Madras. Or Chennai, as they call it nowadays, was my second home. I came to the city a decade and a half ago, in search of livelihood. I was one of the thousands who emigrated to this southern Indian metropolis in search of job, and the city welcomed me with both hands. She gave me a good job, she took care of me well, I brought my family here. My kids grew up here, and by the definition of it, I was a Chenaiite.
But your own native place is something you can possibly never snap your ties from. I was a native of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala. I was a Keralite by birth and had my roots very firm there. And as a result, Chennai Thiruvananthapuram round trips were very frequent. I used to love those sojourns on trains, almost every month there was some reason or the other that forced me to travel to Thiruvananthapuram.
It was on one of those trips that I saw her. I was on the return journey to Chennai and we were about an hour away from reaching Chennai Central. I had a side lower berth which implies a bad night of sleep for me. After a night of tossing and turning, I was up early and was watching the barren lands rush behind me as the train surged forward. That was when she approached our compartment. She had a bundle of dictionaries held in her hand and a bag slung across her sagging shoulder which obviously contained many more dictionaries. I’m not certain what attracted my attention to her, perhaps it was her smile which seemed to eclipse the tiredness on her face on an early morning.
“Intha dictionary vaangunko saar. Ungalukku English nalla pesaam” [Please buy this dictionary, sir. This will help you speak good English.]
Nobody seemed to bother. No one seemed interested to buy her dictionaries. A young man sitting in my coach stared at her, his look betrayed his intent. If eyes could talk, they would’ve screamed, “I don’t want to buy your dictionaries, but I don’t mind giving you a try.”
Someone asked, “You’ve been selling these dictionaries for so long. How many English words do you know?”
She replied boldly, “I know love means kaadhal. I know love, and I love you. That’s all.”
Everyone in my compartment shared a good laugh. So did she. Seeing no one was interested in buying a dictionary from her, she moved forward in an attempt to find better luck in my adjacent compartment.
The train chugged away. The barren landscapes of rural Tamil Nadu switched to more unpleasant facades, the slums on the outskirts of Chennai. I was staring out of the window for quite a long time that I did not realize someone had come and sat on the seat opposite to me. I looked up and saw it was her. She wore a green salwar with a matching kameez, and the strain of roaming from one end of the train to another was quite evident on her innocuous visage.
“How difficult it is sir, to gain the trust of people these days…”, that was more of a statement than a question. She mentioned about Murugan, who owned a book store just outside of Chennai Central station. She was a sales representative working for him. Every morning Murugan used to entrust a bundle of dictionaries with her, and he used to say, “Thenmozhi, it all depends on your sweet voice. If you use your sweet voice well, you’ll be able to sell each one of these dictionaries. Even people who won’t need one will buy one if you can convince them with your voice.” Thenmozhi, such a sweet name, I wondered. Before I could admire her name any further, she continued on. In the evening when she went back to the store, Murugan’s tone would change. He would shout at her more often than not and criticize her as being lazy and sloppy. She was expected to sell at least 20 dictionaries a day and even on days when she managed to sell more than 25, the best she would get from Murugan was half a smile, no more. She knew for a fact she couldn’t change the level of trust Murugan had in her for all her efforts. She used to get 20 rupees as incentive for every dictionary she managed to sell, and life was not smooth.
Lack of trust was even bigger with Saravanan. Who is Saravanan, I enquired. He was an auto driver she said. But the blush that accompanied that statement spoke volumes about her feelings for him. They were in love, and they were planning to get married for next Deepavali, she revealed. Every day in the evening, Saravanan would wait outside the station with his auto, waiting for Thenmozhi. He would drive her back to her home. Somewhere along the drive, he would drive into a lonely alley and then kiss her on her face. Initially, she used to think of it as his expression of love for her. But in course of time, she told me she realized it was not entirely an act of love. It was to smell for cigarette or any masculine smell. He wanted to be sure no man other than himself went anywhere near her. “Earlier along, he never used to ask me. But now, he askes me everyday, whether some guy physically touched me. And when I say no, he makes me recount every incident of the day. Sometimes I get scared when I think what might happen if someone touches me accidentally when I am with him.”
“Trust” she lamented, “is something I believe someone could never associate with me. I do not think I am bad enough to break the trust of someone who cares about me, but what can I do if he doesn’t trust me….” Her words trailed off. Did I catch a tear that was surfacing at the corner of her eyes? I presume this is a common sentiment cutting across all girls and women who step out of their home for livelihood. They have to answer a hundred often irritating questions to prove if they adhere to the standards of piety men set for her. They are indoctrinated every morning when they step out not to trust anyone, and in some sense that indoctrination boomerangs back on them when they return home, often tired, from work.
I had a bunch of dictionaries at home, but that day I bought one from her. Someday if I have to look up the meaning of trust, the first thing I’ll open will be Thenmozhi’s dictionary.