He is nearing 85 years and there are as many lines on his face as the number (over fifty) of the Schools he claims he had newly started, or opened – while in Government Service – as a School Teacher, Trainer, Inspector, and Headmaster. The forest of blazing, almost dusty hair – a handsome crop – is as white, though co-mingled with silver streaks, as the chalk he must have used on the black Indian School Class Boards. He wears no reading glasses and his eyesight greatly improved after the cataract operation he had undergone about a year ago. He could read the tiny letters of the daily Newspaper with large effortless ease. He has a slight stoop, but carries his medium frame lightly. He had broken his hip twice – the left, and the right side – over a period of three years (you guessed it – in the great Indian bathroom of my earlier Article), and after steely replacements they are reinforced and stronger than before: stand him in good stead to carry his weight through the rest of his journey.
The School Headmaster was born in the year 1933 in a village, near Rasipuram, Tamil Nadu, India, the youngest of three siblings – an elder brother and a sister, both still around, outliving their respective spouses. His father was a ‘Village Munsif’ (Head), who had built the Village’s first two-storey brick & mortar House and made sure the youngest son went through School to become a School Teacher, and eventually retire as a Headmaster in the year 1992, with a very impressive (I’m jealous) Government pension.
During ‘School period’, the Headmaster packed & unpacked his school bags, to work and live in the Tamil Nadu Towns or Cities of, Musiri, Arcot, Naganeri, Nagapatinam, Chennai, Gangavalli, Harur, Vazapaddi, Salem, Puthuchathiram, Pattanam, Ittamozhi, Mannarkudi, Attur, Ethappur, Gangavalli, and finally Mangalpuram, from where he retired and hung up his chalk and duster and Inspector-Raj work. Along the way he married, and his wife dutifully followed him through all these exotic (he said they were) places, except perhaps when the two sons – one in 1960 and another in 1962, were born.
The Headmaster was outright frugal and deadly scrupulous with his money, minding and managing it wisely: saving as much as he could, and investing in property. The saying, ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’ was spot on in his case. He was clever enough to mostly use ‘other’s transport’ (somebody needs company, right?) to get around the maze of family functions and events. He never ever bought a four-wheeler for driving about and the nearest was a moped, which he rode for a couple of years and retired from it. He briefly ventured into the bore-well business, but quickly exited when the water went deeper and the returns were not surfacing well enough. Later, in the early years of retirement, he even started a Primary School with like-minded colleagues, but gave it up when senility started catching up with him.
Once retired, the Headmaster partitioned his considerable earnings, and wealth created, extremely well between his two sons. He gifted Land & House – one each, and more – to each, and chose to live in a simple sparsely furnished rented House nearby, on his handsome pension. This awesome act of his provided a ‘super-strong foundation’ and served as ‘good insurance’ for his sons to grow their respective careers and become financially independent. I’ve never seen a Father do so much for his children, with so little. Recently, one of his grandsons flew to Macron’s Paris, with Parents in-tow, to get married to his lady-love, in a Yacht, on the River Seine, on and under the decks, overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Though he always wishes that family members return and live in India, he blessed the tuxedo-clad and lace-gown-wearing newly-weds from afar! They take his seed, and story, to the heart of Europe and beyond!
Over the years, as I grew older, I’ve been watching the Headmaster grow older, become senile and suffer from memory-loss. He is extremely forgetful of the things that do not matter to him but displays razor sharp memory to things that outright matter to him. He could reel-off a long hymn with mindless ease. He has kept most ailments, typical of his age, at bay. Left to himself he would gobble any amount of sweets; adds at least three tablespoons of pure white sugar to every meal, adds it to the rice sambar, adds it to the idli & dosa, adds it to the pongal, adds it even to noodles… I tell his wife that that he must be eating a ton of sugar every month and it’s awfully surprising that his body takes it all – despite every known medical advice, to the contrary. However, it does show-up in his brain becoming blunted – maybe he doesn’t realize it (‘My Dad did not tell me not to eat so much sugar’, he argues), and I just told him so. God works in mysterious ways–in balancing the sugar levels, I guess. Talking about Gods, the Headmaster’s favourite God is Muthu Mariamman living in a Temple nearby. He never fails to extol her prowess and virtues. He claims to have been instrumental in building the Temple, in the locality. He authored a small little book on paeans to the Goddess, which he reads every day and offers a copy to visitors. Whenever he prays at the Temple, he returns with the holy ash and offers it to me saying, ‘I prayed for my sons, their wives, my grandchildren, for you & your wife, your son and your parents’. Wow! That’s a more than a chestful.
The Headmaster is fastidious about locking every ‘sun-light opening’, window, door and gate of the House after 6 pm, and switching off unwanted lights. He carries this out religiously, persistently – wherever he is – like a man possessed, often homing-in to tug at the lock and check if it indeed holds. Safety is paramount to him, when the light of the day fades and darkness beings to shine! I joke with him that he must have been a one hell of a security guard in his previous life!
When people visit him, the Headmaster endlessly, repeatedly – to the point of sheer boredom, talks about the many Schools he started, and the Collectors and Doctors he made out of young boys & girls…and keeps playing the same tune over and over, like a needle-stuck in a yester-year Gramophone. Or, worse still, he parrots the wise old proverbs such as, health is wealth; God is great; early to bed, early to rise makes a man health, wealthy and wise… When I take him for a ride in my car he never fails to point out, ‘see, I started that school in 1980, and the one over there in 1981… and it goes on, again and again!
Beyond all his peccadilloes & eccentricities, what shines across is his ‘harmlessness’; his complete non-dependence on anybody outside the family; and the beautiful chemistry he has with his wife. She is always beside him, constantly at his beck and call and does everything for him without a fuss or adding an extra line to her equally wrinkled brow. When he is at the height of one of his ‘high moments’ she gently calms him down, chides him or just brushes it off with a smile. She works and slaves tirelessly for him, with the sincerity of a devoted wife oozing through every pore of her body. On his part, he guards her zealously, like a prize trophy, seeing to it that she doesn’t overwork herself – for others, and on things that don’t affect him. Without his inseparable wife, I wonder if the Headmaster could even survive a day! I often tell people that there is none more qualified to conduct a Wedding and bless a newly married couple, than the Mrs & Mr Headmaster Couple! They are an example, in a certain way!
The Headmaster has spent over 20 years – since his retirement, doing almost nothing at all: just living; starting blankly into the blue and white space; shuffling between chairs and beds; walking over to pray at the nearest Temple; testing his eyesight on the newspapers and the latest release of the Pensioner’s Magazine; and of course locking windows, doors and Gates! He insists he doesn’t like Television, but watches regional serials on the sly! While his wife continues working: cooking, taking care of his every personal need, giving him the few medicines he swallows every day…in a never-ending job. Self-abnegation at its best! For some there is no retirement, is there? I often tell him, you can retire from a job but can never retire from life. I wish he could have continued done something worthwhile for his age and experience. I reckon his is a well-deserved retirement; maybe, he is one of God’s chosen few; without any financial and physical worries – of the mental worries department, I really don’t know!
Disclaimer: This is a fictional story loosely based on the ‘ground realities’ and any resemblance to any living or dead person is inadvertent and ‘luckily’ a coincidence.