That day when the sun woke up the city everything was special. It was a special day, historic by the nature of the occurrence when the citizens realized with an unbelievable trepidation that they were free. Till then freedom was only a palpable idea, ephemeral and distant and the rigours and pain thousands suffered in its pursuit weighed heavily in their minds. When the announcement came with a rhapsodic speech by one of its tall leaders on radio they realized how precious it was. As if they suddenly stumbled on a treasure trove they were after without even a hunch as to what it would be like.
It was a day of endless celebration In Tirunelveli at the southern tip stretching almost into the wee hours when none had to fear anything or anybody and they wanted to unwind for once, paint the town red. A rickshaw puller did not worry about his little return that night as he normally did to keep his family of four happy. “This day I have my freedom, that’s enough” he muttered to himself. Tea stalls in that area worked right through, giving it free to all the fellow citizens who were privileged guests to them. Rickshaws and few buses (they were few in number those days) ferried people who wanted to feel and inhale the air, not be cooped up at home.
Lakshmanan, a 22 year old youth fresh out of BA honours in Literature, was part of the circle of four friends in a tea stall unable to let the enormity of the day sink in. His father was a top official in a govt. department and had spent his entire life as a disciplined foot soldier in the corridor of bureaucracy. Not for him was the andolan, the struggle for freedom besotted as he was with the daily chores of vedic recitation and the rearing of the family. His brother had lost his life in one of the many street protests when firing was resorted to but to the credit of Lakshmanan’s father he took responsibility to safeguard the bereaved. Two of his friends out there in the stall – Shekhar and Raghu – had their bequeathing of martyrs.
Watching the festive crowd Lakshmanan mused “ This hour out there no one is apparently remembering his kin who lost their lives for it. They all want to live it up……the experience is new.”
“Yes……naturally” responded Shekhar sipping his tea. “But the memory of our dead kin, their faces, voices and the innumerable days of chat we had with them are etched inside. Almost in the subconscious. We cannot live it down, man….”
“The British are packing. As all spiraling excitement slowly dwindles in time we get down to brass tacks. “ said Raghu. He took a deep pull at his cigarette and smiled. “ Come on yaar….the festive air will remain for two days . And then the existential question will come up. My dad is already pestering me to go to Chennai to find a job somewhere, somehow. We all are not as blessed as Laksh whose dad will get him into govt. service throwing his weight around. I have no such pedigree.” He had reason to be peeved, if one can say so, because his father ran a provisions store, a smart trader that he was inheriting a family business.
“Come on Raghu” said Lakshman with a disarming smile. “You have a ready option of continuing in family business which the son of a salaried employee like myself doesn’t. “
Oh! Pipe down friends. This is not the time to crib about what we have or don’t. “ said Samuel, a dalit Christian whose parents tended to a scrap of land in Nanguneri nearby. “It is as if a new day has dawned and I almost smell it. Look at the boys there dancing to the patriotic film songs that had been the rage for sometime now. They must be in their teens and might not know the full import of the occasion but value it all the same. “
“That makes me wonder” drawled Shekhar. “Fine, we are free but are we aware and conscious of what freedom means? Does not that needle the message that we must have a realistic understanding of freedom…….” He paused for a while “It also means to be responsible. Not just to your family which we all are but to the new environment shaping up. I mean, you can let your hair down for the day but tomorrow you have to wake up to the new tasks. I am not being pompous but straight forward.”
Shekhar’s impromptu little speech certainly did not sound like one to the rest in the august circle for till then the magnificent impact of Mahatma led movement had spread like a new communication gadget to all corners. The day was auspicious, sacred and bristling with variegated meanings.
Curls of blue rings from Raghu’s cigarette lingered in the air as he stubbed one and lighted another. “Lots of things to youngsters like us are unknown. Well, I don’t know where will I strike roots with a job because we are starting from the scratch. May be I will land one soon or have to strafe a bit. Jobs are few and it will take decades for the country to be on track or more. “ He poked Shekhar in the ribs in jest. “ But I am certainly not worried about what the country will be like or what we do to make it better. Man……those things are simply not in my mind.”
Samuel was earthy. “I have my paddy field and a rice mill. Looks like my journey will chug on here unless my father wants me to have a job and be away from the family line of occupation. But I do share your thoughts to some extent Raghu. Twenty years later or more what will we be like I cant fathom.”
Shekhar put an arm around his shoulder and smiled. “Sam…..We all will be in touch and as close as we are now……relax.”
Lakshmanan took his broom which almost reached his shoulder, tall that he was, and went down from his flat to do his self-anointed chore. For twenty years he had been doing it with no remotest sign of self-deprecation in the enclosed lane where the middle class families had ensconced themselves in comfortable dwellings. But for him all others were insulated deeply in their own world, web of worries from which they never even took a stroll out. Of course they smiled at each other, chatted always looking for the straw of helpful gesture from the other.
