11 A monkey who misses a branch and a man who misses out on doing what he says never ever get up.
– An old Indian proverb
Pinku’s life changed after Sushma came to the grocery store. Nothing could faze him anymore. It didn’t annoy him that Sarju got drinking early in the morning and continued till late night. He chose to ignore his rants and angry screams and even smiled benignly at his father once, which made Sarju very nervous and led him straight back to the bottle. Pinku wasn’t bothered that his mother wasn’t able to find a groom for his eldest sister, and that Gudiya sobbed every night next to his charpoy while Sarju yelled inanities on the terrace. The boring day at Cheeni Chacha’s store had turned into a magical adventure where anything could happen. The tongue cleaners had turned into characters: the red one was Pinku, the yellow one was Sushma, and the black, ugly one was Sushma’s papa. The yellow and red tongue cleaners said sweet nothings to each other, and the black one sulked in the counter’s sticky corner. This went on for a few days before Pinku realised it was time to do something. Sushma hadn’t visited the store again, and his new-found enthusiasm 128
was waning and being replaced by despair and longing. He decided to come clean with Cheeni Chacha. ‘Cheeni Chacha, can I talk to you about something?’ ‘Yes, Pinku, tell me,’ Cheeni said absent-mindedly. He had just solved the first crossword clue in the kids’ section of the newspaper. He was pleased; he was getting better at it. ‘I think I’m in love with Sushma,’ Pinku blurted out. Cheeni Chacha sighed, put the newspaper down, took out a paan from the desk drawer, and tapped his fingers on the desk. ‘There we go. I knew it. This is a disaster. Disaster, I’m telling you!’ ‘No, no, it’s not like that.’ ‘Like what?’ Cheeni asked. ‘Like . . . I won’t do anything about it. I . . . uh . . . I just thought I should tell you.’ ‘You won’t, eh? Why do I get this feeling I shouldn’t believe you?’ ‘But you should, you should believe me. I won’t. I promise.’ ‘Okay. Your shift is over, isn’t it? Go home . . .’ Cheeni went back to his newspaper. After a while he looked up to find Pinku still standing there. ‘You still here? What is it?’ ‘I need your help.’ ‘For what?’ ‘I want to meet her once. Can you help me?’ ‘You just said you won’t do anything about it.’ ‘Well, yes, I won’t, but can I at least talk to her once? Once! Please, please, please, please.’ ‘What nonsense is all this! No, I won’t. I can’t. She is my student. I taught her maths when she was this small,’ he said, pointing to the lowest step of the stairs which was about two inches from the ground. 129
‘That small?!’ Pinku grinned nervously. ‘You idiot! No, not that small. When she was like really small . . . you know how small.’ ‘Cheeni Chacha, please. I just want to talk to her once. That’s all.’ Cheeni looked up and glanced briefly at Pinku. Well it is true that both Sushma and Pinku are oddball, sensitive fools. Might as well help them. What kind of help are you talking about Cheeni, you idiot! Gupta runs a hardware store. He is well off; he will never accept Pinku. What the hell, let him meet her; these two poor kids deserve a break. He cleared his throat. ‘She goes to Sankatmochan Temple every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at five in the evening. Does that help? But I’m telling you, you don’t know her father; he will slaughter you if he finds out. If you think you can marry her, that’s not happening. I know her father.’ ‘It will never get to that point, Cheeni Chacha. I just have this urge to talk to her one last time. I’m telling you, one time only.’ ‘Okay. What can I say? Go screw yourself. This love-shove stuff is nonsense if you ask me . . .’ ‘Yes, yes, I agree, Chachaji.’ There it is. It’s simple. All I have to do is to change my temple timings and I’ll see her thrice a week. Wow! The next day was a Saturday. Pinku waited anxiously for Cheeni Chacha to come back from his tuitions. He wore his best shirt, which Ranjan, his Delhi cousin, had given him as a gift. It was a plain, blue Chinese collar with a red dragon logo and the words ‘China House Restaurant’ on the pocket. He had pressed his jeans; they were flat fronted, but he liked the pleats in the middle. He had washed his hair with a sachet of Shikakai Shampoo ‘borrowed’ from Cheeni Chacha’s shop. He had also 130
