I run a small cafeteria near a city Metro Station. Good Hot Food is my USP.
For the last few days I had seen this aged guy, very polite, very unassuming, a timid kind of guy. He would come just as we were getting ready to close for the night.
He would say “anything left over?” as if expecting us to get annoyed with him for holding us up. The user-friendly services, for people that I had provided, to sit and eat their food, were four brightly colored plastic tables with four chairs each, spread around an open yard. It had rained that evening. And there was no place for anyone to park themselves. The bitterly cold rain had forced everyone to seek shelter in their own cozy homes. Very few people had come in to eat though it had stopped raining.
We had decided to close early when he walked in. He ordered for his usual Rice and a vegetable curry, and a bowl of curds.
“Your business must have been very low today” he said.
“Yes Sir very much so” I said.
” I like the food you serve, you see my age does not allow me to have anything which is not freshly made. Since the time I have been eating here my health has improved” he said
“How Old are you Sir?” on cue. But actually I wanted to know. He would remind anyone of a kindly Uncle they might have. That’s the kind of way he had, of looking at you. My heart had gone out to him.
“I am 71” he said.
“Do you live nearby?” I asked
“Family?” I asked
“I have a big Family, two sisters, and a younger brother” he said
“You have a wife and children sir?” I asked.
It was quite common for people with a home and family to eat at my place regularly rather than at home, either to keep their diet schedules or just to save their wives and children from waiting up for them for dinner. This city was one hell of a place for commuting, keeping schedules or just having a simple family life. Most of the people who worked for their living had a chance to be in touch with people at home only on weekends and holidays. The bane of all cities all over the world.
“I live alone” he said
I was a bit uncomfortable to ask him anything more, for I was not ready to hear the answers. Looking at his age, I guessed there were some personal tragedies involved for his single status.
He must have guessed from the look on my face, because he had an amused smile when he said,
“I am a bachelor”
My face must have cleared up visibly for he laughed.
” You must be wondering why?” He said. “I will tell you when you have more time, I can see that you are eager to run back home to your wife and kids”.
” I didn’t mean to pry sir” I said
“No no no don’t think that. I really want to tell you, because I see that you really listen, rather than just hear the sounds that people make. And I can see empathy” he said.
“Very astute” I was thinking. for I had grown genuinely fond of him without realizing it.
“You remind me of my Mother’s Uncle who helped my Dad when he was in dire straits. He allowed us to stay in his house, until my Father recovered from his financial shambles, but we ended up staying there till all of us, my brother and sisters finished our colleges and hit out on our own. We got so attached to him. He became a sort of Guide and Mentor to us”. I said
” I feel honored to get compared to a favorite person in your life” he said.
See? that was the kind of person he was. He was a guy obviously well-off, his watch, his clothes, and the car he drove made it amply obvious, but here he was saying he was honored to be compared to a family member of small guy like me, struggling to keep, a not very profitable diner, from getting blown away to oblivion. My respect for him soared.
“The best part of it was that my grand-uncle was a confirmed bachelor too”. my wonder at it obvious.
He smiled delightedly “See? we do have a connection, you and I. How old is he?” He asked
“Passed away long back sir” i said
“I am sorry”. he said, “will you do me a favor?”Sure sir anytime” I said
” OK then quit calling me ‘ sir’, I am Srinivasan, you can call me Uncle if you want, but never by that silly British left-over” he laughed.
” You were there, during the British Rule?”. I was curious. There were very few people alive nowadays, who were actually there during those times.
“Yes” he said “And I was around 12 yrs old when they left”. I could detect some deep disturbance and a kind of sadness in his voice, his eyes had a far-away look in them. He shook himself out of it and said “Hey! I am keeping you from closing up, let’s chat some other time. And thank you for the lovely dinner”. He made it sound that he had actually had a four course gourmet dinner.
