It was in the tea shop, a two-room thatched shack with scattered Tamil dailies, where several youths found their mojo and showed they belonged there. Their chats always spun around films, their doyen heroes or those who pretended to be so, and certainly politics.
Their obsession with the leading political personalities was incredible though not incredulous considering the visual footage these leaders got on TV channels of all languages and the way they hogged your mind space. Little wonder the youths were unreasonably obsessed but what beat logic was their imagined or real productivity to the party they supported but little of it was seen at home. Did their parents feel so? Or if they did it got strangled soon in their memory.
But of course, none of it seemed to strike a chord in them. Well, it was like the old lullaby that God is in heaven and all’s well with the world. Their metabolism was taken care of at home as they appeared to be well-fed or reared according to the varying living standards of the families. And so they had no shell of cares to weigh on them and the sky appeared serenely blue for a saunter out into the town to while away their precious time in politics or politicking as the case may be.
Navis Mathias always found his early morning joust in the tea shop where his college mates had assembled. Virudhunagar, a quiet, domesticated town where farming and small businesses proliferated, offered educational facilities in the shape of a few colleges and entertainment in the form of a few well-frequented theatres and the residents also felt domesticated to an extent that they didn’t look beyond the borderline or at the sprawling metros.
So did Navis, 24, who had gotten out of the threshold after finishing his degree and for the last two years was seen in tea stalls, the college where he studied and in the outskirts. Navis was always away from home till the evening having pocketed his pocket money from his father. He and his three friends all had their pocket money, a kind of dole provided by parents to see how time spent itself or they strained to spend it.
Navis was no smoker but had enough patience to bear with those who did. One of the three smoking friends, Manickam pointed to the political rally and meeting planned for the day in one of the prominent grounds by the political party they owed their allegiance to and which was to be addressed by their supreme leader.
“He is there and it is our first chance to see him at close quarters. He looks so fair, has a thick crop of dark hair and there will be fireworks. It is a chance for him to let the sparks fly especially at the Opposition guy who was firing on all cylinders….lots of lies and fancy stuff. Man……we must not miss it.” Manickam lighted his cigarette after swishing it beneath the nostrils as was his habit. He seemed a contented sort, happy with his non-importance in the party.
Doraipandi, who incidentally was the president of the local panchayat wing, had planned celebrations an hour before the start of the meeting and also to put a shawl around the leader to welcome him. No matter the crowds he should somehow push through to realize his dream moment and get into the crystal focus of his leader’s eyes.
Middle-aged that he was he had been working his backside for years without bothering to look for a job because farming ensured substantial income for his family. He thought he could spare his time for the party and did with no murmurs from the family at any stage. He had no second thoughts either in giving his all for the party which he thundered to those who cared to listen that it stood for social justice and equality.
“We will hardly get a minute or two…we will be pushed back and aside. But guys please ensure you are right behind …..we must grab his attention.”
The other two Hari and Navis grumbled. “Yes…for long we have been groundlings. When will we ever get on the stage? Or for that matter climb the ladder to reach a certain level? Bro! It looks as if we hardly matter to them.” There was a pause.
Hari, the most truculent of the four, murmured. “We matter only when we stick posters. Sometimes we don’t even get paid for the work.”
Doraipandi grunted. “Bro! I am aware of it and trying to get the money for you. Don’t get annoyed or stop doing work for that reason. We all have petty frustrations but must overcome all that when the call comes from the party.”
Hari snarled. “You talk as if it is an interview call. All that we get is the gum, the posters, and directions as to where to paste. At worse, we assemble here to discuss politics. We never seem to tire of it.”
Doraipandi and others had no answer to this piece of sagacity from one of their fraternity. It was one of those routine grumblings like froth on the waves.
Hari and Navis had steaming coffee at home before venturing out into the day with the summer heat bearing down on them. Navis had a mouthful of harangue from his mother.
“Two years since you did your degree…And you keep jaywalking around the town. This town offers no decent job on its own. Neither are you capable of finding one because you hardly seem to think of it.”
She knew her anger was justified though deep in her was a lurking compassion that he was not all to blame for it. Her common sense made it clear that job generation in her town could almost be counted on her fingers in a year on average unless he opted for an odd, dispensable job with a local small business unit. Navis had good academic credentials but in the last two years, responses from the employment exchange or job publications were piffle, if not abysmal. He had bottled up frustrations which often mounted to frothing anger but no outlet for it. So his mother’s grumblings only added fuel to the raging fire inside.
But Navis, unlike the vitriolic Hari, was not given to venting his feelings out. He had got used to the harangue and bore it with gritted teeth. He walked out ensuring of course his pocket money for the day. Before reaching the party office where they wagged their tongues he peeped into Hari’s house and called. Hari came out, sullen and angry perhaps having faced the same barrage as Navis.
