02 July 2011
Three Blind Men
Over the years, many of my readers have asked me about my first article as a journalist. Thinking back to that time, back in 2001, I could tell you the details as though it’d happened yesterday.
On my very first day as an intern at The Hindu, I was well on course to being late for work. As I ran down the steps of the overhead footbridge two at a time, the railway platform was drowned in the sound of two oncoming trains.
Great! I thought. Just what I needed. Within seconds, hundreds of passengers spilled onto the platform, flowing towards the footbridge in unison. As I pushed my way past college students, flower selling middle aged ladies and office workers who must’ve owned surprisingly defective deodorants, something caught my eye.
Amidst the rush on the platform, three men, all dressed similarly in long, full sleeved shirts that fell loosely over their slack pants, made their way towards the footbridge at a snail pace. Wearing sunglasses, they walked in a single file, with the man in front tapping a thin cane against the hard platform floor.
While school bags and elbows hit against their shoulders, with arms and limbs rudely blocking their way, the tap of the cane continued gently, almost rhythmic against the stomping of feet around them.
Perhaps out of pure curiousity, I walked towards them, and offered my help.
“Sure, we could use company!” the leading man cried out in joy. “Have you had anything to eat? We were just about to have coffee.”
I walked alongside them, climbing up and down two flights of stairs, until we’d got out of Egmore Station. Nearby there was a small tea stall that luckily had a few chairs vacant.
“Thambi!” the second blind man yelled out with familiarity.
“Varinga saar!”the boy yelled back, and in two minutes, placed three glasses of coffee along with vadaas and samosas.
“And for you?” the boy asked, looking at me.
“Tea,” I replied.
For the next fifteen minutes, they introduced themselves to me, talking at a casual pace, as though they had all the time in the world. I remembered my internship. An hour late doesn’t matter. Besides, I might be onto something, I thought.
The leader of the three was Ram Prasad. He, along with Aravind and Mohan, spent their days selling small handicraft items in the local trains.
“Doesn’t make much, but atleast we fill our bellies every night,” Mohan said with a grin.
I watched the three of them eat, their heads cocked to the side, looking vaguely towards me. If it weren’t for the oversized sunglasses and lack of eye contact, I’d have thought they were three jolly old timers, having a drink and talking about world affairs.
I left them to have their snacks, excusing myself to go to work.
“Come back anytime.” Ram said cheerfully, smiling at the cash register next to me. “We’ll be here every day.”
I was almost an hour and a half late for work. Stepping into the air conditioned office, I straightened my shirt and took off my back pack, just as my boss spotted me.
“Where the hell have you been?” he asked, sounding more angry than he really was.
I had a reply that would erase his frown.
“I got a story. An article for the paper. I’m thinking of calling it, Three Blind Men.”
* * * *
Though obviously pleased that his intern had come up with a possible article on the very first day, my boss was strict about the details. He wanted specifics. Names, dates, locations. Make it more Time magazine than Filmfare, he quipped.
And so, the next day, I had three cups of coffee, and a plate of vadaas and samosas ready. As they walked into the stall, I called out for them to sit with me.
“Ah, so you’re back!” Aravind said with a smile, recognizing my voice.
“Yes, I was in the area, so thought I’d see you.” I lied.
They believed me.
After a few minutes of small talk, I decided to steer the conversation.
“So, how’s it been, a lifetime of blindness?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound as morbid as I thought I did.
“Lifetime?” Ram asked, taking a bite.
“Oh, no, no, boy. We were not born blind. It was an accident!” Mohan said, his tone of casualness making his words sound odd.
“An accident?” I asked, my imaginary rabbit ears perking up in curiosity. I could see the block quotes of the article changing already.
Almost thirty years ago, the three of them had found themselves in adjacent hospital beds. As fate would have it, they were all victims of the same industrial accident. A factory where they worked as labourers had a pipe leak. The toxic fumes burnt parts of their arms and rendered them permanently blind.
“They said our ‘ratnas’ were damaged,” Aravind said, trying hard to remember that fateful day.
“Retinas?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, that only. Funny thing is,” Mohan continued, “before the accident, none of us knew each other. It was only the day after the accident, a nurse introduced us to each other. Good lady. She must’ve thought we could help each other.”
“She wasn’t wrong, was she?” Aravind said, chuckling lightly. The pain of that accident seemed to have escaped him. Or perhaps, thirty years had weathered it, allowing him to smile at himself with detachment.
