[This is a translation of the Punjabi original with the same title. Charanjeet Singh Minhas, the original writer acknowledges that he has taken the help of his friend Ms Geeta Sharma Khanna, Assistant Professor of English at Ripudaman College, Nabha. The Punjabi original was published in the Mehram magazine, April 2016.]
I had the help from my friend.
It was a nice and clear day. A day in late 1970s—shortly after his retirement from the Punjab police. I was still a single digit year boy then.
“Many do not get to eat lychees in their lifetime, son…do you know that? And here, look… an orchard standing full of them!” Thanedar Sahib sailed his right arm proudly towards his trees. His left hand stayed busy twirling his moustache.
Even though he had his ancestral home and farming land in Bathinda district, here in Patiala’s Model Town, a few houses away from my home, Thanedar Sahib had built this huge bungalow—without huge cost. He only had to astutely leverage his local thana (police station) chief position to the hilt.
He had it built into two sections, both independent of each other. As envisaged, the one in the front was on a long lease to the state’s irrigation department while Thanedar Sahib with his wife—thanedarani—and the youngest of his three sons, Buboo, used the one in the back as their home.
However, it was the lychee-orchard behind the sparkle and splendour of Thanedar Sahib’s moustache.
With the winter break in school still on, I visited his house again a few days later. Thanedar Sahib was sitting and sipping his tea in the veranda. His potbelly ignited a question in my young mind: when pissing, does he know where it is going!
I went over and seated myself by his side.
“Son, you know what, though I have recently retired, even then, there are always two sepoys watching my back.” With that he also announced the last sip with a big slurp.
I wasn’t fond of the policemen. Warily, I swept a glance behind him. Yes, two sepoys stood behind his chair. One on each side. In a framed picture hung on the wall.
“Oye son… we are never in the eyes of the people we eye,” Thanedar Sahib roared with laughter. His belly jiggled like jelly in the custard mom made now and then. He cleaned his beard and moustache of any signs of tea before starting to twirl his moustache with both hands.
Suddenly, he started to tap his leather chappal with the toe of his right foot, breaking momentarily into his catchphrase cough. OMG! Reflexively, my hand moved to my nose. Thanedar Sahib’s tap-cough duet was talk of the Town—Model Town.
However, alas, before I could escape… brrr rr r r Thanedar Sahib went. Good lord in the heaven he must have been constipating or something… I was left gasping for fresh air!
With the end of the winter break in school, I could not go back to the bungalow for a couple of months. That was not the only reason though. The tap-cough routine was no less of a deterrent.
And when I did go, I found the bungalow seething with family turmoil. Buboo was holding his parents captive in a locked room.
Noticing me, he stormed out of the kitchen, fretting and fuming. Standing tall and sturdy at over six feet, Buboo looked like a bearded monster, and not a student of the local, tough to get in Thapar Engineering College.
“Why you visit these rascals?” he screamed looking down at me.
“These bastards trade kids, butcher childhoods, and are executioners of small innocent souls. She…in there…my mother, she will do the same to you too. One fine day she will swap you for someone’s property. The only things she values are property and her first son living in America. Look at my other brother rotting on the streets with his wife and children. Why? Because he doesn’t have a fancy degree or a lucrative job like the American! My father can’t do nothing... even for farting he needs her approval.”
Blurting abuses he bolted out like a hooded snake. Confused and shaken by the diatribe, I waited until I was sure he had left before unlatching the door. Thanedar Sahib and thanedarani emerged from inside the room, slightly embarrassed but greatly upset from their ordeal.
Thanedar Sahib heaved a long and cold sigh. “Don’t know for which past life he is taking a revenge,” he said in a daze, smacking his forehead.
On hearing thanedarani’s scream we both ran towards the kitchen. It bore a vandalized look. Buboo had dumped tea leaves, sugar, milk, flour, rice, cereals, and eggs, into the sink under the open tap. Shattered cups, saucers, glasses and plates lay strewn across the floor.
