‘Enna Sitaraman, inniku potti kondu varaliya?’ (What Sitaraman? You haven’t bought your briefcase today?) joked Lalitha Madam when she saw her colleague take his designated seat next to hers at office that day. For 18 years they had been neighbors, sharing food, stories and a lot more. Sitaraman Padmanaban was a junior manager at one of the most prestigious bike showrooms in the city and Lalitha Madam was his senior. One thing about old school managements was that they never fired anyone. Maybe out of pity or maybe because they were all like one big family. The showroom did immensely well, but the change in roles never happened and by the looks of it, no one was complaining.
Sitaraman hadn’t replied to his senior’s joke. He was sweating, looking as though he had seen a ghost. Lalitha Madam went back to signing some forms and it was about ten minutes before she looked up to see what had kept the usually jovial and pretty loud Sitaraman silent. Sita, as he was called lovingly by the showroom family, was a very loud, humble and happy man. Having married at an early age of 18, he had been one of those men who didn’t think much about ‘manhood’ and ‘a man’s place in the society’. He used to cook and pack lunch dabbas for him and his wife. Hers had a karandi more rice than his, every day. His cooking was famous in their showroom and his puliyogarai was a repeat request!
If one could vaguely recall, Sitaraman had gotten married 2 days before joining duty at the showroom. They said his wife had brought him all the luck. 18 years, a steady job, three lovely children and one small briefcase defined this man. His wife, Uma had gifted him that briefcase on their wedding day. It was a part of his engagement thattu (plate). Inside it was one silk shirt, one silk dhoti, a Timex watch and a photograph of his favorite God. This was what Uma’s family had to offer to their son-in-law and he had cherished each item to date, in mint condition. Over the years, he had laminated the photograph and preserved the clothes wrapped in a mul cloth. The watch however, was another story.
The briefcase had become his identity wherever he went. Kids at the bus-stop used to call him the ‘kutty potti mama’. He would sit at the bus-stop, waiting for the last bus home. While he waited, he used to flex his once mridangam tuned fingers on the briefcase. On popular demand from the kids at the stop, he moved from classical music to Ilayaraja numbers, retaining integrity by never singing the borderline vulgar lyrics, but humming all along while his fingers drummed magic. What was inside that briefcase? An ink pen filled with royal blue ink, a single line ruled note pad, a book of some chants someone had once gifted him, his bus pass, a small oval stainless steel lunch box, a spoon and a white handkerchief. Apart from this occasional work files found their way into the briefcase every now and then. It was as though these paltry items held utmost value that he safeguarded his briefcase with all his life. He even had a plastic cover, with a cut just for the handle to peep out, so he could safeguard it from the rain. ‘Briefcase indri Sita illai’ was the longstanding joke at work.
What’s all the fuss about the briefcase, you ask? Nothing at all! It was just another piece of his office attire! Just like that shimmery Timex watch. What no one knew was that the watch hadn’t seen the light of the day. Every day after his morning prayers, he would take out the watch, dust it gently and wear it with pride. Every single day for 18 years. The briefcase was a protection for the watch. Once he stepped out of his house, he would walk around the corner, reach the bus stop, take the watch from his hand and neatly wrap it in the white handkerchief. Then, he would place it in a hidden sleeve of the briefcase and head to work. As the day was over, he would reach home, take the watch out and place it back in the drawer.
Uma had even forgotten that she had gifted him this watch and never bothered to ask about it. The watch was probably Sitaraman’s only ancestry that he would pass on to one of his three children. Which one though? He would keep a test one day, he thought.
A few weeks back on a fine Sunday morning, sipping his filter coffee (Ah! How perfect it tasted without sugar) he called his three children Babu, Sumitra and Kittu. The children were born 1.5 years apart, Sumitra and Kittu being twins. Just into his teenage, Babu was sporting the first signs of a moustache and Sumitra was growing into a fine young lady. Kittu, was the smallest at home, he was born 5 minutes after Sumitra. He was the most playful of the three. ‘Pasangala’ said Sitaraman. I have a small part of my life that I want to pass on to you. I will give you a small test and the one who passes it will receive a treasure of sorts. The children were intrigued, but not thrilled. Their heads were filled with Kamal Haasan steps, Rajini punch dialogues and Ilayaraja tunes. Nevertheless, they nodded in unison. They waited for their father to finish his coffee and tell them what it was all about.
