Nakul Pandey sat staring at the frail corpse that had been his father. A group of mourners in various shades of white sat in vigil. Suffocating floral bouquet notes arose from the garland-draped cover of the coffin cooler in which the corpse had been kept as the mourners waited for Nakul’s older brother, Vipul, to come from the UK and perform the last rites. Through the huddled fog in his head, Nakul observed the cable snaking from the cooler to the switchboard and anticipated that someone might trip over it. He tripped over it when he got up to take a call. A few hands were raised in alarm, “oh-oh” and “watch it” and “careful” were exclaimed, all garbed in the tone and pitch appropriate to mourning. You wouldn’t want to wake the dead especially if the dead was his father, Jeetendra Pandey.
He almost heard his father tell him as he tripped,
“You are not fit to be my son. We should’ve called you Nakli Pandey. You’re not a real Pandey.”
A stoic and fastidious businessman dealing in the “world’s best dry fruits” – a tagline that Papa Pandey coined – Nakul cut a respectable figure to the mourners and his customers. In fact, right then as they watched the dry fruits businessman, many wondered if any dry fruits would be distributed as they were hungry. Grief or the pretense of it can really work up the appetite more than morning walks around the BBMP park.
The trip shook something loose in Nakul. He snorted. Tears began streaming down his cheeks much to his young wife’s surprise. Tarla, who had thus far sat with her eyes lowered and occasionally muttered a prayer and “wonderful man” and “he has returned to god” while she simultaneously considered in her head the plotline of her favorite soap opera, was taken aback. A decade younger than him, still a child really, Tarla thought she had been lucky to land a husband like Nakul. He was quiet, predictable, made little demands on her unlike her father-in-law, who would now have to contend with laying his demands on god, who would and could ignore him. Nakul was a good lover too, tender and considerate, so long as the lovemaking happened in complete darkness and was noiseless. Soundproofing her pleasure meant many cuts on Tarla’s lips which she had to bite hard to keep from moaning and screaming.
Though he had never uttered a word against Papa, Tarla had with her womanly instinct realized Nakul was not too fond of his Papa and was probably relieved that the old man had finally kicked the bucket. Her womanly instinct and her supposed understanding of the man she had married received a jolt. She was, however, trained since she hit puberty to be a resourceful woman worthy of the man she would marry. Even if she had missed the cue, her mother sat right next her urging her with her eyes. That is how Tarla who hadn’t shown too much enthusiasm in her mourning of Papa Pandey was brought to a rather demanding moment. She sought with rigor for something to trigger the waterworks. She could not be outdone by her husband and could not have mourners think he was unmanly. It was for his sake as well as hers that she let out a wail and in silence, thanked the gods humbly for Bollywood and especially for Amit ji who had as Jai in Sholay crawled bloodied over a rock as Veeru came hollering for him on horseback and cradled him in his arms. And poor Amit ji died in Veeru’s arms, his only regret being that he could not tell Veeru’s children stories.
Nakul was oblivious to the torment of his young wife. He was recollecting not snippets from Bollywood movies but Papa Pandey’s insults of which there were plenty, insults that he had allowed to assault him without protest.
“My son, my only son, has the blood of a businessman,” Papa Pandey had said glaring at Nakli, sorry, Nakul.
His brother Vipul was a successful businessman in Wembley where he sold spices to Indians missing home food – and there were many such Indians. Nakul, on the other hand, helped Papa Pandey with his dry fruits business and the furthest he got to was their shop in the bylanes of Chickpet market that stank of cow dung, sewer, and rose attar. He found himself in this position through no fault of his or his lack of business acumen. Papa Pandey did not dole out the money for his flight to the UK and kept such a tight watch on the business even on his death bed that Nakul had little opportunity to explore his entrepreneurial ambition, of which truth be told, there was not much, seeing how Papa Pandey had squashed it.
When she saw her dear husband blubbering with violence that shook his slender frame, Tarla thought of the scene in Hum Dil Chuke Sanam, her all-time favorite film, where even as Salman looks on, Ash, so very elegant in a red saree and a shawl, runs back to Ajay, her face streaked with tears, her face a picture of anguish. Tarla shuddered and sobbed and a line of the song, tere ho gaye hum, escaped her. It was stopped quickly by a sharp pinch from her vigilant mother. Tarla meditatively rubbed the red pinch mark forming on her arm without taking a break from sobbing.
So, it went on. Nakul roared with tears at all the slights inflicted by Papa Pandey that now roiled in him, thrashing sea serpents. Tarla wailed as she went through her remarkable repertoire of tragic Bollywood scenes faster than a waiter reciting the dishes on the day’s menu at an old-school darshini. Tarla’s mother sobbed, overwhelmed to have raised nine children, each as resourceful as her darling Tarla – nine maternal wins were too much. The other mourners upped their mourning racked by guilt for being so lukewarm till then, their mourning set against the backdrop of imagined heaps of apricots, cashew nuts, raisins, almonds, and pistachios that they still hoped would be served.
It was to this scene of grief that Nakul’s older brother Vipul – reeking of spices and with an entourage consisting of his wife and three children all of robust health, and an excess baggage of toy double-deckers, telephone booth keychains and miniature Big Bens as well as cheap trinkets for his local mistress tucked inside the lining of one of the suitcases – arrived. Unprepared as he was for the scene that greeted him, he felt, perhaps for the first time, outdone by his little brother.
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