CHAPTER 17: HARIBABU’S ROADSIDE BUSINESS!
- I have already written a novella , AMERICA , in Tamil, based on my life at the detention camp. The journal, 'Thaayagam' was published from Canada while this novella was serialized. Then, adding some more short-stories, a short-story collection of mine was published under the title America by Tamil Nadu based publishing house Sneha. In short, if my short-novel describes life at the detention camp, this novel , AN IMMIGRANT , describes the struggles and setbacks a Tamil migrant to America faces for the sake of his survival – outside the walls of the detention camp. - V.N.GIRITHARAN -
The whole night, Ilango’s mind wondering who and what Haribabu was. He couldn’t wait to meet this person the next day and ask about his work. Now and then, he couldn’t help wondering whether the person would also be a puzzle just the way his advertisement was. Whatever the case may be, if they got a job and if it would be a permanent job, all would be good. His mother’s letter also stressed on him getting a job. He was reminded of the golden proverb, which his grandmother used to always mutter, “Wherever the cursed went, there were pits and wasteland all over.” It looked like as if the proverb had been coined just for his sake. Whenever, he would think of grandmother he would be filled with wonder and awe. grandmother belonged to the bygone golden era. More than bookish education, she had the wisdom of worldly experience. She would look bright and happy always. He had never seen her lose her cool and shadow rage. “Oh, fare thee well, my boy – my blessings are always with you,” grandma would wish them every time and hearing her words always left them feeling immensely happy. And, her cooking has no equal in the world! Her ‘Mulaikeerai’ and hot beverage and curd would prove eternally tasty, no matter how many times one had to eat it! A sturdy woman with a strong mind! Another especial quality of grandma was her mastery over words! She was indeed a maestro in handling language and its components. In the 70s, sporting Bell-bottoms and long hair, Ilango would be roaming around and if she happened to see him she would greet him, calling out, “Hey, come – you 'Peeththal Parangi'” Hearing her words of greeting, he would enter inside, with the bottom corners of his bell-bottom looking sticky and dirty with the oily residue residing inside the cycle-chain, smiling sheepishly.
That night, Ilango also informed Gosh about Haribabu and his advertisment. Gosh too felt a little surprised. “What, this Haribabu seems to be a queer fellow!” he noted, his voice clearly showing suprise. “His name sounds like that of a Maharashtrian. For what it is worth, pay him a visit tomorrow and come and tell us the tale afterwards. We are eager to hear that.”
“Gosh, how do you say for sure that he is a Maharashtrian?”
For this, Gosh smiled a little. “I have read a novel written by one famous Maharashtrian writer by the name of Haribabu Narayan. The name of the book was I. It was published by the Sahithya Academy of India. It is a quality piece of work, like Thakazhi’s Enippadigal or Vasudhevan Nair’s ‘Kaalam’. That’s why I suspected him to be a Maharashtrian. But, just go and meet him in person. Only then can we form a clear picture.”
“If only this job comes my way, I should thank Mrs.Padma Ajith.”
Gosh laughed at this. “Ilango, don’t praise her too much. She does it all with purpose. If you get a job, she gets her rent. This is the reason behind her kind-heartedness. Understand? Nothing else.”
“As far as I am concerned, it is not fair on our part to think of her in such a fashion. Yet, I respect your freedom of expression.” Arulrasa agreed with Ilango on this matter.
One more time it dawned afresh. A new day a new job-hunt. As the first step, they began their journey towards the ‘Fourth Street West’ to meet Haribabu. When they reached the street, it was already past ten o’ clock in the morning. At the point where Fourth Street West and Sixth Avenue met, on its North-Western side they came across the roadside shop of an Indian couple. The man looked a little old. But, the Indian woman looked pretty young. She resembled Manju Bhargavi of the movie Shankarabaranam. To tell the truth, even that man resembled the quality musician of the movie, looking a little old like the hero but looked strong and ruddy. With them, there was a White woman also, wearing jeans and tea-shirt.
Ilango approached the couple and began to introduce himself, “My name is Ilango.” Before he could complete the man cut him short and said, “Oh, is that you? Very well. I am Haribabu, who gave the ad. You have come to the right place."
Thus speaking with his eyes intently looking at Ilango and Arulrasa, he then turned to the woman and said, “Indhira, let me go and talk to them for a short while. Just keep an eye on these, ok?” Then, looking at the young White woman Haribabu said, “Ingrid, please remain here with Indhira for a while. I will come back soon.”
Ilango and Arulrasa paid their respect to the lady with folded hands and followed Haribabu. Haribabu took them to a tea-shop nearby. “I am glad to see you two responding to my ad and came here. Let us have a cup of tea. I will tell you everything, ok? If you like me and if I too like you, then we can join hands and work.” Haribabu briefly spoke and listening to his words, the two went behind him. While walking with him, they knew that there would not be any trouble if they were to work with him.
And, the trio went and sat in one corner of the tea-shop. Haribabu went to the counter and got tea for three. Sipping the hot tea a little, Haribabu then began his explanation, “You must be aware now of how the place is like,” said Haribabu. Ilango answered, “When we see the way things are going on here, we can get some idea about the nature of job. You have called for salesmen. Hence, it seems like that we would be appointed to help you in your sales and marketing.”
Now, Haribabu spoke in a diligent manner, “What you say is true indeed. You are a clever young man. Now, let me come to the immediate requirement. This is it. Now, we three, my wife, myself and the white woman are doing business in this platform. There is another one. His name is Henry. He belongs to the Eskimo clan. And, he would be selling our products in the adjacent lane. We need to expand our business to one more street. Now, the business is very good. We should reap the most when it is the Harvest time, what do you say? And, that is our plan. For that, only we have given the advertisement. If you like it you can look after the proposed business, just the way Henry is doing. What do you think about my proposal? Do you like it? Do you think you can handle it all?”
Now Arulrasa posed another question. “Well, what are the products we have to sell?”
