Story 13. The Refugee.

MullaTwo kids found a pouch containing fifteen silver coins. One had spotted it and the other had picked it up. Each claimed ownership to the find. This led to an argument and ultimately they approached the wise Mulla Nasruddin with their quandary.
“Hmmm…so you want me to resolve the matter?”
“Yes, please,” both said in unison.
“Alright, I’ll divide the coins between the two of you. But tell me, do you want me to do justice like a human or God?”
“Please do as God would” the kids said.
He counted the coins and gave twelve to one and three to the other. While they both stood there bewildered, said Mulla plainly, “That’s how He operates.”

This is a story about another financier. The first one can be found here. My story starts in 1970 in Bombay as it was then known. Prohibition was in force and tipplers depended on the ubiquitous bootleggers and the Bombay equivalents of the American speakeasies of yore. Bombay also had its own Al Capones!

My bootlegger never let me down, but he is not important for this story. Perhaps he will feature in greater detail in a later story.

Bombay speakeasies were inevitably run by matriarchs affectionately called Aunties by their clients. They gave the clients a clean ambiance and unadulterated booze, soda, ice and or water. If you needed anything else like short eats or lemon peels, you had to take them with you and also take the wrappers, peels etc away back with you when you left. The Aunties usually had a bouncer around to see that no one drank too much and gave trouble to the others. Most important of all was the security as the local cops were bought off and as long as I patronized those speakeasies I never personally experienced a raid. All speakeasies were located on the first or second floor of multi-storied buildings. I never found out why but I suppose that the ground floors were too open for the operations.

My favourite Aunty’s was located in an older part of South Bombay. It was in a four-storied building on the first floor. Each floor had two flats and the other flat in this particular case was the Aunty’s residence. On the ground floor facing the road were four shops, one of which was an eatery of sorts. One husband and wife team ran the shop making choley, tikkia, samosas and fantastic sev/bhel puri. I would inevitably stop there either before going to Aunty’s for a snack to take up with me, or after having had my quota to have a snack.

Over time, I started to talk to the shopkeeper and a very warm and long lasting friendship was established. He was aptly named Bhagwan as he was a deeply religious person with very high moral values.

Bhagwan was a Sindhi. A refugee who came to Bombay by ship in 1947 after the great partition. He and his wife had survived in refugee camps by working their butts off and had been able to pay the pagdi for the shop they ran. Bhagwan was also supporting his sister’s husband Manohar, to set up his own business, similar in nature, in another part of Bombay. To the best of Bhagwan’s knowledge, these two families were the only ones who escaped from their village in Sindh and so, the bonding between both families were very strong. Both had a son and daughter each and all four were studying in schools when I got to know them.

Bhagwan was older than I was by about 12 years and always treated me as though he was my elder brother. This is quite common in India as age is given its place in relationships. He would advise me to moderate my drinking and to take a taxi home rather than go by bus if I had had one too many. He would also give me a packet of something or the other to take home for Urmeela.

Bhagwan’s family and we met formally at my home after a few months and both the ladies also hit it off from their very first meeting. The two families became quite friendly and Bhagwan would send his children to Urmeela after school to learn to speak English properly. We would also go over to their place for the occasional dinner or some religious function and got to know the brother in law, Manohar and his family as well.

This relationship continued till I was transferred out of Bombay in 1973. I lost track of Bhagwan for three and a half years while I moved first to Calcutta and then to Kerala and returned to Bombay in 1977.

During that gap, Bombay had become wet and it was a simple matter to obtain a legal permit to buy and consume alcohol. One could go into legal bars and restaurants to tipple and life was good. All the Aunties and bootleggers went out of business.

After settling down in our new home, I went to Bhagwan’s shop to taste my old favourites and found that during the the time I was away, Bhagwan too had fared well and had taken possession of all the four ground floor shops and was running a very successful restaurant serving the same old fare but in larger quantities to a larger clientele who could sit down at tables and eat properly. He had brought his brother in law Manohar in as a partner and the two of them were running a highly successful operation and I was very pleased with their success. We resumed our friendship where we had left off and a lot toing and froing between our two homes resumed.

I was in Bombay for two and a half years before I was transferred out to Delhi in 1980 and we parted with assurances to keep in touch. And true to his promise, Bhagwan landed up in Delhi on a few occasions to stay with us enroute to and from Mathura to which he and his wife frequently went to pray at their favourite temple and to take the blessings of their guru who had an ashram there. During these visits I came to know that over the past many years, Bhagwan had been a private financier to small businesses whose owners he knew personally and he claimed that he was making more money in that business than from his partnership in the restaurant.

To be continued.

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