Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Kuppuswami -The Sky Is His Roof...

Kuppusami is a short, wizened old man. Like an extra-smart micro-organism he has built himself a pseudo-house on a side of the road. It is not a house at all… it is just a two feet by five by five feet parcel of odds and ends. He keeps his stuff there, may be those are ply-wood sheet samples for business, may be leftovers. He has used kilometers of plastic sheets for wrapping and winding it all up.

He lives on the pavement, that is, he keeps wandering around in our street –which is the holy of the holies as far as streets go in Anna Nagar, East – a stone’s throw from Roundtana. The current minister occupies a palatial mansion three houses down the lane, and every time I see this man surviving kilometers below the poverty line, right next to ministers and lawyers and doctors rolling in sheer affluence and luxury, I smile.

Perhaps the very rich man staying in the house where Kuppusami’s three wheeler, the human powered tricycle with a very clean, neat and well-maintained carriage that may be something like four feet by four feet, is parked forever, is a soft-hearted creature. God knows why everytime I look beyond this old man into the affluent mansion behind his rickety holdall and the tricycle that serves as bed at night, an incidence flashes through my mind…. I had been to a tiny hotel for a beer and had emerged onto the lane that spurts into wild action every five or ten minutes. Traffic like uncontrollable dam waters gushes into the lane in four to five rows, two wheelers taking unnecessary risks and blowing their horns as if celebrating the latest college election victory. Two wheelers tend to make old men in their sixties and seventies behave like teenage school boys here, I have noticed. They especially are rapists of the horn.

Disgusted with the traffic, I was walking on the edge of the road, when I crossed the first junction and saw a man lying under a tree. Drunk, I thought in a mild haze of slightly speeded up thinking after the beer. I tend to write good poetry with a bottle or two, after that I turn into an introvert, not giving a damn about anything. As I inched closer I saw a passerby stop at the man, feel his chest, convince himself he was alive and slip in a twenty rupees or fifty rupee note into the shirt pocket. He got up and was leaving when I stopped near him. He seemed a little shellshocked to find a man stopping because the city folks with their impenetrable apathy never do that… a slight tremor went through the good man, I noticed.
Dead?” I asked.
“No,” he said breezily,” he is breathing.
“ Drunk.” I said ironically realizing I was talking to a sober man.
“Perhaps exhausted. City life can cripple you if you are sloppy about your food habits…may be he walked too long, may be he hasn’t had food to eat….” Thanking me, he left on his errand, our good Samaritan.
Hesitantly, I too bent put ten rupees in the shirt pocket of a man who seemed to be sleeping the sleep of the dead.

I have often thought of giving some money to Kupusami, whose eyes light up in a smile the moment he sees me…and our relationship is four months old now. I am scared of talking to him because people of his class, those clinging to the bottom of the lowest rungs in society usually know only Tamil and my vocabulary may be insufficient to extract sense out of whatever philosophical utterings he may have for me. The song and dance routine some follow does not really offer any substance. But then I feel nervous about doing such a thing –there’s the unmistakable gleam of pride in his shrewd little eyes. His smiling eyes that stare at you a moment longer than ordinary, and if you happen to harbor even an iota of guilt like most of these hangers-on at the honorable minister’s place do, you may find his scrutiny voyeuristic, even transgressional.

It rained one balmy evening in May, an unseasonable squall some one told me, since rainy season was months away. As I rushed past the three-wheeler parked on one side, on my quick errand –I noticed the old man was missing. But the carriage had turned into an impromptu tent of plastic sheets off-greenish in color, seemingly as wizened and weather-beaten as his own face. He had obviously put up two wood posts and turned the plastic sheet into a great little tent. There’s a professional neatness in everything he does, I have noticed, an inbuilt elegance which teeters on being artistic. As he is usually in bed long before eight o’ clock, curling up in that tiny four by four carriage like a satiated pup, I can imagine, and since we have an early sunrise well before six in the morning –I see him up pretty early. By the way we have vicious little mosquitoes in here, that’s another reason for the plastic tent, it occurs to me now. He wears a turban kind of headgear that makes his head look more bandaged than dressed up for an occasion, for rituals or out of sheer habit.

He sits smoking a bidi, a tobacco leaf rolled into a flattened cigarillo sort of a thing, with his rheumy mole-like eyes staring at nothing. A couple of times he has smiled at me in an absentminded manner, perhaps there is a sense of brotherhood between us. Both are bearded in an unkempt way, that’s the only link between that jumps to my mind. Or he thinks I am a foreigner, which is a very common reason for folks on the streets to smile and offer help, perhaps all foreigners look helpless and lost I suspect. I have been bailed out of sticky situations just for that reason, so I am not complaining.

© Max Babi 080806.


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