Demonetization Stories #2

life-finds-a-way

Preface:

2551 words.

Over the past few days I’ve had the opportunity to listen to people who are coping with the big 8/11 cash reset. The only point I’d like to make is that “life finds a way.” You can draw any conclusion you like from the stories below. It’s a rather long post.

The Policemen Are Not Happy

I talked about my neighbor, the Punjabi Aunty in my last post. The Aunty is a bit of a legend in our apartment complex. A lot of what I know about her is what you would call gossip, but I prefer folklore. It’s more apt.

It turns out that Aunty runs her own little private economy while chopping vegetables or watching the daytime saas-bahu soap. She was a significant player in the parallel economy of the local policemen.

It’s an open secret that the police is one of the more corrupt institutions in the country. But being privileged as we are, we witness this corruption mostly in the news or Bollywood potboilers. The few occasions in our ordinary lives where we come face-to-face with the police is for routine verification for passports, rentals and properties, or minor traffic violations.

Unless you are the very straightforward type (like the old pensioner who is making an appearance later in this post), you wouldn’t think much about tipping the policemen for your passports, mostly out of relief than anything else. The policemen also make money out of settling petty disputes and mild extortion from businesses. I’m not being judgemental – but these are facts of life. You can take the view that such petty corruption should not be tolerated and you will be right. You can take the view that these bribes help smooth life in an otherwise harsh line of work, and you will not be wrong.

The private economy is also enriched by players like the Punjabi Aunty. Like I said before, her husband and son run the family food-tech business (food = chicken, tech = tandoor + skewers), while Aunty runs many businesses on the side. The most prominent of them is the “interest-free-profit-share-only” finance and the debt recovery business. And the policemen in the locality are beneficiary, investor, side-kick, and service provider to her.

The policemen borrow money from her for various reasons. From what I heard, for minor investments like a personal use two-wheeler to out-of-court settlements over domestic disputes. For a fee or as a favor, they also act as debt recovery agents when one of Aunty’s beneficiaries decides to default. A few other times, a third party domestic or a business petty dispute is settled on the basis of Aunty’s request. There are even more colorful stories, but that would be out of context for the moment.

All of this is part of the folklore in the local community. If you ask me if this can be verified, no, you don’t get firsthand information until you are in too deep. I’d rather avoid putting more detail here – while I listen to the security guards and overhear others’ conversations for my interest in them, there are real people who haven’t had a pleasant experience.

As of last weekend, this private economy has come to a grinding halt. Since 8/11, not a single policeman has visited Aunty, down from two or three visits a day. The security guards are happy – policemen are seldom polite, particularly when they need money – for now.

The Parsi Chai-brun Place

There are several types of small eateries I frequent when I am at work. I go to an ancient Parsi bakery every other day, mostly to have a cup of their milky, sweet tea, but also to do some people-watching and eavesdropping. Some say the place is dilapidated, but I’ll call it antique. There are posters of age-old imported German ovens, news articles from a few decades ago, a clipping of a young girl’s sports achievement at school, random pictures, computer-print slogans and so on. If you look up, you will see the beams of an age-old building, and sharp eyesight may distinguish the cobwebs from the faded brown color of the wall paint.

The clientele is varied: working class daily-wagers in and around the area, paper-pushers from the financial district, lawyers, retired Parsis, middle-class south Mumbai families and the occasional outsider armed with a Lonely Planet book.

In one of my trips, I asked the owner (or his son, I’m never quite sure) how the demonetization affected his business. “Nothing much,” he said, “just that the staff needed to be paid by cheque, which made them really unhappy. Who has the time to stand in queue to deposit a few cheques every week?”

I was having this conversation when a crusty old regular piped up. He looked like a pensioner, very tidy in appearance, and a stickler for rules and discipline.

“It IS a good move!” he thundered,”You young men have no idea how it was with Mrs Gandhi. The trains ran on time. There was order in the streets! Corruption disappeared in two days! This is how this country should be run!”

“Why should the black marketers (he said marketers) get away with all their wealth? In one day, one move – khallas! Aisa he hona chahiye! Mr Modi should do more! You young men will benefit if you follow him!”

I sat there quietly and sipped my tea. The waiters tried to look somewhere else. The owner tried, and failed, to engage the old gentleman in gentler conversation. I think he called him ‘Rustom Uncle’, but I couldn’t hear above the din. When Rustom Uncle paused to take a sip, I excused myself quietly. You know when you’re beat!

The Mallu restaurant:

A reasonable barometer of the local economy is the periodic visit of the various upholders of law to the locality’s business establishments. Things may be looking up, because the BMC inspector and the local policemen (again!) are back as regular visitors to the many Kerala restaurants in the Fort area of south Mumbai.

These restaurants mushroomed in the 1980s-1990s during the Kerala-Gulf boom; many laborers passed via Bombay, staying for a few days to get recruited by the large trade recruiting firms that you still see in the area. Some of this still happens. But now, the street vendors – electronics and other knick-knacks – in the Fort area are its regular customers, along with various paper-pushers and Kerala cuisine enthusiasts. On weekends, you may see families and groups of nurses.

The settings are usually modest. A few melamine-topped tables with a special AC section where they serve the plantain-leaf spread. The senior waiters are Malabari and the younger lot are local – you can order food in Malayalam, but the water and cleaning has to be in Bombaiyya.

I talked to Mohammed, a partner in one of these restaurants. He mans the till from breakfast to lunch.

“They weren’t around for a few days. Now they are back again,” he said of the inspectors. Do they ask for cash? No. “That is unsaid. They just say hello, then do their rounds and when they are back, they wait somewhere down the road. I send my boy with the blessings!”

‘Aashirwaadam’, Malayalam for blessings was the word used. The hangers-on around the cashier all broke into laughter and shared a few inside jokes that I could not really follow.

“If I complied to every rule of the BMC, I’d be out of business,” the man goes on. He knows that he can get caught any time under some pretext or the other. “Who wants that trouble? They also make up new rules on their own when they need extra money!”

How is business after demonetization? It appears that they had trouble in the first few days when people just didn’t turn up. Things are much better two weeks down.

