Mr. La in the red

A short story

For years, I have wanted to write this episode from my childhood, as the growing years have finally dispelled whatever mystery shrouded it; a mystery, which as a child, I could not find the courage to question my parents about or clarify on my own. Now, thinking about it, the scenario would seem to be lifted straight from a Hindi movie plot.

This is how I recall it…

Father was transferred from Delhi and we moved to Bombay late in 1946. We were accommodated for the first few months by a good friend of the family in their spacious rented bungalow in the far off suburb of Andheri.

For me, everything about Bombay seemed strange and unreal. Father commuted to office and back by the local train, leaving very early in the morning even before the children got up, and mostly returning well after my sister and I were put to bed.  Within a few months the strain began to tell on him, and that's when mother started to nag him about finding our own flat in the city. It was absolutely necessary to get us two girls admitted to a good school. In mid-January 1947, Father was allotted a requisitioned Government flat in a five-storied block off a  beautiful  sea-front, within walking distance to his office, and above all, so close to the school where we found admission without any fuss.

I would stand for hours in the verandah facing the sea, and watch the changing hues of the waves as they dashed on the rocks,  sending spumes of foam. For someone from Delhi where the houses were all  bungalows and havelis on one level, this five-storied tower was quite awesome. These blocks, all forming a semi-circle on the sea-front were quite unlike anything I had ever seen.

Father told me that twenty families lived in each of these buildings, four on each floor. On the first day after moving in, my younger sister and I helped Mother put everything in place and by evening the house looked neat and tidy with the fragrant smell of agarbatti which Mother loved to light in the evenings.  She sent us downstairs to make friends with the other children in the compound and play with them, saying we should be able to find some friends our age in such a big building. Sure enough at the end of the evening I had made friends with four or five girls about my age, who spoke in a Gujarati-Hindi mixture, while my four-year-old sister had made friends with boys, who picked her up in their arms as if she were a doll, which she seemed to enjoy immensely. As it grew dark, we heard our mother call out our names from the verandah, and as we all moved towards the lift that took the group of children up to their flats, a tall girl who seemed to have kept her distance all along  yet seeming very much a part of the group, took my hand and said, "I like you, will you be my friend? My name is Sheela and I live on the same floor as you do. I saw you move in yesterday, and I am glad you speak such good Hindustani; here in this building everyone only speaks in Marathi and Gujarati, neither of which I know."

I had never been up in a lift ever before. It was our turn now, and there was a funny feeling as it moved swiftly up; my sister crept close to me and held my hand. The boys started making mischief. They would not allow the lift to stop on any floor and kept pressing the button from one floor to another till, quite close to tears I shouted, "Stop, I want to get off!" Sheela got off too, and she whispered cryptically in my ear, "You can enter my house through your kitchen door." She waved at me and disappeared around a turn in the staircase.

I rang the doorbell  to our flat twice, impatient to try to get into Sheela's house as quickly as possible. Father opened the door with a smile and said, "Ah, that's my code for the bell, now you can you make your own bell code, so that all of us will know who is at the door". This too was something new to us here in Bombay: in Delhi, people called out our names as they entered the house as the front doors were never shut. I did not wait to hear half of what Father said as I rushed to the kitchen where Mother was cooking. I quickly unlatched  the big heavy door. Mother watched me quizzically and said  that there was only a spiral staircase out there which was dangerous  for little children; but I kept pulling at the bolt till it swung open… I stopped. There was a metal landing place ahead for just about two people to stand on and the stairs spiralled above dizzily and plunged down darkly.

The next minute the door across the landing opened, and there was Sheela smiling and beckoning me. I ran across, and Sheela closed the door behind her. What a frightful smell it was that assailed my nose as I entered her kitchen. I almost threw up! It was unfamiliar and at the same time, terribly unpleasant. As I looked about me, I saw dirty pots and pans piled up in the sink, and in the corner a mess of chicken feathers and blood. I was about to run back, when Sheela dragged me into the interior of her flat. I just stood and was startled again. There were lovely soft carpets all over the floor, rich velvet drapes, leather sofas that looked more like beds and glass shelves from wall to wall filled with dolls of all sizes in different costumes. The flat seemed so different from ours, there was a heavy perfume hanging in the air, all the windows were shut and as Sheela switched on the lights, I saw a twinkling  from candelabras all around the walls. Sheela said her mother was sleeping, and her father would only be back at night. I could only stare around me.

