The Right Kind of House

When did you read last a O. Henry kind of short story?

Going one better, here’s the one that I stumbled upon, a sheer delight if you’re into the genre.

Chancing upon a post by Sujatha Desikan a reference therein (provided by the renowned Tamizh writer Sujatha) set me up on a search.

So here it is for your reading pleasure, a story by Henry Slezar:

***

The automobile that stopped in front of Aaron Hacker’s real-estate office had a New York license plate. Aaron didn’t need to see the license plate to know that its owner was new to the elm-shaded town of Ivy Corners. The car was a red convertible. There was nothing else like it in town.

The man got out of the car and headed straight for the door.

“It seems to be a customer,” said Mr. Hacker to the young lady at the other desk “Let’s look busy.”

It was a customer, all right. The man had a folded newspaper in his right hand. He was a bit on the heavy side and wore a light gray suit. He was about fifty with dark, curly hair. The skin of his face was flushed and hot, but his narrow eyes were frosty clear.

He came through the doorway and nodded at Aaron. “Are you Mr. Hacker?”

“Yes sir,” Aaron smiled. “What can I do for you?”

The man waved the newspaper. “I saw the name of your agency in the real-estate section of the newspaper.”

“Yep, I take an ad every week. Lots of city people are interested in a town like ours, Mr …“

“Waterbury,” the man said. He pulled a white handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his face. “Hot today.”

“Unusually hot,” Aaron answered. “Doesn’t often get so hot in our town. We’re near the lake, you know. Well, won’t you sit down, Mr. Waterbury?”

“Thank you.” The man took a chair, and sighed. “I’ve been driving around. Thought I’d look the town over before I came here. Very nice little place.”

“Yes, we like it,” said Aaron.

“Now I really don’t have much time, Mr. Hacker. Suppose we get right down to business.”

“Suits me, Mr. Waterbury. Well, then, was there any place in particular you were interested in?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. I saw a house at the edge of town, across the way from an old deserted building.”

“Was it an old yellow house with pillars?” asked Aaron.

“Yes. That’s the place. I thought I saw a ‘For Sale’ sign, but I wasn’t sure. Do you have that house listed?”

Aaron chuckled softly. “Yep, we got it listed all right.” He flipped through a looseleaf book, and pointed to a typewritten sheet. “But you won’t be interested for long.”

 “Why not?” Aaron turned the book around.

“Read it for yourself.”

AUTHENTIC COLONIAL: Eight rooms two baths, large porches, trees and shrubbery. Near shopping and schools. $75,000.

“Still interested?’

The man stirred uncomfortably. “Why not? Something wrong with it?”

“Well.” Aaron scratched his temple. “If you really like this town, Mr. Waterbury…I mean if you really want to settle here, I have any number of places that’d suit you better.”

“Now just a minute!” The man looked indignant. “I’m asking you about this colonial house. You want to sell it or not?”

“Do I?” Aaron chuckled. “Mister, I’ve had that property on my hands for five years. There’s no house I’d rather collect a commission on. Only my luck ain’t that good.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you won’t buy. That’s what I mean. I keep the listing on my books just for the sake of old Sadie Grimes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t waste the space. Believe me.”

“I don’t get you.”

“Then let me explain. Mrs. Grimes put her place up for sale five years ago, when her son died. She gave me the job of selling it. I didn’t want the job – no sir! I told her that to her face. I mean the old place ain’t even worth $10,000!”

“The man swallowed. “Ten? And she wants $75,000?”

“That’s right. It’s a real old house. I mean old. Some of the beams will be going in the next couple of years. Basement’s full of water half the time. Upper floors lean to the right about nine inches. And the grounds are a mess.”

“Then why does she ask so much?”

Aaron shrugged. “Don’t ask me. Sentiment, maybe. The house has been in her family since the Revolution. Something like that.”

The man looked at the floor. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Too bad!” He looked up at Aaron and smiled sheepishly. “ I kinda like the place. It was – I don’t know how to explain it – the right kind of house.”

“I know what you mean. It’s a friendly, old place. A good buy at $10,000. But $75,000?” He laughed. “I think I know Sadie’s reasoning, though. You see, she doesn’t have much money. Her son was supporting her, doing well in the city. Then he dies, and she knew that it was sensible to sell. But she couldn’t bring herself to part with the old place. So she set a price tag so high that nobody would buy it. That eased her conscience.” Mr. Hacker shook his head sadly. It’s a strange world, ain’t it?”

“Yes,” Waterbury said thoughtfully. Then he stood up. “Tell you what, Mr. Hacker. Suppose I drive out to see Mrs. Grimes. Suppose I talk to her about it, get her to change her price.”

“You’re fooling yourself, Mr. Waterbury. I’ve been trying for five years.”

“Who knows? Maybe if somebody else tried…“

Aaron Hacker shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows, is right. It’s a strange world, Mr. Waterbury. If you’re willing to go to the trouble, I’ll be only too happy to lend a hand.”

“Good. Then I’ll leave now…”

“Fine! You just let me ring Sadie Grimes. I’ll tell her you’re on your way.”

“Waterbury drove slowly through the quiet streets. The trees that lined the avenues cast peaceful shadows on the hood of the car.

He reached the home of Sadie Grimes without once passing another moving vehicle. He parked his car beside the rotted picket fence that faced the house.

The lawn was a jungle of weeds and crabgrass, and the columns that rose from the front porch were covered with flaking paint.

