Story 81: Disruptor

UNCLE BHALERAO HAD a way of whooshing into rooms. He was a large man, and not even his closest friends would call him a nimble mover on two feet, especially while carrying his black umbrella, and taking utmost care with the ends of his cream-white dhoti to keep it off the muddy paths of Palem. Like any man with much to lose, he navigated his surroundings with care and caution.

Despite this, after he had come and gone, witnesses had been known to describe him in words usually reserved for formidable acts of nature.

So it was with surprise that I noted a certain moroseness about him when he called upon our house that Sunday morning. My mother muttered a curse under her breath as she went to open the door – she had always said that when Brahma was giving out luck to the people of the world, he gave Uncle Bhalerao ten times his share – but of course she welcomed him with some fake warmth and asked if he would have some masala dosa.

‘No, no,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Is Sandesh in? I need to talk to the boy.’

Mother showed him into my room as I was just about to get off the bed. Uncle Bhalerao entered with the forlorn look of a man whose pocket had been picked by his best friend. Holding his umbrella over one shoulder, and twisting his hands around the handle as if he meant to squeeze it to dust, he brought to one’s mind Bhimasena’s posture during the disrobing of Draupadi.

‘You know,’ he said, occupying my armchair and reclining all the way back, ‘sometimes you wonder at the unfairness of it all.’

I agreed that yes, sometimes you did. Why, just the other day at the revenue office –

‘Rama Shastri,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, and stopped for a while ruminating over the name with disgust. ‘Do you know that he has a virtual monopoly over the wedding market in Palem?’

I did not know that Palem had a wedding market. I told Uncle Bhalerao that.

‘You’re the kind of boy who lacks initiative,’ said Uncle Bhalerao kindly. ‘How old are you now? Twenty seven?’

‘Twenty six.’

‘You will be twenty seven in a few months?’

‘In five, yes.’

‘Then you’re twenty seven. At your age, I was already selling my second business in Dhavaleshwaram. A lovely tailoring establishment spread out over four shutters, two storeys. We stitched two thousand dhoti linings a month. And you’re a clerk at the revenue office. How is Madhava Rao, by the way?’

Madhava Rao was the sub-registrar at Dhavaleshwaram Mandal’s revenue office. It was through Uncle Bhalerao’s recommendation that I’d been selected for the job. Every time Mother railed about her younger brother’s good fortune, I tried to remind her that the income I was bringing home every month was at least partly his gift to us. Not that I would have been jobless without it, but a clerk at the revenue office – for a man yet to be thirty – could rely on a stable flow of cash from sellers, buyers and settlers of transactions all over the city. And he could, in time, move up the ladder. If all went well, by the time I was fifty, I could be sitting in Madhava Rao’s chair.

‘He is doing well,’ I said good-humouredly. ‘Talks a lot about you.’

‘I gave him that job,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Without Bhalerao, there is no Madhava Rao. Back when we were college-mates in Bangalore, we had a bit of a bet on who was going to make his first crore. I was at the bottom of the class, of course, and Madhava was at the top. We were sitting around at the canteen trading jokes, and out of the blue he says, I bet I am going to be richer than you in ten years. Look where we are now – thirty years later. And when he lost his job in that private chit fund company, and with all the depositors thirsting for his blood, who did he turn to for a quiet government post out of the world’s way? Me!’

This little recounting of victory over a cherished foe brought some succour to Uncle Bhalerao’s umbrella. It was now leaning against him from the side, enjoying the petting its owner was giving it.

‘Anyway,’ he said at last, ‘what was I saying?’

‘You were saying I lack initiative.’

‘Yes, you’re unwise to the ways of the world. A bit green around the ears. A frog that has not left its pond.’

‘You were saying something about Rama Shastri.’

‘Don’t remind me of that horrible man,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, and squeezing resumed on the umbrella’s handle. ‘It makes me sick to the stomach to realize how much of a vice-grip he has on the wedding market of Palem. But I am making some inroads, you know. I am going to disrupt this.’

A small ache was beginning to worm its way into my head. Whether it was lack of coffee or whether it was a foreboding of danger, I could not tell.

‘Listen,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘I’ve been studying the market in Dhavaleshwaram for the last year or so. A lot of sitting and thinking. Not the kind of research these college graduates do with their spreadsheets and formulae. Good old sitting and thinking. Going places, talking to people. Did you know that love marriages are on the rise in Dhavaleshwaram?’

