The Kabuliwala

In the early 70’s, Yarada Park was like small and cosy hamlet in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, surrounded by what seemed to be tiny villages, briskly progressing into a progressive City…the promise of a Modern and Developed India.

The Industrial belt of the city was still developing. Caltex Oil Refinery was one of the first major industries that was established as part of the progress of this city into a burgeoning Industrial hub that it is today.

The Refinery drew into its fold many talented and experienced workers from all over the country. They built this modest Township to provide safe dwelling for their workers. They provided a robust infrastructure with well laid out roads, children’s Park for the kids, a Tennis court, a Playground for cricket and football enthusiasts, a basketball, Badminton, & Volleyball courts, access to fresh and clean drinking water and uninterrupted power supply, facilities that seem so normal today but was a rarity back then.

They planted trees and built the modest houses. But it is the inhabitants that collectively developed the place into a refined and cultured compound.

Each resident planted fruit bearing trees, created their own unique landscaped garden. Some grew fruits and vegetables too. The township had every tropical fruit and every variety of mango that existed in the region.

By virtue of my father’s employment in the Refinery, we too were one of the early dwellers in this beautiful hamlet which to us was our home and our “Heaven on Earth”.

As a young couple, my parents began their life and raised their family in these luscious settings. Being a person with a “green-hand”, everything that my Mom planted grew and blossomed. She had a finely manicured garden, with the widest array of rose collection. Nurseries and access to exotic plants was unheard of, yet with her efforts she had the prettiest of flowering plants from hibiscus to chrysanthemums,  Dalia etc…. She also had a kitchen garden where she grew variety of beans creepers on the mesh veranda at the rear of the house, she had a collection of different types of Bananas trees, four mango trees that bore a wide variety of mangoes, a Neem Tree that provided “medicinal breeze” and shade, we tied a rope to create our own “swing” …Tapioca, Jackfruit, Guavas, Custard Apple, Pomegranates. She had built a hedge  of flowering bushes, that flowered only in winter, flowers of many bright and beautiful colors which we called “December Flowers”, since they only bloomed in the month of December.

So, our modest home was also a home for comely costumed birds, squirrels, parrots and also fruit bats during night!!

During summers and weekends, our home and garden would be filled with noise and banter of many kids who played with us, my elder sister and her friends would play a game called, “House game” where one of them would play the Mother and the others the kids.. they used to sometimes, light a fire and try their hand at cooking a meal…like a picnic.

Being younger to the group of girls who were a part of my sisters “gang”. I was their “guinea pig”, where I had to taste their insipid and rather tasteless food and certify that it was very good, not of choice but lest I hurt them. I would slowly slip back home and have the delicious meal my Mother prepared….

I had many friends and never lost an opportunity to slip out of the house. Unlike the kids of the day, none of us liked staying indoors, we devised ways and means to go out and play, even if it meant that we played with improvised toys, marbles, tops, sticks, stones and catapults…. Neither the hot/humid summers nor the heavy down pour of rain, could deter us from going out of our homes and playing. 

One of the improvised toys that we played with was by rolling used and worn-out scooter tyres. We used to dexterously roll the tyres and keep it moving by beating it with a stick to make sure it kept up to the speed that we ran. The improvisation was so perfect that we were able to steer the tyre and run through the tiny gaps between the trees, the rows of houses and between people and traffic on the road.

We used to have tyre races and tyre “fights” too. Falls and injuries were almost a daily affair. Injuries and bruises did not bother us… we just ran to the nearest house, washed the wound, obtained first aid from any of the “Aunties” and off we ran back to continue where we stopped from…

Like all Mothers in YP, my Mother insisted that we should be friendly with everyone. I was taught to wish every elder, “Good Morning, Uncle” or “Good Evening, Aunty” as the case might be. I religiously followed this instruction, and this helped me build bridges with many elders. Unlike many of my peers I became confident to speak to elders, a trait which helped to have many intellectually stimulating discussions with many Uncles, Aunties and elders on politics, current affairs and myriad topics, which stood me in a good stead as I grew to become a man myself.

We grew up as a bunch of boys and girls who always were willing to help anyone when approached, whether it was someone looking for a house or any old lady who cut grass and was struggling to lift the bundle of grass on her head or the vegetable vendor, to lift her basket on to her head…..we never felt it was a “help”, it just an act we did so spontaneously…it became a part of a culture of YP!!

