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A Life’s Worth

August 16, 2013

Though he was only a peon, there was nothing about the work at the office that he did not know.

By Shyamala Mani Iyer

It was a stuffy, humid evening in November. I was tired after a hard day’s work at the office and was rushing home to two naughty boys and their tons of homework. Ahead of me, on the pavement a crowd had gathered. I hurried past wanting to get away from whatever it was, with the true city attitude of “It’s not my business”.

But some invisible force forced me to stop. I do not know what it was. My feet pushed their way through the crowd of onlookers. I gained a vantage point and my eyes hovered around a man lying curled up on the pavement, only his rhythmic breathing indicating that he was still alive. Something made me look more closely.

Leaf

Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact–
William James

Instantly, Chennai and its inhabitants whirled around me. Was it a hallucination! How could it be that I was actually seeing a person whose funeral I had attended more than seven years ago! For, the man with grimy face and stinking clothes lying in the semi-conscious state on the pavement was none other than Nagarathinam, former peon in my office, who was supposedly dead!

The remarks of the crowd floated past me. “What is he doing on the pavement? Doesn’t he have a home or a family?” ” Must be drunk. His family must have thrown him out.” “The government should do something about such people. They are a menace to society.”

“Nagarathinam can never be a menace to anyone,” I wanted to scream. But I realized that the immediate thing to do was to take him to a hospital. Tears welled up in my eyes. With great effort, I checked the emotional outburst that threatened to sweep me off my feet and rushed Nagarathinam to a hospital, where I had a friend who I felt would understand the situation and handle it appropriately.

All the while my mind was in a whirl. It seemed to be a teaser, just out of reach, challenging me to reach out for it. How could a man, believed to be dead for over seven years, be dying again on the pavements of Chennai. Did he have a double, a look alike? Or was I just having an illusion?

Only after the doctors examined him and pronounced that it was just a case of starvation and fatigue and that Nagarathinam would live, did I breathe freely. I could now get back home to my kids. I left word that I would be back in the morning and any change in situation should be intimated immediately at home and left.

But I could not forget him. His face, wan and worn out, his dirty clothes, his tragic plight haunted me and ultimately mingled with pictures of his dead body lying in the mortuary years back.

Dilemmas soon tossed me on their horns. Should I inform his family? What about his office? After debating the issues, I decided to wait till he regained consciousness and could explain matters.

Nagarathinam had been the pillar of our office. Though he was only a peon, there was nothing about the work at the office that he did not know. Our organization brought out a small magazine with minimal staff.

Whether it was proofreading, layout, filling, dispatching — these are the tasks that go into the running of the magazine — Nagarathinam was familiar with all of them. He personally knew everyone connected with our magazine, the contributors, agents, and the press and everyone knew and liked him.

Naturally, when the call came through that fateful morning, none of us was prepared for it. Someone informed me that Nagarthinam was lying in the office complex in a state of coma. He lay there, covered with nothing but someone’s coat.

Apparently, he had come to the office early to finish some work, had had a hemorrhage and in frenzy had torn off his clothes. Someone from a neighboring office who had also come early had found him and informed me.

At first his family had admitted him to a private hospital. But when the doctors said that it might take very long for him to come out of his coma, they shifted him to the General Hospital. “We can’t afford to treat him in a private hospital. All the medicines cost money”, his wife explained.

I visited him as often as I could and got to know his family members. I learnt then, how adversity brought out the worst in people and the ease with which the seemingly unbroken veneer of family bonds and ties broke down.

Nagarthinam had been a devoted father, always concerned about his children. He took interest in their education and upbringing, unlike many fathers who left all the cares of parenthood to their wives. He had also been an affectionate husband, tending his wife through two prolonged illness.

But, as he lay unconscious, I saw no gleam of concern or anguish in the faces of either his wife or his children. His wife, a termagant of a woman, complained, “There is so much work to be done at home. And, I am wasting my time sitting here, waiting for him,” she waved to Nagarthinam’s prostrate form with something like contempt, “To open his eyes. Who knows whether he will ever recover or not.”

I was taken aback. This was no Sati Savithri, I realized, fighting to get her husband back from Yama, the God of Death, “You only want to go back to your gossiping neighbors”, I thought.

His children were not any better. The eldest often grumbled that he was missing all his classes. Perhaps he was justified, I don’t know. But surely caring for a father battling against death, was just as important.

