The head clerk

Berjis Desai

As a head clerk of a moribund government hospital, she could afford to be a clock watcher. At the stroke of five, despite bandy legs, she walked briskly to the bus stop, outside the Victoria Terminus, and waited expectantly for a podgy boy carrying a heavy school bag to cross the road and arrive at the stop. The boy gave a shy smile and she smacked a kiss on his chubby checks, her bright red lipstick leaving an imprint. The other boys disinterestedly watched this daily interaction. She bought his bus ticket (a full five paise) and started cajoling the child to visit her home. While the child very much wanted the delicious treat awaiting him, he was scared of incurring the wrath of his mother.
  Illustration by Farzana Cooper

For the boy’s parents, the aunt was persona non grata, and their only child was forbidden to meet his aunt, whose reason to exist was the boy. Hailing from one of the first Parsi families to settle in Poona, she was elder to her two brothers. While all the siblings appeared gentle on the surface, something about their demeanor and body language, signalled that all was not normal. Particularly, the eyes. They seemed to occupy that twilight zone between eccentricity and borderline insanity.
Their grandfather was an engine driver with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, a fairly glamorous job, those days. Like his parents, he married his rather sickly, but pretty, first cousin. His son, father of our three siblings, emulated him.
The eldest of his three children was a bright and articulate child, though a bit temperamental, and the Italian nuns in the convent were fond of her. A tall and gangly scoutmaster, conducting a boy scout camp in the Poona Scout Hut, convinced her to drop out from Fergusson College and set up their matrimonial home in Bombay. World War II had just ended and moments were ticking away for India’s Independence; Brits were leaving in droves and accommodation was aplenty. For Rs 80 a month, they rented a 2,000 sq ft house in one of the oldest Bombay buildings in Colaba, a stone’s throw from the Radio Club and quite near the glitzy Strand Cinema that was under construction. She landed a job with a government hospital, strangely founded by one of her ancestors. When full-time domestic help was a rarity, she employed a bubbly girl with a perpetual smile on her rosy face, called Sundari. 
Later to be accused by her sister-in-law of being obsessed with sex, she soon realized that the tall scout master was more interested in his boy scouts. A polite divorce resulted in her staying alone in that ancient building. She befriended a smalltime Parsi conman who lived by his wits. He spent his day in the Leopold restaurant on Colaba Causeway and sponged on her income. She fed him ox tongue and Swiss ham and oysters, which he washed down with local hooch flavored with orange peels. He delighted in letting her little nephew savor the drink; the discovery of which resulted in the parental ban on the child visiting the doting aunt.
Deprived of the podgy child, she became depressed and aggressive and began to frequent charlatan sadhus and fakirs and self-styled gurus who convinced her that the sister-in-law was dabbling in black magic which would prove to be a disaster for her nephew.
Her diseased imagination conjured sordid images of her villainous sister-in-law dividing the hitherto close-knit family through the intercession of malevolent spirits, which she tried to counter through her dubious spiritual advisors and the conman boyfriend. When her enemy was admitted to The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital in a severely dehydrated state, after a bout of bad food poisoning caused by overindulging at a Parsi gahanbar, our heroine was convinced that her spells were proving efficacious. This estranged her brothers too, but not the nephew, who connected more with his dotty aunt than his stentorian mother. The bond between the aunt and nephew was near perfect. 
The boy was packed off to a boarding school in Nasik. Frustrated by an increasingly hostile work environment at her hospital where she stood out like a sore thumb, she resigned. One not so fine morning, Sundari reported pregnant and blamed it on the conman who went missing. The landlord filed an eviction suit against her on the ground that a single person did not require such large space. Both her brothers severed all connection. She had lost confidence in the charlatan godmen who had defrauded her. 
Upon an impulse, she contacted a kaajwalli (matchmaker) in Cusrow Baug who introduced her to a 75-year-old widower with no issue. It was love at first sight, though mutually myopic. "Aay ghanoo smart bacchu chhè, hu punnus tau énéj punnus (This child is really smart. If I at all marry, it has to be her)!” Belonging to an aristocratic family whose head was once a legend in corporate India, the couple spurned the suggestion of a private ceremony and celebrated their wedding with gusto at Allbless Baug with a three-week honeymoon at Simla. His family was bemused at her rather strange ways but then they had never seen their Peston so happy. Strangely, this united her family too; with the sister-in-law acting as the bridesmaid. The nephew though did not find this so funny. 
After a decade of matrimonial bliss, proving that the strangest marriages work best, Pestonji died. Some haandas (louts) at his uthamna, cracked bawdy jokes about the reason for his sudden demise. She implored her nephew, a manager in a rather dubious company which ultimately perished in a scam, to move in with her. He did not. He stayed alone. Some said he was gay. Some said he had a drug addiction. Some said he was entangled with his employer’s underworld contacts. But they continued to adore each other. He made sure that the family had Sunday lunch at her home. 
One such Sunday morning, they phoned her to say that his wrist had been slashed. The police was never able to solve the mystery, even decades later. Luckily for her, she did not have to pick up the phone, having succumbed to a massive cardiac attack the night before. 

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