sprayed some of the deodorant from a ‘tester’ bottle at the shop. He was all set. ‘Aha! Someone is looking like Aamir Khan, eh?’ Cheeni Chacha grinned. ‘Naah.’ Pinku smiled sheepishly and looked down at his feet. ‘Go, go. Go pray at Sankatmochan.’ ‘This dress is for a wedding in the evening today. Mimmi and I are going.’ ‘Why? Isn’t your entire family going?’ ‘No. Mummy always takes one or two of us to go for any wedding.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Nothing really. Once we went to a wedding and the brick ice cream got over very soon, and everyone blamed Mummy for bringing all seven kids, and, believe me, we didn’t touch the ice cream.’ ‘Hmmm . . .’ ‘So now she takes us turn by turn, and it’s Mimmi’s and my turn today.’ ‘Wonderful . . . enjoy yourself.’ Cheeni laughed. Then, as Pinku turned to go, he said mischievously, ‘And pray for me when you go to the temple.’ ‘Okay, I will.’ Pinku grinned. There was no point hiding anything from the all-knowing Cheeni Chacha. Sankatmochan Temple was the sun around which this part of the town revolved. The thin lane leading to its back entrance was lined with mithai wallahs and flower sellers. The shops were perched on a wooden platform under which they kept devotees’ footwear in return for small change. The back entrance led to a cobbled street lined on both sides with bushes, trees, and monkeys. Hanuman was half-monkey, half-human, and 131
monkeys infesting the temple were believed to be his followers. The nuisance they caused by terrorising devotees, shrieking loudly every few minutes, and shitting in every corner of the temple was a part of the temple ambience. They were God’s messengers, and their modus operandi for survival was simple. Most people returning from darshan carried prasad, and if they didn’t share it with the monkeys voluntarily, then, depending on the primate on watch, it could have varying consequences. Guggi was bitten once when he tried to break a baby monkey into two with his bare hands. He was still on the lookout for the mommy monkey who had assaulted him. Pinku had been told as a kid that monkeys, like dogs, didn’t like being stared at; they felt insulted. Today is not the day for a monkey conflict, he told himself as two monkeys provoked a stare-down. He dug his eyes deep into the veins running through the cobblestones and walked on slowly in an unthreatening straight line. Unlike other devotees who came from distant villages to offer prayers and stood in long queues to come as close as they could to the idol, Pinku always took the shortcut to see Hanuman. He climbed up the platform right across the idol and stood beside the water well. From here he could see the orange-painted God with an open third eye, and he could also seek out Sushma in the throng. He spotted her immediately. She was wearing a lemongreen salwar suit, a maroon cardigan, and red bangles. Pinku stood there undecided between angering a God who was known to like love-abhorring bachelors and staring at a girl who made his heart thrum like the carburettor of Guggi’s dad’s Enfield Bullet. It wasn’t a close fight. The girl won hands down. Pinku jumped into the crowd, broke the queue, and stood a few metres away from her. Sushma was praying, and her eyes were shut. For the first time Pinku could look at her without the 132
apprehension of getting caught. Her hands were thin and fair, and her feet were very pretty too. Her long hair was tied with a red rubber band. He could see the slender nape of her neck; he could see her temples move when she recited her prayer. He didn’t think. If he thought, he would never do it. He rushed up to her as soon as she came out. When she looked up, he grinned like a psychopath who has found his victim. ‘Namaste, ji.’ ‘Namaste.’ ‘Namaste. What brings you here, ji?’ Finally, some initiative, but what an idiot! I wait for him to do something and, when he finally shows up, all he can do is stalk me and ask dumb questions. Fool! ‘This is a temple, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Yes, yes, that it is.’ Pinku laughed. ‘If I had known, I would have got Tiger.’ ‘Yes. You should have got him. What’s your name?’ Pinku stood, transfixed. He couldn’t remember. It had a ‘P’ in it, he was sure, but the rest? ‘Ji, it is P . . .’ She smiled at him kindly. It was coming to him. What had Nagar Sir said when he found Pinku gobbling an omelette outside school? Ah. Pramod Kumar Pandeyji, we would be honoured if you graced us with your presence in class once in a while. ‘Pramod Kumar Pandeyji.’ Pinku exhaled in relief. Nagar Sir couldn’t educate him, but at least he made sure Pinku remembered his full name. How cute can he possibly get! Poor kid doesn’t even remember his name when he sees me. ‘Accha, Pramod ji, that day you were telling me about Tiger’s story, about how you found him . . .’ 133
She remembers. She remembers what I said to her! O Hanuman! how sweet it sounds when she calls me Pramodji. I love being Pramodji! I would give an arm and a leg if only she called me Pramodji once more. ‘Yes, yes, it is quite an interesting story. I found him one day, abandoned by my landlord, under an old auto-rickshaw parked in our compound. He was only skin and bones, shivering like a mad man. He looked sad and unwell. He was dying. So I took him home and fed him and nursed his wounds. Some stray dogs had bitten him badly. He likes eating bread dipped in tea. He got better. I often tried to take him home but each time he returned to live under the auto-rickshaw—strange dog. I really don’t know why my landlord’s family abandoned such a sweet dog. Anyway, he is a really strange dog . . . you know, he likes it when you slap him and when you . . .’ The story went on and on. It was excruciatingly boring, but Sushma liked it.