‘Love marriages?’ I asked, thinking wistfully of the young woman at the revenue office – a junior clerk who had joined last month – whose eye I had been trying to catch.

‘Yes, love marriages,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘And love is a strange thing, isn’t it? You almost never fall in love with a person of the same caste as you.’

‘No doubt.’

‘I have looked into that too. Did you know that a full eighty five percent of all love marriages that happened in the last year in Dhavaleshwaram were inter-caste? Not to mention inter-religion sometimes. But we will confine this discussion to inter-caste.’

‘Uncle,’ I said, rubbing my forehead. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘See, this is what I mean,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘I give you all the pieces of the puzzle. I throw at you all the hints you need. And yet you fumble like a guilty burglar.’

‘What can I say,’ I said, ‘I lack initiative.’

‘But I will make a man of you yet,’ Uncle Bhalerao assured me. ‘Now, imagine an inter-caste wedding. Officiated by our man Rama Shastri. Say the groom is Velma, and the bride is Vaidika. What does Rama Shastri do? He makes a proper khichidi of the wedding rituals. He mixes some Velma traditions with some Vaidika ones, botches up half the verses, throws some edible stuff at the fire, and makes sure it is all done and dusted in two hours. And he collects his fees. Who is the happy party here? I ask you, who is the happy party here?’

I wanted to say the couple, but I had spent long enough in the company of authority to guess what answer was required of me. ‘Rama Shastri,’ I said.

‘Rama Shastri!’ said Uncle Bhalerao, bundling mild approval of me and deep distaste of the Brahmin expertly into one expression. ‘He gets his fee, he eats at the wedding, he gets his dakshina. And what is more – neither the bride’s side nor the groom’s side got a wedding. All they got was half a wedding. There is plenty of grumbling behind his back, you know – I have spoken to people.’

‘I see.’

‘And with the upcoming wedding of Susheela and Deekshith, we are going to pull the wool over his eyes. I’ve done my homework – both parties are eager to try this – and Rama Shastri does not know what is coming for him.’

‘Have you spoken to Devender Reddy?’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘What do you take me for?’

‘And he is all right with you officiating the wedding?’

Uncle Bhalerao shook his head sadly. ‘Sandesh, I am not going to be officiating the wedding. First, I am not a Brahmin. Second, I am an ideator. I chart courses. I find paths. I bring two skills to the table – thought and initiative.’

‘So who is going to be doing the work?’

‘The idea is simplicity itself, which all ideas are when one commits to sitting and thinking. Whenever an inter-caste wedding is occurring, I produce two priests, one who will officiate from the groom’s side and the other who will sit on the bride’s side. But both priests will be working for my firm. So from each wedding, we make double the amount that poor old Rama Shastri is getting. Plus – and this is the crucial bit – we deliver a wedding that leaves both parties satisfied. No compromises. No corners cut.’

‘But at double the price.’

‘That is exactly it, my dear fellow,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘When you promise value, people are willing to pay the price. Why – I have already spoken to Srikanth Reddy, the father of the bride, and Paresh Nookala, the father of the groom. They have given me post-dated cheques for an amount totalling three and a half lakh rupees.’

My mouth dropped at what Uncle Bhalerao said. My coffee-starved head paused its throbbing for a minute. I thought maybe there was something to this sitting and thinking business after all. Three and a half lakh rupees was what I earned in the entire previous year, under-the-table gifts included.

Without my prodding Uncle Bhalerao produced two cheques and waved them at me. Even from my bed I could make out the logos of the two banks, the amounts, the scrawled signatures.

‘Uncle,’ I told him. ‘This is wonderful. How much are you going to pay the priests?’

‘One lakh each,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘I keep the remaining. A lakh seventy five thousand.’

‘But hang on a second,’ I said. ‘If Rama Shastri were officiating this wedding, he would have done it for half the price, correct? That means the priests – if they did this solo – would make more than you give them.’

‘Yes,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘But they won’t. I bring in the business. They perform the deed. I first employ, and then deploy. Also – in this particular case, I have thought of this too. The two priests are father and son.’

‘Father and son,’ I said, half-wondering.

‘Father and son,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, grinning. ‘So their household makes more money with this arrangement than if they officiate at different weddings. There are certain synergies here that I am sure you appreciate.’

I nodded; I was beginning to note the synergies.

