09 July, 2009

Circle of Life

T R Selvavinayagar Murugan aka “Binder Murugan” was not actually a binder. He worked as a second assistant to the binder in Saroja Printers, technically he was just a helper. Such was his exalted position in the social and employment ladder that the only living creatures below him in the pecking order were rodents. They too did not always listen to him till he hurled some stone or a binding ring at them. This was when they came too close & disturbed him while he worked. Murugan though deserves our respect, because unlike the thousands of wastrels in this city, he was yet employed and not on the dole. His magnificent earnings though barely kept his family of six that included wife, mother and three children in the rice-kuttu–sambar ( curry rice ) stakes. The income was supplemented by his wife who was a housemaid. Murugan had all the respectable vices of a man who lived in a slum. He smoked-chewed tobacco, drank the filthy liquor when he had coin in his pocket and occasionally even slapped his wife around just about once a fortnight. This made him a gentleman by the international slum standard and his wife loved him for it that he didn’t indulge too often. Didn’t she too on her part prove the love by bearing three children in their 30 months of married life?

The slum was a wide expanse of decrepit hutments with rivulets of grey green flowing. This was the Riviera that housed them and sixty five thousand others.

Today Murugan had received his salary and was making his way home. The pink lit sign of Vailankanni Country Bar beckoned him and the filled pocket urged him on. Just one, he thought to himself and then home. Parting the dirty blue curtain he entered. All the 33 crore gods in the Hindu mythology had smiled on Murugan as he beheld the sight of the person inside. It was Ranganatha Kounder or Rangu Saar. Rangu in the recently conducted assembly elections had won his seat from this slum by a wide majority. Rangu was Murugan’s hero and idol. Murugan worshipped him. One would be led to believe that Murugan thought It was daylight only because the sun rose out of Rangu Saar's rear crevice, such was the reverence . He, all his working life had just been a distant admirer of Rangu but today his "Thalaivar" ( divine being ) was within touching and speaking distance. Gathering up all his courage, he said to himself, it is now or never and shouted “Rangu Saar, today’s thaneer (hooch) is on me. Rangu looked at him with an evolved local politicians smile and genially came over. He was victorious and intended to keep his vote bank happy. “Not this hooch but if it is Old Monk I wont mind”. Murugan was in seventh heaven, One half “Old Monk” he shouted and soon a bottle appeared and more people joined in. The bonhomie carried on with Rangu slapping on his back and calling him my friend “Binderaaa”. Some one ordered boiled eggs while someone else ordered chicken. When Murugan left the bar there was hardly a coin in his pocket. He knew the wife would scream and chew his head out, but his heart was light. His hero had spoken to him and his social position had risen above the rodents. He had shaken hands with the great “Ranganatha Kounder, MLC”

Rangu in the meantime too had arrived home. He was not drunk as he had to take his wife out for dinner to Hotel Grand Central a luxury restaurant on the other side of the railway tracks. Rangu recalled his days in the slums where with single minded focus he had gathered his gang around him and turned them into respectable unions and co-operatives. Then with the vision of an alley cat politician, he had started regulating the collections in the area and managing the authorities for which he collected a fee. For problem solving in his neighborhood he earned gratitude and money both. He was on the way to becoming seriously rich. The wife wore silk saris and sported chunky gold jewellery. She preened around having latched on to the right man who fed, clothed her well and when the mood hit him also serviced her baser needs. He was a gale force wind without any finesse. She didn’t want to disturb its trajectory lest she be blown away. Rather better to allow the wind to soothe, cool and take her along. Rangu had now a serious following and money that were growing rapidly. But by “Karthikeya-the one who rode on peacocks" he exclaimed to himself, his heart too was set on what eluded him. He craved the company and acceptance of the higher social order. His money was yet not old enough and his tongue too rough to roll out the syllables of the language fluidly. They wouldn’t look at him let alone accept him as one of their own.

As he and his wife sat at their table in Grand Central and ordered their starters his gaze fell upon him. Mr. Sethuraaman Subramanian the austere tall figure of him in a stylish suit that only skilled fingers from Bond Street London can create , was partaking soup with his wife, the lady Lalitha. SS as he was known in his circle was a technocrat and a rupee billionaire many times over who operated several moneymaking conglomerates. His finer half Lolly gave great charity. SS was well known in the political and philanthropist circles and his words carried tremendous weight. He was quoted almost daily in the Economic Times and any association with him guaranteed instant acceptability and credibility. SS was Rangu’s hero and before him he balked. Today though flushed with the Old monk and his electoral victory, Rangu pushed back his chair and walked across to SS’s table. Standing by it, he reverentially spoke. SS politely looked up and saw a flashily dressed man, rose from his sofa chair, his high society manners refused to allow him to make a scene as Rangu spoke. Sir,I am Ranaganatha Kounder, MLC, Palaninagar colony constituency behind West-Mambalam. I have heard a lot of you and am your fan. I too have a lot of following in the area here and should you need anything done please don’t hesitate to call upon me. Here is my card and thrust his visiting card in SS’s hand. SS pocekted it and smiled which had Rangu swelling up like a toad who has swallowed three blue bottle flies whole. Extremely sorry for interrupting your dinner Sir and Lady, please carry on. SS smiled benignly and held out his hand which was taken with great alacrity. Mighty proud of having delivered this wonderful line without stuttering, he strutted back to his table and wife. Being acknowledged by the best of the society had given him a kick that not even his victory had. He had shaken hands with His Lordship, Shri Sethuraaman Subramanian.

SS was discussing with Lolly the latest charity that she had embarked upon as they finished their dinner and walked out to their car. The concern that SS had, was not in the money spent but in the well being of his fellowman. He conceptualized, visualized and executed grand plans that benefited thousands but he never ever personally got to meet a single beneficiary of his expertise or largesse. It was his wish to actually interact with the people who got them, such that they truly see him for the simple man he was. This particular project of Lolly involved the building of toilets for the slum dwellers. His car was riding through the area of Palaninagar slum. The air-conditioned large Mercedes Benz S-Class kept out the filthy stench of the area but could not blank out the sight of the mess where Lolly was planning to build toilets. The area by itself looked like one big toilet, unwashed since it was originally built. He was sure that this project would show these people here who he truly was, a man exactly like them. SS asked the driver to stop and got down. He saw a slim dark man standing by the side of the road smoking a beedi in an intoxicated haze. Walking across to him in his Bond street threads, side-stepping the few humanly made puddles, he stood in front of him and humbly said "I am Sethuraaman and am glad to know you". The man indifferently looked at SS and nodded.

SS held out his hand and the man not knowing what to do, swiped it on his not-so-clean-stained trouser behind and gripped it. SS got back into his car & asked the driver to move on. SS was in fine fettle as he looked in the mirror, he was happy, he had shaken the hands of a common man.

As the car glided away, the man he had shaken his hand with was crushing the beedi underfoot and fuzzily looking towards the slum wondering which direction was home. He was known in Palaninagar as T. R . Selvavinayagar Murugan aka “Binder Murugan”