Fiction | ‘The Evening Walk’ by Aditya Venkataraman | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

I

The story of how Francisco ‘Frankie’ D’Souza and Krishnamoorthy ‘Krishna’ Iyer became the best of friends in their twilight years is improbable everywhere but in modern India’s latest attempt to cram in more people than ever into its overcrowded cities: the IT Township. A walled-off cluster of sky-high towers overflowing with apartments; the Township also included a pharmacy, a supermarket, two tennis courts, a library, token green spaces, and even a community hall for hosting the residents’ birthday parties. Originally intended for the IT boom’s nouveau riche, the township now housed every strata, color, smell, hairstyle, and car model of urban life.  As the original IT crowd began to immigrate to the occasionally welcome shores of Australia and the US, their apartments began to fill up with their aged parents, ‘the FaceTime grandparents’, who had every Apple gadget but their grandchildren rarely connected with them.

Concrete and mud walkways snaked around and through the township. Every evening the towers’ aged residents, sporting ill-fitting tee shirts and slacks, would descend upon these serpentine tracks for their daily walk. In the township, walking was a communal affair. The walkers, mostly well-known to one another, would quickly coalesce into their usual cabals and each crew would begin its slow circuit around the township to the accompaniment of laughter, gossip, and non-veg jokes. The women had their own cliques too – each one with riveting internal-politics. Lastly as in any social structure, there were the stragglers: group-less, gossip-less walkers, often sporting earphones (or AirPods that jutted out perilously) and these were the only folks actually trying to walk for exercise.

The day after he moved into the township, Krishna found himself a straggler: in life and in the evening walking scene. Janaki, his wife of 40 years, had gone to bed six months ago and never woken up. His son, Ambareesh (or Ambi as he wanted to be called now, that’s Ambi like the Ambi in Bambi) flew in from the US to attend to her last rites (“Sorry, Suma and the kids cannot take off from work and school in this time of the year.”). After the thirteen days of mourning, Ambi wondered aloud why his father had to struggle with managing his large, independent house, with a vast garden. Before Krishna could emerge from the daze of his wife’s demise, urgent meetings were had, hands were clasped, paperwork were signed, possessions were packed, flight tickets were booked, and Krishna found himself all alone in a strange new 1 bedroom apartment on the 6th floor of ‘Ecstacy Sumanta’, the IT township. (“Appa, can’t take any more days off work. Hope you understand.”)

In his second week at the township, Krishna finally mustered the courage to enter the evening revolutions of his neighbors. He slipped into his pair of Bata slippers, Janaki had always selected his footwear, and descended into the bustle.

“Sita, did you watch yesterday’s episode of Rama’s Sita’s Lava Kusa? Isn’t Lava so…”

Arrey, I tell you, there has never been a better spinner than E. Prasanna but these two-bit millennials…”

“HAHAHAHA, abey yaar Pandey, what will the missus say?”

Conversations floated all around Krishna but he couldn’t find a place to dock in any of them. His feeble attempts at making eye-contact with a few turned futile. Circling his block he hurried back home, resolving to never try this again.

And yet a week later, Krishna tried it again. And failed once again. Just as he was about to turn into his block, a voice boomed behind him, “Hey-O! You look new. Hi, I’m Frankie, what’s your name?”

Krishna swiveled to find a tall, wiry man, with balding white hair and a fashionably tailored tee shirt, extending his right hand. He clasped the hand and asked, “Frankie…? Like the roll?”

“Hahaha… you are too much! I was Frankie long before those darned guys started selling paratha rolls as Frankies. Francisco D’Souza – Frankie. Now tell me your name.”

“Krishnamoorthy,” said Krishna, shaking the man’s firm hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offense. I misheard you with all the noise around.”

“I know right? When I came to examine the property as it was being built, the builder sold it to me as a place of serene reflection surrounded by the chirping of birds and flowing water. Since the crowd moved in, it is like the crossing of the wildebeests every evening!”

“Wilde.. what?”

