More Coffee? No Thanks
Table of Contents
It was a fair enough morning. The early birds were up and about, catching their respective worms and making a great deal of fuss about it. The Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, were only beginning to stir and wake up to a slight chill in the air. The general atmosphere was that of contempt and mild surprise at the generosity of the weather. If the poet Keats had been around, he might have been bally-ho about the whole scene and would have surprised no one by writing about seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness. I sat on the porch of Surya Nivas and stretched the weary limbs. The last thirty-odd hours had been spent in the rickety metal carriage of a train. I was glad to finally be in a place where I could swing my arms around without the conscious fear of slapping a bloke inadvertently. Not that I am someone who does that frequently, but it is a nice feeling to know that one can swing one's arms around without fear if the need arose.
The journey from Mumbai to Trichy on a train was one that was uncomfortable to no end. So, even the most casual of observers could have guessed - the person who now sat on the porch of his grandparents' house, stretching his weary limbs, had a sense of quiet satisfaction about him. The hustle and bustle of Mumbai and the merciless grind at the workplace had worn me out over the previous few weeks; this trip away from it all was a welcome break. The Hari Chetlur that the observer saw on the porch was a Hari Chetlur graciously absorbing his hometown's ambiance.
"Would you like some coffee?" came a voice from the other side of the front door. It was my aunt, Sreeja. I thought about the filter coffee for a split second but decided against it. I had already had half a dozen cups of the steaming beverage since my arrival by the 3.10 train in the bleak hours of the morning and was thus thoroughly caffeinated. If at all I needed anything, it was a few more minutes of the fresh morning air.
"No, thanks, Aunt Sreeja. I think I'll take a stroll." I replied, getting up to put on my sandals as I spoke. I popped my head through the front door, waved a warm goodbye to everyone in the living room who bothered to look up, and trotted out of the front gate. The road to my left led towards a temple at the center of the town. It was down this street I headed, humming a distinctively Carnatic tune to myself.
I had not lived in Southern India for too long, nor had I traveled around the region too many times. But, throw this Chetlur into a town down south, and he could drape that veshti, drink that filter coffee, show off that accent and ride that TVS-50 like nobody's business and never look out of place for a single minute. I particularly loved visiting Trichy, though. That was the one place I could live like a local but act like a tourist every time I was there.
This particular trip was to attend the naming ceremony of my youngest aunt's son. As a rule, Tambrahms never shy away from 'ceremonizing' anything. Over the years, I had attended ceremonies for all sorts of occasions - ranging from a pooja ahead of my cousin's first written exam (he was in class III) to that over-hyped celebration of Uncle Moorthy eating his 5000th betel-nut leaf paan. As a general rule, I tended to avoid these meaningless ceremonies; the other Chetlurs had, I am sure, attended many more of them. But for the ceremony in question, I had received a phone call from Aunt Sreeja about three weeks before, cordially inviting me to the same. I simply could not decline. She was one of my favorite relatives. My mother's youngest sister, she was a delight to be around. She'd always have a kind word to say whenever I spoke to her, and she ensured that she made those delicious milk sweets of hers whenever I happened to visit her place. So, I accepted her invitation with a touch of grace and landed in Trichy two days ahead of the function to allow myself to absorb the atmosphere first.
It was a small ceremony by Chetlur standards. Let me try and recollect the people who were to bless us with their presence on that distinguished day.
There was Aunt Sreeja, of course, whose son was to be named. Her husband, Uncle Sridhar, would be flying down from Chennai on the morrow. There was also Aunt Jaya, the eldest of my mother's siblings. She lived with my grandparents in Trichy, a disciplinarian if there ever was one. On the other hand, her husband, Uncle Murali, was the sort of person who jumped at loud noises. He used to work at the local post-office but retired from the job a couple of years after he developed chronic back pain and spent his time as a priest at the nearby temple. Their daughter, Priya, was just eight months older than me and worked in Bangalore. She was to arrive by train later that same day. Apart from these folks, there were aged relatives - my grandparents and their siblings. I tend to lose count of them.
