“Badhai ho, badhai ho, Sethji!” chorused Gabbar and Bichchu.
“Dhanyavad, dhanyavad,” responded Sethji with a huge grin as he hugged his old friends.
“So six months from now you will have a bahu in your house, and your son will be a happy man,” said Bichchu, giving a few knowing winks.
“Now, now,” beamed Sethji, “let’s talk about this outside.” He expertly kicked his jootis off the shoe and wiggled into them. “Come on come on, let’s go,” he said as he hustled them away from the ladies of the house who were already crowding around behind him, offering tea and snacks.
“But, but, uncle,” called out Sethji’s daughter.
“It’s ok,” said Sethiji’s wife, cutting her short. “You know where they always go when they want to get away from us.”
“At least we are not going to drink,” called out Sethji cheerfully as he exited the small metal grill gate of their tiny garden.
The three friends walked quickly to their usual haunt, Sethji in his white kurta-pyjama, his paunch stretching his kurta; Bichchu, looking dapper and lean in well ironed cotton shirts and flared pants; and Gabbar, skinny and short, walking ramrod straight, in more expensive terrycot shirts and pants. After a brisk walk of 10 minutes they arrived at a small dhaba set up against the back of a school wall.
“Bhaiyya, our usual,” said Gabbar commandingly as they sat down in well worn metal folding chairs, and pulled up one more to serve as a table.
“Gabbar, always giving orders,” commented Bichchu teasingly.
“Bichchu, always with a trick up his sleeve,” replied Gabbar calmly.
Nothing they said could offend the other. The 3 school friends understood each other very well and had bantered like this since 6th grade. They had stopped addressing each other by their real names many years ago, and would have to strain to recall them. Between themselves and even with others, they referred to each other as Gabbar, Bichchu and Sethji.
Steaming hot tea and spicy pakodas were soon served, just right for the mellow October weather in Madhya Pradesh.
“Whose turn is it to pay?” asked Gabbar.
“Turn-shurn, today it is out of turn because Sethji has to treat us,” said Bichchu, waving his arm dismissively.
“That means it is Bichchu’s turn,” laughed Sethji. “But today I’ll let you get away with it. It is not every day that one announces one’s son’s marriage.”
“Any way we can help, let us know. You know, my house is always your house,” said Gabbar courteously.
“Why thank you,” replied Sethiji happily. “I might run out of space for relatives.”
“And Gabbar is always ready to show off his mansion, right?” said Bichchu, nudging Gabbar playfully.
Gabbar’s mansion was the talk of the town. It was built on a medium size plot of 60X40, but it was three storeys high. The furniture was elaborately carved, with mirrors and gilt to embellish it, and red and gold curtains, with a second row of lace curtains, gave the house a rich look.
After his son, Vijay, had graduated from IIT in 1992, he had started work with a famous global petroleum firm at their drilling site in the West Philippine Sea, between Philippines and Vietnam. The firm paid lavish salaries to attract engineers to work in such conditions, and while most people stayed there for a year to earn a nest egg before they moved to other city-based jobs, Vijay had stayed there for 5 years. In the first year itself he had sent 18 lakh rupees to his father.
Thrilled and proud, Gabbar had carefully used the money to build his mansion. After all, he said, we need a place befitting such a son and his future wife. In the meantime, till construction was over, he and his wife lived with relatives or close friends like Bichchu and Sethji – mainly with Sethji. When they finally moved into their new home, they went upscale by buying more expensive clothes, and being lavish with ghee and dry fruits.
Gabbar didn’t mind people’s envy or comments about his new found wealth. He simply smiled proudly at his achievement. He felt he had worked hard and been rewarded.
“What Bichchu,” he said with a contented smile, “you want a son like mine too?”
“Arre Gabbar, what a question!” exclaimed Sethji. “Who doesn’t want a son like that? An IIT engineer and now a Collector!”
“Ah, I wish my son had studied hard too. Then he wouldn’t be working in a call centre. Gabbar is blessed. First his beta gets IIT, fancy job, and then even IAS job,” said Bichchu as he munched on a few more pakodas, thinking of a fitting repartee to Gabbar’s question.
Then swallowing the last morsel of pakoda, he added mischievously, “But tell me this, why does your son wear suspenders, not normal pants? Is it something to do with being a Collector?”
