The spirit of Subbanna Bhattru couldn’t stifle

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN writes: When Subbanna (name changed) came out of Victoria Terminus in Bombay, he was amazed at the tall match-box like buildings. How do people manage to live at such heights, he wondered. His friend Anantha from his hometown Udupi had come to receive him at the Railway Station.

Anantha worked as a cook in the mess run by the Mysore Association in Matunga. Conceived and set up as a home away from home for people from the old Mysore State, this place was a haunt for bachelors who gathered regularly for the indoor sports facilities there.

Newly-arrived Subbanna landed a job as a cleaner in the mess. His job was to wash the plates and cups, and generally keep the place tidy.

Since my brother and I needed somebody to look after our bachelor pads, Subbanna started working for us. Gradually, he became a sort-of Jeeves for us.

One day, when I entered the dining hall at the mess, there was some commotion. Subbanna had started serving the diners, when Bhattru, the chief cook, grabbed the vessel from him saying, “Ninna kelasa enjalu yele ethhuvudu. Mareebeda!” (Don’t forget, you are here only to wash plates!)

Hurt and visibly shaken, Subbanna dashed out. It turned out that since one of the regular servers was absent, Subbanna had taken a vessel on his own volition, and started serving. The division of labour had been breached. Others chided Bhattru for raising an unnecessary ruckus.

A week later, one of the members at the cards-table flourished a visiting card and told the workers: “Instead of wasting time during the day, go and find out what they have for you. They want to hire some people.”

Subbanna, Anantha and Venkatesha went to the Nariman Point address given in the card. A skyscraper was coming up and the supervisor of an elevator company wanted to hire temporary hands to lift heavy machinery. After two days, Anantha and Venkatesha dropped out.

Though a weakling, Subbanna persisted. He befriended the installation mechanic who showed him how the parts are assembled, wired and finally put to test.

After washing the plates he would run to Rama mandira in Matunga, where his electrician friend from Udupi would use a chalk to draw the circuit diagram on the granite floor of the temple and explain the intricacies of how lifts worked.

Subbanna’s daily routine comprised understanding the mechanism and circuitry of lifts, washing and wiping plates and cups, and studying line drawings on the Rama mandira floor.

Once, he showed me a book in which he had neatly drawn the various parts of a lift and the diagrams with short notes in Kannada and English along the margin! Gradually he became good in his work.

Soon after, I was transferred to Delhi. I heard from a friend that Subbanna had been picked up by Otis Company for their operations in Doha, Qatar. He was part of their installation team. I gradually lost touch with him…

When I came back to Bombay after five years, Subbanna landed at our house one morning laden with gifts. Since I used to listen to old Hindi songs on Vividh Bharathi, he had brought me some 20 cassettes of K.L. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick and Jagmohan, and a musical photo album. He was now the supervisor of Otis installation team in Doha.

In the evening he went to the Mysore Association in Matunga with gifts to all his colleagues.

To Bhattru, the chief cook, he gave the best gift of all, a silk shirt and a dhoti.

He called me aside and asked if we can have coffee together outside. We went to the Mysore café at King’s Circle.

I could see he was happy and confident. He reminisced about the sheikhs in Doha who had installed lift-cages made of gold to transport eats from the kitchen to their bedroom!

Then I asked him for the first time what had gone through his mind when Bhattru had admonised him in front of all of us.

Subbanna said slowly, “To be told I was fit for only cleaning plates in front of all my colleagues was very humiliating. I never thought somebody would demean me because I washed plates. The hurt inside wouldn’t go no matter what I did. I never ate in the mess from that evening. I continued to work, for I needed to send money home. To some extent, the pain all over my body carrying the elevator parts helped me forget the inner pain and I could get some sleep. Thank god! Had I cried, Bhattru might have allowed me to serve and life would have gone on. In the state of humiliation and anger that enveloped me I stumbled upon the Otis opportunity. The work in Otis was the balm I needed.”

***

Subbanna returned to Bombay when the Kuwait war broke out. He set up his own company which takes annual maintenance contracts for maintenance of lifts of highrise buildings. Subbanna and Shantha have a daughter who is a BCom and doing her CA. Their son is studying in PUC.

Also read: The dream of being a Mumbaikar