‘Think of it as a law firm that assigns two lawyers to every case – both the prosecution and the defence. From the firm’s point of view, it doesn’t matter who wins. It gets a cut regardless. And just to make it a win-win for everyone, the firm ensures that it only assigns family members to every case. So the family of the lawyers also make money regardless. One of my early mentors once said that money is rarely made – it just flows from one place to another. If you can come upon the river with a thimble in your hand, he said – anyway, that’s the long and short of it.’

‘Both the long and short of it sound great,’ I told him honestly. ‘Have you registered the firm?’

‘All the paperwork is done. The priests have signed the contracts. They’re ready to attend the wedding – it is in exactly ten days from now, you understand.’

‘I understand, yes,’ I said. ‘I have been invited. The whole village is invited.’

‘And we’ll perform this at the shivalayam,’ said Uncle Bhalerao gleefully. ‘Right under that monopolist’s nose. Think of it, it will be a triumph of the free market, of the free thinker!’

‘Yes, yes,’ I said, properly roused now from my slumber.

‘But like in all projects,’ said Uncle Bhalerao smoothly, ‘there is a bit of a snag.’


‘Yes, not a snag really. More like a hurdle one might need to cross. A challenge that promises a hefty reward.’’

‘And that is?’

‘The contract for the priests stipulates that they will get paid their fee in advance. So I need to produce two lakhs to pay the father-son duo, and this is important to prevent legal hassles later. Right after the wedding, I cash this cheque and make my three-lakh-seventy-five. I have come to make you precisely this offer: you put up the two lakhs today. On the day after the wedding of Susheela and Deekshith is finished, I will give you half of my winnings in addition to your two lakhs. You end up with two lakh, eighty seven thousand five hundred rupees. I end up with eighty seven thousand five hundred myself. It’s like a fifty-fifty partnership.’

I did have something in excess of that amount in my savings account at the time, the fruit of a year of work – gathering dust at six percent annual. The clean partnership Uncle Bhalerao was offering seemed like a good idea, but something in me – that lack of initiative, perhaps – gave me pause.

‘I – I don’t know,’ I told him. ‘Why don’t you put up all of your money?’

‘Tsk tsk,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘I am trying to give you a hand out of the muddy pond, boy. I am offering you a partnership in a business enterprise. You keep your clerk job at the revenue office, and this is a one-time investment. Once we’re up and running with this wedding, imagine the publicity we will get. All the inter-caste weddings in Dhavaleshwaram will be performed by our priests! The market is unlimited – people are never going to stop falling in love.’

That was true. I once again thought of the pretty young thing at the office. Lipi was her name. Such vastness and grandeur captured in two syllables. Li-pi.

‘Plus,’ Uncle Bhalerao was saying, ‘my money is tied up in various ventures. You have to put money to work, you know. Add your thimbleful to the river of commerce! And this is no hare-brained scheme of a shifty insurance salesman. There is no risk involved. We turn up. We perform the wedding. We pocket our fees. We leave. What Rama Shastri has been doing badly for years, we do better, and we let our customers choose… and look, there is enough room in the world for both Rama Shastri and us. We’re not going to touch same-caste weddings, which are still going to be the majority for a long time to come. We’re not going to steal Rama Shastri’s market from him. We’re broadening the market, like all great entrepreneurs do.’

Eighty seven thousand rupees in eleven days, with no work on my part. No risk. A stable, demand-led business. Like Uncle said, people were not going to stop falling in love with people outside of their caste. Lipi was not of my caste, was I not falling in love with her? Hearts of young people would continue to beat for one another. And yet something tugged at my chest. It was my mother’s voice, asking why I was talking to his brother in my room for this long. But then I remembered that it was Mother who said that Uncle Bhalerao had always got ten portions of luck.

‘Yes,’ I told him then. ‘I am in.’

He said, ‘My boy! I will make a man of you yet!’

And we shook hands. I didn’t ask for a contract.

* * *

I was the only one among Deekshith’s old schoolmates who could make it to the wedding, so they insisted that I sit on the stage, among the couple’s close relatives. Srikanth Reddy was the owner of some mango orchards on the outskirts of Dhavaleshwaram; some said it was an inheritance he received from his adopted parents, others said that he got it in an underhanded deal with the land mafia that had lorded over the region before Saraswatamma’s time. He was a short, stocky, clean-shaven man of about fifty five. This morning he wore the dutiful smile of a bride’s father: benign, welcoming and kind.

