|Sunday, May 14, 2006|
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I travel to Chennai quite often, mostly to assuage my parents – they worry that I do not spend enough time with anyone, that all I think of is work, that I am still a bachelor, considering I will be 30 this November. Given the work pressure, I end up spending most of the time working even when I am in Chennai.
I packed my laptop and essentials into my overnight tote-bag, stuffed some clothes in and came out of one of the rooms in the house (that doubled as our office), calling out to my colleague, Rajeev, who had agreed to drop me off at the station.
An old man of about 65, all ready to doze off sat on my left at the window seat; and on the aisle sat another man of about 40, engrossed in reading a book and not appearing interested in any conversation. It suited me; I could complete some work.
As the train picked up speed and once the din had settled down, I took out my laptop and began to work. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the old man’s interest peak up suddenly. I tried to ignore him. Exhausting his patience, he touched my forearm and asked,
“Nice computer, how much does it normally cost?”
“Its about a lakh,” I responded, a bit tersely, so that I could get back to what I was doing.
“That’s a lot! Is it worth that much money?”
“I guess so. Atleast it helps me continue my work even when I travel.” I hoped he had got the hint.
“I suppose so. I have a PC at home in Chennai,” he said.
He added, as an afterthought, “My son in the US bought it for me” I smiled and turned back to work. After a brief silence, he asked, “Are you working in Bangalore or Chennai ?”
“My son is working in San Jose, California. He is also in the computer line.” I remained silent, all hope fading that the conversation would ever end; I wished I could swap places with the reader on my right. “Oh, by the way, he is of your age; he passed out from IIT-Chennai in 1994; Computer Science. Where did you study?”
“Why, didn’t you get into IIT?”
The conversation went on for what seemed like forever. I closed my laptop. If I had to have a conversation I might as well have got a seat next to that 25-something, good looking woman two rows behind me. I hoped the old-man would run out of steam if I could answer his barrage of questions to his satisfaction.
Within the next 15-20 minutes, I had the complete life history of Mr Vaidyanathan and his family. Mr Vaidyanathan had retired from the Railways (hence he travels in AC chair car). He has been a widower for the past five years. His son (Keerthivasan) has been in the US for the past eight years. ‘Keerthi’ had worked in various companies (“They are all after him”), had made some money during the late 1990s (“around the same time his mother died”) and had now settled down in a big company. He had a house in the US, and his children were beginning school. His daughter, who is married to another IIT-graduate, was on the other coast in the US. Mrs Vaidyanathan after a very brief illness had passed away in 1999.
As I was being fed with the life-history of Mr Vaidyanathan, the catering staff rolled in their goodies. The cutlet looked tasty. I ordered one and asked the old man if he’d have one too. He did, but insisted on paying for his cutlet.
As we dug in, he continued the conversation, “What do you work on? Are you not interested in going to the US? People from Guindy also get opportunities, I presume.”
I started out enthusiastically on our work, then saw the distinct lack of interest on his face. I explained why I was not in the US like his son. I could see he thought my excuse lame. He probably thought it was just that I could not land a job in the US.
“Where do you stay in Chennai?”
“Vijayanagar”. He declared he was at Besant Nagar. “Keerthi bought the flat for me. It has all amenities, including a park for me to walk. He has even arranged for a cook who comes in every day.” He went on about all the things his son had provided for him, subtly hinting that only the brightest went to the US while the rest stayed back…He was getting on my nerves. I found him vain bordering on arrogant ignorance and he was also keeping me away from my work.
I focused on my cutlet and finished it; the old man had already finished his and something outside had caught his attention. I decided to dump my paper plate, come back and clearly tell the old man that I had work to do and not to disturb me.
I got up, took my paper plate and asked the old man, if he had finished. He nodded. Wanting to optimise, so that I didn’t have to get up once again when he wanted to dispose his plates, I picked up his plate, went towards the toilets, dumped the plates in the bin and washed my hands.
I returned to my seat; the reader was still reading. As I eased into my seat, I found the old man lost in thought, face turned away. Perhaps he wanted to doze? Lucky me, I thought. I took my laptop out and opened it with a prayer ...
I felt the old man touch me, “Mr Karthik.” Damn it, I thought and I turned towards him. Then, I saw a different man. A completely subdued old man devoid of arrogance. I could have sworn there were tears in his eyes.
“What you did was very very touching, not many people do that,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about and mumbled, “I did nothing.”
“No, no, not many people really do this – you cleared my soiled plate. These days even paid servants don’t do it. The last time someone did that to me was when my wife was alive. Mr Karthik, you know, to the outside world, it looks like everything has been taken care of for me. There is one thing that never gets taken care of…,” he trailed off.
Realisation struck. I closed my lap-top. Mr Vaidyanathan no longer appeared vain. He was just an extremely lonely old man. Perhaps I could give him something that he had been missing very badly, some companionship, atleast for the next two hours?
My IPO-riches could wait another two hours, another two days even, as I spend the weekend with my own parents...
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