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The freeloading mason
After his retirement, when he settled down in Calicut, South India, a friend asked him what he would do to pass the time. Narayan Gopalakrishnan thought, "Wouldn't time pass if he didn't do anything?"
Oh yes! Time had passed pretty fast, and in huge chunks. Joining the elite service of the Indian Railways in 1957, I slogged in the districts for nearly 15 years. Then I was posted to Calcutta. We had a nice house on the banks of the Hoogli, the biggest distributary of the Ganges.
In the mornings, I would take a walk of some two kilometers along the paved path by the side of the river. I would have a cup of tea at the stall at the end of the walkway. To avoid the bother of paying every day, I left an imprest of cash with the stall-keeper, a young man with the face of an alert rabbit. If a hungry-looking person was around, I would offer him tea and sometimes an omelette.
One day, I saw a man squatting by the stall brushing his teeth. The sour-faced Professor Mukherjee, a regular walker who trudged through life with a mind and body that belonged to the past, looked at him disapprovingly.
The professor carried a rolled-up umbrella that he used as a walking stick. He was a man of deep perception and wide sympathies. However, the cautions of his mind seemed to deny fullness of joy to his heart.
"You seem to be new to this place," Professor Mukherjee said, when the man returned from the river.
The man reeled out his story. He was a mason from North Bengal. He had been working at a construction project for the past few months. A couple of days earlier, on reporting for work, he was told that there would be no work for four days.
The man would have taken this in his stride. However, on the previous day, he had sent his savings to his elder brother, whose daughter was getting married. He was penniless. I told him that he could be my guest and eat at the stall for the next three days.
The man ate the usual omelette and tea with two slices of bread. Then he went to the river, washed up and walked away. He did not speak nor look at any of us.
The stall-keeper was aghast. Prof. Mukherjee muttered something that cast aspersions on the entire generation represented by the mason. Though I, too, was taken aback, I relapsed into the bureaucratic reflex of suspending judgment a nd told the stall keeper to feed the fellow if he turned up.
On my next visit, when I took out my purse to repay the stall keeper, he said it wasn’t necessary. The mason had had three breakfasts, three lunches and two dinners. That came to 75 rupees. The man had paid 150 rupees. He said that I could use the extra money to feed any needy person who came along.
The stall-keeper beamed. I was pleased too.
Professor Mukherjee raised not only his eyebrows, but also his rolled-up umbrella. He appeared disappointed the mason had not turned out a rascal.
Narayan Gopalakrishnan was the 2007 joint winner of the award of the Indian National Academy of Letters. He writes in Malayalam, perhaps the only language that reads the same forwards and backwards. His literary career started with an article on how he had suggested to a middle-aged man to use the lift, instead of climbing the stairs. That middle-aged man turned out to be Tensigh Norgay, the sherpa who had conquered Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary. Gopalakrishnan is comparatively young as a writer. As a man however, he is 74 years old.