It was the third time the Guru of Income Tax had called for Dad. Guru, not as in doyen, master, or spiritual authority, but guru as in Satguru, Income Tax officer, Ward 14, scourge, terror, and nemesis of industrialists, businessmen, and hoarders of wealth. What was he doing calling Dad?
“I like you, sir,” he told Dad. “I will see what I can do to get you a refund. That should help, huh — at your age?”
It wasn’t surprising that he said that. Fact is, everyone liked Dad, children and dogs included. Oh, and not to forget the girls I got home. They waxed eloquent over him. “He is so cute, your father! Why aren’t you like him — gentle?”
How could I answer that? How could I explain why some of those genes never got transferred? Why I could not do half the things he did? He would, for instance, place six glasses of water for my mother, every morning, neatly arranged on the table. At regular intervals, he would draw her attention to them, reminding her to stay hydrated, to retain her body fluids in the midst of a long, unsparing Indian summer. And he would teach English to every servant we hired. It did not matter that the servant invariably left us for a better salaried job. “It’s good,” Dad would say, smiling. “Good that they have the motivation to better themselves, good that they progress. And that they take away something lifelong from us.” Mom would give him a hostile look. “Yes,” she would say sharply. “Good that they don’t even give notice, spring this on me overnight, when I have so much work and no other help.”
When our neighbor’s dog, Romeo, went blind — having scooped the rangoli powder at the door into his eyes — he was left at the animal hospital in Parel. He was admitted not just for treatment but as punishment for tearing into a tall, fat Chinese jar, a ceramic marvel, painted in the tradition of the Tang masters of the eighth century. The jar had swayed, staggered, and toppled over, splintering into a million pieces.
When that happened and Romeo was banished to a world of darkness and to the confusion of a netted cage, Dad was the one who’d visit him. He’d take him biscuits and would play with him. He’d give him his hand to sniff, and the familiar smell would drive Romeo mad with joy. He would think he was going to be taken home; all was forgiven.
Dad also made it a point to take Romeo a special ball that made a rumbling sound when it rolled. Ears cocked, Romeo would tear after it, trip over it, paw it, and refuse to let go, forgetting, for a few moments, that he was blind.
That was Dad; that was his trip: heart in the right place, eyes wide open!
Physically, Dad was a picture of affability. He was frail, soft, and tranquil. He had brown eyes, deep, searching, and sensitive. He spoke less, was interested, always, in knowing more about the other person: his problems, his achievements, his goals, beliefs. Dad believed in the concept of an alert humanity. If there was a problem, as in poor rainfall in the villages, or a famine brought to light by the morning paper, he’d be sure to write out a check. The amount would go from his pension, meager as it were, and which came as a reward for 40 years of service in a nationalized bank. No question of leaving the bank, he had said, in years when offers had come his way. The bank is coming up well. Do you know what the deposit base is? And how many customers have opened second accounts? And how many branches we now have, compared to when I joined?
“Oh, Dad!” I would say, and give up. I was in college then and missed not having a father’s car to drive. It wasn’t as if the girls I dated minded. They were simple enough, and at that age these things didn’t matter. It was the girls’ fathers who looked at me disdainfully when I said I wasn’t mobile. “What does your father do?” they would ask, and lose interest.
The Oh, Dads became frequent after I started working. When I started receiving cash payments that weren’t accounted for in my books. Most people I knew did that, transactions in cash, to spite the caretakers of the nation for not giving us good roads, good water, and good air. Dad was an exception. He paid every bit of his taxes — more, never less, to ensure a good night’s sleep for himself and his family.
He stole mine, though, I can tell you that. A few times over, my Oh, Dads became agitated. What to do? He’d write out thank-you notes to people who’d send me cash payments. “Received in cash, a sum of 25,000 rupees. Signed on behalf of Mr. X by Mr. Y” In brackets, Father.
It was all there in black and white, my suicide note, should it fall into the hands of the tax officers waiting for a kill. Always waiting, even if it took years.
And though wide was the gap between father and son, and disparate our approach to life, not so the bond. We were close, immensely close. Dad would speak to me, confide in me, should something nag at his curly white head.
That morning, after the call, he spoke about Satguru. He had met the officer when he realized that he, as a senior citizen, was due for a tax rebate on certain counts. He had gone to the ward office and submitted his appeal, full disclosures of his accounts, his tax returns spotlessly clean and detailed. Satguru had studied the papers and seen the stamp of honesty. He also saw a frail little man, gentle and amenable, unable to say no or to differ. He filed that away and then phoned a few days later. “I can help you,” he told Dad. “But you will, of course, tell no one.”
