The bell rang.
I tried to get up, but Mr. Agarwal signaled me to keep sitting and slowly hobbled to open the door.
Sharmaji was visible with a large bouquet, leading to an awkward silence.
“Oh Sharmaji,…what a surprise….please come in…” I could sense a suspicious welcome
“Get well soon, Agarwal saab…and don’t be surprised…its my duty…” Sharmaji bowed and extended the bouquet. I was taken aback; not expecting him to be there so fast, literally following me.
“Oh, thank you..Please have a seat…” Mr. Agarwal hesitatingly took the bouquet and painfully wobbled to the settee. Sharmaji too made the scene surreal by his limping. Holding his beloved lathi, he looked around closely and thoughtfully sat down. For some mysterious reason my presence was completely ignored. The shinning, oiled lathi, extending over his head was held lovingly by both hands, as he keenly inspected Mr. Agarwal and his bandages.
“What happened to your nose?” I was aghast at the crude tone of an insulting inquiry.
“Oh, that bastard rubbed my face against wall...” The host painfully mumbled his shame.
“But good at least your nose is saved...aap ki naak kati to naheen na...” Sharmaji roared with his typical staccato burst of coarse laugh, like a country made gun painfully firing. I saw face of Mr. Agarwal flinching on unexpected crudity, but he kept his cool. He too perhaps dreaded the consequences of the guest sermonizing against his private life.
To me, Sharmaji looked liked a doughty Punjab village headman visiting his troubled subject. The differences were ample too; the dress, headgear and the paraphernalia of a British upper middle class home. His trademark ruffled mane and stubble gave him a menacing aura of an East European Mafioso.
“You must report to the police…don’t be afraid…” He got down to business fast.
“I can’t even move few steps…but thanks to my neighbor Juliana, who drove me to the medical centre..” Mr. Agarwal protested, fearing an immediate visit to the police station.
“Don’t worry, that stupid ape is coming here to record your statement…” Sharmaji started rolling the lathi between bony palms.
“What…who is coming here..?” A confused Mr. Agarwal gave an angular look painfully.
“That racist policeman…I call him an ape.. a langoor…Any problem?” Sharmaji explained and inquired in his deadpan voice.
“Well, what can I say…You know things better…around here…” A wide eyed Mr. Agarwal threw a deep inquiring look at me. But I carefully maintained my stony presence; keeping the suitable noncommittal, fence sitting neutrality of a thick skinned Indian politician during a crucial no confidence vote.
“Good, I called and gave that ape my piece of mind…must be here any moments…don’t be afraid at all, I am with you and so are all other Indians too…” Sharmaji looked at his watch, still ignoring me. I decided to become a piece of furniture to watch the old foes getting close. Sound of a car made Sharmaji get up and limp to the door, signaling Mr. Agarwal to lie down.
“You pretend to in great pain..”
“I don’t have to pretend any thing…the pain is unbearable…” The host protested angrily.
“Good, then try to feel double pain.. And don't worry...and take it easy…it’s his damn duty…the langoor is not doing us any favor…Okay?” The inappropriate use of ‘good’ was stupid and his dubious ignorance of my presence was agitating my mind along with crudities. Mr. Agarwal again looked at me curiously and did as ordered so decisively by his old foe. His mounting discomfiture was visible on being ordered around so coarsely.
“Hello inspector Bartan..” I felt myself craning my neck to fulfill desire to look at the apelike policeman.”
“Hi, it’s Burton...”
“Sounds great but makes no difference to me…” A mocking Sharmaji ridiculed the English objection.
My disappointment was evident; he was the same policeman whose dramatic arrival saved me from thugs. He shook hand with Mr. Agarwal, looked deeply at me and smiled. I got up, shook hand and introduced my self. Richard Burton sat down, swiftly opened his notebook with English efficiency and started questioning. Mr. Agarwal haltingly narrated the incident. I could see that he was following the instructions of Sharmaji who sat close to his apelike foe and let the story unfold.
