A Story Told Of A Story Not Told

I had timed it. The walk from Royapettah (near Anna DMK office) to the end of Radhakrishnan Salai on the Marina Beach took an hour up and down. At a pace allowed by a pair of sticky eyeballs and an asthma playing up now and again.

The morning traffic on the Salai was light. Not many pedestrians either. I took to the small strip about 2 to 3 feet wide available between the side-walk and the outermost road-lane. While it offered a level surface – the side-walks are all ups and downs – and a free stretch save an occasional parked vehicle at this hour, one had to, however, constantly look out for not-so-uncommon rogue two-wheelers speeding down from the front on the same stretch.

This day I made it to the Beach and was returning when I saw him, a rag-picker, some ten feet ahead of me carrying a not-so-heavy sack thrown over his shoulders.

Even at my pace, I was able to catch up with him in a minute or two. In fact I went a couple of steps past him and then turning around I saw him. I judged him to be in early forties, but life had messed him up to look older. He was mussed up hair, unshaven and uneven stubble, high cheek-bones, a shirt that had more grime than fabric with the top buttons open or absent showing a chest just about covering the rib-cage. No chappals (foot-wear) and a lungi doubling up at the knees and wrapped around at the waist as southerners are seen to do. A full-body bath must have been weeks or months ago. He was sure-footed in his walk, his alert eyes looking all around for paper, boards, plastics that our honourable fellow-citizens deposited on the side-walks, road, anywhere.

The neural network in my head hummed and cleared him as safe. Had to be careful for a good reason: On the same stretch an year ago one morning in my walk I saw a destitute and unsound woman sitting on the side-walk and looking lost. Thinking money meant nothing to her, bought some idli’s and vada’s from a street-vendor. When I went near and offered her,she turned squarely to me and let out a loud stream of abuses, not all intelligible. I was both scared she might turn violent and embarrassed at the attention I was drawing from passers-by. Totally unprepared for the situation, quickly withdrew myself, feeling both sorry for her and helpless.  

Presently I slowed down, waited for him to pull up alongside and tapped on his shoulder. He was startled, perhaps unaccustomed to be accosted in this manner.

Still a little unsure of how he would react, took out a tenner and said: ‘Keep this, it’s for you.’

His gritty face slowly gave way to a smile. He set his sack down, took the rupee-note from me and folded his hands.

I could feel my sugar going down with no biscuits or toffees on hand. With another fifteen minutes to reach the base, decided to move on and not engage him in a talk as is my wont. Just then, noticed something I had not seen before. My friend of the morning had a black string tied in several strands on one of his legs just above the ankle. Already on the move, asked him what it was.

I heard him tell me, it was to ward off evil eyes!! Like the raksha we wear on our wrists.

As said I did not have the energy to pause and ask. Unfortunate, but, yes, missed drawing out a story lurking there – so the mystery endures till date who did he think was envying his lot! And why did he tie the raksha around the leg and not on the wrist as customary.   

End

PS: 1. Subsequently I did find at a least couple more, not rag-pickers, wearing it on their legs. May be it’s a practice followed in certain communities 2. The image is from The Hindu. For some reason, I did not feel comfortable about taking a snap of him.