Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Soap-Seller of Pulianthope

The last of the Bata Thatha trilogy. The first two were posted here and here.

One of the Walkie-Talkies at the Marina Beach had drawn the attention of the group to an article in The Hindu about a new political party, Lok Paritran, started by a group of ex-IITians and which was planning to field six of its candidates in the T.N.Assembly elections. These political greenhorns, the article said, were so full of idealistic zeal that they had given up lucrative assignments to do their bit for the motherland.

Adidas Track-Pants looked quite skeptical and felt that such idealism was misplaced and unsustainable and it was hard to believe that educated young men and women would willingly abandon the comfortable space of the corporate world for the murky den of politics.

Polo T-Shirt agreed with the view and said that with MBAs being wooed with multi-million dollar pay offers, such a scenario appeared extremely unlikely.

Bata Thatha dismissed this cynicism sharply. “You underestimate the passion of young people. When they believe in a cause, they don’t let mere money come in the way. Take the case of my sister’s grandson, Chander….

‘Did he enter politics? “asked Nike Shorts

“Not exactly, but he quit his job with an MNC to take up a social cause, a move which also brought him into contact with a girl, who was to become his wife. Hear the story.

“My grand-nephew, Chander”, started Bata Thatha, while the other Walkie-Talkies looked nervously at their watches, “possessed, what President Kalam would have called, an ignited mind. A topper in school, he got into IIT, Madras quite effortlessly and followed it up with an MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad. As was the fashion among the IITM/IIMA graduates of the ‘80s, he joined an FMCG company and started selling soaps and toothpaste. I understand that he distinguished himself in his job and was credited with many breakthrough, marketing ideas such as the packing of soap in capsule form and mixing of toothpaste with tobacco. Those innovations increased the mass appeal of the products and helped his company tap – what the management guru, Mr. C.K.Prahlad would describe as- the bottom-of-the-pyramid business opportunity.

Despite his 8-digit salary and stock options which would fetch him several crores if encashed, Chander felt a growing sense of disenchantment with his job. Such crass materialism that he saw all around him militated against his idealistic temperament. This slow simmer boiled over one day when he was watching the Tamil movie “Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (“You can do it, brother") - the Kamal Hassan starrer, if you remember- where the son, cast in an idealistic mould, rebels against his rich father, abandons his ancestral house for good, settles down in a remote village and works passionately for the upliftment of the people there.

Brimming with patriotic fervour and humming the tune ‘Sare Jahan Se Achcha’ with the same gusto as Iqbal did when he composed it, Chander came out of the theatre with the clear decision that he too must discard his corporate trappings and take up some meaningful social work that would lift his beloved country out of the morass it had sunk into. By the time he reached his office – yes, he had taken off for a matinee show on a working day- he had formulated a clear plan. The root cause of most of India’s problems, he reasoned, was the absence of any civic sense and basic cleanliness. With his background of marketing soaps and toothpaste, he would take up the noble cause of promoting personal hygiene in the countryside. He would settle down in a village and educate the rural folks on the need to brush their teeth every alternate day and to scrub their bodies with soap at least once a week.

Quitting his cushy job and exchanging his stock options for equivalent quantity of soaps and toothpaste, Chander set off for a village called Puliyanthope on the banks of the River Vaigai in South India. Depending on how you roll your tongue and pronounce the word, “Puli” in Tamil can mean “tiger” or “tamarind. Opinion is, therefore, divided among Tamil pundits if the name of the village celebrates the bravery of the original inhabitants hunting down ferocious tigers with their bare hands or it ridicules them for their cowardice in seeking sanctuary on top of the tamarind trees at the slightest sign of trouble. But this is not germane to this story or, for that matter, italiane or austriane.

So, Chander reached the village and soon found a house large enough to accommodate himself and his consignment of soap and toothpaste. The villagers were curious but being simple souls accepted his presence without any reservations.

The IITM-IIMA types are extremely systematic and the first thing that Chander did was to carry out a survey on the usage of soaps by the rural community. He would sit quietly on a haystack on the bank of the River Vaigai and just watch the bathers from a distance. He did this for a few weeks hoping to collect adequate data to arrive at the bathing pattern and the practices prevalent there.

On one of his morning outings at his observatory, as he was scratching himself vigorously ( hay can make you itchy!), his eyes suddenly espied, among the multitude of bathers, a girl of such blemishless complexion, flawless figure and such raw beauty that Chander knew instinctively that she was the one he was destined to marry. If you know your epics, you will recall that King Santanu had reacted in exactly the same intoxicated way when he saw Goddess Ganga.

This may sound quite incredulous and you may well comment that such impulsive behaviour may be par for the course for mythical characters of yester-eons, but did not fit in with the image of the contemporary IIT-IIMian being a logical, reasoning creature. But such are the inscrutable methods of Cupid, such can be the surreptitious manner in which Love gatecrashes into one’s heart and such is the strange chemistry that can bring together two people from completely dissimilar backgrounds that we have no option but to bow to Providence and accept its diktat on such matters unquestioningly.

In Indian villages, one doesn’t approach the girl directly, whatever maybe the intensity of one’s feelings. One makes enquiries through intermediaries and this is what Chander did. He learnt that the girl’s name was Thenmozhi, that she had lived in that village all her life and – to Chander’s immense relief - was not married. But, alas, there was a serious catch. From the day she was born, she had been betrothed- as was the local custom- to her own uncle, by name Murattu Subbandi Duraipandian ( Musudu, for short) and the marriage was to take place that summer.

