(A tale of Chamathunagar)
“What’s new with you today, Jaggu?” Vijay asked.
Jaggu Ram plumped himself down so heavily on his stool that it creaked in protest, and Vijay held his breath waiting for it to collapse in a crash of splinters. It held, though reluctantly, and Vijay made a note to replace it with a sturdier one. Most stools couldn’t tolerate Jaggu Ram’s bulk every day without giving up the struggle sooner or later.
“Tea,” Jaggu Ram said curtly. “Give me tea, and quickly.”
Frowning, Vijay pushed across the glass. Curtness from Jaggu Ram was hardly something new, but this time the fat policeman looked genuinely disturbed. Something was clearly on his mind, and he stared down into his glass of tea with his brow creased with thought.
“Something wrong, Jaggu?” Vijay asked eventually. Jaggu Ram’s moods tended to make him nervous. “Is something bothering you?”
For a long time Jaggu Ram did not answer, so that Vijay wondered if perhaps he was getting deaf. Then he drained off half the tea in one swallow and put the glass down so hard on the counter that the remainder sloshed over the rim. “Wrong!” he snorted. “I’ll say there’s something wrong.”
Vijay mopped up the tea before it could leak under his basket of samosas. “Yes?”
Jaggu looked at him. The policeman’s eyes were sunken so deep between his brows and cheeks that it looked as though he were glaring out of twin caves. “What do you care?”
“We’re friends, aren’t we?” Vijay replied, wondering just how much something that would disturb Jaggu might hurt his business. “Friends should help each other out in times of trouble.”
“You never had a friend except your cash drawer,” Jaggu Ram replied, rooting for something inside his trouser pocket. He had to lift himself partly off the stool to do this. Finally he drew out a creased brown official-looking envelope. “I got this today.”
“What is it?” Vijay reached out to take it, but Jaggu Ram snatched it back from his fingers. “Official recipient only,” he said. “But if you must know, it’s from police headquarters in Kuttagarh. It says...” he paused dramatically. “It says I’m too fat.”
Vijay was so astonished by this information that he could not think of anything to say.
Fortunately Jaggu Ram had no such problem. “Yes,” he said, warming to his theme, “they call me – me – fat. Do you think I’m fat?” Heaving his immense bulk around on the stool, he glared at Vijay. “And worse, they told me to lose weight. That’s all.”
Vijay finally found his tongue. “That’s terrible,” he managed. “Whatever will they come up with next?”
“I’ll tell you,” Jaggu Ram roared, slapping his meaty hand down on the counter so that the rest of the tea slopped out. “I’ll tell you what they’ve come up with. I have two months to lose twenty kilograms – or they’ll throw me out of my job.”
“I don’t get this,” Vijay said. “Why would they want you to lose weight?”
“They say I’m too fat to catch thieves.” Jaggu Ram’s voice rose indignantly. “Did you ever see me to fail to catch a thief because I’m too fat?”
“Well, no,” Vijay replied judiciously. “I can’t say that I’ve ever seen that.” He was about to add that he’d never seen Jaggu Ram catch any thieves at all, but he thought better of it.
“There you are,” Jaggu Ram said triumphantly. “But they ordered me to lose twenty kilograms. Something about a new departmental policy. What do you have to say to that, huh?”
Vijay swallowed. “Yes, well, you’re going to have to lose twenty kilograms then, won’t you?”
“Me – lose twenty kilos? And I’m already too thin as it is!” Jaggu Ram lumbered to his feet. “Twenty kilos – I’d like to see you do it.”
Snatching up a samosa and biting into another, he waddled off down the street.
“What’s up with Jaggu?” Pillu asked. “I just passed him on the street, and he had a face like thunder.”
Vijay handed over the packet of broken biscuits and burned toast for Raja. “He’s had a shock,” he reported. “The police told him to lose weight, or else.”
They both looked at the receding khaki-uniformed bulk of the policeman. “And he didn’t like it too much?” Pillu asked.
Vijay shook with silent laughter. “He said he was too thin. Too thin – can you believe that?”
Pillu grinned, but shook his head. “And what happens if he doesn’t lose weight?”
“He says he’ll lose his job,” Vijay said. “I should care – good riddance. No more having to hand out free tea and snacks all day long.”
Bhola from the General Stores had come over to give Vijay the sugar he’d ordered. He arrived just in time to hear the last bit. “What’s going on?”