“The machine is tiresome. It takes me at least two-three minutes to type the amount in, then ask the customer to fill in the PIN, then print out the receipt,” says Mohammed. I can see that operation hampering the flow of the lunchtime crowd. Everyone has to pay at the till – the restaurant is small, but gets busy during lunch. Cash made it easy to accept payments at the table itself. Now, most people prefer card. They haven’t tried wallets yet.

I tried to ask what he did with the extra cash. He shrugs it away – everything was white anyway, he claimed – and there is a CA firm that audits and maintains all the accounts. Sure enough – all the billing is entered into a computer system. He doesn’t see any point in demonetization, though.

“The policemen still have to be paid, the BMC inspectors ask for more,” he said. “No difference to me. Only that my staff has to go to the bank and spend more time there because of the crowd, and we don’t get enough change. But that will go in some days!”

Back to business. Life finds a way.

The Relocation Firm:

I shifted to a new locality recently. I asked the manager of the relocation firm about the business scenario in his part of the market.

“We were doing between six and eight relocations a week. Since 8/11 we’ve done only three, besides yourself. All the others were company transfers and payment was online. We have issues with long distance trucks, but we have an understanding with big trucking companies, so nothing is stopped as such, don’t worry.”

What does he think of the whole move? He is supportive. “Theek hai… long run mein kuch faayda hoga.”

Did he lose any cash? Always a tricky question to ask. “Seth log ka kaafi nukhsan to hua hi… The owners did make some losses,” he said. The only pinch, he said, is that no one is paying bakshish to the loaders and packers. Every relocation, the loaders (or unloaders) get Rs 100 or Rs 200 each. That’s stopped entirely – they didn’t get any tips for the past three relocations.

Mahesh – A loader with the relocation company:

This was one of the more poignant stories I’ve heard on how families were affected by the demonetization move.

Mahesh must be around 20 or so. He is a local, stays in a tenement in Sangharsh Nagar (Struggle Nagar, if you please), and helps with the relocation company whenever there’s work. He gets paid on a daily basis. If there’s no work, there’s no pay. Since 8/11 there have been exactly three pay days via the relocation business. He is a ‘freelancer’, so when he doesn’t have relocation work, he hangs around in Asalpha market and occasionally gets some other manual work to do. There’s competition, he says, but he has ‘jaan-pehchan wale‘ who call him up for some errands. He would prefer the relocation firm though. It’s teamwork (I could see the camaraderie within these guys) and he used to get good tips.

But that’s gone down drastically. Life has changed. I put the demonetization question to him: at first, he was all for it. He said whatever cash they had, they put it in their bank accounts. “Waise bhi bahut kam hi tha. Modiji ne acha kiya,” he said.

And then he started talking about his sister and father.

His sister is married to a BMC peon. A few days ago, she came home with a bundle of Rs 1000 notes worth two lakhs. Her husband’s supervisor at BMC had asked them to deposit Rs 5.00 lakh in their bank accounts. Between her husband and herself, she managed to deposit Rs 3.00 lakhs. To launder the rest, she approached her father, who refused.

“Bahut strict hain woh?” I asked if his father is principled in these things. No, said Shinde, laughing. It’s just that he doesn’t get along with his son-in-law. So the bundle is still there, sitting on top of the family TV.

Shinde’s father was a daily wage labourer in a few factories till recently. After an illness a few years ago, he decided to quit the taxing physical labour and works now as an auxiliary office peon with a few small offices in a commercial complex in Ghatkopar. One of these firms is a real estate agent’s office.

For the past two years, Shinde senior used to be paid in cash every evening. He wasn’t a permanent staffer at the building or with any of these firms; it was an informal understanding. His pay would go up and down depending on how much work the seths saw him do. On some days, the real estate seth would send him to the title registrar’s office, and that would be a good day. On others, he would get as little as Rs 100.

All this, Shinde tells me, has disappeared. The real estate agent’s office is hardly open. All of the firms have told him he would need to get “official” and asked for his bank details for the pay. He has given them all the documents, said Shinde, but no one has paid any money, despite his father having worked quite a bit (he has waited in queues for changing cash, among other sundry errands).

His father finds it humiliating to deal with accountants. Earlier he used to accost the seths directly and they would fish out a note of Rs 500 or two. But now they just smile and ask him to meet the accountant.

“How can he go and ask them for these things? They are half his age and keep making excuses like ‘bank approve nahin kiya’ or ‘yeh document lao'” Shinde says. Shinde says his father is barely literate, and can’t understand most of what the accountants say. He is worried about how things will change, he said.

“So how do you manage?” I asked, indirectly.

“My brother and I get some work on and off. Mother works as a maid, she had a few old notes which we changed. We manage.”

His youngest sister sometimes gets asked to accompany families with whom their mother is employed. “They used give her a hundred or two, but now they give her snacks and trinkets… she is happy with those!” he said.

After a quiet few moments, he says,”Modiji ne gareebon ke pet me laath mara.” (Modi has hit poor people hard.)

As he left, he said,”Ghar mein karche ke liye paise kam hain, lekin do lakh TV ke upar pade hain, shaam me sabki nazar us pe hain…” and laughed. (we don’t have much money to spend, but everyone looks at the bundle of Rs 2.00 lakh on top of the TV and wonder what’s going on.)

The irony of it is hard to miss.

The Hardware Store Retailer:

I had to buy a few accessories for the house and visited a couple of popular hardware stores in the Andheri East (Marol) area. Usually very busy, these shops are quite empty.

I asked how business was. “No business!” was the answer, but they didn’t seem too unhappy. I went about my shopping and got the stuff I wanted.

I went up to the counter to pay, and the conversation below is almost verbatim, though not a perfect translation:

Cashier/owner on the phone: “I can’t put any more in my accounts. What am I to do with your 35? I have 25 lying around…. (to me: Rs 1200 total, cash please, machine next week only)… So? I can’t help you. I am holding max of my own. Why don’t you ask (some name that ends in ‘lal’)”

Me: R2K ka change hai

Him: “… arre he will say all kinds of excuses. He doesn’t have much to do anyway. I don’t even know what to do with the stock I ordered…(to me: no, please, no change)”

Me: (Sigh) take this (I count my 100s and give him the money).

***

I’ve changed some names and identifiable details.

Demonetization Stories #1

Demonetization Stories #1: Slumdog Millionaire Scene

Preface: On a televised address in the late evening of November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister of India told the nation that 85% of Indian currency comprising of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes will not be valid legal tender by 12.00 midnight, and citizens could exchange the defunct notes at banks, post offices and some cash outlets. You can read more details of this move on the Wikipedia page here.

