At St. Peters High School in Panchgani, a hill station in the Western Ghats, where I was once a boarder, my classmate and special friend Ketan Kapoor, was a fellow always in trouble with the authorities. What enabled him to survive, was an above average set of reflexes and a dependable sense of strategy to fall back on, in sticky situations. To bear me out, there’s this classic classroom tale.
Monsieur Shaufelberger, our Swiss tutor, conveniently referred to as ‘Shaufie’, was conducting his usual, boring, Monday morning French class. Seated to my left, Ketan was busy explaining to me the tactics we should have employed in the previous evening’s football match which we lost, three nil, to the upper fifth. He was getting carried away and I was about to warn him discreetly, to “Shurrup man”, when Shaufie suddenly turned off his torrent of French, pointed to Ketan, and declared angrily:
“You there ; you are talking in my class ; I don’t like it. Now shut up.”
In deference to Shaufie’s wishes, Ketan didn’t say another word . . . for fully two minutes. The next time he was reprimanded, he was made to stand on one leg, in front of the class, as punishment. This didn’t worry Ketan in the least. He was used to standing on one leg for Shaufie and, by then, had probably developed special muscles in his leg. Even so, I felt that being punished was unnecessary and avoidable. After all, I was able to converse quite freely, merely by speaking out of the corner of my mouth like James Cagney of gangster movie fame. I held my French textbook in front of me and stared blankly ahead, like the rest of the class. Evidently Ketan considered such precautions restrictive of his style and beneath his dignity, so it was not surprising that he attracted Shaufie’s attention yet again. This time, matters took an alarming turn.
A sudden, deathly hush fell upon the class ; conversation ceased even in the back row. Sensing danger, Ketan looked around for Shaufie and found him not two feet away, his face purple with rage. Their eyes met. Shaufie mouthed a dreadful sounding epithet in some strange language . . . it could have been French, but I could swear it was not anything he taught us in class. Then he drew back his arm and unleashed a ferocious punch which would certainly have hospitalized, if not decapitated, my friend. And that is when Ketan’s amazing reflexes came to his rescue. Ducking smartly, he slipped under the blow and, as he explained to me afterwards, even noted how simple it would have been, to ‘hook’ with his right hand, to Shaufie’s unguarded midriff. He knew what he was talking about, mind you. Ketan was ‘Mosquito weight’ boxing champion of our school, having defeated fearsome opponents like Ugly Urvekar and Basher Bismillah, on his way to the title. Mercifully, sanity prevented him from actually taking a swipe at Shaufie. A split second later though, there was an ear-rending crash, accompanied by a shower of splintering glass, and Monsieur Shaufelberger found that he had put his fist through the plate glass panel of the classroom door, in front of which Ketan had been standing on one leg.
The situation was highly dramatic in its own right. Shaufie, in all his years at school, had not been known to get more than mildly exasperated with us boys, and here he was going purple in the face, using strong language that even we could not understand, and then raising his fist to a student . . . and putting it through a glass door. But, added to all that, was the fact that the incident occurred in the early years of World War 2, when we schoolboys were made to dig trenches and observe elaborate safety precautions against a possible air attack by the Japanese. That the Japanese had ignored us so far was, to us, a disappointment. Hope and expectancy however, lingered on undiminished. When the crash of splintering glass fell upon our ears, it disrupted the peace and tranquility of our hill station school. It reverberated across corridors and classrooms, and rekindled hopes, setting young imaginations afire. Those not actually in our class, were not to know that it was Shaufie, and not the Japanese air force that was responsible. Ignoring all precautions and the safety of trenches, a flood of schoolboys overran the hockey field outside, to scream profanities, shake their fists and make rude signs, at imaginary Japanese warplanes. Others turned up at our classroom to ascertain details of the ‘bomb’ that had been dropped.
Those who visited the classroom, saw a distraught Shaufie, his face transformed from the deep purple of rage, to the bloodless pallor of despair. Down on all fours, he was, for some reason, picking up bits of splintered glass and stuffing them into his briefcase, while members of our class climbed on top of their desks and gleefully pointed out fragments that still needed collecting. Ketan overcame the urge to join them. His instinct for survival told him that it was time to metamorphose instantly, from untamed troublemaker, to aggrieved victim. Before he could be caught and questioned, he set off on his own to see the principal.
The Reverend Mckeown whose name had been cut down by us, to the much more manageable “Mack”, rose from his seat in alarm, as Ketan burst into his room without knocking.
“Why, what’s the matter, boy? You look distressed”, observed Mack, concern writ large in his features.
“I am, sir”, Ketan assured him with a carefully cultivated quaver in his voice. He tried, he told me, to also get tears to roll down his cheeks, but was unsuccessful.
“I have been assaulted, Sir” he disclosed.
“Assaulted? By whom?”
“By Shaufie . . . er, Mr. Shaufelberger, Sir.”
“I don’t know. I must have been talking”, volunteered Ketan.
“Did he hurt you?”
“No Sir. He tried to but he missed. If he hadn’t, I would have been dead”, declared Ketan, with conviction, and added, “He smashed the glass door instead.” The quaver in his voice had, deftly, been reintroduced. It was crucial, he said, if he was not to be held responsible for the damaged door, and his pocket money docked for the next several weeks.
