Sundaram mama was never late for functions, especially if the function was arranged by Appa.
Avan kedakkan, vazhuvattai used to be his standard refrain for anything that he wanted to say in a sarcastic manner signifying an effort to demean the object or person of conversation. The very mention of vazhuvattai used to evoke a sense of mirth in the listener. Not that anybody understood the meaning of the term.
I somehow began to assume that the term meant the inside of the raw coconut once the water was drained, sort of epithelium kind of coating on the inside of the shell. Later I was educated that the soft tissue like substance was vazhukkai that in chaste tamil meant baldness or slippery nature.
Not one to miss an occasion when Sundaram mama was nearby, I used to pretend as though I was reading while actually overhearing what Sundaram mama was conversing with Appa( one needs to take care of ones image, you see ).
They usually spoke about office politics and the impending changes that are likely to be effected in the hierarchy of the Neyveli Lignite Corporation and similar such stuff that ranged from economics to the esoteric, spiritual to the mundane, officialese to the street smart stuff.
Sundaram mama was from Panruti and worked for Neyveli. A known believer he could be seen in all religious functions.
That day they were talking about the visit of an union minister of coal to Neyveli and the official arrangements that needed to be done, the telephones and the teleprinters that needed to be shifted, the emergency vehicles that needed to be deployed and the different press personnel that needed to be invited for the coverage of the function that the minister was supposed to participate in. And the minister would spend a total of twenty minutes in Neyveli to press a button to unveil a statue and then fly off in a helicopter. This entire operation of unveiling a statue could have been done from Delhi itself. But nobody asked that question. When the boss arrived, the corporation went into overdrive, spending a couple of lakhs of rupees ( currency valued in those times ) for a 15 minute function. There have been cases when, after all the arrangements would have been made, the minister would have had some “urgent” task to perform and hence would not have been able to come. A few lakhs down the drain was common even in those days. Also I didn’t see the reason for inviting a Hindi speaking minister to unveil the statue of Tamil poet Bharathiyar. Even if the minister would have attended , he would have spoken about the greatness of the person who was standing as a statue, in Hindi that would be translated into Tamil by another official of the corporation who made others believe that he had some fluency in Tamil. A question regarding this once resulted in my being termed as adhikaprasangi by Appa. He was never anti-establishment.
Sundaram mama was enamored by this line of thought. He quipped in his characteristic nonchalance , ” avan kedakkaan vazhuvattai” – ( let the minister be like that, he is anyways a vazhuvattai ).
The irony of the ministers’ visit or non-visit would be strikingly transparent. These couple of lakhs of rupees could very well have gone into say, a scholarship scheme in the name of Bharathiyar. But a statue of the poet that would itself have cost many tens of thousands of rupees in those days coupled with the lakhs of rupees spent on the ministers’ visit to Neyveli, in addotion to the hundreds of man hours spent by employees in arranging the function – the monetary equivalent of these could have been better utilized for productive purposes. These thoughts, though they kept occurring on many of those hilariously wasteful events, were better kept to oneself or spoken about in hush hush tones with another chatter box Kichchi, my friend of many years.
The term vazhuvattai was apt for many occasions. When it came to talking about a non-cooperative boss or an irritating domestic help or when talking about ones’ own colleagues, vazhuvattai transmogrified itself to suit the occasion and would acquire a meaning with reference to the context. Hence an union minister as well as the local trouble monger would be classified as vazhuvattai.
And once the minister turned up for the function ( he would, 2 out of 10 times ), the smiling face of the minsiter from Bharathi Stadium would only remind me of vazhuvattai and I would be laughing to myself uncontrollably.
And I knew Appa and Sundaram mama would be standing behind the ministers’ entourage talking about either the vazhuvattai that was on stage or the other vazhuvattais that had crossed their paths at some time or the other.