Thirty years ago, one fine evening, I had tied two black chickens to the bed of Ramzubhai, an elderly relative, and locked his bedroom from outside after he entered it. It was my idea of retaliation, for he had refused to play Chess with me on the ground that I was intellectually deficient. Having come to know that it was I who had performed the nefarious deed, his belief that I was feeble-minded got stronger.
As such, I was surprised when he insisted that I must stay at his place at least for a couple of days during my visit to Pakistan last year. ‘Let bygones be bygones’ he must have said and that by now I might have regained my mental equilibrium.
I stepped into his house and was at once hit by an aura of extreme seriousness. The lady of the house, Farah bhabi, two charming youngsters, Laiba and Imad appeared as if there was a spell of some demon in the house. It was all because, I soon found out, Ramzu bhai had become a despotic master of the house and everyone had to obey his whims and wishes.
After a silent dinner, Farah bhabi and the kids went to their rooms and Ramzu bhai began his tales of the adventures in the forests of Assam decades ago. He described how he had single-handedly grappled a ferocious man-eater. I was having a tough time, listening to these tales of fantasy and looking at his constantly fluttering left eye and the bushy, untrimmed moustache on his thick upper lip, hair invading his nostrils and mouth. At last I was permitted to go to the bedroom assigned to me. As soon as I entered, there was a knock on the door. Laiba and Imad were at the door.
“Uncle, could we have a word with you?” asked Laiba.
“Sure! Come on in,” I invited.
“I think dad has gone mad,” said Imad. Looking at my inquiring face, he added, “He has put a lot of restrictions on us. He wouldn’t allow mom to go to her ladies club any more. He wouldn’t allow me to join a pop group...”
“…And he turned down the proposal from Arman, when his parents came to ask for my hand,” finished Laiba.
“Do you love each other?” I asked.
“Sure we do!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Please convince dad that he should stop being a dictator and allow us to do what we reasonably want to do.”
“He would never listen to me,” I said. “He considers me a loony.” I then told them about what I had done in the past. Both of them laughed out loudly.
I racked my brains, but no solution to their problem emerged. Suddenly, I remembered Ustad (a mentor or teacher) Bilgrami. “Give me the phone,” I said. At this hour, I knew he must be massaging his bald head with coconut oil; nevertheless he wouldn’t be disturbed if I called. I dialed his number and he came on the line. “Ustad, we need your help,” I said and gave him the details of the problem. All he asked was whether the name was Ramzubhai Masalawala. When I replied in the affirmative, he said, “Ah! I know him since childhood. Used to play kabaddi (a rural form of wrestling) while studying in a local Madressah. Just give me a little time to do some research on him. Let me know the address and I’ll be there tomorrow evening.”
“Who is Ustad Bilgrami?” asked Laiba.
“A trouble-shooter, a problem-solver! This guy was our sports coach in college, but coaching aside, he has always been a mentor, guide and genuine friend.He used to solve our emotional problems in a jiffy. Though an ultra-senior now, he is still very much agile and the mind functions in top gear. Drinks lassi (a beverage made from yogurt), eats fish and spreads sweetness and light by helping people in distress. He will be coming here tomorrow evening, so keep a pitcher of lassi ready.”
At five in the evening he arrived. He had a khaki cork hat on his head, a silk scarf covering the wrinkles of his neck and a walking stick, which he dangled playfully. He hugged me, smiled graciously at Farah bhabi, put an affectionate hand on the heads of Laiba and Imad and looked sternly at Ramzubhai.
“Well, well, well,” he said poking his stick into the ribs of Ramzubhai. “It is old Ramzu, isn’t it? How are you doing? Remember me?”
Ramzubhai was taken aback. It took him a while to recognize Bilgrami. “Are you Sucrat?
“Sucrat Arastu Bilgrami, your childhood buddy. I came here to meet Rafiq and also to have a serious discussion with you in confidence.”
Ramzubhai took him to his study, and I quietly managed to follow them and put my ear to the door, which was slightly ajar.
“Well, Ramzu, I see you have prospered in life, and forgotten your dark past, but let me remind you of a few things you did. At a young age you had run away from the house, and unable to sustain yourself, you became a bus-conductor, shouting at the top of your voice, ‘Jamshed Road, Guru Mandir, Numaish, Parsi Colony, Empress Market, Sadar…’ to call passengers.”
I could hear a sonorous sigh escaping Ramzubhai’s lips. “Bilgrami, shut up. Why dig into the past.”
Ustad ignored him and continued, “At home at the dinner table you used to burp so loudly that babies nearby would start crying. Then you used to spit all around after taking tobacco-filled paan (betel leaf with betel nut and other ingredients wrapped inside, which makes the saliva blood-red; a popular delicacy in India and Pakistan). Stealing cigarettes from your dad’s pocket was a common habit. Once in school, you sprayed ink from your fountain pen on the new cream-colored suit of our teacher Mr. DeMello when he turned his face away...”
“Stop it!” yelled Ramzubhai.
“The list is longer. What a delight it would be if your wife and kids come to know about your extra-curricular activities in your young days,” said Bilgrami.
“You are not going to tell them!”
“Why not, it would be fun. Stop me if you can.”
“What would it take to seal your lips?”
“Peace and happiness in the house.”
"What do you mean?”
“I mean that with immediate effect you shall stop being a Hitler. Allow your wife to attend her club regularly, allow your son to join the pop group and also let your daughter marry the boy she loves.”
There was a silence for a few minutes before Ramzubhai said,” Will you keep your lips sealed if I do all that?”
Ustad nodded, and then Ramzubhai nodded. They both shook hands and embraced each other.
“Wonderful!” said Ustad. “Now, let’s all go out and have a game of wrestling. Put on your shorts. In the meanwhile, let me drink a couple of glasses of lassi your graceful wife has made for me.”
Rafiq Ebrahim is a freelance writer and novelist. He has written three novels: Glowing Embers, Advertising, and The Other Side. The latest – Beyond the Crumbling Heights (Colors in the life of a Pakistani slum boy) — was published in USA in 2009 and is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and google.com/books. He has written for Potluck before.