Thursday, September 20, 2007

Janki and Mansoor (Chapter 4)


I have become a little forgetful of late. But I do remember the fist visit of Suryakant Tripathi. I joked to Mr. Agrawal that this Suryakant is as a-poetic as they come. To be a namesake of one of the greatest Hindi poets and be the policeman that he is or maybe he was, requires the Gods with a sense of humor. But how many English speaking graduates in India know Suryakant Tripathi "Nirala", the guy who wrote "Pushp ki abhilasha"? (A flower's desire) Trouble with Indian English is that a-poetic seems acceptable and meaningful, while "Nirala", for even the most educated kind, will not ring a bell.

The prosaic Suryakant Tripathi came marched into the house chewing a paan (betel-leaf). Half of his words were uttered with a red spit drifting in air. We must have moved into this GK-1 posh apartment only a few months before that day. I was both proud of our expensive furniture and protective of it. I still care about cleanliness, and Tripathi, I believe, is every housewife's enemy. So many housewives curse the paan chewers all the time, that our collective curse has reincarnated as mouth cancer. But Tripathi is a greasy monkey; nothing ails him. Not even his own conscience!

Mr. Agrawal had informed me Tripathi was a policeman and could be useful. Mr. Agrawal had this habit of coming into the kitchen rubbing his palms before him, and telling me who "was useful" and who "was trouble". Tripathi was useful, Mansoor bhaisahib were trouble. Back then, Mr. Agrawal's classification had simple meanings for me. "Useful" in making more money, and hence open for a bargain. "Trouble" in getting an out-of-turn job done, but efficient and honest otherwise. The classification allowed me to know who I could respect and who was just a crook and was a paid-guest. Tripathi was invited to Satyanarayan Pooja for he was "useful". The stated reason was that he was a Brahmin. Mansoor bhaisahib were trouble, so the stated reason for his not being invited was "Brahmin's will object to his presence during the ceremony." We had to organize these things: Pooja to pamper the "useful" Brahmins, Agrawal sabha (conference) to keep "useful" businessmen and business class employees "well-fed". We hosted dinners at restaurants for the meat-eaters, for we are pure vegetarians. We held birthday celebrations of our children to give substantial return gifts to children of the officers who were friends with us. Every festival and ceremony required purchase of presents and gifts.

Mr. Agrawal knew every child's name, every wife's birthday, remembered every penny he paid to anyone and weighed every earning his pennies brought him. Even before cellphones existed, he could track down any government official, any contractor, any salesman in the city. He knew the daily schedules of all people he needed. He never missed an appointment, and he had no blueberry or computer to keep records and set reminders. I am not sure if he would have cared for them, and maybe, if he hadn't died then, I wouldn't have cared about these toys either. He had a knack for remembering useful information. He had patience beyond his years. He was a man of no rush, except in his urge to get rich. But there too, he knew to wait.

When we got married, he bargained with my father for dowry, in a way that appealed to my father. He told my father, "I will marry her. I will sell a few of my fields in Kapurthala, and move to Delhi. Give me five years, and I will then start a business. I am a Junior Engineer in Punjab Housing Board right now, and I am gathering capital. I sold three acres for getting the job, and I have recovered them already. In five years, if I become capable of buying a decent house in Delhi, I will call you. I will call you, for I will use my money for the house to invest in business, and I will tell you the amount I used. You will have five years after that to pay your daughter that amount so that she can buy that house."

My father had to marry three daughters, and portioned decent dowry for all of us. My one sister was married already and the other was only two years younger than me. Father worried sometimes that by the time he would get to the third, his capital would run out. So when Mr. Agrawal came up with this "pay years later and match what I earn" option, my father was relieved. His land investments would get him three to four times return over the principal in that time. He slapped Mr. Agrawal on his back, and said, "Very good. You will make it big in life."

