Thursday, 31 January 2013

Bally shoes and pigs


In the mid 60s, tax raids were quite unheard of; not just in Coonoor but in other parts of the country. Tax authorities raided the houses of known criminals, smugglers and bootleggers, not the vanilla variety businessman.  In the two decades post Independence, most people, my parents included, were still awash in the mellow glow. They truly believed that it was a tryst with destiny and that we had redeemed our pledge. It was certainly an age of innocence when the movies did not celebrate the smuggler and criminal and when leaders were truly that.
Over hill and dale: photo credit Jude Thaddaeus

So the news of a tax raid on a man in Coonoor was quite a shocker. The shock waves rippled across the district. They spoke of it on VP Street, in Bedford, on the golf course, in the clubs and all the other places that men congregated to shoot the breeze.
The bigger surprise was the person who was being raided, a man called Andappan, who lived quietly in a barn of a house somewhere in Quail Hill.
Though we heard the grown-ups talking about all this, it never really concerned us.  It was October and the false summer of the earlier month was past. The days were getting shorter and colder.
 One evening when we had parked up in front of Jograj, waiting for my mother who was returning her library books. My mother had hardly stepped out of the car when old man Ramsay slipped into the passenger seat, filling the car with the smell of stale tobacco and whisky. 
I immediately rolled down the glass to let in some crisp fresh air
“Heard the latest, boss?” he asked my father.
Ramsay was a car broker, a breed which was quite in plentiful. They, like other categories of salesmen, were smooth talking and worldly-wise. They spoke good English and were often dressed in coats and ties. It is only in retrospect I realized that the hats and coats were all cast offs bought, most probably, at the annual church sales and these men who seemed to hobnob with the rich and famous were actually poor and eked out a rather precarious living.
By the mid 60s car imports had largely stopped. The fancy British and American cars were not seen on the roads anymore. Only Ambassadors (the Indian version of the 50's Morris Oxford), the Premier Padminis and the Standard Heralds were available.  There was a small demand for imported cars and car brokers played their part as they spotted cars in far flung places.
 Ramsay was one of the many car brokers, whom my mother could not stand. My father tolerated him, mainly because the old man had quite a sense of humor. He was always around Bedford in the evenings and would often slip into the car once my mother stepped out.
It so happened, that evening my mother was making her pilgrimage to the Coonoor Municipal Library, which was located in the basement of the Jograj Building.  The library was quite unlike others libraries. The entrance formed a right angle triangle with the hypotenuse running parallel to the road. The doorway was set in broadest part between the catheti. Despite its unimpressive entrance, the library had a wonderful collection of children’s books, as well as fiction in English, Tamil and Malayalam.
“There he comes,” Ramsay said again.  I suddenly realized that Ramsay was talking about a tall, big built man dressed in a lungi, a thick brown sweater and a balaclava cap. The lungi was at half mast showing a pair of well polished shoes worn without socks.
 “That man is wearing Bally shoes!” my father exclaimed. We peered at his shoes with interest. The man looked a bit annoyed at the way three children were staring at him. We looked with wonder at the shoes- they had a shine, which comes from diligent polishing. The general attire of the man was at total variance with his shoes.
 My father said, “Those shoes are very, very, expensive. In India you get it only in one shop in Bombay and one in Delhi. You have to place your orders well in advance.”
Ramsay started laughing. “Boss you listen up. This is what happened. That is the chap the income tax wallahs raided. They had got information that he was very rich and has hoarded a lot of black money in his house. During the course of the raid, they found a number of locked steel trunks. The sleuths were sure that they had unearthed a major racket.
They asked for the keys to the trunks and while Andappan was getting the keys, some eager beavers broke it open. And guess what they found inside! Here, Ramsay paused dramatically.
“Shoes, boss, shoes!”
“What?’
“Yes, boss, shoes. All the shoes the poor blighter had ever worn. All worn out; with no sole, only!”
Now it seems he is contemplating filing a case against the income tax jokers.” Ramsay recounted with glee.
We were all ears. That evening, after dinner, we buttonholed my father and asked him about the man in the lungi.
Andappan’s story, as told by Ramsay, no doubt, started just before the Second World War, when the numbers of resident English families had increased in the hill station.  An enterprising man from a small town in Kerala realized that there would be a great demand for pork among the European population.  So one day this man along with a helper, a young lad called Ando, set out from this small town in Kerala with a herd of pigs.  
They walked for days, herding their pigs braving bad weather, animals and what have you.  They sold the pigs at a profit and went back for more. The laws of economics came into play and the demand outstripped the supply. The pig business prospered.
Then some domestic problem beset the pig man and the supply chain was disrupted, temporarily. Till young Ando stepped in; he knew the route, the pigs and shops.
Ando herded his pigs diligently over the years. He bought an old lorry and increased the runs. When the War came to an end, and Independence dawned, the demand for pigs declined. So Ando branched out into country vegetables for which there was demand. Everything he touched turned to gold. By this time, he had become Andappan.
 Some of the profits he ploughed back into the business the other he put into the some bank in Kerala.  Unfortunately for Ando, there was a run on this bank and he lost most of his money. With that he lost all his trust in banks. But never mind, his business was flourishing; the demand for Kerala food stuff was waxing, not waning.
One day at the pork store when Ando was having a non verbal communication with the store man an elderly dorai walked in. He was impeccably dressed- maybe overdressed to visit a pork store. Ando was particularly struck by his shoes. They were really elegant and shining. He had never seen shoes like that. He stole a glance at his feet clad in the ugly leather slippers to which he had attached thick wads of old tyre-rubber. His feet were dirty, chapped and the heels were cracked. He felt very ashamed.
The dorai noticed him looking at his shoes; he laughed and said, “Bally! The best! Take care of your feet; you need them to stand up in!” 
Ando didn't get the joke but he got the point. He asked the pork store man about the shoes and where he could get them. The store man no doubt asked the dorai for the information. After that Ando started caring for his feet and began a life-long fascination with Bally.
Then one day the pork store man asked Ando what he did with his money. Ando grunted and shrugged. By this time, the earlier close association with the pigs had made him quite a porcupine.  The pork store man told him, “Invest. You must invest in bhoomi. Bhoomi will never betray you.”
All the way back Ando mulled this over and on his return he had decided that he would invest. The next day, he went back to pork store and asked the pork store man if there was some land or house he could buy. The man laughed and pointed to a flyer on his notice board. It was for a house in Quail Hill. Never in his wildest dreams did the pork store man think that this punny kutty would buy such a house.
Ando looked at the flyer, though he could not read English, he understood the numbers. The next day, he hedged his next consignments and raised the money from a Marwari, approached the contact mentioned in the flyer and bought himself a grand house. Just like that.