And, Haribabu responded, “Good question. First and foremost, you should sell many Indian goods, like the copper statues which we have plentiful in our shop. You should try to sell them on the roadsides. Along with that, ”
"Along with that…? Ilango spoke thus and paused.
"Along with that, we are also having lots of ear-rings, clothes and jewelry which are appropriate and suitable to the modern times. You should try selling those too. Both of you can be together, helping each other with the sales.”
“How long are the hours of work every day? When should we start the business? And, when should we close? How much we will be paid as salary?”
As Ilango shot these queries in quick succession, Haribabu smiled a little. Then, he said, “Suffice if you work from morning nine o’ clock till evening 5 o’ clock. If the business proves hectic, and if you feel like working for more hours, you can work overtime. You will be given wage on a daily basis. What do you think? Ha, I forgot… just as it was mentioned in the advertisement, four dollars will be paid per each hour. What do you say?”
Well, the pair was in a financial crisis, so they were in no position to say ‘no’ to any job. They didn’t have the heart to do so. For, who at all would kick away the goddess of luck who was coming to their side. Hence, both of them said in one voice, “We have no objection at all!”
Their response must have made him happy.
"Fine. I like both of you very much, somehow. Then, I should introduce you to Henry also. That would prove very useful to you. After finishing our cup of tea, let us go, meet Henry. He would feel happy. And also, both of you can remain with him for sometime and learn the processes and tricks of doing business successfully. What do you say? You can get extra tips about the job at hand.”
Their conversation continued, and after finishing their tea, Haribabu began to walk towards Henry’s place with Ilango and Arulrasa.
18. Henry’s Cleverness (Yes?)
Henry was busy doing business along where Fourth Street West, Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street meet in a square, having his things spread on the platform. It was Haribabu who introduced Henry to the pair.
"He is Henry. The Henry I spoke about. Eskimo Henry.” When he said that, it seemed to Ilango, that a thin ray of pride spread on his countenance. His voice too reflected that sense of pride in a very poignant manner. It could be that he might be feeling high in self-indulgence after having come all the way across the seas and having the ability to fare well in business. It could be that he was indirectly telling, ‘Hello, see how I have done well, working hard and using my intelligence and that too, myself a Maharashtrian having my errand man be a son of this soil and see the way I boss over him and faring well still.’ Ilango couldn’t help but think along these lines. At the same time, that Eskimo was of small stature, with short legs. Seeing him there, Ilango had no trouble to bring about his smile. With a friendly smile he asked, “You, are an Eskimo, no? Why have you come here? You have also migrated from the pole, is it so? Is it that the fever of modern life has caught hold of you too, right?”
Hearing those words, Henry and that Eskimo smiled a little to themselves. “How long can one remain in at the ‘pole?’ I am fed up with the chill and the snow. Birds themselves migrate from the polar regions every year, so what is wrong with a human being migrating? I came here for a change and Haribabu got hold of me – lock, stock and barrel!”
Ilango, still bewildered by it all, commented, “What Eskimo can become tired of the chilliness and snow? Surprising indeed.”
"What is so surprising about it? There are many Eskimos, like me, who have invaded this city, you know!” said Henry, the Eskimo. Arulrasa intervened and asked the Eskimo, "As far as my knowledge goes, isn’t it that the Eskimos’ physical condition is such that they can’t go and live in any other climate, away from the polar regions? That is the impression I was having so far. But, your appearance disproves this assumption. How is it?”
For this Henry’s response was highly logical and intelligent, “When you, who is so used to living in the tropical region where the heat of the sun is quite high, can come and live in this cold region, why can’t I do the same but the reverse in a similar climate? Why do you think that I, who was born and bred in another part of this same continent, would find it hard to live in another part of this continent?”
Now, Haribabu cut them short, “Henry is a very bright and hardworking person. Be with him for several hours and see how he conducts his business. After that, if you too gain the confidence then you two can also conduct business independently like him on another platform from tomorrow onwards. I will find a place for you to get along with your work. What do you say?”
Haribabu turned towards Henry and instructed, “Henry, tell them briefly about our business. Not all can do business effectively from the roadside, can they?” Then, he took leave of them and returned to his place. Ilango and Arulrasa were now left alone with Henry.
Of the objects and articles that Henry sold, the first and foremost, were sculptures of all shapes sizes. They were made of brass; utensils used for performing pooja such as ‘kuthuvilakku,’. cooking vessels; tea-cups; and a lot more brass items. Apart from these, also had items of clothing for sale. Clothing for both the winter season and rainy season. Little trinkets, including ornaments made of beads, similar to those sold by the ‘kuravaa’ clan, were also for sale. The pedestrians approached his roadside shop and eyed the items with quite some interest. Some bargained with him and purchased some items. A stout White woman bought a chain made of beads and gifted it for her African-American lover saying that it would suit him the most by enhancing his handsomeness. He thanked her for the gift, but didn’t looked too thrilled to be getting jewellery. But, after kissing her and thanking her for the gift, he grudgingly accepted the chain and wore it.
Henry was obviously deeply involved in his business, but managed to continue his dialogue with Ilango and Arulrasa. Ilango observed the way Henry was handling his business; he observed his postures, gestures, ways of talking, ways of promoting the sale of an item – everything. In particular, he observed the tricks used by Henry in luring the customers into buying various items.
During times, Ilango and Arulrasa were conversing with each other in Tamil. A doubt came into Arulrasa’s mind. “Ilango, do you honestly think you can sell these things?”
Ilango responded, “It doesn’t seem to be that difficult. If you ask me, I think we can give it a try. What do you say?”
Arulrasa could do nothing but agree to that and said, “I too feel that we can give it a try. I don’t think there would be any problem. Let us do so. Anyway, let us first talk to him and see whether we procure any more tips from the man.”
Henry, observing that they were having some dialogue between themselves asked, “What, are you apprehensive about selling in this fashion?”
“Oh, no, nothing of that sort,” Ilango hastily replied. “Well, but how did you get to know Haribabu?”
