If anyone comes to our flat asking for charity, he is certain to get some money. It has always been the case. Some approach with a request for contribution to the Mangal sutra they want to make for their daughter's wedding. There are some that ask you if you want to offer anything to Lord Balaji' they have vowed to walk up to Tirupathi and they would take the offering to the temple. How many different types of such people and what is the gamut of reasons given by such people'it beats any imagination.
Of late, they have started a new practice. Boys and girls are sent across with a typed paper and a list of previous donors. We are supposed write our name and the amount. The amounts written thereupon would invariably be much above what many would like to give. So, people generally give these boys and girls one or two rupees and send them away without writing anything on the paper.
None who visits my house ever returns empty-handed. This is well known to everyone in the Venus Colony, to all the blocks, from A to E, to all the flat occupants. I think so; otherwise how come the Bengali lady who is a resident of the west-side flat on the 30th floor of E Wing directed to our flat the person who went to her flat for some such charity. Even the watchmen working in the Colony are also of the same type. If they do not like the face of the person entering the block, they would turn the person away. If they like, they would not only allow entry but also advise the person to go to our flat because " you would surely get something".
The one person responsible for this state of affairs is my grandmother. We call her "Savitri paatti". My mother's mother. She must be over seventy-five. She does not know the date or year of her birth. "Who knows? Why is it that important? Like they say birth, death, birth, death - it is a grand cyclic play to the amusement of that mischievous rascal," this is what she used to say whenever the subject of her birth came up.
My mother was the twelfth child of my grandma. My grandma had a very special love for my mother perhaps because my grandpa did not like the twelfth child having been born a girl. After my grandpa's death, my grandmother chose to stay with us. This was to the great delight of all of us. My father had great affection for my grandmother probably because he had lost his mother when he was barely ten. His love for her was often very evident. My grandmother too liked my father. "He is not my son-in-law. He is my son given by God to me," tears would well-up when my grandmother said this.
No one did anything that she did not like or we thought she would not approve of. To her everyone is good; she showed her love for any person she came across. No mistake of anybody would she take notice of. If we pointed out anything to her, she always said that even the classic characters like Dharma committed mistakes and that no one can be perfect. She never believed in the "rights" and the "wrongs". This attitude of hers always fascinated me and made me think of the possible dimensions of values from another plane.
As far as I am concerned, she was head and shoulders above the rest of mankind, above our normal yardsticks and ethics. Whenever I wanted unload any burden off my mind, whenever I felt like crying over someone's shoulder, it was always my grandmother. It was into her lap that I buried my face and remained motionless. It was only few minutes when I felt greatly lighter and off the burden. Her words were always soothing and infused a strong sense of optimism and courage.
After I completed my MA, I got research fellowships from some American Universities. With full scholarship. I was also quite keen to pursue. I was obsessed with the character of Hester Prinn of Hawthorne. I wanted to do some work exploring the character. In fact, even when doing my post-graduation, I started the work with the help of a professor from the American studies research Center of Hyderabad. But the family circumstances compelled me to give up this pursuit of going abroad. Since I was the eldest son, my mother did not like my going out of the country. My father wanted me to take up a job within the district and settle down early in life. I was not happy. I took my grand mother to the temple of Lord Natraja. It was such a massive structure. We went to the famed hall of thousand pillars. The very sight of big flames of lighted camphor which the priests show to the deity would put some divine feeling into a person- the height which the flames soar, the circular motions of up and down and sideways which the flames take when offered to Natraja' it always did something to me.
On the first circle outside the inner sanctum sanctorum were all the other deities. Outside this circle, you came out into the open and the larger second circle. On the western side of the temple was the tank. Such a large one in keeping with the largeness of the hearts of the people who built such temples. Around the four sides of the water, you had large covered verandas, which the students used as study in summer. Then there were steps taking you down to the water.
My grand mother knew why we were there. Straightaway, she went into the matter on hand.
"Do you think that only studies abroad matter in life? How many such people you are able to recall now? OK, assuming that is matters, don't you know what happened to all those who did that? Everyone has to die and turn to ashes.
Why do you look at me like that?
Whatever is close to your heart, gives you a feeling of some sense fulfillment or actualization. it is that which you must choose to do. Not all would be able to have it as their vocation in life- in fact most people something else than this for a living. But still, great satisfaction lies in pursuing that with all the routines of life, earning and the chores of living.
Apply your mind in this direction.
I did not have anyone to tell me this when I was young; in fact, we did not know that we could think something apart from our elders said. Do what you feel makes you happy deep inside your being. I know you know that I am not referring to any profession or job. Do anything. Speak anything. As long as you do not hurt anyone, do not bother about any other value associated with it. The so-called name and fame would blossom by themselves; and like flowers and fruits they also will go into the same mother earth. But you do not care - you did what you did because it was dear to you, because you wanted to do it. For nothing else.