And then suddenly, there was a gruff voice from behind that gave me quite a fright: "Baba, you must now go back to your  house." It was a bearded man with a strange cap that covered his head at an angle. (Later I found out that such a cap with black tassels hanging at its side was called a fez). His hair was reddish and he had kajal-lined eyes. His appearance frightened me and I scurried back through the kitchen and the spiral staircase landing into my own house, glad to be back in safety or so I thought for some unknown reason.

The next morning, my mother was pleasantly surprised to find a vegetable vendor knocking at the kitchen door. She found this very convenient. I was with her picking out fresh beans and tomatoes, when the same bearded man came out of his kitchen door, salaamed my mother and, quite surprisingly, spoke to her in Tamil. He introduced himself as the  "khansamah" of his master, Mr. I. M. Lal. He continued with his introduction with a description of his master who he said was a very big textile magnate, who had recently entered the world of films as a producer. As for himself, he had worked in Bangalore for a British colonel who had left for England when he realised that India's Independence was imminent.  He was rather apologetic and said that knowing we were vegetarians and South Indian Brahmins at that, the smells that would emanate from his kitchen  could be rather offensive, but his master liked chicken and meat every night, and many other things as well. After buying some onions and potatoes from the vendor, he departed with these words to Mother, "Maaji, do not send your daughter to our  house, it's not a proper house."

Mother was rather tight-lipped all day, not mentioning the conversation even once. I had listened to the whole thing but could not quite understand the last few lines—"It's not a proper house." I hastened to describe to Mother the fantastic  décor of the room I had seen. Mother listened silently but as the evening drew closer and it was time to go down and play, she only told me: "You are to come straight up to study in an hour's time."

My sister and I had missed three months of school since our transfer to Bombay, and being so far away in the suburbs we had to stay at home till father obtained our admission into this big Convent school in the city after we moved into the new house. Yes, I  had much to cover in class and mother would sit with me  in the evenings and supervise every bit of my  study; I would go to bed tired but happy that homework was done with and lessons understood. I did not go to Sheela's house for almost a month till I discovered that Sheela had an Anglo-Indian teacher who came to help her with her studies in the evenings. One day Sheela called me to her house but this  time from her front  door and not the  kitchen entrance.

It was like entering Ali Baba's cave—there were mirrors in the hall and transparent white curtains that fluttered in the breeze; Sheela had a small desk in the verandah where the teacher sat and 'taught' her. Miss Gonsalves, as she was called, took out Sheela's home-work diary, read through the work allotted for the next day, worked out the Maths and  the English workbook herself, and then asked Sheela to copy it out in the school exercise books. And whilst Sheela wrote, Miss Gonsalves took out a silver cigarette case lying on the centre table, lit a  match and started smoking. I could not take my eyes off her, and noticing me she brusquely asked me which school I went to, and when I mentioned the name, her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, "O really! My sister teaches there  in Standard Eight.  She is soon going to take the veil." Of course that made no sense to me.

Just then,  I saw a woman enter the hall from inside the house. My eyes widened at her appearance. She looked as if she  had  just got out of bed, for her hair was untidy and her dress crumpled. She was wearing a satin Gharara suit, and of her face I could only notice the scarlet streak across her lips and her eyes heavily lined with kajal, and heavy-lidded too, almost as if they were half-closed. Her voice was hoarse and cracked as she called out, "Mumtaz come here."

I looked around for Mumtaz, but it was only Sheela who got up slowly and went to her as she gave me a look and smiled. The woman put her hands into the front of her dress and took out some money counted it and said in broken English as she gave it to Miss Gonsalves—"The rest  will come later."

