“Idlis are good; could be softer.”
Your Aunty Vaijanthi maintained a stoic silence.
“Sambar is decent; pity drumsticks have gone spongy.”
Still no crawling of malevolent lice on your Aunty’s ears.
“Kapi is a worthy attempt; wish the concoction were stronger.”
The South Indian nerve can only be stretched so long, dear readers. Your Aunty exploded with the kind of fury the great Lord Shiva, beholder of the third eye, would have approved of.
“To hell with you and your complaints!” cried Vaijanthi. “Ever since you took early retirement it has become impossible to run this household. All you do is sit and read The Hindu and whine all day.”
“But that is also what those who write in The Hindu do?”
“Well, they aren’t eating my idlis and sipping my kapi.”
“Calm down, Vaijanthi, you’ll wake the girls.”
“Wake the girls? Aiyoo, may Balaji have mercy on your unacquainted soul. The girls are out working – earning money for the Rangarajan family unit. At least someone is.”
“Oh, good,” I said, deciding to express my displeasure tersely. It didn’t work.
“I’m warning you, Mr Rangarajan. If you don’t return to your job in the Ministry of Culture, you can say goodbye to all these gastronomic delights.”
“I wouldn’t call them delights if I were you,” I said.
“Right. That’s it,” said your Aunty and snatched The Hindu away from my hands. “In ten minutes I want you on the bus to Central Secretariat. Return in the evening only if you have your job back.”
“You heard me. Out!”
It all seemed like yesterday, dear readers, as your dejected uncle entered the confines of the office lift and made eye-contact with the liftman who, must be said, greeted me warmly.
“So nice to see you, Ranga uncle. Acche din are here – look at my brand new stool, so comfortable.”
“Yes, yes,” I replied as I hummed a Sagara Sangamam melody, eager to exit the grunting coffin.
Inside our Shastri Bhavan office, the staff greeted me as the liftman had – with cheer and gusto. Acknowledging felicitations like “Arey! Look who’s back,” and “Oho! Ranga uncle is here, mitron!” I sauntered up to the minister’s office and knocked at the door on which hung a nameplate that declared: Shri Shripad Yasso Naik, Union Minister of State for Tourism & Culture (Independent Charge) Government of India.
“Come in!” rang a genial voice.
I entered. Mr Naik smiled at me inquisitively even as he placed the copy of Women’s Era on the Burma teak table in front. How things change when governments do, I thought with a lump in my throat. Earlier it used to be Ms Chandresh Kumari and Men’s Health and now…
“Who are you and why are you pondering?”
“What?” I replied instinctively, “Oh, sorry, sir. I am Rangarajan, a civil servant who worked here under the hon’ble Chandresh Kumari ji and took early retirement.”
“Rangarajan, you said? Your reputation precedes you.”
“Glad to learn that, sir,” I said looking around anxiously for my reputation that had preceded me. Now where was the scoundrel hiding?
“Chandresh Kumari ji had such nice things to say about you,” said Mr Naik, taking time off to utilize the services of the conveniently placed brass spittoon. It warmed the cockles of my heart to see that some things never change, they are passed on.
“That is very gratifying to hear, sir,” I said.
“In fact, I’d have called you in a few days. We need hard-working sevaks like you to rescue our sanskriti from corrupt Western forces.”
By the omnipotent grace of Lambodar and his naughty carrier! This was music to my ears. I bowed perceptibly.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, “I would love to return to work.”
“Great,” said Mr Naik, “I had already got your file screened by the IB.”
“Oh,” I exclaimed, worried.
“Everything is fine. You weren’t deemed a pseudo-secularist Congressi agent. Pliant, subservient, docile, and willing to go the extra furlong were some of your attributes that emerged from the Shah 2.1 Protectus screening.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Welcome back, Rangarajan,” said boss, “As it happens, I already have an assignment for you.”
“You do, sir?”
“Yes. Here, see this,” said Mr Naik handing me a brochure. “This is the schedule of the Idea of India conclave slated for next Monday. Have a good look.”
I did, dear readers. It looked fairly harmless to me. You decide:
“Read it?” asked Mr Naik.
“Well, this is not only your first assignment but in many ways mine, too, Rangarajan.”
“Order me, sir.”
“You need to attend the Idea of India conclave and find out what these left-wing anti-BJP intellectuals are thinking – what are their plans for the future, so on and so forth.”
“No problem, sir, I will attend this conference and get you all the information.”
“It’s not so easy, Ranga,” said boss. “Why would they tell you anything? And besides, how will you get close to them?”
“I have an idea.”
“Oh, Ayappa, no!” I thought, hoping against hope that Mr Naik’s brain didn’t tick as deviously as Ms Kumari’s. Bad news, dear readers, it did.
“I have it all planned out,” said boss. “You need to go as Siddharth Varadarajan. It’s helpful that you already have a well-furnished beard and resemble him in your sad, reflective well-trundled look, as well as in your hesitant, insecure, anxious demeanour”
Thanks. May the serendipitous lightening let loose by Balaji strike me here and now, I thought.
“But, sir,” I said hoping to throw in a spanner, “What if the real Siddharth Varadarajan shows up at the conclave?”
“Don’t worry, he won’t. Amit ji will make sure Varadarajan misses his flight from Chennai that morning.”
“Mr Varadarajan will be in Chennai that morning?”
“That is what Amit ji tells me. He has been tracking his emails and phone conversations for over a week. Nothing sinister, you understand – just monitoring his movements.”
“Er, of course, sir,” I said.
