A Conversation with Mr. Y. Rajan

It seemed like any other day; the usual ablutions and chores and getting ready to board the train to the city that would take me to office; like every other working day! The station was unusually crowded and I decided to wait with other people all awaiting the train. In the distance, I could see the suburban train making its way gently down the tracks and approaching the station. I was preparing myself to get into the Vendors compartment; it was spacious and offered standing space when compared to the regular compartment, which would be jam-packed in the early morning office rush hour. It was then that I heard a voice, “Mahesh, wait, your time will come!” I turned around looking to see who it was that was speaking to me in a cryptic tone. I could not spot anyone whom I knew and before I knew it the crowd on the platform rushed forward to find a place in the train. I had lost my moment and let it go as I saw people getting into the already crowded locomotive. The voice repeated – “Mahesh, good, the next train will be here in five minutes; get into the third compartment!” Now this was turning perplexing and I was wondering if someone from college had turned up and decided to play a prank on me. I then wondered how I could think that way; as everyone had left for their own safe pastures and built their own destinies forgetting the band of brothers that had remained such a powerful force in college.

I dismissed all thoughts and decided to read the newspaper till the train arrived.  The voices continued – “Mahesh.. compartment three!” The previous night I had been reading a horror tale and I guessed my mind was working over-time and I was hallucinating. The next train came as communicated and for some inexplicable reason I walked into coach three and guess what it was empty. Never in all these years of train travel had I found an empty coach in an EMU local during the office rush-hour. As I made myself comfortable at the window-seat, the train resumed its journey and before it would pull out of the platform; a man boarded the compartment. He was tall, clean-shaven and dressed in black despite the overpowering humid heat that made one sweat uncomfortably!

He walked straight up to me and smiled and said – “Hi Mahesh, glad that you made it!” It was the same voice that I had heard a few minutes ago! I was positively scared now and pinched myself to make sure that I was not dreaming. My next thought was this was some prank show shoot that was being arranged by some local television channel and I was the victim for the day! I smiled back and said – “Hi! Do I know you?” He replied – “Well you do! You have been asking yourself a question lately – I am here trying to answer it!” I tried to check if there was a small camera or microphone on his black silk shirt but could not find anything. The train stopped suddenly; I stared out the signal was glowing red; an express train crossing perhaps!

I turned back at the man trying to place a name to a face and recollect if this was someone from the past, another lifetime, perhaps! No, nothing registered in my mind and I continued to speak to the man – “What question? Sir, I don’t know who you are and how did you know my name and how could I hear your voice in my head; were you at the station?”

“Ah, Mahesh, you have too many questions; can you shut your eyes for a moment?” Now this was creeping me out! Was this some robber? All I had was my well-used phone on me, some money about two hundred odd, the trusted silver chain around my neck and a book in my bag and of-course my lunch. Now why would a robber target me for all this! Lo and behold, for some inexplicable reason my eyes closed! The voices returned; and try as much; I could not open my eyes they seemed to be stitched tightly shut!

“Mahesh, I am Rajan – I am Time, your continuous questions, pathetic writing on your blog in the guise of desperate verse, all pondering on the inevitability of death and the misery of life are just pure torture. Do you think anyone wants to read your drivel about an existential crisis? Do you think you are the only one with problems? Yes, I know it has been a hard life, a struggle, lot of failures, wrong decisions, unfair misunderstandings; I know; but for the love of God snap out of it! Your death is not going to be so soon and mark my words it won’t be an easy one. Stop writing drivel, stop all this self-pity disguised as blog posts and pathetic all-knowing philosophical hogwash on Facebook and Twitter. Stop making a bloody fool of yourself. You will die, when I will want to get you! So open your eyes now and goodbye!”

The train resumed its journey with a sudden jerk. I opened my eyes and there was no one in front of me. Mr. Rajan had vanished without a trace. I felt my trouser pocket, my phone was in place, I felt my shirt pocket, my season-ticket and money was there and a new addition, a black feather was in the pocket. Well I am no ornithologist but the feather seemed strangely alien; smooth as silk the central spine was blood-red in colour. The EMU eased into the next station and I saw a bunch of familiar faces enter the compartment. I was relieved, this wasn’t a dream or an elaborate prank. I felt a strange sensation as my mind replayed the voice of Mr. Rajan telling me – “You will die, when I will want to get you!”

The train increased its speed and as I stared out of the window I wondered, what would this whole episode mean???