Vijay told him about Jaggu Ram. “A good thing too, I say,” he finished. “We can do with less mooching around here.”
Bhola and Pillu exchanged glances. “You don’t really get the implications, do you?” the grocer asked.
“Implications?” Vijay pronounced the word as though it tasted bad. “What are you talking about?”
“Suppose Jaggu does go,” Bhola told him, “who do you think will become the beat cop hereabouts?”
Vijay shrugged. “How should I know? The police will send someone, I suppose. Like – what’s his name, the young one who was here last time Jaggu went on leave. Humayun or something.”
“Yes – and what happens when whoever it is goes around demanding pay-offs from every business? We all know Jaggu and his ways. He’s a fat slob and he does almost nothing, but he’s not really that corrupt. He’s satisfied with free tea and biscuits and a nice gift at Diwali. As long as you don’t rock his boat, he doesn’t bother you.” He shuddered. “Can you imagine the hassle the police could cause me if they really wanted – or you, for that matter? Do you even have a permit for this stall of yours?”
Vijay blinked uncertainly. “Well then – what about it? Doesn’t seem to be anything much we can do.”
“There is,” Bhola said grimly. “We’re going to go and have a talk with Jaggu, right now.”
“We are?” Vijay looked around at his tea shop. “I, too?”
“Yes,” Pillu informed him. “You, too.”
“Jaggu,” Bhola said, “we want to talk to you.”
They had looked long for him, finally coming across him near Pandit Akhilesh Mishra’s temple. He looked tired and irritable. “What?”
“We’ve thought about your problem,” Bhola said. “And we decided we need to help you.”
“Friends should stick together in times of trouble,” Vijay added sententiously.
Bhola shot him a dirty look. “What we mean to say is,” he said to Jaggu Ram, “we realise how unfair the police department is being. But, of course, one can’t really fight the sarkar. So, though of course we know you don’t actually need to lose weight, um...” He broke off abruptly at the growing storm on Jaggu Ram’s brow.
“What’s it to you?” he barked. “Get back to your shop or I’ll lock you up.”
“But that’s precisely the point,” Pillu said. “Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to lose weight if you want to keep locking people up. Otherwise –“
“Enough,” Jaggu Ram roared. “I’m going to the temple to offer a puja. I’m sure God will see me through my problems. I don’t need anything else.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Vijay said, beginning to back away, “but just in case a puja doesn’t do the job by itself, we thought...”
“See here, Jaggu,” Pillu broke in, “we’ve known each other a long time, right? You know we haven’t ever done you any harm. And whether you need to lose weight or not –“ he looked away quickly from Jaggu’s bulging belly – “if the sarkar says you need to do it, you’ll have to. They won’t be satisfied with temple prayers.”
“All right, all right,” Jaggu Ram huffed. “I’ll think about it.” He looked past them. “Ah, here comes the Panditji. I’ll just ask him what he says.”
Avishek Mishra watched Jaggu Ram with some trepidation, wondering just which of his little peccadilloes the policeman had finally decided to take notice of. Was it the amount missing from the temple fund? Or perhaps it was over the old business of his complaint against the tailor. He almost sighed aloud with relief when Jaggu Ram told him what he wanted.
“Well, nothing is impossible for God,” he said. “I’ll do all the rituals you want, but...”
“But?” It was now Jaggu Ram’s turn to look worried. “Something wrong, Panditji?”
“No, nothing, nothing,” Avishek Mishra hurriedly assured him. “I was just about to say that if you really want the rituals to work, you’ll have to please God a bit. Offer him some sacrifices and so on, you understand.”
“Sacrifices? What sacrifices?”
“Um...let me think. A goat should do. Yes, a large goat.” Avishek Mishra’s mouth already seemed to taste the spicy mutton curry. “Bring it along tomorrow, and all will be well.”
“A goat?” Jaggu Ram frowned. “I’m not killing an animal just like that. You want a goat sacrificed, get someone else.” He began to turn away. “I’ve never killed anything all my life and I’m not about to start now.”
Avishek Mishra felt the mutton curry turn to ashes at the back of his tongue. “Wait,” he called. “Now that I think about it, I suppose a couple of pumpkins would be sacrifice enough.” But Jaggu Ram had already stumped away.
Pillu had remained, though out of earshot, and he had watched the conversation with curiosity. “What was that about?”
“Never you mind,” Jaggu Ram growled. “You have work to do, don’t you?” Pushing past Pillu, he went back to the market and straight to Hemant Shukla’s Homeopathic Clinic.
