In those days courtyards were very important to a house. The size and number of courtyards reflected the social status of its occupants. I spent my childhood living in just such a house of courtyards in Benares. Made up of seven courtyards of varying sizes, our house was called Dewan Saheb ki Haveli. Family partition, over generations, had changed its size, face and social value. Of the seven huge courtyards, my immediate family was left with only one. The east and north sides of this courtyard were occupied by my father and his widowed sister. The southern side lay deserted and somewhat close to being a ruin. Family disputes prevented repair and maintenance, but as children, we were asked to leave whenever animated discussions took place over the ownership of this part.
The courtyard was the most happening place. Marriages, mundans, funerals – all the ceremonies took place here.
My grandfather’s dead body was kept in the centre of this courtyard for an entire night because Baba, my father, was in Calcutta when he died. Poor Dadi (paternal grandmother), she was brought to the courtyard three times, almost dead, with Ma whispering verses from the Ramayana into her ear, in anticipation that she would go to heaven listening to sacred verses. All three times she survived and was taken back to her bed.
We knew very little of the Guruji who lived on the west side except that he was much respected, cutting across the family friction and often settling minor disputes between feuding siblings. Despite my young age I could not escape noticing a family resemblance in his appearance. This was often the topic of discussion among the neighbours. Guruji had his own group of bhajan singers. They met several times a week to sing reverent songs as offerings to Devi, our family Goddess. I enjoyed their music and was often allowed to participate in the chorus. But for me, stealing sweet prasad from Guruji’s small little wooden cabinet, was more thrilling. For fear of reprimand I did not dare to share the sweets even with my little sister with whom I played all day. Whenever sweets were found missing, the family knew who would have eaten them. I had the sweetest tooth in the entire neighbourhood.
If stealing sweets gave me thrills, exploring the deserted south-side was a greater adventure. Apart from a small store of cooking coal which we were told was full of snakes, the other two rooms housed wasted heirlooms. From ornate door knobs, to broken pieces of sculpture, to prayer bells and other wares – the two rooms were like toy stores. But among all these treasures, what I liked the most was a trunk full of 78 rpm records. The trunk had the best dadra and thumris sung by Badi Kashi Bai, Moti Bai, Jaddan Bai and the best of the time. The colourful labels in the centre of the records fascinated me. One day I selected five of my favourite colours to seek further adventure. I lit two candles, brought one of the records close to the flame and to my utter delight it started to curve. I felt as if I had invented something with which I could finally make my family happy and proud. The next day I turned one of the Jaddan Bai records into a flower vase. Much to my dismay Ma shouted and slapped me and threatened to report this to Baba. I felt my great piece of creativity was beyond Ma’s understanding and decided to give the vase to our neighbour’s little daughter, who really loved it.
I wasn’t very popular among the neighbours. In the height of summer, when the entire neighbourhood was enjoying its afternoon siesta, I would knock on doors to call other children to play cricket in the lane. The deserted lane in the hot summer afternoon made a great cricket field. Being the best built I would show off and hit the ball hard and break the neighbouring windows. If summer afternoon was a great time for cricket for me, it was also the season for many fights between the Dewani lane neighbourhood. After every fight I would promise Ma never to play again with the children of those wretched neighbours but somehow I could never sleep through the hot summer winds. The furious sound of the wind hitting the window pane was too enticing to remain in bed. The thought of a cricket game in the deserted lane would make me forget my promise. And more importantly I was a hero to my mates and I took my leadership rather seriously.
It was one such Sunday afternoon and as usual I was restless in bed. It was past lunch. Baba had brought some delicious langra mangoes and after the habitual heavy Sunday lunch, all of us had our fill of mangoes. Baba and his friends were discussing the varieties of langra and how that year the yield of the finest variety from Rani ka Bagh was so small that practically nothing had reached the mandi (market). I was getting bored and impatient with this mundane discussion, and desperately wanted to slip out when everyone had dozed off to sleep. I made my first attempt half an hour later. But I was caught and dragged back to the room which was darkened by the wet curtain of khus to keep the room cool.
I was still very restless and as soon as I heard Baba’s first serious snore, I thought it was safe to escape. The risk was high. It was to be my second attempt and if I was caught this time, it wouldn’t just be a shouting or a slap. Baba would certainly debar me from playing cricket the entire summer and worse still, he might decide not to take me with him to see the test match in Kanpur’s Green Park the following winter. Yet the temptation was too high. I would lose my superiority among the boys if I failed to show up in the lane. It was worth taking the risk. So instead of going down the steps on foot, I decided to slide down on my backside!
