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Musings of a Copywriter

El Condor Pasa or I’d Rather be a Sparrow…

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Whenever I wear a new shirt or my favourite one, a bird flying overhead, perhaps jealous of my snazzy outlook, quickly drops something on it. When I notice the mischief, the miscreant disappears. I fret and fume, keep hurling invectives that make other people around me feel mighty impressed with my audacity and marvel at my ability to employ a bilingual vocabulary of expletives in public. Circumstances bring the worst out of the finest human beings. No wonder, I am also establishing the truth of this observation though I do not stake any claim whatsoever to being even remotely close to what is called finest. Victimisation from bird-droppings is an embarrassing experience to undergo for people of all ages, groups and genders across all communities and countries, and we end up airing almost the same line of thought: “Oh Shit!” 

The other day I had just put my favourite white T-shirt to dry on the clothesline. Promptly, a sparrow perched on it. I tried to shoo the bird away from the balcony, but my desperate pleas fell on deaf ears. When I finally went to collect it in the afternoon, I noticed a prominent yellow exclamation mark emblazoned near my right shoulder. 

Sometimes, I wonder how their surgical strike turns out so precise. Whenever I pass by a tree-lined street or cross the road, the droppings invariably choose me as an unwilling target. Is it a punishment of sorts for me? I do not know what makes the timing so perfect. One step ahead or one step behind, and I am saved. But no, it is always spot on. Nanosecond perfection. Perhaps I am destined to be the beneficiary and get back what I have delivered to others in this life and in previous births.

Apart from clothes, my fluffy grey hair and sometimes my spectacles have been the targets of avian ordure. As soon as I gather what has hit me, I dash off to the nearest tap by the roadside where I clean as much of the stuff as possible. It happens, especially on days when I am on my way to some vital assignment. It makes me a tad superstitious – as if it is an indicator that the denouement of the scheduled program is also going to be like the bird dropping.  

Imagine if you are partying with a group of friends, and the guano drops right into your cup of tea! They break into peals of laughter. You look up at the crow or any other culprit bird to identify if it has personal enmity with you and whether this outcome is nothing but plain sweet revenge. Having been through such multiple experiences since my childhood, I have become cautious of anything flying overhead. I did think of wearing a cap, but in summers, it becomes unbearable.   

Pigeons, sparrows, and crows are common in my area. I have decided to strike friendship with them so that their manners improve. I make it a point to set aside some rice from my lunch plate. The sparrows come to the windowsill around the same time, hoping for a treat. Their memory and navigation are incredible. They identify the window from where they can see me, and they start making noises to register their arrival. Their incessant chirping sends an alert, and I serve them without delay, or else they might spoil some trousers or shirt left out to dry. This strategy seems to have paid off as I notice an improvement in their disposition. These birds do not sit on my clothes and always prefer to occupy an empty slot.

The cemented floor outside my house looks snow white every morning. It is a collective output of several birds when they fly out of trees at the crack of dawn. It is an indicator about the numbers who take refuge in the tree in my home every night. The regular floor clean-up task offends the domestic help who seeks a raise for this extra chore. If this tree gets cut, they will be rendered homeless or perhaps then make the parapet their temporary abode or choose to fly into a neighbouring tree. On the flip side, I hear their early morning twitter at sunrise and wake up without the need of any artificial alarm clock. These birds gift me the wee hours to write and meditate. I cannot be so ungrateful as to deprive them of their home sweet home within my precincts. 

Sometimes their meetings turn chaotic during the evening time, and I wonder why such commotion prevails. What rattles them? But it is tolerable vis-à-vis the din emerging from the neighbour’s villa. The birds go silent suddenly, and there is absolute peace. As my lights remain on till late, their sleep might possibly be disturbed. I hear tender appeals in their soft cries, urging me to switch off the lights. I oblige before my tasks get over.  

As a preventive step, I have now started making it a point to stay away from trees. You never know when the birds choose to answer nature’s call. Bird-dropping is a common problem faced by all. It is a random event. Sometimes you are working on a presentation in the garden, and the laptop screen gets smeared. Sometimes the briefcase on your lap gets this smattering while you munch chips. Most of the time, a low-flying cawing bird commits this brazen nuisance and then spreads its wings as if in celebration of a victory and flies overhead in a tilted posture before finally settling on the overhead electric wires.    

Sometimes in a crowded place, after a long struggle, you finally find an empty seat but stained with bird droppings. To occupy the seat, you look around for a leaf to wipe it off if it is creamy or hunt for a twig to scratch it off in case it has gone dry. All the shame and hesitation turn secondary because you value the seat more than anything else. It is lucky that you find the seat and bird dropping is no reason to let go of it. Strange are our reactions and behaviour patterns. Sometimes we find it easy to brush aside all the crap, and sometimes we raise a fuss over it.  

Perhaps, the birds know how to gain our sympathy. Sparrows and crows come out of their hiding spots after a heavy downpour, vigorously shaking their feathers to get rid of water from their backs. They look so cute, and the colours appear brighter – black looks jet black. Seeing them thus makes me overlook their scatological whims.   

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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Musings of a Copywriter

A Bone in My Platter

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

The customer polished off the chicken biriyani – leaving behind no trace of a single grain of polished saffron rice on the ceramic plate with golden borders. The solitary bone relaxed in spacious palatial comfort but soon became the bone of contention. He complained to the manager about the poor taste while making the payment. 

The young waiter, a lad of eighteen, standing nearby, heard everything. He went and took the bone from the plate and lobbed it at the shining bald pate of the customer while he was walking out with a toothpick clamped between his fingers. It hit him right in the middle. He quickly turned back to see what missile was that. He found close to his feet the same chicken bone he had left behind in the ceramic plate. He picked it up, took a studied look, and sprinted to the counter to lodge another complaint with the manager, alleging he was hit on the head by some crazy staff with the chicken bone, hoping for prompt, punitive action.  

Like a forensic expert, the manager took time to identify the piece of evidence, perhaps wondering whether the clever customer had brought it in his bag to levy a false charge and create a scene. There were endless possibilities, and the manager was in no mood to hastily accept the charge without cross-examining the customer.  

Sensing that the manager was employing delaying tactics to let the culprit chicken out, he rushed to grab the collar of the prime suspect and sought a confession under coercion. Accusing the young waiter of insulting and assaulting him, he dragged him to the manager’s cabin, threatening to get him arrested for causing physical harm intentionally with a lethal weapon that could crack his skull or lead to severe brain injury. He threatened to shut down the operations unless the manager tendered an apology.  

The manager explained the waiter had no such sinister intent as he was trying to throw the remnants out of the open window for stray dogs. Somehow it turned out to be an odd in-swinger, moving inside in the wrong direction and landing accidentally on his head. The customer remained defiant and unwilling to buy this defence. Finally, the young waiter had to mumble an apology before serving other customers, placing clean dishes, and pouring water into glasses. The angry customer flagged an alert regarding the violent streak observed in the waiter — but he sported a fixed and deceptive smile to ward off such grave charges.    

The customer staged a demonstration in front of the manager’s fancy table, thumping it with his fist and refusing to accept the diluted version: unintentional mistake. Finally, the manager stood in front with folded hands and begged forgiveness to wrap up this matter before it snowballed further. The aggrieved customer was adamant and sought a complete refund, or else he would report it to the local politician. To stave off further aggravation, the manager refunded the entire amount paid for the chicken biriyani plate but cursed him in his mind with digestive issues like unstoppable bowel movements at night.   

When the pacified customer finally vamoosed from the eating joint, the manager summoned the waiter to explain his behaviour. He told the bald customer gave incorrect feedback as there was nothing wrong with the food. Because the customer lied about quality, he got miffed. He confessed he was surprised he was so good at hitting the target. He had hoped it would land in some other direction or edge past his ear like a bullet. 

Many customers relished stale food and paid generous compliments on the rich taste. Whenever the chicken was served fresh, customers had complaints regarding the fare. Sometimes it was not spicy enough, or the taste lacked something they could not express in words but feel on the tongue. Such vague feedback was responded with an ersatz smile and an earnest promise to serve better fare next time. Most negative comments poured in when the bill value crossed the expected mark. There were several examples of customers who ate more than they could pay. They came to the manager and quietly promised to clear the deficit balance the next day. But they did not turn up for several months, hoping the manager would forget the matter. Dealing with such clients was always a challenge.  

There was a demand for cabins with curtains from couples, married or otherwise. The waiters exercised their discretion to overcharge for privacy. The manager was helpless in getting it vacated because the food was served late — and they ate very slowly. Even after an hour, the couple would not finish a fish cutlet while others sitting in the open zone gorged on a full plate of chicken and Badshahi Mughlai. The romantic busybodies tipped the waiter and ordered a bottle of cold drink when pressurised to vacate the cabin. Some new customers came and stood shamelessly in front of these cabins. The curtains — flying high in the breeze generated by the ceiling fan — revealed what the couples were up to. They had to quickly get up and clear the table without bothering to empty the cold drink bottle or finish the cutlet on the plate. Eating was an excuse for love birds as their hunger was not food-related.

Managing the restaurant included managing the kitchen as well. There was a tendency to poach the cook with extra salary and perks by rival restaurant owners. It was a big headache – unethical poaching like horse trading in politics. On many occasions, the chefs used to run away and join a rival restaurant without informing just after the day of salary credit. As a result, the slot fell vacant, leading to the cancellation of several specialty dishes till a new chef was hired. Customers returned disappointed, but dishing out excuses did not work, resulting in a steady decline in customer loyalty.  

When the new chef came on board, his quality was not always up to the mark. There was a litany of complaints from customers who missed the earlier fare. There was nothing to be done except serving a formal assurance of improving the quality as soon as possible.  

The overhead costs of operating a restaurant were high. The profitability dipped. The tipping point reached when the reputation hit the nadir. Customers did not get the menu of their choice. They had to wait before being served. A couple of years of running and ruining a family restaurant made me realise I had no potential to become a manager and manage a business well. I pulled down the shutters of the family-owned restaurant and presided over the end of its glorious run after two decades. The flop outing did not fill me with the passionate drive to prove detractors wrong – like being the author of an unsuccessful book has egged me to bake another one.  

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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Musings of a Copywriter

Shopping for My Funeral

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Frankly speaking, I am bored of shopping for festivals and marriages every season. The similar, predictable choices inside the stores put me off. I do not want to see myself in the full-length mirror wearing that premium suit. This narcissistic balderdash shrinks my zeitgeist. I cannot fashion myself in that dapper three-piece with padded shoulders to look broader and fuller while the truth abstains from voting in favour of my suave appeal. 

I am seized with spinning new legerdemain that topples all established notions of going on a shopping spree. Since life is all about gathering new, amazing experiences, I am dying to hit the fashion street to grab chic stuff for my D-Day (to be read as Departure Day). 

Almost all the leading brands have announced mega discount offers, but I am not allured to Buy 2 and Get 2 free. The sales pitch flounders to grab interest. I have no intention of taking some other people along with me to the world beyond. I prefer something like 60% off or an even more handsome discount. I am still not sure whether I would like to wear something traditional like a kurta-pajama set or the usual trouser-shirt combination. I am also quite okay with considering athleisure[1] because they say the soul has to travel a long distance to reach heaven. I would prefer comfy wear that enables me to run faster to meet my Creator. 

I entered one store selling branded traditional wear. I asked the salesman following me to show me a funeral wear collection. Stumped, he looked at me and then at the salesgirl, perhaps waiting for some sort of clarification. Perhaps I was the first customer who walked into the store asking for funeral wear. Before he pressed for my size, I disclosed my right fit. There was some kind of scramble and a rushed attempt to pull out the sober pieces for a somber occasion. I said I am perfectly okay with flashing a bright red or golden look. So, the idea of sticking to white and cream[2] should be abandoned.

