All posts by Manoj Nair

Hi, my name is Manoj Nair and I live in Mumbai, India. This is my website, my online journal. Here you will find articles on subjects ranging from flashing smart phones to mindfulness! Once In a while I also post some of my short stories. Browse through the site and feel free to pen down your thoughts and suggestions.

A Love Letter

Gopalan looked at the clock on the office wall. It showed five minutes to nine. He smiled. As usual he was in office before time. Gopalan was always the first in office. At times he had come in before, Shyamalan the peon. It was Shyamalan’s job to open the office. Besides opening the doors, he was expected to sweep the floor, wipe the dust of the tables and arrange the files on the shelves all this before the office staff came in. Shyamalan was also supposed to be there by eight thirty. He never came that early. Gopalan always reached before Shyamalan.

Gopalan came by bus. He lived twenty kilometers away and used the state transport buses for his commute. Every morning he would get up at four, meditate for half an hour and then do yoga for an hour. A quick bath later he would go to the kitchen and prepare both breakfast and lunch. Gopalan lived alone in a rented house. His village was about four hours by train. His parents lived there. The only son of a retired school teacher, Gopalan was happy he had landed a government job by the time he was twenty-four. It was not a high paying job. He was a lower division clerk but it was a government job. He was sure with his hard work and dedication he would rise through the levels. After all he was sincere and hard working. No one could deny him that.

It took Gopalan an hour by bus to reach his office. He would get on the bus by seven thirty and reach office by eight thirty. By eight the buses would be crammed with college students and office goers. Gopalan avoided that crowd by thirty minutes. Not that the buses would be empty, half an hour earlier, but at least he did not have to dangle on the footboards.

This was his first job and he was determined to make it a success. Within days of joining he had realized that there was no way the office doors would open early. Shyamalan lived near the office. Someone who knew said that his house was within walking distance. Yet he came in just five minutes before the official office start time. Office hours were from nine in the morning to five in the evening. This was for weekdays. On Saturdays office was over by one. This was the rule- what was written on the faded board in a corner of the office. In reality the staff would come in by nine thirty or ten and by four thirty the office would be empty. Saturday by twelve Shyamalan would be preparing to lock the doors. That is if Gopalan would let him.

Gopalan also believed in God. Every Sunday he would go to the village temple and pray. Not that Hinduism expected him to go on a Sunday but that was the only day of the week he was free. Gopalan had tried to get a house on rent near the office. The monthly rent amount had shocked him. On his fifteen thousand rupees per month salary, the rent he could afford got him a house which was twenty kilometers away. Luckily, he did not have to send any money home to his parents. They were both retired school teacher and their combined pension was more than their son’s take-home salary.

As Gopalan waited outside the office door he saw Shyamalan at a distance. Shyamalan came on a cycle. It was one of the fancy geared ones. It looked costly. Gopalan wondered how he was able to afford such a costly cycle on his peon’s salary. Gopalan checked his watch. It was eight fifty-five. Shyamalan was in no hurry to reach office.

“My God! Is that clown circling those college girls?” thought Gopalan.

Shyamalan was indeed going around in circles around a group of girls who were walking down the street. There was a girl’s college a kilometer away.

“This man is a nuisance. Not only is he late but he is also harassing girls on their way to college.” Gopalan thought

By the time Shyamalan reached the office it was five minutes past Nine. Gopalan was furious. For the first time in his six months service he was going to be late. There was a register in the office and Gopalan like all the staff members would sign his name and add the time while entering and leaving the office. There was no check to verify the details entered. It was all on trust. Gopalan was proud of his entries. It showed a time before nine every day but today that record was going to be broken.

“Do you know that you are late? The office is to be opened before nine in the morning. Today I am late because of you.”

Shyamalan pretended not to hear him. He was humming a tune. It was one of the latest movie songs. He had seen the first day show with his friends. The memory was still fresh in his mind. The tune was a catchy number and he had been humming it since the time he had heard it.

“Can you open the door. I have to start my work.” Gopalan said.

“What is the hurry? There is no one else here. They do not come before nine thirty. What is the point in opening it so early?”

“That is the rule. Government offices are to start at nine AM sharp. “

“Rule!” Shyamalan yawned.

By the time Gopalan reached his desk it was ten minutes past nine. He had wrestled with his conscience as to what time to enter in the register. He had come early but entered the office late because the door was not opened. Should he enter 9:00 AM or 9:05 AM he thought.

Finally, he entered 9:05 AM and attached a comment next to it mentioning – Door was not open had to wait for five minutes outside.

Gopalan was not happy with that. He would complain about Shyamalan to the Section Head. Paulose Joseph, Gopalan’s section head came around nine thirty. After reaching office he would immediately rush to the toilet. Fifteen minutes later he would come out and go for a cup of tea. The office canteen supplied tea at the desk but there was a small road side tea shop which all the staff members preferred. There after downing a leisurely cup of hot tea, Joseph would amble back towards his desk. All this would take about an hour. At ten thirty when Joseph returned to his desk, Gopalan was waiting for him.