Look at these chappies here; in what way do you think they are inferior to any one else any where in the world? Who know what is after you are put to death? Be nice and good to all around you as long as you live and forget the rest. Do not unnecessarily confuse yourself.
You are so much interested in writing, right? Why can't you pursue it? What does it matter to you where you are for this?"
She was speaking as though it was torrent flowing - with quite long pauses in between, perhaps to let things sink into me.
It was like being struck by a lightning that I got a thought. In my total absorption with the matter on hand, I totally forgot that writing was my major obsession. It was my grand mother who made me rediscover this and that was how I started my writing.
So many years had passed. Even now, it is all my grand mother for me.
It was a Sun day morning. Every one had gone to the temple of Lord Siva in Paya Leba for consecration ceremony. Only my grand mother was at home besides me. I had left the front door open. But the collapsible grill outside the door was locked. I was sitting in an easy chair looking at the Sunday Morning Singapore on the TV. I heard some steps outside the door and turned and looked up.
A man was standing there. There was hesitation in him - to smile or not to smile. It was very evident in the half-heartedness of his attempt to smile weakly. It looked as though he was not living in any comfort. The sacred ash on his forehead and the red vermilion in the middle between his eyebrows were together attempting to cover up if any trace of lack of comfort was noticeable on his face. He was just standing at the entrance without wishing good morning or asking if he could come in. He was just silent.
I went to the door and asked him," whom do you want please?"
" You are okay- I want to see you, yes," he said.
I went back in, took the key to the collapsible grill from the key-hanger on the wall behind the TV. I opened the door and told him, "Please come in." As I was telling this, I could realize that this is another of those attempts to ask for donation for some charity or for some temple-ceremony. But I realized I did not have the usual reaction of disgust; was it because he looked to be one who would feel quite hesitant to ask for any favor? I had decided that to something. How many of us went out with sacred ash and vermilion on the forehead and with a dhoti? Even for temples people went in trousers and when it was necessary to do so changed into dhoti which they carried with them in bag. It was not my intention to say that one should walk about in the streets of Paris or London or go to the office clad in dhoti and sacred ash. What was not acceptable to me was to feel ashamed to do so and to invent one thousand reasons for not doing it.
By this time my grand mother was already out into the drawing room. The gentleman was then removing his sandals outside the door and stepping in. He was standing.
"No, grandma, I don't know who he is. Not yet got introduced," saying this I was looking up at that man to introduce himself.
He was bending down to pick up one end of his dhoti; wiping his face with the dhoti, he was looking at my grand mother. His eyes were a bit small for his face. I was unable to guess his age from them; but there were one or two strands of gray on his eyebrows. Was it that or was it ash-spread- I did not know. Receding hairline. But these days, it happened to youngsters too.
"Please be seated," my grandma told him.
My grand mother and I were standing. He did not sit.
"T's okay, please take your seat," I too told him.
With very great hesitation being visible in his demeanor, he sat at the tip of the sofa bending forward.
"What is the matter and who are you, sir?" I asked him.
There was a small cloth bag in his right hand. His left was on his left kneecap drumming gently. Thin nerves were seen clearly at the bottom of the fingers running to his wrist.
"Sir, my name is Velu," so saying he stood up. Why should he be compelled to sit if he had felt so uncomfortable about it? I also stood up.
" Sir, do you'"
"Why do you hesitate to tell why you are," even as I was telling this I realized that it was me who interrupted him and this interruption of mine perhaps added to his discomfiture.
"If you two want to keep standing, at least adjourn to the balcony- you may at least have some gentle breeze," this was my grandmother. So we moved over to the balcony.
The traffic was not that heavy on the Dunman road at that time - of course it was not a main road. The Ease Coast road running parallel took all the traffic. Buses with numbers 16 and 33 were coming alternately in the Bus stop opposite and made the noise typical of the doors opening and closing. When you are very deeply into something the noise on the road does not disturb you. I was waiting for the guest to start the conversation.
"Sir, do you believe in dreams?" he asked.
What an irrelevant question? What happened to this guy?
But he continued. I could very certainly notice the strength in his voice. More confident were the words.
"You must be wondering if I was a nutcase or something. A guy enters your house and asks you if you believed in dreams. I would have had the same reaction in your place, sir." A few seconds silence and he continued.
" I was also employed, a good job and respectable status in society, sir. One night. A dream," he continued. It was turning to have some substance.
" Outside the city. A plot of land. A building right in the midst of the plot. It looked half like a school and half like a house. Like what they call the abodes of the old saints and sages. There were lot of old people- both men and women, abandoned by their wards. The house had a name board - reading Sadasivan-Chitra. There was not enough even for the food of those old people. There was an instruction - rather an order- to me to go and help them. Yes, it was an irrefutable order to me. I did not know who it was who gave that order. Clear to me it was in my mind that here was an edict," he paused for breath after this long delivery and looked at me.