Hemant Shukla was just pulling the shutter down to go home for lunch when Jaggu Ram turned up. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
Hemant Shukla was a weedy, timid man who had always been terrified of anyone in any kind of uniform, let alone a huge, obese and glowering policeman like Jaggu Ram. “I was just about to go home for lunch,” he murmured, but was already pushing up the shutter again.
“It will just take a few minutes.” Jaggu Ram followed him inside. The tiny clinic with its shelves of cylindrical glass bottles seemed to be filled to overflowing with the big man. Hemant Shukla began to sweat with terror.
“What is it?” he asked. “I haven’t done anything.”
“Did I say you had?” Jaggu Ram looked around the room. “Do you have any medicine to make me lighter?”
“I’m sorry?” Hemant Shukla couldn’t believe his ears. “Did you say you want something to make you thinner?”
“No, damn it,” Jaggu Ram roared. “What is this thing everyone’s going on about making me thinner? I’m thin as it is. I said lighter, not thinner.”
Hemant Shukla swallowed. “I have appetite suppressants which might make you thinner, Jaggu,” he said. “But as for lighter, well...”
“Then what use are you?” Jaggu Ram shouted. “If you don’t even have a medicine for that, why are you in this shop?” A thought struck him. “Are you sure you have a degree to practice, then?”
Hemant Shukla went white and fell back into his chair. “I have it,” he whispered, “but not here. It’s at home.”
Jaggu Ram looked at him in disgust. “I’ll be back sometime soon,” he said. “Have your degree ready for me to look at.” He slammed the door shut behind him so hard that the shutter jangled on its rollers.
Hemant Shukla made no attempt to get up and go for lunch. He had lost his appetite completely, and was wondering how much it would cost him to shift his practice to some other town.
Meanwhile, Jaggu Ram stomped back to Vijay’s tea shop. “What was that you were saying about helping me get lighter?” he asked.
Vijay looked around, saw Pillu in the distance and beckoned him over. “You mean you’ve decided you want our help after all?”
“You can’t be more useless than the priest and that quack in the homeopathy place,” Jaggu Ram informed him. “So I might as well take whatever help I can get, is what I’m thinking.”
Pillu and Vijay exchanged glances. “In that case,” the former said, “we’d better start right away.”
“How do we start?” Jaggu Ram asked, stretching out his hand for a samosa.
“By not eating every ten minutes,” Vijay said, moving the basket deftly out of Jaggu’s reach. “We’ll see about the rest later.”
One of the samosas tottered on the edge of the basket and toppled. Jaggu Ram snatched it out of mid-air.
“Wasting food,” he said, biting into it and waddling away.
“He’s never going to make it.” Pillu scratched Raja’s ruff. The big dog stretched up to lick his face, but Pillu’s worried expression did not lighten. “I doubt he’s lost a kilo, and there are just three weeks to go.”
Bhola and he looked across the street to where Jaggu Ram stood, leaning on a bamboo baton and scratching the swell of his khaki-clad paunch. “I tried to make him go jogging in the morning,” Pillu said. “He said he was too tired after night duty.” He winced. “Jaggu also told me he’d make me jog at the end of his stick if I came waking him in the morning again.”
“Night duty?” Bhola snorted. “The only night duty he’s been pulling is snoring behind the desk at the police station. You know that as well as I do.”
“Vijay told me he offered to teach Jaggu Ram yoga,” Pillu said. “And he suggested that Jaggu join a gym. You can imagine what Jaggu had to say to that.”
“Sometimes I think it’s not worth the effort,” Bhola said. “If he wants to lose his job, that’s his lookout. But then I think of how he’s been around as long as any of us can remember, and the times he’s helped one or other of us out...”
“Not to speak of what kind of replacement we’ll get if he’s sacked,” Pillu added gloomily. “I bet it’s the worst the police department can palm off on us.”
“Yes, they practically consider this a punishment posting.” Bhola sighed. “I still don’t understand how he’s not lost any weight at all, though. You’d have thought that he’d at least have dropped a few kilos now that Vijay hides the snacks as soon as he sees Jaggu coming.”
Pillu grunted. “He goes to Jarnail Singh’s restaurant and loads up there,” he said. “I’ve seen him myself, coming out wiping his mouth. He pretended he hadn’t seen me.”
