Saturday, 15 August 2020

Vignesh Siva, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

TheRickshawPuller 



There is a nation-wide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from essential services, every other business is shut. When your child has vomited thrice and is continuously retching you can understand it is a case of food poisoning. Our pediatrician has decamped out of the town just before the lockdown was announced, I think he just got trapped in his hometown.

Being a single parent, you always get scared and guilty when your child falls sick. You ought to think that because of your negligence, your children come under the weather. And unless the nauseousness gets overhauled by severe dehydration, you wouldn’t mind moving your ass off to see a doctor.

As my eight-year-old child lies moaning with pain holding his tummy on the back seat of my car, I drive him to the nearby Government hospital. The once teeming thoroughfares wear a deserted look with barely any traffic allowing my car to zoom across the roads to reach for medical care in a jiffy. The sudden disappearance of human beings empowered the birds to come out of their hiding to chirp and tweet sans any fear, stray dogs and cats roam across the streets without the twitchiness of being chased down, and squirrels travel back and forth over the dangling cables.

I put on my facial mask and got down the vehicle as I parked my car at a short distance from the hospital entrance. I masked my child as well with one of those disposable surgical ones although I scurried towards the OPD carrying him on my shoulders. The helpers pulled out a stretcher, I placed him gently and they quickly dragged him into the emergency ward. I told about my child’s complications and symptoms to the nurse, who was taller than most. She ascertained it was not related to coronavirus and said she’ll inform the doctor accordingly.

Visitors aren’t allowed to enter the emergency ward. With the nurse stationed outside the ward, I simply register his name, his age, and his prodromes. She directed me to be seated calmly for a few minutes. I trod as lightly as I could and as quietly as I could sans any emotions. Although I had an itch to scream at the top of my lungs in order to discharge the frustration bubbling up inside me, I chose to look serene. If anything at all happens to my child, I’m planning to sue that restaurant from where we ordered our breakfast. Worrying simply exerts my imagination to fabricate some crappy thoughts that are inessential.

I’d very clearly ascertain that after eating the spicy Masala dosa, he wasn’t feeling good. His mother wouldn’t have let us eat from outside, that too especially during such pandemic times and lockdown situations. The gentle evening sun rays were warming up the skin, the soft yellow light was pouring through the window blinds, I sat on the stainless chair of the hospital pondering about my sick son, dead wife and clueless life.

The waiting room bedecked with a bubble top water dispenser at one corner, framed photograph of mother Teresa, and a rusty multi-seater waiting chair. I was seated at one of the ends of the multi-seater and on the other end was an old woman. She must’ve been in her sixties. You could figure that out from her grizzled hair, wrinkled skin, munching mouth sans any teeth, holding a bygone plastic lunch bag – similar to the one’s I usually take lunch during schooldays and her thick-framed spectacles. She was waiting for someone.

The tall nurse came out of the emergency room and enquires something to the exterior nurse at the desk outside. She walks up to me.

“Your son is fine. He had stomach pain due to food poisoning. Dehydration seems although a little serious issue. We now injected the child’s vein for a drip of glucose. Since from morning he hasn’t eaten anything and whatever he has eaten has come out, this will provide calories to your child. Here is the bill for emergency treatment, and a medical prescription, give these medicines for five days, he should be alright”

A sigh of relief. For a few minutes, I imagined my entire world was coming down. I was scared of losing the only relationship I have in this world for an ounce of stale batter or spoiled chutney he consumed for breakfast. Before I could thank the nurse or request her to meet the doctor and show my gratitude, the nurse went over to the old lady and I couldn’t resist overhearing their conversation.

“Ma, the doctor is attending one last patient. It is an emergency. He shall come back to his cabin within fifteen minutes. Can you wait?”

Holding the slips handed over to me tightly in my sweaty palms, I paid cash at the reception cash counter of the hospital and got a receipt. Without wasting much time, I brought those medicines from the hospital pharmacy on the ground floor. The waiting area seems a little quieter with a lesser footfall but the old lady was still seated, lost in her thoughts, killing time.

I returned to my seat. An ambulance van halts at the entrance with screeching brakes and a few men wrapped in PPE carry a stretcher into the COVID emergency ward. A serious case of coronavirus infection may be. Oh God! When this pandemic will get controlled?

The fret I had for the well-being of my child got transferred to brood towards the entire human race fighting the COVID-19 battle. I guess, just like energy, your worries too cannot be created or destroyed – it can only be converted from one form to another. As Seth Lloyd pointed out, ‘Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and the second law of thermodynamics.’

“It's four-thirty. My son hasn’t had his lunch yet.”

