Dead End8 mins 57 8 mins 57
The moment his boss ended a long conversation over the phone with another entrepreneur and a potential borrower, Dinesh drew his attention, “Sir, I have to leave,”
“There is no need for you to rush, Dinesh,” replied the boss, “It’s ok if you go for collection by afternoon.”
Dinesh’s mobile in his trousers pocket vibrated but he ignored and listened intently.
“I reviewed your performance. You have done satisfactorily, but our bank expects you to exceed the target and looks for your persuasion skills, winning over defaulters.”
Ahead of this meeting, Dinesh could gauge there would be some advice when the boss messaged him to come to the branch straight instead of following up on the borrowers. “Sir, I have sorted out all addresses Pincode-wise and have visited some borrowers twice within a week,” he politely replied.
“But, Dinesh, you have not understood the expectation of our employer bank. You have now completed two years of fieldwork, and it’s concerning you are happy and satisfied with your collecting the cheques from promptly paying customers. But your performance is evaluated on your cracking deadends and making inroads. Do you know why Raja is successful? He will politely tell the hardened defaulter, “Sir. I speak English and am decent. But if I fail, only indecent collectors might knock on your door. This way he subtly used to bully the borrower. You must emulate him.”
After two minutes, the mobile in his trouser pocket vibrated twice. He wondered what sort of reply would convince the boss, and how to avoid a heated argument.
“You must’ve responded more positively and confidently to me now,” the boss was impatient, “Why don’t you think of drawing two lists, those who are waiting for your arrival with a cheque drawn and those who have avoided your phone calls and often missing whenever you knock the door? The progress you make in bringing these deadlocked borrowers to the other list of regulars will be better appreciated.”
The small library hall surrounded by bookshelves on three sides was jam-packed. ‘Book worms meet- Review of the book ‘Leftovers of a famine’ in bold green letters on a white vinyl sheet that hung as a backdrop speakers seated on the dais. ‘Sponsor: Real estate 2020’ at the bottom of the sheet got hidden by the orators closely seated to the advertisement.
Besides Balaji who was standing for quite some time at the entrance to the event hall, the library, most of the audience were senior citizens. He was looking for Sadasivam, the library secretary. The audience on plastic chairs had been lined up till the entrance. Each of them was holding a colorful brochure of upcoming senior citizen’s projects.
“Sir, please take your seat,” a young man sporting a ‘Real estate 2020 jersey’, offered coffee in a paper cup. Whether the young man offered the seat because of his salt pepper look or thinking that he was part of the audience, Balaji needed to sit. Fever was getting worse.
This was the first meeting of the library in 2020. The library organization had held around half a dozen gatherings in 2019. The authors and the graying audience were similar, but less in number were the usual attendance.
A simple menu of Samosa, a sweet and coffee or Idly, and sweetly used to be served. Balaji was the caterer on each occasion and many new customers emerged from the gathering. But today librarian Sadasivam is missing. Balaji had come to collect a cheque from Sadasivam and was very shocked to find this real estate company’s sponsorship and such a big gathering. He wondered how long he could wait for the librarian. He called the librarian from his mobile, but there was no response. Even when seated his body shivered in fever.
“I request Ragav to speak now,” the young hostess in sleeveless white blouse and white silk saree announced. A tall, grey-haired man in kurta-pajama got up from the audience and took the mike. As the title ‘Leftovers of a famine’ clearly indicates, repetitive famines in the second half of the nineteenth century in Malabar swallowed everything soft, anything human and anything inclusive.”
The boss took till noon to advise Dinesh to focus on deadends repeatedly. Heaving a sigh of relief, he came out and found it was his mom who had called thrice. He returned the call. “Hi Dinesh, Weren’t we all wondering why dad didn’t get up early in the morning and broke his routine?”
“Yeah. What happened?”
“He is running a fever. One dose of antibiotics is not enough. He rushed to the Santhome library to take payment. I dissuaded him, because the amount is too small. He replied that every rupee counts for Sarada’s marriage and took a bus. Why don’t you go and pick him up and drop him here? He refused to return without meeting the secretary.”
Dinesh decided not to tell his boss he is going to prioritize personal work over field visits. After all, he can make up for the time last by visiting people till 9 pm.