Paresh Nookala belonged to one of the most prestigious land-owning families of the region, but over the generations the wealth had dwindled to a few acres of fallow paddy farms right here in Palem. The Nookala dynasty retained all the pride of their old status in their life and bearing; they came to this wedding knowing that theirs was the more privileged caste if the lower class. As father of the groom, Mr Nookala exhibited a serious gravity about his lanky, tall frame. He held a walking stick that was no doubt a family heirloom, and his wife gifted Susheela a brooch that she announced belonged to her dead mother-in-law.

It was the model wedding, then, to showcase our business. Uncle Bhalerao sat in the corner of the back row, beaming like a bride himself.

Our two priests arrived on time, dressed immaculately in silk dhotis and carefully applied sandal marks on their arms. They cut a dashing figure, quite unlike the emaciated and always-untidy Rama Shastri that we’d become used to see at weddings in Palem. All the top brass of the village were there; Saraswatamma, of course, would arrive fashionably late.

Govindachaari, the older of the priests, was a slight but strong man of about five-foot-six, with a pointed grey moustache extending on either side of his mouth. He had a completely bald head that shone majestically in this morning light, and a small ponytail that hung off the back of his scalp. He shuffled and waved his arms about as he walked. He was to sit on the side of the groom, to make sure that all of the traditions of the land-owning community would be well represented.

Venkatesh, the son of Govindachaari, looked like someone who had just entered the trade. If you took him out of the scene and put him in a suit, he would not be out of place making a corporate presentation to a board of directors. He was a much fuller man than his father, and though I could see some resemblances – the furtive nature of their eyes, for example – he had taken, I surmised, after his mother. He had a round, likable face which had been shaved clean that morning, and when he smiled it was with the brightness of a child who had yet to discover the cruelties of the world. I did not know the man, but I felt an overwhelming urge to embrace him, and to assure him that everything was going to be all right.

He sat on the side of the Reddies.

As the preparations began, and people on the stage called out to one another and carried vessels containing unguents and leaves to and fro, I sat back and smiled. Uncle Bhalerao was a genius. How could this go wrong from here?

About twenty minutes into the ceremony, though, tension crept into the air. It was something I could not quite put a finger on, but Govindachaari appeared to be a little too brusque in his arm movements, and every once in a while he threw a snicker across the fire at his son, who scowled and hung his head. I did not think much of it, until Paresh Nookala leaned over from his chair and whispered something into his priest’s ear.

Govindachaari nodded, and cleared his throat. ‘How much did you people decide that you will give as dowry?’ he asked in the general direction of Srikanth Reddy.

A shadow came over Deekshith’s face as the question was asked, and the bride flushed in shame. Srikanth Reddy did not allow the smile to leave his face, but he looked about himself, as if puzzled. He leaned over and said something into Venkatesh’s ear, who also nodded.

‘There was no discussion of dowry,’ said the man, facing his father sternly. ‘In fact, during the engagement, Srikanth Reddy gaaru had promised that he would give half his mango orchards to his daughter over a period of five years after the wedding.’

Another whisper travelled from Mr Nookala to Govindachaari’s ear.

The priest cleared his throat again. ‘That is a gift that Srikanth Reddy is giving his own daughter. We want to know what he is giving his son-in-law on this occasion. Is he really going to give nothing from his vast wealth?’

‘The taking and giving of dowry,’ said Venkatesh, without needing to confer with Srikanth Reddy, ‘is illegal. Talking of it during the wedding ceremony is inauspicious. I am sure that a priest as senior as you – who has performed so many weddings in his time – knows a simple truth as this?’

‘Then you should listen to a priest of my experience,’ said Govindachaari, ‘instead of talking back about things you know nothing about. Do you know that in all the weddings I have officiated in, talk of dowry has not appeared in precisely none?’

‘Then it is a sad reflection of our profession,’ said Venkatesh, throwing a handful of yellowed rice onto a silver plate in disgust. ‘It is a sad reflection of our society. It is a sad reflection.’

‘It is a sad reflection of you!’ said Govindachaari. ‘Look at this boy,’ he told Paresh Nookala. ‘Look at this boy who thinks that priesthood is beneath him. I performed all these weddings and these vratas to pay for his education, and do you know what he said when I asked him to go into business with me? He said he was not a trader!’

‘I am not a trader,’ said Venkatesh. ‘And you may call yourself a Brahmin, but all you are a trader yourself – negotiating dowry between the bride and groom who seek to be united in love.’