There was a hand knocker on the door. He banged it twice. The woman who came to the door was short and plump. Her hair was white and her face was lined. She wore a heavy wool sweater, despite the heat.

“You must be Mr. Waterbury,” she said. “Aaron Hacker said you were coming.”

“Yes,” the man smiled. How do you do, Mrs. Grimes?” “It’s awfully hot out here.” He chuckled.

“Hm. Well, come in then. I’ve put some lemonade in the ice-box. Only don’t expect me to bargain with you, Mr. Waterbury. I’m not that kind of person.

“Of course not.” The man said, and followed her inside.

They entered a square parlor with heavy furniture. The only color in the room was in the faded hues of the worn rug in the center of the floor. The old woman headed straight for a rocker, and sat motionless, her wrinkled hands folded sternly.

“Well?” she said. “If you have anything to say, Mr. Waterbury, I suggest you say it.”

The man cleared his throat. “Mrs. Grimes, I’ve just spoken with your real-estate agent…“

“I know all that,” she snapped. “Aaron’s a fool. All the more for letting you come here with the notion of changing my mind. I’m too old for changing my mind, Mr. Waterbury.”

“Er…well, I don’t know if that was my intention, Mrs. Grimes. I thought we’d just talk a little.”

She leaned back and the rocker squeaked. “Talk’s free. Say what you like.”

“Yes.” He mopped his face again, and shoved the handkerchief back into his pocket. “Well, let me put it this way, Mrs. Grimes. I’m a business man – a bachelor – never married, I live alone. I’ve worked for a long time, and I’ve made a fair amount of money. Now, I’m ready to retire – to somewhere quiet. I like Ivy Corners. I passed through here some years ago on my way to – Albany. I thought one day I might like to settle here. ”

“So?”

“So, when I drove through your town today, and saw this house, it just seemed – right for me.”

“I like it too, Mr. Waterbury. That’s why I’m asking a fair price for it.” Waterbury blinked.

“Fair price? You’ll have to admit, Mrs. Grimes, these days a house like this shouldn’t cost more than…“

“That’s enough!” the woman cried. “I told you, Mr. Waterbury, I don’t want to sit here all day and argue with you. If you won’t pay my price, then we can forget all about it.”

“But, Mrs. Grimes…“

“Good day, Mr. Waterbury!” She stood up, indicating that he should leave.

But he didn’t. “Wait a minute, Mrs. Grimes,” he said. Just a moment. I know it’s crazy, but…all right. I’ll pay what you want.”

She looked at him for a long moment. “Are you sure, Mr. Waterbury?”

“Positive! I’ve enough money. If that’s the only way you’ll have it, that’s the way it’ll be.”

“She smiled. “I think that lemonade’ll be cold enough. I’ll bring you some – and then I’ll tell you something about this house.”

He was mopping his brow when she returned with the tray. He gulped at the frosty yellow beverage greedily.

“This house,” she said, easing back into her rocker, “Has been in my family since 1802. It was built fifteen years before that. Every member of the family, except my son, Michael, was born in the bedroom upstairs. I know it’s not the most solid house in Ivy Corners. After Michael was born, there was a flood in the basement, and we never seemed to get it dry since. I love the old place, though, you understand.”

“Of course,” Waterbury said.

“Michael’s father died when Michael was nine. There were hard times then. I did some needlework, and my own father had left me some money which supports me today. Not in very grand style, but I manage. Michael missed his father, perhaps even more than I. He grew up to be, well, wild is the only word that comes to mind.”

The man nodded with understanding.

“When he graduated from high school, Michael left Ivy Corners and went to the city. He went there against my wishes, make no mistake. But he was like so many young men, full of ambition, wild ambition. I didn’t know what he did in the city. But he must have been successful – he sent me money regularly. However, I didn’t see him for nine years.”

“Ah,” the man sighed, sadly.

“Yes, it wasn’t easy for me. But it was even worse when Michael came home. Because, when he did, he was in trouble.”

“Oh?”

“I didn’t know how bad the trouble was. He showed up in the middle of the night, looking thinner and older than I could have believed possible. He had no luggage with him, only a small black suitcase. When I tried to take it from him, he almost struck me. Struck me – his own mother!”

“I put him to bed myself, as if he was a little boy again. I could hear him crying out during the night.”

“The next day, he told me to leave the house. Just for a few hours. He wanted to do something, he said. He didn’t explain what. But when I returned that evening, I noticed that the little black suitcase was gone.”

The man’s eyes widened over the lemonade glass. “What did it mean?” he asked.

“I didn’t know then. But I found out soon – too terrible soon. That night, a man came to our house. I don’t even know how he got in. I first knew when I heard the voices in Michael’s room. I went to the door, and tried to listen, tried to find out what sort of trouble my boy was in. But I heard only shouts and threats, and then…”

She paused and her shoulders sagged. “And a shot,” she continued, “a gunshot. When I went into the room, I found the bedroom window open, and the stranger gone. And Michael – he was on the floor. He was dead!”

The chair creaked. “That was five years ago,” she said. “Five long years. It was a while before I realized what had happened. The police told me the story. Michael and this other man had been involved in a crime, a serious crime. They had stolen many, many thousands of dollars.”

“Michael had taken that money, and run off with it. He wanted to keep it all for himself. He hid it somewhere in this house – to this very day I don’t know where. The other man had come looking for my son, looking to collect his share. When he found the money gone, he…he killed my boy.”

