There is always that one old, really old friend. A complete ass,who knows you inside out. Or at least he thinks he does. He has been witness to your greatest follies. Kept your worst secrets. Knows and repeats stuff that you would rather have buried somewhere deep. In a highly secure box, locked with a huge Harrison lock and purposely misplaced the key to. He will share all these unmentionable anecdotes with abandoned freedom with anybody willing to offer a listening ear. May that be your highly possessive wife, judge-mental In-laws, new boss or precocious children? Stories that actually that make you wonder, are they really true, but who is to argue. You silently suffer his near perfect memory. His below the belt humor. His constant criticism. His overbearing attitude. His insufferable personality. Not because you have to. But what would you be without that guy? He’s had your back…always. If there is one person on this earth you can count on, it’s truly that demented old fart.
And so we came to bear that loud, crass, foul mouthed, obnoxious uncle, Preetipal Singh. Abba’s one and only friend. A tall, fat, hairy, turbaned mountain of a man, who religiously appeared at our doorstep every three months for three months. The two went a long way. They had both run away from the posh environs of the great Scindia School in Gwalior within two days of having gained admission at the young age of ten and twelve respectively.
Two spoiled brats of well to do families. Abbu was an introvert. His father was fed up with him. He was always hanging around the ladies of the house. An only child, and that to a son, he was highly pampered by one and all, family and household help alike. Especially more by a doting grand mum, overtly protective mum and single, still unmarried aunt. Dadajaan had packed him off to become ‘A man.’
Preetipal Chacha though two years older had been admitted to the same class having failed a year. His family had absolutely no problem with his poor grades or disinterest in education. The Walias, ‘Wahe Guru be thanked!’ were a prosperous lot with no dearth of money. Their transport and spare parts business was flourishing. Chacha’s house was crowded with men. Hardly any females. He had been sent to boarding school with a single purpose. To simply master, ‘gitpit English!’ According to his father and grandfather, once he learnt to speak the Queen’s language, the world would consider him a ‘gentleman’ and their status increase four fold.
Abbu cried all the way. From the moment he stepped out of his room to the time Dadajaan hugged him goodbye at the school gates. Preetipal Chacha just sat quiet, dropped off by a far off maternal uncle, who brusquely patted him on his back and left. ‘Walia di shaan tere haath hai puttar! Jee lagake English padhi!’ was all he said.
The boys did not last even a couple of hours. Preetipal Chacha hatched the master plan. If they absconded a few days, both sides of parents would eventually give in. They were after all their only sons. The family could not risk losing their precious heirs. They easily scaled the low wall and escaped during the early morning physical training period. Hitched a ride to the station. Hopped on the first train on the platform, without ticket. Hid in the bathroom every time the T.T. came. The train was bound south.
Very soon the gravity of the situation hit Abbu. He was scared, and hungry. What had they done? ‘Dadajaan would be furious, Dadijaan would die of shock! Ammijaan would definitely fall ill! He began to cry. Preetipal uncle was confused and irritated. ‘Oye! Fikar na. I am here na. Nothing will happen. Chal,you want to go home na, we will go home.’ Finally they both got off at Kalyan Station. Uncle remembered a spare parts agent his father did business with, lived there. He settled Abbu on a bench and said. ‘Don’t worry I will be back. Let me get help. ‘Yeh le tab tak tu vada pav kha.’ Abbu refused to be left alone. Uncle assured, I will come back right here. ‘Main abhi gaya aur abhi aaya. Don’t move or wander about anywhere. Promise I will never leave you. You are safe here.’
The agent dropped Abbu home. The family had been so worried. Abbu’s Dadajaan declared, ‘My grandson is home. Allah be thanked! No one will say anything to this boy. He will stay at home and study here only. I have spoken!’ Chacha's jijajee came to pick him up. ‘Arre tu keh deta, nahi padhni mainu English Vinglish, yeh kya drama kidha tune, Chal koi na, Ab ghar chal, padhai vadhai chod, Shop pe aaja.’