“So, what is the problem?” said Joseph.

“Sir! He should open the door on time. I was late by five minutes in entering. I had reached by eight thirty-five but had to wait for thirty minutes outside the door.”

“Why do you come so early?” said Joseph still not able to understand the nature of the complaint.

Gopalan stood there for a moment. He thought of presenting his words with a different logic.

He started again.” Sir! The rule is that the office doors should be open by nine a.m sharp. Also by then the tables should be cleaned and the dust bins emptied. For that to happen Shyamalan should be in the office by eight thirty. He comes just a minute before Nine.”

“Have you completed all the assessment reports I sent you yesterday?” said Joseph.

For a second Gopalan was silent.

“No Sir! There are fifty files in that bunch. I completed twenty yesterday and will finish the remaining before leaving for home today.”

“Good! Now instead of wasting your time talking why don’t you do that. After you have finished those files write a summary report. You are good at writing, write that report and give it to me. I need to send it to the Director by noon tomorrow. Now go.”

Gopalan went back to his table and was soon immersed in his files. He forgot to drink his tea, finished his lunch in ten minutes and was back at his table. He hardly looked up but feverishly worked at the files. A loud laugh distracted his attention and he looked up. He saw Shyamalan sitting on Joseph’s desk. They were laughing at some joke. Gopalan shook his head in disgust and got back to his files. He stopped complaining about Shyamalan after that.

A week later Malati joined the office. She joined as a lower division clerk in Gopalan’s section. Long plaited hair, big expressive eyes, slim figure – Malati was distracting. Joseph had asked Gopalan to explain the working of the office to her. Gopalan would start explaining in earnest but then when he looked into her eyes he would forget what he was speaking and stumble on his words. She was assigned a table opposite to Gopalan’s desk.

Malati also had the habit of coming early to office. She would reach the office door by eight forty-five. For Gopalan this was a God sent opportunity. All the time spent on Sundays visiting the temple were finally paying off. He started paying more attention to his dresses. He always wore a white shirt, full sleeves. Sleeves folded up to the elbow. That was his style. Simple but elegant. It went well with black trousers. Gopalan ensured his shirt and trousers were well washed and crisply ironed. He started cleaning his sandals every day. All the jumping on and off buses added tons of dirt and grime to it. He kept a dirty rag in his desk to wipe the dirt of his sandals. As they waited outside the office door, they talked. Just casual chit chat. Malati would talk about movies and dresses while Gopalan explained to her how to balance a ledger and how the annual statements were prepared. Malati listened carefully nodding her head at all the right spots but the minute someone else came she would leave the conversation and go with them.

Gopalan and a few of the older staff members got their lunch from home and preferred to eat at their desk. Gopalan began cooking and carrying a little extra in his lunch box. He hoped that someday he would get to share it with Malati. She lived near the office. Malati could easily go home, have lunch and return. All well within the lunch hour. Yet she preferred to have lunch at a nearby hotel. Most of the younger office staff went there. She tagged along with them.

After a month of Malati’s joining a miracle happened. He saw Shyamalan coming to office by eight forty-five.

“You are early!” said Gopalan trying to make it as sarcastic as he could.

Shyamalan ignored the jibe he looked at Malati standing there and said “Good morning!”

Malati smiled back at him.

“Did you have to wait for long?” Shyamalan said.

“No! I come around this time every day,” Malati said.

“I come around eight thirty,” said Gopalan but Shyamalan ignore him.

“I will come at this time then, “said Shyamalan, “Then you would not have to wait.”

He continued addressing Malati.

She smiled again and said, “Thank you!”

Gopalan felt as if someone had slipped a hot burning piece of coal down his back. From that day onwards, Shyamalan came early. He would open the doors early and dust one table and arrange its files – Malati’s. Shyamalan would remain there near Malati’s desk till the other office staff members came in. Gopalan tried to join in the conversation. Shyamalan and Malati spoke about movies, actors, clothes and fashion. Areas where Gopalan had nothing to contribute. He would just stand there listening to the conversation. After a couple of days, he stopped trying.

Gopalan’s parents were pestering him to get married. They argued that they were now old. They said that he needed to settle down. Gopalan agreed to all their terms. He disagreed with them on one point. He said he would choose the girl. For that he did not have to look far. Right across the room in his office was the person who he thought fitted the bill perfectly. He decided to take things into his own hand. He decided to write Malati a letter and confess everything.

Gopalan believed in horoscopes and palmistry. He believed in omens and good luck charms. He chose a good day to write the letter. What better day than a Sunday. After returning from the temple Gopalan sat down. He put pen to paper and poured his heart out. He wrote about how he felt the first day she stepped in the office, how he felt every day when he saw her and how he looked forward to seeing her every day for the rest of his life. Words became sentences and sentences combined to form paragraphs. Gopalan filled up two sheets and only then did he put his pen down.

