Story 46: Bhalerao Falls Like a Thunderbolt

UNCLE BHALERAO HAD NEVER been one to go about the place moping. Even in the darkest of moments, he had about him a certain cheer. If there was a living, laughing embodiment of the wellspring of eternal hope that I had read resides in every man, Uncle Bhalerao was it.

So it struck me like a bolt of lightning to see him attend to life, on a bright June Monday morning, in the manner of one locked in a losing battle with fate. His heavy shoulders were hunched. The Charms cigarette hung listlessly off the corner of his mouth. Even the smallest of chores – changing the position of the paperweight on the table, for instance – drew prolonged sighs of a sinking man. I had been away for the weekend, so it was a further shock to have been informed by Ramachari that my effervescent uncle had been under this cloud for the last two days.

‘Say,’ I said, ‘how about some tea downstairs? I hear Mallishwar has been working on a new spice mix.’

‘Naw,’ said Uncle Bhalerao.

‘I hear the bakery has brought in a fresh batch of egg puffs.’


‘How about some lemon soda, then? Sweet and salt, just the way you like it.’

Uncle Bhalerao raised his eyes at me, and I saw at once that the malaise was deeper than Ramachari had intimated. Here was a man who had just witnessed a natural calamity. All sorts of desperate scenarios flew into my head; his complexes in Hyderabad had all been razed to the ground. His doctor had informed him to reject spicy food for life. He had woken up on Friday and found life devoid of all meaning.

‘I like nothing,’ he said.

While I was puzzling over the profundity of this statement, Uncle Bhalerao pointed at the main door with a feverish surge of anger that revealed more.

‘Nothing more than watching that man combust into flames and vanish into thin air,’ he said.

‘Who?’ I asked, looking but not seeing. ‘Who is this man?’

In response Uncle Bhalerao pushed back his chair and eased himself out of it. He led me to the balcony, where Ramachari was standing by in his usual arms-over-the-chest pose.

‘Look,’ said Uncle Bhalerao.

I looked again. This time I saw.

The empty store on top of the City Bank ATM that stood opposite our establishment, across the road, was displaying a large signboard that said, ‘MM Real Estate.’

‘Who is MM?’ I asked, in all innocence.

‘I have made enquiries,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Mallishwar has been keeping an eye on him. The man’s name is Mansur. Mansur Ahmed. Mansur bhai, they call him here.’

‘I see.’

‘No,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, shaking his head with solemnity, as if I had said something impure. ‘You do not see. You do not see at all. He is the very kind of blot on humanity that I despise. He has come here with the sole purpose of driving me out of business.’

‘Well,’ I said, beginning to shrug but stopping it mid-way under my uncle’s cold gaze, ‘it is a free country. Anyone can start a business.’

‘I don’t speak here of rights, Deshi,’ he said. ‘Of course he has the right to do anything he wishes. But it does not speak much of human decency, does it, boy? Here I am, minding my own line of work, staying true to my calling, making a good fist of it, running my own race –’


‘Charting my own course,’ carried on Uncle Bhalerao, now rather in the thick of it, ‘fulfilling my destiny, opening a new page, writing a new chapter –’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘And here comes a mousey little fellow, with no decency to ask whether his opening a shop opposite mine would affect my thriving trade. I tell you, it would! I would!’

I wondered if was relevant at this moment to point out that we had no thriving trade, that our clientele in the months we had been in operation had numbered just three, one of whom was the good Ramachari. But I desisted. There are times when an uncle needs his nephew to shut up and nod.

I did that, and then went one better. I gave him some advice.

‘Why don’t you send Ramachari over?’ I said, with a knowing look in my eye. ‘You know? To say hello.’

‘Do you think that has not occurred to me?’ Uncle Bhalerao pointed to the offending store. ‘Look over there.’

I did, and at once it was brought home to me how silly my suggestion was. This Mansur Ahmed seemed to be the studious sort, the kind of man who prided himself on doing his homework on time. For on the balcony of his office was standing a bearded granite hillock of a chap, in flowing white kurta-pajama, arms crossed over his chest, and staring at the distance as if it had stolen his lunch. I did not have scientific evidence for this, but at a glance I could predict that an altercation between him and Ramachari would not end well for the latter.

In fact, he would commit utter mayhem on our man’s person. No question about it.

‘I see,’ I said.

Uncle Bhalerao did not contradict me in the matter this time. He saw that I indeed did see.

‘What is the plan of action now, then?’ I asked.

