Michael Franklin diSilva. The pompous name evokes a mental image of a colonial Portuguese Governor. Tall, dark and resplendent in his gubernatorial uniform with a jeweled sword jangling at his side, surrounded by diplomats in his sprawling mansion. It just needed a look at Mikey (pron: My-Key) to dispel the fantasy. He was a hopeless drunkard residing in our Chawl, where I spent most of my life. A drifting piece of decaying humanity, cast off on the shores of life by the ruthless tide of time, he was a born loser.
Bombay Chawls are famous for their old-worldy charm and culture. They are 10X10 or 10X15 feet square rooms constructed along both sides of a long and narrow corridor with a common toilet at the end. During the late 17th century, when the shipping business was booming under British Raj, labors of a community called ‘Chawl’ from Andhra Pradesh were brought to work in the shipyards of Bombay. These cheap, tiny and temporary dwellings were constructed to accommodate them. They were named ‘Chawl’ after the name of the community. It’s a well known fact that there’s nothing as permanent as a temporary arrangement. Later on, these dwellings were occupied by the middle and lower classes as they were very cheap. A chawl is like a huge joint family where everyone knows and is concerned with everyone else. They celebrate, love, marry, fight, cry and laugh with each other. It’s like living in a small village. An oasis of humanity in the arid desert of a bustling and indifferent metropolis. We all knew everything about Mikey and were fond of him in our own eccentric and loony way.
We all tend to be judgemental about our fellow human beings. Christ has said that don’t judge unto others, lest you be judged yourself. But, we know better. We stereotype people. For everyone, Mikey was a hopeless drunkard, who had wasted his father’s hard earned money in carnal pleasures and was destitute now. No one ever considered that he may have a working brain, capable of dreams and thoughts. No one took him seriously even when he was sober, which was seldom.
Then suddenly everything changed one day! Mikey got a registered letter! No one actually cared to talk to him in person. Who could be desperate enough to waste good money to send him a registered post? Some of the wags in our Chawl claimed that it’s a court summons for Mikey. We all were agog to know! Mikey was nowhere to be found and the postman told us in his patronizing way, so dear to the ears of a government servant, that he can only deliver it to the recipient. Damned officious ass! If only he knew that the recipient is lolling in some neighborhood gutter! We all impatiently awaited the return of Mikey.
Our hero tottered in at night. He was informed about the official visit. Suddenly he was sober. Like all weak willed people, he was scared of his own shadow. He was a tiger when drunk, but a mouse when sober. He came to me for advice, reeking like an ashtray filled with week old cigarettes and alcohol. I stepped out of my one room castle and shut the door firmly behind me, so that the family doesn’t witness this scene. He said, “Rakesh Dada, is it something dangerous?” The poor guy was quacking in his shoes.
I smiled nonchalantly. “Na re! Just a registered post. Someone wants to be sure that you received this letter and later don’t deny receiving it. It’s usually done in legal matters.” I accidentally pressed the ‘Panic’ button!
“Legal matters! Oh God! Now what will I do!” he started lamenting in a loud voice. Like all honest people, he was scared of law and order, which is actually supposed to bring peace and happiness in our lives but end up introducing only chaos in an otherwise peaceful inhabitat. May be, that’s the reason that all the disturbing things in our lives are called ‘in-laws’.
I assured and sent him back. Next morning, I went with him to the post office to receive the dreaded letter. It was from a firm of lawyers and was four pages long. Being a junior architect in MHADA, a government body, I was the nearest thing to a ‘Legal Eagle’ the Chawl had, so I read it out aloud for the benefit of the curious audience. Like all the legal letters, even this was full of ‘hitherto’ and ‘whereas’. God knows why the lawyers make a simple thing sound so complicated! The gist of the letter was that his distant aunt had died in South Africa and has bequeathed her estate to this good for nothing. The letter asked him to visit the lawyers office by appointment and probate the estate. It was signed and sealed by a name preceded by a battery of degrees. We all looked at him in awe! Scales had changed now!
It’s funny how the mentality of people changes by the smallest of things. Nothing can describe the Chaos Theory better than the mood swings of a mob. Mikey was suddenly loved by everyone. The hopeless drunkard was suddenly a man of property! We all love to be around successful people, in the hope that some of their success may rub off to our own bleak lives.
I called the attorneys and scheduled an appointment on next Monday. Now came the question of finance! Mikey had a limited wardrobe, which consisted of a tattered Bermuda shorts, which was of some respectable color in its prime, but was an indescribable gray now, and a dirty tee shirt, which proudly proclaimed to the world ‘I’m Sexy’. Not exactly an attire to visit a lawyer’s office as a landed gentleman! It was decided to contribute money to make him presentable. After all, once he comes into his inheritance, he will remember our good turns! Didn’t we always help him when he needed some cash for a shot of whatever poison he loved?
We all chipped in and got a full suit with a necktie for him, made him bathe and left for the attorney’s office on Monday. We were ushered in directly. Everyone was impatient to know the extent of the windfall. Like carrion birds, we could smell kill and were flocking to get our own share.
Mr Balsara, the wizened attorney cleared his throat in the silent conference room and began.