The old lady seated across the waiting chair started a conversation.

I forced a tight smile.

“The doctor in that general emergency ward is my son.”

Oh! She is the doctor’s mother. The same doctor who saved my child by providing treatment at the right time. I can’t wait to shower my gratitude to his son.

“By the way, what happened to your son?” she inquired.

“He... He... Me... We ate breakfast by ordering something from outside. Something wasn’t right in the food. He was continuously vomiting. He didn’t have lunch either; he became profusely sweaty and unconscious. So, I brought him here.”

“Kids these days huh? No immunity whatsoever.” She remarked.

As soon as she uttered those words, my mind completely abandoned the present locus and wandered towards a mystical space where everything around me became silhouettes and my age got decreased like

a victim of progeria syndrome. Like the movie curious case of Benjamin button, I aged backward in a few fleeting moments. I pass through the tunnel of flashback.

I’m no more a 40-year-old middle-aged single parent working as a team leader in the finest software companies of the world. I’m eight years old, studying the fourth standard in Chennai Joseph’s Cathedral convent school. The year is 1988.

If the word ‘bliss’ had an identity it was this, it was this.

The only poets we knew were William Wordsworth and Shakespeare. One television per street – only one channel got telecasted the cherished Doordarshan. Not everyone had landline telephones because people back then spoke with each other, not through devices. New clothes are purchased only for festivals and birthdays. We got to know Diwali is a fortnight away when we hear crackers being burst here and there. The skies never looked so empty, it was filled with kites during Pongal and Tamil New year. Radio and Newspaper with fewer advertisements was the only window to the outside world. The taste buds got personified by the sweets and savories made by grandmothers and were incomparable to the packaged foods. Fourteen people lived as a joint family – one living room, one bathroom, and one toilet. Happiness still dwelled. Ladies gossiping in the terrace, and on street corners were starkly juxtaposed as a business model in the present-day social media. The Rice kolam every morning – we even cared for ants and worms for their daily needs. Once in a while, an aircraft whizzes with a blaring noise; ‘at least once in my lifetime, I’ll board a plane’ we thought. Umpteen numbers of children from neighboring houses filled up the terraces with laughter, games, and activities. Electricity was a luxury, sleeping on the roof accompanied by moonlight – no ACs required. Mother makes one big bowl of rice, and thirteen hands would fetch for it - their chance to eat. Hot water from coal lit geyser, oil bath, Grandma’s chicken curry – even heaven can’t produce such a joyous Sunday. We waited for the postman to deliver letters; Greeting cards were physically mailed to kith and kin before holidays. Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai were Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras – not only they were cities, but evoked emotions from within.

If the word bliss had an identity it was this, it was this.

The late eighties and early nineties were my days of schooling. I haven’t heard about food poisoning at all when I was young. As children, we used to eat just anything and everything. The round white peppermints which we used to carry in our trouser pockets, the honey candy which oozes out nectar-like juice when you bite into it, cigarette lookalike candies which we all thrust between our fingers and lingered the streets like grownups, the raw mango, and sweet-lime chopped with a rusty knife garnished with chili powder is an exquisite treat, the vermicelli ice-cream for fifty paise and other slushy ice sticks for twenty-five paise can kick the ass of any present-day gourmet ice-creams, color cool drinks for one rupee, fried Bonda and Samosas for ten paise and the list goes endless.

Sundry street foods we used to devour sans getting in a fluster about hygiene issues and surprisingly nothing happens to our health. And my hidden childhood secret unfolds, for all these eateries and treats I didn’t take money from my parents, nor did earn them.

My memory wanders into the void once again to recollect that one person whom I cannot forget in my life.

The Rickshaw Puller.

His name was Raja Gopalan. Ten children, including me, used to commute from home to school and vice- versa in that blue hollow-cylindrical tricycle rickshaw. He was responsible for the safety and well-being of all the ten naughty and mischievous rascals.

Unlike the normal cycle rikshaws you’d see in and around transporting people from one place to another, this school tricycle rickshaw throws a distinct appearance. It has two wooden slab benches which allowed the children to be seated facing each other. The cage is fully covered to protect us all from both sun rays and rainfall. The tail-end has a fitted one-step platform for the children to climb in, and the anterior drivers' area where our commanding pilot maneuvers his vehicle resembles as same as the front portion of a normal bicycle. In fact, in the local language, such type of rickshaw’s are referred to as ‘cage rickshaw’.

I very well remember him and his wonderful Rikshaw.

