Sakundan never harbored many expectations ever since he came to know himself. He even had a philosophical alibi for it. However one tries to know or discover himself he always hasn’t known or unearthed an area of his self unless there is an eye opener. As for expectations he told himself wryly “If you expect anything you land on the opposite shore. Or if you extend your palm expecting something to fall and it does it could be worse.” Cynicism? May be, but with the undeniable truth that life does not always travel in a straight line he could be right. After all he has been an auto driver for years, known the lanes and by-lanes of Chennai’s vast expanse without ever tripping once. And he has known the tough exterior of life too.
Sakundan had been driving since his youth. Born to a mechanic and an adoring mother he had an early feel for the automobile technical intricacies having been coached by his father. He always assisted his father in his workshop in his spare time apart from studies and excelled more in the former than the latter. He could spot a technical fault with the ease of reciting his arithmetic lessons but study always was an unfriendly companion. His father always chided, occasionally slapped, him for being a no-gooder in school beyond which he couldn’t go. Being the only son his ineptitude for the books wasn’t sitting so much heavily on his father’s mind and, with a doting mother, he wriggled out of stinging unpleasantness at home. Yet….yet the query popped up soon and his father gave vent to it.
“What the hell are you going to do? Don’t think I or mother will be there ever to feed, take care of you?. “ He paused irritably. “I am in my fifties and in a decade will call it a day. So what’s the big idea?”
Sakundan kept his eyes down, knowing that seeing eye to eye in such circumstances amounted to indiscipline, that too culpable. “Appa! Can’t I take care of your workshop? It is your own, including the house and you have no debts to clear. Am I that much of an eyesore to you? “
His father took time to possess himself. “Yeah….that’s an idea but don’t think I will hand it over on a platter. You have to slog the whole day here and the usual evening jaunts with your buddies are out. Is that clear?”
For the first time Sakundan raised his eyes to meet his father’s. And he smiled. “No appa. I know driving and am going to join a call taxi firm on a monthly salary. I am only 20 and will just earn enough to think of going on my own.” He paused when his father cut in with concern.
“Saku! It will be a trying job, take the life out of you with night shifts and all. You won’t stand it beyond a year. “
His mother threw her arm around her son’s shoulder and squeezed him with affection. “No, he will. Your son is made of sterner stuff.” Sakundan spoke. “Appa! It doesn’t mean I won’t take care of your workshop. I will certainly do at a future date when circumstances will be congenial.” His father smiled for the first time but as was his wont never softened towards his son. “Ok boy! As you wish. But keep us in touch when you are on night shifts because there are unforeseen things round the corner always.” Sakundan nodded.
Sakundan harked back to this chat from a spot in T.Nagar where he had picked his fare after much wrangling over the fee because he always believed in a ‘tip’ above the meter reading. An expert at arguing his way through he got the price he demanded and muttered wryly. “They say the global price is down but I pay extra for the govt. I have to earn my living off petrol in a way. Who will compensate for that?” He took his auto from his home over 6 km away from T.Nagar where he managed to catch more customers as it was the heart of the city and also the pulse of traders. If lucky he would manage to pick a fare from home or drive forlorn for a few km before someone prospective spotted or waved at him.
Sakundan took a loan to buy the auto after slogging six years in a call taxi firm and footing part of the expense. He had paid half of the dues set to be settled in 32 months. In essence he told himself that excepting petrol and maintenance cost his takeaway was always just enough to take care of a family of four – a daughter and son. This was a decade after his father retired, almost handed over the workshop which was being run with three aides. Sakundan grinned. “I am an entrepreneur now. But what’s there to regret? Isn’t it a matter of pride that I am on my own?”
It was 9.30 p.m and the Central Station was bustling as ever, with stream of people tiptoeing in and out to the accompaniment of hooting of autos and state buses gliding through the diagonal way to the stop inside the station. Sakundan waited near the prepaid booth content to pocket whatever the free-minded passenger was willing to pay him above the stipulated fare. He intended to ply for maximum three more hours at night before calling it a day. “What better place to catch an expectant passenger than Central?” He saw a 65 year old man of medium height, fair skin and of seemingly Punjabi extraction take the slip from the counter and moved in close to him.
“Where to sir?.” The old man quietly handed over the slip to him and mentioned an old age home in Mandaveli. Sakundan knew it well and mentioned as an aside to him. “Sir! Mandaveli is a long way off. I am not money obsessed but I expect you to show me a bit of generosity.” The old man gave him a beaming, tolerant smile. “Don’t worry. Neither am I money obsessed. You will get a generous tip.” Sakundan was given to opening and prolonging a chat with anyone but took sometime to do so. He was perplexed why the old man had mentioned a home instead of his house. He was equally loath to asking him as he honestly felt it would be poking his nose where it wasn’t needed. Also he cannot break into a chat considering his age but sensed an inescapable film of long suppressed agony in his face.