She looked up. “That’s when I put this house up for sale – at $75,000. I knew that, someday, my son’s killer would return to look for the money. Someday, he would want this house at any price. All I had to do was wait until I found a man willing to pay much too much for an old lady’s house.”

She rocked gently in the chair.

Waterbury put down the empty glass and licked his lips. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open, and his head was growing very, very dizzy.

“Ugh!” he said. “This lemonade is bitter.

***

About the author:

Henry Slesar (b. Brooklyn NY 12 June 1927, d. NYC 2 April 2002) was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. After art training, he began his career writing ad copy and design at the young age of 17. He served in the Army Air Force during WWII.

He sold his first story in 1955. After that, he never looked back on a writing career that spanned decades. Although he is noted by genre fans for writing many science-fiction and fantasy stories, including both stories and scripts for Alfred Hitchcock’s magazine and TV show, he is most renowned for his hundreds of scripts that he wrote for daytime soaps.

To say that Mr. Slesar was prolific is a gross understatement. TV GUIDE once said of him that he was, “the writer with the largest audience in America”.

Notwithstanding his mainstream achievements, his genre literary fiction can easily stand beside the works of other great short story writers of the period, including Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson and countless others.

Like…O. Henry, his specialty was irony and twist endings.

“The Right Kind of House” was featured in the February 1957 issue of Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine. It was later reprinted in the March 1963 issue of Reader’s Digest. In 1958, it was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Sources: https://monstermagazineworld.blogspot.com/2017/09/henry-slesars-bitter-lemonade.html, https://wendylovesjesus.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/the-right-kind-of-short-story/

End

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Two Women In Their Graves And The Cat That Did Not Wait To Cross

This short piece is in response to flash/drabble photo-challenge posed here by Morgan Bailey.

He locked up the doors. One can’t be too cautious in these matters.  The call he had received in the morning…

He hurriedly took the car out of the garage – he was already running late.

Just in case…the gun was loaded and in its place, he had checked.

It all happened quite unexpectedly just when he exited the driveway slowly, easing onto the street…the darned cat did make it safely to the other side by a whisker not coming under the wheels or hit splat.

His old lady would have ordered him to get going – auguries and omens were not for her. Steadying himself he drove on – he could ill-afford to miss the meeting from start.

Half way up the street he saw a parked car with all glasses rolled up. Now his usual alert self, he sped past the car with one hand on the gun. Nothing happened. Must be his jangled nerves playing up?

In this time, as the black piece of fur scurried away for the nearest bush, ‘sh#t,’ the hooded man cursed his luck, and abruptly dropped to the floorboard inside the parked car. To heck with…his mom was not once wrong over these ‘messages’. Was it simply not the day to pick or it was something more portentous?  Needed figuring out.

End

Now You Know Why They Tell You…

to see god in everything around you in all the life around you as in your boss, wife, children, Amazon, United, government…and in non-life too like the pothole on the road…?

They all have choices of their own:-(

buddha-53255_1280

By David Berger

This guy comes back to his apartment late one night, and there’s a golden statue of a god he doesn’t recognize in his living room.

“What the hell?” he says.

“Hell is a state of mind,” the statue says.

“What are you doing in my apartment?” he asks.

“You want me to be elsewhere?” the statue asks.

“I have a choice?”

“You always have a choice,”

“Can I choose you to be elsewhere?”

“Sure.”

“Okay. I choose you to be elsewhere.”

The statue stays where it is.

“What happened?” he asks.

The statue shrugs its shoulders. “We all have choices.”

         
David Berger is a self-described “old guy from Brooklyn, now living in Manhattan with my wife of 25 years: the best jazz singer in NYC. I’m a father and grandfather. I’ve been, among other things, a case worker, construction worker, letter carrier, high school and ESL…

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Carriers (101 Words)

They filed down Main Street, stone-faced, pitiful, dragging their loads resolutely behind them.

“Who are they?” I asked someone.

“Carriers,” he said. “Odd bunch. Anything that hurt them goes in those packs.”

“Anything?”

“Look for yourself.”

Their packs overflowed with knives and glass shards, snakes, and cigarette packs.

Pins.

Needles.

Books stacked several rows deep.

A whole stove top.

Guns beyond counting.

“They carry all that weight their entire lives. Weird, right?”

I thought of the photo inside my wallet: her smile and wisps of loose hair around her temples.

“No,” I replied, slowly. “I don’t think it’s weird at all.”

End

Source: Matt Spaetzel in 101words.org

An Old Story And New Insights

A story most from my generation must have heard as children sitting on the lap of their grandma (don’t know what is said to them these days). It goes generally like this:

In a village an old woman sitting under a tree prepared vada’s for sale.

A crow sitting on the tree waited for an opportunity.

When the woman was looking away, the crow swooped down and flew up and away, picking up a delicious vada in its beaks, all in a flash.

As it sat on a branch of a nearby tree, ready to savour its booty, a fox came along. .

Espying the crow atop with the vada in its beaks,the scheming fox spoke:

‘Oh my friend there, news got to me you’re blessed with a very sweet voice that has the koels go away in shame! I have come from a long distance only to hear your voice. Could you kindly sing a song for me? Won’t you? Please don’t disappoint me. ’

The crow was thrilled to hear these words. Not to disappoint its appreciative audience, the crow obliged.

As it opened its mouth going ‘kaa kaa’, the inevitable happened.

The fox grabbed the fallen vada with alacrity and quietly slipped away leaving the crow in a daze.

