Musings of a Copywriter

Simian Surprises

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Courtesy: Creative Commons

It is often said that monkeys do not like to see their face in the mirror. They tend to screech with explicit dental intimidation if they happen to find themselves in front of one. Whether it is outright abhorrence for narcissistic indulgences that eggs the simians to adopt such a stance or anything else remains unknown, but my litany of encounters with a few specimens illustrate that exceptions also prevail here as everywhere else. 

One sunny afternoon, a monkey sneaked in through the door left open by the domestic help who had stepped out to pick up woollens from the clothesline. Sensing positive vibes in the air, he proceeded into the living room and stood on his hind legs in front of a large full-length mirror, striking a confident, self-assured, and dignified pose to assess the overall look. When I lifted the curtain to have a full view of his antics, it was an invasion on his privacy and the facial expression of self-love melted into cheeky defiance. Before I could guess what would happen next, the monkey bared his clenched yellow teeth and raised a palm and gave a resounding slap that made a perfect landing on my face. 

As luck would have it, something more interesting caught his attention. The domestic help had just stepped in to discover my strange predicament. She genuflected at the threshold to pay obeisance to the unwanted guest. With such devotion on display, his mood changed from anger to happiness. While the monkey and my help gazed at each other, I quickly disappeared from the scene to arm myself with a stick for self-defence. When I returned, I found the monkey missing while my help was still lying prostrate. I had to bang the stick on the door to alert her and inform her that the monkey had left. She got up and looked around to check if he had gone out and concluded that the peaceful departure meant good luck for the house.

I said she was lucky he did not trample over her while exiting. I had missed his exit. I did not know whether the monkey swished his tail or made a quiet, unceremonious exit. The life-threatening experience was life changing as well. The domestic help kept on showering praise on the auspicious visit that would change my fortune soon. Perhaps the visit was too short – or it was the lack of gastronomic delight for the guest that deprived me of good luck. I should have served lemonade or cookies at least.

We were destined to meet again. On another afternoon, around the same time, I was caught unawares by the presence of another simian walking gracefully out of the open kitchen with a plastic jar of biscuits clutched firmly in one arm. I had just come out after having a bath when this scene exploded in front of my eyes. Though I was fully dressed to keep my assets safe, I was jolted by this free movement inside the house. What I could figure out without my spectacles was that this simian looked more feminine than the previous trespasser. Perhaps this was the companion, and she knew that this house had easy access and was worth visiting and exploring. While moving out, this one also made no rushed effort, as if familiar with the route. Was her memory sharper than mine? Honestly speaking, I often jumble up between exit and entry doors.

As soon as the monkey went out, some other of her flock descended from the roof and flanked her. She was quite skilled at pulling the lid off just like us. In no time, several hands took turns picking up digestive biscuits. Perhaps this good bonding has kept my clothes safe from any direct attack. Even if they are left out to dry, none of them make any mischief by pulling them off from the clothesline whenever they hop around in the compound in gay abandon. Before I could shout at any family member for this negligence, I was reminded there was no one else at home. I had been careless enough to have kept the door open when the courier arrived an hour ago. 

They had been to the living room and the dining space – also to the kitchen. The bedroom and the study escaped their notice till then. I was dusting my books. The door had been left ajar. It was the perfect occasion for another visitor to fall in love with reading. While I was busy shuffling and stacking up on the upper shelves, I turned around to see one monkey sitting in front of the computer, fiddling with the mouse and the wire. I was about to jump off the small ladder to save my gadget when the simian tapped on the woofer, identifying the source of soothing music. I descended quickly to pick up some fluffy cushions from the settee to hurl at his face and started to chase him away by making whoosh-whoosh noises. The monkey felt offended, lost interest in the gadgets and rose suddenly, hitting the keyboard with his behind, toppling it along with the music discs kept at the edge of the table. Once he left without creating a ruckus, I was relieved and hoped such an encounter would not occur again though this household was familiar territory for them. However, if surprises are in store, you cannot avoid them. 

On another day, when the puja ceremony for the vehicle was about to begin, a monkey came down from the parapet, picked up a coconut from the tray, and broke it into two right in front of our eyes. While he did the honours, the priest stood shell-shocked to witness the simian intervention that was timely, prompt, voluntary and intelligent to deserve a video reel that would go viral within hours. Wondering if he was trained for such impossible acts, he kept quiet. Sadly, not being prepared for this surprise deprived me of the opportunity to shoot a video.  I had to convince him that the monkey chose to do so out of his free will. We must appreciate his decision to help us during the auspicious occasion with active participation, to make ordinary mortals realise that they can also perform feats that humanity world thinks is only the human forte.

They still had the instinct to help though we have forgotten to help fellow humans and other creatures of this planet. It was a timely reminder that we need to wake up and start working towards making this world a better place again. On that sombre note, we concluded the brief ceremony and enriched our minds with a broader outlook. The priest would remember this all his life. As expected, the news of a monkey breaking the coconut bought many people to my gate, who came looking for darshan[1] of the trained resident monkey perched somewhere on the roof or a tree top.

[1] Holy vision

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.  


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Musings of a Copywriter

Of Mice & Men

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Waking up in the ambrosial wee hours of the morning to find my silk scarf dragged to the bathroom door sent shivers down my spine. I suspected the sneaky presence of a stranger in the house, most likely a petty thief who fancied this extravagant piece of clothing around his neck to rev up his vagrant style. Rattled by this intrusion, I turned around, with one eye stationed on the wall. I tried to track shadows lurking behind me to hammer my moderately creative head. Nothing appeared in sight or peripheral vision, so I looked up for open ventilators or any broken windowpane to unravel the mystery of the great escape of an agile thief who decamped with more valuable stuff than what had come to my notice so far. 

Picking up the scarf and dumping it in the woven basket, I retraced my steps to enter the bedroom and checked the cash box in the wardrobe. I was about to step in when something scurried very fast along the base of the wall in front of me, squeaking behind the refrigerator in search of a haven, probably feeling scared and jittery of a predatory attack and sending distress signals to its fraternity to stay holed up underground. 

