Some short stories, more so, the characters stay in your mind forever. Like Magi, from ‘The Gift for the Magi – O Henry’, Gladys, from, ‘Blandings: Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend’ – P G Wodehouse, Andrew from ‘Love at First Sight’ – Jeffrey Archer, Sengodan from ‘Red Banana (செவ்வாழை)’, Papathi, from ‘City (நகரம்)’ – Sujatha and many others. It can even be a humorous character like Uncle Podger, ‘Three Men in a Boat’ – Jerome K Jerome. Who can forget the mess he creates while hanging a picture (Uncle Podger hangs a picture)?
One such story is Kumarapuram Station by Ku Azhagirisamy, written in 1952. I believe, more than the story, the writer becomes successful when he creates powerful Characters. This story is a simple narration of innocence of villagers, the enthusiasm of students, a quiet railway station and of course the Head Master. All the characters are etched in readers memory. It also reminds you of Mahatma Gandhi‘s words, “The soul of India lives in its villages.”
Kumarapuram is a station built on a desert. There are no villages in half a mile radius. But if you have built a station, you need to name it no? At least you have to give an arbitrary name. That’s how it was named Kumarapuram, which actually is a village about a mile in the east to the station and the village has been boycotting the station for more than three fourth of a century. It was said that during the famine of 1936-37, to give relief to public, a railway line was laid between Tiruchi and Tirunelveli. In that route, about 7 miles from Kovilpatti lies Kumarapuram station. The village people would go on a pilgrimage to nearby temple or pond once or twice in their life-time. There was an Amman Temple at about 10 miles from these villages. To go to that temple, you neither need a train nor a Motor Car.
Most of the time, the places they need to go would be closer than the station. Who would take a train to go there when they can just walk to that place? The first important man to get out of the station was probably Subbarama Iyer. He came from Kovilpatti about three days back. He is a childhood friend of the newly transferred station master. Station Master got a chance to host his friend in this station. It was his son’s sixth birthday. He used it as an excuse to invite his friend over. Subbarama Iyer also thought it would be nice to spend some time with his friend in a village. The only guest who came for the birthday function was Subbarama Iyer. The childhood friends exchanged histories about their life, their transfers and family stories. The station master asked how comfortable is Kovilpatti town and Subbarama Iyer asked him how could he pass time in that small village – after a day.
The next day, the station master was leaving the quarters frequently to go to the station and attend some work. When his friend was not around, Subbarama Iyer spent time talking to the child. Playing with children or getting happy in their company is not usual for Iyer. May be his job could be a reason for that. But he has no one else to talk to. Somehow he spent time with the child for few hours. Then he would have his lunch and sleep for couple of hours. Around 3.30 PM, he got up, picked up a book and came to the station. There were four to five neem trees in the station. Since it was summer, there were lot of flowers from the tree which fell on the ground and covered it. From the trees, a cool breeze with a mild scent of the flowers was blowing towards the station. So he sat up on a bench where he could get some breeze and started reading his book. After some time, a train came from south and as usual, did not stop there and passed by.
The next train was scheduled to arrive only at six in the evening. So the station master went to his friend and sat next to him. “Does any passenger get down at this station?” asked Subbarama Iyer. “Why not? Even yesterday someone got down” replied his friend as he laughed. The man who got down yesterday was none other than Subbarama Iyer. “If you have ten more stations like this, there will be a massive short in Railway budget every year” Subbarama Iyer commented amidst his laugh. “You can’t say like that. Tomorrow is Monday. At least ten tickets will come as people will go to weekly market in Kovilpatti” replied the station master. “Then our station will have two Rupees income tomorrow” said Subbarama Iyer as he started to laugh again. Porter Karuppaiah was standing in a corner and enjoying this conversation. The station master continued, “I also thought why did they build a station like this? Who is going to miss it? But only when I came here I understood that what the station is serving is also useful in a certain way.”
Subbarama Iyer was listening without saying anything. The station master continued, “because it’s summer, all the lands around have turned dry. It won’t be like this other times during the year. All the nine grains grow in this land. People who toil the land come here for water. Each one takes at least twenty pots of water. In that way, this station has become useful.”
