Friday, October 19, 2012

Stray Incidents

As he woke up from sleep in the morning, Balakrishnan's eyes involuntarily reached the portrait of 'Ambaal.' (the Mother Goddess) that was hung on the opposite wall and then shifted to the clock on the adjoining wall.  It was exactly 6 am. This 6 o' clock rendezvous had become a routine for the past many years.

As his eyes habitually moved down and sighted the calendar hanging beneath the clock and read the date as the 24th, he sensed an uncomfortable feeling rising from the depth of his mind. Unable to immediately place the source of that feeling, he got up from the bed and walked up to the door to pick up the daily newspaper that would have been slipped under the door by the newspaper boy even before the dawn. But he couldn't find the newspaper there.

He paused to think. 'The boy would always deliver the paper by 5.30 am. What has happened today?' At that moment, his memory came alive and discovered the secret of the uncomfortable feeling that was pricking him. 'My God! Today is the 24th and today, there's a Bandh*!'

Balakrishnan was instantly gripped by a feeling of helplessness. Because of the Bandh, his daily routine would be crippled for the day. Getting food would be a major problem.

He thought of first refreshing himself with a cup of Coffee and then deciding on his plans for the day. Then it occurred to him that no milk would be delivered for the day. the State-owned Milk Supply corporation had already announced that it would be suspending the supply of milk on the day of the Bandh. This was the consequence of some of its delivery vans getting damaged in the violence that erupted during the previous Bandh.

Balakrishnan had not come across any private milk vendor in that area. Whether technology and development had made life more comfortable or not, they had definitely destroyed the systems prevailing since long, he mused.

He lit the stove, boiled the water and prepared coffee decoction. As he drank it raw, having no milk to add and his diabetic state not allowing addition of sugar, he felt refreshed by the friendly aroma of coffee, though tasting bitter.

Having nothing else to do, not even having the newspaper to read, he lay down on the cot. His idle mind started generating many a stray thought.

'It is pathetic to live alone in old age. But I am not living alone. I live with my daughter and her family. Since she has gone on an excursion with her family at the expense of her husband's employer, the Government of India, I have to be alone in this house for a few days. The rules of the government don't permit me to enjoy the leave travel facility provided to my son in law. Well, the government regulations could have shown some consideration to a retired old man incapable of taking care of himself and living with his only daughter! But even if the rules had permitted, could I have been able to join the tour? The list of diseases with which I am said to have been afflicted runs longer than the list of medicines prescribed by the doctor!'

Then he thought of his grand daughter. 'My dear Deepti! (What a name? They say this is a modern name. I wanted her to be named Maheswari after 'Ambal.' But they won't settle for such old fashioned names!) What will she be doing now? Where will they be today? Must be in Simla, as per the schedule. Will Deepti be able to withstand the extremely cold climate of that place? Who will tell her bedtime stories and put her to sleep?'

Presently, his thoughts came back to the problem at hand.'What will I do for my food today?' Since his daughter's family's departure for the tour, he has been dining at Tirunelveli Mess. 'But will the mess be opened today when there is a Bandh? If it is not open today, then I will have to starve for the day and starve to death, since I can't withstand hunger.'

'How many times did (my wife) Rukmini beseech me to learn to cook some rice at least? I ignored her pleadings due to my complacency and male chauvinism. I thought cooking was entirely a woman's job and it was disgraceful for a man to learn cooking!'

'She has also left me. May be she is standing somewhere in this room mocking at me for having not listened to her. No, she won't. She will only be sympathetic and lamenting my intransigence.'

He decided to take a chance by going to the mess after 10 o' clock and take a nap till then. There was nothing else to do anyway!

It was nine o' clock in the morning when Mathangi alighted from the bus. The bus was stopped somewhere in the outskirts of the city. It was due to the Bandh. 'But should people stop the buses coming from other places from reaching their destinations?' reflected Mathangi indignantly. It occurred to her that people who cause troubles and sufferings to other people must be tied to cots infested by bugs. As she relished the feeling that such novel (crazy) ideas occur to her resourceful mind, a smile appeared on her face effortlessly and her agitated feelings were tempered a little.

Since the bus journey was abruptly terminated, she had to walk about two miles to reach her sister's house. There was no other go. Even cycle rickshaws and bullock carts seemed to have gone off the road.

As she observed the plight of her co-passengers who had started walking with great difficulty carrying their baggage and some their children too, the waves of anger hitting the walls of her mind  rose up to a new height . 'People who are responsible for this must be rounded up and...(what punishment would serve them best?)'

Knowing that there was a Bandh, she wouldn't have undertaken the journey at all. Since the bus was to have reached the destination in the early morning, well before 6 am - the time scheduled for the Bandh to begin - she didn't perceive any problem. But her assessment had been proved to be wrong.  The bus was delayed four hours en route and the poor passengers had to suffer the consequences. She should have known better about the punctuality of the buses run by the State!

