He had seen evenings melt into the dark in the park where he always went for a siesta. He wanted to be alone sometimes, though he had his own circle of well-meaning but downcast friends who had strong reasons to be so.
They also would come with him to the park where the chat meandered to all things and sundry which mattered little to their life then. But the foremost and fundamental worry or nagging pain that they had not settled yet in life was there.
It hovered on the periphery of the mind when they were together because the mind wanted to relax….feel easy. But the worry returned when alone. And Damodaran wanted to be alone, sometimes.
He was 25, working in a start-up firm that took care of the delivery mechanism – bringing items from grocery and food to medicine and books to the doorstep – which took up nearly 8 to 9 hours of his time in the day. There were many like him in the firm who were in the same blessed age group and went on the routine with an automated mind. Yes…they needed to keep checking the mobile for what they would call derisively the update….what is the new delivery item, when, and where.
They were tipped, generously sometimes and niggardly at other times, and had learned to be content with what they got. Their schedule also was not the same, could be an 8-hour schedule in the morning or could well start in the scorching noon and last till about 10 pm.
Yeah…whether they had their food or not they needed the mobile which was their raison d’etre. And the two-wheeler.
Damodaran often fretted more about petrol than the time he snatched to have his food because it was not in his graph. The topography of every place he had to visit to leave his cache, as he called it, was in his graph through Google map but not petrol.
“Never worry about what is not on your end,” said his friends. Damodaran was in one way clever. He knew every nook and corner of the city, Chennai he lived in from his early days. But it changed every two-three years, contracting its free space to more concrete and leaving little for the lungs.
So even Damodaran had to ring up the guy with peculiar culinary taste or was moistening his lips to know where exactly his shack was. The blind alleys had sprung up in a trice before even the residents got wiser. Some didn’t mind the delay while others did and shut the door in his face.
Damodaran had learned to develop a thick skin. “This job needed it.” he told himself.
He knew it took just a frightful second for one of the busybody customers, who anyway thought themselves to have a royal brow if not the crown itself, to ring up their high command to whine about the delay or fanciful abrasive behavior of the delivery executive. Often it was the other way around.
“Delivery executives? Errand boys would be more apt. In the past pigeons used to carry messages, we were told. Now we carry groceries.”
He muttered ruefully.
Their high command was not so punitive. Their business had flourished a lot despite competition and their rules and regulations had been clearly drawn up with a measure of protection for their staff. They knew how to weather the circumstances with diplomatic craft.
Damodaran knew it too. So he made it a point not to crib or complain and generally maintained a go-easy attitude. His bosses liked it too. And his pockets were well lined with money because the UPI accounts kept ticking. He always had a look at the balance which was reasonably healthy.
“Damu! You have been in the firm for three years now. You run around a lot, have little energy when you return and crash at home.“ said his father, Murugan who was a retired state government employee. “Age is on your side, dear boy. I have to think of your younger sister’s marriage in another two years. Your earnings are needed though I would not want to pump you for money for marriage. You need to dig in, I know because it is early days yet. But that’s all incidental…:”
He went silent to collect his emotion. He wanted to say more. Then he looked pensively at his son who was used to it and had a resigned look.
“It hurts me to see your qualifications have come to nothing almost. Or will there be a turnaround?”
It was a familiar refrain though he heard it once a month when they got into a chat. This time too his response was on predictable track.
“Who can predict the turnaround, appa? Neither you nor me. You were lucky enough to have got into the government and earning pension now. The only difference is my salary is just one third or little more of your pension. Let’s leave it at that.”
He shut the door and then called it a day on bed.
Robert Small had returned home around 8 pm that night from his office surprising even his wife, Shiny who was accustomed to his late hours. They had an arrangement that if it went beyond 10 pm Robert would use his spare key to move in. He didn’t want to barge into her sleeping hours or mess it up. Neither did she allow that.
They were a good-humoured couple (an oddity perhaps these days) who quarreled little, spoke only when necessary and felt happy and appeared radiant.
Shiny had settled down into a four year old marriage and didn’t want to take up a job though she was a software graduate. They even put off the idea of a child to another year and wanted to go around, spent a lot to whet their tourist elan and were rarely seen on week ends in the colony.