Sitaraman began by telling them how he had been sent to a paathshala by his father at a tender age of 8. Every day he swept, cleaned, washed and did all the chores while learning life lessons from his Gurus. ‘Times have changed. You won’t even lift a coffee tumbler. But I want you to remember discipline is everything. I will watch you three carefully for 2 weeks and at the end of it, I will ask you all one question. It will be a subjective question, but your answer should come from within’, Sitaraman said, placing his hand on his heart. That was a tough one!
For two weeks, the children went about doing what they usually did. Uma had brought them up well. So well that the 2 weeks was just like any other for them. They all woke up before sun rise, said their prayers and performed their duties like clockwork. However, the final step of the puzzle was what kept their heads occupied. What would Appa ask us that we would have to answer with such sincerity? They thought.
Two Sundays after their session with their father, the children gathered again, by their father’s side. They waited to find out what the treasure was, when Sitaraman said that he was very pleased with them and that tomorrow after coming back from work, he would ask them the final question and then hand over the treasure to one of them, the most deserving one of them. The three children hardly discussed their father, but that night, after dinner they couldn’t contain the excitement. ‘What if it was money?’ asked Babu. ‘What if Appa gifts us a bike from his showroom? After all, he worships that place!’ quipped Kittu. ‘What if it is Amma’s thaamarai thodu?’ dreamily asked Sumitra. Their father had never even surprised them on a birthday so far, so this was becoming quite suspense. ‘Whatever it is, it is inside that briefcase for sure’ said Kittu with a hint of mischief in his eyes, as his siblings chucked empty peanut shells at him jokingly.
The next day morning, Sitaraman got ready for work as usual. He made puliyogarai and even some payasam. His wife double checked the calendar. It wasn’t even a special day. Happily, he walked out of the gate of his home, heading to work. Today, he had the watch on his wrist a bit longer, as though he was transferring his thoughts, ideals and principles into the watch. Like some data transfer. He sat at the bus-stop, waited for his bus. Once the familiar shrill whistle pierced his ears, he stopped absent mindedly drumming his briefcase and got on to the bus. Taking the regular seat by the conductor, he opened the briefcase, took out his watch, wrapped it and set it inside safely. Snapping the lock shut, he caressed the case as though it contained precious gems. Gazing outside the window, Sitaraman closed his eyes, taking in the fresh air on his face, recollecting the day that watch was gifted to him.
His father in law had said, ‘Maaplai (son-in-law), this isn’t a regular watch. I have set one diamond, the only one I could afford, on the face of the watch. It isn’t big, but when time comes it will help for sure.’ Even Uma hadn’t known this truth, for she was against ‘dowry’ and material gifts exchange. Her father had retrieved all his bank savings to buy that tiny speck of a stone. For 18 years, this well guarded secret had been kept safe. Today, it would be passed on to the next generation. He could hear the naadhaswaram in the background, just like it played on his engagement day.
‘Aiyo saar pidinga pidinga’ (Somebody catch him, catch him!) shouted someone jerking Sitaraman out of his little dream. He looked around in shock as a woman shouted signaling the bus’s rear exit. Sitaraman looked around and felt something missing. His briefcase! It was gone! He looked under the seat in a rush of panic. The conductor had by then directed the bus to the nearest police station. He came over to Sitaraman, who still was in shock, and asked him to go file an FIR.
The policer officer, a pot-bellied fellow, lazily asked Sitaraman ‘What was inside? Only office briefcase and lunch no? Leave it sir. Why waste our time and yours for a potti (box)?’ but Sitaraman couldn’t bring himself to tell the officer about that one missing item which would surely cost a fortune. He was sweating and mouthing something noiselessly, he shook his head, did a namaskaram (Salutation) to the officer and walked out.
He reached office, because he had never missed a day of work. After all, he was wired that way. Sitting next to his senior, Lalitha Madam, all Sitaraman could hear was a buzzing. He was sweating and looked out of focus. He couldn’t hear what she was saying, but suddenly collapsed in his seat.
That evening, his children asked one question for which there would be no answer ‘Appa Enga Ma?’ (Ma, where is our father?)
~ The Writer in me