It was the night before Diwali. We had landed quite late – my husband, our son and me. We had just reached my parents’ house, finished our greetings and freshened up a bit in our rooms. At breakfast the next day, my father turned to me. “You haven’t properly visited us in this house, have you?”
My father was almost seventy years old, quite evident by the lack of hair on his head, but was in the pink of health, and always had a childish glint in his eyes.
I shook my head, guilty and ashamed. “No, Papa, it’s just that USA is so far away, and with the work and Vikram…” I trailed off. It was the truth, however ashamed it made me feel. My husband and I had been planning a visit for a long while, but twice, we’d both been called off on urgent business to Europe and once, our son Vikram had fallen ill.
My mother nodded understandingly. She was a down-to-earth, no-nonsense person, probably the only thing that kept my father from flying away into the clouds. But she was also extremely kind and helpful – qualities which I love about her.
My father got up with a groan and put on his glasses. I rushed to give him his walking stick, but he waved it away and tutted. Typical Dad. It took my mom six months to convince him to wear his glasses regularly. And now a walking stick? That would be the final shred of his dignity gone.
He slowly made his way to the large French windows of the balcony. He slid them open, and they made a creaky sound that caused my husband to wince. My father walked out and leaned against the railing. He gestured for us to join him.
“See, there.” He pointed at the house across, where we could see the faint figure of a man sitting cross-legged on the floor, “That is Ibrahim. He used to sing in the mosque every day. Every single day, till one day, some disease struck him and he missed two days. Since then, he hasn’t sung a note aloud. But every morning, he sits and dutifully practices in his mind, every song he’s ever sung before.”
I was confused, and judging by the look on my husband’s face, so was he. We were about to voice our puzzlement, when my dad pointed out something again. It was the house diagonally opposite to ours. “That house belongs to the Chatterjees. The old man died a year ago, and now his wife runs the family business.”
“What do they do?” my husband asked.
My dad pushed his glasses further up his nose before answering, “They own a paint factory in Bengal, but rumor has it that it’s just a front.”
“A front for what?” I asked, curiously.
I laughed out loud. My husband chuckled uncomfortably.
“No, no, don’t laugh.” My dad wagged his finger knowingly, “I swear I saw their son stab someone just outside their front door. I promise!”
He sounded so earnest. I laughed even harder.
“Fine, don’t believe me. Ah, there we go! Right on time,” he said, glancing at his wristwatch, “Every morning, seven thirty on the dot, that Trisha Bhatt comes out to water her plants.”
Some distance away, I spotted a balcony, whose walls were covered with creepers, and come flower pots at the top. A young man and an older, grey-haired woman were watering the plants. The man was wearing a white checked shirt and the woman a floral chudidar.
“Is that Mr. Bhatt?” asked my husband, crinkling his nose just a little.
“Who?” said my father, blankly.
“The man who’s watering the plants with her.”
“Oh, no! God forbid, no! That’s their gardener, Hariappa. Bhatt is probably inside, watching something on his seventy-two-inch plasma TV, with extra bass loudspeakers.”
I looked at my dad, surprised. “They won’t stop boasting about it,” he explained. “Even in Laughing Club he keeps talking about it.”
I nodded. Those kind of people were always annoying.
“Then there’s old Shyam. There, the house at the right, down the road. No, the other right. The one behind the big tree. Yeah, he’s been here longer than you kids have been alive.” My dad laughed.
“Don’t drag them into your gossip,” called my mother from inside. “Just come inside and have your breakfast.”
I helped my father inside and we sat down to hearty, lively breakfast. It was one of the rare times, my father said just afterwards, that my mother laughed at his original jokes. I pointed out that they weren’t really funny in the first place, so that was justified.
He was about to reply, but the cricket match was just about to start and all of us, including Vikram, crowded around the TV to watch.
It was before lunch, later, when my dad spoke up again. “Did you know, Rishi,” he said to my husband, “we had a Ming vase right here?” He pointed to a small empty pedestal.
“Yeah. I saved Ming from a fire in his house, and he gifted the vase to me as a token of his appreciation.”
“Papa,” I said, “Ming was a royal Chinese dynasty that ruled in the sixteenth century.”