Our marriage took place with a simple ceremony, for Mr. Agrawal wanted to save every penny and in any case, he was a man without family. His father had created wealth in terms of few acres of farmland and a huge haveli. The haveli was a seven bedroom house bought at half the actual price from a local zamindar, who was involved in a murder case and wanted ready cash for his bail. My father-in-law had died when Mr. Agrawal was only seventeen, and since then Mr. Agrawal had lived like a regular orphan. Except for Dhonduram and Savitri, an old couple, his family servants for decades, he had no one to call his own. Partition had killed most of his ancestral ties. Death of the father taught him about the evanescence of other relationships. Knowing how he fought his way up the ladder, and being his shadow at every step, I know it was a well-earned wealth he left for us.

Maybe it is easy for me to say this now, twenty years after his death. For it sure wasn't all that easy to prove the wealth as "well-earned" after his death. To make the matters worse, he made Mansoor bhaisahib heir to all the property in Delhi. Everything except the house, that my father paid for, was left in his name! Kapurthala property was Mr. Agrawal's father's legacy and that he left solely to us. Then Mansoor bhaisahib were murdered as well. I can't begin to tell you what battles I had to fight. A widow is anybody's cow for taking, they say and I learned what it amounted to in last twenty years.

It is an old woman's tale, for I must admit I am old and I tend to mumble things here and there. But you must not mind that. At my age, we tend to become forgetful, and our stories meander to whatever references we need. Try to remember how your grandmother narrated her stories. Our stories are like the threads of a conical cap we make for kids; as much yarn goes into the frills and tail, as into the structure. Did I lose the thread again? It is important to have a design in mind and to keep a count of rows already knit, I know; else the cap is too big for the head, and useless even as a wall hanging. See I don't know how I got to knitting from the narrative about how Tripathi was introduced to our household.

I don't know if you have had a similar experience. When I was growing up, there was this street dog, who would show up at dinner time, and knock at our door asking for his share of daily bread. After its gentle tap announced its arrival, it would sit at the door, and wait till one of us finished our dinner and went out with roti (bread) or leftovers for it. The regular habit made it somewhat of a pet. Everytime I'd go to the door, I would be struck by the childlike, petulant look in its eyes. Its eyes like babies, and tail dancing in a submissive delight! From the first visit, Tripathi appealed to me like that dog. His habit made him return to our house, his needs made him look silly. But like a puffed up chicken, he always walked with a jump in his stride. In spite of what he was paid, he wanted his every job to look as if he has done us a favor. Perhaps the street dog that we fed as children also knew that it was doing us a favor. Isn't it common knowledge that feeding a street dog regularly, wards off the effect of Shani? Shani, the fiercest influence among all planets, can be kept away by feeding a dog! Maybe the dog knew it too, and thought it was doing us a favor.

It is easy for me to draw parallels between Tripathi and the dog now. Back then, except for the paan stains he left everywhere, I thought he was "useful", and so when I used to "entertain" him, I would have a genuine welcome smile on my face. Mr. Agrawal had this whole vocabulary of his own, so "entertain" meant, serving chai-naashta (tea & snacks) and following it with a lunch or dinner. If Mr. Agrawal was busy, I would need to make some commonplace conversation, and if it is someone like Tripathi, the conversation occurs naturally. That man laughs too much. When he eats, he can stomach fifteen chappatis at one go. When he drinks, a liter of whiskey and a half a kg chilli chicken gets in, without a burp. Only effect is some red blotches appear on his face, and his laugh gets louder. It is hard to believe that between his first visit and Mr. Agrawal's death, he must have visited our house hundreds of times in two years. In twenty years since then, he has come maybe five-six times. He even sold the flat he owned in our building. I knew he was a regular rascal, but I always imagined him as a faithful one. But I was so wrong. Tripathi wasn't the "pet" street dog of my childhood. He was a bigger beast. Twenty years back, that had surprised me.

(To be continued...)

Other chapters found here

1 comment:

Vivek Sharma said...

vandana1982 comments: on 23 Sep 07 08:26:00 AM
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this shows that Mr. Aggarwal is a very shrewd and money minded person

Vivek Sharma comments: on 23 Sep 07 09:31:00 AM
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:) I am still developing the characters. If by the end of the book, you are able to summarize their characteristics in one sentence, I will have the so called "flat" characters. I will hate to have flat characters, so I take your comment as a pointer to the fact that I haven't put much into Agrawal's character. We will see how he develops in coming episodes.