To this, Henry responded with a smile, giving a lengthy account of their first meeting. A story that should be told…
“This village called Greenwich is well-known for its folklore artists and tourists. Further, The State University of New York is also situated here. During the summer evenings, the artists, stationed along the roadsides adjacent to the Washington Square, painted the sketches of pedestrians and passersby with immeasurable skill. As for myself, as soon as I arrived here, I started my business in this fashion.
It was in the ‘Macdugal Street’ near the Washington Square Park that I used to sell different kinds of clothing. It was then when I came across Haribabu. He had just started his business at the time. When he was canvassing the area to see who were involved with a roadside business, we met. Or, rather, he chanced to see me. He developed an instant liking towards me. Also, in this area, I was the sole competitor to him. I was the only one doing his kind of business, selling one of the items he was selling – a variety of dresses. So, he had this clever calculation of buying all the things that I had and also taking me under his tutelage as a sort of working partner. By doing so he could get a nice, skilled assistant while wiping away his competition, which would prove doubly beneficial to him. It’s like making two mangoes fall with one stone. And, this is how Henry the Eskimo has come to be. And, I lose nothing. I have got a nice job and all my products were also sold.”
"But Henry, if you do your own business you can earn more, isn’t it so? Don’t you have any worry or regret in this?” Ilango wondered.
To this query, Henry remained silent for a while and then looking at them, he spoke in a rather small voice, “If you promise not to tell anybody, particularly Haribabu, I will share the truth with you.”
The way he spoke was too tempting to resist. The two became very eager to learn the truth from him, by hook or crook. So, with their voices reflecting their eagerness both of them said in chorus, “Promise.”
Henry admitted, “You asked me whether I have no regret in not doing my own business.”
“Of course. For now you are working under somebody, aren’t you?” Ilango was curious to find out what the Eskimo could possibly mean.
“Though it appears to be so, I am doing my own business too, you know! See there, the leather-bag full of things is mine and I sell them too, in between, to the customers. Isn’t it clever of me?”
Ilango, who just previously thought of the pride of Henry’s employer in selecting such an able hand and loyal assistant through his eyes, felt somewhat shocked to hear such a direct response from this man with a small stature. ‘How can he be disloyal to the person so casually and tell it so openly?’
As his face revealed his sense of surprise and shock Henry asked, “What, have I frightened you?”
“No, but, you say these things so openly. That’s what jolts me. Usually, people would prefer to conceal these things or they would talk about these things in an indirect, round-about manner. But, you are revealing it all so openly, having so much faith in us!”
“Oh, don’t give too much importance to such matters like proper and improper, good and bad, righteous and sinfull… here, my friend. If you are to ponder over such things you can’t do anything in this city. This is a world that dogs eat dogs, remember!” At that moment, some more customers had arrived and so Henry went to deal with them. When the two of them were alone, Arulrasa observed, “Oh, a real hard nut, this one is – capable of preparing beverage out of Yama, the god of death, Isn’t he?!”
Chapter 19 GOSH IN LOVE !
That evening, when Ilango and Arulrasa returned home with thoughts revolving around the roadside business that they were going to start for Haribabu the next day. Spending several hours with Henry that day had given them a fairly good understanding of Henry’s roadside business.
They even felt that with a little extra effort, they could even increase the profit-margin. For a moment, Ilango couldn’t help walking down the memory lane and recollect all those incidents that had befallen them since the beginning of this new journey, since they came out of the detention camp. Each day since dawned with a hoard of new experiences, but with nothing to help them build a firm financial background for their life and for stabilizing their future. This harsh reality hit him hard. And, he shared his apprehension with Arulrasa. “Arul! So far nothing has taken place to provide us the hope and opportunity to build a stable future for ourselves. I wonder if this new venture will prove to be fruitful!”
“What is this Ilango, you are again not being positive – you are usually the positive one, and you have already gone through a few bouts of depression! When you say things like these, what am I to say… as you always observe, let’s consider all our experiences and adversities as stepping-stones for future successes, can’t we? What is the use of having such negative attitudes and speaking with such despair, tell me?”
Once again, Arul’s words were soothing to Ilango. At the same time, the way his friend countered him with his own oft-repeated words made him feel proud somehow. His heart, which was somewhat dejected, leapt up in renewed hope and energy! And, he said, “What you say is indeed true Arul! This opportunity that we have got with Haribabu seems to be a real good one indeed! This is a golden opportunity for us to try to refine our prowess in the art of selling – so we should take it up and get along with life…and, that is in fact the truth, isn’t it? Let’s try with all our might to remain with Haribabu…. Let’s try…”
Gosh soon returned to the house and greeted them both, “Hi friends! What happened? Success or not?”
Ilango was happy to see him back, “Fruit indeed! We are going to begin our work with him straight from tomorrow onwards. Today, we spent some time with his salesman, Henry, and learned some tricks of the trade.” Ilango went on to explain the entire situation to Gosh, including the items being sold and the fact that Henry was an Eskimo man.
Gosh interfering at this stage surprising asked, “What? a Maharastrian businessman has an Eskimo as his salesman! Must be a real cunning person, I say!”
Arulrasa piped in, “In a way, what you say is true. He seems to be a thoroughly cunning person! But, only after getting acquainted with him further, and gathering more information about him, we can then get to know him better and assess what sort of a person he really is! Anyway, let’s work with him for what it is worth. After all, there is nothing wrong in trying, isn’t it so?” Arulrasa turned towards Ilango.
Hearing him speak, Ilango was proud to say, “You have said this very genuinely Arul! Instead of arriving at hasty decisions and regret later we should learn to think calmly and with patience and then arrive at conclusions. And, we have a wonderful opportunity here, so let’s take it.”
At this juncture Gosh couldn’t hold back with what he wanted to say, “My friends! I like you very much. No matter how many times you fail in your efforts, even when all the initiatives do not bring in the desired results, without losing heart you keep on trying with the best of your ability. I like your spirits! You will survive and come up in life, I’m sure! Suppose this time also…”
Both Arulrasa and Ilango asked in one voice: “What? You intend to say in case this attempt also proves wrong, then what? Isn’t it that what you imply?”