“Hmm”, said the principal as he weighed up the situation. “Tell Shauf . . .er, tell Mr. Shaufelberger I’d like to have a word with him.”
“Yes Sir”, said Ketan, with satisfaction, and departed.
I’m not sure what took place between Mack and Shaufie, thereafter, but I am pleased to report that no cuts were made in Ketan’s pocket money.
I was walking down the road after watching a cricket match. As I passed an open space by the side of the road, I felt an urge to relive the moments I had witnessed in the match. Picking up a coconut shell, I ‘bowled’ it vigorously, at a solitary palm tree with a pile of rubbish some distance behind it. The shell missed the tree, bounced high in the air, and disappeared behind the rubbish-heap.
What appeared from behind the rubbish-heap left me speechless? It was a full grown tiger with enormous whiskers which reminded me of someone but I couldn’t think who; and teeth which made me wish I was safely in bed with the sheet pulled over my head. As it stood glaring at me, it swished its tail from side to side, which is a tiger’s way of saying it disliked having things hurled at it. Then it let out a mighty roar and sprang as if to pounce on me, but it changed its mind in mid-air, and landed just short of where I stood, terrified. It paused, its whiskers twitching and, as it looked me in the eye, it lifted one eyebrow accusingly.
“Well”, it seemed to ask, “What have you to say for yourself?”
Without knowing why, I threw my arms around the tiger’s neck and began to tickle it behind the ears. “Prrf”, said the tiger in a satisfied manner, which made me feel bold enough to speak.
“Tiger Wiger”, I said politely, “I want to make it quite clear, I did not throw that coconut shell at you. I was aiming at the palm tree, but missed, for which I apologize profusely, and promise not to fling anything in your direction, ever again.” I continued to tickle the tiger behind the ears, and it continued to say “Prrf”, with short pauses in between. It reminded me of Moses, my pussy cat, who also liked to be tickled behind the ears, and purred in much the same way as the tiger said “Prrf”, except that Moses’s voice wasn’t quite as deep as the tiger’s.
“Dear old Tiger Wiger, I see you like being spoken to, and having yourself tickled”, I observed with relief.
“Prrf”, agreed the tiger.
“But we can’t go on like this in the middle of the road", I objected. "What would people think?”
This time it did not say “Prrf”. Instead there was a low, warning growl which came rumbling from deep within the creature’s huge chest. I understood this to mean it was displeased, and that it wanted me to go on talking to, and tickling, it. It frightened me. It frightened me more than when the beast had sprung at me with a mighty roar. I thought of my mother and how annoyed she was going to be. Someone was bound to tell her that I had got into trouble again. People had a knack of noticing whenever I landed in trouble, and they never missed the opportunity to report it to my mother. In no time at all, she would be there, standing over me with her hands on her hips.
“Is this what you get up to, the moment I take my eyes off you?” she would say. “Where did you get hold of that fearsome looking animal? Send it away and come home at once. And don’t you dare bring it along with you.”
I didn’t know whether to be more afraid of the ‘fearsome looking animal’, or my mother. That terrifying deep throated growl told me that if I stopped talking to the tiger and tickling its ears, it would be furious. Yet, if I stayed where I was, with my arms around its neck, talking to it politely, my mother would be furious. So I really didn’t know what to do. Then I felt the tiger tugging hard, as though it had had enough of my company and wanted to get away. It made me happy to think so, because it would allow me to go home without having to answer awkward questions from my mother.
I let go of the tiger, and waited. There was a loud bump, and a childish voice said: “Ouch grandpa, did you do that on purpose?”
I blinked and looked around. Everything had changed. There was no tiger, no palm tree and no rubbish heap. Through habit, I groped for something which I knew would help me understand what was going on. It was my spectacles. Putting them on, I saw a little girl getting up off the floor. She held a pillow in one hand and, with the other, she tenderly rubbed her behind. It was my granddaughter Tehmina. So I had changed from a sprightly stripling, to a ‘grandpa’, all in the twinkling of an eye.
“Grandpa, what on earth were you doing to that pillow?” enquired Tehmina, her voice full of concern. "I had to pull hard, to get it away from you before you ruined it with the way you were hugging it and plucking at it with your fingers. Then you suddenly let go, and I fell down on my sit-upon, and now it’s ever so sore. Anyway, what were you dreaming about this time?” demanded the little one saucily, and the way she stood, with her hands upon her hips, again reminded me of someone. Why yes, the someone was my mother, who happened to be the great grandmother of Tehmina and, would you believe it, she too was called Tehmina.
“Come on Grandpa”, urged young Tehmina, “tell me your dream. I love listening to you telling me your dreams. I’m sure you make up most of it, as you go along. But never mind, you’re allowed to do that, as long as you make it exciting.”
“Alright”, I agreed, “I’ll tell you what I dreamt. Just give me a minute to gather my wits.”
I reached for the stick I’ve had to use ever since my knees turned wobbly. I also needed to fetch my dentures and get them properly in place if it was to be a really good story. As I picked up the dentures, I caught sight of my face in the bathroom mirror and wondered where else I had seen such splendid whiskers. Ah yes, on Tiger Wiger of course.