Usually the grandma, a simple soul, finished the story and made her demand like the child should now go to sleep or eat its food without further fuss…The moral of the story was not explicitly stated. And we simply understood it as: the crow was foolish and the fox wily.

Grandma’s, in the generations that followed, grew more articulate. They would point out how it was unwise of crow to foolishly embark on what it was not capable of, falling a victim to flattery.

Some crow lovers, not happy with the story, added a second round where the crow, learning from its experience, would hold the vadaunder its claws and belt it out raucously to the fox’s dismay.

A few die-hard purists steered the story back to its original course: In a third round, the fox would request the crow holding the vada in its claws to perform a dance. Yes, it meant the foolish crow…

In some versions, the smart crow, till the end, holds fast to the vada while obliging the fox with song and dance.

In all these versions the story is one of getting into deep waters and followed optionally by learning from one’s experience and getting out unscathed.

The one moral of the story, right before us in plain sight, yet strangely missed by most, was pointed out by Dr Sudha Seshayyan in one of her programs I watched today:

Ill-gotten gains are never enjoyed.

At one stroke this invalidates the versions that let the crow get away with the vada.  All said and done the crow was a thief stealing it from the old woman. Unintended consequences of tampering an old tale?

End

Source: image from YouTube

So A Baba Was Born – A New Tale Of Comedy Of Errors

Part 1

It was about lunch time when Ravi got a call from Mohan.

‘Ravi, there could be a solution, heaven sent, to your problems!’

‘What are you saying?’

‘Look, I just heard a certain Mamooli Baba (a wise saintly man, a recluse) has come in on a bus from some place and is waiting for a bus to take him onwards to Lucknow. The word has gotten around and people are flocking to him to receive his blessings – it seems some of them know him from the past and they swear to his powers to bail them out of difficulties. So drop everything and rush to the mofussil bus-stand (serving rural areas) right away. With some luck you may be able to catch him before he goes away and seek his blessings and advice.’

‘Aren’t you coming?’

‘No, Ravi, I would’ve loved to; unfortunately the guys from HO are here today breathing down my neck. And listen, he…this Mamooli Baba is in ordinary clothes and not robed in saffron, no matted hair, no scared ash smeared on his forehead, no kumkum decked trident in hand, no entourage of chela’s (acolytes)….in fact he looks ordinary in all respects like our fathers. Probably that’s why the ‘Mamooli’ (ordinary). Conversing with him however gets a little tricky, I’m told; for, he talks in riddles expecting you to make sense. Very unlike other baba’s we’ve seen. So, rush…all the best…will catch up with you in the evening.‘

‘Mohan, just a minute. If this baba looks so unlike a baba, how do I recognize him at all?’

‘OMG, how dumb can you be? No wonder…’

‘Oh, shut up and tell me.’

‘Man, the bus-stand is not a very large place. Look for the crowd and there he would be in their midst, I’m sure…Must go now, bye.’

Ravi thought for a moment: Should he go? How can a baba from nowhere find a solution to a problem he could not crack with all his mettle? But then that’s what baba’s are made of, aren’t they? It’s not for nothing people flock to them for succour. What harm would it do if he did go?

Ravi was employed in a small branch of a good-sized country-wide transport company. He along with four of his colleagues reported to a branch-manager. Over the years, by dint of sheer hard work, he had grown to be the key person in the branch. Customers usually asked for him. The manager, new in his post, relied on Ravi to keep the branch going, at the same time keeping a check. It meant working late hours and over week-ends too. It didn’t help that three of his colleagues were women and it was against the company policy to hold women back after regular work-hours. And the fourth was a superannuated old employee charitably retained with some light work. To handle growth, a post of assistant-manager was recently sanctioned by the HO and the search was on to hire a suitable candidate. Ravi was disheartened his well-merited claim to the position was being completely overlooked. While his manager passed the buck to the HO, the reality was he did not make out a strong case to his superiors for Ravi’s promotion. Ravi got this input from his own sources in the HO and mentioned it to his manager several times in several ways. The manager did not seem to get the cue and make the necessary moves. Perhaps he needed more time to assess supervisory capabilities of the aspiranti. Should Ravi go over his head – a risky double-edged manoeuvre with uncertain outcome, should he apply for transfer to a larger branch notwithstanding the disruptive relocation on personal front or should he simply quit and join another player in the same space, negotiating better terms? Ravi remained undecided on the course to pursue.

And he wondered how would the baba know enough to guide him.  Finally he decided to check it out for whatever worth.

busstandWhen he reached the bus-stand, he could easily spot his target sitting on a cemented platform raised around a tree on a kerb.  Indeed he did look like a mamooli villager. And he was kind of getting ready to leave, collecting things about him into a bag he was carrying. As Mohan said, a little away from him there were clumps of people standing around, seeming to have had their meeting with the Baba and perhaps now pouring over his intriguing pronouncements.

 

Part 2

Ravi had no problems reaching his unlikely saviour right away.

Picssr.jpg

Baba, pranam. (Salutation to you, Baba)

Eh?

Mujhe raashta bathaiye na. (Won’t you show me the way?)

Kahaan jaana hai? Wahan deko, information counter hai, jaake pooch lo. Abhi meri bus aanewaali hain, mujhe jaane do. (Where do you want to go? See the information counter out there – go and ask them. Now let me go, my bus is due any moment)

Sirf do minute. Badi ummedh lekar aya hoon. Aap to jaante hai man khi bhath, muje badi kursi chahiye. (Only two minutes of your time, Baba. Have come to you with great hopes. You very well know what’s in my mind – I want to occupy the big kursi (the big chair))

Kursi? Lucknow jaane wali bus pakdo, Kursi me uthaar denge. Aur, ek hi Kursi hai, badi choti do naheen.

