The philanderer

Berjis Desai

We shall call him M. This story relates to a period nearly four decades ago, when there were no cell phones, no World Wide Web and no political correctness. He stayed on the top floor of an old building belonging to a Parsi charity. He was so fair complexioned, that they nicknamed him "Tinopal,” a popular whitening powder of yesteryears. Persian features, small build, a full shock of brownish hair, dull green eyes set in an unintelligent face. His parents had migrated from East Africa a few years before Idi Amin violently expelled Asians from Uganda. M’s elder brother, F, a budding photographer preferred to settle in the UK, with his stunningly gorgeous girlfriend, a tall East African Gujarati, who made heads turn in stuffy London.
Power dynamics were heavily tilted in favor of his mother, whose green eyes M had inherited. After decades in East Africa, in the Parsi baug environment, the mild-mannered father was quickly marginalized. The mother doted on M who had rather limited skill sets.
A kind lady owner of a tiles factory believed in employing Parsis first. Displaying Japanese-like loyalty, M worked as a clerk in the factory, his entire adult life. Of course, he was a clock watcher and on the dot of 5:30 p.m., he exited the factory to reach home. On the ground floor of his building, there resided a girl with verve and oomph, though somewhat deficient in matters cerebral. We shall call her A. She was not coy and he was not shy. Soon the colony knew that they were a pair. A provided tuitions in ball room dancing to awkward and aspiring men. M’s stentorian mother disapproved of her vocation and found her not fit and proper for a matrimonial alliance with her green-eyed cream puff who was already counting the many pink complexioned children they would produce. A could not risk further waiting and married a middle-aged widower. M was devastated.
Those days, an honest don called Ratan Khatri pulled out digits, literally from an earthen pot, and operated matka gambling (where numbers were pulled out of a pot). M tried to test the dictum:  unlucky in love, lucky in gambling, by betting daily on the digit which was announced around 9 p.m. and again at 11.45 p.m. He walked down the road to eagerly find out the number. He soon realized that he was unlucky in gambling too.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Around this time, to complicate matters, F returned to India with his bombshell spouse in tow. His arrival created a minor sensation in the otherwise placid colony. He became obsessed with a Bollywood siren and pasted her photos on every wall of their residence. The neglected spouse found solace in the kind brother-in-law who had lost his ability to love after the departure of his beloved, but not his ability to please. The men in the colony were envious of M over this dalliance. First, the vivacious A, and then the voluptuous East African. M was truly blessed, they sighed. However, the lady soon lost interest in the dim-witted chronically-gambling M, and began an affair with a married neighbor, whose ferocious mother brought the building down upon accosting the pair in flagrante delicto. The East African soon eloped, leaving F and the erstwhile lovers behind.
M, however, became like a tiger who had tasted blood. He had had enough of society ladies and heart-breaking romances. He concluded that his only true friends were the many domestics in the colony. He became obsessed with them. Early morning, after a cup of tea, wearing his sudreh and a colorful lungi, he stood on his terrace and whistled to the domestics walking towards their households. His charm ensnared many a domestic, often ill-treated at home. Neighbors were initially shocked at his activities on the terrace, behind the strategically placed water tanks. Later, it became a routine occurrence. Strangely, most of his affairs with these hardworking women were not motivated by commerce. M had a gruff, husky voice, could hum old Bollywood numbers and his whistling skills were legendary. He proudly narrated his numerous conquests to eager boys in the colony. If the night before he had won the matka, he treated the kids to ice-cream and his girlfriend for the day received a handsome gift. The ladies walked coyly past his building, almost awaiting the summoning whistle. Somehow his philandering was never crass or offensive, and always consensual. The objects of his attention, when selected, felt as if a badge of honor had been conferred upon them.
Then, the colony employed a sanitation worker called Inder, dark complexioned with hardened features. A year later, he married an extremely fair Kashmiri. It did not take much time for M to ensnare the beauty. However, this time it was not just carnal. M’s heart beat faster every time they spoke. Love danced in her eyes too. A year later, she delivered a girl, more fair complexioned than her but having those famous green eyes. M devoted all his meager resources to the mother and child. Inder, crestfallen and embarrassed, raised no rumpus. Returning from the tiles factory every evening, M made a dash for Inder’s quarters to play with his little daughter. M’s whistling came to an abrupt end. The domestics slyly glanced at the terrace but he no longer summoned them. Decades after the abrupt departure of his A, M had found lasting love from unexpected quarters.
The colony matrons decided that this episode was setting a bad example for their children. Inder was given a sum of money and asked to leave immediately. When M returned home, all three were gone. Never to return again.
M became morose and silent. His body began to waste and those green eyes sunk deep into his face. His parents died in quick succession. F left for the UK. The tiles factory sacked M. He developed red blotches on his skin and the doctor opined that he had pneumonia. The neighbors hospitalized his emaciated form and were shocked to learn that M had full blown AIDS. It was the early 1990s. Hospital workers refused to serve him. One Monday morning, when the domestics went past his building on their way to work, stealing furtive glances at the empty terrace, he breathed his last. He was 54.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.