No sooner had I reached the last step leading to the courtyard, than Baba thundered ‘Premoo’. I froze and in that frozen moment I yelled back ‘Thief! Thief! Catch him! Catch him!’
Baba came running down; soon the entire household had gathered around the courtyard. Servants, my brothers, the guests, and also the lawyer who lived next door. In the middle of the courtyard the bicycle lay flat as if someone had just thrown it away in fright. Everyone came rushing to the lane, which moments ago, would have been our exclusive cricket pitch. I pointed to a man I thought was trying to steal the bicycle.
I was in complete shock as everyone was reacting too swiftly and being the cause of the chaos, I had to respond to them. I do not know if someone was indeed making an attempt to steal. Was it Baba’s yell that made me shout? Was it the fear of being caught escaping for the second time? Or did I shout to divert attention? Honestly I do not know. I was too scared. But the cycle was not in its usual parking space. It lay flat in the courtyard. At the time, the only explanation to me was that someone must have made an attempt to steal! Lawyer Uncle insisted that we must report this to the police. ‘Today it’s a bicycle,’ he exclaimed, ‘who knows tomorrow it could be anything, may be the expensive utensils which are left in the courtyard after being washed.’
On Lawyer Uncle’s advice a police complaint was registered. I was made to identify the thief from a group of six or seven men who were paraded in the court. I was all of five but I remember Lawyer Uncle lifting me on his lap in the court so that the judge could see me. Ignoring Lawyer Uncle’s foul and sweaty smell, I identified a man I had seen pass by the lane many times. He was called Lala. On being identified he was sent to jail. I don’t know for how long but I know he was fined and convicted.
Baba was building a house on the outskirts of the city for a cleaner environment and greener living. A couple of weeks after the cycle incident, we moved out of the Haveli to our new house. Dadi died there. She always wanted to die in the house built for her by her son. I was greatly pained by her death. I thought she had had to pay for the sin I had committed by sending an innocent man to jail. After all she could have enjoyed the new house for a few years more. I would hear many stories of the Lala who had been jailed for stealing the bicycle. All full of miseries. Some said his wife died of tuberculosis while he was in prison. His children were thrown out of their school and that he was sacked by the bania he worked for. I was full of remorse. For many months whenever I saw pain and suffering in the family, I attributed it to the sin I had committed.
My own position in school slipped. I was often punished in front of the entire class for no mistake of mine. Perhaps much like the way I had made an innocent suffer for no mistake of his. Guruji suddenly got very sick and stopped singing bhajans; Baba had to close one of his shops; the family parrot died of no apparent reason, and Nani (maternal grandmother) asked Ma not to send me to Calcutta that summer. I was told that Nani was getting old and couldn’t handle my naughtiness. And to top it all, the cricket tour of England was cancelled. This year we wouldn’t go for our annual cricket picnic to Green Park in Kanpur. I had heard elders say that miseries come wholesale – all at one time. I didn’t know one had to pay so dearly for just one sin. Many a time I thought of putting an end to my life but couldn’t go beyond writing a suicide note. I would write these notes with great passion but would abandon the idea of suicide by the time I finished writing them. I thought the next best thing would be to run away from home. Perhaps my family wouldn’t have to suffer for the wrong done by me. This time I didn’t destroy the parting note and left it on the dressing table, the most prominent place in my parents’ room, hoping in my heart of hearts that Ma would see it and get me back before I went too far.
I was nabbed an hour later. Throughout this one hour, I kept looking for known faces, hoping that someone would recognise me and take me back to the house. I didn’t really want to run away.
A year later I was sent to Calcutta for schooling. The new surroundings brought a lot of excitement. Nani’s food was better cooked. Nana’s (maternal grandfather) hookah was even better. I almost choked the first time I tried it. I sucked the water instead of smoke. At school I was recognised as a better cricketer, chosen the class monitor because of my superior skills in mathematics and perhaps also because I had a better built. By the time I left school to join St. Xaviers College, I was the school captain and decorated as being the finest all-round student. Life in the last fifteen years had indeed taken a turn for the better. It landed me in the United States of America at the age of twenty-one. God, it seemed, had forgiven me and with the passage of time the memory of the bicycle thief and the guilt I carried gradually faded.