Gosh responded, “Oh, no, I just wanted to tell you not to worry if this too goes wrong. For, I will surely talk with our factory people and get you job – what do you say?”
Hearing his encouraging words, Ilango said, “Oh, thank you Gosh! Such soothing words you utter and prove a source of great hope and inspiration to us. We will never forget you. Your words have given us the encouragement and energy to do our work in the best possible manner, you know! And they have given us the hope that even if we are to lose this job we would get another with your help and support. And, this hope is so inspiring that we are doubly energized to get into this job and prove our mettle!”
“Good, this is what we want. If you succeed in this, then nobody would beat you. Hope you would remember this poor Gosh even after you taste sky-high success!”
Ilango replied in sing-song, “Of course, who else can we think of except Gosh!”
Gosh felt very happy to hear this. “Then, why not arrange for a party to celebrate!”
“Why not ! Let’s have it!” Ilango replied.
The entire night was spent in revelry and merry-making, with drinks and talk and what not! They discussed various things and shared their dreams and aspirations and also worries and apprehensions. They walked down memory lane and remembered their life in days past and present. Eventually, their conversation turned towards that of Love. It was Gosh who steered the conversation this way. “Ilango, all too frequently you get letters from your home town… ten to twenty a day, shall we say! Are they all sweet-nothings!”
Arulrasa responded to this in a slightly mocking tone, “Oh, don’t ask that! It is the result of falling in love without even looking at our friend’s face, you know!” Hearing that, Gosh asked in a somewhat surprised voice, “What, love that has sprouted without even the two concerned meeting? How can love sprout in this fashion?!”
“Don’t ask ‘ how can’ for it has indeed sprouted in this fashion in his case!” said Arulrasa.
Ilango intervened and said, “Oh, that is a long story. Let me tell you some other time please. Now, let us forget everything else, at least for a short while and enjoy, shall we?”
At this point, Gosh turned a little sad. His face turned dull. “Ilango, you are a lucky fellow. See my fate. For a long time I had been nurturing a one-sided love on her but she laughed at me and is now leading a happy life with another fellow. But my heart keeps languishing still, not being able to forget her…”
The love-story of Gosh amused and surprised Ilango and Arulrasa. Ilango asked, “What, pining after a woman who didn’t love you? If your love is reciprocal then at least we can understand your pain and sorrow… but, it is just one-sided love… how can you remain pining for it all these days…?”
These observations of Ilango and Arulrasa caused a little anger in Gosh. How easily they have placed judgement over his pure love! He has been nourishing and preserving his love for more than fifteen years and these two have evaluated it just like that, in a flicker of a second. Gosh turned morose, with memories of Sumithra overflowing within. She was the one who planted love in his heart and then destroyed it as a wild boar. Was it her fault…’
Unable to bear the pain and anguish caused by the recollection of his beloved Sumithra, he took another swig of Johnny Walker. His eyes soon became bloodshot. Ilango and Arulrasa became all the more eager to listen to his love-tale. At this point Ajith, the house-owner, had also decided to join them. Half-listening to their conversation while coming towards them, he asked, “What, I hear words like love and things like that! What is the matter?”
Arulrasa took note of Ajith’s interest and asked, “See uncle, is it fair on the part of anybody to waste one’s life for an unrequited love?”
As Arulrasa spoke in a somewhat mocking tone, Gosh became enraged once again. “Look here, if you are going to humiliate me again and again, I will leave at once, not taking part in your gala meeting.”
Realizing that what started as fun was getting serious, Ilango tried to pacify Gosh by saying, “Oh, don’t take his words seriously, Gosh. We believe in the intensity of your love, don’t we uncle?” Ajith all too readily nodded. “That is his viewpoint Arul. Whether one-sided or mutual, the very fact that one is prepared to sacrifice even his very life for the sake of love- that is clear proof of the sincerity and intensity of his love, isn’t it so? I knew a lady who loved a person in this fashion, so dearly. But, the man she loved, not knowing the feelings of this lady, fell in love with the friend of this lady and married her. The lady who loved him so much, no matter whether it was reciprocated or not, remained single her whole life. She is contented with living with the memories of the person who is so close to her heart. She is still living with her deep love for the person. What do you say to this?”
Now, Arulrasa once again joined the conversation. “Gosh, please forgive me. I didn’t intend to hurt you or insult you. As far as I am concerned all such lovey-dovey stuff are unnecessary. They are all the result of hormonal influence and nothing else. That’s why I opined thus. Yet, each time I come across such people steeped in love and live for the sake of it, I can’t help feeling astonished. Maybe, I am incapable of understanding the significance of these feelings and sensations… I don’t know”.
Now Gosh responded in a friendly manner, “Friend, it is alright. Forget it. I too went a little overboard in expressing my feelings. Please don’t take it to heart, ok? Maybe, what you say has some truth in it. Am I wasting away my life in cherishing these feelings? I wonder…”
Ilango added, “Gosh, you said that you were deeply in love with a woman. How long?”
“For fifteen long years. I had been loving her, Sumithra, in the depth of my heart. Without telling her anything about it, without expressing my feelings to her I was going on, loving her, for fifteen years.”
The others were all greatly surprised and they couldn’t help exclaiming their thoughts. “What! Fifteen years! All these years didn’t you express or rather try to express your love to her? Unbelievable! Is such a thing possible at all?!” Ilango let out.
“Men, that remains beyond my comprehension. Why did I remain so, like a tortoise with its head ducked deep into its shell? I don’t know why. But, one thing… in those fifteen years, there was not even a single day without thinking about Sumithra. Every day, every moment I had thought of her. I had dreamt of her… And, in all those moments when I would be thinking of her, pining for her my heart would go melting with lust and passion for her. I thought that it was because of the fact that the whole of my heart was overflowing with her. And, somehow I had a firm belief that if we keep on thinking of someone, loving someone from the depth of my heart, in course of time, the person concerned will come to love us. It was a kind of psychological belief in me. Therefore, I lived with the hope of winning her love one day. I have spent fifteen long years with this hope. It was only afterwards that I could get the courage to approach her and confess my love to her. But, before that she became the wife of someone else. Yet, I told her. As I felt that if I didn’t reveal my love to her, that would weigh heavy on me and that my head would split into two. When I got the chance, I confessed my love to her so as to ease my heart and let go of the burden. Also, by disclosing it to her, though my love had not succeeded, I could at least get the satisfaction of letting her know of my deep love for her thereby turning my one-sided love into kind of two-sided one – so I thought. And, indeed I could feel somewhat relieved after disclosing my love to her.”
