A native of Chennai, 51-year-old Clarence John has been running a bike repair shop on the pavement for the past 20 years. He was wayward, would drink heavily but later he changed. A devout Roman Catholic, his bike repair shop, looks more like a shrine. Shail profiles the life of a faceless person, on the streets, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
“I was a dispatcher, flat tire fixer, changed the oil, fixed the fan belts. There was nothing too good for me.” ~ Manuel Moroun, American businessman
When I approached the man, he was seated on a plastic chair in front of his tiny mechanic shop, with a cell phone in hand. The phone looked more like the little toy mobile that my son had when he was little. I waited for him to complete his conversation and, thereafter, commenced a talk that took an hour to complete.
A native of Chennai, 51-year- old Clarence John has been running a bike repair shop on the pavement, in the same place, for the past 20 years. Even the floods in Chennai did not deter him from doing what he knows best.
The first thing that catches your eye when you see his shop is his tiny shelf, which has pictures and images of Mother Mary and Lord Jesus spread out as if it was a mini church. Your shop looks less a shop, more a church I tell him.
“Oh yes. I am a proud Roman Catholic and believe that my Lord runs my shop. In fact, many people passing by also offer flowers and candles.”
But, does this not interfere with your work? Has nobody passed a snide comment?
“Thankfully none. In fact, people are more attracted to my repair shop because of the presence of all the pictures. I think they believe that I can be trusted with work because of it. I am happy that credibility to me comes from my God.”
So, have you always been in this field?
“I had worked in a wood company as an operator. Even now, the owner of that company remembers me,” John tells me with pride. “After that, I worked as a security man for some years. Those were the worst days of my life.”
I look at him questioningly.
“Maybe, it was bad company. I started drinking then and squandered my life, energy, money, everything. I would return home and quarrel a lot. Call it the Almighty’s grace I got a job in a tire company. After it closed I started this shop and I reformed my ways. Earlier, even if I got a thousand rupees I would not hesitate to spend it. Today, even if I get 100 rupees, I think that it will buy me some meal.”
You sit here literally on the road. You watch people in cars, bikes. Do you think some development has taken place?
“Yes, definitely, development has taken place. Maybe, 25% of the people are simply spoilt. But, the other 75% have definitely developed. It is visible.”
Compared to the society he knew 20 years back when he began working what does he think of the people today?
“What is there to say? Most of them have no respect for others. We cannot go and reprimand them for that. Then, only our self-respect will get injured. But, most of them have bad habits.”
What about his family?
“My family comprises of my wife, Rosemary and my two sons, Vinod Mathew and Vicky Mathew.”
Do they all live together?
“We lived together until my first son got married. Then, our daughters-in- law had problems, so we decided that living apart was best. Of course, we all live nearby. And, my lunch and dinner are cooked by both the daughters-in- law, who take turns cooking for us.”
What about your friends? Do you meet?
“I used to have a lot of friends once. But, over a period of time, the number dwindled. In a way, it is good because then, I don’t have to spend money on them or other useless pursuits.”
Disturbing it was to me but then it was his life.
“I monitor my sons’ friendships too. That is why they do not have any bad habits. Because they have that respect, that fear. So, before doing anything wrong they will think twice. I feel even after our children settle down we must supervise their lives because values are the only great gifts we can give to them. I don’t believe in saving lots of money for my children and then, them fighting over it or spending wildly after my death. Good values will stay with them throughout their lives.”
Wise words. But, does he feel that children now-a- days have faith and devotion?
“Yes, definitely, they do have faith. See, it finally comes down to how parents bring them up. Half of the problems arise in children’s lives because their parents have not given them good values. If I had the power I would first put such kind of parents behind bars, not the children. We are the role models for our children. If we behave well, they will too.”
I have met many people. But, you seem to have a kind of optimism that I rarely find. What is it that edges you on?
“See in our Bible, it is written that Satan is sleeping just outside our door waiting for us to turn our heads and falter. It is up to us to be strong even when the going is tough. We are still suffering for the misdeeds of Adam and Eve. God must have created that tree for a reason. Maybe, only if we have problems we will remember God.
“Today, I am happy with little. I go to church regularly. I am the President of my Church. I arrange for religious tours by foot for 45 members every year. All this gives me a lot of inner strength.”
What do you have to say about Amma (Chief Minister Jayalalitha)? She is unwell in the hospital.
“See, I do not wish to comment on political matters. I am a great fan of MGR (ex-Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu),” and he shows me his hand where he has MGR’s political party flag tattooed on it, “and my connection with all things political stopped when he passed away. But, Amma is part of that political family. So, I do japam for her. I believe she will come back. But, I need to make it clear that the Lord is my leader today. I follow nobody else.”
Taking leave of this Bermuda clad, tattooed (during a time when tattooing wasn’t even fashionable) religious gentleman, I offer my humble prayers to the altar that he has set up in his shop. Gosh! Why don’t we have more of these guys in this world?
Pix by Vinod Naraen.
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