Oh, I forgot to mention! There was also Uncle Sudharshan, whose house my stroll had brought me in the vicinity of. He was my mother's younger brother and took a lot of interest in my career. At first glance, that seems to be a good thing. Suppose I were to walk up to you and say, "So, my relative takes a lot of interest in my career." In that case, you might have said, "Oh really? That is nice. You can get a lot of advice from him", or "Oh, nice! That is really rare these days", or words to that general effect. But, in my very next sentence, I would have corrected you - "No, you are mistaken. Every time I see him, he continues to try and convince me that my job is morbid and that I should look at other vistas of opportunity." There may still be a few of you who might consider that a good thing. I would correct you again by saying, "The last advice he gave me was to open an Emu farm." I would then proceed to put the final nail in the coffin with the following statement - "Oh, and by the way, he owns a Chihuahua." You would have no comeback, would you? Any sane person like yourself would know you do not take career advice from a person who owns a Chihuahua. The first time I had come across the blasted little thing, I had stared in disbelief and remarked, "Uncle, you must be the only person south of the Godavari who owns such a specimen." He took that as a compliment.
You might have wondered why I used the phrase 'blasted little thing' for the dog. You didn't? Perhaps you should read the previous paragraph once more, somewhere around the third line from the end or thereabouts. I should assure my readers, I have nothing against dogs in general. I love the species. When they run around, with their tails a-wag, tongues a-sticking-out, and barks a-yap, presenting a picture of general happiness, there is nothing more fun to be around. But, the Chihuahua in context didn't take any interest in the aforementioned activities. She considered them actions reserved for lesser beings and breeds. As far as behaviors go, she was aptly named Cleo - short for Cleopatra.
She was aristocratic around the house; Uncle Sudharshan bowed to her every demand. I failed to understand why he didn't get rid of the creature at first sight. My humble opinion was that she looked like a cross between an overgrown rat and a malnutrition-ed pig. I don't know if dogs can read minds, but she seemed to know precisely what I thought of her. She made particularly sure that she treated me like a slave who had escaped the proper treatment in a previous life. She would never fail to bark her little head off at me, snap at my ankles when I entered the house, and growl menacingly when I came in her vicinity.
So, it is quite understandable that I wished to walk straight onward even though I was a stone's throw away from my uncle's place. I might have done so if it weren't for the person who was picking up the morning newspaper at the doorstep.
"Dei Gopal!" I shouted, causing him to pause midway and look up at his cousin strolling towards him in a checkered shirt and cargo shorts. That, I might mention, is the usual attire of people who are South Indian but not entirely.
Gopal, Uncle Sudharshan's son, was a lad who had missed my birthday by two days to be born. When his mother had passed away when he was eight, he had been sent off to live with us in Mumbai to study. As a result, we more or less grew up together, only separating at the time we departed for our respective colleges. He wished to pursue a career in business and took up a course in commerce. I, on the other hand, drifted with the currents into an engineering college. Post graduation, he had secured a decent-paying job at a multinational auditing firm. He gave it up within months to run a business from home - he bought used cars and leased them out to willing clients. I had laughed off his suggestion when he had first informed me of his idea. But, I had to silently eat my words looking at the comfortable six-figure earnings he would draw each month. Also, he was a part-time stock investor. All in all, he was relatively well-to-do, which was perhaps a necessity, considering his father's obsessions. Despite his gracious bank balance, though, he had always been down-to-earth and when always ready with a helping hand when a person needed one. The chap for all times, I regarded him.
"Hola!" he said in reply to my greeting and threw in a broad smile for good measure. He held out his arm for a fist-to-fist greeting as I approached him, which was presently acknowledged. (We had established it as the non-childish alternative to the High-Five during our adolescent years)
"What are you doing here so early? It's barely seven. I thought you were coming by the evening train."
"No, I came by the morn train. I thought I'd arrive nice and early in time for a filter coffee or two."
"Good point. Why don't you come in?"
"That's alright; I think I am better off outdoors. That four-legged pocket-demon of yours terrifies the hell out of me."
"Oh, don't worry about her. She's in the back with dad. Besides, she has been rather quiet since she had her litter."
"Litter?! You mean your dad managed to find a male Chihuahua in these parts?!"
"Yep, some bloke from Palakkad. Dad found him through social media. He came down with his little monstrosity when Cleo was in heat. We had to barely introduce the lewd scoundrels to each other. In fact, it took a fair bit of effort to separate them."
"Wow, so it seems Cleo does have a reasonable bit of appeal, at least among dogs. I wonder what they see in her."
"Tell me about it. This is their third litter together. This time there are eight pups."
"What?! Your house must be infested with these terrors!"
"No, maccha, dad sells off the pups. We only have Cleo. Also, the Palakkad guy takes half of them. Good riddance."
"Sells them to whom? The devil?"
"Hah! That's precisely what I asked him, too, when he started off on this crazy idea. But, it seems there are a fair number of takers for them. Each pup goes for nearly 15 grand. Sometimes, even more. Dad is a good bargainer."