Uncle Ajith was fascinated by all this and asked, “Gosh, when you disclosed your love what did she say? How did she react? Was she enraged? Or, sympathize with you?”
“At first, I too expected such reactions from her. But, she took it casually. I did ask her whether she felt offended at my disclosure and whether she was angry at me or was thinking ill of me. But, she said neither and instead said that she respected me. From that moment onwards, I too had bundled all my thoughts of her and kept it one corner of my heart. Yet, the impact of fifteen years of love couldn’t be wiped off so easily. No other feelings cause you that much pain and anguish like those of the feelings of unrequited love, you know.”
As Gosh shared his love-tale and the feelings therein the others too started narrating their own. First it was uncle Ajith, who began narrating his love-tale in a brief manner. “If you listen to my tale of love, you would feel like laughing, I am sure. I too fell in love with a woman. And, the person whom I used as the messenger to take my love letters and deposit into her hands safely, it is this woman who is now in my house, as my wife! The one I loved, who accepted all those love-letters of mine, eventually married the boy chosen by her parents, better-off than me in education as well as status and did not have the guts to disobey them. Unable to bear the pain and humiliation of it all, I suffered so much then and unable to see my sufferings Padma accepted me as her husband. Today, I can’t think of a life without Padma. Life is such. We think something, but something entirely different happens. They say ‘Man proposes; God disposes…’ Hence, we should learn to adapt ourselves to the changing world.”
Hearing it all, Ilango too was undoubtedly reminded of his love-tale. And, he felt like laughing too. It was just once that he ever wrote a love-letter. It was adolescent love. Love at the age of sixteen. Her swerving curly hair and her eyes looking downwards, her razor-sharp, crystal-clear eyes used to make him feel terribly restive and excited as a result of which he dared to pen a letter and give it straight to her. In it, he had asked her to come adorning her hair with jasmine flowers in case she too loved him and that if she didn’t reciprocate his love, to forget the letter as a bad dream and not to disclose it to anyone else. But, she, instead of doing what he wanted her to and had requested her to do, did all that he had requested her not to do. As a result, he became a thing to be mocked at and ridiculed at for her friends. Whenever they chanced to cross each other, the girl’s friends made it a point to giggle and make fun of him. As for him, feeling resigned to the fact that he was not blessed with that boon in life, he moved on to the next stage of his existence on earth. After that, never again, not even once he had met her. It was all infatuation – typical of that age. Of course, it was because of such infatuations that particular period in life is full of blossoms and fragrance. How many of those who were drawn towards each other in that age actually become man and wife in real life?
The rest of the night was spent gulping down rejuvenating drinks and many trips along the memory lane…musing over their feelings of love.
CHAPTER 20 INDIRA’S DOUBT
The next three weeks for Ilango and Arulrasa were spent in the company of Henry. Haribabu kept his word and arranged a roadside shop for them at the junction of Christopher street and Fourth Street West. Haribabu, his wife and Henry were all looking after their business, as usual
The nickname given by the pair to Haribabu was ‘Nadutheru Narayanan!’ meaning ‘Lord of the Road!’
This Lord of the Road had in fact come from the shop to the street. His shop had all his commodities for sale. This Lord of the Road was indeed an expert hand, knowing all the twists and turns of roadside business and knowing the tips and strategies to make it work like the back of his hand. At times, he revealed his exceptional skills in escaping from the ever-vigilant eyes of the New York Police. Indeed, there was a lot to be learnt from him. This was the impression Ilango could gain about Haribabu. Sometimes, during weekends when there were closures of several city streets, they would allow the roadside shopkeepers to have their sales there. During such times, in order to get a coveted spot there and do business, the traders had to shell out huge sums of money to the Corporation. At these times, the action-plan of ‘Nadutheru Narayanan’ would be as follows: Say Street A is running east-west. And, say another street B cuts across A and stretches. Further, have it that Street A is closed that day and it is allowed by the Corporation to conduct trade and business in the said street. It is to sell your products in that street that the traders have to pay a huge sum as fee to the Corporation. It is not to do business in Street B. But, whenever Haribabu gets such an opportunity he would be all too joyous. For, during such times he would make it a point to spread his shop somewhere near the meeting point of Street A and Street B. All this was done in hopes of having at least a few of those who come to buy things on Street A would glance at his shop on Street B and buy some things. He’s done well to think this plan would work; it does. He felt satisfied knowing that he did not lose and could only pretty much gain.
Sometimes, however, times were not good.
There were actually several occasions when there were tickets issued to him by the Police for illegally making roadside sales. During those three weeks, on a Sunday, Haribabu who spread his roadside shop according to the aforementioned scheme, sought the help of Ilango. Since it was a Sunday afternoon, Arulrasa didn’t feel like working so Ilango had agreed to go solo for Haribabu. Since “Nadutheru Narayanan’ had some other important work to be done on that day too, Ilango and Haribabu’s wife, Indira, were given the responsibility of looking after the business for the day. Ilango felt a bit apprehensive in conducting such an illegal sales operation and Indira proved to be a pitiable sight. He even felt a little enraged at Haribabu for leaving her like this, to fend for herself. He asked her, “Don’t you feel afraid of standing here on the roadside?”
She smiled and answered, “In the beginning I was afraid only. But, as days passed the fear is absolutely gone. As we become more and more familiar with something we feel more and more at ease with it, isn’t it so? It is all the same.”
“Do you honestly mean that? Suppose a policeman comes here and asks for the documents permitting you to sell your products here… what would you do?”