Feeling unwanted and bored, I decided to make some contribution by preparing tea and moved to the kitchen.
“Oye Gal shun yaar…that’s not right…how and where you met this langoor Bhanda Bartan?”
The familiar accusing baritones made me spin, seething with deep anger. The horrible braggart had been callously ignoring my presence, even forgetting my defining role in softening Mr. Agarwal’s dislike for him! Enough was enough, my revulsion mounted and exploded.
“You are impossibly crude and mad…and where I met this ape? Well, for your info, he just saved me from getting mugged up on the way here…Okay?” My retort was befittingly rebellious and vengeful.
“That’s good…was that a black gang?” Unfazed by my tone and anger, his eyes sparkled.
“What the hell you mean by that’s good…?” I nearly chewed the words to keep the angered voice down. It was close shave to be mugged badly and that is good for this horribly unconcerned idiot!
“That must be a black thug…right?” With out waiting for an answer, he thoughtfully decided the culprit.
“That was a black thug, who tried to rob..Okay? He repeated his assumption.
“What do you mean…and okay to what?” My anger was boiling over, just like the hot tea foaming violently in the pot before me.
“Don’t apply your fhaltu mind…let me handle it…you just act shocked and nod to what I tell him…Okay?” The Mafiosi whispered the order, turned and limped back to the living room. I felt myself under strange stupid feeling of colluding in his unknown sinister plan. I could guess he was up to some thing. When I went back, holding a tray, the questioning of Mr. Agarwal was over.
“Thank you very much…” Richard Burton picked up a cup and smiled. I immediately felt indebted to him and wondered what Sharmaji was up to.
“You folks not doing enough to control crime in this area…mostly by black thugs and junkies..?” Sharmaji picked up a cup. He never cared for any niceties; so expectedly, didn’t thank me, nor smiled and neither even bothered to look up. The receding anger boiled back with vengeance and I was about to pour hot tea on my tormentor.
“These thugs are all kind..Happen to be black… whites and Asians too…” Burton was evasive.
“I know your problem…you don’t like admitting few dirty facts…” Sharmaji leaned on the lathi to convey his anger.
Burton turned thoughtful and sipped tea, almost ignoring the open challenge thrown to him. Now from close I was happy to at last see some resemblance to apelike features. His jaw outline protruded a bit, and that must be the defining reason for Sharmaji to term him an ape.
“Well, it a difficult area…Sir, were boys troubling you?” Burton suddenly turned and addressed me. I felt too happy to be involved in the conversation at last.
“It was a black gang …you folks are doing nothing…” Sharmaji was quick to push me out.
“Well, both white and black..”I interjected but let it tapered off as steely eyes bore in to convey an order aligning with his anti black line.
“They were demanding money…but ran away seeing you approach….” Sharmaji looked at me closely and spoke as if, I had told him about the incident in finer details.
“He is still too shocked and afraid…just look at him…” I felt myself shriveling into suitably panicked posture. The performance must have been good, because it forced Richard Burton to put down his cup and swiftly jotting down detailed belched out by Sharmaji. He gave hazy description of a black boy threatening me with a knife. I wondered about his motivations to accuse blacks of rampant mugging but found myself still groping in dark.
“I find your walking stick very interesting…and intimidating as well!”
“Inspector Bartan, this very stick was used by Mahatma Gandhi!” Sharmaji looked at stick with due reverence and touched his head on it. Mr. Agarwal seemed flabbergasted and painfully turned his neck towards me. I was taken aback at the audacity and looked closely on the freshly emerged historical connection with mounting curiosity. Sharmaji had meanwhile leaned back, closed him eyes, leaving us all hanging and panting for me. But the ape was charged, he edged forward.
“Really, Mr. Sharmaji…but how could you get it....don't tell me you are related to Mr. Gandhi...are you?”
Burton’s eyes bulged and looked deeply fascinated at the object of great historical relevance.