(Kursi? You catch the bus to Lucknow and they’ll drop you off at Kursi. And, there’s only one Kursi, no small or big).

A word of clarification may be in order here: Kursi is also the name of a place (in Barabanki district of UP).

Majaak chodiye Baba aur kuch tharkeeb bathayiye. Ghar me yeh bol aaya hoon ki jab tak kaam nahin banega, ghar nahin lautoonga. (Please don’t make fun of me; and instead, show me a way. I’ve come to you telling my wife I’ll not return home until I’ve had a solution)

Arre, kaise aadmi ho tum, aurath se ladkar bhagte ho? Kursi vursi chodo, ghar jao aur biwi ko kush karo tho sab teek ho jayega. (Hey, what kind of a man you’re – quarrelling with the wife and running away? Forget going to Kursi and all that, get back home, make your wife happy and everything will be alright)

Sab teek ho jayega? (Everything will be alright?)

Shaadi karke kitne saal hue? (How long have you been married?)

Panch. (Five years)

Abhi thak seekha naheen? Jao. Jaise kaha waise karo. Paagal kaheenka. Jao, sab teek ho jayega. Sabka ilaj biwi ko kush rakne me hai. Chalo, meri bus aagayee, my chala. (You still haven’t learned? Go and do like I said. Crazy guy, go, everything will be alright. The cure for all ills lies in keeping one’s wife happy. Leave me now, the bus has come, must go)

Dhanyavaadh, Baba. (Thank you, Baba)

‘Obviously this Baba, if he was one, was out of his depth in dealing with professional matters. Here I’m talking about my long-overdue promotion and he’s telling me to make my wife happy. Is there a message hidden in it? Doesn’t seem so. May be he had his successes sorting out domestic squabbles. But my problem is different,’ Ravi thought to himself as he made his way to his office.

That was that and all was forgotten until the following morning….

 

Part 3

At the breakfast table, hot ghee laden mooli-parathas (flat bread with radish thrown in with a glistening coat of clarified butter on top) sat piled up on his plate with a katori of dhal (lentils).

Abs heavenly – Ravi devoured the three-high pile at one go before one could say 1..2..3.

Smacking his lips, he let out a belch – what the heck, there wasn’t anyone around save his wife – and for a reason scripted by fate – it could be attributed to nothing else – Baba’s not-so-profound words came to his mind as a trigger for what ensued. Quite uncharacteristically though justifiably, he went gushing over the parathas:

‘At this rate, meri jan (my life), I can safely kick my job off and start a takeaway tiffin-service. We’ll be all-sold even before the stove cools…and be the talk of the town in no time…Of course, we need to dish out more kinds like methi (a kind of spinach), aloo (potato)…and soon we can do with some hired help….’

This was from a man who never looked away from his morning newspaper while eating off his plate at the table.

The wife was not very amused at the compliment and the visions of airy castles of entrepreneurship. The parathas had been the handiwork of a kind neighbour.

Feeling hot under her ‘collar’ and not being one of those vocal kind, the lady of the house presently decided her man – who remained completely oblivious of his blooper effecting quite the opposite of what the Baba had suggested – deserved nothing more than vanilla rice upma for lunch. For those of you not in the know, it’s an easy-to-make dish in South Indian kitchens, prepared by near-dry frying of broken rice embellished with, in its plain version, mustard seeds, finely chopped green chili and a smidgen of asafoetida for taste and flavour – a dish lowly ranked in preferences in many households. However what made to the lunchbox finally was more than rice upma and chutney, it was a left-forgotten-on-the-fire-for-a-while-longer upma along with – yes, you got it or rather Ravi – all those thin burnt scales lining the insides of the khadai (khaandhal in Tamizh, eaten with relish by some!) scraped out with evil-laced glee.

rice upma pinterest

It was a very busy and trying morning at the office. Finally when a completely exhausted Ravi dropped into his chair and pulled out his lunchbox, he was thwarted. The office attendant cum helper informed  him, in a manner of not-my-doing, of the manager’s new decree of the day – there was a reason you’ll see later for it to be issued on that day: lunch should be had in the small meeting room and not at one’s desk – of course after the manager had had his and cleared. To be fair to the authority, the reasons were reasonable – the scents and scraps left around were an open invitation for the rats to invade from outside, sure to cause havoc in that paper-inundated office.

The sharp edge of authority did nothing to improve Ravi’s foul mood. Visibly irritated, nevertheless left with no choice, he asked with faux politeness if the manager had finished his lunch and he could go now. The attendant could only shrug his shoulders to say don’t-shoot-me.

He took his box to the meeting room and opened it to find upma topped with khaandal.  Today he didn’t feel up to it. Closing the box and pushing it aside, he stomped out, in an apparent show of defiance against agents indeterminate, to find an eatery.

 

Part 4

Nothing unusual happened post-lunch at the office. Ravi returned to work with his steam somewhat spent seeing reason and time doing its trick.

At end of the day, he decided to shut shop – no extra hours today. When he packed up, he forgot to collect from the meeting room his lunchbox.