I guessed this must be Sheela's mother. The teacher left soon after and I followed her out of the house, eager to tell my mother what I had seen, especially about the teacher who helped with the homework and how easy it was to have one's lessons taken care of, when suddenly I realised  that Mother had very firmly asked me not  to go to Sheela's house without giving any explanation for the ban; and when Mother's voice had that bit of steel in it I dared never question her. So how could I now tell her all that I wished to spill out, even the strange fact that Sheela's name was actually Mumtaz, and perhaps whether I too could have a secret name known only to people I wanted to reveal to!

I rang the doorbell and went in quietly, took out my books and started working at my Maths whilst Mother hummed and sang in the kitchen as she made dinner.

In the weeks that followed, Father and Mother would discuss in the early morning over coffee the terrible sounds of breaking glass and much shouting that came through from the adjacent flat till very late at night. One day Father said with great irritation, "I am going to the landlord  just now to lodge a complaint. It's days since I have had a good night's sleep". We had never seen Mr. Lal as he was wont to return late at nights and again leave very early in the morning to play badminton at the Gymkhana Club: all these bits and pieces of news the other neighbours in the building would come and tell my mother in the afternoons as they visited one by one to make friends with her, the new neighbour.

It so happened that as a senior Government Officer, Father had been allotted a telephone from the very first day of our moving into the flat. It was the only flat on the first two floors of the building that had a telephone, and the neighbours, who soon came to know of this facility, would drop in on these neighbourly calls and stay on to make a phone call or two before they left. This continued through odd hours of the day into the evenings much  to the annoyance of Father, who had a regular routine of spinning the charkha  for an hour before dinner. Besides, he complained to Mother, there was no privacy left in the house. The neighbours would now sit down next to Father, watch him spin and ask sweetly whether they could try too. It looked so easy, they would say, and then they would mess up the yarn before they left unconcernedly.

Mother solved the impending crisis by fixing a small lock on the dial of the phone, explaining  to the neighbours that since it was a government official's phone it could only be used by Father for his office purposes. The neighbours would now go back disappointed, but not before they gave some juicy bits of news about their favourite neighbour "Khursheed, that woman who lives in Flat Number 8."

I was all ears but Mother's admonition to go in and read my books would make me drag my feet away.

At this time all of Bombay was agog with the "Kishori Court" murder case and newspapers carried front page columns on the development of the investigations of the murder of Police Inspector Kulkarni, who had been thrown out of the balcony of Kishori Court,  a rather large house on Worli Sea Face. The police had arrested Kishori, the owner of the house, and sealed the three-storied luxury apartment building. I would listen to all this as Father read out the newspaper to Mother. The story continued, stating that the "other inmates" had taken up residence in other apartments and hotels in the city.

I distinctly recall Mother muttering one morning as she plaited my hair while Father described some further leads that the police had found in the murder case, "Khursheed must be from Kishori Court."

Then something totally unexpected happened… This was during the summer holidays of 1947.  In the hot afternoons, Mother, who I thought was getting rather fat, would lie down under the fan on the cool floor and watch my sister and I play carrom. On other days she would join us in a round of Monopoly.

One such afternoon at about 3.00, the door-bell rang  and I got up to answer it. On opening the door, I saw two women standing there, perspiring profusely. One was rather old and dressed in white cotton, while the other was young, but both seemed quite out of breath after climbing the stairs  instead of using the lift. The younger woman, I noticed, had a lovely face, with a dazzling diamond nose-ring and was immensely fat, and she spoke rather hesitantly in a Punjabi accent "Does a a a…" then she stopped and turned to the other lady as if for help.  The older woman then spoke up in such a thick accent that I began to giggle. Mother called out as to who  was at the door, and then came to see for herself. The old woman took hold of Mother's hand and said in Hindi, "Behenji, please help us and say where Jugal Kishore Mehta lives in this building." I do not remember Mother ever calling strangers  inside the house, but all I do know was Mother being very kind to them and offering them both cold water to drink, and asking them to cool off under the fan. However, she did tell them, that no Mr. Jugal Kishore Mehta lived in the building.

