[With my ophthalmic ordeals continuing without a significant improvement in sight in the immediate future, and my unwillingness to put my blog on hold indefinitely, I have been thinking of some ‘soft’ themes to write about without too much ocular strain. Someone very close to me suggested rather light heartedly that I try my hand at fiction, perhaps a short story. I considered science fiction but dismissed it as contrary to my penchant for factual accuracy and evidence based conclusions. However, the idea of a short story was indeed attractive if it was also true and drawn from real life, as in my earlier posts under the ‘angels’ and ‘devils’ labels. The short true story narrated here is the result of these thoughts.]
Penang is a large and picturesque island forming part of Malaysia in the Southeast Asian region. It is a major tourist attraction, with long stretches of beautiful sandy beaches attracting visitors and locals alike. I lived there for about ten weeks during the summer of 1982, exactly three decades ago, on a ‘secondment’ to the Regional Centre for Education in Science and Mathematics (RECSAM), courtesy of the Unesco and the Indian government. There were two others like me, one from Sri Lanka, and the other a lady from Pakistan, and we had stuck up a close friendship. The centre had an excellent campus, with a large guest house serving the international community, mainly from the Southeast Asian nations.
The population of Malaysia is a mix of native Malays, often called bumiputras, ethnic Chinese, and a small minority of Tamil speaking immigrants of Indian origin. While the ratio of the Malays to Chinese is about 3:1 overall, the ratio was nearly reversed in Penang. While the Chinese largely formed the prosperous business community, the economically much weaker Tamils mostly made up the labour class. The bumiputras generally held the seats of administrative power and enjoyed special benefits.
Being a strict vegetarian and a teetotaler, I had apprehensions about Penang being the right kind of place for my gastronomic habits. These came true on the very day of my arrival there when I discovered that the mess attached to the institution served no item of food that was wholly vegetarian! Incidentally, this was the only place I ever visited where my vegetarianism was tested to its limits of endurance. When I mentioned my predicament to the institute’s administrative officer the next day, he was very understanding but expressed his helplessness in the matter, suggesting that I should opt out of the institute’s mess and explore a few nearby hotels or restaurants. My expectations rose when I found a modest looking open air restaurant very close by and positively delighted when approached simultaneously by two Tamilian looking servers whom I could talk to in their own language and ask for the menu. Incidentally, I have a passable knowledge of spoken Tamil, sufficient for most mundane purposes. They greeted me warmly and were equally delighted to talk to me. I told them how I was new to the place and what I was looking for. When I told them I had come from India, one of them wanted to know whether I belonged to Madras or Bombay, the only two places he had heard about back in his ancestral home country. Mysore and Bangalore made no sense to him. He was disappointed with my vegetarianism and brought me down to earth with the information that I would be wasting my time if I looked for anything purely vegetarian in the island except in one place which was a very long way away and could perhaps be visited only during my weekends. He gave me directions as to how I could reach there by going to the main city bus stand and taking another bus there. He helpfully suggested that if I couldn’t compromise on my vegetarianism I could look for a variety of fruits, fruit juices, milk and other dairy products, raw vegetables, as well as wholesome bread and butter all available in a nearby supermarket. In any case this was my Plan B and I had to fall back on it for most of the rest of my stay in Penang. Before I thanked and left them for the supermarket, one of them very hesitantly gave me another piece of helpful information. As it turned out, this true story of mine is woven around his information and what followed thereafter.
One of my Tamil acquaintances in the open-air restaurant had told me that if I walked about two kilometres down the main road towards the city centre, I would find a small eatery housed in a hut and run by a poor old Tamilian gentleman. He said that it was easy to locate because of its run-down condition amidst far better surroundings and the small handwritten sign board hung up in front just saying ‘Thosai’ in English (In India, especially in the southern region, this very popular food item is generally known as ‘dosai’ or ‘dosa’ or ‘dose’, a pancake like preparation made from a thick fermented rice paste and lightly fried in vegetable oil on a frying pan). He cautioned me that the place might be very disappointing to me because of its poor up-keep, but the food itself would be tolerable and purely vegetarian. This is where I was headed one evening a few days later, as much out of curiosity as with the craving for some homely food.
Thanks to the precise directions I had received, there was no difficulty in locating the old man’s ‘thosai’ eatery. The small chalk written signboard was there to see alright, but only because I was looking for it. It could otherwise have gone unnoticed. In just one crudely handwritten word the inmate was trying to say that the popular food item was available inside if anyone wanted to try it. The hut was in a highly dilapidated condition, with a narrow door-less entrance, mud walls, mud flooring, and thatched roofing and could have been swept away by any ordinary gale which mercifully it might never have experienced. In a poorly lit interior It took me a while to notice anything, but things began to take shape soon enough. I could see the old man hunched up on a stool at a corner with his feet up, looking at nothing in particular. He looked highly disheveled with a clump of unkempt grey hair, ill at ease and apparently suffering from several geriatric problems, including a bit of stuttering and obviously poor vision. He looked a great deal older than what he actually may have been, about seventy. Befitting the hot and humid climate of the place, he was shirtless and wearing a rather dirty looking white lungi folded half way up in a style reminiscent of people in coastal Tamilnadu. Opposite to him were some cooking utensils and a gas stove on a table the lower part of which doubled up as a storehouse. Next to the entrance there was just a wooden bench that could accommodate three or four customers at a time, with no table for keeping anything on. The hut also appeared to be the old man’s home as I could make out from a thin roll of bedding standing up against the corner behind the stool he sat on.
