SOME MORNINGS START OUT RIGHT. The cuckoo bird sings. The vegetable vendor throws you a ripe cucumber to taste for free. The auto driver imbues his honk with benevolence. There is a serene smile on every face, a blooming flower at every turn.
And then there are some mornings that shake you awake with an almighty smite over the nose. They startle you. Make you re-evaluate the wisdom of getting out of bed and going places in a word as cruel as this.
The morning on which I reached Uncle Bhalerao’s office and found him with a chrysanthemum sticking out of each ear started off being of the first kind and rapidly took a turn toward the second.
‘Good morning, Deshi!’ he said, busying himself with garlanding two wall-mounted pictures of the Goddess of wealth behind his seat. Business had not kept up with Uncle Bhalerao’s expectations, only one person darkening our door in the last two weeks, and even he in search of directions to an ATM machine. I had seen him droop in stages over this time, from upbeat enthusiasm (‘The highest wave rides on the deepest crest, Deshi, always remember that’) to sheer dejection (‘The trouble with the world is that it does not value enterprise’).
I had not anticipated, however, that his despair had reached such levels as to make him invest in pictures of Lakshmi, out of whose hand, even after a long and steady investment over the years on the part of my mother, no real gold coins were yet to flow into our coffers.
‘I never knew you were religious,’ I said, leaving my bag in one of the two visitor chairs, not certain whether to sit or to remain standing.
‘We are nothing but what life makes us,’ he said, with his back to me. In the corner there were two white cloth sacks tied into a knot at the mouth, and an unopened packet of incense sticks leaned on them. ‘Are you going to perform a ritual?’
‘Don’t be silly.’ He turned to the entrance and rubbed his hands together. He was today without his black vest coat, choosing to make a presence instead in a flowing white kurta and pajamas. ‘I don’t have the expertise to perform a ritual. Sometimes you have to accept with humility, Deshi, that there are higher powers than you at work. Powers that you cannot see or hear or sense, but are present all the same.’ He made a queer waving motion with his fingers to indicate invisible spirits. ‘I am convinced that this shop is in the grip of something unholy.’
‘Unholy. I was speaking to Mallishwar yesterday and he said the same thing.’
‘Who is Mallishwar?’
Uncle Bhalerao looked at me in the manner of a disappointed owner of a misbehaving pet dog. ‘You really should invest more in human relationships, Deshi,’ he said. ‘When all this is done and gone, all that will remain is the good we have done in the world, and how much good will you do if you don’t interest yourself in knowing who Mallishwar is?’
I agreed with him, admitted that I could not do much good at all.
‘In any case, Mallishwar is the boy who makes tea at the bakery downstairs,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘First class fellow. I tried to employ him, but he refuses to see the potential of our business. I told him that our doors will be always open for the likes of him.’
I did not say that Mallishwar perhaps refused to see the potential of our business because there was none. But that would have dealt a body blow to Uncle Bhalerao’s flagging spirit. So I saved the comment for a sunnier time and trained the mind to matters on hand.
‘You were saying,’ I reminded him, ‘of something he said about our office being unholy.’
‘Unholy, yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, once again making that ripple-like motion with the fingers. ‘You get to know these things when you go out and talk to people, Deshi. Now Mallishwar has been with the bakery for three years now. So he knows the lay of the land. Keeps his ears and eyes open, that fellow.’
I confess I was beginning to feel envious of this chap, who was drawing such praise from my uncle. The pain must have shown on my face, for Uncle Bhalerao smiled at me in a patronly manner.
‘You have nothing to fear from him, Deshi,’ he said. ‘You are a capital fellow yourself. My favourite nephew, remember? But there are things that he can do that you cannot. For instance, he knows history. He knows what transpired in this office before you and I came along, my boy.’
I sat forward in my chair, interested. ‘Did an unmarried woman kill herself?’
‘Oh, nothing untoward as that,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘But there was a chit fund company that called this place home before us, and in less than three months they folded and left.’
‘Not surprising, for a chit fund company.’
