I was mentally working out the profit from my Venkateswara Silk Palace and the miscellaneous income from rents and interests for the year. My heart leaped with joy at the sight of currency and coins before me. I was tempted to count it all again physically myself. I wasn't sure if the door was properly locked from inside. What if some one should see me with cash now? The thought of such contingency and its consequences sent jitters in me. Oh, hell! Somebody was already knocking at the door!
'Mr. Naidu! ... Mr. Naidu!'
It must be that bloody fellow Venkatarao with his asinine voice. It was a mistake on my part to have let out the house to such a riff raff. I hurriedly shoved away things.
I half-opened the door and asked, 'What man? It's already eighth. Haven't you received your salary yet?'
What do I care whether he received his rent or not! All that I was interested in is my monthly rent.
'No. No. It's not that. Here is the rent. Please don't mind the delay.'
'Oh, you brought the money! But what for this hurry? O you could have paid me later. You should have paid the other dues first....anyway...' I started counting the notes already.
'Mr. Naidu! I want a small favor from you.'
I started perspiring. What if he should ask for some money? These people think they deposited their ancestral property with here!
'You are rich and you are very generous at heart. I'm sure you won't fail me,' Venkatarao continued.
Trying to flatter me! Poor fellow! He was not aware I had seen many of his likes before!! I earned all my property dealing with smarties like him!!!
'Venkatarao! You may say anything. People think I have amassed wealth. But truly speaking you employees are better placed than us. What with the government harassing us with this tax and that tax day in and day out! We are not sure where to get our next meal from...'
'I did not to ask you for money,' he interrupted.
Thank God! This fellow scared me for sure!
'I know. I know about you. I am speaking about the way of the world. Tell me. What kind of help you want from me? I shall do all that is possible.'
'I know. That's why I came to you. ...I want your hall and these two rooms just for two days.'
'You want what?' I was astonished to hear what he asked for but wanted to make doubly sure.
'Your hall and these two rooms...just for two days only.'
'What for? Are you going to perform your daughter's marriage?'
'No. No. You know she is only seven. ..My childhood friend is visiting us.'
'Oh! Is it so? ... Is his family big?'
'No. He is coming alone.'
'He is coming alone? Then why should you need this big accommodation?'
'Mr. Naidu! We may have many acquaintances in life. But real friends are few. And out of the few, only one or two come very close. Chandram is one such friend to me. It's almost ten years since we last met. Even those annual enquiries about mutual welfare have thinned down of late. We studied together from class one to degree. It looks as if it was only yesterday. In the last ten years my fortunes took a turn towards worse. My brother lost his job; we lost our lands in litigation; and our house collapsed in cyclone. He doesn't know any of these developments. Neither do I anything about him. He's working at a far off place. He will be coming tomorrow morning and will leave the next day night. I can't expose my poverty to him. Can I? He is such a sensitive fellow. He can't stand the reality when he sees the gulf between what we were and what we are today. For my sake you have to allow this show. I know it's all fake and feigning. But I would like to see the glow in his eyes when he thinks I'm well off.'
This Venkatarao seemed to be a nice fellow. I felt sorry I never knew about it before. I shouldn't however now show up my sympathy for him. It's forbidden in our profession!
'Look Mister! I don't understand. There is so much of costly furniture around here. How can I allow you to use it even if it were for only two days?'
'I don't need your furniture. Please lock it up in your strong room. If you don't mind my suggesting you, you can stay in the ante-room of your shop. There you have an attached bath also. I send you carrier for the next two days at the specified time. Two days will pass off in a jiffy. After all, all that you have to stay there is only one night!'
'Why do you take all this trouble? You can as well put him in a good lodge.'
'He is coming here after so many years. How can I put him in a lodge?'
'Even if you and your wife manage to keep the facts away from him, what about your kids? Won't they spill the beans?'
'Well! You rightly reminded me. I will send them to my sister in the village.'
'Somehow, I don't like all this.' I said.
Venkatarao took both my hands into his and said, 'You have always helped in this place. You let out your house for a reasonable rent. Now do you want me to expose my poverty before my bosom friend? Kindly keep this twenty-five.' He kept the money on the table.
'What for?' I asked.
'Nobody would let out this hall and two rooms for anything less than fifty. But you know, I am poor and can't afford to pay more. Kindly take this as advance.
I told him he need not have to pay any advance. Without a word he left leaving the amount on the table.
Twenty-five rupees for two days! It is good rent by any standards. Why? We're only two and after my wife returns from my elder son's, I shall have to convince her to let out this portion also. They would fetch at least two hundred if not more. That spendthrift of a wife had taken the servant also with her!
I locked the strong room and kitchen and was about to resume to my counting, when the door was again knocked. Impatiently I opened the door. It was Durgamma, Venkatarao's wife.
'You must forgive us for the inconvenience we're causing you. He has left for the village to leave the children with his sister. He asked me to serve you food at your convenience. Don't take the trouble to go to a hotel. Shall I serve you meal now?'
Before I could reply she left and was back in no time. She started serving me food on my dining table.
Durgamma and Venkatarao are a made for each other, I thought. The care and attention with which she served me meals reminded me of my mother. I was even tempted to return those twenty-five rupees Venkatarao offered as advance few minutes back and ask her to purchase a sari for herself. However I refrained.
'I am surprised at his affection for his boyhood friend. He brought two pairs of dress from laundry on rent and some utensils. He said he would get door curtains and pillow covers too. He said so many things that he would tell his friend: that he was working as a bank agent, and my father gave me two houses etc etc all a pack of lies.
'He has applied for two days leave for the sake of his friend. I am afraid, how long can we sustain this drama. I shudder to think what would happen if his friend comes to know of this farce. You are so kind to us. Otherwise, how can we arrange for such a big accommodation at such short notice? We are awfully grateful to you,' Durgamma poured out her mind.
'Have you never seen this Chandram?'
'No. No. Not yet. He's so fascinated at the prospect of meeting him...I doubt if he would even think of me in his presence. I never thought that they were so close. I am also eager to see him.'
'I'm also eager to see him. But I shall leave tomorrow morning and will not return till next day evening. How can I meet him?' I asked.
'He asked me to inform you that they would be coming to see you at your shop the day after tomorrow. All this is your blessing. How can we forget?'
I was surprised the way the couple complemented each other playing host to an old friend.
Leaving the cash counter to the charge of the clerk, I left the shop to my house. I had been waiting to receive Chandram and Venkatarao. Last two days passed off peacefully with dainty homely meals. Durgamma told me that Chandram had come as expected. I wondered how the two friends had spent their time! To be frank, I was even jealous of them for I never had a friend like that.
A boy came running to me and handed me a note. It read:
'Mr. Naidu! By the time you start reading this note, we would have reached the borders of Maharashtra, and of course, with all the money in your chest! Don't waste your time searching for us. All our names are fake. My job, too, was as fictitious. Neither do I have a sister nor did I leave my children with her. Thank you very much for playing host, in absentia, for the last two days. Incidentally, you might have understood by now that Chandram was also my invention! Well! Well!! We know you are a master at making a fast buck. Yet, this is another way!
Telugu Original: Dr. Avasarala Rama Krishna Rao
(Published in AP Times Literary supplement in 1996)
Translated by : NS Murty and (late) RS Krishna Moorthy.