“For that, too, he has taught me a good strategy.”
“And, what is that?”
”If someone comes and asks me, I will tell that I have nothing to do with it.”
“How can that be possible? Standing right here how can you say so?”
“That’s also quite easy. I will tell them that I have come here to buy things and that I am searching for the shopkeeper. And, henceforth this is your responsibility – so I would say and slip away from this spot.”
Her answer surprised Ilango.
“You are indeed some woman. For, I can’t utter such a blatant lie so coolly. Well, if you say so and can slip away, what will happen to these products of yours?”
Indira once again answered with such cool tones, which further increased his astonishment. She said, “They will bundle everything and take them away. That is all.”
Sometimes, in the evening hours, Nadutheru Narayanan would spread his shop in ‘Canal’ street near China Town in a similar fashion. During these occasions, his mind would function in a different manner. For instance, let’s have it that a very famous business house along that street closes by six o’ clock. Only after the business house is closed, with its iron doors tightly shut and safely locked, will our Nadutheru Narayanan open up his roadside shop. If someone asks of his permits, he would say something regarding a “private contract” with the business house allowing him to do business during the off hours. Sometimes his trick would bear fruits. And, if not, he would have to lose his capital. That is all.
Wondering how Nadutheru Narayanan would be making profit in doing business in this fashion and without his voice revealing his suspicion, Ilango asked her the following question, “How is he able to do business in this fashion, losing the capital every now and then and yet continue to be in the field?”
“That’s the reason why my man, who had the capacity to have a shop and do business, can do this job. When he brought me from India, he had already set up his business on the roadside.” When Indira finished this, Ilango could sense an obvious sad note in it.
“Did you know him before coming here?” As Ilango spent more time looking after their roadside business with Indira, they learnt more things about each other so that they were able to engage in a friendly dialogue.
So much of a good companionship among the two was tangible that Indira even said, “I consider you as my own brother when I say this. I feel that it is not right on my part to discuss these things with you. Yet, I am not able to keep quiet as I feel the need to share it with somebody. Here, I have become very much isolated and lonely. I have no one to talk to. No relatives, nor friends. Seeing his ‘wanted bride’ advertisement in a local Daily wherein he had declared himself as a businessman, I was instantly caught in the trap. This is the price I had to pay for my greed, it seems. And, when it comes to him, I am really afflicted with doubts that ceaselessly nag me.”
Ilango felt sad for her. Could it be that Haribabu, at a time when his business was sinking, wantonly deceived her into believing him to be a prosperous businessman in order to rope in a huge sum of ‘seedhanam’ (dowry) from her side or was it only after bringing her here as his wife that his business slumped due to unexpected reasons? “What? Are you doubting his integrity? But, he doesn’t seem to be a scheming person.”
Hearing these words, she remained silent for a while, deep in thought, and then said, “Brother! If only you would promise that you wouldn’t disclose it to anybody, I’ll share a few things with you. I don’t know why, but somehow I feel like trusting you. I sincerely feel that if I can talk to you for a while, I can at least ease my mind off the unbearable burden that keeps gnawing at me, day and night.”
Ilango was taken aback by her trust and vowed, “You can trust me for sure. Please consider me as one of your trustworthy brothers. And, I will not betray your trust in me.”
Indira remained silent for a few moments and then said, “Seeing the way he behaves, I really feel apprehensive about his sanity and sensitivity. I can’t help wondering whether his mind is really a normal one. Otherwise how is he able to indulge in all sorts of malpractices so casually, without any sense of integrity and responsibility? Is he really an ordinary sane person, I wonder…”
As Indira finished those words, Nadutheru Narayanan was returning after finishing the day’s work. Indira threw a quick glance towards Ilango, beseeching him to try to appear normal.
Chapter 21 BY THE GRACE OF CARLO….
"What my boy! How were the sales? Thanks for helping me today. If you had not come, it would have been very difficult for me!” Haribabu then turned towards his wife and said, “For a while, look after the business by yourself. I need to discuss important business matters with Ilango. Alone.”
Ilango felt surprised. He was completely shocked by what Haribabu had uttered. Remembering what his wife had said about his mental state just a while ago, a soft smile sprouted on his face. Observing that Haribabu asked, “Why are you laughing? Do you think that I am saying it in a light-hearted vein? Not at all. I really have to discuss something very important with you. I have been thinking of talking about this to you for the past few days, you know… come, let us go to the tea-shop there and talk over a cup of tea.” As he spoke this, Ilango followed him wondering what weighed heavily upon his mind…
Haribabu went to the counter and bought two cups of tea for them. Sitting next to Ilango, he began the conversation. “Ilango, I should thank you both – yourself and Arulrasa. I would never forget the help you provided to us so far.” Ilango sat there in silence, listening to Haribabu. Haribabu continued, “My business had started declining once again. I don’t have many commodities to sell… thanks to you two, we have somehow sold all those brass sculptures and ornaments, which had been there with us for long. Now, I think that we don’t need any helping hands to sell what little we have. Myself and my wife are enough now. Further, my wife is also going to work in a factory in a few weeks from now. And, Henry is going to start his own business again.”
Ilango could understand what was to come. So, once again he has to start his familiar hunt of jobs. For, here, too, his work was not to continue. The days of sweat and toil in search of some means of livelihood would start all over. He had to try hard, harder, hardest…. As long as he has strong hands and strong legs and a strong heart and as long as the sky exists above the earth, what is there to be afraid of? In this battle for our very existence, we have to fight till the end and see how we fare… yes indeed..
In the end, Haribabu observed, “You can come to work tomorrow, but you only. Your friend need not come. After tomorrow, even you need not come. But, keep in touch, won’t you? If I ever need your assistance again, I would call you. And, if you would be available then you can come and help me. Ok?”
Ilango graciously replied, “Certainly. We will always be ready to help you. We will never forget your timely help in one of the most crucial periods of our lives. Though we could work with you only for a short period, your timely help is worth a million and more. In our literature there is a poignant verse on this, you know. ‘Though a small one, timely help is invaluable,’ says our poet parexcellence, Thiruvalluvar.