Uncle Bhalerao wagged a cautionary finger at me. ‘I do not like your jarring tone, Deshi. Chit fund companies perform a valuable service in our world. They offer capital to those that lack it. A nobler purpose than that in life I cannot imagine.’
‘And they had to go,’ he said, leaning forward in the manner of one sharing a long-held secret. ‘On such a busy road, imagine! A road on which even a watch mechanic does business. That’s a significant fact.’
‘I am certain it is.’
‘And you know me. Thirsty for knowledge. Alert. Far-sighted. I ordered another cup of tea, plumbed Mallishwar deeper for details. And you know what I found? That every business that has begun within these four walls has gone the way of the dinosaurs in less than six months.’
‘He thinks our office is haunted?’ I said, relaxing a little. If that was the extent of Mallishwar’s insight into the vagaries of life, I had little to fear.
‘Six different businesses,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Six stellar entrepreneurs, seeking their way in this harsh, cold world, but thwarted by the powers that now stand in our path.’
‘Did he propose a solution, this protégé of yours?’
Out came the stout finger again, wagging. ‘Your attitude is not a winning one, Deshi. As a matter of fact, he did propose a solution. A solution that the bakery itself had adopted four years back, when sales were sagging, and ever since then they have opened each morning to full patronage.’
I did not have to ask Uncle Bhalerao what the solution was, because right at that moment our office went dark, as if a cloud had come to rest over it. We turned, together, to the shape that filled the glass doorway, a man with a distinct thud to his step, and a broad, gummy grin to his face.
‘Ah,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, clapping his hands. ‘Hundred years. Hundred years!’
* * *
‘Mr. Madhavachari,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, in the hallowed voice of reverence, ‘the man who rid the bakery of all its ghosts.’
I found that it was difficult to describe Mr. Madhavachari, in the same way it is difficult to describe a mountain. He seemed to possess some of the qualities of water, in that he rather effortlessly filled every space into which he moved. I stood up as he walked in, not out of any sense of respect but from a sheer nudge of instinct. He was the kind of person you felt compelled to give up your seat for.
He smiled at me, and as he settled creakily into the chair, overwhelming it in every direction, I sensed that the man was not very old. He was no more than perhaps twenty five, and on his smooth face he carried the innocence of a ripe apple. His body was rippled with muscle more than fat, and I could imagine him walking up and down the street with a long line of vermillion parting his forehead, demanding money from shopkeepers. He would, I thought, make for himself a fulfilling career that way.
‘Have everything I asked for?’ he said to Uncle Bhalerao, the smile disappearing at once.
‘Yes, yes,’ said my uncle, pointing at the bundles in the corner. ‘We can begin as soon as you’re ready.’
Madhavachari consulted his watch, a hefty hammer of a thing holding on to dear life as he twisted his wrist. ‘Inauspicious time for seven more minutes. Begin after.’
Uncle Bhalerao nodded with sage wisdom, and asked the man if he wanted a cup of tea. He inserted a sentence of praise about the conscientious tea maker that occupied one corner of the bakery downstairs.
Madhavachari shook his head numbly. There are some faces that glow with the light of the mind, and eyes that burn with the intelligence of the ages. One look at them and you think this is a man who has lived.
The priest that sat in the chair, alas, did not give that impression.
He transmitted a naked fear among his fellow men, I saw, but none of the awe of an enlightened soul. He could beat you into a pulp with one hand tied behind his back, but you felt that you could defeat him rather easily at any task concerning the brain.
He blinked, then, twice, like a school bully who had been asked all of a sudden to recite the thirteenth table back to front. This strengthened my suspicion.
Was this the decimator of bad spirits whose abilities Mallishwar had extolled so virtuously? Could this be the beacon in the rough sea that Uncle Bhalerao sailed in? The illuminator of paths? The whisperer to unfriendly ghosts? I had my doubts.
From the inner folds of his dhoti he retrieved a small brown book, and proceeded to memorize verses from it, closing his eyes and waving to and fro in the poor chair, which was now rattling with intensity. He reminded me of a child cramming for an examination he knew he was ill-prepared for.