The below post was previously published on LinkedIn. 

To better understand the impact of 8/11, I interviewed a few people who I had the opportunity to meet over the past few days. I’ll leave it to you to arrive at your own conclusions.

The Punjabi lady nearby: Her husband and son run a chicken-tandoori-tikka shop, half-legal, and probably a Grade III outlet as defined by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. They started this shop around thirty years ago and were dirt poor around that time. They’re hardworking. The men return in the early hours of the morning with their hands red from the tandoori masala.

They make a neat pile. I couldn’t and didn’t ask how much. The Aunty runs her own business on the side which, in very polite terms can be described as financier, real estate agent and debt-collector rolled into one. She has the knack of picking up the most likely defaulter for her “interest-free but 400% profit-share” loans business and therefore she is quite successful at evicting them from their own property. Most of this, I presume, is out of illegal chawls that are aplenty in Mumbai, but rumour has it that she owns a few flats in fairly upmarket areas. She is famous for betting Rs 1.00 lakh on the Indian team for the 2013 World Cup win. She took home Rs 10.00 lakhs.

All this is stuff I know already about her. I met her near in the lift few days ago, and though I didn’t want to get friendly with her, I wanted to know how much she lost.

She definitely isn’t happy with the demonetization, but for entirely different reasons – she was upset that her borrowers will now cook up some new excuse and she will have to put more effort in getting the loans back. As for her own money: “Jo mere balance mein tha, bank me dal diya. Tax katna hai toh katne do” (The balance I had, I put it in the bank. Let the tax guys do whatever they want).

The Gujarati-Jain uncle nearby: He is one of several brothers and cousins who run retail and wholesale businesses in hardware, sanitary-ware and electricals. Quite cash-rich – they bought their flats in our building in 100% cash, and that’s a tidy sum. But their frugal lifestyle doesn’t reveal their wealth. How do they manage after demonetization? I presumed they would be unhappy. Nope.

They paid advance salaries to all their staff in old notes. They also paid off a few creditors in old notes. He explained to me how the business works, but I got confused and wasn’t able to follow him. The crux of it is that he managed easily, no real issues, thanks to good relationships, including family and caste ties with their suppliers and large customers. Their retail business is down almost 100% – not a single walk-in customer has bought from their store since 8/11 – and some large builders have postponed their orders. But they’re well-covered and have been so for generations irrespective of the vagaries of the economy. They’re sure that business will pick up soon. A tidbit: they are expecting a shortage of foodgrain and pulses in the coming weeks and have stocked up.

Politically, they have been BJP supporters since the 1990s. He talks of the Prime Minister as if he’s some distant cousin: “Naatak ka bahut shauq pehle se hi tha usko” – he’s always been a showman. They have been donors to the party for a long time. He is ambivalent about the demonetization move – thinks it was unnecessary.

The Marwari medical shop owner brothers: Both are their early thirties and run a modest medical shop in the apartment complex. The complex isn’t large enough to need a dedicated medicine shop, and they hardly get more than ten customers a day. But they’re rich – they’re stock market players.

There’s no significant impact of demonetization. Whatever cash was in the till, they deposited it in the bank. All of their money is white. Do they pay taxes? He laughs. “Never paid income tax in my life. We have a chacha who is a Chartered Accountant. He takes care of these things for the whole family.” They don’t have any strong opinions on the demonetization move. Some of their friends may be in trouble but they’ll manage, is what they feel.

I’m still figuring how making tonnes of money and not paying any income tax works. Stock tip: discard IT, buy Banking and Financial Services.

The painter and the plumber: Two brothers of a five-brother-two-sister family, they stay in an illegal chawl nearby.

Their income from retail customers (flat-owners) is down considerably – no new work and almost all pending work got cancelled after the demonetization. They didn’t lose any money – they recently pooled all their savings (two of the brothers recently returned from Saudi Arabia) and bought a flat adjacent to their chawl in a 100% cash deal. They have a few thousand rupees in the old notes which they have partially exchanged.

Do they have a bank account? Yes, but they don’t use it at all. They opened the accounts to receive cash from some government schemes they had enrolled in, but didn’t get the approval because they lacked a proper address. They have a few upcoming projects with a couple of big builders and now would like to start insisting on cheques, but they don’t seem hopeful of the builders agreeing. One of them is owed a tidy sum from a builder but doesn’t want to collect it right now for fear of being paid in old notes.

I enquired on why they hadn’t operated their bank accounts. They said, “We don’t know what the government will do with our money. See what they did now?”

Apparently, quite a few of their neighbours are in serious trouble because all their savings are in cash which they’re unable to deposit or exchange. Several of them have returned recently from the Gulf and most of them believe holding money in banks is against their religious tenets.

Young IT engineer, next door neighbor, single: Zero impact. Fully digital. Walks 15 minutes to the office, and uses the auto-rickshaw in case he’s late. Has a few Rs 100 notes to manage emergencies. Box8 for dinner, Sodexo card for breakfast and lunch, and everything else is usually credit card or PayTM.

For some reason he’s run up a debt with a paan-beedi shop near his office for his cigarettes and chewing-gum. He plans to settle it with the new R2K note he is expecting to withdraw once the ATMs start functioning. Happy with demonetization, and of course, the Prime Minister.

Rickshaw driver: Rides are significantly down, around half of what he used to get. But what irritates him the most is the R2K note – there’s just not enough loose change in the market and everyone has only THAT note. He’s had to refuse rides because people aren’t ready to part with loose change.

He had some savings in old notes which he deposited in his SBI account. He has another account with a cooperative bank where most of his life’s savings are – but the bank hasn’t opened for regular business. It’s been shut for most of last week for unknown reasons. He is a little worried about what that may entail for him (Cooperative banks have a history of dodgy practices).

He is quite opposed to the move. I don’t know if that’s because he’s a Shiv Sainik.

***

This is only an anecdotal survey, and is hardly representative of any community. The only conclusion that I can arrive at is that it isn’t the same for everyone. Your experience is very different from many others’, and sometimes broadening your perspective helps.

