Author : Suresh Kodoor
Company : Mcfadyen Consulting
Balachandran Nair had just opened the doors of his shop in the morning and was busy arranging the medicine bottles on the shelves when the man appeared at the doorstep. He raised his head hearing the footsteps. A man in black pants, white full sleeve shirt and a dark blue tie stood there smiling.
The man smiled at Mr.Nair as if he knew him for ages. Nair however wore the look of somebody meeting a stranger. Before Nair could ask him anything, the man threw the question.
‘This is Balanji’s house, right?’
This time it was Nair who was in for a surprise.
‘A stranger calling me Balanji?’ that sounded to him a little unusual. He became a little curious too by now. Only those who were very close to him used that name. Here was a total stranger, who was seeing him for the first time, calling him by that name.
‘He must be someone who knows me well’ thought Nair while simply nodding to the guest to answer his question in affirmative.
Usually people called him Mr.Nair. Only his very few close friends called him ‘Balanji’. He has been living in that gully for almost last thirty five years, ever since he first migrated to the city of Mumbai from a village in Kerala. These days he has been running a small ayurvedic medicine shop on the first floor of an old building at Dombivili, a crowded suburb in Mumbai. In fact we should not even call it a shop as it housed his home too. A living room, a kitchen and small toilet constituted his house. Even at noon it required extra light as the small wooden windows always remained closed. The yellow dim light only added to the antic look of the things kept in the room, though there weren’t too many of them to count. He hardly ever opened the side windows for the fear of them hitting the wall of the adjacent building. He used the front living room as his shop cum clinic during the day time.
Since the guests as well as the customers use the same door to enter, he was not sure at first whether this man standing outside the door was a customer or a guest.
The man was still standing outside the door. He put his head a little inside holding the sides of the door and asked again, a little louder this time.
“You are Balanji, am I right?’
It took a while for Nair to come out of his stream of thoughts.
“Yes. But sorry, I could not recognize you. Please come inside”
Nair offered him one of the old chairs lying there which are usually reserved for the visiting patients.
The room looked much in disarray. Bottles, books and papers were lying all over the table and the floor. It looked as if they were not touched since ages. Nair felt a little embarrassed.
“Sorry, this place is a little small. In fact, this is my consulting room and also our living place. That is why it looks a bit tardy and unclean.”
“Not a problem, don’t worry” the man smiled and pulled the chair towards him. He then took out his coat and carefully placed behind the chair.
“Please give me a second. Let me get my glasses. You know, I can hardly see anything without my glasses”
Nair went inside looking for his spectacles. It took him a little while to spot his glasses kept on the corner table in the kitchen. He was about to turn back after picking them when Bhavani, his wife, came blocking his way. She was holding a long wooden spoon in her hand as she hurriedly walked from near the stove where she was fixing the breakfast. As she walked by, he felt, she looked like a dark monsoon cloud waiting to burst open. ‘Nothing new’, he said to himself. He doesn’t remember seeing a smile on her face ever for the last so many years in fact.
“Will you please listen to me? Don’t keep talking for hours to whoever comes to your shop. Just give the medicine and send them away. I don’t want to be stuck in this kitchen for ever”. Her voice was too sharp. He didn’t utter a word. She hurriedly walked back to the stove.
“Daily I repeat this sermon. But who listens to my words! You are always waiting to get someone to start your old rotten stories”. As he walked towards the front room he could hear the crockery crashing loud on the floor behind him.
He could not blame her too. A one room apartment is obviously not a good place to entertain a guest or a customer for too long. She has never been able to cope with the reality that this one room flat itself is a luxury in this city. As a newly-wed and a young girl grown up in a remote village in Kerala, it was with lots of dreams and hopes that she came to his life some twenty five years back. There wasn’t a moment in those early days when she had not expressed her desire to move into a bigger house. But then slowly she had lost hope in him. It didn’t take long for him to become the villain in her dreams from being the hero. The last straw was an evening almost eight years ago when he came home defeated. He was not only dismissed from his work but also was discarded from her heart that day. He knew that she had long back bid farewell to her dreams, burying them deep inside her heart. He has been noticing however the shine coming back in her eyes after Rajan secured a job recently. He was glad to see her starting to rebuild her dreams once again, this time around her son.
The guest by now had become a little restless waiting; and he made it known by muttering under his breath loud enough for Nair to get out of his reverie.
