‘I am thinking of buying a piece of land,’ said Ranga to his father.
‘I am overjoyed because you have now started making money, become rich and are doing all the things I didn’t do. I am glad you left this house and made a future for yourself. This is not a place for progress. Look at this,’ he said, pointing to the peeling paint and the cracked plaster in his room, ‘it is decaying.’
‘It has its charm.’
Ranga paused a moment. He changed the topic of their conversation.
‘I am going to Samarqand in June.’
‘Samarqand—Bukhara and Ferghana. Both Samarqand and Bukhara were important stops on the old Silk Route. Ferghana valley was where Babur came from. I am told the area is very beautiful and has a lot of history to it.’
‘See, all this would not have been possible if you hadn’t made money.’
‘I’m not denying that, but…’
‘I am so happy,’ said his father, and a smile broke out on his face. He stretched his hand out and caressed his son’s face.
Ranga didn’t respond. He stared at his father for a minute and fell silent. He knew there was no point talking further.
Ranga and his father had been chatting for an hour in his fathers’ bedroom. He was eighty, and lived with his sister (Ranga’s aunt) in her large house in Chennai. Since he had stopped working long ago, he passed his time going to the temple, running small errands for his sister, and going for walks in the neighbourhood. His elder sister gave him food and shelter, and Ranga sent him money every month. What more could he want?
Ranga was half his father’s age. He lived in Delhi with his sister in her apartment near the Jamuna.
Eight years ago, Ranga had lived with his aunt as well, and she had given him a place to stay and food to eat. Then one day, he just packed his bags and left for Delhi. He found a job as an English trainer and then as a training consultant. Because of the boom in software and call centres, many companies called him in to train their staff. They paid him well. In two years, Ranga had made more money than he ever had in all his life.
The sudden influx of money in Ranga’s life allowed him to do something he always wanted to do—travel. For the next four years, Ranga travelled across the world. He walked the cobbled streets of Old San Juan and looked out over the Atlantic from the Garitas of the El Morro, the fort where the Spanish had once kept a lookout over Sir Francis Drake’s ships. He spent a fortnight in Istanbul walking through the monuments of Ottoman splendour. He cruised in a boat to a village along the Bosporus to a fishing hamlet on the Black Sea. There he sat under an olive tree in the village square, sipped chai and played dominoes with old Turkish men.
Once a year (or between his travels), he would catch a plane and visit his father in Chennai. After spending a few days with him he would return to Delhi and call up his contacts in the training industry to find out if they had any work for him.
We will let you know as soon as something comes up was the standard response. Ranga knew what that meant—it was a polite way of saying they didn’t need him. He sat back in his chair thinking of what he should do next.
In front of him was a bookshelf, filled with literary classics, crime fiction, travelogues, and books on art, history and religion. On one side, there were a series of moleskine notebooks, neatly labeled and slanted against each other. Ranga pulled them out and glanced through the pages. They were filled with notes on the people, places, sights, sounds and smells of the countries he had travelled to. As he looked at the notes again, he felt he could do more than just write articles about them and that with a little work, they could make stories good enough to be published.
Ranga looked at the notes for a while and put the books back on the shelf.
Then he opened a drawer and took out a calculator, calculating all the things he would spend on over the next year, including a trip to Uzbekistan. He figured that even if he didn’t work for the next two and half years, he would be able to live off what he had. He wasn’t really worried.
Ranga spent the next few months writing. He wrote poems on nature and put down ideas for short stories based on his life’s experiences. He fleshed some of these out. When he tired of writing, he went to a bookshop and splurged.
After two months of writing, it was time for his trip to Uzbekistan.
Ranga’s father phoned the day before he left for Uzbekistan, asking for some extra money.
‘Twenty five hundred per month.’
‘I need to see the doctor to get some additional checks done for my diabetes’.
‘Okay, but can I send it to you after I come back from Uzbekistan?’
‘Sure. All the best, then.’
‘Thanks. I will phone you when I come back, and also see if I can make a trip to Chennai.’
A day after the conversation with his father, Ranga was on a plane to Tashkent. He had planned to visit Samarkand, the capital of Timurlane, and travel from there to Bukhara along the old Silk Route and thence to Babur’s hometown in the Ferghana valley. He carried his moleskine notebooks with him as they fit easily in his pocket and allowed him to capture every detail, even while he was moving from place to place.