Now let’s hope the story I tell Tehmina, comes up to her expectations.
The Strongest Daddy in the World
Gita and Mummy were off on a holiday. Daddy wasn’t going with them, but he went to the station to see them off. As he sat chatting in the compartment, waiting for the train to leave, Mummy looked anxiously at her watch.
“Daddy”, she said, “the train will be starting any minute now. You ought to get off.”
“Yes”, agreed Daddy, and got down from the train, but continued to chat with them through the window, from the platform outside. After a while, Mummy again looked at her watch, and said “Something must be wrong with this train. It should have left two minutes ago. Daddy glanced at the station clock and realized that mummy’s watch was a little ahead of the clock, and that the train would be leaving very shortly. By this time Gita became worried.
“If the train doesn’t start, what will happen to our holiday?” she asked her Mummy.
Mummy was about to tell Gita not to worry, and that even if they were delayed a little it wasn’t going to spoil their holiday, but Daddy winked at Mummy and put his finger to his lips and spoke instead.
“Don’t you worry “, he told Gita, “if the train doesn’t start, I’ll push it and get it started for you. You’ve seen me push our car and start it. Well, I’ll do the same to the train.
“But our car is only a tiny Maruti”, protested Gita, “and this train is enormous. How will you do it?”
“Aren’t I the strongest Daddy in the world?” he asked. Like all little girls, Gita really believed her Daddy was the strongest, so she nodded dumbly, but still felt uncertain about him pushing the train.
“Watch me “, said Daddy, taking a deep breath and puffing out his chest. Then he held on to the window and, with much grunting and groaning, pretended to make a great effort at pushing the train. People nearby, smiled at daddy’s antics, and a little dog appeared from somewhere, wagged its tail, and barked at Daddy.
By then it was time for the train to leave. It gave a jolt, and to Gita’s amazement, it really did begin to move forwards. Daddy kept on grunting and groaning and making a big show of pushing the train as it gathered speed. He stopped pushing only when it was too fast for him to keep up with it. Little Gita standing at the window, cheered and clapped for her Daddy. She was surprised no one else joined her, not even Mummy, who simply said
“Bye Daddy, look after yourself”, as she waved goodbye and blew him a kiss.
“Never mind”, said Gita to herself “Now I know for sure, that I have the strongest daddy in the world.”
The Spirit Of Christmas
Mr. Anthony didn’t like children. Yet, to him, children meant money, as he owned an expensive toy shop in Mumbai. For the sake of business, he often pretended he was fond of 'little ones', but it cost him an effort and made him feel cross afterwards.
Soon it would be Christmas, a time when lots of toys were sold, and Mr. Anthony made a lot of money. He had already made so much, that he had plans to open a new shop in another town which was not as big as Mumbai. But it had a large Christian population with many churches and a wonderful hospital run by Christian missionaries and a dedicated doctor. The new shop would not be ready in time to make money this Christmas. Still, the shrewd Mr. Anthony decided he would advertise the shop beforehand, by inviting all the important people in town, and distributing free toys among the town’s poor children. He, himself, would dress up as Father Christmas. The toys wouldn’t cost much since he had a huge amount of leftover toys which wouldn’t sell, and nobody wanted. Mr. Anthony would also distribute toys in Mumbai, as he did every year, but that was to the town’s rich children whose parents selected the best toys from Mr. Anthony’s shop, and paid for them.
Mother Superior, at the Convent in the new town, didn’t know Mr. Anthony, and thought he was a kindhearted man who really felt for the poor. She drew lots among the children, to choose fifty lucky ones for fifty free gifts, and she offered Mr. Anthony the Convent premises for his function. He, of course, was very pleased.
On the day of the function, all the important people made speeches praising Mr. Anthony’s generosity. When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Anthony couldn’t think of anything to say, so he got up and said “Ho, ho, ho.”, as he believed Santa would have done, and sat down again.
As soon as he started distributing toys, Santa discovered a terrible mistake had been made. Instead of the cheap, shoddy, unwanted toys that he intended giving away, he was handing out expensive, imported items worth hundreds of rupees each. Somebody in Mumbai, had mixed up the sacks containing presents for the poor children, with those meant for the rich ones. The thought that he would have to pay for all the expensive toys out of his own pocket, made Santa furious.
The children though, were amazed and delighted. They never expected presents like these. One little girl was so overcome with her doll which said “Mama I love you” and made 'susu' at the same time when you squeezed it, that she climbed up on a chair and kissed Santa on both cheeks. Never before had any child wanted to kiss Mr. Anthony. He felt very strange. His eyes turned moist, and suddenly his dislike of children, disappeared.
“This is no mistake”, he said to himself. “The spirit of Christmas has taken me over.”
The Friend Who Never Came Back
“Alfred”, I called, raising my voice the merest fraction of a decibel.
“Who’s Alfred”, asked my daughter, Miriam, looking puzzled.
“A friend”, I replied mysteriously. “When Mummy and you went off on holiday, leaving me behind, I found myself a companion."
“Well, where is he? I don’t see your Alfred anywhere. I think you’re making it all up,” she accused, frowning.
I pointed: “There he is, under the fridge.”
“Yuck, it’s a horrible, old rat, “ she observed with disgust. “Wait till Mummy finds out.”
