“Your uncle insisted so much! I think we should go once,” said Shyamala.
“What are you talking about?” asked Bhaskar.
“Mr.Ramanatham! He is the managing director of a big company. He met your uncle a few days ago. Uncle told him that we have been living here for the past three years. He was very offended that we did not visit him even once, said uncle.”
Bhaskar’s attention drifted away. He said, “Let’s think about it later” and left for his work.
Though Subbayya is Bhaskar’s paternal uncle, their attachment to each other went much deeper. Subbayya and his wife had no children and so Bhaskar practically grew up in his uncle’s house. Bhaskar’s father, Viswam was Subbayya’s brother. Bhaskar was one of the eight siblings and his parents had no objection where he grew up. Moreover, he met his parents often enough.
Subbayya and his wife loved Bhaskar very much and practically spoiled him with their love. It was just a miracle that Bhaskar did not end up as a spoilt brat with all that pampering. There is, however, one thing that is above all human emotions, which is money. Bhaskar had to leave his foster parents for money. That is not to say that they had disagreements. Their love and affection remained the same. It was the circumstances that had changed.
Bhaskar was a studious and hardworking boy right from his childhood. He sailed through his master’s and doctorate easily. Getting a job and getting married happened in quick succession. He was applauded as a “lucky guy,” but Subbayya was not happy. Bhaskar had to go to Mumbai for his employment, much to his uncle’s chagrin and displeasure. Subbayya tried to brainwash his nephew into waiting for some more time and getting a job closer to home. But Bhaskar was determined. He managed to convince his uncle that unemployment is rampant and especially it is difficult to get jobs in research. He also assured them that he would visit them often. Bhaskar’s main concern was money. Neither Subbayya nor Vishwam were wealthy and Bhaskar was sure that he could help them financially with his salary.
In any case, he moved to Mumbai with his wife. Subbayya visited them at least once in six months.
Mumbai added to Subbayya’s depression. He did not like Mumbai one bit. It was so different from his village; he felt it was impossible to live there. He adjusted for a few days for his nephew, but still found it very strange. Milk, yogurt, not even water tasted natural in this big city. He sent rice, lentils, ghee from the village for his nephew’s consumption as far as possible.
Apart from the quality of food, it was the quality of life that irked him worst. Here people did not care for each other. They did not bat an eyelid, even when a neighbour was dying. Subbayya firmly believed that Bhaskar and Shyamala are like babies in the woods, in this concrete jungle. They had no idea of the ways of the world. They need someone older than themselves to look after them. He was determined to find such friends or relatives for Bhaskar and Shyamala in Mumbai.
With this aim, he started searching for relatives in Mumbai. Whenever he discovered a close or distant relative in Mumbai, he would write to Bhaskar with their details and imploring them to go and visit the relatives. In Mumbai, with life being what it is, Bhaskar had no inclination to spend the weekend looking for distant relatives. He, however, never expressed his impatience to his uncle.
But Shyamala felt they were cheating the old man. Especially since she could imagine the kind of troubles uncle might have undergone to get those addresses and contact details. She also knew how difficult it is in Mumbai to find time. But most of the people with those addresses were in a higher social strata and her womanly instinct encouraged getting in touch with all those ‘well-heeled’ people. Bhaskar disagreed with this.
He argued “When we initiate friendship with the people who are better than us socially, we could be mistaken as social climbers. Those people are likely to put on airs and look down upon us. Self-respecting people cannot stand that patronizing, condescending attitude. So, it is better to initiate friendship with our equals, as far as possible. With people who are below us on the social ladder, we should take the first step and initiate friendship. With people who are above us on the social scale, it is better to wait for them to initiate the friend ship.”
This kind of argument has happened many times in the past. Now the latest address they have is of Ramanatham, a distant relative. He has known Subbayya for a long time. Ramanatham lived in the US for ten years and returned to India a year ago. He met Subbayya at a social gathering and knew about Bhaskar’s whereabouts. Apparently he expressed displeasure when he knew that Bhaskar lives in Mumbai and never went to meet him. “I have been living in Mumbai for the past one year and he never met me, not even once. Is this what kith and kin are for, I ask you?” he exclaimed indignantly!