I let out a low whistle. "So uncle has turned breeder now?"
"Ya, more or less. I would say he turns into a salesperson during those times. Sells pups to the highest bidder."
"Wow. That's advantageous."
I stepped somewhat courageously into the living room. The cousin was right; there was no sign of the pocket monster anywhere.
"No, thanks. Just water."
"Do you know when Priya gets here?"
"By the afternoon train from Bangalore. Gets here at a quarter past one. It's been a while since I saw her."
I graciously drank the cold water that was offered to me. Back at my grandparent's place, there was no refrigerator. They didn't believe in such technology. Cold water, as a result, was hard to come by. Gopal had shuffled back into the kitchen. Judging from the tremendous clatter audible, he was probably doing the dishes. I liked the look of this residence. It was not as sprawling as the one down the street where my grandparents lived, but it was quite cozy. For the two occupants, and that diminutive pest of a dog, it was sufficient.
The living room was a slightly elongated one, serving as a seating area at one end and home to a dining table at the other. Next to the dining table was the doorway to the kitchen covered by a soft-white cloth curtain. On the other side of the room were a narrow passageway flanked by the prayer room, Cleo's room, a storeroom, and washroom A in that order on the left; Uncle's bedroom, Gopal's bedroom, and washroom B on the right.
Gopal was never a fan of elaborate things, and his home was the most convincing illustration of it. There were just a few paintings on the living rooms' walls that alluded to his taste for creativity. Still, all in all, the whole place was the Optimus Prime of simple households. Priya had once remarked, "You would make such an easy husband to maintain. So boring."
My cousin stepped back out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his checkered veshti, and took my empty glass from my hand.
"So, what have you planned for the day?"
"I am not very sure. In fact, I feel rather lazy. I think I'll just sleep until it's time for dinner."
"Don't be such a blockhead. I am going to pick Priya up from the station in the afternoon, and you are coming with me."
"Ugh, alright, I'll tag along."
We spent the next few minutes, catching up on the whats-what and whos-who of our lives. Gopal's fleet of cars, it seemed, had grown quite considerably since I had last met him, and he promised to show me around the lot when we found time. I complimented him on his business. He sympathized with me as I told him about my job. A while had passed before a glance at my watch told me it was getting late, and I got up to leave.
"Oh, by the way, Aunt Jaya cordially invites you for lunch."
"I added that in myself. Don't make such a fuss of it."
With that and a cheerful goodbye, I trotted back to my grandparents' place, completely oblivious of the mucky series of events that I would soon find myself in.
On the subject of surprises, I have strong opinions. There are times when they are welcome, but others when life would be better off without them. Aside from the timing itself, the general subject that causes the surprise can also determine the welcome's open-armness. To cite an example, it would be a wonderful surprise - one to be welcomed with the openest of arms, if life is dawdling along and a long lost bosom friend pops up out of nowhere. On the other hand, if you have just left a location grateful about not running into a particular bloke, it is less than a pleasant surprise to find the same bloke awaiting you at your next destination.
I had barely crossed the front gate of my grandparents' place when I saw the unmistakable gleam of Uncle Sudharshan's balding head. He stood at the threshold with his arms wide open at the sight of me. He also had a sort of plastic bag-basket slung over his left shoulder. A low growl emerging from it confirmed my suspicions of its contents.
"Hari! My fine boy!" he said, in a voice that may have woken up half a dozen neighborhoods. "So good to see you here!"
He grabbed me in a tight embrace, which must have been hard considering my conscious efforts to stay away from the basket over his shoulder. I finally managed to break away when the sounds from the basket indicated that the chains tethering the beast inside were on the verge of snapping.
Aunt Sreeja had just appeared over Uncle Sudharshan's horizon. "Do you want some coffee, Hari?" she asked. I passed a wry smile and nodded. One should never underestimate the amount of caffeine needed to tackle relatives such as the one who stood at the threshold with a dog-basket slung over his shoulder. I waited for the gracious aunt to retreat into the house before turning to face the uncle, who continued to beam at me.
"Good to see you too, Uncle Sudharshan!" I said at length, straightening out my checkered shirt. "I thought you were over at your house. Gopal said you were in the back. I was there a few minutes ago."
"Oh! So that was where you had run off to! I should have known!" he exclaimed, waking up the poor neighborhoods again. "No, no, my child. Sreeja called me up to let me know that you had arrived in the morning. So I wasted no time to hurry over to see my favorite nephew! In fact, Cleo has been dying to see you as well!" He patted his basket and was about to open the lid to unleash its wrath when I grabbed his wrist.
