After shunting between several rented houses in Chennai, the feeling of getting my own house was indescribable. I didn’t have to pay more per unit of electricity anymore. I didn’t have to make sure I was home before 11 PM before they closed the main gate, which made the late night movies impossible. And I didn’t have to tolerate the scorn of people living in the other portion when I smoked outside my rented house. Or so I thought. We shifted to a gated community in which I had bought an apartment two years back. After paying both EMI and unreasonable rent for two years I was elated to move in to the finished apartment. It was slightly outside the city limits. But on the upside, I got to witness the full moon and stars closer than ever and watch the hesitant steps of sparrows in our balcony looking for water and rice. I had thought they had vanished from the face of earth. I didn’t have the responsibility to lock the main door anymore and switch on and switch off lights as the day fell and we went to sleep. Someone took care of all those things.
On the day of yagna for the new house, the priest asked us to bring the security from the security gate. He was to bring a white pumpkin, take out all the evil eyes that were on us by making a circular motion from where he stood and break it outside the apartment complex. The yagna happened very early in the morning. I was sceptical to disturb the security person. But as soon as the security guard saw me, he understood and came with me. Apparently they had got used to it. When the lift which carried us stopped in third floor, where we lived the security guard whispered to me “200 Rs sir”. I turned to him with question in my eyes.
“They usually give 200 Rs for this sir” he said. I smiled and lead him to our house. I paid him what he asked for after he finished his job.
“If what you say is true, don’t mind waking me up next time someone has yagna in their home” I said to the bewildered security guard. “I was just kidding” I added seeing his reaction. He didn’t believe me. I asked him to have breakfast with us that day which we had arranged for guests. I learned his name was Durai. I rode down the lift along with Durai. He was still afraid that I was trying to take his share out of the small money he made off circling the white pumpkin. I just wanted to have a smoke. The December cold was piercing through my bones. We saw a man standing with a cow and its calf, decorated with garlands and red dots in its forehead. Durai let out a smile indicating that he knew the man. They exchanged pleasantries.
“What was that about?”
“He is the local milk man sir. Most of the people think that it is auspicious for the cow to go in the new house during particular time of the day. If it urinates inside the house, then it is even better. He brings his cow for such people. He charges 500 Rupees.” Durai added the information about his charge to make it look like he was charging way less than he should be.
It is a good business, I thought. The apartment complex had totally 910 apartments. If everybody followed the same faith, the person would earn more than four and half lakh rupees. Even if it is for one time.
“Good for him.” I said.
“This is his only business as of now sir. People don’t buy cow’s milk or curd from people like him. Everybody feels safe when things come in plastic wrappers.” I thought of a counter argument. Then I thought of the milk, curd and even the pooja things I had bought for the yagna were from super markets, neatly packed in plastic bags which were for me to clean it up after the day. I just nodded and found a secluded space to smoke.
I had barely inhaled two puffs when a rough voice disturbed me. “You shouldn’t be smoking here” it said.
I turned around to see a person of my age. Only he was fit for his age which immediately made me envy him which progressed to dislike in mere seconds. I could have nodded and put the flames to rest. But because of the dislike stemmed from his fitness as well as the sense of authority I decided to play for a while.
“Why?” I asked.
“This is not a place to smoke.”
“Then where is the place to smoke?”
“You have to find it yourself or get help from the people who sold you this place”
“I will. When they come open their office. I am not hurting anyone” I said.
“Not that you know of. Just go away”
My mother called me from the home thinking that I was in the hall way. The low occupation rate in the apartment complex meant that even the whispers sounded like Dolby stereo song. I stomped the cigarette and walked to the stairs. I wanted to exert all the frustration through some physical work and also to notifying him that I am used to exert my muscles even if it was only through walking up the stairs. I heard him mutter something but I chose to let it go.
The apartment complex was right in the middle of a cultivation area. I didn’t know what they planted, but when I crossed those fields my winter clothing were of no use. There were so many new businesses in the area. The tea shops, the small hotels with two tables serving idlies and poories for dirt cheap prices. Even though the locality had a very rural atmosphere to it, we got all the facilities in relatively cheaper rates. The only gripe was the road leading to my apartment complex was poorly lit and my commute to the office was extended more than an hour one way. I opted to work from home. There was a nice walk way just behind the stairs and it had a small bench too. It was relaxing to smoke sitting there. But the stern security guard walked past it at least twice in an hour. And whenever he saw me smoking he made a big fuss. He tried to put up a no smoking board but I took my laptop and sat in the bench in guise of working and complained that fixing noise distracted me. Being one of the early occupants and my recommendations for their property in Instagram and Facebook, the management just asked him to take it easy.
Working from home was not very easy and I had the urge to smoke more often. The very fact of relaxing with a cigarette in hand brought me few minutes of argument with a security guard put me off. I stopped buying cigarette packets and started taking my vehicle out, drive 700 meters to nearest tea shop and smoke there. The shopkeeper lady brought her son who had breathing problem to shop every day. As soon as I light my cigarette, he would start moaning “Amma… Amma..” I didn’t understand the logic behind selling cigarette with an asthmatic son in the shop.
One such day, I saw Durai walking down the road. He was almost unidentifiable without his uniform. I called him out and offered to buy him a cup of tea. He settled for a coffee.
“What are you doing here sir?” He asked as he sipped his coffee.
“That security guard of yours, he is getting on my nerve. I have to come here thrice daily just to have a smoke” I said.