Unlike the normal rickshaw pullers, you’d see who’re thin and skinny struggling to pedal the three hundred kilo weight every single day combating their poverty, our Raja Gopalan was different. He was tall, dark, and handsome. A well-built body is attributed to the years and years of rickshaw pulling. He always wears a half hand shirt which is mostly white in color and a dirty multi-colored lungi right up to his thighs were his inner half trousers are always visible. His mouth is red in color at all times since he keeps on chewing betel leaves – sometimes as quid, sometimes as paan, but definitely with tobacco.

A long thick mustache that mirrors the handlebar of a Royal Enfield motorbike, twirled at both ends. Thick eyebrows, hair, and body hair signify his hardship right from early childhood working in the farms of his village. His slippers are worthy of mention – never I’ve seen him change his footwear. It was made of tractor tire robust and long-lasting.

He carries a brown leather bag with him which has a box nose snuff powder, betel leaves, and nuts, carbonated lime, a few documents related to the rickshaw, and the tiny purse in which he used to keep coins. I’ll come back to this in a while.

I asked him once why does he always chew this thing which makes his mouth all red and burning, his reply “It’s a mild stimulant. It suppresses hunger, reduces stress, and heightens my senses while I’m driving this Rickshaw.”

He spoiled his health to make a living. A three-kilometer journey from the busy mint street of Sowcarpet to our school near Parry’s corner in Madras and he pulls and pedals with all his might. The scorching summer heat sponges out perspiration all across his body. When we reach our school or back to my home, I find his shirt soaked and wet with sweat.

Every now and then, I used to climb up on the driver seat trying to pedal the rickshaw. ‘All of you are studying in an English convent school not to become a rickshaw-pullers in the future!’ he ridicules. The

best part of riding the rickshaw is the warning bell system. There’d be a rope attached between the handlebar and the body of the tricycle rickshaw and when you pull that cord a small bell-shaped metal that is attached to the base-rod of the vehicle creates a cling-clang. Hearing that funny sound, people walking on the streets give way for the chariot which carried our tiny impish souls.

“Ah! Yes. It’s a tough job. Body aches are a natural process and it won’t let you sleep at nights” Raja Gopalan used to confess very often.

“What do you do then, Rickshawkar?”

“I drink arrack or sometimes brandy during the weekends and get some good night's sleep. That’s all” he used to wink with a sly grin.

It might be true as well, but I haven’t seen him drunk when he reported for work, neither stinking nor wobbly. Hardly he is absent from his duty. Almost eight years of my life he was like another parent.

Coming back to the tiny purse filled with coins, I feel awkward even thinking about it. All the children including myself used to demand a little money from him to buy those candies and roadside treats right after our school. Poor fellow earns peanuts as a monthly fee from our parents to escort us to school every day, and we naughty bunch of little brats collected minimum twenty-five paise or fifty paise from him every other day.

One fine day out of curiosity, I asked him

“Why do you give away your money to us?”

His reply was,

“I’m married for fifteen years da. I don’t have a child. My wife and I met many doctors, visited many temples, worshipped all Gods. Nothing happened. I treat all of you as my children, so I don’t mind giving you guys the money” he winked.

I prayed he should bear a child for his good heart.

Roughly calculating it was just 5% of his overall income, but at that point in time, my mind wandered for pleasure rather than analyzing. He doesn’t have to pay tax, but he paid us every single day without fail.

One day when he distributed the money, I donated it to a poor beggar lady who was demanding money from me as she was very hungry. Seeing this, Raja Gopalan gave me another coin for me to buy some treats.

From that day onwards, he gave me twice the amount than he usually gives me. And he knows I’ll donate the other half to the poor and needy seated outside our school church.

Whenever he gave those two coins, he slightly pinches my left-hand pinky finger and said,

“Do your duty of helping others, it saves you and your life whenever required.”

A famous Tamil song lyric from a 1960’s black and white movie. It got registered in my mind like an unerasable imprint. I’ll take those two coins, donate one of them, and use the other one to treat myself. The profound value of sharing with others while you earn something was not taught to me at school, it

was taught outside the school gates. I got enlightened by a man who hasn’t even stepped his foot on the entrance of a school for a formal education whatsoever.

After the eighth standard going to the school by a cycle rickshaw invited harassments and bullying by your own friends. So, I learned the art of riding a bicycle and started going to school independently using my own second-hand bicycle. To be sure I’m taking the right path, the rickshaw puller used to guide me and follow me in the initial days.

Even though I’m no more a customer using his services, he still gave away those tiny coins for me to get the sweetmeats. And I duly donated my share to the needy. Habits die hard and even when my father gave some pocket money as well, I donated.

1996 was the year I graduated from higher secondary, ready to go to college. I met Raja Gopalan outside the school premises holding my 12th standard results.

