Kumar flung his school bag to its allocated place and ran to the tap to wash his feet. He had just returned from school. ‘Kumar, you have come?’, asked Mani. Mani was his grandfather (thaatha). ‘Yaaaaaaaa’, shouted Kumar. He then came and sat near his thaatha who was engrossed in reading the newspaper line by line through his bulging spectacles. Kumar was nibbling at his milk bikis biscuits and sipping the tea which thaatha had prepared for him. They had been living together for the last 3 years. Kumar’s parents had passed away in a rail accident.
T: So what was special in school today?
K: In our games period we played kabaddi thaatha. My team won. Look how well I played, do you see the bruise in my knees? (He wore a proud smile on his face)
T: Good, take care da. Don’t get too fond of bruising yourself. Anyone can get hurt, use their might and win. It is he who wins without much visible effort who is the champion.
They continued doing their regular work. While his thaatha was poring over the newspaper, Kumar was reading the Sportstar magazine. He was studying in his 8th standard. He had a good circle of friends with whom he used to play a lot. Everyone lived in the nearby streets only. And everyone’s mothers were very fond of Kumar. He was frank, polite and mature.
The phone rang. Thaatha picked it up, listened, grunted and then called out for Karthik. Karthik was wondering who it would be. They had just decided they wouldn’t be playing cricket today. Who could be it? He listened. He turned slightly pale. He said fine. And then put down the phone and came back to read his magazine. He was getting a bit restless. ‘What is the matter da? Who was it?’, asked his thaatha. ‘Balaji called up thaatha. It seems Priya’s father has died. Some heart attack I guess’. ‘Ohh that’s bad. What does her mother do?’. ‘She is a housewife thaatha. Dunno what she is going to do now.’ ‘ Does Priya have any siblings?’ ‘Ya, one elder brother. He is in his 12th standard.’ ‘Ok. So when are you going to go? Is it tomorrow?’ ‘Ya mostly it will be tomorrow. But I don’t think I will be going thaatha’ ‘Why?’ ‘Thaatha, she is my friend. But she is a girl. What will I tell her? And in times of grief, I can’t find anything to speak. It will be better for her if I don’t go rather than go there and get embarrassed.’ ‘Inge vaada. Come here.’ Karthik went and sat near his thaatha. Mani ruffled his grandson’s hair and rested his palm on his shoulders. ‘See child, you can even miss out on a person’s marriage on any of his happiest occasions. But never miss out on their grief. I agree you may have nothing to say. In fact the other person for all practical reason, that person may be a stranger to you. But be there. That is the respect you will be showing to the departed soul. Now go. Priya may not even notice you. But you don’t go there to get her attention. You go there to ensure that you help them with your presence’
And so the next day, Karthik took the train to Parisal. He gingerly stepped into Priya’s home. It was already a scene there. All the ladies were moaning. His eyes was searching for some known faces. There were none. In one corner of the room, he saw Priya. Her eyes had swollen with continuous crying. He didn’t go towards her. He knew he couldn’t talk sense to her now. He just waited. Stood there. Someone asked him ‘who are you thambi?’ He replied he was a classmate of Priya. Very soon, the rituals started. The kurukal was reciting something and one elderly guy was putting flowers and stuff on her dad. It was now that Karthik saw the ugly side of death. When the time came for people to lift Priya’s dad and place him on the stretcher, everyone became suddenly distracted. They seem to move outside of the house waiting for others to do the task of lifting the ‘body’. A day back he was Muthu. And now he was a ‘body’. ‘Shit’, thought Kumar. And he stepped forward to lift him up. Seeing him, few others came forward and helped put Muthu on the stretcher. He was one of the few who lifted the stretcher and walked till the graveyard and then placed him on the pyre. He didn’t go back to Priya’s place where all her relatives went. He directly went home, had a bath ate what his thaatha had cooked for him and slept.