“Thangaraj Annan” Durai said. “He can be like that sometime. I have a lot of respect on him. As kids we all wanted to be like him. He was very good at cricket. He was our Dhoni.”
“So you guys grew up together? I thought you were just colleagues”
A sudden shadow of sadness fell upon Durai’s face. “The land your apartment is built, it was ours few years ago. We cultivated potatoes, nuts and sometimes rice. But suddenly the real estate people had their eyes on our land. And now it is what it is”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say something to comfort him. But I had already bought him a coffee. I didn’t know what else I could do. I chose to listen.
“Thangaraj had a great dog. He called him Chinna. Pure Rajapalayam breed. It would chase away all the small dogs or the cattle which chose our fields to graze. Those were days. Now Thangaraj Anna has become very moody. They had bought his land for a pittance and sold it in premium price. He is worried about the other lands which surrounds the place.”
“I didn’t know all that. The old documents said it was part of refinery few generations ago. Isn’t it illegal to build on cultivating land?” I asked.
“The refinery was located few kilometres further down the road. In old days we were two different villages, my grandfather used to say. They had just wrote it the way they saw fit”
“Do you mean, there wouldn’t be any problem for me? I have invested my life savings and pledged 20 years further of my life for that 700 square feet”
Durai laughed. “Don’t worry sir. The law won’t mind us. It has its own head ache. The builders are untouchable in its view and we are invisible”
“Do you know any way that I can avoid Thangaraj? It is getting tedious to even smoke in a house which I think is mine”
“We are only allowed to check in the parking area. You can go smoke in terrace. But the terrace gate will be locked by ten at night”
“Oh! That is not a problem. I don’t smoke after dinner.” I said to him as if he would think me as a chain smoker. I didn’t know why I wanted to have his approval.
I offered Durai to drop off in the apartment. He got down few meters before the main gate. Apparently the management didn’t want their security guards to get very familiar with the tenants.
I had taken the terrace to smoke per Durai’s idea. The view was mesmerizing. The lone concrete structure stood in the middle of various shades of green and brown. There was even a small pond at the farthest right I could see. Particularly on winter mornings the dew stayed a bit longer on the trees and leaves and above the fields. The sharp contrast of people who got ready for the pongal in the cultivating fields and the North Indian workers who were getting ready to bring up the next concrete structure next to our building co-existed without any problems. I couldn’t even imagine how our place would have been, if not not for the four story row buildings. I didn’t know if it would be even civilized to feel happy that I bought a flat in this complex.
Thankfully I didn’t have a run in with Thangaraj again. However, I was interested in his back story. I didn’t dare to ask him though. The nights were particularly beautiful to look from the terrace. It was like looking at the shore from the ship. The lights and the vehicles appeared so far and the wind that blew was unadulterated giving me a floating sensation. To be fair, I enjoyed each and every day I lived in my new house. It hardly felt like three months.
It was just another day for me, when I was smoking in the terrace. It was full moon day and for some reason the moon was red in color. The summer hadn’t started yet. Mother had not yet prepared the dinner. Thangaraj walked up to the stairs. When I looked at him, I was not sure if I had to stomp out my cigarette as I had just lighted it. He had come to lock the terrace door. I looked at him with question in my eyes. He motioned me to continue and stood next to me, silently looking at the moon.
“It is beautiful. isn’t it?” I said to him.
“You should have come here few years back. The view was breath taking.”
“More than this?” I couldn’t imagine a better night. It looked perfect.
“What can I say? Usually by this time of the year we would have finished our harvest and would have planted for the next term. The seeds would have germinated a little bit and the greens will show their heads just above the water. With so much of water in the field there would be lot of frogs and they bring in lot of snakes with their croaking. The same moon would reflect in the water in the fields. It would be like some child made uneven slivers of a cake and had put it in each field. The wind would be cool and moon was our only source of light. The big tree, under which you smoke outside the gate…”
“Have you seen me there?”
“Yes. I have. We would sit there and have our dinner with family. Chinna would be so happy to have fresh air. He will be in a very playful mood.”
“I guess, I would never experience such a thing in my life”
“It is better in a way sir. Much better than having a taste of it and taken away from you”
“Listen. I am sorry for your loss. When Durai and you speak about it I feel like I am guilty”
“You don’t need to feel that way sir. It is just the way it is.”
“The same story. They came. They saw. They liked. They somehow convinced all other landowners to sell the land. Ours was a very small pack of land. We didn’t have any other choice. They promised me a job, money and one more favour. The money got over in two years and the job…” he ruefully pointed his uniform.
“And the dog? Sorry…Chinna”
He looked at me. “You have to know something. I don’t hate you or the fact that you are smoking. You are just roasting yourself. And you don’t want to get help. I get it. Chinna passed away. They allowed me to bury him in our land itself.”
“I am sorry.”
“I convinced the engineers to put a bench over the grave. That way nobody would walk over him.”
“Yes. The same bench where you sat and smoked. That was why I got bit emotional when you smoked there.”
“I am so sorry”
“You can smoke all you want from tomorrow. Our contract with this facility ended. The consultancy is moving me to a different property. Durai said it was a good place”
I should have apologized. But I was not entirely sure if it was my fault. However, I didn’t smoke in the apartment complex since then. The new security agency people were scolded for letting a tenant hammer the “No Smoking” board throughout the parking lot.