I wanted to be sure of what I would wear on the day of my death. Instead of the full-length mirror, I felt like lying down straight as if in a coffin – right on the display counter with a marbled top and asking one of those sales guys to click me in that flat posture wearing my new apparel. My imagination was turning wilder and wilder and I needed to rein myself in or the lackeys would lend their shoulders to carry me out of the shop and drop me on a towing vehicle parked somewhere nearby. This trial episode of being raised on four shoulders would give me the rare experience of what it feels to be lifted for the last journey. 

Switching from traditional wear, I went around the store for something trendy. The casual shirts, with floral print, offered 80% off. The size was perfect and the fabric was pure cotton. I was dazzled by the rust-brown shirt with green flowers and made up my mind to go for this before the sales guy disclosed two buttons were missing. Since this was going to be my last wear, I should not behave like a perfectionist and informed the salesman with a glum face that this would be one-time wear for me as it would be consigned to flames with me. Before the nervous guy pressed the fire alarm, I needed to clarify how the fire thing crept into the conversation. Softly, just for his ears, I said I am shopping for my funeral. He almost fainted on hearing my disclosure, but I chose to proceed to the billing counter. I was a living example of the truth that there are all kinds of crazy people in this world.

My next stop was a premium store for trousers, with the tagline of something like smart dressing for the successful male. Well, I had never been after success and this is perhaps why I was excited to try out something that successful men wore. The tapered fit was difficult for me to wear but the store man insisted this was in vogue. Maybe soon in the morgue as well, I said to myself. I checked out the one with a fabulously smooth, soft texture. The store man offered discount vouchers for shopping again.

I asked him if he had anything immediate to offer. He said it was 50% off now and additional 25% off was given on the next purchase. I recycled the cliché: life is too short. And added I do not know whether I would be alive to visit again for the next shopping trip to redeem the coupon. He wished me a long life with a wide smile and claimed he was always right in his predictions.

I was left with the task of buying shoes. Death is always a stealthy affair and makes no sound when it arrives at the doorstep so I wanted to try something that made no noise when I said goodbye to this world. I should certainly be a good match. I opted for the hush-hush variety before saying Ta-ta. The pure leather shoes were comfortable to wear and I felt like I wore nothing. I was impressed with the hefty 70% discount on the leather pair and picked up white socks as well.  

With these three shopping bags, I felt I had done a hell lot of good shopping and had a gala time alone. I ducked into the nearest fast food outlet and ate junk food and ice cream. I was keen to pack more calories and enjoy a loaded brunch. 

When I looked at the items I had bought for my funeral, I felt I was not dying today and the urge to wear them grew. Death is still a long way to go and I have experienced the pleasure of shopping for death. But I cannot keep these items in my wardrobe without wearing them now. The temptation grew and the coming weekend bash at a friend’s place saw me wearing the coolest combination. The beautiful people there noticed my iridescent presence. I surprised them and regaled them with my shopping plans for my funeral and these latest grabs were meant for that farewell journey. 

A friend of mine said you are not going to die so soon. Yes, he was right, and this is why I did not have the patience to wait so long to try these on. My crazy shopping gig excited many others to go on a similar shopping binge.


[1] A type of hybrid clothing typically worn during athletic activities and in other settings, such as at the workplace, at school, or at other casual or social occasions.

[2] Indian and Chinese funeral wear is often white or cream.

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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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

Journey of an Ant

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Courtesy: Creative Commons

This was the first time I strayed from the caravan. I must admit that the wayward journey was full of adventure and thrill. Nobody could anticipate that the linear path we were following in a disciplined manner like a marching infantry would suddenly be deprived of my august presence. I had no idea what I was going to do the next moment. In a flash, something took over. I decided to break away. But I do not think my absence was conspicuous. Not a single fellow looked back, stopped in the tracks, or tried to persuade me to return to the fold – perhaps least bothered because their mission was bigger and more important to achieve. My derailment did not inspire a minority to stray and follow my anti-establishment path. 

I love to imagine how some inmates would have felt or reacted to my sudden disappearance. When the family does not miss you much after the search proves futile, I should not harbour great expectations from the community. Antagonistic reactions would defame, defile, and write me off, using my example to teach the vagrant and the flagrant some life lessons. 

The fact I went solo along this unexplored path was an affirmation of the fact that losing me did not affect the movement, speed, or the direction of the caravan that was supposed to reach the stainless steel tiffin box of the young schoolboy that was smelling so sweet from so far away and our alert team decided in a jiffy to march forth and gather the taste of the finest sweets brought from the best traditional Mithai shop of the city.    

When I jumped from the carved wooden leg of the antique table, I landed on the hairy thigh of the householder. I think it was the right one. It was tough to navigate the surface as I was constantly getting lost in the hirsute jungle but the urge to find a treasure kept me going. I was driven by the rather unusual smell of something cool, fruity, and refreshing. Variety is the spice of every life and I do not think it was a gaffe to experiment with a myriad of gastronomic delights. Just because I am an ant, it does not mean my short-lived, insignificant life should not have something worth celebrating. Remember, I have the power to kill an elephant. All I need to do is get into the right orifice and make life hell for the giant that never thinks I have this lethal potential. 

Coming to the story, the man had possibly just finished off ice cream with pastry made of exotic fruit like kiwi. Some crumbs and melt-down leftovers were lying somewhere around. The upper thigh retained some tell-tale signs of it. I stopped there and slurped, taking care not to sting the fellow who was offering this feast. I exercised caution or he would have slapped me hard to end my worldly journey on a sweet note. 

Frankly speaking, I do not recollect how long it took me to polish it all off. But the greed to savour more led me in search of creamier pastures just like you guys look for greener pastures. For more such stuff I travelled north, and went right to his back, with tyres of flesh hanging loose on both sides, without any intention to back-bite.

My wonderful trip was over now. After the lovable treat, the stinking smell of perspiration-absorbed innerwear was unbearable. I rushed out of the fold of his vest, away from the darkness of the fold, seeking fresh air and sunshine. I was now desperately looking for a shortcut to the chair. I wanted to reach his hand resting on the arm of the chair for that purpose. I was looking for the best strategic way to save myself, but his hefty hand studded with gold rings landed near me. It was a close shave.

 I did not think I would have luck on my side again. Somehow, I managed to walk away and hide near a shirt button. When he gave up the looking for my corpse and returned to his chore, I emerged out of the hiding spot and travelled slowly to ensure my movement did not give him any sensation. I chose to walk close to the buttons and finally reached his lower back ensconced on the comfy leather chair. He did raise his hand to slap his back repeatedly as he suspected some movement. 

Despite my best efforts, he got to feel the presence of something crawling right there. I waited for his series of assaults to end soon. He did hold the edge of the shirt to pinch me hard between the folds. While I was navigating the escape route, I noticed the caravan I had broken away from was still on its way to the edge of the table.  

This was perhaps the last opportunity to save my inconsequential life. I pored over the idea of making a last-ditch attempt to rejoin the group, but the gap was as wide as a river between us. 

As luck would have it, the householder got up from the seat and used his hands to dust off his behind. I was on the edge of his shirt, and as he came closer to the table, it facilitated my return to the fold. 

When he brushed against the table, I made a swift, calculated move and landed on the inside of the table. From here, it was a short distance walk to my caravan. Finally, I was reunited with my troupe. I felt like recounting my tale of survival and the ordeal I went through. The wholesome treat I enjoyed made my outing memorable. I continued with my slow march and soon mingled with the team. I do not think they would get convinced by the reality of this impossible journey I had made on my own. I gave up the idea of sharing it with others. Also, nobody feels happy to find other people leading a good life.  

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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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Stories

The Rebel Sardar

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Sikh Altar. Courtesy: Creative Commons

On Sangrand, Sardar Ratan Singh and his wife went to the Gurudwara with a bagful of marigold garlands in the morning. The canopy of the Lord would be bedecked with flowers of the season on the first day of the new month. The response was cold when he handed it over to the priest who walked a few steps to place it on the wooden table near the entrance door. The prolonged silence seeded doubt in Sardar Ratan Singh’s wife who asked him politely, “Any problem, Babaji?”

“The Gurudwara Committee has ordered flowers should not be brought inside the hall.  But I will do the job of decorating. Put these on the railings, the front part at least, and the rest near the main door. I will manage if the Committee members object,” Babaji assured the couple who brought these garlands with much devotion.

Sardar Ratan Singh was unable to figure out how the Gurudwara Committee, headed by the elderly, could issue such a guideline. Sardarni Simran Kaur was anguished to hear these words from the priest who was supposed to be the custodian of the Rehat Maryada, the code of conduct for Sikhs.

“The guideline goes against the Sikh tradition. All Gurudwaras are decorated with flowers during Gurpurab and other festive occasions,” Sardarni Simran Kaur asserted, with hope that this comparison would suffice.

Babaji endorsed her statement before reiterating his stand: “What you are saying is correct. I have myself seen that in many Gurudwaras. But I have to obey the Committee rules. I will do it today since you were unaware of the order, but next time onwards please do not bring flowers to decorate the Guru Granth Sahib. They will hold me responsible for breaking the rules.”

Although Babaji conveyed the rules of this particular Gurudwara, it was agonising to hear the outright rejection of floral service by devotees. Not the one to be cowed down, Sardarni Simran Kaur transformed herself into a warrior-spirited lady and made herself clear: “Thanks for being kind enough to allow this today, but the Gurudwara Committee has no power to frame such laws. I am going to bring flowers and garlands again and decorate the canopy myself. I would like to see how the Committee members gang up and stop me from doing this sewa (service).”

Babaji understood that the lady was determined to proceed with her plans. He stood with folded hands, with lowered gaze, with a humble request to reconsider the decision. Sardar Ratan Singh gauged the growing discomfort in Babaji who feared losing his job if he failed to execute the orders of the Committee.

Assuring Babaji that they would not drag him into the tussle with the Committee, Sardar Ratan Singh said, offering his visiting card, “You can mention my name to the Committee and ask them to have a word with me. We are going to bring flowers next month as well. If they charge you, just dial the number on this card and connect me to the Committee.”

Babaji was relieved he had their contact number to give to the Committee in case he was charged with dereliction of duty. Somewhat enthused by their confidence, a fleeting smile appeared on his sullen face. He carried the garlands inside the hall while Sardar Ratan Singh and Sardarni Simran Kaur proceeded to bow down before the Lord and pray for strength to stand up against injustice. Babaji began to decorate the front part of the canopy and specified to the couple once again that the remaining garlands would be used to decorate the entrance door. It appeared to be a risky exercise for Babaji to cover the sanctum sanctorum with flowers as he knew the members of the Committee would corner him in the evening durbar.

That is exactly what happened that evening when Sardar Ajit Singh entered the Gurudwara. Anger was etched his face as the garlands brushed against his turban. He cast a furious glance at Babaji who sat fine-tuning his musical instrument. After genuflecting before the Lord, Sardar Ajit Singh swerved around and hurled his first question: “Who brought these flowers?”

“Sardar Ratan Singh,” Babaji replied promptly without looking at him. He muffled his simmering anger with a tight slap on the tabla.

“Did you not tell him the Gurudwara rule?”

“I told everything but he gave me the phone number, to forward to the Committee if they objected,” Babaji responded while fishing out the visiting card from his kurta pocket and flashing it before his eyes. Sardar Ajit Singh hated English and he never read anything written in the Queen’s language. Babaji further added without losing composure, “Sardar Ratan Singh’s wife said she would come again with flowers next month.”

