Story 47: Bhalerao Makes His Peace

WHATEVER POSTERITY MIGHT SAY about Bhalerao Pattanaik – and it might say a lot – it can never accuse him of shrinking from the promises he made.

So it was that no more than four days after he had raised his solemn vow to see to the destruction of Mr. Mansur Ahmed, our business competitor, Uncle Bhalerao waltzed into the office around lunchtime waving a folded piece of paper that seemed to leave in its wake the slightest hint of feminine fragrance.

‘Deshi,’ he said, placing it on the table and tapping at the blue scrawled words. ‘Read it.’

From my first glance it looked a bit like a letter, and that piqued my mind a little. Who on earth wrote scent-tinged letters anymore, even to those they loved? Technology had made it so that distance never had to intrude between two hearts; no matter where you were, the object of your desire – be it person, animal, place or thing – was always available at a button’s tap.

Then I saw the word ‘Rama’, and stiffened into interest. I smoothed the page with my fingers and leaned over it.

‘Rama,’ it said, ‘I hope you’re well. I am writing this because I can never bring myself to speak these words in your presence. It is with great regret that I wish to inform you that we can no longer get married. Now before you fly toward my father in anger, let me assure you that this is not his decision. It is mine. Mine alone. The truth is, Rama, that I love another. A man better than you. A man better than you can ever be.’

I looked up askance at the smiling visage of Uncle Bhalerao, who nodded at me to go on.

‘I trust you will respect my feelings when I say that I wish this letter to be the very last bit of communication between us as lovers. We will always be cousins, of course, and there will always be friendship between us. You will not deprive me of your friendship, will you, Rama?’

The letter was signed ‘Lata’, and I pushed it away with a mounting sense of shock.

‘So?’ said Uncle Bhalerao.

‘That girl is crazy,’ I said. ‘What hope does she have to find a man as devoted as Ramachari?’

‘Yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, half-seating himself on the edge of the table, and shaking his leg. ‘Boils the blood, doesn’t it?’

‘It does.’

‘So you are certain that it will boil Ramachari’s blood too, when he sees it?’


‘And he will be further angered, one hopes, when I tell him that the man Lata has favoured over him is the bodyguard of our dear friend, Mr. Mansur Ahmed?’

I sat up, burning with indignation on Rama’s behalf. If I had enough of a reason already to dislike Abdullah, the doorman of MM Real Estate, for that disdainful chuckle he threw at me while I was exiting their office, now it seemed to me that he had crossed all reasonable boundaries. If only I had been fifty or so kilos heavier, I fancy I would have crossed the road right that moment and questioned him firmly about the matter.

‘How dare he,’ I said.

‘How dare who, my boy?’ asked Uncle Bhalerao.

‘How dare Abdullah, that’s who.’

‘Mm hmm. Mm hmm.’ Uncle Bhalerao was observing me as if I were a rat in a bone. ‘You do get angry at the man, don’t you?’

‘I do.’

‘Would you say you’re angry enough to – as they say – take matters into your own hands?’

‘If I were a tad stronger than I am, I think I might have.’

‘Ah!’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Interesting. So if you were the size and build of Ramachari, say, you would have been hurtling across the road now?’


‘Then you will surmise that if I were to show this letter to Ramachari, it would awaken his inner beast?’

‘I have no doubt that it will.’

‘Ah. Glad to hear it. Thanks, Deshi.’

Uncle Bhalerao then did the strangest thing. He took out a small black-capped glass bottle from his vest coat pocket and proceeded to spray a couple of times around the edges of the letter. Something about his whole manner made me eye him with more than a touch of coldness.

‘Why do I get the feeling that you’re up to something?’

Uncle Bhalerao stopped humming the song that had been on his lips, and smiled at me. ‘The best way to demolish a building,’ he said, ‘is to crack open its strongest pillar. Now look across the road, boy, and tell me. What is the strongest pillar that holds up the edifice that is MM Real Estate?’