"Very interesting," I said.
"Yes, really interesting, Sir," as he was telling me, my grandma brought two cups of coffee. In the midst of the conversation, he did not particularly notice my grandma and took the cup of coffee as though it was being given to him in his own house by his wife.
He continued, "I also thought that it was dream only, though very interesting. I ignored the dream and went about my work. But fate did not leave me alone, Sir. It happened after exactly two days. I was traveling in the MRT. It was between Kallong and Town Hall stations. The guy sitting next to me got up to leave. As he did, a copy of the Mid Day newspaper fell on my lap. It was open on the sixth page. There was an article. Do you know the title of the article? It was - Don't you owe it to the Old and the aged? I was taken aback. But I gathered myself telling myself that it should be a strange coincidence and I was simply obsessed. I was trying to forget this also. But I was being chased by the dream.
Exactly two days later, it happened. Again, I was in the MRT between the same two stations. A tourist, looked like a European, asked me, "Would you know at which station should I alight to go to the Old Age Home?" I did not reply him; but I must have been staring past him. Another station should have come and gone. I did not see the tourist when I came back to myself."
He paused again. I was slowly but deeply getting interested in the course of the conversation. Was it only because I was a freelance write? But I did not want him to notice my getting interested. I asked him, "shall we get to the point straight?" I deliberately showed impatience in the voice.
"I am sorry, Sir."
The address- Sir- always made me feel uneasy, especially when some one older than me used it with me. Even in my office, it was so. In the current situation, the word sorry coming along with it made feel worse. However I did not react since I did not perhaps want this guy to take me for a sucker.
"Will you please look at this, Sir?" he showed me a letter. It was addressed to one Mr. Jairam, Chairman of the PMG group of companies. Mr. Jairam was a well-known industrialist in the city. The envelope was not sealed.
"You can read it, Sir," he said.
I looked at him with hesitation. "It is okay to open and read it, Sir," he persisted.
It was from one Mr. Kishenlal. Kishenlal was my good friend. We had become friends even at our first meeting at a Rotary function. Kishenlal recommended helping Velu who was actively involved in helping the abandoned old.
I went in to my room, came back to Velu and gave him a 50-dollar note. He took it without a bit of hesitation and gave a receipt.
As he was bidding goodbye, he asked me to write a story on the subject of the abandoned old. Before I could ask him - How the hell did he know that I wrote? - he had already gone.
As I was getting back into the house after locking the grill-door, I noticed the book, The art And Craft of Fiction, lying on the center table.
I could not get rid of my thoughts about the visit of Velu- Was I taken for ride by a very smooth operator with a beautiful story? I could not also dismiss the fact that even before he had told the story I was thinking of giving some money to him whatever the purpose was. I still wanted to talk to Kishenlal. But as my grandma drew my attention to the interview with Pope who was visiting the city I forgot about calling Kishenlal.
The man and the visit went out of my mind as I got into my routine. Grandma was not well and was put in the Mount Elizabeth Hospital for over two months. I was visiting her before going to and on my way from office everyday. It was my dad's turn after the discharge of my grandma from the hospital. My dad was admitted in the American Hospital, which was close to my house. Adding to this was the audit in the office.
I wanted to get out and away for a month on vacation. A friend suggested Bali. I was always happy to go with him on any such trip. We went to Bali and returned after a month's vacation. It was exactly on the day of my return that Velu came again. I was so excited about the vacation and wanted to write quite a lot about it. So I gave him a 50-dollar note and bid him goodbye without exchanging more than the courtesies.
My grandma told me next morning that Velu had come to see me when I was in Bali. He had chatted with her. The dream had continued to chase him for over six months. One day as he withdrew some cash for salary disbursement in his office and was returning, four men surrounded him, bundled him into a van, blindfolded him and drove for an hour or so. They took the cash from him and threw him out of the running van blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back. Some passerby helped him and accompanied him to the nearest police station. Velu was dumbstruck on seeing, on the way to the police station, exactly like they were in his dreams, a plot of land, building, the name board and the old age home. Thus it was he got interested and started his association with the Home.
"Where is this guy employed, grandma?" I asked her.
"In one or two months of the robbery and after a couple of visits to the old age home, Velu resigned and got involved with it full-time," told my grandma.
Six months passed. One day, I met Kishenlal in Hotel Imperial. I asked him about Velu. He did not recall Velu until I had told him the story of the dream.
"Oh, that man," Kishenlal just laughed and told me that he did not know him personally, "he was asking me to somebody who would be willing to help. So I gave that letter." Kishenlal was by nature a generous man who could not say no. More than that he knew nothing about Velu.
