By Devraj Singh Kalsi
I have absorbed more about life from tenants than teachers. The lessons were practical and harsh – involving critical issues that challenged my problem-solving skills.
I did not know what to do when a tenant hired a pack of goons who climbed our boundary wall with hammers to hone their demolition skills. I stood near the verandah and witnessed the post-dinner horrific sight of cracking up the newly-constructed brick wall. When I wanted to know the reason, one burly shadow approached me with his face half-covered with a towel and explained the encroachment had a mission: construction of a club. I identified the man from his hoarse voice – a tenant who sold cattle fodder and ran a transport business. I did not wish to have any truck with him as I feared he could get me bumped off on any main road or highway anytime. Those freak accidents to seek revenge that get reported but never get solved as murders.
I was angry at his audacity. But I could not hurl expletives to vent my anger – not even in my mother-tongue. His agile team had tools to conduct any lethal operation, chop off my tongue in the medieval style of torture, and feed it to the stray dogs barking at the full moon. While I was still trying to persuade him politely to suspend the act of vandalism, he was unwilling to cave in. What caved in and collapsed like a pack of cards in front of my blood-red eyes was my red brick wall. He threw an open challenge, egging me to approach the police for succour.
I rushed to the nearest police station in my cosy nightwear, with full faith in the rule of law. Furious to hear my complaint, the cop asked me to get into the police van with great respect. We reached the spot in five minutes, with a clear intent of swinging into rapid action and throwing those scoundrels out by firing gunshots in the air. The burly tenant emerged from a deserted lane and blocked our path, and then escorted the officer aside for a briefing session near a paan shop. The cop returned thoroughly brainwashed and comforted me, urging me to settle the dispute through mutual understanding with the local people and politicians. It was a blatant act of trespassing and he dismissed it as a dispute.
I was shocked to hear his advice. As political approval was with the tenant, the cop decided to stay out of the messy situation. It was my first brush with political power – earlier seen only in Bollywood films where leaders control the men in uniform for vendetta.
The next day was an eye-opener of sorts as the tenant had grabbed the vacant land by erecting a makeshift structure with bamboo, placing a king-size carrom board with a bulb lighting it up with electricity hooked from the nearest pole. His henchmen drank liquor, played loud music, and lungi-danced to celebrate their big win. When I met that tenant again, he took me to the local leader for a meeting. It was my first encounter with the maverick leader who pretended to hear impartially and then urged me to accept the valid demands of the tenant. It was clear that the aggrieved tenant wanted the land in our backyard. It was a trick to scare and browbeat the landowners into submission, to draw their attention without any serious intent of causing physical harm. A second-generation tenant picking up stones to hurl at the landlord and his family in the middle of the night was playing an attention-seeking game, not trying to usher in any revolution.
A portion of the land was already grabbed so there was no question of negotiation. The land belonged to him – though without ownership papers. He wanted to maintain cordial terms even after this episode to get it duly registered in his name. He arranged a meeting with his cabinet and revealed he had a divine vision in which he was ordered by a popular God to build a temple on this land. He was merely executing the Lord’s will – there was nothing morally wrong with it. Imagine a devotee making this appeal with folded hands and vermilion smeared on his forehead.
To cut a long story short, he paid half price and grabbed the entire plot. I was expecting a grand temple to be raised on the land we had donated. I was hoping to be invited as the chief guest to inaugurate the temple since my contribution was legendary. My name should be recorded as the land donor in some corner of the holy premises for future generations and history to remember me. Instead of constructing a temple, the tenant built his double-storey house and sold the ground floor to a fellow trader. His magical story-telling conned me – it was fabricated to soften the god-loving and god-fearing guy in me. The tenant is still alive, and I wish to meet him someday and ask how it feels to fool people in the name of God and religion.
There was another tenant who always said his business was down though I found new stock whenever I went to his shop. He used to sell innerwear and T-shirts. For several years I picked up clothes to adjust with the rent. He was happy not to pay any rent. I was not a landlord who forced him to pay but a benevolent one who arrived as a customer at his store with rent receipts as gift vouchers to redeem. He complimented me, called me handsome whenever he saw me wearing the T-shirt from his shop. He promised to get me more fancy stuff every month. Soon other tenants began their woeful narrative of poor business to make me buy something from their shops as well. One tenant ran a gift store and he expected me to have lots of girlfriends to buy something for their birthdays and Valentine Day. He was a soft toy specialist who wanted to offload teddy bears and puppies, those heart-shaped red balloons, and cute busty dolls.
Since it was hot inside the market, the tenants got together to raise demands for air-conditioning without accepting any hike in rent. They complained to their business association. The president and the secretary found it an opportunity to interfere and lord over. One afternoon, the tenants took off their sweat-soaked shirts and sat half-naked in front of the collapsible main gate. The local media crew invited to cover their bulging bellies while they raised fists and slogans, seeking an end to this torture. They called the market complex a blast furnace, a gas chamber, and what not. They decided to look for a cheaper solution when a hike in rent was proposed again. They hired a local jobless engineer to supervise the breaking of the concrete roof to install exhaust fans for cooling, without the approval of the property owner.
I was surprised to find my name splashed in the local tabloid. Some quotes were attributed to me though I did not utter a single word. I was projected as a torturous, inhuman, insensitive landlord whose black hands needed to be broken and burnt.
My effigy going up in flames is a memorable sight that amuses me even today. It is a rare distinction that I should add to my resume. Some of my local friends and girlfriends found me not a nice guy to know after this – a debauched, exploitative landlord from the ignoble past. All the allegations flying around soiled my reputation. Those who knew me well also knew the people who were sponsoring these protests – the affluent business families who wanted to grab the prime property by making it difficult for us, creating adverse situations that compelled us to flee for the safety of our lives. It was a learning exercise to get dubbed as a notorious villain who did not have any traces of humanity left in him. The importance of smear campaign and negative publicity gave a clear idea of how to use it cleverly in advertising to edge past your competitors.
I cannot wrap up without mentioning one tenant who ran a wine shop. I had to go to his liquor shop to collect rent. Many respected people, bhodrolok types including my tutors saw me in front of the crowded wine store. They spread the news that I was a spoilt brat who had started frequenting the liquor shop after my father’s untimely death. I did not stop going to the wine store despite negative publicity as I liked looking at the fancy bottles. Such intoxicating stories brewed in the small town and many well-wishers supported and justified by saying Sardarjis start drinking early. The relationship between perception and reality is a dicey one. It is a different story that I have not started drinking yet!
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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