It was a lovely house with a grand garden and an orchard full of fruit trees. He built a tall wall around the compound and withdrew to live in seclusion for the rest of his life. Never had he enjoyed such a feeling of peace and quiet.  All he brought with him into the house were the 20 locked steel trunks.
Later he told the pork store man’s son, who now worked for him, that nothing gave him a better sense of achievement then looking at his old worn out shoes. It reminded of the old days, the days of his youth, when all you had to do to make money was work hard and take your chances. 
(All characters mentioned in story are fictional)

5 comments:

  1. ah yes. the coonoor municipal library holds very pleasant memories. discovered so many authors there.

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  2. the library had the entire collection of 'chalet school', mary stewart and pg wodehouse..

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  3. The description of the triangular entrance to the library took me right back to that place.
    I have to admit I was sad that the characters were fictional..

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  4. A nice one - I liked the usage of the phrase - " the false summer of the earlier month". The mention of car brokers of the yester year, car mechanics and the best part was they were all drunk & yet allowed to work by most people in Coonoor. I wonder if this was a special trait of Coonoor, where everybody was given space and there was tolerance. Some times, I wish there really was a time machine, & we could rewind and relive those days! Things were so simple and beautiful. That charm no longer exists and by reading these blogs, one gets to relive those times and moments. Thanks for giving us these special moments and memories!

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  5. True Tessy.. I think, those was easier times, there was no pressure. Yes, the tolerance.. we really did not know the differences of caste and creed. Thanks for your encouragement, I really value it

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