by Mahadevan Ramesh

Kuppanna has been following the same darned routine for thirty years now - day after day after day. It is almost as if he is programmed to go through each one of his steps. What am I saying? Come August, it will be exactly thirty five years since Kuppanna migrated to Madras from his native Karnataka. He could still remember that momentous evening when he and his young wife got into a desolate Madras Mail, with nothing more than a vague hope of striking it big in Madras. As he waved a big goodbye to his teary-eyed mother, he remembered telling her that it was a purely temporary move and that they would come back to Karnataka very soon. Once in Madras, one thing led to another. His relatives put him in touch with a Ramachandra Iyer, a fellow Karntakan who had already established his own "Company". Kuppanna not only bonded with Iyer in a trice, but also discovered a family or two they both knew back home. The Big Boss offered Kuppanna a clerical job,
which Kuppanna readily accepted and started work the very next day. He didn't even bother to discuss the terms of his salary.

Back then, the 'Company' was simply called 'Ramachandra and Sons Lorry Service' and was just a sum total of two rickety lorries, plying interstate cargo. In the thirty odd years, the company grew in size and stature - still drawing most of its employees from Karnataka. It eventually became 'Star Transport Company', with a huge warehouse and an office space in the Industrial Estate (with neon signs) and a fleet of shimmering new trucks. Somewhere along the line, Iyer handed over the
reins - or in this case, the steering rod - to his son, Krishna, who was about ten or so years younger than Kuppanna himself. Over the years, Kuppanna had developed a strong sense of loyalty to the company and in particular to the Iyer family - after all, he saw it all happen.

I am digressing. Weren't we talking about Kuppanna's routine ? Every single day he would rouse himself up at the crack of dawn, even as his family members still slept. He would start his day by looking pointedly at the portrait of Lord Raghavendra hanging from the far wall. Then he would pray silently, his head bowed, for the well being of his entire family. After his bathroom rituals, he would put on his sweater and muffler - see, even Madras can get cool in the mornings - and would step out to get milk from the kiosk at the street corner. In the days past, the milkmen would bring their cows and buffaloes to the very corner and milk them personally, under the watchful eyes of Kuppanna - hey, you blink once and these unscruplous milkmen had already dumped a liter of water into the milk. In those days, after getting the milk, Kuppanna, being religious
as he was, would touch the cow with deference and then touch himself, asking the cow-goddess to bless him and his family. When he got really lucky, the cow would lay a pile of dung and he would scoop a handful and carry it to his home like it was some kind of a trophy. Not only was it a holy thing, but it could also be used for a thousand things in the kitchen, right from cleaning the floor to burning up in the clay oven. These days, it is all irreligious plastic pouches for milk and Kuppanna
would occassionally wonder if the milk even came from a cow.

He would then set out to read 'The Hindu', during which time his wife would have already brought him a cup of steaming hot coffee. At around 7.00, the hot water would be ready and Kuppanna would stride into the bathroom for that invigorating bath. After emerging from the bathroom, Kuppanna would apply a liberal dose of sacred ash and kumkum on his forehead that he would look like some kind of a holy man. He would then utter his prayers till the news came on the radio, at which time he would nag his wife to set his plate so that he could eat and leave. Yes, he was already getting late. Even though he has never been late, he always felt that it was going to happen one day - that one day when he was least expecting it. He really believed that if it were not for his constant prodding and disciplining, his wife might actually slack off and delay him.

Then he would grab his umbrella, his lunchbox and a decrepit all-purpose bag and bid goodbye to his wife and all the smiling, benevolent gods on the far wall. His wife would then hand him a few rupees for his daily expenses and Kuppanna would hurriedly hide them in a secret pocket he had especially stitched in all his shirts. Finally, he would stand at his gate
for a split-second - just to make sure the omen was good when he stepped out. If by chance, a black cat crossed the street, he would tactically retreat into the house and come out after the coast was clear. Typically, it would strike eight by the time he got out of the house - you can almost set your watch by it.

A short walk would bring him to the main road. He would wait at the crossroads for the traffic to abate a bit before darting across. Over the years, the main road had become so congested that it was like a goulash of ominous buses, interruptive rickshaws and gangs of school children running all around and only occassionally punctuated by a cow or a buffalo standing in the middle of it all. Trucks running at break-neck speeds are another story, although Kuppanna was partial toward them. Heck, one of them could be their own Star Transport lorries, earning him and the rest of the folks their
salary. Once across the road, Kuppanna would take his customary spot on the sidewalk and simply wait.

