It was a hot day along the soulless and scrappy backstreets of Rawalpindi Road, where scoundrels befriended swindlers and rogues befriended rascals.
Where the bahar vala (the outliers) drank beora (homebrewed alcohol) all throughout the night while sitting on the sidewalk or littering the streets, and where the bhangan (sweeper women of untouchable caste) swept the streets clean of their sins the next morning.
Amidst the unscrupulous miscreants there were the occasional honest shopkeepers and tradesmen of Rawalpindi Road. One such person was the Ceylonese tailor Mr. Warnakulasuriya, who made Saville Row knock-off suits for the General Manager of the Colonial Club, Mr. Bhattacharya.
On this particular day, Mr. Bhattacharya had no need for a new suit from his tailor. Instead, he had come to enquire where he might find the former schoolmaster and headmaster, Mr. Chatterjee, who was a resident of Rawalpindi Road
“Ah, Mr. Bhattacharya seth!” exclaimed Mr. Warnakulasuriya with a warm and hospitable smile, “Come, come… sit, sit… bedtho, bedtho… I am to just finishing some adjustments for Mr. Badrudin here, I shall to be attending to your custom momentarily. Eeh! Chaiwalla nu beta! Chai laiow, juldhi, juldhi!”
As Mr. Warnakulasuriya was busy with his client, Mr. Badrudin, he politely ushered Mr. Bhattacharya to sit down in the tea drinking area of his tailor shop, and then ushered his ten-year old tea-boy to make a cup of tea for Mr. Bhattacharya, while he waited.
The tea-boy was referred to as Chaiwalla nu beta, where “beta” in Hindi meant “son” and which meant that the tea-boy was the son of a Chaiwalla, a tea (chai) vendor (walla) . The tea-boy’s father worked as a tea vendor on the Indian Railways and his son was serving an apprenticeship at the tailor shop of the tradesman, Mr. Warnakulasuriya. The tea-boy made Mr. Bhattacharya a cup of fresh and piping hot tea and poured it into a teacup and placed the teacup on its saucer and ceremoniously presented the tea to the smiling and appreciative Mr. Bhattacharya.
Meanwhile, in the back room, out of sight of both Mr. Bhattacharya and the tea-boy, the shrewd and savvy Mr. Warnakulasuriya attended to his tall and lean and muscular and formidable client, Mr. Badrudin.
Mr. Badrudin, who was currently wearing only his suit trousers and a white cotton under-vest, had piercing black eyes, and a long, aristocratic nose and a neatly trimmed jet-black beard. Over to one side of the cutting table where Mr. Warnakulasuriya had strewn various tools of his trade, including a tape measure and a black steal pair of scissors; lay the previous clothes, which Mr. Badrudin had walked in to the tailor shop with. These were the traditional dress of the Pathan tribesman, which included a khat partoog, a knee-length long-sleeve shirt which is belted at the waste, and a beautiful waistcoat with golden laced embroidery.
Mr. Badrudin’s British Bull Dog Webley branded pocket revolver and matching holster also lay casually on the cutting table. Lying on the floor, lay Mr. Badrudin’s Charsadda chapli, or sandals, which were made of leather in a dark red tan color.
Mr. Warnakulasuriya momentarily cast his eyes toward the dark red sandals on the ground that belonged to Mr. Badrudin, and he said:
“I shall replace those with a first class pair of wingtip English gentleman’s shoes that I have ordered specially in your size, Mr. Badrudin, seth. First Class!”
Mr. Badrudin made a faint nod.
He did not speak much but had a powerful and intimidating presence.
Standing there in his white cotton undergarment, Mr. Warnakulasuriya pretended not to observe the various scars and gunshot wounds that Mr. Badrudin had sustained over the years. This was clearly a man of the criminal classes, and Mr. Warnakulasuriya knew that discretion in the case of this client was not just the better part of valor; it was more simply, a matter of pure survival. The presence of the revolver on his cutting table made Mr. Warnakulasuriya very nervous and made him perspire. Mr. Warnakulasuriya eyed the revolver from the corner of his eye as he attended to the suit jacket fitting of Mr. Badrudin.