I spied the flowing white kurta-pajamas of Abdullah from all the way here, holding fort like Hanuman without need for a mace. I gave a sort of involuntary shudder, as the pain of my previous visit to that horrid office came tearing back at me.

‘That is so,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘If we break that man Abdullah, we break that man Mansur. It is strange how the solution to our problem was staring at us all the while. You remember the first day Mr. Ahmed set up shop here, you said that I should send Ramachari over to have a chat? And we decided that he would be no match to Abdullah?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He still would be no match to him.’

‘Ah, but Deshi,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, patting me with fatherly love on the head. ‘You ignore the power of emotion. Often, in fights such as these, the intangible plays a bigger part than what you can see and hear. For instance, if a placid Abdullah were to take on a placid Ramachari, I have no doubt that the former will make short work of the latter. No doubt.

‘But consider this scenario, my boy. Imagine that Ramachari enters the fray having had his head fried brown by external events, and he is steaming at the ears. Abdullah is his own self, not suspecting a thing, expecting to unleash carnage upon our fellow. What do you think happens then? He will run into a whirlwind, that’s what. Our Ramachari will turn the tables on Mansur’s man, I have no doubt, and before we know it, Mr. Ahmed will have turned on his heels and fled into the sunset. He will have realized that he has messed with the wrong man.’

Uncle Bhalerao did not need to expound further on the plan for me to feel a sense of revolt stir deep within my soul.

‘So you forged the letter?’ I asked him severely. ‘You forged the letter that says Lata does not like him anymore?’

Uncle Bhalerao looked shocked. ‘No, my boy! Would I do that? Would I? I just went over to Lata and explained that it is perhaps time to give Ramachari a small test. Of course he loves her, everyone knows that, but just how strong is that love? Now, for instance, if she were to hint that her love for him was dying, would he just shrug and move on, or would he do all in his power to win her back?’

‘You’re a devious old fool,’ I said.

‘But all for good, of course,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, unperturbed. ‘It was she who wrote the letter, and might I say she was quite thankful to me for having thought of the ruse. On the off chance that Rama would confront her in the matter, she has promised to act perfectly cold about it all.’

‘But has Lata ever even seen Abdullah?’

Uncle Bhalerao shook his head. ‘Perhaps not. Perhaps she has. The letter does not say who Ramachari’s rival is, you notice. That is the blank that we will fill with some careful suggestion.’

‘Not we,’ I said sickly. ‘You! I demand no further role in the matter.’

‘I do not see why you must take this attitude,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘In a matter where everyone gets what they want too. Ramachari gets to prove his love to Lata, and he gains a reputation as one who is not to be messed with. Let’s face it, right now he’s just an overgrown puppet in the eyes of the people of Whitefield. We get what we want, because after the fury of Rama is unleashed upon them, Mansur and his boy will be gone from our lives. Lata gets what she wants, which is Ramachari serenading her. See? Everyone gets what they want, and you have to sit here and become a proper spoilsport.’

‘I refuse to ignite a false fight between lovers,’ I said.

‘But Lata knows that it is false, my boy,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘At any time it looks like getting out of hand, she will of course drop the act and tell Ramachari that she loves him and no other, and all will be right. A little white lie that is of no harm to anyone but does a giant deal of good for the world in general. That is what this is.’

I was about to hurl at my uncle something scathing in reply, but Ramachari’s heavy step at the door interrupted us. He came in, as was his daily custom after lunch, belching like a well-fed boar, and made for the water can. But the fluttering thing in Uncle Bhalerao’s hand caught his attention, and he sniffed suspiciously at the air.

‘Lata come here?’ he said.

* * *

The reaction of Ramachari to Uncle Bhalerao’s news did not belong to the realm of my expectations. The big man did not punch through a concrete wall, nor did he tear the letter into smithereens with his paws. He listened in close attention to Uncle Bhalerao as he read Lata’s words out, and then, at the end, asked to see it for himself.

He spent a good minute poring over his lover’s laments. Then he folded it neatly, twice, and sent it into his kurta’s pocket. Then he began to rock, from the balls of his feet to the heels, and he resembled an old banyan tree yielding to the wind. He made a hissing sound with his mouth. The whites of his eyes turned red, as if he had bitten into a ripe chilli.