The supposed culprit – a squeaking rat – had made a fleeting appearance. I confess I do not possess the olfactory vigour to smell its presence like many others do. But there was no denying the fact that there was a family of rats residing at my address without my knowledge and permission. The tell-tale signs were their droppings splattered on the marble slab in the kitchen and the dining space. One rat would surely not have such a bulky output even if it enjoyed a wholesome feast every night. Besides, dragging my silk scarf was a specimen of well-orchestrated teamwork.  

As the storytelling instinct does not let go of an opportunity to find a crack for a new narrative, the presence of a ghost could well be another strong possibility. Possibly the rat was not the culprit but the saviour to chase away the spirit in search of salvation or relief from the wintry chill as it rested on the mango tree in the backyard. Spirits enter and exit through closed doors and windows with ease, so this was another fascinating interpretation that engaged me for a while when I traced no sign of pilferage in my wardrobe. 

Since I had witnessed the presence of a shy rat lacking the courage to own up its mischief, I was inclined to go with this credible version. With another rat collaborating to displace my favourite scarf. It was quite a distinct possibility though I was yet to attach a motive to it. Were they just trying to foment trouble in the household? Were they having good fun with my scarf to end their boredom? I had checked the scarf for possible tears but it bore no sign of violence. 

I must praise their good behaviour and upbringing. Though they could have wreaked havoc on my belongings lying in the open, they exercised remarkable restraint. Or perhaps, they had damaged things I had not examined yet. Maybe, the cloth bags, the plastic containers on the kitchen shelf, the woollen carpet, or the backside of the leather sofa were what they preferred to bite into. On the upside, there was still no clinching evidence of their destructive avatar in the household. Playing the devil’s advocate, I thought the rats tried to take my scarf to the washroom and plunge it into the water drum to serve me a reminder. Washing it was a pending task for quite some time. The stubborn stains of tomato sauce on the scarf were unlikely to go away if there were any further delays.  

Instead of thanking them for the timely assistance, I chose to be thankless, like humans tend to do all the time. I preferred to place a rat trap with irresistible bait: jam cookies for dinner. With those tantalising pieces dangling from the iron hook inside the wooden box, a fool-proof trap was laid, like those gorgeous dresses displayed to entice shoppers into a store. The rat trap was not big enough for the pair to walk into comfortably without jostling for space. However, in the cover of darkness, I was sure at least one would go inside to fetch the gourmet food while the partner waited outside, just as a biker ducks into a takeaway snack counter and his pillion-riding girlfriend guards the bike. 

My concern regarding the safety of bestselling books was paramount though I was okay if they chewed the books written by me, to cut their teeth and gain experience of what they were best at. I was impressed with their perfect coordination, fighting like a healthy couple, making a big noise on piffling issues but staying united to stave off external attacks. 

Getting the rats out of their hiding place was a problem that plagued me. I hoped the bait would work as a talisman for me. But deep within, I thanked them for doing good work instead of damaging the items. This was a radical change that deserved praise instead of this brazen attempt to evict them. Human beings find innovative ways to eliminate rivals of all species. My eviction drive was a moderate and tolerant act though I had the freedom to snuff out their precious lives with a mild dose of poison sprayed on bread crumbs or try a glue mat that immobilise them once they have stepped on it accidentally and keep screeching for relief till their last breath.  

I thought the next morning I would push the wooden box out of the house, lift the cage door and set it free to roam the big, bad world instead of remaining cloistered here. But the rats were intelligent and clever to guess my moves. Staying close to books led to some transfer of knowledge. I saw the trap door still open and the jam cookies lying untouched. It proved to be quite a greed-resistant pair, unlike human beings. Let me not read too much into it. Maybe they were fasting that night, maybe the cookies were placed a bit too far beyond their reach, or maybe, they were having something yummier than what I had served them. 

The next day, I placed the same delicacy in a different spot. Closer to the cavity behind the door to shorten its travel distance and switched on a mellow yellow night bulb for ease of movement without stumbling in the dark. It would be quite a romantic setting for the couple to waltz for a while before getting inside the cosy cabin to feast on jam cookies.

I was growing impatient to get them inside the rat trap. By hook or by crook. Surprisingly, this time it worked. Early in the morning, I spotted a long tail swishing. Curious eyes looked at me with horror and betrayal. There was a tacit appeal to reciprocate goodness just as they had been good to my belongings even though they had the power to ruin everything. I dragged the box out of the house, wore the gloves of a gardener, and put on a mask as if I were about to perform a surgical experiment. I pushed the wooden box down the stairs and it was a tumble, a freefall, a deep dive like a car plunging into the deep gorge from a mountain road. 

The world of the rat also turned as topsy-turvy as mine. When he finally crashed and landed on the cement floor with a thud, the shocked rat recovered from the initial rude jolt and looked through the grille at the vast blue sky before establishing eye contact with me. I pushed the entrance door open to set him free. He came out quickly and vamoosed, taking a diagonal route to enter a pesky neighbour’s compound. This was my unintended gift to his house but I hoped the rat would make it hell for him, and settle scores on my behalf, for dumping all his dry waste in front of my house to keep his façade look super clean.  

I abandoned the gloves after the successful operation and washed my hands with anti-septic liquid before going for a breakfast of oats. A day of peace later, I found disturbing noises again. Deprived of its companion, the surviving partner in the household was making fervent screeching pleas to be reunited. I was afraid she would seek revenge this time so I should get it out at the earliest.   

I was mistaken in thinking trapping her would be a challenge. The rat was more than willing to be trapped as it knew this was the vehicle that carried its partner away. Placing a bit of walnut cake slice inside the rat trap allured the survivor though I knew she would have stepped in even without the bait. I found her lying inside listlessly the next morning, without any visible effort to move an inch. She was eager to be ferried out of the house. So, I did what was necessary.

