A face in the crowd, and following your passion...
I saw a face in the crowd a few days back - a face that brought back many memories.
The face did not belong to anyone I knew personally, but it reminded me of someone I used to know very well - a face that I had almost forgotten. And it was quite unnerving for a while; because it looked straight at me for a full three seconds before turning away and I swear I saw a twitch of recognition there. I doubt if it was the uncanny resemblance that unnerved me, for it is not uncommon for us to see faces in the crowd that remind us of other people. I guess what startled me was the face staring at me for that brief while, as if somehow trying to place me; for the person whom this face resembled so closely had died almost ten years ago.
The face soon dissolved into the crowd, but that fleeting encounter had served its purpose; for almost as if on cue, the memories surfaced through one by one. Memories from my childhood - memories of a gentleman, one of the most dignified persons I had met till then and probably ever since, one of the gentlest persons I have had the privilege of knowing, one with a smile on his face always, even under the most demanding circumstances.
But before coming to that, I need to describe this person just a bit; because that is where my first impression of the man was formed. He would come to his place of work immaculately dressed in pure white - a white mundu* and a white full-sleeved shirt with the sleeves folded up to his elbows, the width of each fold measured out with great care. He was in his late forties or early fifties, of short stature but extremely healthy, his complexion one of the fairest I have seen on a man. With straight hair, slightly greying, parted in the middle, combed neatly to either side and with a slim, well-trimmed moustache as if drawn with a pencil, he exuded freshness through every pore of his skin. He had that rare gift I have seen in few others - that of looking as if he had just stepped out of an air-conditioned room, when in fact he had been walking in the sweltering heat for at least an hour!
Now I will not blame you, if in your mind you have pictured a teacher on the way to his classroom, for white has traditionally been what teachers wear. And maybe he was indeed a teacher in many ways. For if a teacher's job is to mould the characters of children, then this gentleman too moulded many a sheet of leather into beautiful shoes, beautiful bags, wallets and belts. If a teacher's job is to equip children to walk with confidence on life's long and winding paths, then this gentleman too equipped many a feet to trudge tirelessly along those same long and winding paths. He had hands that gave a new lease of life to many a worn-out shoe. He designed and made beautiful bags - I still remember my designer school bag that he custom-made for me - with special sections for my books, my lunch box, my pencil box and so on, exactly as I had in mind. A bag that soon became the envy of many of my classmates!
I hesitate to call him a cobbler, because a cobbler usually deals only with shoes. Looking up leather related professions on google, I realize that there is indeed a profession called "leatherworking" in the World of Warcraft, which is quite ironical! Leatherman, for want of a better word, is the closest I can think of.
His name was Anthappan. Anthappan was the localised version of Antony. And I used to call him Anthapp-ettan (elder brother).
He had a very small shop - one which had a heap of shoes and slippers in the middle; a heap even taller than he was, while he sat on the floor. Each morning, as he would carefully remove one by one, the thin wooden planks that helped to secure his shop, there would already be at least two or three of his customers waiting for him. He would greet them with a smile, a sheepish one at that. And if you stood there, it would not take you long to realize why. Each of those customers had probably given him a shoe or a bag to make or mend. And Anthapettan had a reputation, not without good reason I must say, of taking for ever to complete something that you had asked him to do. So a shoe could take anywhere from a few months to a year, a bag maybe even longer! And yet there was no dearth of customers - most people were willing to wait - for the wait was usually well worth it. You would get a beautiful shoe or a bag or a belt which would last you for years; such was the quality of his workmanship.
But the fact that people were willing to wait should not give you the impression that it was a pleasant wait; not by any stretch of imagination. Or that these people did not give Anthapettan a barrage of unpleasant words to push their cases up his long list of overdue items. But, this is where he was at his best, the smile would not leave his face; not even when a stream of angry words, curses or insults came his way from someone who had waited close to a year for a pair of shoes.
I realised after my first bag took more than a year to complete, that the only way to get him to finish something reasonably quickly was to literally sit with him, in his shop - and make sure he worked on my bag. I could afford to do it - so once every two or three years, I would spend a few days of my school vacation at Anthapettan's shop! I would be one of the few to welcome him as he came to the shop in the morning and I would leave only at night, along with him, after helping him put back the wooden planks one by one and the long iron bar that helped to secure those planks in place.