Something about our little office bothered Mr. Madhavachari. He did not seem to possess the confidence that his body should have accorded him. He kept making the wrong turn of phrase, kept chastising himself, kept looking up at me to see if I noticed.
‘A glass of milk, perhaps?’ murmured Uncle Bhalerao, in a game attempt to soothe the man.
And just then, as if there weren’t enough things to mess with Mr. Mahavachari’s delicate peace of mind, two more men flew into the room, their saffron robes fluttering, as if they were borne by a strong wind, turning the man’s gentle features into a frozen image of shock.
* * *
‘How dare you!’ said the old, frail man, shivering like a leaf, but in fury. There was a younger man with him that carried what looked like a heavy load wrapped in red over his slender shoulders, and he was intent on watching the floor with a grim expression.
‘How dare you,’ said the old man again, calmer this time but no less ferocious, taking no notice of myself or of Uncle Bhalerao, who had stood up now, and was considering the scene with a look of wild surmise in his eyes. Who was this man, the eyes said. And why had Madhavachari dropped the book from his fumbling hands, and why was he now wilting like a stricken flower?
‘I taught you everything,’ said the old man, ‘but I did not teach you to lie. Where did you learn this abominable skill, I ask you.’
You would not think that such a man would command such a voice. His frame was that of a grandfather who had lost all teeth and told stories of youth with the thin, breathy whiff of nostalgia, who insisted on going to sleep with his spectacles on so that he could see his dreams better. At the very least he should have been the humble shopkeeper who trembled at the entry of Madhavachari, and paid up whatever was asked for with low howls of protest. In no scenario conjured up by Mother Nature should he be able to make Madhavachari crumple up into a ball of shame with his words, and yet here he was, doing just that.
We were witnessing a miracle. Like all wonderstruck men, we stood our ground, Uncle Bhalerao and I, and watched in silence.
‘This fellow,’ said the old man, ‘is not Madhavachari. I am.’
Uncle Bhalerao said, ‘You are the priest who cleansed the bakery downstairs?’
‘The very one. There is only one Madhavachari in Whitefield.’
‘Then who is he?’
That question seemed to drive Madhavachari – the real one; the fake continued to sit in the chair, avoiding all gaze – into a frenzy of anger. ‘His name is Ramachari,’ he seethed, infusing the word with all the venom in the world. ‘My nephew. Sister’s son. He was my assistant until last month, and after I kicked him out, he has been masquerading as me, performing rituals in my name.’
Uncle Bhalerao looked pained at hearing this, and at least part of his disappointment, I knew, was the realization that his beloved Mallishwar must be in on the act, for it was he who had given him Ramachari’s number. I basked in the soft glow of my rival’s fall, and flashed at my uncle a smile that said, ‘Family is family, after all.’
At a motion from Madhavachari, the assistant who carried his things dropped the bundle in the middle of the room and came to stand abreast of his master. ‘Rama,’ said the old man, in that booming voice, ‘stand up!’
Ramachari refused to look up. He attempted, vainly, to cover himself up with both his hands.
Ramachari obeyed. It was like watching the uncoiling of a giant tangle of limbs and muscle. Even in his ashamed, cowed state, he towered over the two men, and in any other situation than this would beat them up into a pulp before either of them had the time to say ‘Om’.
But on that surreal morning, Madhavachari stepped forward, closed his right hand into a fist, and brought the sharp points of his knuckles with a nice thump onto Ramachari’s head.
The brute blinked once. He blinked twice. He looked around him in innocent puzzlement. For good measure, Madhavachari raised his puny frame on his toes and passed on another loud one, right next to the location of the first blow. There was a jauntiness in his demeanour; the old pale eyes glowed with the pleasure of a teacher who had just administered his favourite punishment to his least favourite student.
Ramachari stood motionless, on flat feet. He seemed to be immersed in thought.
He wore the look of a man deeply wronged; I could tell that this reversal of the law of the jungle bothered him on a very basic level. Every cell in his body itched to get at this rabbit of a man, and the great fists closed into balls, each the size of Madhavachari’s face. The old man had had it, I thought, and prepared to beat it myself, for it is a known fact that when a volcano erupts, the innocent bystander is liable to be burnt alive for no fault of his.