“Oh, is it? No wonder the vase was so expensive.”
“What happened to the vase?” Rishi asked.
“Oh, it’s a great story,” my father replied.
My mother sighed. “How many people will you tell this same story to? You know, last month Mishraji had come to visit us, and he tried to tell him four times.”
“Mishraji?” I asked. “Who’s Mishraji?”
“Arrey, Abhay Mishra, our lawyer.”
“Why was our lawyer here?” I asked, perturbed.
“Do you want to hear the story or not?” my father asked, impatiently.
“Yes, we do,” answered my husband, hurriedly.
“All right. As you know, we are a very tight-knit community, all retired people, living here for the past six to seven years. Very tight-knit. So, last year, when Veer Das was leaving, we threw him a party.”
I snorted. “You guys, all over sixty, in a party?”
“Yes, don’t sound so skeptical, it’s real. But that’s when he informed us that a new tenant is taking his place. We were a bit upset, but we were going to give them a warm welcome, at least. We didn’t want the name of our community to get spoiled, did we?
“Anyway, the new tenant came, and we got the shock of our lives. A twenty-something couple had moved in! Into a retirement community! It was unbelievable. Even so, we gave them a warm welcome, some gifts, and all. But almost immediately, we didn’t like them.
“They were both so loud and lively, no place like that in a retirement home, no, none at all.” He shook his head vigorously, while my mother gave him a meaningful look. I stifled a laugh.
“Anyway, we had an emergency community gathering, conveniently forgetting to invite the new couple. It was a very quiet affair, so as to not rouse their suspicions.
There, Trisha Bhatt – the one you saw gardening in the morning – she suggested a plan to get rid of them. We would all dump our garbage near their house, then they would realize that this is not the place for them, then they would leave. They had taken this on rent only, anyway.”
I was shocked. “Papa! How could you? Amma, how did you allow this?”
“Only three members, including myself, in the community opposed it. The rest of them thought it a very good idea. I mean, I didn’t like their presence in our small family-community, but I could live with it,” my mother said.
My husband chuckled. “Then what happened? Go on.”
My father continued with his horrendous tale. “So we did it for a week. The pile of garbage just kept growing, but the couple didn’t really seem to mind. They didn’t comment about it at all. We were all baffled. Who were these people? Then came our monthly meeting. There they raised the issue.
‘Why is there so much garbage behind our house?’ the young woman asked. Her name was Radha, if I remember correctly.
‘Das didn’t tell you?’ Trisha Bhatt feigned ignorance.
‘Tell us what?’ Ajay, Radha’s husband spoke up.
‘The arrangement is always like this. We always used to dump our garbage behind his house. He never complained.’ She turned to old Shyam. ‘Young people these days,’ she said, pretending to whisper, ‘They can’t handle anything. So picky.’
I was overjoyed. What acting! Sublime! It seemed like our plan was working. The couple looked very uncomfortable and didn’t talk for the rest of the meeting.
The next day, however, all the garbage was gone. Some ten of us, led by yours truly, walked up to their door and knocked.
‘Hello,’ Radha opened the door. ‘Oh, so many of you! Please do come in. Sorry, the house is a little bit messy; we weren’t expecting guests.’
I raised my hand to stop her. ‘Ms. Radha, please. There’s no need to invite us in. We just wanted to enquire about our waste behind the house.’
‘What about it?’
‘Why, it’s gone!’
‘Oh, that,’ she said, looking very proud, ‘Yes, my husband and I have taken the initiative to regularly ferry it to the concerned waste authorities. After all, it is in our backyard, and the smell was terrible! It was even getting difficult to stay here!’
We were speechless after this.”
My husband and I stared at my father.
“Serves you right,” I reprimanded. “What right did you have to go about troubling such a lovely young couple like that?”
“Patience, my dear, let me finish,” said my father. “So, after that day, we continued throwing the garbage where we used to before; there was no point in throwing it behind their house anymore. Ibrahim came up with a few plans later, but your mother forbade my participation in them. Especially because one involved insects and snakes.”
My mother shuddered, almost involuntarily.
“Snakes-?” began Rishi, but my mother cut him off, “Don’t ask.”