Read my previous post in which I suggest we should use cash wherever we can to infuse liquidity at the lower end of the markets: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/demonetization-switch-cash-haroon-bijli?trk=mp-author-card

The Billionaire, The App Dashboard and the Nation’s Top Influencer

jio

The billionaire woke up in a cold sweat. He fumbled around for his phone in the dark, trying not to wake up his wife. But no.

“Now what?”

“My phone… my phone…”

“You must have left it on the twelfth floor as usual. Go get it!”

“Uh okay”

Grrr. He muttered under his breath.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing, nothing…” said the billionaire, straightening his kurta-pajama. He was a billionaire. He should look the part, even at 5.00 am, he reminded himself, and give up trying to please his wife.

He pressed the elevator buttons.

“Aargh. Nine f***king lifts in this building and all of them busy. What the hell is happening here?”

Stairs? No, he thought. He’d better see who’s going up and down the lifts.

“If those kids are partying again, I’ll…” he didn’t finish muttering this when the lift opened with “Om jai jagdish hare” as the chime. That bugged him even more.

“Maa should stop running my life”, he thought  and walked into the lift.

And met his son.

“Yes, beta? Exercise I hope? Those jeans and t-shirt kind of uncomfortable, no?”

“Oh dad. You going up? Or down? This lift is going up. You might wanna take the next one?”

“Well, I’ll go wherever you’re going, sir,” with as sly a smile he could muster. His reflection on the lift mirror told him he’d only achieved a toothy stupid grin. The day wasn’t going well already!

“Just a party, dad, a couple of friends over,” the boy replied sheepishly.

“Okay. Your life. I just need to get my phone now. I’ll get off at the twelfth.”

The boy seemed suspiciously relieved. The billionaire didn’t care too much, though. He had to make that call…

***
On the twelfth floor, he finally located the phone he was looking for.

“Twenty-two missed calls from this guy! What more must he want!” he said to himself as he unlocked the phone using the secret numbers 4321.

He was about to dial when the twenty-third call came.

“Haan ji. Aap itni subah?”

“Subah? Idhar toh raat hai… ek minute.”

The billionaire heard some muffled voices and the question “hum India ke aage hain ya peeche… are we ahead or behind India?”

He said,“Oh, rehene do… let it be. Yes, tell me why you called.”

“Oh nothing, bhai. Just wanted to talk to behen.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Oh nothing bhai… just that she’s been elected to some khel-kud wala committee… what is it, IOC? Thoda doubts clear karne ke the…”

“Accha. What kind of doubts, sir?”

The voice at the other side was sheepish.

“Arre nahin… related to sports only. Ever since you launched that free telephone wala thingie, that Gurgaon-wala Marwari has been bothering me, saying ‘level playing field, level playing field’ or such like. So I thought I might call behenji and find out what is this ‘level playing field’ since she is so familiar with sporting terms… heh heh… woh hain kya?”

“Oh. Is bahane? Kyon, no sports person in your cabinet or what? What about that shooting champion ladka? Or that IIT wala genius?”

“Acha… I have to call them? Okay, if you say so…”

This is too much, thought the billionaire.

“No. I was joking. I’ll tell her to call you. And by the way, ‘level playing field’ has nothing to do with sports. So eventually we will have to talk about this. Anyway, chalo bye.”

Phew, thought the billionaire. Why do I alone have to go through this. Why, maa, why!

But before he could dial, the phone rang again. The same caller.

“Okay what now?”

“Accha… woh kapde?”

“Yes, the designer is working on it, don’t worry”

“Okay… heh heh, bhai, bura mat…”

The billionaire cut him off. He knew that social media influencers weren’t very bright, and couldn’t expect the country’s top social media influencer to be any better.

Now to make that all important call.

He spoke as soon as it was answered.

“How many downloads? A million? I want a billion app downloads. I have already sent for that buffoon’s suit to be made and he doesn’t let me be for an hour. Do you think I inherited all this karobaar to become someone’s fashion consultant? I want those billion downloads. The event is tomorrow. Wake up Sundar if you have to…. What? Okay, wake up Tim Cook too then… You want me to talk to him? Huh? Okay…”

I don’t believe this, thought the billionaire, he’s asking me to work! He dialled Cook.

“Oh hi, Tim. It’s me… Yeah the billionaire… remember we secretly met at Shah Rukh Khan’s party in Bombay? Yes, Mumbai, Mumbai, not Bombay. Sorry… No, that was my son. No, I’m the billionaire… What? No, that was my sister-in-law…. No wait, she didn’t come to the party, no, yeah, that’s my wife, that’s my wife, sorry I got confused heheh… Okay, sorry to call like this, but I need a billion downloads of my app by tonight… Jio… no, not Geo. Jio… What do you mean it’s not in your hands? You own the damn company!”

He regretted that immediately.

“Sorry! Sorry… my apologies. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. Yes, I understand. Okay, good night, Tim, take care.”

The billionaire pondered the next step. Should he stop the event from happening? Did his team goof up – did they mean “million” when they said “billion”? Nah. Million is so younger-brother, he concluded.

There was no way to call off the event now, the billionaire decided. He would make heads roll, but first, he had to get the event done with. The suits were getting ready for the nation’s top social media influencer. The billionaire didn’t want a rerun of the last time – the old man threw a fit when he saw his picture in the papers because the jacket was an inauspicious colour! Such a joker! Then the trouble he took to convince his wife to lend the 727 to fly down the whole cabinet. Well, except for the Finance Minister who was sulking about something or the other.

He made the way back to his bedroom floor. The lifts were empty and unused now. Funny, thought the billionaire. Daybreak, and the kids just disappear.

His wife was up. He smiled back.

“What are you smiling at?” she screamed.

“Nu.. nu-nuthing” he muttered. Good grief, he better learn to figure out when she was smiling and when she was frowning, he thought to himself.

At 8.00 am, the billionaire made another call, this time to his team.

“So? What’s the status… what?… okay and on iOS?”

“Only 300 million? What are you guys doing, sleeping? Where are all your digital gizmo-shizmo guys I paid US Dollars for?”

He banged the phone down. Screw these “new age” marketers. Nothing like going back to traditional. Ha, there, you controlled the whole damn thing! And if you can’t fight ‘em, buy ‘em!

He rounded up his trusted communications team.