Except that he did not erupt. He did not so much as make a sound of anger. He said, ‘I am sorry, Master.’
Madhavachari, evidently a man not given to forgiveness, shook a finger, his face unresponsive. ‘You have taken my business twice before already,’ he said. ‘If it was not for Parashuram here, who overheard this sir’s conversation with that tea seller, you would have gotten away this time too.’
A cold glance passed from Ramachari to the man called Parashuram, who had retreated far enough toward the door to flee at a moment’s notice.
‘Give me my money,’ said Madhavachari. ‘Give it to me.’
‘I don’t have it, Master,’ said Ramachari.
‘Look!’ Madhavachari turned to Bhalerao, as if seeking his sympathy. ‘He cannot give me my own money back, and yet he thinks he can provide for my daughter.’ He raised his hand and made to thwack Ramachari again on the head, but the impostor, having anticipated it, ducked.
‘No, Master,’ he said.
‘What no master?’ said Madhavachari. ‘Look at Parashuram. Learn something from him.’
‘Let it be, Master,’ said Parashuram in a small voice from the distance.
‘Look at Parashuram,’ went on Madhavachari, undaunted. ‘He has learned the work faster than you ever could. He understands what I tell him. When I am not available, he performs the rituals as well as I, sometimes better. What have you learned in all these years, Rama?’
Ramachari did not answer, but he looked at the corner where Parashuram stood in the way of a butcher eyeing his fattest goat.
‘Let it be, Master,’ whined Parashuram.
‘You have no brains,’ said Madhavachari. ‘No money. No skills. You cannot even string a sentence together without stammering. And you have the temerity to hope for my daughter’s hand? What will you feed her, your lies?’
‘No, Master,’ murmured Ramachari. ‘She also likes me.’
‘She does not –’ A cold steel entered Madhavachari then, as he realized that he was discussing his personal matters in front of strangers. ‘Rama,’ he said, ‘get out of here. We will talk later.’
‘But Master –’
‘Get out of here and make arrangements for the money,’ said Madhavachari, as if he were crushing an ant. ‘Go home and wait for me. If I don’t shame you in front of Lata and the whole of Whitefield, then my name is not Madhavachari, I tell you.’
That, as they say, was that. The man named Ramachari who we had first thought was Madhavachari collected his book, and having returned it to the folds of his dhoti, murmured something that none of us could hear, and left scratching his head.
At the door, as he passed Parashuram, it seemed to me that he paused for just a moment, and that Parashuram cowered just a little more, but it could have been my imagination.
* * *
That Ramachari would have a poet’s soul under all that flesh was driven home to me later that morning, when Uncle Bhalerao and I, having ensured that the unholy energies had been driven away from our office, came down to Mallishwar’s tea stall and found the saffron-clad priest at a corner table, shedding silent tears into a half-filled glass of milk.
When he saw us approach he swallowed them with an admirable show of restraint, and proceeded to stare into the distance.
We collected our teas, and at the behest of Uncle Bhalerao, went and sat opposite the blubberer.
‘What do you want?’ he said. ‘Leave me alone.’
‘It is precisely in times when you wish to be alone that you must surround yourself with friends, my boy,’ said Uncle Bhalerao.
‘You are not my friends.’
‘Not yet, perhaps,’ I said. ‘But we are kind strangers eager to help.’
The words touched our big fellow; he gave his milk a wistful sigh of longing, but the next moment the guard was back up again, and bushy brows knitted together into a frown of suspicion.
‘Why must you?’ he asked, in the tone of a man not used to receiving help.
‘In humanity’s name, why else!’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘I cannot see distress on the faces of my fellow men, my boy. I just cannot. So now, out with it. What is it that stands between you and your lady love?’
‘Money,’ said Ramachari gloomily. ‘Always money.’
‘Now money is not unimportant,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘but even I do not think it ought to come in the way of love. From what I gathered back up there, you and the priest Madhavachari’s daughter are – shall we say – involved?’
