The Byroad: A short story by Aswini Kumar

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The Byroad: A short story by Aswini Kumar

The U-shaped street, the idle cows, and the bureaucracy: Aswini Kumar weaves a story of life.

The byroad has remained the same as long as anyone can remember, except that it has become a bit more crowded. The main road is within walking distance from it, and you can catch buses from there to all parts of the city. The railway station is a mere 2 kilometers away. The main road presents an impressive appearance, teeming with vehicles and resounding with their cacophony.

Ever since Shanmugam moved in there, the normally dirty street was transformed into an extraordinarily filthy one. Shanmugam was in the milk business and, when he took up his residence in the alley, he came accompanied by four or five milch cows. Currently, he owns some eight or nine of these animals and the cows have also become permanent residents of the street along with us humans. There would always be a few flicking their tails contemptuously at passersby, while others would lounge languidly in the gutters that ran on both sides of the alleyway. It was sometimes difficult to make out the buffaloes in the muddy waters of the drains.

The byroad was not officially recognized by the City Corporation. It had open running drains on both sides throughout its length. In the section where Shanmugam resided, thanks to his cows, the water from the drains would accumulate in front of the houses, and their residents suffered horrendously from the mosquitoes that bred prolifically in the stagnant waters.

Having mulled over various proposals for bettering the lot of the alley, we formed a ‘Welfare Association’ with Raman as its Secretary. We would hold meetings whenever he felt like it, on the terrace of his house. But not all members of the Association would turn up at these meetings. Raman was a retired government servant.

In the initial days following his appointment as Secretary, Raman’s voice could be heard blaring throughout the alley. He would shout at everyone on the street. Some of the young boys were in the habit of defecating by the side of the lane, next to the drains. A few householders would dump their garbage on the street near the dumpsters. No one paid much heed to his bellowing, but some of the youngsters would hurriedly run back home before they completed their business on the street.

The first order of business of the Welfare Association was Shanmugam’s cows, and Raman had taken this issue up with him as soon as he first moved in to the lane. Very humbly, Shanmugam requested that he be given a few months’ breather by which time he hoped to move elsewhere with his herd. Raman was ecstatic at the belief that the problem had been sorted out. Shanmugam merely used the respite to extend his few months’ tenure into several years’ and, by the clever stratagem of marrying his landlord’s daughter, altered his status from that of a tenant to one of a permanent resident of the lane. This was a big blow to Raman and he stopped raising Shanmugam’s issue in front of other members.

Slowly, the noise level on the street also increased day by day. The youngsters included the alley’s gutters in their daily games of marbles, cricket, spinning tops and others. In the ensuing battles, one child or the other was sure to end up caterwauling.

During the rainy seasons, the cows on the street posed a problem to everyone.

Vadivu kept complaining about Shanmugam to anyone who would listen. She had made her pile in the illicit hooch business and was well-known to all the policemen in the vicinity. She had a tender heart and would cry buckets while watching tragic Tamil movies, but when it came to a war of words, no one could match her vocabulary of obscene cuss words. Fearing her foul mouth, not many would dare tangle with her, but Shanmugam had once not only taken her on but also bested her. Ever since, Vadivu made sure she stayed clear of Shanmugam.

The street was shaped like a 'U'. There was only path to the main road. As it was a narrow lane, it culminated in a tall wall at one end. Across that wall was another street backing on to the houses situated there. During the rains, all of us took a shortcut through a bylane adjoining Vadivu’s house to gain access to the main road. While her house was located in our street, the bylane adjacent to it led directly to the main road, and we did not therefore have to traverse the entire length of our street for this purpose. This was a commonly accepted practice for all of us to avoid Shanmugam’s cows, but following her altercation with him she did something that totally severed her connection with our street. She fenced off the bylane next to her house, erected a gate in it and locked it up so that the residents of the street had no alternative but to go through the cow-infested street to get to the main road.

Since it was not acknowledged by the Corporation, the street was not paved. There were no storm water drains and no street lights.

It was just when we had given up all hope that the lane would ever see better days that the news of the upcoming elections renewed our expectations.

For many years now, the constituency which comprised our street had been the stronghold of the opposition candidate. His grip was so tight that the area was considered an impregnable fortress by his party. I had not bothered to pay heed to all the election promises he would hurl from the stage during his campaign speeches for he had not even once bothered to come to our street seeking votes. His supporters were however very active in plastering every wall in the constituency with posters and hanging party buntings and flags everywhere. Our street was no exception and did not escape their attention either. The Member, as was his wont, did not bother putting in an appearance at our street this time around as well.