This nugget of information weakened the resolve of Sardar Ajit Singh who had a bad record of losing arguments with women. A couple of months ago, he threatened to drive out girls who spoke English instead of Punjabi inside the Gurudwara premises. Since he did readings from the holy scriptures every day, he exercised special authority and treated the Gurudwara as his fiefdom, seeking submissiveness from people to support the rules formulated by the Committee, based on his recommendations.

Despite being well-versed with Guru Granth Sahib, septuagenarian Sardar Ajit Singh showed no signs of understanding the true meaning of Shabad, the words of God and crushing his haume or ego. Since he hailed from a money-lending family which  had diversified into respectable businesses like travel and transport, he knew his brothers would support his decisions and the sangat, the fellowship, would never mess with those who wielded political clout and muscle power in society.

Showdown was unavoidable. The Committee would definitely object to what Sardar Ratan Singh was up to. Sardarni Simran Kaur expected the misgovernance phase to be over at the earliest – preferably through amicable discussions.

From reliable sources, it was gathered that Sardar Ratan Singh was relocating to Punjab. The Committee wondered whether it was better to avoid a conflict. Most of the members suggested a wait and watch policy. But the secretary and the treasurer were adamant that punitive action must be taken otherwise this would encourage others to flout the norms.

Sardar Ratan Singh noticed another shortcoming when Babaji did not offer the traditional karah parshad of flour halva after Ardaas, the Sikh prayers. When he asked for it, Babaji said with a tinge of regret, “The Committee stopped making karah parshad. Allowed only on special occasions.”

The cauldron was stirred once again as Sardarni Simran Kaur resumed the discontinued practice of preparing karah parshad in the gurudwara every day. Sardar Satwant Singh, who had become the Secretary five years ago, implemented this order and his acolytes rallied behind him in support. Being diabetic, many members of the Committee could not consume karah parshad. Babaji was asked to stop this exercise as the turnout was thin every evening. Though this excuse was not justifiable under any condition, the sangat was made the scapegoat.

It was a momentous decision in a Gurudwara but the Committee members harboured no guilt. The practice started by Guru Nanak had been discontinued by his followers here.

Sardar Ratan Singh and Sardarni Simran Kaur came with the necessary ingredients to the Gurudwara next week. Offering ghee, wheat flour, and sugar to Babaji, she said, “From now on, we would like to do karah parshad sewa every day, every month, every year.”

Babaji did not know how to react. This was the second instance in one month that made him nervous. Although devotees chose to prepare it for a day or two, this was a unique case where the couple wanted to take the full responsibility of sponsoring karah parshad for the entire year. Babaji realised this would be another provocation challenging the Gurudwara Committee. One individual was trying to revive a tradition that was suspended by the Committee. Since they were not incurring any expenses, they should have continued to stay out of it. But the pesky members would get curious to know who was behind the resumption of karah parshad.

“Babaji, use words like ‘Gurmukh parivar’(Gurmukh family) during ardaas instead of mentioning our name because it is not proper to highlight that while we perform a service for the community,” Sardar Ratan Singh requested the priest.

It was a valid ground to hide this secret. Babaji accepted the ingredients and specified the monthly quota of ingredients to be supplied henceforth. Agreeing to deliver the requirements, she said, “Since the Committee has stopped making karah parshad, we see no point in informing them about it. But we know they will interfere in this matter again. Just like flowers are thorns for them, this one is going to prick them as well. It is not our intent to antagonise them. But if they make an issue out of it, we are definitely going to oppose them again. You can convey this to the Committee head in advance.”

Babaji looked confident of handling this better. When he served karah parshad the next evening to all, he was very happy he was doing the right thing after a long time. The sangat got parshad and looked blessed. Sardar Satwant Singh took a small bit reluctantly and his wife asked, “Gurmukh parivaar who?”

Babaji pretended not to hear it but the question was repeated. Left without choice, Babaji had to disclose the name of Sardar Ratan Singh. The karah parshad was stuck in his throat now. Instead of saying anything to Babaji, Satwant Singh communicated through Vimal Rai.

Babaji got a call late at night. He felt like dropping the call because it was time to sleep as he had to wake up early for the pre-dawn prayers, the amrit vela. But he changed his mind and answered the phone call. The voice on the other side hollered right away, “If anyone wants to do karah parshad sewa, tell him the Committee should be approached first as we alone decide the quantity. Tell him to pay us the money and we will take charge of making it. It has to be done through us only. No direct sewa allowed. You should mention us instead of directly taking up such responsibility.”

Babaji got miffed this time and said, “How can I stop a devotee like that? You should call him and tell him all this. I cannot. Sat Sri Akal.”

The priest knew this behaviour would be read as gross insubordination with dire consequences. But he had restored full faith in God because he felt God had sent Sardar Ratan Singh with a definite plan. He was mentally prepared for the worst now.

When Sardarni Simran Kaur came in next week with the supplies, Babaji made brave effort to defend the Committee and test her resolve, “Avoid taking the trouble of bringing this every week and instead give the money to Committee to prepare karah parshad.”

She sensed some kind of agreement had been reached and the Committee wanted to take charge. “Is there any problem if we bring the samagri? We maintain hygiene and purchase from the best shops. Besides, I want to do this on my own, just paying money is not enough. We do not trust the Committee. Whether they would use pure ghee or not, whether they would save money and divert it. There is enough ground for mistrust an suspicion. It is quite possible they would ask you to mix Dalda (vegetable oil) with desi ghee or reduce the daily quantity after taking full money. The Committee that discontinued parshad sewa cannot be trusted with its resumption.”

Babaji heard the candid reply from the lady without saying a word. The Committee had indeed made incorrect decisions with brute majority and imposed the same upon the sangat who did not expect this would happen.

When Vimal Rai came for the evening durbar, he heard Babaji’s reply. “I told them to contact you, to give the Committee the duty of making of parshad but they refused. They said it is the duty of the Committee to make it themselves instead of seeking money from us to make it. This tradition is followed in all Gurudwaras across the country.”

Vimal Rai was upset to hear this valid point. He came with the desire of singing Shabad Gurbani but the notes of harmony were lost. He delivered a spiel as the Sangat was yet to arrive: “Why doesn’t he understand we are Committee, here to look after everything. Where was he all these years? Why does he emerge now and try to run a parallel system? You can tell him our decision is final and binding. In this Gurudwara, karah parshad will be made with our permission only. Warn him not to try our patience. We have been merciful but we cannot let this rebellion take root while we sat quiet and observe anarchy spread like wild fire.”

Harsh words flowed out instead of ambrosial nectar. The situation was spiralling out of control, reaching a flashpoint. If he conveyed his message in the same language, Sardar Ratan Singh would retaliate. When the couple came for morning prayers, Babaji conveyed bad news to them. It was the most important task he was assigned to prove his loyalty to the Committee. He tried to look the other way to make it less hurtful: “Actually, the Committee has made new rules and these do not allow me to prepare parshad unless it comes as an order from the Committee. The order came last mid-night. Please excuse me and understand I am working under the Committee. My hands are tied.”

Realising these were sacrilegious words, tears welled up in his eyes. He broke down and disclosed that he was planning to leave this place as his salary was delayed every month and he was never paid in full.

The couple had full sympathy for the priest as he was conveying the words of the Committee. “I do not understand what sadistic pleasure they get by delaying his salary and deducting money? He has a family to feed, kids to educate,” Sardarni Simran Kaur urged her husband to take note of this injustice. “Don’t you think the Committee has crossed the limits by misbehaving with the priest who serves Wahe Guru every day? Our silence would mean participation, don’t you think so?”

It was a fact that Babaji was not accorded respect. There were several such instances. They shouted at him for trivial reasons and dominated him as much as possible. The Committee had deviated from the path of righteousness. After listening to his wife, Sardar Ratan Singh assured Babaji, “Will pursue these matters but you do not think of leaving this place. Our ancestors built this Gurudwara and it is our duty to ensure injustice does not happen.”

Feeling encouraged, Babaji spilled the beans, revealing the recent case of theft. The donation box was emptied but the locks were not broken. This mischief pointed to the fact that the members of the Committee who had the keys played a role in it. Besides, there was no official complaint lodged. The large sum of money collected throughout the year just vanished. Not reporting such grave offences meant there was some kind of tacit involvement.

In the afternoon, after lunch, Sardarni Simran Kaur urged her husband to raise his voice, and he said, “Such issues will not get community support. Haven’t you seen how these members stand with folded hands in front of Sangat? Who will believe us? Babaji will be the loser as they will sack him and bring another one next month.”

Sardarni Simran Kaur highlighted these points in her group and specified salary deductions. “Why does he not speak up?” The headmistress of a primary school wanted to know.

“He is under their employment. He was promised free gas and electricity connection but he has to bear these bills every month.”

“I will discuss with my husband and let you know,” she assured Sardarni Simran Kaur.

“Just make sure Babaji is not involved otherwise he will be in trouble. My husband says men should quit and women members should form the Committee,” Sardarni Simran Kaur added, to make her feel enthusiastic about the slew of changes on the anvil.

In the meantime, Sardar Ratan Singh started gathering more facts from those who lived near the Gurudwara. The inside stories always help. He spoke with a senior lady who stayed beside the Gurudwara and she gave a true account of the events inside.

“Many things are not right here but there is nobody to object. All are businessmen and linked to each other and they do not offend the rich. That is the story. Small fish afraid of big fish,” she summed up the story without mentioning the names.

“That does not mean the Committee should have the freedom to commit wrongs and get away with it. There has to be some accountability,” Sardar Ratan Singh reasoned.

“Beta, we have lost faith and have accepted this as the reality. We go to Gurudwara, pray, and come back. No discussions. They change timings, set their own programmes as per their convenience and the sangat is never involved. There are many improprieties but it is useless to discuss these now,” she gave ample indications.  

The cashier of the Gurudwara entered the premises while they were discussing. He wished her a loud Sat Sri Akal intentionally while ignoring Sardar Ratan Singh. She quickly made her move as he would report this interaction to other members of the Committee. With the glut of information indicating multiple misdoings, Sardar Ratan Singh went inside and bowed before the Lord seeking the strength to set things right. When he came home, he thought of possibilities. The easiest way was to bring in changes unilaterally – without involving the Committee.

Next day, both of them came to the Gurudwara with three large crystal chandeliers to light up the aisle, along with an electrician who cracked open the false ceiling right from the middle to access the electric points and hang them firmly. The entire operation was done within two hours. Babaji observed the smooth execution in stunned silence. When everything was over, Sardar Ratan Singh called up the Pradhan, the chief of the Committee, from Babaji’s phone and introduced himself, “Sardar Ratan Singh calling. I have installed three chandeliers in the hall without seeking your prior permission.”

 
The Pradhan could not utter a single word even though he was keen to teach the rebellious Sardar a good lesson in the recent past.

“Do you have any objection, Pradhan ji?” Sardar Ratan Singh asked in a stentorian voice again.

“No, no, it is guru ki sewa. Every person has the right to do it.”

“Exactly, Pradhan ji. Hope you really believe so.”

Babaji took the phone and clicked pictures of illuminated chandeliers and posted them in the group of Committee members along with the name of Sardar Ratan Singh typed in the message box. Babaji was glad to see the flood of lights inside, the dazzling shimmer inside big gurudwaras was here as well.

Thrilled, he extended a personal invite: “Performing special kirtan in the evening, please be here.”  

“Ok, Babaji, we will come in the evening,” Sardar Ratan Singh promised, “and if any member of the Committee worries about the spike in electricity bill, I am ready to bear the extra charges.”