Ramachari nodded, and his big black eyes began to tear up.
‘There, there,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Does the girl return your affections?’
‘Yes,’ said Ramachari. He wiped his eyes with a sweaty forearm, and that action seemed to give him solace. He looked away into the distance and said, ‘Lata is the wing to my soul.’ He paused, and then offered, ‘The Sita to my Rama.’
‘I see,’ said Uncle Bhalerao.
‘The Earth to my sky,’ said Ramachari, warming up now to his audience, ‘the pearl to my oyster.’
‘We get it,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. I looked in awe at the man who filled the two seats opposite us; here he was, an uneducated, stammering idiot in normal times, but moved to poetry when speaking of Lata. If this was not love, what was? I found myself wondering that Lata must be quite a woman too, for having awakened the softer side of Ramachari.
‘But Master is right,’ said Ramachari, reverting to type. ‘No money. What will I feed her?’
‘That should not bother you, boy,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘The priest seemed like he is pretty well off.’
‘Yes, but that is his money.’
‘And it can be yours if you marry Lata,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘There is no yours and mine in love anyway. It’s all ours. And I am certain that Lata sees it the same way too.’
‘Maybe she does,’ said Ramachari, ‘but how are you going to get her to marry me?’
‘She wants to, doesn’t she?’
‘Then what appears to be the problem?’
‘She wants me to prove my worth to her father as a son-in-law,’ said Ramachari, with his hands buried in his head.
‘And that is why you thought of impersonating Madhavachari and performing rituals in his name?’
‘Yes,’ said Ramachari. ‘Have you ever been in love?’
That question stumped Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Um,’ he said. ‘Uh.’
‘Did not think so,’ said Ramachari, who studied the old man’s eyes and nodded, as if he read a secret message in them. ‘What about you?’ he asked me.
I shook my head.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it makes you do stupid things.’
‘It is not that stupid,’ I offered.
‘Not stupid at all!’ declared Uncle Bhalerao. ‘But a trifle – dull, I think. Why, I would have thought the easier thing to do would be to do what that fellow Parashuram did. Start out on your own, you know? Show some enterprise!’
‘I tried,’ said Ramachari with an air of dejection. ‘But the Sanskrit verses. So difficult. Not able to by heart.’
I recalled him waving forward and backward in Uncle Bhalerao’s visiting chair, eyes closed. Compared to the command that Madhavachari showed on the language and its nuances later, and the helpful way in which Parashuram stepped in whenever the old man needed something, it was not difficult to see that Ramachari had slid down the pecking order.
In fact, if there was a pecking order, Ramachari was decidedly not on it.
‘This Parashuram fellow,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘does he have an eye on Lata as well?’
Something of a rage began in Ramachari’s formidable chin, and worked its way to the eyes, turning them red. ‘That,’ he said. ‘That!’
‘Yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Quite. I cannot help but think, young man, that you’re wasting your time in a profession that is not quite your calling.’
‘Calling, what?’ said Ramachari.
‘Not suited to a man of your talents,’ explained Uncle Bhalerao. ‘How would you like to work for me?’
‘No use,’ said Ramachari, bending his head dejectedly once again. ‘Lata wants me to become a priest.’
For a moment Uncle Bhalerao trapped his tongue between his teeth, stymied. Then he lit up. ‘You can leave from home in your regular priest clothes,’ he said, ‘but you come here, and I will give you something else to wear, and something else to do. When it is time to return home, you don your saffron robes and no one is the wiser.’ He leaned in, lowered his voice. ‘And I will tell you one thing. When she sees you earning money, Lata won’t mind what you do to get it.’
‘You say you will give me money?’
‘Lots of it.’
‘Enough to pay the rent?’
‘Enough to pay the rent to your stingy uncle, and enough to buy nice things for Lata whenever you want.’
Ramachari’s face brightened, and he smacked his lips like a drunk who had just sighted his next peg. Then the frown of half-suspicion, half-puzzlement returned. ‘I have a condition,’ he said.