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The Pact – A Debt Repaid

“Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.” – Don Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’

It’s been how long now? About 15 years. A lot of water has flown under the bridge! 2002 and Chennai and 2017 and Chennai may not seem very different to the casual on-looker! Trust my word, the city has changed, changed a lot. Alcohol flows freely through state-sponsored outlets. The fear of the law is greater now! Contacts or no contacts, there is a bit of fear in the eyes of the commoner for the khaki uniform. Time has changed a lot!

In the period between 1999 and 2002, Vyasarpadi saw some of its worst gang-fights, the ganja-peddlers and the cocaine-snorters among the elite ensured that there was a high demand for the contraband narcotics. Gaja and Michael were kingpins of sorts handling the distinct clientele for the two poisons. There was a well established network of runners, suppliers, couriers. Life was way different from what it is today. Today distinct WhatsApp and Facebook groups function with key codes that let people access the contraband on a high-end delivery model. From pills in Tic Tac boxes to cocaine hidden in glucose packets and energy-drink sachets, from the consumer to the provider, the smart-phone, internet and credit cards; everything has changed! The one constant that remains is the demand for the narcotic, from high-school to college, the drug that eventually sucks out your soul continues to remain in high demand. Producers differ, suppliers change, the revenue-model differs, the price changes, the Sri Lankans that used to route in the drugs to fund the war have given way to Russians and Nigerians who funnel the contraband through Goa, Bengaluru and finally Chennai. The business runs as strong as ever! The variables are the people who run the show. The constants are the craving for the drug!

It was a chance encounter! One of those strange twisted days in one’s horoscope that’s decided by the Maker! Raghu asked me to hold a bag as he brought his bike out of the college’s parking lot. He asked me to wait at the rear exit gate, adjoining the hostel compound. As I waited for him to come, there was a sudden flash of pain as someone hit me hard on the head and I was reeling, trying to steady myself as I felt a buzz in my head. My assailant tried to take the bag that Raghu gave me and pulled hard! Some instinct made me grab the bag harder as I let loose a kick straight into the gut of my assailant! By then Raghu had come with his bike and seeing the situation headed full speed aiming to ram into the assailant who managed to evade at the last moment by diving to his right. By then  some hostel-mates saw the commotion and came running out shouting expletives. The assailant jumped into an auto and fled.

Raghu then took me to our usual haunt – Muthu Anna’s bakery and as he put some ice onto my head, I asked him what was in the bag! Raghu then smiled his cryptic smile and said — “Swamy vaendaam, irukattum, handing the bag to you was my mistake! Let it go!” I realized that it was something shady and I got myself unnecessarily involved into the mess; but whatever be the case he had in a way saved me from further injury! He looked into my eyes and said — “Swamy, promise me, you will not speak of this to anyone, promise!!!” That evening over two glasses of milky-tea and vegetable puffs at Muthu Anna’s bakery a pact was made, a promise, to watch out for each other! It was then that I got drawn bit-by-bit into the shady underbelly of the drug mafia that ruled the city! The tasks were simple – travel from point A to point B – hand over a bag, receive another bag in return, which was to be dropped at a popular restaurant.

The vortex seemed to drag me deeper into a nefarious web! My professor called me one afternoon to his room and said – “Swamy, you need not do this courier-boy stuff, you are a good kid. Think of your family! What would they do if you get killed in a gang-war or if you get arrested? Just focus on your studies.” The conversation was a turning point. Raghu continued his way and would eventually drop out of college and I lost touch with him. As the final exams neared every bit of focus went into getting a good academic score. The brief association with the underworld was forgotten! Over the years, I have seen the city change in front of my eyes, people coming and going, memories good and bad! But that pact made in the bakery, it still haunted me from time to time and I would wonder what happened to Raghu.

It was a Friday evening and I got a call from an unknown number, as I attended the call, a voice from the past returned — “Swamy this is Raghu! I need you to come down to Mumbai right away! I am sending you the flight tickets.” Nothing less and nothing more, a flash from the past and to honour a pact I had to fly. As I landed in Mumbai, I was met by Raghu. He seemed to have changed a great deal – dressed in designer suits and a flashy gold bracelet on his wrist, he embraced me in a warm hug. “Thanks for coming Swamy!” Appu my younger brother is in a mess, he has OD’ed and was found in his hostel room. We have moved him to the hospital and he is out of danger. I need your support Swamy, for old times sake! There is just way too much happening around me and I need your support, please be with me, till I sort this out!”