‘This situation calls for thought, Deshi,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, I say, and when you move, you fall like a thunderbolt upon your enemy.’

‘Sun Tzu,’ I said, nodding.


‘Sun Tzu, the Chinese guy who fought and won a lot of wars.’

‘What about him?’

‘It is him you were quoting, right?’

‘Oh,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘did he say the same thing as well?’

‘He did.’

‘Great minds, I suppose, think alike.’

‘They do,’ I said, playing the part of the agreeable nephew to sunlit perfection. ‘Now what is it that you have in mind to annihilate that fellow?’

Uncle Bhalerao smiled from deep within the depths of his despair. In that moment he reminded me of a deranged fetishist who could not wait to share details of his handiwork with his accomplice. It was horrible. I had not thought my uncle – whatever his faults – to be capable of dark emotions such as these.

‘Come inside with me,’ he said softly, ‘and I will tell you.’

* * *

‘If your enemy is in superior strength,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, over the squeak of the chair on which he deposited himself, ‘evade him. If he is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Know your enemy by becoming him.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘What have you come to know about our Mansur bhai?’

‘The last two days, our dear Mallishwar has been shadowing Mansur like an eagle, and he has brought to me a full dossier of the man’s strengths and weaknesses, loves and hates.’

‘Wonderful,’ I said, sitting up, my mind saluting Mallishwar in grudging admiration. That a man who could make tea as well as he could also have such skills as a spy filled me with a sense of outrage. Nature does distribute her gifts unequally among men. ‘Show them to me,’ I said.

‘If you don’t mind, Deshi,’ replied Uncle Bhalerao, ‘I will keep that dossier close to my chest. I am the mastermind here, you understand; you and Ramachari are my foot soldiers.’ He made the wavy motion with his fingers; with Uncle Bhalerao, that was a near-universal gesture, a one-sized thing that fit all times. ‘For now, all that you need to know is that he writes poetry.’

‘Poetry,’ I said.

‘Poetry,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, nodding disbelievingly. ‘Some nerve, huh? Imagine a man such as him writing poetry, and thinking himself rather good at it too.’

‘Well,’ I said, giving the man his due, ‘maybe he is.’

Something of a cold wind hit Uncle Bhalerao’s face and darkened it. ‘I have read his work,’ he said. ‘It blows.’

‘Perhaps it wouldn’t blow if you knew how to read Urdu,’ I said.

‘Perhaps you should know that he writes his poems in English,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, in the same frigid manner. ‘And he gets them published too, on the back-page of Bangalore Mirror’s Sunday edition.’

‘Really, now? He gets them published.’

‘On the back page. In the bottom corner. Every dashed Sunday a new poem of his appears, and each of them blows more than the one before it.’

‘I am sure,’ I said, and in an effort to bring the conversation back on track, I asked him what all this had to do with bringing him down.

Now Uncle Bhalerao grinned again, that same grin I had seen on actors portraying serial killers in true-life documentaries. ‘We are going to use his love of poetry against him, by Jove.’


‘Strategies such as these call for thought, Deshi,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, tapping his temple with the tip of his forefinger. ‘I have spent long hours over the last three days puzzling this very thing out. I became my enemy, you see, and I asked myself, if I were a poet, what is my weak side? My weak side, Deshi, what is it? Think! Reflect.’

I made a show of thinking and reflecting, but before I could formulate words on my lips, Uncle Bhalerao was off again.

‘Praise, my boy,’ he said, as if delivering a sermon from the mount. ‘What any poet needs – even one as bad as Mansur – is praise. Unadulterated, unabashed praise. And you’re going to give it to him.’

‘I am? Whatever for?’

‘Because that is the plan. You’re going to call upon his office in an hour or two, and make a show of being a journalist from one of the many papers that compete with the Mirror in this lovely city. Let’s say Deccan Herald. Or any paper of your choosing. It does not matter. You will call upon him and tell him that you would like to publish one of his poems. You will of course tell him that you have been reading his poems in the Mirror and that you love them. And then he will swoop down upon you with paternal joy, and he will furnish you with a dozen of his dastardly verses. You will take them all, and you will come back to me. We will see to it that one of the poems gets published – I will see to it; there isn’t much that money cannot buy – and then he will be so indebted to you that you will use his gratitude as a tool. A tool, Deshi, with which you will procure for yourself a job under him as an assistant.’

‘Me?’ I said. ‘Under him?’