“I think that is a foreign fashion,” laughed Sethji before Gabbar could reply. “First time you showed me his photos in the Chinese place....what was it? Manila no?...that time I thought he has become very foreign.”
“It is like little boys wear to school to keep their pants up,” laughed Gabbar to dismiss the annoyance he felt at the sight of his son in suspenders. “Perhaps I pulled down his pants too often for a spanking!”
All of them laughed loudly, remembering Vijay’s childhood.
“We can wish and wish and wish for a son like him,” said Sethji, “but truly credit goes to Gabbar. Only he had the strength to bring up such a good boy. Me, I just have a big soft belly!”
“That is true,” sighed Bichchu, sipping the strong sugary tea that warmed his body and soothed his soul. “Gabbar, how did you manage to discipline your son so well? I could never get my son to study more than 2 hours a day. He kept running out to play cricket.”
“Lock him in his room,” said Gabbar bluntly. “And let him feel your firm hand.”
“Ah, my wife would never allow that,” said Sethji, shaking his head sadly.
“My wife too,” added Bichchu. “Even if I scolded him, she would sulk. And she would go behind my back and feed him halwa and say, ‘never mind, never mind beta, your father is like that only.’”
“It is our responsibility to be stern, whether people like it or not,” said Gabbar sagely. “If we do not guide women and children, who will? I did not allow the women in my house to go behind my back. Can you imagine how much the boy’s grandmother would have spoilt him? It was not pleasant but I had to be firm. How else would my son achieve his potential? And no halwa please....the amount of ghee in that would put a horse to sleep!”
“So much serious talk!” said Bichchu. “Forget this discipline for now. Get your son married soon, then we all can be grandfathers together, and we’ll bring our grandsons here to this dhaba.”
“Get me an educated girl, then I will marry him,” pronounced Gabbar. “Our wives are all right for us, but these big men have to go to big fancy functions.”
“No, no, no, Bichchu!” said Sethji with a wave of his hand. “Can you see Gabbar bringing his grandchildren here? He will be busy making them president of India!”
While the three friends laughed and reminisced, Vijay, the Collector, sat in his big but shabby office in a small district of Madhya Pradesh. Other people may not have thought it was shabby, but Vijay had lived abroad, and this office did not meet his standards of wealth and elegance.
All his life he had wanted to escape the small town environment in which he had grown up, but now here he was, back where he had started. He got up and paced the office angrily.
The full length mirror on the Godrej cupboard showed a tall, well built man, elegantly dressed in well fitted shirt and pants. “The suspenders make me look like a Wall Street tycoon,” he thought, tugging at them and pulling himself straight. If he stared long enough at the image, he felt strong and powerful for some time.
Then he stepped away, looked at the shabby room, and all his heroic notions of his self were punctured.
“Be an engineer and get a government job,” his father had told me since as far back as he could remember. Every day he was exhorted to be a good boy and study hard. “Be an engineer, then you can be a big man in a big city”... “Work hard and be an engineer, become an IAS officer, and people will respect you.” In the morning his mother would crush the expensive almonds that his father had specially bought for him and make him almond milk. After a nourishing breakfast, he would walk to his Hindi-medium government school escorted by his father so that he did not fall into bad habits like playing ball or running away to the see a movie in the local cinema hall.
When he came home he would be served lunch at his study table by his mother so that he could immediately start homework. His nap time and his tea time were regulated sternly by his father to ensure that he made optimal use of his time.
As he grew older he walked to school by himself, in the pants and shirt that had been washed vigorously by his mother so that he felt fresh every day. The other boys would tease him and tempt him to play hookey. They called him mama’s boy and papa’s poonch. He longed to play with them, but he knew what trouble he would be in if he disobeyed his parents. He had once requested permission to play in the school cricket team. During PT period his masterji had noted his knack for spin bowling and ordered him to join after-school practice. His father had come close to slapping him and his mother had collapsed in fear of the situation. And that was the end of that. Vijay’s father feared no one when it came to protecting his son’s interests and he had had a few stern words with the masterji.
Vijay rubbed his cheeks vigorously and smacked himself to stop thinking of those days. “I’ll need a shrink if I think of that,” he said to himself, unconsciously plucking at his suspenders.