Though the two boys had known each other barely a few days, but the adventure they endured, sealed a friendship of a lifetime, over letters, vacations, trunk calls, they stayed in touch and remained best friends and close confidantes.
Chacha’s arrival always brought with it a tornado. Bhaijaan had to move into my room. An entire steel almirah was emptied. All its stuff dumped into my already overfull bed box. The servants were cautioned. Each member in the household was forewarned. ‘No one is to mess or tick the man off. Abba will simply not have it!’ Ammi repeated time and again.
Though a sardar, Preetipal Chacha was a pure vegetarian. Ammi would empty out the freezer in advance. If we wished to eat meat we had to walk to Khala’s home, ammi’s older sister’s who lived four buildings away. We detested the restrictions. Argued with Ammi about it, but never said a word to Abba. Honestly, I actually preferred it. We could be ourselves at Khala’s and she did spoil us rotten.
‘Is mein meat hai?’ thundered Chacha. ‘Haan,’ chuckled Lakshmi bai. ‘Is mein bhi meat hai? ‘Haan!’ she smilingly, replied again. ‘Raite mein bhi meat hai!!’ ‘Abbe Munir, saale! Where is Bhabhi? Your bloody cook has put meat in every bloody dish! There is nothing to eat. Is this the way to treat guests? Cross my heart, I will never come to your door step again. First you plead, come yaar, it’s been so long…and this is the kind of hospitality you provide! Where is my bag? Call the taxi! Forget it! Let it be, I will go myself!’
Abba was red with anger. I had rarely seen him so. His way of displeasure was always stoic silence. Just then Ammi came running out from her room. Holding on to her dupatta for dear life, she trembled, ‘Bhaijaan, there has been a terrible misunderstanding. Our cook is new. She only speaks Marathi. In Marathi ‘salt’ is called meat. That is why she said yes to every dish you pointed and asked about. Everything is vegetarian. There is no non-veg in the house!’
‘Oh teri! Hahahahaha!’ guffawed Chacha. ‘Sorry Bhabhi, maaf karde apne bewakoof jeth nu,’ he folded his hands mockingly. Ammi broke into a grin. Abbu burst into laughter. ‘Is liye kehta hoon, Yoga kar Yoga! Deep breath in, deep breath out! Saale one day you will either give yourself or definitely me a massive heart attack!’
Chacha was always highly dramatic. Loud, crass and uncouth. Foul mouthed and rough, even in his display of affection. The exact opposite of Abbu. Abbu was endearing. Even if he disliked something or felt strongly about, he would keep it to himself. He was gentle, all love, kisses and hugs, spoke rarely, softly, slowly, never gave free advice, offered opinion only when asked. Preetipal Chacha on the other hand was highly opinionated and argumentative, interfered and involved himself in everything!
We acquired a new apartment. ‘Arre yaar Munir tu ne kya barbaad hone ki thaan li hai! Four bedrooms for four members for four crores! What a bloody waste!’ Abbu gifted Ammi a car on her 40th birthday, ‘Ab saala! anniversary pe kya tu usse Helicopter dega?’ Bhaijaan mentioned that most of his friends were going abroad for undergrad, ‘Abbe humari family mein India mein koi nahi padha hai, tu baher ja ke kaunse jhande gaad lega?’
I so disliked this monstrous man. Who was he to have a say in our personal matters. And why did Abbu suffer him? His was so conservative, rigid and obsolete. Such an embarrassment! The other day at the Palladium mall, he got into a row with the security guard. ‘You think I am a bloody thief. Saala I have hundreds of loafers like you working for me. If I want I can buy this whole God damn mall. Do you even know who I am?’ ‘Right sir, but the company policy strictly says, we must frisk each and every person, each bag has to go through the X-ray machine.’ ‘Oye! Tu zyada gitpit gitpit angrezi na boli. I too can talk English, walk English! Main bhi gentleman si.’ All eyes were upon us. I was so embarrassed. To top it I thought I caught a glimpse of Mrs Sundar. Abhimanyu’s mum. ‘Hai Allah! One boy I had a crush on and his mum to see me embroiled in this commotion!’ For once in my life I wish I had a burkha with me. I would have gladly hidden myself beneath it and made a quick dash.