Subbayya reported the entire episode to Bhaskar and advised him to meet Mr.Ramanatham without delay. As usual Bhaskar nodded his head at the suggestion.
But this time Shyamala seemed to have been brain washed by the uncle. She insisted that they should go on one weekend to Mr.Ramanatham’s house.
“Look, Shyamala, our income is seven hundred rupees per month. He earns more than three thousand rupees. We shell down nearly two hundred on this pigeonhole. He lives in a spacious accommodation, courtesy of his employer. We are struggling to buy a two-wheeler while he moves around only in his car. With all these differences, I don’t see at level we can be his friends. His remarks to uncle, well they are just out of politeness and perhaps to show his status to us. I am not convinced that he invited us whole-heartedly. If he were really an affectionate gentleman, he could have come to visit us, along with uncle, couldn’t he?” he argued.
“You have neither met him, nor spoken to him. Why do you jump to conclusions and judge him? We can’t judge people without meeting them at least once. I think you have a streak of inferiority complex “ retorted Shyamala.
This offended Bhaskar. “I have no reason to feel inferior. I just can’t stand people who feel superior and put on airs. I know very well how this kind of invitations are extended and how those people behave.”
“You have been expressing the same opinion about many people. Let us meet Mr.Ramanatham’s family just to test the validity of your opinions,” Shyamala tried a different route now.
Bhaskar was not prepared for this logic. He had to agree to pick up the gauntlet.
They decided to go to Ramanatham’s house on a holiday. They could find the house without any trouble. But they were hesitant to enter the house. It was a big bungalow, with a well-manicured garden and a sentry at the gate. After lot of dilly-dallying they approached the sentry. Since they were well dressed, sentry let them in without much ado. In the garden a gentleman was sitting in a garden chair. Bhaskar asked him if they could meet Mr.Ramanatham. The gentleman informed them that Mr.Ramanatham is on a tour with his family and would return the following night. He gave Bhaskar a notepad and a pen and asked him to leave a message. Bhaskar left a message with his introduction and address.
They came out, when Bhaskar said, “Thank God, they were not there. He seems to be a really big shot. We are not coming this side again, unless he responds!” Shyamala too felt the same, and kept silent.
Bhaskar wanted to go there again! He realised he felt mildly scared when he was entering Ramanatham’s bungalow. He felt relieved when he knew they were out of town. That means he has a reluctance to meet socially superior people. He is highly qualified and well employed and so there is no reason for his discomfort. He could talk confidently with people much older than Ramanatham. Perhaps he is uneasy because of social status. This realization teased him. Inferiority complex is not a desirable quality. He has to meet Mr.Ramanatham at least to verify his own inferiority complex. In any case, he was not going with any ulterior motives and so need not fear anything.
His self-respect took a beating when Ramanatham did not reply for quite some time. He told Shyamala, “One’s reflection in the mirror, just copies him or her. The reflection has no intentions of its own. In fact, reflection is just an illusion. It has no existence. In the current culture, human beings too are behaving like illusory reflections. For example, when you stumble on someone’s foot, you apologise mechanically, without really meaning it. Similarly we say ‘thanks’ as a matter of routine, without really feeling it. I guess we invite people in the same polite, mechanical way. We don’t feel the affection necessary in inviting, nor do we feel sorry if the others don’t honour our invitation.”
Shyamala agreed with his observations, but refused to categorise Mr.Ramanatham into the same slot. “You are feeling offended because you did not receive any acknowledgement from them. We wanted to meet our friends in Dadar and we could not take time for it for the past six months. We could not write a letter home for want of ten minutes. Perhaps, they too have the same problem. Let us go once again to their home and we can confirm.”
Bhaskar too wanted to go so he did not object further. One working day he returned home early and they set out again to go to Mr.Ramanatham’s bungalow.
