Status quo

He was engrossed in tightening the bolt on the wheel-hub of a bicycle kept upside down. I had to go very close to him to draw his attention. He jerked his spanner a last time and spun the wheel to test if it had been fitted properly. His oil-smeared hand held and felt the rotating tyre, even as he lifted his head and looked at me through the spokes of the wheel. His eyes did the talking, “Yes, what can I do for you.”

“This bike has not been in use for two years; now, it feels heavy, and is very noisy. I want you to oil it and grease it; and adjust its chain, reset its gears and align its wheels. The brake shoes have become brittle, might need a change. And… just see if anything else is required. I want it to run smoothly.”

He tilted my MTB on its side stand so that the rear wheel was airborne. Mechanically, he pushed down the pedal, spun the wheel and checked the brakes and the gears. He also felt the sag in the chain. His inspection was complete when he lifted the ultra-light bike a few inches and dropped it, and let it bounce a few times on its tyres. “There’s practically nothing wrong with your bike. It just needs servicing. There may be a need to change some ball bearings.”

“How much time will you take?” I asked him. On my to-do-list was the purchase of a few items of grocery and some knick-knacks from Gupta General Store across the road in Indra Market. I was in no great hurry, yet I looked at the screen of my mobile phone and pretended to be short of time.

That apparently illiterate cycle mechanic sitting in Noida’s D-Block Market, must have held a Master’s Degree in Customer Psychology. Effortlessly, he demolished the non-existent urgency of my need, “Sir, I have a puncture to repair and some odd jobs on these two cycles. Your cycle is third in the queue. Servicing alone will take an hour. If, while at it, I discover some minor faults, rectification of the same may add to the time. He looked at the cracked screen of a vintage model of his Nokia phone and said, “Sir, it is ten now. Even if I leave all other work and take up your cycle on priority, it’ll be about 11:15 by the time I am done with it.”

“Please make sure you complete everything by 11:15. I have some commitment at 11:30,” I laid false emphasis.

The urgency part didn’t seem to bother him, “Sir, do you want me to use Chinese ball bearings. They’re cheap, but there is no guarantee whether they’d last even a month. The Indian ones are a bit costly but last at least three years of regular use. Also, do you want me to paint the tyres with this tyre paint? Not only does it make the tyres look as good as new, but it also softens the rubber and adds years to the life of the tyres.

“Use the Indian ball bearings and paint the tyres. How much will be the total cost?”

He made some silent calculations; his lips moved without uttering a word. Then he came out with the result of his calculations, “Sir, servicing costs rupees two hundred and thirty. The cost of the paint and the ball bearings would be about thirty to fifty rupees. All included, it’ll cost you less than three hundred rupees. Your cycle will fly.”

“Okay. Go ahead. I’m off to Indra Market. Do a good job and finish it in time.”

“Sir, this Chinese Covid has made life really very difficult. It is worse than being from hand to mouth. Could you kindly pay me a hundred rupees in advance to enable me to buy some tyre paint and ball bearings?”

I hesitated but, unmindful of my reluctance, he presented his open palm. Years of hard work had rendered his skin rough. It had developed deep cracks. The cracks and lines on his palm were filled with oil, grease and mud. It would have been impossible for the best of the palmists to discern which were the fate lines and which were the cracks.

When I paid him a hundred rupees, he requested me to save his mobile number, and call him and confirm readiness of the cycle before returning to him. His name was Ramkumar.

Just when I turned to leave, he hailed his little daughter who was teaching her sibling Hindi alphabet from a tattered book. She must have been barely nine years of age and her little brother, five.

Status quo

“Laxmi, my child, come here! Let Munna read alone for some time. You sit here in my place. Don’t let any customer go away. I’ll be right back.”

My phone rang when I had bought my stuff and was about to leave Gupta General Store after settling the bill. It was Chhaya. “Shona, are you still in Indra Market. Please check with that embroidery wallah, if he has completed my work. The receipt number is L-7348 dated June, 27, 2021.”

“Gool, please wait a moment. Let me note down, else I’ll forget it.”

I borrowed a ball pen from Guptaji sitting across the billing counter and prepared to note down. Rather than asking for a piece of paper to jot down the number, I found it easier to fish out an economy pack of Dettol soaps, which I had just bought, and find some white space on it to note the receipt number.

“Okay Gool, go ahead. I am noting… L- 7-3-4-8… please repeat the date… okay, it is 27th June. I have noted the receipt number; will check at the embroidery shop. Anything else?  Okay, then… love you… bye!”

Timing was perfect. It was 11:00 by the time I was through with my to-do list. On positive confirmation from Ramkumar, I walked towards his open-air shop. On reaching there, I took a test ride and found that the work had been done to my entire satisfaction. “How much do I pay you, Ramkumar?”

“Sir, two hundred and seventy-five rupees. Please ride it for a few days and let me know if you want me to adjust anything––the chain, the gears or the brakes.”

It was when I had paid Ramkumar and was about to leave that I saw his kids again; this time on, from close quarters. I realised that, Ramkumar and the kids were oblivious of the Covid Protocol, their clothes, hands and faces were dirty. They weren’t wearing masks and looked wretched. Swept by a gentle ripple of pity, I gave Ramkumar a fifty-rupee note to buy face masks for the three of them. Then, I called the kids and gave the economy pack of Dettol soaps to the girl. “Laxmi, you must wash your hands with soap and teach your little brother to do the same.” I thought that was the least I could do for them.

