Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
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 long chimneys exhaling black smoke into the air can be seen by anyone who enters Calicut town by road or by train. As the train would cross the bridge over the river, one could smell baked mud.
Vijaya Kumar, the protagonist of this story, in his youth had inherited a tile factory here. He was not a Keralite but belonged to a family from Maharashtra, a Hindi-speaking state located in the heart of India. Traditionally the family of Vijaya Kumar was traders and his grandfather traveled to the Southern tip of the country, seeking new opportunities. There he established the Standard Tile Factory, on the banks of Kallai river. 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 a tile factory in Kerala someday. However, his father died suddenly, his brother had other businesses to look after and Vijaya Kumar found himself landing in Calicut one fine morning.
Riches to Rags
Initially, he did not care much to run a successful business but made a lot of local friends. Then he had some unique ideas to develop the declining tile industry into a modern business, which he used to discuss with his architect friends of Calicut. Some of these ideas were quite ahead of the game but the time he tried to implement them was not right. He was basically a dreamer and not a very good implementer and the business went on declining. Vijayakumar gradually began to spend his money more on entertaining his friends. 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 payday, for his entire life. By that time, Vijaya Kumar was in his forties and unmarried. His brother had his own family and business. Vijayakumar's 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 downfall of the 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 English unmistakably perfect in accent, “I made a mess of this company! These people made a greater mess!”. The labor 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 interview with the secretary, out of curiosity, I visited Vijaya Kumar. He was still housed in the ‘company bungalow’. This was actually a dilapidated building adjacent to the factory and inside the same compound. I asked him permission to do a television profile of him for a documentary series my TV channel was airing those days. The program was titled, ‘The Mirror’. This was a half an hour TV show that trod on the meeting ground between individuals and society. I explained how I viewed his life as a unique human experience and that he was a very good ‘news story' for me. He laughed and agreed in his usual carefree manner. I went again to meet him, with my cameraman and we recorded the story. Entire-time he talked, we were sitting upstairs on his balcony. The railings were falling apart. In some paper cups, stood some creepers, dry and withering, as he had forgotten to water them. His Tomcat, named Suzy, walked on the things that were spread across the floor. There was cooked rice, cigar buts, dirty rags, and a 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 it was an insect that accidentally 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 fresh into my profession and thought about how I would have been intimidated and charmed by that young man in the picture if I were to meet him. We shook hands before I left. e squeezed both my hands with his soft palms mellowed by excessive drinking.
Stranger Becomes Friend
After two months, I got a phone call. The voice 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. It seemed they were waiting for me and they told me that he was asking to see me when he was in the hospital. I was speechless and humbled. 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 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 human-made boundaries of class, caste, wealth, success, and failure, and become one with the people around him. He had stooped 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. I was the only human being in any recent past who took an interest in him, spoke to him about his life, and showed some minimal understanding of it.
It was a great privilege to know Vijaya Kumar. In my youth’s ignorance and arrogance, I failed to nurture a friendship that should have 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.