Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Equations

It was time for the arrival of the train. The station was crowded. Since a cabinet minister was arriving by that train, a large number of people had assembled at the station to receive him. Then there were the usual crowds of people who had come to receive some and those who had come to send some off .  The canteen was swarmed by many of these people and a host of others who appeared to have come to the station only for the purpose of dining in the canteen.

Periasamy had a lot of work to do, a lot more than what both of his hands together could handle. The job of washing dishes appeared never-ending. The plates and cups washed by him were coming back to him in no time after getting stained with food remains. The endless cycle of washing plates only for making them fit to be stained again and come back for washing, seemed too exasperating.

His hands were getting fatigued by the non-stop repetitive work. He felt that he was losing his energy and his work was slowing down, resulting in the heap of dishes to be washed growing in size by the minute. Or was it that the dishes were coming to him at a faster rate than at which he could wash them?

Whenever he moved his hands, there was intense pain. When he forced his hands to lift the plates, the hands threatened to drop the plates down. He had to exercise extreme caution to ensure that his hands didn't carry out their threat.

"Why are you standing there idly? Customers are waiting there and plates are needed immediately. Show some briskness and wash the plates quickly, you lazy.....!"

It was the canteen manager shouting from his seat. The abusive epithet used by him at the end of his address pinched Periasamy a little, though he should have been inured to such language, having heard it used on him so many times. The manager could never help using vituperative language spiced with choice epithets while speaking to him. How else could he put to use such 'precious' words learnt by him?

The expression denigrating his mother used to make him both angry and sad during his initial days in the canteen. But over a period of time, he got used to such insults. But the scars left by those words would get opened every time he heard  the words again making him feel the pain.

'I am standing idly, says the manager!'

'Who is idling, you stupid man with a blinded vision? Get up from your seat, come here and have a look. A man like you sitting idly glued to a cushioned chair, doing nothing except for collecting cash from the boarders can have no idea about my work. You have no right to judge me without even bothering to have a close up view of the enormous amount of work I am dishing out.'

Periasamy could only think of such a repartee. He hoped that someday, he would be able to say it aloud.

But the very next moment, he pitied the manager. 'Poor creature! After all, he is also a slave like me. If I do menial jobs wearing a shoddy trouser, earning two hundred rupees a month, he sits at the cash counter clad in a white dhoti and ironed shirt and earns three hundred rupees a month. In a way, both of us are in the same boat, living a life of indigence. Perhaps, he embezzles a little cash now and then. Who knows!'

There was another boy engaged for the cleaning job but he didn't turn up for work that day. Periasamy was consequently overburdened. 'Instead of sympathizing with my plight, the manager calls me idle! What an ungrateful world is this!'

Periasamy had a hard time picking up the plates from the tables, wiping the tables clean, bringing the plates to the washing room, washing them and carrying the washed plates to the kitchen.... And the tables had to be wiped clean every few minutes, as if by waving a magic wand!

'What will be the time now?' he wondered. From where he was standing, he could not view the clock at the station platform. Nor could he be sure whether the clock was working. The darkness inside the station and the artificial lighting that was trying to drive the darkness out, both made it impossible for him to estimate the time.

He came out of the canteen for a while and looked at the clock at the top of the platform. It was eleven thirty. There were a few more minutes for the train to arrive, if it would arrive in time. Once the train arrived and left, the crowd in the canteen would become thinner and he would get some relief.

The touch of cool, fresh air in the platform was refreshing to his body which was totally fatigued by the heavy work in the stuffy atmosphere inside the canteen. He took in the fresh air deeply and felt somewhat invigorated.

He felt a sharp pain at the back of his neck, which he sensed to have resulted from a blow. Somewhere within his body, a pump was activated which sent a stream of tears to the back of his eyes where they were trapped. He turned back.

It was the Proprietor of the canteen!

Periasamy's body froze momentarily. This was not the first time that he was experiencing the trauma of  getting beaten up by the man. The memory of his past experiences of having been a victim of the Proprietor's brutality sent shivers down his spine, apprehending what might follow.