"Oh, uncle, I think I'll meet Cleo later. I need to run in and have my bath. I feel particularly filthy after that train journey. I don't want Cleo to lick me in delight when I'm so dirty, you see?"
Uncle Sudharshan let out one of his trademark guffaws. "Hari, you are one fine lad! So tell me - how's work and everything?"
I had been hoping to retreat back into the house after my last statement, but clearly, that was not to be. One does not have short conversations around Uncle Sudharshan. He is of the firm opinion that brief discussions should be reserved for talking over the phone.
If you ever happen to chance across him, try and avoid the phrases "I'd better get going", or "I should go now", or anything along those lines. He likes to make a comeback by saying, "Why? Is your phone bill running too high?". He would probably then unleash a laugh to wake up your neighborhood too.
"Oh, work is going great," I said, after taking a moment off to curse my luck.
"That is fantastic to hear! But you know what, my son? This IT business is not the field for smart people like you. You should be doing other things. Following your passions and earning bigger bucks." I wanted to make a point here about loving my job and not wanting to chase money, but my feeble attempt at speaking was drowned out in his unceasing ramble.
"You know what you should do? You should do what I do. Breed dogs! You love dogs, and dogs love you."
If you were in the vicinity, you would have heard a ferocious bark from a dog in a basket who clearly disagreed with Uncle Sudharshan's last statement. A lesser mortal might have dropped arms and made a dash for it. But I decided to stand my ground and trust the lock that held the dragon in its lair. Again, I would like to remind my readers that I have nothing against dogs in general. But the very thought of miniature Cleos running riot over civilization is enough to deter anyone from even pausing to consider the prospect of breeding dogs.
"Gopal did tell me about your dog breeding business," I said in a breezy voice. However, I was fluttered to the core by the ruckus that was emanating from the basket. "It seems like you are making a good bit of moolah out of it."
"Oh, he did, did he? Yes, my boy. These pups fetch me a fair penny." He paused to put an arm around my shoulder and draw himself closer to my ear. Here I must inform my readers, older South-Indian uncles do not know how to conspire. They tend to forget that at the core of a conspiracy lies subtlety. I do not recollect Sherlock Holmes drawing Watson aside to whisper a master scheme into his ear while the rest of the police force stood watching. If Uncle Sudharshan had appeared in any of Sherlock's adventures, he might have let a criminal or two off the hook with his inability to keep a plan to himself. That would have significantly annoyed Sherlock, no doubt, but Uncle Sudharshan, as indeed many other uncles around the South-Indian world, having been brought up on television soap operas rather than murder mysteries, would have been ignorant of it.
Uncle Sudharshan, by now, was satisfied with the distance within which he had brought me. He sent a quick glance over both his shoulders to ascertain there were no eavesdroppers. "Let me tell you a little secret," he said as if reinforcing what was headed my way. "This is between you and me. A gentleman has decided to purchase two of the pups, a guy who lives abroad, by the sound of it. These Non-Resident Indians pay some good bucks, I tell you. I might be able to pull off a real masterstroke if it goes well."
"That sounds nice. Where is the guy? Here in Trichy?"
"No, no, he's in Calicut. I'm leaving for the city in the evening today. By the 7 o'clock bus."
"What?!" I remarked instantly. I mean, conversations with Uncle Sudarshan were unpleasant enough without the occasional socks-in-the-stomach that he would casually deliver. Something told me that this was one of those ... err ... socks (In the stomach). And I did not like the feeling at all.
Though I like socks, mostly.
There is a fine line between bravery and brashness. Uncle Sudharshan often found himself crossing over to the wrong side of the line, drawing another line and crossing that too. This one time, back when Uncle Sudharshan was employed at a bank, he thought it would be a great idea to give a chap nearly two years worth of his own savings. The bloke had promised to invest the money in so-called 'exciting ventures,' but, of course, he vanished without a trace with all the money. When Gopal had come to know about it, he had nearly lost his mind. So, one can imagine, I wasn't going to be taking Uncle Sudharshan's decisions lightly.
The relative's decision to catch a bus to Calicut in a matter of hours might have passed lightly over most of my readers. I wouldn't blame them. But, if you are a South-Indian person with a fair idea of the region's geography, you might be able to see how the situation might turn sticky. For the benefit of the other readers, however, let me explain a typical South-Indian naming ceremony. Do feel free to stop me if you already know the rules that South-Indian play by.
