Thursday, March 02, 2006

Soliloquy

[This story was published in Sunday Deccan Herald under the title (linked) "Train to enlightment" ]

I was late. I had exactly about 30minutes to reach the Bangalore Cantonment station. My office was close to the Frazer town and somehow (and perhaps stupidly) I had assumed that Brindavan express would stop in Bangalore East, that was 5 minutes away. I worked in a small software company, along with 12 other guys that had a small office in Frazer town. We were all working on the next big thing that will give us a lot of fame and money; atleast that’s the dream that was dominating all of our waking time. We were working crazy hours – that typifies a start-up and set of people who are dreaming about the big pot-of-riches at the end of the IPO. I would steal hours wherever possible to get some work done. I travel to Chennai quite often, as a means to assuage my parents – they have this worry about me that I do not spend enough time with anyone other than work and still remain a bachelor, considering I will be 30 this coming Nov. Given the work pressure, I end up spending most of the time working even when I’m in Chennai; it was also perhaps my way of sub-consciously avoiding the topic that my parents always want to talk about.

I took by overnight tote-bag and packed my laptop and essentials into the tote-bag stuffed with clothes, came out of one of the rooms in the house (that was converted into an office) called out for my colleague, Rajeev, who had agreed to drop me at the station. Thanks to his skilful driving, I was at Cantonment station at designated platform just around the same time; I heard the horn of the engine coming into the distance. I got in along with the crowd that pushed me in, found my seat, which unfortunately was the middle-seat and settled down. I found that I had an old man about 65 already ready to doze off on my left at the window seat; and at the aisle seat another man about 40, very serious reading a book and not really interested in having a conversation. It suited me; I can complete the presentation I need to complete to meet a potential customer next Tuesday.

As the train started rolling out and picking up speed and once the din has settled down, I took out the laptop and the battery pack and began to work. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the old man’s interest peak up suddenly and was kind of craning to see as to what I was doing. I tried to ignore him to get on with the work. Supposedly, his patience ran out, he touched my forearm and asked,

“Nice computer, how much does it usually cost?”
“Its about a lakh”, I responded, perhaps tersely, so that I could get back to what I was doing
“That’s a lot, is it worthwhile?”
“Yes, I guess. Atleast it helps me to continue on my work, even when I travel”. I was hoping he would get the hint.
“I suppose so. I have a PC at home in Chennai”, he said.
He added, as an afterthought, “My son in the US had bought that for me”

I smiled and turned back to work.

After a brief silence, he asked, “Are you working in Bangalore or Chennai” ?
Bangalore”, really trying to come across as terse as possible.
“My son is working in San Jose, in California. He is also in the computer line”.

I remained silent, with the fading hope that the conversation would stop; I wished I could have swapped my place with reader on my right.

“Oh, by the way, he should be your age; he passed out from IIT-Chennai in 1994; Computer Science. Where did you study?”
I lost hope of getting back to work, “Guindy”
“Why, did you not get IIT?”

The conversation went on, on what seemed forever. I lost hope and closed my laptop. If I were to be in the middle of the conversation, I wished I had gotten a seat next to that 25ish year old, good looking women two rows behind me. Hopefully, the old-man will run out of steam after the barrage and if I could answer all of them to his satisfaction.

Within the next 15-20 minutes, I had the complete life history of Mr.Vaidyanathan and his family. Mr. Vaidyanathan is retired from Railways (hence he travels in AC chair car). He has been a widower for the past 5 years. His son (name is Keerthivasan) has been in the US for the past 8 years in California. ‘Keerthi’ has worked in various companies (“They all are after him”, he had declared very proudly), had made some money during the late 1990s (“around the same time his mother died”) and has now settled down in a big company. He has bought a house in the US, and his children are beginning to go to school. His daughter, who is married to another IIT-graduate, is in the other coast in the US. Mrs. Vaidyanathan after a very brief illness had passed away in 1999.

As I was being fed with the life-history of Mr.Vaidyanathan, the catering staff had started selling eats in the train. The cutlet looked quite tasty (and now I can understand why Rajeev prefers traveling AC chair car – it meets his taste and interests). I had asked for one plate and asked the old man if he’d have one too. He did, but insisted that he pay for his own.