“Okay, here is the problem. You’ve printed all the stuff with ‘one billion app downloads’ in them? Yeah? Now, listen carefully. We aren’t going to get that number… no, we won’t change the number! You need to come up with solutions, okay? Ring up everyone you know. Ask everyone to think of innovative solutions. Again, removing the number is not the option, okay? Nothing less than a billion will do. Let’s circle back by lunch.”

A few more calls to do – good thing I gave myself unlimited tariff – thought the billionaire as he rang up the fashion designer.

“Arre what news of that old man’s suit? Woh mere peeche pada hai – he didn’t like the colour last time… yeah I know it’s the photograph, but… yeah, I know… but you know how he is, right? He cares more about how he looks on pics, so colour adjust karo camera ke liye… theek hai, okay.”

And his mom.

“Mummyji? Acha, theek hai, lekin Patanjali sambhalna meri bas ki baat nahin. Usko bolo… waise bhi aajkal defence expert ban gaya hai… haan, yoga kaam aayega… okay, lekin bahut mat daantna. Bye.”

Lunchtime. And conference call time. He made it to the office just in time – no way he was doing conference calls on the new mobile network.

“Okay, geniuses, what have you got?”

Many voices spoke, some stupid ideas, some naïve ones. He dismissed most of them and ticked just one.

“Get it done. Wake up people in Texas if you have to. Get it done. Alright, who’s looking after the photographer for the event? I need to brief the photographer. Yeah, personally! Of course, personally! What do you think, I want to hear that guy whine every day that his pic didn’t come out right? You guys have no clue what I am dealing with! No clue!”

“The next time someone suggests that stupid ifluencer platform that popped up THAT MAN as the top Indian influencer… I’m gonna buy that software and sell it to my brother!” he thought as he went to the lifts.

And he waited, trying to remember which floor served lunch. He couldn’t, but he was hungry and his blood pressure was probably up high somewhere. He had skipped breakfast already. He had to risk being yelled at.

He called his wife. “Hello?” he said, very gently.

“Yes? Which floor are you in now”

“Er… “

“Never mind. Lunch is always on the ninth floor. (sigh)”

“Thanks, dear… you know me ver…”

Bang. The phone must have travelled a distance. How many phones must I buy, thought the dictator billionaire. What’s a man to do?

***

Finally, D-day. Fifteen minutes to D-time. The chopper with the VIP influencer was in the sky. Any minute now. The billionaire went over the drill. First, the VIP would change his outfit to the new one. Then there would be a photo-op with the family and the big banner with the app download number.

He read the number again: 1,272,579,000 downloads.

Aah. 1.2 billion downloads of his app, and changing every few seconds. The boys did a good job. But the billionaire didn’t become a billionaire by being naïve. He called up the number labeled “Digital Guy”.

“So what’s this number? The man who is going to hold up the banner is definitely ask me if it is iOS or Android… as if he knows, but anyway… okay. Okay, so this is the actual meter? Oh it’s your own script? Waah, you are a genius… never knew you guys could write a script with real-time data so fast… okay, give that guy a promotion.”

D-time.

Here is the man, resplendent in a new designer bandhgala, thought the billionaire. How happy he looks, he thought as he waved. And quietly withdrew the wave. The man was looking at the… wife. Or the cameras. Whatever, thought the billionaire as he shuffled to him.

The social media influencer was headed toward the missus, so the billionaire strategically and politely put himself in the path.

The influencer said, “Oh sir! Achha… if you don’t mind, I wanted to ask madam about the level playing field….”

The billionaire said, “Arre sir, all in good time. All in good time. First, let’s do the thing you have come all the way from…. Tokyo? Taipei? Oh wherever… take pictures! Post them on Facebook! I know you know Zuckerberg (but who cares). Now shall we? And put that selfie stick away, please, you are back in India now.”

The billionaire, his wife, kids and India’s social media influencer number one, stood and smiled at the cameras for the picture of the century, captioned:

Celebrating 1,272,579,000 downloads, and counting

***
Somewhere in Texas, a coder was nervous. He called up his boss, who was at an event in Navi Mumbai.

“Yes, what is it now?” answered his boss a.k.a the Digital Guy.

“Well the app download number is… well, I picked up…”

“You picked up what, you dimwit?”

“The population tracker figure for India. It’s a mistake, it was on the comp…I…”

“You what! I have to tell this to the billionaire. And by the way, you’re fired.”

The coder’s boss tried to get the billionaire’s attention. He waved. The billionaire, his wife, his kids and India’s social media influencer number one, smiled and waved back.

Smile and wave, smile and wave, thought the digital guy. He could always update his LinkedIn profile when he got back to the desk.

“Such a happy family they are,” he said to no one in particular as he smiled and waved.

 

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any billionaire, social media influencer, botox recipient or digital marketer (poor innocent souls, who would pick on them?) living or dead is purely coincidental (cough cough) and unintentional. Yeah, the humour is absurd, I agree!

Jesus At The Window [fiction]

“Abbu! Don’t hit her Abbu! Usko maro nako… Abbuuu!”

Thwack. That disgusting sound was all I could hear. Besides the sound of a coconut being scraped.

She didn’t cry. She kept looking at the ceiling, or maybe at the slow whirling fan. She had been sitting there all by herself, minding her own business. And suddenly Abbu came in and started whacking her.

I glared at his back with all the defiance I could drum up. Eventually he will be done with her and my turn would come. And it did.

“What are you staring at, potte? Kya ghoor raha hai?

I looked at the floor, resolutely.

That always worked. He went to the kitchen.

Khaane ko kya hai? I am hungry!”

My mother continued to scrape the coconut. I didn’t hear her reply.

He left the house, munching something. I heard the bike whine a couple of times and start. It was time for the night prayers at the masjid. That meant he would be back in around thirty minutes.

I went over to Nur, and clutched her hand like I always do when we had emotions to share. She was still looking at the ceiling. I wished she would look at me so that I could see her eyes and understand a bit of the pain she felt. And perhaps take a little of it away. I waited. She let go of my hand. She didn’t take her eyes away from the ceiling or the slowly whirling fan. I couldn’t say which.

I went back to my corner and started reading loudly. Perhaps I wanted to drown out the sound of the coconut scraping or the sound of an arriving bike. I stopped after half an hour or so.

There was no sign of the bike yet. The scraping had stopped though.

“Dinner is ready,” Amma said.