“Tell her, and I shan’t speak to you”, I threatened. “It’s to be our secret, do you hear?”
“Oh all right, I’ll keep quiet about it if it means so much to you”, she agreed, with a lofty, adult air. Meanwhile, Alfred appeared to take her derogatory remark to heart. Sitting up on his haunches, he wiped his whiskers with his fore paws, then proceeded to lick himself all over, as if wanting to make himself look presentable, which he very much needed to do. His coat appeared to grow in matted clumps, each terminating in an unattractive array of spiky bristles.
“Here Alfred, join us for a spot of dinner”, I invited. There was a moment’s hesitation as he turned and looked at Miriam. “ Is she OK?” he seemed to ask.
“Come on”, I urged, bending forward and holding out a piece of buttered toast. He scampered towards me, took the morsel from my hand and returned to his station beneath the refrigerator, steering a zigzag course both ways, like some guerilla fighter trained to avoid sniper fire.
“ Daddy, may I please?” begged Miriam. “May I feed him?”
I shrugged. “Ask him”, I suggested.
With great trepidation, she held out an offering, and with much hesitation Alfred accepted; but accept he did, to her delight.
“ Wow, he’s a super rat. He’s a darling”, she gushed, her eyes sparkling. Thus, over the next few days, the two of them cemented their friendship with scraps of food at tea time, when Mummy was normally not at home.
One evening, there was not the familiar response to the call of “ Alfred, look what we have for you today”. Instead of the little squeak of delight, with Alfred scurrying towards us, we heard the ‘voice of authority’ declaring in ominous measured tones:
“ Whoever this Alfred is, if I set eyes on him, I shall put my foot right through his neck.” It was Mummy who had made an early and unexpected return home.
Whether it was coincidence, or whether Alfred had actually picked up enough spoken English to take fright at the threat, we shall never know for sure. But from that moment, he disappeared from our lives and became but a tender memory in a long list of friends, among creatures great and small.
Mrs. Mulgavkar’s Brush With The Law
Rakhee was seven years old, and a liability to her parents in the village, so they got in touch with Surekha who worked as a maid servant, in nearby Mumbai, and asked her advice. Back came the answer, in a postcard. “Send her here”, it said, “I will get her a job in a nice home, and remit a hundred rupees to you, every month. All at once, Rakhee was transformed from a liability, to an asset. A hundred rupees in the village, was a considerable sum, especially if, in the bargain, it meant one less mouth to feed.
Off went Rakhee, and was duly received by Surekha who was waiting for her on the platform, at Mumbai’s vast Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus which, until recently, used to be called Victoria Terminus.
“I have a nice job ready for you”, gushed Surekha, “it’s with a lady who has a little girl the same age as you. You will have someone to play with and have plenty to eat, so don’t be silly and stop crying”. But as the tears rolled down her cheeks, Rakhee complained “I want my Mummy”.
There followed a short bus ride in which a kindly old gentleman offered Rakhee a sweet to stop her crying. Rakhee accepted the sweet, flashed the gentleman a smile, and carried on crying until Surekha and she, got off the bus.
“Now enough of that”, said Surekha sharply. “Any more crying, and I promise you I’ll put you on the next train home . . . and you know what that means!” Rakhee knew only too well. Much as she disliked this frightening place called Mumbai, with cars honking frantically, and people rushing past, pushing her this way and that without even bothering to look at her, Rakhee knew that being sent home would be much worse. The prospect of facing her parents and how they might react, terrified her. So with a final long sniff and a gulp, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, looked straight ahead and stopped crying. Minutes later, they were ringing Mrs. Mulgavkar’s doorbell. Mrs. Mulgavkar answered the door herself.
“Why Surekha”, she exclaimed in surprise, “what brings you here?”
“Namaste madam”, simpered Surekha “You had asked me to bring you a little girl to work for you. This is Rakhee”. Surekha reached behind her and dragged a reluctant Rakhee into view. At the same time, there emerged from behind Mrs. Mulgavkar, a girl of about the same age as Rakhee.
“Gita, take this little girl with you and show her your toys”, Mrs. Mulgavkar instructed her daughter. The two girls went off, with Rakhee now noticeably more at ease.
“You remember our agreement, madam?” began Surekha.
“Yes, I remember”, replied the lady. “I am to pay you three hundred rupees each month and feed and clothe the child. Very well, I agree. And here is a hundred rupees in advance, as arranged.” Surekha took the money, turned on her heel and walked off without another word.
In the days and months that followed, Rakhee became more and more a member of the Mulgavkar household. Indeed the neighbours came to refer to her, in Marathi, as Mrs Mulgavkar’s doosri mulgi (other little girl). She could be seen walking the dog, a dachshund named ‘Sossitch’, and on other occasions, basket in hand, out shopping for Mrs Mulgavkar.
Mrs Mulgavkar’s husband had fallen ill and died five years ago, and she had a hard time living on her own with Gita. To make ends meet, she bottled pickles and prepared confectionery which she sold to nearby shops. The work took up all her time so she was glad Rakhee was there to keep Gita company. It left her free to attend to her work. Besides, Rakhee was genuinely interested in all that went on around her and was good at remembering things and keeping accounts, especially after Mrs Mulgavkar had taught her the basics of reading and writing. Without a doubt Rakhee was proving to be extremely useful to her employer and a much loved companion for Gita.
