He stepped out into the balcony of his 18th storey apartment and saw the grey dawn about to break. The cobwebs began to clear off from his head. Not once had he missed this hour since the time he had reached awareness age. He had a firm belief that in the dawn was hidden the force of a day taking shape. He drew his strength from it. The sun rose amongst the largely decaying decrepit and the few sparkling structures of this wild part of city called Bombay, Mumbai now, when would he ever could get used to this change of name, he wondered. He was a couple of years past sixty but an onlooker would peg him to a decade younger at the very least. The apartment inside housed all the luxuries one only dreams of and he owned them all. This included the nubile form that lay sleeping exhausted with her mouth slightly open. She was as pretty as they came by and had lasted him all of three months, a tad longer than the others. He had craved all of this with a fierceness that had belied reason and had even spilled blood to possess some of them. Surprisingly none evoked any emotion in him now. Abdur Ramzan Shakeel Ahmed was his moniker but he popularly answered to Ramzan bhai.
The aroma of freshly brewed tea tickled his nostrils. It was followed by the sound of shuffling feet of his faithful man Friday -Quadir with Suleimani chai (Black tea with a squeeze of lemon) the way he liked it piping hot with just a hint of sugar served in a large enamel mug. He settled in the arm chair set on the wide balcony, took a sip and nodded his appreciation. Quadir beamed as he lit a small Gold Flake cigarette for Ramzan bhai and withdrew. He left behind the pack and the change from the Five Hundred rupee note taken for its purchase. He sat there on the balcony puffing away in between tiny sips of the chai.
The sparkling rays of the sun reflecting off the railway tracks caught his attention below. He saw the Shatabdi Express at Bombay Central station getting ready for departure to Ahmadabad. The platforms were buzzing with people. He had been one of them once and still felt a curious bond with the antlike forms rushing from one place to another. His gaze shifted to Maratha Mandir - the cinema hall opposite the station, which seemed to be lying benignly like a spent whore. Cinema’s and whores worked nearly the same hours and the mornings were for resting. It was ironic that in the arms of this very same whore he had found true love.
Fatima worked in a ladies beauty parlor and he had met her in the compound of Maratha Mandir. She had come to watch the new release “Raja Jani” and he was selling the tickets in black. He had seen that she was alone and having just two tickets left of his bunch he sold her the ticket at cost price. She smiled as she paid him the money and he was utterly lost. Using the last ticket for himself he entered the hall and sat next to her. She shyly batted her eyes and he quite like the hero had whispered in her ears that he would be by her side always. He had remained true to his word over the next 24 months when he married her and buried her. He who had conquered all could not win over Fatima’s tumour that grew in her brain. Her lovely form wasted before his eyes but he did all that was possible then and was with her till she breathed her last in his arms. She had smiled when she said hafiz khuda to him and in the greatest loss of his life was a numbing peace. His eyes pricked with the tears to an event that had happened 37 years ago. She was the only woman he had truly loved. He had not married after her.
After that life became a roller coaster ride. From black marketing tickets he had graduated to numbers in the gambling dens. He was a natural here and soon rose up to be Rasool Pathan’s right hand man in the gambling racket. Ramzan though did not see much future in activities illegal and bought a run down lodge with 18 rooms from his earnings and converted it into a hotel. It however became a target for the hourly custom for the local red light area. This circumstance nudged him to graduate into the protection rackets to keep away and manage the police. Rasool was into drugs and prostitution but Ramzan wanted no part of it and with the Pathan’s blessings went into construction and development. Legally he made more money than Pathan’s illegal trade and soon became an expert moneychanger for the underworld. He had long ago sold his interests in the hotel and seen the turf wars that killed the Pathan. By then Ramzan was almost completely legit and now he had hired top brains from good schools to manage the business while he spent a semi-retired life arbitrating problems and generally managing peacekeeping issues between the men in uniform and the men they shot at. He silently said a prayer to Allah for keeping him alive to enjoy all he did without fear of a bullet or the tension of a ballot. Long ago he had given up thinking as to the why and how of such a life coming to his lot.
He reached out for his second cigarette and gathered the notes to put them back in his wallet. While sliding the notes in, he closely looked at one of them & drew it out. It was a hundred rupee note of the old type, an impossibly soiled specimen that had the words R loves F written in the scrawl of an almost illiterate man, loves conveyed by a shady heart with a pierced arrow running through it . Fishing out his glasses from the pocket of his white kurta he examined it again, he was not mistaken. It was the first note that Fatima had given him when she paid for her movie ticket. He had written the words on it promising to himself never to spend this note, but somewhere in the travails of his life it had left his hand.