The ruling party candidate, however, proved he was no pushover. He did something the other fellow had never bothered to do: he came into our street himself and went from house to house introducing himself and reiterating his party’s poll assurances. He even organised a street corner meeting in our lane where he did not fail to point out that the sitting Member had done nothing for the development of the constituency. His words were music to our ears. Raman felt that this election was going to be an important milestone and he began hobnobbing with the candidate from the ruling party on a daily basis.

One evening, while returning home from work, I saw Raman seated on the dais with the ruling party candidate conducting an election rally. When he saw me staring at him, he gave me a sheepish smile and looked away self-consciously.

On poll day, everyone in the street went out and voted for the ruling party’s candidate and he won, what was supposed to be the opposition’s iron fortress, by a small margin. The ruling party came back to power.

Within a few days, some of their party workers went from house to house on our street, taking down our complaints in a notebook.

Raman was ecstatic. “Did the previous Member ever bother to do this? See? This man is taking note of all our complaints so he can take action,” he went about telling everyone in the street.

All of us made the point about Shanmugam and the nuisance created by his cows in the Member’s grievance book. In fact, Raman even led a delegation from our street to the new Member’s office regarding this issue. As suggested by the Member, we also wrote out a complaint letter and gathered signatures from all the residents, and anxiously awaited the outcome of our efforts.

The cows continued to flick their tails imperiously at the passersby.

All this happened a year ago. Raman gave up approaching the Member in connection with our woes, as he had his own household problems to sort out. He also expressed his desire to step down from the position of Secretary of the Welfare Association to whoever would listen, but no one was willing to relieve him of the post. While the post carried no special perks, all the residents in the street actually needed his services.

While it was true that he could not solve the issue of Shanmugam’s cows, he was still useful in a number of sundry matters like complaining about electricity outages, collecting fees from each household and arranging for garbage pick-up and cleaning of the gutters, co-ordinating with the Corporation on civic issues etc. He even filed a case, on behalf of the welfare association, against the Corporation questioning their tax levies while providing no services at all to the residents of the street.

Whenever a small crowd congregated and talked politics, a few of them were sure to ask derisively, “What the hell has the new Member done for us?” just to watch Raman squirm.

Unable to put up with the nuisance caused by the cows much longer, one of the householders lodged a secret complaint with a nearby police station. Shanmugam thereafter became a regular contributor to the policemen’s welfare fund.

One day I was proceeding on my cycle to attend wedding at a friend’s place when I found a buffalo chewing its cud in the middle of the street completely blocking it. I could not get past it and was vainly attempting to make it to move by ringing my bicycle bell when Shanmugam’s wife came out of her house truculently.

“Go and complain to anyone you like. Who can question us? Who here has the guts to take us on? We have now connections right to the top,” she yelled while grudgingly moving the buffalo to one side. I was furious but knew that arguing with her was futile. So, I quietly pedalled away.

But I felt that this matter should be put to rest once and for all and proceeded to the Member’s house. It was overflowing with people who had come to see him on one mission or the other, and I was asked to wait my turn. A short while later I was called in. The Member was surrounded by his party functionaries and some petitioners were seated in front of him.

He looked at me and asked the purpose of my visit. I mentioned the name of the street and added that I had come from there.

“Do you need a certificate?”

“No, no. That’s not it.”

“What’s the matter then?”

“I need to talk to you about the street where I live.”

“Go ahead.”

“You know Mr. Raman....”

“Which Mr. Raman?”

I looked at him in astonishment. One of the men around him prompted, “You remember that Brahmin guy?”

“Oh, him? Yes, I know him,” nodded the Member. His expression indicated he had caught on why I was there.

For my part, I recited the entire wretched history of the street. When I finished and looked at him, his mien did nothing to inspire any confidence in me.

“I’ll certainly consider everything you have said. Bring me another petition and I shall take the necessary action,” he said.

“They let the cows wander all over the street and they make a mess everywhere. It is intolerable.”

“I’ll certainly look into it. Come back with a petition.”

I thanked him for form’s sake and walked out. When I came out and looked around at the road he lived in, I saw a broad thoroughfare with trees on both sides providing shade and a touch of greenery to the location. The heat of the sun was hardly perceptible under the canopy of the overhanging boughs while colourful blooms lay strewn at the foot of the trees. The chirping of the birds added to the overall ambience of the setting.

***

Aswini Kumar developed the reading habit, both in Tamil and English, very early in his life. After 45 years in insurance, 20 of them in the Middle East, he now leads a retired life in Chennai, but considers himself lucky to be involved in the reading and writing line once again.

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