Murugesan, the 70-something is a watchman, near the flat in a Chennai suburb I live in. He watches over a house right next to the ATM on my street. For him, each day of the month and each month in the year has been exactly like any other. He rises, from his five-by-five sleeping perch, just beside the glass doors of the ‘mint’ every day, before dawn, goes to some hidden toilet nearby to do his stuff, comes out to gargle and rinse his toothless mumble-hole, spits the mulch to a side with an élan so loud that it can be heard up and down the entire length of the road, changes from crumpled lungi and vest to a grimy blue shirt and blue trousers that stay on his non-existing waist by some miracle, and gets set to face the morning.
Does he have a wife and children, grand-children? Or have they moved on Godwards, upwards, sidewards, leaving him to himself? No one knows and despite all ‘due respect’ for the man, no one really cares. He is slowly self-destructing on an endless chain of smokes. He has a wracking cough which, like his morning spittle-jet can be heard up and down the road. I can track the decibel trail of this cough. It starts deep within the lung with a single hollow kick, then, after a gap of two or three seconds, ascends to a higher step in the lungs where it gives three kicks, then, passing into his gullet, with one single kick, reaches its favoured niche, which is Murugesan’s scarred throat. There, depending on the severity of the spasm, it can either give us a Zakir Husain style multiple crash before petering out or it can do a Diwali ‘rocket’ — a brief hiss ending in one memorable explosion. Murugesan rallies from each coughing fit with éclat and with a smile at the world, whether it is watching him or not.
Murugesan watches thousands of rupees being churned out of the ATM every day. People in cars, on mobikes, pedestrians, actors, doctors, dancers, clerks, pensioners, the roadside istriwala, the kerbside tailor woman, the raddiwala, the vegetable seller, the milkman, the newspaper man, all come, passing him by with a nod or none, swipe their way into the cooled cubicle, swipe their way to their cash, coming out with wallets, purses or pockets bulging and then are gone. He stays at his post, not just un-envious of the torrent of cash around him but, in fact, utterly uninterested in it. The torrent could be that of dung, for aught he cares. Murugesan smiles to himself, in a reverie, almost as if he is composing a private masterpiece. He is, to my mind, the Kabir who will never write, nor sing the lines of wry wisdom he is composing.
The other is Ganesan. Or, rather, Ganesan-saar. He has a large, lavishly furnished air-conditioned apartment, each of its seven rooms wall-papered with Swiss Alps and Bay Area scenes. He rises late, is helped by a servant boy to the toilet into which he disappears for an inordinate length of time to emerge bleary eyed for his morning coffee and a bowlful of biscuits and nuts. He too is in a crumpled lungi, except that this one is silken and stays on his dilated waste by accident. No one knows much about Ganesan-saar either, not even his security staff. Does he have a wife and children, grand-children? Or have they moved on Godwards, upwards, sidewards, leaving him to his mysterious life? No one knows and no one really dares to inquire. At a certain point a car comes up from somewhere and saar, now dressed in a safari and dark-glasses, with a ring on almost every finger except the thumbs, a gold chain shining above the collar, fragrant with perfumes and talc, is helped into it. He goes to no ATMs. He does not need to. He is one himself. He will return late at night, very late, be assisted to his room, to change, and then, to bed. He is, to my mind, Kubera.
The third is, shall we call him — for I do not know his name — Mr Chand. I saw him for the first and, hopefully, the last time, at the Bangkok airport lounge. The place is — or has been — utterly silent until Mr Chand’s arrival. Some passengers have been working noiselessly on their laptops. Others ,catching up on lost sleep. The lounge staff, all Thai, walk quietly, speak softly, offer beverages and snacks with astonishing courtesy. Their namaskaar is exactly like ours and yet has that much more grace to it. “Sir, they have learnt this culture from us only,” an Indian based in Bangkok tells me “… But we have forgotten it…”
Mr Chand has come with about half a dozen men, also Indian, all returning to India after a visit that has obviously gone great for them. There is no woman accompanying them, needless to say. The group settles down to food and chatter so loud that I forget I am in Bangkok. He gets on to a cellphone. Does he need shout into it? No, but he does. I feel I am home, even before boarding the flight that is taking me back. The words I and the entire lounge hear his friends speak memorably include ‘saalaa…’. Thank God, I say to myself, none in the lounge understands our languages. And I remind myself that ‘saalaa’ meaning brother-in-law, is derived from the Sanskrit ‘shyaalaha’ with the same meaning. We have not forgotten the meaning of this word, only given it another cultural dimension.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.