Money is not everything in life, as the wise would say, but then the wiser would add a rider — only the rich can credibly say so. And how much money is enough money? Such unresolved questions that have goaded many including Pitchu Mama to worship Mammon wantonly as he lived in a quiet street at Karamana, in Thiruvananthapuram, named after a noble man called Nagamiah.
Pitchu lost his father early in life, and was raised by his mother. His childhood was not an easy one as money was in short supply. He worked hard and got an accountant’s job. He was a bit of an ‘Uncle Scrooge,’ as he rarely parted with his money happily and said often that nobody gave him anything ‘free.’
Pitchu’s only weakness was Vasu, his son, who squandered his father’s money. Vasu’s father paid a handsome amount to a private engineering college to get him a seat in Civil Engineering. His father foresaw a future for Vasu working as an engineer in one of those government departments such as Public Works. To those who got surprised by the ‘capitation fee act,’ Mama’s response was simple — if your money is not for your children, then what is it for?
It was the mid-1990s and the IT revolution was setting in as the century was about to close. ‘Computerised’ institutions in the West required personnel to work on their IT problems. This proved a godsend to young engineers in India as they were going in droves to places in North America.
It was not just the computer specialists who struck rich as they were ‘bodyshopped’ to the far corners of the U.S. People who graduated in branches of engineering that had nothing to do with computers were also drafted in. Vasu too was sucked in as a job in the U.S. was too good to refuse. Pitchu Mama waited for the IT revolution to pass as he longed to have his only son near him. The American destination in Vasu’s life was something not to Mama’s liking though he loved converting the dollars that Vasu sent him.
It was March and the sun was beating down fiercely on the streets as summer was nearing. I was returning home from work when a religious procession attached to the annual festival of the Mutharamman temple at Karamana crossed Nagamiah Street. As a child, I had happily watched this festival with colourful processions, dance and ‘Villadichhan Paattu’ in which the singer would strum the string of a bow with bells attached. This was accompanied by folk songs in Tamil.
The ‘gramaneerattom’ procession was the first event in these celebrations when the presiding deity, accompanied by two ‘Maadans,’ would arrive to accept turmeric-mixed water poured on them at every house. The ‘Maadans’ would dance to the tune of the thavil with nagaswaram in high pitch and flog themselves, possessed by the spirits that they were representing in form. My nostalgia was interrupted by a hand on my shoulder which turned out to be my childhood friend’s. He shouted into my ears, over the surrounding noise — Pitchu Mamavvukku Padalai (Pitchu Mama is unwell).
I rushed to Mama’s house and found him sitting in a chair, shirtless, in a trance, drenched in sweat. He would not speak and I turned to his wife. “In the morning, he was speaking on the phone with Vasu in the U.S., when he stopped abruptly, sat down with a cry uttering the word ‘green…,’ following which he became a mute,” she said.
I checked his vital signs which were normal. We lifted him off the chair and laid him on a bare wooden cot. I thought he had suffered a stroke. I examined him again and the first word came out of his mouth... Green card kidachuthu (got a green card). I asked Vasu’s mother to give him some water as I realised he was in a state of shock than anything else, when the phone rang. I picked up the phone, annoyed at its continuous ringing, as no one else moved. It was Vasu at the other end. He sounded apprehensive on hearing my voice as it surprised him. “What happened to Appa?” he asked. I explained that he was fine. Out of curiosity, I asked him what transpired during his earlier conversation with his father. Vasu replied, “I told him that I was getting a green card and explained that it will lead to U.S. citizenship when he cried and the line was severed.”
It became clear that the news of Vasu getting green card made Pitchu Mama realise that his son was not going to come back to India. Here was a man whose castles had all collapsed, resigned to a life of solitude. I left the house after administering a heavy dose of reassurance.
It was not until many years that I got a chance to meet Pitchu Mama again, at the inaugural ceremony of a home for destitutes set up by a local social organisation. A specific mention of the philanthropists who contributed to this noble cause was made. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Pitchu Mama’s name. He got up with all humility and a shawl was draped around him as a mark of appreciation.
I am sure that at this juncture, the readers would like to ask Pitchu Mama how much money is enough money; but then his answer would be that he has had enough with money.
(All names except Karamana and Goddess Muthumariamman are fictional.)
(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Neurosurgery, Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram. email@example.com)
Keywords: American dream