Gopi Chand and his two brothers who followed their father’s book-binding business in Lahore were the lucky few to have sensed the political upheavals much before the partition. They wound up their business and came to Kanpur and set up shop before the winds of freedom struggle had begun to blow strongly. Lady Luck had smiled upon them as they escaped the pangs of Partition and were able to consolidate their business in time.
The eldest, Gopi Chand had decided to try new skies and had bought a small printing press in Bhopal. He also began dealing with paper supplies and his venture soon was fruitful. He decided to make this place his permanent home and withdrew his stakes from the Kanpur venture. Gopi Chand and his wife had two daughters whom he called ‘debit notes’ and one son Pralhad who being the only son and heir was doted upon by his parents regardless of his wayward ways.
Pralhad had just about finished his first year in college and decided that studies were really not his forte. He began to help his father. His ruthless behaviour with the clients often left Gopi Chand red faced. It was time for the father to work out something more acceptable. He consulted some of his friends and asked Pralhad to diversify into timber. Central India being rich in forests, this was the best option he could offer. Pralhad jumped at it as he would be free to contact people and conduct his own business and that too on his own terms. At least his father would be spared embarrassment. After almost three generations, Pralhad had taken up the family name of ‘Verma’.
Pralhad, with a little financial help from his father had also started dealing in dry fruits like dates and almonds imported from Afghanistan. Both his timber contracts and dry fruit businesses were marking an upward graph. Pralhad had kept the bureaucratic machinery on his right side and got many favours from it.
It was no surprise then, when Pralhad walked off with a big contract after his tender was approved of. The new deal was a shot in his arm. Pralhad had never even in his wildest dreams had thought they would reach this stature. Pralhad moved to Narsingpur after he got married. He purchased a huge plot and constructed a palatial bungalow.
After a few years, he admitted his two sons in public schools paying a hefty fee and his wife’s locker in her
steel cupboard was now overflowing with gold ornaments. Pralhad knew that there was a cut-throat competition in timber business but he conducted his deals aggressively essaying to be on top at any cost. Gopi Chand met his son occasionally in Bhopal and warned him to take care. People don’t like to see their competitors prosper. “Be humble, opulent lifestyle is easily noticed,” he advised Prahlad, “Be a good listener and moreover, share your wealth with the less fortunate.”
The Vermas now had a fortified house with two durwans-one at the front entrance and one at the rear one. He also had a couple of Alsatians as watchdogs. Besides the Ambassador and Fiat cars which were available those days, he even had got an imported car-he wanted an Impala but had settled for a Merc instead. There were a slew of servants and now he had taken membership of many clubs outside Narsingpur. Whenever he traveled to Gwalior or Ajmer, he would be put up in these clubs. He now drank only Scotch and entertained his cronies lavishly. He bought another palatial house at Raipur where he could rub shoulders with the rich and famous. His enterprising ways and the material abundance were the envy of many and his brusque mannerism won him many adversaries.
It was the time of Chaitra navaratri when his wife fasted and gave saris to married women. Pralhad wished to renovate his house thoroughly and had asked for professional from a New Delhi firm. He did not want Bombay architects and interior decorators as he thought that they were tuned to making box like furniture for smaller houses in the cramped city. A Delhi decorator was used to designing with space in mind. The budget was no constraint.. The concerned professionals arrived for inspection and suggested many changes. The main change was to shift the gate towards the north east side so that the main door of the bungalow would not be seen from the road. The idea appealed to Pralhad. He was impressed by the justification the decorator gave with reference to ‘vastu’. In the north east corner of the house, at the farthest end was an old tamarind tree. It would need to go. Pralhad promptly asked his contractor to send a labourer to fell the tree. One morning, the worker arrived and suggested that he would first trim the branches so that it would be easier to pull the tree down with a strong rope and more helpers in the next step. The labourer climbed up and systematically began his work. Half an hour later he fell to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital. He was still breathing. After the emergency treatment, they found that he had suffered multiple fractures. Pralhad was quick enough to foot the cost. The cutting stopped briefly. Another hand was called in. After he worked for a few hours, he got down feeling giddy and went home with high fever. Again a lull. Pralhad asked the decorator to get on with the interior work in the bungalow. The main gate could be handled later.
While the makeover started, Pralhad shifted base to Raipur and visited the house every fortnight. It was dusk when Prahlad walked out with the supervisor. The latter left, walked towards his scooter and drove away. Prahlad turned and stopped in his tracks. An old man was sitting under the tamarind tree. How did he come there? He had not noticed him before. The man had a wrinkled face, scraggly hair, grey beard and he looked unbathed. It was early summer but the temperatures had already begun to soar. In that heat too, the man was wearing a blazer perhaps donated by a kind donor. His trousers too must have been expensive in their days. He was nibbling a tamarind which must he must have picked up from the ground. Pralhad strode towards him and before he could ask a question, the man said, “Imli khatti hain.” Pralhad’s face was red as he yelled out for the watchman. There was no response from the durwan. Finally, he took a five rupee note from his pocket and gave it to the unknown man. “Don’t dare to come inside again. This is not your father’s….” Pralhad was now quaking with anger. The old man staggered to his feet and held up his palm as if to ask the angry man to be quiet. He walked with a little limp towards the gate and turned right. Just then the watchman appeared from the same direction. He saw Pralhad’s face and knew that he would be in the firing line. The owner stormed, “How could you allow a beggar inside? He was sitting under the tree and merrily eating tamarind and you didn’t throw him out? Am I paying you to allow trespassers? And when I called out where were you? I threw out that beggar right now and you didn’t even bother to catch him even when he walked past you just now? Nalayak.” Such outbursts were not uncommon to Dayal, the oldest watchman employed by Pralhad. But he really had not seen any beggar walk out towards the right just where he was standing.