“Wildebeests. They are these cow-like deer in Africa. They breed a lot and once a year the entire clan migrates across the plains in one big thundering herd. Wave after wave of the beasts. The lions and hyenas have a field day picking off the slowest, but most of the herd survives. Strength in numbers sort of a thing. I saw it on National Geographic.”

“So are we the lions among these wildebeests?” Krishna asked coyly.

“Hahaha, so there is some steel underneath after all! Come, let’s grab some coffee at my place.” He grabbed Krishna’s arm and guided him towards his block.

And that is how Frankie came into Krishna’s life – breezy but with a hint of coercion. He was a widower too; he had lost his wife decades ago. Childless but with a child-like spirit, he fancied himself the consummate gentleman.

II

‘Krishna, do you know those young girls who stay across my flat?” Frankie began on one of their daily walks around the township.

“Yes. I have seen them around.”

“Last Friday they had a small shindig at their place. Some boys and girls, food, music, drinks too. They weren’t making too much noise so I didn’t mind despite the late hour. In fact the food smelled so good, I was wondering if I could pop in for a bite. But the music stopped suddenly and I heard some shouting. When I opened the door, Mahadevan… you know Mahadevan, the association president, him and some security guards were screaming at the girls.”

“Screaming? Why?”

“They were waving a notice around that said unmarried girls are not allowed to have male guests after 9 pm. Those crazy guys were demanding the girls throw out their male guests.”

“I mean, with these bachelors… you know…” Krishna sighed.

“What bachelors? Don’t behave like a Neanderthal. These girls are majors and if they want to have their boyfriends over in their own homes, that is their business and nobody else’s. Least of all, that stuck-up Mahadevan’s! He was threatening to call the girls’ landlord in the US and have them ejected for public indecency. I tell you what is indecent? It is Mahadevan walking around the township in his dirty lungi and bare chest. His chest has more foliage than the township.” Frankie fumed.

Krishna chuckled at the image of Mahadevan’s hairy chest. Krishna was known for his chest hair too, but even he had to concede to the association president’s hirsute gifts. 

“I know Mahadevan can be assertive, but he has a tough job. Youngsters can easily get carried away and that gives the township a bad rep. Youngsters these days have no discipline.”

“You know who had no discipline? Our generation. My brother was married at 19 and by 25 he had had three kids. Not a penny to his name, but every year another kid to take his name. Things got so bad that my mother had to make him and his wife sleep apart. What about you Mr. Youngsters these days? Didn’t you get married at 20?  I’m sure you were no Sadhu back then. It’s the age, Krishna! It’s their age to fall in love, make mistakes, drink too much, and get hangovers. We elect association members to keep our gutters clean and lawns mowed but they assume they are the guardians of the township’s morality.”

Krishna flinched at Frankie’s full-frontal assault at his youthful escapades. He knew it had been a mistake to share such intimate details with him, but Frankie was skillful at inviting confidence and liberal at dishing out his own life’s savory details. But Krishna wasn’t willing to concede this point.

“If the girls were married, nobody would have a problem, least of all, Mahadevan.”

“Who is Mahadevan to care whether the girls are married?”

“He is the association president! He cannot be a bystander to indecent activities in his township. Lots of families live here with kids and elders, what if they see this kind of behavior and…” Krishna stopped mid-flow when he saw Frankie turning a darkest shade of purple. He sensed an outburst.

“Outside in the streets, we have democracy. Inside the township’s walls we have a junta. From the decibel levels in our living rooms to the hanky-panky in our bedrooms, from the cooking smells in our kitchens to the cleaning schedules in our toilets – the association pokes its nose into everything. License Raj may be dead outside, but it is alive and kicking within these walls. From hiring a new maid to keeping your shoe rack outside your door, you need to get permission from the association.”