The Proprietor held him by his ear and dragged him towards the manager's seat with a force that made him feel that his ear was going to be torn out of his body. After reaching the manager's seat, the Proprietor delivered a massive punch on Periasamy's jaw and then yelled, "You little devil! When the canteen is overflowing with customers and stained dishes are getting filed up like a mountain, you have the temerity to take a stroll on the platform with the air of the Station Master supervising the functioning of the station! But I shouldn't blame you for this. It is my fault. I am paying you more than what you deserve while also allowing you to eat unlimited food in the canteen whenever you want. Naturally, you can't help eating your way to laziness..."

He raised his arm again intending to deliver one more blow but for some reason stopped short of delivering it. He then turned his attention to the manager. "What are you doing here as the manager? If he wanders away without doing his work, is it not your duty to pull him back after giving him a spank? What are you doing sitting idly at the cash counter? Resting comfortably under the breeze of the fan? I don't know when I  am going to get rid of useless idiots like you! Okay. Don't be glued to your seat. Go into the kitchen and check whether there is enough wet flour needed for making idlies..."

The manager tried to say something but thought better of receiving the rebuke silently. He quietly went inside the kitchen, complying with the Proprietor's fiat. On his way back from the kitchen, he came to Periasamy and delivered his own package of tirade."You monkey-faced creature! Can you not remain in your work spot even for a few minutes? Driving a herd of sheep will be easier and more rewarding than supervising undisciplined pigs like you.!...."

His offensive torrent continued for some more time and ended as usual with questioning the chastity of Periasamy's mother.

Stomaching everything silently, Periasamy turned his attention to the mountain of stained dishes laid before him.

When Periasamy returned home that night, he felt completely enervated. The physical strain resulting from long and strenuous work coupled with the mental strain caused by the humiliating treatment meted out to him by his manager and the proprietor had drained out all his energy and enthusiasm, making even walking home an arduous task.

When he reached home, Chinnasamy was sitting outside his hut, smoking a cigar.

Chinnasamy was Periasamy's father. Periasamy had sometimes wondered why he was christened Periasamy, meaning 'the Great God', while his father had been christened Chinnasamy,  eaning 'the Little God.' When he once asked his father about the significance of this, his father dismissed his question nonchalantly remarking, "What is there in a name? One has to be addressed by some name. That's all."

Periasamy was not satisfied wit this reply. Thinking about this often, he came out with his own explanation for the anamoly. Perhaps his father wanted his son to come up in life much better than he himself did and so gave him this superlative name! However, in course of time, names had lost their significance and had become mere symbols of identification.

Chinnasamy had no regular job. He was engaged as a casual laborer, taking up different kinds of manual work that were available to him at different times. Some days he would earn twenty rupees and some other days he could hardly manage to earn five rupees. And there were days when he had no work and consequently no earnings.

He had three daughters, of whom the eldest was married. Though her husband turned out to be a drunkard, who would dissipate a major part of earnings on drinking and not only starve but also ill treat his wife, Chinnasamy decided not to be bothered about her plight, rationalizing that his responsibility to his daughter was discharged with his getting her married off.

His second daughter had eloped with someone and Chinnasamy felt relieved of another responsibility!

He was looking for a suitable bridegroom for his third daughter.

Of his two sons, Periasamy, his fourth child, had been working as a cleaner and bringing home a handsome sum of two hundred rupees, in addition to having a free breakfast and lunch at the canteen.

Chinnasamy was striving hard to help his youngest son Muthu to get a job. Once this was done and the marriage of his third daughter was also fixed up, he could have the satisfaction of discharging his obligations to all his children.

Seeing Periasamy, Chinnasamy asked "What's new?"

Since it was not a query but only a greeting not requiring any response, Periasamy went into the hut without saying anything.

Inside the hut, his mother was taking gruel. Seeing her son, she said, "Come on my child. Have some gruel."

Since Periasamy was taking food in the canteen, he had been avoiding taking any food at home, considering the limited supply of food available to other members of his family.

He didn't take any food in the canteen that day due to the treatment he had received from his superiors. However, looking at the quantity of gruel available, he decided against curtailing his mother's ration and said, "No Mom. I had something just before leaving the canteen. I am not hungry. You have it "

Periasamy came out and sat near his father. Chinnasamy had just finished smoking his cigar. Therefore he started talking to his son.

"Our Muthu is likely to get a job."

"Where?" asked Periasamy, spontaneously enthused by this unexpected news.

"You know that a new factory has come up in our place, making things out of paper. The contractor who had done the construction job for the company has promised to get him a job there. To start with, he will be engaged only as a casual laborer on daily wages but the contractor says that after five or six years, he may be absorbed there on a permanent basis."

