Dhunu walked with hurried steps towards Babupara, the neighbourhood of babus.
They were called babus because their fathers and grandfathers were called babus for the respect they commanded for of their wealth. As the wealth was inherited by generations, so was the title of Babu. Though more than twenty babus and their families lived in Babupara, for Dhunu there were only two babus. Bhavesh babu and Prithvi babu. Each one of them owned the only two two-storey houses in Babupara. The families were equally small. Prithvi babu had a son, Neel, and his wife was dead. Bhavesh babu had a dog, Tiger, and he never married. Prithvi babu had two hobbies: Work and read lines of his palm. Bhavesh babu had two hobbies: Tiger and gossip about the past.
Dhunu’s hurried steps did not hide the fact that he was trying to walk taller. And he had a reason to be tall: Dhunu was the only barber of the two most important babus in Babupara. He would sharpen his razor on a leather strip and share stories of his tallness. He would say, “When I shave their beard, they obey my commands”. The tallness, sharpened with razor-sharp words, made him a feared man in his village. When Dhunu’s four sons got married one after the other, he used his tallness to slash a bicycle, then a pair of gold earrings, then a gold ring and finally a cow.
As Dhunu entered Bhavesh babu’s house, his figure slackened, much like the leather strip used to sharpen his razor.
“You are late! The sun has already crossed my doorsteps! And now you get time?” said Bhavesh babu in a loud voice while sitting in his easy chair. Tiger, sitting beside Bhavesh babu, did not pay attention like he did not every day.
“Sorry Saar, Lajo in bad mood today again. I waited and waited and waited-”
“My ears are not for the stories of your cow! You have to be on time!”
Dhunu stood quietly. Bhavesh babu continued. “I am an important man. I have lots of work. If you don’t come on time, then I can find someone else.”
“No Saar, I come at time”
“On time! Don’t know where you were educated. It is on time. Not at time” said Bhavesh babu with the look of a tired teacher who had filled pages after pages in red remarks. Dhunu stood quietly with his head down. “Here,” said Bhavesh babu pointing a finger towards his head.
“Of course! Haircut today. And shave” said Dhunu as he jolted to action. He brought the customary stool near Bhavesh babu’s chair and opened his tin box on the stool. His hinged movements around Bhavesh babu were fluid and practised over years.
“What news in Babupara?” asked Bhavesh babu after Dhunu’s scissors started to clink-clank around Bhavesh babu’s hair.
Dhunu, like every day, was waiting for this question. This is when Dhunu would start talking and would continue till the hair was cut or the beard was shaved or both. This is when Bhavesh babu would sit quietly and listen and therefore make Dhunu’s movement easier.
Among other unimportant events like theft in someone’s house and who gave birth to whom, and among other important events like who is buying land and who is selling land, Dhunu had something very important to say: Someone in Babupara had claimed that he had more wealth than Bhavesh babu.
“Who was it?” asked Bhavesh babu stopping Dhunu’s movement
“Do not matter Saar. I gave him good reply” Dhunu continuing his movement forcefully.
“What did you say?” Bhavesh babu inquired while accepting Dhunu’s forced movements.
“I said Bhavesh babu has the Bluestone! He can buy entire Babupara with that stone! Correct Saar?”
Bhavesh babu, who was intolerably boastful of his wealth, would always keep quiet when words spoken by others included his Bluestone in them. No one in recent times had seen the stone. Bhavesh babu knew that he was good at only two things: Keeping the stone safe in his house. And keeping a secret safe in his heart.
With no response from his babu, Dhunu continued with his clink-clank movement and when he was done with the haircut, Dhunu moved to shaving. The part where Bhavesh babu obeyed his commands. Slight left Saar. Yesh, yesh, nice! Face slight up Saar. Yesh, yesh, good. Slight right Saar. Yesh, yesh, done, finish!
As Dhunu restored his tin box, he stopped, bent over to be close to Bhavesh babu and said, “Saar, Neel babu has come.”
Bhavesh babu turned to look looked at Dhunu. “When?” “Yesterday night” “You saw him?” “Yes, I saw him running on the road today morning. He looked beautiful!” “You sure?” “I swear on my razor Saar!”
And Bhavesh laid back again in his easy chair with a deep breath. As Dhunu turned to leave Bhavesh babu asked, “Why did you say he looked beautiful?”
“Saar, Neel babu is as beautiful as a jewel from the past. Like the Bluestone. With each new day value and shine increase.” Bhavesh babu only gave a slight nod.
“Tell Prithvi that I will be at his home today evening.” He added.
