Three in the afternoon but it's dark in Chennai, raining off and on. A cyclone is supposed to be on the way. One of those days when you just want to stay home and look out of the window and watch the coconut trees dance in the shower. Well, I am home: it's Sunday.
While I am sitting at home and writing this, there are people who are enjoying the weather (or climate, as many say) outdoors, by way of a long drive or a romantic walk on the beach or elsewhere. I don't envy them because I just had my share of outdoor experience: I walked down to the supermarket to stock up on cigarettes in case the cyclone gets too harsh on Chennai. It was a pleasant walk, I must say.
But I can't help sparing a thought for people who have to be outdoors, sunshine or rain. People like us, who are out in this lovely weather either on business or for pleasure, have the choice of returning home whenever the rain becomes too steady for comfort. But there are people who live on the footpaths, for who the comfort of watching the rain from the window is as distant as my dream of owning a villa in Cannes.
I am not talking about the pavement-dwellers in general: they constitute such a large chunk of urban India that if you start feeling sorry for all of them, nothing will be left of your heart to be spared for the women who come your way. I am talking of people like Senthil, who made the pavement his home out of choice. People like him are honourable citizens of the pavement, who neither beg for a living nor curse their fate or the government.
I worked with the New Indian Express group for seven long years; and of those seven, five were spent at the sprawling Express Estates on Club House Road off Mount Road, before the offices shifted to faraway Ambattur. Today, Express Estates has become Express Avenue, Chennai's biggest and plushest shopping mall, while Club House Road is now better known as the address of the hotel Taj Mount Road.
Taj Mount Road was still a skeleton of bricks when we used to look at it while sipping tea at Senthil's shop, and wonder if anything was ever going to come up there. For years it was just a skeleton: perhaps the site was caught in a legal dispute. Senthil ran a tea stall on the pavement just outside the main gate of Express Estates. The table on which his stove and various jars of biscuits sat during daytime became his bed at night. In 2006, when we said goodbye to Express Estates and moved to Ambattur, I wrote a post about Senthil.
About a year later, while we were drinking at a TASMAC bar in Ambattur, I learned that Senthil had died. It had been raining in Chennai, and one night while asleep, Senthil had rolled off the table and fallen on the ground. He lay unconscious for hours, maybe a day or two, but no one noticed him because heavy rains had kept people away from Club House Road. Finally he died, under the table on which he lived -- a citizen of the pavement till the last breath.
Then the other day, I was walking down Venkatanarayana Road in the afternoon, when I noticed a body laid out on the pavement under a tree. The body, in shroud, was kept inside a glass case, and a few people sat mournfully around it. Next to the glass case was a table, on which lay a heap of tender coconut shells and twigs. In the heap there were a couple of tender coconuts that were yet to be hacked open.
I found it odd that people should place their dead on the pavement and mourn publicly, so I made enquiries. It turned out that the body belonged to the tender-coconut-seller, who was found dead that morning on the pavement. He had a family: some of them lived in Chennai, some in Madurai. But he, for some reason, chose to live on the pavement, selling tender coconuts, right at the spot where Venkatanarayana Road begins (opposite T. Nagar Club. I wonder if any of you were ever his customers). The spot under the tree was his home, so it was only befitting for his body should be laid there, bedecked in flowers, while the family waited for his daughter to arrive from Madurai. So here was another life that was spent and that ended on the pavement. The sun and the rain are best friends of such people, though such friends, like any friend, can turn treacherous at times.