It was also the time for the manager to leave. An attendant, a different guy this time, collected the manager’s lunch-set from the meeting room, taking it to the latter’s car – managers in our land, like politicians, are wont to let someone else carry their stuff except when cash was involved.  New to the task, he could not tell Ravi’s box from the manager as he gathered the lunch containers from the meeting room; result: box too got a ride to the manager’s residence.

As it happened, the day had not started off well in the morning for the manager. The matter had been smouldering for some time now raising its nascent ugly head now and then. Just three months into the new posting for him, the wife did not like the town. She wanted him to move out. That organizations don’t move their people around so fast because their spouses did not take a shine to the place failed to make an impression on her. The manager was obviously reluctant to pop up the request so soon on the heels of his promotion-posting. These blow-up’s – had not moved to the centre-stage yet – always ended inconclusively with a promise to be back on the agenda at no notice.  This was it – the bad start, and the reason for those decrees to go out on that day. Happens to even the most seasoned among us, no?

While cleaning up the lunch-set for use the following day, the wife spotted the interloper. When she opened it and saw its contents, she squealed in delight recognizing it for what it was.

‘You mean you got this just for me? How? You don’t get them around here. Who gave you? So sweet!’

The positively-not-sweet easy-to-make rice upma, a poor cousin of the more seductive rava upma, with its kaandhal was/is not a commonly served dish outside of a South Indian kitchen, ironically making it a rarity. Forget about being served anywhere, none but an ardent gourmet, outside the community, would not even know of its humble existence.

Our lady, a first-order foodie, took a mouthful of kaandhal right there, crunching and savouring it to its last, scaling new heights of sensory bliss. She also saw immense possibilities beyond the immediate.  It was a no call to Holmes to deduce the presence, in their circle of acquaintances, of a hitherto unknown household preparing authentic South Indian dishes. In this ‘Ah’ moment, even the discovery of an alien civilization on a distant planet would elicit no more from her than a raised eyebrow. Obsessed with South Indian preparations, she was already seeing visions of idli-molagapodi, vada-sambhar, chutneys, adai, sevai, puttu, kai-mrukku, payasam, bisibela, pongal…All –  products of a thoroughbred South Indian kitchen that had become a distant dream for her thanks to this woebegone new posting far removed from all those South Indian friends she had to leave behind.

si snacks.jpg

Now it was the manager’s turn to see potentially interesting possibilities. He would, first thing in the morning, rework the case for Ravi’s promotion. For a price, of course – nothing as crude as money changing hands, only an extra lunchbox even if small and occasional, for him from Ravi’s kitchen. House visits and woman to woman tête-à-tête would not be far off to happen.

Needless to say Ravi became a convert overnight and swore by Mamooli Baba. Amazing, how his not-so-profound words – in fact downright ordinary – when followed changed his life like a miracle! May be it was a miracle. How appearances could be so deceptive…this Baba packing power like a dynamite and yet…!

He hoped he would be able have Baba’s unhurried darshan once again someday.

 

Part 5

About three months later, one day, Mohan called. Ravi was thrilled to hear Mamooli Baba was coming into the town for a visit.

Ravi with his wife carried a tray full of offerings (fruits and flowers) to where Baba was put up. When they reached the head of the queue, they humbly laid down the tray at Baba’s feet, paid their obeisance’s with bowed heads and had darshan to their heart’s content. Pressed by the queue from behind, they had to move away, his wife suggesting they seek a private audience with him, if possible.

If this was Mamooli Baba, Ravi wondered, whom had he meet. Surely he too was no less a baba after the miracle he had wrought in Ravi’s life.

That instant marked the birth of Anjaan Baba (Unknown Baba), collecting over time stories of his immense grace and prowess.

While Ravi kept his eyes peeled out and ears pricked up for any news of Anjaan Baba’s whereabouts, the man last seen sitting on the cemented platform at the bus-stand months ago, perchance taking Mamooli Baba’s place moments after the latter had taken off to continue his onward journey, was presently playing with his grandson in a small village to the north of Lucknow.

 

End

 

 

 

 

Images: Himachal Pradesh – Chamba – Bus Stand from Flickr, An old man in Vrindavan from  Flickr photos tagged jitender, Upma from Pinterest and South Indian snacks from crazymasalafood.com

The Story Of The Brahma-Raakshas And The Mango Trees (For Children)

May require reading it to them.

Part 1

They were resting after a simple meal of dal (lentils) and roti (flat bread), on the rope-cots laid out in the open front-yard of the temple. The temple usually served as the night shelter for wayfarers who happened to pass by. A light breeze provided relief from the stickiness in the air. The sun had gone down a couple of hours ago. While the birds had returned home, the insects came out buzzing aloud. The street, poorly lit by lampposts, one here and one there, was deserted save for an occasional villager returning home from some field work.

The old priest, a kind and hospitable host, was making polite inquiries to the visitor by his side, a young man in early twenties, where was he coming from, where was he going, etc. It turned out he was hailing from a place not very far off proceeding to meet his cousin residing in the town.  Just then, interrupting their conversation, some soft and melodious music, played on a bansuri (flute) floated in from a distance. Had he heard the tunes before? Didn’t seem so.

BansuriNewIndianExpress

‘The villagers seem to take care of you well – there’s even music to lull you to sleep at night!’ the visitor said in jest.

‘Oh, that’ll be Keshav, the milkman…he’s good at it…happens every night…one day it is bansuri, sometimes it’s ektara…’

‘So you don’t get bored…’

‘It’s not what you think.’