“So, what’s to do?” Bhola shook his head. “Doesn’t look like we have an option, does it?”
They were still thinking about this when Jaggu Ram came over. If anything, he looked even fatter than before. “Well?” he demanded. “Have you geniuses found some way to help me out? There’s not much time left.”
Bhola and Pillu exchanged glances. “Maybe,” the grocer ventured, “we might get a doctor’s certificate saying your weight is twenty kilograms less than it is? That will do it, do you think?”
Jaggu Ram uttered an exclamation of disgust. “I’ll have to go up before a medical board,” he said. “They’ll weigh me themselves, not take the word of some medical certificate. Do you think they’re as stupid as you are?”
“Perhaps we’re stupid,” Pillu said, “but we suggested everything we could and there’s nothing left to do. You won’t lift a finger to help yourself, so...”
“Hold on,” Bhola interrupted. His brow was furrowed in thought, and he looked at Pillu to Jaggu and back again. “Hold on just a moment there.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Pillu asked apprehensively. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Bhola told him, grinning. “Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s suddenly all right.”
Somehow, that did not reassure Pillu at all. “Whatever it is,” he said, “I won’t do it.”
“Oh, you will, Pillu,” Bhola said, throwing a comradely arm round Pillu’s shoulder. “Of course you will.”
Some days later, Rajat Kapoor was walking back from his office when he saw something strange.
A little knot of people was gathered outside Vijay’s tea stall, plus one large German Shepherd. That wasn’t so unusual in itself, but Kapoor had never seen Bhola, Vijay and Jaggu Ram all bending over Pillu like that before. Wondering if something had gone wrong with the ragpicker, he’d just started walking over when Raja barked a greeting and the four men looked up with what clearly looked like guilty starts.
“Hey, boys.” Rajat Kapoor was struck again by how furtive they looked. “What are you up to?”
“It’s nothing,” Vijay said, scooting back behind his counter. “Everything’s all right. Do you want some tea?”
“Yes, all right. Give me tea.” Rajat Kapoor glanced again at the curious objects Pillu was clutching – something he’d never imagined Pillu having a need for before. “What are you doing with a notebook and pen, Pillu?” he asked.
“Just – uh...” Pillu tried, too late, to hide them behind his back. “I, just, um...”
“We’re trying to teach him to read and write,” Bhola said quickly. “We thought it’s a disgrace that there should be anyone illiterate in this town.”
“Pillu’s a little shy about it,” Jaggu Ram said, twisting the tips of his moustache absently. “He tends to get flustered if asked what he’s learned.”
“He’s making good progress though,” Vijay put in.
“Yes, very good progress. He’s a bright boy is our Pillu.”
Rajat Kapoor glanced from the notebook at the four earnest faces and back. There was something strange about the situation, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “How come you three took it on yourselves?” he asked, sipping at the tea. “Wouldn’t one of the old teachers be better suited for this? I’m sure they’d be more than happy to teach Pillu to read and write. I’d be glad to recommend one or two myself.”
“Kapoor ji, Kappor ji,” Jaggu Ram said. “Don’t you know our Pillu by now? He’d never be comfortable round one of those school teacher types. He’s known us for years and years though, and he hasn’t any problems around us. Isn’t that so, Pillu?”
Pillu nodded vigorously. He seemed to have let his facial hair grow a bit since Rajat Kapoor had last seen him. At this rate he’d probably have the beginnings of a walrus moustache before too long. It made him look even more bedraggled than usual.
“Enough for today,” Bhola told Pillu. “Make sure to complete your homework for tomorrow.”
“I have that package for you,” Jaggu Ram added. “Don’t forget to drop by later and pick it up.”
Pillu disappeared at high speed. As he paid for the tea he’d hardly tasted, and turned homewards, Rajat Kapoor wondered again what was going on. Of course, he’d get nowhere by asking. Probably they’d tell him soon enough, he thought, and put the business out of his mind for the moment. He had a new book he was eager to start on.
So he didn’t see Pillu drop by Usman the tailor’s later that evening, clutching a large package. And if he had been at Baal Dari’s barbershop, a few days later, he’d have been treated to the unprecedented sight of Pillu having a haircut and his face shaved – leaving only the moustache, which was now definitely of the walrus variety. And that evening, none of Pillu’s three tutors were to be seen at their usual place. It was almost as though they had some secret business elsewhere.
It was probably better for his peace of mind that he spent his evenings at home, reading, and never knew anything of this at all.
