I have always wondered what people meant when they would say, I need to go and pick up XYZ from the station, where XYZ referred to an adult person.
I thought this business of picking up people was some kind of an elitist sport. Only the rich people went to pick up visiting friends and family. Of course, people have their reasons:
1. I am so excited about this person coming, so I go pick them up
2. What if they can’t find the house?
3. They have too much of luggage and will need help
4. How will they negotiate with the Madras Autokkarans?
5. Because guests are the avatarams of god
In my family, we don’t go and pick up people. If you come from Trichy and Nellai (where bulk of our visitors come from), you speak the language of the city. Therefore, you find your way. Our guests don’t carry too much of luggage. Also everyone finds their way around T Nagar anyway. And there are way too many gods that are jostling for our attention.
Exceptions are made only for our Delhi Atthai. Amma is a little hyper when it comes to her youngest sister-in-law. She is partly in awe of her, but mostly she dislikes her. Yet, appa feels strong kinship with his little sister and insists on picking her up each time she comes.
D Atthai came to town a few days back, when Madras was in the middle of a cloud-burst. As always, appa wanted to go and pick her up. But something came up, and I had to go instead.
We don’t own a car. In fact, we have never owned one. Some of it was to do with thatha’s conditioning us into believing that anything beyond two wheels was against everything that he stood for. Of course, it was largely to do with the fact that we could not afford one. So, when most of the families had a Fiat in the 80s and a Maruti 800 in the 90s, we were car-less. We usually walked, traveled by buses and occasionally took the trains. We avoided autos, unless it was to take T Anna to the hospital when he had an asthma attack.
That was when we met – Chettiar. Chettiar used to take me, Poongothai and half a dozen Srirams and Karthiks from Bazlullah Road to our school each day. His vehicle was a largeish auto (similar to the shared autos that we see in the city), that we used to call – Van. While we were sitting through Vijaylakshmi Mam's class, Chettiar would go and pick up flowers from the wholesale market to transport it to some store in T Nagar. When we would return home, the van would still have remnants of the smell of malli and samanthi. The heady sweetness would inevitably cause one of the Karthiks to faint. His name was obviously not Chettiar, but we began calling him so because of the enormous tummy that he had (unimaginative) and the name stuck.
Chettiar’s livelihood coincidentally evolved with my life-stage. There came a time when I became too old to travel in the van. I needed two things:
1. A more sophisticated method of transportation
2. Lesser boys
That was the time when Chettiar acquired a modern day auto. I, Poongothai, one Karthik and his sister began to travel in the same. The flower business then stopped and he needed an alternative source of income. After a conversation with amma, he developed a revenue model of chauffeuring the maamis of Bazlullah Road, TP Road and Habibullah Road. His affable nature won him many fans and his large stomach reassured everyone that he was safe and trustworthy. He knew where in T Nagar all our relatives lived and could go and deliver or pick up stuff from people. He would take Madras Thatha for his bi-monthly blood tests, he would drop amma at Egmore Station so that she could catch the Rock Fort express. He would book tickets for us, buy flowers; find us plumbers and electricians, the works.
One cannot imagine our life without Chettiar. When T Anna plays his NRI-Santa person, he gets Chettiar T-Shirts and some chocolates. When I got my first salary, Chettiar wanted me to buy him a T-Shirt. I bought him one, and while thanking me for it he told me that I should also become an NRI so that I can get him nicer T-Shirts.
While we were on the way to the station, I tried to impress Chettiar by telling him that I was a journalist. And therefore, I was an important person. He seemed less than convinced. He wanted to know why I didn’t become a TV journalist. He also told me that nobody reads the newspapers anyway.
I was considerably upset and distracted by this entire thing and I managed to find the platform and be there before D Atthai’s train whirred in. D Atthai had come with several bags; she announced that many of them were empty (so that she can pack all of T Nagar and Mylapore in those bags when she does go back to Delhi). I made polite elder sister type talk with my cousin (D Atthai’s daughter) and tried not to yelp with pain as I balanced two allegedly empty bags on my shoulders. That was when a lady stopped me – Platform ticket Ma, she said.
I realized then that I had done something that nobody in my family had ever done since the inception of Indian Railways – break a law. I tried to crack a lame joke. Did not work. Apologize. Did not work. Beg and plead. Did not work. Be mildly confrontational. Certainly did not work. By now the cousin was getting anxious, given that she has gone through a long, arduous journey to a place that perhaps alienates her at many levels, I figured a quick solution was needed. I also didn’t want her or the atthai to get on some kind of high ground by saying things like – how it is easier to bribe people in Delhi than Madras. Madras must not lose. Ever.
So, I agree to pay the fine of rupees three hundred. As I walked towards the counter meant for defaulters, law breakers and assorted criminals Chettiar also came in. Given that he knew D Atthai well enough, he was sure that she would have half a dozen bags at least. As always, he was there to rescue me. I explained to him what had happened and he seemed as horrified. He also felt repentant that, in some ways, he was responsible for distracting me with all his chatter. While we waited for the previous defaulters to pay up, I reassured Chettiar that he was not to blame. In front of us were two young girls – fair and petite. One of them had not bought a platform ticket and she and friend made bambi eyes and widely gesticulated trying to get their point across. Eventually they let the girls go. No fine imposed on them. Possibly because:
1. Guests are the avatrams of god, so it was time to show the goodness of our Tamizh heart
2. Because there is nothing like: fair and lovely. There is only: fair = lovely
My brown skin and ability to speak the same language meant that there was no escaping the fine. My Tamizh heart broke. While I was rummaging for the money through my wallet, Chettiar announced to no one in particular that he hoped I would be covering this in my news report. He suggested that I write down the details of all the officers and so on. If I was not feeling like a fool, I would have been amused. The people at the counter now looked a little unsure.
Who are you, they asked?
Very important journalist, Chettiar offered.
With The Hindu, Atthai suggested helpfully.
The man thought for a bit and then asked me to go. He said, today is Sunday, so I am letting you go.
Chettiar was thrilled. I am not sure, what worked – his contribution, it being Sunday, general niceness or the fact that the main boss at the counter was called – Parthasarathy.
Whatever it was, I felt fair and lovely.
When we came home, appa had his hand plastered. Apparently while wading through water and avoiding one of those monster vehicles on the road, he fell and broke a few things.
Amma was upset, I bet that secretly she must have blamed the atthai.
T Anna called up and was upset too. I will buy appa a car, he volunteered - as always, large hearted and impractical. S the clever child said that, even rich people need to go on a walk with their legs and not a car. Instead an expensive shoe from Nike was bought.
I have a humble request to all you people who drive big (and not so big cars in T Nagar).
At seven in the morning, if you see an elderly and somewhat frail man, wearing a navy blue - I Love New York T-Shirt (lovingly gifted by his son), a very expensive pink coloured (I know) Nike shoes (equal in value of the sum total of all the shoes owned by the same man over the last 57 years), carrying a blue coloured Sundaram Mutual Funds bag, walking along Usman Road – that is appa. Be considerate. We cannot afford a car. When it rains, there is too much water. You are in a hurry obviously. But please go a little slowly, just for a bit. If we get a car, Chettiar will lose his job. That would be sad. If you hit appa, you will need to deal with a very important journalist.