"How much will he get?" asked Periasamy curiously. "Around four hundred rupees a month?" He was surprised to discover that his feelings of disgust and dejection have suddenly vanished.

"You are being too greedy!" chided Chinnasamy. "You expect people like us to get such handsome salaries? He will be paid ten rupees a day of which one rupee will go to the factory supervisor as his commission for his services in employing the boy. (We should be thankful to the contractor for not demanding any cut!) If the boy gets work every day as the contractor assures me that he will, he will work for twenty five days a month and will earn two hundred and twenty five rupees a month. Much more than what this lad deserves!"

He didn't know that the boy would be asked to sign a voucher for fifteen rupees, out of which five rupees would be shared by some middlemen including the contractor.

"When is he likely to get the job?" quizzed Periasamy.

"The contractor has asked him to go to the factory tomorrow. He may be asked to start working from tomorrow even."

"Thank God. Our hard times will get over shortly. We will be able to afford at least one square meal a day for all of us."

"Yes. I also expect to save some money for your sister's marriage."

The family had a sleepless night discussing plans for making use of the additional income Muthu was going to bring in!

While returning home from the canteen the next evening, Periasamy was even more depressed than he was  the previous evening. He was repeatedly touching his trouser pocket feeling its bulge and reassuring himself that the sum received by him by way of his wages was intact.

His house wore a festive look, with jubilation reigning high. The paper company had given a job to Muthu as a helper on daily wages and he had already completed his first day in the factory! He would be paid at the end of every week. Muthu was overwhelmed by the thought of his earning nine rupees a day.

When Periasamy reached home, Chinnasamy was advising Muthu about the virtues of discipline and frugality. He was virtually dictating a list of 'dos' and 'donts.'  Periasamy  heard some of them.

Muthu should always carry his lunch of gruel prepared by his mother to his workplace lest he should spend money for buying lunch from his factory canteen or any other place.

He should take extra care to avoid being trapped into habits like smoking and drinking not only because they are harmful to his health but also because they will be a drain on his earnings.

If at all he had to take food outside on some days, he should buy his food from a place that offered the cheapest fare.

In any case, his daily expenditure should not exceed fifty paise on an average.

And so on.

Periasamy was given an enthusiastic welcome. Everyone vied with each other in conveying to him the good news of Muthu's getting a job.

Chinnasamy said, "Periasamy! Do not for a moment feel discouraged that you are earning less than your younger brother. Though your salary of two hundred rupees may be less than the two hundred and twenty five rupees being earned by Muthu, your earnings will be more if the cost of free food you are getting in the canteen is added to your salary."

He appeared to be anxious to assure Periasamy that his financial contribution to the family continued to be the most valuable. He then started recapitulating the plans they had made the previous night.

Periasamy recalled the scene in the canteen that evening. When he was about to leave home, the canteen  proprietor called him to his cabin, paid him the wages accumulated till that day and curtly informed him that his services were being terminated.

Shocked by this unexpected blow, Periasamy prostrated at the feet of the proprietor and cried, begging him to forgive him for his wrong doings, if any.

Even the hard-hearted proprietor was moved a little by Periasamy's pleadings and took the trouble of explaining to him the rationale behind his decision.

Periasamy was not being terminated for any misconduct on his part. It was decided to replace the porcelain plates and cups being used in the canteen with paper plates and cups, since use of paper cups and plates would be more economical on account of saving of cost of washing. The severe water scarcity in that locality was also a factor. Hence the proprietor had decided to dispense with the services of Periasamy and the other cleaner and to employ only a girl for cleaning the tables.

It was the additional piece of information provided by the proprietor that startled him. The paper plates and cups would be supplied by the new paper factory that had come up in their town - the same factory that had given employment to his younger brother!

It appeared strange to him that he had been deprived of his job by the same factory that had given a job to his brother Muthu! He felt thankful to the paper factory for compensating the loss of his job by giving a job to his brother, thereby restoring the economic equation of his family.

Chinnasamy was still expatiating on his plans.

Periasamy was about to intervene and break the news of his losing the job. But on second thoughts, he decided to let his family revel in its dreams for some more time, before he would shatter them with the revelation of the bad news.

Written in the year 1980

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