Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Portrait of Vishnu

I happened to meet Kuchhi Bhai by chance at a lavish Indian wedding in London.

The youngest son of one Mr. Chadda, an hotelier, was marrying the elder daughter of Gogoi, a doctor, with full throttle gaiety. A large entourage of relatives and friends from India, America and Canada were in attendance attired in multi-hued colorful costumes. The middle-aged ladies swathed in fine silks were further laden with loads of jewelry and “I have more than you” attitude.

Sharmaji very proudly introduced me to Kuchhi Bhai, one of the very important guests. He advised me to sit with him and I had to comply. He found me to be qualified enough to sit and talk with the great man, a renowned civil engineer. We started with small talk. I did most of it and he contributed very little.

An energetic middle-aged crowd along with kids and teenagers were out to impress each other. They were trying hard to imitate the contorted dance steps of popular Hindi film stars. Music was just as loud as back in India and difference was there were lots of white guests in attendance. There were smartly dressed white and black servers with smiling faces.

I tried to break a little ice and conversed with the white haired, distinguished looking Kuchhi Bhai, who was popularly known as KB. He wore a profoundly sad expression on his handsomely aging face. Apprehensively, I talked a little bit about what I did back in India and how interesting my trip to Europe had been. He listened without showing any visible interest. He politely asked small pointed questions and waited disinterestedly for answers. Whenever I tried to ask him about his family he looked away to ignore my attempts to get personal details; I thought perhaps he was a very private person, not comfortable with discussing much with a stranger.

His behavior was in a sharp contrast with the common verbosity and pompousness associated with not all but most members of Indians Diasporas. They were too happy to be there, outwardly proud of their possessions, achievements and gloating about how many Indian homes they had helped establish on the “Gora” British soil.

I was getting bored and even thought of leaving my seat. But there was something about him, which held me back. Also prospects of a possible rebuke from Sharmaji stopped me. When we parted late at night KB gave his business card and invited me over to his place next evening. The card along with home address with numerous telephone numbers, simply announced his real name as Shankar Jadeja.

A happy Sharmaji volunteered to drop me at his place. I mumbled about being able to manage alone but he insisted on driving me there. On the way he vehemently conveyed his deep disapproval of my budding friendship with Mr. Agarwal.

“Mixing up with that old fool Agarwal will give you a bad name. But I know you bookish fellows are strangely drawn to such jokers and their stupidities.”

I looked straight and sat still to bear the verbal onslaught. He unleashed a string of the choicest Panjabi gaalis, which were directed at the poor old lover. In doing so he closely missed a collision with a car driven by a menacing looking skinhead. The angry skinhead caught up with us at the next crossing. He made an obscene comment on us shouting something on the lines of…stupid scum spoiling his country. His anger showed through a foggy glass window but Sharmaji ignored him and continued.

“Do you think this fool Agarwal will be happy with that white woman? The curse of his wife in India will make him repent his folly one day.”

At last I felt relieved when Sharmaji dropped me at the destination and rushed off to keep an appointment with a prospective tenant. But only after he lectured me not to be too inquisitive and make the old man sad by probing the past of the reclusive philanthropist.

“I must tell you he supported me like his own child, when I arrived here clueless, with those heady dreams of earning and living well.” I listened with due attention and conveyed my full understanding of his concerns.

“Don’t pay much attention to that greedy thief Gokul. He is a leach responsible for stealing money and the violent death of his son. I just don’t know why KB tolerates him?”

His words planted potent seeds of intrigue about the people I was about to meet.

“Why would a person like KB tolerate a pest like Gokul for so long?"

A civil engineer educated in England, Kuchhi Bhai lived in the top floor large apartment of the building owned by him with his child hood friend cum estate manager Gokul.

After crossing a formidable series of locks, and anti-theft contraptions, a very common experience in London, I was ushered in to a large study. It was tastefully lined with books, antique Indian artifacts and an old drawing board near a desk. The d├ęcor, wide range of objects of muted elegance whispered exclusive taste with distinguished smell of old money. KB pensively sat on the desk reading a Gujarati newspaper. He nodded to greet me with a faint but warm smile. I thanked Kuchhi Bhai for the gracious invitation to share his valuable time with me. 

"Jai Shree Krishna, Bhai.."He waved me to sit down and make myself comfortable, and introduced me to a fat and balding  man with protruding belly.

"Meet Gokul, he loves to drink like a fish... and talks a lot..hope you are not bored by his crazy tales... " A smiling KB looked mockingly at his friend cum manager.
"Don't believe him, he makes fun of me, before any one...I am Gokul Das Jhaveri from Kucch..we both come from same village...."
"He will know that soon...Gokul,  take care of our young guest and be kind to him.."