Mr. Badrudin, who missed nothing and was frighteningly alert, caught Mr. Warnakulasuriya fleetingly eyeing his revolver. He looked at the revolver as well and then said to Mr. Warnakulasuriya in a deep, gravely voice:
“You can to hide gun, yes?”
Mr. Warnakulasuriya immediately and gushingly began to assure him and reassure him:
“Oh, yes, yes, Mr. Badrudin,” said Mr. Warnakulasuriya, trying to conceal his nervousness, “No problem we can hide, it will not even be noticed, the fabric lines will be so clean, not even one crease or crinkle you see, so not to worry, not to worry…”
Mr. Badrudin was not worried.
It was Mr. Warnakulasuriya who was worried and his reassurance seemed more directed toward himself than to Mr. Badrudin.
Mr. Warnakulasuriya had the dubious task of tailoring the suit jacket of Mr. Badrudin to conceal the presence of his revolver, which he would be wearing underneath his jacket in a specially tailored inside pocket that Mr. Warnakulasuriya had crafted for his client. Mr. Warnakulasuriya had a reputation amongst the criminal underworld, of being able to conceal weaponry beneath the immaculately tailored Saville Row knock-off suits that he crafted for his clients. These suits disguised not only the weaponry, but the very identity of the person wielding the weapon.
When Mr. Badrudin would emerge out of the tailor shop, he would look more like a prosperous local Indian businessman than his true identity, which was that off a gunrunner and smuggler from the North West Frontier Province, bordering Kashmir and Bolochistan, Persia and Afghanistan and viscously and violently guarded at the Khyber Pass.
Being very conscious that Mr. Warnakulasuriya continued to be detained by his mysterious client, Mr. Badrudin, and equally conscious that Mr. Bhattacharya was being kept waiting, the ten year-old tea-boy who was the Chaiwalla’s son, engaged Mr. Bhattacharya in conversation in order to pass the time, while the tea-boy cleaned and washed the teacups and saucers in the tea drinking area.
He asked Mr. Bhattacharya where he worked, and Mr. Bhattacharya told the tea-boy he was the General Manager of the Colonial Club. Mr. Bhattacharya was very chatty indeed and was impressed by how industrious, hospitable and charmingly disarming this young tea-boy was. The young boy managed to perform a number of necessary tasks and chores, while remaining fully attentive and engaged in conversation with Mr. Bhattacharya.
Mr. Bhattacharya commented upon how delicious the tea was
He was now on his third cup of tea. The Chaiwalla’s son explained that the tea he had served Mr. Bhattacharya had been harvested from his hometown province in the gentle hills and green uplands of the Sacred Forest tea plantation, which bordered upon the Sacred Forest itself.
The young boy described how the air was sweet and in the early morning dawn, when the dew was still glistening upon the tea shrubs, his mother, and his aunts and all the women of his hometown province, would come and pick the tea leaves during the tea harvest.
He described how the misty air would be filtered with a golden sunlight and how the women’s multicolored saris would splash a vibrant feast of colors upon the rich green landscape against the orange sunset and the silhouetted midnight blue colored mountains in the background.
It was in this magical and enchanting tea harvesting hill station that the Chaiwalla’s son had been privileged to grow up, and it was evident to Mr. Bhattacharya from the sparkle in the young boy’s eyes, that the pure and unadulterated soul of Mother India shone through this young boy, completely unsullied and without a single smudge or taint of the rude, rowdy and rambunctious roughians and riotous rogues of Rawalpindi Road.
At last, Mr. Warnakulasuriya emerged from the back room with Mr. Badrudin, who was now dressed immaculately in a debonair Savile Row knock-off of a navy blue colored and pinstriped suit, a muted, dark red tan tie, white shirt, and shiny new black wingtip shoes which were striding, in the style of a military march, straightly and narrowly out of Mr. Warnakulasuriya tailor shop.
