Kamaraj’s BMW stopped at the Tidel Park signal. The signal is longer during morning rush hour. The old poor one-hand man came and knocked on his car windows begging for alms. Kamaraj’s driver waved him away knowing his boss disapproved of begging.
Kamaraj returned to the newspaper in his hands, as the one-hand man passed by. There was a small article on him in a vernacular newspaper. It spoke of his business acumen, social responsibility and philanthropy. He read it objectively. He should have been rightly overwhelmed. He remained unimpressed.
The driver could see his boss reading the article through the corner of his eyes.
“Sir, I read it too. I am so happy sir. The writer has written it well sir. I am very happy sir.”
“In the third paragraph, he mentioned about your new IT company sir. You are also into IT sir? I am proud sir.”
“It is not an IT company, its BPO.”
“Oh! It is different sir?”
“See; IT company means they build software, in BPO they don’t build software.”
“Yes Rajini, it is different,” Kamaraj shortened his explanation knowing it would not make much sense to him.
“In another paragraph they compared you to some other person sir. I don’t know who he is. But if I wrote that thing I would have compared you to my thalaivar Rajini sir. He is very hardworking, nice man sir, same as you.”
Kamaraj gave a mild smile with an admonishing nod. Kamaraj tried to remember his driver’s original name. When Rajini first came for the job, he did mention his name but he insisted to be called Rajini owing allegiance to his matinee idol. His obsession had the asininity of a kid no one wished to call him otherwise. He was and is Rajini. But what is his real name?
Kamaraj’s thoughts were interrupted. He shuddered a moment that he wouldn’t bring up that particular paragraph for discussion.
“Did madam read it sir?”
“I hope she doesn’t.”
That brought an end to his monologue attempt to enliven his zombie boss.
Kamaraj’s BMW stopped at the Tidel Park signal.
“Sir every day I think we should somehow cross the signal without getting caught in red. Cha! I get struck here always.”
The old poor one-hand man came and knocked his windows begging for alms. Rajini waved him away in a routine.
“Sir this Friday I will not come sir.”
”What? Don’t tell me this in the last minute. You know I am busy and have to travel back and forth. I would definitely need you.” He sounded agitated.
“No sir, I told about this a month ago. Even last week I reminded you sir. I am reminding you again sir. Shall I ask my relative to fill in for me that day? Usually you find someone else sir. But I think this time you forgot because you were busy.”
Kamaraj pressed his wrinkled forehead. He was agitated and couldn’t find the right response. He tried to calm his nerves and recalled.
“Ah! You asked for money right, how much did you ask?”
“No sir, it’s Ok sir, I will manage.”
“Have you got the money?”
The signal turned green and vehicles started moving.
“How much do you want?”
“Five thousand rupees sir.”
“Remind me today evening after we reach home. Please remind me.” Kamaraj delivered a tepid order.
The car was slowly passing through morning rush. Kamaraj received a call on his personal mobile. Little beads of sweat appeared in his forehead as he spoke over the phone.
“Rajini turn the car, drive to the hospital.”
Rajini took the next possible turn. Using all his driving skills, he steered his way speedily into the traffic. He has grown to dread this OMR route. He wished he had the emergency red light and siren like an ambulance to clear away the traffic, after all, his boss had an emergency. He turned back slightly to see how his boss was holding up when he had to stop at a signal. He had slumped and shrunk in his seat with eyes closed. He did not like it.
Kamaraj barely spoke with his wife after that day. She had resigned to her fate. She actively did the house chore. House maids had less and less work to do; they stood and watched in painful embarrassment as the lady of the house did all the cleaning and cooking. Sometimes they feared they might lose the job.
The more she cleaned every inch of the house, the less time she had to share with Kamaraj. He was not sure why he wasn’t making any effort to talk to her either. She was cleaning obsessively trying to get rid of something, but not that one room that needs to be cleaned and gotten rid of. She had not neared that room since that day. Dare she touch the room; even Kamaraj was not ready to get rid of anything from that room.
After a long break to complete the religious rituals, Kamaraj was back to his routine office schedule.
Kamaraj’s BMW stopped at the Tidel Park signal. The old poor one-hand man came and knocked his windows begging for alms. Rajini had forgotten his routine of waving him away.
The one-hand man was of Dravidian colour not much different from Kamaraj’s except for the lack of vitality and sagging skin. He had an emaciated body boasting of the vanity of the flesh, holding on to life in an inexplicable quest. His hair was dry, wiry, and longer than a cropped cut, standing out straight giving a bushy appearance. He wore a tattered lungi covering his essentials. He held a stick in his left arm pit to support himself and a dirty steel mug in his hand. His right arm was missing from the shoulder. A sack of skin has grown over the severed area. Kamaraj noticed this man for the first time. As far as he could remember he had knocked at his windows every day the car had stopped at the signal for more than a year. His gaze met his new man of the moment. It had something his’ had lost.
Kamaraj’s BMW stopped at the Tidel Park signal. The one-hand man came and knocked his windows begging for alms. Before Rajini could wave him away Kamaraj signalled him not to.