‘Yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘The scheme of planting a mole in enemy territory is always elaborate, boy. It cannot help but be so. The biggest hurdle in operations of this sort is to earn the trust of your opponent. And once you’ve published his poem, the man will trust you with his very life, I assure you. At the right time, you will of course need to sell him some story of how journalism is not feeding your soul, and how poetry and real estate are your twin callings, and how in him you see the very embodiment of who you wish to become one day, the very beacon in the distance that sustains your fumbling baby steps through life, the very inspiration to your confused, meaningless existence –’

‘I get it,’ I said.

‘This, if I have read him right,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘will floor him, boy. Absolutely floor him. He will look upon you as another of his many sons. The youngest. The favourite. The most lovable. And when the iron is hot, you strike. He will ask if there is anything he can do, and you jump at it and say, yes, you can give me a job at your office. At no pay! I shall do anything, you will assure him, as long as I am allowed to bask in your warm glow. And then you will watch him from up close, and you will watch his clients, and you will begin to sow the seeds of discord that will dismantle him, brick by brick, until all that is left of him is rubble. And I shall watch it all unfold from here, pulling at the strings with a smile, and you shall return after the deed is done, and we shall be the sole real estate agency in Whitefield for years to come.’

He paused. Somewhere during the course of his monologue, unbeknownst to him (and to me), he had sprung to his feet. Now he was staring into the distance with boyish wonderment, as if he were humbled by his own vision of the future. I tongued my cheek; the state of affairs seemed to call for some of that.

I raised my hand, by way of objection. ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t,’ I said.

‘Eh? Why not?’

‘Because it seems wrong,’ I replied. ‘First of all, I think it is illegal to impersonate a member of the honourable press.’

‘Bah!’ said Uncle Bhalerao.

‘Plus it seems wrong,’ I said, not knowing how else to frame it. ‘To take advantage of a man’s weakness for his poetry, to drive a knife through his back in this heartless a manner –’

A stately wave of the hand came from Uncle Bhalerao, as if he were warding off an admirer. ‘Now listen to me, Deshi,’ he said.

* * *

Among my less endearing characteristics is that I am a mellow fool. I allow myself to be swayed. I have long laid the blame for this at my mother’s feet, who had brought me up with food containing copious amounts of ghee – which is supposed to make one placid and yielding – but in this particular case, I suspect Uncle Bhalerao’s talent for negotiation must have had something to do with it.

He wept. He rallied. He blackmailed. He flattered. He hinted at punishment if I said no. He did everything under the sun, and bit by bit, I broke.

So at eleven a.m. on the same day I found myself standing up to the Goliath at the entrance to MM Real Estate. For a whole minute he pretended not to see me as I waved and jumped to get his attention. Then the merest glance was thrown at me, one that oozed scorn.

I weighed my options. Do I go with jaunty cheerfulness or devout reverence? I chose the latter, noting sensibly that each of the man’s fists was about as large as my face, hair included. I cowered, therefore, like a repentant sinner. I held out the identity card Mallishwar had dangled around my neck before I’d left.

‘Hmph,’ said the fellow, and I felt deeply ashamed that the quality of my fake document was not up to his standards. He flicked it back at my face with a grunt of disgust, as if it had maggots crawling all over it, and opened the door.

On entering, another wave of humility washed over me. A slew of certificates adorned the whitewashed wall of Mansur Ahmed’s office, each singing wild paeans to his character, proficiency and general goodness. At Uncle Bhalerao’s insisting, I had expected to see a hawk-nosed peddler of promises that could be brushed away with little effort, but here, sitting erect in his cushioned, leather-backed chair, I saw a man immersed in the pages of the New Yorker.

The New Yorker. I kid you not.

I burbled like a child, the words incoherent to my own ears. He flicked the corner of the magazine out of the way, and two deep blue eyes watched me. His beard was immaculately trimmed, and his hair just the right length to frame his triangular face. He wore a cream-white skull cap that had been ironed at least once in the last three hours, and a smile seemed to linger not far off from his lips, even as his brows knitted into a small frown.

‘Yes?’ he said. Never had I heard that one word soaked in so much culture.

There was no other way to say it, even if just to myself; this was an uncle I had always wished I had.

‘Sir,’ I said, shaking myself out of my stupor into the role I had to play, ‘I am here from Deccan Herald. I have come to interview you for our paper, and ask if you’d be willing to allow us to publish one of your poems.’

A soft radiance passed through the man’s face. It positively glowed. Uncle Bhalerao had been right. Though I was babbling my words in lieu of speaking them, Mr. Mansur Ahmed seemed much like a man given to substance over style.

