Jamal came into the kitchen with this young boy and told us, ‘He will be the kitchen help.’ I looked at our cook, Salimullah, and raised my eyebrows. He jutted his lower lip out to indicate he had no idea either. Jamal, our owner, rarely believed in anyone; he operated under the impression that everyone was out to rob him of his hard-earned money. So who was this young person, and how did Jamal know him?
Nagulu – that was the boy’s name – was good with words. He quickly understood the fears and aspirations of people and tailored his speech accordingly. We all worked in an Irani chai restaurant named ‘Al-fatha Café’ in Boiguda. A couple of days after joining us, Nagulu convinced the notorious moneylender, Srinivas Gowd, to lend money to our server, Yadgiri. He seemed to know more about Yadgiri’s finances than Yadgiri himself. Srinivas Gowd, who had not yielded to Yadgiri’s pleading earlier, now gave him the money. A grateful Yadgiri told Nagulu, ‘If only you had a degree, you would have earned lakhs as a salesman in some company. Your tongue will carry you far.’
Experience had taught me to be wary of smooth talkers, for they can hide a lot behind a wall of words. I had a nagging feeling about Nagulu – that we did not know the whole truth about him. Then, an incident occurred that confirmed my fears.
Some days, late at night, we would all sit together to drink gudumba, the local liquor, after we pulled down the shutter. Along with the booze, there would be mutton biryani from Alpha Hotel. Sometimes Jamal’s younger brother would join us, but Jamal himself was against alcohol, and these parties happened without his knowledge. On one such occasion, we had a friend of Yadgiri’s as our guest. I forget his name, but he was a salesman, and he got some rum from the military canteen that day. While drinking, someone mentioned that Nagulu was known as ‘Nizamabad Nagulu’ since he hailed from Nizamabad. Yadgiri’s friend was excited.
‘Where in Nizamabad do you come from?’ he asked Nagulu.
Nagulu was diffident, ‘Why Anna? What will you do knowing which is my place?’
‘Arre. Tell me. I know the whole of Nizamabad. I have roamed extensively there.’
Nagulu laughed and smoothly said, ‘Nizamabad means I am not exactly from Nizamabad. I am from a small village which is near Nizamabad.’
‘Which village? I have been selling submersible pumps in almost all villages. I know the Panchayat chief in every village. Tell me which village you are from, and I will tell you everything about that village,’ he challenged.
‘Anna, there are no pump sets in my village. It is perennially in drought. It is to escape such conditions that I came to Secunderabad. Anyway, why talk about drought and famine now when we are enjoying ourselves? Let me fill your glass.’ So saying, he deftly diverted the topic away from Nizamabad.
The next day I asked Nagulu, ‘Are you from Nizamabad? You seemed to be hiding something from that man.’
‘Arre bhai. Why will I lie to you? I am from Nizamabad, and we are low caste. My family is impoverished, and no one respects us there. So I was afraid that if this man knew about my family and my caste, he might say some bad things about my family and me. That’s why I did not want to reveal any details. He was also quite drunk, and you can never predict how a drunkard will behave. By the way, I must say that even though you drink, you are always steady, bhai.’
It was after this incident that I started observing that Nagulu was a cautious person. Jamal had allowed him to sleep in the kitchen. He rarely, if ever, ventured out of the kitchen. And whenever he was out, he kept looking all around him as if he was searching for someone. I once asked him, ‘Are you afraid someone will see you?’ As usual, he laughed at the question and said, ‘Why should I be afraid, bhai? No one knows me here.’
‘The shayar says ‘Let us become strangers again’ so that he can fall in love with the girl all over again,’ I said.‘Is it possible to forget the past, bhai?’ asked Nagulu. ‘Can we restart our lives? Can we erase who we are?’ Nagulu’s voice quivered.
Another strange aspect of Nagulu was his reluctance to talk about girls. You would expect a boy like Nagulu, twenty years of age, to talk about girls incessantly, but he never spoke about girls. Jamal’s brother, Rashid, who was almost the same age as Nagulu, had only girls in his thoughts. However, when he was drunk, he would speak continuously about girls: sometimes cursing them, sometimes praising them but mostly talking dirty about them.
During one of our late-night parties, a half-drunk Rashid asked Nagulu, ‘No girl ever seems to fall for me. But, Nagulu, I am sure girls will fall all over you hearing you talk. So tell me, how many girls have you cheated on? Tell me now.’
For the first time, I saw the smile vanish from Nagulu’s face. It was replaced with anger, but Rashid did not notice it. He was busy drinking. After the next peg, he asked again, ‘You haven’t yet told me how many times you have cheated.’
Nagulu was tense, and I was scared he would hit Rashid. At the same time, Yadgiri loudly shouted, ‘If you have cheated a girl may it be a high caste girl,' and started laughing. Rashid joined him. Nagulu was extremely angry, but there were tears in his eyes. To save the situation, I exclaimed, ‘Hey, doesn’t that scooter sound like Jamal’s?’ Instantly, Rashid got up from his chair, ‘Abe maaki. Don’t tell bhai that I was here,’ and ran out the back door.
