Oh for a cup of coffee!

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My childhood nostalgia series – Chapter 3

Updated on November 12, 2014

(This incidence took place 50 years ago in my life at a small village in south India)

The village primary school had reopened after summer holidays. The euphoria of sitting in the benches of the 5th standard (while one had to be content sitting cross legged at the rough cemented floors in all the rest of the lower classes) was gradually waning. The class teacher-cum-headmaster, Rangu Sir, was at the verge of dozing off, after writing a few simple exercises in multiplication and division on the black board for the students to work out in their slates. The oppressive heat of the summer was yet to wane, and the forenoon sun at 11 AM was particularly harsh that day.

Unable to concentrate on the sums, I was simply gazing out aimlessly through the window, at the dusty road outside, where, other than a couple of stray dogs, there was virtually no traffic. Within moments, there was a sight of a bullock cart, turning left from the Agraharam and coming at a monotonously slow pace towards the school. It was unmistakably the bullock cart of the oil monger.

Though the oil monger was a weekly visitor to our street, we had never ever bought a drop of oil from him at our house. I had never seen him doing any brisk or major sale of oils with any householder in our streets. He carried 2 brass drums of oil (the contents of which, I never had a clue) along with a sack of oil-cakes. He used to ring the bell hanging over his head in the cart as an announcement of his arrival. I never noticed him calling out anybody to try or buy his oils, or exchanging any pleasantries with anybody, never ever smiling. His facial expression was always distant, as if he was executing a divine mission of circumambulating the street as sort of a penance for a past misdeed, seeking no reward what so ever for his weekly mission.

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He was too lanky for his generation, had a concave stomach indicative of his poverty, and always wore a dirty and greasy slack and an equally matching dhoti that had lost its whiteness ages ago. His bullock had an equally pathetic, impoverished look, and one can even compare its facial features with its master’s and trace out some distant relationship, perhaps a few births earlier.

Myself and my elder sister used to wonder how the oil monger ever made his ends meet with a tell-tale expression on his face that seemed to state a life-mission “I will never make a living out of selling oil”! We used to joke about his oily looks saying “At the end of the day, he will take out all the unsold Oil from his drums and smear it on his face!” or “He doesn’t really have any stock of oil in his drums: If anybody wanted oil from him, he will wipe it out from his face and sell it!”

While I was gazing at the bullock cart nonchalantly thinking about the oil monger, the cart was about 20 feet away from the school gate. The oil monger looked very sleepy and the sweat on his face was too profuse, adding an extra sheen to his oiliness. As I was wondering why the swaying of his head was disproportionately more than that of the cart, it happened.

The oil monger gradually collapsed, tipped sideways and fell down from the cart. Most surprisingly, the bullock, sensing some trouble, stopped instantly thereby miraculously thwarting the wheels from running over the lanky body of the oil monger.

I jumped up from my bench and shouted, “Sir! Sir! The oil monger has fallen unconscious from his cart!” A couple of other boys who too were gazing the road like me joined the chorus.

Rangu Sir, sprang up with a jerk from his siesta, looked around confused for a moment and then sprinted towards the road, accompanied by the other teachers of the lower classes. Three of them managed to lift the oil monger and bring him inside the Class Room. All the excited boys got up and buzzed around.

After scattering away the boys, the teachers managed to get some ventilation, asked a couple of senior boys to fan the oil monger with their slates and sprinkled water on his face. After a while, there was a sign of movement on his body, he half-opened his eyes and then closed again. Seenu Sir of third standard forced a tumbler of water in his mouth and half of it went inside and the rest spilled over.

“Must be hunger, coupled with the effect of the hot sun”, said Bhai Sir, the first standard teacher. “It would be better if we give him a cup of coffee”. Before any one could ask him to put the suggestion into effect, he slipped into his class room in the guise of taming the noisy kids. Seenu Sir nodded in agreement.

It now became the responsibility of the Headmaster to put the suggestion into practice. With an obvious look of displeasure, Rangu Sir searched his pocket reluctantly. He fished out a 4-anna coin (25 paise i.e. a quarter of a Rupee) in a slow motion, called out Ekambaram, the senior most student of the school (a distinction coveted by him by virtue of his staying power of 2- years-per-class) and sent him out with the coin to the tea shop a half-a-kilometer away.

Rangu Sir’s displeasure was not a matter of surprise to me. I happened to visit his house in the Agraharam on an errand one day. It was one of the most dilapidated old houses of the street, with no electricity connection. His wife opened the door and she looked like a skeleton wrapped in a saree. There was a crying kid with protruding eyes at her waist, another one without dress tucking at her legs and I could see two more boys and a girl inside the house all having a prominently protruding eyes, a sure sign of lineage from Rangu Sir. Every thing inside the house — the broken and meager furniture, the Aluminum vessels, the slits in thesaree, the scanty dress of the children — everything spoke of the meager income of the poor village school master .

When the coffee arrived in a ‘thooku‘, the oil monger was already half awake. He sipped the coffee nonchalantly, but the magic liquid did seem to pump in some life into his bland face after a while. There was only some mumbles and grunts from him for the queries from Seenu Sir. After about fifteen minutes, he felt fit enough to go. With his characteristic distant look and with no expression of gratitude what so ever, the oil monger rose up and walked unsteadily with an air that seemed to say‘be thankful to me, you guys, for giving you an opportunity to serve me‘.

Seenu Sir held his hand so as to accompany him safely to his cart and was about to move towards the gate when Rangu Sir signaled to him. Rangu Sir must have been bowled over by the absolute nonchalance of the oil monger. He pulled Seenu Sir aside and mumbled something into his ears. I was standing close by and I picked up what he said.

Even for a ten year old that I was, what he said was indigestible to me, and it was natural that Seenu Sir threw a look of exasperation and refused to heed to the headmaster’s suggestion. What I heard as whisper from Rangu Sir was this: “This thankless idiot is alright now. Ask him to pay up the four annas that we spent for the coffee”.

Had the story ended there, perhaps it would not have lingered in my memory this long. As we boys resumed to our benches with the depressing feeling that we could not escape completing the sums, Rangu Sir, called aloud. “Who was the one that noticed the falling of the oil monger from the cart and shouted?” I jumped up first in excitement in expectation of a few words of praise for the humanitarian act.

“Bring your slate!”

I went near him with my slate that looked as blank as my face.

“Hmmm…. Instead of working on the sums, you were gazing out at the street and whiling your time away. Hold out your hand!”

Rangu Sir let out his pent up steam of frustration caused by an act of charity thrust upon him on a ‘thankless idiot’ that made a hole of a quarter Rupee in his meager monthly income, by lifting up the cane and landing it like a thunderbolt on my tender palm.

-=o0o=-

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Notes:

oil monger : One who produces and sells edible oils traditionally.
Agraharam: A Street where Brahmins (people of priest class) traditionally lived in India those days.
Name+Sir‘ : A respectful way of calling teachers by south Indians.
Bhai Sir‘ : A Muslim teacher.
Thookku‘ : A Closed vessel with a sling to carry.
Slate‘ : A flat and thin slab of light-weight stone used by children those days to write (and erase quickly) (instead of notebooks).

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