“On my first day in Samarqand, I went to the Gur Emir, Timur’s tomb in Samarqand. If all the dazzle of colour and design is to be found in one monument, it is here, in the Gur Emir. Inside the cool marble chamber where Timor rested, the walls are covered in onyx slabs and the domes ornamented by papier mache cartouches gilded in gold. From Samarqand, I travelled along the Silk Route to Bukhara, where I stayed in a Bukharan silk merchant’s house. I sat for a while in the shade of the domes, and watched tradesmen unfurl yards of hand knotted silk and zardozi encrusted velvet. One of the carpet sellers, an old Uzbek man with a wizened face, beckoned me to sit near him. He reached out to a tall silver samovar and poured out a cup of tea for me. Then he lifted his ancient eyes and pointed to a spot ten feet in front of him. ‘Marco Polo,’ he said. My hair stood on end. It was thrilling to think I was at the very spot trod once by the famous Venetian.”
Ranga spent a few more days in Uzbekistan and returned to India a day earlier than he had planned. He called up his contacts and sent them e-mails informing them he was back and ready for work. None of them responded. He wasn’t left with many choices but to keep writing and that’s what he did every day.
Once a week, he went to his bank and updated his passbook. The balance was dwindling a little more rapidly than he had calculated. And with no prospect of paid work, Ranga knew he’d have to tighten his belt.
One day, early in summer, Ranga went into his room and reached out to get a book from his shelf when all of a sudden, he felt the blood drain from his entire body. His hands went numb, and a chill ran down his spine. When he came to fully, he shuddered. He knew he was going to die.
Three days after this incident, Ranga called his father to tell him he was coming to Chennai. He could ill afford to go, that too by air, but he felt an urgency to see his father.
That afternoon, father and son sat opposite each other in the verandah of his aunt’s house, talking about Ranga’s recent trip to Uzbekistan.
‘Samarqand and Bukhara were both once caravanserais on the great Silk Route. Appa, it’s magical. I took photos and also made notes. It’s been something I have been doing for some time now.’ Ranga paused for a minute and continued. ‘In fact, for eight years, I have been making entries every single day.’
‘Entries on what?’
‘On what I see around me, on life… I have been turning them into stories.’
‘Also into earnings.’
‘I am glad, really glad,’ said Ranga’s father, perking up with excitement. He knew that for eight years, his son had been earning very well. He remembered his son once mentioning to him the per day training rates he charged. It was a handsome figure. Entries for every day, detailed record—the words Ranga had just said, danced and jumped in his father’s brain. His head was already in a tizzy, calculating the amount that he must have made in eight years. The only thing he was not sure of was Ranga’s expenses. He was dying to know exactly how much but he didn’t feel like asking. Rich men were not to be questioned.
Ranga went on.
‘One day, it might be worth a lot.’
‘I don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry to get his hands on it.’
‘Yes, yes, correct. You must be very careful.’
The following morning, Ranga was back in Delhi. Almost immediately he sat down at his desk and checked his bank balance and calculated his finances. There was just enough to carry on for a year. He knew he had to cut back further on his expenses.
For the next three months, Ranga worked harder than he had ever done in his life. He wrote in the morning and he wrote in the evening. At night, he revised what he had written, and revised what he had revised. He read his stories a final time till they looked good, and then he was ready to publish.
In the following months, Ranga contacted publishers.
‘Send us your proposal and samples of your writing and we will get back to you.’
All of them said the same thing. After trying a few, Ranga understood that no one was willing to look at his work. The only thing he could do now was look closely at the placement of commas, full stops and semi-colons in his stories.
One morning, well into winter, Ranga’s maid, who called on him occasionally, rang the doorbell of his apartment. Ranga didn’t answer. She rang again. There was no response. The light outside the apartment was still on. Strange, she thought. Ranga always switched it off as soon as he got up.
She went downstairs and called on the intercom from the administrative office. The intercom kept ringing.
‘Even yesterday, when the boy from Lucky stores and the dhobhan rang the bell, Sahib did not answer,’ said one of the security guards standing nearby.
‘What should we do?’