‘Indeed,’ he said, putting away his magazine, and placing the tips of his fingers together. ‘I am happy that my work has attracted notice from the people that matter.’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said, growing confident. ‘I have read your poems in the Mirror for months now. Months. Every time I read your words I ask myself, why, was this not how Tennyson got his start?’

‘Tennyson!’ said Mr. Ahmed. ‘High praise indeed.’ I could see from the way his eyes glowed that he was purring like a tomcat on the inside. ‘What happens to be your name?’

‘Sandesh Pattanaik,’ I said, offering him my card.

He glanced at it for just a moment, and I could spot none of the derision that had accompanied his employee’s look at the door. ‘Why don’t you take a seat?’ he said, and touched a soft bell as I sat down. In response to the tinkle, the guardian entered and stood with his head bent. ‘Will you ask for two cups of tea from Mallishwar, Abdullah?’ said Mr. Ahmed. He looked at me. ‘Sugar?’

‘Er, yes. Two spoons.’

‘Two spoons for the sir,’ he told his man, ‘and mine is as normal. Get for yourself a cup too, while you’re at it.’

‘Yes, sir.’ As he turned to leave, it seemed to me that Abdullah threw another look of disdain in my direction, as if my very existence made him want to laugh.

‘So.’ Mr. Ahmed turned to me. ‘Do not mind him. He is a bit rough around the edges. But he has a heart of gold.’

‘I am certain.’

‘Now, what is it that you have said about reading my poems for months?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said, slipping into the role again, like all seasoned actors. ‘Never have I read a poem of yours that disappointed me. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration if I admit I have all your poems stacked away in my notebook.’

A slender eyebrow rose.

‘A poet of such talent, I was telling my editor just this morning, ought to write for us. We ought to publicize him. Give him an award. Cherish the fact that he lives among us.’

A light pink blush appeared on the man’s cheeks, and I was given to believe that I was doing a good job. ‘Praise is always encouraging for an artist,’ he murmured. ‘There is so little appreciation for the arts these days.’

‘So little,’ I agreed. ‘And I am ashamed that it is so.’

‘You seem to be one of the exceptions to this mad trend,’ he said. ‘You seem to have an eye for spotting talent.’

‘Just an eye to appreciate it, sir,’ I said, hanging my head humbly.

‘Then you will tell me which of my poems you appreciate the most.’

I looked up at him, but the eyes were lit with innocence. I had come prepared for such an eventuality, of course, so I rattled off the poem that he had published in the Mirror two Sundays ago, waxing eloquent in praise of the third stanza in particular.

Mr. Ahmed nodded, as if he were agreeing with me. ‘Very encouraging,’ he said. ‘I am beside myself with gratitude. But I do not think Waves was my best poem. In fact, far from it. I believe that I did my best work early on, in this rather whimsical thing I entitled March to my drum.’

‘Ah,’ I said, rising to the occasion, ‘How coincidental. March to my drum is my other favourite.’

‘You like it too?’ said the man, and his tight features relaxed in what I perceived as relief. ‘It is always nice to hear your opinions confirmed by someone who knows his stuff. Now pray tell me, what is your favourite stanza in March to my drum?’

I began to feel a small sense of weightlessness, as if the chair underneath me had been pulled away. But the man beamed upon me like an angel, as if I were his soulmate, and my doubts ebbed. ‘It has been rather long since I read it, to be honest with you, sir,’ I said. ‘But I do recall the second stanza had something of a zing in it.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mr. Ahmed. ‘The second stanza, you say, hmm?’

‘No other stanza but the second.’

‘A zing, you think.’

‘An absolute zing.’

‘Would you say it had the same vividness of imagery that characterizes the works of Tennyson?’

‘Or even Wordsworth,’ I told him. ‘You have the spark that burned within all the classical poets.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mr. Ahmed. ‘The spark that burned within all the classical poets. I like that. Let me see if I can find the second stanza of March to my drum somewhere here. See if it is as good as you remember it?’

‘I am certain it is.’

He moved his hand in a vague way. ‘Sometimes we read what we once thought was great, and find that the writing has not – aged well.’

‘I am sure this has aged perfectly,’ I said. ‘With every strand of grey hair in its place.’

‘I hope so.’ Mr. Ahmed at this point began to search for something on his table, which was strewn with loose sheets of paper. He murmured to himself as he shifted among them. ‘I thought I’d left it right here,’ he said, and then: ‘Ah. Here it is.’ He picked out a sheet of paper and held it in front of his eyes.

As he turned it around so that I could see the writing, I was made aware of a sense of feebleness in the knees. They began to chatter.