I went to the kitchen and tried to see her face but it was turned towards the stove.

I picked a couple of plates for myself and Nur, and served us both.  Funny, there was no dish which had coconut.

Nur didn’t eat by herself that night. I don’t know if she ate at all.

Once Abbu was home, I pretended to read some more, sitting in my corner hoping that I was invisible. After he finished his meal, Amma laid out the mat for me and Nur. I immediately lay down and closed my eyes. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I heard a lot of “Nur” in Abbu’s and Amma’s hushed conversation. I could hear Amma’s weeping but then she did that every other night.

***

The events of the evening were a distant memory when I woke up.

It was mid-summer, and the sun reached its peak way earlier than it should. The rays, slanted as they were, would stream through the trees and the window bars, setting my eyelids aflame and forcing me to open them.

I opened my eyes every morning to the sight of a silhouette of a tiny head with frazzled hair. The smiling face was a dark shape, and the shade that protected my eyes from the blaze of the sun. The rays, stubborn and harsh, streamed through the hair, forming a glow around the head. Like Jesus in the paintings at the convent school where I studied. Nur was my Jesus in the morning.

After waking up, I sat next to her for a few minutes. Abbu had long left home, and Amma was busy in the kitchen. This was always the best time of the day for me. Every morning I had enjoyed her innocent giggles and played a little game of hands and fists, and it was the same today.

I left her giggling heartily and got ready for school, ignoring the knot in my throat and the tug within my heart. I was almost out of the house when Amma called out.

“Say extra salaams to Nur before you go.”

I stopped dead on my tracks.

“What?”

“She is going. Talk to her.”

“What?”

“We are sending her for the cure. She will stay away. Talk to her before you go.”

“What are you saying, Amma?”

“Just talk to her, pagal!” She started crying.

I couldn’t understand anything.

Amma wiped her tears with the pallu of her sari and kneeled down in front of me. She straightened my collar, took off the top button and put it on again, and tidied the insert of my uniform shirt. She tousled my hair, combed them with her fingers, her voice breaking as she spoke.

“Your Abbu and I have decided to try to cure Nur one last time of the problem she has. Abbu went to the dargah last week and finalized everything with the committee people and the Maulavi. We have to give Nur one more chance, no, son? You want her to be alright, no, son?

“She will go there, stay for a few days, and then we can have our Nur back. Running, talking, fun Nur.

She sobbed. She swallowed. She continued.

“I know you love her, son, but she has to get cured. Otherwise what will she grow up into? Who will marry her? How will she live on? I am sorry, son…

She hugged me and she was bawling into my shoulders.

“I am sorry… am sorry, my children, I am sorry.”

I hugged her back. I was fighting to hold back my own tears.

“Amma?”

“Yes, beta?”

“If she has to go, can I at least come with all of you to the dargah? Please?”

She wiped her face, sniffed and said she will speak to Abbu.

I kept my bag down and waited. I hid my eyes from Nur. I didn’t want her to see my eyes wet, even though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference to her. I wanted to be her strong brother. Brothers are supposed to take care of their sisters. Brothers never cry.

She was looking at me with beseeching eyes. Maybe she was telling me to ask Abbu and Amma not to send her anywhere. Or she simply wanted to play. I couldn’t tell.

I went and sat next to her and clutched her hand. I pressed it again and again. I tried to play the game we played earlier that day, but it felt pointless.

***
Abbu returned around afternoon and was surprised to see me home. I thought he would get angry, but he didn’t. He seemed to know why I was at home, sitting with Nur, still in my uniform and with the schoolbag still in my hand.

He asked if I wanted to have lunch. I didn’t have any appetite, and neither did they. Abbu took Amma first to the bus-stop and came back for us. Nur sat in between me and Abbu, still giggling, somewhat excited at an unexpected bike ride. What did she know?

Abbu dropped us at the spot where Amma was waiting. Nur was getting increasingly excited and was laughing, calling out to strangers. We weren’t a strange sight, though, having made the trip to the dargah almost every second week. I hated the bus ride, but I liked the dargah, as long as it wasn’t crowded. It was cool in the courtyard where the graves of the Shaikh and his family were, and we could sit there for some time, enough for the motion sickness from the bus ride to wear off.

But this time it was different.

It was hot, the bus was crowded. Nur didn’t make it any easier by laughing and yelling at everyone who came within her eyesight. Some people played with her, but most others avoided looking at us.

When the bus started moving, I could feel the nausea creep up. I tried to think of pleasant things, like the seaside, the park near the school, or Jambika tree outside our house. I really didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself.

We reached the dargah. The Maulavi was there, and he didn’t seem happy to see me. He had a couple of sharp words with Abbu in Tamil. I could make out only Abbu’s reply: “He is her brother, how can we keep him away?”

The Maulavi accompanied us to the dargah office where Nur, Amma and I sat on a bench for quite some time. Nur had dozed off in the bus and seemed quite drowsy, much to Amma’s relief. The waiting didn’t help with the mood, though. Amma was distant, always looking away. I knew better than to ask her for water, no matter how thirsty or puky I felt.

Abbu and the Maulavi came out of the office.

“Okay, say your goodbyes now”

“That’s it?” Amma asked. “That’s all? We don’t get to see where she is going to stay? We don’t get to see her off?”

Abbu hesitated, but the Maulavi said, “Sister, I think it is best not to….”

Amma wasn’t having any of it.

“She is my daughter. I demand to see where she is going to stay!”

The Maulavi and Abbu looked at each other. Abbu shrugged.

“Okay,” said the Maulavi. “If you wish. But remember, you… you must not create a scene.” He pointed at me. “And neither should this boy make a mess.”

The four of us followed the Maulavi, Nur clinging to Amma, barely able to walk.

We reached a thatched building which was more like a shed. The kind where the municipal school kids studied.

I peeked inside, but got a sharp rap on the back of my head.

“You stay here!” the Maulavi said.

He gestured to my father to take Nur inside. Nur went happily, oblivious to Amma’s wails. I didn’t say a thing. I was afraid I would throw up.

Abbu came out, his eyes red and moist. He was indeed crying. The Maulavi wasn’t with him and I decided to say goodbye to Nur one last time. I ran inside the shed before my parents could react.

My eyes took a second to adjust to the darkness inside, but once they did, I spotted Nur.

