“T. Nagar, Kotturpuram, Ashok Nagar, KK Nagar”, shouted the driver’s assistant indicating to the passengers of the Madurai-Chennai TN State transport bus about the nearby areas.
I was catching up on a rare nap that had descended upon me after various positions of legs and back and hands were tried. The decibel level of the assistant was quite high and that woke me up with a startle. One of my friends, Karthikeyan, at the university hostel in Madurai, a native of chennai, had told me that T. Nagar is a place where there were plenty of lodges and economy hotels. I was looking at economy hotels because I had a mere Rs. 400/- with me. So, on hearing “T.Nagar” I jumped from my seat, picked up my proud Wildcraft bag perched on the luggage area in the attic of the bus sandwiched between a sack of greens and a Mylapore Coffee Powder cloth bag.
The bus just started moving when I felt the roads of Chennai with my bata leather chappal covered feet. It was supposed to be winter and only those born and brought up in Chennai could feel the cold. For a native Mysorean who took bath in hot water even if it were heat of 36 degree celsius, Chennai was the ultimate challenge. The blue jeans which was last washed during the rains at Madurai was beginning to feel the adverse conditions. It started sticking to my legs and made it an ordeal to walk through. Thankfully my University T-shirt was of the woven cotton material that banians are made of.
Why did I come to Chennai? Why should I have listened to her?
With the college bag hung on the right-side of my shoulder making a wierd clinking metallic sound of coins shuffling around, I walked through the road which was a curious mix of one-way traffic and both-ways traffic after a distance and one-way again after a few metres. Stranger than the road was the looks I got from receptionists at hotels along the road when I asked them for accommodation for a night for below Rs. 400/-. None of the hotels had a single room facility, only double rooms and they were all Rs. 750/- at the minimum. I didn’t want an AC, though I was having second thoughts about that, but there was very little that I could do about it considering my monetary position.
I am going to ask her to reimburse this for me. What does she think of me?
After almost a walk of about one kilometre and almost 5 enquiries, I hit upon what looked like a big old mansion. It was converted into something called “Nathans Lodge”. Though the building looked like it would collapse if there was an earthquake in Indonesia, it was almost fully occupied. The person at the reception looked at me from top to bottom and gauged the situation. “Do you have any rooms available?”
“Yes. Single or double?”
“Yes. AC or Non-AC?”
“What are your tariff rates?”
“AC single room costs Rs. 350/-. Non-AC costs Rs. 250/-”
Wow! Rs. 250/- is within my budget and that also means I save some money for my dinner and breakfast!
“The Non-AC single room is okay with me”
“Good. Pay the advance of Rs. 500/- now”
“What for Rs. 500/-?”
“Sir (with great difficulty he uttered that word) advance is generally paid for the double the number of days one stays here”
“But I don’t have so much money with me. I have only Rs. 400/-”
“”I need Rs. 500/-”
Just then I remembered the Rs. 137/- I had collected from that small orange box in the hostel into which I used to put all the change. And since I didn’t smoke, the change generally grew over time and required something special to be done to clear it off. I was carrying it along with me as emergency fund and this sure was an emergency! The sound of the bag reminded me of it.
“Is it okay if I pay the rest in coins?”
“Yeah”, said the receptionist with a look clearly showing that he thought I was a modern beggar or something!
“Then I will need to check into my room and then pay you. Because it’s all in a plastic cover. I ll ve to count it and pay you. For now, please accept these Rs. 400/- that I have”
“Ok. No problem. But I ll give you the receipt only after you pay me the remaining Rs. 100/-”
Dei thambi!”, the receptionist called out to the helper to guide me to my room.
A puny guy in an all-white uniform and a Nehru cap came up to us and gave me a strange look. He collected the room keys from the receptionist and started walking expecting me to follow his tracks. I did so.
Even though he turned the key open of the Link-brand lock, the door wouldn’t open. The latch was stuck. After some little muscular tiff with it, the puny guy opened the door with a victorious smile. Halfway through reciprocating his hardfought victory, my smile faded as I surveyed the room.
The walls though painted looked like they were washed with water too. The wet stains on the wall meant that the water pipes in the building were leaking since there were never any signs of rain in this part of the country. There was a bed with what-was-once-white bedspread, a table without a chair but with a bottle of water on it, a telephone and a dust bin. The washroom was of Indian style with a 3′x3′ space for bathing with a tap running cold water (Puny told me hot water taps were there only in the AC rooms. Quite sensible I thought. In this weather nobody else would even think of hot water. No! Not even a Mysorean!) accompanied by a bucket, mug and a small medimix soap.
The puny guy had heard the entire conversation with the receptionist, so he didn’t linger around for long in the room. By the time I had finished my survey he had dissappeared. After I closed the door behind him, I changed into my usual pyjamas and settled down on the bed to count the coins in the plastic cover. There were 15 Rs. 5/- coins, 21 Rs. 2/- coins, 13 Re. 1/- coins and 14 50ps coins. I somehow managed to make up Rs. 100/- through coins and gave it to the receptionist. He accepted it without any expression on his face and gave me the receipt. He had not even kept it ready by then. Probably he was unsure if I was going to cough up 100 bucks. Thankfully, there was no one around when I was giving that money.
I made a phone call at 11.30PM and spoke for approximately 45 minutes
in kannada. We were about to do something that the whole world would later see with a different eye.
I was in Chennai unknown to everyone else. I wasn’t supposed to divulge where I was to anyone. If only I knew! I was supposed to be at Egmore the next day morning that was all I knew. After finishing the letter, I slept. The journey had sapped me enough.
Got up early at 6.00AM and bathed and got ready by 7.00AM. Packed my bags, wore the same jeans and t-shirt combination and trudged along to the reception. There was a different person at the reception counter. Seeing the receipt, he returned Rs. 250 in notes. I was very happy that from a beggar I had become a somewhat respectable idiot. And the bag had stopped making those metallic sounds!
I got into the bus from the T.Nagar bus stand and was there at the Marriage Registration Office at 9.15AM. I was hungry but it all dissappeared on seeing her. She was there dressed resplendently in a white silk saree with a beautiful blue border. Her sister was standing next to her with the garlands.
Are we really going to do this? Is this all real or is it a dream? What will her parents say who have known me from childhood? My parents would understand but what about them? We have been schoolmates and neighbours and our parents know each others’ families very well. What will happen after this? Am I doing the right thing? Will the marriage work?
We went into the registration office. The officer was used to such clandestine stuff.
He asked, “Do your parents know?”
She said, “What do you think?”, looking straight into his eyes.
The officer didn’t speak to her again.
I had always admired her for her straightforwardness and practical thinking
ability. She was very practical and knew what is to be done in situations. But
it still surprised me that she would have said yes to something like this
that would hurt her parents the most. Especially her father who had a
heart attack once already.
The officer asked me to sign on the dotted line meant for me. I did.
And they went away married. I hoped and prayed that they lived happily in the future. I loved her still. Is it wrong? Is it right? I didn’t know. I don’t know.