The man in the maroon lungi

Once, a man bought a farm and also hired some men to work in it. Among them, there was a small boy. The farm owner never knew then, that in years to come this boy would have grown up and become more than just a mere daily wage worker. Such would be the bonding that the boy would have become a part of his family. The farm owner was my great-grandfather and the boy is the one, this article is about.

When I came into this world, the boy had grown up and was in his fifties. He had carried my mother in his arms, when she was a child and later, he carried me. As far as my earliest memories go, I remember him wearing a maroon lungi, with a same coloured towel wrapped around his head (we call it mundas in Tulu). He wore no shirt or any chappals. Only on some special occasions he could be seen wearing a white shirt and a white lungi.

Ajja (that’s how I call him) never compromised with work. Let it be cutting the weeds, washing the cattle or watering the plants, he always used to do it with dedication and honesty. It is blissful, to watch him work… it’s like he is praying constantly to god or something like that, when he is working. I have never seen him rant or argue about the wages he gets. Sometimes we used to call workers from outside to do some heavy duty stuff. They always keep complaining about the wages they get at the end of the day. Also, very often, they have self-proclaimed holidays. Ajja completely opposed these things.

Ajja taught me to climb trees, especially areca palms or the areca nut trees. Areca palms are thin, diameter-wise, and  grows straight without any branches for about 30-40 feet and bores nuts at the top. You have to climb all the way up get the nuts. I was able to climb those trees but never had the stamina to stay on the top. I always wondered, how ajja used to climb it so effortlessly, that too in his age. My mother told me that, earlier ajja also used to jump from one tree to another while at the top, i.e., about 30-40 ft above ground! He doesn’t do it now. May be he thinks it’s too risky at this age.

Every year during the harvesting time, ajja is a busy person. After the rice is separated from its plant, the product still contains some paddy leaves, dried stem etcetera. To separate them, ajja used to throw, at a time, little amounts of this mixture using a plate in such a way that it spreads out as it travels. The rice travels more distance than the leaves and gets separated. The picture of bright afternoon sun, shining down on the uniformly spread golden rice always attracted us. We used to run on them with joy and ajja used to scold and then chase us away.

Ajja never talked too much. He always spoke in a low voice. I have never seen him sad. Either he is serious or happy. At lunchtime, he would quietly eat his food, wash his plate and sit on the jagali or the veranda in front of the house for some time. And then go back to work. He did this each and every day. The most important occasion of the year is the Bhootha kola (it’s a ritual of holy spirit worship performed in some parts of coastal Karnataka). Ajja is always the main guy that time.He knows what to do and how to do it. He does all the work, whether it is cleaning the place, painting the walls or setting up the dhompa (canopy of coconut leaves which are weaved together) and still, he always remains in the background. I doubt if anyone can fill his place when he is gone. We are so used to him being around, that life without him is unthinkable.

Now, whenever I am at home in Mangalore, ajja asks me about my studies, about Bangalore… it’s nice to talk to him. Everyone in my family asks advice from him. Everyone in our neighbourhood wants ajja to work for them. Everyone trusts him. In this ‘practical’ world, some say ajja is ‘impractical’. He has zero goals, zero ambitions, zero planning, but still has led a successful life. His children are in good jobs and his grandchildren go to good schools. More than that, he has made life a lot less difficult to many of them. Recently, at marriage function, ajja was sitting alone in a corner. I asked my brother to take a pic of him with me. I never had any photo of his. I always wanted one… to claim that,once there existed a man who never had any education but had knowledge more than any random guy in the crowd; who influenced and inspired me in many ways, unknowingly.

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