The older woman thanked my mother and looking at her very intently said, "May God bless you with what you want." Mother smiled and saw them to the door, as I impatiently waited to ask her why she let them in. Mother said, "They seemed to be in trouble." But that was not the last of the two. A couple of weeks later, they again climbed all the five floors of the building, ringing all the doorbells of  the flats, and asking the same question, "Does Jugal Kishore Mehta live in any of these floors?" This time no one offered any sympathy, but shooed them off.

Then came a new visitor to our house that was a surprise, and took my mind away from everything else—a baby sister, and no one had time for anything else. But late one night after we had all gone to bed, there was a loud knocking on the kitchen door at the back, rudely waking us up, especially the baby who started to whimper. Father went angrily to open the door, ready to give a piece of his mind to whoever it was, and I crept behind curiously to see if I could catch a glimpse of Sheela, who somehow was never to be found playing downstairs anymore. It was the old Khansamah who salaamed at my father, and very politely he requested if the telephone could be used for an emergency—the doctor had to be called for immediately. A chicken bone had got stuck in his master's throat and he was in considerable pain. My father asked rather brusquely, "Who is going to telephone?" The Khansamah lowered his head and said, "Begumsahiba". Father almost banged the door on his face, but  the lady in question, rushed out of the kitchen door, crossed into ours, and holding father's hand pleaded, "Bhaisahab, please call the doctor at this number, and ask him to come at once! Lal Saheb is gasping for breath, and I am so frightened."

Her appearance was so sudden and unexpected, that it took my father by surprise, and he just backed away and went to the phone followed by Khursheed who I saw in all her glory that night. She was wearing a red chiffon saree worked all over in sequins, her hair was piled up with diamond  pins in her coiffure, and a long sleeved lace blouse in black. A heavy perfume accompanied her as she walked into our drawing room where the telephone was, Father asked her for the doctor's number, and dialed it, and spoke to the doctor saying that he was urgently required  to attend to a patient of his, Mr. I.M. Lal who had a chicken bone lodged in his throat. Before he could put the receiver down, Khursheed had taken it out of his hand and in her  hoarse voice begged the doctor to hurry saying in Hindustani, "He is dying." I couldn't take my eyes off Khursheed and just asked her, "How is Sheela"? She laughed and chucked me under my chin and said "Not Sheela, but Mumtaz; why don't you come and play with her in our house, she does not go downstairs anymore, there are too many boys playing around here, and moreover she has to study her Urdu, I have kept a master for her." She turned around to thank my father, who had a scowl on his face, and went through our kitchen into hers, shutting the door behind her. Mother had not come out of  the bedroom at all, and waited for Father to relate everything. Afterwards, she just snorted and went back to sleep.

I couldn't sleep that night, I kept seeing Khursheed, and next morning I was up early to find our from the Khansamah what had happened: whether the doctor had come, if Mr. Lal was alright—but the kitchen door remained shut, and I was crestfallen.

A week later as we were sitting down for dinner, the bell rang and a strange man stood at the door, as I opened it, and asked to see my father. I asked him in and made him take a seat while I went in to call father saying, "A very handsome man in an  evening suit wants to see you." Father got up, and as he entered the drawing room he  stretched out his hand, and said, "Hullo I don't think I know you." This man said, "I am sorry sir. Let me introduce myself, I am Mr. Lal, your next-door  neighbour. I have  come to personally  thank you for saving my life the other night." Father was taken aback by his obvious sincerity, and he said "I don't think I understand." Mr. Lal  took hold of my father's hand, and said, "That telephone call to the doctor that night  was what saved me, the doctor extricated the bone stuck in my throat and I should thank you for calling the doctor in the nick of  time. I am sorry for the great  inconvenience caused to your family so late that night."

My father said, "Next time chew your chicken well before you swallow it." Both laughed, and Mr. Lal left after that. Father returned  to the dining-table and resumed his dinner and, turning to Mother, said "The blighter looks and talks like a film actor!"

