‘As they say right, money goes with money,’ I said without a tinge of envy.
‘How do you mean?’
‘I hear Harish’ sambandhi (bride’s father) is a politician here. And you know what that means.’
‘No, No, you don’t know Varadan Sir. He’s not like others. People here like him, respect him…I’ve not yet had the occasion to see him.’
We’re a bunch of class-mates from school, gone different ways later in life. But we do try to meet up on happy occasions such as this wedding of Harish’s son. Coming in a little early at the wedding hall, here I was ‘gupping’ with Raju, a cousin of Harish and a pucca local.
‘It was entirely due to his herculean efforts, the newly laid trunk road segment now passes through our town. Coming from Chennai, it is now Pudur to our Vaeppakkam to Medu and through to Trichy. Why, you must have reached here taking that road. How did you find it?‘
‘Yes, it was very convenient. Saved me a lot of time and bother as I didn’t have to change buses at Pudur and all that. You know what, Raju? I had always thought it was most logical and shortest for the road to go this way to Trichy. I’m glad wisdom finally prevailed. So what is the big deal about Varadan Sir making it happen?’
‘Oh…there was a hare-brained plan almost finalized to run this road some twenty miles to the east punching through Kollanpatti completely bypassing Vaeppakkam again.’
‘So he succeeded in bringing to you more noise, fumes, drunken driving and possibly accidents not to speak of a host of law and order problems?’
‘Consider the enhanced connectivity and convenience brought by buses plying this way. Faster movement of goods, easier access to Trichy. You saw those eateries lining the trunk road and a few lodges…vehicle repair-shops? All generating good number of jobs. You would have also seen a good number of peddlers on foot busy selling flowers, cool-drinks, biscuits and toffees, balloons and toys and what-not at the bus terminus. The road and the private/public vehicles on the road have added a totally new dimension to commerce in this small town. We would have lost out all these had they bypassed us. Whatever you said is a small price to pay.’
‘I was kidding, my friend. I told you I found it very convenient. It is well-established better connectivity means better services and more commerce. But tell me why were they planning to bypass you incurring a lengthy and meaningless detour via Kollanpatti?’
‘You know, initially this was the route the highway guys had planned when the project and funds were sanctioned as part of the state’s initiative to improve connectivity through incremental efforts.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘Some crazy guys from here went up to the District HQ at Trichy making a hue and cry about the planned route overrunning their agricultural land argued for shelving it or finding an alternative. The authorities buckled and redrew the lines completely missing Vaeppakkam. When Varadan Sir got wind of it, he took it up with the babu’s. He fought it out for nearly a year to get the original plans restored. And it took another year to construct the road. ’
‘How did he win?’
‘Well, I don’t know how he managed it – he must have compiled a strong case for it.’
Just then quite unexpectedly a voice said: ’I can tell you what happened if you let me…’
The voice belonged to a stranger, probably in his mid fifties clad in a spotlessly white dhoti and kurta, seated couple of rows right behind us within earshot. He had the manner of being important belonging to the bride’s or the groom’s party.
‘I don’t mean to butt in. I just happened to hear your talk…you see there’s nothing else to do here with no one around yet. Besides, I happen to know…’
In smaller towns, a chat on a public figure cannot remain private.
Unsolicited, he jumped right in and told us all resistance was finally won over by the simple expediency of quadrupling the compensation payable to the affected land-owners. Even this solution was at Varadan Sir’s suggestion.
My opinion of Varadan Sir, the politician, moved up by a few notches.
Our stranger-friend suddenly lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper: ‘Would you know not a blade of grass grew on that land?’
We chorused: ‘So it was a mere drama played out by the land-owners for a higher compensation for their land that didn’t…?
He looked around and hushed us down: ‘There were no land-owners save one collecting the wind-fall compensation. ’
Seeing no light on our face, he continued: ‘You must have gone to see puppet shows? In there do you know why Rama fights the ten-headed Ravana?’
We didn’t see the connection: ‘Why? That’s the way the story goes.’
‘No, it’s only because the puppeteer so pulls the strings and arranges the fight. It is entirely another matter why he does that – yes, because the story goes that way.’
Now it dawned: ‘OMG, you don’t mean the whole thing was stage-managed from the beginning?’
He nodded with a smile seeming to say ‘Dumbos, now you got it.’
Is life like those TV mega serials or the other way around?
Raju was properly hurt at the insinuation: ‘No, my friend. If you’re implying Varadan Sir was behind it, let me tell you all this compensation from the government – must be small change for him. In fact he has enough, I hear, to compensate the government.’
Precisely at that moment the marriage party of the bride entered the hall for the finale.
Some men from the party rushed to the side of our stranger-friend:
‘Sir, we were looking for you all over the place. Something to be done here? Tell us, we’ll take care of it. Today your place is by the side of your daughter, Varadan, Sir.’
Varadan, Sir? Bride’s father? The man we were talking about?
Before joining them our stranger-friend turned around and winked at us: ‘Sorry guys, I pulled this on you. You gave me an entry that was too hard to resist. My apologies again. Do stay back for the wedding till the end and bless the couple. Wont’you?’
We nodded weakly, looking redder than a ripe tomato. Luckily I didn’t think I said anything scandalous about him beyond his own account.
He left us standing with ‘And Raju, thanks for standing up for me. I appreciate it.’
I received a ‘I told you so’ look from Raju.
I was on my bus ride returning to Chennai, my eyes on the rural landscape rushing past and thoughts swirling in my head. Quite naturally I went back to the chat with Raju and Varadan Sir. A rogue thought entered my mind: If a story is so plausible with no loose ends, might it be the truth? Told perhaps by the man’s vanity? You know vanity sometimes is more potent than any truth serum.
The line of thought did not persist for long, dissolving into the cute distraction the child was in the seat in front.
PS: babu’s = bureaucrats, pucca = completely, purely, gup = talk with no serious purpose, Rama and Ravana are from the epic Ramayana, Dhoti and Kurta = men ‘s wear.
Credits: Images from thealternative.in (international-folk-festival-yakshagana-ancient-art-puppetry-lives), openclipart.com (Highway gsagri04), R. K. Laxman‘s cartoons and the net.