Dhunu replied with many nods and smile “Yes Saar! Sure, Saar! After many years Saar! After many years you are going to his home”
But Bhavesh babu was not listening. He was scratching Tiger’s neck and head and was talking to him like a child: “Neel has allived! Neel will come to chee you choon!” Bhavesh babu’s happiness was wagging like Tiger’s tail.
Prithvi babu’s home was diagonally opposite to Bhavesh babu’s house in Babupara. The villagers said that it was a symbol of their divergent life and thoughts. Prithvi babu and Bhavesh babu felt the same. Other than the fact that they had same parents, there was nothing in common.
Dhunu left Bhavesh babu’s house and turned right towards Prithvi babu’s home. Dhunu was never greeted with words or anything else at Prithvi babu’s home. He would unfold the easy chair on the front veranda, keep the customary stool used for shaving beside it, take out the razor and sharpen it, take out the shaving brush, take out the shaving soap and keep on the table. The servants would give him warm water and clean towel. And he would patiently wait beside the easy chair.
Prithvi babu would arrive and quietly lay himself on the chair. Without words, Dhunu would fluidly move around Prithvi babu. After Dhunu had finished shaving or haircut or both, Prithvi babu would get up, straighten his clothes, Dhunu would clean the razor and brush, Prithvi babu would look at him, nod and go in.
Today when Prithvi babu stood up and straightened his clothes, Dhunu stood quietly. Prithvi babu looked at him and asked in a low voice “What?”
“Bhavesh babu said he would come in the evening to visit”
Prithvi babu stared at him for some time and then went in.
It was after sunset that Bhavesh left for Prithvi’s home. Like the rest of the village, the path was dark. When Bhavesh took the first right turn, he could see Prithvi’s home. It was brightly lit by kerosene lamps all around. Normally servants would accompany Bhavesh and carry a kerosene lamp when he went out after sunset. Not today. Today, Bhavesh was guided by the light of a decision he had made.
Prithvi had rules for welcoming guests at his home. Acquaintances of Prithvi would find him standing at the footsteps when they arrived. Close friends, regular visitors and his brother did not get Prithvi’s personal attention. He would say that such people already knew their way in the house. And even if they did not, Prithvi would not lose anything if they got lost.
Bhavesh reached the footsteps of Prithvi’s home. As usual, there was no one standing to welcome him.
“Neel!” He shouted.
Bhavesh heard footsteps running before he saw Neel come out with a grinning face. Neel always liked Bhavesh. When Neel was half the height of Bhavesh and when he used to come back to Babupara during vacations, Bhavesh would take him out to fields and farms and ponds and fishing and anything that made Neel smile and clench Bhavesh’s dhoti with happiness.
“Kaku! How are you! Such a long time! You have grown old! Here,” said Neel, as he held Bhavesh’s hand and helped him climb the few stairs, “Come in. How is Tiger, the tigerrrr?” Asked Neel while copying the purr of Tiger.
Bhavesh only had a smile on his face. He held Neel by his shoulders, intently looked at him in his eyes, and hugged him.
“Tiger is doing great!”, Bhavesh said ending the hug. “He says hi!”, Bhavesh added with a wink. And Neel laughed. They went in together.
“I will come by tomorrow and say hi to him. You look great! I like your hairstyle. Very crisp!”
“Where is Prithvi?”
“Ah, Dad is writing a letter. Let me tell him. Have a seat.”
Babupara was quiet after sunset. As you would walk by the dark and dusty streets, you would find only two signs of life: The random dog that followed you. And the muffled voices and sound of cooking from homes that you passed by. But today was different. Laughter and muffled voices from Prithvi’s home could be heard far into the darkness. A passer-by would agree that he heard only two voices. One was young and happy. The other was old and delighted.
It was after dessert that silence returned. When Neel said goodnight to Bhavesh and Prithvi, Bhavesh inquired, “Wow! Isn’t it too early for bed?”
“Yes, Kaku. Sleep early. Wake up early. And go for a run. Babupara looks beautiful before sunrise. And I get to maintain my health.”
Bhavesh only looked up at Neel with smiling lips and glistening eyes and gave a slight nod to say goodnight. He took a deep breath when Neel left and looked at Prithvi. Prithvi, who was seated with his back towards Bhavesh and Neel, appeared to search for thoughts in the darkness outside the open window of the living room. After Neel left, Bhavesh stood quietly for few moments, saw Prithvi looking outside and decided to sit on a chair kept perpendicular to Prithvi’s direction. A table separated them.
Bhavesh babu said as he sat down, “What a boy! What a boy! I am so proud of him! He has a government job. He looks smart. He is taking care of his health. You know Prithvi, we should get him married-”
“Why are you here?” Prithvi said coldly without looking at Bhavesh. Bhavesh felt that his smile was kicked out through the open window into the darkness. It took few moments for the smile to follow the bright lights of Prithvi babu’s home and return.
