on the internet in no time. My parents committed suicide. Wherever we go people recognize us. Your son has seen us on the internet. He wanted to take advantage –”
I didn’t listen to the rest of it. Years of experience in teaching and guiding people, though I have, I didn’t know what to tell her.
“This is a small town, we thought we would have some privacy” she was saying. She wiped the tears on her cheeks.
“What do you want to do now?” I asked.
“I don’t want anything from anyone,” she said. “I want to lead a normal life. I just want a second chance.”
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