But she felt that in a way they were lucky to have been brought so near their destination. The organizers of the Bandh didn't have the heart to allow the bus to complete the remaining couple of miles in the last leg of the journey. But then, if she had been stranded at a far off place, her plight would have been worse.

She started walking, making the mental effort to ignore the increasingly felt effect of the weight of the suitcase she was holding in her hand.

"You know that there is a Bandh today. Don't go out. Your friend's house will not be washed away tonight, especially when there are no rains. You can go there tomorrow."

Ramesh digested the sarcastic exhortion of his father but looked at him with subdued defiance. 'How I wish he learns to communicate his views without using his lung power! If he had been a lawyer, he could have achieved success by scoring over his opponent by the sheer power of his stentorian voice. But working in a private firm and forced to submit himself to the whims of his boss without even a murmur of protest driven by the fear of losing his job if he chose to air his opinion, he vents out his pent up feelings on the people in the house!'

"No daddy. I have my Mathematics test tomorrow. We plan to study together."

'I have no alternative to tell a lie. Parents will always fall for the cause of study and only for the cause of study. If I stay home, he will pester me to keep studying throughout the day. If I can't enjoy myself during a day of Bandh when everyone (including my daddy) keeps away from work, I will end up being the most miserable guy in this world!'

"Okay then," relented his father with forced resignation and added, as if to show that he was still in command, "but be careful."

"Can I take the moped along?" asked Ramesh.

The authority that had to be suppressed by the demands of the situation sprang up fiercely and manifested itself in high decibels. " I will break your leg if you touch the moped. It is brand new and you are bent upon ruining it!"

"No daady. There are no city buses today and there is no other mode of conveyance.."

"What happened to your bicycle?"

"It got punctured and I left it in the mechanic's shop. The shop won't be open today."

"Why don't you walk, you lazy ass?" shouted his father. And having exhausted all his options, yielded, "Okay, get lost!"

Ramesh didn't lose any time . He vanished with the moped immediately, without even bothering to preen his appearance.

As Balakrishnan was coming closer to the mess, the possibility of the mess being open appeared more and more remote. His apprehension was confirmed when he was able to sight the closed door of the mess. The last straw of hope was also blown out into thin air. Yet he walked up to the closed door. 'Is this what called hoping against hope?' he wandered. Even as a sense of gloom came over him, he regretted having taken the trouble of walking up such a long distance. Now he had to walk back all the way. If the mess had been opened, walking back after taking food would have been no trouble at all. It could even have been enjoyable with his mind relishing the taste of the just consumed meal.

Resigning to his fate, he turned back and started walking back when he heard the sound of the door opening.  Wondering whether he had really heard the sound or it had been only his imagination, he turned his head back. He found that the door was opened partially and the face of Narayanan, the owner was the mess appeared like a picture trapped in a frame. He winked at Balakrishnan even as his eyes were cautiously looking around to spot any sign of danger.

"Come in, sir. Quick" he urged Balakrishnan panickingly. In the next few seconds, Balakrishnan was virtually pulled in and the door was shut.

"What! You are not closed today?" exclaimed Balakrishnan in a voice filled with excitement and relief. His spirits stated rising further as he took in the familiar aroma of Onion Sambar mixed with the signature aroma of other delicious dishes. He was filled with glee when he witnessed a couple of people sitting inside and taking food.

"What if there is a Bandh?" replied Narayanan with a reciprocal feeling of excitement."Shall I let down regular customers like you?" ('Or will he forego a day's income, for that matter?')

Balakrishnan thanked 'Ambal' and Narayanan together and sat down for his lunch.

Madhangi spotted the young man  riding the two-wheeler coming towards her. As he came nearer, she realized that he was not a young man but only a boy - a boy of sixteen years.

The burden of her suitcase was pulling her down making it difficult for her to walk. The trick of changing the load from one hand to the other would not work any more, with both hands having been strained to the limit. The hands had already sent a notice to her brain threatening to secede from the body if they were not relieved of the load immediately. Her brain was concerned about the situation but was feeling helpless. And hardy half the distance had been covered.

The sight of the boy riding the two-wheeler came as a relief to her, as she considered the prospect of seeking his help. Her highly orthodox upbringing would have normally made the idea of having a ride with a member of the opposite sex totally unacceptable. But he was not a man, just a boy, quite younger to her.  So, there was nothing wrong in taking a ride with him, especially when the circumstances would justify it, she thought.

Ramesh was pleasantly surprised when the young lady with a suitcase in her hand stopped him asking for a lift.

"You will drop me at Thandavarayan Street, won't you?" she demanded, rather than asked.