One day, when I visited the hospital, I was shocked to hear his brothers discussing what to do with his share of the property if he died, “His children are minors. As the eldest uncle I am the natural guardian, you know. I think all the property should be made over to me. Of course, until the boys grow up,” one man was asserting.

The others were arguing with him vehemently, each asserting his own right, until the nurse intervened to say that they should talk softly and not disturb the other patients. Such rapacious bastards, I thought. The man was still alive and already it seemed as if they had made up their minds that he would die.

Days passed to weeks and weeks to months. Slowly, the visits from relatives dwindled. His children stopped coming. Only his wife came once a day, almost as if it were a formality she was fulfilling. Nagarthinam was on bed number 6 now, a static figure in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of the general ward; visited only by the nurse who changed his sheets and checked his drips. He could easily have been mistaken for a corpse and many actually did. One patient in fact complained that a dead man had been left on the bed beside his.

But fate had other plans and, one day, when the duty nurse was checking on him routinely, Nagarthinam moved his legs. It was as if a corpse had moved. The young nurse shrieked and rushed to inform the doctor and a disbelieving family was informed.

Nagarthinam took another six months to improve. The hemorrhage had paralyzed a part of his left side. He could not move his left hand and could not talk. As far as his family was concerned he had only changed from being an inert corpse to a conscious one. All his wants had to be attended to and this annoyed his already irritated family.

“Why did such a thing have to happen to me?” his wife cribbed one day. “We were living quite happily. I’m sure he must have had too much drink and suffered a stroke. The doctor asked me if he drank regularly. All men are like that. They don’t care about the plight of their wives and family…” I was disgusted with the woman and came away.

The family’s reluctance to serve him showed plainly in their behavior and that pained Nagarthinam. It was horrible to see thus the strong, brave Nagarthinam, who was always encouraging us, when we were in troubled. I held his hand and consoled him as best as I could.

He recovered gradually and one fine day the doctors declared that Nagarthinam was ready to go home. How delighted he was when he heard the news. He was eager to get back to work. The doctor, with great reluctance, gave him a fitness certificate and allowed him to go to work, but with an escort.

But Nagarthinam found to his chagrin that his colleagues did not treat him as they used to earlier. “He is not able to do much work. We can ask for a younger, more active person,” said our boss. He was shocked that the office no longer thought of him as indispensable. He had worked hard and sincerely at his work and now, when he was ill, the office was trying to ease him out at the earliest.

“What’s the point in having him here. There’s no work he can do”, was a comment he was constantly hearing. His rejoining meant that they could not hire a casual laborer and so his work had to be done by the other peon who kept grumbling about the extra load. “It is unfair to make a person do someone else’s work when the other person is also drawing a salary”

“How often he has approached me in the good old days, to cover up for him, when he wanted to go early! Now, when I am in need of help he is murmuring. Ungrateful wretch!” Nagarathinam said to me, when things became particularly difficult for him one day. His son who escorted him to office everyday, also kept up a constant compliant that he was losing all chances of getting a job of his own as he had to accompany his father everyday. Nagarthinam began to feel depressed. He felt as if no one wanted him, he was redundant, useless.

“One person lying in serious condition in General Hospital. His papers claim he is Nagarthinam from your office. Can you send someone to identify him”, said an official voice one afternoon. Mani and Thenappan rushed to the GH. The face was unidentifiable, it was so crushed and shattered. Apparently, he had been run over by a lorry while returning home after one of his lonely walks in the night. The office, with unusual compassion to the family, processed his papers quickly, his wife was given his PF and gratuity and his elder son was offered his job on compassionate grounds.

“He is conscious and able to talk”, the nurse informed me. Coming out of my reverie, I hurried to see him. When he saw me enter the room, his eyes filled with panic. My smile calmed him somewhat. As soon as he was ready to talk, I asked him the question which had been hanging over my head all the time, “How did all this happen?”

“What could I do, madam”, he gestured. “I could see that I was a nuisance, a burden to everybody. My family were tired to caring for a sick man, my son was grumbling that because of me he was ruining his chances of getting a job, the office, which was my heart and soul all these years was more interested in getting a younger replacement.

I had been thinking how to resolve the situation. That night, while I was returning from my walk at night, a lorry hit a man in front of me and sped away. All I had to do was walk over to him and put my ID card in his pocket. You know the rest. I hope my family is happy now.”

This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).

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