When I finally set her free, she went in the same diagonal direction the earlier one had gone even though I did not provide any clues or hint of direction to proceed. She was rather quick and entered the compound of the same pesky neighbour who would now have two unwanted guests in his elegant villa. 

I know they would recollect memories of happy days spent in my humble abode and glorify my benevolence. I set them free, but they were destined to be united again. Even if the neighbour poisons the two after detecting their presence, they would still be happy to die together instead of living sad lives in separation. 

Courtesy: Creative Commons

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.  


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles



Till Life Do Us Part

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Courtesy: Creative Commons

The Duggals had received their first invitation to attend a grand reception organised to celebrate the divorce of Upasana Malhotra, the only daughter of a reputed steel magnate diversifying into organic agribusiness. Having lived in the same colony before fortune ferried the Malhotras away from the middle-class neighbourhood to a posh locality teeming with industrialists, the Duggals were the only family they shared close ties with decades ago. The same affection remained in place even though their visits happened only on special occasions. So, it was a surprise for the Duggals to be invited again after three years to the same household where they had gone to bless the couple exchanging vows for continuing wedded for life.  

More startling was that the girl possessed the courage to throw a lavish party, inviting distinguished guests who came to her wedding party to re-appear, bless and congratulate her again for her decision to leave the Poddar surname attached in haste. After a breezy romantic courtship that blossomed in a top-notch US university campus, the much-talked-about marriage solemnised three summers ago hurtled to a premature end. The Duggals knew it was one of her crazy ideas to celebrate the mutual separation ostentatiously and showcase the event for public consumption, with attendees looking baffled about how they should behave on her D-day (read Divorce Day). 

As the Duggals were flabbergasted, they sought the help from Google to find out more about such parties. They could not find ample content to clarify their doubts, so they sought help from their tech-savvy son, Shamsher Duggal, who called up an event manager friend to dig up details about divorce parties. She said there were no separate rules to follow, and it was just held the way marriage parties are held, with much scope to innovate for the couple. The guests were expected to maintain the usual decorum and focus on wine, food and music to celebrate the bright future for the divorcees. Shamsher asked his parents to keep the Charh di Kala[1]approach in mind, to calibrate themselves with the equivalent of joie de vivre: stay indulgent, in high spirits to mint fresh memories of fun and enjoyment.  

Mr Duggal kept gazing at the invitation card delivered by courier, running his podgy fingers on the embossed letters. It was fancier than any marriage invitation card. The gold-plated card glittered, perhaps indicating the glittering future after the mutual separation that was to be formalised at an auspicious hour. The names of the couple and their families were mentioned along with the programme schedule, with the Lord’s name emblazoned on it to suggest this separation was being formalised with divine blessings, to thank Him for mercy and saving the couple from a boring life together. 

Freedom at midnight is always good as it heralds a new dawn. The midnight timeline for the divorce echoed in a similar strain. The couple would wake to a new life of freedom after their tryst with matrimony. The big idea behind the invitation was to come and bless the separating couple with tons of happiness in their post-divorce lives. The creative note was penned by a professional copywriter who gave it a spin and hyped it to such an extent that it seemed missing this event would be the biggest blunder for couples who had experienced the beautiful side of getting hitched but not the equally, if not more, wonderful side of getting ditched. When Mrs Duggal picked it up to read, those emotional lines struck a chord with her and filled the gaps in their marriage. She looked at divorce through the prism of optimism.  

Mr Duggal, yet to recover from the initial shock of being invited to attend the divorce party, found it challenging to customise his expressions to suit the occasion, to look happy like he did when Upasana married this guy three years ago. He remembered sharing with relatives and friends the video clip featuring their energetic Bhangra dance to show how charged they were as a doting, retired couple.   

“Do you think we are expected to bless them again? Isn’t it a farce? Grooving and smiling would be tough, isn’t it? Those vivid memories of blessing her would haunt me. What is the need to hold this function? What are they trying to prove? Mocking at the institution of marriage? Don’t you think they are making a grand show of putting up a brave face when misfortune looms large? Check the program list. Leading pop singers from the film world are going to perform live,” Mr Duggal went hammer and tongs.

“They are not going to sing sad songs of separation. Not your favourite dard bhare geet. They wish to celebrate divorce as a happy occasion – the harbinger of good times. A peppy show loaded with dance and masti[2]. Frankly, I am impressed with her plan, no matter what you say. Chalo[3], let’s not waste time. Choose my dress and matching jewellery, so much to do. Stop brooding and decide which suit you want to wear or buy something traditional,” Mrs Duggal showed her positive frame of mind for the special event they were privileged to attend. Finally, she would have something unique to discuss at her kitty party next week.

Mr Duggal was not in high spirits, unlike his wife who got another opportunity to look fabulous and interact with the upwardly mobile guests she had met at Upasana’s theme wedding. When he mentioned the name of the sensational singer, Mrs Duggal slipped into dance mode, visualising it to be awesome.  

“Our blessings are mere formality; did not mean much the last time and it is not going to matter this time again,” Mr Duggal tried to get her back on a serious track.

“Oh Sardarji, come on, you know it is all like that. Do not ruin the fun part. They have entertainment. We ate a gourmet dinner last time. Expect the same this time. They are sweetly mocking the institution of marriage so let them do it. Relationships are like that only today. Here, we carry dead relationships on our shoulders and try to revive them instead of ending everything on a bitter-sweet note,” Mrs Duggal offered her worldview without sounding preachy.

“So, you mean our marriage can also go to the rocks one day? Our four decades of marriage can crumble,” Mr Duggal expressed concern, “In case you have such intent, do let me know a year in advance so I can prepare and plan my future, and get check-ups done to avoid cardiac arrest. But if you decide suddenly – just give me a slow disclosure so that the shock does not upset my weak but vital organs,” Mr Duggal pleaded with her in a lighter vein.  

“Now stop worrying about your fate and go and ask if Shamsher would join us,” Mrs Duggal tried to reduce his anxiety.  

“Has he ever been anywhere with us in the last ten years? No point asking and getting the same standard reply,” Mr Duggal furnished his bland refusal.  

