The Coin A short story
There was jasmine fragrance in the air, ladies walked in their Silk Sarees hither and thither in an effort to produce the effect of hectic activity in the atmosphere. I was sitting impatiently with a silver tumbler full of hot coffee. For a moment I thought of keeping the tumbler on the floor so that one of the children jumping around might trip over it and relieve me off the pain of consuming the watery coffee. You cannot leave the coffee unfinished that was offered by a host, especially when the hosts turn out to be your in-laws. That simply is not respectful. The tradition forces you to accept gleefully anything that is offered by a host. You throw in anything into your throat that comes your way as if you are throwing garbage into a dustbin.
For the fourth time in half an hour, my mobile phone vibrated in my pant pocket. I decided that the temperature was perfect for the coffee to be gulped in one go and after doing so I hurriedly took the phone out. It was Mr. Rama Krishnan again, my ex manager.
I killed the persisting vibration and texted him saying I was busy and would meet him in twenty minutes. I pocketed the phone and scanned the marriage hall for a glimpse of Gayathri. There she was, engaged in an animated conversation with a portly lady. Suddenly as if by intuition, she turned toward my direction and presented one of her trade mark admiring smiles at me. Through my eyes I tried to convey that I needed her. I thought I succeeded. Abruptly she ended the conversation with another smile, on this occasion at the portly lady, and started walking towards me. In the Silk Saree, she looked like the school girl she was a few years ago when I fell in love with her.
'Have you had your coffee or should I bring some?' she asked standing in front of me with her hands on her hips.
'Oh, I just had,' I said. 'Gaayoo! I need to leave. My ex boss wants me to meet him now,'
'Mahesh! This is not fair. The function is hardly over. All the guests are here. It won't look nice if you leave this early. Any of them may want to have a chat with you,'
'Gaayoo! Try to understand. He is in town only for today. He leaves tonight for his hometown. And it has been years since we both met. You know very well he was instrumental in my growth. How can I avoid him? What possible explanation I could give him?'
'Tell him the truth. That you are attending an important function and you can not leave the place since it would be disgraceful to the elders and the other relatives. He himself is a family man. He will understand. He wouldn't be disappointed,'
'He wouldn't show if he has any. The point is it is I who want to meet him. At least I owe him that much,'
Gayathri gave me an angry stare, and the look immediately altered to express a judgment that I am an incorrigible idiot. 'Go!' she said, looking away.
'May I take the motor cycle? If I have to take the bus, it would take too much time,'
'You are unbelievable! How do you think we will take the elders to the bus stop when they want to leave? Motorcycle? No way. Go away!'
I knew that was the final verdict and slipped myself out of the house. At the entrance I saw some faces that smiled at me in a friendly way. I hadn't a clue about who they were. Nevertheless I reciprocated. I wouldn't be surprised if one of them came forward and stopped me from leaving. I did not want to give a chance for that to happen and started walking away immediately.
I thought for a while to take the bus and gave up the idea. You need to walk at least ten minutes to reach the bus stop and waiting for the bus would definitely take considerable amount of time. Reaching Rama Krishnan's from Bhavani bus stand is no easy task either. I have decided to walk fast so that I can meet him in at least thirty to forty five minutes.
Cauvery River flowed between Bhavani and komarapalayam. At this place it gained a specific name Bhavani River. Three massive bridges linked the two little towns at various places. The third one, which was the closest to the bus stand, was built as recently as three years ago. Still no four wheelers were allowed to cross this bridge since the official opening ceremony of the bridge was not yet done. But the two wheelers ran on. Bhavani People working in textile weaving and processing mills in komarapalayam took this bridge after their work thereby cutting their travel expense from Komarapalayam to Bhavani and vice versa. Also buses from Erode, the capital of the Periyar district, reach Bhavani faster than they reach komarapalayam. So most of the Komarapalayam people prefer to take buses to Bhavani from Erode and walk on feet on the new bridge to their home town.