“Sorry, I was searching for my glass”, Nair walked to the guest apologizing. He then settled on his seat.
His guest was still sitting straight looking a little serious. As Nair looked on, he tightened his tie a little more, adjusted his dark glasses and raised his hand to look straight at his golden citizen watch to note the time. He then got up suddenly and walked to the backside of the chair to take his coat. Nair watched him as he put his coat on and walked back to the chair and settled sitting cross legged this time, leaning back a little.
Nair was by now getting increasingly nervous.
“Sorry, I have not asked yet who you are. I guess you have not come here for medicines”
The guest cleared his throat,leaned a little forward and then spoke in a very heavy voice.
“I am coming from Parasuram cotton mills’
Nair’s heart missed a beat.
‘Did you say Parasuram mills?” he wasn’t sure if he heard it correct
“Are you an employee of the mills”?
“I am the new General Manager of the mills. My name is Satyapalan”
Nair suddenly jumped out of his chair, as if driven by the old habits. Words got stuck in his mouth. It took him a while to recover.
“Sorry, Sir. I didn’t recognize you”
“No problem Comrade. It is alright. You may please sit”
Nair stood there speechless. It took him a while before he could utter something.
“Nobody calls me like that since long, Sir. I myself have forgotten the last time I heard someone calling me ‘Comrade’. Now people know me by this shop. I too had come to accept the same over all these years”
Satyapalan just smiled.
“I had worked there for over 20 years. This month I complete eight years since I retired from the mills. I haven’t been enquiring about the mills since many years now”
‘Retired or dismissed”?
Nair was suddenly a little shaken. Slowly shook his head and mumbled
“Well…with many mills being closed down and employees being terminated, I also was a victim. I too was dismissed from the company.”
He stopped at that. He did not tell he was in the frontline of the workers union. He didn’t tell that he was among those workers who fought demanding eight hour work schedule. He didn’t dare to mention that he was involved in the union strike demanding wages on time or to get overtime wages or to stop terminating workers without any reason. He wished to forget that he was leading the struggle to stop the practice of managers calling women employees for night shifts. He was not sure if all those would be counted as achievements in the present. Also, he was afraid if Bhavani was listening.
“I know everything. Whatever the Company did to you was totally unfair. The company has decided to make amends for the mistake and injustice done to you, even if belated. That is why I myself came here to inform you in person.” Satyapalan then took out a white envelope from his coat pocket.
“Please accept this. This is the new appointment order. Our company needs you today more than before.”
Nair could not believe what was happening around him. “Can this all be true?” he was still struggling to come to terms with what he had just heard.
Satyapalan slowly placed the cover on Nair’s sweating, shivering hands. He didn’t know how to react. He stood there staring at the letter in silence until his tears started falling on the paper making the letters blurred.
He accompanied Satyapalan till the door while seeing him off. As the door closed behind, he slowly ran his fingers over his name written on the envelop.
After many years, Bhavani served him a special dish for lunch.
“I am actually not able to believe this, Bhavani. Can you believe the company calling me back to work after these many years?! Must be our good times. You remember? So many times I had received the best operator award from our then Managing Director Mr.Deshmukh. I am sure they might have checked my credentials from the old records. That is probably why they are inviting me again to rejoin the Company”
“Yeah yeah. Don’t make me say something nasty! I am sure all the mischief that you had shown at the Company gate is also in those records! The strikes, picketing, fasting, demonstrations…You should be thanking them for calling you back despite your vendetta. If you learn from your mistakes, good for you“
“Those are all old times, Bhavani. It’s all over long back. Now I don’t think there would be any need for such strikes and struggles. Anyway let me consult with our friend Sekharan as well”
Bhavani suddenly turned around and gave him a sharp stare. Her face was all red with anger.
“You will never learn! Don’t even take that name in front of me. It is only because of the association with him that you are in this state today. Good for nothing!’
She threw the mug on the floor with a bang to vent her anger. Nair regretted taking Sekharan’s name in front of her. But he knew he couldn’t take any decision without asking his friend. Sekharan was the one who always had stood by him in all his struggles. When Nair tore the termination letter into pieces and threw on the face of Deshmukh, it was Sekharan who walked out with him without even a second thought. When Nair started building his life all over again with his clinic, Sekharan challenged life head-on choosing to set up a vegetable shop close by.
