The sun was there, up above, looking down over me with menacing wrath. A mask of thick sweat kept forming over my face, no matter how many times I wiped it. It was a random day in the season of summer, in the city of Chennai. Clothes stuck to my skin. My head itched. Tongue had dried ages ago. Eyes burnt. And a wave of irritation swept through my ears.
And to add to the torment, the bus stop was still a kilometer away. I looked around. Not many I could see. Almost all the shops lined on my either sides had their shutters down. The city appeared more or less deserted. Not much of traffic either.
And then I remembered.
Rajnikanth’s movie releases today. And when that happens, people don’t go to work. They go to theaters instead. Stay there an entire day, or maybe even two. Equip themselves with the superstar’s philosophical punches. Blow whistles at his entries and exits. And finally return to their workplaces having relished the South Indian entertainment thali.
But then, none of that mattered to me. I was thirsty. Pathetically thirsty.
At a distance from where I stood, like a blessing in the times of misery, appeared a four wheeled cart. The distance was too much to figure out what I had exactly seen, but too good to fuel my lackluster hopes. I footed forward under the veil of suspicious expectations. As I inched closer, a number of arrays of fruits materialized before me. The corner of the cart stationed a metallic machine with a rotating handle, beside which sat a basket full of ice cubes. My deceased spirit soared back to life.
I looked at the fruit vendor who stood by the cart, wiping his hands off with a soiled napkin. He was a stout man of medium height. Serious faced and dark complexioned. He wore a musty orange shirt and the pale blue pants overreached his short feet. His pitch black hair receded at the sides and a shabby beard ran along his rough jaw line.
Before I could enquire about the rates, he held his hand out to me and said, ‘anji nimsham iru..’ (wait for five minutes). He pulled out a packet from the bottom of the cart and walked his way to a stony bench over the footpath. He sat on it and opened the packet and devoured his meal with prime ecstasy.
I held the man with instant repulsion. For a moment, I thought of going somewhere else. Unfortunately for me, there was no one else around. I had to wait.
Minutes later he arrived. Tossed the packet cover by the side of the road and released a burp. A long one. He drank some water, gargled and spat it out on the roadside; and then looked at me. I showed my fingers to a pack of oranges. He picked a couple of them, peeled off their skins and crushed them into the machine. The juice slid down into a glass tumbler beneath. He flicked upon the ice box. He shoved his hand into it, picked a triple of ice cubes and sunk them into the drink.
I sipped the drink. My tongue hopped back to its existence; the pleasance was so big a wonder that I instantly forgave the man for his demeanour. I drained the tumbler and replaced it on the cart.
‘Muppadhu rubaa (Thirty rupees).’ He said grimly.
I stared at him scornfully. I claimed that a similar fruit vendor near my place offered double the quantity for half the price.
‘Appo angaye poi kudikavendi dhaana..(Then you could have better had your drink there itself)’, said the vendor flatly.
I extracted the money from my wallet and beat it onto the cart. He picked the notes and kept them inside his money box, without a care. He then let out another burp.
The next morning, I woke up with a heavy head and walked into the hall. I squelched onto the sofa and picked up the local newspaper that lay on the table. The front page headline caught my attention. An unknown man had given up his life trying to save three kids from being collided by a train on a railway track. Except for a part of his face, the rest of his body was mutilated in the accident but his remains were recovered.
A tattered orange shirt and pale blue pants; and the local people had indentified him to be a small time fruit juice vendor in the area.