They are old; their bicycles are also old. Both are Raleigh and had the same type of bells; when pressed made a dull and difficult ringing sound. Like their proud owners, Thankannai and Andiappa, both must have been young and full of energy, once upon a time, long long ago. The clinking sound they make is not that piercing as it was once but it is enough to serve the purpose; it will alert others on the road, mostly pedestrians, or it helps to alert and call someone from behind the doors. Both Thankannai and Andiappa do not hesitate, whenever a chance arises, to boast about the reliability, roadworthiness, and greatness of their good old machines.
“You know, when I was dealing in firewood …then there was no other source of income for me, and … those days, people did not have any other alternative source of fuel… During those troubled times… I used to load, even up to a hundredweight, on this very carrier… ha, that too, cut and carry firewood from far off places… and pedal tens of miles," Andiappa would fondly pat the once red, now almost dark brown and peeled at places, rexine sheeted bicycle seat and say, “If not for this, my family might have been dead out of starvation.” Anyone could feel the gratefulness in his choking voice.
Oh! It is a different story when it comes to Thankannai. He neither dealt in firewood nor had a family of his own. Born as a third son to a reputed goldsmith of the village, though successfully completing his Senior School Certificate examination, a rare feat in those days, sixty years ago, he chose to take to his father’s profession. Being proud of his son’s achievement, he presented him with a brand new ‘company bike’ bought for three ‘pavuns’, an equivalent of thirty rupees, a handsome amount, then.
But the old man was disappointed. He preferred his son either to pursue his further studies or go for a white-collar job which would have enhanced his status in the society. Hence, he had no other alternative but to let his son work along with him in his workshop. To his surprise and contentment, Thankannai excelled in the new field as well and very soon gained a name for himself as a fine craftsman. To be short, he beat his own father in the very arena.
But, it is in a way lucky that his father was not alive to see his son’s carrier taking nose-dive, peculiarly. Before long, Thankannai lost interest in the material life. Soon after his father's death, he gave up the profession and entrusted his part of the profession and his share in the property. Then, with some money in hand, he set off on a pilgrimage in India, starting from Rameswaram in southern India to Kasi in northern India, seeking perpetual rest for the souls of his dead father and mother who had preceded her husband by a year in death.
Thankannai, returning home after four months, declared that he on to another pilgrimage within his motherland, Sri Lanka, starting with Kathirkamam, situated in the southern corner of the island nation. The significant point to note in this journey is that he cycled all the way, a temple to another, lodging at each place for a couple of days. This religious trip turned out to be a long one. Soon, there was no contact with anyone but for an occasional postcard sent from someplace. When he returned after a year and a half, there was no on the surface change in him except that he had gone thinner, wirier and darker. Also, one could see the placid, perpetual smile planted on his face.
For the next thirty years, Thankannai lived like this. Though for others, it was an uneventful, dull, boring life, he seemed to be content with what he had chosen. Of course, his good old companion, the ‘two-wheeler’, was with him. And, through all these years, it carried him wherever, whichever the temple he wanted to visit, thus proving itself to be an everlasting, unswerving appendage of a frail, old man.
When his brothers and their families never returned even after all other villagers returned and resettled following the mass exodus of Jaffna in 1995, Thankannai, who already did not budge from his place and survived alone in the deserted land for half a year, had again to stay alone in their house for the next ten years or a little more. However, soon after the end of the war, he was able to contact his brothers, made them come to sell the common ancestral house. Refusing to take his share money, started living like a hermit in a small coconut leaf-thatched shed he erected in the neighbouring land of Sankaran. Sankaran and Thankannai were schoolmates and their friendship lasted from then on. Sankaran, in a way, was the only one who understood Thankannai and not even once interfered in his friend’s ways.
Though Thankannai started living in Sankaran’s compound, he never depended on Sankaran and was leading his independent life as always, finding his means from bicycle repairing. He partook in temple alms whenever possible and also had a small vegetable plot behind his hut. The only thing he never discarded was his bicycle.
Kumaran, Sankaran’s youngest brother, a teacher in his early forties, had seen only a small, green painted, tin trunk box in the ten by ten shed of Thankannai, when on some need went there. The trunk was kept above two short timber blocks. Apart from that, there was only a palm leaf mat kept rolled on a chair in one corner, and a clothesline on one side with a white verti hanging on it, neatly folded.
Thankannai, a shy man of few words, now and then visited Kumaran, mostly when he returned from any shrine, to give some of the sacred pirasathams he was able to get at those places. Whenever he visited, he rang his bicycle bell at the gate, calling the inmates of the house to open it. There remained a slight confusion always, making Kumaran, his wife or children wonder if it was Thankkannai coming to give pirasathams or Andyappa coming to pluck the nuts from the tall coconut trees in their backyard.
Last Wednesday evening, when Thankkannai came, Kumaran was not at home and when he returned later at night, his wife told him about Thankkannai’s visit.
‘Where did he go today, Thankkannai said?’ asked Kuumaran, with a smile.
‘He neither went anywhere nor came to give any pirasatham,’ replied Kumaran’s wife, ‘but came to caution you.’
‘Caution me? About what?’
‘He told that traffic is terrible nowadays and accidents happen everywhere due to the uncontrolled increase of vehicles and reckless drivers. Today, he himself saw a serious accident, he said.’
“’Tell your husband and your son to ride very carefully when they go out,’ he advised me.”
‘Did he come only to tell that?’ Kumaran smiled. His voice trembled slightly, making his wife wonder.
The Sunday after next, just before noon, Kumaran was taking bath before lunch and he heard the bicycle bell ringing at the gate. The usual question flashed within him, ‘ whom could it be? Thankkannai or Andyappa?’
But, it was only for a fraction of a second, and the next instant, Kumaran felt the heat of rolling tears, despite the cool bathing water, on his cheeks.
The sudden realization made him choke; ‘hereafter, it could only be Andyappa!’
‘How things happen so unexpectedly and so fast!’
The accident had taken place just a week ago.