Pausing for breath, Frankie continued, “I remember a Sunday some time ago. A few college kids were shooting a dance video on the lawn. There wasn’t even any music. Sundaram, that other association coot, saw this from his balcony and screamed down at them threatening to call the cops and demanding a written consent letter sanctioned and signed by two association members. Who the hell does he think he is? Under what law is it prohibited for a few kids to take a harmless video in their own backyard? Do you know what’s the source of their power? Apathy. Nobody wants to deal with the malfunctioning CCTV cameras, the leaking pipes, and the broken gutter lids, so they hand over their autonomy to these goons.”

As quickly as the outburst began, it subsided. 

“It’s time for a change,” Frankie said softly. “Mahadevan and his buddies have to go. Time for some new blood.” Frankie stopped mid-stride, looked into the distance and announced, “I am going to contest for the post of association president.”

Krishna grinned at his friend’s solemn pronouncement and burst into laughter. “Have you gone crazy? You probably know five people in this township. Who will vote for you?”

“The youth. That’s who. I will be an anti-establishment candidate. Down with the stodgy relics from the past,” said Frankie raising his fist in the air.

“You are a relic from the past!” Krishna exclaimed.

“Age is a function of the mind. I connect with the youth, I tell you.”

“First of all, nobody calls it the youth anymore…”

“Hush! We have to strategize, and plan. You will, of course, be my campaign manager. We need to reach out to the young and bring them to the voting booths. The problem with elections these days is that only the old vote, and they inevitably vote for a fellow ancient: by age or by thought.”

Krishna silently shook his head and continued walking. He knew his friend’s mind was set and there was little he could do to budge him.

In the month that led up to the election, the duo began a door to door campaign, visiting every one of the township’s eight hundred apartments. From arthritic uncles to soap-opera obsessed aunties, from workaholic middle managers to free-loading relatives, from school-hating children to college-hating youths, the campaign appealed its case. After a few mishaps, Krishna talked Frankie out of his newfound habit of lifting every baby he encountered and kissing it sloppily on both cheeks. Despite his initial reservations, the electoral fervor quickly caught hold of Krishna too and he bloomed into his role as the campaign manager.

“You have to win me the lady vote. Only you can convince the women.” said Frankie one day.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Krishna asked.

“You are religious. Organize a sloka chanting session on Saturday morning, talk me up. I am hosting a Friday evening party for young voters so don’t expect my attendance.”

“So you get the young crowd and I get the old ladies?”

Leaflets with Frankie’s balding head in smudged blue ink were printed on cheap pink and yellow papers; below his head was his election motto in bold ink, ‘Change. Hope. Youth.‘ Krishna was assigned the pre-dawn duty of intercepting the morning milkmen and attaching one leaflet to every packet of milk.

Frankie began attending every association meeting and badgering his rival Mahadevan for a debate. He even attempted to have it televised by the local news channel but his fervent calls and mails went unanswered. A high-schooler from Block B became the lone member of the campaign’s IT cell and was tasked with the role of sending ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night’ messages to every resident along with a picture of a beaming Frankie flashing a thumbs up. Soon followed video clips of Frankie helping out fellow residents with carrying groceries or playing cricket with the township kids that always ended in a freeze-frame of a smiling Frankie and the campaign slogan. A Facebook page was created on which a daily video series debuted, ‘If Frankie were the president, he would…’. Text messages flurried to encourage residents to follow his Facebook page.  

When Krishna wondered aloud whether this might seem too intrusive, Frankie demurred, “Scorched Earth, Krishna. We have to get our message out at every opportunity. B When was the last time Mahadevan said as much as a good morning to anyone? Since we started this, he suddenly bent over backwards with best wishes for everyone. The ruling elites are shuddering in their shaky thrones, my friend.”

On the day of the election Frankie procured a handheld loudspeaker and beseeched the residents to vote, “Voting is your birth-right. Vote for me coz that’s right!”

