By Chinmay Chakravarty
Even the closed bedroom door could not shield the shrill of the doorbell. I woke up and switched on my mobile to check the time. It was very early. We had been new to the place and the visits of the usual newspaper vendor or milkman or maid or the laundry guy had not yet been formalized. Who could it be? I got up and trudged lazily to the door. Felt happy that my wife was still sleeping peacefully. I closed the bedroom door behind me, and as I did so the shrill of the doorbell caught me squarely. That someone outside had to be an impatient customer.
I opened the main door and was surprised to find our landlord right in front. His short and thin figure was upright; his longish face with a hairline mustache showed unmistakable signs of agitation and his eyes, still puffy from sleep, were blazing.
“Good morning!… ” I began in a customary way.
He ignored it completely, “This has never ever happened in my house! How is this possible?”
“What happened… ?”
“Just cannot imagine! Preposterous… crazy… !” He paused for effect shaking his head in all possible directions.
“Hello mister, would you please tell me whatever may have happened and, which concerns us!” I could not hide my irritation at this unexpected disturbance at the dawn of the day.
“Okay, see for yourself! Please follow me… ”
I did so moving with him to the concrete passage outside running along the front side of the building. Out through the grilled entrance he stopped at the centre of the passage, looked down at the ground on both sides angrily. He motioned me to do the same.
Then only I realized the cause of his agitation. There were two big sprawling red spots on both sides of the concrete floor just behind the main gate. Instantly I identified these as paan spit-a rush of reddish saliva caused by chewing a heady mix of betel nut, betel leaf, lime, and with or without tobacco. But why was he telling me all this? How on earth could I be held responsible?
“Oh! Someone has made your compound dirty with paan spit. Such sort of people always does it on the corridors, on the lifts… ”
He cut me short, “As I told you this has never happened at my house in my memory! You came in a few days back, and since then a lot of people visited this house for the odd jobs and re-dos as you ordered. You see… !”
Yes, I saw it clearly now. As he claimed this had never happened earlier and so it had to be one of those plumbers, electricians, and other vendors we called in. He continued, “… Please ask them, quiz them… who must have done this obnoxious thing! Don’t spare them! I’m certain that one of your people did this!” And now, I found this term of ‘your people’ really obnoxious! Temper was slowly rising within me which I controlled… rather I had to because we were new and this should never turn into a confrontation. As I was searching for the ideal thing to say the caretaker joined us with a bucket of water and a broom, to my escape. He looked up ruefully at me, “Finally I have to do the cleaning up… !” The landlord decided to stay on to supervise.
My wife was up and about when I entered and narrated the episode. She had a hearty laugh and welcomed the landlord’s zeal for cleanliness. I agreed. It had been a national campaign to make your surroundings spick and span. However, I couldn’t agree with the accusing tone in the landlord’s otherwise righteous agitation.
Over the next few days, we did ask our normal visitors with the expectation that nobody would confess doing it even if s/he did. We also warned newcomers never to do this type of misdeed. During this period we also noticed a significant decline in our visitors. Quite a few of them in fact didn’t turn up at all for some much-needed touch-ups in the jobs they had done earlier. I was getting concerned knowing well that the family of the landlord must have been on the job too. One day our temporary maid confirmed my fears. She confided to my wife that she was quizzed by the landlord’s wife if she or any of us two had the chewing habit. I decided to have a talk with the landlord.
The agitation was longer in him that day and I was happy to see that. I came to the point straightaway.
“Look, mister. It’s a very good thing that you are so concerned about the cleanliness and we wholeheartedly support this. But we’re pained that you’re pointing the finger at us. Even if any of us has this habit why should you be suspicious about us? We’re responsible citizens and we’ll never litter our own surroundings. You see, the lane outside your gate is a public place and any of the passers-by could be doing this, out of habit or for mischief. And, it is not possible for you or us to monitor them throughout the day. So please don’t scare off our visitors. Few of the jobs are still half-done. You see, harassment should never be a part of any good thing you must be doing. Hope you understand!”
If he understood he didn’t show any sign. He only nodded his head several times uttering some monosyllables. I let it rest at that. If you rented a place then the landlord was your true boss, and as the saying goes the boss is always right. And, it was hardly the time to look for a new house.