What anguish manifests into such a rage in Buboo? What terrible things could Thanedar and thanedarani have done to make him so angry?
In the summer of 1980, I joined The Punjab Public School (PPS) — a boarding school, among the best in India—at Nabha.
When I returned home after four months for Diwali vacation, I found an unfamiliar table and chair in my room. My mother told me that Thanedar Sahib and thanedarani and Buboo had migrated to Amrika. Before going they rented out the back section of the bungalow as well. The stuff in there was distributed among neighbours, and this study-table and chair they left in our house saying, “our gift for Charanjeet.”
Then my mother embraced me tightly, fondly stroking and kissing my head as she narrated a part of her conversation with thanedarani. “You know, what the thanedarani said when she came to drop these?”
“What?” I snuggled deeper into her embrace. I had missed this deep and divine warmth in my first ever four months away from home.
“May Charanjeet take after my oldest and give you a lot of comfort and happiness. Also, that, she will send for you two-three neckties from Amrika.”
After a few years. I had just finished PPS and was home preparing for the Thapar College entrance examination. During this time, one day when I came back home after entrance exam-related coaching session, I was surprised to see thanedarani sitting next to my mother.
I went over to greet her. I bowed and touched her feet and asked her how are Thanedar Sahib and Buboo. She smiled but continued to look at me like an appraiser.
“Oh, he has grown to be quite big,” shifting her gaze, she told my mother without answering me. “Really beautiful neckties I have bought and kept for him in America or should I say in Amrika…? Hahaha.” I didn’t like her ridiculing the local way in which my mom pronounced America. Unmindful, she stayed focused on rendering her elusive neckties raaga. “I’ll bring them along on my next visit. By then it may be a ceremonious time, too.”
Finally, she looked back at me and said, “Thanedar Sahib is fine…that’s what I was telling your mother…how else can a parent be when his child takes so much care as our oldest son does. He has two big cars…two of them.” She raised two fingers of her right hand to ensure I understood. “World’s most expensive clothes, he buys them for us. He is so up there but I just never talk about him lest people think…”
“Let that be then...” I almost blurted, but stopped short.
“Hundreds of goras work under him in his company. And it is the largest in the world.” Besides using her hands, thanedarani widened her eyes to the fullest to emphasize her son’s success and high position. “Yet, I know, you will not believe, he does not let us even fetch a single glass of water for ourselves—his dedication and service to his parents is just matchless; in no way less than the Ramayana’s legendary Shravan.”
The decked up thanedarani sat stiff. She was wearing an expensive designer salwar-kameez, and a huge gold necklace adorned her neck and its glaring studs highlighted the painted face.
“Buboo too has, Charanjeet, undergone a sea change; how should I tell you...? The gori he has married is so beautiful that a mere touch blemishes her. She is as tall as Buboo and very rich, too, with a large estate and many horses. They live like Nawabs, and the two of them now have a year-old son as well.”
After a little more conversation I went to study in my room. I had just begun to focus when my mother walked in. “Thanedarani is asking back her table and chair. She apparently has a customer for them,” she informed me. I was stunned on hearing that. I kept glaring at my mother’s face for some time, dumbstruck!
“Didn’t they gift them to me? I didn’t go to borrow these from her. And now she… she really stinks,” I shouted loudly.
Nonetheless, I made it into Thapar Engineering College.
Once there, I was amazed to see and hear the “Buboo fables.” He had left an indelible print on the campus. His name evoked a mystique. I was surprised when some of the professors talked about Buboo in the class—so many years after he had already left the college, Patiala, and even India.
“Though he never graduated, his mental and academic abilities remain unmatched even today. Twice he bailed me out from a quagmire of complex problems,” a professor of Systems Analysis and Design, who had a doctorate in the subject himself, often said.
Another professor once said in the class, “You write a program to solve a problem and to get a desirable output. But Buboo wanted his program here running continuously without ever yielding the output. No graduation. No degree.” The professor walked down the aisle to the rear of the class. “Is that possible…? Who wouldn’t like to graduate? Answer is Buboo. Reason? He told me: ‘My mother is dying I graduate. That will put her over the moon which I will die but will not do.’”