The voting booths were in the community hall. The lines seemed unusually long that year. Even some of the oldest residents in wheelchairs had come to vote. Even as the day was winding down residents trickled in to vote, stopping for a moment or two to talk to the candidates who waited outside. When voting ended, the campaign observers, including Krishna, gathered the ballots and huddled inside to begin counting. A smattering of idlers assembled outside to await the results. Someone started an FM radio and Mohammed Rafi crooned, ‘Aisa Mauka Phir Kahaan Milega…’.

“Frankie sir, I voted for you. All the best!” said someone. 

Frankie smiled weakly, too hoarse to talk. From the corner of his eye he noticed Mahadevan who nodded grimly at Frankie. The results were expected any moment now. 

Krishna emerged from the counting room, shaking. Frankie moved expectantly towards him; he tried to suppress the uneasiness inside. Tightly gripping the bannister Krishna descended the two steps from the hall and whispered, “We won. By a landslide.”

Visibly speechless, Frankie hugged his friend and smiled, tears welling up in his eyes.

III

“Sambar is truly in the Goldilocks zone of South Indian cuisine,” said Frankie one Sunday morning, wiping his plate clean off sambar with the last morsel of a dosa. “Simmer it too less, you are left with watery rasam. Simmer it too much, dal is all you get. Simmer it just right and you get sambar.”

Krishna generally avoided engaging with his friend during his meal soliloquies, but sambar was too close to home. “Sambar is as different from rasam as Goa is from Delhi. The spices, the vegetables, they are all different. Considering the number of times you have eaten my sambar and rasam, either you are an ignoramus or you are being frivolous,” lectured Krishna, waving the dosa flipper like a teaching stick.

“You really are a fantastic cook, my friend. I have never eaten better South Indian food. What’s your secret ingredient? Love?” Frankie grinned.

“All credit goes to my grandmother and mother. As a kid in Kumbakonam I would spend hours in the kitchen watching them grind the spices, boil the herbs, and prepare the finest delicacies one can imagine. No recipe books, no measuring cups, nothing. Everything was done by instinct, and backed by generational memory. Such cooking has been lost, I tell you.”

“Why so?” asked Frankie, waiting at the dining table for another dosa.

“People think traditional cooking takes too much time and it puts on too much weight. I don’t know what gives them that idea. My mother would wrap up cooking by 8 am sharp and my grandfather lived till the age of 102 and was reedy like a needle in a panjakaccham. I advise Ambi and Suma to expose the kids to our foods, but it’s always salads, pastas and sandwiches. Can you even imagine that?”

“Ghastly,” shuddered Frankie, even though his own dinner at home prominently featured sandwiches and salads.

“It’s such a pity. The kids don’t even know their own foods, or the variety and unique tastes they offer. If parents don’t take the initiative to teach their kids about their traditions, who will?” asked Krishna, placing a crispy hot dosa on Frankie’s plate. “Take more chutney, there’s plenty.”

“Why don’t you?” quizzed Frankie, tearing into the dosa.

Krishna snorted, “As it is I have to beg and bribe the kids to talk to me for a few minutes before they run into their rooms.”

Frankie scooped a liberal dollop of chutney into his mouth and said, “The problem is the medium. Nobody wants to listen to a lecture over FaceTime. I am sure if you can package your message in some other way, they will listen.”

“Medium? Like cinema?” Krishna sat down beside Frankie, “Pass me the sambar.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe, YouTube? Kids are always on their smartphones watching YouTube.”

“I don’t know how to operate that.”

“You don’t worry about all that. I can be your producer and cameraman. You just worry about the content.”

“But what will I talk about?”

“Didn’t you just tell me that this generation doesn’t know about traditions. Talk about traditions.”

“You can’t just talk about traditions in the general. It’s always as a part of other conversations that you segue into traditions.”

“Figure it out man. What are traditions? Stories, cooking, habits, etc. Talk about each and every one of them. Or may be just one. You are an excellent cook, why don’t you talk about the recipes for your traditional items?”

“I am not starting a cooking channel. That will be strange.”

“What’s strange about it? Because you’re a man?”

“No, no, not at all. Why would anyone watch an old man cook?”