“The lovers are separated by the famine. The girl’s father decides to move his family to Madurai, a southern district of Tamil Nadu, where the harvest was normal and famine was felt only in northern Tamil Nadu. Subtly the author highlights that East India Company didn’t rush the food grains from the neighborhood that had surplus food. On reaching there, i.e Madurai, the girl’s father then finds out that his host cum brother-in-law is exporting rice to other countries like Myanmar or Srilanka. Here again, the author drives home the indifference of the East India Company to the plight of starving masses in Malabar. They allowed the export to continue, and the food prices in Malabar were skyrocketing due to scarcity. “
Dinesh looked around the gathering and couldn’t locate his father. He called his dad on his mobile. “Dinesh. I am in a meeting. Please call later” replied Balaji.
“Dad, I am very much here, so please come out. Amma wants you back home immediately. “ Balaji got up, holding the food pack in his hands and lost his balance due to fatigue. A young man seated next got up and held him by his shoulders. Now Dinesh could see his dad and he rushed. “The lovers are separated by famine and they never meet again. When the boy’s parents die due to starvation, he also proceeds to Madurai but he does not make any attempt to trace his lover, because he looks far older and he is like a thinly made up skeleton with skin. This ending will move any stone-hearted person. We must congratulate the author for this climax,” the next speaker continued to appreciate the fiction ‘Famine’s leftovers.’
Balaji’s wife gave him some porridge. Their son Dinesh ate lunch in a hurry and left. Hardly half an hour would have passed, when suddenly loud heated exchanges between Balaji’s daughter and her mother woke up Balaji. ‘Janaki’ he called his wife feebly. Both mother and daughter rushed to his room. ‘Don’t listen to her,’ the mother yelled. Balaji signaled to his daughter to come nearer. Listened to her and nodded yes. Her mother left in a huff and in a fury. A short while later, when he opened his eyes again, a young man with an album of photos was seated on a chair near his bed and his daughter was waiting to break the ice and said, “Dad, this is the photographer. He wanted to show a sample album.” The boy held it near Balaji’s face and started explaining how they cover right from the make-up table to the betrothal procession and each guest on their arrival at the venue. After a few minutes, Balaji couldn’t focus and said, “Thanks. I understand you people do meticulously” and found his wife was there near the back in the room just behind the photographer and the daughter.
“Appa, shall we fix this studio for both photos and video?” his daughter asked with sparkling eyes. “Why not?” replied Balaji, “How much will be your charges.”
“For three days around 80K Sir. Depending upon the number of photos, the charges will be 10K more or less.”
Balaji fell silent for a few minutes and looked at the bride, his daughter. She instantly eagerly said, “If you say okay, we can pay token advance today, pa.”
“We will inform you tomorrow,” her mother interjected, and the photographer thanked and exited.
“I was asking dad, and you disposed of him,” the daughter shouted at the mother.
“Do you have any idea of the financial condition of the home? You want us to beg in the streets after your marriage?”
“Come on, ma, and I didn’t specify the jewelry or silk sarees. A lifetime treasure would be these photos. Is this too much?”
“Ya. Too much. We had budgeted 10k for photos. But now the estimate is nearing one lakh. Where is the money going to come from?”
“Dinesh is now employed, ma.”
“So, you want to load him with loans now itself. Tomorrow what will he do for his marriage? Will you and your husband foot the expenses?”
“Appa, see Amma tries to spoilsport. If it is you who rejected this pa, I won’t even insist on photos,” daughter’s tears were making Balaji sad.
“Hi, why don’t you wait for my disposal of this? Our daughter must not go to her in law’s place heartbroken,” he tried to raise his voice, but only some hoarse incoherent utterance came.
“If my heart is broken, you won’t mind? Why this bias? Why don’t you explain to her to scale down this expense?”
“You are taking revenge on me, ma,” the daughter left the room in tears.
Then her mother kneeled came close to his face, and started to say something, but Balaji shouted in a hoarse voice, “Hi Ratchasi! Are you a mother? Or a curse? Get lost!”
That dead-ended the conversation.
P.Muralidharan, effectively bilingual, lives in Chennai, India. HydRaW has chosen his short story Shoulder written in English for their annual Anthology 2020. He has been awarded the Bharathidasan Award for senior writers. He won the second prize in 2019 for a short story based on the third gender. He stands out in the Modern Tamil literature for more than a decade. His works have been published in renowned literary magazines. Besides the collection of poetry ‘kaippaikkuL kamaNdalam’, ‘kuthirai erum kaathal,’ ‘Veliye veedu’, short story collections ThaadaNgam and Thol pai, his novels Mul veli, Bhodi Maram, and Vigraham have been published. He has also translated into Tamil 2 books, including Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I am Hindu'.