Narayanan was checking the air pressure in the cycle tires. He pressed down with all his strength on the handlebars. The tires fought him back. He was satisfied. “No need to pump in more air today,” he thought.
He checked his watch. It said five minutes to ten. It was time to start his mail delivery rounds. Every day of the week Narayanan would start his mail delivery round by ten. The route he took depended on where the letters were to be delivered. In the village, it was said that you could set your watch by looking at Narayana making his rounds. Narayanan was proud of his reputation. The salary of a postman was low. Sometimes he wished he had studied more, that would have helped get a better job.
Narayanan’s father Gopalan Pillai was a farmer. A farmer who lost his wife when he was in his early forties. She departed leaving him with two sons still in school. Narayanan and his younger brother Krishnan were good at sports but to excel at studies required more than a healthy body.
Year of droughts interspersed with years of floods ensured that Gopalan’s efforts were all wasted. He vowed that his sons would not end up as farmers. He was elated when both his son’s got government jobs. Narayanan the elder son became a postman and Krishnan joined the army as a sepoy. When Narayanan got married and had a son, Gopalan’s happiness knew no bounds. But as the saying goes all things good must come to an end. One day Gopalan slipped and fell on a wet floor. He slipped into a coma and eventually passed away in his sleep.
Narayanan was an active member of the communist party while still in school. He would have been happy with a simple funeral for his father but that was not to be. His relatives, most of who never helped Gopalan when he was alive, insisted on a traditional funeral. His wife, Kalyani a devout Hindu supported them.
“It is important that al the customs and traditions be followed. If not, the soul does not achieve salvation,” Kalyani said.
All the old-timers nodded their heads in agreement and Narayanan was voted out.
Now all that remained of his father was a photograph, which hung near the main door of his house. Every day as he started for work, Narayanan would look once at his father’s serious countenance and only then leave for the day.
“Please can you post this letter?” a voice brought Narayanan back to earth. This happened every day. People would stop him on the way and hand him letters which they had written but as yet not posted.
“Yes, why not,” said Narayanan and put the letters in a different part of his bag. He would now have to carry them back to the post office and then stamp them and then deliver them to their address.
The letter receivers were usually the same. Housewives with husbands in distant cities, Parents with children in hostels. These addresses repeated after a fixed number of days. Narayanan noted such small details. He also carried money orders. Money sent by post and eagerly awaited by their recipients.
Narayanan had almost finished his round for the day. He took out the last letter from his bag. He looked at the address and for a moment was lost. He had stamped it at the post office but not read the address then. It was an address of a place behind the temple. He had never been there before. As he rode his cycle up the temple road, he realized he would have to walk the rest of the way. The road behind the temple was full of bushes and shrubs. This was no place to ride a bicycle.
“Narayanan, finally you decided to visit the temple!” said Unni, the tailor whose shop was next to the temple. Narayanan had put his cycle next to Unni’s shop.
“No!” said Narayanan and smiled. Everyone knew he was a communist. They just liked to rib him once in a while.
“Is there a house behind the temple?” Narayanan said.
“There are two-three huts not sure who lives in them. Why do you ask?” said Unni.
“I have to deliver a letter,” said Narayanan.
“Rajamma? Anyone by that name here” said Narayanan. He saw only one house behind the temple.
There was no reply. He repeated his question, this time in a louder voice.
Narayanan heard a low cough from inside the hut. An old woman came out of the hut. She stood there holding on to the crumbling pillars supporting the hut.
“Who wants to know? I am Rajamma.”
“There is a letter for you,” Narayanan said handing over the letter to her.
“There is a mistake. I do not have any relatives. This should be for someone else.”
“No! That is not possible. See it clearly say.
Behind Shree Krishna Temple,
East Street, Neyyarinkara Post Office. Trivandrum.
“The address is correct, but as I said I do not have any friends or relatives who would send me letters.”
“It is from Bombay.”
“I do not have any relatives here in Neyyarinkara, why would anyone in Bombay send me a letter?”
It was a good question. Narayan now had a problem. As per the rules, his job was to deliver the letter at the correct postal address. He was at the correct postal address but the addressee was refusing to accept the letter. Then he found a way out.
“Read this letter. In the first few lines, you will know if this is for you or not.”
“I can hardly see you properly. How do you expect me to read? I do not have money to buy reading glasses.”
Narayanan sighed. This was another ‘service’ that came with his job. Narayanan opened the letter and began reading.
I, Mohamad Usman am a chief mechanic at Bombay Construction Company in Kurla. I am writing this letter on behalf of one of my workers who say he is your son. His name is Sreekumar and he says he ran away from home when he was twenty years old. This incident happened five years back…..
Narayanan stopped reading as he heard a crashing sound. The old woman had fainted. She was lucky that she fell on top of a bed and then slid on to the floor. If she had fallen directly on the floor, she would have broken all her bones.
Narayana ran and picked her up. He lay her down and went inside the house. He bought some water and sprinkled it on her face. When the woman came to her senses she started wailing. The wailing brought Unni and a few of the shopkeepers to the house.
By evening the news that Rajamma’s long-lost son was alive was the hot – topic of discussion in the village. People who never in their lives had seen or known Rajamma spoke about her as if she was a close relative.
The boy’s story was indeed remarkable. He had jumped on a train and reached Bombay. Therefor some time he had begged and survived on the scraps thrown out by hotels. Then Usman had found him and given him a job. Five years later the boy had saved up some money and was planning to send his mother some money every month.
