‘THE THING YOU SHOULD remember about life, Deshi,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘is that honesty will get you nowhere.’
We were seated in his single-room first floor office, on either side of an unvarnished teak table, him in a padded black office seat which squeaked like a startled mouse each time he made the slightest movement, and me in a bare-boned, flat-backed chair whose cushions were tied to the frame by means of twine in an effort to daunt those that might be inclined to pinch them.
‘I have been honest and I have been dishonest,’ he said, dragging toward himself the file folder containing my certificates. He opened the flap, peered at the string of As on my transcript through the reading glasses perched low on his nose. He frowned, as if in disapproval. ‘Believe me, dishonest is better.’
He turned one more page, scanned the contents, and muttered under his breath.
Then one more, after which he closed the file with a dusty thud, and shook his head. On his smooth, fat face was an air of resigned despair, the kind one gets consumed by on having appraised the people of the world and found them wanting.
‘Your mother tells me that you are very good at your studies,’ he said, folding his glasses and returning them to the side pocket of his black vest coat. ‘And your grades tell me she is right. She thinks highly of you for this reason, assumes that you will amount to something.’
I nodded, and wondered why the morning sun pouring in through the glassed wall of the office failed to warm me.
‘No,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘do not interrupt me,’ though I was not planning to. ‘What you need to succeed in this world is not marks, not some letters of the alphabet that a college prints on a piece of paper. What you need, my boy, is nous. You know what that is?’
I shook my head.
The bakery on top of which Uncle Bhalerao set up his office did roaring business at this time, and I could hear the cheery tones of auto drivers at the adjacent bus stop hurling abuses at errant passengers who dared to haggle over such silly things as price. Just another Bangalore morning. For everyone else but me.
‘You need grit to make it in this world,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘An ability to roll with the punches. Now your mother tells me that you wish to go overseas and study further.’
‘Yes, Uncle Bhalerao.’
‘And she said it would be nice if I could pay part of your tuition fee. I said I would; anything for my favourite nephew.’
He tended to his thin moustache as he said that, and basked in the warmth of the compliment he had thrown at me. Uncle Bhalerao had four sisters – all of them older than he – and nine nephews and nieces. Upon some innocent comparison of notes that had taken place a few years ago at a family reunion, I had come to realize that he threw around the word ‘favourite’ rather freely, with the impunity of a rich donor tossing coins at a temple wastrel.
‘But I don’t believe in giving a man a fish,’ he said, grazing a hand over his well-oiled scalp. ‘I told Meera that I will be glad to help you, yes, but in return, you will come and intern with me for a month, and learn the ways of the world that they do not teach you at Harvard.’
‘Amma told me,’ I said, quelling with stern purpose in my mind details of the previous night’s conversation, that had pained me so. ‘What do I have to do?’ I looked around us; besides the teak table and his chair, and some framed modern art that hung off the side walls, the office seemed bare as a hollow. ‘And where do I work?’
Uncle Bhalerao gave me a smile of indulgence. He got to his feet, and with a violent backward jerk of the waist, sent the chair crashing into the wall behind him. ‘We work in real estate, Deshi,’ he said, his eyes projecting a spectral green light devoid of all soul. ‘We earn our keep out there, in the streets of Bangalore.’
‘But – what shall I do out there?’
He flicked his wrist, glanced at his watch. A clunky metallic thing. ‘Appointment at ten. Come with me.’
* * *
In the annals of the Pattanaik family, of which I am a member, the year 1989 is referred to in hushed whispers. It was the year in which, at the age of twenty five, Uncle Bhalerao, hitherto a much-ridiculed dullard of the house, won the lottery.
No one remembered anymore whether he won the first prize or the second prize or the jackpot. But every member of the family would to this day recall the exact amount of money that had flooded his bank account on that fateful dat. Five lakh, eighty seven thousand, two hundred and thirty four rupees, sixty paise. Minus taxes.