I threw up.

***
I haven’t seen anyone rebuke Abbu the way the Maulavi did. It was half in Tamil, with a lot of Arabic intonations thrown in, but I couldn’t understand a word. Abbu, normally the loudest voice in the community, was meekly nodding his head, apologizing, looking at me, looking at Amma, looking at his feet. Amma was still crying, her hands pressed on my shoulders. My shirt was wet and stinking of the vomit.

I thought Abbu and Amma would take me to task, but the trip home was peaceful. For the first time in my life, Abbu put his arms around me and let me rest my head against his shoulder as I sat between him and Amma.

I don’t remember how the rest of the day went.

The next morning, there was no Jesus in the window. The knot in the throat felt thicker than it had ever been. The tug in my heart became more like a hole.

***

Midsummer became late summer. Abbu and Amma would visit Nur, but they never took me, no matter how much I begged or how many tantrums I threw. Sometimes, I would get a solid hiding from Abbu. I missed my Nur. I missed my darling sister Nur, and I want to see her, hold her, play with her. I don’t care if she is getting cured or not, and I don’t think they were curing her in that shed in those chains and locks, I pleaded. Nothing worked. It was as if they had stones where their hearts should be or they just didn’t want to listen to me talk about her. I just couldn’t understand.

The earth tilted in its axis and the sun no longer streamed through the window into my eyes. Waking up should have been less of a chore, but it took an effort from both Abbu and Amma to send me to school. My shoelaces remained untied whenever they got undone. My uniform was always crumpled, and my hair was never combed.

My marks became poor, I got into fights with other kids and the headmistress kept threatening to send me home with a transfer certificate. The Maulavi complained that I wasn’t paying any respect to him, and wasn’t making any attempt to learn the Holy Quran. He said I was doing it deliberately and asked Abbu to put me in the after-school madrasa so that he could straighten me up.

I protested in every way I could.

But I still didn’t get to see Nur.

***

The days went by listlessly.

Then one day I got sent home early from school. There had been some incident in the dargah area and the school manager and headmistress had to leave town right away, so they shut the school.

All the other kids happily ran off to play, but I made my way slowly towards home, dragging my feet, shoelaces undone, shirt untucked. When I reached home, the door was shut. The neighbor Paati was waiting for me outside her courtyard.

“Are you okay, son?”

I looked up. “I’m ok, why?”

“No, nothing. Come in, have some thosai and coffee I made for you…”

“Eh?”

“Your parents have gone to get Nur.”

“Really! What are you saying? Paati, is she coming home today?!”

“Come in, will you?”

I had never been happier to eat the tasteless thosai and watery sambar that Paati made. This was great, I thought. Nur would be coming home!

I couldn’t wait for my parents to come back. I kept asking Paati if they said when they would come, but Paati shook her head. “I don’t know, boy. Don’t ask me. They shouldn’t have taken her there. But anyway am glad they are getting her back.”

The evening turned to night. No sign of Nur, or of Abbu or Amma.

Paati, can you call the dargah office?”

“I don’t have a phone, son. Why don’t you sit inside? Mosquitoes will bite.”

I didn’t care. I wanted to be out in the courtyard so that I could see the bike turning into the street.

Dinner time came and went. I was pacing up and down. I even made Paati nervous. Her husband was supposed to have come long back, but he hadn’t either. She wanted to watch her TV programs but she never did that before thaatha was home. She asked if I would like some thayir saadam. I wasn’t hungry. Neither was she.

Midnight. No sign of Nur. No sign of Abbu and Amma. No sign of thaatha.

The familiar knot in my throat was back, and manifested in nausea. I was going to throw up the thosai and sambar any minute. Paati sat with me on the steps of her door and massaged my back.

It must have been two in the morning. I first heard the sound of the bike, and then an autorickshaw. Yes! We jumped up.

Abbu came first on the bike. Maulavi was with him. They didn’t acknowledge me or my dancing up and down with joy.

The auto came to stop outside our house.

Amma got out first. She rushed into the house. Without Nur.

The other person in the auto was thaatha. He came toward me, patted me, and said “go and see your mother”, and went inside his house. I thought he was crying but I couldn’t make out. Why would he be crying? But where was Nur?

I ran inside the house. Amma was lying down in the hall.

“What happened? Where is Nur?”

“Ask your dad…” She was sobbing, her head down. By this time, Paati had followed me inside the house. She sat down near Amma and took her head on her lap. And then both started bawling.

“WHERE IS NUR?” I demanded, with all the authority I could muster.

Abbu came and took me outside.

“Bete, I don’t know how to tell this to you…. Maaf karo mujhe bete… there was a fire at the dargah. She… has gone to Allah with the Shaikh’s ble….”

I threw up.

***
Weeks passed. The rains came and went. The clouds, which diffused the blaze of the sun, lingered on, perhaps to ease the pain of loss.

I wondered if I was expected to forget Nur. I asked Abbu and Amma if they would ever forget her. They said no, and I believed them, because it didn’t take much more than that to move them to tears. I felt some kind of reassurance when they cried. I’d thought I could never forgive them, but then they also grieved for her. They too, loved her, and despite the beatings he gave her, Abbu said he had loved her more than he loved himself. He said he beat her only to drive the shaitaan away, and after he beat her, he went to the masjid and cried for forgiveness.

I asked them why they sent her to the dargah. Was it the Maulavi who asked them? They didn’t really answer but Amma would end up crying and start blaming Abbu for it.

I started to get up before dawn every morning so that the sun’s rays wouldn’t hit me directly and remind me how much I was missing Nur. There would be no Jesus in the window any more, and that was that. Maybe I could shut her memory out altogether. Amma said in time I would have only happy memories of Nur.

I wasn’t sure. How could a boy forget that his beloved sister died in a fire in a thatched shed? And she couldn’t even run away from it, because she was shackled with a metal chain? And how could her parents forget that?

Despite all that I tried, Nur, the Jesus at the window, the Jesus in the morning, would always be with me.

My mother stopped talking to me for a while after I said that. She complained to Abbu that I had started speaking like a grown person.

****

Mubarak ho!”

I had dozed on the way to the dargah and woke to the sight of distant family members waving at us even before we alighted from the bus. The men hugged Abbu by turn and the women surrounded my mother. There were kids too, but they were sticking to their parents.

