You might spot Sabapathy at an odd place. The place is not by any means odd; it is Sabapathy’s presence, that is. You see, Sabapathy likes to lunch in hospital canteens.
Every second day of the month, he devotes about an hour (or more) to planning out his sales visits at the offices of Papyrus, an intelligently named, but not-so-intelligently run retailer of office stationery. The planning is more elaborate than it sounds, for he does not just plan to make the sales calls; he plots them out so he can catch lunch at one of the hospitals nearby.
Not for him, the glitzy hotels with shaded stickers to keep the light out, and air conditioning in. Not for him the elaborate printed menu cards with waiters by his side—he likes to visit hospitals where he can select from a limited set of dishes, where he must go and get the food himself, in an environment that is unmatchable for how little eating means. At night, alone in the suitcase-sized room of the Pandian Lodge in Triplicane, he relives his lunch to make his nightly dosai or idli more palatable.
Today, for example, he will ride in his battered old Activa, visiting Rama and Company in Mylapore early in the day, before leaving for Prakash Associates in Pallikaranai. He will contend with peak traffic in the Vijayanagar terminus, sweat having drenched him completely like a new love. He will probably have to pause at the signal and will slither through the gaps between four-wheelers, taking perverse pride in the maneuverability of his cheaper mode of transport.
He will wait for one turn of the signal or two, the sudden six-lane befuddling him for just a second before he accelerates. He will obstinately ride in the middle lane, unmindful of the cars and buses trying to hound his two-wheeler out of existence. He will look to his right, at the sprawling Kamakshi Memorial Hospital, where he will have lunch today.
He will go on ahead, past an unlikely couple: an engineering college abutting a school of dentistry. It will remind him of his cousin and brother-in-law actually, their wedding reception, where guests, fed on a 28-item dinner, tsk-tsked that love really was blind. It will bring to his mind the customary family photo: his cousin, smiling through her buck teeth, and him, next to his new brother-in-law, whose tall, strong presence dwarfed everything around him. He will remember, if only for a moment, how he admired his cousin for not being overwhelmed by her husband—and a little worried that the groom might, one fine day, simply wake up from love, and befuddled by his choice of partner, choose to walk away from it.
He will take the left after Kamakoti Nagar, riding carefully on a perennially slushy road, lest it spray on one of his two good pants. He will go past the glass doors of Prakash Associates and smile at the pretty receptionist. She will take one look at his pock-marked face and involuntarily flinch and he will notice it but will smile back, summoning to his mind the name of the actor Om Puri, who Katheryn had told him about. She will have the good grace to feel embarrassed and will be extra nice to him, offering him a glass of water, which he will respectfully decline.
The meeting may go either way: The discounts he offers on paper and pens and printing usually don’t make a deep impact. Nor does he. After a few hems and haws, the proprietor of the store will postpone the decision to another day, and at that, Sabapathy will know that this will not happen.
Undeterred, he will then look at his watch and smile: it will be time for the favorite part of his day. Lunch at Kamakshi Memorial Hospital.
Sabapathy is not quite sure when it started. It might have been that day when he got his Class 12 exam results. He had passed and promptly left for home, to give the news to his mother—well, his mother’s photo—face frozen behind a glass frame and garlanded with plastic flowers that never faded. Even if his father’s memory of her seemingly had.
When Sabapathy cycled home from school, past the TASMAC liquor shop where he thought he spotted his father’s beat-up TVS Champ, pausing at the temple to pick up one muzham mallipoo for his mother’s photo, he was breathless with excitement.
He placed the flowers and then the provisional mark sheet in front of her photo, but he did not feel her presence there. He did not feel her gazing at him, encouraging him, and being proud of his marks (70% was pretty good, he thought). Her photo was there, sure, but she was not. He only thought it natural to go looking for her.
Clad in his good set of clothes, he thought he might feel her at his favorite jaunts: primarily, of course, the Temple. Emerging from the Temple, where he got the blessings of the One Who Dances (but not his mother), he glanced at Thillai Nursing Home, where his mother had lain five years ago. He walked right into the room she had been in, unmindful of the old man who was then on the bed, IV stuck into his arms, and family milling about.
The room was exactly the same: one bed, dark green sheets, one drip stand right next to it, a plastic chair, and a narrow bed for the attendee. If he could ignore the startled people there now, he could imagine Amma sleeping on the bed, taking in deep breaths, crying when awake and when tired, simply sleeping.
He did not know why she was admitted, only that the lady doctor kept scolding her and looking at Appa with disgust. That seemed to bounce right off his father, and with all the self-absorption of a teenager, Sabapathy had not even bothered to ask what she was admitted for. And when he went back to school, all he told his classmates was that the masala dosai in the canteen next door was amazing. “Women,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Big problem and drama for everything.”
He noticed but did not ask his mother about the wistful way she looked at babies and toddlers. He noticed, but did not ask how he might make her happier. He noticed her slipping in and out of reality, but chose to ignore it all.