“He was not asked to accompany us to Upasana’s wedding. They were friends in childhood. Maybe now you can ask if he…” Mrs Duggal tried to persuade him.

“You remember so much. Anyway, since you insist, I am seeking his presence. Did he complain he was not asked to go last time?” Mr Duggal asked with curiosity.

Mrs Duggal kept mum, waiting for him to understand something without words.

Mr Duggal went and knocked at his son’s frosted glass door and asked if he would like to go.

Instead of refusing, he said he had an important presentation that evening so he would stay home for the project.

“I told your Mummy you are not a party-loving guy, but she insisted I should ask you to join us. When will your mother understand you as I do?”


Mr Duggal rummaged the wardrobe looking for a suitable blazer and trailed a volley of queries after informing her that Shamsher was not joining them.

“Do you have any idea how we are going to behave there? I mean do we look sad or happy? I am bad at faking, you know that. Are you going to give them bouquets separately?” Mr Duggal fired a big one.   

“Not decided. But yes, better if we give one each separately. You give to Upasana, your missed Bahu[4]. And I will give her divorcee hubby. Don’t think so much. They are happy to heal this way, so why should we grudge? We are invited – go and enjoy. Be practical like them. Just chill,” Mrs Duggal gave sound advice to make him comfortable.  

Mr Duggal was not okay with this whole idea. He thought this was intended to make fun of marriage although his wife and son were on the same page in this matter and hailed it as a progressive step.

“I am clear I am not going to bless them again,” Mr Duggal stressed with raised eyebrows, “I know the Malhotras will be upset doing this tamasha[5]but Upasana is forcing them to stage this show.”  

“Whoever has planned it, at least some people got work, some organisers, catering guys, bartenders, and DJs. Money is flowing out of the tycoon’s coffers for a divorce party that is just like a farewell party. Touchwood, I am super excited. I am going to wear a silk Sharara[6], and diamond jewellery for the divorce party,” Mrs Duggal revealed her plans.

Shamsher joined their discussion late and cheered for his mother and persuaded her to buy a flashy suit for his father, maybe a tuxedo.

When Mrs Duggal mentioned this divorce party, none of her friends reacted with excitement as they were not invited. It was a matter of privilege for the Duggal family to be invited. Upasana liked Duggal Uncle when her father was not super-rich. As good family friends, Upasana bonded well with Duggal Uncle who gave her strong lessons to be independent and brave like a boy child. This gender parity thing was a gift from Duggal Uncle who wanted her to be free in her choices.

“You are the one who put those modern ideas in her at that young age,” Mrs Duggal accused her husband of being the real culprit.

There was no denying the fact that Mr Duggal never discriminated against based on gender and encouraged girls to follow their dreams. He had encouraged his sister to join the medical profession. Considering Upasana to be just like his own child, he gave her genuine advice as her father was busy expanding his business empire.


On the day of reception, the Duggals walked in, decked in their best. Upasana spotted them from a distance and walked down the aisle to receive them and hugged them after touching their feet. She had not forgotten the traditions. Mrs Duggal congratulated her for being bold enough to walk out of a loveless marriage based on presumptions. Citing this as the most probable reason, she went ahead with examples of women from her community separating fast. As they reached the dais where the florally decorated, chairs for the split couple were arranged, her ex-hubby greeted them with folded hands and shook hands with Mr Duggal who almost squeezed it in true Punjabi style, and his smile almost dried up under pressure.  

“Nice, you are leaving Upasana, not made for each other type actually,” Mr Duggal said to the former groom, Puneet Poddar while releasing his hand from his firm grip. Mrs Duggal offered him a bouquet of roses and congratulated him on his quick release from the marriage cell with a sardonic smile and an avancular peck on his chubby cheek.   

Trying to appreciate her sense of humour, Puneet Poddar reciprocated with a half-hearted smile and claimed it was his idea to throw a party and seconded by Upasana. “The real purpose behind this party is to meet you, guys. All those who attended our marriage got the invite to this party – from both sides. Our families loved this idea and gave the go-ahead to end it on a happy note,” Puneet explained briefly to the Duggals and guided them to settle in the front row seats on the other stage put up for the gala musical night.   

Mr Duggal wanted to meet the Malhotras first and asked him, “Where are your parents and in-laws?”

Mrs Duggal went to reserve the best seats for the music show while her husband continued the chat with Puneet Poddar who informed their parents that were together, formalising last-minute plans of setting up a new company abroad.

“Son and daughter are separating but the parents are forging a new bond?” Mr Duggal looked stunned.

“That is the beauty of our separation, Uncle. No bitterness. They remain friends and come closer while we call it over. They clicked as business partners, but we did not as partners. Simple as that.”  

“This is something unique, never heard of, dear, business interest supreme,” Mr Duggal admitted, “very practical, beta[7], loving it now.”  

“Honestly Uncle, we all are happy, we are beginning new lives,” Puneet Poddar asserted with a dash of confidence.

“Where did Upasana vanish? Let me find her.”

“Must be busy with her girl gang inside,” Puneet said coldly.

Guests started trooping in with gift hampers and the band of musicians arrived on the stage. Mr Duggal looked around and found the best whiskey.  

Contrary to Mr Duggal’s expectation of tearjerker numbers, sad songs of the Rafi-Lata-Kishore era being played out in a remix version, or some Ghalib ghazals, the band started jamming on peppy songs of freedom and carefree living and travelling the world. Perhaps that was the brief: celebrate freedom and free living. The dance floor rocked, as couples of all age groups began to waltz. The laser beams flash here and there to create colourful images of a happy crowd enjoying every moment of the party, with dozens of cameras zooming and capturing the party from various angles.

The couple that was breaking up could be spotted together on the stage, flanked by their parents for the last photo-op. The press guys went click, click, click.

Mr Malhotra held the mike and spoke with verve, “We are glad to have you all with us on this happy day, to wish the separating pair the best for their future lives as independent people in their solo journeys.”  