“That is a long story inspector…some other time…and one more thing..” The deep baritone made the ape look up.
“What’s that Mr. Sharmaji..” We all waited coiled in mounting suspense. The shinning lathi kept rolling between the bony palms, as we found ourselves inching to the edge. Sharmaji suddenly opened his eyes and looked at his rival with deep pity.
“Gandhi was never intimidating, inspector..”
The policeman turned serious and stared at his tormentor with admiration.
A bored Mr. Agarwal shifted uncomfortably, looking enquiringly at my shriveled frame. Like a trapped unwilling accomplish some how I was still awaiting for a signal to unlock myself. The ape leaned and tried to touch the lathi with care and a somber face, Sharmaji swung it away.
“I am sorry, you have to wash your hands first..” The apelike face fell a little but nodded understandingly.
“We will have good opportunity to talk about Gandhi a lot, tomorrow...let me tell you more about these black thugs…”
Sharmaji was still focused on issues of black gangs creating a big every day nuisance. He let out a vivid trail of unreported violent incidents; unsavory scum’s roaming freely on streets and mugging people. In no time Richard Burton started to agree with the formidable evidences and valuable first hand information about the mounting menace. Sharmaji would often ask Burton to stop, close his eyes, as if thinking hard and after some time start sharing more. I could see the ape too had same deep traces of racial biases; the British have been accused of quite often. They talked animatedly on the subject like old friends and suddenly Burton got angry.
“I get so fed up and I want to shoot these scum dead right there...but could not...you know the shit laws…”
Sharmaji fell silent judging him closely.
‘Are you sure, you want to do that?”
A charged up Burton repeated his desire loudly.
“Are you serious...better you folks learn it from Punjab police?”
“Yes, you may be right..but sorry Punjab police is too violent…we have a different system…but you know I am really fed up..and one of these days...”His voice trailed off, perhaps belatedly realizing the foolish indiscretion. He got up and shook hands.
“We have invited the press and others to discuss the crimes in area...it will be good if you are there. Sharmaji got up and walked with Burton to the door.
“Okay...well will see and talk to superiors about it.” The ape turned distant again.
“Oh, I though, you are the boss around here?”
The policeman skillfully avoided the mocking question, smiled, shook hands and went out.
“Was this lathi really used by Mahatma Gandhi?” Mr. Agarwal could no longer suppress his mounting curiosity.
“My grand father never told a lie in his whole life….but I do, when ever needed.”Sharmaji gave a broad smile to a confused Mr. Agarwal.
“Get well soon Agarwal saab…come on lets go.” Sharmaji suddenly addressed me, turned and walked out. I found his abrupt escape uncivil and felt bad leaving a troubled Mr. Agarwal alone but was curious about many unexplained things. I let Sharmaji wait for some time and talked to Mr. Agarwal, who was sure about the false claim of the lathi used by Gandhi. I agreed readily with him and took leave with a promise of a visit along with grocery in the evening.
Sharmaji was contentedly humming the theme song from “Mukkadar Ka Sikandar”. I wondered about his change of mood but asked nothing. He screeched to a halt after bypassing my place. It was a curious behavior for him, and I was sure he was on to do some thing important.
“I better ran…you see….got many things to do…and don’t forget to attend the community meeting…you know the place…right….be there on time to see destruction of my enemies and their criminal supporters.”
The community hall was teeming with English, Black, Hispanic Indian, Pakistanis and varied specimens of the greatly mixed neighborhood. The Indian entourage looked formidable in its strength and the sheer variety; the turbaned Sikhs, Punjabi, Gujarati, South Indians, Bengali and others, less distinguishable. The media was in attendance with their paraphernalia. A fat, black spokesman was skillfully harping on the blatant discriminatory attitude of British police, punctuated by cheerful boos and clapping. Richard Burton listened pensively along with two others who were trying hard to look important. One was a thin Pakistani doctor with dark glasses, who had been very short and diplomatic while sharing his experience with police and problems in the area. Obviously Burton was happy and smiled at him repeatedly. Other, an Englishmen, who spoke first, had talked philosophically on great British values of welcoming and respecting the vibrant multi-cultural ethos.