It was nearly six in the evening. The bridge had a heavenly atmosphere since the street lamps were on while the sunlight was still out. I walked on the pavement of the bridge, speeding up my pace as I went along. I felt the silky touch of the cool evening air on my face. The air has a peculiar nimbleness as it wafted through the surface of the river and I liked to breathe in the fresh air deeply. I breathed in what seemed to be a ton of air into my lungs and felt rejuvenated and relaxed. I reduced my pace to have a look around. I looked into the river. It was one of those luckiest months when you got to see water in the river. Water had engulfed a lot of rocks, leaving the tips of a few on its surface. On the banks, a few women washed their clothes on the rocks and a few men bathed not faraway from them. I shifted my gaze to check the distance to be covered in order to cross the bridge. It might take a few more minutes. I saw people returning home from their work. Women from the nearby market carried large baskets on their heads and walked with an intense rhythm. Young boys and girls, evidently from private schools, (as Government schools finished early) pedaled their bicycles leisurely. Boys talked about cricket and cinema and girls talked about studies and cinema. When the boys were out of earshot, girls talked about boys and when the girls came within earshot, boys talked about girls. My lips curled with a slender smile at the sight of the freshness of youth blossoming in them. The bridge was full of noise. Two wheelers horned unnecessarily and people talked, shouted, cursed and spat needlessly. Tamil film songs were played loudly in the street side hotels to give the people a signal that their business has started. When I reached the other end of the bridge, two policemen stopped the two wheelers and checked whether their drivers had proper license. Apparently it was the end of the month. They required booking a minimum number of cases in a given month.
The bus station was situated at the end of the bridge. As soon as I reached the station I was delighted to see a bus waiting to go to Erode. If I took the bus now, I could save some valuable time in reaching Rama Krishnan's which was near Kooduthurai. I jogged to the bus and climbed on it. It would not take more than ten minutes to reach my destination. My sprits rose.
When I climbed the bus down at Kooduthurai stop, I could not see Rama Krishnan at the tea shop, the place we both agreed to be the rendezvous. I scanned inside the teashop; no sign of him. Standing outside, I called him over my mobile phone.
It was difficult to make his voice out due to the noise made by the traffic. He stuck up in a dyeing unit and would meet me in twenty minutes. I was instructed to wait in front of the teashop until he arrived. I cursed myself for not checking up with him before I started.
While I was pondering my luck standing in front of the teashop (as there was not a single vacant seat inside it) I had a visitor. The man at first must have tried his luck with the teashop owner and its inhabitants, for his posture insisted that I should take something out of my pocket to offer him. He stood at least five minutes silently staring at me, apparently gauging my inherent qualities. His left hand lay stretched with open palm all the while.
I should agree that though he looked a beggar, his appearance struck an undesirable chord somewhere inside my system. The reverberations lasted for a few more minutes even after he left. He wore a shabby and tattered shirt, his hair looked like a beehive and it seemed a blackish liquid had been applied all over his body. He wore a shoe on his right leg without a sock, and the shoe had an enormous hole at the top front. He was skinny but had a firm skeleton. Though his posture suggested that he stood in front of me for want of a one rupee coin, his stubborn gaze told a different story. His eyes were shining like a pair of fire balls, and it seemed that at any time he could spit fire through his eyes. I grew nervous as I observed him closely. Not out of compassion for a fellow human being but with an interminable desire to get rid off him, I decided to offer him something. I fumbled in my shirt pocket for a feel of the metal and found one. When I took it out I was upset to see a five rupee coin. Certainly I had no intention to gift a stray beggar a five rupee coin, which could buy you a cup of tea or enable you to travel back home in a bus. Five rupees is precious money. But then I had to erase his presence from my surrounding. With him gazing at me as if I have committed an irredeemable crime, I could not even stand peacefully. Half heartedly I dropped the coin in his palm. He did not thank me, I didn't expect him to. He stood there still and wore the same malicious look on his face; I didn't expect his expression to change either, for some inexplicable reasons. Somehow I felt obliged to do whatever he demanded. I started to fear that he would never leave me. May be he would like to take me with him, to wherever he went. I remembered in a Tamil movie starred by the Tamil super star Rajini Kanth, the hero was taken by a beggar to the Himalayas through many secret ways. There he would meet a lot of rishis and avatars. He would be awarded a number of boons. I could not suppress my smile at the thought of this. But his stare grew unforgiving at the sight of my smile. I contemplated whether to shoo him off myself, but gave up the thought and looked in the opposite direction. Kooduthurai temple Gopuram was in view, the letters Shiva, Shiva were prominently visible on the Gopuram. I could sense he was still staring at me and I started wondering whether I should leave from that place.