One day Surekha turned up and asked to speak to Mrs Mulgavkar. After going through the usual ceremony of salaams, namastes and enquiries about everyone’s health, she came to the point and demanded a hundred rupees more every month, for Rakhee’s services.
“But you said it was to be three hundred rupees for the first twelve months at least ” pointed out Mrs Mulgavkar, “and she has been with us for only nine”.
“Yes I know,” said Surekha “ but times are hard, prices are going up and I feel I deserve more money for Rakhee’s services.”
“ I am afraid I can’t afford it” said Mrs Mulgavkar regretfully.
“Well think it over” said Surekha, getting an edge to her voice and departed.
At the end of the month nothing had changed. Mrs Mulgavkar still could not afford the raise and told Surekha so. Surekha muttered darkly under her breath and went off in a huff. Some days later there was a ring at the door and a gentleman in uniform announced himself as police inspector Rai, wishing to see Mrs Mulgavkar.
“ I am told you have a child by the name of Rakhee working for you”, stated the inspector.
“ That’s right”.
“ I am also told you overwork the child and keep her in inhuman conditions,” the inspector disclosed.
“ Why, that’s not true” exclaimed Mrs Mulgavkar “Whoever told you that?”
“ A lady by the name of Surekha who claims to be her guardian” replied the inspector.
“ Well tell her with my compliments that she had better be able to prove what she says if she expects me to take any notice of her,” returned Mrs Mulgavkar.
“ The fact remains”, mentioned the inspector curtly, that a serious charge has been levelled against you and it is my duty to look into the matter. Where is the girl? “
“ She has gone out shopping with my daughter” replied the lady.
“ In that case, please bring her along with you, and report to me at the Colaba police station at 9 AM tomorrow. I wish to have a word with both of you”.
“ Very well “ said a visibly disturbed Mrs Mulgavkar as she shut the door on the policeman.
A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. It was Surekha.
“ How dare you come out with that pack of lies about the way I treat Rakhee,” began Mrs Mulgavkar heatedly. Surekha held up her hand for silence.
“Never mind all that” she said. “There’s nothing to worry about if you act promptly. All you have to do is pay me the extra one hundred rupees for Rakhee’s wages and I shall drop all charges against you. But please give me your reply quickly, before the police take action.”
Mrs Mulgavkar said nothing. She simply went inside and closed the door firmly behind her. The next morning, Mrs Mulgavkar and Rakhee marched hand in hand, into the police station and were led to inspector Rai who received them at his desk. He told the lady that employing Rakhee a minor, was, in itself, an offence under the law. However, he was more concerned about the allegation that the girl was being overworked and mistreated.
Mrs Mulgavkar defended herself spiritedly, pointing out that Rakhee’s duties consisted mainly of being a companion to her daughter Gita, so that she could get on with her own work of preparing and marketing foodstuffs. She also made Rakhee do light work about the house just as she made Gita do.
“Ask the girl yourself “ she invited, “if you think there is another side to the story.” The inspector and Mrs Mulgavkar had been conversing in English, which Rakhee could not understand. When the inspector turned to the girl and began questioning her in Marathi, she grew alarmed and found it difficult to speak. She nodded weakly when she was asked if she was happy, and she did shake her head to say ‘no’ when asked if she found the work too much. But it was not the convincing support which Mrs Mulgavkar had hoped for.
Eventually the inspector explained to the child that she might have to go home to her parents because Surekha her guardian, had alleged that she was being very badly treated by Mrs Mulgavkar. At that point Rakhee burst into tears, clung to Mrs Mulgavkar and declared at the top of her voice that she never wanted to go back or to leave the lady she was with.
“ Why ? “ asked inspector Rai simply. Rakhee was no longer tongue tied. Words rushed out in a torrent.
“ Because at home I have to walk for hours to fetch water and then firewood. I don’t get enough to eat. Nobody teaches me reading and writing. I have no clothes to wear. If I can’t finish the work I am given, my father beats me. Please don’t ever send me back. Both Rakhee and the lady, were crying. Inspector Rai, looking at the two of them, needed to pull out a large handkerchief into which he proceeded to blow his nose loudly.
“Now I feel we have got to the truth of the matter,” he declared, after emerging from behind his handkerchief. “and of course, I dismiss the charges of cruelty to the child as being utter rubbish. But that still leaves you people with a problem because this girl is definitely underage, and employing her would be against the law.”
At that moment there was a movement in the doorway and Surekha appeared. She had been standing there unnoticed, watching the drama unfold. After Rakhee had had her say, she realised that nobody was prepared to believe the lies she had said about Mrs Mulgavkar. She realised also, that if Rakhee were to be sent back, not only would it hurt the girl and Mrs Mulgavkar, it would also hurt the girl’s parents and Surekha herself, since there would be no more money paid out by Mrs Mulgavkar. All the people connected with Rakhee, had been getting a tidy income for doing nothing and now it was all going to be snatched away. Rakhee’s parents would never forgive Surekha for her blunder. Now it was up to Surekha to repair the damage she had done.