Sometimes when she was found at home by a neighbor it was odd and she soon lost the feeling of being at home when someone broke in without knowing if he/she was wanted. Of course she smiled it away. As it is on Sundays when they went to church they renewed their social life chatting with old and new acquaintances.
Robert was a bit of a hermit who never shunned social life but also did not seek it – an easy going, unassuming lad but not inward looking.
They stayed in a two BHK in a relatively posh locality in the city. Robert got in and found Shiny slightly tired and musty.
“Shiny! The usual smile is missing. Any problem?” He sounded concerned. Shiny brushed it off.
“No dear! Shantha next door came in and was haranguing me for an hour about her mom in law, the leaking tap and of course her indifferent hubby. Inevitably it meandered to association office bearers, the money she paid for this and that which never materialized. She nearly felt a scam. We too have the same problems but I see no point in cribbing about them.”
“Yeah..if she is that bothered let her sort it out with the secretary. It needs some gall to do it. Or if you are not so inclined, keep quiet.”
Shiny nodded. “That’s right. Anyway, I am in an off-mood today. Didn’t cook anything Robert. Why don’t we order it?”
Robert laughed. “Right away. No probs.”
He booked it in no time and looked at the chart to know that it would be home in 25 minutes. He just happened to check the name of the delivery person and thought no more about it. He had 400-plus deliveries to his name and had been generously tipped.
Robert always had a soft and affable heart for the delivery guys in a few companies which were doing well in the business with a large, growing clientele. There was a nagging feeling in him, deep down. Not that he thought disparagingly about them or the job. Never.
“God! If…if I hadn’t landed by any chance in this IT firm I could well be doing it.”
The delivery executive was well on time, with a pleasant, engaging smile. They were expected to be so. It was five minutes earlier than the estimated time.
Robert took the package, looked up at the face of the delivery guy, and froze. Shiny was right behind.
“Damu! Is that you? How are you, friend? I never thought I would run into you.”
Damodaran was dazed and speechless. He looked quizzically at his old mate and gave a reluctant smile. Just a couple of words tumbled out and that too after hesitation.
“How are you, Robert? I never thought I would meet you here.”
“No..no more of it. Come in and be with me for a few minutes. Don’t look at the mobile. I know you are cooped up all the time with its updates. Let’s chat.”
Shiny smiled, needed no introduction. It was her husband’s close mate, obviously.
Damu was initially reluctant though he knew Robert as closely as the palm of his hand because his job kept him preoccupied with the mobile. Robert was a close family friend, older to him by four years, and had gone out of touch for four years since he found a job and got into wedlock. Since Damodaran’s family stayed in the suburbs and were kenneled to their own concerns they didn’t bother either. When they lost touch it meant they had gone out of bounds.
Shiny immediately went to make instant coffee and was back in five minutes. By then the old friends had broken into a chat.
“Damu! You did well in Commerce and planned to do CA. Has the plan changed?”Robert had an edge of concern in voice. Damodaran guessed what he drove at. He filled in the blanks.
“Yes, Robert! That was the past. I did join CA and wanted to focus on completing it, and get into an auditor’s firm. But suddenly there was a spanner in the works. Father had to undergo a bypass two months after retirement and a lot of money went into it. Also, the medical advice was he needed to recuperate and rest with no room for stress. Essentially they said an attack could be fatal.”
He wiped his face with his handkerchief. “Sheela, as you know, is just 20 and studying. She has a year to go. Already there is talk of her marriage and her father has reserved 30 p.c of his savings for it. God! We have our own house and that’s a big boon and a relief.”
“You had to take up a job immediately, right?” Robert filled in. Damodaran nodded.
“I needed to make money and keep it as a reserve for the future Robert. I don’t want my father to fund my CA programme as and when I get to do it. And I do not know when it will be. I have been at it for three years now. “
He hurriedly drank the coffee, looked at the mobile, and got up. “Bro! I have to leave now. I am off on Sunday. We can have a leisurely chat that day. Of course, I will tell father about you.”
Robert held him by the hand. “Damu! Give a missed call. I will call you on Sunday.”
They exchanged smiles. Damodaran waved at Shiny who was a silent spectator to the chat. She said smiling “Bye Damu. Take care and visit again.”