A strange twist to this tale followed shortly afterwards. Mr. Lal had a bright red Mercury car which he drove himself, and its presence at the entrance to the building meant that he was in. After the chicken bone episode, Mr. Lal felt he owed a thanksgiving to the Presiding Goddess in Bombay—the Mahalakshmi, housed in a temple high up on the rocks on the sea. He chose an auspicious day and drove with Khursheed and Sheela to the temple. It was at the temple that the strange drama unfolded.

Khursheed and her daughter, being Muslim, did not know the simple procedures normal within the precincts of a Hindu temple—that of buying flowers and sweetmeats as offerings to the deity, and so were rather lost in the crowd, and as for Mr. Lal he was perfectly unconcerned  and he hurried  up the steps to the temple without looking to  see whether  they followed behind. The two women did the most natural thing then. Instead of following him up, they came down to the car and waited  for Mr. Lal's return. He offered his prayers, and with a substantial donation put into the offerings box he climbed down the stairs feeling very happy and pleased with himself. Just then, he came face to face with two women who called out his name loudly, but he ran down the remaining steps, and in a rush without saying a word to Khursheed, started the car and drove at a furious speed back to the building, asked Khursheed and her daughter to get off and drove away leaving the bewildered two women standing on the kerb.

A little distance away, a taxi stopped, and two women got off and walked into the building and at the entrance they studied  the names of all the tenants on the five  floors, but could not find the one they were looking for. They trudged up every floor and as before, came and rang our doorbell. Father opened  it and the two women seeing him,  started sobbing and the older woman spoke, "Bhai Saheb help us, I am looking for my son Jugal Kishore Mehta who we know surely stays in this building. We have just seen him in his red Mercury car. Father asked them in, and that was the second time these two women had been asked into the house, and as I switched on the fan for them, Father went inside and spoke in a low tone to mother who was feeding my little sister. He came out and said in a very encouraging voice, "I think you will find your son living in the flat behind ours—in Flat Number 8, go and ring the bell."

The older woman requested my father to allow me to go along with them and show them the flat and to ring the doorbell as well. I felt something exciting was  going to happen and ran ahead of them to ring the bell. The door was opened by my friend Sheela who welcomed me like a long-lost friend, and asked me in. I looked behind to see if the two women were following me and said to Sheela "I have brought  some visitors who want to see your father." Sheela blinked and said with a stammer, "That's not actually my father, I call him Uncle." Meanwhile the two women had entered the flat without any politeness, and stood staring all around them but what caught  their gaze was a photograph mounted on a silver frame of a smiling Mr. I. M. Lal. They could not take their eyes off it, and were rooted to the spot.

Khursheed came out of her bedroom to enquire who had come, stared  at the two women and did something quite unexpected—she screamed as if she had seen a ghost, ran back to her bedroom and locked  herself in. I looked at Sheela who was now crying and knocking  at the bedroom  door to let her in. The two ladies  meanwhile, had sat down on one of the sofas, and looked most comfortable and quite unconcerned, as we started to hear objects being thrown about within the closed bedroom and of splintering glass. The old woman caught sight of me standing  next to Sheela, and trying to comfort her, and said, "Beti, you can go home now. I have found my son Jugal Kishore Mehta."

A week later, coming home from school, I found the name-plate board at the entrance being changed, I watched to see whose name was bring changed, and found the brass-plate of Mr. I.M. Lal being replaced by that of Mr. Jugal Kishore Mehta.

The sweet-faced fat woman had settled in Flat Number 8, and the kitchen doors at the back now remained open. There were exchanges of dishes of cooked food across the kitchens, and Mother would treat us to surprise meals which she said she had learned to make up from Savitri, the wife of Mr. Jugal Kishore Mehta! Khursheed and her daughter left quietly for Karachi (Pakistan) and I was unhappy that Sheela had not said goodbye. A couple of years later  I received a letter, it was brief and almost childish in its scrawl, it read thus:

"My dear friend, I am getting married, and going away to Lahore. Your old friend Sheela (Mumtaz)."

Thus ends my recollection, but in writing it after all these years, the memory  of those years, with all its flavours, images, sounds and smells, rises up.

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Himal Southasian