He licked his lips, Ramachari, and said, ‘I will never eat non-vegetarian food.’
‘Is that your only condition?’
Uncle Bhalerao brought his own hand down on the table in a gesture of finality. ‘Then you’re hired!’ he said.
* * *
And so it was that our humble Agency for Distressed Landlords acquired a second employee, the provider of gravitas, as Uncle Bhalerao would call him. He began work on the Monday after, and wore without murmur the spotless white kurta and black pants he was given. Uncle Bhalerao also gave him four rings to wear, two silver, one gold, one emerald, all fake, all big. When he asked what his job was, my uncle told him to ‘stand at the door, cross your arms, and stare at nothing’.
‘Every real estate agent needs a man such as this,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, in murmured tones of admiration that morning. ‘It’s dirty work, and we need strong men. He will be the catalyst of our business, Deshi. Mark my words. Anyone who looks at him will know that we are not just messing about.’
I slunk back in my chair, conscious of a small feeling of disarray in my mind. I knew this meant that Mallishwar was back in Uncle Bhalerao’s favour, and it rankled though it shouldn’t.
Madhavachari breezed into the room at this moment, after having thrown a look of disdain at his nephew as he passed the entrance. He stood by Uncle Bhalerao’s table with his legs parted, and each line of ash on his arms and forehead shining with fury.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ he said.
‘Meaning of what?’ asked Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Your nephew wanted a job. I gave it to him.’
‘But he is a Brahmin,’ said Madhavachari.
‘What of it? So am I.’
‘And you made him a thug.’
Uncle Bhalerao paused to look at the broad back of Ramachari. ‘I made him look like a thug. He is going to make more money than you.’
‘But money all the same.’
‘My daughter will not look at him in the eye. I shall make sure of it!’
‘I will leave that to your daughter,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘It has been my experience that women are more sensible than men in these matters.’
‘And I am going to place the darkest curse on your office,’ said Madhavachari. He shuddered and raised his arms to the ceiling, as if inviting the demons of the world to fly in here and start families. ‘My tongue is a sharp one,’ he warned. ‘All the sons of Shani will haunt this inauspicious room if I say so, and you will find misfortune wherever you turn.’
For a moment that threat scared me, not because I believed it but because I feared that Uncle Bhalerao might. But to his credit, the old man smiled agreeably at the shaking man of god, and said, ‘Even the sons of Shani will have to get through him.’
At this Madhavachari dug into the cloth sack that hung by his waist, brought out a fistful of ash, and blew it into the air with an incantation. ‘All the money you have pumped into this ghastly business will burn,’ he said, in a low, ominous voice. ‘All of it.’
To be frank I did not think we needed Madhavachari to tell us that; even with Ramachari’s addition to the staff, the prospects of our setup earning anything more than a pittance appeared bleak. That did not bother me, because I knew that Uncle Bhalerao was in possession of enough excess funds. If this business failed, he would go right on and start another.
What did bother me, though, was another, deeper question, that refused to let up long after the storm of Madhavachari had left, well into the lengthening shadows of dusk that spread over Whitefield Main Road.
Our mountain had stood unmoved for much of the day, and to my surprise we got three people enquiring after our services, though none of them converted despite Uncle Bhalerao’s gung-ho sales talk.
The doubt in my mind concerned the assumption my uncle had made that Lata, the object of our gentle giant’s affections, would turn out to be ‘sensible’. What if she wasn’t? What if, after all this, she told Ramachari that she could not, just could not bring herself to marry a delinquent Brahmin?
But I needn’t have worried. I came out around six in the evening to stretch my legs a little, and saw that a pretty young woman was walking up the sidewalk on the other side of the road, inspecting the heaps of chrysanthemums, jasmines and roses peddled by street hawkers. After every three or four steps or so, she would look up; her gaze would seek and meet with that of Ramachari.
‘Is that Lata?’ I asked him.
‘Yes,’ he said, with the smile of a baby.
And I knew then that regardless of how it would all pan out in the end, Uncle Bhalerao’s excess funds had, for this time, been put to good use.