If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 30 May 2008

Will the real Velayudhan Nair please stand up?

We, the officers of a public sector bank in the seventies, were a bunch of permanently displaced people. The bank would relocate us on an average every one and a half years. What was achieved by destabilising people so often – except helping out the railways and other transporters – was a closely guarded secret. Personally, it entailed a few hassles for us, the worst of which was finding a house every time we moved into a new place. The predicament was more complex for the bachelors of our lot. Prospective landlords firmly believed that every bachelor living on his own was a philanderer and possibly suffering from unmentionable diseases. Naturally, they had to be shunned. Some of us had to tie the knot prematurely and sacrifice our much-cherished freedom only to prove to the community of landlords that we too were respectable citizens of a free country.

One Sunday morning, my friend Damu, who had just been transferred to our city, and I got the information that one Velayudhan Nair, a retired Govt High School teacher had a house to let. If the description of the gentleman was sketchy, the address we had was more so. It was “Jagathy”, period. But being seasoned house-hunters, we decided to track down the said VN with the spirit of a real hunter.

In the late seventies, the populace of Thiruvananthapuram was as much familiar with multi-storeyed buildings as say, with the Parthenon of Athens. The city had beautiful small bungalows. Luckily, we found Mr Velayudhan Nair in the first house that we knocked at; he ushered us in. But soon, it was clear he was not the one we were looking for. He said, “Retired teacher? Then you must be looking for my brother-in-law. He too is Velayudhan Nair. His address is …”

The next VN had been a teacher all right, but not in a government school. More importantly, his only house was already too cramped and he was planning to construct another floor.

Slightly downbeat, but still persevering, we finally got Velayudhan Nair’s address at a local teashop. A senior citizen, he was tending his garden, with a Doberman in attendance. We mustered courage to open the gate, and walked in. After introducing ourselves as bank officers, we explained the purpose of our visit. The grizzled old man didn’t quite like the intrusion. He looked up from his adolescent crotons and said in a caustic voice, “You are bank officers, yet so careless! Why disturb me when you’re looking for somebody else? Which bank do you work in?”

The dog looked at us more sternly than his master. When we gave the name of our bank, he (the master, not the dog) said, “Thank God, I don’t draw my pension from your bank.”

As we silently thanked him for doing us the favour, He talked eloquently about the terrible state of public sector banks in the country. He was evidently pleased to find the two persons responsible for the mess, standing right before him, heads hung in shame. After half an hour, he decided to parole us, but not before saying, “Please give me your names, I must write to your managing director.”

Damu: “Sir, I am V Sreeram and he is Mr K C Peter” and we left quickly. The gentlemen who answered to these exalted names were the MD himself and his deputy.

We were delighted when the next Velayudhan Nair we met said that although he had never taught anywhere, he had a house at Sasthamangalam to be rented out. Prima facie, the building fitted the bill; and the rent was affordable. We were convinced that this particular Velayudhan Nair was an angel as he didn’t even quiz us on our marital status.

My friend Damu was a handsome young man then. He was, and still is, a perfect gentleman and an almost perfect Malayali. The modifier “almost” is necessary here as you can’t call a Malayali male who doesn’t sport whiskers, a perfect Malayali. (The accepted norm those days was a pencil line moustache; Mr Mohanlal was only a rising star then.) Velayudhan Nair seemed to have taken an instant liking for Damodar Menon.

At this point, a girl around twenty, tall, petite and pretty, breezed in, saying, “Achchan! …”. Seeing us, she stopped, blushed and breezed out, much to our disappointment. Her father said, “It’s more or less fixed then, let me get the car keys, I’ll show you the house straightaway.”

I thought it would be better if Nandini, Damu’s wife, saw the place, and interjected, “Sir, wouldn’t it be better if Mrs Menon also saw the house?”

“Mrs Menon?”

“Mrs Menon,” pointing at Damu, I said, “his wife.”

I thought Velayudhan Nair had a sudden bout of colic pain. Nothing else could explain why he turned so visibly pale. At length, he turned his gaze towards Damu and asked through his suffering, “Are you married, Mr Menon?”

“Yes,” Damu said most apologetically, “last month …”

“Please leave your phone number. You needn’t call, I’ll call you.”

I felt sorry for my friend. As we came out, I told him, he seemed destined to receive the rough end of the stick both as a bachelor and as a married man. My dejected buddy replied, “Can’t agree with you more. I’ve a rotten luck. Had I been a sailor, I would have had a mother-in-law in every port.”

Incidentally, the owner of my Cotton Hill residence was a VN, and so was the stenographer of our office. Incidentally, both were straight and nice persons. Although our mission failed that morning, we discovered an important truth: Thiruvananthapuram was teeming with Velayudhan Nairs. And although Kerala was to soon reach negative population growth, the parents of Velayudhan Nairs evidently didn't think they should deny the world of more Velayudhan Nairs. May their tribe prosper.

Kolkata, 13 August 2003

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The living ghost

When I was a little boy, an artist friend of my dad told me, ‘If you haven’t seen Birbhum, you haven’t seen Bengal.’ I realised how true the statement was when I landed a job in a rural school in Birbhum soon after graduation. Far from the madding crowds of the city of dystopia called Calcutta, it was a place where the river Kopai meandered unhurriedly through swaying fields of golden harvest. And miles of red gravelled earth dotted with palm trees stretched to the end of the world. The sky seemed much larger to someone who had lived in a city all along. And at night, instead of the dull grey, the black firmament opened a window to a different universe with countless dazzling stars split in two parts by the majestic Milky Way. My students, most of whom came to school barefoot, were refreshingly simple. A good place to be in, but it was not without downsides.

