‘Sir, sir,’ I heard someone calling me and I opened the front door. There was Selvan shedding tears. He was in neat dress, a white dhoti and a light coloured shirt.
‘What happened, Selvan? Why are you crying,’ I enquired.
‘The Engineer sir scolded me and sent me out of the house,’ Selvan was sobbing.
‘When? At the blessing ceremony?’ I asked.
‘When the Reverend Father got into the house along with others for the blessing of the house, I too got into the room. Then the Engineer sir came near me and asked why I had got into the house. He then asked me to quit the place. How can I bear it, sir? Haven’t I been living in the house, guarding it for the past one and a half years from the very day the foundation stone was laid? How could he send me out, sir? There is not an inch of the building where I have not watered the mortar or plaster. I have been working hard wetting the structure—the roofs, the walls, the floors, the pillars, the compound walls etc. I have been serving him from dawn to late evening all these months. I have been the keeper of the house, sweeping the rooms, cooking my food, eating in the dining room sleeping in one of the bed rooms till yesterday. Am I just a cat or a dog to shut me out? Haven’t I the right to attend the blessing of the house, sir?’
‘Selvan, this is the way of the world. The masons, the carpenters, the plumbers, the electricians, painters and scores of labourers—who were the real builders of that house—were they invited for the blessing ceremony? No. You are also one among them. You are only the watchman, not the real owner of the house, aren’t you? Take it that way. Don’t be upset,’ I tried my best to console him.
‘True, sir. I am not the owner of the house and I am not going to live here the rest of my life. Though that house is not mine I have been looking after it as my own house. But now I am out it. It’s unbearable, sir. You can’t feel my agony,’ he couldn’t control himself.
I was well aware that I could not console Selvan with my logic and philosophy. I just remember the very first day he arrived here. He is a native of Kumily, the border land to Tamil Nadu state. Though a Tamil man he speaks a mix of Tamil and Malayalam. Selvan is a Christian, aged fifty eight. His wife, Chellamma and children live in their house at Kumily. His eldest son is employed in Saudi Arabia. In fact there had been no need for Selvan to come over here and keep security to this house under construction. His wife and children dislike his staying here alone for meagre salary. But Selvan, being healthy enough, doesn’t like to stay idle in his house. He has only ten cents of land and there was no work in it. Hence like Ulysses, he set out seeking independence and freedom.
Selvan always appeared as lively as a squirrel. My neighbour, Thomas, the Engineer, employed him as a security to guard the building materials. He was given only a low salary of Rs. 2500 per month. When Thomas found that Selvan was honest, innocent and meek he tried to exploit him. He was made to work—watering the mortar and plaster, cleaning the premises, spading and removing the grass from the fifty cents of the land around the building and helping Thomas in his household work a kilometre away. Thus Selvan had to work throughout from dawn to late evening. He cooked his rice and the curry was brought from Thomas’s residence. He used to take his breakfast and lunch late after the wetting work. As the building work progressed, Selvan’s quantity of labour also increased. He demanded Thomas an increase in salary. Thomas raised his salary to Rs. 3000 but stopped the supply of curry. Poor Selvan consumed his rice with no curry or curry supplied to him from my house or Mr. Thankappan’s house. The only enjoyment he had here was the intake of low brand liquor in the evening with two other companions.
Selvan was a very talkative man. He appeared to be the overseer of the whole construction going on at the work site. He gave direction to masons and carpenters. His Tamil toned banter always echoed the premises. I have observed him giving advice even to the owner, Thomas. The labourers found in him a real friend and entertainer. His loud utterances amused me when I was sitting leisurely in the balcony. When any one—neighbours or strangers came to have a look at the house, Selvan proudly led them inside and showed every nook and corner explaining what they were. He assumed himself as the owner of the house.
Selvan wished to plant bananas on the barren land adjacent to the house and Thomas gave money for it. He planted nearly twenty bananas, watered them every day during the summer. Once when a labourer cut a leaf of a banana plant to eat food in it, Selvan warned him not to repeat it as it will slow down its growth. All the plants yielded rich fruits. Alas, he couldn’t taste even a fruit! The bunches were sold by Thomas, not giving any share to Selvan. Selvan’s over-sincerity and honesty were very often criticised by the labourers. They considered him a simpleton.
