The extraordinary courage of ordinary lives

The thing no one tells you about chemotherapy is how it gives you no time. My wife was barely able to recover from the last dose that the next one would be upon us. She was almost always in tears when we had to go, but we would trudge down from our flat without fail, and our driver would bring the car out. His name was Muthu and that year he drove our red Polo to the cancer hospital at the opposite end of town every second Saturday.

He was a short, thin, hardy man, with rough palms that had stories to tell. He smiled easily, but the lines in his face were from more than his laughter. He had been with the family for more than half a decade, before I came into it. I knew he enjoyed talking. But all through that year, when he drove us to the hospital, he would be quiet, understanding the gravity of what my wife and the family was going through. 

He knew everyone in Secunderabad. Everyone waved at him, and he would call out to them, sometimes looking back and telling us who this person was and why they were important in the area. He spoke Dakhni Hindi, of course, but it was also weighed down by his native Tamil, so it was a complex, at times confusing tongue.

I got to know him well. The local barber told me about Muthu. I got a few other details from neighbours and a few from his own mouth. There’s not a lot, but I guess there’s enough.

Muthu came to Secunderabad from Madras years ago, part of a long legacy of Tamil working class migrations that began during colonial rule, and that some might argue has never stopped. Tamil migrants worked in Australia during the world wars, fought in them, went to Malaysia and Guyana and Suriname to farm sugarcane, went to Burma and Indonesia to make money, and now go to America to run technology companies. Muthu just came some distance north, but it must have been an uprooting nevertheless. We Tamils are a fiercely proud people, and to leave home is the toughest thing for us to do. Our ooru is who we are.

He was a troublemaker by his own admission. He wasn't educated, and lamented that he should have tried harder at school. He told me how his father died a broken man because Muthu would not work or become responsible. He told me about the legendary fights he would get into, the people he had beat up. This was backed up by others I talked to. He was a fighter in his time, I was told, and feared as a local enforcer. This obviously wasn’t very respectable, and he could never hold down a job. He was also a terrific drunk, and would drink himself to oblivion almost everyday, and had to be picked up by friends or family in the morning from a ditch somewhere.

His children changed him. It must have been an effort, but he tried to straighten himself out, and worked as a driver so he could send his kids to school. His daughter made him proud, she was a college graduate and worked in an office. He worried about her future a lot, but not as much as he worried about his son, a happy-go-lucky young man who took after his old man’s worst tendencies. Muthu did slip up once in a while himself, once memorably when he was in our employ. He got himself drunk one night and turned up late the next day, bloodshot and dirty, whereupon he was asked to go home.

That was the last time, he swore, and it was. He never did anything like that again. I will never forget how he was there for us, no questions asked, when we needed all the support we could get.

Muthu passed away last month. He had had a heart attack. I went to his house, comforted his son, paid my condolences to his family. He had not been working with us for a while, but we were heartbroken too. The people who are with us when we are down are the ones we hold on to the most.

On the back cover of the 40th anniversary edition of Graham Swift’s celebrated novel Last Orders, is a phrase I remember often: the extraordinary courage of ordinary lives. Ours is a large country, there are too many people. We need to remember. We need to bear witness. 

Muthu was our driver. He wasn’t perfect, but he loved his family and conquered himself to provide for them. There was pride and courage in his life. He had fought his way through, and got somewhere. He had a family, he had friends, he had a job, and he was loved. May he rest in peace.