Sep-Oct 2013: Story 'Almost Ransom'
by bhakti bapat mathew
Nareshbhai shut his eyes and counted his blessings. Thick thatch of jet black hair – check. A fair complexion valued by the Indian marriage market (even for men) – check. Bushy, luxuriant moustache, much valued in his town – check. On paper, almost handsome.
He opened his eyes and looked into the mirror. Now he counted the other facts. 60 kilos overweight – check. At middle-age, a long-time bachelor – check. A shopkeeper of modest means – check. Vertically challenged – check.
He sighed. Clearly, the pluses he had mentioned on his photo-less profile on the matrimonial website would only get him a first meeting. After that, it would be the same old routine. The girl would make excuses to leave early and walk away quickly. The ones that stayed, in a perverse way, did not excite Nareshbhai at all. Like Groucho Marx, he wasn’t sure he wanted to marry a girl who found him suitable enough. It was a vicious circle. He gave a deep sigh.
After carefully completing his daily grooming rituals, Nareshbhai stepped out of his room in the chawl and turned to lock the door. As he turned, his massive behind gently nudged the unseen five-year old rushing out from the opposite house. The child promptly stumbled, slipped and fell down the stairs. The cacophony that naturally followed would be the subject of nightmares for Nareshbhai for months to come.
Hours later, exhausted from the whole drama that ensued, Nareshbhai slunk into his flat, shut the door, and let out a ragged breath. The child had bawled uncontrollably for hours, claiming Nareshbhai had deliberately pushed him. The boy's mother had threatened to drag Nareshbhai to the police. She had even threatened to send the media to his house. Nareshbhai sighed. Women watched far too much television these days he thought, and news channels sometimes provided more drama than the rampant Hindi soap operas.
Nareshbhai had listened to her increasingly hysterical voice and stared at the furious, twitching face. He knew this woman and she was a pest. There was no doubt in his mind that the child had inherited his howling skills from her. He had promptly brought out the five thousand rupees he had in his wallet. The money had been for a month of treatment that guaranteed weight loss, but he figured he could skip that for now. He thrust the money in the mother's hands and promised more if she forgot about the police and the media. The child had suffered a few bruises, but no other damage.
As Nareshbhai left the hospital to go back home, he thought about the girl he was supposed to have met two hours ago, a potential match dug up by his aunt in Vadodara. He had forgotten to call her up and ask to reschedule. The girl, confident in her youth and her ability to make any man pursue her, had waited for ten minutes and then messaged him telling him to forget about the whole match thing. Blown off before he could be seen, thought Nareshbhai. Just as well, he consoled himself; it was anyway unlikely a girl like that would have fallen for him after meeting him.
Nareshbhai stayed in for the next two days. On the third day, he woke up to persistent ringing of his doorbell. It was the wounded child's mother. She was going to take him to the police, she said, unless he paid her one lakh rupees for taking care of her child. The child had developed high fever from the stress of the fall and had needed to be rushed to the doctor again. Nareshbhai blanched. Before he could say anything, she had stalked off.
Nareshbhai stared at the door long after she was gone. His mind reeled as he thought about the consequences. There was no way he could get together that much money. Hell, he thought, if he had money like that to blow, he would have given himself a make-over. He sat in bed and wondered what to do. After an hour of mulling, he decided to ask Dada.
Dada, or Mr.V.V. Chaughule, had always been there for Nareshbhai. Dada was his neighbour and tenant, a reedy, impoverished man whom Nareshbhai occasionally fed in exchange for conversation. Dada’s wife of forty–five years had left him three months ago in a quest for a more spiritual existence. Dada was confident she’d be back. Her fads usually lasted six months.
Nareshbhai knew Dada to be deeply philosophical and very wise. On days when Nareshbhai despaired about finding the right girl, Dada always made him feel better. "No woman, no cry," he had once told him. When that had confused Nareshbhai, Dada suggested Nareshbhai only talk about his plus points on his matrimonial profile. He also advised him to not put up his picture. The latter, thought Nareshbhai, had been a stroke of genius.
Nareshbhai walked up to Dada’s tiny, dingy room. The two sat on Dada’s cot drinking the tea Nareshbhai had brought in a flask. After a few moments, Dada said, "We need to kidnap the kid and ask for a ransom amount. We take the money, keep some for ourselves, and pay the rest to that crazy aurat."
Nareshbhai didn’t bat an eyelid. He had been expecting an out-of-the-box solution and here it was. He sat gulping the tea in silence. Always on the lookout for a break from an increasingly dreary existence, Dada took the opportunity to sell his solution.