Babaji kept wondering that the Pradhan who spoke angrily had turned into a meek lamb all a sudden. God’s miracle? One thing was clear that the Committee members did not shoulder individual blame. They preferred to hide behind their collective might. Since Vimal Rai was charged directly, he chickened out despite the golden opportunity to lambast the rebellious Sardar.

The hall was packed with Committee members and their families who were looking at the dazzling lights and pondering over the inflated electricity bill. The Pradhan was informed by Babaji that Sardar Ratan Singh would pay extra for the electricity consumed by the chandeliers.

Such a lit-up Gurudwara they were seeing for the first time in the small town. The Sangat was happy to see these chandeliers inside the Lord’s abode. They were curious to know the name of the donor. Sardar Ratan Singh rolled off the priest’s tongue with pride and the Committee members looked down. By this time, Sardar Ratan Singh and his wife came in and bowed before the Lord and then proceeded to sit near the door. The Committee members sat close to the Lord.

Babaji sang two new Shabads with full energy and the Committee members looked around, asking each other in hushed tones how much these would have cost. The guessing game kept them away from God and Shabad Kirtan.

When the Durbar drew to a close, Vimal Rai and Satwant Singh smiled at Sardar Ratan Singh and exchanged pleasantries in front of the Sangat to cultivate their good image. Was it beyond their power to switch off these chandeliers forever? Should they formulate a new law to stop Sewa by individuals?  Every evening they would switch on the chandeliers and get dazzled by the glare. The name of Sardar Ratan Singh would flash before them.

The reaction to assert hegemony came in fast. The Committee suspended the services of the tabla player using the excuse that the turnout was poor. When Sardar Ratan Singh noticed that the tabla player was not coming for more than a week and Babaji had to face difficulty because of the missing accompanist, he posed this question to Sardar Satwant Singh in front of a sizeable crowd, “Why did you stop the tabla player from coming in the evenings?”

 He was not expecting to be charged in this manner in front of so many people. He looked at the faces of his team mates but they were not willing to rise up in his support. He delivered whatever came to his mind in his ruffled state of mind: “The sangat does not come regularly, no use wasting resources that should be put to better use.”

“The sangat is blamed for everything. You stop karah parshad, the sangat is blamed. You don’t want flowers inside. What is going on in this Gurudwara? Rules are made to break rules. From where does the Committee learn this audacity? Even if one person comes to Gurudwara he should get karah parshad, he should get to hear kirtan. With all modesty, I am ready to bear the salary of the tabla player if the Committee cannot afford. But make sure he is hired soon. And if you want to do good, hike the salary of the priest so that he can engage an expert to train his son to play the tabla with him daily.”

Vimal Rai inched closer to Satwant Singh and pulled his arm. There were women who got to know many startling facts. The Committee was exposed in front of the Sangat for the first time in years.  

Vimal Rai cut in politely, “We will look into the matter and respond soon. Many charges were pressed against us, but it should not have happened. We are elderly and deserve respect from the younger generation.”

Satwant Singh and Vimal Rai went near the garage to have a brief meeting. This open mutiny meant this man had to be reined in somehow otherwise they would face further insults and all their misdoings and misuse of power would come out in the open.

Sardarni Simran Kaur tried to explain certain facts to women but the wives of the Committee members formed a separate group. The split was clear. How this face-off was going to pan out? Whether the priest would lose his job, whether the Committee would get stricter now? Speculations were rife.

The Committee decided to hold a Durbar with snacks and tea on Sunday mornings with the hope that this session would fetch big crowds. It was also an attempt to mobilise the crowds and keep up appearances. After Sukhmani Path, the prayer for peace, snacks like samosas and jalebis were served. But the turnout was not as expected. The next month, the Committee decided to hold langar every week. They hoped this would surely bring in more sangat. Even this bait was a damp squib.

Finally, the Committee started wondering why these arrangements failed to draw large crowds. Was it God’s will that the sangat would not be impressed with whatever the Committee did? Was this a retribution for their misbehaviour with Babaji in the past? The Committee ordered that more members of each family participate and that the appeal of the Committee should be honoured by the entire community. Forwarding messages was suggested as an effective way to make the sangat aware that the Committee was indeed doing a lot.

Sardar Ratan Singh continued with his makeover exercise. He donated chhatars to decorate the canopy. The gold and diamond plated pieces looked wonderful. When Sardar Ajit Singh came to pray and saw the chhatars, he was livid and charged Babaji with gross negligence, “The canopy cloth must be damaged with piercing in several places. Who will pay for its replacement?”

“Sardar Ratan Singh has said he would donate a new Chanani next month,” Babaji said coolly. He was inside the Gurudwara otherwise he would have grabbed his neck for uttering that vile name. Sardar Ajit Singh did not sit for Chaur Sewa and stomped out of the hall.

Sardar Ratan Singh and his wife continued making visible changes inside the Gurudwara and the Committee was irritated by all the new installations without their consent or permission. Sardar Ajit Singh turned competitive and donated three chairs for the elderly. Sardar Ratan Singh matched this move by placing three velvet cushions on the chairs. Babaji was given a new comfy mattress with frills on the bed cover for the wooden diwan where he sat for Kirtan every evening. Sardar Ajit Singh was miffed but he could not say anything. He kept asking himself: Why is this man after us?

In less than three months many things underwent changes and the Committee became jittery about losing control. It tried to do new things to win the trust of the sangat. But the sangat had seen this Committee for years and the sudden switch to action mode was not difficult to comprehend. It was clearly to suppress the dissident Sardar Ratan Singh, who enjoyed the support of the sangat for the makeover that made them feel good. Besides, they were happy that a single person had stood up and fought against the Committee. All the energies were invested in the task of painting Sardar Ratan Singh as a villain who did not respect the senior members of the Committee. Sardar Ratan Singh and his wife had quietly overturned their rules and set new things in place.

The pipe of the wash basin was broken. It remained like that for months but now it was replaced quickly. Satwant Singh approached every single member to seek feedback regarding the efforts to spruce up the Gurudwara premises. The cashier was engaged with the task of collecting more funds.

One evening, they planned to approach Sardar Ratan Singh for monetary assistance as he was spending a lot on the upkeep of the Gurudwara. His response took them by surprise: “I am doing sewa for the Guru and that is all. I do not intend to pay money to any Committee.” His refusal to shell out big bucks inflamed them. Sardar Ajit Singh went ballistic, “We are committee members and you do not acknowledge us. The Gurudwara is under our control.”

“Yes, the Gurudwara is under your control, but not the Lord. How can you stop us from doing sewa? What kind of devotees you are? Are you Sikhs?”

They chickened out one by one without answering him. It was clear the Committee would make it a rule that Sardar Ratan Singh would not be allowed to do sewa on his own.  

Next morning, a big truck with marbles arrived, followed by sand and cement bags. A team of masons arrived within hours. The Committee was challenged to stop him when this process started. Sardar Satwant Singh and Vimal Rai were asked to be present.

“You have to answer an important call from Amritsar. Come to the Gurudwara,” Sardar Ratan Singh called up the Pradhan using Babaji’s phone.

Satwant Singh and the cashier came along with Vimal Rai to boost his morale. The cashier was asked to answer the phone but ultimately the Pradhan had to connect.

He heard a faint voice from the other side in Punjabi seeking confirmation they were Committee members. The name of Sardar Ratan Singh was mentioned and the proposal to send a representative was conveyed to the Committee head. Vimal Rai could not muster the courage to seek identification of the caller or press for the purpose behind sending a representative. But he understood he was some authority and the representative was coming here to look into the affairs.

Vimal Rai stared at Sardar Ratan Singh for going this far. He informed his friends that an authority was coming here soon. Satwant Singh and the cashier looked worried about the external interference. Sensing that difficult times were in store now, Vimal Rai sought relief on health grounds and tendered his resignation from the post of Pradhan.  

Within a week, a senior person arrived and asked specific questions about the management of the Gurudwara. Babaji was asked to explain fearlessly and he disclosed how the Committee was mishandling everything. Based on the facts shared, it was clear that the Committee could not answer many questions. So, the visitors recommended dissolution of the Committee and the formation of a new one.

Many women wanted Sardar Ratan Singh to be the new Committee head, but his wife, Sardarni Simran Kaur explained, “We do not want power for ourselves. My husband hates it. But we would certainly like the Gurudwara to be managed by true devotees who pray, do the Nitnem, understand Baani, and lead honest lives.”

The task of finding such devotees was not Herculean as Babaji had already shortlisted two women who did Sewa with selflessness. They were made the joint heads of the new Committee and it was hoped the Gurudwara would not be mismanaged henceforth. Sardar Ratan Singh and his wife were now relieved of the tension.

Babaji was asked to make karah parshad every day and the diwan had to be florally decorated. A new tabla player was hired and the durbar was now teeming with devotees. Many people who had stopped coming to Gurudwara after a former priest was manhandled by a son of the Committee member were now back in full strength.

Satwant Singh, Ajit Singh, Vimal Rai, and the cashier also resumed regular visits to the Gurudwara. But they sat aloof, huddled in a corner. Stripped of power, they were now ordinary sangat who did not have the right to order other people to do sewa.

Sardar Ratan Singh and his wife would be leaving for Punjab from Bengal forever, and so they hosted a langar in memory of their parents. There was a huge crowd on the day of langar. A big change was introduced. The newly-formed Committee allowed the poor people to come in and sit beside the well-off people in true Sikh tradition. Without any discrimination of caste or status. The closed gates of Gurudwara Khalsa Diwan for the poor on langar* days were now thrown wide open.

*Langar is a communal Sikh Kitchen which feeds the poor and rich alike.

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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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

                                  

Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

When Books have Wings

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Book thieves are essentially good people who restore a modicum of respect to the business of stealing. When there are so many valuable items to filch, from cows to jewellery to cash, this is a minuscule coterie of genteel, sophisticated thieves who have realised that the most valuable item worth pilfering in the world is books.

While knowledge acquired from stolen books carries the same value, it shows the passion and obsession for seeking knowledge ranks high in book thieves. They are enterprising and adventurous to risk everything including their dignity, without harbouring any fear of getting caught or facing any discomfiting situation for the sake of acquiring knowledge by hook or by crook. Perhaps a stolen book holds special charm and becomes more gripping as the ‘borrower’ would not like to lose it after putting in such hard work to acquire it. Desperate readers who steal and read make it a habit to read stolen books alone.

There are smart operators who politely seek books from your collection even though they have ample opportunity to pick up the titles and drop the stuff in their shopping bags. These people have no compunction, no intention of returning the borrowed titles despite a litany of reminders. Although these books cannot be dubbed stolen as prior permission is sought, the promise of returning them within a week or a month is never honoured. These books become a permanent member of their prized collection. Such collectors have built large bookshelves with borrowed books and stolen titles.

During school days, my English tutor borrowed the complete works of Shakespeare from my father’s collection, promising to return it soon. But the tome did not stage a comeback. Three years later, when we went to his house, we saw the book displayed prominently in a glass showcase. I was thrilled to find it there but before I could utter a word, his wife thanked my mother for gifting them the big, fat book on their silver jubilee wedding anniversary.

His clever spouse handled it smartly and we did not contest it. My mother perhaps hoped he would read the text thoroughly and explain Shakespeare properly to me.  When he started teaching me Shakespeare, I found him fumbling and referring to a paraphrase guide to explain the content.

There were several other instances of borrowing from the collection on the pretext of reading. Another English tutor took novels from my collection for his wife who was fond of reading. He took many books at the same time and returned most of them on time. But one title always went missing — perhaps the one book his wife desperately wanted to have in her collection.