He took his purse looking for cash. He had wads of 100 and 500 rupee notes. He contemplated what would be the right amount to give. He spent a minimum of 1000 rupees a day. But he travelled in car and dined in fine restaurants. What would the old man do if he gave him 500? Spend some and save the rest? Inflation has gone high, should that be factored in? How much would basic food cost him? Basic food; what would basic food mean, will it include all nutrition. His calculative brain instantly worked on the intrinsic value of the deal. Even as his brain tried to gauge the value, his hand involuntarily moved forward and dropped a hundred rupee note into the dirty mug. He looked into those eyes again. They were dry with drooped eyelids, and cornea discoloured with fine red rivulets bespeaking malnutrition. They were mesmerizing. He looked further and deeper and caught a glint.
“Sir, you give lot of money to others sir, but you never gave the man any money because begging is not right. You know how long he has been knocking on your glass? Why did you give money today suddenly?”
“I don’t know!”
“How much did you give him sir?”
“Ah! Don’t give him that much sir, just give him some 5 or 10 rupees sir.”
“What can he get for 5 or 10 rupees nowadays?”
“Many others will also give him sir. Giving 100 rupees is not correct.”
“It’s like that only sir, don’t give 100 rupees.”
Kamaraj heeded to his driver’s suggestion and gave a 10 rupee note the next day, and then the next and it continued. One-hand old man would knock his window; Kamaraj would lower the glass, drop off 10 rupee note into the mug, and look into his eyes searching for that elusive thing. One day, Rajini skipped the signal. Kamaraj panicked and roared at him, made him do a U-turn and take the road back to the signal. Kamaraj had the feeling of a tsunami erupting in his belly. He was like the teenage boy waiting at the bus stop to see the girl of his dreams pass through in a bus for a fleeting second. It was his morning cup of coffee. Kamaraj was puzzled with his own unusual panic. His search into the man’s eyes had found only emptiness as vast and deep as ocean. An ocean’s depth is a deathly still for a dweller, but a treasure trove for an explorer. He was an explorer. He knew there was a treasure in those unreachable depths. He wanted to know. He wanted to know more about the man who had been impalpably around him for more than a year, who is now in his life, like a shadow unsettling yet soothing.
The next day when the car stopped at the signal, Kamaraj prepared himself to ask something. Does neural circuit short circuit like electrical? Mesmerizing emptiness in the one-hand man’s eyes could have well done that as the signal from brain did not reach the mouth, and he silently paid his daily tribute.
Shaking out of the spell, he remembered a long lost trail of thought.
“Rajini give your driving license.”
Rajini fumbled a bit to take it out from his purse and managed to give it as he drove.
“Why sir, are you checking if I carry a valid license with me?”
“Pandiarajan is your real name!”
Rajini blushed and took the license back.
“I have forgotten the name a long time ago sir. Rajini is now sir. You see me now and that’s all I am sir.”
Kamaraj turned back to see the one-hand man. He did not want to know who he was.
Man creates ritual, eventually ritual rules the creator, the intangible purpose that gave birth to the ritual often unrealised.
The whole day one-hand man occupied his thoughts. That morning the one-hand man did not show up. Kamaraj did not have Rajini drive back to the signal. He wanted to affirm he wasn’t becoming an addict to something meaningless. Already his wife was cleaning away their house into oblivion. Nevertheless his thoughts consumed him. He had to comfort himself with the hope of seeing him the next day. The one-hand man did not show up the next day. His stomach twitched like birds fluttering its wings on seeing danger. Rajini waited for some instruction from his boss. He gave none.
Third day, Kamaraj could not take it. At the signal, when the one-hand man did not show up, he got down on foot and started looking around like a kid lost in a carnival. He started walking with no clear direction. Rajini called after his boss but he had moved away. Rajini drove the car to the nearest minimally used road, parked it and came running back to the signal. Breathing hard he looked around in bewilderment. Not knowing the next sensible course of action, he decided to stand near the place where his boss got down.
After half an hour, boss showed up for Rajini’s relief. Kamaraj directed him to drive to the government hospital. They managed to find the bed where one-hand man was sleeping with bandaged body. Kamaraj went nearby his bed to the left. He lifted a skeleton of the palm, placed over his, and gently squeezed. The body breathed heavily in its strained attempt to hold the life. Eyelids opened slowly, rested on Kamaraj.
Kamaraj found his treasure sparkling and swimming in the one-hand man’s eyes, for he had become what he had been searching for in the one-hand man’s eyes.
Rajini saw his boss walking past with his long lost authoritarian gait. He knew what his boss would do next.
* thalaivar – tamil word meaning leader
* lungi – a traditional garment worn around the waist
Prathiba Wilson took to writing to funnel her wandering thoughts into a creative pursuit . Her native is a small village near Kanyakumari, currently settled in Chennai, India. Her previous works have appeared in IndianRuminations and Morco Polo Arts Online literary magazine.