An eager looking Gokul immediately signaled me to follow him. He briskly went to the bar, opened a cabinet with immense pride and looked at me inquiringly. It displayed an array of choicest exclusive brands of whiskeys and other refined concoctions. Being an occasional drinker preferring Rum and not well versed in the mysteries of displayed bottles, I left the choice to Gokul, with an uneasy feeling to make a go at the drinks so hungrily and early in the evening.

Gokul chose a rare scotch in an exclusive looking bottle, poured generously for two of us, and a small one for a pensive KB. I was enlightened about their village in Kuchh, the families there and life in the bitter cold of England as compared to the dusty Kuchh. As the drinks were consumed Gokul was becoming quite critical of his old friend and benefactor.

An elegant Kuchhi Bhai ignored the ranting, drank very little and maintained a dignified  silence. Gokul gulped fast, did most of the conversation, being a talkative and enthusiastic drinker. He made me feel very privileged being a rare guest in last few years, owing to the increasingly reclusive nature of Kuchhi Bhai.

“I tell him to forget the past and live a normal life, but you see he loves to ponder over the losses and makes his own and my life miserable.”

“Gokul, you are free to leave me to bear my burden and be on your own.”

Kuchhi Bhai spoke disapprovingly in his deep resonant voice. He seemed to have said this a million times to the old supposedly concerned friend and companion.

What is this crafty man after? My mind wondered over numerous possibilities of deceit originating from Gokul and his greedy manipulations.

“Please carry on, be comfortable and feel at home. I will join you in some time. Excuse me.”

KB took along his small drink and went in another room, closing the heavy door. His departure made Gokul free of whatsoever restraints he had felt and winked at me.

“Do you know where he has gone and for what?”

I silently watched him hungrily filling up his glass again, like those unrefined drinkers in any of the dingy country liquor shops in India. I also suspected that KB had purposely gone away to let Gokul tell me about him in his own way.

But why should he do that?

“He is highly educated, a rare talent, honored by these finicky “Goras” but has a soft heart. And you know such people are destined to be fooled and milked by all and sundry…. and here these white women know that art so well.”

“How did his son die?” The question seemed natural to me.

Gokul silently emptied his glass and sat still, holding his face in his hands, may be thinking about own suspected role in the death.

“It is a long story but I will make it short and tell you only the important events and back ground. I really don’t know what made Shankar invite you? Are you a writer or a film maker?’

His intense gaze was trying hard to decipher my hidden, dubious motivations and demanded an answer, may be to twist the story accordingly. He waited and went for a refill, while I remained curiously silent.

“Shankar has some film maker friends in Bombay. But why would anyone air his private grief for public consumption and commerce? He has enough money with no heir and liabilities.”

He went on to express his surprise further and wondered away. I had to bring him back on track. His flushed bulbous face, reddened eyes and slur made me morbidly inquisitive. The strange departure of KB filled my mind with further mystery. I could see Gokul addressed Kuchchi Bhai by his first name only.

“You know many white women fell for him and he too fell for many. That was very natural and expected for the handsome scion of an illustrious family. He might have had similar exposure with ladies in India but surely in a much lesser way. Here the cold air reeks of insatiable hot lust, full of recklessly adventurous spirits.”

My diseased assessment of Gokul was undergoing a profound change. I had not considered him capable of telling the story with such an engrossing drama laced with multiple nuances. I suddenly felt a deepening dislike for Sharmaji for poisoning me with his utter negativity.

“Why does his past interest you?” His tone turned suspicious.

I had no answer.

“Don’t burden yourself with the woes of others. You will go insane.”

I couldn’t promise that either.

He looked at me and continued after a pregnant pause.

“Shankar married Alison, a divorcee; his third marriage and her second. I never approved of the match, but you know these things are preordained and beyond human intervention.” I nodded in complete agreement.

“The very first thing she did was to banish me from his place and contain me to my small quarter with only two visits allowed in a day. He didn’t mind it and I never complained, concentrating on running his establishment of dozens of tenants and shops.”

I politely refused a refill and thanked him for not forcing me to compete with him.

“Alison was an expert cook and mad about Indian cuisine. She opened an Indian restaurant on the ground floor of this building. It worked out quite well and expanded, needing more hands to manage the affairs. She hired a handsome Pakistani cook, who added popular dishes and literally ran the whole show. I warned KB about the budding romance between Alison and Ali, the cook turned manager. He spoke good English and become quite popular with clients….While KB was busy with his various projects in Middle East, Alison and Ali painted the town red. People gossiped about her colorful past.”