“What eh? What are we going to do there, in the party office?” His tone was stinging. “We have been wearing our backside off in the last two years. Except for a pittance here and there as payment for the work we did which was as good as the underserved pocket money my father gives. Navis! Let us bunk party office today, go to a park, and sit for an hour. We need to talk.”
Navis was disturbed though not so free with his feelings as Hari. “Ok, man. Let us do it but what is in your mind and why are you so angry now?”
Hari snarled. “Boy! Haven’t you given a thought to what are we up to? Two years since we finished our degree and have not earned a penny. There is a scare building up in me….this way how long as we age?.“ He lighted a cigarette and took a long drag before pensively blowing out the smoke.
“In our town, there are many like us but I must think of doing something, set on my toes. Navis! If we are not in a position to get into a govt job after taking the exams or not able to pull it off by stroking an influential guy then we have to do it on our own. “ He tapped the ash into the bush near the bench where they sat. “We must start something on our own….here in this town and now.”
Navis was pensive. “It is you who started the chat. Tell me how are we going to do it and what? Remember, we spoke to Doraipandi anna about using our influential party higher-ups to cough up a loan on concessional terms to set up a milk booth on a small plot that we could buy. He nodded once and seemed to have forgotten all about it.”
“That’s what I am talking about. There is a vacant space, around 150 sq ft near the bus terminus where a milk booth would be ideal. I was eyeing it for some time and broached anna. He favoured the idea but since has gone quiet.”
Hari gripped Navis’ arm. “You are aware Navis about the district president who runs all the panchayat wings and owns a few properties after becoming chief? How does he get the moolah, contracts on road projects from the top leader who is coming tomorrow? Because he is related to him…” Hari paused tellingly. “Not only related but is also a conduit to funneling funds for the party and nonparty activities. …whereas we have no hope of getting a fraction of it, even for a genuine reason.”
“I understand Hari…but how are we going to work it out with him? He is not even approachable, has a bevy of party men always around him, and highly irascible. That’s what I hear. You know it. Our Doraipandi anna doesn’t stand a chance. I wonder whether the district president even knows him.” said Navis.
Hari laughed bitterly. “If we don’t turn our energies to achieving our needs rather than sweating it out for the party sooner a day will come when we will be like anna, passively accepting our lot. And we will be chatting here till the cows come home. Man! We gave hours for party work over the last two years and in return got nothing. Let the district chief listen to Doraipandi anna when we meet him tomorrow evening before the rally. I will not wrack and wreck my throat shouting those bally slogans for the top leader unless he moistens it with a sweetener, ……………and a good one at that.”
He flung the cigarette and stamped on it in a bout of anger. They got up and left the park.
Doraipandi knew the mounting anger in his two young mavericks though, on his own count, he could do little to assuage it except make false promises.
“These guys see through fake promises too soon and wring my ear the moment they get impatient. Even they know most of the promises in the election manifesto were just cosmetics and laugh in their sleeves.”, he muttered. Recently when scaffolding fell over a section of the crowd unexpectedly and two perished the promised compensation came months later than the promise, he thought. “And we had to constantly pester and prick the district command for it.”
He was not sure whether it was because the victim belonged to a poor family of little notice in the town though such reasoning showed a poor attitude. He could never forgive the district command for being insensitive and lackadaisical. He also realized he had little say of any significance in the district’s party.
He remembered Hari, his close and trusted associate, once openly spitting at him saying “You and I are of no value, anna. It is pathetic that the district president doesn’t even know you. I bet on it. How the hell are you going to get anything done for us that too a small business venture with a loan on concessional terms? Anna, slap me if you are angry. Don’t they have enough funds? I hear such loans have been given confidentially in a few districts and we heard about it by word of mouth. Forget it anna….we are going nowhere. That’s all.” He spat again in frustration while Navis watched phlegmatically.
Doraipandi had heard about it too and that there was a department in the finance wing that was at work on it. He also knew and heard that a lot of party leaders in the middle level had clout and made a lot of money and did favours. But at the moment he had no words of consolation for his associates and loathed the idea of promising anything.
As he sat there reflecting on what transpired between them suddenly on impulse he took the mobile and dialed Hari.
“Where are you boy right now?”
“Ah anna….me and Navis are just now leaving the park. What it’s about?
