Life's lessons are tough. And how. I still remember that morning like my coffee a few minutes ago. It was a Tuesday, about eight years ago. I made a beeline to a 'Darshini' near my PG accomodation. I had just moved in and was thankful the place was right around the corner from where I lived. The PG gig didn't have a kitchen and just so. I'm not a great cook either. Anyways, I got my stuff and got busy eating. As is my habit, I drifted into some thought eating. I was watching the cashier. There was something about him. His eyes, perhaps. They shone in a rare friendly light, little known in most cashiers I've seen. Most of them are just coupon dispensing machines and well, don't have the time for chitchat. Not this guy. He was treating customers like they'd come to his daughter's wedding. "Yen thogothira sir?" (And what would you like to have, sir?), "Poori try maadi ivathtu, special." (Try our poori saagu today, it's been cooked in a special way). I smiled and looked around, trying to figure if any of his warmth had rubbed off on the place. And it had. There was something different about this place. Everyone was relaxed. There were early office-goers too, who didn't seem very hard-pressed to
finish their breakfast and go. The cooks, kitchen help, everyone had a smile on their faces. And I was so pre-occupied, I never realized, my breakfast tasted good as well. It all added up.
Then from nowhere came in an old, frail tramp, clothes in tatters and stinking. He stood near the cashier and they got talking. His voice rose occasionally, while the cashier answered his queries patiently, with a quiet nod. I frowned. This was strange. It was good that the cashier was friendly but this was taking goodness a little too far. I heard the kitchen hands speak in whispers, like this was a daily affair. The tramp was demanding something now, but our man just shook his head quietly again. Then one of the guys (obviously a right hand man there) came out the kitchen, carrying some food on a plate and gently took led the tramp out by his hand. The tramp shouted in kannada. "I'll see you yet. You don't know who I am. You can't do this, you know". The cashier just smiled, a wee bit embarrassed and turned to the visitors, as if to say, "please continue eating, this is no big deal."
But I couldn't contain my curiosity. And this was a good time to make friends with him. After all I was going to be a regular here.
"Who was it, sir?"
"Ah, it's nothing." He counted my change and returned it to me. I didn't press further. Maybe now wasn't the right time to talk about the tramp.
Over the year, I saw the tramp frequently, not just in the Darshini, but also in the neighbourhood, generally shouting orders and talking to himself. Hmmm, so he was not just any tramp. He was also crazy. A few months later, as I and the cashier got to know each other better, on a weekend, he told me about the tramp.
"You wondered why I'm so patient with him, right?"
"You would too, with someone who offered you a job and gave you a shelter."
I was nonplussed. He chuckled and said softly. "He was my boss."
My "c'mon you must be kidding' look invited more chuckles from him. "It's true. He was my boss. And this darshini? It belonged to him once upon a time."
I was too shocked for words. He gave me some time for the truth to sink in, smiling all the while.
He asked one of his guys to take over and we held a cup of coffee each in our hands and stood outside, in the morning sun.
"I was an orphan when I moved to this city, several years ago. I had an uncle who was supposed to take care of me, but fled, leaving me and my little sister to fend for ourselves. Can you imagine how it is? Two children, without anybody, anything. I picked rag for a while. Begged even. I didn't know what to do. But my parents had taught me to live life honestly. To work hard. This tramp you saw? He used to run this place. He gave me the job of a dish-washer here. I washed dishes by the day and learned cooking the rest of the time. Well, soon I saved enough to send my sister to school. And some other guys helped me out, so I attended evening school for some time as well. They all raised me, so to say." He smiled again.
"But he was very arrogant. He ran this place like a jail. Everybody hated him. And even the customers. But, somehow he managed to keep it running for more than 10 years. I grew up dreaming of becoming someone big. I myself don't remember how all these years went by. I quit this place when I grew up. I worked at another place as a cook. Then I graduated to handling the supplies. And then managing. I would hear about my ex-boss every so often. That he'd gotten himself into serious debts, started gambling and the like. Then one day I came back. I told him I'd manage things for him. But it was too late. He had to close down shop as he couldn't handle the debts. He lost his mind. His family disowned him." he sighed.
"I did well for myself and some years ago, freed this place of all the debts and bought it. I even offered him a job here, but his arrogance hasn't left him, even if his whole family has. So I do what I can to repay the initial kindness he showed on me. After all, how can you turn away someone who fed you when you were hungry? Someone who, immaterial of how cruel a person he was, gave you shelter? So I feed him every now and then. I offered to get him a place to stay, but like I said...arrogance. He has no place to go, and no institution will take him either." His eyes moistened a bit now. I felt bad that I made him remember his painful past.
As I left that morning, I realized how important it is to remain a human at any cost. And this was gratitude unheard of. I was humbled.