Some friends in college and university also wanted to read the books that I was reading.  They borrowed the titles just before the vacation started. After the holidays they said they had lost it on the train or left it behind in the lodge they stayed in. But the sad truth was waiting to be discovered if you went to their apartment.

When guests with the habit of reading arrive at your place, you need to exercise caution and stay alert. They will not gaze at the aquarium with colourful fish but swim deeper with malicious intent: gape at the spine of books, checking out the new arrivals. They pose innocent questions about your choices and recommendations. It is always better to say a bland no. Your confirmation would mean the sudden departure of some books from the collection as the guest would definitely seek those tomes.  Once they are gone, the guest does not come back to return it ever. Maybe he shifts to another city and takes it with him, forgetting it was his duty to return it to you.  Ever since the habit of gifting books has lost appeal, the art of stealing and usurping books has gathered momentum.

These guests are not hardcore book thieves you encounter in book fairs or bookstores, but they have a similar mindset of reading books acquired through dubious means. When they do not return what is not theirs, they are indulging in an unfair practice but there is no sign of regret or remorse. Since they get original titles at zero cost, they do not need to visit second-hand books market for a big haul of books or seek low-priced pirated editions.

The same tricks are played by so many people over the years and half their collection comprises books acquired through shady means – that is, books they have not paid for. The true believers in the saying that knowledge is free for all!

In case you ask them to return the books, you will be shown the book with the flamboyant signature of another person as the page with your initials has probably already been ripped off, leaving no scope of return to the original owner. Like wealth acquired through shady means is never discriminated, books acquired through dubious means are also most welcome in the bookshelves.

visited the book fair to buy everything except books.

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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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Stories

Faith and Fortune

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Sardar Randhir Singh wears the turban and a steel bangle – the symbols of Sikh faith. But he does not believe in the Sikh Gurus or the Guru Granth Sahib. Though he identifies himself as a Sikh, he does not visit any Gurudwara. When his son tied the knot, it was the last time he made a reluctant concession. When his son purchased an apartment, the holy book was brought inside during the housewarming ceremony for a few hours one afternoon.    

“When you do not have faith in the holy book, when you follow a cult Guru instead, was it necessary for me to marry in a Gurudwara or carry the holy book for the housewarming ceremony?” Shivjeet asked his father to clarify the duality.   

Sardar Randhir Singh wasn’t prepared for his son to pose this question to him. He couldn’t explain why this was unavoidable. He closed his eyes and scoured the maze of the distant past, remembering his own youthful days when he lit incense sticks and prayed before Guru Nanak, seeking divine intervention to bail him out of debt.

Shivjeet waited for an answer. He had to frame something to the best of his abilities. He scratched his dyed beard and fumbled to explain, “Beta, the entire community is involved and they raise too many questions and doubts.”

“So, you avoid being isolated in the Sikh community. But it confuses us. We do not know the path to follow,” Shivjeet spoke like a schoolboy who had deviated from the right path and was seeking guidance.  

“No, the path is clear. You follow the Living Guru and make your partner walk along the same path. I will take you to Babaji when he visits the city for discourse next month. Remember, we are Sikhs, but we do not feel like Sikhs. At least I do not. You are an engineer, my son, apply your intellect. How can you rationalise the holy book to be the embodiment of Living Guru? Many educated Sikhs are wondering, wandering, and consulting Babaji for salvation. Our spiritual Master is very much alive, and we reject what the Sikh clergy says. Beta, this is just between the two of us,” Sardar Randhir Singh tried his best to pass on this balancing act as the way forward.

The brief conversation on religion was important. Shivjeet was married into a family that believed in the same cult Guru. This was in fact one of the prime reasons why this marriage was formalised. But the daughter-in-law, Nikita, was never comfortable with the idea of Sikh rituals and customs being followed at home. She complained to Shivjeet that it was unnecessary to bring the holy Granth home since none of the family members believed in it: “When we do not subscribe to what is written in it, what is the need of carrying the Granth on your head and bringing it home? Just for the sake of community?” she asked him while stacking up the washed clothes in her wardrobe.  

“I raised the same point of getting rid of this farce with Papa and he explained the logic. Perhaps he is right,” Shivjeet replied, making her jittery about losing her ground.

“Let me know what new logic he applied. It is sheer hypocrisy – nothing else. Our Guru is Babaji – a living one – and we married because of common faith in Babaji. At least your family said it vocally at the time of our marriage. But now your father brings home his hardcore Sikhism from time to time for the sake of relatives. I should have listened to my parents and held griha pravesh, with Panditji performing the puja here,” Nikita trailed off like a seasoned strategist.

“No, no, Papa is not a believer in the Granth. You got it all wrong. To avoid questions and grilling from relatives. You know well we do not visit any Gurudwara and many people keep asking us why we are not present there during important Sikh festivals. This exercise appears an attempt to connect with them. If more Sikhs turn rebels, then it becomes easier to explain our position and reject tradition.”  

“Tell your father clearly, I am not going to raise my son as a Sardar. No way. Your father should be the last Sikh in our family. After that, no Sikhism in our lives, remember that. It is good you are not a practicing Sikh and you do not wear the turban. So, make sure our son also stays away from it and sticks to the path shown by Babaji. If your father intends to make our son wear turban when he grows up, please tell him in advance that we have jointly decided not to raise him as a Sardar. His formal name will also not be some Rajinder or Jatinder. I think we have decided that already, Ambar is nice,” Nikita poured forth to make her stand clear on this issue and expected her husband to stick to that. 

“No need to get hyper, I also do not want our son to be identified as a minority. With turban, you are considered dumb, subjected to all kinds of vulgar jokes. And I hate that. I snipped my hair long ago in high school because of that reason.”

“Was your father okay with that? I mean he could not do it for himself?” Nikita cut in, wondering how the identity issue panned out.

“I told him my friends make fun. He said okay — go ahead, become clean-shaven. There was no discussion or argument,” Shivjeet explained how easy it was for him to chop off his locks. “However, some relatives did object and criticise but the blazing guns soon fell silent when he passed the buck on to me. It was my hair, and I alone had the right to decide what to do with it. He posed helpless in this matter.” 

The next morning Sardar Randhir Singh was ready with his wife, Kulwant Kaur to go to the Dera for community service. He was in charge of shed construction, to oversee its completion before Babaji arrived here to give darshan to his burgeoning tribe of followers. His wife was also thinking of making the son take the spiritual path early, while they were alive.

“Since he stays away for job purpose, he should have Naam from Babaji. I am sure Nikita will also agree,” Kulwant Kaur said, seeking his reaction. “Let us get it formalised this time. I will discuss with her in the evening.”

When they returned home, she asked Nikita to sit with them for a while. “Beta, I have some important matter to discuss with you.”

“Yes, Mummyji,” Nikita said, showing submissiveness without any design.

Beta, we thought both of you should take Naam now. With Babaji’s grace, he has stopped drinking now,” Kulwant Kaur laid the foundation.

For Nikita, this was really good news but she showed fake concern. “I have no issues but after taking Naam, baptism strictures have to be followed. No chicken or meat. Will he turn vegetarian?”

“Turning him vegetarian is all up to you, beta, he will eat whatever you offer and obey your orders,” Kulwant Kaur entrusted this responsibility to Nikita who felt an overwhelming sense of power. “If you are ready, it is enough. He can be moulded.”

Nikita understood her mother-in-law knew his weakness well. It made her realise she had been doing it all these years. Kulwant Kaur was restrained by Sardar Randhir Singh after Shivjeet got married, to let Nikita wield more control. It was a challenge for the mother to overcome the urge to be protective about the only son, but she believed Babaji gave her strength to give up attachment.    

While serving dinner, Kulwant Kaur took the centre stage. Passing the bowl of Rajma, she said softly, “Puttar, take Naam when Babaji comes next month. Both of you.”

“Mummy, I have not thought of it yet,” Shivjeet replied quickly, looking at his wife, gauging her facial reaction to his words.

“Nikita also feels so,” his mother added, to make it easy for him to decide.

“You will have to become totally vegetarian, no meat, no fish,” Nikita said.

He looked at her and wondered if she was actually in favour of taking Naam or not. She had not said anything to him.  

Seeing the blank look, Nikita said, “Yes, Mummyji, we should go for Naam. I have already given order for big portraits of Babaji, framing them for the living room wall.  

Sardar Randhir Singh slowed down his mastication to pick up a cucumber slice from the salad plate and congratulated her, “That’s wonderful, beta, just tell him golden border frame must. So it is final then. Both of you are taking Naam next month. Right?”  

Shivjeet was unusually quiet at the dinner-table. His parents expected a vocal, resounding yes. Giving up his favourite cuisine was a sacrifice he was not prepared for yet.  He knew his father turned vegetarian after the age of sixty, after enjoying all kinds of meat including venison and pork during his hunting expeditions. He was in his late thirties and would lose the chance to indulge in meat-eating forever. This was no challenge for his wife as she was a strict vegetarian like her parents.

Shivjeet broke his silence. Mustering courage, he said firmly, “Will give it a thought. Nikita can go ahead, no issues.” Taking a separate stand for himself surprised Kulwant Kaur who hoped he would do what Nikita would ask him to do. The streak of individualism baffled Nikita who felt her power was tamed by his assertion.

This was not the kind of response Sardar Randhir Singh was expecting from his submissive son but he did not press further. Both of them hoped Nikita would persuade him to accept the proposal.  

At night, after two bouts of making love, Nikita said, “You are away from home most of the time, turn vegetarian when you are here, but eat outside.” This fabulous offer of infidelity came as a surprise from her. A horny stud who came home once in three months was not likely to abstain from sex for that long. Was it a trap by Nikita to know how comfortable he was with this dual arrangement? If he agreed readily, would it give any hint he was disloyal?

Covering her bosom with the floral blanket, Shivjeet peered out of the large window and said, “But this is cheating. Taking Naam and not following the guidelines would be worse. Being a Sikh is better for two reasons at least. Whiskey and chicken. You don’t have to give it up.”

There were many things Shivjeet did outside but his image at home was squeaky clean. He was projected as a man of principles at home. He rejected her ideas as she would suspect he followed flexible morality. He was not prepared to raise doubts in her mind as she would suspect his morality to be wobbly.  

While the family was united in following Babaji, Sardar Randhir Singh knew his elder daughter, married into a Sikh family, was still following the Granth Sahib. He had tried to convince his son-in law but he was unsuccessful on repeated occasions. He hoped he would manage to convince his daughter but not the son-in-law. He wished he should face some challenges and ordeals in life so that he can suggest Babaji as the solution provider.  

The next day, Kulwant Kaur called up their daughter around noon. She got a message when the call was dropped. “In gurudwara,” Kulwant Kaur read the message and showed it to him.  

“What is she doing in gurudwara? She is my daughter,” Sardar Randhir Singh thrummed, losing his calm, and stabbing the slice of bread with butter knife.

“But she is married now and her family believes in something else. Why do you always blame her? We should damage our ties with her,” Kulwant Kaur defended her elder daughter.

Shivjeet walked into the living room, drying his wet face with a towel and spoke in defence of his elder sister though he never liked her or her husband. Sardar Randhir Singh was hurt she was in a gurudwara. When she called back later in the day, his first complaint was related to her gurudwara trip.

“Whenever your mother calls, you are in Gurudwara. Has your husband shifted there?” The acerbic comment was not what a true believer delivers.  

During the telephonic chat, Kulwant Kaur specified that her brother and his wife were taking Naam. “You also come and take Naam along with them,” Kulwant Kaur offered, to please her husband sitting in front though she knew it was just another weak attempt that would be rejected by her elder daughter.   

