He was a nice looker but with an unusual attitude. I did not know whether to pity him or envy him, as there was nothing in-between about him.
Being raised in an orphanage, he learnt to be street smart at an early age. The combination of being ambitious and a dreamer paved the way for the realisation of many of his dreams. At the age of 14 he pulled himself out of the hell that passed off for an orphanage. This was a few years after we got our independence.
The outside world was tough. He landed up as a house-help, though he had the ingenuity to make money as a black marketeer of movie tickets. Or as a pickpocket.
He had always wanted to be in the company of the rich and famous. As a quick learner, he soon ingrained himself with his employers. He worked hard to please them. In the process he learnt their ways and their take on life. He befriended everyone, identified their weaknesses and was ever willing to do their dirty work. He was everyone’s favourite.
I tried my best to probe him but to no avail. My years of experience in wellness and welfare of kids in orphanages was being threatened. One day I countered him and asked whether he was planning to steal from the house. He denied the charge.
I tried to reason with him. He worked hard, yet drew a pittance. He could make four times as much even with clean and honourable work. He blocked my enquiry by asserting that he didn’t need the money.
This was strange. I was not able to trust him; he was too much into himself. I consider myself a good judge of youngsters his age. However I was not able to gauge this boy. I remained alert to his moves. For the first time I began to doubt myself. But soon I got involved with other things that demanded my attention and since I heard nothing adverse on this front, this boy took a back seat in my mind.
Almost a decade passed and one day, I got a start on seeing a familiar face staring at me. He was behind the wheels of a fancy car, a Kingsway Dodge at New Market.
The girl sitting next to him smiled and said something, expecting a reaction, which didn’t materialise. He probably didn’t want me to witness anything. She nudged him but did not get the desired reaction. She followed his eye. Seeing me watch her, she promptly left with a hurried ‘bye’. I recognised her as the only daughter in the house he served; she was pretty at 11 and now she looked a ‘sweet sixteen’.
No sooner did she leave than he came up to me. I was eager to know what was going on between them. We got into the car and drove off. He showed off his sedan by telling me about its powerful 3.6-litre, 6-cylinder engine.
“So you are a chauffeur now”, I said.
“And a bodyguard, a facilitator and a confidant”, he added.
“How much do you earn?”
“I get 500 as salary, plus commission and the profit from the distribution of litho tin boxes of State Express 555 cigarettes.”
He offered me one and lit it with a fancy Zippo lighter he was drawing my attention to. I was impressed.
“500 is a handsome salary; the GM of Wesman Engineering gets only 800.”
“My total income varies from 800 to 1500.”
His claims were absurd I thought, as my gaze shifted from his sports jacket to the Daniel Wellington on his wrist. It was shocking. I was probably in the company of a bigtime criminal. He sensed my uneasiness and smiled. Was he the kid from the orphanage? But how was that possible? The person beside me came across as a cultured young man, probably descended from royalty. This was possible during the colonial era when Indian princesses fell in love with handsome officers with such bizarre results. I felt the urge to trace his antecedents, but everything had a cost attached to it.
Looking at me with concern, he said, “I have not stolen this watch, Artelia presented it to me.”
“Who is Artelia?”
And who is Buck?”
“He’s a big man. Buck James Duke is the Chairman of Ardath Tobacco Company, which makes these cigarettes,” he said, taking the stub out of his lips and chucking it out of the window as we drove to Victoria Memorial. “Artelia must be his second wife; she is much younger than him. Buck insisted that I accept the gift. I used to often bring her here, to Victoria Memorial.”
“What did you do with her?”
“We enjoyed each other’s company a lot.”
“What about the Buck? Didn’t he object?”
“Not at all. He was grateful to have me as his wife’s companion. He was busy impressing the Americans to sell his brand for markets outside the UK and Calcutta was his biggest market. I was his representative and hosted all his parties. Couples like Artelia and I would dance cheek to cheek with the dim lights and the smoke shielding us from any gaze.”
He offered me another cigarette but I declined. He lit one stylishly.
Why do you smoke so much?
“This is from the time I was a kid. I used to clean ashtrays and collect the butts to smoke. I always had a longing for full ones.”
I felt bad for him. It was hard to believe the journey he had covered. But he was in front of me in flesh and blood. Just one look at him sitting behind the wheel said it all. He had royal blood in him without doubt. My curiosity got the better of me. I decided to grill him.
“I don’t believe all that you are telling me. How do you expect me to believe that in 10 years’ time you became a sahib from a ghulaam? How did that happen?”
“I don’t know how but I had made up my mind when I was about five years old.”
“What did you do?”
“I was sent to an Englishman Colonel Peter Fleming, whose eyes sparkled when he saw me. He was good to me and gave me things I had never been exposed to. He lovingly took off my clothes and led me to a luxurious bathroom with fancy toiletries. He bathed me and kissed me all over my body, slurping away and grunting at times. I felt ticklish.
How dare he, the dirty old man! Why was I not told? Did he hurt you?
No, I realised much later he was not able to get hard enough to hurt me. He kept pressing me all over with his organ before ejaculating on me and getting away panting. I felt dirty. He poured water and soap and I cleaned myself while he dragged himself to the bed. Soon, he was snoring away. He later brought me new clothes. This is how I was brought up. I realised the weakness of these people and took advantage of it. I am now getting the reward for the torture I went through.”
This is the reality! This is what we humans have done to ourselves. Here is a man who can speak out because he has conquered himself; others live with their miseries buttoned up inside them. Some become hardened criminals. I couldn’t help but sympathise with him.
“My God, I could never have imagined the experiences you gone through.”
“I was lucky. People go through much more.”
“You seem to have no regrets.”
He looked confused and immersed in his thoughts. I could not fathom him. I did not know what to make out of the guy. He always seemed to be in a good mood, with no self-pity.
“…I was his front man to distribute tins of 555 to all the guests awaiting the arrival of the big American…”
“Please stop; the tram is approaching, I must go. It was nice talking to you. I am sure you know where to find me. It’s the same place in Ballygunge you came to, before this job.”
“I will certainly do so, thank you.”
“Look after yourself. God bless!”
I did not know what to make out of this conversation. He gave the impression of not knowing what he was up to, nor did he care since he adapted to everything that came his way. He went with the flow; with whatever was in store for him.