Deekshith, at this point, looked up and said to his father, ‘Nanna.’

Paresh Nookala stilled him with a savage wave of the arm.

What I did not notice was that Srikanth Reddy was beginning to fume beneath his plastic smile. His priest’s throwaway comments about traders did not go down well. I attempted to reach out and poke Venkatesh in the rib to alert him to this fact, but the man had clearly decided that today was the day he would emerge from his father’s shadow.

Govindachaari threw his head back and laughed like a villain. ‘Love!’ he said. ‘These young people think love is going to give them food. Tomorrow, when you have ungrateful children of your own, all your love is not going to save you.’

‘Well, if I give my children love in the first place, maybe they won’t grow up hating me.’

Govindachaari paused for a while, frowning, as he first absorbed the words and then teased out their meaning. Then his hands began to shake.

‘You – you ungrateful wretch. See how many mistakes you’ve made just this morning. I told you – I told you that the vessel of incense ought to go on the right of the turmeric jar. How many times!’

Srikanth Reddy said slowly, ‘In our weddings, we put it on the left.’

‘Well! Well!’ said Govindachaari. ‘When someone does something wrong, it is the duty of the priest to correct it. Not go along with it like a dumb ox.’

‘Father,’ said Venkatesh, himself now shaking with emotion. ‘Father,’ he said, as his front lip quivered.

To say there was general pandemonium on the stage by this point would be an exaggeration. In reality there was mostly silence. But underneath the two priests’ raging furies, one could sense hearts blackening. Even Susheela threw a dirty look in the direction of her future father-in-law, and Deekshith held his head in his hands.

‘You are the absolute blight of my race,’ said Govindachaari to Venkatesh. ‘You don’t know a thing about priesthood, you’re not willing to learn – and you come to a wedding with all these newfangled notions – do you even know why the practice of dowry had been initiated – do you know how –’

‘I don’t care!’ said Venkatesh. He sprang to his feet. He threw off his angavastram. He did not pound himself on the chest and growl at Govindachaari, but he did the next best thing, certain to puncture the heart of any father. He said, ‘I am ashamed to be your son.’

‘What did you say?’ asked Govindachaari, though Venkatesh had said it loud enough for half the gathering to hear. ‘What did you say?’

‘I am ashamed to be your son!’ said Venkatesh. ‘Even this thing – this thing we’re doing today –’ he waved his arms at the couple, at the fire, about himself as he were swatting at a fly – ‘we’re bringing the aspect of money into a holy place, into a temple!’

‘Ha – ha – ha’ said Govindachaari. ‘And how does this holy place run?’ he asked. ‘If Srikanth Reddy had been a pauper, would the Nookalas even have agreed to this match?’

‘They were the ones who asked us,’ Srikanth Reddy murmured to Venkatesh.

‘And if the Nookalas had nothing but their money, would the Reddy family have accepted them as family?’ said the younger man.

At this Paresh Nookala stood up from his chair, his hands fastened around the handle of his walking stick. And Deekshith did the same, a little more reluctantly.

‘You’ve ruined this happy occasion for everyone,’ said Venkatesh. ‘I hope you’re happy!’

‘I don’t think anyone has ruined anything,’ said Srikanth Reddy mildly, upon glancing at his daughter and receiving a tearful nod from her. ‘I think we’ve realized what a big mistake this was – we thought – well – we thought they would be more cultured than this.’

‘See?’ said Venkatesh to his father. ‘They think you’re uncultured.’

Govindachaari laughed again. ‘Yes, I am the uncultured one, you who doesn’t know which side of the turmeric vessel the incense jar goes.’

‘It goes on the left side,’ said Srikanth Reddy.

‘No,’ said Govindachaari. ‘It goes on the right side. You’re all ignorant louts, just like my son.’

‘I think we have been insulted enough,’ said Srikanth Reddy. ‘We’re leaving.’

Venkatesh then pointed his arm at his father. ‘Good riddance,’ he said. ‘I wish I could leave my own home with the same ease.’ To Susheela he said, ‘Trust me, sister, you will do much better than this family.’

‘Shut up!’ said Govindachaari. ‘What do you think you know about – about anything? All you do is go to an office and go peck peck peck at your keyboard, and you get your salary at the end of the month. Do you think priesthood is easy? Do you think it’s easy to do what I am doing? Look at you – you – you.’