“Mr diSilva, your late aunt Lady Gwendolyn Furtado, wife of the deceased Lord Clifford Francis Furtado, Baronet, KCVO, OBE, died last week in Johannesburg and as she has had no children, has left the estate to its entirety to you. I being the executor of her will, ask you formally. Do you accept the terms of probate, and the responsibilities vested herein?” Mikey nodded eagerly. His eyes shining. We all hung on to the precious words of Mr Balsara.
“The estate is estimated to be around ₹33.5cr, after the probation.” We all gasped and were looking at Mikey as we had a superstar amongst us. Mikey was beaming around, like a warm winter sun spreading its warmth to the wretched and shivering population.
Mr Balsara continued explaining the extents of the properties in Kihim, Panjim, Shimla, Ooty and various other exotic locations in India, along with the myriad stocks and bonds Milady Furtado had invested in. We were unable to comprehend the extent of the money! We all started to rehash our personal relations with Mikey. I was reasonably confident of our undying friendship. Didn’t I give ₹100 to him when he said that he needed money to go to the doctor and went and drank instead? Money, which he never returned? Ah, well! I did slap him a few times for the repayment, but that’s immaterial. What’s few friendly slaps among close knit friends? Now I was going to get my investment returned 100 folds. I put my arm around his shoulder and looked around proudly at the paupers surrounding my best friend.
“People, that sums up the estate of Lady Furtado. Now, Dr Sarabhai, investment and financial analyst for the estate will explain the current status of obligations and liabilities on the aforementioned estate.” We all readjusted our postures for another flight in high finance. Mikey grinned goofily and looked around and, was rewarded by many worshipping looks. People, who always ignored his insistent begging were basking in the warmth of the smiles of the richest man in our lives.
Dr Sarabhai staggered to the pod. He was 100, if a day. He looked as if he was around, helping Noah with legal issues while he was building The Arc. He croaked in the mike. “Great morning, ladies and gentlemen! I’m here to discuss the liabilities of the estate.”
“Aw, get on with it!”, Mikey said in a bored and carrying voice and we all laughed heartily as if it was the latest joke by Russell Peters. The rich have a talent for cracking the most beautiful jokes. The weight of money lends impact to the stupidest punchline, which few of us can resist. Mikey didn’t have a Twitter account, or this crack would have been retweeted by our entire Chawl!
Dr Sarabhai either didn’t hear or chose to ignore this barb. He continued monotonously, “Milady Furtado owns the ‘Central African Railroad Company’ in Nairobi. (There was a collective Ooh!) The company is not doing good at the present time. (An empathetic and understanding nod by all present. After all, a railroad – whatever it is – may pick up!) In fact, it had never done good. (A non committal look from the crowd.) It was one of the worst decisions made by Lady Furtado after His Lordship’s demise in France 10 years ago. The other being the diamond mine in Dhanbad, Jharkhund, which never mined any diamonds.”
We nodded knowledgeably and sagely. It was a business decision which conked out. No doubt, it was a calculated gamble. Who can understand the workings of a super-rich mind? After all, isn’t diamond a derivative of carbon? Each coal is a potential diamond, my teacher had once said. This being one of the few gems I still recollect from my scholarly life. I tightened my grip on my Super-rich friend and looked around proudly.
“To finance these ventures,” Dr Sarabhai continued in his dead tone as if reciting an eulogy at a funeral, “Her Ladyship kept her entire estate as a collateral with the Lloyd’s of London.” We all were looking at Mikey with new respect! Lloyd’s! The Giants!
Dr Sarabhai cleared his throat with a small voice of a snapping chalk on a blackboard. “In fact, in default of her Ladyship’s payments on her installments, Lloyd’s of London have attached the estate and are proceeding with acquisition of the said properties under section 36A of the Indian Acquisition Act, 1962. If the beneficiary can furnish a draft of ₹ 6cr to M/s Lloyd’s of London before 31st of March, it may be possible to postpone the acquisition. Failing which, The Lloyd’s of London may be the sole owner of the aforesaid properties and the beneficiary will need to reimburse the deficit of ₹ 1cr as the pending and unpaid interest after the principal amount of the loans and the various compound interests are settled…”
I bet, all his miserable life this doctor, who needed a treatment himself, dreamed of a situation, when people will hang upon his words! It was a Eureka moment for him. It was a dream come true! Hitler could have marched in that room, could have done a pole dance in string bikini and we wouldn’t have noticed.
“Dada, what did he say?”, my protègé asked me anxiously as he failed to follow the words of the cadaver. “He said, we are screwed!”, I said disgustingly, removing my hand from his shoulders as if he had Swine Flu.
Again the scales turned. The pedestal was torn and the deity was thrown down. Now I know how the Tsar must have felt when the people of his country suddenly decided to chop off his head to brighten an otherwise dull morning. We started to file out of the room despondently. Everyone casting a disgusted look at Sir Michael, Baronet, OBE. He was the 6th Baronet of the estate and owned the King’s Title. I’m sure that the baronatcy will end with his demise due to cirrhosis of lever, while he is embarked on his lifelong mission to drink the distilleries dry. Unless, we Chawlwalas strangle him first for around ₹15,000, which we splurged at him.
He came yesterday to me. “Dada, you are my only friend! Can you loan me ₹100? I need medicine!”
I laughed at myself!