He gave it to Puneet to utter a few words, and he trundled out a stirring speech. “It was a wonderful journey of three years, and we realised this is all we had to share. No question of remarrying but remaining focused on living as free souls. Marriage is not fit for our nature and temperament. I am not marriage material. I guess we both have this trait in common. These three years have convinced us. There are many more like us who keep quiet and continue. Not us because we have choices. I was lucky to have Upasana who realised the same, and we gave each other the best gift possible. Freedom. If marriage was wrong, divorce is right.”  

Puneet Poddar won a legion of admirers with his speech, and the guests expected Upasana to say a few words to surpass him.  

Upasana picked it up from where he left, “Yeah right, marriages don’t have to be dysfunctional and then end in a split. Even apparently peaceful and stable marriages can end without raising a flutter. When beautiful things unfold in our lives, more beautiful than marriage that impedes and dilutes the experience, marriage should give way to that beautiful future we cannot share. Our lives cannot be beautiful together, not as much as our separate lives can be, and we realised it,” Upasana poured forth, “perhaps we come across as selfish, but if the sole focus of marriage is to make two people happy forever, we felt we were not going to make it as a couple. Better to part ways as friends who tried out marriage but thankfully did not suffer in it.”  

The thunderous applause for her fiery words paled everything else into insignificance and glorified their divorce.  


The priest who had come to perform their marriage rituals had come for the divorce. His presence was needed to bless them again for a new phase. His holy presence would be seen as auspicious for their divorce. After blessing them on stage, he came down and went to have his quota of snacks and drinks.

Mr Duggal bumped into him and held his arm, “Arrey[8], Sharma, where are you running and with what?”

 There was a glass of drink in his hand, and he claimed it was nothing but a cold drink.

“When did I say you are having anything else?” Mr Duggal quipped.

“Sardarji, the couple took the right decision,” the priest confessed, before taking a sip, “Their stars did not match, but I got paid extra to match everything. There is a defect in the birth chart and a big chance of a fatal accident if they remain married for five years. This is the real reason for the split, I am telling you. But anyway, it is a new experience for me. I am enjoying a divorce party for the first time at fifty-five. I have performed hundreds of marriages, and many couples split up in courts, but nobody tried this. Congratulations to their families, and hope this inspires more couples planning to split, to follow suit.”

Mr Duggal was not the superstitious type, and such disclosures did not cut much ice with him. Polishing off the drink, the priest went to relish paneer butter masala[9]and kulchas[10]while Mrs Duggal remained busy in the chaat[11] stalls and savoured scoops of gelato ice cream.  

The parents of the divorcing couple ate together while the pair was busy with their bosom friends. Everybody seemed to enjoy the evening, except for Mr Duggal who felt a tad remorseful as this was not what he was expecting to happen. Since everyone seemed happy, he had no reason to feel sad. Puneet was a nice man and what more do you need than a nice person as a life partner? He could not answer that for himself and realised nobody knew for sure what they wanted in life but knew only what they wanted at a particular stage of life.

The priest disappeared to gorge more kulchas while Mr Duggal set forth to take charge of his wife, who was careless regarding her sugar intake. She seemed to have enjoyed the sweets — all alone. With Mr Duggal reminding her of dietary restrictions, she lost the sense of freedom and almost threatened to leave him, “Stay away, or there will be two divorces today. Let me indulge in what I like.” Mrs Duggal made it resoundingly clear.

Mr Duggal felt scared of divorce at his advanced age and let her have her way. He went to listen to the music band singing some peppy chartbusters from across the world. Soon after, they wanted to leave but the divorcing couple and their parents were nowhere around. They moved out quickly without informing anyone except the priest who trailed behind them to the exit gate. Mr Malhotra was already at the gate when he saw them. He gave a warm hug and apologised for being tied up during the entire evening, “Thanks for coming, yaar[12], our friendship from Model Town days survives despite everything. Upasana was closer to you than me. She still misses Bhabhiji ke Chhole Bhaturey[13].”   

On the way home in their hatchback car, Mr Duggal could not convince himself whether this was all real or fake.

“When people appear madly in love after marriage, it is also far from real,” Mrs Duggal hinted how a façade is always in place, “Forget everything, it was a good freak-out session. I enjoyed the music, golgappas[14], chaat and ice cream flavours like mint and paan[15], just wonderful. I remember that. Nothing else. Perhaps divorce is not a bad thing after this. The lesser burden on our courts. You have to admit they set an example. End it without scars and bruises, without social stigma. The same people who attended the marriage were present at their divorce, so hopefully, they will not badmouth them. I won’t be surprised if this catches up fancy and becomes a trend here like in the West,” Mrs Duggal gave her candid views while Mr Duggal focused on driving safely to negotiate the final bend near their house.   

“Perhaps you are right,” Mr Duggal agreed as he stopped the car at the entrance. Shamsher came out to open the gate and asked,” So how was your party, guys?”

“Oh, it was lovely, beta. You should have comewith us. I have something for you,” Mrs Duggal gave him the box of laddoos[16] they were gifted before leaving the party ground.  

While Mr Duggal parked the car in the garage, Shamsher opened the designer box and saw the printed photo of Upasana, with a thank-you note.

“Like Shaadi ka laddoo[17], this is divorce ka laddoo, taste it, beta,” Mrs Duggal teased her son who was unwilling to marry even though he was close to forty.  

When they entered the living room, Shamsher went to the upper floor and stood on the balcony. Mrs Duggal sent his father upstairs to check his emotional state. Mr Duggal came and placed his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Did you like Upasana?”

Shamsher did not turn around to answer the question. In the meanwhile, Mrs Duggal came upstairs slowly with her arthritic knees, and responded on his behalf, “What will this coward say? He could never say it earlier. Always busy with computers.”

Finding him unusually quiet after this salvo for the first time in years, his parents left him alone to regain emotional composure. However, his silence answered a lot.   

 “You knew all this?” Mr Duggal asked her after reaching their bedroom.

“Of course, I am his mother. I can sense that. I know his feelings better than you do,” Mrs Duggal shot back with confidence.