Guru Granth Sahib is our only Guru and we believe in Nanak,” her elder daughter said loudly and clearly. Sardar Randhir Singh snatched the phone and began scolding her. Shivjeet sat nearby to observe his father fuming at his elder daughter. He never spoke to his son like that. For daughter, the patriarch had a different set of rules.

“Have you gone mad like that crazy husband of yours? How can a book be God or Guru? Answer me that,” Sardar Randhir Singh lambasted her, his flared-up nostrils drawing the attention of his son who drew vicarious pleasure from this feisty exchange.

“Papa, I do not argue on matters of religion. You are free to do whatever you like. We also have that freedom. No question of force. Jo simrey jin simraye,” Harpreet wrapped it up wisely.

 “Yes, I know the bhajan. Don’t teach me, I am your father.”

Sardar Randhir Singh hollered when Harpeet rectified him by saying it was a Shabad, not a Bhajan. Kulwant Kaur grabbed the phone and ended the conversation abruptly, “Acha, beta, talk to you later, bye, love you beta.”

Acha, why do you get so worked up on this issue? We posed as Sikhs when we married her in that family and they believed us though we were not practicing Sikhism. We hid this fact. They are okay with what we believe in and never influence us, so we should also let them do what they like,” Kulwant Kaur tried to sound fair.

Harpreet had many times thought of settling it differently but her husband stopped her from firing salvos that would give Nikita and Shivjeet a valid reason to stop her entry in their home forever. 

“This is precisely why that son-in-law is still hopeless. I regret the day I chose him for my daughter. Let him surrender to my Babaji, seek mercy and then see how he will progress in career like my son. That chap does odd jobs and behaves like a great artist. He is all fake, a big nobody, lives off ancestral property and lectures on Sikh faith. Does he understand the value of hard work? I am sure she will leave him and also give up his faith, end her unhappiness and come back to our Babaji to find bliss. Babaji will definitely bring her to the fold one day and then we all will have the same Guru.”  

“But has she ever said she is unhappy there?” Kulwant Kaur asked.    

“He does not let her come here. He does not meet us. What kind of a relationship is that? In their own world. Nobody else matters. This is no Canada or London. My brothers and sisters all are together. One big family. Even today we call up once every day.”

“I know how close you all are,” Kulwant Kaur said sarcastically, to stall his train of thoughts.

“You could not sell the joint property or convince your brothers to sign in your favour. Nobody likes you but nobody says that in front of you and you think they respect you. Stop believing them.”

“Babaji will decide when it is the right time. I know I have to sell that property and give the proceeds to our son to repay his home loan obligations,” Sardar Randhir Singh revealed his strategic mind in front of Shivjeet who was listening attentively to their conversation.  

Shivjeet could not discuss anything with his elder sister and Nikita also maintained formal ties with her, to keep her at a safe distance from her domestic world. She did not like any interference in her life and had advised Shivjeet to minimise contact with his sisters.  

When Shivjeet went upstairs and told Nikita about the phone chat with Harpreet, she called up her sister-in-law and cleared the ground, “Hello Di, when are you coming? It has been long since you were here. Have some good news to share. Both of us are planning to take Naam when Babaji comes next month. Nice if you could also be with us.”

There was enough gunpowder in her words to trigger an explosion but Harpreet always maintained a stoic calm. Though Nikita knew Harpreet she was not in pursuit of cult gurus and deras, she poked her on this ground to keep the kettle on the boil. 

Being of a wiser strain, Harpreet said, “It is not possible for me to be present there, but I respect your decision and wish you both all the best. Shivjeet heard this exchange but he did not talk to Harpreet except on birthdays and anniversary occasions.

Nanak taught the need to respect all faiths and believers. Harpreet sincerely followed that but she did not think it was right to leave one fold to embrace another or experiment with faith. Religion came to her from parents and disowning it would be disowning parents. Being the eldest child, she had faint memories of her mother doing paath at home. Her father also paid obeisance to Guru Nanak but that was all long ago, more than two decades. A lot had changed in her family since then. Setbacks had shaken the foundation of faith and led Sardar Randhir Singh away from the Sikh fold. It was like a termite attack that hollowed him inside.  

Since the in-laws of Harpreet and his extended family were sincerely following the Granth Sahib as their guru, it was impossible to make them change their path. Her parents said she lacked the power to convince her husband, to change her husband’s mind but she never tried to do that or exercise undue influence. Her husband was following the Sikh norms and she saw no reason to interfere in this aspect and ruin her family life. She was pretty surprised when Shivjeet called her for advice one afternoon.

“Di, all are saying I should take Naam from Babaji but I am not too sure. Can I talk to Jija ji for a minute,” Shivjeet pleaded.

“Oh sure, wait, just a minute, calling him, Suno –” Harpreet summoned him from the reading room. 

Her husband, Daljeet picked up the phone and listened to the full story. He felt tempted to discourage Shivjeet from going ahead. But when he said he was ready to take Naam, it was clear it was just a matter of time and he wanted his help and guidance to find some ways to delay by a decade.

“May I know the reason if it is not too personal, brother.”
Jiju, you know this is not the age to take up the spiritual path. Nikita wants me to take it up though I am not confident. She wants to be sure we have given up Sikhism forever.” He was hopeful that Daljeet would suggest some way to wriggle out of this messy situation for some years at least.

“Since you are okay with joining a Dehdari Guru and your wife is also on the same page, you should do the needful at the earliest,” Daljeet played it safe as he did not wish to worsen his ties with in-laws.

When the call ended, Daljeet spoke his mind.  

“Now your entire family has made an exit from Sikhism. So this is why they did not want a Sikh daughter-in-law.”

“Many Sikh families are now chasing living gurus. It is rather unfortunate,” Harpreet expressed grief and appeared helpless.

“Exactly, these ‘hidden’ devotees are more dangerous for the Sikh faith. They are destroying us from within,” Daljeet added. “These Babajis travel business class, have limos and grab land of villagers to build posh commune. It is a big scam, business idea mixed with religion.”

Harpeet did not argue and let it pass with a mild nod. 

“Next month, there is Mummyji’s death anniversary and there is langar scheduled in the gurudwara. Should I invite my family?” Harpreet sought his permission.

“It is a mere formality. Your parents will not enter gurudwara. Besides, their Babaji is coming next month and they will be busy with their programme,” Daljeet explained the trajectory. 

There was a sudden development as the cult guru cancelled his programme because of court summons regarding a money laundering deal. Most relieved was Shivjeet as the tension of taking Naam was over.

 “Is there a superior power than Babaji helping me out?” Shivjeet thought when he first heard the news from his disappointed father. 

Showing fake interest, Shivjeet asked his father, “When will Babaji come next?”

“Not in the next couple of years. He is going on a world tour – to Singapore and the US soon,”  Sardar Randhir Singh was bereaved to make this announcement.

He cut grass inside the Dera premises to prepare the ground and his hard work was all waste now.  It would again grow to knee-length in two years.   

Shivjeet went to the terrace to share this good news with his elder sister. He did not want any member, not even his wife, to get an idea of unbridled happiness. Harpreet told her brother of the death anniversary in the family but did not ask him to be present. 

Preet did not want her father and mother to be present on the occasion of death anniversary as their sacrilegious behaviour would be tough for her. Besides, she did not want them to poison her ears with repeated proposals to switch to Babaji. Harpreet was happy with formless worship.

The last time she offered karah parshad to her mother, she said it would increase her sugar level and her father refused to have it as it would block his arteries because of ghee (clarified butter). It was surprising for them to hear their daughter prepares karah parshad at home after reciting Japji Sahib.   

When she sent her video of making karah parshad, her mother messaged her nothing, just a smiley emoji. Nikita also sent a smiley.  

When her father heard that, he mockingly said he must talk to her now before she becomes a paathi or raagi.

Nikita dialled her number. Being the connecting link between the father and the daughter thrilled her.  

“Yes, I am learning shabad kirtan and soon sending you video recording of singing shabads in the gurudwara,” Harpreet shared this update with her father who was not happy to hear that but did not say anything to discourage her. He gave the phone to Kulwant Kaur who performed the duty of congratulating her daughter. She knew Harpreet was interested in singing from childhood but Sardar Randhir Singh never allowed that as he did not consider it to be a good pursuit.    

Within a few days, Harpreet recorded one shabad at the local gurudwara and sent the video to her family. When they viewed it, her father had the same mocking tenor while suggesting a career option, “Tell her try Bollywood. These won’t make her famous.”

Nikita messaged the exact words to Harpreet who was hurt to read what her father said. Why was it so hard to utter a word of genuine praise for his daughter when he went gaga over everything his son achieved?    

Her faith was shaken and she wept and prayed to Wahe Guru that He should do some miracle in her life so that these dirty taunts dry up forever.  

Her prayers were answered when she soon got the chance to record a shabad for a Punjabi film. Daljeet had uploaded her video on Youtube and it caught the attention of a Punjabi film-maker who wanted her voice recorded. Sardar Randhir Singh made fun of her shabad singing and the same shabad opened for her the floodgates of success. Her voice found appreciation across the industry and she got multiple offers to sing in Bollywood.

The situation at home changed dramatically for her. The father who ridiculed her was now taking full credit for motivating her.

“See, I told you, she should try Bollywood. It worked. She is my daughter.”

He waited for Nikita and Shivjeet to second him but they were unusually quiet. They never imagined Harpreet would take the lead and prove to be more successful than her brother. She was already a celebrity in her own right. Nikita thought it prudent to be her friend as she would introduce her to her friends in the film industry and she could also fulfill her dream of opening a design studio using her contacts.   

The vocal orchestration of Babaji being superior was finally over. Kulwant Kaur never mentioned Babaji again in front of Harpreet. Sardar Randhir Singh never ridiculed her faith. Offending successful people is an offence and nobody does that. Harpreet and Daljeet thanked Wahe Guru for connecting with the masses. They organised Akhand Paath at their residence to thank the Supreme Lord and invited her family. Surprisingly, they all turned up in full strength.  What was more surprising was Sardar Randhir Singh bowing down before the Holy Granth. The sudden meltdown was attributed to her grand success. Perhaps he had never received such benevolence from Wahe Guru.   

Harpreet was now in a position to help her father and family. She asked her mother if their ancestral property, jointly owned, had been sold. She asked her how much they were expecting. He quoted a fanciful figure he never expected to get. Harpreet expressed the desire to buy his share in the property. Since it was more than the market price, he agreed to transfer it in her name. When Shivjeet heard this from his father, he was glad he would now repay all his loans.  

The entire family was thankful to Harpreet and terribly ashamed of how they treated her and her husband.

Sardar Randhir Singh had been struggling to sort out the property issue but God made it happen through his daughter. Harpreet was happy to see her parents. Seeking karah parshad from the gurudwara, they promised that their grandson would be raised as a Sikh. Nikita now had no problem with that – indeed she was smarter than the chameleon. She wanted to meet film crowds and hobnob with them.

Harpreet and Daljeet were both happy that Sikhism would be revived in Sardar Randhir Singh’s house after almost three decades. The property matter was one prime reason why he drifted away and after a long wait of twenty years, the problem was finally solved amicably with handsome profit coming his way. Sikhs leaving the fold because of materialistic issues return once these issues get resolved. A transactional and reciprocal relationship with Wahe Guru is reflective of their mindset.

Sardar Randhir Singh and Kulwant Kaur started visiting all the Sikh temples and went on pilgrimage to convince their daughter they were really back in the Sikh fold. When Harpreet reminded them that Babaji was coming to the city after a long gap of two years, they feigned ignorance.