She smiled ingratiatingly at inspector Rai and Mrs Mulgavkar. Then she bent down and touched their feet, expressing a devotion and respect she didn’t really feel. Rakhee, she studiously ignored.
“ Well,” said the inspector, “ What have you to say for yourself ? “
“ I am deeply sorry for the trouble I have caused. I was mistaken about the girl being badly treated but I wanted to make sure it never happened. That’s why I had to do what I did.”
“ Is that why you were prepared to take back the charges against me if I paid you more money?” demanded Mrs Mulgavkar.
Surekha had no reply. Then, with a martyred expression she said “Never mind the extra money. I shan’t stand in your way if you wish to continue with our arrangement for the amount we had originally agreed.”
Turning to Mrs Mulgavkar, inspector Rai confided to her in English, “This woman is talking nonsense as usual. We cannot go back to the original arrangement of you employing Rakhee, because she is underage and will remain so for a long time to come.”
Wait! “ he added. “ there is one desperate gamble we could take.”
“And what would that be?” asked Mrs. Mulgavkar.
“Are you prepared to adopt Rakhee as your daughter?”
The lady required only the briefest of moments to reflect. “ Yes certainly “ she agreed. “ I would love to have Rakhee as my daughter. I would even give in to Surekha’s demand for more money if that made it possible.”
“ I am afraid giving money as an incentive is out of the question“ the inspector demurred . Even the amount you have been paying so far, would have to be revoked. It would be considered a bribe. If it were permitted, unscrupulous people wanting to get children into their clutches would simply offer money to the parents to legalise the adoption, and the children would suffer. Now leave it to me. Remember, I am on your side. I’ll do my best but
I promise nothing.”
Mrs Mulgavkar left the police station as she had come, hand in hand with Rakhee. Inspector Rai smiled, but It was not a smile of official approval, because permitting Rakhee to be led away by the lady was, technically speaking, highly incorrect.
Mrs Mulgavkar was now no longer Rakhee’s employer, and she was not yet her adoptive mother. But if Mrs Mulgavkar was not to look after her until her fate was decided, who was? The child could not be housed in a prison cell, because the cell was needed for criminals. Keeping her with the highly irresponsible Surekha was an equally unsatisfactory solution. Mrs Mulgavkar was obviously the best bet. The inspector smiled into his handkerchief yet again. He was actually beginning to enjoy finding himself in a compromising situation not of his making.
After Mrs Mulgavkar had left, inspector Rai turned to Surekha
“ You are a very stupid woman,” he said scathingly. “ By dragging the police into the affair, you have spoilt a harmless arrangement which was beneficial to a number of people including yourself. Worse, you have done a great deal of harm to an innocent child whose future had suddenly improved. Your greed made that future turn around completely, and go back to the dismal prospects it started with.”
“But it was I who improved the child’s future in the first place,” interrupted Surekha. “ I got her the job and talked her parents into letting her take it up. Please don’t forget that mister policeman. If there is anything I can do now, to set matters right, please tell me. I’ll do it.”
“ Yes, there is something you can do. Speak to the child’s parents and get them to agree to adoption. It will save them the expense of feeding one more person if the child were to go back to them. That is the only incentive I can offer. That, and of course the happiness and welfare of the child, if that means anything to you.”
Inspector Rai knew Surekha was no angel, and that unless there was some money coming her way, it was unlikely that she would take an interest in getting Rakhee’s parents to agree to the adoption. However, miracles do happen, and a penitent Surekha who now genuinely wanted to undo the harm she had done, did make the effort to approach Rakhee’s parents. She told them the police had found out that their daughter was working for Mrs Mulgavkar and were very annoyed because Rakhee was a minor. She did not, of course, tell them it was she who reported Mrs Mulgavkar to the police.
Anyway, she made it clear that Rakhee could not now stay on as an employee earning money, but could possibly stay as Mrs Mulgavkar’s adopted child instead. If the parents agreed to the adoption, they would no longer receive the one hundred rupees they used to get every month. The only advantage would be that they would not have to feed and look after her.
“ Does my daughter get enough to eat where she is? “ asked Rakhee’s mother. Surekha assured her that she did, and that she was growing bigger and more beautiful by the day.
“ Then let her stay and make a life for herself with her new family. Perhaps she will remember us and think kindly of us when she grows up “. The father agreed.
When Surekha went back to Inspector Rai and told him that the way was now clear for Rakhee to be adopted, he was very pleased, and conveyed the good news to Mrs Mulgavkar and Gita, who were overjoyed that Rakhee would be with them always. When all the legal requirements were met, and there was no chance of Rakhee’s parents changing their mind and asking for their daughter back again at some time in the future, Mrs Mulgavkar did something very generous. She decided to pay both Surekha and Rakhee’s parents the amount she used to pay them regularly before. She was surprised to learn though, that out of the three hundred rupees she paid every month, Surekha had been taking two hundred and leaving only a hundred to Rakhee’s parents. So she lessened Surehka’s share by fifty rupees and increased the parents share by fifty, so both parties had an equal amount.
The story could end there but it doesn’t. We take it up again, fifteen years later. Gita and Rakhee are now, both in their twenties and both with a profession. Gita is a lawyer and attends court everyday, while Rakhee, who was always good at keeping accounts, has, as you might have guessed, become a Chartered Accountant. She works for an industrial firm and earns well. There have been other interesting developments also.