“But you never said it to me. Maybe I could take it up with her,” Mr Duggal said.

“But I was not sure if she was also having the same feelings for him,” Mrs Duggal explained to justify her silence.

Shamsher recollected the three years he and Upasana studied in the same school together. Then she left the locality and was admitted to a girl’s convent. Later she left for the US to pursue higher studies where she fell in love with Puneet Poddar who was studying on the same campus. Some mutual friends kept offering updates though he never established contact with her.

Shamsher picked up one laddoo from the box without hesitation and put it in his mouth. The saffron flavour was awesome, cooked in desi ghee[18]. His smile of satisfaction grew wider as he stuffed another laddoo – to celebrate their divorce and gave a hearty laugh to release his residual feelings of childhood love.    

[1] High spirited

[2] enjoyment

[3] Come

[4] Bride, daughter-in law

[5] Show or event

[6] A loose trouser

[7] Son

[8] Oh!

[9] A preparation of cottage cheese

[10] A kind of Indian bread

[11] Savoury snacks

[12] friend

[13] Sister-in-law’s chickpea curry with fried flatbread

[14] Savoury snack

[15] Betel quid regarded as a digestive after a heavy meal

[16] Sweets

[17] Wedding sweets

[18] Homemade clarified butter

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.  


Musings of a Copywriter

Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Strumming a guitar promises a note of success and a rush of adrenalin. Otherwise, there is no reason for young men with brawny biceps attired in sleeveless vests to sit beside the grilled window with creeping money plants on the balcony to invest their time and energy to impress the girl next door. Instead of handsome returns, the well-orchestrated operation often draws the unwarranted attention of the girl’s bifocal father who sniffs an ulterior motive while speed-reading the nasty headlines of the newspaper in hand and patrolling the antiskid balcony space in visible anxiety to crack a strategy to foil the covert takeover bid before his innocent girl slips for the nerd rock star.

Despite the long-drawn, dedicated mission of playing popular romantic numbers to woo the girl, my dear friend did not have any stroke of luck. But the girl’s father did suffer an unexpected stroke, leading to the untimely demise of the romantic misadventure. Assailed by the remorse of having stressed out the old fogey with his musical renditions and clandestine romantic intentions, he decided to punish himself by hanging the guitar on the wall. 

Years later, the girl’s mother visited my friend’s house one evening. That she was up to some mischief became evident when she disclosed to my friend’s bride how he played music for her teenage daughter every morning before she left for school. All hell broke loose when he returned home from the tailoring shop to face an angry spouse who picked up the guitar from the wall as if it were a royal sword and presented it to him with a solemn request to strum it and croon something for her. He tried to duck it by saying he had made a vow, a gentleman’s promise to abstain from playing music again. But she spilt the beans, charging him with how desperately and unsuccessfully he once tried to lure the neighbour’s daughter with his musical foray.   

Shocked by this disclosure, he found no escape route from the mess. He had to either recapitulate the long story long forgotten from his point of view or play the instrument and let his wife be instrumental in reviving his defunct musical career. Instead of denying what his wife accused him of doing many moons ago, he added a divine dimension as he decided that musical pursuit could be  another way of attaining God. The fact that he chose the wrong instrument for that purpose was not pointed out by his wife. She was eager to see him perform live and exclusively for her – in front of her smouldering kohl-lined eyes dying to blink in symphony with his heartbeat. She sat on the cushioned swing suspended from the balcony ceiling, with her long, lustrous hair thrown open, with a blooming pink rose plucked from the painted pot kept nearby and tucked neatly in her straightened tresses. He dithered and fine-tuned the guitar and then decided to select a few lilting numbers from his vast repertoire to play for her in the incandescent light of the paper lantern bulbs setting the romantic mood for the musical soiree.  

The story of this guitar began in Delhi when my friend accompanied me on what is called a business cum pleasure trip. Reaching the capital from Kolkata was a historic visit for my friend who was keen to pose in front of the Red Fort and go on a shopping spree in Connaught Place (CP). While walking on the CP pavement, similar to the Grand Hotel Arcade in design, my friend suddenly entered a music instruments store and quoted an incredible budget for an imported guitar. The bewildered shop owner remained quiet and scanned him for a while before asking him the difference between boiled rice and basmati rice. Taking it as an affront to his dignity and knowledge about the price of musical instruments, he shot back in accented Hindi with a quick reply to salvage his self-respect by claiming that his Ustad had taught many Indian classical legends and he knew several of them personally in Kolkata. 

Many other customers inside the store began to label us as pretentious ignoramuses from another planet. The smart-alecky shopkeeper asked us to identify the portraits on the upper portion of the wall right behind his counter. They were the leading lights who patronised his shop to buy instruments and agreed to get clicked with the owners of the music store that had been in existence for more than a century. My friend cast a quick look but failed to recognise any of them. So, the shopkeeper schooled us further by conducting a master class.

We had to either buy the guitar we had asked for or disappear from the store. I took small steps and reached the exit when I heard my friend holler in a stentorian voice: “Pack this guitar for me. Here — take the money.”

The price was well beyond his budget, but he saved our image and came out of the store with the guitar and a cash memo in hand. It was evident from the facial expression he had picked up a costly instrument he was not ready to buy. But the joy of silencing the shopkeeper and mellowing his tenor was a resounding victory, and he claimed he did not argue much regarding music since he respected elders. But an hour later, when he again felt pricked by this expenditure, he exploded in a language devoid of an iota of respect and issued threats of teaching that bald, grinning shopkeeper a proper lesson had this incident occurred in Bengal. The remarkable story of saving dignity became the dominant aspect of purchasing this guitar. I felt he had risen to the occasion though he had to cancel plans for his shopping spree as his money had gone into this guitar. 

He sat with the guitar and posed with fake smiles for my camera to capture. He did not appear comfortable holding it in his hands and passed it to me after a while. I found it a huge responsibility and took extra care of the guitar as we were proudly taking home something pricey. It was nothing less than a trophy won in a tough competition.