It was two weeks before he saw Priya again. She had come to school. Students and teachers immediately came forward to offer their condolences. They then carried on with their work. Karthik didn’t tell anything. During the lunch hour, she came to him and just said, ‘Thank you Karthik. You don’t know how much your actions meant to me.’ He felt highly embarrassed he could only grunt a ‘Hmm’ in reply and then excused himself.
When he came back from school, his thaatha was just leaving for his evening walk. ‘Tea is in the kitchen. Care for a samosa?’. ‘Sure thaatha’ ‘Ok. Wait for 20min. eat it and then go to play’ ‘Irungo thaatha. I will change my dress, drink tea and come along with you. We will eat samosa in the shop and I will scoot from there’ ‘Ok fine. Hurry up.’
They went to the Saravana Samsa shop which was nearby his school. His thaatha ordered for two samosas each. This was one weakness of his thaatha. He loved snacks and food. As they were eating, Karthik told his thaatha about what happened in class with Priya today. His thaatha replied, ‘Good. But remember Karthik, you are not doing this for her thank you’ ‘Of course I am not thaatha. I just told you what transpired in class’ ‘Ok cool da. No problem. So going to play cricket is it?’ ‘Yes thaatha’ ‘Ok you carry on.’
That night when they gathered for dinner, his thaatha had cooked a kichdi with onion raita. They were watching the news while eating. ‘Thaatha, have you ever taken liquor?’ ‘What maeks you ask this question?’, thaatha replied with a mischievous wink ‘You intend to is it?’ ‘Cha cha nothing like that thaatha. Just curious’ ‘Well I had tasted it once. Probably before your father was born. I used to work along with your uncle’s father. We both were teachers in the village school. While returning we used to play cards and sometimes indulge in such cranky activities’ ‘Oho…’, trailed Karthik. ‘But my suggestion will be, you must definitely try out liquor, smoking and stuff. Without trying them out, you will never appreciate how bad it is for you. Just ensure you do this after you pass out from school. I don’t want to be apologizing to your principal for you tomfoolery’ ‘Thaatha!!! I don’t intend to do any of these!!!’ ‘Then all is well with the world J’ , his thaatha smiled.
As they finished eating, Mani saw that Karthik has left some of his food on his plate. ‘What is the matter? Not feeling hungry? Or not liking my cooking?’ ‘Thaatha stomach is full. I cant take more’ ‘OK, clean up the table’ Karthik then proceeded to clean the table, wash the utensils and then proceeded to sit with his thaata. He had finished his homework. There wasn’t much to do other than watch tv and then go to sleep. As they were watching the repeat telecast of the 1983 WC finals, Mani started. ‘Karthik, tell me what is the thing which differentiates the best from the rest?’ ‘Courage?’ ‘Something else’ ‘Ambition?’ ‘Well everyone has ambitions. Of varying degree’ ‘Solungo thaatha’ ‘They can easily differentiate what they know from what they don’t know. What they can do from what they cant do. And act likewise’ ‘OK?’ ‘And you didn’t show good leadership skill today da. You must have known how much you can eat. I didn’t want to yell at you then. Hence kept quiet. See if the food is wasted in your plate. It is wasted for ever. At least if you had taken only what you wanted, we could have either used it later or given it to the needy. I expect something better form my grandson da’ ‘I don’t know what to say. I will improve myself thaatha’ ‘That’s my boy’
As they went to sleep, Mani started thinking. He was 82 yrs old. His grandson was 15. He didn’t have much years left in him. There was a time when he could do work equal to 5 men. Now it was not like that. He had grown up the hard way. When he was a kid, he didn’t know from where the next meal came, he didn’t know if he would continue in the school beyond the next term because he didn’t have money to pay to the school. And yet, he scraped and came up in life. Enough to feed his children and make them take care of themselves. But what is the legacy I want to leave to Karthik? He thought. Thought hard. And then he slept a fitful sleep.