Fiction Short Stories

Twenty Rupees and an Air-conditioner – Arunima Mazumdar

To smoke a beedi and regale in its burning ingredients to perfection is not easy. One ought to puff at it between every five seconds. It’s not like the pricey cigarette that is able to burn itself naturally, whether you blow its filtered-butt or not. And so, the humble beedi finds its audience in the rickshaw pullers (and many others like them) who are endowed with forced physical strength.

My good friend Balram is one such character. He loves his beedi more than his wife, just like the others in his clan of work. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll notice that he resembles the others. They all have sun-burnt skin and they all wear loose and tattered pants, the original colours of which are long gone. And they are all christened as ‘bhaiyas’ by young girls and elderly women alike, much to their dislike. Some of them prefer to cover their heads with a gamcha as they wait impatiently for a swarm of people darting out of the station in the relentless afternoon sun. Others prefer a siesta under a tree shade.

Balram, however, doesn’t need a tree shade to rest and neither does he wait in anticipation for a passenger. He likes to park his three-wheeled chariot outside a local restaurant and spend the afternoon on its porch, reading the day’s newspaper. Yes, he can read but that’s not the point. Balram played it by convincing Singh uncle, the owner of ‘Singh Uncle’s’, to let him sit outside the eatery for the few, hot afternoon hours. Singh Uncle’s eatery is popular not because it has cheap pastries and patties on offer but because the meek little eatery boasts of an air-conditioned ambience, something that only the bigwigs of the restaurant business can afford.

“An intelligent initiative”, so says everyone and I agree too but I miss the point of his ‘intelligence’ when I see no door at the entrance. To cut on the cost, Singh Uncle had avoided investing in a wooden door and settled only for an unyielding, iron shutter that he pulls with all his might at 11pm every night. It was only a month after he got the air-conditioner installed that he grasped the futility of the new electronic device, and of course, the inevitability of a door. But it was too late to amend the hinges and he found yet another ‘intelligent’ solution in two thick see-through plastic sheets, parted from the middle, hanging at the doorway. To his satisfaction, they were almost capable of barring the expensive, cool breeze from filtering out.

“But can a flimsy plastic sheet do what a door can do?” Balram asked me. I looked at him confused. He put his arm on my shoulder and spoke again, this time clarifying his plan to convince me better, “Look over there. The plastic sheet takes to the air every time there’s a gush of wind or whenever someone walks in or out of the shop. I have experienced it, the whiff of electrically cooled air, in that brief moment”. And so he sits outside ‘Singh Uncle’s’ every afternoon, reading his favourite page of the newspaper and occasionally wincing at me.

But a businessman is a businessman after all. Uncle Singh would never do a favour on the house. He allowed Balram to spend his afternoons there but remembered to charge a per day fee in return. No, he wasn’t money minded and hence he never suggested a monetary compensation, lest it questioned his kind repute. He instead appointed Balram the job of bringing his wife home from the nearby school, needless to say, without any charge. So every afternoon, Sukhi bhabhi, the Matron in Shiksha Bharti Vidyalaya would hoard herself on Balram’s rickshaw seat and enjoy a free ride home.

“They think the favour-barter is fair but it is not so my friend”, rues Balram. I throw a questioning glance at him and he knows I am intrigued. So he continues, “The school is about 2 kilometres away from their house and ideally twenty rupees is what I charge for a single person for that long a distance. But have you estimated the weight on that woman? She’s nothing less than 80 kgs; who knows may be even more”.

So you see it is simple math; twenty rupees to escape the afternoon for an air-conditioned porch.

Wondering who I am who knows all secrets of his trade? Well, I occupy the small corner of the pavement facing ‘Uncle Singh’s’, where I sit and boil the sugary syrup every day. They call me the chai waala.


Arunima Mazumdar is working with the Times of India group (New Delhi, India) as a lifestyle journalist. A graduate in English Literature from Delhi University, she recently had one of her short stories published in a collection, Pomegranate Short Story competition. She tweets @SermonsInStone

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