The doorbell rang at an unusual hour that day. In a house that followed a rigid time-table, a visitor at that hour was a cause for much speculation and some alarm. Running to the door, a child then, and raising my toes to reach the bolt that secured it, I opened the little window on the main door to see who had arrived. Three white buttons stared at me from the starched canvas of a milky white garment on which rested two hands clasped together, with the fingers—long drumsticks—entwining each other, in expectation. Craning my neck through the grill that separated our worlds, I peered at a figure whose maleness I could make out from the shaved skin and a prominent heavy jaw. I could see the man’s oval nostrils, the network of tiny hair inside and the shadow of a pair of spectacles perched on his nose. By the time I contemplated on the identity and antecedents of the visitor, Grandmother arrived, pulled me aside gently and verified his credentials. “It’s you,” she exclaimed. “What a pleasant surprise. Please come in, Achyutbhavaji,” she said, not sounding very welcoming and making every effort to mask her unintentional frost. ‘Bhavaji’ is a term of kinship generally used for a brother-in-law and otherwise a semi-formal form of address for male acquaintances who are not related.
I waited in anticipation as I saw a Gandhi-cap-clad head bow under the door with care and a human tower enter and straighten its spine. When he stood erect, I had to throw my neck back to take in his face, a geometrical framework that had more angles than arcs. His head almost touched the ceiling. When he smiled, his cheeks formed triangular projections. What dazzled me was his skin. It was as if the sun had lingered long on his face to illuminate it. His black vertical caste mark divided his forehead into two equal halves, and disappeared into his hair like a smooth tar road venturing into a thicket. It was punctuated by a dot just above the bridge of his nose, sitting there like a third eye, a passive witness. His hands now held the snowy folds of his dhoti, as he stepped into the living room, where Grandfather, whose afternoon siesta had been interrupted, had sat up to greet him. “What brings you here today? All well, I hope?” he asked, as Achyutbhavaji lowered his frame on to the sofa, his bones poking the Rexene upholstery where they made contact. I lowered my chin which had been poised in the air till then, relaxed my eyebrows and rubbed the nape of my neck. Achyutbhavaji’s radiance ignited the room.
Pausing, he closed his eyes. “Its my son,” he said, as I saw his body contract into itself, the bones shrink, the stomach fold in, the shoulders droop and the cheeks sag. His voice was a whisper. “He’s wasting away. Does nothing. He’s ill. Needs surgery. You know my condition, Bhavaji. Though he’s troubled me ever since he was born, I have to save him.” “How much money do you need, Achyut?” Grandfather asked, even as silence greeted him, and went to his room, returning with an envelope. “Can’t thank you enough, Bhavaji! You are most kind,” Achyutbhavaji said, his words gushing out, as if energised by the donation. After seeing him to the door, Grandfather promptly made a note of his benevolence in a diary that was a mathematical maze.
Over the years, when winter set in, Achyutbhavaji visited us, waxing and waning on our sofa, sometimes a half moon, and at others, a proud crescent. Grandmother didn’t take too kindly to his visits, chiding Grandfather for his recurring generosity, though both knew it was a charade. After every visit and every note, two pages of Grandfather’s diary carried the numerical footprints of Achyutbhavaji’s needs. One day, Grandmother, rather perturbed about some considerable imminent expenses, despite which Grandfather had made one more donation to Achyutbhavaji, told him off, “The rate at which you are giving money to this man, we’ll have nothing left. He’s come at least six times in the last two years. Hasn’t returned a paisa yet, and you keep giving.” “Calm down, Radha, he is a God-fearing man, troubled by life. What can he do?” Grandfather pacified Grandmother.
Years passed. Winters came and went. Grandfather’s donation page saw no more additions. I was taller and older. One early morning, the bell rang. I opened the little window on the main door and was greeted by three white buttons. It took me just a second to recollect who they belonged to. I opened the door and announced Achyutbhavaji’s arrival. “How are you my child?” he asked and I smiled at him, strangely happy to see him again. He was in his usual spotless dhoti-kurta. There was one addition. A cloth bag, a jhola, that hung on his right shoulder. Grandmother was cooking. She turned and knitted her eyebrows, her face a mixture of surprise and caution. As Achyutbhavaji sipped the coffee that Grandmother served him, I noticed that the plastic buttons on his kurta looked different. They were emitting a golden light. Savouring the dregs, he emptied the large steel glass, and placed it on the peg table, standing next to the sofa. Slowly, with a deliberation uncharacteristic of him, he brought out a weathered diary. Nesting between its pages sat a long, brown envelope. As he pulled it out and offered it to Grandfather, his spine stretched, his neck lengthened and he grew taller and larger. “What is this, Achyut?” Grandfather asked. “Please take it. I should have returned it long back, but what can one do against misfortune?” he replied. As Grandfather opened the envelope, Achyutbhavaji leaned forward, his torso folding into two bony segments, and held the open diary before Grandfather’s eyes. “Every paisa I took from you, it’s all written here. You are a kind man. Like God, you helped me,” he sobbed and wiped his eyes with the corner of his dhoti. By then, Grandfather had checked the contents of the envelope. Before he could react, Grandmother said, “Bhavaji, we cannot accept the money. Please take it back.” Grandfather thrust the envelope back into Achyutbhavaji’s bag, even as he tried to stop him.
“I won the lottery. Twenty-five thousand rupees,” he explained. “I was tired of borrowing and begging. One day, I bought three tickets from the Maharashtra Rajya Lottery stall. I prayed hard. God took mercy on me. This was the last debt I wanted to repay. I can die in peace now,” he said and rose. The sun shone brighter on his face. “You should have taken the money,” he repeated, as Grandfather saw him to the door, and Grandmother waved him goodbye. We had no visitors that winter.