On another occasion, Pralhad spotted the same beggar but outside the compound wall. He just stood there. Pralhad got out of his car and removed some small change and walked towards the old man. The beggar was staring into space, his hands in his pockets. Pralhad rattled the coins in his hand and the beggar looked at him, took out his right hand as if in anticipation of the alms. Prahlad shouted again and warned him not to come in the vicinity again. There was a blank stare. The man turned right and walked away. Pralhad was fuming. The sight of this man was very disturbing.
When he went back to Raipur, he heard that his consignment of dry fruits was lost in transit. A few thousands down the drain, thought Pralhad. His elder son Vipul was home for a short vacation and wanted to visit Narsingpur to see how the house was shaping up. The doting father obliged. After hopping over wires and wood planks strewn all over, the duo came out and stood under the porch. Again, the old man under the tamarind tree. Pralhad took out a ten rupee note and asked his son to go and give the dole to the old man while he went in again. Vipul returned after a few minutes, the note in hand. He didn’t see the beggar anywhere, he said. “I even went out to see whether he slipped away getting scared of you. I didn’t see him on the road either.” Pralhad did not waste any more time and put the note back in his pocket. He showed Vipul the exotic bath tubs, the fancy fittings and raved about how his house would be the best in state if not the country! Vipul was proud of it all.
On a few more trips to oversee the work in his house, Pralhad encountered the man. He threw a few coins or a note at him and walked away. The man quietly took away the money. One evening, while instructing Dayal about certain tasks to be completed, Pralhad saw him again. “Give me the stick you’re holding Dayal. You people cannot stop this menace. Now I need to handle it myself,” Pralhad shouted and snatched the stick from him and charged towards the tamarind tree. Dayal was dumbstruck. He gathered his wits and ran behind his master saying, “Saab, don’t do that!” but then suddenly stopped. Who was the saab intending to hit? There was no one. Dayal just saw Pralhad bend over and hit the trunk of the tree with full force. Has saab gone crazy? He wondered. When he saw him take a turn he saw that Pralhad was sweating and swearing and took big strides towards Dayal. “That will teach him a lesson. The b…. took my kindness for granted. Mind you, he would not hesitate to pitch a tent right under this tree,” Pralhad was red like burning coal. Dayal quietly took the stick from his hand and moved away. That night after the saab left, he went back to the tree with a lantern and saw a few coins and threads as if pulled out from a garment. He looked up and down quivering. Either the saab had hallucinations or there was a spirit trying to tell us something. He left the lantern near the gate and went to a nearby temple. He spotted the pundit and called him aside and asked him if any entity is visible to only one person while it is invisible to others. The pundit was surprised at the question. “Well, in the scriptures, there are instances when the Lord was seen only by his true devotees and not the sinful people,” he tried to explain. “Dayalji, peepal and tamarind trees are known to have their own marked areas and are said to be the masters of those areas. I have only read about this, I don’t know for sure. But be careful.” Dayal kept a rupee and a 25p coin before him. He was now certain that there was an entity who was trying to say something and stop the tree from being felled.
On his next visit, Pralhad was very busy with visitors, electricians, carpenters but Dayal wanted to have a word with him. He cornered him when he came out to leave someone to his car. Dayal cleared his throat and broached the topic. He briefly told him about what had happened on his previous visit. Pralhad laughed loudly and said, “Fool. I thrashed that idiot black and blue, he could not have got up for some time. You, you of all believe in such nonsense?” Dayal was quiet.
The renovation of the Verma bungalow was almost done when Pralhad turned to do the main entrance. He sent for the labourer who had done only half the work. The man came and told him that he was suffering from high blood pressure and hence had stopped working but he would send a replacement. The next hacker was a young man in early twenties, agile and lithe. He climbed up with the saw and worked for a few hours. He got down to go home for lunch and never returned. Dayal went to call him and saw a crowd outside his shanty. The boy was dead. “Enough is enough,” thought Dayal. He conveyed what he felt to his saab and told him to leave the tree as it is. The present position of the gate had brought him luck and now why did he want to disturb something? Saab would have nothing of it. He decided to supervise this change himself. He left for Raipur and his accountant told him that none of the tenders had been passed for the timber contract. Pralhad was enraged and perplexed. After greasing so many palms and getting so many assurances, his bids were rejected. He would tackle it later, he thought. After, going through some routine business work, he went to Narsingpur. The contractor was there and a part of the wall was already broken. The massive iron gate had been transported to the site the previous evening. It was really impressive. The name of VERMA NIVAS was etched like a crest. Pralhad was happy.