Now, mark-sheet in hand, he retreated from the room, making his way to the canteen next door. Amazingly, his tongue seemed to remember the canteen food from five years ago: simple yet filling. He remembered the atmosphere of this canteen as if it were yesterday.
With nothing more than hunger on his mind, he ordered a masala dosai, carefully folding his mark sheet into a tube. Next to him was an old man in saffron robes and matted hair, chomping loudly. When the first piece of the dosai entered his mouth, he was surprised to feel a tear forming in the corner of his eye. He resisted the temptation to read out his mark sheet to the food in front of him. A woman he had seen in the hospital corridor just a few minutes ago came and sat next to him. He smiled at her, noting the way she ate: deliberately, yet unconcerned, as if the food was of no matter to her. He could not take his eyes away from the nurses who entered, the smell of antiseptic wrapped around them like a shroud. He sat there until the canteen master came and shooed him away. If you ask Sabapathy, he might not say it started that day. But it likely did.
At Kamakshi Hospital, Sabapathy sits at the table furthest from the entrance, so he can spot everyone coming in. He likes to see people as they enter, their emotions sometimes seeping into him like flood waters through a closed door. There were people who came here to escape from it all—checking out funny WhatsApp forwards, taking a long time deciding what they wanted, debating news vociferously. Pausing time.
He orders for himself a regular meal: Kamakshi is very limited in its variety, but the crowd more than makes up for it: they are lost and befuddled and are almost always worried about money. In contrast, in Isabel’s Hospital, the food is cheapest and diverse, but the crowd is not as appealing to Sabapathy: mostly new fathers and families waiting for the birth of a baby. That didn’t calm him down as much as the ICUs.
Now, he sees a large family coming in, laughing and discussing family matters that have nothing to do with the person living on life support. He isolates their conversation among that of others, all the while savouring his bland meal. It seems that the woman who is admitted is eighty-two, and undergoing dialysis for four months now. “She’s a tough woman, periamma,” says a white-haired woman who looks a lot like the others, as if they are all-time lapse versions of the same person.
Sabapathy constructs their lives in his head: a coven of sisters or cousins meeting after a long time, only one of them local. They say something about the periamma, and there is silence for about five seconds before they revert to the only setting they likely know: boisterous and gossipy.
A doctor comes and sits in front of him, breaking the monotony. That does not happen very often. This one seems stressed out. It could be a patient’s life on the line, Sabapathy realizes, or maybe even one of her own. He smiles at the doctor, but she does not return it.
Sabapathy returns to the office, logging in his day’s efforts. Of late, he does not have much to show, in terms of sales. Before leaving, he stops at Katheryn’s desk to chat briefly. Katheryn, whose name seems free and untethered, unlike his, merged with the soil and the God he is named after. She joined as a receptionist about a year after he did, and it was a wonder to him that she immediately shared her lunch and life uninhibitedly. He started hanging out later in the office when she had to wait for her cousin to pick her up. In that intervening space between work and home, he sometimes unburdened himself. And that’s when she told him about Om Puri, the actor, and how no one cared that he was pockmarked. And really, what did it matter? Sabapathy was nearly floating in the air for a week after that.
And when, one day, she announced to everyone that she had broken up with her boyfriend; it was like the traffic light had changed colors for Sabapathy, and someone had dared him to dream. And dream he did, running over and building up their conversations in his mind, like a one-man game of Chinese whispers. In his mind, they stood, precariously complex, like a child’s tower of multihued blocks, with giggles and laughter (even a subtle touch on his arm) thrown into each conversation as extras. It was in this mood, that of constructing the complex edifice of his relationship with Katheryn, that he enter the office after his meal at Kamakshi Hospital.
“Enna Saba,” she says, smiling, “Good sales?”
“No, Katheryn,” he says, looking at her, catching a spark in her eyes he is convinced exists.
“Why? What happened?”
“Nothing—all these online people have taken up a lot of our business. Everyone is using them these days, you know.”
“Hmm…” Katheryn seems preoccupied and averts her eyes.
“I have some ideas, you know, about us going online,” he says, twiddling his fingers on her desk. “I think I will talk about it with the MD next week. Someone needs to give him new ideas.”
Both Sabapathy and Katheryn know this would never happen, so they don’t talk about it anymore. She shuts down her computer and picks up her GUCCIE bag, and is gone through the door of the office.
It is Tuesday, and it has been a tough month for Papyrus. One salesperson has left, and another is talking about leaving. No one is bringing in huge numbers, and people who have a bird’s eye view of things can probably see that the company is about to crash. But of course, Sabapathy is not endowed with such skills, preferring to trace a path to its very end, like those “Find your way” puzzles in children’s magazines. So when the MD calls him into his room, Sabapathy knows what will happen, but will remain put.
“I am looking at your numbers,” the MD says, looking at his computer screen intently, glasses in hand.
Sabapathy drags towards the seat opposite the MD, who looks up at him questioningly. Sabapathy freezes, waits for the MD to ask him to sit down.