He switched on the red light to indicate that he was not to be disturbed. Then he pulled out a bottle of Glenlivet from a drawer, and poured himself a drink in a beautiful crystal goblet. “Thank goodness I can still afford the good stuff,” he muttered to himself. He downed his whiskey and leaned back with a sigh.
“God, how I hate this job. I wish I were an engineer again. I wish I was back in Philippines. Hell, I even wish I was back in IIT,” he shouted, banging his fist repeatedly on his large teak wood table.
He tugged at his suspenders and smiled as the good memories washed over and calmed him. He was an engineer then, working in Philippines, helicoptering down like a hero every day to his off shore drilling base in the West Philippine Sea. His words were respected, his knowledge was appreciated.
IIT was hell but he owed his job to it he admitted. He remembered his first day at IIT. His father had told him to a good boy, study hard, and not look at girls. So he had walked in respectfully, with suitcase and brief case and respectfully greeted the first senior he saw, “aapka shubh naam kya hai?”
“What do you mean ‘shubh naam’,” the senior had shouted at him. “I have a name man, just a name, not a good name or bad name. And what do you mean speaking in Hindi? Here, you are in the US of A. Speak only English.”
Terrified, he said “yes sir no sir,” and avoided speaking to any other senior for the rest of the day. He was apprehensive of people making fun of his poor English skills - but the damage had already been done. Soon word spread about his first encounter, and he was nicknamed “shubh naam.” Vijay sighed sadly, recalling those days.
He spoke haltingly and self consciously with his hostel mates, careful not to make grammatical mistakes. But most of the time he locked himself in his room to study. After the first month’s tests, he realized that though his marks were good, because the grades were curved, he was at the bottom of the class with a low GPA. Four hours of study may be enough for his classmates, but if he ever wanted to get a get a good job and be independent, he would have to study 18 hours a day.
All that hard work paid off, he recalled with a broad smile. He got a dream job and left family, town, and country and set off toward the rising sun to seek his future. This time he was determined not to be a “shubh naam” again. He was going to speak English and make a smart impression on his colleagues. He flipped through second hand foreign magazines sold on footpaths, and concluded that suspenders were in fashion. Besides, they looked impressive; they conveyed power and attitude.
His smile broadened as he thought of his days in Philippines. Poor English skills was not a problem...everyone spoke in broken English! Here he was rich and popular, especially with the girls in the bars. “Oh those girls, those wonderful Filipino girls,” he thought as he leaned back comfortably in his large executive chair. He was so angry that his father had insisted he return to India and take the UPSC exam. But the thought of those girls filled him with a warm glow and he could not stop smiling.
In a little while, his irritation and frustration re-surfaced, and he poured himself another glass and downed it.
“Sir, please pick up the line, the red phone. Call from Bhopal, from headquarters,” said his PA nervously.
He waved away his PA imperiously and anxiously picked up the phone. Soon he could be heard saying nervously, “yes sir no sir but you see sir....yes sir, pages 28, 41-45.” He put down the phone carefully and then banged on the bell for the peon. “Call all my officers, ask them to come here immediately with the report on water supply,” he barked.
Then he picked up a black bound report and started reviewing the relevant pages.
As two junior officers filed in nervously he curtly nodded them to their seats. Then he began blasting them. “Why is this data incomplete, why did you report this if you were not certain of the figures? Didn’t you know what a political mess this could get us into?”
“But sir, you advised us to be hard hitting and...”
“But sir, that data is based on...”
“But...but....but.....enough!” he roared at them. “Don’t know how to do your work as yet! What kind of officers are we recruiting these days? Now go back and fix this, and check it with your counterparts in Bhopal so that it is correct, then bring me the final draft. Don’t give me such trash to sign again.”
“The shell shocked officers walked out swiftly, though they wished they could have run out. Once outside and out of earshot they complained freely.
“Fellow doesn’t know anything. He should have not sent the report to headquarters if he didn’t like it.”
“Did he even read it? Does he even know anything?”
“God, hope he gets transferred soon. Him and his fancy suspenders, who does he think he is? Gordon Gecko?”
And in his lonely room, he poured himself another drink and dreamt of becoming the self he saw in the mirror.