“Hemen, I feel excited and nervous, like a batsman waiting for his fiftieth run,” said Johar, while strolling in the park on a Sunday morning with his retired colleague.
“I'm tired, let's sit,” Hemen proposed, stopping in front of a bench and scratching off the dried pigeon droppings with the end of his walking stick. He was a widower who had to worry about escalating laundry bills. Both of them sat down. Minutes later, Johar broke the silence, seeking fresh assurances from his friend in whom he had confided his secret ambition of making it to the Book of Records.
For the last two years after retirement from the banking job, he had been filing several litigation suits against erring individuals and institutions. Presently, Mr. Sridhar Pillai, a retired octogenarian colonel from Kochi held the record, with 49 cases, whose photograph he carried in his wallet like a favourite god’s. The deadline for submitting the entry was drawing near and he was short of one case to break Mr. Pillai's record.
“Do not worry, you still have a week. I'm sure you'll find one worthy chance in our country where laws and regulations are flouted with impunity. Just look there, he's smoking, though the apex court has banned smoking in public places,” Hemen pointed out, rubbing his bifocal spectacles with the end of his khadi kurta. As Johar turned around, the smoker stubbed out his cigarette.
“I promise to give you a treat if I succeed in this venture. I need one opportunity to make it, just one,” Johar reiterated.
“Keep your observation high and I'm sure you'll get one sacrificial lamb before it is late,” Hemen comforted. Suppressing a yawn, he continued: “What's the present state of the cases filed? Have they come up for the hearing? Make sure nobody goes for an out-of-court settlement,” he warned with genuine concern.
“I have made it clear to my lawyer to resist such baits. When his assistant comes for briefing, I'll drill it into his head. I've got to be careful.”
After sipping tea in clay cups, they came out of the park and parted ways. Johar promised to keep him posted on the developments. Hemen was confident of walking to his house but Johar took a hand-pulled rickshaw. Johar had antagonised many people in the area and had received threats. He was not the man they had known for thirty years. He had suddenly donned the mantle of a crusader and had started filing cases against errant shopkeepers who now abused him behind his back and refused to sell him their products, knowing that the first thing he would do is find something to complain about to the consumer forum.
Ever since he had filed a suit against Mr. Gupta, who headed the retailers' union, of M/s. Gupta Traders for using faulty scales, the whole market was livid. And Johar’s son, Poltu, was forced to do all the purchases for the house. Equally befuddled by his father's change in behaviour, he read this as symptomatic of the onset of senility, and in his discussions with his mother, he raised the point of his father's wastage of money on stamp paper, postage, and legal fees. One day he had a heated argument with his father and was lectured on the role every conscientious individual should play to be socially aware of his rights and responsibilities. Poltu was miffed when Johar babu said that he wouldn't spare his son in case he found something wrong.
“It is because of callousness and for the love of dear ones that things have come to this pass,” he thundered, hiding the sacred thread inside the vest. His wife had to intervene to calm their rising tempers. But she also asked him, covertly, what he proposed to achieve through litigation when he was the one who had voluntarily surrendered a major part of his share of the property to his cousins in his ancestral village to avoid legal hassles. “You won't understand and it is no point explaining it to you two,” he concluded derisively and withdrew into his room.
He knew the family would not appreciate his endeavor, instead, contend that mention in a record book would do no good to the family’s fortunes. His wife would suggest that the thousands he had already squandered would have been appropriately spent on a trip to Haridwar. He knew he was misunderstood in his house, so he didn't broach the topic at all. He kept himself busy pottering with the plants in his backyard, reading the newspaper and maintaining clippings, and dashing off fiery letters to the editor on issues beyond his range of direct attack. Corruption in the top army brass – the wheeling and dealing in arms – affected him and he mourned the erosion of ethics and the spawning money culture in the defence sector. Poltu dubbed the efforts worthless because he did not understand the strong English his father used. Johar babu took pride in the fact that he was lucky to learn the language from a perfectionist like Sir Watson, an Englishman, who had briefly edited, after his return from India in 1955, the London Literary Supplement. Johar babu also teased his son, “Don't try and read, my child, your teeth will fall apart, and you're still a bachelor!”
As the deadline drew close and he did not get at anything worthwhile, Johar babu grew restless. He had to pop tablets to control his blood pressure and had more or less concluded that he'd now have to wait for another two years to get his name entered in the competition. In that period, maybe judgment on some cases would be delivered, and his tally would further drop. He might have to abandon the project and then, in hindsight, he'd be compelled to admit that the entire exercise started with enthusiasm had come to naught.
The house on the left of his bungalow crying for a fresh coat of paint for almost a decade had been sold some few weeks ago and the buyer had with his belongings arrived, with family in tow, one morning, in an ambulance. Later in the day, he got to read the brass nameplate fixed at the entrance: Dr. Bhootnath Sarma, veterinary physician.
Johar babu's wife looked happy when he informed her that a doctor's family had moved in next door. “Finally, there will be a companion to talk to in free time,” she said with a gleam rivalled by the inflated purees in the frying pan.
When he was napping in the afternoon after a hearty lunch, he was woken up by the sound of hammering. Rubbing his eyes, he raised the curtain and peeped out of the window. He found a deep green shade extending into his garden from his new neighbour's side. He rushed out and saw that the aerial space of his house had been violated. The green fibre asbestos sheet being fixed on the doctor's roof had extended into his area. He calculated the approximate distance to the nearest inch, holding a bamboo pole against the wall, and concluded that in the rainy season the water would slope down and flood his backyard, and his plants would be deprived of sunlight. The gods were kind. They'd finally provided him with an opportunity to file a case!