‘Is this the same poem that you recall reading all those months ago?’ said Mr. Ahmed. ‘Because I’d begun writing it just this morning. And as you can see, I’ve gone only as far as the first stanza.’

‘Uh,’ I said, half-getting up. ‘Uh, perhaps you’re mistaken.’

‘Perhaps I am mistaken?’ said Mr. Ahmed. ‘Perhaps you should know that I know the editor at Deccan Herald rather well. He has rejected every single poem of mine for the last year. What is his name again?’

My mouth was a desert. I lapped at my lips. ‘I am part of their freelance team,’ I managed to say. ‘I don’t know the name of the head editor.’

‘What is the name of your immediate editor?’

‘Um – ah –’

‘Is it Mr. Roy, by any chance?’

‘Yes, that is him.’

‘Mr. Shouvik Roy.’

‘Yes, yes, Shouvik it is.’

‘Hmm,’ said Mr. Ahmed. ‘I shall place a call to my editor at the Herald, and I shall ask him if there is a Shouvik Roy on his staff. But I doubt it, Mr. Pattanaik, for the simple reason that I just made him up.’

‘I – I think I should go.’

‘I think you should, too.’

While I was at the door, about to beat it, he said, ‘Ask Mr. Bhalerao to refrain from such ugly practices. If this sort of thing continues, I shall be forced to ask the police to look into the matter.’

I did not even have the courage to say ‘Yes, sir’. On the way down the staircase, I flew into the immovable object that was Abdullah, who was balancing two glasses of tea, which looked like mere thimbles nestled in his giant paws. We passed by one another without a word, but I heard him chuckle at the head of the stairs, just before he turned into the balcony and disappeared out of sight. It was the chuckle of a man satisfied with the world.

* * *

‘Well?’ said Uncle Bhalerao, after I had thrown myself into one of his chairs. ‘My favourite nephew is back victorious. What shall I get him to eat?’

‘A piece of my foot would be nice.’

‘Now, now,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘One doesn’t speak of oneself that way. What has happened?’

I told him what had happened. I was the very picture of calm when I began; then a violent burst of anger shook me in the middle; but by the end I was bawling like a baby into the crook of my elbow. One is not proud of such things, but there are moments that call for a grown man’s tears, and this, I thought, was one.

Uncle Bhalerao did not console, nor did he berate. He was plunged in deep thought for a long time, and at last he said, just as I was wiping my eyes dry, ‘So he referred to me by name, did he?’

‘He did.’

‘Then he has been studying me too, just as I have been studying him.’

‘Evidently,’ I said. ‘And I think he is a better student than you are.’

‘Must we?’ said Uncle Bhalerao, implying, clearly, that we mustn’t. ‘I have underestimated our opponent, Deshi. There is no harm in admitting it. Round One goes to him. But only victors of war are remembered, not those of petty battles such as these.’

‘This was a petty battle?’ I said. ‘It seemed like a little more than that to me.’

‘That is because you’re taking it personally, my boy,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. He spread his arms, the lapels of his vest coat separating on his chest. ‘Look at me. Do I sound distraught? Do I look riddled with despair like you are?’

‘That’s because you were not out there,’ I said, and bit my lip. It quivered a touch as I recalled the deathly tenor in Abdullah’s parting chuckle.

‘Now, I will avenge your insult,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘as I will avenge mine. This is the start of a long tussle, my boy, a tussle that we cannot help but win, for we have me on our side.’ He clapped his hands, and summoned Ramachari into the room. ‘Rama!’ he said, ‘Bring the boy the best masala chai that Mallishwar can cook up in five minutes.’

And as Ramachari went bounding away, there was a merciful silence for a few minutes. I asked at length, ‘What do you propose to do?’

‘This is not something to hurry into, Deshi,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘We will sit and contemplate, and we will come up with a strategy that will blow Mansur Ahmed out of the water.’

I quailed a little and thought that it would be better to co-exist peacefully with this New-Yorker-reading man. After all, what need was there for violence when your enemy had been gifted with steel that you do not possess? Could we not all be friends? The experience of this morning had awakened something of the Gandhian in me. Love your neighbour as if he were your brother. How much wisdom there was in those words.

But I knew I could speak of none of this to Uncle Bhalerao. I needed to be the favourite nephew whether I liked it or not. So I resigned myself to waiting for Mallishwar’s special masala chai.

Round One, as Uncle Bhalerao said, belonged to Mansur Ahmed of MM Real Estate. We were going to drink to that.