Hathoda: The Soap Opera By Sudarshan Purohit
As the short, fat, middle-aged man walked into the office for the second time that week, Pulkit groaned. Mr. Patel was the worst kind of visitor to handle – driven by zeal, determined that he was in the right, convinced that some way, somehow, he was going to get back the money he had lent the government. And since Pulkit was the PR man for this branch of the SLEEP effort, it meant that he had to argue, convince and cajole Mr Patel every time he came here. Several times, just to keep him off, Pulkit had asked Patel to write applications to higher-ups in the government, explaining his situation.
Pulkit hastily pulled open a file and pretended to be busy with it, as he saw Mr. Patel heading his way. As he came closer, Pulkit looked up, seemed to notice him for the first time, smiled, and greeted him, “Namaste ji. Could you please wait for ten minutes while I finish some work?” Thankfully, he’d picked up a really thick file, about the massive recycle project, so he’d be safe for a while while he flipped through all the pages.
Patel seemed to be expecting some such move, and had probably decided not to get rattled so easily. He sat down in the bench closest to Pulkit’s desk and took off his floppy hat. Fanning himself with the damp hat, he looked around.
A wizened old man was slumped at the other end of the bench. He made the mistake of nodding at Mr. Patel. Patel, of course, had been waiting for such a chance. He said loudly, making sure Pulkit could hear, “Hello sir! Are you also being pushed around by these government types? Me, I’ve been trying to get such a small job done for the past six months, and they dont budge a bit!”
The old man also seemed to be a gossipy type. He brightened up and nodded vigorously. “I know what you mean. I’ve been here thrice already, and nothing has happened at all.”
“Three times?” Patel said. “I must have been here three dozen times by now! And you know, I’m only asking for what’s mine, it isnt even as if I want somebody else’s money!”
The old man made interested noises, so Patel continued.
“Myself Mansukh bhai Patel. I’m a professor in the government college here. And by God, I never had such trouble with government offices.
“You remember when they were preparing all those chambers for everyone to sleep in? When the Hathoda was going to hit? Boy, those were confusing days, we kept hearing different things all the time. And then they printed those appeals in the papers – they needed gold, lots of gold, in those chambers. Something about purifying the air, or something. My wife – she’s an ayurvedic doctor you know – she has always said it’s auspicious to wear some gold against the skin, it has a purifying effect. Anyway, these scientist types apparently realized that too, so they wanted gold for their machines. Said most of it wouldnt even get used, but wanted extra in case we had to sleep in their chambers for more than six months.
“Well, I had some gold – saved it for my youngest daughters’ marriage. And they were willing to give me money for any of the gold that actually got used. And, they were giving me 9% interest, too, which is better than putting the money into an FD. So like a fool, I lent it to them.
“Trust these scientist types to get everything wrong. Six months maximum, they said. Hardly any of the gold would get used, they said. Tchah! We woke up all those years later instead. Thankfully we didn’t all die in our sleep. My house looks like a ruin from being closed up for so long. Most of the appliances don’t work with all the dust and moisture. These guys have been talking of repairing or replacing them somehow, but you know how slowly government works. They took months just to get the electricity working properly. And the TV channels are repeats even now, and they keep interrupting the programs with this important bulletin and that appeal for volunteers.
“Anyway, I was talking about my gold. Because those scientists got it all wrong, it turned out that more than half of the gold got used up by the purification thing. That wasn’t all bad – the price of gold really rose after the markets got working. But they refused to give the 9% interest for all the years – said one year was the limit for them, they weren’t responsible for all the extra time. Fine, I said, atleast give me the money or the remaining gold, whatever the amount comes to. I’ve even done all the calculation for them, worked out the amounts and everything. But these slowpokes still haven’t paid me! Every time I come here, they have some excuse to delay things. This young fellow here -” pointing to Pulkit and making sure he was listening, “- has had me running around like a beggar for months, just to get my own money back!
“But you know, they wont put me off for long. There are hundreds of people like me who donated gold to the government. And we’re all facing the same problem. In Mumbai, they’re forming an association to solve the problem. They’re going to write an appeal to the president, and perhaps file a PIL in the High Court. Oh yes, it won’t be long now. I’ve sent in my application form to them too.”
It sounds so simple to hear him say it, thought Pulkit. As if we’re just sitting here doing nothing but holding up his money. It’s people like him that are creating all the work. Why doesn’t he volunteer to clear up the paperwork, he must have read in the papers that we’re short of staff – there’s never been so much work for any government before. Pulkit himself was staying late, working hard just to clear up the pending estimates for his assigned project – the recycling effort. He was going crazy just compiling the lists of all the appliances people had owned – so many were claiming ridiculously inflated lists! And it would get worse, as they tried to work out the raw material costs for all that stuff and try to co-ordinate with the manufacturers for the recycling.
And he knew he was still better off – he was after all working on something simple, atleast it wasnt harming anyone’s life. He’d been talking to Seema the other day – she was just an intern, and she was working full time with the other doctors trying to treat all those wierd diseases the babies were getting. She’d been telling him about a kid they’d brought to the hospital recently – all green and pulpy it’d been, almost since it was born, and it had something strange instead of a nose. His stomach had turned just to hear her tell it. And Seema’d had dark circles under her eyes from doing extra shifts. Damn, damn that Hathoda and all the extra work it had brought! Why couldnt we just have gone on living the way we were, or just have decided to die when the comet came!
All Jagatram did all day was to watch his neighbours, talk with them when he could, see them going about rebuilding their busy lives. He’d hardly had any life left to rebuild, anyway.
But this spot was good. They’d mostly rebuilt this office building, even if one wing of it was just canvas propped up with poles. And people came and went, doing their jobs all day long. He could just relax here and watch all the strange things that went on in the world. It was much busier than his mohalla, his neighbourhood. It reminded him of the inside of a honeycomb, with all the bees buzzing around. And in just the few minutes he’d been here, he’d found that people – like this Patel – wanted to sit down and talk to him. He felt a rush of gratitude for the man and decided to tell him so.
“You’re right, Patel ji. You really need to get your money back from these people. And you know what – thank you.”
Patel was looking at him strangely. Jagatram tried to explain.
“Me, I have no one left in the world. When a person reaches that stage, everything around him becomes just a soap opera, a long story of people you just know superficially, all of them trapped in their own stories and everyone just doing their best to live.
“And this, our soap opera has just been through an amazing transformation. These TV shows are nothing – they just move the story forward a generation or so when they get bored – but this, this our story has just beem moved forward hundreds of years. And the whole genre’s changed. Its an entrancing story to be a part of.
“And you know what? Most of these people, atleast the ones in this area, survived to continue the story because of your sponsorship. God knows there must have been many sponsors – this is a popular show after all – but you, of course, are one of them. So I just wanted to thank you for bringing us this episode of the show.”
Mr. Patel had been scratching his head when the crazy old man had started to talk. Now he was just staring at the guy, open mouthed. He looked away with an effort.
As in a dream, he stared around the office. All the people around him were normal people, just doing normal stuff. But last year they were all asleep. Asleep, not dead, because of a bit of gold in their chambers.
That’s why they all exist now. Like a God, I gave them a shield from the heavens.
Still feeling as if he were in a dream, Mr. Patel stood up, stumbled to the door, and walked out into the bright sunlight.
Note: Read the complete Hathoda Series:
- Hathoda: The Soap Opera By Sudarshan Purohit
- Hathoda: Results Day By Sudarshan Purohit
- Hathoda: The Robbery By Sudarshan Purohit
- Hathoda (The Hammer) By Sudarshan Purohit
Cover pic by Tim Olson.