On a hot sunny Sunday morning, I was rolling my tyre and running towards the “junction” where my friends would soon join. When I reached there a man riding a “Rajdoot” motorcycle stopped close to me. I was intrigued by his look. He had brown hair, a shaggy brown beard but what struck me and looked quite abnormal was his thick blue coloured glasses, which seemed to have rings within rings. I noticed that his eyes had a strange and strong gaze that seems to pierce through me. I felt a strange sense of fear, which was very unsettling. A feeling that I never felt before. I don’t know why but I stood frozen on my feet, when he called out to me.

His voice had a course and distinct identity like his eyes, “Babu, do you know the house of Somaraju garu? (Young boys are addressed affectionately as “Babu”, in Telugu).

Again my ever helpful nature came to the fore…”Yes of course, Uncle”, I replied and started running towards the house of Somaraju Uncle, beating my tyre to keep pace with me, as the person with brown hair, blue spectacles followed me on his motorcycle.

When we reached Somaraju Uncle’s home and knocked the door, Uncle himself opened the door. He appeared to be shocked on seeing this person. He gave me a sharp look of disbelief….a look that I remember till this day…it was a look that said, “You too, Munna (like the famous "You too Brutus"). I never quite understood the reason at that point.

I quickly ran away from them to get back to where I started from…the “junction” to continue playing….but Somaraju Uncle’s look did trouble me….Did I do something wrong? I asked myself…I only tried to help someone find a house….

Somaraju Uncle was a short man with a pot belly and a hoarse voice, who lived just a few houses away from ours. Quite unlike his appearance he was always a cheerful and friendly person. He also seemed quite affable and friendly with all the children. He did drop by while passing my home to stop for a quick word with my father. They stole short chats with each other, every time they met. They seemed to hit it off too. My Mom too spoke to Somaraju Aunty whenever she walked by. Uncle stopped and spoke to my Dad even after the “guest” episode. Even as a boy of 11, I was trying to observe any changes in Uncle’s behaviour towards me, after the episode… they seemed no love lost at all…everything seemed unchanged and normal…I was relieved.

A month later, I noticed the same man with strange blue colored spectacles with rounds within rounds in each glass of his spectacle…ride the same motor cycle. I felt a strange chill run down my spine….felt a pang of fear. This time he did not stop to ask anyone….he rode straight to Somaraju Uncle’s home.

I didn’t quite understand what was happening. But I heard some loud shouting and indications of a severe altercation between Somaraju Uncle and this person. Terrified and guilty, I thought that the fight was all because of me, because I was the person who showed him the house where Somaraju Uncle lived. This cruel and mean looking person, seemed to be shouting and insulting Uncle. I died a thousand deaths…. Mortally scared… shaking like a leaf…I ran home and hid in the bedroom….I didn’t dare sharing this episode… with even my Mother.

Strangely this happened month after month…the same ritual, he came…He and Uncle Somaraju seemed to talk to each other softly. Soon, their voices would raise and reach to a crescendo, sometimes, Somaraju Aunty would also join in… shouting tirade goes on for around half an hour and he would leave. I never could understand why this person came only on Sundays that too in the morning hours…was it because I was to witness this? Was this some kind of message that God is sending to me…a lesson or punishment to make me feel remorseful for my actions, perhaps…?

My young mind filled with such deeply intriguing questions…

Every time that he came, I ran to hide in the comfort of our bedroom. Being extremely observant, my Mother noticed my behavior of running into the bedroom upon seeing this brown-haired, blue spectacled man on his Motorcycle.

Realizing that my fear and consequent reaction was exposed, I asked my Mom, “Mama, why is this person would coming every month and shouting at Somaraju Uncle? What did poor Uncle do? After all he was decent person. Why is it that none of the other Uncles are trying to support Somaraju Uncle?”

My Mom said, “That is because Somaraju Uncle made a mistake”. I was astounded…”mistake?”…”Yes mistake. He has borrowed money from the blue specs man – “The Kabuliwala” and could not return it. He is not able to pay even the interest towards the borrowed amount, that’s why he is fighting with Uncle”.

I was barely 11 or 12 and it was the period where I was being taught Simple Interest and Compound Interest.

