The Architect, points to the smooth, hardened stick reclined against the bluish wall.
“Sometimes, in the night, drunk auto drivers clamour outside the gates. And on some days, thieves pelt stones and bottles to scare people. That’s why, the stick.”
“I used to work as a contractor in construction. I worked for thirty-five years. The large statue at T.Nagar (a locality in the heart of Chennai) – that’s my work,” he says – with a tinge of nostalgia and pride, that come naturally with his experience.
“So why did you quit?”
At this point the tall, dark man rises from his plastic seat, and begins to pull up his crumpled, dirt streaked shirt that looks more brown than blue. He points towards two ancient bruises near his lungs, on either side.
“One day, while I was up on the scaffolding, I slipped and fell four floors. It was funny, because my children always hated it when I would be gone for hours. I wouldn’t listen. That was the last time I ever worked construction.”
The night watchman, is an ex-architect and contractor. The long shift hours and the blinding city lights have taken their toll on the sixty-seven year old veteran, as he sits hunched after another sweltering, dusty day in Chennai.
“I work from seven in the morning, to one at night. I go back home, and craft animals and birds out of cement.” He goes on to describe plastering, levelling of concrete and reinforcements. There’s a certain calmness that dominates the conversation – a confidence born out of decades of wisdom and experience, as he describes the lifetime when he was once king. His foggy eyes light up like a forgotten lighthouse on a forsaken island.
Unfortunately for me, an ex-civil engineer, all of this is distant memory – buried under years of smoking, drinking and my perverted attempts at wooing my ridiculously pretty girlfriend (which somehow worked.)
“So why don’t you design anymore?”
“I am old,” he smiles. “My hands shake, when I try to design. I can’t make those intricate fillet work anymore.”
“Tell me about your home, your family.”
For the first time, the watchman breaks character and smiles coquettishly. A dreamy look overcomes his calm confidence.
“I have a wife and four sons. All of them are married. Two of my sons drive ambulances for a hospital, and one of them is in IT. One of them has just found work with a contractor. He will grow up to be like me.” His voice trails off, as he begins to recollect the fond memories of his ancestral home. “I have a large farm, in my village. After my marriage, I moved to Chennai. I have a three floor building a few miles from here.” He beams in pride. “My sons tell me not to work. But I am a workaholic. I can’t sit at home,” he adds, the unmistakeable steadiness of a hardliner – evident in his voice.
“Alright, I will see you tomorrow then,” I stand up, getting ready to leave.
“You will, Sir.” He makes a small salute, and we shake hands after.
The thought of being in the same city for decades, in the same organisation, with the same faces around us is a scary one. We are an impatient generation that feeds on change – we revel in the presence of diverse options. For my part, I can’t imagine being tethered to the same faces every day. I can’t imagine going to the same shop, walking in the same aisles, picking up the same box of cereal and waving at the same store keeper on my way out. I mean, we have options for cat food flavours for Christ’s sake! And then there are these generations. The generation of workaholics and family men. The generations of these contract workers, and our fathers. He’s been in the same town for over thirty five years now – working in the same organisation, watching it fall, and rise from the brink of closure. He’s devoted close to a hundred thousand hours to the same chimneys, boilers and wagons – he’s breathed the same warm, coal dust and exhaust for decades – barking orders at generations of fractious workers and young engineers. Like clockwork, he puts on his red windcheater in the cold mornings, when a half asleep town is still stirring to consciousness. His shirts smell of the chemicals in the plant – streaked with coal dust and responsibilities. As a Deputy General Manager, he is responsible for running an entire section of the plant – occasionally meeting the presidents and sitting in press conferences. In the evenings, he visits the same store – the shopkeeper has lost most of his hair, and his son has moved to Bangalore. The fish seller has grown white with age, he still manages to drown out the soliciting cries of his competition. And then he returns home to the same woman he has been married to, for decades.
Relationships scare me the most. I can’t imagine being married to the same person, waking up to the same face, every morning of my life. And yet, there are couples like my parents – who have been sticking to each other for decades. A lifetime with Sampriti, is an intimidating prospect – because she is a beautiful woman, and I can’t imagine falling out of love with her. And yet there’s this looming presence of constancy that casts a shadow on the future of a relationship, whose fundamentals are based in loyalty, in a monolithic origin. I recall the hours spent in conversation, in convincing her, in putting her pieces back together after her abusive relationship. “What if?” I think to myself.
And that’s when she rests her head on my shoulder. There’s a silent understanding in her eyes, a silent reconfirmation of faith – that dates back to a hundred eternities. I find her faith in us, unshakeable – impregnable to the waves of doubt, to the storm of uncertainty that rages around our lives every day. Like a lighthouse in the middle of a tempest, she holds out her hand in a Dravidesque manner, weathering waves of hostility from the distance that separates us, from circumstances. Her infectious laugh cracks open the storm clouds of pessimism that have been looming over my skies. And then she pulls me closer.
Maybe, constancy is not that bad.
(The translator is a wiry young lad of twenty. With dreams. Of course.)