This imported guitar regaled many local listeners – including my friend’s wife at present. She had no idea that how her husband had acquired the prized beauty, saved our self-respect, and preserved the prestige of our state known for culture and music by shelling out an enormous amount to grab something rare that few people in our country can afford even today. Although his father never cut anything other than a piece of cloth, he had big dreams of cutting a music album someday, of inviting the Delhi-based shopkeeper to his launch event as the chief guest for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. This would prove that those from a non-privileged background also had the right to contribute to the enrichment of music was music to his ears.     

After returning home, my friend toyed with the idea of forming a music band, got his ears pierced to wear rings to connect with trendy youth, and offered to engage my services as a lyricist. Within the year, even before I could take a call on this offer, the band he had formed with much fanfare was disbanded due to the sudden exit of the lead vocalist poached by a more resourceful rival music band. He soon realized though he was getting offers to perform in local community functions with a limited budget, it was impossible to sustain this ambitious musical venture. Soon, he joined his father’s tailoring unit and restricted his role as a musician to woo the girl he loved. But some people, like my dear friend, are perhaps naturally attracted to failures and their dreams suffer from a chronic motivational deficiency syndrome that leads them to quit at the earliest pretext.

When his mother pressurised him to settle down as he pushed into his mid-thirties, her history of myocardial infarction made him agree to her proposal. And that is how the lady who was now making him sing live for her breezed into his life. In one of her disclosures after marriage, she revealed to my friend that she had agreed to marry him only because she had seen his photograph where he was strumming a guitar. The direct benefit she expected would be the opportunity to listen to his music after a tiring day in the kitchen. But she hesitated to make it explicit so long as her father-in-law was alive. The arrival of the mother of his lost love simplified the matter for her. 

After listening to his live performance for half an hour, she gave her verdict and a standing ovation with thunderous applause. She regretted such a talent could not deliver anything substantial. Even if half of her praise was a pure exaggeration for her doting husband, there were traces of truth in her observation. When she threatened to leave him forever if he did not resume his journey as a guitarist, he agreed to reconsider his earlier decision to give up music for the sake of his lost love. While this was her loving way to resurrect the failed artist and get him back on track, music had the power to make him a divorcee. The prospect of stitching together his life once again looked remote. So, he succumbed to her demands by resuming his practice sessions on the balcony. Unlike the earlier occasion when he sat on the windowsill and performed for the girl outside the house, this musical foray was for the kitchen queen regaling herself with Bollywood numbers and soothing her frayed nerves with the fragrance of tuberoses he brought home for the bedroom vase every evening.  


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.  


Musings of a Copywriter

Drill, Fill, Just Chill

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

I have been one of those unlucky fellows who occupy the dentist’s chair, with mouth wide open for harsh light to illuminate every corner and crevice, waiting for the dentist to tap and spot cavities. My habit of going to bed with a toffee in my mouth almost every night since teenage years was the prime reason behind this early dental crisis, much before wisdom teeth could stage an appearance.    

When the first molar turned 70% darker than the chocolate I ate, I rushed to the dentist recommended by my tutor who was happy with his tooth extraction skills. I plonked on his leather seat and mentioned my tutor. He heard it all but continued unaffected, perhaps unable to recall the patient I was referring to. After he examined my troublesome tooth, he gave a smile and wrote a reference note suggesting a senior dentist he considered fit for performing root canal therapy.  

Root and canal generated separate images in my mind. I was unable to link how these two came together inside my mouth. Anyway, I paid his consultation fee and walked out to buy the pain killers he had prescribed in case the damaged tooth turned troublesome at night. It was a relief that he did not uproot it but asked me to undergo the treatment to restore the crown once he was convinced looking at my branded watch that I could afford the treatment but could not afford to lose the tooth. When people the world over are losing their crown, I was thrilled to get one for myself. With fond hope, I traced the senior doctor (in pre-GPRS[1] days) who had his chamber located in a somewhat dilapidated house with branches of a banyan tree providing shade to the crumbling façade. 

The senior doctor looked younger in age to the bald dentist who suggested his name. He read the prescription and checked the tooth x-ray report. He gave me an appointment and his assistant shared the total cost of the dental surgery, assuring me that the tooth would not give me any trouble for at least fifteen years. I divided the total amount by the number of years and found the annual maintenance cost was economical. I proposed to pay through my credit card to convert it into easy EMIs[2] but his staff declined saying no machine was installed to swipe any card.

I was nervous when I went the second time to undergo what he fondly called operation. I felt the need for a moral booster shot to ease my anxiety. With a small prayer on my chapped lips, I surrendered my mouth to his shining tools. The atmosphere was conducive as I found him jovial this time, chatting animatedly with his two burly assistants who looked like they were bouncers in a night club before applying for apprenticeship under him.  

As the process began, I noticed good coordination among them. The first sitting provided an idea of what dental surgeons love to talk about. It was a session where they discussed film releases and star scandals.

One acolyte suggested abandoning this ramshackle unit at the earliest. It was a middle-class locality where people mostly preferred cheaper tooth extractions instead of costly cosmetic dental surgery and restoration options. It was obvious the dentist was interested in minting money, and he identified the areas in the city where such lucrative dentistry could be carried out successfully. Since he was young and ambitious, he had everything right to rake in the moolah.  

It was a relief when gave me another date for the second sitting. I went again after a few days and sat through the operation while the trio discussed opening a swanky clinic in a posh area and the property rates in several upscale neighbourhoods. It appeared the dentist paid more attention to their plans and proposals instead of me. But when he said it was all done and fixed, I was surprised with his multi-tasking prowess. He said he was confident this job would keep me pain-free for twenty years.

Precisely twenty years later, I felt I should consult him once. When I went there, I was told the dentist had stopped coming to this place many years ago. So, I went to the dentist who had suggested his name, but he could not provide his current address as he had shifted to another city. My praise for the dentist who gave me a long-lasting crown stoked his jealousy and he said he was well-equipped now to perform critical dental surgeries. After checking my mouth, he did not comment negatively on the restored tooth but offered the breaking news that another tooth in the upper row would soon require surgical intervention. It was like a forecast that an elected government would soon get toppled.