Most people hated Mondays. Gopalan was looking forward to it. Monday signaled the start of a whole week when he would get to see Malati sitting at her desk, across him. He was also eager to hand her the letter and express his love for her. It would have been easier to just say the words but the problem was of privacy. She was always with someone else. In the morning hours it was Shyamalan who loitered around her like a parasite. During office hours Malati would be with other staff members. A letter, Gopalan thought, was the best way to convey his feelings. He put the letter in his pocket and went towards her desk.

Malati was working on some file and did not notice him standing there. Gopalan cleared his throat and she looked up.

“Are you not feeling well,” she said.

“I am perfectly well.”

It was a long awkward minute as Gopalan stood there. Malati looked up again from her work.

“Is there anything else?”

“No nothing…. I…. are those files still pending from last week?” Gopalan said pointing at a pile of files on the locker behind her.

Malati turned to look. In that brief moment Gopalan took the letter from his pocket and placed it on the table. He placed it right in the middle of the desk and started walking away. At that moment a gust of wind from the open window blew the letter off the desk and onto the floor. Gopalan did not notice this as his back was turned. Shyamalan who was passing by saw the paper fall, picked it up and handed it over to Malati.

“This fell from your desk” he said.

Malati took the paper from him, smiled at him.

Malati looked at the folded piece of paper. She turned it over and looked at it from all sides. She was certain she had not seen it on her desk earlier. She opened and began reading. By now Gopalan had returned to his desk. As he settled down in his chair, he stole a glance at Malati and saw her reading his letter. His heart was beating wildly. He had chosen the words with care. His teacher in school would have given him full marks for the choice of words in that letter. That is if he ever dared to hand over such a letter to his teacher.

Most dear Malati, the starting line captivated her. As she read the letter Malati’s face turned a bright shade of red. In her entire school or college life no one had ever written such a letter to her. That she had always studied in girls-only school and colleges may also have had something to do with it. Growing up on a steady dose of Bollywood and Malayalam movies had conditioned her mind to a great extent. By the time she had finished reading the letter she was in love. She looked at Shyamalan who was standing at a distance and smiled. Shyamalan who was holding a bunch of files saw the smile. There was something different about the smile from Malati. It was not the usual thank-you-for-cleaning-my-desk or thank-you-for-fetching-my-cup-of-tea smile. This one was different. The cheeks were all red and the eyes were acting coy. The files fell from Shyamalan’s hand and spread its contents on the floor.

Gopalan was eagerly waiting for the response to his literary efforts. He looked at Malati, first on the sly then amassing some courage he looked straight at her. He noticed something strange. She was looking at Shyamalan who was also staring back at her! Gopalan did not understand what was happening and that too during office hours!

“I did not know you could write so well” said Malati still blushing.

The office group was walking towards the hotel during lunch hour and she was at the back walking along with Shyamalan.

“What?” said Shyamalan.

“It was poetic. I have never seen such fine writing outside classical poetry,” said Malati.

Shyamalan had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, but he was not going to let that show on his face. To cover his confusion, he smiled.

Later during lunch, others in the group noticed Malati and Shyamalan’s chairs a bit too close to each other. The two were so busy talking to each other that they hardly-noticed when the others finished their lunch and left. They came in ten minutes after lunch hour ended. Not that it was a big issue as other than Gopalan none of seats in the office were occupied. Gopalan was worried. He had anticipated a torrent of emotions towards him from Malati. Instead she completely ignored him. It was as if he had cease to exist.

“She is a decent girl. Maybe she is too shy to express her feelings in front of others. I will speak to her tomorrow morning.”

He thought and comforted himself.

The next morning Gopalan was walking towards the office by eight thirty. That was when he saw another miracle! He saw Shyamalan was already there! Gopalan saw someone else standing with him. It was Malati! She was standing there talking to him.

“That ruffian! He is now trying to steal my Malati!” Gopalan thought and almost ran up to the office.

The two were laughing at some joke when they saw Gopalan.

“Oh! You had to come in so early!” Malati said.

There was disdain in her tone. She seemed upset that he had come early! Gopalan did not understand what had happened. Seeing her he had thought that he would use the opportunity to speak to her and continue on the base which the letter had set up. Instead Shyamalan was there.

“Open the door for him, “said Malati. Shyamalan immediately complied.

For the first time in his one-year tenure at the office the doors opened for Gopalan by eight thirty-five. He signed the register. He felt happy as he looked at the office entry time next to his name. Then he went and sat at his desk. That was when he noticed that he was alone in the office. He ran to a window and looked out and saw Malati and Shyamalan walking up to a near-by restaurant. This was not what he had expected. He looked at the pile of folders on his desk, sighed and got down to work.