“What do you have to say, Sabapathy?” the MD asks and Sabapathy remains standing.
“About what, sir?”
“These figures, what else? Am I going to ask you about your athai’s daughter?” His left cheek twitched, as it often did when he was stressed.
“It is slow, sir.”
“So I see. Why haven’t you followed up with Venkatesh and Sons? And I asked you to try the colleges and schools also. I don’t see any of them here.”
Sabapathy stands there, looking straight ahead, his mind only returning to the day he went to Madras Medical Mission, his conversation with Venkatesh and Sons simply erased from his mind. The lunch was remarkable—for while having idlis at MMM, he had seen a family—two young people, and their son, presumably, who had come in haggard and tired. Suddenly, there was a primal cry that rose up, ricocheting off the walls, getting the attention of everyone in the canteen. Most people, Sabapathy noticed, averted their eyes, even as his eyes sought and followed them as they hurriedly left the canteen, food half-eaten. After they left, he felt his body simply heave itself on the table, spent.
“What do you have to say?” the MD insists, interrupting his reverie, and Sabapathy simply stands still.
“Sir,” he murmurs, “The online business…”
The MD cuts him short. “What? Online’a? Do you think I don’t know? Everyone talking about online, online.” His cheek twitches vigorously now, and he gets up.
“Come here, Sabapathy sir. Sit here,” he gestures at the chair. “You seem to know everything. Why don’t you just take over?”
For what seems like an eternity, Sabapathy does not move, and the MD, deflated, sits down.
“You have one month to better these figures. I need two lakhs next month, or you’re done. Go.”
There is hardly a week left for the MD’s deadline. It has been sixteen days since he last saw Katheryn. She’s left Papyrus, and Sabapathy and the MD seem to be two of the few lonely warriors who have decided to stay on the Titanic. Others are always looking for jobs, some of them obviously, without care.
On her last day, he was ready to talk to Katheryn about how he felt, building up courage at home, practicing his suave in front of the mirror splotched in grey. It seemed like manna from heaven, the way they both entered the office at the same time, like a couple during their grahapravesam. Inexplicably, the day went on, and his mouth was like a stuck lock that no amount of key-jiggling would open. Through the cake cutting and the personal goodbye, and even the card she had made for everyone, Sabapathy smiled. The dwindling office WhatsApp Group was where he saw her the next day, and the day after that, she left that too.
He starts his day as usual. Vadapalani has one of the newest hospitals in town: the SRM Institute of Medical Sciences, and he really wants to go there. He is not sure of the traffic and briefly considers taking the more reliable Metro Rail. There are more appointments packed into his day now as if quantity will somehow make up for quality.
The meeting is awful. The company has had trouble with Papyrus in the past. Sabapathy remembers sniggers in the sales room when he said he would do his best with the client. He tries to soothe tempers, but fails.
“You treat a client like this, imposing higher prices on us?” the client shouts.
When Sabapathy does not respond, the client inflates. “Why you are just standing there like a rock? Who are you? I will speak to your manager. I don’t want to talk to people like you.” And he casually throws “M^%&*erfu%$#!” at him.
In a rare and likely only display of rebellion, Sabapathy shows the manager his finger and leaves the office, not once looking back, his heart hammering in his chest. He barely hears the client shouting at his retreating figure.
He walks the distance (0.9 kilometers, Google Maps tells him) to the imposing façade of SIMS. A huge billboard advertises the addition of a team of cardiologists who can cut open your heart and operate it, even as it beats. It features five men and one woman, all in surgical scrubs, their hands crossed across their chest, like actors in a multi-starrer movie. Saba feels instantly chastised. He lowers his gaze and walks in. He looks at his watch. It’s around twelve-thirty. He knows there won’t be a crowd in the canteen yet, so his feet take him to the general ward. He sits on a plastic chair, looking suitably forlorn, watching doctors, nurses, patients, attenders, and security walk in and out of rooms, wards, elevators, and floors. He sees a man holding an X-Ray, a smile beaming across his face, and a woman in a stretcher, only her haggard, thin face visible, her attenders walking beside the stretcher, unsure of what to do or say, for it seems silly to say those things they do in movies, running alongside the stretcher.
It all comes to him, suddenly, in one shot, like a Saravana Bhavan Thali—everything is gone: his job, sweet Katheryn, and his mother, of course, his mother. He drops like a sack of flour.
When Sabapathy wakes up, he looks around: the nurse sees him awake and calls the doctor. He’s lying on a green sheet and next to him is an older man groaning like his life depended on it. The doctor enters, and all Sabapathy can think of asking her is: Is it time for lunch yet, doctor?
Meera Rajagopalan is the author of the book “The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs. Pankajam, published by Hachette India. Her work has been published in anthologies such as the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing Vol. 6 and Amaryllis’s ‘Have a Safe Journey.’ She works as a communications consultant for non-profit organizations.