‘Well, what is it then? Someone running classes for aspiring artists at this hour?’ He said it so light-heartedly it didn’t offend the priest.

‘It’s a long story.’

‘The evening is young yet. Am all ears. Unless, of course, you’re tired…’

Thus, thanks to the visitor, came to light a strange story that would have been otherwise lost to posterity.

Here’s the long and short of the priest’s account.

Part 2

The story started decades ago, when the priest’s father, also a priest, was serving at this temple.

One day — unfortunately, it was also the day he had to go out, leaving the temple in the hands of a stand-in – a yogi passing by arrived at the temple in the same manner the visitor had. The stand-in did not know enough to receive the yogi with due respect and provide him for a comfortable night stay.  The yogi, short on temper like Sage Dhurvasa, felt slighted.  Before departing, next day morning, the yogi cursed the village as a whole: he summoned a brahma-raakshas (a super-demon) and instructed him to live among the mango orchards, never to move out or unnecessarily hurt any human.

The curse was harsh on the village; for the village was known for its delicious mangoes, available in the summer, much sought after by the royalty of the land and the rich, the leftovers picked up by the traders for the commoners’ market.

Right from day one, the raakshas made his presence felt. He would make hideous sounds all day and night sending a chill up the spine for anyone in the vicinity.  There were also short interludes of delightful music sounding like coming out of some wind-instrument that could calm the nerves of an incurable insomniac – but these were few and far between. The orchards were left alone by the villagers for the fear of their lives. When one or two picked up enough courage to venture in, they were chased away by the raakshas with a dire threat to kill them if they ever returned. Come summer, he grew quieter – but only after consuming the all the ripe fruits as if he was making up for all the months he had gone without, essentially destroying the livelihood of the poor villagers.

Gloom descended on the village. Poverty sneaking into every house threatening to take up permanent residence. Many tantriks were brought in to evict the raakshas from their midst to no avail.

Finally the priest thought of a way. He located the whereabouts of the yogi through his network of priests. He went up to him in person and explained with due apologies why he was not welcomed and cared for properly when he had visited the village. And also the subsequent havoc that the raakshas was causing all around. The yogi was mollified; but he expressed his inability to recall the raakshas since he had stayed within his limits as instructed by the yogi himself; he could only be punished if he had transgressed in any manner. By way of a partial redressal, however, the yogi imparted a mantra to the priest. Without realizing the implications in full, the yogi also extracted a promise from the priest he would not share the mantra with anyone else. If he did, it would cease to be effective.

rakshas_by_interrage

On his return, the priest used the mantra month after month – it had to be recited on every ammavasya (new-moon day) morning before sunrise to forcibly bind the raakshas to a small cluster of trees until the next ammavasya. From time to time the raakshas roared out his resentment in no uncertain terms setting off palpitations in the hearts of the villagers; but there was little else he could do. The villagers gradually gained confidence knowing the raakshas would not cross his limits and went back to tending their orchards and plucking the fruits in summer, leaving the cluster well alone. And, much to everybody’s relief, life quickly returned to normal as before.

Happy times don’t last forever as they – pessimists – say. One day disaster struck.

It was the day before an ammavasya when the priest suddenly passed away.

Amidst the grief over the priest’s sudden death, even before the embers turned cold on the funeral pyre, a sense of nervousness gripped the villagers on how would the raakshas be kept in check now. For a while, it seemed there might not be any real cause to worry; for, there was the priest’s son, a young man barely out of his teens, but properly groomed by the father to take over. Their nervousness turned into pure panic when they learned the son was not initiated into the mantra by his father so as to comply with the solemn promise given to the yogi.

The vision loomed large of those terrible days when the raakshas was in full fury.  What would they do now? No one in the village slept even a wink that night.

Part 3

It was morning of ammavasya – the day to renew and recharge the bondage of the raakshas. With the earlier spell almost spent, the raakshas was kicking up fury threatening to break free, a show he put on every month without a let-up knowing well the monthly check on him would inevitably be reinstated by the priest.

Only this time the priest was not around to put him back on leash.

The son anointed as the new priest offered the morning pooja at the temple and turned up at the spot before sunrise. He called out – he know how from his father – to the brahma-raakshas:

‘Look, my friend…’

The raakshas derisively laughed: ‘Friend?? What friend? Where’s your father, one who has imprisoned me here?’

‘A friend or a foe, you’ll know when I’ve finished. Not sure if you’re aware – my father passed away yesterday, that’s why I’m here today.’

‘Sorry to hear.’ Somehow he didn’t sound he was mocking.

‘I know you too have a heart…and live by scruples. Like you haven’t harmed any of us from the day you came here though on occasions it was pretty close. And I know, for a brahma-raakshas, it’s not easy being confined to a small space.’

‘Thanks, but no thanks for your commiseration.’

‘I’ve a deal for you…’

‘Deal? What deal? Why, you now wish me to spend all my days sitting on a single branch of a tree?’ This time he was certainly mocking.

‘No, on the other hand, I would love to give you back access to the whole of the orchards like before for you to move around. No mantra, no bond.’

The raakshas had not known the mantra was not passed on to the son by his father. Hence the young priest was in no position to restrain the raakshas in any manner.

‘So what is it? I’m keen to hear what you’ve come up with.’