Gokul wiped his dribbling mouth by back of palm and closed his eyes. His brooding continued for quite some time, with an uneasy posture, precariously sitting at the edge of the settee.

“You must know women here don’t age early as they do back home. They are insatiable and we vegetarian Indian men do loose potency early, prompting them to wander, looking for young lovers.”

I listened, engrossed in the unfolding tale.

“I watched her being reckless in lustful love with that handsome scoundrel. She banged the door on my face when I tried advising her to be a good faithful wife. Ali started to spend a lot of time here and threatened me to mind my own business or get thrashed by his goons.”

An increasingly restless Gokul brooded for some time, suddenly stood up and started pacing the room and continued haltingly.

“Then she went off to live with Ali at his dingy place, as if it was the most common thing to do. Can you expect such things back in India?”

I had no easy answer and kept mum. Gokul continued to pace and sob, his large body swaying with unstudied gait.

“I called Shankar in Hong Kong, he told me to be patient. Patience my foot, he knew and sort of didn’t mind her having some fun with the young stud… It was so shameful to face the taunts from our people; I stopped socializing and locked myself in my hole with bottles for company…. She came back after few days with that scoundrel. I didn’t phone Shankar and kept aloof. …. When he returned, there was an ugly fight. She packed and went away…”

“He closed the restaurant next day on pretext of repair and renovations… Shankar still waited for her to have enough of fun and return.” Gokul suddenly stopped pacing and sprawled on the Victorian settee with a loud thud. He asked me to fill his glass and drank silently as I waited.

“Then one day she asked for help. Our foolish friend went running to console that unfaithful woman. Alison kept in touch with Shankar, wrote letters about the blackmails, demand for more money, threats and increasing violent beatings from Ali. She continued to wait for Ali to come to senses and be normal.”

“She didn’t or perhaps could not return yet pleaded with Shankar not to contact the police.”

“But did she come back?” I asked without thinking and immediately dreaded a sharp and painful reaction. But his reply was calm.

“No…never…” Gokul said ominously looking out through the large window glass with streams of raindrops racing down.

“She was found clubbed to death in the car and her diamonds missing along with cash she had drawn from the bank.”

I was stunned at revelation of Alison’s brutal death.

“It was skillfully made to look like a case of violent robbery. And a sad sobbing Ali garnered TV generated public sympathy, but not for long. Shankar called the police and gave them her letters.”

“The scoundrel was sent for a life term in Jail. But he threatened to take revenge one day.” Gokul slapped himself hard few times, as I looked on, unable to react.

“Shankar’s only son from first wife, Vishnu visited his lonely and grieving father. He was very bright like him and was studying in US. He rarely visited us before, due to that foul woman.”

Gokul turned silent for a long time, turned his increasingly tears swelled eyes away from me and ultimately mumbled softly with great effort.

“One morning I had a huge hangover and…. couldn’t get up to sit at the store down stairs…..Oh Krishna… I still repent my stupid chronic drinking and allowing Vishnu to take my place. Oh my god why did I do that... why I was so foolish…. forgive me Vishnu?”

Gokul tried to wipe streams of tears from his sad face and in almost crying voice, he continued, punctuated with loud hiccups.

“I faintly heard people banging my door…. somehow wobbling down to the shop… That son of bitch Ali laughing… holding a gun …mouthing obscenities, asking about Shankar…the lifeless body of Vishnu… blood oozing from his head...Police arrived…warned and aimed guns at the madman...Ali raised the gun at police…One gunshot and that motherfucker slumped…. Only if I had not been so drunk… Vishnu would be alive…why did he have to die? Everyone knows he died because of me…I killed him…Oh Krishna…forgive me…”

He slumped down on the floor with streams of tears flooding his contorted face.

“This is our sordid past …that is what you were so hungry to dig up…weren’t you? You fucking pain digger...go away…now…don’t ever show your face again…go…write a story or make a film…get out…. you sleazy bastard… ”

Gokul started to weep loudly, rolling on floor, howling like a small child, beating his chest hard.

It was a long time before his weeping slowed down. I felt frozen, immobile and unable to comfort him in any way. The words seemed to have lost any meaning. A thick cloud of painful gloom had enveloped me completely in the heart wrenching tragedy of my hosts.

I suddenly become aware and was drawn to muted hiccups and sobbing from the other room.

KB was sitting on a lone chair looking at a large portrait with profound sense of loss and weeping as if trying hard to clean his wounded soul. The handsome man in the portrait had an uncanny resemblance to the weeping Shankar.

I stood speechless with a lump in throat and an increasingly blurred vision. 

Madhav Singh asserts his moral right as writer of this fictional story.


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