There wasn't a shadow of doubt in my mind that it was just a matter of time before I became the great Indian Author; so when after my graduation in Delhi my father asked me what I wanted to do, I told him straightaway, ‘Writing.' There were tremendous implications in that one word, and I wondered how much my father had actually caught on to.
"Writing?" he asked, as if wanting to find out if he had heard correctly.
"Writing," I repeated, without a trace of hesitation.
"You mean journalism?"
"Journalism primarily deals with the here and now," I explained patiently. "I'd like to write things of far greater permanence."
My father was a flourishing businessman, and he measured time not so much by minutes, hours, days, months and what have you, as by currency notes of various denominations. Thus, the present minute might be worth five hundred rupees, the next hour twenty-five thousand, and so forth. Now he had the look of a man who had struck an empty patch of time which was not yielding any dividends at all.
‘Don't talk in puzzles," he snapped. "What exactly would you want to do?"
"To write literature," I replied, cool as a cucumber.
He looked at me as if I were a worm he had suddenly spotted in his food.
"Kalidas, Tag ore, Shakespeare and all that," I put in helpfully, conscious that it was only a businessman I was talking to.
"Money in it?" he wanted to know.
"Tagore didn't do too badly with the Nobel Prize, did he? And Shakespeare's plays ran to packed houses in England."
"But you aren't Shakespeare or Tagore, are you?"
"I'm ME, Bapu, don't you see? I don't HAVE to be Shakespeare or Tagore --- I just have to be ME!"
For whatever reason, after that he would allow me anything. Even when I expressed the wish to go to what then was Bombay and now is Mumbai, to prepare myself to be the GREAT INDIAN AUTHOR, he didn't bat an eyelid. What he said was, "You better buy your ticket as fast as you can --- the faster the better!"
As I left the room in glee I thought I heard the word ‘Nut!' being thrown at me from behind, but when, instinctively, I turned, my father had a cigar placed firmly in his mouth, and you can't say ‘Nut!' with a cigar placed firmly in your mouth, can you?
Within two weeks I was off to Bombay. Once there, I fell in love with the city, its cosmopolitanism, its liveliness, its ubiquitous sea, its Irani restaurants that were full of mirrors and always had a juke-box, and the number of girls and women on its streets, which was more than at any other place I had been to. I put up as a paying guest at Chowpatty, with an energetic, illiterate, middle-aged widow of a landlady by the name of Mrs. Chandravarkar, whose husband had been a shining specimen of the rags-to-riches story, and had died in a car accident while driving recklessly, like in the movies, under the influence of alcohol, leaving behind huge income tax dues pending in his name. For the Great-Indian-Writer-to-Be, this was grist to the mill --- just the kind of background atmosphere that could trigger off a literary masterpiece. Not that life with the landlady was all a bed of roses, for, though she could be friendly and affectionate, she could curse quite foully and that too with the greatest of relish, and had the irritating habit of tiptoeing into my room and switching off the fan at the weirdest hours of the night, in order not to have to pay too much for electricity, but how could one aspire to be a famous author without being willing to take such inconveniences in one's stride? Or for that matter, without getting to know the likes of Dankar Kaka, the step-brother of my landlady's deceased husband?
Danker Kaka lived in the suburbs. He had once had a wife and children, but his wife had long ago walked out on him and married again, taking the children along.
Danker Kaka used to drop in at the Chowpatty flat quite often. Though Mrs. Chandravarkar would often subject him to a choice vocabulary of abuses, she never failed to give him a meal, which was why he came.
He was a wizened, bent man, with skin like old, wrinkled leather. His tired eyes were set deep in their sockets. He always dressed in rags, and wore a most piteous expression. His hair was dirty silver, and on his chin there was a perpetual white stubble. He was gap-toothed, and spoke in a low, mumbling monotone, so that it wasn't easy to figure out what he said.
He would boast of his command over the English language. "For a long time English has been my very pet subject," he told me more than once. "You can judge by my language, no? Ever since my early youth I am accustomed to reading English newspapers and magazines. I do not have much formal education, but what is there? A writer has said that self-help is the best help, is it not? When I was only ten years of age I wrote letter to my brother in King's English. Only ten years old, mind you, but I could write powerful sentences in English. My brother was very pleasantly surprised."
He would open a tattered black diary he always carried, and read to me portions of his astrological notes, emphasizing words and phrases he considered ‘powerful' --- ‘in conjunction with,' ‘benefic influences,' ‘compiling', ‘tenanting' etcetera.