Mrs Mulgavkar is no longer Mrs Mulgavkar. She has now become Mrs Rai. She married police inspector Rai. But how, you may wonder, did that come about? Well, different members of the family, had different explanations. The girls felt their mother was lonely and needed companionship just as they did when they were young. Their choice of a companion for their mother was never in doubt. They went out of their way to get Mrs. Mulgavkar to ask the inspector over to the house because “he has such interesting stories to tell, about criminals and the cases he has been involved in”.
But Police inspector Rai was convinced that the idea of marrying Mrs Mulgavkar, was his entirely. Being a Police officer was his life, not only his professional life, but his private life as well. He felt Mrs Mulgavkar needed police protection all the time and he felt that was best provided by taking her under his wing and by changing her name to Rai.
As for Mrs Mulgavkar, she claims she was appalled at the huge quantities of tea and buttered bread that the worthy inspector consumed. On asking him whether his diet at home was any different, he assured her that it was.
“ I don’t have tea with only bread and butter, I sometimes have it with cakes and biscuits”, he explained. Mrs Mulgavkar thought that was all wrong, and since she felt the world was a better place for her having adopted Rakhee, she decided it would be better still, if she were, in a manner of speaking, to also adopt the inspector, and reform his living and eating habits.
So, apparently in response to the girls’ promptings, she found herself frequently inviting inspector Rai to dinner.
However, what really got the inspector to propose to the lady, was not so much the food as the fact that she evidently enjoyed his company, to have invited him over so often; and since he rather liked the lady all along but couldn’t find the courage to ask her to marry him, this was just the encouragement he needed. Yet, there was something he considered it discreet never to mention: he preferred his unworthy diet of tea, with bread and butter, biscuits or cake, to the wholesome food she so lovingly, placed before him.
However, he kept the information to himself because of what he considered to be ‘the greater good’. In the end, everybody was happy that Mrs Mulgavkar became Mrs Rai. Even the police force showed its approval by promoting inspector Rai and making him a more important policeman than he already was, and I mean important, not only to Mrs Rai.
Monty, Granny and the Babysitter
My name is Annapurna and I’m eight years old. My Mummy is short, so she named me after a very high mountain in the Himalayas, hoping I would grow up tall. I, too, am trying my best, but they say it will take time. This story is not about me though, it’s about my pet, Monty, whose real name is Montague but we don’t use it except when we want to say something about him without letting him know who we are talking about. In the beginning this trick used to work but very soon he knew what we were up to, and would be prepared. That made it difficult for us, especially when we all had to go out leaving Monty behind. Monty didn’t like being left behind when Mummy, Daddy, I and our big dog Scamp, all went out together. So for his sake, one of us – it could even be Scamp – would have to be left at home to keep him company. Mummy and Daddy didn’t mind if Monty came along with us but I’d get worried sick at what he might get up to. He’s very inquisitive . . . always poking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Some of those places could be quite dangerous, which is why I am always afraid to take Monty along.
One day we all went out for a short drive ; all of us that is, except Monty, and Scamp whose turn it was to ‘baby sit’ as Dad calls it. While we were out Granny came to visit us after a long time, without telling us she was coming. She had a key to the front door and had let herself in, as she often did, and waited for us to arrive. Usually, when we got back, Granny would be quite cheerful and greet us with a big smile even if she’d had to wait. This time we’d been away only half an hour, yet Granny looked as if she’d forgotten completely, how to smile. She was sitting on the settee and looking at Scamp most suspiciously. Scamp was sitting across the room looking back at her just as suspiciously. As soon as Mummy and Daddy followed me into the room, Granny pointed to Scamp and burst out :
“There’s something terribly wrong with that dog. He attacked me for no reason at all. “
“Calm down Mother”, said Mummy, “tell us exactly what happened.”
“Well I was sitting where I am now, reading a book”, began Granny, “when I noticed this nasty little imp of a mouse sniffing at my feet. You know how terrified I am of mice, but I didn’t panic. I quickly rolled up a newspaper and was about to smack the blighter, when I found he’d climbed halfway up my sari. I screamed and started whacking away at him, and then Scamp, for no reason at all, leapt at me making the most fearsome sounds. He pushed me back into the settee, and stood over me in a decidedly threatening manner.”
“What happened to the mouse?” I asked Granny, suddenly feeling worried.
“Goodness me, child”, exclaimed Granny “how do I know what happened to it? It must have seen one ferocious dog and one hysterical grandmother and chosen to disappear.”
“Did it have big ears and a long tail?” I asked still feeling worried. Granny was trying hard to get Mummy and Daddy to sympathize, but Daddy was grinning and Mummy was having an attack of the giggles, so Granny turned to me rather crossly and said :
“My dear, when one is being set upon by a mouse on one side, and leapt at by a large dog on the other, one doesn’t observe details like the size of the mouse’s ears or the full extent of its tail ........” She was all set to go on but stopped, and a strange look came over her. She pointed at my shirt pocket and let out a scream. When she’d finished screaming she shouted “Take care child, its back again . . . in your pocket . . . look! I’d know that mouse anywhere “.