That was the first wave of fortune that hit Uncle Bhalerao; his father disapproved of the manner in which he made his money, and declared that it would never last. Indeed, it is said that a full eighty per cent of all lottery winners lose all their winnings in under five years.
Uncle Bhalerao, as his sisters were to discover, was not of that number. He used his money to buy numerous plots of land littered across the then remote areas of Hyderabad. There was neither rhyme nor reason to his purchases; if some distant uncle in some family function would give him a tip that a new residential area was being allocated in Banjara Hills, say, Uncle Bhalerao would be on his Bajaj Chetak the next morning, with a wad of currency notes hidden in his bag. And by mid-day he would return bearing the signed registration forms.
My grandfather tried to advise him out of this folly, but the man would not listen. Again the family clucked its tongue like a mother hen, and admonished the fool that Uncle Bhalerao was.
For five years after he won his lottery, all Uncle Bhalerao did was buy land. By 1995, it was said that he owned more than fourteen pieces of property in the city, and they all asked one another behind his back what he planned to do with them. In the year 1996, when Chandra Babu Naidu set up the first software zone near Madhapur and brought Hyderabad to the forefront of the world’s great cities, they got their answer.
The black sheep had begun to grow golden fleece. Now in 2017, Uncle Bhalerao owned commercial complexes, apartment buildings, farmland and everything else in between. He had set up his affairs so that they all looked after themselves like clockwork, and left him with a tidy sum of money by the end of the month. As a consequence, he was always looking at avenues in which he could invest his ‘excess funds’.
And this office he opened in Bangalore – the agency for distressed landlords – was his current whim. Mother said that he was not interested in real estate at all, in Bangalore or otherwise, that this company allowed him to save on tax, that he was nothing but a money-minded pig, that he cared not at all for family and love but only for where to stick his extra rupee notes, that he was the villain of the highest order, that Duryodhana the Kaurava was no patch on him when it came to greed, that he would not think twice about selling all his sisters and nephews for a pittance as long as the sum was a sure one, that he was a mean fellow, a right bad man indeed, but that I must do whatever he said.
‘He is your ticket to comfort, Sandesh,’ Amma had said the other day, using my full name as she did when she discussed weighty matters. ‘Even a ninth part of what he has will last us for a generation. And if you play your cards right, you might just make him love you more than the others, and then who knows?’
* * *
‘Landlords are a browbeaten lot, my boy,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, worming his Maruti 800 through the inner roads of Whitefield. He eyed the hawkers and two wheelers moving about him tolerantly, and made use of his horn but once. Each time he tugged at the steering wheel, it made a sound of admonishment, as if it were a cat and it was being lifted by the tail. ‘The average real estate agent looks to market himself to the tenant, because after all the tenant is the one forking out the money. But this whole business of being a landlord is a stressful one. Takes one to know one.’
Without warning he swayed the vehicle into a further inner road, and we sputtered forward in a series of lurches. Uncle Bhalerao sat in his driver’s seat with the inscrutable expression of the Buddha, who had just sat down under the Bodhi for a spell of daily meditation.
‘There are thousands of houses in the city,’ he said, hopping up and down in my line of vision, ‘that are perfectly good to live in. But they have a few – what do we say – quirks. Such houses acquire a reputation, and they stay empty throughout the year. The owners can neither rent them out nor sell them, and all the other brokers in the city discriminate against them.’ The features became sharper as he ended the sentence, and I could tell that he was burning with a righteous fire. ‘So I thought – why not help the downtrodden a little? Why not take some of these houses and turn them into homes?’
‘And you do this out of the goodness of your heart?’ I asked.
‘Mostly,’ he said, without skipping a beat. ‘But the world looks upon charity with distrust. So I charge for my services.’
‘Two months’ rent from the landlord, one month’s rent from the tenant. Don’t look at me like that, boy. It’s barely enough to cover for expenses.’
The road we were on led us to a remote area of the city, where I saw more people on bicycles than in cars, and we came to a halt in front of a red-painted building which contained, at first glance, nine units stacked into three storeys.