“If the young devil is gone, she can’t come after you. She’ll be killing herself over finding him. Better still, kill the boy. Problem solved!"
That brought Nareshbhai out of his stupor. "You don't mean that, Dada. We are not going to kill anyone."
"Okay, okay," said Dada, improvising quickly, "We grab the boy and ask his Maa for money. All the time, you stay in the chawl and show yourself around. That way, they’ll think you couldn’t have done it. You show me the boy and I'll lift him."
Nareshbhai looked at Dada, lost for words. "Thank you Dada, you really are a fine man," he said finally, deeply moved by this glorious show of support. They continued talking, chalking out a plan. Dada decided he would hide the boy in the hospital next to the chawl. His wife had been a nurse there. The ward-boys and nurses there were still friendly with him.
The next day, as decided, Nareshbhai walked around in the chawl, talking to people he hadn’t seen in ages. Dada had slunk away in the morning, and Nareshbhai was sure he had already begun his mission.
As expected, within a couple of hours the mother raised a strident alarm. Her boy was missing. She was sure he was dead somewhere. The jealous women around her had killed him because they didn’t have sons, she wailed to anybody who would listen. A search party was formed. Nareshbhai quickly joined the gang, his heart thumping with excitement, fear and the beginnings of regret. After searching the chawl thoroughly, they went to the police station to file a missing persons’ complaint.
Back from the police station, Nareshbhai began to have increasingly uneasy feelings about the whole operation. The woman was vile, no doubt. But the plan that had seemed fool-proof just yesterday was quickly losing its appeal. A soft-hearted man who scared easily, Nareshbhai could see that for all her grasping ways, the woman really did love her son. Feeling guilty, and unsure what to do about it, he decided he’d go to the hospital and check if Dada was there.
Just as he came out of his room, the woman grabbed hold of him, “You! I know it’s you who’s kidnapped my boy. Give me back my boy!”
Nareshbhai squealed and jumped aside, “I don’t have your boy. But I’ll help you find him. Did you check in the hospital? He made a lot of friends there, didn’t he? He must have gone there. Come on, I’ll help you look. I’m sure nobody thought to check there.”
The woman dropped her antagonism long enough to numbly agree to go with him. Nareshbhai decided he would tell Dada to give back the boy with some excuses. This had gone too far.
Once in the hospital, he told the woman that they should split up and search for faster results. The woman went towards the ward where the boy had been kept. Nareshbhai waited to let her get a head-start, and then promptly went off to the nurses’ enclosure.
As expected, there was Dada, sipping tea. The boy was eating ice-cream. That explained why the boy was happy away from home, that glutton, thought Nareshbhai morosely. He went up to Dada. “Dada, this has gone too far. It was a bad idea! We have to give up the boy. His mother is in the hospital, hunting for him like a possessed woman.”
Dada got excited and hissed, “Arey, are you mad? I take so much trouble for you and you want to chicken out. This little devil is your ticket to freedom.”
Just then, Lata, the head-nurse, came striding into the quarters. She was a short, skinny woman with a plain face made attractive by a quiet but complete confidence in her own abilities. She demanded, “What are you two whispering about? And anyway, you two shouldn’t be here.” She shook her head sharply in disapproval.
Dada, familiar with the woman’s ways, hastened to soothe her, “Look Lataji, this is Nareshbhai, have you two met? Well, anyway, Nareshbhai is in a little trouble. I’m helping him out. We just need some time by ourselves to sort out his problem. You understand na? We have to stand by each other, otherwise who else is going to, haan?”
Lata made a disapproving clucking sound and didn’t say anything. But neither did she go away. Taking her silence for consent, Dada told Nareshbhai, “Now look, we stick to the plan. We keep the boy here and demand money in the evening with a phone call from a booth a little away from here. By evening, you’ll be a free man!”
Lata’s eyes widened. “This is that boy? My god, what’s wrong with you men! His mother is bringing the roof down in the children’s ward! You have to return the boy to her. Dada, I’m sure it was your idea. And you dragged poor Nareshbhai into this! Shame on you two!”
Nareshbhai was glad that someone else had taken up the cause of changing Dada’s mind. But he was a fair man and wouldn’t let the blame fall on Dada alone.
“Look madamji, it wasn’t Dada’s fault. I know it was wrong of us. But we were desperate. That woman demanded one lakh rupees from me, saying that I was responsible for the severe injuries her boy had! I swear it wasn’t a big deal! It just happened! And he didn’t even seem that hurt. I apologised and apologised and immediately gave her five thousand rupees. But she came back for much more. Anyway, I’m willing to give back her boy. I’ll just have to make some arrangement for the one lakh she wants,” Nareshbhai spoke hurriedly in an attempt to make this nice but firm woman see the truth of his words.