“My friend, you and I are at an age where anything we do starts looking exotic. Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman running a 5K! Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman riding a bus. Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman wearing a suit. Once you reach a certain age, the world expects you to be helpless, so anything you do, even something you have done every day for the past 50 years, starts looking refreshingly exotic and worthy of praise. If you start a cooking channel, trust me, people will watch.”

“You think so?”

“What’s the harm in trying? I can shoot it on my phone. The most important thing is finding a suitable name for your YouTube. Branding is everything.”

“Krishna’s YouTube channel?”

Frankie groaned, “Think bigger, my friend. The name has to excite people into watching. I presume you will be cooking your traditional Iyer foods. Perhaps something with Iyer in it? Iyer Recipes? Iyer’s Kitchen?”

“I think the name could convey that it is an Iyer man doing the cooking.”

“Good point. How about Krishna Iyer’s Crazy Kitchen?”

“I am not crazy about the Crazy. Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen sounds better.”

“Deal. Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen, it is. I want you to come up with a list of ten recipes by tonight. We get the groceries tomorrow and start shooting from the day after. We can shoot in your kitchen, but it could do with a good scrubbing. So get started with that.”

“Could we start from Friday? It’s an auspicious day.”

The next Friday, Director Frankie emerged with a borrowed tripod from a kid in the township. The kitchen was rearranged to make for a more pleasing frame and the first episode of Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen was shot with the chef preparing his delectable ginger chutney. What would have normally taken him twenty minutes took them over three hours that day.

Midway through the first take, Frankie yelled, “Cut! Cut! This is terrible. You are talking into the dish. You have to face the audience, and keep talking to keep them engaged.”

“But I have already described that I am about to peel the ginger! I can’t keep repeating it while I do that.”

“Obviously not. Talk about something else while you peel. We are shooting in real time, so you have to fill in the spaces with conversation.”

“Do you expect me to lecture about Ramayana when I am peeling ginger? It’s ridiculous.”

“How about I carry a conversation with you from behind the camera? The audience doesn’t have to see me. I will assume an Iyer name too and feed you with conversation. Look at me while talking and it will appear like you’re talking into the camera.”

Krishna broke into laughter, “I have heard that directors go crazy with time, but you are a little ahead of the curve.”

“Just humor me. Give me an Iyer name.”

Krishna shrugged, “Okay, how about Ramamoorthy? We can be Krishna and Rama.”

And that is how ‘Krishna maama’ and ‘Rama maama’ – as they would be affectionately called by their millions of future viewers – were born.

Scene

Krishna maama peeling the ginger.

Krishna maama: “It is important to peel the ginger skin thoroughly to avoid any bitterness.”

Rama maama, from behind the camera: “Is it true that ginger boosts immunity?”

Krishna maama: “Yes. As a kid in Kumbakonam, my paati would make us drink a glass of hot water with ginger on winter mornings to prevent colds. It is a miracle food!”

Rama maama: “The biggest miracle in that story is that Kumbakonam once had a winter.”

Krishna maama: “Frank… Rama, you are too much. Now that the ginger has been peeled completely, dice it into small bits. The consistency doesn’t matter because…”

The second recipe, Arisi upma for which the ginger chutney is a fantastic accompaniment took less than an hour. The crew broke for lunch after and dug into the prepared delicacies.

The views trickled in. Two in one day, three the next, four on a Sunday. Dejected, Krishna wanted to quit, but Frankie pushed on. “Let’s try ten videos before calling it quits.”

Every two or three days the team would come together to shoot. For Janmashtami, Krishna came up with topical dishes appropriate for the festival. 

It occurred around then; the event. Frankie forever came to call it the ‘The Great Sambar Miracle’; unclear about their exact clientele, Krishna suggested a quick-fire Sambar recipe that might be useful for office-goers. And hence was born the video that Frankie named ‘Krishna Iyer’s Sambar In A Jiffy’. The views galloped in almost immediately. Every time Frankie refreshed the browser, the viewership ticker would climb up a little more and later a lot more. The video soon made it into the WhatsApp forwards circuit. By Thursday, it had come home, to Frankie’s own phone.