The house under construction was a two-storeyed one, estimating over ten million rupees and having all modern facilities. Thomas was a multi-millionaire landlord. But he was miserly in giving wages. The labourers who were sweating in the intolerable sunlight needed hot tea in the after noon and there were no teashops nearby. They used to get it at other work sites provided by the house owners. But Thomas did not supply it or asked Selvan to bring it from the teashop. Naturally the labourers disliked Thomas and I have heard them showering curses in his absence. They have complained to me about his inhuman treatment. Neither Thomas nor his wife ever spoke to these labourers or at least asked their names. They very often spoke in praise of Dr. Martin who supplied them tea and snack regularly at 4 p.m. I too started wondering why Thomas was so inconsiderate. Couldn’t he ever think that these labourers were sweating their blood not for them to live but only for him and his family? If their tears fall on the walls and floors, wouldn’t that haunt him when he starts living in the house? Had Thomas remembered what the great Malayalam poet, Vailoppally taught him at school—“Whenever I eat a grain of rice I can’t but taste the tear of the farmer”—he would have shown a little love and consideration to the labourers who sweated for the building. Fatigued by terrible heat, some of the labourers came for hot water to our house in the afternoon and my wife gave them tea. Just a compassionate act!
I now remember the selfless service Selvan has done to our neighbours. When the government supply of water failed for a few days Selvan took it his duty to supply water to these houses, pumping water from his master’s well. How hastily he did it before Thomas arrived at the work site! He had no doubt that his master would scold him if he knew it.
Twice or thrice I have found Selvan’s wife, Chellamma at the work site. She had come to bring him back to their house. I too persuaded him to go with her. But his reply was that he would go home after two weeks. Selvan found much happiness in his work and stay here. Work is worship to him. He hated an idle life at his house even for a day.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
‘Selvan, stop crying. After all, that house is not yours, but the engineer’s. When he asks you to get out, you have to. Face the reality. You can’t live there with the engineer and his family, can you? By the by, has he asked you to continue there as a security from today?’
‘The engineer sir hasn’t told me anything. As his daughter’s marriage is next Sunday, I hope I will be staying there till then. I have many things to do here,’ his words were choked in his throat. It seemed that he had never anticipated a goodbye to the house. Or he would not have been so much upset.
‘OK Selvan, go back to the engineer’s house. I will be coming there shortly for the dinner.’
Selvan went back hesitantly to the engineer’s house. Within ten minutes I went to the engineer’s house with my wife and son for the house-warming dinner. I found Selvan standing desolate there at the corner of the front yard. We went to him directly and asked if he took the food. He said no. Many VIPs were coming and going. We too got into the house. We were welcomed by Thomas and his wife. We surveyed all the rooms of the house which looked posh and luxurious. Then we took our food and got out. Selvan was still standing there as a stranger or even a beggar. Neither Thomas nor his wife cared for him—not even cast their glance on him. We asked him to take the food and eat. He replied that he would do it later. We came back to our house and observed what Selvan was doing. The labourers, who had been working throughout the night cleaning the premises, were assembled under the shade of a plastic sheet tied to a tree near the house. Selvan went to their company and along with them took a plate of fried rice from the kitchen and started eating it sitting on the ground under the shade.
The dinner being over, Selvan and the labourers started cleaning the premises. Though he was working, his face was very gloomy. Thomas and his family spent their first night in the new house. Selvan might have slept in the car shed. The next morning as I was reading the newspaper, Selvan came to me and announced in a low voice, ‘Sir, I am going back to my house.’
‘Aren’t you staying till the marriage?’
‘The engineer sir asked me to go back as my service was no more needed.’ There were tears in his eyes.
‘Did the engineer give you anything extra?’
‘I am yet to receive my salary, sir.’
‘Alright Selvan, go and stay with your wife and children. Spend your time with your grand children. They will entertain you.’
‘Thank you sir. Thank you very much for the love shown towards me. Goodbye.’
Selvan moved slowly to Mr. Thankappan’s house, bade them goodbye and treaded towards Thomas’s house. As it was time for me to go to college I could not see Selvan leaving our place.
The next day Salim, manager of my college canteen, completed Selvan’s story from where I stopped. Selvan, straight from the engineer’s house, went to Salim’s hotel where he had been a customer for tea for the past one and a half years. Salim, a very kind man gave him sufficient food with chicken curry as special. Neither did he charge the food nor accepted the twenty rupees which Selvan had to give him. Salim even offered him an employment in his hotel for the daily wage of Rs. 150 in addition to free food and lodging. Selvan replied that he would consider it after consulting with his wife and children. Salim hired an auto rickshaw, paid its charge and sent Selvan to the bus stand.
‘Salim, did the engineer give Selvan anything extra?’
‘Only three hundred rupees, sir. How inconsiderate the man is! He could have given him at least a thousand rupees as extra. After all the poor man had worked for him day and night for the last one and a half years! Selvan’s friends, with whom he drank the evening liquor, asked him to sell iron rod pieces and thus meet his expense. But he was such an honest man that he never did it. Such men are rare in this world.’
‘True, Salim. Honesty is never rewarded in this world. Had the engineer shown one percent of the love you have shown to him, Selvan could have gone to his house a happy man. The world has become so materialistic that love and kindness have no place here.’