'Hey man, how do you do?' the unmistakable voice of Rama Krishnan echoed from behind. I turned abruptly to see a fast approaching Rama Krishnan. While he came closer to me, the beggar took leave immediately. I felt immensely relieved. I took my mobile and switched it off. I didn't want disturbance during my conversation with him.
'Hello sir, Vanakkam. How are you?' I greeted him with a smile.
'Mm... I am all right. You seemed to have forgotten all of us. Think about us some time man. Don't forget your past,'
I smiled hesitantly. 'It's not like that sir, I was a little busy at a function in my in laws''
'Have you had something? Come on let's have tea,' he said. Grabbing my left shoulder, he dragged me into the teashop. He shouted his requirement to the tea master; two cups of milk tea, one with less sugar and two lentil vadas. We stood crammed in the little space that was available inside the teashop and waited for the tea to be served.
The foam was present at least a quarter of an inch thick on top of the tea and I had to blow out the foam in order to find my tea. Rama Krishnan was doing the same. Almost everyone in Tamil Nadu does the same. You need to mention that you need the tea without any foam when you order. Some intelligent people do. They must have prepared the vada in the morning. It was cold and rough like leather.
Rama Krishnan suggested as there is no space inside the teashop and in his room his room mate will be present, it would be better if we went into Kooduthurai temple to have a long talk. Well, the temple closed at eight in the evening after the final puja, but still we could sit on the temple veranda and talk for some time he said.
As we entered the Kooduthurai temple, memories came to me like short waves. At this very temple I expressed my love to Gayathri and received a smile that even the deity at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman could not match. For a year and a half the temple had been a place for our frequent visits. My primary purpose of the visit would only be to be with her and have joyful conversation while for her it was her Shiva, the lord of destruction who had to be attended first. Of the countless lingams situated at various places inside the temple, a tiny one that sat under a Beal tree would receive her dedicated attention and a quarter of an hour of silent worship with the sacred ash and Beal leaves; prior to that a visit to the main deity The Sangameshwara is a must. All this while I would accompany her edgily awaiting the sweet talks I would have with her after her ceremonious round up around the temple.
That evening too, I was waiting edgily for Rama Krishnan to start the conversation, and to be exact I was awaiting the moment he would let me leave. Somehow I got an unpleasant feeling about this meeting. Also I could not get the beggar out of my mind.
Rama Krishnan had gone to buy some Prasad from the temple shop. When he returned his face looked bright. 'The tamarind rice that is sold here is the most delicious in this town' he said sitting beside me and offering me a bundle of tamarind rice.
While I was opening the bundle, I could not help but wonder at the sight of innocence present on his face. I felt a tinge of guilt developing in me.
'Sir, do you still remember that tinopal incident?' I asked him hesitantly.
'Oh, yes. How could I forget the very incident that changed the course of my life?'
'I am extremely sorry sir,' I said: my guilt conscious ballooning up. 'It was my entire fault,'
'No, no, no. Don't be silly. You did the best you could. You contacted me immediately when you found out you have added tinopal to the lot by mistake. You didn't try to hide your mistake or put the blame on someone, you know. That's a noble quality for me. The only mistake you have committed was to forget my instructions. I clearly said umpteen times that it wasn't a white lot and we shouldn't add tinopal. But then you were inexperienced. You had been transferred from the laboratory to the bleaching department just a week earlier. You could have been careful. But never mind. It's all a thing of the past now,' he said, more intend on the tamarind rice than on the conversation.