“So instead of building a waterhole, they have built a railway station!” commented Subbarama Iyer. But the station master stopped his humorous pitch and said in a serious tone, “just like this, man builds something when the intention was to build something else. The thing which was started for a specific purpose, becomes useful in something else. An expense which was made in fairness, becomes useless. When the whole world is turning like this, why only blame this station?” Subbarama Iyer laughed little sarcastically and said, “You are looking at the world through the window of this station. It’s surprising.” The station master became more serious, “OK tell me. Why have they built a school in Kovilpatti?”
“Why would anyone build a school? A hundred children can study” replied Subbarama Iyer.
“OK. I agree why are the hundred children studying?”
Iyer asked, “why are you asking this question?”
“I am asking with a purpose. You will say children are studying for Knowledge. What else would you say? But no mad man would send his children to school for knowledge. Did we go to school for knowledge? If there is a law which stipulates even the uneducated will get a job, no one will go to school even to take shelter under rain” the station master challenged his friend. When Subbarama Iyer started laughing, the porter started laughing as well. Iyer must have thought, ‘we should not talk and laugh like this in front of the porter.’ He just took his book again and started reading. The station master poked him, “why are you not saying anything?” Iyer replied, “who can win an argument with you? Let Kumarapuram station stand as long as the moon and sun shine. It’s not a loss for me!” he looked for a page at random and continued his reading. Station Master asked the porter, “go home and tell madam to prepare coffee for us.”
“Let’s also go home” said Iyer after a while. Both started for quarters next to the station. On the third day, there was a Passenger train leaving at 8 ‘O’ clock in the morning. Few villagers have gathered in the station at 7 AM, with their sacks ready to go to the weekly market in Kovilpatti. They were munching betel-nut and talking very animatedly. Subbarama Iyer reached the station around 7.15 after his breakfast. He selected a bench under the neem tress and sat on it. He opened the book and tried to start reading from where he left last evening. But with villagers talking on top of their voices, he could not concentrate. A good breeze from the neem tree was diverting his attention as well, ‘though it’s a desert, there is a such a sweet smell!’ A mild breeze. If you look at the land, there was just black sand all over. Even in this black sand, many trees have grown, sending a sweet scent with the breeze. Even the sweet aroma has started in this sand’ he thought as he looked at the villages at a distance.
‘In this place, hundreds of men and women are living. They depend on this sand. From this black sand you get such nice scent as well as life’ his thoughts were becoming as nice as the content of his book. Just then he could see, about half a mile away in the western direction, some four or five people walking and running towards the station. ‘There is lot of time for the train to arrive. Why are they running like this?’ thought Iyer. What looked even more innocent was people waiting at the station with more than an hour for the train to come. ‘Innocent people’ Mr. Iyer thought. The breeze from the neem tree was gathering strength. ‘Just for the breeze I should spend the entire summer here’ Mr. Iyer thought. He fell in love with the sand, the grass, the flowers that blossomed on the grass and their ash colour aloe. That he was about to leave such a place made his feelings even stronger.
Three people came on to the platform, looked at the signpost and stood in a corner. Someone was narrating a story how he bought a cow and others were nodding with “yes” “yes”. Mr. Iyer thought, ‘In their talk, not only there is truth but it is interesting and fascinating as well.’ He wanted to call all of them and listen to all their stories and life histories. By now, the people who were running towards the station had reached the platform and Iyer could see there were four boys and an elderly man. The elderly man asked many people, “have they issued ticket?” When they all said no, they relaxed a bit and heaved a sigh of relief. The four boys were looking at Iyer and since he looked so respectful to them, they even controlled their heavy breath. They see a person like Mr. Iyer, maybe once in a year. He looked like the district education officer who used to come to their school for inspection wearing a coat, boots and angavastiram (a piece of cloth worn across the shoulder).
Even his bald head made him look more respectable. Iyer too, was looking at all the boys. They all looked about the same age: twelve to fourteen. Everyone was carrying couple of books and few white sheets in their hands. The sharpened pencils in their shirt pockets indicated that they were all school students. Though the children and Iyer looked at each other, none made an attempt to speak. By this time the signpost got lowered indicating the train may arrive. Station Master came with the ticket and as he handed it over to Iyer and said, “you seem to like this place a lot. You are sitting here all the time. Good breeze. Come during next summer vacation as well. And stay here for at least ten days and not like this time.” Iyer replied, “Oh yes. Will do. When Lord Rama could spend fourteen years in a forest, can I not spend ten days here?”