‘Go up and knock once again,’ said Mr. Taneja, the administrative officer. ‘If he doesn’t answer the bell, break the door open.’
The guard and Anita, the maid servant, went up again. They knocked a couple of times, and when they heard no answer, they forced the door open. Inside, the lights were still on. ‘Sahib, Sahib,’ they called as they went in, but they didn’t get an answer. Ranga’s bedroom door was ajar, so the guard and Anita stepped in and peered. Ranga was lying on his bed, his eyes closed. The guard and Anita stepped closer. They looked at Ranga’s chest, which wasn’t heaving. They knew what that meant.
‘Does Sahib have any relatives here?’ asked the society doctor who had come up by now.
‘I have seen Sahib’s father here twice. I think he lives in Chennai,’ said Mr. Taneja.
‘Please call him up and ask him to come immediately.’
Mr. Taneja called. “Sir, your son, Ranga, is no more,’ he said.
For a moment there was silence.
‘Is there a maid servant there?’
‘Yes, she is right here, would you like to talk to her?’
‘Hello, Uncleji,’ said Anita.
‘Stay next to Ranga till I come. Don’t move anywhere or let anyone enter the house. And most importantly, don’t touch any of his papers or documents.’
‘Theek hai ji. Okay.’
‘I’ll be there this evening.’
Ranga’s father came that evening. After an hour of mourning his death he got up, and asked Anita to cook some lunch.
‘Sirji, there is no rice or dal or vegetables in the house. All the containers are empty,’ she said.
Ranga’s father didn’t press further. There were other more important things to attend to like organising Ranga’s funeral which had been scheduled for the following morning. After they tipped the ashes into the Yamuna, Ranga’s father came back home. The wall was lined with books. There were classics on literature, illustrated versions of Blake’s songs, and tomes on history. He wasn’t looking for these. His eyes finally came to rest on a set of small notebooks tucked away in a corner.
They were all neatly labeled. He picked one up from the end, turned to the first page and read.
“Istanbul is what it always was, a fascinating blend of East and West, a city with history and culture, denser and more varied than Rome, Peking or Delhi. I spent the morning yesterday at Dolmabahce Palace and walked on stairs with crystal balusters from Baccarat. I gazed at vases and bear hides gifted by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and trod on carpets made of silk from Hereke. And in the evening, I stood on Galata Bridge. A brilliant white cruise liner left the harbour and headed out into the Mediterranean. It excited my imagination to think of the ports around the world she would visit: Alexandria, Rio de Janeiro, Tahiti…”
Going through the books was like trawling through an antique shop: if you had overlooked the things at the entrance or in one corner, there was something else in another corner to attract your attention. If you had skipped the pages recording the splendours of the minarets of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, you had only to turn a couple of pages or pick up another book to be transported to the dizzying steps of the Mayan Sun Temple ruins in the jungles of the Yucatan.
Ranga’s father spent the whole morning flipping through the pages. He recalled his conversation with Ranga when he had clearly said that he had been making money (and making entries about it) ever since he had gone to Delhi. Could Ranga have made a mistake? Perhaps he meant the time of that conversation which was around April 2006. Ranga’s father looked through the books until he came to one that was labeled June 2006. He opened it. Inside, Ranga had filled the pages with musings on the colour of sunlight as it filtered through the trees in the Himalayas.
Ranga’s father slapped the book shut. Where was the money Ranga had mentioned? Could Ranga have tucked it away in some corner of the house? Or in the loft, perhaps? He upturned the mattresses and looked in the nooks and crannies. He got down on all fours and searched under the bed. It was worse than searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
It was nearing the time when he had to get back to Chennai but he still had to clean the flat and Ranga’s effects. Ranga’s father went into his room one last time and looked around. Only the notebooks and a few odds and ends remained. He thought for a minute about what he could do with them. Take them with him to Chennai? Of what use would they be? ‘Better burn them,’ he muttered to himself, ‘that way no Tom, Dick or Harry can trace anything.’
He went to the drawing room and started a small fire. He took the notebooks, opened them and tore off the sheets one by one and tossed them into the fire. The flames grew taller. ‘I never thought my son could have died this way,’ he said, pausing to throw the last sheet in. ‘I wonder what he meant by riches.’