Karthik Pasupathy (aka KP)

My Dad's friend Who Did Not Have A Name

In 1999, we moved to Chennai from Pondicherry. I was 11. My dad was excited as he was back to the house he built during 1979. He was excited to be back at Ambattur after 14 years. As we were settling in, he got a chance to reconnect with old friends and colleagues. It was during this time, he met his long term acquaintance – a thin old man with disheveled white hair. His name was ‘Uppu’, which meant ‘salt’ in Tamil.

He wore shirts that are at least a couple of decades old. The previous generation including my dad was obsessed and took immense pride in owning and wearing an aged fabric. My dad used to say “You see this shirt? I stitched it in Vellore before twenty-five years. You don’t get this stuff today.”

I think Uppu would’ve shared a similar sentiment.

He wore shirts with a white base, but it looked far from its original color. He also wore a checked towel around his neck and a dhoti that’s always folded up till his knee.

When I asked my dad why his name was Uppu, my dad said he used to sell salt on the street during the 70s and the 80s. Before packaged salt, people bought salt from sellers like Uppu.

But, during the late 80s Indian government launched a huge nationwide campaign on Iodised salt to prevent malnutrition in kids. This led to the ban of non-iodized salt that severely affected the livelihood of people like Uppu.

As far as I knew, Uppu spent a major part of his day walking aimlessly in the streets of Vijayalakshmipuram, the area in Ambattur where I spent a good portion of my teens and early 20s.

I often used to wonder what he did to make a living. The answer was labour work.

During the early 2000s, most of the houses in Vijayalakshmipuram were independent properties. There were hardly any apartment complexes. And, each house had a huge backyard. The owners needed someone to clean it up and Uppu was the man for the job. He was familiar with everyone who lived in our area (during his time as a salt seller), so they had no trouble in giving him work. And, despite his age (he was in his late fifties when we moved in) he was fast and completed his work on time.

He used to get 25-50 rupees (sometimes even 100) for two hours of work and he used to work one house a day and made enough to take care of his needs.

Despite being known by the whole area, nobody knew his actual name, where he lived, and whether he had a family. They’ll find him sitting in front of the newspaper shop and they tell him where his next job is.

He used to visit our house once a month to clean up our backyard and sometimes to add crystalline salt to the coconut trees (my dad used to add it once every three months to get the trees more nutrients).

After he’s done with his work, my mom would make tea for Uppu and my dad and they used to talk about the old times. (My dad was ‘old’ when I was born. He was 42 to be exact. So, he was in his mid-fifties when I was in my teens.)

Several times, I’ve asked my dad if he knew Uppu’s real name, but he said he didn’t know and he was also not keen on asking him either. Maybe he liked calling him Uppu.

If I think about it now, the constantly evolving society pushes several jobs to the verge of extinction. Several jobs I came across during my childhood either went extinct or is at the verge of extinction.

The people who sell Kola Maavu (the powder used to draw rangoli), salt sellers, coconut tree climbers, people who sharpen your knives (‘Saana’ they call in Tamil), people who carve small groves for large mortar and pestle to give them more grinding power (it was a real job! they used to call the process “Poluva”).

My dad and Uppu constantly stayed in touch until 2014. It was when we sold our independent house and moved into an apartment in a nearby area.

Even though our apartment was 2 km away from where we lived before, we hardly saw Uppu. Maybe he was sick, or maybe he would’ve thought he had no reason to be around an apartment that won’t offer him work, or maybe he was intimidated by the apartment culture.

After my dad’s demise, we moved out of Ambattur and I hardly go back there. I completely forgot about Uppu.

But, a couple of months back, I took a walk in my area and came across an old man who was selling kola Maavu (rangoli powder) on the streets. He was not Uppu. But he reminded me of him. The disheveled white hair, the faded shirt, a checked towel around his neck. He made me think about Uppu and several others like him.

Uppu is a classic example of how people kept themselves afloat even after losing the only thing they knew and been doing it for decades. In the case of Uppu, it was selling salt. But, you can’t just attribute it to Uppu.

It was also the culture and people who made it happen. The culture of individual houses in small areas like Vijayalakshmipuram and Uppu’s familiarity among people helped Uppu thrive and make a living. It was a good time.

If I could go back in time, I would ask Uppu for his real name. What could it be?