Station Master replied, “Don’t forget that life in forest got Lord Rama all his friends. He became Lord Rama only because of his stay in the forest.” Iyer smiled and said, “after school you seemed to have developed a lot of interest in epics.” Though he said this mildly he realised that his friends spoke the truth and it was interesting as well.
As it was time for the train to come, the station master could not continue his conversation and went back to his office. The elderly men went inside and got tickets for all of them. All the passengers, with tickets in their hands, waited for the train to arrive which came on time. There was lot of empty space in the train. Iyer selected a seat by the window and sat there. The children sat on the opposite side. The elderly man took a seat next to Iyer on his right hand side. There was a huge man sitting next to the elderly man with lot of things. His wife was sitting opposite to the heavyset man. And she was at least three fourth as heavy as him. She also kept a lot of things under her feet. As the train started moving, the children started looking out. Through the windows on both sides, they were looking at the trees running opposite to them. The exclamation on their face made Iyer wonder if this was their first trip on a train. He wanted to have some conversation with them. But was it easy for a man of his stature to strike a conversation casually? He felt a little uncomfortable about it.
After a few minutes, the heavyset man started talking to the children and he started his conversation with ease, “hey guys where are you going?” his tone was as heavy as him. The boys didn’t know what to say. The elderly man spoke on their behalf, “they are going to Kovilpatti. They are going to join high school there.” The boys kept looking at his diamond studs, diamond ring, golden buttons and huge wrist watch which were quite an attraction to them. “In which class are they joining?”
The elderly man replied, “seventh class. They have passed sixth standard in the village school.”
“Idai cheval village”.
“No High School there?”
“No sir, we have sent application for sanction.”
“Do you have certificate for their passing sixth standard?”
“Yes. But even then there will be an admission test. That’s why the village teacher has taken special classes for all of them since last one month at his house.”
The heavyset man turned towards the boys and told one of them, “hey I will ask you three questions. If you answer correctly, they will take you. What is your name?”
The boy replied, “My name is Srinivasan.”
“What is your father name?”
“My father name is Ramasamy Naidu.”
“What class you pass?”
Subbarama Iyer smiled at the heavyset man’s poor English and lowered his head.
“Sixth class” the boy replied.
“OK enough, that’s how you should answer in the test without hesitation. You will definitely go to seventh class.”
The boy became very happy and the elderly man asked the heavyset man, “Please ask some questions to others also.”
The heavyset man started laughing as his huge belly started shaking, “My English knowledge is limited to only this. My teacher did not teach more.” Iyer and heavyset man’s wife laughed politely.
The elderly man asked the heavyset man, “where do you live?”
“We are from Tirunelveli. You would have seen Pankaja Vilas Coffee club near the station. It belongs to us. Just like these boys, thousands of students used to eat in our place. They won’t eat anywhere else during their college days. I have been looking after students for last twenty-five years. Who will let go of a good place?” the heavyset man replied and told the boys, “hey you also should eat in my place when you join college in Tirunelveli.”
The children were happy that a city dweller was talking to them and they loved it. The elderly man asked him, “how many children do you have?”
The heavyset man replied, “look sir, the students who had eaten in my hotel and the students who will be eating in my place are all my children. The elderly man could not understand this indirect reply. The hotel owner understood this but continued, “you will think how can you take money from your children for feeding them. But hotel can’t run on charity. However, I do my best whenever I can. I have paid school and college fees for many students. Some pay me back and many don’t.” Then he told his wife to serve snacks.
The elderly man asked, “you are travelling far?”
“No just up to Madurai, to attend a marriage.”
The elderly man asked the same question again, “how many children do you have?”
“I told you. All children who come to my place are my children. Are they children only if they are born to you? Look these four kids also will be my children. What do you say?”
