One of the gratifying moments of one’s life is to learn that somebody remembers you. Perhaps that is why we yearn to leave behind our footprints or our statues or streets named after us. Whether it matters to us after death is an open question; in our fear of the mercurial and insignificant nature of our lives, we hope there would be an afterlife, that we would be rewarded for the good deeds in the present life etc. I do not know whether Mahatma Gandhi would be swelling with pride that he has the most number of roads named after him. He surely would be ashamed of all those grotesque statues and statuettes, flung far and wide across the country.
One of the most embarrassing moments in life is when you are hailed across the street by your name and you give that dumb smile while he is asking so many personal questions and all the time you are racking your brain for a clue to his identity. And there is that hurt look on his face as he realizes you have failed to recognize him. To be forgotten is the cessation of existence.
In my late twenties, I worked in Ernakulam for about 3 - 4 years. It was the best time of my life. I didn’t have much money, but sufficient to keep me independent. I was young, unmarried and passionate – among other things, about Kathakali. Many were the days in the festival season that I would scooter off to some village or town to watch a Kathakali performance which would start around 2000 hrs and come to an end in the wee hours of the morning next day. There were monthly programmes at the Ernakulam Kathakali Club. I was obsessed with Kathakali. But the programme at the Club had its attractive fringe benefits.
The Kathakali club programme was a monthly social event for the aristocratic, old Menon families of the city. In the evening they would come, young and old – for the young women, it was a kind of debut day. Many were there, pretty young things, nose-in-the-air kind. One attracted me more than the rest. Not only she was quite a good-looking Menon, but there was this air of nonchalance about her, slightly tomboyish. But the bonus was that she was a Kathakali dancer, a member of the local women’s troupe. Now, this factor, for me, overshadowed the rest, and combined with the other bountiful assets, she became my primary objective of attending the programme.
I saw her on and off – at the Club, at some other Kathakali performance, waiting at the bus stop on her way to college – I discovered her house to be near my office and in the early mornings, would jog past her house up and down, though it was a good 3 kms away from my residence. Needless to say, I built up strong legs.
Our society – or rather her society was quite conservative those days. In all those three years I have never seen her looking my way, a smallest possible hint of acknowledgement of my interest, my existence. And for myself, having got scalded quite early in life in matters of the heart, couldn’t bring myself to ask her affection. It would have been impossible not to notice me, though. I wasn’t bad looking, muscular build – and there were other Menon girls giving me the occasional eye.
Years have passed. More than 20 years.
The other day, my AGM calls me. He was my colleague at Ernakulam; now a very senior officer. We shared the passion for Kathakali; I for the dance, and he for the music. We often used to attend the programmes together. AGM says – ‘ Balan, I have to tell you this. Yesterday my niece called me from Ernakulam. You remember Miss. X ? Of course you do. She was your ‘love interest’ back then, ha ha. Well, she is a friend of my niece, you see, and they were together when she called. Suddenly, she said – 'Chittappa, my friend X is with me, would you like to talk to her?' And then my niece tells her friend - ' It is my uncle, he is with Punjab National Bank, an old fan of yours'. She hands over the phone to her and I could hear her voice asking me - ' Hello, is it Balachandran?' !!!! The AGM giggles loudly. ' See, she remembers you, Balan!'. For an infinitesimal bit of a second, I went back 24 years, remembered the red blouse and silk skirt, bright big eyes, full lips and Dusshasana doing the Kalasam ( dance) in the light of the big Kathakali lamp... I heartily join my AGM in the laughter, he can't contain himself for another few minutes. ' Well, I had to, I had to tell you this, oh, oh, I haven't had such a good laugh for a long time', and all the while I could hear the strains of a tragic violin in the background.
I remembered Miss X, the first time I saw her near the Pallimukku Bus stand and thinking, 'Wow!'. Like in a fast forward run, images whizzed past in my mind....
Suddenly, I am aware of my shabby dress. My gray wisps of hair, bald head, the threateningly bulging paunch. I look around – 52 year old middle-aged man, a supervisor in a Bank, slogging it out for the last 29 years. There was a time when I too was young, considered handsome in a macho way and with some effort and good luck, a comfortable and presentable future ahead. Materially, I haven't achieved much, if one were to compare with my peers. But then, there are the lesser fortunate – I, at least, still dare to dream my dreams...
Outside, there is a break in the summer sky and it pours. Earth's thirst has been quenched, though only for a short while.
**************** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 04.05.2009