And now Govindachaari’s own lip quivered. So did – I think – mine. I cast a look to see how Uncle Bhalerao was taking this all. His chair was empty.

But in the one moment that it took me to look for my benefactor, the situation atop the stage underwent a subtle change.

Govindachaari was clutching at his right rib. And he was saying, ‘Ow.’

All the Nookalas stepped back from him, giving him a bit of a clearing to crash to the floor with a thud.

To look at Venkatesh’s face at that moment was to witness a man torn. And like all torn men, he kept shifting from foot to foot.

‘Ow, I am dying!’ said Govindachaari.

This declaration seemed to resolve the conflict in Venkatesh’s mind, and he uttered a cry. He ran toward the fire, leaped across it, and crouched by Govindachaari’s side. ‘Father!’ he said.

‘I am dying,’ said Govindachaari weakly. ‘Ow! It’s the kidney stone. I thought I passed it… I thought…’

‘You’re not dying, Father,’ said Venkatesh. ‘I will save you. I will save you.’

And with ridiculous ease, he hoisted the older man over his shoulder and bounded off the stage. Govindachaari kept wincing and stretching in pain, and Venkatesh carried him away, out of the shivalayam’s compound, out of sight.

It took a long while before anyone on that stage could talk. Susheela was weeping on her father’s shoulder. Deekshith stood in surly silence by his father’s side. At last Srikanth Reddy came to the edge of the dais to join his hands in the crowd’s direction.

‘Please go,’ he said. ‘The wedding is off.’

Somewhere in the corner of the temple’s inner sanctum, I thought I could hear Rama Shastri’s laugh.

* * *

It was two weeks later when I was nursing a cup of chai in a corner seat at Babai Hotel just before sunset that I heard a familiar voice by my side. ‘Your mother’s not here, is she, boy?’

‘You know, I am disgusted with you,’ I told Uncle Bhalerao as he slid into the chair next to me. ‘You caused a wedding to be called off!’

‘Not me,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘Listen – I got to know later that the boy Venkatesh himself married a girl against his father’s wishes. And how was I to know that they would tussle so publicly about something as quaint as divorce! Really – the stupidity of human beings –’

‘And you lost two lakhs of my money.’

‘That is exactly what I have come here to return,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, placing a rolled up paper bundle on the table. ‘What do you think I’ve been doing this last fortnight? I’ve been tracking those rascals down to return your advance. Of course, we had to let loose some collection agents upon them, so that cost us some money. You will find that we’re about twenty grand short.’

‘And I get to pay the twenty grand.’

‘Well, boy,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘We went to get your money back, after all. You wouldn’t realize just how much of an effort I had to put in over these last two weeks. Such a dog’s world. And all this despite the refund clause in our contract.’

‘Right,’ I said, and quickly pocketed my money.

‘As for the wedding,’ said Uncle Bhalerao, tapping his umbrella against the tiles a couple of times, ‘you will realize it was Paresh Nookala who asked the question of dowry. That marriage was doomed either way, boy! If anything, we did them a favour.’

‘You know, remind me never, ever, to listen to anything you say.’

Uncle Bhalerao looked pained. ‘I thought you would say thanks after all that I have done for you. I went into the lion’s cave to get your money back.’

‘You’re the one that put my money in the lion’s cave!’

‘Tut tut, you have no idea how business works… but I tell you, boy, this one hurts. I thought I’d thought of everything. It just – how was I to know that the father and son had issues with each other? Such burning issues too.’

‘How is Govindachaari?’

‘Eh? He is fine. He passed the kidney stone two days later. And today the two of them performed a ceremony in Dhavaleshwaram. Together!’

‘On opposite sides?’

‘No, no,’ said Uncle Bhalerao. ‘The boy was assisting his father. Such a pity! If only I can re-do this with a more functional duo – say, you don’t happen to need that money, do you?’

I sprang to my feet and ran out of the hotel as quickly as I could. The appalling man followed me.

‘Sandesh, listen,’ he was saying as we reached the front door of Babai Hotel. ‘This is the nature of commerce – you invest, you fail, you learn, you iterate – say, I smell danger. I am going to go, boy. Bye!’

He vanished in a flash, strutting away with his umbrella in tow, his cream-white dhoti fluttering in the gathering darkness. I looked around to see if I could spot the source of his fear – and was not at all surprised to see my mother stand at the far end of Venkayya Veedhi, holding a broom in hand and shaking an angry fist in my direction.