At last the elderly man understood. “So what. All children in the world are our children. In this group, only one is my grandson. Others are studying with him. I am taking all of them to high school as my children. The last boy there is from a very poor background. His father hesitated how he could afford the school fee. I told him let the kid study with others. I will pay this fees. Let’s see later. The kid is very keen in studying. When his father told him no, he cried for a day without eating…” he continued talking.
The hotelier’s wife opened the big snacks box. There was so much inside the box which would be enough to serve in a marriage. Without asking anyone, she tore off a banana leaf into five to six pieces and served snacks for everyone. The boys hesitated to take it.
“Hey don’t go empty stomach, eat some” the hotelier warned the kids. The elderly man asked the children to accept. He gave one to Subbarama Iyer as well. But he refused it saying he just had his breakfast. The hotelier did not leave him. He compelled him to drink coffee. He picked out his book from his coat pocket and started reading. The student sitting opposite to Iyer saw the title of the book and read slowly by combining the letters, Anna Karenina, Leo Toalstoy. Iyer listened to this. He thought, ‘Toalstoy? Oh OK. That’s also correct. Unless someone teaches them it’s Tolstoy how would they pronounce correctly?’
After some time, the boys started reading from the white papers they brought with them. “What is that?” asked the hotelier.
“An essay on Cow. The fox and the grapes story. The wolf and the sheep. A letter to a friend. Our Headmaster gave all these” replied one of the boys.
“All in English. Headmaster is a learned man. He taught them and gave them these lessons” added the elderly man.
“Study well. They will give test only like this in the high school” commented the hotelier.
Iyer was listening to this conversation with attention though he looked as if he was immersed in the book.
Hotelier finished his coffee and said to the elderly man, “looks like these boys are studious and they study well.”
“Yes sir. Even though they are from village they study well. Their Headmaster is like that. Even a father won’t be so affectionate.”
The hotelier replied, “In a way it’s true. Teacher is like father.” When he listened to this, Iyer got Goosebumps all over.
The elderly man continued, “No doubt. These boys do other work also with their studies. Before going to school they take the cattle out. Once they are back from school they grind cotton seeds (cattle feed). They work and go to school as well”
The hotelier said, “great! this is how it should be. That’s the way to survive as well. An education which is not useful to others is not an education at all. What is the use of it? Take me for example. I have studied only up to second class. If I had a B.A or M.A, I would have been working somewhere. But I would not have helped so many students over the years. If only you can help a few people, the purpose of education is served. What do you say?”
The elderly man replied, “Is there a doubt?”. As they kept talking the train reached Kovilpatti station. Subbarama Iyer closed the book which he kept in his hands as if he was reading it and put it inside his coat pocket. All got ready to get down. The hotelier said, “boys write the test with confidence. I am an elderly person. I bless all of you. You will pass the test. When you come to Tirunelveli for college don’t forget Pankaja Vilas.” After they got down, Iyer looked at the hotelier and bowed to him and bade goodbye to him. The boys started walking behind him. They were hesitating a bit to walk in front of him. They just respected him so much.
As they came out of the station, Iyer looked for a horse cart. A porter who worked night shift at the station, was standing at a corner. He welcomed the elderly man and the children. He enquired about the purpose of their visit. From the conversation Iyer could guess the porter is also from the same village – Idai cheval. The porter invited the elderly man and children to his house and asked them to eat there and stay the night with him. Iyer got his horse cart, got inside and started towards his house. He was looking at the children and the elderly man till the cart crossed the corner of the street. Kumarapuram station, station master’s arguments, the breeze with neem flower scent, the black sand and the life it gave, the hotelier’s charity, the explanation the hotelier and the station master gave for education, the village headmaster who treated the children as if they are his own, the knowledge to pronounce Tolstoy as Toalstoy, the welcoming attitude of the porter- all these flashed through his mind. He felt in a twenty minutes’ train journey he learnt more than what he could learn in twenty years.