It was 7 in the morning and Lakshmanan started from the corner of the lane, meticulously sweeping every dash of litter and metal unintentionally thrown out by people busier than the bee. The lane stretched out nearly two furlongs before bisecting the main road with a sprinkling of individual houses and flats on the one side and a huge textile mall on the other. To Lakshmanan it was his morning walk and went about it with due diligence and care. There was a large cement dust bin at one corner and another at the bisection.
A 50 year old woman, selling vegetables and fruits, was his regular companion in a sense that she would be up at the same hour. “Sir! Why don’t you go for your morning walks like your neighbours? I find it amusing……that you should be doing what the corporation staff is expected to do? At least they come once a week which is a godsend for this lane.”
Greeting one of his neighbours, a doctor, passing by for his morning jig Lakshmanan smiled at her. “I take no notice of the corporation staff and when they come. It is a question of doing something, whatever be it, with pleasure. I have taken it upon myself willingly. So don’t worry.”
The vendor helped him scoop up waste and dump it into the other dust bin. Lowering her voice she said ”but sir, don’t you feel embarrassed by the odd looks and stares some give you? Of course your neighbours have seen you do it for years ……sir, you have a standing, good job and own prestige and dignity….why do you toss it aside doing this sort of work?” She was quite laconic in saying it as she realized deep down that the query did not fit the occasion.
Lakshmanan straightened his limbs to ease it a bit. He knew he had to get down to her wave length to keep the chat on sensible, logical track. “Amma! You don’t crib at those who don’t buy from you any more than I regret my neighbours not taking up this task. You are in it for family upkeep as I am doing this for the upkeep of the surroundings. Also I am giving my elbows and limbs a lot of exercise and feel fit spending nearly an hour on this. But just turn your head and see how the lane looks now.” He laughed.
She did and spontaneously was agape. In the early slant of the morning sun the lane looked a tidy, spotless, glistening sheet of metal, almost like a silver utensil scrounged clean. “By evening it will be back to its original look sir”
To Lakshmanan it sounded a bit like original sin. He laughed. “That’s not my cup of tea….This is the moment and that alone matters.”
Viewing the lane from his grilled balcony Lakshmanan, in his early nineties now, loved the stillness almost cosmic in its effect but for the indentations of traffic far away. Limbs had been in resistance mode for several years now and days seemed to take a longer time to fade away. Reclining in his swiveled chair he was pleased to see the lane relatively crystal clean despite the vagaries of nature and human beings.
“Sir! Your grandson has been doing what you did for many years…..Were you influenced by the Swachchta campaign that has taken the nation by storm recently?” This from a TV journalist a few days ago to which Lakshmanan had given a ceremonious answer but smiled to himself recalling it now.
“Appa! Your coffee….Shekhar mama is here” said his daughter in law laying the coffee cups on the teapoy. Lakshmanan, jerked out of his peregrination, smiled at his age old companion. “Lost in reverie mate….” Enquired his life long friend who had a long stint in Indian Administrative Service in Delhi and stuck to his decision of settling down in Chennai post retirement. He had no hunch that fate would bring the two together on the same lane and also next door. Their tones had become weak with long pauses as if memory was taking a stroll into the side lanes, stuttering but life went on.
“More or less…..I was laughing at the ceremonious reply I gave to a journalist who wanted to interview me for the Rotary award I got. Strangely I never looked for one and was also amused at the world of recognition I was thrust into.”
Shekhar patted his hand. He had seen Lakshmanan’s son and a few neighbours descending on the lane plumb at the right hour and doing their chores but somehow could never bring himself to it. “No Laksh…..what you did was or being continued now is amazing. I could never get out of my inhibitions and cannot rationalize it in any way…..It is nothing to do with me and you being upper middle class..” He paused for a long while with Lakshmanan peering at the lane. “It is plainly disinclination. I know the Corporation staff comes here only to clear the dust bins since we have taken up half of their job.”
Lakshmanan spread his hands. “Remember the day when we were to start on life 70 years ago? The river has flowed a long way since. Raghu passed away in the early eighties and we are hardly in touch with his kin. Sam too though his grandson is here working in a software firm. We somehow got in touch with him but the valley of a generation separates us. But for hesitant smiles and vague talk we could not continue the link.”
“Let it be Laksh….that’s how it is” said Shekhar. “We are in the periphery of the journey and God knows how many days are left? But what we cannot forget however is that day in Chennai when the great man came for a party meeting and rally. We were hell bent on seeing him up close and even had a chat with him. “ He trailed off in memory of the occasion and silence filled the void for some time.
Lakshmanan broke it. “ He asked us about our studies and what we intended to do next. But we will never forget his parting words…..the Mahatma said “the country will become free soon enough but see that freedom brings meaning to your life.”
The two old friends lapsed into silence which weighed more heavily in the void than the long journey of their lives.
It was as if they had rediscovered the glistening metal ……
Bio: K.S.Subramanian, India has published two volumes of poetry titled Ragpickers and Treading on Gnarled Sand through the Writers Workshop, Kolkata, India. His poems have appeared in Asian Age, a daily published from New Delhi and other centres. Several magazines, anthologies and web sites such as poetrypacific, museindia.com among others. He is a retired Senior Asst. Editor from The Hindu, one of the leading and well known dailies in India.