Apart from English, the two other passions in his life were astrology and ‘matka.' He said people everywhere respected him for his knowledge of astrology. "I have exalted moon in first house. If you have exalted moon in first house you are worshipped like idol. You understand, no -- ‘idol'? Image of God?" He pronounced ‘idol' with a big, round ‘o', with the accent on ‘dol'.
He had an elder brother who gave him a monthly allowance that was hardly sufficient for his purposes, for Dinkar Kaka himself did not earn. However, he was certain that, sooner or later, he would strike it rich through ‘matka'
‘Matka' was one of the more popular gambling games in Bombay. It was rumored to be an international affair, with the Arab presence in it particularly strong.
It was said that the Chief of Operations or ‘matka king' unsealed a new pack of cards on each of the two daily occasions a betting took place. The time of draw varied from one outfit to the other, there being altogether five of these, of which the largest was called the ‘main'.
From what I could gather, the ‘king' removed all the cards above ten. In theory he then drew a single card from the remainder of the pack, while representatives of the public drew two. However, it would seem that in actual practice the ‘king' himself drew all three cards. His integrity was not generally questioned.
One could bet with twenty-five paise or any multiple of this.
To give an example of how the game was played, if the cards drawn were 3, 9 and 7 respectively, the ‘score', as it was called, was 397 or any permutation of this number. Whoever predicted the ‘score' correctly collected a hundred and fifty times his stake.
A correct call on a ‘score' with the repetition of a digit, as in 339, was known as ‘double pana' and brought in two-eighty times the money put in.
A ‘triple pana' or 'sangam' related to a number with three identical digits, and offered a thousand-fold return.
The smallest winnings came in from the ‘total', which was really the last digit of the total of the three digits of the ‘score'. Thus in 339, where the three digits add up to 15, the ‘total' would be the final digit 5.
One could forecast two successive ‘totals' and win ninety-five times one's bet. There was also a very handsome ‘jackpot' for predicting the ‘scores' of two successive draws.
Dinkar Kaka used astrology to matka. His diary was full of rectangular astrological charts with diamond shapes and crosses, and numbers written all over. Though he never seemed to win enough even for his daily requirements, he insisted this was because he hardly had any capital.
He used to persuade me to play matka. He said he would find out the numbers and we would go fifty-fifty on the winnings. A writer in the making, if he had any respect at all for his noble calling, could not possibly let such a golden opportunity go by, but after trying my luck in vain no fewer than thrice, I decided to quit.
The landlady's youngest son told me that Dinkar Kaka had hardly ever worked in his life. He had once held some vague job when Mr Chandravarkar, his step-brother and my landlady's husband, offered him an opening, making him a managing partner in his transport company. Not only had Dinkar Kaka snored away his days at his new office, but he had also embezzled one hundred thousand rupees. Dinkar Kaka himself corroborated this, not without a sense of pride:
"I appropriated one lakh rupees from company (you understand, no ---‘appropriated'?). I appropriated and for four years afterwards I had time of my life. I tasted and enjoyed girls from every caste and station in life. I sat in first row on opening nights in theatres. I ate in five-star hotels and top-notch restaurants. I may not have money at present, but what is there? -- I have had time of my life."
He would talk to me in some restaurant in Chowpatty or in the flat itself. He would talk openly in the flat only when the landlady had gone down to pray at a nearby temple. Once she came back earlier than expected and overheard him waxing eloquent on his disreputable past. She summoned him to her presence and gave him such a dressing-down that he had to buy his peace by going down to the milk booth to fetch her milk.
"Mrs. Chandravarkar is very annoying, very childish," he confided in me. "She does not think what she is saying. She is most illiterate woman. Does not believe in science of astrology. Talking bombardment all the time. Atomic energy, I must say. After all, I am brother-in-law, is it not? But I am helpless man. A writer has said, money talks, but I have no money. But that does not mean she should insult and injure, just because my present fate is unfortunate."
He opened his diary and pointed to a chart. He explained that his life was passing through its worst phase ;but there was a windfall to come.
"I can procure job easily if I try from sunrise to sunset, but what is there? One should wait and be patient. Rome was not built in a day. It is inadvisable to challenge Fate. After all, I have Saturn in second house and Sun in tenth house. That shows wealth of money is guaranteed in my life."
Things were not turning out as well as I had expected. The other day I had walked over to a beggar, an elderly man with a salt-and-pepper beard, and very democratically sat down beside him on a folded newspaper to ask him all about himself and his profession. A great author in the making was well advised to do such things is how I viewed the situation.
"I'm a writer," I explained to him in Hindi, with a smile that was the very milk of human kindness, "and I'd like to know more about you."