Sardar Randhir Singh said, “We are now totally gurudwara focused, beta.”

There were media reports of Babaji being involved in a big scam but he took no interest in the matter, made no attempt to reject it as a conspiracy to defame their Spiritual Master. Perhaps there is no smoke without fire prevailed over his mind.

“God knows the truth. But Nanak is our rakha tey palan haar, our protector and caretaker. He alone can forgive our sins, dear.”

Kulwant Kaur was excited when Harpreet proposed a visit to Kartarpur corridor. Shivjeet and Nikita were also ready to go wherever their elder sister would take them.  

“So let us get our passports ready, beta,” Sardar Randhir Singh declared with enthusiasm, while checking out the validity of the document.  

Glossary

Beta/Puttar – Son

Guru Granth Sahib – Holy text of Sikhs

Griha pravesh – A ceremony for entering a new house

Panditji — Priest

Puja – Payer

Gurudwara – A Sikh Temple

Sardar – A follower of Sikhism

Dera – Camp or a stage set up for viewing

Darshan — An opportunity to see or an occasion of seeing a holy person or the image of a deity. (Oxford Dictionary)

Naam – Initiation

Jo simrey jin simraye — They alone remember Him in meditation, whom He inspires to meditate, a sikh hymn

Bhajan/ kirtan – Devotional songs

Shabad – Hymn

Achha — okay

Paath – Reading the holy texts

Jija ji – Brother-in-law

Suno – listen

Dehdari guru – a living guru

Langar – a Sikh communal free kitchen

Karah parshad – whole wheat dessert offering

Japji Sahib – Sikh scriptures

 Ragi – a Sikh religious singer

Wahe Guru – God described in Guru Granth Sahib

.

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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Stories

Sofiemol

By Sharika Nair

The old man hurriedly sliced the few stragglers left from the bunch of cowpea beans. It was nearly eleven, time for Sofiemol to pass by. Picking up the bowl with the neatly diced beans, he walked into the kitchen. His wife was sprinkling masala powders into the sambar, and the kitchen was filled with the heady aroma of the simmering lentils. She was absorbed in her kitchen witchcraft, the mixing and the churning and the frying, in which she was so proficient that with a mere bowl of lentils, a few vegetables and a pinch of spices in her arsenal, she could transform any lowly dish into a treat for the palate. He quietly left the bowl on the kitchen platform and walked back to the dining room, before she could notice him. Taking the cutting board and the knife to the work area, he rinsed them in the sink. Placing them carefully on the sideboard to dry, he heaved a sigh of relief. His chores for the morning were done.

Though living the retired life, the old couple woke up at 6 am to the alarm. Water for their bath was still heated on the soot-blackened aduppu; the gas stove being reserved for cooking. Once morning ablutions were completed, the old woman lighted the brass lamp while chanting her prayers, and left it near the door. The old man helped her with breakfast preparations by grating coconut or chopping onions. After breakfast, the couple conducted the cleaning and moved on to the cutting and dicing for lunch with the stoic flourish of an orchestra, thanks to the assurance gained from years of repetitive chores, working in tandem and mostly in silence. Occasionally the old woman remarked on the quality of the vegetables or passed on some news from the neighbourhood. The old man grunted in acknowledgment. 

Clothes were washed and starched every alternate day. The old man drew water from the well, heaving up the ancient aluminium bucket strung on the creaky pulley. The old woman scrubbed the clothes on the washing stone that glistened in the sun like black onyx. 

The old man did not always wait for Sofiemol’s arrival with the anticipation of an ardent devotee, awaiting the opening of the sanctum for deeparadhana. The first few days that she passed by, more than two decades ago, she was a source of much excitement in the locality, and everyone would come outside their homes to gawk and wave at her. Sofiemol was the bus that first connected the sleepy village of Karipoothira to the country’s intricate bus network. Initially, it was just a coincidence that when the old man stepped out of the house, to stand leisurely near the gate and watch the ebbs and flows of his neighbourhood, the Sofiemol passed by. Over the years, he had started timing his routine to the crossing of the red and yellow bus during her mid-morning trip from Pulikkuttusseri to Kottayam town. On the way back, the blaring horn of the bus would wake him from his afternoon siesta and remind him it was time for tea and banana chips. 

As he stood outside the gate, the old man could see the dust in the distance that signalled that Sofiemol was on her way. Across the road, Manikuttan of the Wadakke house was hurrying towards the bus stop with his wife, Hemalatha. Manikuttan called out to him, “Valliacho, we are going to the town to Anumol’s house. It’s her baby’s choroonu. All fine with you?” The old man smiled and nodded. It seemed just a little while back that Manikuttan’s daughter Anumol had come to pick up fallen mangoes from the garden wearing a bright yellow frock, her hair oiled, washed and tied in neat plaits. 

Soon, Sofiemol passed by and halted at the bus stop further down the road. He stood watching as people got down and Manikuttan and his wife and a few others boarded the bus.

The old couple had moved back to Karipoothira in 1970, after the old man retired from his job at the Ordnance factory board headquarters in Calcutta. Their daughter had been married off to a suitable Malayali boy in Calcutta while their son had acquired the highly sought after ‘Government Job’ with a public sector company and moved to Bombay.

The first few months were spent on the renovation of the ancestral tharavadu. The sitting room had been extended, gleaming mosaic tiles had been laid on top of the red oxide floor, the bathroom had been redone and house was spruced up for the new returnees. 

After that, life appeared to have come to a standstill.

In Calcutta, the days had been disciplined and fast paced. In the mornings, the children would get ready for school and in the later years for college and leave. The old man, who was a much younger man then, would glance through the newspaper, and set off to work. 

He had been much appreciated for the impeccable maintenance of accounts at his office. His first boss, Mr Jenkins would often exclaim, “Mr Pillai what would I do without you?!” while thumping him heartily on his back, deeply embarrassing the mild-mannered accountant. After Independence, Stephen Jenkins had gone back to the empire where the sun had begun to set, and a much younger Indian gentleman had taken over in his place. Debasish Sengupta had quickly recognised his faultless work as well and had become reliant on him on all matters financial.

Evenings in Calcutta had spun by like the pages of a suspense novel, flipped hungrily while barrelling towards the climax, with the children’s homework, trips to the grocery store, the songs on the radio and the occasional socialising with friends all bundled together; several minutes, hours, years of a cluttered life; bits and pieces captured and caged inside the albums in the bedroom cupboard, tiny black and white squares featuring stiff shoulders and dour faces.

Ever since he moved back to Karipoothira, his life back in Calcutta seemed to be from another lifetime. The tram rides to work, the sounds of raucous card games from the neighbour’s house, the bustle of his Gariahat neighbourhood was a different universe compared to the sluggish Kerala village, where the neighbour’s cow giving birth was big news. 

When Sofiemol started shuttling down the road in front of his house, she became a tiny whirlwind, shaking up the stillness of his new world. He had become a tree, rooted to a spot, watching the world go by, but seeing the bus, filled with people, moving with manic energy gave him a reflected sense of purpose. 

Sofiemol had embarked on her maiden journey in 1972. By the following year, Sreelakshmi was running on the same route early in the morning, with a return trip during lunch time. By 1980, Baijumon and Minimol had been added to the fleet. But Sofiemol remained the old man’s favourite, a favoured first-born of sorts; just seeing her go by filled him with a vague sense of pride.

The old man was called valliachan or perappan by his Hindu neighbours and pillaachan or appachan by the Christian ones. His age had made his name redundant but the wiping out of his identity had been both secular and universal. It seemed almost poetic that he had lost his first name first. During his working years, he had been Mr Pillai.

Every alternate summer vacation his children, their spouses and grandchildren arrive for their cherished holiday, a break from the chaos of their cities. Suitcases would pile in the bedrooms and chatter would fill the house. The old woman would go into a frenzy of cooking, overwhelmed with the sudden need for larger quantities of food. She would also never fail to declare once or twice, loudly, lest he fail to hear, “Finally some noise in the house! Otherwise, it is deathly quiet here. You know how achan is. Difficult to get a word out of him.” 

Towards the end of their stay, the old man would neatly pack several packets and bottles filled with jackfruit and banana chips, lime pickles and coconut chutney powder, into cardboard cartons along with raw mangoes and coconuts, for the visitors to take back home. When they left, baggage stuffed into the trunk of the taxi, the children screaming out their goodbyes, excited about their train journey back home he would invariably find himself choked, holding back tears. His parting words would remain lodged in his throat. Dinner that night would be unbearably sombre but the next morning would bring with it a palpable sense of relief at the return of calm and peace.

Four years ago, the old man had taken Sofiemol to go to the bank in Kottayam. Suresh, a distant relative, was the bus conductor then. The old man was seated near the door, and Suresh, standing precariously on the footboard with the effortless nonchalance that all private bus conductors seemed to possess, had enquired about his health, “Perappa sukham alle?” Making small talk, the old man had said, “This bus is in such good condition. Hardly ever breaks down.” Suresh had laughed, “Perappa, this is not the original bus. Do you think a bus will last for over fifteen years on these roads? The old Sofiemol was condemned a year back after the owner bought this new one. It was given the same name for good luck. It’s the owner’s daughter’s name, after all.” The old man had sat in stunned silence for the rest of the journey.

For the past year or so, the old man was waking up earlier than usual. As pale tendrils of sunlight stealthily crept in through gaps in the curtains, the chirping of sparrows on the mango tree just outside the bedroom window would awaken him. As he lay in bed waiting for the alarm to ring, he often found himself remembering a time long gone by, relics preserved well despite the passage of time; his mother’s voice scolding him for climbing trees, the sound of marbles getting knocked together by expert knuckles, the panicked voice of a friend shouting, “Gopala… headmaster is coming…run!”

Last week, the old man had gone to the dispensary for his niggling cold and the nurse had called out his name twice, “Gopalan Pillai”. He hadn’t realised she was calling him, till she tapped him on the shoulder and gently said, “appacha, you can go in now.”

As it is time for lunch, the old woman comes to the door to ask him to cut banana leaves from the backyard. Usually, banana leaves were cut for special occasions. Today, though, for some reason known only to her, the old woman has decided they would eat from the leaves. Maybe she has made a sweet dish, jaggery payasam perhaps, the old man muses hopefully. He hums a cheery tune as he dips his feet in the rivulet behind the house. For all her complaints about his laconic tendencies, the old woman would get irritated if he were to sing inside the house.

He mixes the rice, sambar, cabbage thoran and beans mazhikkuparatti together, making little balls of the mixture and eats them with relish. The old woman reminds him to buy candles from the grocery store in the evening. “The power cut is scheduled at seven this week,” she mutters. Half way through the meal, the old man clears his throat and says, “It’s long since you made chakka ada.” The old woman frowns. Since there is leftover dosa batter, she had been planning to make dosas later in the evening. The ada is a lot of work but the old man rarely makes any demands. So, after lunch, instead of taking a siesta, she goes to the backyard to pluck vazhana ila, bay leaves that grow wild in most yards, for the ada. She makes a dough of jackfruit jam and rice flour, and steams the dumplings after stuffing them in the bay leaves.

Once the jackfruit dumplings are cooked, the old woman pours tea into steel glasses and peeps into the dining room. The grandfather clock has struck four and Sofiemol still has not passed by. No wonder the old man has not woken up yet. Her arthritis has slowed her movements considerably. She trudges slowly to the bedroom and finds the old man on the floor clutching at his chest.  She rushes out to call the neighbours.

Within half an hour, the doctor arrives, examines the old man and officially declares what the group of relatives and neighbours gathered in the house already know. The old woman’s wails ring through the house. “He said he wants to eat chakka ada.. he did not even eat them,” she cries as the other women try to console her.