After a few days Gopalan had stopped looking in Malati’s direction. He returned to his old ways. He stopped cleaning his sandals. Some days his shirt would be crumpled but he did not care. He stopped carrying a little extra food in his tiffin box. He knew his life was going through a bad phase and hoped that matter did not get much worse. That was until the day someone came to his desk and handed him a cover. It was a wedding invitation. Inside it printed in neat artistic font were details of the marriage of Shyamalan with Malati!

“This will be the first marriage between office staff in this office,” said Sathy Devi. She was the senior most typist in the office. In her fifties she was due to retire in a year’s time. She was discussing with Kartikeyan the new section officer. The other staff members were listening in. Shyamalan and Malati were on leave – in preparation for the wedding. Gopalan as usual was at work, ignoring the conversation at the desk a few feet away from him.

“Do you know Shyamalan is getting a car in dowry?” someone said.

“He does not need a dowry. He comes from a well to do family,” someone else replied.

“Has to be. If someone can afford to live so close to this place, he has to be rich.”

“Malati also lives somewhere close. I always wonder what it was that attracted them to each other?”

“Oh! she told me once. Shyamalan had written her a nice love letter. She was floored by the words. That is how it all started…”

Gopalan had heard enough. A cry of anguish escaped his lips and he jumped up from his desk. Everyone turned in his direction. Gopalan ran towards the door. There was a limit to how much a man could tolerate. This was unfair. He had poured out his feeling on the piece of paper and someone else was benefitting from it. This was definitely not right. He ran out of the office.

“What happened to Gopalan?” someone said.

“Who knows. I always found him a bit weird. Do you know he comes in half an hour before office time?”

“As if all that extra work gets you any extra money!”

The office staff returned to their gossip.

Gopalan was out on the street. It was about eleven in the afternoon. He had never come out at this time of the day. The roads were jam packed with traffic. Car, busses, scooters raced each other on the street. People crossing the street at random, brakes screeching, driver putting their head out and abusing the pedestrians, traffic policemen trying to control the madness. Gopalan had never seen this world. He was dazed. He usually came in and left when there was little traffic. He stood there dumb struck for a few minutes stunned by all the madness unfolding around him. Then at a distance he saw Shyamalan and Malati.

The two were standing in front of a huge shopping mall. They were looking at the mannequins on display. Gopalan could see them talk and laugh. He could imagine what they would be discussing. It had to be about the clothes. He had heard enough of their morning discussions to know what they always discussed. Then he saw Shyamalan point towards something, Gopalan’s eyes followed in the direction and saw a huge movie poster hanging outside the Mall. It was announcing a new movie releasing that week. The couple could be seen in an animate discussion. They had big shopping bags in both hands, everywhere there was traffic and noise and yet the two seemed to be oblivious to their surroundings.

Gopalan watched them from afar, saw them smile and then something happened. It was as if an electric bulb had popped in his brain. He saw before him a couple that was perfectly matched. Malati and Shyamalan complemented each other. Their interests, likes, dislikes all matched perfectly. Gopalan felt as if a weight had been lifted of his shoulder. He went back up the office stairs walked up to his desk and sat down. He looked at the files scattered around on his table. He began arranging them in neat piles. Then he took out a cloth from the lower drawers and cleaned his sandals. Satisfied that they looked neat he settled down to work.

Life was back to normal.

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The Village Postman

Narayanan was checking the air pressure in the cycle tires. He pressed down with all his strength on the handle bars. The tires fought him back. He was satisfied.

“No need to pump in more air today,” he thought.

He checked his watch. It said five minutes to ten. It was time to start his mail delivery rounds. Everyday of the week Narayanan would start his mail delivery round by ten. The route he took depended on where the letters were to be delivered. In the village it was said that you could set you watch by looking at Narayana making his rounds. Narayanan was proud of his reputation. The salary of a postman was low. Sometimes he wished he had studied more, that would have helped get a better job.

Narayanan’s father Gopalan Pillai was a farmer. A farmer who lost his wife when he was in his early forties. She departed leaving him with two sons still in school. Narayanan and his younger brother Krishnan were good at sports but to excel at studies required more than a healthy body.

Year of droughts interspersed with years of floods ensured that Gopalan’s efforts were all wasted. He vowed that his sons would not end up as farmers. He was elated when both his son’s got government jobs. Narayanan the elder son became a postman and Krishnan joined the army as a sepoy. When Narayanan got married and had a son, Gopalan’s happiness knew no bounds. But as the saying goes all things good must come to an end. One day Gopalan slipped and fell on a wet floor. He slipped into a coma and eventually passed away in his sleep.

Narayanan was an active member of the communist party while still in school. He would have been happy with a simple funeral for his father but that was not to be. His relatives, most of who never helped Gopalan when he was alive, insisted on a traditional funeral. His wife, Kalyani a devout Hindu supported them.

“It is important that al the customs and traditions be followed. If not, the soul does not achieve salvation,” Kalyani said.

All the old timers nodded their heads in agreement and Narayanan was voted out.