Damodaran’s face lingered in Robert Small’s mind for quite some time after he left. When they were in the suburban place where Murugan, Damodaran’s father had long since settled with his own home, Robert spent most of his time and weekends in their house. Often he would partake in their breakfast or dinner and be that close.
He and Damu were in different colleges pursuing different disciplines, engineering, and commerce in that order, but Robert’s family had rented out a flat in a three-storey building next door. Murugan developed a liking for the genial, well-meaning, and instinctively affectionate bearing of Robert who used to be jocose and talkative to Sheela, Damu’s younger sister. Both families were on the right wavelength.
Jonathan Small, who spent a substantial time in the Navy and retired with a satisfying pension, spent most of his time in the Navy club which he and some colleagues of his had built up with their funds. It was here that they relived their bright moments in the force and loved to recapture other memories. It was a small gathering with a canteen full of edible eatables.
Jonathan knew Murugan but never ever ventured to visit their home or cultivate their company as his son did because their tastes and attitudes were different. Murugan had a fascination for those who defended the country’s borders but never got an opportunity to know from Jonathan firsthand what he had experienced in the front.
Jonathan had developed some symptoms of health disorder – high BP and cardiac issues – which became a bit worrisome around the fag end of his career, i.e. five years before his retirement.
It was 6.30 that evening when he returned from the club, had a cup of coffee as was his wont, and …..collapsed.
His wife was in jitters when Robert, their only son, stepped in from his visit to Murugan’s place. He held his father with a dyslexic cry “Dad! What happened? I will rush you right away” and for a minute stood transfixed. It is the moment when the mind suddenly goes bust.
He rang up Damodaran on hindsight who at once was on his feet. It was instinctive because he didn’t want to be demoralized or feel out of depth.
Murugan rang up the ambulance and stood at the door of Robert’s home guiding the ambulance staff there with a lot of trepidation for the ailing man whom he would have loved to talk to but never knew. Damodaran was a regular visitor there and knew Robert’s mother well.
In a jiffy, Jonathan was rushed to a well-known hospital in the area which was three km away. He was admitted after necessary paraphernalia was gone through before Murugan’s wife and Sheela joined there out of concern. It took an hour before the medical reprieve came to Robert.
“Your dad is out of danger but needs surgery. He will be resting for nearly a week. After enough monitoring, he will be out.”
For a week Murugan’s family stood vigil at the hospital consoling Jonathan’s wife and rushing food and all essential supplies to the hospital when needed.
“You were an extension of our family though not of the blood…” said Jonathan’s wife when things stabilized to a level of peace and contentment.
What she left unsaid was obvious to Murugan’s family because none of those who fell in the rank of relatives contacted Robert. Even after they knew what had happened.
Damodaran’s visit left something gnawing in Robert’s heart. There was a single refrain in him …..” the job he is doing is not right. Not of his mettle.”
Robert didn’t belong to the old school of thought that believed, perhaps justifiably so, that the job you did was God’s work. It saw an innate dignity of labour in anything that a human being did as a matter of value-earning service. To see anything demeaning in anything is an admission of a convoluted mind or plain impropriety.
Robert hadn’t grown with such preformed opinions.
He was having his dinner with a friend whom he met by accident in a joint in Madurai where he had gone on deputation. His friend, Ramadurai, was also based in Chennai and running an auditor’s firm. His clientele was large. Ramadurai and Sons were a much sought-after law and auditor’s firm that he inherited from his father, who was a flourishing and brilliant lawyer. Ramadurai was a chartered accountant but didn’t learn the law. He didn’t miss it either as he had a group of lawyer friends whom he consulted and hired for service when necessary.
They had a long chat and Ramadurai invited Robert to his room. “That’s fine, Ram. We both will be here for two more days and I will hop in sometime. But Ram I need a small favour from you. It could be a big gesture too. “
He sipped his coffee slowly waiting for his friend’s reaction. The latter was quite receptive as was natural to him. “Come on Robert. Shoot.”
“Ram! I have a friend who is a commerce graduate. He started his CA program and gave exams for inter but couldn’t go further. He took up a job in a delivery firm where he is earning a sizeable sum. He has been there for three years.”
He took a long sip of coffee, and pensively eyed the parking area where a car was reversing to hit the pathway.