‘There, there, my boy,’ said the fiend, my uncle. ‘These things happen in love and life. You must not take it to heart.’

‘Who she loves?’ said Ramachari. ‘She did not tell.’

‘There, there,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Is it really that important to know?’

‘Yes.’ He blew out air in short gasps, and if he had kept the show up for a few minutes longer, I would have suspected he was experiencing a heart attack. ‘Yes.’

‘Come now, what will you do if you really knew?’

‘I will –’ said Ramachari, and paused to think, right in the midst of his turmoil. ‘I will beat him,’ he said. Our Ramachari did not command a vast vocabulary in the best of times, and this was quite some distance from the best of times, so I could forgive him the spare description of what he intended to do with his rival. The tightening jaw muscles gave better indications that he would do far worse.

‘Well,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, ‘I would hate for you to do anything untoward, but Lata has confided in me –’

‘She told you?’ Ramachari turned to my uncle in surprise, and for a wild, hopeful moment I hoped that he would sock him. ‘Why she told you?’

‘Sometimes women like a fatherly figure to confide in, my boy, that’s all.’ Uncle Bhalerao rested a hand on Ramachari’s shoulder. ‘And she said that she has quite a thing for Abdullah, that fellow across the street.’

‘That – that idiot?’ Ramachari emitted an audible coo, like a train prepared to leave the station. I took it to mean that he was furious beyond repair. He turned on his heels faster than I ever thought he could, and made way for the exit.

‘Rama,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Don’t do anything stupid. Call him to the ground in the evening to settle the score.’

Ramachari paused in his rush, looked over his shoulder. ‘To the ground,’ he said.

‘Yes, to the ground. At sunset. Don’t give him any reasons. Just say you want to settle the matter once and for all. The matter of whether you or he would rule over Whitefield.’

‘Yes,’ said Ramachari. ‘Me.’

‘Yes, you. Now go forth, my friend, and conquer the blighter.’

The deed, as they say, was done. Ramachari tumbled out of the room, still cooing and hissing, and that was the last we saw of him until the evening.

* * *

Many things happened at the ground during evenings. Boys got together to play cricket or football. Sedate senior citizens walked around the periphery. Dogs on leashes sniffed at dusty corners in light of admonishments from their masters. One could not call the place a hive of activity, but untoward incidents that happened here tended to be witnessed.

At around five in the evening, when Uncle Bhalerao and I reached the ground, it was already abuzz with people milling about with grins on their faces. Near the centre of the ground was drawn a large circle in chalk, and inside it I saw our Ramachari on one side, and Abdullah on the other. Mr. Mansur Ahmed was whispering something to his aide’s side, and he looked crisp and gentlemanly as ever, with a copy of The New Yorker tucked under his arm.

As we approached the gathering crowd and the preparing fighters, Mr. Ahmed threw me a scowl, and said to Uncle Bhalerao, ‘I know why you’re doing this. But your man is going down today.’

I caught myself.

Never would I have believed, had I not seen it with my own eyes, that someone as sophisticated as Mr. Mansur Ahmed would be given to such base passions. If anything, I thought, he would be employed in dousing the fire, not fuelling it.

And then, just to kill any lingering doubt, he raised his voice and called out to his man. ‘Remember, Abdullah,’ he said, ‘what is at stake here is our honour.’

Abdullah nodded once. He walked along the line of the chalk, stretching. This was the first time I was seeing him without a shirt, and you could have coloured me awed. Not an ounce of muscle showed on his bare torso. In contrast, Ramachari bore the appearance of a blown balloon bouncing about, though as Uncle Bhalerao said, he did seem to be driven by more anger. He was shaking his head and muttering, as if vehemently disagreeing with himself.

Chandu, one of the louts who seemed to play cricket at the ground from dawn till dusk, was going around the crowd, whispering ‘five to one, five to one’ to anyone who would listen. Some of the men, the more fashionably dressed ones, handed over rupee notes with tight nods.

