Rohit was neither very rich nor very poor. He had a steady job but as he was bound to spend a larger portion of his income on housewares, his family lived in genteel poverty.
They never knew what it was like to be dressed in fashionable clothes, nor did they ever go out to dine at some expensive restaurant; to make an excursion was nothing but a thing of fantasy for them. However, they had all the household goods except for a car. So to buy one, the couple had been scrimping and saving for two years.
It was a pleasant Chaitra-Navratri night. (The holy period of nine days followed by the summer) Rohit was in ecstasy at the thought of going to a dealership in the morning. All night he kept thinking: ‘People will come to see my car standing under the portico; they will praise me, concealing their envy of me; I shall be the proud owner of it; at times I shall go on day trips with my family; my children will enjoy riding it to school every day’.
Finally, the cock announced the start of a new day and the day’s chorus began. He got up and took a shower before the sun beamed down and lifted the veil of darkness. He then took a hurried breakfast which his wife Sheela – who it seemed was even more excited – had prepared in next to no time. Montu and Babloo started jumping up and down with excitement, crying out that their father was going to purchase a new car for them. There was an air of festivity in the house.
Sheela, who often scolded her children while getting them ready for school, was not tired of showering them with kisses. After they had gone, she was left alone in the house, bubbling over with excitement. To pass the time she began to sweep the leaves from the driveway. When it was over she busied herself with her mobile phone. By then it was time to prepare the midday meal. She sat down in the kitchen and began chopping vegetables.
An instant later, she picked up the faint sound of a car in the distance and rushed to the gate curiously, but she had to return disappointed.
Now it was late in the afternoon; the children came in from school. ‘Mum, Pa’s not yet back?’ asked Montu, the elder of her two sons. She simply shook her head, whereupon the boys got anxious and went upstairs to the rooftop so that they could see if the car was moving down the street. Nothing came into view except for people walking along it. At last, they ran back down the stairs and asked her mother to phone. ‘How long will it take you to turn up?’ she enquired. ‘Shortly,’ came the reply and with that Rohit cut her off. Now to stifle their curiosity, the children had nothing to do except turning the TV on. But shortly thereafter, a horn blared at the gate.
All the three rushed out and found a beautiful new car waiting outside the gate. Everyone was thrilled to bits. Montu and Babloo opened the gate and the dream motor vehicle eventually crept in. The driver stopped the engine and they got out. Slowly residents of their neighbourhood started gathering around the car and paying Rohit compliments: one of them said the car looked very nice for its model in double-edged praise; some observed it was two a penny; but a few really admired it and congratulated him.
The family was, however, so delighted that they had no time to pay attention to what they were saying. Sheela went in and soon came back with a plate decorated with lamps and a small wooden dish with sandalwood paste in it. She performed Aarti (waved the plate containing the lighted wicks before the car) and then wrote Swastika on the bonnet. When the rituals were over, sweets were distributed to the bystanders.
The driver arrived early the next morning. He drove Rohit to a play park on the outskirts to give him driving lessons. They kept going through the same routine every morning and it took a fortnight before Rohit was driving his car well.
One day, he plucked up the courage to drive it independently of the driver. He sat on the driving seat, asking his wife to open the gate. He then let in the clutch, took hold of the ignition key and started. But as he put the car into reverse gear and let the clutch out, the engine stalled. He tried once again and the same thing happened. He was becoming nervous but after all he had to drive it on his own. He prayed to God and turned the ignition key. This time he decided that he would not ease his foot off the accelerator. The engine started, revved and the car jerked back. Suddenly there came an enormous bang, echoing across the neighbourhood.
The rear of the car crumpled as it had driven smack into the gatepost just clearing Sheela.
There followed a shocked silence. Sheela stood petrified with her hands covering her face. Rohit on the driving seat was so frightened that he could not think what to do. Neighbours came out of their houses, quite appalled, and gathered around to see what had happened.
‘My God, the car is a total wreck!’ exclaimed one of the onlookers
‘But thank God – no one is injured!’ replied the other
‘He must have learnt to drive properly before trying his hand at it,’ commented the third one
‘Oh man, such things happen to most beginners,’ rejoined the fourth one.
Eventually, Rohit opened the door and got out but he felt silly. ‘I was confident of backing the car out of the drive,’ he said awkwardly, ‘but I wonder how I could not.
‘Don’t worry brother,’ consoled a neighbour, laying his hand on his soldier. ‘Just inform your insurance agent and they will compensate for the loss.’
