Half a Rupee: Stories (3 page)

Bhushan Banmali

When the tea grew cold for the second time, Santoshji asked the khansama, ‘What happened? Bhushan hasn’t woken up yet?’

‘Not yet! I tried to wake him, though. Called out his name.’

‘You think calling out his name is enough? Even if you beat a drum next to his ear he is not going to wake up. Anyway, you brew a fresh cup of tea and lay it out on the lawns. I am going to go and wake him up.’

Bhushan loved his wife Usha and his mother-in-law Santosh Bansal in the same fashion, and with equal intensity. If he was miffed with Usha, he would seek solace in Santoshji. And when he fought with Santoshji, he would shuttle back to Usha. But this time Usha was so upset with him that she had gone away to Madras—so he too went away, to his mother-in-law in Punjab.

Bhushan had both a home and a hearth, but he was
a nomad by nature. Neither could the home make him happy, nor could the hearth keep him tied. One day, he had picked up his jhola and left Delhi and come to me in Bombay. A few books, a few journals—that’s all he had in that cloth bag of his. Perhaps there were a few letters and a few photographs over which he had fought with Santosh. The two of them used to bring out a reputed Hindi magazine in Delhi that published poetry. It was called
Nai Sadi
, ‘the new century’. He wasn’t married to Usha then. Back in those days, Usha was still learning how to paint.

Why he came to Bombay he never ever spoke about.

‘Where will you stay?’ I had asked him.

‘Here, with you,’ he had said with an impish grin. ‘When you throw me out, then I’ll think of where to go next.’

I was effectively rendered speechless.

‘You will never go back to Delhi, is that it?’

A long pause, and then he had said, ‘Did Krishna ever go back to Mathura once he had left it?’

It wasn’t an answer I was expecting. How was I to know what or whom he had left behind in Mathura? All I knew was that he, along with Mrs Santosh Bansal, brought out a monthly magazine in which they had published a few of my poems. And when I was in Delhi, I had spent an afternoon in his office, guzzling beer. They had a huge circle of poet friends. That day, one by one they all kept dropping into his office. The bottles of beer too started popping open one by one. Empty beer bottles were soon all over the floor. A waiter kept serving
fried fish and kebabs and vegetable fritters late into the afternoon, and we kept listening to each other’s poems in rapt attention. Bhushan wrote in Hindi under the pen name Bhushan Banmali but he read Urdu. He kept getting us all drunk, and kept reading out his poems. Santosh was a great fan of his poems—his personal eulogist. But all through the drinking and reading session, I did not see anybody taking out any money to pay for the beer or the snacks. They must be running a tab at the shop, like most poets do, I thought. Getting things on credit was a sacrilegious thing in my household but an honest and established ritual at Bhushan’s.

That was my first meeting with Bhushan, the very first time I saw him. The next time was when he came to Bombay. One evening when I returned home, I found him sitting in my room, sipping beer. I walked in and asked my servant, ‘Where did the beer come from?’

‘Sahib gave me some money and asked me to fetch it.’

I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. It was my home and my office too. I am hostage to a few non-poetic habits—I go to bed early, and am up very early as well. But Bhushan was in the habit of sleeping late into the day. Soon, this began to irk me. To make matters worse, he would often bolt the door from the inside. We would bang on the door, thump on it, do everything short of breaking the door down, but he just wouldn’t get up. Frustrated, I finally resorted to unscrewing all the bolts and all the locks from each and every door.

One day, I finally did ask him, ‘What’s up with
Nai Sadi
?’

‘Passed away.’ He was as laconic as he could be.

‘What do you plan to do now?’

‘Whatever you say.’

I was rendered speechless once again.

Bhushan started working with me. Neither as an assistant, nor as an understudy—but as a partner, sort of. There would be debates over J. Krishnamurti. History would be read and then repeated. In one such expansive mood, we even scribbled a letter and mailed it to the Pope: now that science has proved that the earth revolves around the sun, shouldn’t he at least extend a papal pardon to Galileo? I don’t know whether the letter reached the Pope or whether he ever read it, but when some ten or fifteen years later the papacy issued a formal pardon to Galileo, Bhushan and I rang each other up in congratulatory celebrations.