‘The theatre of it is important, my boy,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Now if our man wins this fight, the whole town will know that we mean business. Our firm will begin rolling in money overnight.’

‘I thought this was about getting rid of Mansur,’ I said.

‘And we will get rid of Mansur,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘No one said we could not kill two birds with one stone.’

Someone I did not recognize volunteered to be the referee, whistle perched between lips. He blew into it and the gathering fell into silence. The fighters looked at one another. The referee made some hand signals that no one understood, and then got out of the way.

Ramachari made the first move. He raised his arms with a groan of annoyance, as a testament to the amount the state of affairs had agitated him. ‘I am going to skin you alive, Abdullah!’ he said. ‘You think you are the strongest man in Whitefield. No. I am!’

Abdullah just emitted one of his morbid chuckles. Not a man of many words, it looked like. He thumped himself on the chest and beckoned to Ramachari to advance.

The latter did no such thing. He skirted around the circle and slapped himself on the arms jauntily. ‘You have been a thorn in my master’s side,’ he said, ‘a pebble in his shoe. Today will be the day when I free my master of your presence.’

‘Urgh!’ said Abdullah, in a rather sceptical fashion.

‘And you crossed the line when you made eyes at my woman,’ said Ramachari.

That made Uncle Bhalerao wince. Ramachari had erred in his eyes, I could tell, but what the error was I could not fathom.

‘Uh?’ said Abdullah. The first breeze of diffidence blew over the ground, and one could sense a distinct calming of nerves.

There are moments when a man can speak to another just with the eyes. No words needed. Such a moment passed.

‘You act as if you don’t know,’ said Ramachari, now slapping his thigh which somehow made his generous abdominal area jiggle. ‘But today I will teach you. To think twice. Before you. Before –’

If I did not know Ramachari as well as I did, I would have said he looked ready to weep. His bottom lip, I felt, began to quaver.

‘We were. In love,’ he said. This time there was no doubt. His bottom lip did quaver. ‘And you. Stole her from me.’

Another of those quite moments passed. Something of a bond took birth between the two men, from across the ring.

Abdullah came forward to meet his opponent. The crowd thought that this was going to be the beginning of things, and began to cheer. But the big man, when he reached the limply standing figure of Ramachari, embraced him like a brother. Ramachari at first resisted this show of affection, but who among us, let alone the lovelorn, could turn our backs on a hug?

Before we knew it the two men were pawing at each other like brother bears. Ramachari, the younger, was throwing out one weak accusation after the other, and Abdullah, the elder, was reassuring Ramachari that he had done nothing of the kind.

‘By Jove,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, with a look of distaste on his face. ‘What is going on?’

‘I have a wife and five kids,’ Abdullah was informing Ramachari. ‘Do I look foolish enough to make eyes at another woman?’

‘No, no,’ said Ramachari. ‘No, no.’

‘There must have been some misunderstanding, bhai,’ said Abdullah. ‘If you want me to talk to your begum, I will. I have loved too, in my time. I know the pain of heartbreak. Would I cause it knowingly on another man?’

‘No,’ agreed Ramachari. ‘No.’

The public seemed uncertain as to how to react to this turn of events. Even Mr. Mansur Ahmed sought out Uncle Bhalerao for a look of puzzlement, as if to tease out what was to be done. The two men in the ring kept talking to each other, the elder imparting wisdom, the younger receiving it with gratitude.

‘Why did she write that letter, then?’ Ramachari asked.

‘Sometimes begums just need to be shown some love, bhai,’ said Abdullah. ‘I tell you, take a bunch of flowers for her tonight, and read her some poetry – do you read poetry?’

Ramachari shook his head miserably.

‘That is okay,’ said Abdullah, the very picture of kindness. ‘I have with me a book of Ghalib’s poems. I will lend it to you.’

‘But she – she said she never wanted to talk to me.’