“When rich people offer us something to eat, it looks indecent if we wipe the plates. So let us eat something and go,” they thought.
Again the sentry let them in. As they were walking across the garden, they met a middle-aged gentleman, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, going out with a tennis racquet. Bhaskar introduced himself to the gentleman. The gentleman seemed to be in a hurry and he just pointed to the lady coming behind him and went his way. The lady approached them. After a brief talk with her, they realised that she was Mrs.Ramanatham. Bhaskar wondered if she were a Telugu speaking woman or not. She looked very much like an Indian, but the atmosphere did not look conducive for a conversation in Telugu.
She invited them in. They did not know what to talk about for a while. Bhaskar enquired about Mr.Ramanatham. She explained that he left for his tennis just then. Bhaskar guessed it, anyway. He told her about his uncle and his friendship with Mr.Ramanatham.
“Oh! So you are Telugu speaking,” she exclaimed in Telugu.
Then they switched over to Telugu. Bhaskar made every effort to make her understand that they did not come uninvited. He told her how he disliked going to other’s houses and how much his uncle insisted upon this visit.
She seemed to be impressed with his qualifications and employment.
“You are really well educated for a young man,” she praised. She spoke very affectionately to Shyamala. She expressed dismay that Ramanatham went without meeting them. Mr.Ramanatham is devoted to his relatives, she explained. If he had known who they were, he would have surely cancelled his tennis, she assured them.
Then the conversation moved on to general topics. She spoke on the unemployment, education, discipline and everything. She spoke on every topic with a resounding confidence.
As they were talking, she called out “Prasad” for her servant. As he appeared, she commanded, “do coffee lao.” [Bring two coffee]. Bhaskar stopped Prasad and told her, “Excuse me, madam, neither my wife nor I take any coffee or tea. We in fact just finished our evening snack and so can’t consume any thing, absolutely.”
But she refused to let them go from her home unless they partook something. “Just have some lemon juice, at least” she insisted.
Bhaskar and Shyamala were forced to agree.
“do glass neembu paani lao”[bring two glasses of lemon juice], she commanded Prasad. She explained to them, “I had a cup of tea, just two minutes ago and so I am not able to give you company.”
Bhaskar was extremely irritated, because he did not want to drink lemon juice at that time.
Prasad came out in two minutes with two glasses on a tray. He placed the glasses on the table and announced “neembu paani.”
They took one glass each and sipped the lemon juice. They could not hide their astonishment. The servant gave them plain water! They drank it up and got up to leave. Mrs.Ramanatham politely asked them to stay for some more time, and then saw them off at the gate.
“She spoke so warmly,” commented Shyamala, once they were out of the bungalow. Bhaskar smiled, “do you want to meet her again?”
Shyamala thought for a second and replied, “I don’t know the reason but I don’t want to go to their house again”.
Bhaskar again smiled, “I know the reason. At the outset, we found out that Mr.Ramanatham was not one bit interested in us. He did not even recognise my name. He went to his tennis as though we don’t matter at all. She talked very politely but there is no natural affection in her hospitality. She shows the same kind of hospitality to every one who visits her house. That is not her feeling towards us but that is what she has learned as a hostess of that class. The clinching evidence to say that she doesn’t consider us her equals is, her refusal to give us company in partaking the soft drink. What would have happened if she did?”
Shyamala looked at him curiously.
“She would have known that the servant gave us plain water and there is no lemon in the lemon juice. She takes that special care only for visitors who are on par with her. The servant too figured that out and bravely brought us plain water. He was very sure that she wouldn’t taste it. But in a way, it did help us.”
“We can measure their affection for relatives and friends by the amount of lemon in that juice”.
From then on, Bhaskar always used the phrase “neembu paani” to indicate fictitious entities. After all, proverbs and idioms are products of experience!
Translated by Sharada (Australia) and published on thulika.net, March 2003.
(The story, “nimbu paani” was originally published in Andhra Jyoti Weekly, 14 April 1994, and later included in the anthology, “Rasikaraja thaguvaaramu kaama,” Vahini Books, 1996.)