Then for a long time we ceased to be in touch—Bhushan had started to live on his own, and meanwhile I had got married. One day, Bhushan brought back Usha from Delhi as his lawfully wedded wife. Santosh too would often frequent his place, and it never went down well with Usha. Theirs was a pretty strange relationship—mother and daughter fought with each other over Bhushan. Each claimed him to be hers alone. Each thought the other had encroached upon her relationship with him. And Bhushan—he kept himself engrossed in his reading and writing. Whenever we met we would reminisce about the day we got bitten by wanderlust: ‘Bhai, remember that night at Joshimath?’

Wandering through hills and valleys we had finally reached Rudraprayag—Bhushan, Taran Taaran and I. We did not have a driver; I was driving the car myself. We parked and went out for a stroll in the bazaar. When we saw fresh fruits, we bought some; then we saw fresh vegetables and bought some of those too.

That made Taran ask, ‘What are we going to do with all this? And so much fruit—who’s going to eat all of it?’

‘Why don’t you just let us buy them first—we don’t necessarily have to eat them. Have you ever seen such lush green vegetables and such fresh fruits in Bombay?’ Bhushan snapped, biting into a hot jalebi.

‘We will give them to the cook at the dak bungalow where we will stay the night.’

In the upper reaches of the Himalayas, the dak bungalows were the only places to stay. Built by the British, you found these dak bungalows everywhere. Pity, nobody builds them any more.

The evening was far away. We had time on our hands. We thought of venturing a little further than what we had planned—to Anandprayag. We knew of a dak bungalow there where we could spend the night. When we returned to our parked car, a Sardarji greeted us, ‘Where are you people going?’

The roadworthiness of a travelling car cannot be hidden. And in the hills, it is not difficult to guess your destination—the direction in which the car is parked on the narrow winding roads is a dead giveaway. We told him that we were intending to drive up to Anandprayag.

‘If there’s space, will you give me a lift?’

‘Where do you want to go?’

‘Drop me at Anandprayag. My home’s there.’

A man is forever in search of a co-traveller. We asked him to join us.

The Sardarji had a very cheerful disposition. His name was Bhola Singh Sandhu, but he called himself B.S. Sandhu. He was from the army and was heading home. The bridge that would take us straight into Anandprayag was under repairs—we had to drive into the city via a drooping, fagging detour. Sandhu saab requested to be dropped there, and like a good Hindustani invited us over to his house. He kept insisting that we come home with him and have dinner: ‘You’ll not find an eatery here, the further up the road you go, the more difficult it will be to get anything to eat. Please have dinner with me and then go.’ But we excused ourselves. The sun had already crept behind the hills.

By the time we reached the dak bungalow it was quite late at night. When we shouted for the caretaker, a chowkidar came out rubbing his eyes. He was in the habit of saying ‘no’ even before we asked him anything.

‘Do you have a vacant room?’

‘No.’

‘Just for one night?’

‘No.’

‘How about till five in the morning?’

‘No.’

‘Has Major Bakshi arrived?’ This, in a suddenly authoritative voice.

He just stopped short of saying ‘no’. ‘Which Major sahib?’

‘Major Bakshi had made a booking for today. What about that?’

He turned to look at me but before he could say anything, I issued him an order, ‘Go, heat some water. Major sahib is about to arrive. Where’s the register, show it to us.’

Rattling under the barrage of our questions, the chowkidar stepped back. Bhushan gave him the bag of fruits and vegetables, ‘Here. Keep this. Take it home with you in the morning.’

All the rooms in the bungalow were vacant. We had finally found a place to stay. We were pouring ourselves a drink when Bhushan quipped, ‘All we have are these biscuits … dunk them in your whiskey—there’s nothing else to eat.’

At that very moment a local hill man arrived with a tiffin-carrier: Sandhu saab had sent some piping hot food for us. This kind of hospitality can only be found in this country, in our Hindustan!

Come morning and as always we once again planned to hit the road. And as always, we had to pick up a sleeping Bhushan and dump him in the back seat of the car. We left at four in the morning. Those days it was our mantra to wake up before the sun was up, greet the sun on the road and roost before the sun would. The previous night, we had decided that there was no point turning back from here. Joshimath was only a few kilometres away. We planned to drive up to Joshimath
and then onwards to Badrinath, and if possible drive by Govindghat to go to the Valley of Flowers, hitting the road again only after visiting Hemkund. God only knew when we would be able to come to these hills again and whether there would be anything pristine left in these hills to see. Bhushan readily agreed; Taran Taaran was made to.

