written by: Nikhil Kurien
Sudhir was elated when the broker said it was the best deal that had happened in the real estate business in the recent times and only a few lucky ones could get such buys. Sudhir concluded that this man was the most trustworthy person he had met, and he paid him a bit more than the stipulated brokerage fee.
Sudhir had acquired a small single room apartment in an old building. It was a considerable thing when he only had a small job and when others of his professional strata were running helter-skelter for a shelter in the crowded city of Mumbai. The seller had a cash crunch, and he was willing to sell at Sudhir’s price provided he could give it immediately as cash in hand. Sudhir gave the cash he had saved till then and even borrowed the balance amount to be the proud owner of an apartment in the great city of Mumbai.
He had invited his mother along with some of the tenants in that building for a small housewarming ceremony which he had organised. In that way he could befriend his new neighbours and he could show his mother how successful he was and how wrong his late father was.
Sudhir was a poor student in his school days and spent more time loitering around with his friends. Cinema halls were their favourite haunts and he was always there with a cigarette on his lips to announce that he was bold and independent to take his own decisions. His father always used to warn him about jumping into conclusions and decisions after observing that his son trusted his friends more than anybody else. Sudhir was used as a puppet by them. His friends made him believe that he was a winner in everything he did, and his actions were all wise decisions although he was just following their purpose and needs. As he turned into a young man, Sudhir started one business after the other guided by his friends and he failed in everything one after the other. Finally, realising that even his best friends were calling him a born failure, he moved to Mumbai after leaving a note that he would come back home only when he would be successful. His father’s saddened heart soon stopped beating few months after he left. It took almost five years for Sudhir to contact his home again. It was to invite his father and mother to the apartment he had newly bought. He was dejected to learn that his father had passed away because he wanted to flaunt about his success and tell him that his predictions about him were wrong.
Sudhir’s mother Sati always believed that her son had many jealous eyes on him and she kept praying for her son, that he would meet success in life. Finally, she heard some good news from his side though his father was not there to appreciate it. Sudhir’s mother proudly told the news of her son’s new possession to all the family members who considered him as a fool to disobey his father’s advises and leave the home. Sudhir’s mother started her rail journey so that she could arrive at her son’s new apartment on the morning of the planned ceremony. She had the picture of her expired husband too with her. Sudhir had insisted her in bringing his father’s picture along with her. He was not yet ready to leave the poor old man. He wanted at least the picture of his father to witness his success. His plan was to hang his father’s picture in his house so that the old man could see him climbing the stairs of success from henceforth. Sati, a frail old woman could barely carry it and hence with her was young nephew that she started the rail journey to meet her son after these long years and be a part in his success.
It was a joyful moment when the mother met her lost son in his newly bought apartment. Hugs and tears flowed. Once the greetings were over Sudhir tore open the cardboard in which the portrait of his father was packed. It was a framed thirty by twenty-inch rectangle portrait of a bald-headed old man with long whisker like moustache. Sudhir didn’t like the sneer the old man had on his face which reminded him of his father’s disapproval in all the things he did. He wanted to hang the portrait on the wall before the guests started arriving for the housewarming ceremony. He had half an hour to do the job.
Sudhir asked his mother on her preference of the four walls to hang the picture. His mother prayed for a moment as though consulting with her expired husband and then she opted for the right-side wall of the apartment. Sudhir immediately agreed and he took out the hammer and the nails which he had kept ready. He found the centre of the wall after visually dividing the wall into four quadrants and marked the centre where he had to drive in the nail with a pencil after climbing on a chair. Then when all was ready, the hammer started to club the nail. A few good blows and the nail got bent. He took the second one and it flew out from his hand on the third blow with hammer just missing his thumb. With the third nail he started getting some progress and it was then that the doorbell chimed imitating the chirping of a lovely bird. It was Mr. Biswas, a retired professor who lived in the next apartment on the right side of Sudhir’s. Sudhir opened the door and invited him in with a smile even as he was thinking as to why this person came early. There was still thirty minutes before the auspicious time of the ceremony.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Biswas asked in concern, coughing, and gasping for breath intermittently, with his right hand held over his chest. Sudhir told the old professor about the picture of his father that he wanted to hang on the wall. “But you cannot do that”, said Mr. Biswas adamantly. Sudheer couldn’t understand as to why he couldn’t hang a picture inside his house. Mr. Biswas turned polite and he took his own time between his gasps in making Sudhir understand that he was a heart patient who had undergone two heart related surgeries. “My heart does not have the capacity to withstand such poundings on the wall and my heart is racing now. I might have a heart attack soon and if so, you will be held responsible”. The old man gave a warning and he slowly moved back to his apartment. Sudhir had to agree to Mr. Biswal’s request and he made his neighbour go in peace since he didn’t want to risk anybody’s life. He looked at his mother and said “We always have another side. We will put it up there”.
So Sudhir calculated the centre of the wall on the left side of the apartment after making a measurement with his eyes in relation to the marking he had already done on the right-side wall. Sudhir started his work on the left side wall creating a tremor and hardly had the nail gone in a few millimetres through the old thin wall when the bird at the door squeaked again as though like a warning. The retired police officer whom Sudhir had invited for the ceremony yesterday evening was at the door. It was quite in a stern voice that he asked Sudhir as to what was all this hitting against his wall. Sudhir was taken aback a bit when the man mentioned it as ‘his wall’. Sudhir told him about his plan in placing a nail to the wall so that he could hang the picture of his late father. The policeman walked towards the wall and inspected the wall carefully. He found the plaster on the wall had developed some fine linear cracks and the wall had taken some battering. “Remove it” he ordered with his one finger menacingly pointing at the nail which had gone a quarter distance of its length into the brick. “That wall belongs to me too and you cannot do anything on it without my permission” he said slapping at the wall which separated Sudhir’s apartment from his. Sudhir tried to explain to him that it was just a two-inch nail that he was trying to drive in, but the man wouldn’t oblige. “The two-inch nail will trespass into my part of this three-inch wall and I will not tolerate intrusion into my territory”. The policeman gave a threat and he warned Sudhir in making anymore attempts at the wall with the nail.