Two years later and a little less wiser with regard to women, I married Wendy, two years my senior. We had two beautiful daughters. We made several trips to India visiting friends and family in Benares and Calcutta. It wasn’t until the daughters were in their teens that I decided it was time we took them to Benares on an extended vacation to show them the city where I grew up. In Benares I would tell my family of my escapades and show them the places associated with my childhood. I was enjoying the nostalgia the city evoked in me and it was wonderful to share it with my family. It was during one such discussion that I volunteered to show them the old Haveli.
Wendy and the daughters were quite excited. They would finally get to see the Haveli which had so frequently figured in the stories they had heard about Benares. For me too, this would be a very special trip. I was looking forward to seeing whether Ramu Halwai still made those delicious jalebis, and if Kallu Mochi would recognise me; to discover what had become of Nathu Darzi, the tailor who stitched all those smart school dresses for me. I remembered how I would always tell him to make patch pockets on my shorts. They looked smart and different from those of the other children. He used to get so irritated when I took the shorts every second day to stitch back the torn patch pockets. Didn’t he warn me not to get those pockets?
As I approached the Haveli I saw how things had changed. Ramu Halwai didn’t make jalebis in the open. Instead they were brought on a plate from the kitchen. He had turned his shop into a corner snack bar. Kallu Mochi had moved to another city after his son got a job in a shoe factory. Nathu Darzi had passed away leaving the shop to his two sons who thought they would make more money by selling the shop than stitching clothes their entire lifetime. The shop had become a doctor’s clinic. But when we reached Dewan Saheb ki Haveli I felt nothing much had changed. The Haveli stood as it was when I had seen it last. The lane needed no repairs, and the windows had the same old green paint; only the paint had cracked a bit.
As I started to make enquiries about third and fourth cousins about whom I had heard but never met or seen, a bearded man came out of a door six or seven houses away. My heart missed a beat. This is what I had feared. Although I had made a connection instantly when I saw him come out of the door, I didn’t want to recognise him. He looked exactly like Lala, the bicycle thief. Perhaps it was his son.
As he stepped forward and muttered something, I turned my back to him and told Wendy and the daughters to hurry. I didn’t want to stay there anymore. ‘We must rush home,’ I told Wendy. ‘There are so many people waiting for tea.’ I was quiet and didn’t say a word on our way back. I kept thinking about Lala. He must be dead by now. Or was it he who had sent his son to insult me in front of my family? I wouldn’t know and I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to relive those painful memories which had haunted my childhood. I just wanted to turn away. Life had treated me so well since then. Why should I go through those painful memories which had now become mere regrettable pauses in my life?
But unaware of that painful part of my life, Wendy and the daughters kept insisting that we turn back and go into the Haveli. My younger daughter asked why I wanted to avoid the bearded man. He looked so friendly. Perhaps he was one of those many cousins we had never met. ‘He could have told us so many stories of your childhood,’ added Wendy. ‘Perhaps those you do not remember or have forgotten to tell us about.’
I had no choice but to return. Irritated at the thought of seeing the bearded man, I said I would go back on one condition. We would go straight into the Haveli, meet our nearest cousins and leave in half an hour. And that’s exactly what we did.
I was quite relieved not to see the bearded man on our return to the Haveli. But as we were about to step out of the main gate, he appeared again. Somehow this time I knew I couldn’t get away and so made no attempt to avoid or walk away from him.
He came up to me with folded hands and asked if I was from Dewan Sahib’s family. As I nodded my head I could see Lala, the bicycle thief, in him. This man was certainly his son. Looking at Wendy and the daughters he asked me if I was the same man who had migrated to America many years ago. While I nodded, I knew the moment of truth was near. My heart was pounding hard and my daughter who was holding my hand, could feel the sweat on my palm.
‘I am Lala’s son. Do you remember him?’ Despite the sharp voice, the words were getting lost on me; they surfaced in intervals; moments were divided between what was happening now and what had happened on that fateful day. For one moment I was transported to that court scene many years ago when I had pointed at Lala to identify him. Yet, here and now, I was muttering to this bearded man, ‘Yes, how is Lala?’
I heard myself say, ‘Yes, I do remember.’
Totally irrelevant words were desperately trying to find an escape for a trapped and guilty man.
‘My father led a very honest life… he died a few weeks ago… never cheated anybody, let alone stealing from a neighbour… before he died he told me the only blemish in his life… the jail … he suffered a lot because of that one incident … his life changed thereafter … forever… you know what I am talking about … he was sent to jail for stealing your bicycle… that’s not true … the truth is there was an emergency … my mother was dying … tuberculosis … he needed the bicycle to rush and get medicines for her … he was not a bicycle thief.’
For me that moment in time froze forever.