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VINOD SUBRAMANIAN
a simple life

Mr. Balu has a job at a customs warehouse. He is 48 years old and lives with his wife and ten-year old son in a suburb of Bombay. Every morning he goes to work at the dockyard in town by local train during rush hour and returns home in the evening, again during rush hour. At work, his job is simple but demands reliability, which he has demonstrated for many years. He lives an ordinary and uncomplicated life.

One summer morning after he reaches his office, he meets his senior officer and requests an hour's break, saying that he needs to get some personal work done. The officer's face shows disapproval. Mr. Balu tells him he will take the break around lunch, so that he is hardly missed. The officer agrees reluctantly.

Half an hour before the lunch break he picks up his lunch bag from the floor beside his small working desk and leaves the office. He walks into a narrow lane that opens onto the large yard in front of the warehouse. It leads to a busy road where he hails a cab. At a traffic signal down the road, he calls out to a boy selling newspapers and buys one. He folds the paper and puts it into his lunch bag. The cab starts moving with the traffic as the light turns green and travels a while before it reaches a circle bustling with people. It is a busy intersection with all kinds of shops and hawkers. He taps the cabby on the shoulder. The cabby stops on the side of the road. Mr. Balu pays him and gets out. He walks along the periphery of the circle and turns into a radial lane. The crowds dwindle as he moves away from the circle and deeper into the lane.

The lane leads to a public park. He enters it through a revolving gate that creaks loudly. The park is quite large, with lots of trees. The grass on the lawns has dried up in the sweltering heat of summer. Some men are asleep on park benches under the shade of the trees. Mr. Balu walks on until he reaches a bench under a flaming gulmohar tree deep inside the park and sits down. The lawn around the bench is littered with flaming red flowers. It is silent except for the faint rumble of traffic and occasional honks of vehicles. There are few birds in the trees. Mr. Balu pulls out the newspaper from his lunch bag and begins to read. After a while, he takes his small, round steel lunch box and a small plastic bottle of water out of the bag. He begins eating his lunch - curd-rice with some lime pickle.

Nothing moves as the midsummer sun glares mercilessly at the earth. The trees stand mute. Swirls of hot air rise from the graying edges of the dried lawns. From somewhere between the treetops and the hedges, a blob emerges - a figure, distorted by the swirling heat waves. For some time the figure stands still and then moves in the direction of the gulmohar tree. It is a man of about fifty dressed in a white shirt and trousers. He approaches Mr. Balu and greets him.

Mr. Balu acknowledges the man with a half-smile and a nod, gesturing for him to sit. He slinks into the park bench, sighs and pulls out a kerchief to wipe his brow. He complains about the heat. Mr. Balu offers him a banana from his lunch bag. The man puts the kerchief back into his shirt pocket and accepts the banana. In a few moments, Mr. Balu finishes his lunch, gets up and walks towards the tree with the bottle of water where he washes his hands and returns to sit on the bench. He puts the lunch box back inside the bag.

Slowly, Mr. Balu takes something out of his lunch bag. It is a knife. Unaware, the man eats the last piece of the banana and throws the peel carelessly towards the trunk of the gulmohar tree. Mr. Balu half rises from the bench. He thrusts the knife into the man's chest with great force. The man's eyes open wide in pain and a deep-throated groan escapes his lips. Mr. Balu clamps the man's mouth shut with his left hand. The hands of the man grasp at the knife that Mr. Balu keeps firmly in place. A few moments pass. Mr. Balu removes his hand. Faint gurgling sounds escape from the man's mouth. His eyes redden. The man's hands slide down to the bench and lie beside him. His eyes roll out onto a lifeless gaze.

Mr. Balu props his left hand on the man's shoulder and pulls out the knife. He washes it with water from his bottle beside the bench and puts it back into his bag. A red patch of blood grows on the man's shirtfront. Mr. Balu folds up the newspaper, then lays the body down the length of the bench. He opens the newspaper and covers the head of the dead man with it, tucking in the corners. He then pours water on the paper until it is fully wet. He turns and looks around the park. There is no one in sight.

He puts the water bottle into his bag and walks away calmly in the direction opposite to the one in which he had approached the bench. He walks through another revolving iron gate and gets onto the road. He walks into a lane that twists and turns until it reaches the busy circle. He crosses over to a bus stop on the other side of the circle. A few people are waiting for their bus in a queue under the heat of the afternoon sun. A bus arrives. People in the queue climb into the bus. Mr. Balu gets in. He finds an empty seat and sits down. After a few stops, Mr. Balu gets off. He crosses the road and walks to a narrow lane. It opens into the yard in front of the customs warehouse.

He looks at his watch as he approaches the office. It is just ten minutes after lunchtime. He enters and goes to his desk. The other people in the office are busy chatting. He leaves his bag beside his desk and goes to the officer's cabin. He opens the door. The officer looks up at him while talking on the phone. He hands out a sheet of paper. Mr. Balu takes it from him and returns to his desk. He opens a big register and begins copying entries from the paper onto the page.
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The alarm-clock rings once as Mrs. Balu's hand reaches out and presses the button on the small clock. She lies awake in the small three-room flat in Bombay for a few moments before rising from the bed. She goes into the living room and opens a door. Outside, the elevator grinds to a halt in front of her. A man steps out and hands her a milk packet. She closes the door and returns to the small kitchen. She leaves the packet on the table beside the gas stove and enters the bedroom. Inside, she opens a door to a bathroom and closes it behind her.

Mr. Balu is lying on his back, asleep. A young boy rises from his mattress on the floor of the bedroom and walks to the bathroom, rubbing his eyes. Realising that the door is locked, he turns around and looks at his father, sleeping on the bed. He walks up to the bed and lies down next to him.

The first rays of the morning sun penetrate the room through gaps in the curtains on the solitary window. Mr. Balu wakes, his eyes falling on the young boy who has curled up next to him. His ageing hand extends towards the young boy, caressing his head. The sound of the flush can be heard from the bathroom. Mr. Balu rises and walks into the living room. He opens the door and picks up a newspaper stuck into the latch of the door. He sits on a chair and begins reading. M. S. Subbalakshmi's "Suprabatham" begins playing somewhere in the neighbourhood. His wife brings him a tumbler of coffee, and returns to the kitchen. His son emerges from the bedroom looking fresh and awake, and goes into the kitchen. Mr. Balu gets up and goes into the bathroom. In a few moments he returns, wiping his wet face with a small towel.

He sits in the chair again, picks up his coffee, and reads the newspaper. A clock on the wall chimes seven times. He folds the newspaper, drops it into the chair, picks up his towel and returns to the bedroom.