For a moment, he thought could there be better teachers than the hotelier and the porter? He kept saying to himself, ‘are these children going to learn anything new which the hotelier and the porter did not teach?’ He thought ‘it’s more of an irony that passengers don’t come to Kumarapuram station, that these students are coming to Kovilpatti school for higher education. At least the station serves as a waterhole. But…’ his thoughts got interrupted as he got down at his house. The porter took the children and the elderly man to his house. Since they all had their breakfast, they did not eat anything. But the porter compelled them to drink coffee. They also agreed to come back for lunch. Then all of them left for the school. The porter made them wait in the school veranda, went inside the headmaster’s room and informed him that four students have come from Idai cheval village for admission test for seventh standard. The headmaster immediately called an assistant teacher and asked him to test the students if they can be admitted to seventh standard. In a room the children were made to sit separately to take the test.
The assistant teacher read out the questions from a paper and asked the students to write them down. All the questions were in English. He asked them to complete the test in one hour. The boys started writing. The porter and the elderly man stood near a tamarind tree outside the school and started talking about the village. By ten thirty, the English test got over and after that Maths, Tamil and General Knowledge tests were given. All the tests got over by 12 noon. The students from the school left for their home for lunch. The four boys looked at these school children with confused thoughts. The assistant teacher asked them to wait in the room as he corrected all their answers. Then he went inside headmaster’s room. The porter and the elderly man arrived at the room and asked them how did the tests go? “Only Maths was little tough!”
“Very easy. The same questions our headmaster taught us at the school. I wrote in a minute” answered one of the boys. The other boys agreed with him.
The porter said, “if you have done well in English, you will be admitted.” The elderly man said, “Our Headmaster is great. He knew what questions will be asked and taught them the answers. What a brain?” he started praising the headmaster sky-high.
The porter asked, “looks like an efficient teacher!”
The elderly man replied, “not just efficient. A great character as well. We never had such a good teacher in our village. He treats the children like his own. I would say even fathers won’t be as affectionate to their children.”
As they were waiting for the good news, the assistant teacher came and took all of them to headmaster’s room. Immediately the children became tensed. Their hearts started thumping.
All of them went inside headmaster’s room. Porter looked at the headmaster and bowed to him. The elderly man started to bring his hands together for a Namaste and looked at the headmaster. And suddenly his hands started shaking. His eyes widened. The children were stunned their mouths opened. The man who travelled with them carrying a Leo Tolstoy book was sitting in the headmaster’s chair. How could the students have expected this? The headmaster gave them a warm welcome. Only when the porter said, “say Namaste to the big teacher” they wished him. “Were the questions tough?” asked the headmaster with a smile. The love, affection and attraction in his smile brought the students almost to tears. They just kept quiet without answering. The headmaster asked “give me your names.”
Subbarama Iyer said, “all of you passed.”
The boys cried in happiness.
“All of you study well in seventh grade. You should score good marks in all exams. Not only your teacher in the village, the teacher in this school is also like your father. Am I correct? The headmaster asked the elderly man with a smile.
“Is there any doubt” replied the elderly man in a big voice typical of villagers and bowed to the headmaster again.
Subbarama Iyer smiled for the third time and said, “you can go now. Do well.”
Kumarapuram station flashed in his mind. ‘That’s a great school’ he said to himself.
Ku. Alagirisami or G. Alagirisami (Tamil: கு. அழகிரிசாமி, 23 September 1923 – 5 July 1970) was born in Idaicheval Chathirapatti village near Kovilpatti. He was a childhood friend of Ki. Rajanarayanan. He completed his SSLC and worked as a teacher and then as a clerk in the registrar office. He later became a journalist and wrote for Tamil publications like Tamil Mani, Sakthi and Prasanda Vikatan. His first short story Urakkam Kolluma was published in Ananda Bodhini in 1943. He became a sub-editor at Sakthi in 1947.
He was a friend and contemporary of Vallikannan, Pudumaipithan and T. M. Chidambara Ragunathan. His first short story collection – Ku. Alagirisamy kathaigal was published in 1952 with a foreword from Kalki Krishnamurthy. In 1953, he went to Malaysia to work in Tamil Nesan. He married Seethalakshmi in 1955. During 1960-65 he worked as a sub-editor in Navasakthi. He freelanced during 1965-70. He worked at Soviet Nadu for a few months until his death. In 1967, the Government of Tamil Nadu‘s Tamil development department awarded a prize for his play Kavichakravarthi (lit. Emperor among poets). He was noted for his short stories. In 1970, he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for Tamil posthumously for his short story collection Anbalippu.