“He wants a bribe,” Dad said to me, his eyes wide with fear. “He says he will arrange a refund every year. I have nothing to worry about. But I have to give him a cut, some chai pani.”
I could understand Dad’s fear of bribes. He had kept away from them all through his working life. I had seen him reject copious bundles of cash that came with a warm handshake on Diwali. He was gracious in his refusal. “I am looking forward to the sweetmeats, but this, please, no. So sorry, but I have a problem with it. The problem is entirely mine.” He’d move to other topics of conversation to reassure the offender that it was but an aberration, no judgment had been made. It was easy to see why they liked Dad. He was inexpensive as a banker, and gracious, and forgiving.
But now he was worried. Satguru wouldn’t be so forgiving if Dad refused his offer. I had no doubts that Satguru liked Dad. He genuinely wanted to help him. At the same time, he wanted his pound of flesh. What to do? Bribes and corruption were the order of the day.
“What do I do? What do I say?” Dad asked me. “I wish I had left matters to your accountant.” Then wistfully and sadly he said, “Who would have thought … ? I thought he was genuine, honest, somebody who would help me, because it is right to do so.”
“Dad,” I was tempted to say. “No one is honest these days. No one does things free, out of goodness. It’s like searching for a toothpick in a haystack. It’s the day of the great smash and crawl. You remember that, don’t you? The game you taught me as a kid. You hide a coin in one hand and smash both palms on the table and your opponent is supposed to guess which hand has the coin. Today the rules have changed. You better have a coin in both hands, one over the table, one under. And you better let your opponent guess which hand it is in and reward him accordingly.”
But I didn’t say that, because I didn’t think Dad would understand. Besides, it wasn’t fair to cast swine before pearl. Wrong example, unfair analogy.
I advised Dad in the only way I knew: cleverly and deviously. “Lie, Dad, lie!” I said to him. “Tell Satguru just about anything. Say that you stay with a son who doesn’t give you any money. Say you have to pay for your keep. Your food, your medicines, your recreation, your clothes are all your own responsibility. Your son expects you to pay for everything: electricity, water, phone bills. Play on Satguru’s sympathy, his liking of you. Do it, Dad. For once in your life, lie!”
He listened. He struggled. I could see he hated the idea. Besides, he knew I was a good son. He hated putting forth these distortions. Why reduce the image of our home, why denigrate the family? was the thought in his mind. It swam transparently in his eyes, in his facial expressions, adding to his discomfort. All the same he relented. It was better than paying a bribe, better than succumbing to a practice he had shunned all his life.
The next day he went to meet Satguru. It was lunchtime by the time he returned. I knew by his face that all was well. He looked at me gratefully, sheepishly, and said, “He believed it all, hook, line, and sinker. He just asked me a few questions about you, and that was it! Gave me the refund quietly, like it was my birthright. He said I was to come to him anytime I was in a spot.” Dad’s voice lowered. “He even offered to buy me lunch. When I protested, he insisted that I drop in next week for lunch. He is quite a decent fellow. I felt quite guilty at the end of it. I just wish he was honest. I know he has got a good heart. Deep down, there is great good in him.”
“In all, Dad, in all!” I said. “I would rather believe that human beings are congenitally good than bad. It’s just that money does to you what you allow it to. It takes over your life, rules it, makes a feverish child out of you. It’s a question of being too long in the toy shop, or never being there at all.”
Dad wasn’t listening. “Quite a decent fellow, I tell you, quite decent, huh. If only he would see it’s not necessary: all this hustling, all this sponging, this under-the-table stuff, not important at all.”
We had just sat for lunch when the phone rang. Mom answered. I could see she was annoyed. Mom hated interruptions when she was putting forth a meal that she had nurtured. Once a week she made something special, and this was chicken vindaloo day, a celebration of sorts, for what, we joked, was Dad’s incipient corruption. The fact that he had lied, he had eased up on an old ethic.
It was Satguru asking for Dad. There was silence as Dad heard him.
“What is with him?” said Mom impatiently. “Can’t leave us alone or what.”
“Let’s be generous, Mom,” I said. “The man seems to be quite decent. It’s just that he likes Dad. Maybe Dad will change him, after all.”
But there was no chance of that, we surely knew, as Dad returned to the table, his face white, his eyes wide with despair. In a trembling voice he said to me, “He wants your file now. He wants to open it. He says he wants to teach you a lesson you won’t forget.”
Although inwardly I shivered, and my heart began to pound, thinking of the endless trips to the department, the waiting, the humiliation, and the slow grating investigation that would burden my memory, eroding both, my patience and my pride, despite that, I said in my calmest voice, “How can that be, Dad? The only lessons I learn are from you.”