“Our families were close three years ago, at least at my level. I owe them a turn of gratitude, Ram, because when my dad was down with a cardiac attack over four years ago they stood by us. It was a deeply cherishing experience, especially for us. My mom still remembers them though we left for the proper city and lost touch.”
Ramadurai took a long swig at his coffee and smiled. “Robert! I see the drift. Obviously, you want to help him and want him placed in his rightful position somewhere. I am looking for an assistant, especially for me, who could depute in some key assignments if I am busy elsewhere or abroad. I want some enterprising, intelligent guy who could take up the job manfully, not mind some extra hours. Of course, there will be a test and a tough interview. Inform your friend and tell him to appear the day after tomorrow.”
His response was so unassumingly straight that Robert was surprised. He anticipated a conventional or standoffish reply that the matter would be considered at an appropriate time. “Just give me a tickle please..” would be the ringtone reminder.
Robert took his friend’s hand in his and pressed it. “Ram! That’s a big offer. He is a diligent guy and will make it.”
Damodaran was surprised to see a mail in his inbox for the interview in an auditor’s firm and wondered how he got it when he did not even apply or know there were vacancies. It was a well-known firm and he remembered telling himself that if he got placed there it would be quite demanding and a challenging job. It would be the stuff one’s career is made of. And he threw himself full-fledged into equipping himself for the test.
He rang up his firm to say he would be on leave for the day. It was not so difficult despite some murmurs of dismay that the shift schedule had to be adjusted and the burden of delivery shifted to another shoulder.
He had a persisting feeling that he did well in the interview and the test though he wished to face the director of the firm whose interviews and public speeches on television were lodged in his memory for some time. It was not required at his level of recruitment, perhaps.
A fortnight elapsed when Damodaran began to lose hope. Hope was filament thin after another week and he had shelved it in his memory.
Then the appointment letter came enlisting him in a position where he was directly required to assist the Director. ‘My wish has been granted in another way I least expected.” He muttered. “It means I am going to be directly associated with him.”
His family was delighted. When his relieved father deprecated the job on hand as something not worthy to strut about Damodaran instantly silenced him.
“No job is mean or below one’s dignity or a violation of talent, appa. I can never forget the fact that the present job made me earn a sizeable sum over three years and has anchored my life. It was a chastening experience where I met different people, of a different order. Get rid of the old and outmoded notions appa, about jobs in general. It shows petulance. A job or profession is a means to build yourself up. That’s all. “
There was a note of finality in his voice, as if he wanted to put a full stop there.
Murugan had never heard such rasping repartee from his son. He had often spoken about inspiring tales of people who made it from the scratch. It was a mixture of anger, propriety and reprimand which told him bluntly to reorient his mind.
The phone rang. Damodaran took the call and was happy to hear Robert.
“Congratulations Damu. You couldn’t have got it better. It is always a moment in time, when things happen and the sky is brighter. Am I right?”
Damodaran appeared stunned, especially sensing that the call came in an opportune time when the appointment letter had arrived. Why? What sort of a coincidence is it?
“Robert! Thank you but how come your call is so opportune and at the right time? It beats me.”
There was a long pause when Damodaran almost thought the line had gone flat or disconnected. Robert’s voice came back from the pause.
“How does one account for a debt of gratitude, my friend. Don’t think of it Damu. Now look ahead to a better future.”
Damodaran, still in a daze, slowly saw the picture emerging from the haze.
About the Author:
K.S.Subramanian, India has published two volumes of poetry titled Ragpickers and Treading on Gnarled Sand through the Writers Workshop, Kolkata, India. His poem “Dreams” won the cash award in Asian Age, a daily published from New Delhi and other branches. His poems were featured in museindia.com, run by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Hyderabad, India. Also in magazines, anthologies, and websites such as thebrowncritiqueblogspot.com, www.yorickmagazine.com, poetrymagazine.com, poetrypacific, Kingston writers creative Blog, museindia.com, vigilpub, Café dissensus, unesco.it, verbalart.in, Phenomenal Literature Vol.2 (Authors Press) among others. His short stories have appeared in indianruminations.com, setumag.com, Tuck magazine, indianreview.in and museindia.com.
He is a retired Senior Asst. Editor from The Hindu.