“I was expecting you in the party office and you are loitering around the park. Our supreme leader is arriving at the hotel by about 3 pm and will meet some party men on appointment. We have no appointment but I intend to somehow meet him. “ He spoke discreetly. “Hari! I spoke to the district president and in a suppliant tone pleaded to fix an audience for us with the boss. Just a few minutes when I will sound him about the project idea we have. I feel our leader will react positively. Believe me, I intend to deliver somehow on this. We will have to buy a bouquet, keep a list of party donations we have culled so far and present it to him. That will show him our worth and also that we work. ”
He paused for a while, aware of the ripening interest on the other side. “Yes anna…, I and Navis are listening.”
“Come over boys. We are going to meet the boss….”
A three-star hotel that catered to middle-income tourists who cared to camp in the town for some reason and also do some tourism was the known attraction there. It justified its presence by making enough income to last in the business since it came up and was the preferred destination for party leaders who came for campaigns and other related activities. Normally the stay didn’t extend beyond two days and the fee was high. They knew economics wouldn’t work out otherwise. Its rooms were catchy with modern lock gadgets and a buffet.
The supreme leader had reached the night before, slept rather well, and made the most of the buffet with his colleagues. The hotel staff was at his beck and call, regularly checking whether anything was needed or was amiss. They had to because they would not take chances with the leader’s temper. Not that they knew anything about him but were told to be in awe of the person or persons they served.
It was around 4 pm when an inner party meeting was going on in the conference room. The meeting cum rally was to begin around 6 pm. Some of those who had appointments were escorted by the district president to the supreme leader and confabulated on convivial terms. The supreme leader kept smiling throughout the exchange and the smile of the fortunate ones when they came out betrayed what they got.
Doraipandi, Hari, and Navis sat with their stomachs squirming awaiting the district president’s condescending nod before they could go inside. As Doraipandi said, “the boon must be heard from the priest before God agrees……” But nothing happened. An hour had elapsed and signs of impatience were etched on the faces of all three. To make it worse the district chief came out only to escort one group after the other without noticing them.
Hari snapped. “What the hell anna? Unless you catch him by the collar he won’t care.” He spoke in a whisper.
Navis too lost his cool. “Our patience is running out.”
Doraipandi brought himself up to approach with a mixed reaction of anger and forced courtesy.
“Anna! You have not taken us yet to him. You know what we want. All that we need was a few minutes with him. I promise we won’t take more time than is necessary.”
Annoyance was writ large on the district president’s face. He sized up Doraipandi as if he saw him for the first time and with visible irritation beckoned him to follow him. Doraipandi feverishly signaled to his associates and they joined him.
All three saw no visible friendliness in the supreme leader’s face. He stared at them as some kind of distasteful worms that had crawled into his eye. He raised his brows at the district president. The latter pretended as if he had little to do with the threesome and said to Doraipandi “you tell him what it is all about.”
Stunned Doraipandi was at a loss for words for a minute. He gathered himself up to say with a slight stammer.
“Sir…I have been at the party for ten years so far. Our family is engaged in farming and earning enough for our needs. These two friends, Hari and Navis, come from a lower-income group and have to fend for themselves. Getting jobs is not so easy now as you know, sir….I have told the district chief to grant us a loan to buy a specific site for starting a small business. We feel you will not fail us. It is a request. ” Inwardly he was relieved that he got it outright.
The supreme leader cut in. From the word go he appeared to be piqued at their unwarranted intrusion.
“How did you find your way in here? If they have personal problems what can I do? Am I there to give jobs? Am I running a job exchange? And what do you mean by barging into my hotel room when a party meeting is on? Is the party responsible for your joblessness or lack of income?” He turned to the district chief. “Don’t you screen the groups of people who want to meet me?”
Navis got visibly angry watching Doraipandi go tongue-tied. The response was so unexpectedly negative and hostile that it demolished their dream.
“As a party worker don’t I have at least some right to seek a meeting with you, sir?”
The supreme leader’s consternation was evident. Even Doraipandi’s jaw dropped on seeing Navis speak up. The district chief was confounded when Hari’s barrage of words flowed in torching intensity.
“Sir! We have not come empty-handed either if that’s what you expect from us. We have our cash, the list of donations we had collected, and the gift to present to you which shows that we know our protocol. You cannot grudge us our expectations or that we have approached you for a good turn. We are not dim wits just to shout slogans or to put up posters. “
Hari was not at a loss for words and the occasion made his personality come out in the full flow. “What is wrong if we approach you? Or are you trying to tell us you are unapproachable?”
The district chief snapped at him to hold his tongue. But the effect on the supremo was complete. With his rage roused he glared at Hari and thundered….
“You have the cheek to talk to me like this…” he snarled and pushed him hard leaving Hari about to topple over before Navis got right behind to steady his friend. The leader told the district chief “clear them out before I say anything nasty….”