The next two days went in a flash, accompanying Raghu to the hospital, the college hostel, the police station, it was as if a reel was being replayed again and again. The lawyers and the money that Raghu handed out generously ensured that no police-case was filed. Raghu accepted the college principal’s decision of handing out a transfer certificate on health reasons. Appu was admitted to a de-addiction and rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Mumbai. I discovered that Raghu had over the years, grown in stature, made enough enemies and branched out to Mumbai serving as an important link in the supply-chain. His younger brother had unwittingly fallen prey to the very drug that had helped set up his financial wealth and standing! Justice works in a strange way indeed!

As I boarded my return flight, I kept wondering, why, after all these years, why would Raghu call me! A pact, a cinematic, silly and foolish pact that two college-kids made years ago! Well – I felt relieved, the debt had been repaid, the pact balanced and life goes on!

Maanga-Oorga {Mango-Pickle}

I started a novel called Rangu – This is an independent short story starring Rangu that will hopefully be a chapter in the novel somewhere in the many chapters in my mind and hopefully will get typed or written in a a notebook.

The summer would start in its intensity in early March itself. If we were lucky, the rain-gods would shower a bit of their bounty in the end of February, a gentle calm before the intense summer-wave that would envelop us for the next four months. Once those showers in February would cool the earth; we would set out to the ‘maan-thoppu’ – the mango orchard. The zamindar’s property stretched across the length and breadth of the seven villages to the east of the River Bhadra. The mango orchard was strategically placed right at the end of the boundaries of our little village. Meena and I would go to the orchard. Shambu thatha was the caretaker at the orchard, he would break into a smile on seeing us and say “Rangu Swami, Meena yaejamani vaango’ {Come Rangu Sir and Princess Meena}.

The rains on the gentle earth, the fragrance that linguists now call ‘petrichor’ would permeate the air. There were flowering shrubs of hibiscus, jasmine and some wild forest-flowers as well. We had the permission to pick all the fruits that had fallen down in the overnight rains. I had a sack that I would stuff with the green mangoes, some would have ripened and the sweetness of the fruits as we bit into them and talked and walked back home.

Once Meena would be left at her house, I would walk down to our humble hovel.  Amma would wash all the green mangoes in luke warm water. Then I would wipe them clean in an old white veshti that belonged to Appa; a memory of which I had no proper recollection. The mangoes would be wiped dry and then Amma would hand me the ‘aruvamanai’ a slicer set in a wooden frame. You need to slice the mangoes in a specific way and ensure that the seed did not get into the way of the sliced mangoes. It takes practice and having observed Amma slicing them for so many years, I naturally set about assisting Amma in the kitchen. Studies did not work out, the fees, the situation, the need to cross the river to reach the town; were all too many troubles for a young widow and her son. By Mama’s grace we were allowed to set up a tiffin stall outside the temple and I would help Amma there and also assist in cleaning the temple premises, ringing the bell, washing the temple vessels and other such stuff that kept the fire running in our kitchen. Every day and night Amma would tell me – “Rangu, you are destined for bigger things; keep working hard, Eashwaran will show us the way!”

The mangoes would be sliced and then be placed in a huge jar of salt and chilli powder. The jar would be sealed tight with a white cloth and for five days the sun in all its intensity would bestow goodness to the jar of sliced mangoes. On the sixth morning, Amma would get a huge cast-iron cheenchatti (heavy-bottomed cauldron). The sesame oil would take its time to heat on the wood-fired oven. Amma would then add mustard, as it would crackle, then she would add freshly ground red chillies, fenugreek seeds, turmeric and asafotedia and stir the potent mixture and then would come the moment of glory when the sliced mangoes would be added. Then my next task of gently stirring the mixture with a wooden stirrer would start. The smoke would be cumbersome but the fragrance of the spices and the green mangoes would be enough to bear all the smoke and water that would seep out of my eyes. Amma would know the exact time when the mangoes would have been cooked sufficiently and she would supervise the stirring at intervals and tell me when to stop and ask me to extinguish the fire. After a while the cauldron would be removed from the oven and kept to cool, covered with the banana leaves. The steam kissing the banana leaves and then again returning to the mangoes in the cauldron would impart a distinct flavor to the pickles. They would then be packed in glass jars. As per custom, the first three bottles would go to Zamindar Ayya’s house and Amma would give the first bottle to Meena. Then the remaining bottles would be sent to the houses from which the orders would have come for Annaporani’s pickles. Amma was fondly known as Annapoorani. It was a matter of pride and common knowledge that no one had ever left hungry from our house, in even the most desperate of times.

