He woke up with an all too familiar feeling of bitter, unbearable nausea and a headache that made him wish that his head would explode splattering what was left of his brain far and wide. It was peak summer and to say the sun was scorching would be putting it mildly. Through the sweat dripping into his eyes, he took note of the blurry sight of the feet of people ambling past him, some slowing down as they neared him and other hastening. Women would purposely step on to the road from the pavement even if it meant walking through heavy traffic to avoid him, pulling away the small children who would inevitably stop to stare. He lay there, legs and hands numb as he had passed out for hours, body bent at an awkward angle. Rajendran was the drunk who occupied the pavement every evening and on most nights outside the tasmac shop on Manickam Road.
For what seemed like an hour, he drifted in and out of consciousness, just staring at feet. People were walking to somewhere from someplace with purpose and vigour. The dirty white canvases of the children returning from St.Bedes primary school with mothers who wore worn our sandals barely protecting grotesquely cracked, over worked feet. Expensive looking sports shoes of the young men returning to the nearby basketball stadium after a smoke break at the petti shop. Shiny leather shoes of engineers and architects getting out of cars to inspect the construction site and not far behind, the worn out rubber chappals of Oriya construction workers who followed them. The Manickam Road that he knew and loved had changed so much over the last decade and he felt like an alien in a place that he once considered his world.
Rajendran’s parents were natives of Kambapuram, a village in Thirunavallur district, who came to the city soon after marriage. He had never been to Kambapuram, but thanks to their endless recounting of stories of simpler times, they had etched into him a fairly accurate picture of the village, their house and the life they lived. As much as it was nice to see his parents find peace in their nostalgia, he never saw the romance in idyllic rural life and would always be thankful that despite the dirt, filth and the difficult times, he was a resident of Ambedkarpuram in the heart of the city with Manickam Road only a stone’s throw away. His love for the city grew during his teenage years as he and his friends would spend hours on Manickam road. The large playground was the venue of many a life- and-death cricket matches during the day and secret trysts with girlfriends after dark. Two cinema theatres, small eateries and enough entertainment kept everyone happy during those days.
As he lay on the pavement, he heard the elderly couple who had walked out of the erstwhile Nadar kadai, now an air-conditioned supermarket, talk about how people like should be rounded up and thrown in jail. They waited for their driver to find a parking spot and to pick up their grocery bags. The husband, a retired IAS officer explained to his wife with great authority about everything that was wrong with the country. "Will we find drunk people like this in The States? All lumpen elements of some corrupt party, probably a criminal, a drug addict. A drain on the country's resources and the sole deterrent to the countrys progress.." Most people saw Rajendran as the generic drunkard. A wife-beating, good-for-nothing, lazy, irresponsible, potentially dangerous criminal.
At some point he must have vomited a little because suddenly a dog was licking his face and the man from the tasmac was shooing it away. It was surprising that he cared enough to come out from behind the counter despite the huge crowd of customers shoving and shouting. Meanwhile, he saw that the couple were still grumpily waiting for their driver complaining about the heat. "Another reason why this country will not progress.. Does it ever get so hot in The States?" The driver ran towards them murmuring apologies as he picked up large bags with colourful cartons and tetra packs of god knows what. As he put them in the trunk he looked at Rajendran with hint of guilt and pity in his eyes. Just a hint, mind you and turned away. Time usually mitigates the intensity of the most powerful emotions but Rajendran would always wonder why this was true for everyone but himself. If only it were that easy.
Ravi, the driver, was a dear friend. He was Rajendran's neighbour and classmate all through primary school till the 12th standard - his companion, partner in crime, protector and confidant. They both studied in St.Bede's Charity school which was in the same compound as the St Bede's High School for the rich kids who paid a much higher fee. Ravi's parents were killed in a bus accident when he was young and although his grandmother took care of him, he spent most of his time in Rajendran's house. He disliked his grandmother and her rigid ways, always fighting and quarrelling with her. Studying in the same compound with boys from middle class families made both very aware of their circumstances at an early age. Even now Rajendran had vague recollections of elaborate plans hatched to earn enough money to buy a maruti car, drive along the Marina beach, loud music playing to impress all the girls on Manickam Road and going to Royapuram to bash up Gangadhar, the loan shark who was constantly troubling their families.
Rajendran was not one of those rebellious, irresponsible teenagers. He was always amazed by his parents’ resilience. Life as construction workers in the city was not easy but they would never make their sacrifices apparent to him or shove their poverty and hardship down his throat. And it was this realisation that made him love them even more. All he wanted to do was pass his 12th standard and join a polytechnic. Any reasonably paying job would have sufficed as he only wanted a comfortable, debt free life for his family. A two bedroom flat with 24 hours water supply, a TV and big windows was the description of his dream home. Ravi on the other hand was completely indifferent to life and to his future. It was probably because he felt no attachment to anyone since his parents had died.