It is here that Kuppanna's routine gets a little bizarre. Somewhere between eight fifteen and eight thirty, a black ambassador car would pull near him. As Kuppanna rushed excitedly toward the car, the passenger, Kuppanna's boss Krishna, would roll down the window. The boss would dictate cryptic instructions to Kuppanna, almost shouting them out. Often, he would also hand over a pouch with money to go with the instructions. Once done - and sometimes this exchange lasted less than a minute - the window would be rolled up and the boss would drive off leaving a somewhat bewildered Kuppanna.

After taking a second or two to compose himself, Kuppanna would then de-compress his boss's instructions into a long plan of action for that day. Kuppanna always resonated with the owners - be it Iyer or his son. So much so, they almost never had to repeat their instructions. And Kuppanna never goofed.

Thus commissioned, Kuppanna would walk over to the bus terminus, catch his usual bus and settle down in his favorite seat, with his umbrella, lunchbox, bag and now clutching the company money. Everyone knew that Kuppanna was a
regular on that bus and would save his seat for him.

"The Owners trust me so much" he would brag to his family, "They have so many MBAs and college educated kids. But when it comes to loyalty, the Iyer family always relies on me."

"Oh, don't be too sure" his elder son would interject. "The real business transactions - in lakhs and lakhs of rupees are actually handled by those 'kids'. You are only dealing with peanuts, dad. They are really treating you like a peon and are dumping a bunch of irrelevant chores on you that nobody else wants to touch. How much money do they give you in your car transaction, a few thousand rupees ? Wait till someone picks your pocket in the bus or something and then we will see how much loyalty they have for you in return."

Kuppanna would get hot. "Don't talk about them like that." he would admonish his son. "Remember, they came to your wedding and blessed you - in fact, even Mr. Iyer came as well, though he was so frail. We and the Iyers are not just employers and employees, but go much further. You and your younger generation will not understand such old fashioned

Actually, Kuppanna was quite proud of his two kids. The eldest went to college and is now a successful Lower Division Clerk in a nationalized bank. Alliances came pouring in from all over Karnataka for him and it wasn't difficult for Kuppanna to choose a girl from a good family. In fact, they gave Kuppanna a refrigerator and two ceiling fans as dowry and Kuppanna was quite satisfied - he wasn't really going to ask for an arm and a leg. The younger son wasn't that bright, although he too got a job in the accounts department in a private firm. His in laws were not as generous as his first son's. Kuppanna had to actually demand and extract a scooter and a gold necklace. "I am not going to wear the necklace" he reasoned with them. "After all, it is your daughter who will be wearing it. Doesn't she need something decent to put on when she goes to a wedding or something ? That's why I am asking. You see, people will always refer to her as 'so and so's daughter in law."

And then one day the impossible happened ! Kuppanna's routine broke ! It was all so unbelievable. It happened on that day when both his sons happened to be out of town. That's right. His eldest boy had gone off to attend somebody's wedding. The younger one went somewhere on business.

It was about a quarter to seven and Kuppanna had just browsed through the newspaper editorial. And all of a sudden there was a commotion in front of his house.

"Sir, Sir, your grandson got hit by a motorcycle. He is bleeding. We have just taken him to the doctor in the next street. Nothing very serious, but they are going to have to put some stitches." explained a neighborhood kid, almost out of his breath.

Kuppanna was stunned. His family jewel ? His grandson ? How could it be ? Oh, Lord Raghavendra, Sri Chamundeswari, Why me and my humble family ? Kuppanna could not even think. He rushed to the doctor's office. Why should all these happen on that day when both his sons were away ? And why would an accident occur at seven in the morning when there isn't much traffic on the roads ? Obviously, Kuppanna hadn't heard of Murphy and his laws. 'What is the point having two grown sons living at home if I have to rush everywhere and take care of emergencies. I need to go to work too, see.' Kuppanna was beside himself. At least he had the common sense to call his boss from the doctor's office while his grandson was being attended to.

"Hello, Krishna. This is Kuppanna. A bad thing happened today. My grandson got hit by a motorcycle. I am calling from the doctor's clinic and I will be late to work..."

