It took me a while to recognise Herbert.
I was visiting my parents in Bombay after some years, and a friend had dropped in. When I walked her to the gate, Herbert was standing across the road. As he crossed over, he greeted me, “Utuma!”
But for that, I would not have known him, for the yellow-eyed, shabbily clad dark youth had little in common with the chubby, curly haired neighbourhood boy who had anglicised my name in our childhood.
“Seeing you after a long time!” Herbert exclaimed.
“Fifteen years at the least,” I replied.
“Where are you living now?” he wanted to know. I told him that I had moved to Delhi and asked him when he had got back from Kuwait.
“When Mummy died,” he said. “You know that we’ve sold the house?”
I had already noticed the new construction coming up where the old, Goan-style bungalow of the Marchons had stood amidst an assortment of chikoo, papaya, mango, guava, rose and hibiscus trees. “That’s some more of our Pushpa Colony gone!” I had sighed to myself. Though inevitable, the changing face of Bombay invariably evoked a sense of personal loss in me. Those tinted-glass verandas. Those clusters of single-storey structures. The spirited stoning down of jamuns ( black plums)and plucking of guavas off the neighbours’ gardens. Together they had formed the world we grew up in.
I had wandered off in my thoughts. I came out of my reverie to realise that Herbert was unburdening his woes. “Henry sold it for 16 lakh and lied to me that it had gone for only 2 lakhs. Such treachery by a brother! It hurts me to even think of it.”
I was somewhat startled. I knew there was no love lost between the brothers. In fact, their relations had worsened after the death of their father in that fire in the dock. But no matter how bad it was, Henry still should not have done such a thing to his own little brother?!
“Where’s Annie?” I asked, remembering the spastic sister whose eyes would give away her eagerness to join us in our games despite her severe disability.
“She’s in a nursing home. Henry has put some money in her name and also visits her.”
“She has settled in Australia with her husband and son. And Richard has gone off to Canada,” Herbert brought me up about his other siblings.
“Utuma can you give me a tenner?”
Again, I was startled. Is this someone who had returned after minting money in an oil-rich paradise and also got a tidy sum from the sale of a property in Bombay?!
Before I could figure out this unexpected request, Herbert said, “I am trying to go back to Kuwait. I have to see the agent.”
“Perhaps he needs a small change for the train ticket,” I thought to myself as I went indoors to fetch the money.
When I picked up the wallet my mother accosted me, “Where are you off to at this hour?”
“Nowhere. I just met Herbert and he needs a small sum to reach his travel agent.”
“What? He’s at his game again?!” Ma shot back. Then, in answer to my puzzled look she explained, “Herbert has been doing this since he came back — begging everybody, anybody, for any amount they would care to part with. Every day he catches a new person. He has made life miserable for every one of us in this Colony. He is a drug addict.”
I did not step out to give him that tenner. I did not speak a word. I did not even pay attention to what Ma was still saying: “Henry had got him admitted to a de-addiction clinic but he ran away. He even stole Annie’s gold chain and Cross!”
My mind was far away in time. I was in an innocuous world where games meant ludo, hide-n-seek, khokho (a game like tag) and badminton. Where the owner of a bicycle had the same stature as one who drove a Fiat. A world where ‘drugs’ meant only the medicines from a pharmacist…
Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics (2018). Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam Kadam,Me and I, That Bird Called Happiness.
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