Since two walls were taken over, Sudhir comforted his mother by saying that they had two more walls in the north and south and for that they didn’t require anybody’s permission. So, he took the hammer, nails and the picture to the back wall which had the window facing the road beyond. The window occupied the centre of the wall and Sati was not happy putting her husband’s picture on one corner of the wall. So, their attention turned to the front wall which separated the apartment from the corridor of the floor. There beside the door was enough space to decorate the wall with the portrait.
It was either Mr. Biswas or the retired police officer who informed the building association secretary about the new tenant who was trying to damage the walls of the building. Sudhir had just made the markings on the front wall to place the nail when the secretary came uninvited into the apartment. He asked Sudhir’s intention with the hammer and nails that he was having in his hand. Sudhir explained it clearly that his only plan was to put up the portrait of his father on to the wall. The secretary inspected the size of the picture and came to the inference that it required a two-and-a-half-inch nail to hold the picture on to the wall or required two of those two-inch nails. Then after consulting somebody over the phone, the secretary gave his opinion that the thin three-inch wall belonged to the company. Sudhir was not supposed to cause any dent on their walls as such holes could weaken the wall and subsequently the building structure itself. Sudhir tried to claim that they were his walls since he bought the apartment along with the walls and he could do anything on his wall. The secretary took out a sketch and clarified it to Sudhir that he had bought only the inner carpet area and the walls still belonged to the company. A squabble started between the two. Hearing the quarrel a few doors of the adjacent apartments opened and Sudhir didn’t want to get embarrassed before them. So, he thought it was best to leave the matter there for the time being and discuss it later with a lawyer about his right to the property.
Sudhir’s mother was getting frustrated. She was shocked to know that no wall around her belonged to her son. Her mumblings were quite audible, and his father’s portrait was witnessing the happenings around. Sudhir looked up to God maybe for the first time in his life, from where his help could come. He immediately had an idea, the roof. His idea was to drive a nail vertical up their roof and let the picture dangle on a thin plastic rope. So, with help of his nephew, he pulled the table and placed a chair on top of it and climbed carefully on it. He made his attempt to drive the nail straight into the roof with his neck fully extended and his fingers barely reaching the roof. The bird at the doorway chirped again. A small crowd was waiting outside as his mother opened the door. The guests had arrived as invited and they found Sudhir on top of a table and a chair trying to drive a long nail straight into the ceiling. Sudhir took the pleasure and pain in inviting his guests into his humble apartment from the top. The visitors stood aghast trying to make out what their new neighbour was trying to do.
A dwarf sized man and his relatively tall wife who stood in the front of the small crowd introduced themselves as the family living in the apartment just above Sudhir’s. The dwarf was eager to know as to what Sudhir was doing on the ceiling. It took Sudhir some balancing act to explain the things to his upstairs neighbour from the top of the chair without toppling. The dwarf was getting agitated hearing Sudhir’s plan of creating a hole and he finally declared that this cannot happen. He claimed that this roof was their floor and asked Sudhir as to what would be the consequence if they who lived above fell down straight through the hole in their floor into Sudhir’s apartment. Sudhir had no answer and he did not want any confrontation with his new neighbours.
By now all the invitees had come and they were having a discussion in the corridor about this weird guy who was trying to make big holes in the walls to put pictures all around. From the crowd a sagely man stepped into the void left by the dwarf as he hastily walked away from the scene with his wife. The sage like person curiously asked as to what Sudhir’s next plan was as though he wanted to help him. By now Sudhir had carefully climbed down from the height he was positioned. He humbly answered that if the walls and roof was not available, he always had a floor. The sagely person dressed in a long cloak introduced himself. He was an astrologer who juggled with people’s stars and uncertainties. He lived downstairs, below Sudhir. The man asked Sudhir about his father’s birth star and his time of death to which Sati answered everything. It seemed as if the man was doing some horoscopic calculations based on the position of the celestial beings and its influence on the living with the thoughts of the dead still around. Then the man gave a brief spiritual discourse and refuted the idea of Sudhir keeping his father portrait on the floor as that would invite all the bad luck onto the astrologer’s head. Sudhir couldn’t quite understand as to how his father’s stars would affect the astrologer’s head. The astrologer reminded Sudhir that this apartment’s floor formed the roof of the astrologer’s dwelling. Figuratively saying the astrologer didn’t want another person’s father to sit on his head as it would be a bad omen. Sati gave a defeated look at her son in whom she had started to have some expectations. Sudhir had proved again how stupid and dumb he was as his father had always warned about. His mother left the apartment immediately after the so-called housewarming with her nephew carrying the portrait and so did the crowd.
Sudhir was left alone in an empty space. He apparently had no walls, roof, or floor around him to call his own. He was just hanging there in the space. His only solace was that he could find comfort in the old adage his father used to say. “Nothing in this earth belongs to us and we are just tenants occupying it for some time”.
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- The Apartment - February 18, 2021