"That's too bad Kuppanna. I hope he is doing fine. There is a whole lot of work piled up for you just today." his owner replied at the other end. "That should be no problem, Krishna." Kuppanna replied nervously. He was always a nervous wreck when he talked on the phone and especially when the owners were at the other end. "I think I should be out of here very soon Instead of meeting you on the road, I can come over to your house and pick up the instructions."

"That is good. In fact, you can come here before ten or after twelve. See, we are going to perform a Pooja between ten and twelve and we don't want to be interrupted then..."

Kuppanna thought for a few seconds. What is the point running around in the hot sun after twelve ? "I will be there before ten, Krishna and I know how to get to your home. I will see you soon."

Hours went by as the doctor put stitches on Kuppanna's grandson. And when they finally reached home in a rickshaw Kuppanna was quite exhausted and irritable. One look at the boy with bandages, the womenfolk of the house broke into sobs. Kuppanna was furious.

"Why are you crying now ? Don't overreact. Nobody has died. He will be fine. The motorcycle guys drive like maniacs. We have to watch out for them. This kid never watches out. He always runs. Is my hot water ready ? I need to go to Iyer's house in a hurry.."

"The hot water is ready, but your granddaughter is in the bathroom.."

"What ?!? That girl ? Since when did eight years olds start taking baths by themselves ? Why can't her mother give her a bath and get her out soon ? I think this entire household is losing control of itself. Now, where is my newspaper ?"

"Just now the neighbor came and borrowed it. I can bring it back in a second.."

"This is it ! Are we living in a house or in a fish market ? You tell me" shouted Kuppanna angrily, flinging his shirt against the wall. They hadn't seen Kuppanna get so mad in a long time.

It was almost ten in the morning when finally Kuppanna caught his bus. He had already resigned to the fact that he was going to be late in getting to Iyer's house. Now it will have to be after twelve, instead of before ten. What a morning, sighed Kuppanna. Five minutes into the bus ride Kuppanna felt something was missing. His umbrella ! He forgot to bring it ! That umbrella was almost like a part of his anatomy. How could he forget it ? Now he is stuck without it on an especially scorching day. What a comedy of errors !

Where is it ? Kuppanna looked around as he got off the bus. He was looking for the Indianoil Petrol Bunk around the corner from Iyer's house. That was his landmark. Ever since the Iyers moved to their new bungalow, Kuppanna hadn't bothered to remember their address or door number. He was so confident of his navigational skills he was sure he could go to Iyer's house with his eyes closed. He was there just last year. Now he is hopelessly lost. Did he get off at the wrong stop ? He walked up and down the street a couple of times.

"Sir, excuse me. I am looking for the house of one gentleman Ramachandra Iyer, Kannada guy who runs a huge lorry service. There was even a petrol bunk near his place...."

"We don't know of any such person. Don't you have his street address ? How do you hope to find his house in a huge city like Madras ? This is not a tiny village.."

Kuppanna was flabbergasted. What could he do ? He suddenly remembered that he could always phone them and get the directions. He knew their phone number by memory.

"Hello, Krishna. Hello. This is Kuppanna...."

"What Kuppanna ? Where are you hanging around ? You were supposed to be here before ten .."

"What are you talking sir ? I am not hanging around in this hot sun to have fun or doing my personal chores. Remember, I am doing duty for you and trying to come to your house. I too am getting advanced in years and can't take such rigors, especially on a scorching day like this..." Kuppanna was so angry he wanted to say all this and give a fitting reply to Krishna, but couldn't bring himself to do so. Instead he became very defensive.

"You see Krishna, we got delayed at the doctor's..."

"If you were going to be delayed why didn't you let us know. You could have taken the day off. You promised to be here by ten and now because of you things are getting delayed. Hurry up come over here, quick."

Chee, what a country, thought Kuppanna. After all these years of tireless service. Just one day I am late - that too for a very legitimate reason - and these folks behave like it is high crime. If he were in America, his American boss would instantly recognize his loyalty and reward him appropriately. Heck, in America, they would even ask him to take a rickshaw and reimburse the rickshaw fares.

When Kuppanna finally reached Iyer's house, an elaborate Pooja was going on in the inner recesses of their house. He was asked to wait in a hallway with a dozen other hanger-ons. He could see Iyer and Krishna, but they simply ignored him and went on with their Pooja.

