‘A Wodehouse?’, sputtered Arjun.
‘A Wodehouse?’, sputtered I.
An egg, a bean and a few crumpets looked up from their glasses to ask the same question.
A philistine asked, ‘What’s a Wodehouse?’, and was promptly cut to size by the rest of us in attendance.
The Oldest Patron turned to Arjun and cadged a cigarette from him. (The Oldest Patron never believed for paying for anything himself. Where others saw a man, he saw a sponge to be squeezed – though many referred to him unkindly as a sponge).
With the satisfied smirk of one who knows his words have had the desired effect, the Oldest Patron leaned back onto his chair.
He lighted the cigarette deliberately, took a long drag on it and exhaled the smoke slowly. The pause was long enough to have been made by Vajpayee.
Then he spoke…
‘Yes, indeed, my friends, a Wodehouse. Supposed to be one of ol’ Penhalm Granville’s best. May the good man rest in peace…’, said he, a reverent look clouding his eyes over.
After another long pause during which the tea shop’s owner walked over with our glasses of tea, the Oldest Patron continued,
‘It was long time ago, like I said. And I was but a sprightly young man, pursuing a degree in Engineering like you fine, upstanding lads here.
Being a chap full of the blood that makes us men men, I was forever interested in women. The hitch was, women weren’t interested in me, as is often the case. I was blessed with a face ugly enough to stop ten clocks… in fact, I looked a little like you, though not half as bad’, said he, pointing helpfully at me.
Ignoring my irate protests, he continued,
‘But then, as it often happens, there was this girl…’, a faraway look entered his eyes as his mind harked back to a flame that had long spent itself, ‘….this girl, who liked talking to me…’
‘Must have been ugly as sin…’, muttered a cynical bean.
‘Au contraire, monsieur. Though no Madhubala or Heidi Lamarr, she was a pretty little thing to behold. And besides,’, he said, a naughty smile playing on the corners of this mouth, ‘I don’t think she could see very well either. Anyway, to cut a long story short, something of the kind that you young people today call a relationship – we called it an understanding back then – grew between the two of us as the months passed.
‘I was a very proud and vainglorious blighter those few months. I was sure that anyone who would see the two of us together would wonder how anyone as ugly as me could manage to get himself seen with anyone better than a transverstite. That filled me up with pride. Things looked very rosy, indeed.
‘But things weren’t all as rosy as I pictured them to be in the beginning. Girls aren’t forever satisfied with 10 pice chocolates and 1 rupee paneer sodas. They thirst for more. This wench wished that I spend more on her than the four annas that I usually did. I was indeed a trifle cheap and stingy when an impecunious young man…’
The innkeeper, who at this point happened to be walking by, stopped and told the Oldest Patron that he was still a lot more than a trifle cheap and stingy, asked him if he ever planned to pay up for last month’s tea, and walked away resignedly.
‘Then, the day approached. The day I dreaded the most – her birthday. She had made it very clear – with a subtlety that became her well - that she expected a gift from me. I just HAD to buy her a gift! And I knew intuitively that I couldn’t possibly get her the 4 anna chocolate I would have preferred to.
‘It was then that the brainstorm struck me. If I were naked, I would have run around Madras screaming Eureka at the top of my voice. Being a Wodehouse aficionado, I realized I could purchase her a book by the master himself. She had liked the few I’d suggested she read a few months ago. Besides, I could buy the new Wodehouse I hadn’t read yet. And I could cadge it from her later. And I could possibly sell it to a second hand dealer after I’d kept it with me sufficiently long for her to forget about it.
‘I did not have the cash to purchase a Wodehouse book – it was so beastly expensive. I had to smoke bidis for a whole week to save up the amount.', his voice shook at the thought of the terrible sacrifice.
An impressed Arjun looked at his visage with a renewed admiration.
‘Love conquers all’, said my romantic half.
‘Hell hath no fury like a woman whose birthday you get nothing for’, said my fiscally prudent side.
I had the Wodehouse at hand as I awaited her birthday…’