I looked around but Sharmaji was not visible and the seat on dais with his name was vacant. He had asked me to be present on time to witness the exposure and destruction all the horrible plotters and their vile supporters. The old foe and challenger of Sharmaji, Thakkar and his glamorous wife sat in first row. I could feel some silent communication going on with the policeman, or may be my biases were making me see things. The long acrimonious battle between an aggressive Punjabi Sharmaji and astutely calm and scheming Gujarati Thakkar was representative of their distinctive communities. As the speaker concluded with loud clapping, a murmuring commotion broke out. I was sitting some where in the middle and followed every one's amazed look at the back entrance.
I blinked many times to make myself realize, if it was reality or a dream.
A figure resembling Mahatma Gandhi with two girls on sides, stood at the entrance. The trio moved ahead swiftly in the isle towards the stage under continuous glare of flashlights.
It was Sharmaji dressed as Gandhi.
He might have looked different to those who were familiar with diminutive, thin figure of real Mahatma Gandhi. But Sharmaji dressed to perfection in dhoti, his stubble and head shaved, matching spectacles and the trademark Lathi, looked like a healthy and taller version of the real. His audacity to play a limping naked fakir in the biting British cold was admirable.
While everyone was still trying to decipher the drama to react, Sharmaji had reached the podium.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, I am Tilak Raj Sharma, the disciple of Mahatma Gandhi.”
The flashlights blazed again accompanied with clapping, cat calls and whistles by his boisterous supporters. A fascinated Richard Burton got up and clapped. Others on the dais followed too, the black spokesman; perhaps a South African was overwhelmed. He promptly decided to bow before the healthy avatar of Gandhi. The reaction of Pakistani doctor was visibly muted but the English philosopher was greatly amused by the unfolding drama of vibrant multi cultural colors. A stunned Thakkar was shaking his head in disbelief but his egalitarian wife seemed lost in the unfolding drama.
“This is my grand father’s walking stick and was used by Mahatma for one whole day during historic dandi salt march. When faced with suppression and discrimination, Mahatma always reacted by peaceful means to make his point and guide the toiling masses of India”
The shinning Lathi was held high for benefit of cameras. After ample exposure, he lowered the historic connection to the revered figure and continued in more somber tone. Every one listened; the nuggets of history and Gandhians wisdom narrated skillfully by Sharmaji.
“Ladies and gentlemen, like my ideal Mahatma Gandhi, I too humbly try to fight the discrimination and suppression through peaceful means by telling only the truth. And now let us all hear the truth about what is happening in our beloved neighborhood. I must make it clear; that I feel no enmity for any one and my actions are solely guided by the concept of common good.”
Sharmaji took the shoulder bag from one girl and silently produced a cassette player and switched it on.
Angry voice of Richard Burton boomed, expressing his deep frustration against the stupid law bound inability to kill the black miscreants. The black speaker turned to look menacingly at the dazed policeman. A dark cloud descended on the face of the English philosopher; feeling devastated as his dream was turning in to a disastrous mess. The Pakistani was trying hard to stay neutral and unaffected by the Gandhi inspired turn of events. But the media was greatly pleased by unexpected windfall of sleaze and high drama.
The cassette player continued to belch the uncomfortable truth with Gandhian detachment.
“That shameful thug Thakkar has laid his wife as bait before that racist policeman Richard Burton to harass and pin the devoted social worker Sharmaji.” An unknown English voice told more explicit truth about the dubious alliance with sinister objectives.
An agitated Thakkar got up made wild gestures angrily and tried hard to stop Sharmaji. His wife covered her face and raced out, frantically followed by salivating cameras and microphones.