Well, it was not only the academic staff that was enamoured with Buboo. The canteen wallah, the contractor operating the college canteen, had stories of totally different taste and aroma.
“Just like that, if you ask, Buboo had nothing to do with anyone. Alone, he was busy in his own world.” The crowd of students that gathered around this canteen wallah—and their focus—was any professor’s envy. “Guys, you haven’t seen him, the bro was honest, courageous and truthful to the core. However, if, someone ever cross-connected with him… or when he saw anyone eve-teasing… like we beat eggs really fine to make an omelette, he would beat the perpetrators finer than that.”
Before I realized – assignments, projects, exams, grades and looking for a job consumed months and then years. Maybe I was in the final year or already employed when Buboo had shot his mother, brother and his brother’s wife dead. There, in the US.
“Really…and Thanedar Sahib?” I asked my mother.
“Though the noise in the town is that, like a thief, Thanedar saved his life by hiding under a table… but in fact, Buboo didn’t even so much look at the Thanedar and the children. Having done what he had to do, he picked up the phone to call the police, and surrendered,” Mom said.
A few months later, I was going somewhere past Thanedar Sahib’s bungalow. Surprisingly, the front section was quiet. The orchard looked barren and abandoned. There were no lychees. Only dry leaves and squirrels amid them.
However, I did see Thanedar Sahib’s middle son with his family in the rear section. Seemed as if they were living there now.
Soon after, I heard that Thanedar Sahib was coming to India for good. His social circle at Patiala very conveniently assigned me the task of picking him up from the airport in New Delhi— about 250 kilometres south.
On the particular day, I remembered to carry a handkerchief!
When Thanedar Sahib walked out of the airport, I hardly recognized him. A face the size of watermelon, now reminded me of a half sucked mango. The inner power supply seemed unplugged. He had darkened. Even when he stopped, putting his weight on the trolley to look around for me, I only recognized him when he started his characteristic moustache twirling.
It was almost a six-hour car journey to Patiala ahead of us. We sat quiet until our first stop at a dhaba on the way. In the dhaba he helped himself to pegs from the bottle he had brought along. Here, and now, for the first time, his tap-cough duet started.
“Everyone has the same question. How could Buboo do it… now what answer do I give?”
“It was so shocking for us all here…,” I was still saying.
“When thanedarani made her childless sister adopt Buboo, what could I have done? She would never stop muttering ‘we have three sons but land hardly enough for one…look at her, my younger sister, she has ten times more land but not even one child’…she finally made them adopt Buboo.” He paused to pour himself another scotch. Then, he was momentarily silent, only twirling his moustache after knocking the drink down his throat.
“Yes, what was it I was sa-saying… Oh, yes, thanedarani’s sister and her husband, that couple took to Buboo like their own. They really doted on him. But they didn’t give up on their efforts to have a child themselves. Now, what can you do? I was in the police. And you may not know that I always had two sepoys follow me everywhere. Even then how could I stop them? A few years later, the couple succeeded.”
The dhaba wallah, this turn, brought his share of the food for the third time. In the meantime Thanedar Sahib had fixed himself yet another king-size drink.
“Now this new-born made thanedarani very anxious. She took me along to talk with her sister and sister’s husband. The couple did not agree when she asked them to will at least half of their assets to Buboo right away. Frustrated… she dragged Buboo back home to Patiala. A fragrant flower in that couple’s house never ever bloomed again. Now, you tell me, what could I do? Like a tumour it stayed and grew in Buboo’s mind. Now… what…I…DO!”
“Yes, you are right,” was all I could say before he collapsed on the table.
We had to break our journey and stay overnight at the dhaba itself. We reached his bungalow in Patiala next day by noon.
First thing, he looked at his orchard. His hands didn’t rise to twirl his moustache, which – I now noticed – no more had the old sparkle. He sighed deeply and recited a couplet:
There is not even so much in the bar today
More than which I used to leave over in the glass every day.