As we dug into the cutlet, he continued the conversation,

“What do you work on? And why is that you are not interested to go in the US? I assume for people from Guindy also get some opportunities”.

I started enthusiastically about what we do, then saw distinct lack of interest and gave the reason as to why I did not work in the US like his son. I could see that he thought my excuse was pretty lame and it was just that I could not land a job in the US.

“Where do you stay in Chennai?” I told him.

After asking more about it, he declared that he stays in Besant Nagar. “Keerthi had bought the flat for me. It has all the amenities, including park for me to walk on. He has even arranged for a cook that comes in and cooks every day”. He then went on to say more about the good things his son had provided for him and comparing as to why only the brightest and best go to the US and rest of the undeserving few, like us, have to stay back…

He was getting to me. I found the old man not only vain bordering on arrogant ignorance, he was also keeping me away from my work.

I focused on my cutlet and finished it; the old man had already finished it and something outside had caught his attention. The reader had disappeared and the seat next to me was vacant. I had decided in my mind, that in the next few minutes, after dumping my used paper-plate, I will come back and clearly tell the old man that I have some work to finish and hence I cannot carry on with the conversation.

I got up, took my paper plate and asked the old man, if he had finished. He nodded. Wanting to optimize, so that I don’t have to get up once again when he wants to dispose his plates, I picked up his plate, went towards the toilets, dumped the plates in the bin (or what seemed to be one), and washed my hands. Dreading to go back, I stood near the door for a while, looking at the scenery, as train was about an hour away from Jolarpet.

10 minutes later, I returned to the seat; the reader was back and so was the old-man. The reader was back into his reading. As I eased into my seat, I found the old man lost in thought and face turned away. Perhaps he wants to doze, lucky me, I thought. I took out my laptop and opened it with a prayer that I am left alone…

Damnit, I thought; the old man touched my left forearm again, and tentatively called “Mr.Karthik”. Impatiently, I turned to look at him. What I saw was different, the old-man seemed completely subdued, completely devoid of bravado and I could have sworn that there were tears in his eyes.

He said, “What you did was very very touching, not many people do that”.
I was not sure what he was pointing out, but mumbled, “I did nothing”.
“No, no, not many people really do this – you cleared my soiled plate. These days even paid servants don’t do these. The last time someone did that to me was when my wife was alive. Mr. Karthik, you know, to the outside world, it looked like everything has been taken care of. There is one thing that never gets taken care of…”, he trailed off.

Realization struck me. I closed my lap-top; put it back in the tote-bag. Mr. Vaidyanathan no longer appeared to me as a proud and vain human being – just an extremely lonely old man. Perhaps I should give him something that he misses very badly, some companionship, atleast for the next two hours.

My IPO-riches can sure wait another 2 hours, perhaps another 2 days as I spend the weekend with my own parents...

9 comments:

ramesh said...

nice one...can relate to it very well..makes me to recollect the days with my ajji/thata days....why they were so fond of me.

Sanjay M said...

wow.

I dont know if it sounds silly but I almost felt a bit like crying :) Yeah the "lonely nest" syndrome can be quite bad for people who are going through it - and this story really highlights the facade they put up to cover it up. I try to make it a point to keep in touch with my friend's parents atleast once in a way. Like this story shows, its incredible how such little things makes such a lot of difference to them!

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4Ramesh: Thanks
4Sanjay: I call this 'faction'. It actually happend to me and it was a revelation to me on the reaction.

GVD said...

An interesting and a touching one too !! Not many realize the trauma of loneliness aged ones go through.

Balaji said...

Interesting read indeed. Good short story.

k said...

Really beautiful. What an experience?! Very nicely described.

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

4GVD: True, I've seen that myself. And am seeing it with my parents too, to some extent.

4Balaji: Thanks.

4K: Thanks.zh

dreamer in the rain said...

dear gautzie.loved reading it.very heaetwarming.touching.very genuinely and beautifully articulated too.love.venu

EnGeetham aka "My Song!" said...

Thanks Venu !