"With pleasure madam! Please get on the pillion" said Ramesh enthusiastically.

Mathangi would have liked him to have addressed her 'Akka (Elder Sister)'  rather than 'madam!'

Balakrishnan found the food much more delicious than usual and helped himself with more, letting go of his self imposed restraint for once.

As he was sipping the 'Rasam'  from the cup, in keeping with his habit, he heard the sound - the sound of the door being pounded impatiently.

Narayanan's reflexes sharpened instantly. Like a cat stiffening its body on sensing danger, his entire body froze for a while. Releasing himself presently, he commanded everyone in a whispering yet authoritative tone. "All of you get up and wash your hands."

He then reluctantly moved towards the door.

Balakrishnan was still weighing the prospect of finishing his cup of 'rasam,' when Narayanan opened the door a little and peeped out.

The door was slammed open from outside and a mob barged in.

"You have the temerity to run your mess stealthily when the entire town is observing a Bandh?"

After hurling this charge at Narayanan, one of  them sought to punish him using his stick.

"Come out you shameless gourmands!" shouted another, at the helpless boarders.

Pandemonium set in amidst a chorus of shouts and attempts to ransack the place, damaging the furniture and interiors in the process.

Balakrishnan started running out in panic. Pointing at him, someone yelled, "There flees the proprietor of this mess. Catch him and teach him a lesson he will remember at the time of the next Bandh."

Balakrishnan cried out, " I am not the proprietor," but his voice was choked by the overwhelming feeling of fear. With panic running high, his blood pressure went up. His cries of protests having got lost in the din and confusion, someone started chasing him and another hurled a stick at him which hit his neck.  He tripped at the edge of the pavement outside the mess and fell down on the road.

Emboldened by the  lean traffic on the roads and enthused by the pride of carrying a young lady on the pillion of his moped, Ramesh was driving the vehicle faster than usual. When he was about to whistle a popular song, he noticed an old man tripping off and falling on the road. Since the road was narrow and as a disciplined driver he was driving on the left side of the road, he had to steer fast to the right to avoid hitting the old man. Turning the steering fast while driving at a high speed, he became nervous and his hands lost their steadiness. The vehicle traced several curves before dashing on a dustbin and falling down. Mathangi was thrown away due to the impact. With her head hitting on a hard surface, she began to lose her consciousness.

Before Ramesh could recover from the shock, he was encircled by a group of people, most of them part of the gang that ransacked the mess. One of them admonished him. "You have chosen the day of the Bandh to go on a merry round with your girlfriend, you senseless urchin?"

The admonition was followed up with a slap on his face.

Ramesh protested in a choking voice, "Sir, she is my sister."

A smile appeared on Mathangi's face on hearing him referring to her as his sister even as she was sinking into  a deeper state of unconsciousness.

"What is the use of talking to this little boy? Let us set fire to his vehicle" suggested a man of action. This was enthusiastically endorsed by others.

Griped by fear, Ramesh started pleading desperately "Please pardon me sirs, for coming out on the day of the Bandh. But don't damage my moped. It was bought  with the hard earned money of my poor father. For heaven's sake, please show some mercy!"

His pleas became futile.

The fire that engulfed the vehicle seemed to be burning inside him as well. He recalled with agony his father's words of caution when he asked his permission to take out the vehicle.

Balakrishnan felt like floating on air. His blood driven by increasing pressure was hitting his veins forcefully, flooding his heart and making him feel extremely tormented by mixed feelings of pain and dizziness. His thinking became incoherent and it appeared as if all his accumulated memories were being forced out of his mind. The certainty of fast approaching death stunned and totally unnerved him.

'If I am going to die now, there will be no one even to cremate me. How I wish that this happened when my daughter was here! But then, if my daughter had been here, I would not have ventured come to this place in search of food. So, where am I now? Hello, a cup of 'rasam' please!..'

When his last trace of consciousness was leaving him,  his grand daughter Deepti appeared on the screen of his mind and asked him, "Tell me Grandpa, how did the prince who was cursed to be a frog become the prince again?"

The lady who appeared on the TV screen to read the evening news was all effervescence in her flamboyant costumes and make up. She began to read the headlines after greeting the listeners with her charming smile, "..Except for one or two stray incidents, today's Bandh passed off peacefully,.." her smile broadening.

* 'Bandh' meaning 'closure' in the Hindi language refers to a general strike called for by some popular group or political party to force the attention of the people/government on some issue agitating the minds of some people. Though the response to a Bandh is assumed to be spontaneous, in practice the closure is often imposed by using coercive methods and violence by the organizers and their supporters.

(Written in the year 1989)


  1. Excellent piece of work. From now on, when I read news articles after every bandh that reports "but for few stray incidents", I understand the real meaning behind.