Two days later, I was back in Indra Market to pick up Chhaya’s embroidery work. Since I was there, I walked into Gupta General Store to buy some more soaps. It was a matter of chance that while Guptaji was preparing the cash memo, I looked at the pack of Dettol soaps I had picked up from the shelf. My surprise knew no bounds when I saw, scribbled on the pack, in my handwriting was the number “L-7348” and the date, “June, 27.” Guptaji was candid when I questioned him about the pack bearing the number scribbled by me. “Sir, Ramkumar, the cycle mechanic who sits across the road in D-Block Market, brought it to me the other day and begged me to exchange it for a kilogram and a half of broken rice.”

Champagne

Whoever said, “What’s in a name…,” was absolutely clueless about the psychology, and the art and science of naming. I bet there’s everything in a name. Everything! Else, why would Indians perform elaborate religious rituals while giving names to their new-borns. Ask me! And, I’ll tell you what’s in a name; none knows it better than I do.

In some weird state of mind, Mahabir Prasad Shukl, a Final-Year Mass Com student from Darbhanga, called me, “Sampain.” Mind you, he is very particular about not writing an ‘a’ at the end of his family name, Shukl. He explains, “It is to ensure that my name is pronounced properly. Exactly as it is written and read in Hindi.” Now, just watch––one so particular about his own name wouldn’t care a fig about mine. His colleagues, including his girlfriend Partibha, who knew that communication was the handicap of this Mass Com student, understood that when he said Sampain, he actually meant: “Champagne.”

Champagne: Everything is in the name

So, that name, Champagne has stuck with me. Actually, this guy must have been high on the cheapest of the cheap country liquors, else what similarity did that Gen-Nexter find in me, an unkempt street dog and that bubbly French wine of the same name. Ever since he gave me that oh-so-European name, people have been expecting a much sophisticated behaviour of me.

Earlier the students used to call me Jhumru, a name given by a Management (General) under-grad of Jhumritillaiya domicile. Back then, with a name that brimmed with affection, they cared for me. They tossed leftover rotis, puris, halwa, eggs, biscuits, and what have you, towards me without expecting anything in return. Some students who were governed by their hearts bought food specially for me. Oh my, it was such carefree existence; I cherished that life. Trust me, it was the envy of every dog in the area, as also of some freshers on the University Campus. Now, in my avatar as Champagne, they expect me to behave and perform acts like that guy who lives on the farmhouse yonder, and who travels in shining cars sitting in the lap of a glamorous girl who comes to the campus, more to show off her parents’ stinking richness, than to study. Not that I can’t do what he does, but I am averse to bartering my freedom for bread crumbs. It is certainly not a case of sour grapes. Just that I have some self-respect and I live for it. Period.

Agreed, I am a dog, and I lead a dog’s life. But then, that’s my destiny. And, if I may say, “That’s my choice, too.” Let’s be very clear. None has the right to mess with my name, and my life. That guy who re-christened me, actually ruined both.

The more I have thought about this name business, and the treatment meted out to me because of it, the more miserable I have felt. So, one day, after much deliberation, I took a big decision. I even consulted Laila and Shera, the other guys who share the territory with me, and they too thought, enough was enough, I needed to pay back this Shukl guy.

What best can a dog do to punish a guy? Bite!

So, I was determined to take my revenge upon Shukl. A near perfect plan was afoot. I had chosen a date, a time, a place and the manner in which I was going to dig my sharp canines through his Levis Jeans into his right calf. It was going to be a day before the Convocation, in the evening, in the sports ground where he would be taking a walk with Partibha. I had heard him tell his beloved that that’s when they would plan their party to celebrate their degrees. Laila and Shera would help me corner him.

That dude, he thought he was too hip; he’d remember my bite for life.

On the D-Day, everything had worked as per plan and with clockwork precision. A cheerful Shukl with a smiling Partibha stepped out of the Radhakrishnan Hall exactly at 5:00 pm. He had a document folder in one hand; the other hand rested on Partibha’s shoulder as if she were his property. She was looking into his eyes coyly. Or, maybe she was pretending to be coy. There’s a basis for that  doubt; I had seen her behave even more coyly in the presence of three other guys (of course, with one at a time). That doesn’t really matter; now she was with him. She had a bottle of Fanta in her right hand. From the moisture collected on its outer surface I could make out that it was chilled. In the other hand she was carrying a box of Dominos Pizza. Under normal circumstances, a piece of it would be thrown at me once they are through with their snacking. They walked lazily towards the sports ground; to its farthest corner, to their favourite bench from where they’d have a good view of the ground.

Laila and Shera had taken positions and had nodded readiness.

“Hum soch raha hoon ki, kal party me tumko propose kar doonga (I think, I’ll propose to you tomorrow in the party),” suggested Shukl, with a big smile.

Partibha became even more coy, nodded, “Theek hai, Ham Anita, Nusrat, Neena aur Gopal ko party mein inbhite kiye hain. Cake bhi arder kar diye hain. Saath mein samosa le ayenge (Okay, I have invited Anita, Nusrat, Neena and Gopal for the party. I have ordered a cake too. In addition I’ll get samosas.”

Listening to Partibha, I started wavering. “Should I harm this guy just a day before he plans to propose to his sweetheart?” I asked myself. But then my dog-sense told me that Shukl deserved the punishment I had decided to inflict on him. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind, nodded at my colleagues, and moved closer to the two love birds.

I went over my plan again. It was time. I could hear the gears change, and the cogs move in my head. I had bared my teeth and was about to strike when Shukl said something which made me give up my plan for good, and change my opinion about the guy. “Hum Sunil, Arjun, Arif aur Akriti ko bulaye hain. Thode aur snacks le ayenge. Aur soch rahe the ki Sampain ke bina party adhoora rahega. So saath mein Sampain bhi le ayenge (I have called Sunil, Arjun, Arif and Akriti. I’ll get some more snacks. And, I was thinking that the party would be incomplete without Champagne. So I’ll get Champagne along.”