Sharp at 6 am without fail, I daily hear the bell ringing continuously from the adjacent flat with the smell of camphor burning accompanied by the low tone of prayers being said. It was an annoyance initially but gradually grew accustomed to it. In fact, I get up invariably with a guilty conscience. Raghav Chaturvedi, my neighbor for the last five years and junior in age by about ten years, is a devoted person given to prayers, daily puja with homa early in the morning to Sri Ram durbar. With a prominent Tilak on his forehead and a garland of Tulsi beads, he evokes instant respect. I think he gets up early in the morning at 4 am to complete the rituals in time for him to leave for work by 8 am. His wife Vanita seems a gentle lady and very supportive to her husband. They have two small children. On many days especially holidays they visit the nearby temples.
When I was having my breakfast one day, my wife Savitri came and sat by my side and said in hushed tone, “Yesterday, Vanita invited me to see the new dish washer installed in her place two days back. It is so comfortable and elegant to look. It seems it is completely automatic. They have already a washing machine. See how fortunate she is having no backbreaking workload on her.
“I am aware that these labour-saving devices reduces the work but they are both expensive especially if you go for a versatile model. I wonder how they could afford. I learn Raghav works as a junior executive in the commercial department of a private company. I feel he would not be drawing much more than me and has also no rich background as I could observe when I saw his parents when they visited him. I suspect something fishy,” I mentioned.
“During the last three years, they have bought new furniture, a big double door fridge, Acs and exchanged the old bangles for new ones. I do not know whether they are well off or not. He must be earning well or bought some of them on instalments. Whatever, he is very considerate and loving providing Vanita all the comforts. Why cast aspersions on such a pious person, if you are unable to?” my wife replied.
“I know what you are driving at. But, as an inspector in revenue department, just by seeing the face I can tell whether a person is honest or not. All this bell clanging, homa, camphor burning and puja early in the morning, I suspect, are all a camouflage to deceive the neighbourhood. This is one reason why I keep away from the guy. If he were in government, I could have in no time done something to find out his source of income,” I said.
“I am disappointed with your professional habit of always doubting others’ honesty and disparaging them. In fact, many of my friends who visit me, often tell me why I could not reduce the burden of the domestic chores with these useful gadgets. Possibly they believe that with you being in revenue department all these can be easily acquired. They do not know that you are scrupulously honest and live frugally on what you get legally”. Savitri remonstrated.
I got angry, “I do not want you to mingle anymore with Raghav’s family or invite your other nosy friends’ to our home to poison your mind like they do with their husbands in their greed.”
My wife, a gullible and innocent person, trusting everyone unaware of the deceitful and corrupt ways most acquire goods and other assets, was miffed at my command. I do not discuss my financial matters with her.
A week later, when I reached home a little earlier than usual, I saw Vanita standing on the balcony. She opened the front door of her flat opposite mine and said, “Please come in and wait for a few minutes. I saw Savitri going out and should be back any time.”
While I was hesitating, she insisted that I must come inside and bless them on Makar Sankranti day. I went in and found her husband was away. To my great shock, I found the house bare, bereft of even basic furniture. The walls were faded and the bare floor needed repairs. She drew a plastic chair and made me sit. When she excused herself to bring me tea, I looked around and could see no evidence of prosperity or even the basic needs that a modest home would need. The old fan was creaking making much noise. The curtains on the windows were in need of urgent replacement. I peeped into the dining place and found a cheap study table doing the duty of dining table and place for study. There were two chairs and two stools. The two children were looking emaciated and were in ordinary clothes. There was a lump in my throat and a sense of pity overcame.
Something is totally amiss here to what I was told about them. Where were the sofa sets, the split ACs, the colourful carpet that Savitri spoke about? I could sense immediately with my long experience that this was no cover-up to conceal some opulence but sadly real. I knew it would be foolish to find out if they had ACs, washing machine and dish washer that Savitri said they had. Nevertheless, to make sure, I told Vanita that there is occasional seepage in our balcony from the terrace and wished to see if they had a similar problem. She took me to the verandah through the kitchen. There was neither seepage nor the washing machine and dishwasher. There were only plastic buckets.
” I am very happy that you could visit our house on this auspicious day for the first time after so many years. My husband would be here anytime. Kindly have the tea,” she said as she placed a tray with a cup of tea, some pheda and namkeens. Luckily Raghav entered soon and seeing me seated there, he rushed towards me and touched my feet. Vanita and children also joined him to receive my blessings. I fished out a 500 rupee note from my pocket and gave it to the two children.
We chatted for a while as Savitri had not turned up. During the conversation, I learnt that his company was not doing well and was running on loss. The company paid only half the salary and that too in instalments for the last one year or so. He was passing through trying times as his parents at the village relied on his monthly remittance. Luckily as the flat belonged to him, he had a roof over him. I commiserated with him promising him of my effort to locate some good opening for him.
Soon Savitri came much earlier than my usual time and stood frozen with shock when she saw me on the plastic chair with Vanita’s family. I smiled at her and said, “Lucky you were away. Otherwise I would not have had the pleasure of meeting such a loving and pleasant family. You should have brought me here earlier instead of just sharing information about them. Come on, let us go.”
With two of us alone and children out playing, I asked her,” Savitri, tell me honestly why you were telling brazen lies about a good family making me dislike them. What benefit do you derive from it? Tell me the truth before my trust in you is completely shattered.”
Savitri squirmed in her seat and pleaded, “Kindly excuse this wretch. In my greed for a high end dishwasher and washing machine, good furniture and 16” mattress and a nice carpet, I was fabricating stories to tempt you to buy them for us. Since you were not kindly disposed to him due to his pious ways, I thought you may not go there at all. I promise that this mistake would not recur. Kindly pardon me I am proud that you are a very honest man of integrity.”
I patted her and said in assuring tone, “Do not worry. Don’t I know you. I can afford what all you wanted. But in my job not only I should be very honest but also seen to be so. If I show off, people will suspect me. I will get you one by one. Do not worry or discuss these matters with your friends.”
Savitri had become a transformed person and life was hunky dory till one day after a fortnight, a covered blue van stopped outside her building at 6AM in the morning. Everyone in the complex craned their necks through their balconies wondering what could bring half a dozen men to their colony so early and who they were after, till one of the men knocked at the doors of Satyanarayan. A policeman guarded their door while four men entered the apartment and nothing was heard from inside. After an agonizing wait, one of the men told the onlookers they were from CBI. Soon Satyanarayan was escorted to the van, while his wife was seen weeping inconsolably.
I forgot to tell you at the beginning, that my name is Satyanarayan. You have all seen how Spartan has been our living. They would not take my word but tell me that these are all cover up and they have concrete evidence of my shenanigans. What shenanigans I am not aware of, till they produce the evidence. I may be busy for a few months. Kindly take care of Savitri and the children. I promise they are lily white pure and know nothing of my official work.
Vanita turned to Raghav and said, “We will take care of her as our didi till he returns.”