Circa 1979. He was not very well off. Out of every hundred rupees he earned, he would have to pay the government sixty. Buying a Jawa motorcycle meant a wait of at least 18 months and a Bajaj scooter would take three years. Auto tyres were in short supply, buying one usually meant spending double the listed price.
Meet the India Company man, whose was born in the 1960s. The slow-paced, stodgy life of the Company Man finds expression in Retro India, a set of vignettes by R.M. Rajagopal, who made his entry into the Indian literary scene in August 2014. His debut collection of short stories, The Empty Pedestal and other stories, found its share of nostalgic Indian readers, all longing for a country, for a society that has been buried in the battle for progress. Now, readers can get a first hand look at his life, its trials and its charms.
The vignettes are set in four locations - Kochi, Kota, Chennai and Delhi, where the author has spent significant amounts of times. There is also a short, enticing hop to Jharkhand. In the opening vignette, the author delves into his own past, to take another look at his ancestors. At one time, the family was rich, glorious and powerful. Rajagopal writes with unflinching candor, dealing with the origins, progress and vagaries of Kerala's matrilineal system. Another vignette takes place the rambling Colonial era building, Western Court, which provides accommodation in Delhi for Members of Parliament.
Still, one wonders, how can a sleepy little backwater town be the stuff of such action? Life here was rooted in nature and the outdoors, which encompassed many a thrill especially for those who enjoyed shooting bird game, which was still permitted. Dozens of evenings were spent swapping tales and drinking. The author expresses his reservations at the levels of inebriation but still, it was al in good fun. He worked at a business group and was aware that employees dreaded postings here, in this one-horse town. Rajagopal doesn't qu ite agree: his time in Kota holds a special place in his heart, providing images of Kota both within the factory and without.
We move onto the other end of the spectrum, both in terms of geographical distance, lifestyles, people and every other parameter one can conceive. Here, life was not so simple. Delhi, he found, was a city of contradictions, which troubled the author. This sense of unrest pervades his stories, too. He didn't like the place and vowed, upon his departure, that he was doing so "for good." It grew on him, however and he returned three years later, this time, to stay for a decade. The city became an endless font of inspiration, he found he needed to rein in his outpourings.
So we return to the Company Man. His life is one of habit, slow-paced and predictable, even in his anxiety over his job. There were few opportunities, at the time. Family vacation meant tedious train journeys and a trip on an aeroplane (Air India), was a bizarre notion. A vacation abroad? Laughable. He owned one T.V., a black and white set, with one channel - Doordarshan. He was forced to find contentment within his restrictions, the Company Man couldn't have fathomed the endless consumerism of this day, where there is little distance between a desire and a purchase.
In his view, smuggling is a thriving cottage industry. Fiction from the time deals with major political and social events, who has time for the life of the ordinary man? This where Rajagopal found his space: In the often-poignant fragments that make up the life of the Company Man....