A chuckle escaped Abdullah, and he slapped Ramachari on the back of the neck. ‘My begum says that to me every night, bhai. It is the job of the man to soothe the feelings of the woman. Trust me, you take her some flowers and a poem, and she will not refuse to see you.’

‘You – you know a lot about women,’ said Ramachari, looking up at his opponent with a sense of wonder.

‘There is nothing about women that you cannot learn, bhai,’ said Abdullah. ‘Don’t worry. I will teach you everything I know. And I will make sure that you and your begum are married by the end of the year. Okay?’

Ramachari looked on the verge of sobbing at this noble declaration of intent. Helpless, he enveloped Abdullah in another hug, which was returned with equal ardour.

At this juncture a number of people who had been sitting around the ring got to their feet and dusted their behinds. Some of the men turned among one another and asked, ‘Where is that boy who collected the odds?’ Chandu, I realized, had seen this coming rather early, and had made a quiet exit into the shadows.

‘By Jove,’ said Uncle Bhalerao again, and shook his head.

‘Come,’ said Abdullah to Ramachari, ‘let us have some tea and I will tell you all about it.’

And just like that, oblivious to everyone around them, they wore their kurtas and made their way, arm-in-arm, toward Mallishwar’s tea stall.

For a long time we stood there, the three of us – Uncle Bhalerao, Mr. Mansur Ahmed, and I – in devout silence. Then he came to where we were standing, and held out his hand. ‘Perhaps we can have a cup of coffee together too, Mr. Bhalerao,’ he said.

Uncle Bhalerao sighed a long sigh, nodded, and said to me, ‘Tell Lata that Ramachari will come to visit her soon.’

* * *

The next day, when I entered the office, I found Ramachari in a sunny mood indeed, though it was a dull morning with rain on the horizon. And why not? The flowers and poem had evidently worked their charm on Lata, and things were back where they had been.

I ventured to look across the road at MM Real Estate, and there stood Abdullah, grinning from ear to ear, as though he were blessing Ramachari with all the happiness in the world.

Uncle Bhalerao sat behind his desk, reading the morning newspaper. I passed on the cold word of warning that Lata had given me the previous night: that under no circumstance would we use Ramachari’s services for violence of any kind in the future. She even said that if she ever found so much as a bruise on Rama’s body, she would see to it that Uncle Bhalerao would have to answer to her. No amount of money, she had said, was worth that kind of trouble.

Uncle Bhalerao listened to me with a small frown on his face. ‘We will not be able to make Ramachari fight,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t have the spirit, one thinks. Besides, the whole town knows of the two boys now.’

‘That might not be a bad thing,’ I offered. ‘No publicity is bad publicity.’

‘That might be true, too,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘So you can ask Lata to breathe easy. Nothing will happen to Rama.’

‘What shall we do, then,’ I asked, cautiously, ‘of Mansur Ahmed?’

‘Eh? Ah.’ Uncle Bhalerao sent his reading glasses into his vest coat. ‘Funny thing. The man and I got talking yesterday. Turns out he is not that bad after all.’

‘Oh?’ I said.

‘I think you will like him too, if you got to know him. For instance, do you know that he made his fortune just like me?’

‘In real estate?’

‘No, by winning the lottery,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘I feel a kinship with those who have come up this way.’

‘I can imagine,’ I said.

‘And do you know, he read me some of his poems, and he is not as bad a poet as I may have insinuated. It is not often I say this, but perhaps I’ve let my prejudices colour my judgement of the man.’

‘Does that mean we’re no longer enemies?’ I asked.

‘We figured,’ he said vaguely, ‘that Whitefield is big enough for both of us.’

‘What about my revenge?’

Uncle Bhalerao gave me one of his tolerant smiles. ‘Now, Deshi,’ he said, ‘when everyone around you has reached a state of peace, is it right for you to quibble about yourself?’

When he put it like that, it did seem like I was making rather a fuss of it. If I had to go without my revenge for the rest of the world to achieve solace, was it that bad a bargain after all?

I decided it was not. And at the same time, I was immodest enough to admit that I had to be among the finest fellows I had ever known.