“Ah. Finally, the small boy I knew has attained puberty!” he screamed feeling happy and proud.

I was merely grinning ear to ear nodding my head, swallowing up the embarrassment. I wasn’t a topper, nor did I fail the examinations. I’m from the vast majority of people whom they call “average student”.

But yes, the time has come to move forward in life. School is over and this Rickshaw puller has been one of the strongest pillars of support and I can stride confidently the next chapter of my life. He gave two one-rupee coins once again.

I donated one of the coins to a beggarwoman who appeared shabby in her torn clothes right in front of the church and I put the other coin in my pocket. I looked back to get a glimpse of the rickshaw puller; he was smiling.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

I went to college to do my engineering from Hyderabad, a little away from Madras. I managed to keep that one-rupee coin with me in my wallet all along. That coin reminded me to always share my earnings with the less fortunate ones. Whatever little pocket money I was able to save, I gave away as a donation or food.

During my final year, I visited Madras which was renamed to ‘Chennai’ very recently and got to know about the sad demise of our beloved Rickshaw puller. I met all my ‘rickshaw’ buddies and found out his home in one of the busy slums near Kasimedu to pay our last respects. I surely respected him.

It has been 16 days since he passed away and his last rites and rituals were happening. In the tiny house, there were so many relatives and friends who were bustling with each other performing pooja, cooking, and serving the guests.

All of us just stood outside the house mourning his death. His photo was garnished with a small flower garland that was hanging from corner to corner of the photo frame. A small Kamatchi Amman lamp lit with the help of oil and cotton strip was effusing black smoke. His photo was sprinkled with ash powder, sandalwood paste, and Kumkuma powder which depicted the departed soul as God.

People gathered there were gossiping and chit-chatting and we understood that he died of testicle hydroxyl infection. A case wherein the impact of inflammation of the male reproductive tract is pretty

high which is commonly seen in the hardworking community of Indian men. Rickshaw pullers, bullock cart drivers, fishermen, coolies and construction workers mainly suffer from this.

One of the relatives of Raja Gopalan noticed us and he brought us water to drink which we refused.

“I don’t recognize you people... Sorry, who are you people?” he quizzed with a smile.

“Raja Gopalan used to commute us to our schools every day. It has been a few years now since we graduated from school and there no communication between us. Didn’t know his ill fate...” I replied genuinely.

“Yes. He struggled for a couple of years before giving up.”

I noticed a small kid of about five or six years old playing with some toys and was curious to know who it was from that relative.

“Oh. That’s their child. Raja Gopalan’s brother and his wife died in a gory accident about six years ago. This kid was barely two months old then. Raja Gopalan and his wife adopted this child. He was very fond of his son. He was always showering utmost love and attention. Poor soul, don’t know what Kamala and this young boy are going to do now after his demise. He always wanted his son to study in the same school as you guys but he did not have the financial capability to do that”

“Kamala is?” one of my friends probed.

“His wife. Both of them wanted his son to get a good education and be well off rather than stuck in this slum doing menial jobs without anything to accomplish in life.” He said.

I was just happy to see the kid roaming and playing around the house. Sad to know that the child is not aware that his father will never come back. The man’s dreams and teachings have also been cremated along with his lifeless body.

I took it very personally. He passed away, but his teachings, principles, and dreams should not die. After my engineering, I got placed in one of the best IT companies in the world. Everyone was talking about the internet, computer systems, and Y2K. When I received my first month's salary, my mother advised me to donate it to the hundi of the Tirumala Tirupati temple. I donated only a hundred bucks.

I sent a money order postmarking Kamala Raja Gopalan to their home address. I did not reveal myself, or my address or any identity. They cannot call me or write back to me.

I wrote a below note,

Hello, I owe a lot to your husband. I got to know his only dream in life was to give a convent education to his child. Do not worry about his educational expenses. Every month I shall send some money. Please use that to pay for his school education. After schooling, he’ll figure out a way out. I miss Raja Gopalan as a person and I believe this small amount every month will suffice for the little boy’s education. Let us make the Rikshaw pullers dream come true.

- Yours sincerely

An anonymous well-wisher

I attached an acknowledgment form every time I sent the money. A duly stamped acknowledgment from the postal department I received every month. They are obtaining the money and I was hopeful they’re using it to pay for the school fee. I felt happy – a Rikshaw puller’s son is able to study in a convent school because of the little help from me.

I donated 5% of my monthly salary for the child. The exact 5% Raja Gopalan allocated for treating us when we were little. And the one-rupee coin he gave me changed from one purse to another, my wallets wear out and I replaced them, but not that coin.