I wanted to express myself completely, knowing full well I could not. 'But sir, it was a night shift and I slept immediately after giving the chemical requirements to the laborer. I forgetfully added two kilos of tinopal and the laborer obliged my instruction while I was blissfully unaware of anything that was going on. Had I been awake that night, I could have avoided the blunder. It was a lot that was meant to be dyed with burgundy color, but I made dyeing impossible by adding the whitening agent. It was ten thousand meters of fabric, sir. I incurred a great loss to the company and the buyer. You took the blame on yourself. I got away with some stern warnings. But it was you who suffered a great deal. You lost your job. The provident fund was denied. As you said, it's true that incident changed the course of your life, but all because of me. I feel guilty when I think of you and our company, sir. That was the reason why I tried to avoid meeting you on the earlier occasions even when you insisted,'
'You know, Mahesh, you had just given your resignation then. If you had accepted responsibility for the slipup, the MD would not have spared you. Your salary for that month would not have been issued; neither would you have got your bonus for that year. Pongal was nearing, remember? I knew the bonus was substantial amount of money, considering the financial trouble your family was undergoing at that time. Not to mention the influence the MD had over the new company you were going to join. He could have ruined your chances of going up in the ladder,' he said.
'But sir, the ruination struck you massively.'
'You think so? No, no. in fact it was a blessing in disguise for me. I always wanted to get rid of this wretched job but did not have the guts to do it. When it came naturally, although I was dumbstruck at first, I felt relieved. It gave an opportunity to reflect back on my own life and made it easier for me to take some important decisions in my life. So, in a way, I am happy that the inevitable happened.'
'Are you really happy at the moment, sir?'
'You could say that. One is never happy with one's life at any point. But I can say I am free of a lot of load at this moment. My pocket is empty; my path is clear; no sidekicks; no masters,' he said, laughing aloud.
I was looking at him intently for a minute. I pondered over what he said to me just now. Though he sounded like a hippy, the slight quiver in his voice suggested he had been wounded severely by the sudden turn of events in the evening of his career. He was earning a handsome remuneration along with the percentage commission from the buyers for optimum quality of the fabric and timely delivery. He lost everything over the little conversation he had with the MD and it seemed he was only justifying his predicament. I knew he did not have preferences in life. He had only an old '86 Bajaj scooter he bought from a whole sale rice trader and wore cloths that he bought fifteen years earlier. He could be satisfied with a simple meal. But he had an uneducated wife who complained about anything he did for the family and two teenage daughters who liked to spent his money lavishly on beauty products. Through my former colleagues from the textile processing unit, I learnt that he wasn't doing well financially off late. He took up some orders from tiny textile units, did the following up work for them thereby getting a small amount of money which could hardly satisfy his day to day needs, let alone his family requirements.
Seeing me sunk deep in thoughts, he said: 'Of course, I struggled financially for a while. I even tried contacting you; sent you mails; tried calling your number many times. You wouldn't budge. You were busy building up your new career, I guess.'
I was busy. I changed my career from being a quality control officer into an instructor in a reputed educational institution in Bangalore. The job paid more than decently. I was a changed man in about five years. I built my own house at my home town; I had my own cheverolet and a fat sum in my fixed deposits. When Rama Krishnan called I knew it was for a financial help and that was precisely why I tried avoiding him. One of my colleagues from the textile unit contacted me informing that Rama Krishnan might approach me to request for a huge some of money as he was trying to establish his own marketing firm. I could have helped, if not for the construction of my own house. But you can't always justify your position, particularly with Rama Krishnan.
'Your hands shiver a little.' I said, observing an uneasy tenderness throughout his body.
'Oh, yes.' He said looking into his palms. 'This is the time for me to jump into the dreamy ocean.'
'I…I don't understand.'
'These days I take refuge at liquor. It serves me well. Making me forget this worthless world and transporting me into another dimension. Do you drink, Mahesh?'