As usual when Sekharan walked up the steps that evening, Nair was in a different zone. He was quite overwhelmed and brimming with joy, waiting eagerly to share the news with him.
As Sekharan slowly settled onto his chair, Nair started the conversation with a mischievous smile on his face.
‘Sekharan, there is a special news for you today”
Nair wanted to keep Sekharan guessing. He deliberately paused and looked at Sekharan as if to tease him. Shekharan wasn’t playing along though. He looked away, as if not wanting to look at Nair. His eyes wandered around for a while. Finally he raised his eyes and looked at Nair.
“Satyapalan came to you too, didn’t he?”
That took Nair by surprise and he was disappointed. He felt as if Sekharan suddenly struck his big balloon, bursting it in no time. He was even a little annoyed.
“How did you come to know?” Nair’s voice reflected his resentment.
“He came to my place too; early in the morning. And, gave me the appointment letter as well”
‘Oh…. Very good!” Nair gathered all the lost enthusiasm.
“I am very happy to hear that, Shekaran. I am sure then they would have approached all our old colleagues. This new General Manager looks very smart. A young and very efficient man he seems. I am sure now the company would do much better. He was quite a gentleman.”
Sekharan sat still without any reaction. He kept staring at Nair for a while and then slowly opened his mouth.
“Satyapalan is mad”
Nair didn’t hear it. Sekharan repeated.
“Satyapalan is a mental patient”
“What?! Sekharan, what did you say?!” For a while the earth revolved faster around Nair. It took some time for him to gather himself. Sekharan slowly placed his cold fingers on his shoulder. He was sweating all over.
“What are you saying, Sekharan? Nobody will suspect him of anything of that sort. He looked so perfect a gentleman”
“But I am telling the truth, Balanji. I enquired about Satyapalan. It is now almost a year and half since the Company had closed down”
Sekharan continued as if he was narrating the story of some movie. Nair quietly listened to his words
“Satyapalan was an employee at the mills. I heard from someone that he even had to shell out huge amount to an agent to get the job. When the Company closed down, they didn’t even pay his salary dues and he was in dire financial trouble. His wife poisoned her child and hung herself from the kitchen roof a few months ago. That seems was the trigger for Satyapalan to lose his mental balance”
By the time Sekharan finished, Nair was in a state of numbness. Both his body and mind were in shatters. He kept silent. As time passed, silence grew monstrous between them. Both were wandering in their own thoughts for long.
Suddenly the phone rang. Neither of them was in a state to pick up the phone. Bhavani rather came running from the kitchen and picked the phone. It hardly took a few seconds before she banged it on the cradle and started walking back. She was grumbling a little louder as she walked.
“It is him, Rajan. My ever busy big guy!” She couldn’t conceal her frustration. “Today also he is going to be late from office. Says he has lot of work and will be late”
Nair and Sekharan could hear her hard footsteps heading back to the kitchen. She started clearing the table where she had kept dinner ready for Rajan. Another glass mug went crashing on the floor as she kept cursing anyone and everyone.
‘Don’t these IT kids need to eat or sleep? Don’t they ever think of their family back home? I wish I had sent him to be a school teacher.” she was not in a mood to stop.
“Cant these kids come home in time at least for food?”Nair asked himself turning to Sekharan.
“This has become a regular routine for him, you know. He goes early in the morning and comes home long after we both go to bed. For the last three or four weeks he has never reached home before midnight. And, he would be out early morning. Every night she waits for him with dinner and then ends up going to bed without him turning up. I tell her not keep dinner for him, but she never listens.”
Sekharan just smiled and sunk into silence. As the silence started growing bigger between them, he asked Nair.
‘Balanji, do you remember those days when we used to lead strikes and shout slogans demanding eight hour work and fare wages? I strongly doubt if anybody today would be willing even to raise those slogans anymore.”
Before Nair got the chance to nod in agreement, Bhavani rushed in.
“You old folks don’t seem to like today’s kids doing well, do you? You guys better leave them alone”. She didn’t even spare Sekharan from her sharp stare.
Sekharan didn’t wait to hear the rest. He slowly started walking down the steps. The sad smile on his face was not to be seen in the darkness outside. Nair silently stood there for long watching him disappearing into the darkness. Then he started slowly arranging the bottles back on the shelves, getting ready to close the shop for the day.