Now all that remained of his father was a photograph, which hung near the main door of his house. Every day as he started for work, Narayanan would look once at his father’s serious countenance and only then leave for the day.

“Please can you post this letter?” a voice brought Narayanan back to earth. This happened every day. People would stop him on the way and hand him letters which they had written but as yet not posted.

“Yes, why not” said Narayanan and put the letters in a different part of his bag. He would now have to carry them back to the post office and then stamp them and then deliver them to their address.

The letter receivers were usually the same. House wives with husbands in distant cities, Parents with children in hostels. These addresses repeated after a fixed number of days. Narayanan noted such small details. He also carried money orders. Money sent by post and eagerly awaited by their recipients.

Narayanan had almost finished his round for the day. He took out the last letter from his bag. He looked at the address and for a moment was lost. He had stamped it at the post office but not read the address then. It was an address of a place behind the temple. He had never been there before. As he rode his cycle up the temple road, he realized he would have to walk the rest of the way. The road behind the temple was full of bushes and shrubs. This was no place to ride a bicycle.

“Narayanan, finally you decided to visit the temple!” said Unni, the tailor whose shop was next to the temple. Narayanan had put his cycle next to Unni’s shop.

“No!” said Narayanan and smiled. Everyone knew he was a communist. They just liked to rib him once in a while.

“Is there a house behind the temple?” Narayanan said.

“There are two-three huts not sure who lives in them. Why do you ask?” said Unni.

“I have to deliver a letter” said Narayanan.

“Rajamma? Anyone by that name here” said Narayanan. He saw only one house behind the temple.

There was no reply. He repeated his question, this time in a louder voice.

Narayanan heard a low cough from inside the hut. An old woman came out of the hut. She stood there holding on to the crumbling pillars supporting the hut.

“Who wants to know? I am Rajamma.”

“There is a letter for you.” Narayanan said handing over the letter to her.

“There is a mistake. I do not have any relatives. This should be for someone else.”

“No! That is not possible. See it clearly say.

Rajamma Amma

Behind Shree Krishna Temple,

East Street, Neyyarinkara Post Office. Trivandrum.

“The address is correct, but as I said I do not have any friends or relatives who would send me letters.”

“It is from Bombay.”

“I do not have any relatives here in Neyyarinkara, why would anyone in Bombay send me a letter?”

It was a good question. Narayan now had a problem. As per the rules his job was to deliver the letter at the correct postal address. He was at the correct postal address but the addressee was refusing to accept the letter. Then he found a way out.

“Read this letter. In the first few lines you will know if this is for you or not.”

“I can hardly see you properly. How do you expect me to read? I do not have money to buy reading glasses.”

Narayanan sighed. This was another ‘service’ that came with his job. Narayanan opened the letter and began reading.

I, Mohamad Usman am a chief mechanic at Bombay Construction Company in Kurla. I am writing this letter on behalf of one of my workers who say he is your son. His name is Sreekumar and he says he ran away from home when he was twenty years old. This incident happened five years back…..

Narayanan stopped reading as he heard a crashing sound. The old woman had fainted. She was lucky that she fell on top of a rotting bed and then slid on to the floor. If she had fallen directly on the floor, she would have broken all her bones.

Narayana ran and picked her up. He lay her down and went inside the house. He bought some water and sprinkled it on her face. When the woman came to her senses she started wailing. The wailing brought Unni and a few of the shopkeepers to the house.

By evening the news that Rajamma’s long-lost son was alive was the hot – topic of discussion in the village. People who never in their lives had seen or known Rajamma spoke about her as if she was a close relative.

The boy’s story was indeed remarkable. He had jumped on a train and reached Bombay. There for some time he had begged and survived on the scraps thrown out by hotels. Then Usman had found him and given him a job. Five years later the boy had saved up some money and was planning to send his mother some money every month.

“This is a miracle! Now do you believe in God?” said Kalyani

“Why should this make me believe in God?” said Narayanan.

“Is it not a miracle that Rajamma’s son should return now. The whole village had given him up for dead. Even the police had closed the investigation and now after five years news comes that he is alive.”

“Nonsense think of how much he had to struggle in these five years. He was surviving on scraps from dustbins. And what of Rajamma’s suffering all these years. He was the only support she had. With him declared dead she was living the life of a recluse all these years. What was her fault that your God made her suffer like that?” Narayanan countered.

“It is a miracle that her son is alive. Your communist brain will not understand it but I know and the whole village agrees with me that it is a miracle.” That was the end of the discussion. They did not speak for two day after that.

A week after the letter the first money order for five hundred rupees arrived at the post office. Rajamma beamed with pride as she signed to receive the money.

“My son has sent this. I do not want his money. All I want is to see him once before I die, “she said to anyone who would listen.