When all had returned their homes, Sheela came forward and gave a furious look at him. ‘Look how the new car has reduced to a scrap heap,’ she muttered. ‘As for me, it’s just luck that I’m alive.’ Then she added with a groan of dismay, ‘My God, they will still boast of their brand new cars!’
That night when somebody rang the door-bell, there was no answer. He rang again, then once again, and then he kept ringing it until Rohit woke up from his deep sleep. It was midnight.
‘Rohit Babu, I’m Jagannath,’ a pitiful, faltering voice came. ‘Just open the gate, I’m Jagannath! Hurry up, Rohit Babu!’ Rohit recognized the muffled voice of Jagannath, one of the residents of his colony, living in the next street. He got up and made for the gate.
‘My wife is in need of urgent medical help,’ said Jagannath with a deep note of pathos in his voice. ‘She’ll die if she is not taken to hospital. Rohit Babu, on this late hour, there is no other means, except by your car.’
It started Rohit thinking. ‘It would sound callous if I refused,’ he said to himself. ‘But if I didn’t, I’d be disturbing the whole family.’ Anyway, he finally could not help listening to the voice of conscience. He turned round and went back to his room to get dressed. But when he woke his wife, he got into trouble with her.
‘Where’re you going at this witching hour?’ she growled as she got up
‘You know Jagannath?’ he whispered. ‘His wife is about to….
‘We purchased the car to do this sort of thing?’ she broke in. ‘Go and tell him the car has already broken down.
‘Do you know what’ll happen? She might die if I did not take her to hospital.
‘Let her. Suppose we don’t have the car – what will he do then?’
‘God will send a chariot to take her back or to hospital. Mind you, one’s moral fibre is more valuable than one’s wealth; to be of service to others is the soul of humanity, but to lend a hand is to obey God without question.’
‘Keep your moral lessons to yourself and go back to bed. I am going to turn him down myself. You know, if you don’t slave your conscience, such things will happen every next day.’
‘Housewives that are kept confined have very limited space in their minds and therefore are often selfish and snobs, have irritating habit and lack normal etiquette,’ he said to himself.
‘Perhaps you people do not know how the world works,’ she continued. ‘Some laugh, some cheer and some cry because a single note cannot make the music sweet. God wants every sort of things to happen on the earth. He loves saints and also thieves; He loves war and also peace; He loves wrong and also right; He loves day and also night. Everything has its adversary but they help each other establish their identity and a clash between them gives birth to a new thing. The world was not beautiful if not varied.’
‘You mean religious teachings are useless things?’
‘I mean everything is useful if it serves our purpose.’
‘So it’s silly to render assistance out of sympathy.’
‘Yes, it’s for God to help the needy.’
‘But God helps a person by inspiring someone else to come to their assistance.’
‘Anyway, if you’re so touched, you may go; but this will be your first and last chance of helping someone around midnight, mind.’
Sheela locked the gate, whining something to herself after Rohit had driven away.
Jagannath’s wife was admitted to the emergency ward with a serious condition. After examining her, the doctor prescribed some medicine and asked Jagannath to go to a chemist’s to get them at once. He rushed out, but when the chemist handed him the bill, he got a shock as he had not enough money to cover the cost of the medicine. He stared aghast for a while but soon a thought struck him. He hurried to look for Rohit and found him standing at his car, talking to a gentleman.
‘Rohit Babu, you know, the medicine costs more than all the money I have got on me,’ he implored. ‘I’d be obliged if you could make up the difference.’
Rohit stood silently cogitating once again. He thought there would be no meaning of what he had already done for him if he refused, but if he did not, he might never get his money back. He then thought that Jagannath might need even more things. His wife might be in desperate need of blood and he would soon ask him to donate that too. This way he finally concluded that charity was a good thing but too much of that could be self-defeating. He soon lent him the money he asked and turned back home just after he had turned over to go back to the chemist.
As the months passed, Rohit grew sick and tired of his friends and relations asking for free rides in his car and also of its running cost. He finally decided to put an advertisement in the newspaper to sell it.
Born in a village, Umari Dahelow, District – Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh (India) in 1964, Ramesh Chandra Tiwari, writes prose, poetry and fiction in English. One of his essays appeared in ‘Reading Hour’, Bangalore; one, in the RML Avadh University Journal, five short stories and a poem in ‘The Criterion: An International Journal in English’, four short stories in Galaxy: International Multidisciplinary Research Journal.