The next night we had a liquor party again. During such parties, I would sing old Hindi songs. Yadgiri sometimes sang Telangana folk songs with Nagulu providing rhythmic support using the table as a tabla. Salimullah would also start singing off-key in his unbearable voice. I started singing an old Mahendra Kapoor song written by Sahir Ludhyanvi, ‘chalo ik baar phir se ajnabi ban jaaye ham dono.’
‘What is the meaning of the song, bhai?’ asked Nagulu.
‘The shayar says ‘Let us become strangers again’ so that he can fall in love with the girl all over again,’ I said.
‘Is it possible to forget the past, bhai?’ asked Nagulu. ‘Can we restart our lives? Can we erase who we are?’ Nagulu’s voice quivered.
Before I could answer, Yadgiri, who was thoroughly drunk, shouted, ‘No. Your past will always haunt you.’
Salimullah said, ‘Abe jaa re. Past does not affect everyone. See your local dada, Sataiah, who has one wife, one setup. He is involved in so many dark deeds, and yet he lives a happy life. His past does not affect him at all.’
‘No. The past is like the Betaal on Vikram’s shoulder. It will never leave you. If it doesn’t catch up with you in this birth, it will do so in your next,’ said Yadgiri.
‘Oh, he has started talking philosophy, which means he is fully drunk now,’ said Salimullah and laughed aloud. I could see that Nagulu was feeling sad. When Nagulu noticed I was observing him, he smiled at me and started being his usual self.
A few months passed. One night, as we were about to close the shutters, Nagulu went out to get himself a paan. He came back in a hurry. He looked very nervous and kept glancing at the road. Finally, he turned to me and said, ‘Bhai, can you pull down the shutter and lock it from outside. You can open it again in the morning.’ I thought I heard the panic in his voice. ‘What is the problem?’ I asked him. ‘Nothing bhai,’ he replied, ‘please do this for me today.’ I pulled down the shutter, locked the hotel, and took the key with me.
The following day I came early to open the shutter. Nagulu was missing, and the door of the kitchen was open. Thinking he would have gone somewhere nearby, I started boiling the milk and brewing tea. Nagulu did not appear, and when Jamal came in, I told him of Nagulu’s disappearance. Jamal was unconcerned. ‘He will come. Where will he go?’ was his answer, but Nagulu did not return, and I started getting concerned. I asked the shopkeepers near my hotel if they had seen Nagulu in the morning. I also checked with the milkman who delivered milk. No one had seen him. No one had any idea where he could have gone.
Yadgiri was very agitated. I consoled him by saying, ‘He is a young fellow. My feeling is that he ran away from his house due to some fight. Maybe he got homesick and is back with his parents now.’ Yadigiri was not very convinced. ‘I am scared, bhai.’
It must have been more than two months after Nagulu’s disappearance. Then, on Sunday morning, someone knocked on my door. I opened it to see Yadgiri standing there. ‘Bhai, dress up. I want you to come with me,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I will tell you as we are going. Come immediately.’
I put on my shirt and trousers quickly and came out. Yadgiri was on one scooter, and a friend of his was on another. I sat behind Yadgiri. He was agitated and spoke very fast as he drove. ‘Bhai. Please don’t panic. My friend delivers milk in the Sankar Matt area. While delivering milk, he said he saw a dead body that resembled Nagulu. So he came to me. I cannot face this alone if it is Nagulu. That is why I called you.’
My heart started beating faster, and I could not believe what I heard. ‘I don’t think it will be Nagulu, Yadgiri. So your friend is probably mistaken,’ I said.
Yadgiri could not control himself. Between sobs, he said, ‘I also think so, but if it is Nagulu...’ He did not finish the sentence.
Yadgiri was silent for the rest of the way. Finally, we arrived in a gully in the Sankar Matt area. Yadgiri’s friend stopped in front of a small hotel called SV Tiffin Stall. A line of lorries stood on the opposite side of the hotel. The area behind the lorries was being used as a urinal. It was stinking, and yet a small crowd had gathered. I kept praying that it should not be Nagulu. Finally, we pushed aside a few people and went forward.
Nagulu lay in a pool of urine. Someone had hit him on his head with a stone. The blood, which had oozed from his head, had dried. A knife was stuck into his stomach, and the assailant had smashed his face too, maybe with the stone. The face was swollen, and the nose was broken. It was a grotesque sight.
A police jeep arrived. The constables who were guarding the body saluted the Inspector who got down from the jeep. ‘Where is the owner of this hotel?’
A man came forward.
‘Who is this person?’ asked the Inspector.
‘I don’t know much about him. He said his name was Prasad and that he came from Kurnool. He had a way with words. So I gave him a job. I never thought he had any enemies.’
Yadgiri started sobbing uncontrollably.