“To meet Neel! What else!” Bhavesh said with a forced gleaming smile.
“Anyways you would have summoned him to your house. Like you always do. Yeah, don’t be surprised! I know everything. Both of you spend long days whenever Neel is here.”
Bhavesh sat upright like a grounded child.
“So, why are you here Bhavesh?”
Bhavesh said his words at an unusually slow speed. Anyone could tell that he was thinking hard.
“You know Prithvi. I have. Been. Thinking-”
“Yeah good. You should do that sometime.”
“No, I meant that. I have been thinking. About something. About the past, the future and about Neel. I feel that the future should be different. But this past, my past, our past, it does not let me. Keeps coming at me. I think-”
Prithvi cut it short “You know Bhavesh, for the first time in sixty-four years you seem to say something of value and unfortunately, I am not able to understand it. Please come to the point!”
“I want to forget the past. I want to look at future. I want to look at Neel’s future. That’s the only future I have.”
“You don’t have any future with Neel. He is your past. He is my son now.”
“Yes, yes! He is your son. For sure he is your son. I don’t have any claim-”
“And never claim it Bhavesh! You will ruin his life. And our life.”
Bhavesh let out a long breath. And with that, he let out his thoughts in the air. They stayed around him. Not moving. Just stationary. He could sense them. Feel them. Remember them.
The memory of knowing that Prithvi can never bear a child. The memory of a dying father pleading Bhavesh to do the unimaginable. The ravaging memory of him spending nights after nights at Prithvi’s home and leaving early in the darkness of the morning. Of knowing that Prithvi’s wife had given birth to a boy. Of receiving the family stone because he was the rightful owner. Because he got the family its heir. Of him feeling ashamed of himself and what he had done. Of him sleeping with women because he could not find peace. Of him abusing himself and the local alcohol because he was too much for himself.
And of him holding Neel for the first time. And of him finding momentary solace as he looked into the hazel eyes of Neel. Like his own hazel eyes.
“It is time for you to leave,” said Prithvi.
“Why do hate me?” asked Bhavesh.
“I don’t hate you. I dislike you. I don’t want to be known in your presence. Your women, your evening drinks, I don’t want Neel to be near these. You have thrown the family name into the mud. Deep, dark mud.”
Bhavesh kept staring at his thoughts. He said slowly “I have gone too deep Prithvi. I have tried to stop mixing with mud. But the stains are stronger. I want to shrug off the past. I will keep trying. But there is one thing that concerns me.”
Prithvi looked at Bhavesh with a frown and convex lips. Bhavesh took out a blue velvet pouch and kept it on the table in between them.
“I want to give the Bluestone to Neel”
“Sapphire! It is called Sapphire!” retorted Prithvi and looked out the window again. He continued, “You guys keep saying it Bluestone! Get some sense!”
“Yeah. Right. But I want Neel to have this blue Sapphire. This stone keeps me closer to the memories I don’t want to keep. He is a man now. He can take care of this.”
“He is a man, yes. But he is young. He needs time. It is too early for him to hold something that precious. He should first hold a woman he loves. The Sapphire, then, will be less important.”
“Ok. So please, please keep it with you.” Bhavesh pushed the pouch towards Prithvi.
“I cannot. This belongs to you. You are the rightful heir.” Prithvi continued, still arranging his thoughts in the darkness outside the window.
“Please Prithvi. I want peace.”
“Then get peace in knowing that the stone belongs to Neel. But now, it is for you to keep. Give it to him in your will.”
Bhavesh sat for a while. His memories had left him one by one. He felt lighter. Both of them kept quiet for a while. Bhavesh babu could hear a distant dog bark from being bored.
“I think I should go,” Bhavesh said and he stood up. As he went towards the main door, Prithvi accompanied him. Prithvi always felt that close friends needed a goodbye at the footsteps when they leave.
“You know-“, Bhavesh said standing at the footsteps, “-you missed looking at the sparkling blue colour of the stone. And it will be a long time before you get to see it. I am not dying soon!” He grinned.
“You know I have a Sapphire of my own,” said Prithvi. Bhavesh frowned and tilted his head up to look at Prithvi. “But the blue is different. You know what blue it is?” continued Prithvi. “Hazel blue!” added Prithvi with a smile and so heard Bhavesh with a hearty laugh. “By the way, I have seen your palm, you have maximum 5 years to live.”
“Well, in that case, let’s have dinner at my house tomorrow?”
Prithvi nodded. “I will send Neel”, he said.
Bhavesh nodded with an understanding, turned and walked away. Standing there at the footsteps, Prithvi slowly heard Bhavesh’s footsteps vanish from his ear. And from his thoughts outside that window.