He had looked very meek, but a sudden wave of ferocity swept over him and he spat fiercely on the side away from me. Having done that, he immediately lapsed again into the extreme air of misery that, I suppose, was habitual with him. It was as if I had ceased to exist.
Two passers-by dropped coins on the piece of cloth laid out before him.
A great author in the making knows a thing or two about human nature, or he wouldn't be a great author in the making. I took out a ten-rupee note and held it out promisingly before me.
Though he never once looked in my direction, my message had mysteriously registered, and there was a new flicker of interest in his eyes. However, it was obvious I hadn't reached his price as yet, and he wasn't going to be bowled over.
I flashed out another ten-rupee note.
He couldn't help but sit up straighter, getting himself into an almost able-bodied posture that wouldn't have recommended him to would-be alms-givers.
"What made you turn to begging?" I began.
He made a dive for the notes.
Pat came his reply, "I've always wanted to do something for others, something that would help them feel better about themselves. When people drop me a coin, they feel they've come close to God. We probably do more for religion than the priests."
That made me very thoughtful, and for a while I was rendered speechless.
"For how long have you been begging?" is what I asked next, when I had found my tongue.
"That will be twenty rupees more," he said.
"Is that fair?" I protested, quite scandalized, but he met my disappointment with such amoral indifference that I briefly contemplated murder. I moderated this desire to stare at him searchingly in an effort to rouse his conscience. When I discovered he didn't have any, I rose from my seat. He quickly changed his tune to ‘Okay, okay, ten rupees more will do -- I'll make a concession for you," but I was through with him. I observed to a car parked in front that beggars could not be choosers, and wandered off despondently, feeling conned. I thought I heard him calling out
‘Nut !' in Hindi behind my back, but swiveling my head I saw him looking like he hadn't uttered a single word in the last five or may be six years.
Writers are a sensitive lot. I went to the sea and tried to compose the saddest sonnet ever written in any language, but after having jotted down six immortal lines and imbibed two bottles of soft drinks, my feet led me towards the nearest movie hall, where a new ‘hit' was in progress. There were ‘House Full' signs screaming at me from everywhere, and I had to help myself to somewhat expensive unofficial arrangements through a tout. At the end of the show I came out of the hall with a monumental hunger and a brilliant story idea.
Now one cannot write a decent story in a cheap restaurant where the waiters keep clattering the crockery and cutlery, and the next customer-in-waiting keeps looking daggers-drawn in one's direction, willing one to clear out as fast as possible. One needs a classier atmosphere for the kind of literature I was aiming at, so I hopped into a three-star hotel, ordered fruit juice and snacks to maintain me while lunch was being cooked, and applied myself to the serious business of writing.
What with this lifestyle, which a writer owes himself if he wishes to come to any good, I had to send in constant appeals to my father to contribute money more generously for the cause. What was my surprise, therefore, when I received an ultimatum from him in the form of a letter, asking me to pack up at once and return home post-haste, or else . . .
Since the sentence wasn't complete, I booked a STD call home to ascertain the details from him, but he absolutely refused to speak to me, having me wait till his secretary informed me that he was extremely busy. I did not expect this from my own flesh and blood, and told the secretary as much, who then volunteered the information that my father would be most happy to see me once I was back.
I had the first chapters of two novels I was simultaneously writing typed out and Xeroxed. These I posted to my father, just in case he suspected I was simply blowing up his money. The whole operation made a significant dent in my already-depleted resources and, given the circumstances, I had little choice but to request him in writing for a refund. Surprisingly, he sent back the Xeroxed manuscripts without even a note of appreciation, and not only did he deny me the refund, but my next allowance failed to arrive. My funds would not last me long, and with every passing day it became increasingly clear that very soon I would either have to return home in disgrace or devise some ingenious means of making money.
It did not occur to me to look for a job. A job implied being at the beck and call of a boss, humoring his whims, crooning ‘sir' to him even when one wanted to box his ears, laughing appreciatively even at the poorest of his poor jokes -- these things would surely crush my spirit, and what good was a writer with his spirit crushed ?
I was in dire straits. I grew a stubble, smoked a chain of cigarettes, and blew endless smoke rings. One evening I visited some friends at a hostel. I tried to participate in their conversation, but I remained on the outside, I just couldn't get into things. I shuffled out, picked up a bottle of rum, brought it back home, and drank myself to sleep as I was, without changing my clothes or taking off my shoes.
I slept till well after ten the next morning. I woke up to a splitting headache. Languidly I read the papers, yawning repeatedly. Then I went out for breakfast, came back, tried to read a novel, gave it up as a hopeless effort, and fell asleep once more.