Smiling fondly he looked at the note again and said “Where were you, all this while? Glad to have you back”. “I have been around and am tired with my journey too. It’s good to be back. To help you make-good your promise?”The voice had a clear ironical tone full of mischief. Ramzan bhai almost fell off his chair and looked around to see who had spoken. The girl in his bed snored lightly and had not stirred a muscle since the time he had left the bed. Quadir was busy in the kitchen evident from the sounds of the clanging pots. A light wind blew the ash from the cigarette on his lips stoking the ember crimson and the note fluttered in his hand. “It is me Ramzan. You of all people should know that in the city of Bombay, Money Talks. See this and start believing it quickly as I too am very particular about who I want for a conversational companion. That’s the basic reason, second coming from the currency family it is our curse that we can never initiate a conversation even if we wanted to. Only a person who knows the ways of the world and who has the wisdom to understand us can speak to us.”
“You have been initiated Ramzan so feel good. I have some cousins in the USA who have had some interesting conversations with Warren. Ramzan looked blank. Warren Buffet, the note told him in an exasperated note. From the time we were conceptualized as money and created by men we have taken various forms. We have been cast in stone, wood, metal, paper and plastic. But yet in all our existence through time the number of people we have ever really talked to would be less than a thousand. In most hands we have just been momentary visitors, slipping in only to slip out even faster. Rolling and circulation is what your race called this, but did we really roll or circulate? Nope, most of the hands that held us didn’t have the wherewithal to keep us and make us grow. Ramzan was fascinated and asked so why me? The note said “Ramzan when you tattooed my body with your and Fatima’s name, our fates got interlinked. It was deemed that I should be back with you but only after you were capable of keeping me having understood us and our significance as a concept. What’s it now 37years, since we last met? I was young and crisp and both of us had far lesser creases than we have today. Ramzan laughed and said that’s true for sure. And both us had had interesting lives.
You bet said Ramzan but I can very safely tell you that my life has had more ups and downs than yours. Don’t bet on it Ramzan even though I know you were a betting man once. We are nearly the same age right? Ramzan said I don’t know your date of birth. The note winked at him and said that’s fine, it’s more important that you know yours. Do you? Ramzan felt sheepish and said actually he did not. He just remembered being told that he had been born in the year that the states of India were split according to linguistic basis. And he was four years old when the state of Bombay became Maharashtra, Gujarat and some portions went to Karnataka. Very good said the note that means you are born in 1956, same as me. Ramzan said with wonder “So if we have seen nearly similar days on this earth, how were you so crisp the first time I met you. It was 37 years ago when you would have been what, 28 years? My early years said the note were quite sheltered. I was part of a bundle that never got moved out of a vault for 26 years. The three lions on the note seemed to be chuckling. So technically I was just 3 years out when you marked me; tattooed forever. But after that did I move around or what? The note said with a curious pride and relish.
The note continued speaking “Okay so here we are both about 65 years old and destined to be together now. Let us not debate about who has had a more eventful life. We can compare our travels for just one day yesterday and settle it at the point where we met again. How is that? Sounds good, said Ramzan.
Ramzan bent and lit one more cigarette and started recounting. Yesterday at 11.00 am after my morning chai and nashta had to go to Agripada to look at the site where we are reconstructing an old chawl. The fifth floor slab work had begun. One fool of a worker who had not clipped his helmet while working on the floor dropped it. “Salaam alei kum Ramzan bhai” comes a shout and I turn to find my old friend Murad. The step forward to embrace him saved me as the helmet crashed behind. Murad in a flash removed his pistol and would have nailed the man but I stayed his hand. His swearing at the poor man was far worse than if he had just shot him quietly. Murad has a wonderful vocabulary of swear words and it is an education to hear him. The site was progressing well and around 1.30pm we walked over to my Western Union money transfer office. It is a new branch and had wanted to just look over. Not much business was being done in the afternoon and the staff was eating lunch so we left them to it decided to grab some ourselves.