Uncle Bhalerao returned the watchman’s greeting with a smile and a fifty rupee note.
As we alighted from the vehicle, I asked him, ‘What are some of these quirks that you mentioned?’
Out came a packet of Charms from Uncle Bhalerao’s vest coat. A silver lighter made an appearance, out of nowhere, lighted the tip of the cigarette without fuss, and vanished. He took a long first drag, and his eyes attained the smoky look of nirvana.
‘Hard to say,’ he said, ‘because each house is different.’ A pause, where he surveyed the far end of the quiet street, as if he expected someone to arrive. Then he said, ‘This one, for example? It’s haunted.’
* * *
Flat 203, the end unit of the middle floor, looked nothing like a haunted house. There were no overhanging branches or shadows; no whispering willows; no peeling paint on the walls; no dreary objects looking out of the gloom. The walls were a bright milky shade of white, and the furniture was sparse and modern, lending the L-shaped living room a sense of space. Uncle Bhalerao sat on the larger couch, and looked at me curiously.
‘For the next one hour, you are my nephew,’ he said.
‘I am your nephew,’ I told him.
‘A prospective tenant is on his way here.’ He looked at the open windows. ‘Such a well-lit house. Open on three sides. Everything going for it. And yet it has to stay vacant for most of the year.’
‘What does the ghost do?’ I asked him.
‘There is no ghost,’ he said. ‘If the tenant asks how long we have been living here, we say seven months.’
‘But he will ask the rest of the people in the building. They will tell him the truth.’
Uncle Bhalerao smiled, exuding all the kindness of Mother Theresa. ‘I have managed them all. They want a tenant here, because the owner won’t pay maintenance unless he gets rent, and the rest of them have had to carry his share of the bill for years.’
‘How did you manage them?’
‘I had a chat with them,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘There is not a man in this world that is not amenable to logic. I gave them logic, and they agreed.’
‘To lie for you?’
‘Sometimes there is no difference between a lie and a slight bending of the truth.’
‘How is telling someone we have been living here for seven months a bending of the truth?’ And then a sudden thought struck me. ‘Where did you get all of this furniture?’
‘On rent,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘For a month. I will bill this to our client.’
‘And the utensils in the kitchen, and the stuff in the bathrooms?’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, nodding. ‘All of it. The bedroom closets are empty, but that is quite all right; no self-respecting person opens the wardrobe in someone else’s bedroom.’
I got up and walked to the closed door of what appeared to be one of the bedrooms. I knocked on it quite out of habit, and listened for an answer.
‘Why is this closed?’ I asked.
‘That is the room in which the ghost resides,’ said Uncle Bhalerao.
‘I thought you said there is no ghost.’
‘That’s right. There is no ghost. That is what you will say if the tenant asks.’
‘Maybe I can go in and see this ghost?’
A shake of the head came from Uncle Bhalerao. ‘You cannot see her.’
‘Then how do you know she is in there?’
‘Sometimes you can hear her,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, solemn as a Brahmin priest. ‘At night, they say, after eleven, on quiet nights, a distinct sound of anklets can be heard.’
I did not argue, but I turned the knob without asking for permission, and allowed myself into the room. It was a regular ten-by-twelve, with a single bed pushed up against the wall with the open window. It overlooked an empty plot of land, I noticed, and a stiff breeze was blowing through it, making the panes clatter.
In spite of the light and the air, I felt a strange sense of loneliness creep into me. There was no bathroom attached, and a makeshift wardrobe stood by the corner, brooding, carved out of chocolate brown rosewood, which contrasted sharply against the white walls. On a moonlit night, if the lights were turned off, it would appear a deep, forbidding black, and it would not take an overimaginative mind to concoct sounds of anklets and breathing out of thin air.
I cleared my throat. The sound fell dead at my feet.
‘Anyone here?’ I said, with a small laugh, and of course there was no answer.
From the living room, the booming voice of Uncle Bhalerao told me that our poor tenant had arrived.