Noticing my presence, the old man got up and stood in front of me without saying anything, apparently awaiting my order for his thosai. He did not appear to be seeing me as clearly as I was seeing him and I might have appeared to him little different from other people who came to his place. I was in no hurry to place my order, occupied as I was in trying to absorb all that my eyes perceived, and wanting to know something about him and his circumstances first. I tried to lighten the atmosphere by telling him pleasantly where I hailed from and how I had learnt about him and his eatery and asked him what he could offer me to eat. In a rather incoherent and testy voice he told me that he prepared nothing but thosais as the board at the entrance implied. Seeing him in no mood for any pleasant conversation, I ordered two thosais and asked him what I could eat them with. Thosais are generally eaten with some chutney or masala curry or even pickles. He said that all he could give me was some watery parappu, which was the name for what in northern India is generally known as dhal. He switched on his stove, went through with his routine and soon my thosais were ready. He gave them in a metal plate, with the parappu spread over the thosais. I realized that I could consume the stuff only by holding the plate in one hand and using the fingers of my other hand to eat the food in small lumps as is traditionally done in south Indian homes and in most places back home. A table would have made the task easy, but it was like asking for the moon. The food was certainly tolerable and quite clean, but with hardly any spice normally associated with such preparations. I ate leisurely, not giving up on my attempts to strike up a conversation and learn more about the old man and his background. It took me quite a while to break through the social barrier he had erected around himself.
From my leisurely and friendly attitude the old man seemed to realize that I was a different sort of customer, not the type from the labour class who cared only for a quick mouthful at a highly affordable price and minded only their own affairs. His stiff demeanor began to ease up and he started responding to some of my questions. His stuttering voice, a strange accent, and an incoherent language all made it very difficult for me to understand what he was saying and keep the conversation going. He rambled and digressed a lot and ignored some of my probing questions completely. I have tried here to put together whatever I was able to make out about this extraordinary human being. It is indeed a poignant story.
Born to immigrant parents who had come to Malaya from Tamilnadu as indentured rubber plantation labourers, he had no education of any kind and was a total illiterate. Labour was all he had learnt to do right from his childhood. Life was not too bad in his early years and he even raised a small family. But he was soon a victim of circumstances and his simple world of work started collapsing around him. He lost his family when he really needed it most and there were no relations or friends to care for him. He soon became a destitute and learnt to cook out of sheer necessity. Then he got the idea of opening an eatery for other labourers to earn a livelihood for himself and for his very survival. He chose the present place because of some construction work in the neighborhood which could promote his endeavour. He built the hut himself and a number of other huts had also come up around it. Apparently all were illegal, but nobody seemed to have bothered anybody on this score. While other huts were transformed to regular concrete and steel structures because their owners had prospered with their respective enterprises, the old man of this narrative barely managed to hold on to whatever he had built up because of failing health and declining customer interest. Initially his eatery was offering chapattis, idlys and tea in addition to the more popular thosais and had a boy to assist him with the service. However, as the customer turnout declined, a chain reaction set in and he had to reduce the number of items to just one and do away with the boy’s service as well. Thereafter, it was downhill for him all the way and he seemed to have hit the bottom when I met him even as the country was travelling uphill on the road to economic prosperity.
There are a lot of things I could not find out about the old man and his sea of troubles. In particular, I couldn’t get out of him how he lost everything and everybody around him and ended up as a destitute. I could not also find out how, despite his poor physical condition, he was managing to prepare the thosai mix and get the indispensable water for all his operations and personal needs. Of course there was no electricity in the hut. It is remarkable that he continued to stand on his own feet rather than take to begging or other means as many in such situations tend to do.
After I was done with the leisurely eating and the conversation it was time for me to leave. When I asked my host how much I owed him he mentioned a ridiculously low amount, obviously the same that he would charge others. I took out a large denomination currency note from my wallet and handed it to him. He looked at it and said he never carried adequate change for such a large amount and was about to go out and get the change from a nearby shop. When I asked him not to bother and keep the change, he was incredulous and looked very hesitant to do so. Then he sized me up, decided that I was not the usual type of customer he served, said as much to me, and agreed very gratefully to keep the change. We parted company in a very different mood from the one we started out with.
I visited the poor old man and his eatery again a couple of weeks later. He had no difficulty recognizing me and set out to prepare two dosais for me without waiting for my order. Despite his enthusiastic reception of me, I couldn’t help noticing that he looked even more run down and ill than during my first visit. I did strike up another laboured conversation with him, but this time nothing new emerged and I did not intend to probe too deeply into his painful past. He declined to take any payment from me saying that I had already paid him handsomely earlier, but I persuaded him to accept a much smaller amount than last time. I also advised him to get his vision tested in the local government run hospital, assuring him that such service is free to people like him, as would be any follow up treatment that may become necessary. He didn’t seem to take the idea seriously. I should have realized that he was in no condition whatever to act on my advice. Before leaving him I said I would visit him one last time before I left Penang for my home. Little did I anticipate that there was to be no such meeting.
As promised, I went to see the old man a week before I was to leave Penang for good. When I entered the hut, I was shocked to see it completely empty and abandoned. My immediate reaction was to assume that he had shifted to another location, but this looked extremely unlikely in view of his dire circumstances and his poor physical condition. I had to find out why. I approached one of the neighboring shopkeepers and posed my question which could only be in English. Luckily he could understand me and told me in broken English that the old man was found dead in his hut a few days ago and that the municipal authorities had arranged for the cremation of the body and taken away all his meagre belongings. He looked puzzled that someone like me should be enquiring about the old man, not having the faintest idea of the bond that had developed between us. It was one of the saddest days in my life. I left the place with silent tears in my eyes (something that is repeating even as I give finishing touches to this story), and the abiding memory of a destitute and dying old man who had unwittingly upheld the lofty principle of dignity of labour till his very last breath.