“This is a miracle! Now do you believe in God?” said Kalyani
“Why should this make me believe in God?” said Narayanan.
“Is it not a miracle that Rajamma’s son should return now. The whole village had given him up for dead. Even the police had closed the investigation and now after five years news comes that he is alive.”
“Nonsense think of how much he had to struggle in these five years. He was surviving on scraps from dustbins. And what of Rajamma’s suffering all these years. He was the only support she had. With him declared dead, she was living the life of a recluse all these years. What was her fault that your God made her suffer like that?” Narayanan countered.
“It is a miracle that her son is alive. Your communist brain will not understand it but I know and the whole village agrees with me that it is a miracle.” That was the end of the discussion. They did not speak for two days after that.
A week after the letter the first money order for five hundred rupees arrived at the post office. Rajamma beamed with pride as she signed to receive the money.
“My son has sent this. I do not want his money. All I want is to see him once before I die, “she said to anyone who would listen.
Sreekumar’s coming to the village to meet his mother was the event of the year in Neyyarinkara. The entire village had gathered at the railway station. Very few trains stopped at the small railway station and those that halted stopped for a few seconds. Seeing the massive crowd gathered at his Railway Station the Neyyarinkara Railway Stationmaster halted the train for a full minute. Like some V.I.P the boy got down and was received by a tearful Rajamma. There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd. Overcome with emotion the station master offered them a cup of tea in his cabin. Son and mother decided to go home instead.
The next day when Sreekumar took his mother to see a doctor they were again followed by a crowd. Rajamma was weak. All the years of grieving and extreme poverty had taken its toll and the woman was ailing. Most of his leave of two weeks Sreekumar spent on visiting doctors and hospitals. A tearful Rajamma was there at the railway station the day her son returned.
Rajamma’s condition took a turn for the worse after her son left. All the medicines her son had purchased remained on the shelves in her hut. After a few days, the people also forgot all about the mother and son and went on with their lives. Narayanan was the only occasional visits to her house. He went there to deliver a letter or hand her money sent by her son.
One day Narayanan was about to start his mail rounds for the day when the telegraph machine started rattling out a message. It was a telegram. Narayanan read the message and for a moment did not know what to do. He reread the message. It said.
“To Rajamma STOP Son Sreekumar dead STOP Fire accident at factory STOP Call 022 2801234 STOP from Usman STOP”
Narayanan folded the message and kept it in his pocket. He delivered all the mails and came back to the post office. That day as normal he locked the post office at four-thirty and left home. He did not tell anyone about the telegram. It was a telegram and the rules required it to be delivered immediately. For the first time in his career, Narayanan broke the rules. That night Narayanan tossed and turned. He could not sleep. If was not that this was the first death telegram that he had received. He had delivered numerous such messages before. Something was different in this case. He was unable to muster the courage to deliver the telegram to Rajamma.
The next day he used the telephone in the post office and dialled the Bombay number given in the message.
“Can I speak to Usman? I am calling from Neyyarinkara, Sreekumar’s village.”
After being put on hold for some time he heard a man’s voice on the other side. The man identified himself as Usman. His story was short. There had been an explosion at the factory. A few workers had died and Sreekumar was one of them. Usman had got severely burnt but was now recovering. Sreekumar had a saving of a thousand rupees.
“I will send that money as a money order to his mother.
Narayanan did not say anything. There was nothing much to say. A week later the money arrived. Narayanan had not said a word to anyone about the telegram. That day he had forged Rajamma’s signature in his register. Now the money had also come in.
He went to Rajamma’s hut. When she came out to meet him, he gasped. She was hardly able to walk. He helped her sit and then told her that Sreekumar had sent her a money order for five hundred rupees. From the expression on her face, he realized that she was not even able to understand what he was saying. Narayanan went into the house and made a bowl of gruel for her to eat. She was having difficulty in swallowing it. As a little bit of the food went in she asked him to write a letter to her son.
It was a rambling account. Rajamma talked about the time when she had taught him to walk. Of how scared she was he would fall. She narrated about the time when he went to school. She gave the names of his friends and what games he played with them. The effort was too much for her.
Rajamma eventually fell asleep narrating the letter and Narayanan carried her inside the house and laid her on the bed. He covered the old woman with a sheet and went back into the world.
That night Rajamma passed away in her sleep. One of the shopkeepers who was passing, by the way, thought of checking on her and found her dead. The news spread and soon people gathered at her house. They asked Narayanan to send a telegram to her son to inform him about the accident.
“That would not be necessary,” he said, “I have the phone number of his Bombay factory. Let me make a call to them.”
He went into the phone booth and closed the door. Then he dialled the Bombay number, informed Usman about the death of Sreekumar’s mother and put the phone down. As he stepped out of the phone booth Narayanan said, “Sreekumar died yesterday. There was an explosion at their factory. They are sending us a telegram. Let me see if it has come.” He went in a returned with the old telegram. No one bothered to check the date. They were too shocked with the news of the son’s death.
With the money, he had received Narayanan conducted a funeral for Rajamma. The whole village attended. The rituals were done for both mother and son. Narayanan the hard-core communist was in the middle ensuring that all tradition and customs were followed to the letter. More than the villagers he thought he knew the mother and son. He was there not as the village postman, he was there as a family member.