Initially it was a relief for him to get away from the hot sun. But soon he was getting restless. What a day ! Wonder how that poor little boy is doing. They did put on eight stitches. I was so rude to him this morning for walking carelessly on the street. But then all kids are like that and one can only blame fate. I yelled at my own wife and threw my shirt away in a fit of rage. Next time on I should learn to keep my cool. Next time on, I should make sure both my sons don't go out of town at the same time. Next time on I should check for my umbrella right when I step out of the house. Next time on I should write Iyer's address and carry it in my pocket. Next time on...His boss Krishna suddenly emerged into the Hallway. It was well past noon.

"Here Kuppanna" Krishna spoke up "Take this money. They are all in five hundred rupee notes. Break them into twenties and distribute them to our daily wagers in the warehouse after looking at their log book. Oh, also get twelve packs of sweets - quarter kilo each to give to our mechanics. Get it from Durga Sweets.."

"You mean the Durga Sweets near beach ? Isn't that totally out of my way ?"

"That's okay Kuppanna. Anyway your day is shot. Why don't you go there anyways. They make the best sweets in Madras."

Kuppanna felt very insulted by Krishna's rudeness. However, he tried to be calm and cool.

"How is the Senior doing. I should at least say a Namaskara to him."

"You can't. He is too busy. Now get going. You don't have too many hours left in the day."

Kuppanna felt very humiliated as he stepped out of Iyer's house. You work like a dog for decades for someone and still you are treated like dirt. It wasn't my fault that I got lost ! They should have shown at least an ounce of sensitivity - after all, I have had a tough morning myself and my only grandson miraculously escaped death or serious bodily harm ! Kuppanna
felt very cynical. "No wonder we Brahmins are universally hated by the other communities. We probably deserve it because we Brahmins don't have that warmth and basic human courtesy..."

Kuppanna knew there was a bank around the corner from Iyer's house. He walked up to it to get change for the five hundred rupee notes, when he saw a big sign hanging from the front door proclaiming it was closed on account of a public holiday.

"Oh, no" Kuppanna was horrified "Who would have thought ? Why does this stupid government declare so many holidays ? This means every single bank in the country is closed. Where in the world am I going to get change ? It is so easy for them to give me these five hundred rupee notes and ask me to get small change. Where will I go ?"

Kuppanna stood at the bank disbelievingly for a minute. He saw a clothing store nearby. He went in and asked them if they could give break six five hundred rupee bills into twenty rupee bills.

"We are not running a bank. Go away." came the reply. Kuppanna realized that it isn't going to be easy to make change for all his five hundred rupee notes. One day something goes wrong in the morning, everything goes wrong afterward. There is no relief, he thought.

Suddenly he remembered that he had some distant relatives in the same neighborhood who too owned some kind of a shop. Maybe they could give him change. He wasn't particularly fond of them. But heck, now he can't be bogged down by his personal likes and dislikes. Also, he should remember to do it tactfully. He should not give them the impression that he was there just to get change. If they don't have change, then the cashier at his Company will be the last resort. Kuppanna walked toward his relatives' place.

"Hello Kuppanna Uncle. Come in. Come in. What a surprise." welcomed the relative "How is auntie ? When is Lakshmi due ? Is she in Madras or has she gone off to ...."

The welcome almost overwhelmed him. They fussed over him and almost forced him to eat once more even though he told them he had already eaten. They made him a good cup of coffee and offered him plenty of snacks. They even asked him
to sleep the afternoon off there and go after the horrible heat abated. But Kuppanna was already too late.

"Next time you and auntie and the entire family should come here for lunch itself. Even though we are in the same town, we can't seem to get together. Don't forget us relatives, Uncle."

"Oh, sure. Take care of your father's health." replied Kuppanna. Okay ! He could not postpone it any more. Time to see if they could break his five hundred rupee notes !

"Bye, now. Actually I was going to go to a bank and make change for some of my five hundred rupee notes. You see, my friend happened to repay some money I had lent him a long time ago and the stupid guy gave me all five hundred rupee bills and I don't want to carry large denomination currencies...."

"A bank ? What Uncle ? Our shop is just downstairs and we can make change for tens of thousands of rupees. So don't worry." His relative replied. "Besides today is a bank holiday."