I gave him the go-ahead to do the needful and he started to drill. But I did not feel any sensation. After a while he stopped drilling and asked me if I was feeling any pain. When I said there was no pain at all, he looked carefully and then apologised to me for drilling the wrong tooth. How could this happen? I looked at him carefully for the first time and noticed some defect in his right eye, something like squint. After the metal filling job was performed on the painful tooth, his assistant said the doctor suffered a car accident last year and his vision was affected. Since he had already apologised for the error and assured not much damage had been caused to the good tooth. I did not sue him, but I felt I should consult a dentist with the vision of a pilot for a second opinion.  

This new dentist was a marketing genius of another kind. He made me sit with a big, fat album first.  I thought it was some good stuff on nature, travel, and leisure. As I flipped through the pages, I found photographs of men and women of all age groups with mouth wide open. 

It was an album loaded with photos of happy patients he had treated successfully. There were names, addresses, and contact numbers – these albums were used as testimonials from patients.

I had the freedom to contact any person and seek their feedback. I found a couple of beautiful girls who underwent dental treatment here and noted down their phone numbers. When I dialled those numbers, there was no response.

I was sure he would take my picture and add it to the album. What surprised me further was the fact that he was an inter-city dentist. He sat in his Mumbai clinic twice a week and three days in Kolkata. I told him I am travelling to Mumbai soon and would like him to operate on me there. He gave me the visiting card but looked doubtful when I said I would travel to Mumbai to get myself treated. Picking up one of the tools from the dirty box, I said your Mumbai chamber will have a much cleaner set.  

I did not visit his chamber again and prayed to God to save my remaining teeth so that I can chew at least chapattis for the rest of my life without undergoing the harrowing experience of dental trips and flips. The sweet tooth craze still remains child-like although the habit of stuffing a toffee has been replaced by having an ice cream every night – just to test whether any tooth gives a tingling sensation or not.

[1] General Packet Radio Service

[2] Equated monthly installment

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.  


Slices from Life

KL Twin Towers near Kolkata?

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

On Panchami, the Fifth Day of Durga Puja, around noon, I was stopped by a small girl riding a pillion on her father’s motorbike. In a polite but hurried and restless voice, she asked me the way to reach the ‘Twin Towers’. Usually, I am not comfortable while offering directions, and often goof it up by saying left when I mean right. On this occasion, I exercised caution and pondered over the easiest and quickest route before advising her father to enter through the next lane and then turn right to find what was nothing short of a wonderland for the schoolgirl. She smiled and waved for prompt assistance while her father accelerated the two-wheeler. It was apparent they were new to this small town that had suddenly grown big in stature within weeks and emerged as a hotspot because of the replica of the Twin Towers from Malaysia as one of the Puja pandal themes here.   

The Puja organisers were surprised as the turnout surpassed their expectations and broke all previous records. Some analysts explained this unprecedented wave was the public response to the pandemic that had kept them indoors for two consecutive years. With people sharing images and reels across social media platforms, the ‘Twin Towers’ went viral, generating a big buzz among pandal hoppers to include it in the must-see list. The sea of humanity in this small town surged from neighbouring towns, far-off districts, and even other states.  

The grandeur of tall towers led to a google search for architectural wonders, modern and ancient, from around the world as likely themes for the puja pandals next year. The appeal of tall and towering structures offers a valid reason to see the lavish artificial mounts to be dismantled within a few days of idol immersion. Painstakingly built over the months, the hard work of artisans and craftsmen has paid off rich dividends – without any special efforts by the organisers. The public informed fellow citizens of all faiths, through every possible means of communication, to visit the Twin Towers and make the Puja celebrations complete.

It was much bigger than the crowds milling at any cadre-driven political rally organised in Bengal. Missing this marvel was a loss for devotees and non-believers who thronged the Puja pandals to see art and creativity in full bloom. “Have you seen the Twin Towers?” became the common refrain that gained currency among local people drawn from all sections. Tens of thousands of people stood in queues that moved at a snail’s pace, their floral and musk fragrances overpowering their perspiration. Driven by faith and the desire to see the architectural marvel and the Goddess, the crowds showed patience for hours, braving thunderstorms and intermittent showers without complaints, standing with umbrellas for their turn, without any attempt to jump the fence. 

Droves of people – armed with camera-flashing mobile phones – were busy capturing the Twin Towers from various angles, looking for a different click for their feeds, slowing down their pace to capture the images without blurring. The volunteers brandished batons to keep the crowds moving toward the exit gate. The entire process of entering the pandal and exiting was over within two minutes. The wait outside the pandal took a couple of hours at least.  

Although I had visited other pandals where the turnout was modest, I intended to see the ‘Twin Towers’ after Dashami, the last day of the festival, after the crowds thinned. I wanted to be bedazzled by the lights, so I did not venture during the daytime. I chose to go during in the late evening for a fully lit-up view of the colossal towers, to stand behind the crowds discussing bus routes and means of transport available at night, apart from momos and biriyani outlets in the vicinity. It was the last day after the week-long festival drew to a close. But the turnout remained steady and suggested it was perhaps the first day, showing once again that aesthetic appeal allures people and creates a hangover that refuses to subside even after the curtains are drawn.  

I came out of the premises and checked the random clicks on my phone. I was overwhelmed with the pride of having seen the replica. I had captured the precious moments, posing against the backdrop of the Twin Towers forever. 

Whether this Puja inspires people from Bengal to travel to Malaysia to see the towers is pure speculation. But it has made people complacent, and they happily declare they have seen the Malaysia ‘Twin Towers’ in Bengal. Crossing borders, oceans, countries, and continents to select themes, the Pujas in Bengal offer people the vicarious pleasure of seeing the global wonders come alive in the art form.  

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.  


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.  


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.


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.  


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.  


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.  



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.


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.