Our next stop was Joshimath.

Three quarters of the day had passed and I was driving through bursts of sun and patches of clouds. Taran asked, ‘Why don’t you employ a driver? You keep driving yourself, all the time.’

‘Why? Am I such a bad driver?’

‘No no. The thing is—you keep looking this side and that instead of keeping your eyes on the road … you know how hilly roads are …’

Bhushan burst out laughing, ‘Till we pull over for the night, the man’s going to keep telling you that … look … look at the colours flying off his face, he’s turning pale … “even before flying, his complexion was always pale.”’ Bhushan decided to take the opportunity to quote Ghalib, twisting his words around to accommodate an epithet from the poet.

We were approaching a dangerous bend on the road and I could hear the honking of a bus coming downhill around the bend. The light of the sun filtering through the thick dense overgrowth of the jungle took on a green hue. Our hearts leapt into our mouths as we negotiated the bend and got our first sight of Joshimath. It had snowed there. There was not a single fake of snow on this side
of the valley, but everything appeared white on the other side—like icing on cake.

At Joshimath we slid our car into a vacant spot in the bazaar. But no sooner had we opened the door of the car than we pulled it shut—the bitterly cold air had rushed in to rob us of all warmth. We pulled our shawls tightly around us and wrapped our mufflers across every possible inch of our faces. Thus armoured, we stepped out of the car in search of a roof under which we could spend the night. The bazaar was on higher ground than the residential area; so we marched up the steps, and down the slope. More steps, more slopes. A little ascent here, a bit of descent there. In the hills, climbing down a slope is as knee-breaking an activity as climbing up. That is why the Kashmiris say ‘Urjo durkat’ (may your knees stay intact) every time a friend or a family member steps out of the house. Finally, at the end of an unending fight of steps, we found an ashram—Birla Ashram.

A pundit at the ashram gave us a place to stay—unlocked a room and got three string cots put up. We were the only ones there. We did not see any other traveller, but all the pundit gave us to keep ourselves warm in the freezing cold were thin mattresses, and thinner durrees and blankets. And he looked pretty unapologetic about it: ‘No one comes here in this weather … they venture here when it is warmer and then these mattresses and blankets are enough. Moreover, those who come also bring a few things with them. What they do not bring and we do not have, they get from the bazaar. You can get everything there on rent.’

We took punditji’s hint, took the room key from him and then once again trotted up the hill to the bazaar. When we reached our car, there was a note on the front windshield, under the wipers. The note read:

A little down the road, at the far end of the bazaar you’ll find a petrol pump. A road from the pump will lead you straight to our military camp. Please have dinner with us tonight.


B.S. Sandhu

We were a little taken aback by the note. How did this man whom we had dropped outside Anandprayag get here, we wondered.

Bhushan said, ‘He got here the way we did—how else? And then he’s familiar with our car, isn’t he? Why are you all looking so shocked?’

‘But he could have told us if he wanted to come to Joshimath?’

‘How could he? You told him that we were going only up to Anandprayag. Coming here was an afterthought. We decided to come here only last night, didn’t we?’

That was the end of our wonderment.

We ventured into the bazaar, rented a few thick, cozy mattresses, bought
an angeethi,
a small amount of coal and after making all sundry arrangements to beat the cold, we left for the army mess of Bhola Singh Sandhu.

The jawans of Sandhu’s unit had already been informed of our arrival. They went all out to make us feel welcome. They had made a huge fire and we sat around it
after dinner. They kept pouring us rum—endless Patiala pegs of rum. They belonged to the Punjab Regiment of the Indian Army and they had a reputation to protect, so we drank like fish. They regaled us with Punjabi poetry rendered in an orthodox Punjabi style. Imagine a lot of Punjabi jokes and Punjabi poetry and then imagine your condition when you hear an incomparable blend of the two. Soon we were rolling on the floor, doubling up in laughter. At the end, the jawans served us gulab-jamuns that they had made. They tied a towel like a bib around Bhushan’s neck and put a whole tub of gulab-jamuns in front of him. And Bhushan being Bhushan succeeded in squeezing half the sugary syrup of the gulab-jamuns into his mouth and half onto his clothes.

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