Saturday Features

Riding Motorcycles without Licence

  • The eccentricities of passing time
- Smriti Ravindra

Jul 21, 2018-

White sounds of unceasing rain land on the puddles that look like small lakes. Fish could live in them. My father-in-law is in the room with me, drinking tea and staring out the window. Tea, they say, originated in China. Has to be. I am restless as I sip, like I want to jump off the window and take a vigorous swim in the Arabian Sea frothing somewhere behind us.

I often tell Daddy that he should take up a hobby—cooking, perhaps, or gardening.  Or else he should start a little something—a club, a shop, a writing project, an effort to teach his grandson carrom. But retirement has left him feeling like the rain—free, free falling—and after years of having worked hard he finds all rules of the world cumbersome.

“Besides,” he says, “little comes off such efforts.” And starts a story.

Seth Uncle was Dad’s friend and fifteen years earlier they had retired together—Dad from a civilian post in the Army, and Seth Uncle from an architectural firm. Dad was a widower by then and his children had left for richer pastures—America, London—and there was little to keep Dad from doing what he pleased when he wanted. Seth Uncle, on the other hand, had a wife and his children were close by, and the itch to be productive had not yet left him.

“Or maybe,” Dad says, “he was simply escaping home. That happens too to people who have worked all their lives.”

After the itch got too strong Seth Uncle started a small Chinese shop.

“What?” I ask. “He sold Chinese people?”

Dad raises his brows—Really? Such inane joke on such a beautiful morning?—and continues the tale, “He hired a young boy to cook Chinese chow-chow, bought a few tables and chairs, a stove, a gas cylinder, some pots and pans, and was ready to go.  

“But the business did not last two months,” he goes on. “On the second month of his employment, the boy asked Seth for an advance of ten thousand rupees and when Seth refused, he left the job and somehow ensured nobody else would work for Seth.”

“Must have been a powerful boy,” say I.

“You can never tell by simply looking at someone,” says Dad.

“Satya Vachan,” I say gravely.  

Dad shakes his head. I am too frivolous for him.  

“Seth was out of business and as despondent as an earthworm stuck on the sidewalk, so after a couple of months he decided to start a bakery shop. Mawa cake, tea cake, coconut oil, milk packets in the fridge, triple A batteries, that kind of thing.  I, and another friend of ours, Dave, spent our afternoons in the shop, nibbling on cakes and trying to lure customers into buying plastic combs. We were a disaster.  Nobody ever came. There were two customers total. Me and Dave. Then one day Seth’s wife called to say the cylinder at their home had run out of gas. ‘Get the thing filled,’ she said, ‘or no dinner for anyone but the dog.’ And Seth, who had grown a morbid fear of his wife since his retirement, scampered like a rat to get the cylinder filled. In no time a healthily filled gas cylinder was delivered to the cake shop and the three of us had it kept behind the counter where Seth sat all day dipping Parle-G biscuits in tea. And that was what got Seth arrested for the first time in his life.”

“Arrested? For eating Parle-G biscuits?”

“Don’t be stupid,” he says and explains, “For keeping a gas cylinder meant for domestic use in a commercial space. It is a crime to keep domestic gas cylinders in commercial spaces. They kept Seth behind bars until nine that night and Dave and I paid fifteen thousand rupees to bail him out. Seth looked like a broom when he came out of the cell and Dave kept laughing like a nervous hyena. It was quite morbid. We did not tell anyone a thing about anything. We told Seth’s wife we had taken off to Lonavala. At least it was exciting to lie to his wife. Of course, she gave us hell for taking off to Lonavala, but imagine what she would do if she knew we had taken off to prison!”

“Besides,” Dad goes on, “Seth had other problems in life. He was paying a six-thousand-rupees rent for that cake shop and earning two rupees a day from it, one rupee from me and one from Dave. Only a year back he had taken a loan of sixteen lakhs for his daughter’s higher education and six months into college she fell in love with some godforsaken boy and wanted to get married. And where would Seth get the money to get her married now, after all that loan? The deal had been that she would finish her education, get a job and repay her loan, and now there was this marriage headache. But how does a father tell his daughter he does not want to get her married?  Poor Seth.”

I am still stuck at the point where Seth Uncle, a senior citizen, was arrested for absolutely nothing. The randomness of the arrest has shaken me a little and I want to get back to the incident, but when I ask him, Dad shrugs off the arrest.

“You know,” he says, “Life can be rather generous too, sometimes. It can stump you with its generosity. It can force your eyes wide open and make you gawk at it. That is life. Zindagi ka safar. When Seth was in his forties he had filled a government scheme form for a house in Mumbai. It was like a government lottery, totally arbitrary, and Seth had won a house in that lottery, right in the heart of Bandra. Upon taking possession, Seth had rented the house out and was getting forty thousand a month from the property. It was the rent that kept him and his family afloat after his retirement. But now with his daughter’s marriage looming before him, he decided to sell off the house. ‘What do I need it for now?  At this age?’ he kept saying, and we began a search for a buyer. And guess how much it sold for?”

“How much?”

“One crore eighty lakhs!”

I almost drop my cup of tea.

“The man was a crorepati in no time. He paid off the education loan, married off his daughter—spent forty lakhs on the marriage—and bought himself a fancy-dancy house in Pune. You’ve seen that house, have you not?”

I nodded. I had been invited to Seth Uncle’s housewarming. It was a magnificent house, no doubt, but this was almost eight years ago, and its details have escaped me now.

“Dave and I were so thrilled. Seth closed the damn cake shop and provided us with half a year worth of soaps, oils, small mirrors. We were like little Princes of nowhere!  No, really. We were really happy for the man. His wife loved him again. His house was grand. His son was far away, his ingrate daughter too. What could be better?  And just then, when everything was better, Seth died. In his sleep. The morbid, unimaginative heart-attack. He didn’t live three months in his new grand house.”

I frowned. I didn’t know the owner of that magnificent house was dead, had been dead for so long.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Didn’t want to. Didn’t want to say anything about it. Didn’t want to understand old age. It struck me then that it could be this way with any of us. We were strong and alive once, taking up dares to jump off bridges, riding motorcycles without licenses, eating cakes and getting arrested, and now our friends, our siblings were dying.  Seth was the first friend I lost to death and I did not know how to talk about it. Dave was stunned. ‘So young, so young,’ he kept saying, and you know, we feel young still, all of us, we are young. But we are so mortal.”

What could I say to this?  I, who am younger. I make a feeble joke. Something like, don’t be stupid, Daddy, you are the hunk of our family.  

In the world outside the wind has picked up and rain slants itself into our room. I hurry to shut the window and immediately the room is quieter. Our cups are empty and I ask dad if he would like another round of tea.  

He nods. I take the opportunity to flee.

Published: 21-07-2018 08:28

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