Lata’s face softened. Nareshbhai was glad to see the disapproving look gone.
Lata snorted, “Severe injuries, my nose!” Nareshbhai was so relieved to hear the scorn in her voice, that he forgot his shyness and smiled extravagantly at her, a little of his stress slipping away.
Lata continued, “Why, the boy just had two scratches, which we cleaned and medicated. But she insisted we keep him in the hospital for a day. I tried telling her we needed every bed we had and couldn’t waste it on small injuries, but she screamed and chewed everybody’s heads off. The doctor agreed to keep the boy under observation for a day just to keep the peace.”
Seeing in Nareshbhai’s gentle, worried eyes a glimmer of hope, she continued soothingly, “Don’t worry, Mister. She has no case. The hospital will stand by you. The boy was alright really.”
Looking at Dada now, Lata spoke authoritatively, “I will speak to the woman and tell her to end this nonsense about money. But you have to return the boy.”
Sensing the general direction in which the winds were blowing, Dada promptly agreed. Lata went off with the boy in hand. They agreed that they would say Dada had brought the boy here for ice–cream and a final check-up to verify her claim for the one lakh rupees.
Nareshbhai was profuse in his praise of this goddess who had delivered the solution with so much ease and confidence, “My god, what a nice lady! Isn’t she sweet? So kind! Knows what’s right from wrong!”
“And she’s single, Nareshbhai,” whispered Dada conspiratorially. Seeing Nareshbhai blush and daily home-cooked meals in the future, Dada continued (blissfully unaware that Lata couldn’t cook), “She’s your age, Nareshbhai. She’s perfect for you. You’re too nice. You need a strong, kind woman. And Lataji deserves a nice, decent man who loves her. I think you both are made for one another.”
Seeing Nareshbhai getting excited but still dithering, he exploded, “What’s with your generation of men today? It’s because of men like you that decent men and women remain unmarried when there’s no reason to. Men like you pine after women who keep rejecting you. In the meantime, there are perfectly great matches like Lata who may be willing to look beyond appearances. But you won’t see them out of sheer stupidity. And you waste precious time because of a weak will and indecision. I tell you, men and women these days are totally confused, useless. Not like in our time. We married who our parents picked and stayed happy. Well, most of the time. And anyway, my case is different!” Dada concluded hastily, remembering a little late that his own wife abandoned him with some regularity.
Chastened, Nareshbhai said, “Alright, alright. And of course your case is different. Anyway, I see your point. She’s a good woman, no doubt about that. What should I do?”
Back in his role now as the older, wiser man, Dada exclaimed, “For the love of god, ask her out! She might say yes, she might say no. But you have to show some guts. No guts, no glory!” Dada ended rather belligerently.
Nareshbhai chanted again, “Alright, alright.” He shuffled towards Lata, who was now coming back to the nurses’ enclosure at a smart clip. He was pleased to see her triumphant look and felt unreasonably proud of her.
“It’s done!” Lata exclaimed, “The lady was so relieved to see her son that she’s dropping all her demands! But I also told her, just to make sure she won’t change her mind later, that the hospital would not support her injury claims.” Lata was elated. It felt good to finally see the look of worry gone from this sweet man’s gentle eyes.
Nareshbhai beamed at her. Gathering courage, he murmured, “I was thinking Lataji, you know, umm, would you join Dada and me for lunch today? It’s my treat. A way of saying thanks for all you did!”
Lata happily agreed. But Nareshbhai saw that she hadn’t registered it as a date. Perhaps he’d been wrong to include Dada. Knowing Dada wouldn’t mind, he ventured, “Is it okay if it’s just the two of us?”
In for a penny, may as well be in for a pound, he thought and gathering some more courage, which he would later believe had been sent to him directly by God in Heaven, he blurted, “You see, I don’t mean to be presumptuous. But I am single and so are you. I want to marry a woman who is kind and brave like you. I am not rich but I do have a shop and an extra room that I let out. I’ve been told I’m a nice man but I am not very brave. Although I could be brave with someone like you. And I will lose weight, I promise!”
Lata was taken aback. His words were completely unexpected but she wasn’t offended. The sudden gleam in his eyes was not unpleasant either. Encouraged that the man could be bold when needed despite his claim to the contrary, she replied, “I need to get to know you, of course. We’ll need time to figure out if we get along.”
Nareshbhai smiled at her happily. Without saying anything more, they turned and walked back together towards the cafeteria.
Bhakti writes for Indian and international publications including The Hindu, Mint, Business Standard, Good Housekeeping, Deccan Herald, New Indian Express and The National.