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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Relay Race- short story

Our town might have had one of the best engineers to design the gates of ‘Queen Victoria Park’. Since my childhood days, thousands of kids have swung on the iron gates and it still stands majestically holding my grandson between its slender vertical bars. The huge boughs of the Peepal tree near the gate fanned in the scent of fried cashew nuts sold outside by few black skinned, gray haired ugly-looking women. As a reflex to Peepal tree’s call, my hand scanned my shirt pocket. Scanning my shirt pocket is an easy job; it hardly holds an old fountain pen, a small pocket diary scribbled throughout with random information, a small bit of ‘to be bought’ items list written legibly in my wife Gayathri’s handwriting, few coins and few rupee notes totalling a value less than one hundred. My hand pressed my pocket, like Dr.Seetharam does with his chill stethoscope during winter fever. With the five rupee coin excavated from my pocket, I walked briskly towards the gate. The thin summer air was thick with the scent of cashew. In exchange of that five rupee coin, I got a small pack of cashew nuts and a murmur from the wry ugly face “now a days you wont get a cup of water for five rupees and people want cashew nuts..”. Ignoring the comment, I gently opened the shabby pack revealing bright yellow coloured cashew nuts. I took one cashew; it looked like a penguin with a broad hip and a narrow neck; its curved neck was charred due to excess heat from the clay ovens in the thatched roof huts of those ugly women. Appreciating the beautiful symmetry of cashew, I felt the fine dimples spread over its golden yellow surface. I happily allowed my appetite empty the packet. I slowly unwrapped the paper cover that till few minutes back held those daffodil cashew nuts. One side of the wrapper was decorated by a black and white photograph of some actress, whose name I don’t remember. The other side had a quote of Albert Einstein about Mahatma Gandhi. I carefully tore along the black lines embroidering the quote and slid it into my shirt pocket; who knows, someone might have thought that I’m actually storing the photograph of that actress; but I don’t really care what others think about me.
When I got up to deposit the remaining wrapper safely inside municipality’s never-cleared dust bin, I saw Vichu (Viswanathan) coming towards me from the park library. Soon we were sitting in the concrete bench under the neem tree, the one which we have been sharing for hundreds of evenings since our retirement. “Ha Nana (Narayanan) where is your grandson Ramu?” When Vichu asked, I realized that I had forgotten Ramu for quite a while. Startled, I turned back and was relieved to see the iron gates still holding him between its vertical bars. Pressing his palms on the concrete bench, Vichu bent back to relax his posture and enjoy the neem breeze. Breaking the silence, he farted, controlled explosions in the park air. May god bless all the holy hands that planted the trees around us which instantly purified the air contaminated by Vichu’s emissive presence. The Peepal tree’s breeze this time cleared the odour and relieved me the effort of wrinkling my nose tip. Vichu spared an unembarrassed casual smile, stroked his belly and said “today’s culture….”
I was surprised. In general, eye brows broaden in response to pleasant surprises and vice versa. This time, my eye brows contracted when Vichu attempted to reason out today’s culture for his invisible gas bubbles. Relieving my surprise, Vichu continued, “Today’s culture has ruined our lives. Those days, we had healthy food; spinach and vegetables that grow above the earth’s surface enriched with positive energy. The diet was balanced then. But, today’s culture have shifted towards pizzas and coke, hardly my daughter-in law cooks vegetables. Mention not the technological demons. The food, already poisoned with artificial chemicals is cooked with microwave. And what remains is only gas trouble and stomach ulcer.”
Being a part of retired men association, such bane for technology is not new. I think the hatred for technology stems out from the ignorance of not understanding the same.
“Vichu… I agree with you that our eating habits have westernized. But, weren’t we different from our previous generation? May be we didn’t had pizzas, but we adopted chappathis which were not a part of any of our parent’s dinner menu. The increased work pressure has decreased the available time and energy and hence increases the sales of packed foods. And about your curse on microwave oven, Vichu, don’t you remember how upset your father was when you bought the gas stove. He feared that the inflammable gas stove may one day shatter the whole house into pieces. We were different from our previous generation and so are this generation from us.” Gayathri’s words echoed in my ears. Once when I was upset with my son, Gayathri told me, “You were not like what your father expected and your son is not like you expect him to be.” Gayathri might have mentioned it casually. Truth, even if casually mentioned is indispensable.
Vichu was silent for a moment; may be his emotions were pricked by my mentioning about his father’s displeasure on gas stove or perhaps he was in agreement with my argument.
“But Nana…”, Vichu continued “Its not just about food. I’m talking about overall degeneration of this generation. It’s disgusting to see people being stingy in their costume and still be unabashed of it. Disco clubs and night-out parties have become a part of family life. Movies and internet spread venom and people are trapped into it.”
“Vichu, I think there is some problem in our viewing the next generation. We are unable to accept changes and at the same time we fail to realize that we ourselves had introduced some changes in this society. Talking about costume, our previous generation wore only traditional dhoti. Did you continue that? In fact, you were the first one to wear bell-bottoms in our college. I still remember your blushing when kamala told that you looked like Rajesh Khanna when you wore that coffee-brown colour bell-bottoms and tiny executive check, long collared full sleeve shirt. It’s a matter of fact that our social system is changing, may be the rate of change of social life is faster in this generation than ours.”
Vichu interrupted before I finish, “Nana, you mean to say that everything is allright?”
Evening sun had already started fading. Ellipsoid bulbs of sodium vapour lamp came to life giving birth to continuous flood of yellow light attempting to compete with the setting sun over the local area of concrete bench. Vichu’s discontent on my supporting this generation was visible in his facial changes, now illuminated by the monochromatic light flowing through the translucent (once transparent) glass panes of the sodium vapour lamp.
“Vichu, I’m just trying to say that every element in this society is changing. Few years back, we were the source of change and we didn’t realize then that we were changing. Now, when this generation is changing, we become mere observers. According to our parents, we were not right and according to our grandparents, our parents were not right. If you extend the time scale into both past and future, you would always observe that the older generation is reluctant to the changes of the present generation. And whether such changes are good or bad, we can’t comment. Because what we witness as changes are just symptoms, symptoms of something bigger and sacred. Yes, all these changes are just symptoms of another slow invisible change of our society’s value system. Among the infinite changes in technology, social life, dress, eating habits etc, some may positively influence and contribute for the betterment value system and some may not..”
Ramu came running to hug me, with soiled shoes and sweat laden T-shirt. When Ramu hugs me I forget everything, even my line of thought; but this time I didn’t and continued, “Vichu... Life is like a relay race, each individual run only for a certain distance and handover the baton to the next. Similarly, each generation run a certain distance holding the baton of ‘change’ and hand it over to the next generation. So, lets not worry about this relay race, but shall try to channelize the these changes to the overall objective of a better value system for future.” Vichu this time appeared to be relaxed and extended a smile. We walked towards the iron gates built by an unknown ‘best engineer’.
We crossed a couple of young men in their thirties, who might have come to the park with their kids and probably were returning then. In that silent atmosphere, amidst the soothing music of Peepal tree, those voices were clearly audible. In a hoarse voice one of them spoke, “these kids... God, they are no way like our generation. How nice we were as kids? I am really scared about the future of this new generation.”
Vichu pressed my hands, a gentle sign of approval…