By some existential quirk of fate it seemed I owed him money. Owed Kasim that is. Yes, deep down within I always felt I owed him money. I did not remember from when, or even how. Did I run up some losses for him in business? Did I take something precious from him that had to be paid for? I did not know then. I do not know now. But I felt then as I feel now, I owed him.
Kasim was generous. He never insisted that I pay. Not that he did mind when I did. In fact, he had a shrewd mind. He knew I would pay. When you owe someone money, and you are the decent sort, you do pay, don’t you? Kasim knew that. So he made it seem like he never really had his mind on the money. Why bring in money matters when you don’t need to? Well, in any case I paid him regularly. Somehow, the debt never seemed to get repaid. There was no cut-off date in our contract, it seemed.It is difficult to frame our relationship within a time frame. The temporal is ephemeral to the context. Kasim and the debt I owed him stretch along the boundaries of my temporal imagination. Yet the structure of the relationship is confined to one spot, where I met him for the first time. And also where I saw him for the last time — always for no more than two minutes at a time over the ten odd years, I knew him. This space-time dance was an abstracted fragment of my composite being. Yet also who I am now. Today.
Frankly I did not quite remember how much I owed him. Any way, the most I paid him at any time was never more than ten rupees. No, that’s not quite true. I think I recall how once, feeling generous or happy or both (how does it matter?), I handed him an orange twenty rupee note, a denomination in the currency that has survived since the mid-nineties. Demonetisation could not kill that note. Upon reflection, it seems poignant that along with my memories of Kasim, the image of a limp twenty-rupee note remains etched in my mind, unshaken by larger events of nation and destiny. I had strained to notice any extra glint in his eyes that might suggest, you know, thrill or some such thing at having received such a bonus. But no, Kasim would not let on. His face would be no different on a ten rupee-day than what it would be on a two-rupee day. Yes, there were times when I paid him no more than two rupees. I don’t recall. Maybe I had had extra money in the pocket. Maybe I did not. I told him I did not. Or did I say, “No change; only big ones”.
How does it matter? I would be no more honest paying ten rupees while carrying a thousand, than I would paying two while worth all of hundred rupees. The ethics of it is bad business. I’d rather I had none of this. This having to explain to you (my compulsion of course, I admit) is not nice. Yet I’m doing it. Let’s skip that. To get to the point, I owed Kasim money. Kasim was my friend. He was not my friend merely because I paid him money. That does not sound right. That he was my friend had nothing to do with the fact that I paid him money, which anyway I owed him. Now that sounds better.
Kasim was a friend; a good friend at that. I knew a bit about him. That he came from Bijapur in Karnataka, had two daughters and a son, had contracted leprosy at some point, had a bad leg, made about Rs 50 every day from very hard work (in the early 1990s, Rs 50 could put food on the table and fetch adequate lodgings for the night), and loved ‘daal’ fry – that of course when he could afford a special treat. I must admit I carried food from my house whenever I’d go to meet him to pay my debt. The food I brought was his favourite he said, or maybe he was being polite. He knew I loved to cook. Apart from that I don’t know what he knew or guessed about me.
He knew I got older with the years like everybody else. He probably noticed when the Jawa motorbike morphed into a Maruti 800 (an entry level automobile back then) which in turn stretched out a little into a Maruti Zen (he noticed how in the summer months, with hot winds sweeping through the streets of Delhi, the windows would be rolled up in the Zen, which was fitted with an AC, a novelty). Oh yes, he was great at identifying motor vehicles. He could tell by the look of a car whether its owner was the soft, nice type, or uncaring. He was really good at his job, and much respected by his peers — anyone who could gauge opportunity by the look of a car had to be good, I admit. He also noticed how I waxed and waned with the seasons.
He would curse Delhi’s winters, which were bitter and windy, especially out in the streets. But, he would flash his yellow, sharp teeth to tell me how much better I looked in winter. His spot, by which I mean our rendezvous point, did look a little bare in winter, shorn of the leaves that otherwise added body to the trees that lined the road that winded down a tiny hillock that stretched from my home, past the Mutiny Memorial that commemorated the British military’s actions in 1957 against India’s first attempt at seeking Independence. The memorial overlooked his spot. I’m not sure he ever attempted to draw any meaning from it. I don’t remember ever having had to explain to him how our personal debt situation could in a sense be traced back to that monument. Just as the British left someone like me behind, it had also left someone like him behind.
Like I said, we never met for more than say, two minutes. In that time there was much to say. “How are you?” “Here’s some food”. “Its very hot today”. “You’ve not been around”. “Was off to Bijapur, daughter’s wedding”. “Where is Langri (the lame one)?” “She died, night before, suddenly”. “Yesterday, we contributed some money to Andha (the blind one), you know, the one she was always with, the old man with so many folds on his skin”. In between somewhere, I’d remember the debt part, flip open the wallet and extract some change. Just before I had to leave – the lights do turn green eventually – I’d quietly slip the money into his hands. Tell you what, to his credit he never checked how much I gave him? He’d pretend nothing had happened and slip the money into a little frayed hand-stitched bag he carried.
About twenty years ago, my relationship with Kasim ended.
I don’t know really. Maybe the relationship did not end. Would I be writing this piece if it did? A relationship can’t end. It is an idea. How can an idea end? Kasim’s life ended, yes, on a cold December night. I did not know till a week later.
Andha told me. “He died in his sleep. He never liked winter”.
“I know”, trying to let Andha know I knew Kasim well. Strange, how we all want to be close to the dead. I ran my fingers through my Nike scarf, feeling its woolly warmth (worth Rs 600, a king’s ransom back then, but acquired in a moment of vanity). That feeling did little to bridge the distance that existed between Andha and me. The light was red still. It was a long red. It changed colour once every two cycles. Traffic intersections are an apt metaphor for life. While others move, you are forced to stay still. I remained frozen in that moment of arrested motion.
Andha hung around my car. I did not quite figure out why. Did we have anything else to say to each other about Kasim? Another ten seconds — the light sort of flickered just a bit about ten seconds before it changed colour. I knew that from years of experience. Andha could not see. But I could sense him tense. He knew as I did that there were ten seconds left. Make or break. Ten seconds.
Would he be a friend as well? My creditor till death do us part — like Kasim was. I was not thinking about it. Or was I? Should I take the plunge? Six seconds. I began rolling the window up. It was cold. Two seconds. I stopped. Just as the lights turned green, I pushed my hand out and dropped a ten-rupee note into Andha’s hand, which, mysteriously, was poised just right to receive the gesture.
The furious honking of desperate cars stacked up behind me amused me. I let out a laugh. Honk away. Kasim’s dead. Pay tribute to his beat. Honk for his memory till your batteries run cold. It’s the only service he’ll get. I do not remember exactly when, but eventually I drove on.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
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