The naming ceremony's most significant act involves the baby's name being traced out on a pile of wheat. This act is traditionally performed by the nearest male sibling of the child's mother, i.e., the child's uncle. So, it is essential that the gentleman be present at the site when this ceremony is in progress. In this particular case, that specific gentleman was to be Uncle Sudharshan. And if you have been following my narrative closely, you would remember that the naming ceremony was on the day after the next.
"But uncle, how far is Calicut from here?" I asked, clearly concerned about the short-sighted nature of the relative's idea.
"About 7 hours by bus", he replied, rather nonchalantly.
"You do remember that the naming ceremony is on the day after tomorrow, right?"
"Of course, I do remember. I even remember that it is at eleven in the morning."
"And you do know that you must be here, right?"
"Yes, yes. Don't you worry. I'll be back in time."
"Uncle, isn't it a bit rash of you to go off like this, just before the ceremony? Why don't you go after the ceremony? You'll have no issues of time then."
"Ah, don't talk rubbish, boy. I cannot delay this. The bloke is flying off to the middle-east tomorrow. I have to see him and sell him the pups before he heads away. Don't talk like your mother. She has this habit of being overly cautious about things."
"And Aunt Sreeja knows about your plan?"
Uncle Sudharshan peered nervously back at the house. There was no sign of Aunt Sreeja or any coffee.
"Are you nuts?!" he hissed. "Sreeja will freak out if I tell her. That's why I told you at the very start - This is a secret that stays between you and me. Were you not listening? Not another soul should know I am going to Calicut tonight."
"What?! Would they not notice you missing?!"
"Bah, the place is crowded enough to not notice one missing relative."
I pondered over this. Uncle Sudharshan was right, no doubt. There were relatives as far as the eye could see. One less person would arouse no suspicions. The point he was failing to notice was that the most important person, the person who would effectively be conducting the ceremony, was about to go missing. If the relatives even caught the slightest whiff of his absence, they would raise alarms about it. Then the scenes wouldn't be pretty. I could imagine Aunt Sreeja tearing down the highway to Calicut and dragging her brother back by the ear all the way to Trichy. Such an event was best avoided. So, I decided to push it further.
"Why can't someone else go to sell the pups? Or let Gopal go deal with this client. I can go with him."
Uncle Sudharshan let out one of his loud laughs again. By this time, I was sure, the neighborhood was swarming with people who had given up on any chances of catching any sleep.
"No, no, my boy. I have to go. These buyers are tough nuts to crack at times. You really have to have one of your sprightliest days if you want to get the better end of the deal. I reckon I can squeeze fifty grand out of him for the two pups. He wanted even more of them, but I don't want to sell them all to him. You see, it is a game of supply and demand. If he sees I have too many pups, he'll try to beat out a bargain. You have to be cunning in this field. If you play by the rules, you can get trampled."
I nodded along, my own mind fully occupied with images of my relatives, causing a riot as they look for the missing man.
Uncle Sudharshan rambled on, though, unperturbed by my lack of enthusiasm on the subject. "You know what, boy?" he whispered. "If you are really interested, you can come along too. You can pick up a couple of tricks on handling these pesky customers for when you start your own dog breeding business."
I politely declined the invitation but added that I would definitely attend his courses before launching any such endeavors involving canine breeds. Heaving a sigh of exasperation, I said, "Okay, looks like I cannot stop you. But, make sure you get back in time. It would be very embarrassing for Aunt Sreeja if you don't."
"Yes, yes. Stop worrying so much. I always told people you had more of your mother's genes than people think. I'll be off now. Cleo is feeling hungry."
While we had been talking, the rattling inside the basket had been getting louder. I did not relish the prospect of a hell-hound breaking loose and having my leg for breakfast. So I waved a hearty goodbye to the aged relative and waited till Uncle Sudharshan's bald head had disappeared around the corner. Aunt Sreeja met me halfway to the house, holding a tumbler full of steaming coffee.
"Here you go," she said, and with a big smile, she went off to distribute more of the warm liquid amongst my caffeine-hungry relatives.
I kicked aside my sandals as I stepped past the porch, prompting a cry of "Ei boy! Don't throw things here and there!" from Aunt Jaya. The woman had eyes at the back of her head. Murmuring a quick apology, I slipped past the throngs of relatives and into my bedroom. I would be lying if I said my heart was not heavy with concern while I sipped on the beverage. Not only was I worried if Uncle Sudharshan would be back in time, but also, if he didn't, the relatives would eventually find out about and go for the throat of the one person who was aware of the crazy plan all along and that one person would be Hari Chetlur.
#story #fiction- 18 toasts