I said my good byes to them, and walked towards the bus stand, feeling slightly dazed. For a moment, I thought about how their lives had completely changed in an instant. Only for a moment. And then I called up my office. I’d have to visit that factory, wouldn’t I?
* * * *
Turns out, it isn’t easy to get records from a factory of an incident that occurred almost thirty years ago. The current factory manager, a young, energetic man who was only too eager to help, shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“If, as you say, they are laborers, we would have no paper records. Sorry. But why don’t you try your archives?”
“Yes. You work for The Hindu right? I’m sure they must have records of newspaper reports. Maybe thirty years ago, this incident was reported in the paper?”
“Right,” I said. “I knew that. Was going to the office right now to check the files,” I added, trying to sound convincing. “Anyways,” I said, “give me any photographs you have of the factory back then. They will be useful.”
That night, with over three hundred parched copies of The Hindu – since, none of the three could remember which month the incident happened in – I began my research in earnest. Two hours later, I was struggling to stay awake, having read through just over hundred copies. I was thinking of calling it a night, when suddenly –
I sat up, seizing the photo in my hand. Looking at it closely, I softly swore in surprise.
My story had gotten a whole lot more interesting.
* * * * *
The coffee had hardly been brought, when the three of them entered the stall.
“Mohan sar!” I called out. With typical cheerfulness, they came over, and sat at my table.
After asking them about their day, for mere formality, I decided to get to the point. Taking out a photo, I fixed my eyes on Ram as I placed it in front of him.
“Have you seen this?” I asked, still looking at him.
“What a question to ask, thambi!” Aravind asked, chuckling at my apparent tongue in cheek.
But I saw the expression on Ram’s face, and knew I’d made my point.
“Mohan, Aravind, can I talk to thambi here privately?” he asked.
Though they were surprised, the two of them agreed and moved to sit at another table. As soon as they were out of ear shot, Ram asked, his voice devoid of cheer. “What do you want?”
“I want the truth.” I said curtly. “Is this you?” I asked, tapping at the picture of a man standing at the edge of a large group.
Taking a deep sigh, Ram nodded. “Yes, that’s me.”
It was a group picture of the employees of the factory, taken about thirty years ago. In it, Ram stood at the end of the row, grinning widely, looking smart in his overalls.
“You’re not a labourer. You worked at the factory?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied bitterly.
“This is amazing,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. Here was a man, who’d pretended to be blind for the past three decades, when in truth, he had perfect vision.
“Why all this drama?” I asked curiously, thinking about the angle I’d adopt. Trickster dons sunglasses for three decades?No, it needed to be more dramatic. I needed conflict and emotions. I pressed on with the questions.
“I checked the factory records. You quit a week after the accident took place. What, so you’ve been wandering around with the two of them since then, pretending to be blind? I don’t get it, what’s the fun in it?”
I was hoping he’d reveal a bizarre fixation. The bigger, the better.
Ram pressed his lips, looking down silently.
My mobile began ringing. It was my boss.
“Look, if you want, you can give me your reason. If not, I’ll make one for you, doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s getting published. So what will it –”
“It was my mistake.” He blurted.
“I was supposed to clean and replace the pipes two weeks ago. Instead I took six days off to visit my cousin in Coimbatore. That’s what caused the pipe leak. Corrosion. It was my fault.”
I sat looking at him, with my mobile continuing to vibrate in my hand.
“I heard about the accident, and realized it was my fault. But the company had already paid 5,000 rupees compensation to each of them. My supervisor told me to be silent or else we would face legal action. I couldn’t sleep that night. Not a wink. So I came to the hospital the next day. Paid 50 rupees to the nurse.”
I could feel him looking at me, waiting anxiously for my next words. Strangely enough, I felt blank. Nothing about the story, the angle. Not even about the headlines.
“And – and you’ve lived with them since?” I asked incredulously.
“Every day. “
“But, my god, thirty years of pretending to be blind?”
He looked at me, and smiled wryly. “Atleast I have a choice.”
My mobile rang again. It was my boss.
“Yes sir? Yes…yes sir…ah, but the story, I’m afraid there’s nothing in it sir. Too bland and ordinary….yes, yes sir…I’ll do a story about Lagaan. Yes, definitely more interesting…thank you sir…”
I cut the call, and looked at Ram. I had one final question to ask.
“Was it worth the sacrifice?”
“Yes,” he said. “I haven’t had a sleepless night since.”
After saying our good byes, I watched as the three blind men walked towards the station, talking animatedly amongst themselves….