I looked and sure enough there he was without my knowing how he’d got there. He looked back at me, and from the way his whiskers twitched, I knew he needed help.
“Please don’t shout and scream Granny”, I said, speaking gently but firmly, as Mother has taught me to speak to grown-ups, even when they act as though they’re mad. “This is Montague, my mouse. He’s very upset right now. I can feel him shivering.”
“Oh he is, is he?” said Granny only a little less loudly than before. “Tell him I’m sorry to hear it, and that he’s not the only one upset or shivering”.
“Well if you’re really sorry”, I replied, “you’d keep your voice down a bit, and try to make friends with him”.
Now all at once Granny was smiling.
“Annapurna my darling, your demands are even taller than the mountain you’ve been named after. But since you are my one and only granddaughter, I’ll try and meet them. Now what do I have to do to make friends with your precious Montague?” So I told her what to do, step by step.
Granny’s finger was shaking quite a lot and I had to take her hand and bring it up to Monty who was also shaking quite a lot. Then I took her finger and made her stroke Monty’s head. After a while both of them stopped shaking and they were friends.
When Scamp saw Granny smiling and stroking Monty, the suspicious look went out of his eye and he walked over to her wagging his tail, sat down beside her and offered her his paw. It was his way of saying that whatever had upset him earlier was now forgiven and forgotten. Then Granny being the good sport she is, said:
“Alright Scamp, if I choose to visit this crazy household, I suppose I have to accept it on its terms and not mine”, and she shook his paw while Monty and I looked on, satisfied.
Blanco, young Miriam’s beloved pie dog, was not known to like cats. The last one was a badly behaved kitten that used to tease him. Once, she crept up on him, then suddenly beat a tattoo on his tummy with her front paws and, before he could do anything about it, she darted between his legs and vanished into the house. At the time, he was in the middle of barking at something important going on in the next compound. She gave him a fright which stopped him barking, and made him look foolish. Shame on her! Conveniently, that kitten didn’t stay long. She fell ill and didn’t return home, from hospital.
Now another had arrived to take her place. This one was sickly to start with, and her scanty fur grew only in patches. But, as cats went, she wasn’t so bad, decided Blanco. She didn’t oblige him by running away when he barked at her. On the other hand, she didn’t tease him like the previous kitten, when he barked at others. In fact she appeared most impressed with his carefully contrived displays of ferocity. She would even follow him to the front door when the doorbell rang, and stand beside him watching admiringly, as he threatened the milkman and the vegetable vendor. What more could one ask for, in a cat?
Miriam was delighted to see the new cat which she had named Minnu, getting on well with Blanco. But the real test came when Minnu once approached him while he was eating. Blanco at mealtimes, was truly terrifying, and it wasn’t pretence on his part, as it was towards the milkman and the vegetable vendor. Miriam’s Daddy once remarked that if a full-grown lion were to come near Blanco while he was busy with his food, the lion had better look out.
“God save my cat”, said Miriam to herself, as Minnu stepped daintily up to Blanco who had his snout buried deep, in his large enamel dinner bowl, and was greedily gulping down dal and chappati as if the end of the world were just around the corner. Fully expecting to see Minnu demolished with the same gusto as the dal and chappati, Miriam got the surprise of her life to behold Blanco step back politely, with ‘dinner’ still dripping messily from his jaws, and wait patiently, as Minnu sniffed at his bowl and walked on unruffled. Then he resumed eating with all the old gusto until, as usual, he was licking away at the empty bowl, pushing it noisily, all over the dining room floor.
The high point in Minnu’s short life, came when she was due to have a litter. Which of the nondescript tomcats that prowled the rear staircase, was her mate, remained a mystery. When the great moment came, Minnu, watched over anxiously by Miriam and family, including Blanco, brought forth a tiny rat-like creature, which she immediately proceeded to lick vigorously, to clean up and make presentable. Then she picked it up in her mouth and laid it before each of those present, for inspection and approval, purring loudly all the while. When it was Blanco’s turn, he sniffed cautiously at the kitten, then turned around and quietly walked away. The kitten was stillborn and was promptly disposed of, but Minnu refused to believe it and for days, searched in dark corners and under furniture, and miaowed piteously as she stood beside shut cupboards, pleading that they be opened, so that she could continue her search inside.
Some months later, while Miriam was watching television, Blanco who was sitting by her, began whimpering and pawed at her, urgently. Alarmed, she turned to him to see what the matter was. He got up at once, and walked over to the wall behind the TV set. There, Miriam saw Minnu staggering about, unable to control her movements. Realising that something was seriously amiss, she gathered her pet in her arms and sat with her in her lap. Minnu stayed, breathing heavily then, without warning, freed herself and jumped, or rather fell, to the floor where she lost control of her bladder and made a huge puddle, as she lay there unable to move.
“You poor darling”, said Miriam to her gently, “You really didn’t have to mind your manners and get off my lap. I know there’s something terribly wrong with you.” She picked her up again and stroked her, and felt her purr weakly under her touch. The purr got stronger momentarily, as Minnu looked first at Miriam and then at Blanco, as though memorizing the faces of her two best friends. Then she laid down her head and closed her eyes. She didn’t open them again.