* * *
‘Come, Rajesh!’ said Uncle Bhalerao as I appeared at the door, and waved his great arm at the man next to him. ‘Meet Mr. Awasthi. He wishes to have a look at the house with the intention of living in it.’
‘Hello,’ murmured Mr. Awasthi, without making eye contact. He knew, and I knew he knew, that something was amiss. You simply did not find a convivial uncle and nephew living together in an apartment such as this. ‘So you – uh – live here.’
‘We do indeed,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘And here’s the rental agreement. Mr. Narayanaswamy, with whom you must have spoken already, is the perfect landlord, really. You cannot ask for a better one.’ He leaned toward the small man conspiratorially, and lowered his voice. ‘Between the three of us, he lets the rent slide a few days every month.’
The man seemed to take no notice of us, and began to walk about the house, moving in and out of shadow, as if he were a ghost himself. He had keen, prominent eyes, and a veritable forest of black hair that covered his face. He nodded at the hall windows, said, ‘Hmm.’ He went into the kitchen and said it a couple more times.
Uncle Bhalerao and I looked at each other. He performed a rather complex manoeuvre; scrunching up his eyebrows, pulling them up his forehead as one, and then making them droop like sad sunflowers. I gathered he wanted to tell me something, but what it was I hadn’t the faintest idea.
I nodded to say I understood.
Mr. Awasthi emerged from the kitchen and made his way to where I was standing. He pointed at the door, frowned at it.
I rubbed my chin, appearing as thoughtful as I could.
‘What is in here?’ he asked.
‘The bedroom,’ I told him.
‘Can I see it?’ he said.
‘As long as you don’t open the wardrobe,’ I told him.
Mr. Awasthi had the eyebrows of a girl. A part of me wondered if he had not pencilled them in. Never had I seen a man with such a bush on his face sport eyebrows of such daintiness. A brown bracelet hung over his right wrist. From behind heavyset black-framed glasses, his eyes bristled. This, I concluded, was a man of much depth.
I opened the door for him; it seemed the right thing to do.
Again in the moment that Mr. Awasthi disappeared from the living room, Uncle Bhalerao made that strange eye movement. Again I assured him with absolute verve that I understood.
Mr. Awasthi stayed in the bedroom for much longer than he had in the kitchen. I wished that he had not taken it upon himself to investigate the empty wardrobe; he would certainly have questions as to why a twenty-three year old man had nothing in his closet. But I needn’t have worried. All we could hear was his step; patient, considered, prowling in silence.
By the time he reappeared at the door, Uncle Bhalerao had already placed two copies of the rental agreement on the living room table, with a blue-tipped pen strategically placed between them.
‘Well?’ he said to Mr. Awasthi, and I’d seldom heard that word spoken with more gravity.
Mr. Awasthi bore the look of a man who had lost something but forgotten what it was. He patted the pockets of his pants. He adjusted the rim of his spectacles. He said, ‘um’ and he said, ‘ah’.
‘Is there something on your mind, sir?’ said Uncle Bhalerao.
‘Is this the room in which – er – they say –’
The expression on Uncle Bhalerao’s face was the picture of puzzled innocence. He maintained it staunchly, and allowed the other man to recover from his stumbling words without offering a hand.
‘They say there is a ghost here,’ said Mr. Awasthi at last. ‘Is this the room?’
Uncle Bhalerao looked at me. I looked at Uncle Bhalerao.
‘Did you hear Mr. Awasthi?’ he said.
‘Did he say that there is a ghost in our house?’
‘But we have been living here for months now, haven’t we, Rajesh?’
‘And have we ever seen this supposed ghost even once?’
‘No, we haven’t.’
‘Have we heard it?’
Now Uncle Bhalerao turned to Mr. Awasthi and said sweetly, ‘I do not know who is spreading slanderous rumours about this house, sir. They must possess black hearts indeed, for we – my nephew and I – have never lived in more congenial surroundings.’