'Occasionally I do. Especially when there is a farewell party I sip a peg or two.'
'It's been four years, Mahesh, since I have taken to drinking. You know I am a much disciplined drunkard. A quarter a day, that's all I need.'
I was shaken. Rama Krishnan was known for his clean character. He didn't have any unwanted habit; not even munching beetle leaves and nuts. He was respected by one and all as a man with a vision.
'What were you doing all these years, sir?' I asked.
'Well, I struggled initially to set up my own marketing firm. You could say I am still struggling; the only difference being I don't give a damn to my day to day struggles these days. I have lost nearly seven hundred thousand, Mahesh. If you add my income for all these years, the sum may go up to one point two million. Never mind, with a stroke of a genius I can earn a sum of not less than a million this year. I have been in touch with a South African buyer. The bargain has started. He is willing to give me a container printing order. I may get a two per cent commission this time. I am optimistic.'
He was an adamant optimist, I knew. But this time it seemed that his plan was not only improbable but imaginary. I knew for certain that all the container printing orders from South Africa had been transferred to China. The Chinese could afford to process the order at the lowest price since they pay their laborers a diminutive wage. With Indian processors it had always been a problem filled affair. Optimum quality and timely delivery are two big important factors that satisfy a buyer. Indian processors are famous for their mishaps in the above areas. Employing child laborers for the work, failing to meet pollution control board standards and trying to cheat the Board of Central Excise are supplementary factors that make a buyer very infuriated. All these factors gathered for a long time to permanently erase container printing orders from Indian soil.
'Your silence makes me think you pity me.' Rama Krishnan said, not looking at me. 'You don't need to…' he ceased to speak abruptly. He was looking at the dining hall in front of the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple. I turned to see what he was looking at. A group of devotees of Sabari pilgrimage crossed our view wearing black colored dhotis. The chant 'Saranam Ayyappa' rose deafeningly from the group. Little girls were busy lighting lamps at the boundary of the dining hall. There seemed a lot activity since the final pooja of the day was about to begin. It was time to go. I took out my mobile and switched it on. I looked back at Rama Krishnan. He was not looking at the bustle in the crowd. He was particularly staring at the water tap at the far side if the dining hall. I tried to find out what interested him. There he was- my tormentor, drinking water from the tap, oblivious to whatever happened around him. I felt the same stroke of awkwardness as before.
My mobile vibrated. It was Gayathri. I ignored. She could wait another fifteen minutes.
'You see that beggar?' Rama Krishnan asked. I answered him that I did. Rama Krishnan said he was from Andhra Pradesh. He came here three years ago. He had been a jewelry entrepreneur in his state; a millionaire undoubtedly. 'He tried to take giant steps in the business; lost all his wealth due to a corporate crisis; his wife killed herself; he became insane. Ever since he arrived here, he has been looking for his lost wealth in other people's pockets' Rama Krishnan laughed.
The watchman was pushing the beggar with a wooden stick. He was having a hard time in sending the beggar out of the temple. I looked back at Rama Krishnan. He appeared to have forgotten about the beggar. He continued to speak about his plans feverishly. He would marry her first daughter to a software programmer settled in the United States. By this time next year he would finish the construction of his house in his hometown, Trichy. He just needed a sum of thirty thousand to meet his present requirements. He didn't ask me for that money. Somehow he would manage. He was really happy that I made such rapid progress in my life.
I was listening to him all the while wondering what part I have played in leading him to this present predicament. I ignored Gayathri twice during his talk.
I had to ask for excuse from Rama Krishnan, for Gayathri was calling me for the fourth time.
'Why did you keep your mobile switched off?' she asked. I could sense irritation in her voice.
'I wanted to have a peaceful conversation with him that's why. What happened? Did you try calling me before?'
'I have been trying your number incessantly. Where is the vehicle key? Do you have it with you? I did a complete search here.'
I rummaged in my pant pockets and found the key to the motorcycle in the right pocket.