Hari was beside himself with a florid face. Even Doraipandi lost his equanimity.
“We haven’t come here to beg you for a favour. We came here to assert our rights, and ask for a loan that we would repay with a sense of commitment. Seeing the way you spoke Sir we are convinced it is beneath our dignity even to get anything from you, let alone ask for it.” Doraipandi’s dark cheeks flushed when he spoke.
Hari snarled. “He thinks he has the gall to be dismissive. We wasted our time, anna with him and also the party all these years. We will show him in our own way what we are capable of…”
Their glare was hot enough to remind the leader what they thought of him while the district chief stood speechless. The supremo appeared confounded in his repressed indignation which could not find the right words to come out.
“Come on anna…let us not spend a second more here…” Navis took the arm of Hari and Doraipandi and they stormed out.
“God! I feel sorry for you….Dorai! You and your friends are play worthy toys to them. Don’t you know that the plot you are talking about had already been given to the district president for some other reason? I know it was deliciously well placed and would be the beehive of business if one starts something. But they go like hot cakes and parceled out as gifts to those who matter.”
This was from a top municipal official three months after the incident when they met. Not amused and still angry Doraipandi watched his nails. Hari and Navis remained silent but their subdued anger was palpable. The official had a certain measure of empathy because he had known the three for several years. He still had nourished a compassionate heart though he had no opportunities to show it to anyone.
“We are back to where we are, sir,” said Doraipandi. “Only we are unable to forget the incident. But worse we are still looking at a blank sky.”
The official reflected while the three looked away at the traffic from the hotel where they had snacks and coffee.
“All right Dorai. I have a suggestion. My brother has a house in that popular residential colony that you have heard of. He has some pressing financial needs and wants to sell a small portion of the land his house is in. He expects something more than you can pay but I will prevail on him. That piece of land is a lark for you Dorai….you can pitch your milk booth or whatever you want to start there.” He patted Dorai’s shoulder. “You will not get another offer like this for years. Think about it and get the funds ready. Go for a bank loan first and pool your money. Then the works.”
Hari and Navis as if on cue exchanged glances with Doraipandi. Overcome with emotion Doraipandi queried softly with a modicum of skepticism “Anna! Will the franchisee work?”
The official smiled and in a reassuring tone said “You have to make it work. Only you have to strain your back for marketing it initially in the locality first. Talk personally to all the residents there and get their goodwill approval. Go for the brand dairy, Dorai. This is a lot better and more rewarding than wearing your backside off for those worthless junk.”
Hari seized Doraipandi’s arm. “Anna! Time to take the plunge, and reorder our lives. We have been in the wild for so long.” Navis nodded.
“Let us wake up, at least now. The required investment can be mobilized and the rest of it is in our hands. ”
Doraipandi grabbed the official’s arm in all earnest with a smile.
“We will do it anna…..”
As Hari pumped his Hero Honda and gunned it down the road to return to his milk booth-cum- delicacies shop after delivering an online order he smiled.
“How time fled in the last four years without notice like passengers trooping out of the station? Four years had gone….myself, Navis, and Doraipandi are reasonably well placed with a consistently substantial income per month. And to think that we had slender hopes of making it good, were half-hearted and laconic initially until we were pushed into the water and made to swim?”
Hari had only shadowy memory of the bile, anger, and frustration that left them with no succour.
“Time evens out your wounds if you are not stuck in a warp. Now I feel we were being justifiably silly and infantile in some ways….but hard work always pays.” He hearkened back to the early days when they legged to every resident’s home, a few malls, small-time vendors, and commercial outlets and later began an online sales network. There was the passage of recruits in and out restricting the major part of the work to himself and Navis.
Doraipandi diligently worked on his contacts in the local administration to get legal and other paraphernalia worked out. When it went on stream all they wanted was to be steady, not rock the boat. It developed a repute of its own in two years and was in the know of many. It was backbreaking but worth it.
“Hari! You are back eh? I have a couple of deliveries to make right now. Our Madurai delivery boys have got the sweet packages for distribution to several customers.”
Hari nodded. “You get back to work…”.
Their attention was grabbed by a procession of party workers on some issue that they didn’t care to know and treated as a regular comic interlude. Some young cadres recognized them and waved. Both Hari nor Navis didn’t respond. Then came into view the district president who looked at them, their shop with a beaming name board and Hari perched on his two-wheeler. He looked dumbstruck as if he had been slapped by a ghost.
Hari pretended as if he had not seen him, turned away, and spat…..this time with stinging mockery. Navis came out with a telling remark full of bite.
“Here is a procession of hangers-on on the wheels of a circus……and they thought we were autumnal trash to be swept aside.”
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.