Something bothered me about Velu. But I really did not have any time to pursue the thought.
It was during next week, when I was in the Marine Parade Plaza, I saw Velu coming out of Long John Silver. Velu was walking along the footpath near the ToysR'Us shop with a few NTUC bags in his hand. There were two kids and a woman with him. It was he who had seen me first. He waved and walked up to me along with his companions.
"Rani, this gentleman is the person in the Dunman Road about whom I told you. He helps me a lot in the old age home," he turned to me and continued," this is my wife Rani and these are my kids, Raj and Selvan." The kids waved a hi to me.
I asked him about the location of his dream-home, I meant the old-age-home. It was off woodlands, and sometime after the church. I wanted to ask him where exactly it was. But I resisted since it would have sounded too prying.
Within a few weeks, I had to go to the Woodlands area myself. A customer of our company had sent a complaint to our Head office about the bad service at one of our branch offices that I was required to investigate. I telephoned the complainant and arranged to meet him at his residence at the Woodlands area. I thought of going back home after completing that visit. When I reached that place as scheduled at 04.00 PM, the complainant was not there. His wife called up her husband on his cell and gave me the line. It appeared that he had got stuck in some traffic jam somewhere in the Raffles Square. We agreed to meet at 6. I asked his wife if she knew where the old age home of Velu was. She did not know of any such home. She brought a map of the locality and we were looking for a Church and the Street No. 16, which Velu once mentioned to me. We located the church in street 14. I thanked her and left to return later.
No one in the church seemed to know about the old age home of Velu. The priest told me that he should know if there was any since they would be happily visiting the place and helped out in the service of God. Then, I gave them the description of the house as Velu had told me and asked them if they knew it.
"Oh, that house. It is there off Street 16. You walk westward for three kilometers. A little bit away from civilization, perhaps. But I do not remember to have seen any old age home there."
The feeling of having been taken for a ride was slowly growing in me. But I was trying to shrug it off. Perhaps these people did not know. Velu must have been trying to do a quiet job. No fanfare. No advertising. No gimmick. He must have it as a mission, as directed in his dream.
I was walking until about 5.30 and I was no where near Street 16. I did not want to miss the official mission of the trip to Woodlands on that day since I was leaving for Jakarta the next day taking my grandma along with me for a wedding in the family. Though there were still 30 minutes left I was not sure of locating the Velu's and returning to meet the customer. I did not continue the pursuit of Velu and returned home after meeting the complainant-customer.
Grandma had become physically dependent. But her thoughts and speech were very clear. She felt a bit uneasy in the aircraft and asked for the vomit-bag. That was quite unusual of her.
"Don't worry about it. Age, you see, is catching up. No one can escape its dominion. Not even great sages like Ramana Maharishi. I am getting older, my darling. Counting days to meet the Maker, I don't know the exact time of the appointment," she said.
"What?" I must have sounded very alarmed.
"What is there to get upset about? I have lived a full life. Like they say, a full hundred years. I had a loving son in your father. Yes, he was not my son-in-law. A loving grandson in you. Your grandfather did not have the blessing to have enjoyed all this love and life," my grandma said.
I looked at her intently and with worry. I did not like the trend this conversation was taking. She must stop this. I was scared to think that she could be affected by senility. I can not take it. I wanted to change this conversation to some other subject. I told her about the part of the Velu story she did not know my attempts to trace his house and the old age home.
She sat up straight. She called for a glass of warm water.
"Why did you go that far?" she asked me.
"I happened to be there in that area on a customer-call. I had some free time to kill. I thought I could visit Velu's," I said.
"Was it that or something else?" asked my grandmother. She could easily read my mind. She was always like that. I could not but tell her what was nagging.
"Actually, I am not sure. Nobody wants to be taken for a ride, grandma. True, I liked him at the first sight. I wanted to tell myself that my judgment was right. I was right about him".
She held my arm between her fingers. She turned my face towards her.
She said," Not all are blessed, my dear".
She fell into silence with closed eyes. Without opening her eyes she spoke as though in whispers, "They say that one should not trace the origins of the great rivers and great sages, don't you know? Similarly, one should nor pry into the past or into certain aspects of certain things and people. You should not try to see beyond the limits of what your eyes show you. It is bliss this way."
I interrupted her, "Is it not also said that one should see the deserts of those one wants to help?"
"Yes, If I was as well read in our myths and scriptures, then I could perhaps answer you with a another ancient quote proclaiming the opposite of it. But I am certain of only one thing- God has been kind to some. God is unkind to certain others; that unkindness is itself enough for them. You need not add to it. It is cruelty enough that no more is needed."
Grandma was silent for the rest of the journey. I had no mind to disturb her nor did I ever try to visit the Velu house.