THREE OLD MEN AND A TEA STALL
If you think that the title sounds very much like Jerome k. Jerome’s escapades of the three men in a Boat or a Bummel, that’s all it does. If you believe that two is company and three is a crowd, you are wrong. Well, that’s what I found out today, especially if it is a company of three old men. I was the youngest of the lot, so I am still young. And when I say a tea stall, it is far removed from the one under whose thatched roof we let loose many a tale of youthful romance, whether it be a figment of one’s own imagination or a true account of a lost love, under the perfect setting of a moonlit wintry night with only the distant barking of a lonely dog seeking out a mate that had run away with another of the same breed. Sounds very much like the ones under the thatched hut, isn’t it? Only here there were more of them in the thatched hut. Now there were three – old, older and oldest and a tea stall on the pavement at the corner of the road leading to the beach. The old being me and the oldest some sixteen years elder.
Ever since I switched back to walking along the beach in mornings as the Chennai heat in the evening could be like being in a pressure cooker and you breathe in all the pollution let loose during the day. Though once you reached the beach, there would be respite; the familiar faces and the casual waving of hands as we passed one another, occasionally stopping for a moment or two to exchange pleasantries, especially after a break in our daily routine.
As I was on my last lap on the beach road, to an extent exhausted, the sun already shining in its morning glory, there was a gentle tap on my back.
“Hello,” he said, an old man in a yellow T-shirt, dark blue shorts, sports shoes and with a mop of silver hair on his head smiled at me.
This was the first time I saw him. He was a regular and since I was back on a morning walk, I was the stranger as far as he was concerned. Having come from behind he had drawn level and turned sideways to look at me
“I haven’t seen you before,” he said.
“That’s true because I am an evening walker,” I replied.
“It’s always good to come in the morning, the oxygen levels are high and you do not have to contend with the pollution,” he said.
By the time I could reply he had already stopped to talk to another walker. As I waited he turned to me and said –
“Go ahead I’ll join you.”
And so I went to the end of the beach road and waited for him, which he did after few more stoppages on his way. Usually, I do not break my rhythm while walking and would have continued on my way back home. But today I did wait for there was something very alive about his face; fair, with a straight and blemishless nose and eyes that seemed to bore deep into you.
He caught up with me and resumed his talking before I could introduce myself to him. It appeared that since he had already seen me minutes before I was no longer a stranger to him. But to me he still was and so I introduced myself as we continued to walk.
“Oh! I am V. Nice to get to know you. Don’t you feel the more people we meet, the more we understand ourselves?”
I couldn’t agree with him more “Yes, I also like meeting people, though usually, I do not stop during my walks. Today is an exception,” I said. He did not seem to hear me and said
“I usually have tea at the tea stall at the end of this road in the corner. Have you been there before?” he asked.
“Though I have seen it, I have never stopped for I do not have anything till I reach home and had some rest.”
Yes, I have seen that stall, small and usually with a small crowd in front of it. A meeting place for youngsters usually in the evenings. But in the morning, it seemed as if it had been taken over by the elders. There were small plastic stools and a bench on the pavement.
“Join me for a cup of tea, it’s very good you know.”
He ordered for three cups and just as I was wondering why that extra cup he seemed to read my mind and said “Well that is for a friend of mine whom I meet here every day. He should be here anytime now.”
“You know Mr. Subbu, I am eighty-four years old and meeting other people and talking to them keeps me going. Every day I make a new friend and today it’s you. I started with a salary of forty rupees and spent a major portion of my time in Kolkata. I remember the first time I went for an interview, the interviewer a six foot something English man asked me whether I was wearing shorts or a full pant” and he laughed, “I had passed only eighth standard, started as an office boy and graduated to a clerk. I worked in a number of multinational companies with my proficiency as a stenographer. You know the Englishmen knew how to recognize merit and they also taught me discipline. It helped put my life in order. My children went to Corporation schools, did well and finished their education in prestigious colleges like BITs Pilani, St. Josephs, Trichy, and Loyola. They are well placed. You know during those times the bogey of reservation was not so much and merit still mattered.”
As he was talking, his friend joined him and I introduced myself to him. D said he was from Palghat, something I had already guessed from that distinct accent whether they spoke English or Tamil. V was also from that region but sounded more eloquent and kept up the conversation from his end without breaks, I can say a monologue. I did interject sometimes. But at the end of it all, I knew more about him than he about me. But for his ramblings, there were takeaways from that meeting which made me understand the principles on which this man had lived his life, a healthy and mentally stable one with the maturity to accept life with malice to none.
He said “Mr. Subbu there are three things you should remember and principles on which one should approach life – 1) if you lose all your wealth, you can still make up for the losses and regain your material status 2) if your health is affected you can still go to the doctor and try to set it right 3) but most of all, you should remember that once you lose your character it can never be retrieved.”
In between, I made sure that I rang my wife and told her that I will be delayed. The tea was excellent with a dash of ginger to make it that peppier. V made sure to compliment the tea stall owner which I believe he did every day.
As there was no sign of V slackening I got up and excused myself “I should be leaving now, but thanks for the excellent tea.”
“Don’t say thanks. This is something we pass on to each other: me to you and you to others, the chain should keep on going, only then will goodness will prevail,” he said.
D told me he was seventy years old and before he resorted to a life in retirement, he had been a trade union and had been an MLA in Kerala. I told him I retired from the bank and now spent my time writing. But throughout the entire conversation when V was on to his monologue D had been mostly silent. Maybe to provide V a sounding board and to enjoy the excellent tea. The tea stall owner I realized would be privy to many such conversations of different motley groups. His job was not to listen but to continue serving tea which he did with great pride and every time a compliment came his way it would make him happy. So, before we left I did just that and he returned the compliment with a smile.
D also got up to go and he accompanied me, till after some distance he turned right and I turned left, each to his own destination.