It was afternoon when I got up. The landlady had gone to the temple, and Dinkar Kaka was in the flat.
"Venus is in combination with Moon today," he announced. "That makes double pana almost certainty this evening. I know you are undergoing financial difficulties, but what is there? Just bet eight-eight annas on 229 and 225 for main matka open" (that meant the first draw).
I had around three hundred rupees with me. I took out two one-hundred-rupee notes, and handed them over.
"One hundred each on 229 and 225", I said.
Dinkar Kaka raised his ancient brows. He did not take the money.
"Hundred rupees? You are cutting joke on me. You should not behave like that. It is not as if I am speaking stuff and nonsense. What I am saying is based on science of astrology, mind you . . . "
"Dinkar Kaka," I interrupted, "I'm dead serious. To make big money one's got to take some risks."
Dinkar Kaka studied me before accepting the notes.
"You are master of your own money, so what is there? I was telling you in purely advisory capacity -- you understand, no? I have no right to hinder or hamper or anything like that. If God wills we will make fourteen grand each, so why for worry? You have every right to dispense money as and when you wish. I have no objection whatsoever. I am not like Mrs. Chandravarkar, poking nose into other people's business all the time."
What does one do with fourteen thousand bucks that suddenly come into one's hands?
Frankly, we were too stunned to know what to do. I would have expected myself to go for a binge straightaway, may be start looking for better accommodation, may be date a pretty girl or two, but it did not work that way. In a trance Dinkar Kaka and I went down to the beach and sat on the sands among other people taking the evening air, and chewed nuts and watched the waves. And when we had finished with the nuts we bought grams selling on the beach and chewed them and again watched the waves, as if they held the secret answers to our inner queries.
"Young man next door to me needs kidney transplant," Dinkar Kaka said at length. "It is important and imperative he gets new kidney without delay. What is there? I have Saturn in second house and Sun in tenth house. I can mint money as and when I wish."
I looked at him in disbelief. "Don't be nuts!" is all that came to me to say.
"It is not as if he is Mr Rockefeller or Mr Tata. Buying new kidney is no laughing matter."
"You've got to be practical! You've got to keep something for yourself, don't you think? "
But he was on a totally different track.
"Cost of new kidney is expensive and exorbitant -- you understand, no -- exorbitant?"
He continued, "A writer has said, ‘Little drops of water make mighty ocean.' I will utilize one thousand plus for personal necessities. Rest I will donate for new kidney. It is only right and proper to lend helping hand, is it not?"
It was with great difficulty that I persuaded him to keep four thousand for himself, pointing out that ten thousand was a nice, round, auspicious figure to give in charity
He insisted that ‘ten thousand and one' would beat ‘ten thousand' hands down when it came to being auspicious (indeed, adding the ‘one' was a common custom) and I put my signature on his sentiment. Together we went to the suburbs, to the man in want of a new kidney, and there I added my little, little drop of water, much smaller than Dinkar Kaka's, to the ocean that was to be.
One of the patient's son turned out to be a mental retard. He moved without muscular coordination, and two big yellowish teeth stuck out below his upper lip. He came up to me when I was sitting on a stool sipping tea, and started making strange sounds. When I looked at him he smiled and asked me for money. That is when I enlarged my drop of water to match Dinkar Kaka's. The family was so full of gratitude, and there was so much suffering in their eyes, that I was glad that I did what I did.
But when we stepped out of the house Dinkar Kaka was eyeing me with disapproval and mumbling under his breath. I thought I even heard him mutter ‘Nut!"
"Did I hear you say ‘Nut', Dinkar Kaka?" I wanted to know.
"I leave no stone unturned to maximize and modernize my vocabulary."
"And so who's the nut?"
"Copycat mentality is not right and proper," he commented obliquely. "Your behavior was inadvisable and inappropriate. Opportunity does not knock on door all the time. My situation is different, is it not? After all, I have Saturn in second house and Sun in tenth house."
"Come, come, you're the last person who should be calling anyone a nut!" I let fly, but if there was a trace of rancor in my voice, it disappeared the moment it showed its face, and we looked at each other and smiled in perfect understanding.
Later, when we heard the kidney patient had survived his surgical ordeal and was doing well, Dinkar Kaka and I went together to an Irani restaurant, ordered Chicken Biryani and cold drinks, and played our favorite tunes in the juke box. By then, alarmed that I had not returned home even though I was ostensibly without money, my father had re-established contact with me and agreed to resume his sponsorship of my great literary endeavor. I was certain he would have little cause to regret his decision.