Saturday, April 19, 2008

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The polio-afflicted Chandrasekharan Nair has manned a telephone booth at North railway station for nearly three decades. But the future looks grim because of the mobile phone explosion

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Ernakulam Town (north) station, amidst the din of arriving and departing trains, and the cacophony of the public address system, passengers stare curiously at K.R. Chandrasekharan Nair. He is sitting, with his polio-stricken legs, hanging loosely from a chair, manning a STD phone booth, near the entrance.

The bespectacled Nair has become like an institution, having been at the station for close to three decades. And he has met all sorts of people.

“One day, I had finished my meal and through a window, I was washing my spoon when it slipped off and landed in some muck,” says Nair. A professor of Maharaja’s College, who had come to make a telephone call, saw this, and, without any hesitation, he went out, picked up the spoon and returned it to Nair.

“I cannot forget this incident,” he says, with a smile. “I have met many people who don’t lend a helping hand to physically challenged people. So, maybe, because of that, I still remember the professor.”

Nair got his big break when, August, 1981, he received a license from the Southern Railways to operate a telephone booth, on the basis of being physically challenged. “I felt very happy because I could work without having to move around much,” he says.

At that time, only local calls, which cost 50 paise, were permitted; Nair earned a 20 paise commission on each call. But the income was not much, he says, because, on an average, there would be about 30 calls a day. “At that time, people did not understand the benefits of using a phone booth,” he says.

Also, since a lesser number of trains stopped at the North station, there were fewer passengers. The turning point came in 1983 when the Southern Railways decided that the Parashuram Day Express would stop at North. “The present ticket counters were also set up in that year,” he says.

During that period, the majority of the calls were made by businessmen and medical representatives who had to stay in touch with their regional offices in Chennai. Asked to describe the customers who came, he says, “There were all sorts, rich, poor and the middle class, but 95 per cent behaved very well with me. They would make a call, pay the money and go away.” Sometimes, they would ask whether a particular train was on time. There were also daily travelers -- season ticket holders -- who always stopped and chatted with Nair.

But, as it could be expected, there were customers who were rude and would ask Nair why the calls were so expensive. “My attitude was simple,” he says. “If a customer did not make a call, I would have no income So, I ensured that I never behaved harshly, even to the people who were rude.”

On another day, while sitting on the steps of his house near the Seaport-Airport Road at Kakkanad, Nair talks about his early life. A son of a labourer, he was born at Chittethukara, a few kilometres away from where he is now staying. At the age of one and a half years, he was afflicted by polio, the unlucky one among seven brothers and sisters.

“My parents did not know of anti-polio injections,” he says. “Anyway, they were too poor.” Since there were no transport facilities, he was unable to go to school and picked up a rudimentary knowledge by reading the books of his elder siblings. For years, he stayed at home.

In 1971, when he was 19, Nair was apprenticed to a man who made beedis. Thereafter, for the next ten years, he earned a living by making beedis, before he got the license for the telephone booth.

As his life stabilised, he had a keen desire to marry. Many proposals fell through, before Vanaja Kumari, 46, who is physically normal, decided to marry him in 1982. “I came from a very poor family,” she says. “And I liked Chandrasekharan as a person. So, I agreed to the proposal, although some of my relatives were unhappy.”

Vanaja does not look unhappy at all; the couple has three children: Ramachandran, 24, Rajendran, 22, and Radhika, 18.

“It is remarkable how despite being physically challenged, Nair has been able to look after his family so well,” says an acquaintance, K.J. Varghese, 49, the Ernakulam district president of The Kerala Federation of the Blind. “He has faced problems with courage and is surely an inspiration for other physically challenged people.”

But this inspirational figure is facing a daunting future. “The mobile phone has ruined the booth business,” says Nair. “However, I don’t have anything against it.” Since fewer people use the booth, his income is down to Rs 100 a day. He has been trying to set up an alternative means of earning a living, but, so far, has drawn a blank. And, at 56, the years are also stacked up against him. But Nair has a never-say-die spirit and so, it won’t be long before he finds a way out of his predicament.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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