The Fellow Traveller
It is late January and I have completed the first part of my travels with Sudhakar. Wanting to get an early start to our respective destinations, we are at a roadside tea shop opposite the bus stand and it is not yet 6.30 am. There is furious activity at the shop and we are transfixed by the rhythm of the tea making. A Salem bus arrives across the road perfectly timed with the end of our tea break and I run for it without having time to formally take leave of Sudhakar and Raja. Raja's last words as I board the bus ' get down if you don't find a seat. The bus is full and I am about to do his bidding when the conductor - a sharp businessman ' entices me with the promise that half the bus will empty out at Uttangarai, the next stop. So I stay and buy the ticket all the way to Salem.
Eventually, we arrive at Uttangarai and the promised evacuation occurs. I take the window on a seat for three. A young man sits next to me, crowding me in to leave ample space for a middle aged woman to sit next to him. Both have boarded the bus at Chengam with me and they obviously know each other. The windows of the bus have stiff canvas shutters that can be folded and tucked away at the top or let down all the way. All the shutters are down; no one wants to brave the cold morning air. A quick stolen view through the window shows a surreal world enveloped in dense fog. Are we really in Tamil Nadu?
I turn to my neighbour and strike up a conversation. Lines of character begin to emerge slowly from the anonymity of a chance co-passenger. The conversation flows easy. My neighbour is not shy to talk, answer my questions or ask some of his own. He 'cuts' bricks for a living. (That is how a brick maker describes his job in Tamil.) Yes, he has a small bit of land - perhaps 40 cents - enough for cutting and baking bricks. He buys the different types of mud and clay required. Water is available. The bricks fetch a better price in Chennai - Rs 3 or 3.50, but then, one has to organize and pay for the transport and have enough bricks ready to fill the truck. So he prefers to sell locally at a lower price.
Where did he learn to make bricks, I ask? Both his parents died early and he was forced to look for a job, he says. He left his village and travelled through various parts of north Karnataka for 5 years learning brick making and the art of eking out a living. Then he came back and settled down in his village, continuing with the same occupation. There were two brothers and a sister to look after and an aged grandmother. The villagers commented ' 'how can you expect your grandmother to feed and take care of the family? You must get married.' So he took on a wife.
How long has he been settled in the village, I ask? 5 years, he says. And he is now all of 24. That means he must have wandered off in search of work when he was just 14. One brother is a tractor driver and another, a mason. Both jobs fetch a relatively decent daily wage and there is work to be had throughout the year ' more fortunate than most people in the village, I think. But the brother who is a mason has a tendency to shirk work and finds excuses to not go to work.
This joint family must be reasonably well off, I presume. Till I learn that he has taken a loan of Rs 50,000 from a village money lender at 2% interest. That is 2% monthly interest! Most of his earning goes back to repay the loan, he says. Loans cost even 3% and 4%. He seems to think that he has been lucky paying only a 2% interest. All this in a very matter of fact way! There is no trace of self pity in his voice or manner. It is his turn to ask me questions. Why was I there in Chengam? Where did I come from? I tell him about our 'project' in a Chengam village. Then the difficult question: 'What is there in it for you' he asks?
We halt at Harur. I get down and buy the 'Hindu' and banana's for my breakfast. I have to coax him to eat one. He is more interested in the paper, the sports page, to be precise. When the bus starts again, he is leaning all over me to stare at the pictures on the sports page. He does not know how to read or write - English or even Tamil - he tells me. "But I know everything about cricket. I can tell you about all the cricketers in the India team and even the Australia team". He proceeds to identify Harbhajan and Ishant in the photograph on the sports page. Yes, they play cricket in their village. And they love to watch matches on the television - I wonder what he makes of the English commentary. He has a strong opinion on who should be included in the team for the next test.
We are easy friends. He holds the palm of my left hand between his two hands when he talks. "I have no bad habits", he tells me - "I don't smoke or drink. Of course, I have friends who do and I spend time in their company. My mother told me never to smoke or drink. In the village, everybody knows I am a good boy"
We reach Salem and the bus empties rapidly. I just have time to ask him his name. I think he said 'Venkatesh', but I can't be certain now as I write. But I won't forget the trusting way this brick cutter held my hand.
Kannan researches and writes on law, policy and governance. He also loves to write on just about anything. In a previous avatar, he was a software architect.
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