‘It’s like this: As I said before, you’ll have an unfettered access to whole of the orchards. In return you promise you’ll let the villagers freely tend to the trees without fear. Also you’ll not henceforth pluck the fruits…’

‘Ah, Ah, so I starve all through the summer just like at other times of the year, watching those luscious mangoes swaying in the breeze right in front of me, yet forbidden to touch…am I allowed, Sir, to take in the aroma that wafts in…’

‘Every evening, food would be brought straight off the kitchen of one of the houses in the village for you. All through the year, every day you’ll enjoy a varied meal instead of just mangoes and mangoes and mangoes…that too only in summer. Aren’t you fed up? Though, I know you’ve grown fond of those fruits. Think about it.’

‘Mmm…,’ the gears meshed and the wheels turned for a little while. And, then: ‘Sounds good, I’ll take it. Just make sure, during the season, to include a few mangoes in the meal.’

The young priest, heaving a sigh of relief, continued:

‘I’ve a further suggestion for you.’

‘What is it now?’

‘I suspect you must have been a sangeet vidwan (musician) of no mean merit in your earlier birth. For, I’ve heard the occasional music, so melodious, interspersing the awful racket – a veritable assault on the senses –  you usually produce.’

Tickled at the praise, the raakshas was willing to ignore the rebuke: ‘Go on.’

‘Perhaps you did not share your knowledge with your sishya’s (disciples) causing you to turn into a brahma-raakshas upon your death. Under this new mutually agreed arrangement, we needn’t be so adversarial from hereon; hence, why not you give up producing those hideous sounds – there’s no need to scare away anyone now, you know – and instead, sing to the trees the melodies you could? Will do them good, I’m sure. Might make the fruits even more delicious; after all, happy means produce happy outcomes. It’ll also do you enormous good – won’t be a wasted effort, I assure you.’

The raakshas thought for a moment. Won’t hurt him to do it…he agreed. How was he to know then this simple decision would prove to be life-changing for him in the time to come!

Thenceforth there was peace, prosperity and happiness in the village with the folks going about their business fearlessly, and the raakshas, generally relaxing, moving about as he wished within the orchards, singing as he pleased for the trees and enjoying the evening meal brought for him every evening without fail.

Years rolled by. The fruits indeed grew more delicious than ever before garnering rave praises from all over.

And one morning…

Someone saw strangely the food brought in the night before was left untouched. What happened? Was he ill? During the day, the music also had ceased, replaced by an eerie silence.

The priest was brought in to investigate.

‘Our friend seems to have attained eternal salvation…earlier than he was destined, perhaps due to his good deeds of service to the trees and hence to all of us,’ declared the priest.

The whole village was grief-stricken like they lost someone in the family.  Even the trees in the orchards appeared crest-fallen.

It did take a few months for the village folks to regain their equanimity and go about their lives as usual.

The following summer, however, brought some bad news: The fruits didn’t taste their best. It was like the trees had lost their verve.

It was then the practice was started at the priest’s suggestion of playing music – a song or two – every evening for the trees too to recover from their loss; life wasn’t the same for them without the daily treat of raakshas’s music, he suspected.

The next summer’s bountiful produce of mangoes confirmed the priest’s surmise.

Part 4

The priest concluded his story: ‘The practice continues till date. And that’s the music you heard.’

For a minute no one spoke.

Then the old priest went in and brought a plateful of sliced mangoes as a dessert.

The visitor took a few slices and went ecstatic in his praise.

The priest gave credit where, he thought, it was due: ‘All thanks to our late friend, the brahma-raakshas.’

Finishing the last piece, ‘You were pretty smart to push the deal through when you actually held no aces in your hand. A fair deal it was, I would think, paying off both sides: stopping him from depriving the villagers of their fruits while freeing him up and feeding him on the other hand,’ said the visitor.

‘You could say that,’ smiled the priest.

‘You were very clever too. You also got the raakshas to sing and got rid of him in the only way you could ever – an impossible task otherwise. It wasn’t through any unfair trickery either, I would say – for, it provided him with much needed salvation from an unenviable existence. When his bad karma was completely offset by the good he had accumulated by singing to the trees, even the yogi, his master, could not have stood in the way of his salvation.   And at the same time, the fruits got even better for the village!  Again, pay-off for both sides. And, what a pay-off for a mere act of singing!

All in all  brilliant moves on your part: ‘contain the damage first, eliminate the cause second’ with everyone a winner and a loser none!!’

Acknowledging with a hint of a smile, the priest added: ‘In fact these unusual melodies are entirely his – we play it with as much fidelity as possible.’

By now the visitor’s regard for the priest had gone up by several notches.

With the conversation thinning out, it wasn’t long before the old priest, exhausted at the end of the day, fell asleep, totally lost to the living world. The visitor however slept fitfully that night, turning on sides frequently, his dreams filled with angry yogi’s, their curses and a mishmash of freely-mingling disembodied spirits. Though spirits never put fear in him; for he was fed on countless incredible stories by his grandmother on spirits and their antics – some of them she had claimed to be her own real-life experiences.

Following morning, he got up early, readied himself and took leave of the priest thanking him gratefully for his hospitality.

An hour into the journey, for no reason, his mind wandered back to the music he had heard the night before.  Might be that there was always music in his family? Thinking about it, the notes did sound familiar – at least in some parts. Yes, it was kind of like what his grandfather played on the harmonium for his students years ago in the main hall of the ancestral house. It could as well be his mind was playing tricks after hearing the priest’s story. Dismissing the thoughts, he moved on.

End

 

 

 

 

Source: Image of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia from newindianexpress.com, and deviantart.com/interrage