The way Ilango expressed his gratitude in such a profound manner touched Haribabu’s heart a little. And, he said, “Your situation makes me feel so concerned. I will always pray for your welfare and for your country to get back to normalcy so that you can go back and live with your relatives once again. Though you thank me so magnanimously, in truth, what your poet had said proves to be more apt to your timely help to me. The way both of you have helped me in times of need - I will never forget it.” Then, he paused for a moment.
“Please continue Haribabu”, said Ilango and waited for his response. Haribabu continued, “If you want, you can stay in our shop free of cost, till you get a job. I have no objection at all. There are just those products for sale. That’s all. But…”
“But, there is no bathroom facility there. Just a toilet … you can wash your face. If you want to take bath you can come to my place and have one. What do you say?”
Ilango liked the suggestion made by Haribabu but reported, “At present, we don’t have a boarding and lodging problem. But, everything depends on getting a job. Still, I will discuss with Arulrasa and give you my reply. Your words reveal your good-heartedness. Thank you Haribabu. Though taking baths would be a problem, offering your place for baths is very kind. Thank you.”
That evening, when Ilango was returning home after thanking Haribabu and his wife Indira, his attention was drawn towards a textile shop of an Italian selling leather clothes along Christopher Street. To be more precise, it was the advertisement stuck on the glass window that caught his attention. It read, ‘We need sales representatives to distribute our advertisement – pamphlets and things like that in the surrounding areas for at least three hours a day. Interested persons may apply immediately.’ No wonder, it gave Ilango immense joy to read those words. He went inside without haste. The owner of the shop, the Italian who was watching him reading the advertisement, approached him asking, “Can I help you, my friend?”
“Yes,” said Ilango and asked, “Are you the owner of this shop?”
“Ah, yes-you got it correctly, my friend,” said the Italian and continued, “ I am the owner of this shop. My name is Carlo. Why do you blink so? Carlo is indeed my name. Well, what is your name?”
Ilango felt quite surprised to hear the way the Italian spoke. He didn’t know why, but he couldn’t help remembering Haribabu at that moment.
“My name is Ilango. I am also searching for a part-time or full-time job. In fact, we are searching.”
Carlo was understandably confused. “We… we means, who is the other one?”
“He is my friend. Both of us are on the look out for some suitable job. You have mentioned in this advertisement that you need sales representative to distribute your advertisements, pamphlets and all. I would like to know more about this job.”
“Well, do you have previous experience in the field?”
“No, but, I assure you that I will give my maximum and give the best results.”
His reply and the way he so genuinely spoke, with hope, confidence and eagerness impressed the Italian. Therefore, the words which came out of him next, proved to be positive. “To tell you the truth, I need such sincere and enterprising employees like you. For a period of minimum three weeks, I would be in need of your help and assistance in this. If you and your friend are willing, you can help me in this. In the two lanes that we choose for you, each of you can distribute our advertisements, each in one lane, for a minimum of three hours from Monday till Saturday. That’s all. We will give you four dollars per hour. If you wish to take up this job, you and your friend can start doing the work from tomorrow onwards. There is no need to give me a reply right now. Go home and discuss it with your friend. If you both agree to do this, come by tomorrow to start, ok?”
Ilango felt that the saying ’If one door closes another one opens’ was indeed so profoundly true. He couldn’t believe his luck. 72 dollars per week. Enough for rent and enough food. It appeared that they could live on for some more time, by the grace of this Italian.
CHAPTER 22: AN APPEAL TO THE GODDESS OF FREEDOM!
When Ilango told Arulrasa that their work with Haribabu had come to an end, the latter was not surprised at all. “I have expected this for a while. But, he has kept us with him all these days and paid us too, for which we should applaud him and be grateful to him,” he admitted. When Ilango told him about the job that he got them in Carlo’s textile shop – that of distributing the advertisement pamphlets Arulrasa observed, “In a way, this is also good.”
“How do you say so?”
“Our work with Carlo will be for a few hours in the evening only, no? That means we will have a lot of free time in a day, for searching for a good job. And also, we can have time to do our immigration work also. What do you say?”
Those were good points. “In a way, what you say is true. Everything is for good – let’s hope so. We should go searching for jobs during the day time.. shouldn’t waste away our free time, gulping whisky and rolling on the bed. In this matter, you should have a firm control over yourself. Understand?”
“Of course, can’t afford to waste time. We should somehow find a permanent job.”
“Otherwise, we can’t hope to save even a penny. See now, everyday is spent in our struggle to make both ends meet… no entertainment, relaxation – nothing. Occasionally we have some kind of party where we have drinks. That’s all...”
“What to do Ilango – my friend? Everything is because of these immigration fellows and their rules and regulations and what not…”
If only they had issued us the ‘Social Insurance Card,’ our employment problem would have been solved by now…our Time is such….”
That night, after all the others had plunged into sleep, Ilango couldn’t doze off. And, just as what he would always do at times like these, he picked up his diary and Bharathiar’s poem-collection, taking care not to disturb those who were deep in sleep. Without making any noise, he went to the dining hall. For a while he concentrated on reading several poignant verses of Bharathiar. For him, all through his life, whenever he was feeling low and anxious, he would find solace in books. Especially when he reads the touching poems of Bharathiar, he would become doubly re-energized and filled with hope and confidence, vanquishing all the dull and gloom! The heaviness of his heart lessened with each line. His heart began to experience the fluttering of bright and joyous feelings, turning stronger and more resolute. Then, picking up his diary, he began to write. His diary had been of great help to him in many ways. It had a complete understanding of his mind, his anxieties and aspirations. Acting as a ‘sumaithangi’ where he could unload himself, it was also a powerful resource for planning his future, an all-time companion to share his most intimate feelings and moments of life. Before penning anything down, he spent some time perusing through previous thoughts. And then, he began to write.