The name Musudu, evidently,struck terror in the heart of the villagers, for he was the quintessential ruffian . In the manner of all Tamil villains, he wore his lungi folded up to his thighs, with a trunk-type, striped underwear protruding out. Inside this jutting jatti, he kept a blunt knife which he would pull out at the slightest provocation . He wore a full-sleeve shirt that was rolled up to his shoulders to expose his bulging biceps and terrifying triceps. He sported a moustache that was shaped like a handlebar and which was so thick and so menacing to behold, that able-bodied men and strong-willed women closed their doors and hid inside their houses, as he walked past. When he laughed, it sounded like the roar of hundred Bullet motorcycles being simultaneously kick-started by hundred fat, constipated police constables. He had informers everywhere and not even a mouse could move a cursor without his knowledge.

Musudu was known to be fiercely possessive of Thenmozhi and would not hesitate to tear down with his knife any person who was foolish enough to even talk to her. An unwary youngster had once come within 50 feet of her house and when Musudu came to know about this transgression, he had him tied to a donkey and paraded all over the town, head tonsured, face butchered and pride punctured. The heartbroken youngster ended up marrying the donkey.

So, you can well imagine the maelstrom of emotions in Chander’s mind as his MBA brain was evaluating the probabilistic weight of each of several possible outcomes. Love was pulling him in one direction with all its might, while Fear was cautioning him to get the hell out of the place before Musudu came to hear that he had been making enquiries about Thenmozhi. In this absorbing tussle, I am sorry to report, Fear soon got the better of Love and Chander decided to pack his things and leave the next day. As the historian Toynbee would have put it, Musudu was a challenge for which Chander did not have an appropriate response. ‘The Good Lord gaveth Thenmozhi and the Good Lord taketh Thenmozhi away ‘, was about all he could say, by way of philosophy.

As he was caught in this reverie, the door of his house opened and horror of horrors, it was none other than Musudu himself at the entrance. His informers had not wasted any time and there he was in his trademark lungi flying half-mast, striped underwear projecting outside, his moustache quivering menacingly and the knife held suggestively in his hand.

Chander closed his eyes and started praying- that being the most expedient and the only course of action that occurred to him under the circumstances. He waited for that sensation of blunt knife tearing through his insides, but what he heard was a loud noise that seemed to originate outside his body. He dared to open his eyes after a few minutes and found Musudu unconscious on the floor.

The villagers soon heard about this incident and naturally concluded that Chander had single-handedly managed to overcome and tame Musudu, their tormentor of many years. In the wake of Chanders heroic exploits, Thenmozhi’s parents were delighted to get their daughter married to him. In the two decades since then, Chander and Thenmozhi have assiduously sought to make Pulianthope the hygiene capital of India and to ensure that it had the highest per capita consumption of soap. ”

Quite pleased with the happy ending Bata Thatha sat down on the bench near Gandhi statue and ordered a glass of carrot and beetroot juice from the vendor nearby.

Nike Shorts who was not known to mince words, ticked off Bata Thatha sharply. “This is not one of your better stories, Bata Thatha. Quite a tame ending, if I may say so. For instance, how did Musudu suddenly and conveniently become unconscious? Are you telling us that it was an Act of God in response to Chander’s prayers?”

Bata Thatha gulped down his juice and replied, “Of course not. There is a perfectly good explanation which I thought was self-evident, but which I realize now I should have provided. I must be losing my touch.’

“Chander himself was caught by surprise when he saw Musudu on the floor. But, as you are aware, these IIT-IIM types can quickly size up situations, which might baffle lesser mortals for weeks. I had told you that Chander kept a sizable stock of his soaps in his house, When Musudu flung open the door of the house and walked in, he was assaulted by the overpowering fragrance and aroma that emanated from the soap stockpile. An aroma that was completely alien to Musudu who had never had a bath in his life and whose sensory receptors in the nose were more conditioned to the earthy and rustic smells which lay at the other end of the olfactory spectrum. Musudu was felled by Soap Smell. Thats what had happened."

The Walkie-Talkies silently mulled over this explanation.

"Good day, gentleman” greeted Bata Thatha as he walked away from the beach, forgetting to pay the vendor for the carrot and beetroot juice..


Shruthi said...

Heh heh ;) Like the story of the fisherwoman who couldn't sleep in the flower-seller's home :D

Once again, I must say I love the little touches that you give your story - those, and your excellent language make your stories come alive and dancing :D

Casement said...

Explanation for Puliyanthope was funny and MUSUDU, outstanding!:)

Anonymous said...

"and not even a mouse could move a cursor without his knowledge"

Raj said...

Shruthi, thanks : I did make a conscious attempt to add these little details and it feels good when someone notices it and comments.

Sowmya, Casement : Thanks

Anonymous said...

you excel, in blogs where you involve yourself.. this particular one was a quite drag. I am happy that its the third of triology. I sincerely hope you dont not come up with 2.9.1 as an extension to this triology.

Anonymous said...

Wow!! very nice way of narrating a story..y dont u write a book of short look somwht like RK Narayana's Malgudi's day...

Anonymous said...

Hi Raj
I could visualise Madhavan as chander and actor Vijay as Musudu.A typical tamil film story.

Chitra said...

Hyuck hyuck....and thus the story came alive....:)!

The Talkative Man said...

Hilarious, I and my laptop were rolling on the couch(dear me!) in laughter.

Anonymous said...

Oh gosh!! Truly hilarious!