FAST FORWARD TWENTY YEARS

Zamindar Ayya had sent us an invitation and I was happy to know that I would be able to meet Meena after all these years. The little pony-tailed girl has grown into a beautiful princess, college-educated and a doctor. A matter of great pride for all of us! The first person from our village to have become a doctor. The wedding is in Madrasapattanam, people say the city is called Chennai; but for old-timers like me it will always remain Madrasapattanam. The blue coloured-nool-pattu saree with the mango pattern was ready to be gifted with the sacred kumkumam from the Devi-Sannidhi. What else? What else could I gift her??

I looked at Amma’s portrait in the swami-room. I kept the invitation next to the portrait and spoke –“Amma, Meena’s getting married! I could almost sense her presence and all of a sudden I could smell mangoes cooking in spices! Yes, that’s it, I would give her a bottle of pickles as well. Let me see, if she remembers me!!

The wedding was conducted at a massive mandapam, there were over 4,000 guests and it was a busy affair with all the big city-people talking on their mobile phones and clicking selfies. When I reached the mandapam, the rituals were already underway and at the appointed auspicious moment the thaali was tied. Meena looked resplendent the bride all attired in the ceremonial yellow silk saree and gold jewellery. The groom was a doctor as well and the couple looked lovely together. The big city folks and the family-members handed over their gifts to the newly wedded couple. Zamindar Ayya spotted me in the crowd and beckoned me to come up on stage. I felt a bit embarrassed; the country-bumpkin with his yellow cloth bag and khadi shirt and kaavi veshti. Ayya asked Meena – “Do you remember him?” Meena stared at me befuddled. I took out the mango-pickle bottle and a rush of memories flooded through Meena’s eyes and her eyes turned moist as she said – “Rangu!!!  Maanga Oorga”

A Clean Shave

The trick was to be calm and level-headed and never to panic. The Master had always taught him to be a good listener and a silent observer. The student had learnt his lessons well and he was now a name to reckon with in a very closed niche circuit of professionals.

I looked at how things were going back to the old era. No more emails, no more phone calls, just the trusted non-descript cafes and tiffin-centres, the name and date on the bill or the napkin. I smiled – ‘Edward Snowden, well and truly made us all paranoid!’A hero of a different kind! Hunted by his own!

The idea was to meet at Mani’s Cafe. Sixty years saw no change in the quality of the delightfully tangy sambar, the soft fluffy idlies and the crispy vadas. The price alone had gone up in tune with the economy. But no compromise on taste and the filter coffee, to weave a pun – ‘It was worth dying for’!

V came in sharp at 7:30 AM he sat opposite me, no signs of recognition no smile, nothing at all. He ate his masala dosa and drank his filter coffee. As I sat amused, relishing my onion rava roast and coconut chutney; he finally pushed a small sheet of paper. He nodded his head and then left after paying the bill. I smiled as he left, good old V.

The target was Bappan Reddy a political heavy weight and an extremely prosperous farmer. He had been supplying arms to the Naxals by sourcing them from the Chinese and this mess had to stop. The instruction was clear, marked ‘Code-A’ make it look like an accident. No signs of any foul play.

As I wondered, on how to plan the ‘kill’ I saw an advert for the new Gillette Mach 3 Turbo razor and an idea struck me. Bappan was travelling from Chennai to Delhi by the Shatabdi the next week. It was to be a political discussion enroute with MLAs from the ruling party and the opposition and there was confirmed intel that enroute ‘women’ would be sneaked in for entertainment. Additionally catering staff would be taking care of the big-wigs and two separate coaches had been reserved for this entourage.

The Trip:

The Catering Contractor was a big name in the food industry who catered only to the elite. Joining the group as a ‘waiter’ was easy. I had taken over a chap who was currently enjoying time in Goa with the 50000 that I had offered him. ‘No questions asked’!

On the day of the journey the staff reached Chennai Central a full two hours before departure. We travelled to the railway shed at Basin Bridge Junction wherein two special coaches were allotted to us and we went about assembling our cooking apparatus in an area ear-marked for us. We were also in charge of housekeeping for the sahibs and given instructions to keep welcome kits in each of the big sahib’s rooms.

I opened one of the welcome kits. As I suspected it had a shaving kit. I replaced the disposable razor with my special weapon a poison tipped razor. The razor was coated with a poison extracted from the krait one of the deadliest venomous snakes in the world. It would do its trick.

The train departed on time and it was suddenly stopped at Gumidipoondi station. There was an emergency on-board senior leader Bappan Reddy was dead!!

I smiled and walked out. I went to the public lavatory. Neat by local standards, and took out my Gillette mach-3 and shaved my beard and moustache in three minutes flat and walked out!

Mission Accomplished!!!!

This post is a part of #WillYouShave activity at BlogAdda in association with Gillette.