"Oh, really ?" exclaimed Kuppanna feigning ignorance. He was amazed at how easily he managed to get change. It was a minor triumph in an otherwise disastrous day. These relatives are not that bad, thought Kuppanna as he stuffed the huge wad of twenty rupee notes inside his shirt.

It took Kuppanna more than an hour to reach 'Durga Sweets and Savouries' and he hated every minute of it. "Sweets are sweets. Why would they want me to get it from Durga Sweets ?" he fumed. He hadn't been to that part of the city in years.

But once he entered Durga Sweets, he was greatly surprised to see how the place had blossomed from a mom and pop operation into a gigantic enterprise spreading across three levels, with separate counters vending potato chips and so forth. There was even a restaurant attached. Laddus and barfis of various kinds were stacked up like they were some kind of
geological formations. Huge portraits of gods adorned the walls with ornamental lamps and incense.

"Even though these folks are selling their sweets for a price, the presence of so many divine portraits kind of makes it look like they are just distributing holy 'prasad' to the devotees. How nice." mused Kuppanna, feeling very positive toward Durga Sweets.

"Give me three kilos of laddus" Kuppanna placed his order. "Pack them in twelve packs please. How fresh are they ? How long do they..."

"Quick, old man. You are holding up the line." shouted back the clerk "We make laddus every half an hour. Your order is practically coming off the stove. What else can I get for you ?"

"In which case I will have one more half a kilo" Kuppanna continued. This was an impulsive buy for himself and his family - especially for his grandson who had endured a horrible injury. Kuppanna even felt a little guilty about losing his temper in the morning and shouting at his granddaughter for delaying him. 'After all nothing is more important to me than my family.
This job can go to hell' thought Kuppanna. What a pleasant surprise would it be for everyone at home to be treated to some fine Laddus from the one and only Durga Sweets ?

Kuppanna stuck his hands inside the deepest recesses of his shirt and pulled out his money bundle, paid up and stashed away the rest of the cash securely and walked out carrying a large bag of laddus. Now all he had to do was to catch a bus and head for the Company. He couldn't believe that most of the day was already gone.

After an interminable wait, finally the Industrial Estate bus came. It was packed to the maximum. Why would they pack so many people in one bus ? Why can't they add more buses to this route ? Chee ! Somehow Kuppanna managed to board the bus. He fished out change for the ticket, while somehow clutching his bags. After getting the ticket, he felt around for that little bulge in his shirt pocket to make sure his pocket wasn't picked. People were pushing and shoving him from all around. The bags of sweets were now biting into his fingers. It was sheer hell as he tried to maintain his balance and hold on to his belongings while the bus jolted and rattled around. Shucks ! Even acrobats will have a tough time in such bus journeys ! Look at these seated folks, not one of them would stand up and offer his seat to an old man with bags ! What society are
we living in ? Kuppanna was missing his regular bus and his usual seat.

Then, suddenly Kuppanna noticed that the passenger sitting in an adjacent seat was getting ready to leave. In a jerky motion, Kuppanna turned toward the seat, positioned himself appropriately to grab it and even set his bags on the seat to stake his territory - when all of a sudden, out of nowhere came two small school children, with schoolbags and lunch boxes. In a quick motion, they pushed aside Kuppanna's belongings and sat down in the seat, leaving Kuppanna totally outraged.

"What are you children doing ? I kept my bags on the seat. Didn't you see ? I got to this seat first. Get out of that seat..." Such impoliteness from a couple of elementary schoolers ! Kuppanna's blood pressure hit the roof. But the children simply ignored him and looked away from him. Emboldened by their silence, Kuppanna went on.

"What do they teach you at school ? Don't they teach any manners or you only learn chemistry and computers ? Hmmm ?"

The two children looked at each other - and burst into giggles. One of them even mimicked Kuppanna's accented tamil. After so many years, Kuppanna still spoke tamil with an accent. Kuppanna was furious.

"You children imitating me ? How dare you ? I am like your grandfather. Don't you know how to respect elders ? Maybe your parents are not good people..." Kuppanna fumed. He turned around to the fellow passenger standing beside him to plead his case. "Did you see what those kids did to me ? I put my bags down on the seat first and they pushed it aside and grabbed the seat.."

