Recalling a late friend who defined a street

For many years I did not know what exactly he looked like even though he lived right across the street, in the house facing mine. I would always spot him sitting in the balcony – alone – and watching the world go by. From a distance, it is almost impossible to distinguish one's facial features, and even if I had run into him on the street or elsewhere, I wouldn't have known that this was the same elderly man who sat on that balcony.

The sight of him sitting in the balcony had become part of my daily routine, like the familiar sight of autorickshaws parked at the end of the street or the prominent buildings that fall on the way when I go to work every morning. On the days I didn't see him in the balcony, I felt something was amiss, but he would reappear the next morning and my life would seem normal again. And yet, I didn't know who he was – I only knew he was an elderly neighbour leading a retired life. There was no compelling reason for me to make friends with an elderly neighbour.

Over time, thanks to a toothache, I became friends with his nephew, Dr. Ravi, and the nephew's wife, Dr. Sunita. The couple runs a dental clinic on the ground floor of the house. I must have paid a dozen visits to the clinic and yet it never occurred to me that I should climb to the balcony and say hello to the living landmark of my life.

Just a year ago, during the course of writing a book on Chennai (which is about to be published), it occurred to me that I should dedicate the final chapter to my street. After all, I have lived on this street since the time I came to Chennai eleven years ago and developed an emotional bond with it. So one morning, when I ran into Dr. Ravi and asked him if he knew someone who could tell me about the history of the street, he promptly replied, “My uncle! He has been living in this house since 1938.”

And so, for the first time, I came face to face with the ‘man in the balcony.' M.R. Damodaran, even though eighty-five, was mentally agile. During the two hours that I spent with him, he told me all he knew about the street, about T. Nagar, about Madras. And since he had been a civil engineer with the Madras Corporation, having passed out of the College of Engineering in Guindy shortly before Independence, he was a repository of information. He even told me about the scandals that had rocked T. Nagar back in the 1940s. A voice-recorder stored every word he uttered and I came back home smug, thinking, what a story!

Months later, when I opened the audio file, I discovered that the interview with Mr. Damodaran was only five seconds long. I panicked and ran to my kitchen to see from the window if he was still sitting in the balcony. He wasn't. I called Dr. Ravi to enquire if his uncle was fine. He said, “If you want to meet him again, you better do it fast. He has not been keeping well.”

I lost no time in calling upon Mr. Damodaran again. He was now bedridden, but still mentally active. He began telling me the story all over again. But he soon got tired. I decided to leave and went back the next evening. On the third evening, the man who remembered dates with Google-like precision was finding it difficult to recall the year of Partition. I got up to leave and shook his hand. He refused to let go and kept telling me, “God bless you.” I knew I wouldn't see him again.

A few weeks later, late one night, I finished polishing the final chapter and mailed it to the publisher. I was all set to treat myself to a lavish late-night – rather early-morning – meal. As soon as I entered the kitchen, I noticed all the lights in Mr. Damodaran's house to be on – quite uncharacteristically. I called Dr. Ravi, who confirmed what I feared. I lost my appetite and consigned my dinner to the bin. For years Mr. Damodaran had just been a man on the balcony, but those three evenings had made him a dear friend. Even though he was cremated two weeks ago, my eyes continue to go to his balcony with the hope that I will find him sitting there. What to do, old habits die hard.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012