Mr. Badrudin quietly and inconspicuously disappeared into the world outside the tailor shop of Mr. Warnakulasuriya and the gratified tailor finally breathed a sigh of relief and started to cool down and stop perspiring. The flustered Mr. Warnakulasuriya dabbed his white kerchief over his moistened brow and gathered himself as he walked over to Mr. Bhattacharya, who was now enjoying his fourth cup of tea and looking completely unflustered and relaxed.
Mr. Bhattacharya explained that he simply wanted to know if Mr. Warnakulasuriya had seen Mr. Chatterjee around the vicinity of Rawalpindi Road.
Mr. Warnakulasuriya said he was familiar with Mr. Chatterjee’s presence and mentioned to Mr. Bhattacharya that he had often seen him seated outside a makeshift moonshine bar, where he was sometimes reading a book, sometimes drinking beora and talking to some of the other drunkards, and sometimes just passed out from drink and fatigue and fast asleep, while sprawled in a disheveled heap upon the pavement, until he was awoken early the next morning by the pointy and prickly pinches of the sweeper woman’s bristly broom.
Mr. Bhattacharya scurried over to the moonshine bar where Mr. Chatterjee was sometimes sighted by Mr. Warnakulasuriya. Sure enough, there was Mr. Chatterjee himself in the flesh, sipping on a grimy glass of moonshine, looking unwashed and unshaven, his bleary bloodshot eyes fixed deep into a tattered copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Mr. Bhattacharya, who had likely never humbly knelt down to anyone in his entire life, was now, at this very moment, kneeling down for the second time in the very same day – if we were to count his previous prostration before the feet of Lakaji the Elephant Elder. Once more, tears streamed down his face as he spoke, this time to the startled and stunned Mr. Chatterjee:
“My dear, dear Mr. Chatterjee, I have come here to plead and beg for your forgiveness, babu. What a wretched soul I must have within me, to treat you with such ruthless cruelty. My heart is so heavy with remorse and regret. Allow me to bare my contrite soul to you and then allow you to decide if this wretch of a man you see before you is even worthy of being in your presence.”
Mr. Bhattacharya gazed helplessly into the kind countenance of Mr. Chatterjee, who remained silent and somewhat befuddled and perplexed at this unexpected occurrence. Mr. Chatterjee was not quite sure if he was dreaming or drunk, or both, and eyed his empty grimy glass of moonshine with both suspicion and desperation, as if to expect a response from the empty glass about his state of reality.
Mr. Bhattacharya once again began to bumble and blub considerably and ceaselessly, sparing neither tear nor word. The words and the tears flowed perpetually until they finally paused once more, to make way for a response from Mr. Chatterjee.
After a considered and quizzical furling of his eyebrows, Mr. Chatterjee turned to Mr. Bhattacharya and said to him wryly with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes:
“And here I thought that I was the chatterbox…”
Mr. Bhattacharya began to weep again when he heard the forgiving tone of Mr. Chatterjee. Mr. Bhattacharya gathered himself and he stood up and he then requested Mr. Chatterjee to stand up as well and they embraced as brothers and then Mr. Chatterjee welcomed Mr. Bhattacharya to sit down next to him at the moonshine bar and Mr. Bhattacharya then ordered a lemonade because it was a hot day and because he was thirsty from all the crying he had just done.
“If it is the British Empire that is the demon monster Baali…” began the well-dressed Mr. Bhattacharya in his knock-off Saville Row suit, that was crafted by the wily Mr. Warnakulasuriya, “…Then you, my dear, dear Mr. Chatterjee, are the humble Vishnu. You are indeed the quiet and noble strength, the David, to the Goliath that is the British Raj in India. You and me, my dear Mr. Chatterjee, are brothers from the same Mother India, and we are brothers from the same Beloved Bengal, and yet, Mr. Chatterjee, I have allowed my soul to be poisoned by the elitist and arrogant condescension of the ruling class. I have become the pukka sahib that the British Raj wants me to be, has brainwashed me into being. What a wretch I have been and how I long to restore the damage I have inflicted upon you, Mr. Chatterjee, and heal the harm to your wellbeing. Allow me to do this babu.
Mr. Chatterjee remained silent and listened on.