Sreekumar’s coming to the village to meet his mother was the event of the year in Neyyarinkara. The entire village had gathered at the railway station. Very few trains stopped at the small railway station and those that halted stopped for a few seconds. Seeing the massive crowd gathered at his Railway Station the Neyyarinkara Railway Station master halted the train for a full minute. Like some V.I.P the boy got down and was received by a tearful Rajamma. There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd. Overcome with emotion the station master offered them a cup of tea in his cabin. Son and mother decided to go home instead.

The next day when Sreekumar took his mother to see a doctor they were again followed by a crowd. Rajamma was weak. All the years of grieving and extreme poverty had taken its toll and the woman was ailing. Most of his leave of two weeks Sreekumar spent on visiting doctors and hospitals. A tearful Rajamma was there at the railway station the day her son returned.

Rajamma’s condition took a turn for the worse after her son left. All the medicines her son had purchased remained on the shelves in her hut. After a few days the people also forgot all about the mother and son and went on with their lives. Narayanan was the only occasional visitor to her house. He went there to deliver a letter or hand her money sent by her son.

One day Narayanan was about to start his mail rounds for the day when the telegraph machine started rattling out a message. It was a telegram. Narayanan read the message and for a moment did not know what to do. He reread he message. It said.

“To Rajamma STOP Son Sreekumar dead STOP Fire accident at factory STOP Call 022 2801234 STOP from Usman STOP”

Narayanan folded the message and kept it in his pocket. He delivered all the mails and came back to the post office. That day as normal he locked the post office at four thirty and left home. He did not tell anyone about the telegram. It was a telegram and the rules required it be delivered immediately. For the first time in his career Narayanan broke the rules. That night Narayanan tossed and turned. He could not sleep. If was not that this was the first death telegram that he had received. He had delivered numerous such messages before. Something was different in this case. He was unable to muster the courage to deliver the telegram to Rajamma.

The next day he used the telephone in the post office and dialed the Bombay number given in the message.

“Can I speak to Usman. I am calling from Neyyarinkara, Sreekumar’s village.”

After being put on hold for some time he heard a man’s voice on the other side. The man identified himself as Usman. His story was short. There had been an explosion at the factory. A few workers had died and Sreekumar was one of them. Usman had got severely burnt but was now recovering. Sreekumar had a saving of a thousand rupees.

“I will send that money as a money order to his mother.

Narayanan did not say anything. There was nothing much to say. A week later the money arrived. Narayanan had not said a word to anyone about the telegram. That day he had forged Rajamma’s signature in his register. Now the money had also come in.

He went to Rajamma’s hut. When she came out to meet him, he gasped. She was hardly able to walk. He helped her sit and then told her that Sreekumar had sent her a money order for five hundred rupees. From the expression on her face he realized that she was not even able to understand what he was saying. Narayanan went into the house and made a bowl of gruel for her to eat. She was having difficulty in swallowing it. As a little bit of the food went in she asked him to write a letter to her son.

It was a rambling account. Rajamma talked about the time when she had taught him to walk. Of how scared she was he would fall. She narrated about the time when he went to school. She gave the names of his friends and what games he played with them. The effort was too much for her.

Rajamma eventually fell asleep narrating the letter and Narayanan carried her inside the house and laid her on the bed. He covered the old woman with a sheet and went back into the world.

That night Rajamma passed away in her sleep. One of the shopkeepers who was passing by the way thought of checking on her and found her dead. The news spread and soon people gathered at her house. They asked Narayanan to send a telegram to her son to inform him about the accident.

“That would not be necessary,” he said, “I have the phone number of his Bombay factory. Let me make a call to them.”

He went into the phone booth and closed the door. Then he dialed the Bombay number, informed Usman about the death of Sreekumar’s mother and put the phone down. As he stepped out of the phone booth Narayanan said, “Sreekumar died yesterday. There was an explosion at their factory. They are sending us a telegram. Let me see if it has come.” He went in a returned with the old telegram. No one bothered to check the date. They were too shocked with the news of the son’s death.

With the money he had received Narayanan conducted a funeral for Rajamma. The whole village attended. The rituals were done for both mother and son. Narayanan the hard-core communist was in the middle ensuring that all tradition and customs were followed to the letter. More than the villagers he thought he knew the mother and son. He was there not as the village postman, he was there as a family member.

The Old Man

The day in our village Neyyarinkara started early. By five in the morning most of the villagers would be at the river bank. We went there for our morning bath, to brush our teeth and wash dirty clothes. As I was eight years old, I did not have to wash clothes. I could also have done the bathing and brushing at home with the water from the well in our backyard. Mother did not allow me to go near the well. The river was a kilometer from our house. The street which ran across our gate ended at the river bank. During the sun light hours of the day, I ran up and down this road a thousand times. Running off to school, returning from school, going to the market to buy groceries – I knew every bump and bend on the road but in the dark of the early morning hours, I would hold on to mother’s hand for support.