Ten years went by, technologies changed from C, C++, Java, Oracle, .Net, and whatnot. As a software developer, I upgraded my skills to still survive in the corporate world with a fat paycheck. 2010 is when I got married. For a couple of years, I got an opportunity to work on-site. With my newlywed wife, our lives moved from Chennai to New Jersey.

I got a message on Orkut and Facebook from one of my friends who was one of my cycle Rikshaw companions. The year 2010 saw a student from our school becoming the district first in scoring maximum marks in higher secondary examinations which were conducted across the state. He told me it was none other than Raja Gopalan’s son. He said it is there in all the local newspapers. Headlines are blaring everywhere.

Son of a Rikshaw Puller is a TN HSC Board district topper!

A feeling of utmost happiness. That extreme joy when a mother sees her newborn child for the time. I sent my last money order without including any identifying information to the family congratulating the boy for his success and the hardship of the mother.

If Raja Gopalan would have been alive, he would have felt immensely proud and contended.

Shortly after our visit from the US, my wife delivered a beautiful young boy. There were some serious complications in childbirth. The doctors warned us that c-section or normal delivery will lead to a huge amount of blood loss and her body is not capable of it.

Her low oxygen count in blood did not help much. Right after her C-section operation, she went unconscious. How much ever the doctors tried, we were not able to retrieve her. After a week of being in a coma, she passed away.

I did not marry anyone after that. The pain and suffering left a deep wound in my heart. The wound is still fresh. The soul reason which is worthy of living my life was for my son. These eight years I have stopped donating my share of salary as well. I had this feeling that even though I donated heartily that dharma did not help me. I lost her.

The loss was irreplaceable.

As a woman was dragged through a stretcher from the X-Ray room to the general ward of the Government hospital, my senses are back to the normal world. My entire life went through in my mind within three minutes.

The old lady was smiling looking at my tensed nervous face.

The door of the emergency ward opened, and I saw my child walking towards me. He was weak but he seems alright. He finds me near the waiting area and embraces me as we meet each other.

“Are you alright dear?” I questioned him planting a peck on his cheek.

“I’m fine Appa,” he mumbled.

A nurse followed right after him handling me a chit of paper. The fee I need to pay to the doctor.

“Ma. The doctor is free now for a few minutes. He says he’ll meet you and have lunch. Shall we go?” the nurse guides the old lady towards the doctor cabin which is right next to the emergency ward.

The old lady walking for a few steps towards the doctor’s cabin stopped after a moment. She turned around, sauntered towards me and slightly pinches my left-hand pinky finger and said,

“Do your duty of helping others, it saves you and your life whenever required.”

I stood there awe-struck. With my mouth slightly open, it was a shocker. Little did I notice, the name board of the doctor was right on the entrance door of his cabin.

It read – Ganesh Raja Gopalan MBBS

I read the slip given to me by the doctor. It was mentioned – doctor’s fee – 1 Rupee.

My eyes brimmed with tears.

“Really Appa, I’m fine. You don’t have to worry. Let’s go home.” my child said squeezing my pants tightly.

“Yeah, yeah... sure.” I wiped the flowing tears off my cheeks and paid the fee at the counter. The exact same coin I received from my Rickshaw puller the last time I met him.

3 days later

The person who rides school auto-rickshaw visits my home to collect his fee. He is the one who commutes my child and the other two children from this apartment to the nearby school every day.

Pandemic restrictions in the building – no outsiders allowed inside the premises. I came near the entrance gate to greet him.

“Due to the lockdown, there are no schools. Auto transportation is also completely halted. Very difficult times for daily laborer like me Sir...” he was venting-out his difficulties.

“I need to find another job, till the normalcy returns. I had just one wish. My daughter is of the same age as your son. I wanted her to study in that big English convent school, Sir. Looks like its impossible now. She studies well although. She might find a good career” he said.

“Thank you. Let us meet when the school’s re-open sir.”

He was about to leave.

“Don’t worry about your daughter’s education. Enroll her in a good convent school as you desired. I’ll take care of the expenses.” I said.

“I cannot thank you enough Sir.” The man was overwhelmed with joy. I could see a droplet of tear on the corner of his eyes.

“Thank you. See you sir and take care.” He finally muttered those words before leaving out of the gate. As he walked past the pedestrian crossing, he turned around to give a final glance, I saw Raja Gopalan instead of the auto-driver. The same unaltered smile, energetic walk, fearless attitude, and a good heart to make the future generation better.

“If you protect the dharma even if it is difficult, it will protect you even if it is impossible”

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