It was only that much that he had as his own. A small zinc sheet trunk, and the wobbly tripod on which he placed it. At 5 AM everyday, summer or monsoon he was rooted to his chosen spot, just a few yards off the front entrance of this small town’s popular coffee hotel. He opened his box, using a small key that clicked with a squeak, inside the belly of an ancient padlock, and displayed his ware ? a few packets of Bristol, another few of Wills, and one single packet of Goldflake King.
He peddled his stuff from crack of dawn to downing of dusk, selling cigarettes, greeting each patron with a wrinkled toothless grin. I saw him for decades, this old hunchbacked, lungyi clad vendor. I wondered how much he made for his day?s labor, maybe fifteen or twenty rupees? Just out of human need craving for fellow man, I religiously bought that one single packet of Goldflake, every morning, as I went into the hotel for my ritual cup of coffee decoction. He bowed his head low, and greeted me Salaam-aleykum as he handed over the packet.
He was a proud man, poor, but proud. He always returned any change he owed me, politely declining my gesture to him to retain them. So life goes on, and on. He aged visibly over the years, his hunch made him almost bent like a question mark over his little tin trunk.
One day, I saw him with a new investment. Beside his tripod, on the pavement was a shining new weighing scale. For just 10 paise you could weigh yourself he spluttered spraying saliva as he excitedly uttered the words. So I pressed a coin into his withered palm, and stood on the scale. How much, he queried his eyebrows knitted, as if my weight meant the world to him. Too much, I said, stepping down from the little square contraption. I repeated the weighing process three or four times, merely to be able to pay him 30 or 40 paise. Obese? not you, he snorted. It is the weight of that big heart of yours, he grinned as he took the coins.
…chit had a single line written in Tamil ‘Abdul Saleem Ahmed Bhai c/o Coffee Doctor, Taj Mahal Hotel, Hampankatta, Mangalore-1’….
He was quite popular in the area. Many passers by greeted him, or bought a matchbox or two just to keep him going. Most hotel customers knew him well too, his permanent sentinel like post outside its entrance looked empty on a rare occasion or two, when due to some city bundh, he could?nt make it. Thoughtfully, he had entrusted a packet of cigarettes with the lottery ticket peddler to be passed on to me.
One early morning, he told me, he was going to his hometown. To meet up with bibi and baal bacche? Wife and kids? I asked. No, no, he grinned, I am not married. Who will marry a hunchback, and with no money at that. He said he needed some train ticket money. How much? His answers were questions. Seventy five? Hundred? I gave him a hundred note. He pressed currency paper to his forehead as a gesture of gratitude. I won’t be here for three weeks. I have made arrangements for your packets with Ramesh the betel leaf fellow.
The next day, Ramesh was waiting at five in the morning darkness. He handed me the cigarettes, and also passed a bundle wrapped in newspaper sheets. What is this? I don’t know doctor, Ahmed bhai told me it is yours. I ripped off the wrapper and saw the square weighing machine neatly tied up in cotton towel. Ahmedbhai?s pride couldn’t let him borrow without pawning something as security guarantee.
A few days later, a knot of men stood outside the hotel waiting for me. Ramesh the betelnut man, Gowda, the lottery walla, Vittala the newspaper seller, along with a whole group of auto rickshaw drivers. One of them passed over a folded sheet of paper. A telegram that they had read but couldn?t decipher. It read ‘SALIM AHMED WAS FOUND EXPIRED IN WESTCOAST EXPRESS STOP BODY IN MORGUE THREE DAYS STOP CLAIMANT TO TAKE POSSESSION IN 24 HOURS STOP’ It was from the Railway Police of Erode that had found the hunchback slumped in his seat, dead. Ahmed bhai is no more, I told the motley wide-eyed ring around me. I felt devastated, and to avoid anyone seeing my moistened lids, walked briskly into the hotel to collect my thoughts. I sipped my hot coffee, and again read the telegram. The address on the cable was COFFEE DOCTOR c/o TAJ MAHAL HOTEL MANGALORE-1.
Within the hour, a roadside collection was set up and four hundred rupees was raised by the auto stand members. Ramesh, the betel leaf, was bought a ticket for the noon?s Mangalore Mail train to Erode to contact the local Muslim Jamaat at Erode and arrange for a dignified burial. Every shop in the busy Hampankatta area pulled it’s shutters down. It was incredible, the spontaneous outpouring of empathy and fellowship shown by these daily wage earners.
Ramesh returned in two days. He had done the needful, and the Erode jammat had done its bit. He gave me a crumpled piece of paper, which the Railway Police had found, along with forty two rupees, in Ahmed bhai?s jubba pocket. The chit had a single line written in Tamil ‘Abdul Saleem Ahmed Bhai c/o Coffee Doctor, Taj Mahal Hotel, Hampankatta, Mangalore-1’
I write this blog twenty one years after the incidents described took place. Just under this computer table, is a much used partially rusted, but still functional, square weighing scale. I have often weighed myself over the years. I have become much heavier. But Ahmed bhai will know, why my weight has gone up. My heart may have been big, bhai, but it has become a heavy heart. It weighs me down in grief. Through the spirals of blue smoke that rise from the cigarette tip as I type this eulogy, my computer screen mists, and through the haze I see your toothless visage staring back at me from the screen.
Why don’t you stop smoking? For heavens sake you’re a doc. You should know better. The chorus around me is deafening. How will my well wishers ever understand? It is not nicotine, it is undiluted nostalgia. Only Ramesh, Vittala, Gowda, and Ahmedbhai will understand or applaud this contrived logic. His peculiar logic on why one gains weight is logic enough for me.
Author: Dr. Arunachalam Kumar- India