‘Oye Gadhe yeh gaddi tere baap ki hai?’ Maqbool Bhai cheekily replied, ‘Nahi huzoor, munni ke Abbu ki hai, main to sirf driver hu.’ ‘Ullu ke patthe! Zabaan chalata hai!’ Aghast I watched as Chacha whacked our young driver. His father Rahim Chacha had been in our service since Dadajaan’s time and never had I seen anyone speak loudly to him, let alone hit him. Rahim Chacha was no more and Maqbool Bhai was given the same job and place of respect as another of member of our family. I was in tears! ‘Arre munni ro mat, maine bura nahi maana,’ Maqbool Bhai said when we were out of Chacha’s ear shot. ‘I have known Preetipal sahab since I was a kid, though he speaks badly, the old man has nothing in his heart, a real man of Gold,’ he whispered in my ear.
‘How is Kittu Pabhiji?’ Ammi innocently inquired one day. ‘Wo kalmuhi bhaag gayi,’ replied Chacha without batting an eyelid. I nearly choked on the chewing gum I was merrily chewing! Kittu Chachi ran away! ‘Bakwaas mat kar! Don’t say such stupid things even in a joke!’ spoke Abbu loudly, louder than I had ever heard him. ‘Bhai mere, she ran away with my cousin from U.K last week. But you don’t worry. She will be back soon. See, she can’t live without me, the servants or the luxuries I have given her. Mark my words she will be back,’ continued Chacha. We ate the rest of our meal in silence. There was no news of Kittu aunty for weeks. One fine day Chacha packed his bags and suddenly left. Abbu made him a number of calls. He refused to take or answer a single one. Ammi tried to get in touch too. No reply.
Bhaijaan left to pursue his higher education in Singapore. Chacha did not come to say goodbye. Finally my wedding was suddenly arranged. A hurried affair. I had known Imtiaz since my childhood. He was Abbu’s first cousin’s son. Oxford educated, he looked after the family business in Sydney, Australia. We met, liked each other and the nikaah was fixed for within a fortnight. Preparations were on in full speed. The house was full of relatives and yet I could sense the sadness. It was not because Bhai could not make it. I would see him in Singapore enroute to Sydney. It was not because I was leaving shortly. I would be missed no doubt. It was something else. Something was truly amiss.
Then early one morning Abbu just left. He did not tell anyone. Did not leave a note. Even left his mobile phone behind. We waited for him to return all day. All of the next day. As the second night drew near, fear began to set in. ‘What could have happened? Where did he go? Should we call the police?’ We were all upset. Ammi looked exhausted. What would we say to Imtiaz’s parents? So far the news had been kept a secret from them too. My head began to hurt. I went to Abbu’s room. Picked up his phone, looked up the number and dialed. The phone rang. No one picked up. I kept redialing. Finally at four a.m. a heavily drunk voice gruffed ‘Zinda hu saale! Abhi mara nahi’ I began to cry. ‘Abbu can’t be found. It’s almost 48 hours, mera nikaah hai agle hafte…’ The line at the other end dropped. With it came crashing the last ray of hope.
Next afternoon as we prepared ourselves for the worst, the doorbell rang. Abbu! ‘Where were you? Where did you disappear? We were so scared!’ I raced towards him as he enveloped us in a bear hug, showering us with kisses. Mum began to cry. We all began to cry. ‘For God’s sake women! Stop all this nonsense! Bellowed the now too familiar voice, ‘Bring the good man something to eat. God only knows when the damn fool had anything!
‘Oh Chacha, I have never been as glad to see you as I am today!’ I hugged the overbearing, crude, monster of a man. ’Where did you find Abbu? How did you know?’ ‘Saala ullu ka pattha kidhar jaata..wohi bench par sadta hua mila…rota hua..bhooka..Kalyan Station!’ Abbu was back. So was Chacha, and with him our house became a home again.