If I was expecting Mr. Awasthi to break down in a sob of relief at this masterful denial of the truth, I was to be disappointed. If anything, his face tightened even more, and for the one minute during which he held absolute silence staring at nothing, even if a gust of wind had come running at him through the window, not a hair on him would have moved. If he had arrived in saffron robes and with a shaved head, I would have had no trouble believing he was a monk.
‘So,’ said Uncle Bhalerao genially, ‘shall we sign the papers?’
Mr. Awasthi did not answer. We shall never know if he ever meant to, because right at that moment, from beyond the closed door of the bedroom, came the clear jangle of a woman’s anklet.
* * *
It was the very first time in my life that I witnessed the deflating of a real life balloon.
Uncle Bhalerao sagged forward and backward, as if air was rushing out of him. He thrust out a hand and found the backrest of the couch. ‘Eh?’ he said.
At about the same time, Mr. Awasthi was rapidly blooming to life. ‘Is that it?’ he whispered to me. ‘Is that the ghost?’
I confess to a slight stilling of my heart. I know as a rational twenty-three year old, one was obliged to be cavalier of such things as ghosts in strange places, but something about that house made me ask, ‘What if?’ Yes, it seemed an unlikely place for a ghost to turn up in, but that was the thing, wasn’t it? Ghosts turned up in unlikely places, at unlikely times.
So I said, ‘Maybe.’
‘Shall we go look?’ he said, even more softly, and another rush of jangles came from the room.
I came abreast of Mr. Awasthi, and the two of us looked at each other. Something of an unspoken word passed between us, and galvanized by its power, he stepped forward, gripped the knob, and pushed open the door.
We found ourselves staring at the seated figure of a cat in the middle of the mattress of the single bed.
Tied around the left hind leg of the animal was a silver anklet.
There are moments in life that call for swift action of muscle and limb, but the mind does not comply. This was one such moment; both Mr. Awasthi and I were conscious of being weighed down by chains, and before we could move, the cat leapt up in alarm and flew through the window.
Mr. Awasthi made to spring after it, if for no other reason than to make sure that it would not be harmed, but stopped at the last moment and shrugged. ‘There is a ledge right underneath the window,’ he said.
‘It must come here for rats,’ I said.
‘Rats.’ He nodded. ‘That must be it.’
Uncle Bhalerao, who had watched this from the safe distance of the living room, recovered enough to call after us with something of his usual belligerence. ‘I told you, Mr. Awasthi,’ he said. ‘There are no ghosts here. Perhaps we could sign the papers now?’
* * *
That should have been the end of it, and Uncle Bhalerao should have chalked up another victory for dishonesty and pocketed his three months’ rent, but there was one last sting to the tale. I came to know of it the morning after, when I reported in to work at the office.
I found Uncle Bhalerao not quite distraught, for that would take some doing, but some distance from his usual gaiety. He was, to put things mildly, mellow.
‘It is hard, this business,’ he said, as I entered. ‘Very hard.’
‘You heard Mr. Awasthi telling me yesterday and he would come by this morning, didn’t you?’
‘He had sounded perfectly at ease with our proposal, had he not?’
‘He had, yes.’
Uncle Bhalerao looked up at me, the sun lighting up half his forlorn face and leaving the other half in shadow. ‘But this morning he sends me a message that he does not want to take the house after all.’ He shook his head, and declared again that it was very hard indeed.
I told him that it all stank. If we had proved it to Mr. Awasthi that there was indeed no ghost in the house, why, then, did he decide against moving in?
‘That is the bloody thing,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it with ferocity. ‘The damned idiot wanted to live with a ghost. He was disappointed that we cannot give him one.’
And at that it all sort of made sense to me, looking back. The intensity of the man’s eyes, the sudden coming alive at the sound of the anklet, the immediate deflation of spirit at my remark about the rats. All of it.
‘Well, Uncle,’ I said, slipping into my chair, ‘sometimes all the grit in the world must come away second best.’
Uncle Bhalerao puffed at his cigarette and blew rings at the ceiling. ‘Isn’t that the truth,’ he said. ‘Isn’t that the truth.’