But the fellow passenger simply pretended not to listen to Kuppanna and so Kuppanna was left to soliloquize his complaint. Why are such indignities heaped on him today ? What phase of the moon is it today ?

Finally after what seemed like eons, the bus shedded most of its passengers and Kuppanna managed to get a seat. "My Lord Narayana" Kuppanna sighed, mopping his forehead with his dhoti "What a relief, at last". Hardly a minute had gone by when the bus quivered and came to an abrupt cold stop.

"What ? What's going on ? Why did they stop the bus ?"

"This is it. The bus is not going to go any further. You all have to get off. They have blocked the roads because the Minister is coming this way.."

Oh, no ! Just when he thought there would be no further delay in getting to work. Kuppanna could not believe it. "Which minister, is it the CM ?"

"No, no, It is Minister Arul Raj...."

Who is this minister, Kuppanna wondered. Why would they disrupt traffic and buses for such insignificant ministers ? Gone are the days when even PMs like Nehru would walk to their meetings. Reluctantly Kuppanna stepped out of
the bus.

"All you have to do is walk to Odeon theatre. They are diverting the outbound buses there. You can grab your Industrial Estate bus there. I will validate your ticket for you" said the helpful bus conductor. Odeon theatre ? That should be a good kilometer from here ! God !

Kuppanna slowly started walking toward the Odeon Theatre, cursing the minister with the choicest curse words. He had never used such words before. What is he becoming ? He didn't really care at this point. The bag of sweets felt like it was a half a ton heavy. The afternoon sun almost melted his brains. Finally he reached Odeon and asked around where the Industrial Estate buses stopped because of the road closure.

"Don't you know ? The minister has already gone. They have reopened the roads almost a half an hour ago. You have to go back to the original bus stop. You can't get any buses here...." Someone informed an exhausted Kuppanna.

What ?!?!! This is it ! The last straw ! Kuppanna guffawed hysterically as he started walking back toward the original bus stop a kilometer away. He could feel himself slowly losing his sanity. Nothing else could affect him any more. Absolutely nothing. What a day ! "Come on, Lord, make my life even more miserable. After all these years of prayers ! I am ready. Send some more harm my way" Kuppanna hallucinated as he walked like a robot, having gone way past the thresholds of pain and suffering. "Go ahead. Send pickpockets to steal my money and dogs to snatch my bags of sweets and a fast car to knock me down dead. No, it won't affect me. Not at all, my dear Lord.."

When Kuppanna finally staggered into the premises of 'Star Transports', it was so late that he didn't dare look at the clock.

"Ah finally, it is you Kuppanna" Supervisor Rao greeted him at the entrance "Where had you been ? Already several parties are waiting for you for ages and things need to be taken care of at the warehouse."

"You see, today was a terrible day for me. First, my grandson got hit by a scooter. No major injuries. Only stitches. And then..."

"Krishnamurty has already phoned us three times Kuppanna. We have to clear his consignment. The daily workers are waiting for their payments. You have decided to come late today of all days. There is so much backlog."

"You see Rao. Then I had to run to the boss's house and because today was a bank holiday...."

"Okay, okay. Let us get going. Lets hear your story later. It is already pretty late in the evening."

Kuppanna felt a little hurt at the bottom of his heart. What an insensitive man ! This was a fellow who learnt the tricks of trade from me ! "Come what may" Kuppanna told himself "I am going to stick to my routine from now on. I will never break it again, for whatever reason. I will show these fellows." kuppanna dragged his feet and started walking toward the warehouse.

Coming down the hallway straight toward Kuppanna was Head Clerk Basavappa ! Oh, no ! Not him ! Kuppanna hated him, even though Basavappa had been around the company for almost as long as Kuppanna had been. It didn't surprise Kuppanna that a day full of misfortunes - one after another - had to end on a sour note like running into Basavappa, of all people.

"Yen ree. Kuppanna. Channaagidheera ? How come you are so late today ? Anything special happening ?" Basavappa asked enthusiastically. For a moment Kuppanna thought of recounting his entire ordeal. But then, what was the point ? That too to a nosy guy like Basavappa.

"Oh, nothing Basavappa. Some relatives happened to land up at my place all of a sudden" Kuppanna replied "That too my wife's relatives. You know how tricky that can be. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go to the warehouse to check on something..."