“Six months ago today, we left our home in Sri Lanka. The first three months on this land were spent inside the detention camp. The next three months were being spent in a constant struggle for survival, like a dry leaf swirling, thrown away into the wind, unable to choose its own direction or destination. No time at all to stop and stare. No mood nor inclination to enjoy the sight of the splendid sky, the queen of night – Moon, the glow of the Sun, the myriad of hues and shades and their magical permutations and combinations of the twilight horizon. Nothing at all to observe and appreciate; enjoy and get enriched. So pressing is our struggle for survival. Somehow, I should put an end to this sort of suffocation. I shouldn’t allow my life to drift along in this useless and meaningless manner. Let bygones be bygones. Henceforth, within the next six months, I should found my life on some stable ground. And, I am taking the vow to do that, here and now. My dear Diary! You stand witness to this pledge of mine. My people at home do not know all the hardships I face here. Even if I explain these things to them, they wouldn’t be able to understand what has transpired. In this moment, I am able to fully realize the everyday sufferings of the peasants who are on our soil, spending their time with their children and family. Compared to their sufferings, with absolutely no hope for a future, my situation is far better, I should say. But, I can’t expect my people to realize all these things so objectively. As far as they are concerned, their son is living in a paradise on earth. You should see their faces when they say with all smiles, “Our boy is working in America.” Only if they get the chance to come here and see for themselves the sufferings of their boy, only then, will they be able to see what this paradise is.
Ilango’s thoughts soon became immersed in his future plans for the next six months. While writing about them, his heart became more and more hopeful.
“Exactly within six months time from today, I should have my feet firmly planted in this soil. In order to achieve that, I should go and meet the immigration officers and talk to them, calmly explaining my situation to them, and requesting them to help me get my social insurance number. If nothing seems to be working in these six months, it would become unbearable to continue living here. I can’t even imagine such a situation. Without having any legal documents at all, I don’t know what I could do. I can’t even open a bank account! For everything I wish to do, I must seek the help of somebody else; I have to rely on somebody. I should put an end to this miserable condition somehow, as soon as possible. Without any rewards to be seen, it’d be useless to work. Hence, for six months I will be doing things without expecting the fruits. But, afterwards I will start expecting the rewards. Till then, I would be patiently doing my duty without expecting any results. But, if no fruit comes my way, even after six months, I would never again be working on this soil. That is for sure.
If the dream that became possible for Abraham Lincoln who studied under the street lights and cutting down the trees for firewood for his survival, is to become possible for me too, first and foremost I should have a place here, just as he had, to stand and stay, at least temporarily. This government should provide that to me. Will it give me one for at least in the next six months? Only now, I am able to understand why the Goddess of Freedom, Sudhandhiradevi, who welcomes her citizens, immigrants and refugees who come here running, as the last resort, stands still, unmoved. A separate law for the sons of the soil and a different one for those who come and settle in your soil. Even among these settlers, there haven been different laws based on race and ethnicity. For those refugees who come, beseeching you to help them, you have different laws upon the water and different ones upon the land. Caught in the web of so many stringent laws, you feel helpless, not being able to help those who come to you for help and guidance, not being able to welcome them with wide-opened hands and guide them with the beacon light of freedom – maybe this helplessness had turned you into a statue….
”Oh, the goddess of Freedom! They say that you preach the pride and glory of Liberty and impart knowledge about cherishing it to the entire world! But, take my case. Think of those many refugees who were denied the fruits of freedom, liberty and equality and have come seeking asylum here from different directions of the world. Those who are languishing in these detention camps, day after day, with unfulfilled dreams and aspirations, despairs and disappointments, longing to be free and to lead a life of dignity… Before you begin to preach Freedom and Liberty to the entire world, please ponder over this query… why should those who have come seeking shelter here, be subjected to such a pitiable state of affairs? As far as I am concerned, I am not one who has stealthily or illegally entered into your territory. I am one who was heading towards another land with proper documents but sadly, as the plane lands here, forcing us out, we had to contend with these new regulations. Now we languish here on this soil. And, ignoring the fact that I am one who had entered into your territory with legally permissible and proper documents, I was detained here as an illegal immigrant and confined in the detention camp. This had taken place under your nose, in this very same soil where you stand there, preaching the pride and glory of Freedom and Liberty…Oh, my goddess of Liberty…!
Thus, Ilango poured out all the things weighing heavily in his heart into the pages of his diary, which always proved to be a good pal. Only afterwards did some hope sprout in his mind, and so he wrote:
“Oh, Goddess of Liberty! Though the freedom and liberty which you preach and claim to stand for are denied for people like me, yet I hail you and praise your glory. For, I know the value of Freedom and Liberty. Therefore I hail you! Throughout the day – morning and night, in sun and in rain, you stand here all alone, highlighting the significance of Freedom and Liberty to the entire world – I salute you for this great sacrifice! I can understand what you are trying to say: “Don’t lose heart, whatever sorrows and sufferings afflict you and try to overpower you still fight for Freedom and Liberty! Fight for your Liberty as well as that of the entire world!” I can understand it! Oh, the Goddess of Freedom and Liberty! Hail thee!”
What a sense of hope! Relishing in that feeling, Ilango opened the poem-collection of Bharathiar:
No Fear, No Fear, No, no fear at all!
Though the entire world is against you _
No Fear, No Fear, No, no fear at all!
Though they think of you as insignificant and abuse us
No Fear, No Fear, No, no fear at all!
Though we have to lead a life of begging
No Fear, No Fear, No, no fear at all!
Though all our belongings close to our heart are lost
No Fear, No Fear, No, no fear at all!
Even if the sky is crashing down on our head
No Fear, No Fear, No, no fear at all!
After that, he came back to the room where his friends were still deep in sleep and slowly stretched himself onto his bed. He was soon embraced by Nithraadevi, the angel of sleep. Before seeking shelter in her warm embrace, he pledged to himself the following: “Just for another six months only. If nothing takes off by then, I should leave this soil, undertaking another travel.” As he lay there feeling light because of the new resolve, the angel of sleep hugged him whole-heartedly.
[To be continued]