For one thing, daily newspapers reached the place only in the evening. Consequently, the mornings were uneasy and tense. But a far more serious problem was to find a roof over my head. There were no takers for houses on rent, and the concept of renting out houses was as alien to the people as air-conditioning would be to the people of Greenland. A post office and a police outpost were the only offices in the area – there was not even a bank – and our school was the only institution. Most of my colleagues were locals, although a few teachers used to commute from a nearby town by rickety public buses that carried passengers both within and on their roofs. One of them was Ajay babu, who insisted that I stay in the town. But small towns with their open drains and closed societies didn’t seem too appealing. I would rather be a village bumpkin and live in a countryside that came alive through the pen of Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya.

The secretary of the school committee, a wholesale trader of husk and jaggery, kindly offered me temporary shelter in his house. After overstaying his hospitality for some time, I got the information that a place was available on rent.

The house was at one end of the village, with hardly any other dwelling nearby. From the main entrance, I saw a lovely little two storied structure with a projected balcony, and I immediately fell in love with the place. Surrounded by a garden and shaded by leafy jackfruit, mango and neem trees, the small house had been constructed years ago by the local zamindar’s youngest brother, the architecture bearing a clear imprint of his avant-garde tastes. By and by, I came to know that Chhoto Babu (the youngest scion), was extraordinary not only in his architectural tastes. He was a bachelor and by far the most highly qualified person around. People still remembered him with affection as a simple upright man. He did not have any regular work, but was a great source of encouragement for the local youth, who he encouraged to go for higher studies. He offered them, what is nowadays known as career counselling, for free. Thanks to his guidance, a number of boys from the area became state civil service officers, railway engine drivers etc, careers about which village boys had hardly any idea those days. A quiet person, he spent most of the time reading. Every evening, Chhoto Babu was seen sitting in the first floor balcony attached to his bedroom, reading newspaper and drinking tea from a large brass tumbler.

The building was abandoned about five years before, after Chhoto Babu had hanged himself in his bedroom. It is possible that education did him in. If instead of living an altruistic life, he had – like many other junior scions of wealthy rural families – indulged in wine and women, possibly he wouldn’t have died at the age of forty.

That evening, as I was sipping my evening tea in a local teashop furnished with high benches and low benches, its owner, Mohan warned me, ‘Master Moshai, are you moving into that house?’

‘Yes, I might.’

‘Please don’t. Chhoto Babu’, Mohan said after quickly touching his forehead with both hands, ‘is still there. Many villagers have seen him in the balcony after dusk.’

‘Well, ghosts are indeed seen after dusk.’

My crude description of a respected soul was greeted with a cold stare and precise and detailed description of the apparition that lived in the abandoned house. And although I made light of Mohan’s and many others’ warnings, deep within, I was scared. The house was indeed beautiful, but after considering everything, I would have wriggled out of the deal if I could. But unfortunately, by then, I had occasions to lecture my students and colleagues about social evils like superstition and why we should look at life rationally. Not taking a lovely house offered for a song because of the fear of a ghost, that too of a man who had been absolutely harmless in his corporeal life, would have utterly destroyed my standing in society! Therefore, I had to accept the offer.

The house hadn’t been used in a long time and needed some repair and a coat of paint. The masons employed for the job wouldn’t work after four in the afternoon. Needless to state, that didn’t lift my spirits! Anyway, when the house was ready, I moved into my new abode with uncertainly and trepidation.

As I sat alone in the balcony with a newspaper and watched the sun going down across a vast expanse of open space behind a tranquil river flowing into eternity, all my fears were gone. Nothing unholy could happen in such a serene place, I assured myself. Darkness descended silently as I read the paper in the shaft of dim light that came out of the bedroom. Soon, sleep got the better of me.

At this point of my narrative, Dear Reader, I’ll have to disappoint you. I slept like a log through the night. No footsteps were heard from the terrace, candles were not snuffed out by sudden gusts of wind, the windows did not close and open on their own, the cracked mirror in my bedroom refused to join up and show me the reflection of a tall gaunt man in pyjamas. Even the village mongrels didn’t bark. The night passed off in a dull, prosaic manner and the morning found me as alive and happy as the chirping birds.

Ajay babu had been vociferous against the idea of taking a ‘haunted house’ on rent, and to avoid another pointless argument, I hadn’t told him that I was actually moving in there. So the next morning, when I met him on the way to school, I was anxious to tell him that the haunted house was actually quite harmless, and win a few brownie points. But Ajay babu seemed edgy and agitated. Before I could say anything, he almost shouted at me, ‘Have you heard?’

‘Heard what?’

‘The sub-inspector of our thana, Madhab Das is in hospital.’

Police sub-inspectors are durable specimens of human beings. They are not expected to be in hospital unless …. I guessed the poor fellow might have come in contact with a particularly nasty ruffian. So I asked, ‘Was there any robbery last night?’

‘Arre nah! Madhab Das was returning home last night at about 10 o’ clock, on his bicycle. On the way, he was crossing the house that you, in your infinite wisdom, have decided to move into. And what did he see? Chhoto Babu was sitting in the balcony, reading a newspaper! Although it was dark, he could be seen clearly. It was Madhab Das who had brought down Chhoto babu’s body hanging from the ceiling. Naturally, he couldn’t take it. After going a short distance, he fell off the bike, unconscious, and fractured an arm. He’s still delirious.’

A cold shiver went down my spine. I was sure I had gone to bed long before ten. Who did the policeman see? Could it be …?