At the river bank I recognized most of the people. They were the regulars. The village policeman was there. I could also see the teachers from my school and most of the shopkeepers. Even Raghu the village thief was there, bathing at a safe distance from Gopalan the policeman. Mother took a lot of time to finish her bath. First, she would wash all the clothes she had bought along with her. Then she would brush her teeth and finally take a dip in the gentle waters of our Neyyar. I would finish everything in a couple of minutes, come out of the water and wait for her on the sandy river bank. I loved to listen to the conversations of the elder folks as they stood there preparing for their bath. It was while waiting for mother to come out of the water that I first met the Moopan.

In Malayalam, the language we spoke at home, Moopan meant old man. The man was old. To my eyes he looked as old as my grandfather if not older. He was sitting inside his shop. It was more of a big wooden box than a shop. Wooden planks held together by rusted nails on three sides. A tin sheet on the top to keep the rain away. In front the shop had an opening. A portion of the wooden planks was cut in half and was held up by hinges. The old man was inside the shop at all times. There were ledges on the walls of his shop which had jars of different shapes and sizes.

“What are you doing here all alone?” the old man said as he spotted me standing there all by myself.

My first reaction was to slide away and go back to standing near the river. One look at him and I realized he could not be dangerous.

“I am waiting for my mother to come out.”

“What is your mother’s name?”

“Kalyani,” I said.

“Oh! you are Narayanan the postman’s son?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I have never seen your father coming to the river for his bath.”

“He has his bath at home. We have a well in our house.”

“And you like coming here so early in the morning?”

I shrugged and kicked at some sand which was lying in a heap. The old man smiled.

“Don’t you go to school?” he said.

“I am in the third standard at the Government Boys High School.”

“Are you good at your studies?”

“I stood first in the under ten boys athletics competition. I got a gold medal for that.”

“Does that mean that you are not good at studies?”

I winced. It was a trick question. I hated trick questions. Adults always had this habit of trying to coax answers out of us using such trick questions.

“I got a B grade in my exams. That is not bad, but I am better at sports,” I said.

“Your grandfather was also good at sports,” the old man said.

“You knew my grandfather?”

“We were close friends during our school days. I had to stop studies after the fourth form, he continued till his sixth. He stood first in all the sports competitions.”

“I got my gold medal for coming first in the under ten boys division,” I said happy that I was being compared with my grandfather.

I loved my grandfather. He used to play with me. He would tell me a new story every day. I used to sleep in his room at night.

“Grandfather is now in heaven,” I said.

“I know,” the old man said, “most of my friends are now in heaven.”

He became silent. The light from the single wicker lamp burning in his shop, added more creases to his face.

The Moopan’s shop specifically catered to the early morning bathers. Coconut oil, ummi- kirri powdered burnt rice husk which we used to rub on our teeth, small one-inch pieces of soap different brands for bathing and washing clothes – he only stored such items. He also stocked the stalk of coconut leaves with which we used to clean our tongue. All combined these essential ingredients for morning bath cost ten paisa per person. People found it easy to bring a ten-paisa coin rather than carry all these from home.

“Is my son troubling you?” mother’s voice stopped our conversation.

“Oh no! He is a smart boy. He tells me he is good at sports,” the old man said.

“It would have been better if he had paid more attention to his studies,” said mother.

Mother was always like that. Putting me down in front of others. She firmly believed that you should not praise you children before others. It invited the ‘evil eye’. I did not believe in the concept of an evil eye. Then you could not argue with mother. I could get spanked right there on the street. Father was easier to handle. I stood there, head bowed inspecting my toes as they played with the sand.

“Come boy lets go to the temple,” said Mother.

That part of the morning program was why she dragged me along with her every day. Father did not believe in God. Mother said he was a communist. I did not understand what that was but knew that they were happy people who did not have to get up early to go to the temple. I knew that I would also grow up and become a communist – anything that could get me a few hours of extra sleep. Not that the temple was a bad place to visit.

Our village temple was small but beautiful. It was in the shape of a square. A series of square shaped structures one within the other. In the inner most square was a small roofed house where the idol of the God was kept. Mother would stand at a distance along with other people all with still wet clothes and pray. Mother had taught me how to pray. I followed her instructions to the letter every day. My prayer was always the same. I would ask God to set easy question papers in the exam. It never worked. I knew God would have only himself to blame if I eventually became a communist.

Every day after my bath I would run up to the Moopan’s shop and watch as he served his customers. After he had served them all, he would turn to me and we would resume our conversations. I told him about school. How difficult mathematics was and how confusing science could be. I told him how much I enjoyed athletics and football. The Moopan told me about the rhinoceros beetle and the red palm weevil which could destroy coconut trees. He told me about his wife who had gone to heaven when he was thirty, leaving him with a son who had eventually run away from home – never to return.

One day as mother and I reached the river bank we found a crowd of people gathered near the Moopan’s shop. The shop was closed. It was the first time I had seen the shop closed. In fact, it was the first time any one in the village had seen the shop closed.

“Why has the Moopan not opened his shop?” someone asked.