We walked over to Nagpada and entered Hotel Saarvi. Gaffoor the waiter immediately cleared out a table for us and told us to just sit, he would bring us lunch. He brought us two steaming soup plates full of paya and bread and some kebabs fresh off the skewer. Kebabs at Saarvi are worth killing for, crisp on the outside and soft like butter inside. Break a piece with your fingers, wrap around it a sprig of mint, dip in the mint chutney and pop it in your mouth. This is one more road to jannat or heaven. Refusing the biryani we had two cups of tea and moved out. Murad had some work at Dongri so we hailed a cab and reached there. Here Murad went on to his office and I strolled over to Jaddanbi’s kothi. She is an old friend who runs an escort service. An escort herself once she unlike others put her money away and now owns the finest service in the business today. She is sharp of tongue and I love doing gup shup with her. Spent a couple of hours chatting with her as she whined about how narcotics and AIDS was the bane of her line of activity. But business was good she said and said as long as the plugs kept coming she would keep supplying the sockets and lighting up the world. She always had a wacky sense of humour that old mare. Then after loitering about my old haunts and catching up with Kamaal the matka king and Junaid the dock king; he controlled all movement of goods around the docks, came back to my pad and rested.Then Nafisa, Ramzan said pointing to the sleeping form came in and we ate. Then she wanted to show off her newest negligee that I was encouraged to rip off her and we played the exhausting game that uplifts all down trodden spirits to meet you now. Very good Ramzan so all in all a quiet day with friends except for one scare at the construction site said the note. Hmm nodded Ramzan as Quadir came quietly filled his mug with a second chai, kept a khari biscuit and left noticing nothing.
The note said I started my day at Pune in the pocket of an executive being driven in a car. He was traveling to Mumbai in his Skoda and I love air conditioning, but fate wasn’t kind to me. At Khopoli toll station I was taken out and handed over to the toll agent who pulled me roughly and dumped me into his till. I hate this type of people who have no respect for our race. I was barely finished nursing my bruises, stretching my body when I was whipped out again. Then in the company of three other Rs.100 notes of a newer vintage handed over to the driver of a Maruti car who immediately turned into the food court across the plaza. At the coupon counter he looked into his wallet and selected me, when we get older people don’t want us retained is my observation. It was a good thing too as unlike the skoda drivers wallet this man’s wallet had more coins than notes and they were hurting me. Oily fingers picked me up and I was held to light and reluctantly accepted. Then I was kept on top and not in the drawer, another reminder of my stage in transit. A young girl who smelled nice took possession of me along with the coupons and I travelled to the batata wada counter in her hip pocket. I felt nice with my back that was naturally massaged along firm curvy hips. We who are old love the firmness of the youth, I say. Ramzan chuckled in acceptance. Travelled on the girls hip to Dadar bus stand where she boarded a taxi to go to Shivaji park . I said goodbye to her lovely form reluctantly refusing to slide out of the pocket but her insistent fingers brought me out. The cabbie too refused to take me and I prepared myself to dive back in, but she screamed at him and he meekly took me and stuffed me in his shirt pocket. His next fare was to Bandra but all his fares refused me and I was crushed. It is so frustrating to be unwanted and age can make you feel useless though your value has not diminished one bit. From Bandra he got a fare to go to VT and I travelled there but yet again the passenger refused me. The cabbie in frustration stopped at a roadside joint ate a chai with a nan khatai and smoked an unfiltered cigarette and gave me to the fellow. Poor chap had to take me in and could see the sense of quiet relief in the cabbies eyes. I was glad to be away from him. I heard some words in Tamil and it was the owner of the tea stall talking to his assistant to wash up faster. I could rest for a couple of hours till I was handed over while I was sleeping and found myself stuffed into a cheaply scented brassiere. I almost choked and passed out and hoped my confinement would end soon. Ramzan was chuckling. The painted lady walked calling out to people on the street till she could fix one for a quick hand job in an alley. Thankfully after a heaving fifteen minutes later I was brought out into the evening air and I gulped it in. The hand that accepted me stowed me quickly into a wallet and I travelled till Dongri on a bike where the man stopped to buy a pan. This was at Biharilals pan shop below your place. I rested in Biharilals gulla (till) for a while till Quadir pocketed me as part of the change for your cigarettes and here I am.
Ramzan laughed and said that without a doubt your yesterday has been far more eventful than mine. But you are now not going anywhere and I shall show you to your place of rest till I frame you up. You are an integral piece of the best slice of life that signified youth & love. The note beamed and said now you know why we don’t engage people in conversations. An overwhelming majority of you only silently look at the numbers on our back and then pass us around, without seeing us and inside them to understand what meaning we brought to their lives. It is wonderful to be home finally, Ramzan. As he looked at his scrawl of years ago on its face, the note seemed to be happily smiling back at him.