Whenever Rajendran would try to help Ravi find a job, he would constantly refuse saying he wanted to be his own boss. When they were 21 or maybe 22, Ravi was deep in debt after failed business partnerships with dubious characters. Rajendran on the other hand finished his course at the polytechnic and found a job at the mobile phone service center.On returning home one evening, Rajendran found Ravi severely bruised and bleeding. He had been beaten by Gangadhar's men for not paying up his debt. As Rajendran ran toward him, he completely broke down sobbing, wishing they had killed him. Despite his tough exterior could not live in constant fear and was now desperate to make a change.
Together they were able to raise the money to pay off the debt and Ravi was taken in by Rajendran's family. Ravi's grandmother fell ill after she witnessed the beating he had received and passed away a week later. When the new indoor stadium was built on the playgound on Manickam Road, both were sad that they had lost such an important part of their childhood. But Rajendran was able to find Ravi a job as security guard at the stadium. Ravi had a tough time adjusting to his job and would often complain to Rajendran and his parents about the arrogance of the rich boys who came for coaching classes there.
One night, Ravi and Rajendran woke up to loud banging on the door. Three men with cricket bats and hockey sticks barged in ransacking the house, breaking everything in sight. Ravi and Rajendran were dragged outside and kicked mercilessly until they lost consciousness. Neighbours stood speechless too afraid to react until the gang sped away on their bikes. Both were injured severely and bleeding. The neighbours rushed toward them, helping them get to their feet. One of the women who had gone into the house came out screaming hysterically. Rajendran's parents were dead.
That was 10 years ago and time had not mitigated the pain. The sorrow and the pain were indelible as he relived the moment he saw his dead parents every day since the incident. Police said that they could not find the culprits but everyone knew that they were boys from the stadium with whom Ravi had picked a fight. They were sons of important, rich men who would go scot-free and Rajendran had no will to fight. He shut himself in his house for days together after being discharged from the hospital, stepping out occasionally for tea.
Ravi had fled soon after the incident to his cousin's village, unable to find the courage to face his friend. He came back after a month to find his Rajendran emaciated and in a horrid state. On seeing Ravi, Rajendran felt a surge of anger, screamed and flung his fists at him. Beating him, slapping him, taking out all that suppressed anger and blaming him for ending his life. Ravi stayed still, taking the beatings, hoping in vain that it would rid him of the guilt. When Rajendran fell on the floor sobbing and exhausted, he told Ravi that if he laid eyes on him again, he would kill him. Ravi placed in front of him a small parcel with rice, a bottle of liquor and some money and left never to be heard from again.
That was the beginning of the end for Rajendran. It all started that night with that bottle of brandy which Ravi thought would help calm him down. But Rajendran wasted away in the years to come, making sure that he stayed drunk most of the time and sober long enough only to go to relatives and beg for money on some pretext or the other. He would go to the tasmac three times a day and drink, not speaking to anyone and would on most days eventually pass out on the platform all night until he became conscious next morning. This had been his routine for years.
The sun was burning his skin now, so Rajendran stumbled to his feet. But just as he steadied himself, two policemen on the bike stopped him, shoving him so violently that he felt back to the ground. He heard the TASMAC shop owner feebly tell them that he was a harmless drunk but the police dragged him into a van and took him to the police station. He sat in the corner barely able to keep his eyes open as the policemen were busy filling out paperwork, stopping occasionally to curse him. He passed out again and the constable woke him, nudging his shoulder with a lathhi. He was given some sheets of paper to sign and as he tried to stay on his feet two policemen held him. He managed a scribble when suddenly something caught his eye. It was a letter of complaint on crisp white stationary signed by a retired IAS officer.
Even in his inebriated conition, Rajendran knew that he could not be put in jail for merely being a drunk and passing out on the pavement. He protested, telling the police officers that he had done nothing wrong. One of the constables slapped him and said that they had witnesses to say that he was being troublesome and threatening to assault anyone who asked him to move. Just as he was being forced to sign more papers to his absolute shock, he saw Ravi in the other room being reassured by the inspector that the matter was taken care of and to thank his boss for his good deeds. The retired IAS officer had decided to be a 'good samaritan' and rid Manickam road of this nuisance.
Rajendran spent a week in jail where he suffered horrible withdrawal symptoms, he would wake up other prisoners screaming in pain, body trembling and then collapse again. Thankfully, a relative had come to know about his arrest, spoke to the police and bailed him out. Rajendran thanked him and ran straight to the liquor shop, begging for a bottle. But his pockets were empty, he had no money. Sobbing, he began begging and pleading passersby for money and eventually gave up and went home. He sat on the bed crying for hours feeling utterly and hopelessly alone. As he looked around the room only the image of his parents lying in a pool of blood came to his mind. He ran towards the small kitchen and found a knife, ready to slit his wrists. He wished to suffer no longer.
Just then, the door slammed open. It was Ravi, standing there in his white-and-white uniform. He grabbed the knife from Rajendran and put it away. He pulled a small wooden stool and gently sat him down and handed him a glass of water. "I am sorry Rajendran", he said handing him a large bottle of brandy and an envelope with Rs.5000 and walked out, closing the door behind him.