One of the assembled mourners whispers to his neighbour, a bit self-consciously given the atmosphere of bereavement in the house, “What happened to Sofiemol? The bus is late today.” The other man whispers back, “I heard one of its tyres got punctured. I saw Mechanic Joseph going with the new tyre a while ago.”

Just a few metres away, on the road in front of the house, oblivious to the human drama inside, Sofiemol speeds by on the afternoon trip from Kottayam back to Pulikkuttusseri, setting off a dust storm, that soon settles into the silence of a thousand afternoon siestas, broken only by the occasional wailing from the house.

Glossary

Sambar – spicy lentil and vegetable curry

Aduppu – traditional firewood stove

Deeparadhana – ritualistic waving of lamps in temples

Valliachan – uncle

Mol – endearment for a girl child

Choroonu – baby’s first rice intake ceremony

Tharavadu – family house

Perappan – uncle

Pillachan – a title for elderly man from Kerala’s Nair community

Appachan – term used for father, grandfather or an elderly person by Kerala’s Christian community

Achan – father

Perappa sukham alle? – uncle are you well?

Jaggery payasam – sweet dish

Thoran – vegetable and grated coconut stir fry

Mazhikkuparatti- fried vegetable dish

Chakka ada – jackfruit pudding

Dosa – rice crepe

Vazhana ila – bay leaf

Sharika Nair wrote feature stories on entrepreneurs and women achievers during her stint with YourStory. Her story ‘The Silver Anklet’ won a prize in Deccan Herald’s short story competition in 2018. Sharika recently authored a children’s book titled Tara and the quest for the Cursed Prince. Her short stories have been part of anthologies titled The Other Side, Ether Ore and A Lie on Her Lips. Sharika lives in Bangalore with her family.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

Visit to a Book Fair 

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

I went to the local Book Fair and bought ceramic coffee mugs. There was a big stall selling woollen garments. I chose a comforter. Wrap myself in it and sit in the balcony area, holding a coffee mug and a good read. 

I came across another stall selling holidays. A travel and tour agency reviving itself after the pandemic. It offered discount packages to distant places of interest. The nearby places were more expensive. A tour to Bangkok was cheaper than a tour covering North Bengal. The images of reading books on a hammock by the seaside seeded my desire to try out such a holiday. During winter, the package tours to the seaside were also sold out. I took some pamphlets and compared the best value offers that I could browse when I reached home and decide where to unwind in the company of books, where to swing in the delight of reading under the shady palms and bask in the winter sun. Reading was not the concern, the spot for reading was more important. The perfect backdrop for photo albums.

Some stalls were selling casual wear. I made up my mind to try something chic and warm for the winter months. Sometimes, I have to take a selfie while reading and post it on social media handles. I have to be careful about the quality and colour. It should be sober and sombre. I came across a furniture store selling bean bags. I decided to buy one for a cosy corner in the living room. For some weeks, it would become the hangout zone. I booked one as it was offering free home delivery. 

My next stop was a new stall of a branded lens for glasses. It was offering free eye testing facility and a free frame on the first order booked at the fairground. I lapped up the offer of a free computerised eye test without knowing anything about its reliability. The result was disappointing. My vision was faulty. He gave me a slip, asking me to meet the optician at the brick and mortar store within seven days and order progressive spectacles. The onset of bifocal vision was certainly not an indicator of any progress in my vision or career. 

As I was battling this new reality, I came across a stall selling brand new noodles. A free trial offer made me stand in the queue that was longer than a noodle. Accessories matter a lot. Somewhat old-fashioned when it comes to displaying a writing instrument in my shirt pocket, I hovered around the stationery stall selling dot and gel pens, colourful pencils, sharpeners, erasers, and markers, jostling with a group of school kids, reaching out to grab as many as possible from the tempting ‘Buy One Get Free’ baskets before the stock disappeared. I took some notebooks and notepads for portable use, to jot down those fleeting thoughts that assail me during my long walks. There was another section selling cover files. I took some transparent ones to keep the rejection letters intact, just like prized academic degrees. Some were fit to archive the printouts of the sample chapters.

My next stop was a store selling lampshades and fancy reading lamps. My strategy of picking up the profitable buys guided me to opt for a hefty one with a hefty discount. I felt happy to get one for my writing desk, good to place it in a corner. This would brighten up the table though it would occupy a lot of space. Its strong metal base would keep it steady – to resist the winds of change blowing in through the wide window kept open almost the entire day. The dark corners of the imaginative mind would also be lit up well.

I had done lots of impulsive shopping. But thankfully, most of the selected items in my cart were related to books. My last stop was bookstores now. Whatever energy I was left with, I wanted to spend it on books. I visited some book stalls to look for new arrivals. I found no offer better than the online ones. Standing in front of a bookshelf, I checked the discounted price and compared it online. I placed an order online as it was cheaper than the price inside the book fair. But the store gave easy access to find a list of good books. After placing online orders for some fiction titles, I decided to lessen my guilt. By seeking rare titles not found on any online platform. These high-priced books do not sell much. But publishers carry them to the book fair stall. I checked many times and found out-of-stock responses from the online stores. But those books turning yellow were right there in front of me. I stopped myself from buying these because of very low or zero discount.

I was carrying a full shopping bag made of eco-friendly jute but without any books in it. No, I was not assailed with guilt. It was a fully justified and meaningful shopping spree. Most of the things I purchased were related to the reading process. I should not blame myself for wasting money on irrelevant items that one should not buy – not at least from a book fair. 

Near the exit gate, there was a fast-food stall selling egg rolls. I gobbled up a spicy double egg roll really fast, to beat hunger pangs. I quenched my thirst with a bottle of chocolate flavoured drink. Instead of feeding the insatiable hunger for books and quenching the thirst for reading books. I left out books from the list of purchases at the book fair I visited and felt closer to large crowds of people who visited the book fair to buy everything except books.

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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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

Life without a pet

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Pet owners consider themselves blessed and share enriching stories. It sounds like the credit goes to the pet for awakening the fine human that had been dormant, in hiding, till the advent of the creature. Those who live without a pet are not supposed to be caring. To be recognised as sensitive, they should be seen petting a dog or a cat, making a pout, or blowing kisses for a feline or a canine. Even if they are highly insensitive towards fellow human beings, the presence of a pet in life helps build the image of being gentle and compassionate. A boss returns home after sacking a dozen employees and cuddles his pet Labrador – to assure himself that he still retains the softer side.

Many pet owners feel offended if their pet is called a dog. They want pets to be accorded respect. It appears it has become a mission in life to ensure respect for pets. Most of the dogs have fancy foreign names difficult to pronounce. I have not managed to be as generous as the householder who yells at the domestic help, and his pet amplifies his scolding with a high-pitched bark.

Pet owners spend liberally on their upkeep. The pet is served branded food purchased from a supermarket for balanced nutrition. The allocated budget for the pet is much higher than the monthly spending on the domestic help who gets non-branded food to eat.

Frankly speaking, I have never been fond of pets. Preparing chicken or mutton is ruled out in my vegetarian household. It would be an additional responsibility to take the pet out for a fleshy treat during the weekends. And if the pet turned vegetarian because of lack of choice, it would grow weak and lose the aggressive approach while fobbing off salespersons, beggars, and monkeys.

A dog would never feel inclined to bark inside my house as it would be listening to meditative music all the time. Since I prefer spiritual shows on television, the dog would also develop spiritual leanings to prepare for a better next life. The lack of wholesome entertainment in the house would make the pet feel bored, forcing the poor fellow to hang around the entrance gate to seek friendship with stray dogs roaming on the street.

The pet would also be upset if I did not take it out for a leisurely stroll in the park, to ogle at beauties and seek their caresses with a cute wink. I cannot indulge in such flirtatious acts and get away with it without getting lynched in the era of instant justice. The freedom the pet enjoys with girls and women is what I envy the most. Holding a leash and keeping pace with the agile dog would be another cardio exercise for me. It would be plain silly to be its guardian and silently suffer while the pet relished the attention of lissome women around and left me with the job of collecting all those flying kisses on its behalf.

Pets are supposed to protect householders from burglars. When it comes to performing after dark, many pets fail to live up to the expectations. A neighbour’s burly dog fell asleep after consuming drugged cookies offered by burglars who decamped with cash and ornaments. Dozing off on a critical night when burglars break in and barking at the moon the whole night for almost the entire year is simply a case of dismal performance that calls for dismissal.

I have no idea how to keep dogs happy and satisfied. Cuddling them, pampering them, or chatting with them to vent frustration is not my cup of tea. I count myself as incompetent to understand the feelings of others. For such a person, understanding the psychology of dogs is tougher than clearing a competitive test. Any pet of any lineage would like to get rid of me within a few months of living together. It is downright selfish to torture the poor soul only to improve my sensitivity quotient.

I have never believed in competition, but the presence of a pet would make me reverse that. The dog trainer would like the pet to participate in various games and tournaments, to win medals and trophies, to outsmart the owner who managed to win nothing big in his career.

A pet in my bed is something I dread. I do not want that casual pawing, no scratches on the back to make the partner think there is another woman in my life. It depends on the temperament and mood of the pet, whether I am spared or mauled. Serious damage followed by an apology from the pet would be useless. Hence, all that is precious should be held away from the reach of the dog. If the pet suffers any accidental injury at home, animal welfare associations are likely to pounce on me. I need to safeguard my interest as the pet would play the victim card. The best way out is to keep it out of my life.

I am accused of showing my wicked side instead of the sensitive side to animals when I chase away stray dogs and cats instead of indulging them with leftovers. Once encouraged, they become regular visitors and it is transactional. I give something and they follow me in the hope of further benevolence. When I do not feed them anything, they are least bothered to visit me or find out how I am doing.

Nowadays, stray dogs bark at me in the lane before looking away morosely. Recently, a dog tried to grab my fleshy leg for a quick bite but I managed to escape unhurt. After this episode, they look miffed as I chase them away with a stick. They climb the boundary wall to protest and bark, drawing the attention of other human beings in the neighbourhood. But the stray brethren of the locality know I am a peace-loving person who loves to co-exist. They have every right to live and enjoy life just like me. I am in full support of saving them from high decibels and firecrackers. I want a dignified life for them with no ill-treatment at all. So they should appreciate my sentiments and reciprocate by staying out of my way instead of bumping into me. I have no intent to derive pleasure or happiness from any animal source whatsoever.

I am not comfortable with the idea of a dog sitting next to me or on my lap while I am eating food or reading. I do not want the pet to scratch my CD collection if lunch gets late or tear my manuscript pages for brunch. Many writers and poets get stirred when a cat or a dog sits in front of them on the window-sill, busy with a pack of biscuits or a bowl of milk. I am not one of those creative types and the emotional enrichment theory is not applicable in my case. I avoid trips to the doctor for myself and I am not keen to visit the vet with the pet for vaccination schedules from time to time.

I do not want to drive the car with a dog in the backseat. I do not want the people travelling in an e-rickshaw or public bus to feel inferior when the dog peeps out of the car window. The person feels this dog has a better fortune and prays for such a privileged life. I would save that space and drop some passengers to their destinations in the car.

There are deaths in the families all the time and grief management is a big issue. The death of a pet in the family adds to this burden as the pet owner has to cope with another tragedy. I wish to avoid such negative setbacks and block the avoidable sources of grief.

A friend once told me I would have been a better writer if I had been a pet lover. I agreed with that because most good writers are pet lovers. If this piece fails to grab your attention, consider it the outcome of not living with a pet.

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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.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.