What always amused me was how he managed to convince everybody that he was working on their shoe or bag. As I sat there, I have seen many an agitated man come up to his shop. And Anthapettan would look up to him with his trademark sheepish smile.
"Ahh..it's been a long time. How have you been?"
"I don't want to see your smile. Just give me my shoe. It's been a year now!"
"Don't worry. It's almost done."
And this is what always fascinated me. He would reach his hand out into the heap of shoes and slippers in front of him, and within a few seconds, as if by magic, he would pull out a shoe, or something that resembled one! This would invariably give some comfort to the agitated customer. At least he had not forgotten! He knew exactly which of the three or four hundred shoes in that heap belonged to whom. There were no tags, no sticky notes and no RFID technology. The man was blessed with a phenomenal memory. I used to ask him how he did it and he would just shrug his shoulders as if to say "no big deal!". So, he would drop whatever it was that he was working on (my bag in most cases), salvage the shoe that belonged to the agitated man in front of him and begin to start working on it as if he would finish it with the next hour! You could then almost see and feel the agitation in that man drop. He would take a deep breath, and pull himself on to the small bench at the side of the shop, on which I would also be sitting. I am sure he would see dreams of his shoe being completed soon. After maybe ten minutes of assuring himself that his shoe was making good progress, he would say that he needs to leave and that he would come back tomorrow. Anthapettan would assure him and the man would go on - happy and content. The moment the man was out of sight, out went the shoe back into the pile and my bag would come out again! And so, with constant interruptions, my bag would be finished in three or four days. But I was not complaining, because I loved to be in that shop. I loved not only seeing my bag being born, taking shape right in front of my eyes, in exactly the way that I wanted it, but I also loved just being in that shop and being a part of all that happened there. I have never seen Anthapettan even once lose his smile or his cool at even the most vocal of his upset customers.
But not one of his customers as far as I knew, gave up on him - I don't know what it was. They would come agitated; but they would go back pacified. But they always came back. Maybe it had something to do with the general expectation levels of people in those days, but I am certain it also had quite a lot to do with the personality, the quality of his work and the sincerity of my leatherman.
I remember chatting with him quite a lot. Since it was not yet the expectation in those days that one's career had to be related to what one was truly passionate about, I don't remember asking him the question, "Is this really what you are passionate about?". But I do remember asking him how he came to take up this profession. And his answer was as simple as it could be, "I don't know". And to me back then, the answer was satisfactory enough. There were indeed, at least back in those days, things that you didn't know and you didn't plan on doing, but they just happened. What ultimately mattered I guess, was how you took up the task at hand and how you went about doing it.
But nowadays, young people are increasingly being told to follow their passion with regard to what they want to do in and with their lives. They are basically told that if your passion is to draw, by all means walk confidently onwards on a path that lets you express the artist in you. If you are good at music, by all means let loose those notes and chords that are buzzing in your head - let them loose upon a world that is starving for good music. Regardless of what it is that excites and ignites the flame in you, be confident and brave to take the path that allows you to follow your passion.
While this advise does sound good and practical in principle, a big challenge for a young person is to be able to actually identify that true passion with any degree of certainty. What is lacking in my opinion is the reassuring message alongside that it may take a few iterations to be able to truly settle on that one true passion; and the affirmation that failing at one or two initial attempts is not really that big a disaster. If "Follow your Passion" has to succeed, then there needs to be the latitude to experiment and try out a few different things, before settling on one meaningful passion. In an ideal scenario, if you can make a living doing what you love, that is all you can ask for - you will be one among a truly fortunate few.
But then there were also people like Anthapettan.
A representative of a generation who did not think thus, or maybe more accurately, who could not afford to think thus. A generation that struggled to make ends meet, let alone bring up a family. A representative of an era when people just went about doing their jobs; and generally ended up doing them as best as they could. A representative, I dare say, of many of our parents and grandparents.
But times have changed.
We now expect to do what we love to do. Nothing wrong with that; in fact it is a great attitude to have. But it is not the only way. Or at least there used to be another way.
And so, you can follow your passion and do what you love; or you can love what you do and make it your passion. And while we all have recently been mentally programmed to cheer for the former, the face in the crowd reminded me that the latter was also possible - that if you do whatever it is that you are doing, with dignity, with a genuine passion and with a sincere attitude, maybe it is still possible to imagine being happy, even in today's world.
* mundu - a garment worn around the waist, primarily in the Indian state of Kerala.