Story of a Life
A Man Who Lived
I had an assignment to complete, on the failing mud tile industry of Calicut. In its golden times, the industry was formidable and spread on both sides of the river, Kallai. More than a dozen of chimneys exhaling black smoke into high air could be seen by anyone who entered Calicut town by road or by train. As the train would cross the bridge over the river, one could smell baked mud.
Vijaya Kumar in his youth had inherited a tile factory. He was not a Keralite but belonged to a family from Maharashtra, a Hindi-speaking state located in the heart of the nation of which Mumbai is the capital. Traditionally the family of Vijaya Kumar were traders and his grandfather had traveled to the Southern tip of the country, seeking new opportunities and there he established the Standard Tile Factory, on the banks of Kallai. Born and brought up in the Mumbai Metropolis, and living a life of ravishing night parties and film star girlfriends, the young and very handsome Vijaya Kumar had no idea ever, he would have to take over the factory in Kerala someday. However, his father died suddenly, his brother had other businesses to look after and thus Vijaya Kumar reached Calicut one fine morning.
Riches to Rags
He did not care much to run a successful business, he made a lot of local friends, spent the entire profit treating them, and one way or the other, the factory went bankrupt. This was when the strong labor union intervened and they offered to take over and run the factory as a cooperative of workers. Vijaya Kumar had no other option than to agree. The union leaders made an agreement with him to provide him a sum equivalent to the monthly wage of a worker every pay day in the factory, for his entire life. By that time, Vijaya Kumar was in his forties and unmarried. His brother had his own family and his heart was no more in Mumbai. He had befriended the auto drivers, loading workers, local communists, singers, and of course the local toddy vendors of Calicut. He was knee deep in the street culture and a common figure among those who sat the entire day on the road side perches, chatting along with the floating crowd.
I started my assignment on the down fall of mud tile industry by visiting Standard Tile Factory and the first person I stumbled upon was this man wearing dirty shorts and an equally dirty t-shirt, oozing of local brew, and bubbling with an unjustified sarcasm at the entire world around him. He almost compelled me into shaking hands with him and stated in an English unmistakably perfect in accent, “I made a mess of this company! These people made a greater mess!”. The labour cooperative secretary who was sitting in the office laughed with unease and waved his hand suggesting I pay no attention to this drunk man. Soon he told me the story of Vijaya Kumar.
The Story and the 'Subject'
After completing my assignment, I visited Vijaya Kumar who was still housed in the ‘company bungalow’, which was actually a dilapidated building adjacent to the factory inside the same compound. I asked him permission for me to do a television profile on him for a documentary series we were airing at that time, titled, ‘The Mirror’. This was a half an hour TV program that trod on the meeting grounds between individual and the society. I explained how I viewed his life as a unique human experience and that he was a very good ‘story’ for me. He laughed and agreed in his usual care free manner. I went again with my camera man and we did the story. Entire time he talked, we were sitting upstairs in his balcony. The railings were falling apart. In some paper cups he had grown some creepers and then forgotten to water them. His male cat which was named Zuzy, walked on the things that were spread across the floor and often pressed its cheeks on our legs. There was cooked rice, cigar buts, dirty rags, and lot of dust on the floor. The sofa on which he sat was torn at many places and the sponge inside pouted. As the eyes of the camera tracked all these in their minutiae and melancholy, I saw Vijaya Kumar trying to hide his shame. The next moment, he shook that shame off as if it was an insect that landed on his shoulder. With a nasty laugh, he looked defiantly into my eyes. I could see the photograph of a handsome young man hanging on the wall just behind me. He wore a proper suit and smiled at me through his teasing eyes. The man who was sitting in front of me was quite the opposite of that young man in all aspects except that smile that occasionally frequented his eyes. I was a young woman in my late twenties and thinking how I would have been intimidated and charmed by that young man if I were to meet him, I generously let him have another handshake before we left. He squeezed both my hands with his soft palms mellowed by excessive drinking.
Stranger Becomes Friend
After two months, I got a phone call. The stranger on the other side introduced himself as an auto driver and told me Vijaya Kumar died the previous day. He was taken ill and passed away in a hospital. I went to do a brief ‘follow up’ on my story but I was also shaken by the news. The moment I reached the crematorium, auto drivers and loading workers surrounded me and they said in one voice that he was asking to see me when he was in the hospital. I was speechless. Then I met his brother who had come all the way from Mumbai to attend the funeral. He shook my hands when someone introduced me and he said, “my brother had great regard for you!”. Suddenly it struck me like lightning that how important my visit into his life was for him. He was just another good ‘story’ for me but I was his first and last opportunity to tell the world why he lived the life he lived. Without translating into words, he was telling the world that he had transcended all the man-made boundaries of class, caste, and wealth, success and failure, and become one with the people around him. He had stepped down as low as he could so that he could befriend the most deprived of all and be with them. This was why he laughed at those who pitied him. And I was the only human being in any recent past who took an interest in him, spoke to him about his life and had shown some minimal understanding of it.
It was a great privilege to know Vijaya Kumar. In my youth’s ignorance and arrogance, I had failed to nurture a friendship that developed between us as I worked on my ‘story’. Though I passed his place a few times after the story was aired, I did not bother to pay him a visit. I was busy with my other assignments. Vijaya Kumar taught me how I should always remember I was dealing with the lives of other people when I did my ‘stories’. His lonely death reminded me, I should have the sensitivity to see each of the people I meet as individuals rather than subjects of my stories. I owe him this great lesson.