I drove along the narrow road in that village.Things had not changed much.Except for a few brick houses the thatched ones still remained.The walls pasted with cow dung in the form of pan cakes gave an unpleasant odour.The stray dogs and hens running hither and thither under the wooden carts parked on the road were typical of an Indian village.I felt thirsty and wanted a coke.I stopped at the only grocery shop but also selling bakery items and vegetables.The coke was not cold.The shopkeeper said the fridge was not working and that he had no money to get it repaired. I then found the shop was almost empty with most of the shelves bare.The various drums where rice, pulses, sugar and many other items were kept seemed almost empty.There were clear signs of the shop being in doldrums with the prospect of being shut down permanently.
I asked the elderly unshaven ragged man who was sitting on the stool beaten by age and worry.” Do you know of Annamalai chettiar who owned the shop two decades back?I think this is the same shop as the well opposite to it is still there.”
"I am Annamalai.The shop has not changed hands.May I know who you are?” asked the old man.
“Oh,oh.you used to look young and healthy then.I see the ravages of time and worry on your face.I remember your shop used to be crowded early in the mornings with many villagers buying their small requirements from here and you were doing good business.Why, what happened?You seem to have fallen into bad days.”I asked“
You have not said who you are”persisted the shopkeeper“
I will tell you later but I used to live in this village in my younger days”
Annamalai chettiar after a sigh started telling.”My wife fell seriously ill.I could not attend to the shop and her simultaneously.I employed a boy known to family but he swindled money and never took interest.I sold my land and the house to meet the debts and mounting medical expenses.But she finally died.With no money I could not buy the provisions to stock in the store and improve the business.People do not come to me these days. I am afraid I may have to call it a day and pull the shutters down”
“How much minimum money would you need as working capital to bring the store back to normal working” I asked“
Who will lend me money?I am a pauper.”he said with a wry smile"
“Tell me.We will think about it later.”I said“
I would need Rs25000 to buy the various provisions.I should not send a customer away saying I do not have the thing he asks for.I need to have a good inventory.I would need another Rs.10000 to repair this shop as it leaks during rain and spoils the goods “he said
“Never mind.Here is my card.please come to the next town and visit me.I will advance you Rs.50,000 from my bank”
“What are you talking about? I have nothing to pledge except my honour.Loans are not given on honour” he laughed loudly.He added “Tell me why do you do all this to an unknown stranger?Are you making fun of me, seeing my miserable condition” he asked in a choking voice
“Chettiar, you may not remember me at this distant date.But I remember you as the guardian angel coming to our succour everytime we approached you.I am the son of Singaram.My dad Arunachalam was a drunkard and spent whatever little he earned on his liquor.He only knew to beat my mom daily at nights.He later deserted us. My mom was sick and yet she worked as a farmhand.We starved on many days, me and my sister.But my mother spent her money on our education.There were countless days when she would retire to bed on empty stomach.It was then when things became unbearable and we approached you for some rice and essential provisions on credit,you unstintingly gave us without the slightest demur despite the huge old dues.I suspect now that you gave us the food items more as charity than as business.Your kind act time and again had kept the hearth burning in our hut.My mother was ashamed to approach you for help but would send me when she saw us hungry.But for your munificence, she would have committed suicide after killing us .We owe our lives to you.
Today I am in good position.I can help you.It need not be charity.You can pay back to the bank whenever possible.I will stand surety for you and see it is sanctioned.Come and see me tomorrow itself.” I replied
Tears flowed from his eyes as he said”Yes I remember your mom and how she struggled with her alcoholic husband.She was like my younger sister as we grew together in the village.I think your name is Mani.Am I right? Where is your sister?”
As I drove back I found that my thirst had vanished despite the warm coke.But my heart was suffused with happiness and I switched on the recorder for the music.