He paid up and walked back slowly to where he had parked his car. He seemed tired unlike when, he had walked in, as if eating a meal had exhausted him. I attributed it to the cold and late hour, combined with his age. I could see him driving off slowly and carefully as was his regular habit. But today I sensed he was much slower, and kind of preoccupied. Could anyone say that about a person looking at their driving? I was wondering, or was it something I detected in him in our talk tonight. I did not think of it anymore that day as I got busy in closing up.
Many days passed and Mr. Srinivasan would turn up for dinner and unobtrusively have his usual rice. If I was not busy in the kitchen I would personally serve him which always elicited a profusely humble ‘thank you’ from him.
Then one day it happened; though I was not open for business, I was there in the diner, to do a round of cleaning up. After a lot of scrubbing and wiping and washing and cleaning I had just plonked down with a cigarette and a cup of steaming tea when he turned up.
“I noticed that you were here even on your weekly-off day, any thing special?” he smiled.
“Nothing Uncle i was just doing a bit of spring cleaning, can’t afford unhygienic conditions to prevail” I said.
“This is why I eat here” he said beaming his approval.
I offered him some tea and we got to talking and before long he was telling me his story.
“You expressed curiosity about the times when the British were here in India no? In a way it is connected to why I remained a bachelor. Well I became aware of them when I was 8 yrs’ old. Until then I had not known that my Father was a Freedom Fighter. I remember that night. The Police barged into our house and arrested my Father. His trial ended quickly and he was thrown into the dreaded Andaman island’s cellular jail. Our house, bank accounts, and all and every bit of property that we possessed was confiscated. We became untouchables among our friends and relatives. I don’t blame anyone; for Govt. retaliation was swift and terrible. We moved away to a different town and my mother worked hard as a domestic help to keep us alive. Within a year of over-work and semi-starvation; which finally resulted in tuberculosis, my Mother died. I had no time to even grieve her death. Both my sisters were polio afflicted and could not move without being carried. My brother was hardly 5 yrs old. My one and only task was to find some means of feeding all of us. I would go every day in search of work, any work, to get a few ‘paisas’ to buy something to eat. Sometimes I would find work and sometimes I had to beg for food. On the night we got our Independence there was great celebration all around us. A group of people celebrating found the four of us huddled under a Railway bridge which was our home. Urging us to celebrate our “Freedom” they showered on us a few Rupees. I wanted so much to shout at them about what my Father had sacrificed to achieve this day. I did not, instead, I just gathered the 4 rupees that lay scattered on the ground. The next morning I went and bought a good meal for my siblings and a push-cart for myself, and a few vegetables from the market. That was the start of my journey into the world of business. All my life I have worked hard to educate my siblings. I worked hard not to have them feel the absence of my Dad and Mom. Gradually I earned enough to get prosthetic support for both my sisters and also give a sizable Dowry and got them married. My brother finished college and joined me in my business. My Father they said had died in a failed attempt to escape from the terrible “Kala Paani” cellular jail of the Andaman. My relatives claimed all our ancestral property declaring that they were his next of kin and there were no other claimants. I came to know of it much later. I bought all of it including the house from where my Father had been arrested. I am staying there now. I never found the time to get married and start my own family.”
I just sat there stunned after he had finished, for a very long time. He too was immersed in his own reminiscences, reliving lost memories once again, I could see it in his eyes after the moisture from my eyes had cleared. But i could see no rancor nor any trace of bitterness in them. Here was a man who had accepted the shit life had doled out to him and won.
“Did you not try to get the help that the Indian Govt. was giving out to the families of Freedom Fighters?” I asked
He looked at me with those kindly tired eyes. I remember thinking “Whatever made me think that this was a timid man?”. I saw the quiet steel in them.
” That would mean that I was selling my Father’s sacrifices for my worldly comforts, wouldn’t it Vije?. I wouldn’t insult his honor so badly”. he said.
This was the true blood that had fought for OUR FREEDOM. Now I know what the Struggle for Freedom involved and what kind of people had done it.
I saw then in a flash ; all the Martyrs right there ; in him.
And I also learnt that day what it was to revere a Man.