“I don’t know.  Why are you asking me?” someone else replied.

“I cannot have a bath without coconut oil in my hair,” said another person. I looked at the man and saw that he had about a hundred and fifty strands of hair on his head. There was not much that the moopan’s hair oil could have done for him.

The next day the scene was repeated but this time the number of people standing were far less. Some had come expecting this to be the case with their hair already greasy and small pouches of ummi-kirri.  When the shop remained closed on the third day, people stopped asking questions about the moopan.

“Why is the moopan not opening his shop?” I asked mother on our way back home.

“I don’t know Kittu,” Mother called me Kittu, “maybe he has gone to heaven like your grandfather?”

I did not like her reply. It made me sad. I said nothing on the way back home.

That day after school on the way back home I took a different route. During my conversations with the Moopan he had told me where he stayed. It was a place behind the temple. Normally nobody used that road. Our temple had a paved street right outside its main gate.  The other three sides were full of shrubs and wild overgrowth. I had to walk carefully to avoid getting cut by the thorny bushes. In a distance I could see a small thatched hut.

“Any one at home?” I said.

There was no reply.

“Is there anyone living here?” I asked again this time almost shouting the words out.

There was a faint cough from somewhere inside. Cautiously I went in the hut. It was dark inside and it took my eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the light. The smell inside the hut reminded me of my grandfather during the last days of his life. Grandfather was always in bed during those days. He did not have the energy to walk around and sometimes soiled his clothes. The hut had that same smell. In the dim light I could make out the Moopan lying on a cot in a corner of the room.

“Don’t worry grandpa,” I said, “I will get someone who can help.”

I ran towards my house, half way through I changed direction and ran towards the post office. I knew that in a situation like this it was father who could be able to help better.

“Father….father, come quick. The moopan needs your help,” I said as I entered the post office.

It was a week day and there were people standing in queue at the counter.

“What are you doing here?” said father his head popping up from behind the counter.

“Father the old man needs help. He is not well,” I said.

“Which old man?”

“The Moopan. The old man who runs the shop near the river bank.” I said.

“How do you know that?” father asked.

“I went to his house. I saw him lying there in bed. He cannot get up. Hurry he needs help.”

“How do you know where the old man lives?” one of the men standing in the queue asked me.

“He told me,” I said, “Father please can you come now? He needs help.”

“I need the stamps and the envelopes,” said another man standing in the queue.

“My money order is urgent. My son needs the money for his college fees. He is staying in a hostel.” said a woman standing behind him.

Father looked at the clock on the wall behind us. It was two thirty in the afternoon. The post office was open till four in the evening.

“Today we will close early,” said father and the queue moved closer to the counter.

I waiting at the door. I could never understand adults. A man was suffering and all they could think of was stamps and money.

“Kittu go home or your mother will be worried,” said father. He also called me Kittu at home.

“I want to come with you,” I said.

“No. Go home take my tiffin box with you and give it to your mother,” said father this time his voice was firm. I obeyed.

“Where were you?” mother was at the door step.

I told her everything.

“Why did you go inside that old man’s house?”

“Amma, he is not well,” I said.

“Have I not told you not to trust strangers?”

“Amma he is old and sick.”

“Kittu he could have hurt you,”

“Amma, he reminded me of Appupan,” I said. I could not stop the tears as they poured down my cheeks. I repeated, “He reminded me of Appupan.”

Mother smiled and bent down and lifted me up.

“Such a big boy and you still cry. Don’t worry your father will take care of him. He will take care of the Moopan. See! you are so tall when I carry you your feet touch the ground!”

I laughed in spite of my tears as I saw that she was right. My feet were touching the ground.

The shop remained closed after that. Every morning I would stand near it as I waited for mother to return after her bath. Somewhere in my mind I hoped the old man would come and open the shop. I knew that it was not possible. Father along with a few villagers took the old man to the hospital. He sat there besides the old man for a few days, coming late at night. Every day he would tell us what the doctors had said about the old man’s condition.

One day father came home early from the post office. I was playing in our courtyard.  As I ran in father caught hold of me and picked me up. He kissed me on both cheeks. I was embarrassed. Father never behaved like this. It was mother who hugged and kissed me and I hated it.

Father handed me a package wrapped in an old newspaper. He asked me to open it. I tore open the paper. Inside was an old photograph of two boys.

“Do you know who that is?” said father pointing at one of the boys.

I looked carefully but did not recognize the face.

“That is your appupan – my father. And this is the Moopan standing with him,” he said, “this is a photo of them from their school days. In fact, this is the only photo of my father from his school days that I have seen. The Moopan wanted you to have this picture. The Moopan died today in the hospital.”

Father choked as he said it. Mother was standing there listening to him. I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt sad too. Then I looked at the photo. A photo of two boys holding hands, laughing at the camera, not a care in the world and then I felt happy again.

I knew that my Appupan and his best friend were together again.