“Sir….sorry if I am being inquisitive. But you must be having a house of your own, not an old age home to go to. You appear to me of a well placed family with no pinpricks others normally go through.” The old man remained silent for a while which made Sakundan bite his lip. “Sir….I shouldn’t have asked. I have a chip on my tongue, I suppose.” He heard a peal of laughter from behind which made him turn back.
“No worry.” The old man was reassuring in his tone. “I lost my wife a few years ago a bit premature for her age. I am just 65 and one cannot decide at what age he will quit or hope for a long innings, can he?” Sakundan said that was true and again his tongue went on a lease. “Sir… these days we don’t know what to expect from the younger generation. I hear a lot of tales about abandoned parents and I feel so chagrined that I would like to give a whack on the bottom of insensitive youth. “
The old man didn’t directly answer or assuage Sakundan’s uprush of anger. “Well…Everybody can justify anything their own way as long as someone is willing to listen. In a few cases there are no justifiable reasons or attempts to explain the conduct. By the way, how about you? You too don’t seem to be beyond mid thirties.” He left the rest to Sakundan. Sakundan smiled. “I understand your query, sir. But I can’t or would never do it because it goes against the grain. Anyone that self- centred loses his right to commanding respect or dignity.” Those words erupted spontaneously from him but the old man wore his smile.
There was no response for a while as if he was recollecting his mind. “Dignity is not attached to what you possess or show off, young man. Dignity is a halo or an emblem around your mind which one has to cherish and nourish.” With this he lapsed into silence though his words struck Sakundan like the beating of a gong. “well said…that’s where an educated and well conceived mind comes. Sir….I should drive you free for what you said. It is a gem.” He was partly good humoured and partly serious but there was no response. Sakundan went on chatting, driving deftly through the myriad labyrinths of other vehicles. When he reached the destination he turned back “sir your place has come…..” and sat with his mouth agape. The old man had collapsed with stuttered breathing. Stunned and too scared to shake him Sakundan was at his wit’s end. Then he rushed inside the Home.
It was a melee of sorts with the staff rushing out with available medical kit. Immediately an ambulance was called and the old man rushed to a nearby specialties hospital with Sakundan insisting on being part of the crew. The old man was taken on a stretcher to the ICU and put on ventilator. The old age Home staff, who knew the old man well, cooled down Sakundan whose pulse rate went up and who was on the verge of tears. “Don’t worry….you brought him at the right moment. We thank you for it. We will pay you the fare and you can go. “
Sakundan was besieged by a train of thoughts, weighed down by an inexplicable guilt. “I shouldn’t have let my tongue run away with it. May be, I contributed to any emotional stress in him?.” He pleaded with trembling lips trying to collect his self. “No sir….I will stay on. I can’t go home or drive in this state of mind. I am stunned.” Then he rang up his wife, nearly barking to her. “I will be late. Don’t ask me anything now. It’s nothing about me and I am safe. Just wait for me to reach home.”
For the next two hours he felt as if he was popping helplessly in a vacuum or stratosphere and unable to undo the shadow of guilt. He stayed put outside on the row of chairs, often pacing up and down and enquiring with the nurses trooping in and out. By about 4 a.m the medical team came out and one of the doctors asked a nurse “Who brought him here?” Then he walked to Sakundan and asked a few questions in a soft tone. Sakundan felt a bit of stomach churning too but didn’t show it and answered them haltingly. The doctor put a reassuring arm on his shoulder. “Sakundan! You don’t know the importance of what you have done. He is out of danger and you have saved a life. “ Sakundan blurted out a relieved “thank you sir” and was at a loss for words. The doctor turned to the nurse and told her to get more details from the old man when he recovered consciousness besides giving a stream of medical instructions.
Sakundan signed in the medical register in the reception admitting he brought the patient to the hospital. When he reached home he was still in a volcanic siege.
It took a month for the old man to recuperate and return to the normal. The nursing staff, though trained to do so, took remarkable care and he felt eternally grateful to them. But what he didn’t ever expect was Sakundan visiting him every day for the first two weeks and once a week later. He always came with a pack of oranges and mangoes (the old man’s favourite though he wondered how the auto driver knew about it) and spoke to him with genuine kindness and concern.
For his part Sakundan was perplexed. Right from the day till his recuperation the auto driver noticed that not a single soul from the old man’s world of kin had visited him or made a call. “Is he a man without a past? Can’t be. There is no soul on earth without a past, worth or not worth looking into.” He muttered to himself “After all a man’s worth is his past, isn’t it?” He never ventured to question him even once on it and also wondered how he didn’t with his insufferable and sometimes unsociable curiosity. He took a liking to the old man and perhaps it put a lid on his active vocal chords.