“You’ll require a worn-out tweed jacket and hone your language skills to include some clever Marxisms. And you need to deliver the real Varadarajan’s plenary lecture on – what is the topic, again?”
I picked up the brochure with my trembling hands and whispered: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer – of Beard and Toothbrush”
“Excellent,” said Mr Naik, “Piece of cake. Here, read this May 16 issue of Open – you’ll know all you need to about Modi ji’s triumph of the will.”
“T- thank you, sir,” I bleated.
“And remember – whatever happens, avoid Tunku at all cost.”
“Yes, Tunku, Siddharth’s brother. Everyone else might take you for the real Siddharth Varadarajan, but Tunku, well, a man they say can even sense his brother’s body odour.”
I don’t know why but I instinctively lifted my right arm and brought my armpit close to my face.
“Good luck, Rangarajan. Dhingra and Luthra will help you with everything. Monday is your day – Vijayi bhava. Dismissed.”
Monday morning duly arrived, dear readers, after the troublesome weekend that was spent poring over Mr Varadarajan’s countless opinion pieces – and one or two that also had facts. I didn’t spare a detailed perusal of his twitter timeline either. I was nervous but ready.
Stale geriatric air welcomed me as I disembarked from my auto at the India International Centre. While I haggled with the autowala over the fare, Ms Arundhati Roy accosted me.
“Sid! You’re late,” she cried, “Tunku’s been looking for you.”
May the good Lord Karthikeyan have mercy on my weather-beaten soul covered temporarily with the ill-fitting tweed jacket! Tunku was looking for me? I was sure to be found out by these socialites, I mean socialists.
“Oh,” I stammered, “Is that so? Ha-hah, let that little rascal keep the hunt on, what say?!”
The ploy of introducing joviality worked. Ms Roy threw back her shock of unruly hair and laughed. “Cain and Abel are you two! Darlings, nonetheless. Come, the lamp is about to be lit,” she said and dragged me inside the dimly-lit auditorium.
And so the day progressed, one insufferable lecture after another until it was my turn to speak. Ms Kavitha Krishnan introduced me as “Comrade in arms!” I became uneasy at once. Ayappa, I prayed, I am in your bountiful hands.
The good lord must have heard me because all of a sudden my confidence improved. My gait became more assured. I even smiled at Kavitha ji. But just as I had rested my elbows on the podium and adjusted the mike, the auditorium doors swung open noisily and a silhouette appeared on the threshold, its back gushing with hurtful sunlight. I was transfixed. Really, readers, the scene was straight out of the film Pyaasa. Unfortunately, that is where the similarity ended for the very next moment the silhouette let loose a flurry of the choicest cuss words in my general direction. It was then that I recognised the shape – none other than Ms Madhu Kishwar! O my magnanimous Ayappa, Ms Kishwar was going to ruin it all. I had to do something, I had to warn her. But it was too late.
“Varadarajan!” she roared running towards me, her momentum carrying her down the sloping aisle like tumbleweed. “I have seen through your game. One word from you on Modi ji, one phrase calling him a Führer – and you shall see, you d*%$t#@$% little @#$%^#$!!”
But I was already in the groove, dear readers. There is such a thing as pride in one’s work, after all. “Narendra Modi represents,” I thundered, “the embodiment of fascism, the personification of a Reich, and the incarnation of a genocidal prevaricator. He is our – and here I raised my arms in the air to great effect – he is our Führer!”
That did it. While the auditorium reverberated with the kind of standing applause Stalin would’ve shed a tear or two for, Ms Kishwar flung her handbag away and clambered onto the dais. With considerable difficulty, it must be said. Then, ever so smoothly and ominously, she removed her chappal and took aim. “Varada-a-a-a! You @#$a#$% – here, take this!”
In no time she fell on me like a ton of bricks, with Namo possibly written on each one of them. My ill-fitting tweed jacket – one that my ground floor neighbour Damodaran had grudgingly lent me – was torn to shreds, so was my shirt underneath. My glasses were removed forcibly from atop my nose-bridge and crushed under Ms Kishwar’s bare feet. And my beard was pulled mercilessly. It was Armageddon, dear readers, and in sheer panic I uttered something that I shouldn’t have.
“Lord Ayappa!” I cried.
Pin-drop silence descended upon the auditorium. Even Ms Kishwar, primed for yet another punch to my battered solar plexus, froze.
It was Tunku who was the first to appreciate the enormity of what had happened. “Comrades!” he screamed, “This fellow is an impostor. There’s no way my brother will take the name of a Hindu God! Catch him. Let him not get away!”
Pandemonium ensued. Ms Krishnan, armed with a sickle that I realised she had been hiding under her generous kaftan, rushed towards me, as did Ashutosh, but brandishing a chair. “Get him! Get him!” they hollered. By the everlasting benevolence of Ayappa, Ashutosh tripped just as he was about to bring the moulded furniture down on me. I saw my chance and ran towards the exit, oblivious of the fact that my jacket, my shirt, even my pant, had parted company with me. I emerged from IIC wearing only my janehu and Amul Machoes. Thankfully, an AAP procession – demanding god knows what – was passing down Max Mueller Marg and I mingled in, happy to find very many there with the same disposition as mine. When I reached home, it was as though a craggy, emaciated, callous-ridden Kawadia had returned after a month-long spiritual journey from nowhere.
As for my revenge, I now upload Ms Kishwar’s doodles that she drew at the Editor’s meet. Here it is:
So there you have it, dear readers – my first assignment in the acche din era. I do not know what fate awaits me hereon. Meanwhile, I have stopped complaining about idlis and drumsticks and kapi. Your aunty couldn’t be more pleased. At least for her, these are acche din.