“Here.” Pillu thrust the brown-paper wrapped bundle into Jaggu Ram’s arms. “I hope you’re happy.”
Jaggu opened the package and peered anxiously at his spare uniform. “You didn’t tear it, did you?”
“Tear it!” Pillu’s tone was so full of disgust that Raja looked up at him, ears erect. “It weighs a ton and scratches, and I was sweating inside it like I just had a bath. Also, the damn shoes feel like I’m wearing boats – and still I did your job for you. And you ask if I tore it?”
“All right, cool down. I’ll be taking it back to Usman and have it altered back to fit me anyway, so if you tore it I suppose he can fix it up. Did you have any trouble?”
“I told you I did your job for you, didn’t I?” Pillu glared round at all three of the others. “What more do you want?” he asked belligerently.
“Just tell us what happened,” Bhola said. “You know we think you did a superb job. We’d just like to know the details. We were worried about you, you know that.”
“Here, Pillu,” Vijay said, “have a bread pakora. Have two. Now tell us.”
“Well,” Pillu said, slightly mollified. “I went to Kuttagarh by the last bus, just like you told me. And I turned up at the police headquarters bright and early, too. You know,” he said to Jaggu Ram, “I’ve seen dens of crooks which look less like dens of crooks than that place.”
“Get on with it,” Jaggu Ram growled. “I don’t need editorial comments.”
“So there was this big officer behind the desk,” Pillu continued. “All stars on his shoulder and you should’ve seen the cap he had on the wall – hey, Jaggu, you really ought to become an officer so you can get to wear one of those. It’s better looking than this old thing of yours any day. I went up to him, and I said, ‘Superintendent saab, I’m here for my fitness test.’ “
“Superintendent?” Jaggu Ram groaned.”You called him a Superintendent?”
“That was the only rank I could remember right then,” Pillu explained. “And he looked at me kind of funny and said ‘Thanks for the promotion, but who might you be?’ So I told him I was Jaggu Ram, from Chamathunagar, and handed over the letter and your identity card, Jaggu, right as you asked me to.
“And he looked at them and at me like he couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘My God,’ he said. That’s what he kept on repeating. ‘My God.’ Must be a very religious man. I didn’t know religious people went in for the police line of work so much. Hey, Jaggu, you all right?”
“Just get on with it,” Jaggu Ram said, clutching his head. “What happened?”
“Then he asked me just how many kilograms I’d lost since the photo was taken. I didn’t have any idea, so I said forty. And he went on saying ‘My God’ some more.
“ ‘It’s a mercy you kept the moustache,’ he said finally. ‘Otherwise nobody would have been able to recognise you at all.’ Then he found some papers and asked me to sign, and I did, just like you showed me to.
“After that I was sent off to some doctor in a white coat, who made me strip and poked and prodded at me. Hey, Jaggu, I didn’t know you had a birthmark on your...”
“Just...shut...up,” Jaggu Ram said. “Or I’ll kill you.”
“All right, be like that,” Pillu said. “Anyway, the doctor asked what happened to the birthmark. I said it had just faded and vanished. Couldn’t have said anything else, could I?
“He looked a little surprised but then said it was all right. Took my weight and said he’d never known anyone to lose that much before, and to be sure I kept it off. You hear that, Jaggu? You make sure to keep the weight off.
“After that they sent me to do some physical tests. Chin ups and laps round a track – and in that damned uniform of yours too. I don’t even know how you breathe in it, but I managed it. I hope you’re happy.
“Then I signed forms at a couple more places and came back,” Pillu finished, rising. “I’ll go get this moustache of yours shaved off now. It’s been getting on my nerves. Each time I open my mouth the hairs go in.”
He had already walked away a fair distance when he was struck by a thought. “Hey, Jaggu – I nearly forgot.”
“What?” Jaggu Ram asked, ambling over. “What is it now?”
“That police officer, the one you said wasn’t a Superintendent – when I was coming out, he called me back and said he needed to lose a few kilos himself, and he wondered what my system was. He said he’ll come over one day and I – that means you, of course – could coach him.”
With a cheery wave, he walked away, leaving Jaggu Ram open-mouthed with horror.
“Hey, Jaggu,” Vijay called. “Come back here. Let’s celebrate your keeping your job.”
“What?” Jaggu Ram asked blankly.
“Let’s celebrate,” Vijay repeated patiently. “Here, have a samosa on me.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013