It was Sunday and Sampurna was on his knees in the washroom, his slipper in his hand. The drain cover in the corner had been set aside. He bent low over it.
“Why are you hiding?” he said. “Come out into the open!”
Two tendrils emerged and flirted with Sampurna’s nose. He sneezed. He slammed his slipper down but was late. The creature had disappeared. He rose with some difficulty and washed his hands. He considered using the spray can. It had a long nozzle that he could insert into the drain. He didn’t have the heart.
He combed his sparse hair and set out for his morning walk. At the adda that he frequented, they discussed his reluctance.
“I cannot,” he said. “I cannot inflict a slow death. The creature goes belly up and struggles when you spray it.”
“Dada, these creatures are invading your home.”
“I know,” he said. “But that is no excuse for cruelty. They should put these spray manufacturers on trial.”
The adda burst into laughter.
“Dada,” said someone, “the day you kill that roach, we will observe two minutes’ silence.”
Sampurna Chatterjee was a playwright of note. He wrote political plays. In his spare time, he wished to bring down the government. The urge was strong and it interfered with his thinking. Any government would do. Central, state.
Even a local governing body. In the old days, all the proletariat needed was a riot.
“Times have changed, dada,” said his adda friends. “These days you have to go online.”
The prospect frightened him. It was akin to coming out.
In the streets of Kolkata, a city he was in love with, the adda was the last outpost of the Resistance. His adda was near the Lake area, and most days after a bracing walk, he sauntered across to meet his group that gathered around a kerosene flame. The stove made a comforting sound and the tea was hot, served in small earthen cups. The group slurped, bandied epithets and vented opinions.
Sampurna’s recent distraction was a young man called Ramu. Ramu had moved in as a paying guest with his neighbour Lodha. The Lodhas were Marwaris, a sharp business community that had a firm grip on commerce in Kolkata. Dada steered clear of Lodha but occasionally they met by accident. Their building was a four-storey structure on Sarat Bose Road and the apartments shared a small landing, a five square feet intimate space. Every chance meeting in the landing drove them further apart. A quick smile that bordered on a grimace, a rush to get past each other that resulted, more often than not, in an entanglement.
Ramu watched this ritual repeat itself. “You cannot choose your neighbours, dada,” he said.
“Yes, I can,” said Sampurna. “I don’t recognise them as neighbours.” He pounded his walking stick on the landing. “Who asked them to come to Bengal?”
He always had an unkind word for Marwaris.
“They think they are smarter than us. How is it possible?” There were two festivals in the last quarter of the year that symbolised the divide between the two communities. The Bengalis worshipped the Goddess Durga, the symbol of Shakti, of feminine power and energy. During Durga Puja, the city had a festive air with pandals sprouting in the middle of every street. Each pandal would have a Durga installation, priests would dance during invocations, and stalls would be set up offering books and homemade delicacies. Offices would declare a week-long holiday.
The Marwaris worshipped Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. There was a festival a few days apart, in her honour, called Diwali. Every Diwali day, the prime devotee, Mr Lodha, had an oil bath, wore new clothes, lit incense sticks in his puja room, burnt camphor in a tablespoon and rang a bell. He also ate a vast quantity of sweetmeats and bought expensive gifts for his clients. Black Label whisky for income tax officers and the more expensive Blue Label for the commissioners. The street knew him for his speciality Diwali cracker, a long-lasting nuisance that was set off with fanfare in his presence. It was fifty feet long and time stood still when it got going.
Sampurna hated this muscular manifestation. The cracker created a smoke cloud that set him off on a coughing fit. He would emerge from it, tears in his eyes, shouting, “You think a cracker can get rid of the demons in your account books?”
Ramu, like many others, celebrated both festivals. He tried not to take sides. This irritated Sampurna.
“You, from the south of the Vindhyas, declare your position.”
Sampurna shook him by the shoulder. “When was the last protest meeting you attended?”
“Never,” said Ramu. “I am a South Indian, sir, a modest Tamil brahmin.”
“That you are. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken. A proper fence-sitter.”
“What is wrong with that?”
“Nothing wrong. By Bengali standards, you are hyphenated.”
They were standing in the small landing below a board that said Lodha and Lodha, Chartered Accountants.
“I worry about my future,” said Ramu.
“You should,” said Sampurna, “but not too much. Even potted plants flourish these days.”
Ramu straightened the board. One day he would grow out of his current situation and have his own firm. Ramanathan and Company, Chartered Accountants. The thought did not enthuse him.
“I am at their mercy,” he said.
“There is one thing your landlords will do,” said Sampurna. “They will instil the necessary shrewdness and selfishness in you.”
Ramu had to agree, being at the receiving end. He was an articled clerk with Lodha and Lodha. He was indentured labour, undergoing a four-year confinement in corporate record rooms. Audit firms were quiet places save for the rasp of pencil ticks, the click and shut of box files and the sound of stapling. Auditors wore thick spectacles and peered suspiciously at ledgers and supporting documents. They were paid to be suspicious, to be wary of clever company accountants.
Staying with his principals, the Lodhas, was a bad idea. Within their four walls, Ramu was domestic help. Once he had settled in, he realised he was busy running around fetching things and brewing tea for Mrs Lodha. In return, she fed him treats. Ramu discovered two things about her. She had her private stash of goodies that he had to ferry. And she had a private vocabulary, which he was privy to. Both were delicious. Some nights when her husband was asleep, she spent quality time seated at the dining table, indulging her senses. Ramu received orders and a tasting portion.
Ramu’s late father had been a client of the Lodhas, and a close friend. Ramu’s mother had entrusted him to them, sending him to work in faraway Kolkata because she had faith in Mr Lodha.
“He understands money,” she told her son. “Your father used to say that in the Lodha household, money is a servant. Every rupee is made to sweat.”
Ramu’s parents were as careful but money had their measure. They had very little to spare. Like many South Indians, they worshipped the goddess Saraswati. She was the goddess of learning responsible perhaps for the army of engineers and software programmers who made their way into the USA every year. Saraswati took care of Ramu’s grades but she couldn’t help him plan his career.
Excerpted with permission from Ruffled Feathers: Stories, V Sanjay Kumar, Bloomsbury.