I hadn’t expected the larger family to turn up on this visit. Everyone was there – Abbu’s and Amma’s siblings, a couple of great-uncles and aunts. But I didn’t know what the happiness was on account of.

Then the collective attention turned on me. Someone handed me a bar of chocolate.

“Congratulations, young man!” one of my great uncles said.

I was puzzled. I thought we were coming to pray for Nur, I murmured.

“Oh yes, yes, you should pray for Nur. We should all do. She is with Allah, subhan wa ta’aalah, a true farishta she is…”

I was still puzzled.

“Oh, you haven’t been told!” He laughed. Everyone around laughed.

I looked at Abbu, but he looked away.

“Arre, you are going to be a big brother now….”

I threw up. Again.

 

Fiction. For more information on the Erwadi fire, read this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erwadi_fire_incident

The story contains some words in the Dakhni and Tamil languages. 

 

 

Contrast.

I click “sleep” on the Microsoft Windows menu. I disconnect the CISCO-powered LAN and power cables. I close the HP laptop. I shove it all into my Samsonite bag. I put on my Benetton jacket. And walk to the lift in my Woodland shoes. The Kone elevator takes me to the ground floor.

I get into my Honda. I drive through roads constructed by L&T. I reach a landscaped garden where the uniformed security from Secura Services salutes me. I wave my hand. I park the car and go up to my DLF-constructed flat using a Schindler lift. I log on to my Apple iPhone. I curse Airtel whose 3G doesn’t work well. I make a decision to buy a router. I surf the net for a while. I sleep in a mattress by Sleepwell covered in a quilt bought at HomeCenter.

Next morning, I go to a shop (unknown), in an open mall built by Ansal, and buy a NetGear router.

I come out. I stop in my tracks.

***

My kid isn’t sleeping. I gave him warm food and warm gravy, yet he doesn’t sleep. Must be cold?  I will wrap one more blanket around him and take it off after he sleeps.

I look at my eldest son. He is strong for a nine-year-old. He will soon stop reading and go to sleep on his own. Let me get some sleep too. I have to do some good work tomorrow.

I get the boys ready. Sweaters. Shoes. Pants. The new place is a few minutes’ walk from here. Hope they like it too. I will let them read or play if they like.

It’s a shop. It was a book shop before. Now they are making it into a bigger shop. It’s a good thing I know the contractor. I got some of the books too. I hope his men have finished the work they were supposed to do, otherwise I might have to do their work also.

I enter the shop. I ask the children to put their books outside. It is too dusty in here.

The men have done their work as promised. Good. I check how they have done it. It seems fine. Nice sacks. But too heavy for me to lift on my own. My kids help me with it, and I place it on my head. Rubble is so heavy.

I will be back in a few minutes, I tell my sons and head out of the door.

I see a man staring at me. Hasn’t he seen women in his life? I continue walking.

The Chaiwala

That time of the year.

When rickshaw pullers in the city wear ragged woolen gloves. When malls and shops windows are decorated with fake pine and china-made glitter. When the homeless gather around fires of dry leaves and discarded paper. When some parents take their children on trips out of town. When other parents cuddle their little ones against their bodies, because nothing else was found.

In the darkness before dawn, the streets outside the hospital are strewn with plastic. They rustle in the chilly wind. Dusty, and discarded, they wrapped a human trying to fight the cold of the night.

The city is still sleeping but these denizens are awake. They have lit fires and wrapped themselves with whatever they have. Their eyes trained at the far end of the main road for someone they know would surely come. On a rickety cycle, a container perched on the carrier behind, kettles and cups hanging from the handlebars, a chaiwala.

What’s in a cup of tea, you may ask. It’s just a concoction of milk, water, sugar and a few tea leaves. Extra sweet, extra milky, tiny glasses or plastic cups. You would wonder if the water used for washing the cups is safe. Or if the plastic cup is “foodgrade.”

The crowd there, rubbing their hands to keep warm, don’t have such questions. They quietly wait for the chaiwala. He means something.

Over cups of steam hot tea, he asks. They answer. In their tone, he understands.

The young engineer from Bhusawal who gave up his job to look after his mother. In his eyes, he can see that things are looking up. She may be shifted from the ICU today. He asks if he needs to arrange for railway tickets. There is an agent he knows.

The couple from Chirala. Their youngest is still fighting for her life, and what is wrong, they don’t know. How long will they be here, they don’t know. Is there any hope, they don’t know. All they know is that there is a chance. What if. What if.

The educated young lady from this city, she must be his daughter’s age. Whose father is in bad shape. A bright one. She stays the night inside the hospital complex, her mother stays the day next to her father’s bed. Every week, they switch.  Her confident tone doesn’t fool him. He knows. But he will keep quiet.

The old couple from Jodhpur. Whose son hasn’t been well in several decades. They were rich once. Today they can’t afford a room in the city. This morning, they treasure the cup that gives them warmth. A little more energy, to go a little more distance. Who knows what this day may bring?

And there are those who are waiting to say goodbye. The happiest he meets that morning. He will arrange their railway tickets and taxis or a few seats in a bus. The boxes are packed, the discharge money is being arranged. They ask him advice, favors, telephone numbers. He provides.

Funny, he thinks. Those whose kin don’t make it leave quietly in the night. He doesn’t remember a single sad goodbye.

His hands work mechanically in a rhythm of their own. His eyes look at those who talk to him. His mind works in a flurry. His voice and tone vary according to the needs of his customers. Or are they friends?

After the sun rises fully, he sits down for a bit of rest. It’s a different crowd at that time. The early morning customers are already inside the hospital. The new ones are day visitors, and the ones who come to the hospital for business or work. They don’t have the time to talk. Sometimes they are rude, but mostly they are generous and patient. Some become friends too. Others remain nodding acquaintances, and some others recognize him only as someone who mixes tea leaves, hot water, sugar and milk.

The day goes on. It will be night again. The regular denizens of the pavements opposite AIIMS make their way back, occupying their little spaces, making do with as much warmth as plastic sheets, blankets and bedsheets provide. Not as good as a roof and walls, but what is the option. Newer residents introduce themselves, older ones offer them guidance and advice. It takes hardly a couple days to figure out what makes things work, what doesn’t.

For everything else, there is the chaiwala.

He will come in the morning, don’t you worry, dost.