“My dear Mr. Chatterjee,” continued the blubbering and bumbling Bhattacharya, “I have arranged for you to have a completely complimentary lifetime membership at the Colonial Club. Moreover, every meal, every drink that you choose to consume at any time or day is to be complimentary as well, courtesy of the Colonial Club. Please come back to the club, Mr. Chatterjee, we all need you there. Our club has no soul without your gentle presence. The Colonial is a soulless wasteland without your gentle presence.”
Mr. Chatterjee found himself baffled once more.
He now turned his gaze to Mr. Bhattacharya’s glass of lemonade, wondering if, perhaps, Mr. Bhattacharya’s glass had been spiked with moonshine.
“Mr. Bhattacharya,” ventured Mr. Chatterjee, “I am wondering what it is that has brought upon you this transformation in your character… you appear to have had some sort of epiphany.”
Mr. Bhattacharya described how, after leaving his Colonial Club office at the end of the regular workday, he had decided to take a stroll along the Grand Trunk Road when he beheld a sight that churned his whole being inside out, ‘like a storm’ and then flooded his soul, ‘like a monsoon’ with an enlightened understanding that seemed to flush out all the toxins he had ingested from the corrosive colonial mindset of the British Raj in India.
“It was as if the Mother Ganges flowed through my soul,” said Mr. Bhattacharya with an earnest sense of gratitude, “I felt purified by the sight before me. It was the sight of an elephant sadhu by the name of Lakaji the Elder, who was accompanied by a young man by the name of Raj, who is the son of Randhava the Elder.”
“And this is when you had your epiphany?” asked Mr. Chatterjee.
“Indeed,” began Mr. Bhattacharya with genuine joy in his heart and an inspiration in his intonation.
“It was a sight of such spiritual beauty and goodness that I immediately purchased a large marigold garland wreath from the flower vendor to honor this glorious event. I placed the garland at the feet of Lakaji the Elder Elephant and then I kissed his foot and I began to weep and I felt as if the scales were dropping from my eyes, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, and that my heart returned home to Beloved Bengal and to Mother India and my entire being departed from the poison of the British Empire and I became free, as the people who were persecuted by the demon monster Baali were freed by the gentle spiritual presence of Lord Vishnu, and I found the courage of my convictions, as Prince Arjuna received his courage and his conviction from the wisdom of Lord Krishna.
“I returned home, Mr. Chatterjee. I returned home, to my beloved Mother India and to my identity as an Indian. A home where the British Raj was no longer a welcome guest nor a devious parasite within the depths of my living soul. A home where my Indianness was no longer banished but like the prodigal himself, welcomed back with a warm embrace.”
Thus it was, that Mr. Bhattacharya and Mr. Chatterjee became lifelong friends.
Mr. Chatterjee’s lifelong membership to the Colonial Club gave him a home away from home, a sense of belonging and of purpose. In the years to come, Mr. Bhattacharya and Kumar worked together to refurbish a library in the corner of the grand drawing room of the Colonial Club, which affectionately became known as ‘Chatterjee’s Corner’.
Chatterjee’s Corner was stocked with books beloved by Mr. Chatterjee, particularly in the areas of history and literature, which were the subjects that Mr. Chatterjee had taught as a schoolmaster in Shimla. Mr. Chatterjee would hold court on most days in his comfortable and cozy armchair in Chatterjee’s Corner, and tell stories or discuss plays and poems, with curious and fascinated club members of The Colonial. There were book clubs and poetry recitals and The Colonial became known as the most erudite and enlightened gentleman’s club in all of India thanks to the bookish reputation of Chatterjee’s Corner.
Thus it was that young Raj and his beloved friend, Lakaji the Elephant Elder, completed Day One of the Great Trek, by bestowing bountiful blessings along the Grand Trunk Road, and planting new seeds in old hearts, whereby the bountiful blossoms where harvested in fruitage forms unforeseen to them, forms such as Chatterjee’s Corner, which invigorated and refreshed the souls of those they encountered upon their journey, and brought to them new visions and new vistas.
Click here for Chapter Five, Badrudin.