“For a complete month, we tried every possible way to get them out, but they refused to budge. We gave up. Maybe a week later, Radha and Ajay began going around the locality, giving gifts, trying to get to know everyone. They came to our house and your mother let them in.
‘Hello, Aunty. Good Evening, Uncle. How are you today?’ Radha beamed at me.
‘Fine.’ I said, quite coldly, I must add.
We chatted over tea and lemonade, me trying to be as cold and distant as possible. They were extremely polite and kind and funny, so I found it hard to remain that way. They showed interest in everything, and knew a little bit about everything. Radha spoke a bit about the Ming vase, but I didn’t really pay attention. Ajay spoke a lot about our wonderful tiling and wall color combination, and how some artist, Pablo something, also loved such a color palette.
That was the day I began coming around. Maybe they didn’t deserve to be treated so harshly, after all. The gifts finally did it for me. It was a record player and a set of Golden Classics records. You know I have wanted that for a long time. God knows how they guessed what I wanted.
We called for another emergency meeting to discuss this new development. Everyone had gotten gifts they liked. They had given old Shyam an old radio set, to remind him of his childhood, Bhatt an electronic alarm clock to remind her to water her plants every day. The whole community was repenting.
We took turns to give small speeches about Radha and Ajay, and how sorry we were for mistreating them.
Then, two months later, they announced they were leaving. They were already sending their stuff with trucks in the night, and they were to leave early in the morning with the remaining things. We were quite sorry at this; all of us had a genuine liking for their energy that we had once so hated.
The whole community, unanimously, decided to throw them a grand leaving party, just like we did for Veer Das. This meant a lot, for they had been staying for only six months or so, while Das had stayed for six years. The party was a big hit. They lit up the whole street. They were so lively that night, so grateful, so happy.
We all went home content, a good feeling in our hearts, and our consciences at ease.
The next day, when we woke up, we were in for a rude shock. Each and every one of us had gotten a letter in the mail. Wait, I think I have it somewhere in one of the cupboards, I’ll get it.” He heaved a sigh of effort as he tried to get up. I was there at once. I pushed him down very gently and said, “Just tell me where it is, Papa, I’ll get it.”
“No, no. I’m fit enough. I’ll get it.” He tried once more to get up. This time I pushed him down a little firmer. My husband took my side too, “Don’t worry. You just take rest. She’ll get it for you.”
My dad conceded. He sat back while I riffled through the drawers in search of the letter. “Which color is it?” I called.
“I think it was lime green!” My father answered.
“No, dear!” my mother yelled, “He’s mixed it up. It was a light purple.”
They argued for a while, till I found the letter. My mother turned out to be right. It was a light purple.
“Hand it here.” My father held his hand out. I gave it and settled back on the chair, eager for the story to conclude.
My dad pushed his spectacles further up his nose and read out loud, “‘Dear Tripathi Family, thank you for being so good to us during our stay here. We are indebted to you. Hope you enjoyed the gifts, etc. etc.’ It goes on like that for some while, wait let me find the right part. Ah, here we go. ‘We’d also like to thank you for such a wonderful party you threw us. And finally, thank you so, so much for the Ming vase. It’ll suit our new quarters very nicely. Love and regards, Radha and Ajay.
P.S. We found it slightly easier to get into your house than Bhatt’s, so you should probably enhance your security system. Just some friendly advice.’”
My father burst out laughing at the end. I was speechless. Rishi, too, was equally dumbstruck.
“Those kids,” my father said, shaking his head, “They were really something. Cheeky bas-”
My mother cleared her throat and glared at him pointedly, then subtly pointed to Vikram, who was playing with his toy car some distance away.
“Ah, yes, of course.” My dad nodded and cleared his throat.
“So, how did the community react?” asked my husband.
“Oh, well, we were all sore losers. But we were really amazed at how well they kept their con running. I mean, they stole exactly that item that was more expensive than what they gifted us. They were really smart.”
I nodded. “You guys were completely taken in.”
“Well, after that,” finished my father, “We, of course, had another emergency community meeting.”
“What did you decide?” asked my husband, curiously.
“We decided to remain a very tight-knit community,” my father laughed, “We decided to never treat newcomers in such a nice way ever again!”