Ram, or to give him his full name Ramanujam Navalpakkam Rangaswamy had already started at the bank when I arrived. He was a thin, quiet, courteous and deliriously polite man whose sole task was to analyse the Indian stock market for me. He had been given an office with no windows, no pictures and a small salary compared to European colleagues.
I liked him. Each morning on his walk to work, we all drove of course; he would buy a white cheese sandwich and a small bottle of juice for about 50p. All morning he would read the Indian papers, his eyes sleepy and his hand barely moving as he made notes and recommendations. Lunch time came and the sandwich was consumed, again with the speed of a tapir licking up ants. The door closed and he drifted off to sleep, head on the desk for a snooze.
I soon discovered that others took advantage of the 2 hour lunch break, with one girl clerk who had kept a duvet under her desk, and so she curled up on the floor. Not a bad idea as it would have been impossible in the traffic to make it to home and back.
Ram then woke, refreshed, took a short walk to the bathroom and continued his routine till five when he strode to the lift. In his earlier life in Bombay he was a manager of a small bank and ‘pooney people’ as he described them would have been employed just to hold the lift doors for him and usher other lower class types out of the way. I am sure they were of a low caste, and no doubt kept their eyes on the ground as he swept past, papers in hand, bulging cheap briefcase promoting his manager status.
However his stock picks were always well researched and to my regret we did not act on many. It later transpired that his friends in India did, as did Ram, and he accumulated his wealth at our expense!
I spent many happy hours with him talking about the India he knew. He was a direct descendant of the famous Navalpakkam who was a mathematician and long since deceased Sanskrit scholar. This religion and faith required rigorous self discipline, learning and prayer. The bank missed this about Ram and so he carried on this lifestyle, away from the bank in his provided accommodation, a lifestyle to which we were ignorant.
One evening I asked myself to his flat and he agreed, we had much to talk about. I was fascinated about this gentle and quiet man who reported to me and so I duly arrived at the Golden Sands complex. This was a huge block of flats housing mainly Indians and some Europeans who wanted to save money with a cheaper flat. The halls were marble of course with echoes of scampering children in trainee turbans and colourful dresses filling the void and in front of each door were the shoes of the inhabitants and the Tiffin boxes ready for collection the next morning. I knocked on the door and waited.
After a while and some shuffling noises, the door opened to reveal Ram dressed in a ragged towel. His hair had been greased back and on his forehead in white paste were Sanskrit symbols. To me they resembled small snakes, writhing and joining at the tails.
His entrance hall was empty, no pictures and he showed me the flat. As a manager at the bank, his entitlement was a three bed roomed place with access to the pool and all the amenities that the Sands offered. There was a large lounge and indeed, three bedrooms and a kitchen. Again the rooms were bare except for a large TV, tuned to his Indian news and cricket channel, one sofa and a bedroom that had a mattress on the floor. In boxes and yet to be unpacked was a complete and frankly garish dinner service that would have served eighteen.
Ram explained that he was embarrassed to spend the housing allowance on things he did not want but felt compelled to at least make an effort. Looking around I saw other boxes and in one of the bedrooms, a few chairs and tables, all wrapped and new. I felt awkward as the Europeans I knew spent their allowance almost immediately!
In the kitchen there was little food except some bananas, rice packets and some flour. He had a gas ring and kettle and I suppose that the Tiffin wallah would have brought his evening meal, what a saving that would have been.
In the corner was an elaborate shrine. Behind the candles, incense sticks and small saucers with offerings of rice and orange peel were faded photographs of his mother and father. They were in black and white and showed garlanded, proud and well dressed people. The pictures were faded and their images were disappearing back into the nitrate paper, ghosts from villages in South India. No names on their resting place, and their only son worshiped them in the evenings from Bahrain.
This was his altar and each evening he would wash and dress modestly and attend to his devotions, his face streaming with tears as the emotion of prayer to his long dead parents came over him. He shared with me this important place.
However, soon the mood changed and he rushed off to his room, changed into his work clothes and beckoned me to sit and watch the cricket. He produced no doubt at huge expense a bottle of Black Label. That is what he knew the British liked and he joined in with me. The door bell rang and indeed the Tiffin wallah arrived with the most delicious, hot and spicy vegetable curry. We ate with our hands, slopping curry onto chapatti bread that he made on the gas flame in the kitchen. The whiskey bottle was soon emptying, we drank with gusto, his cheery face beamed and he told me of his life of devotion to his parents, his job and his one son who was at technical college in Bangalore.
Ram did not have a driving licence so in India had the two wheeler motor bike. This was not a method of transport encouraged by Mrs. Ram who unused to sudden movements, especially from her husband, had slid unceremoniously off the back seat as he accelerated away and was plopped onto the ground. A pudding of saris in the middle of the road was my vision of the episode.
All good times end, and I had to go. I walked through the now silent halls to the road. It was neon lit, and full of Indian life and noises. Trucks, taxis and hot sweaty people jostled to get their provisions, saris and post from cold stores. Barber shops that were open late into the night swabbed coconut oil to thinning pates and trimmed beards. In the background of steamy shops badly tuned TVs showed garish Tamil dancing films and lower caste male clerks stood and gazed at the images of trees, laughter, faux-fights and women.
Simple pleasures made for happier people. Ram slept fitfully dreaming of his cheese sandwich, the juice and the day ahead.
Another day and another rupee into his pension as he would say.