He hopped in and rang up his lawyer to convey the details of a new case and asked for the typist to be sent immediately so that the case could be filed in the court in the first hour the next day. The typist, on arrival, endorsed that the case was very strong, strong like the coffee Kakima had brewed for him. Kakima never understood a word of what he wrote, discussed and narrated, as the lingua franca was English.
Things progressed the way he had planned. The next afternoon, the doctor, while examining a calf, got the summons. He was scared to read it because he had had a terrible experience sometime back when he'd administered a wrong hormone injection to a donkey, and his practice licence had almost been seized.
Dr. Bhootnath tried to talk over the phone and explain to Johar babu why he had done it. But Johar babu did not listen to him and thrummed like a lawyer: “Breaking rules is unforgivable and as a responsible citizen it's my right to object. India reserves the right to shoot down any Pakistani plane if it violates airspace. Being an environment-friendly professional, qualified enough to understand the necessity of fresh air and ecological balance in these polluted times, I believe you've committed a heinous crime by blocking the most fundamental right, the right to breathe. And it leads, so far as I know, to asphyxiation… I've their birth certificates to prove they were here before you came; 'they' stands for my dear plants.” Johar babu sounded as though the plants, and not he, had slammed the lawsuit. He put the receiver down once he ran short of ideas and ailments.
Though, after a while, his fecund mind generated some more logical points he hoped to emphasize on if the doctor gave him a call again. He'd stress the damage to his beautiful garden where he nurtured some rare plants, which had won many prizes in competitions. He was planning to send them to a Japanese flower competition to represent India. His wife implored him not to mess with a doctor but he didn't listen. He asked her to go and cook, put turmeric on fish, instead of overhearing phone conversations. “Now she wants me to be examined by animal doctors, stupid woman!” he murmured, and tried to think about pleasant things.
Next morning, dressed in a sleeping the suit, Dr. Bhootnath came to see Johar babu, having decided that he'd have to patch up with him, because he had a teenage daughter and Johar babu had a young son. The rivalry was not good and could lead to vendetta of the worst kind, including elopement.
As soon as he respectfully called out Johar babu's name and added his own in quick succession, a German shepherd pounced on the unsuspecting visitor from behind the bushes and scratched his legs and tore his night suit, making him look like a deranged inmate of an asylum. Hearing the shrill screams of save-me-please, as Bhootnath's voice was rather feminine, Johar babu emerged from the backyard. He remembered his folly of letting the dog loose for ablutions near the gate when he was also under acute pressure to answer nature's call. The dog turned meek on seeing his master, stopped barking and retraced his steps to snuggle up to him for a pat.
“I'm extremely sorry, Dr. Bhootnath,” Johar babu pleaded. “This was rather unfortunate, forgive me. But Tommy is vaccinated.”
Dr. Bhootnath understood his bargaining position had much improved after the episode. “I came to talk to you nicely and you set your pet dog on me. First, you filed a lawsuit and now this. Wait and see what I do. I'm a dangerous man, my bite is worse than your Tommy's,” Dr. Bhootnath threatened, enlarging his eyes, though they chinked at the edges despite his best attempt to widen them like a psychopath's. “This is a far more serious crime and you'll be put behind bars under section... I'll mention that your door did not have a 'Beware of dog' board. I'll write that you attack visitors this way, that you're a bloody evil man who keeps an insane dog, I'll…” The doctor began thinking from which another angle he could teach Johar babu a good lesson. Dr. Bhootnath felt happy when he saw Johar babu's face shrink with worry.
“Please go and first tend to your wounds, Sir – I'll not spare my son,” Johar said nervously, trying to shift the blame on Poltu, because he was the one who generally looked after the dog, and he had gone to the bazaar.
“You don't need to worry about my wounds, Sir. I am a vet, the best in the city… But this house belongs to you, and the owner, let me remind you, stands responsible for everything that happens here.”
“Have mercy on my poor limbs, I have arthritis, doctor. You'll also grow old and find that managing things is difficult. Please think coolly; consider my age, my grey thin hair. I can't ask my dog to unbite you, still…”
Bhootnath thought for a while, pretending to look angry. “Very clever… Anyway, I can overlook this since I am a peace-loving person who'd prefer to spend his leisure reading poetry. I will not take legal recourse, provided you withdraw the case in my name immediately – the roof one. Let’s strike a deal. What do you say? ” He stood with arms on his waist, looking at his torn suit – his forehead scrunched up to sing a dirge for his mauled dress.
Johar was startled by the proposal. He thought of the consequences of withdrawing the lawsuit; his ambition would remain a pipe dream. And if peace was not bought, the doctor could aggravate the matter.
Amidst the commotion and Tommy's incessant barking, Johar babu's wife came out with the phone, saying that the lawyer was on the line. He grabbed it and listened intently. “Hello, Mr. Johar, we've made it! All the details cross-checked, all the fifty cases valid - I've asked my assistant to courier the voluminous copy to the Great Book of Records. Today was the last date, you'd said. Congratulations, Sir.”
Johar babu became so excited that he lobbed the phone on his wife's palm and raised both his arms in the air to exult in jubilation, though it was only a case of successful submission. His wife shouted at him to explain what he'd done, but he danced like a possessed fakir.
In his excitement, he'd let go of Tommy's leash from his left hand. When he opened his eyes after crashing against a gothic pillar, he saw neither Tommy nor Dr. Bhootnath in the compound.