The old man had wanted him to get some papers from his small suite in the old age home, carefully locked in the cupboard with an authorization. He took it out, put it in a plastic bag and handed over it to the old man. The old man smiled.
“Sakundan…don’t get me wrong for asking. Did you open the envelope to see they were the exact papers I wanted?
Sakundan shook his head. “No sir….no need for it because you have marked in the envelope what is what. You are meticulous and seem to know what you are doing.” The old man was silent for a while and then queried softly “young man….you haven’t even asked me my name?” It was Sakundan’s turn to smile. “Sir….don’t ask me why but it never struck me. You are fine now and will be back in your comfortable Home in a few days. That’s what matters, any way.” The old man looked away, expressionless. He kept staring out of the window and returned his gaze on the auto driver. “Sakundan….I will be back there in a couple of days. Don’t fail to drop in. “
They chatted for quite some time and the old man lapsed into peals of laughter when Sakundan enlivened the atmosphere with his funny anecdotes.
Three months later around 10 am Sakundan had his lunch and was preparing to take his auto out. For a couple of weeks he had not been to the Home as he was preoccupied with personal work concerning the workshop. There was a knock on the door and his mother opened to a middle aged man, dressed in white and black coat, whose mien suggested that he was a lawyer.
“Is Sakundan at home?” His mother pointed at him. Sakundan was puzzled as to what brought a lawyer home when he wasn’t the type to pick a quarrel or prolong it or have unpaid debts.
“What brings you here, sir? I have nothing to do with lawyers.” His rough tone was totally lost on the lawyer. The lawyer smiled, seated himself comfortably, and repeated in a gravelly tone “Are you Sakundan?” Sakundan nodded.
“Siddharth Nath has made a will in your name for property worth Rs. 50 lakhs at present. It is an independent house in the suburbs which you can use it for any purpose you deem fit. You are free to use, sell or rent it out.” He spoke in typical legalese. “I have been given the Power of Attorney and told to be in touch with you.”
Sakundan felt unsteady, as if the earth under his feet was suddenly slipping away. He got his voice back with an effort. His mother looked stupefied. “Sir….is’nt he the old man at the Home whom I have been visiting for some time? But what happened to him? I have not been there for two weeks now.”
The lawyer composed himself and spoke. “Sakundan….he died of a stroke two weeks back. Do you know who he is? He is the owner of the Nath chain of hotels in the city- known for his unmitigated philanthropy and benefactor of a couple of best schools in the city. “
Sakundan slumped in a state of shock, grief and self-deprecation. “Siddharth Nath! Owner of the famous Nath chain where he had had his breakfast or lunch so often. He was in an old age home when his two sons were rolling in income with mansions in the poshest area of the city! He remembered reading a snippet in a magazine in an obscure corner that a hotel chain owner had disowned his family for undisclosed personal reasons and settled in an old age Home.
“Sir….I don’t know what to say. It is too much of a tremor for me to bear.” He searched for words which failed him. “He looked forsaken in the last few months but we nursed him. I was his friend in need, sir and circumstances brought us together. Let me have those memories. Enough.”
The lawyer pressed his shoulder. “Sakundan…he was a devastated man emotionally in his last few years but let me tell you that his sons have not bothered about this will which is only a small part of his property. The question is….you cannot run away from this. He has in fact placed a responsibility on you. “
Sakundan looked up at him. “What do you want me to do?” The lawyer smiled. “I am handing over the Will and related papers pertaining to that property. We can together decide whatever you want to do with it.” Before he left he shook Sakundan’s hand. “Remember this….Siddharth breathed and lived for values till the last day. If he has made this Will in your name it means he has a message for you. And you should know what it is.”
Sakundan parked his auto in front of the deaf and dumb school which was Siddharth Nath’s bungalow. The staff ran to welcome him and the children surrounded in high enthusiasm. He had brought a carton of sweets, creamed biscuits and samosas for them as an imperishable token of his love. He saw a huge framed picture of the old man staring at him with his beaming eyes and inscrutable smile. He bowed to him and stood in silence for a minute.
Then a thought struck him. “The old man was right. Dignity is a halo or an emblem around your mind which one has to cherish and nourish.”
The tide had turned then…..
.S.Subramanian, India has published two volumes of poetry titled Ragpickers and Treading on Gnarled Sand through the Writers Workshop, Kolkata, India. His poems have appeared in Asian Age, a daily published from New Delhi and other centres. Also in magazines, anthologies and web sites such as thebrowncritiqueblogspot.com, http://www.yorickmagazine.com, poetrymagazine.com, poetrypacific, Kingston writers creative Blog, museindia.com, vigilpub. Café dissensus, unesco.it among others. He is a retired Senior Asst. Editor from The Hindu, one of the leading and well known dailies in India.