The comments began to pile up:

“Both maamas are so cute! Krishna maama reminds me of my grandfather.”

Maama, where is maami?”

“Now sambar isn’t the only thing you can make in a jiffy! Earn Rs. 5000 per hour, call Susie at 99111 12123. ”

“Tried this recipe today. Was reminded of my mother’s cooking! Thank you maama!”

“Rama maama is so funny. We want to see his face.”

The viewers came for the sambar and stayed for the other dishes in the channel. Ginger chutney had a field day. Mango sadham emerged a late bloomer. Semiya payasam became sweeter with time. Ambi discovered the exploding channel when his kids stumbled upon it. The desire to be acknowledged as relevant, is strong in everyone, particularly in the aged. Under this newfound attention, Krishna’s spine became more erect, he began to laugh more easily, and to stand up for himself. He no longer had time to pine for Ambi’s or Suma’s phone call. His viewers demanded more of him. Live sessions and Q & A clips began to appear on the feed. And then the cheques started arriving; every month a bigger amount. 

“YouTube ad money!” gushed Frankie excitedly. 

And then the marketing managers started calling, “Namaskaram maama. Could you endorse our brand of Ayurvedic soaps and shampoos? For some remuneration of course.”

“We are selling Deepavali lekyam in powder form. Could you try it and talk it up if you like it?”

Strangest of all, Krishna found himself approached by frantic parents trying to find a bride or groom for their children, “My son has done MBA in the US and is working in Chicago. We have been trying for two years to find a girl. Could you please help through your contacts? Thank you maama. Namaskarams.”

“How can I find boys and girls for all these people?” mused Krishna.

“Krishna, my boy, you are now a pillar of the community.” chuckled Frankie.

IV

Initially, it was just a lapse of concentration. The camera was rolling, Krishna was answering one of Rama maama’s questions when suddenly he stopped mid-sentence and stared into the camera. An awkward moment later, he resumed. A week later, it was a slip in his step; Frankie held him before he fell. The next day Frankie noticed the tremor in his hands as he held a ladle. The slurring in his speech was also getting more pronounced.

Hospitals and doctors; the verdict was unanimous – Parkinson’s. Krishna forbade his friend from disclosing the condition to Ambi. 

“He will put me in a hospital. I don’t want to go there right away.” 

So Frankie moved into his friend’s apartment and the two became the oldest roommates in the township. The YouTube channel began to dry up, ‘Where are you maama?’, ‘We are missing you!’, read the comments now.

The friends kept their tradition of evening walks alive. When Krishna could no longer step into the elevator comfortably, they walked up and down the corridor gabbing as usual about meaningless nothings. 

One day, Frankie came home with two walking sticks, “I got you the nicer color.” he said. When walking through the corridor became too difficult, they walked up and down their living room, listening to music on the radio. 

And then Krishna fell. Ambi arrived shortly after, followed by a male nurse who became their third roommate in that tiny apartment. When Krishna could no longer leave his bed, Frankie arranged for a chair beside it to give company during his long days and longer nights. 

A few weeks later, a few men heaved a huge box into Krishna’s room and began unpacking it. Inside were strangely shaped equipment in black and grey, that they assembled into a treadmill that faced Krishna’s bed. Frankie beamed by the door, “I was missing the evening walks. Miracle of technology! One can now walk where one stands!” 

Once the men departed, Frankie switched on the treadmill. Slowly walking towards Krishna he said, “Remember that time we ran for the township association?” Rendered mute by now, Krishna raised his fingers to acknowledge his friend and smiled. 


Aditya Venkataraman is a software engineer at Apple Inc. in California. He is a graduate of National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirrappalli, and a post-graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. While his day-job revolves around computers, his passion lies in the world of letters. He enjoys reading and writing fiction and is currently working on a short fiction collection centered around the immigrant experience.

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