As a college assignment, I had to do a profile on a (preferably) interesting person in the city of Chennai. Though the term ‘interesting’ is very broad, in this context it would basically entail a blue collar worker and his profession. Through a friend, I managed to get the contact of a certain Mohammad Ali, a Malayali who had been selling gramophones, vintage wall clocks and antique-looking telephones on pavement establishments across the city for the past several years.
Though I was able to communicate with him effectively and cajole him to grant me an interview because I was a Malayali myself, he was hesitant at first primarily because of the nature of his work, which meant he was almost always with customers and also because he shifted his ‘site’ everyday among four locations in the city. And also, there was a touch of hubris to him.
“I have given several interviews to many different newspapers and television channels. Everything that you want for your report is there! You can easily access it. You needn’t burden yourself and come this far,” he blustered over the phone.
I explained to him that my assignment not only entailed his personal details but also included my own observations and descriptions about how he went about his work. And I assured him that I would ask my questions quickly and then step back so that he could go about his job, while I could observe him at it.
“I hope you don’t think that I am disturbing y-”, I started.
“Ayyo, friend! No, no, you are not in the least disturbing me! After all, how can I say no to a fellow Malayali? Do one thing, come to Nungambakkam, near Loyola College, tomorrow around noon. I will set up shop there. We can talk then,” he added.
Subsequently, the next day I took the Suburban Railway to Nungambakkam, where, after a few frantic phone calls, I managed to locate Ali. He was plainly dressed, slightly balding, and was standing in front of his wares which were glinting in the noonday sun.
As I approached him from afar, his eyes narrowed and he gave me a wry smile.
“Hey, haven’t I seen you before? I’m sure you have interviewed me before. I have a very strong feeling that we’ve met!” he exclaimed.
Though I was taken aback, I explained to him that there was no way we could’ve met before; I had only been in Chennai for eight months, before that having studied in Trivandrum.
“Aaaaah! But I’ve been to Trivandrum too!! We must definitely have met. I was working there for quite some time in this very line of work. I’ve set up shop in Kazhakuttam, Thycaud, Kowdiar….” he began, going on to shoot off several of the places he had set up shop at in my hometown.
I was pretty sure that it was a mere déjà vu occurring to Ali, because there was hardly any chance that we could’ve met. I didn’t exactly classify myself (or my folks) as the type that went gramophone shopping. Not to mention, being a student, I was always clean-shaven; as opposed to my current appearance, having grown out a full beard. But I thought I’d humour him anyway, and nodded to everything he said.
I used his slight suspicion of having met, as a tool and immediately got talking. He was forthcoming enough, opening up and telling me several details about his personal life and profession. Though he always had an eye out for approaching customers, at one point he got so engrossed that I had to alert him to their presence.
Despite the professional nature of the assignment, it also felt good talking to a fellow native outside the confines of the college, and far removed from the people I generally talked to. At the end of the half-hour long conversation, which we had standing, Ali offered me lunch, which he said we could have by the pavement. I declined, not wanting to deprive him of his meal.
“But definitely call me when you come to Trivandrum next,” I said, thanking him and shaking his hand as I bid goodbye.