She told me that Uncle’s borrowing was being compounded while he was not able pay the amount due to his limited means. I was mortally scared when she said, that if he did not pay, the Kabuliwala would drag him to court. In such an event, Uncle would have to pay a sum five times more than he has borrowed, since the Kabuliwala had made Uncle sign a receipt for five times the sum that he had borrowed, so that the sum can cover the otherwise unjustifiable interest that he was charging towards the loan…else Somaraju Uncle would be put in jail…

These “Kabuliwalas” are “loan-sharks” my Mother said. “Mama, why are they called Kabuliwalas”

“Munna, these are folks from Kabul, Afghanistan, who have come and settled here. They do not do any work…they just thrive on other people’s misfortune by lending them money on exorbitant interest rates… Munna, you should never borrow money from these people….Yes, as far as possible, never borrow…you should learn to live within your means”…

My Mom’s golden words, ring in my ears even today….it was my first lesson towards financial discipline.

Time and years passed, I grew into a young man in my late twenties, I gained confidence and stature made many friends, had many associates and was at the prime of youth and life…

I joined the Rotary Club to do try to make my two-bit contribution towards helping the needy. I involved in Polio eradication Program, the Vocational Services, building Bus Shelters, providing books and stationery to a local School and in the process met some wonderful people and made lasting friendships.

One of my closest friends in the Club was a person who much older than me but was full of life.. who always had a youthful ebullience in his spirits and disposition… an affable person with an infectious smile… a person who seemed to have the ability to draw people into his own fold…a wonderful human being called, “Prasad Chatterjee”, whom I addressed as Chatterjee sahib, respectfully.

I too got drawn towards him, like many others…yet unlike others, I built a lasting relation with him and his family... I soon became like a family member, Mrs. Chatterjee and many others saw striking similarities between me and their daughter Swapna…both of us were chirpy, cheerful, chubby and grossly overweight… I soon started being called, their “peda koduku” or eldest son. Swapna became yet another sister to me.

After a few years, it was time for Swapna to get married. Being the “Pedda Koduku” I was always besides Chatterjee sb, running errands…lending a helping hand in the arrangements and fulfilling the responsibilities of the coveted title….

On the day of the wedding, I had the opportunity to lead the reception committee that stood at the entrance of the church to welcome the groom and his entourage…I was dressed in my best suit…a recent crisp haircut, shining shoes and wearing my best perfume….

Chatterjee sb’s brother shouted, “the groom’s party is here…call the photographers”…

While everyone shook hands and embraced the groom, I stood motionless…I could not move, I felt as if I got rooted to the ground… throat started to feel parched…I could feel the blood draining from my face….when I saw the person handling the video camera…he had the same shaggy brown beard, wore a religious cap with golden embroidery and….wore the same familiar blue spectacles with glasses that had rounds, within rounds….he was smiling but to me he looked like a “smiling assassin”….

All those frightful memories, the shouting and fighting in front of Somaraju Uncle’s home… my Mother’s priceless advise….all came gushing back….

The experience some how watered down my buoyant spirts and joy at the wedding of my “foster sister”….

When I met Chatterjee sb, the next day, I asked him if the videographer, was “The Kabuliwala”. Chatterjee sb, was dismayed, that I knew him and more so because I recognized him even after a gap of over two decades…

He told me that the blue spectacled Kabuliwala was his Classmate and had one time made a huge fortune by being the proverbial “loan-shark”. His avaricious ways led him to lend a huge sum to a “reputed” businessman on the most lucrative and exorbitant rate of interest. Only a couple of months later did he realize that the reputed businessman was the real definition of a “fly-by-night” operator, who vanished with his money…left to trail to trace…All his ill-gotten wealth was lost… The ruthless and merciless Kabuliwala became penniless, helpless, and therefore worthless…

He bought a video camera and became a wedding photographer. But due to his reputation of being a terrible person, he could not get many patrons.

Being a person with great benevolence Chatterjee sb, showed pity and engaged him as the videographer….

I leant yet another life lesson…”What goes around….comes around”……

Post Script: The name “Somaraju Uncle” is a fictitious name that I used deliberately not to reveal the identity of the person, lest it causes hurt to his family members


More by :  Suresh Kalathil

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