Hiralal was happy today as he sat by the window of his train. He couldn’t believe his luck; he had struck gold on his visit to Bombay. “Now the stupid people of my town will see what a legend I am.”
The journey was going to be long and Hiralal was glad he could grab the window seat. He leaned toward the window and placed his precious artefact in between him and the window so no one else could come near it. It pleased him just to feel it next o him. As the train began with a jerk, sending billows of smoke across its length, Hiralal got lost in the scenery outside. The train picked up speed the fields, hills, bushes, rocks and people moved faster in the opposite direction. People, he thought, people can be so naïve, just like the people of his town. ‘They don’t know a thing; they are all stuck in a time warp. Anyone can fool them easily. Thank God, I am not like them and now they will see it for themselves.’
He recalled the year 1968, his final year in college when he first heard the name Mao Zedong. He was so impressed by whatever he read about him that he began collecting articles, anything he could lay his hand on, which was rare. Hiralal’s father was a cloth merchant in this small hill town and after graduating, Hiralal joined his father’s business, but he was still obsessed with Zedong. His friends began to make fun of him, “You have even started to look like him.” He went back to check, ‘No, not at all, I have such curly hair, big eyes and crooked teeth. I am nothing like him. Stupid people.’
The word spread quickly in the town that the cloth’s merchant’s son liked the enemy who caused 1962. The wounds were still raw. They threatened to boycott the shop. His father warned him to stop this madness about Zedong and concentrate on business. It had been ten years since, now he was married, had kids and Zedong had been dead for two years.
Hiralal was on trip to Bombay to make purchases for his shop. He had finished his business for the day and went sight-seeing. He moved between markets. Crawford Bazaar, Bhendi Bazar, Nul Bazar and Chor Bazar, picking up fascinating stuff till he was lost between markets, when he saw an elderly gentleman sitting in an antique shop. He was dusting the artefacts and did not seem eager to sell his stuff. Hiralal was intrigued and went inside. The gentleman greeted him and asked if he was looking for anything specific. Curiosity got the better off Hiralal and he whispered, “Anything related to Zedong?” The old man’s eyes widened, his face turned red and Hiralal regretted what he had just said. He closed the door to his shop and offered Hiralal a chair and ordered him to sit. Then he vanished behind a curtain, more like a sari to hide what lay behind. Hiralal was sure he was going to call the police on him, he began to sweat and promised himself never to mention Zedong again, but the old gentleman appeared after ten minutes, with what looked like a bamboo case in hand. He pulled another chair close to Hiralal and whispered, “This is a secret, it is very precious,” and he revealed a beautifully crafted Chinese umbrella with distinctively Chinese art in black painted on it. “This my friend, belonged to Mao Zedong.” Hiralal couldn’t believe what he saw. “You are trying to fool me.” “How dare you! Get out of my shop now. You think I am some lowly seller like those outside? I was an envoy to China; a diplomat and he threw a picture of himself standing next to Pandit Nehru. This was enough to convince Hiralal, and he asked, “How much?” “I’d take 300 rupees for this. It’s precious you see.” “That is very expensive, I don’t have that kind of money.” “The gentleman was getting impatient. “You look like a true fan. I will give it to you for 200.” Hiralal checked all his pockets, “I have only 150.” The old man looked disappointed, but said, “Take it, just be very careful. Thieves are everywhere.” Hiralal grinned broadly, now they will know.
He reached his town and with a fury began the process of setting up the reveal of his prized possession. He announced that he had a great artefact and he will inaugurate it in a week. He invited the press, the local MLA, and the townsfolk of course. He hired builders to build a shrine with a strong wooden gate, inside which he planned to display the open umbrella in a display glass box. On the D-day he went all out with the pomp and show, cut the ribbon and removed the curtains to show the umbrella that once belonged to Mao Zedong. Everyone went crazy, the press was clicking furiously, the MLA called him the pride of the town. It was all spectacular. People made a bee line to see the treasure. Hiralal had placed a security guard there to see no one touches the display glass. Some were fascinated, some snickered, some were disinterested and some were jealous.
Bansi, yes, he was jealous. He had graduated with Hiralal and never liked the fact the he had to work hard while Hiralal had it easy with his father’s business. He was the one who had fuelled the boycott movement against their shop. Now Hiralal was the centre of attention and he did not like it. ‘I have to take that umbrella away from him, all I need is a good plan. The first thing is to remove the guard. That’ll be easy, I’ll give him laced sweets. Next is that enormous wooden gate. I really have to think about it. The gate is too heavy I cannot break it. Oh yes! I will buy some acid and pour it near the hinges of the gate. The wood will corrode and then I can take the gate down.” Bansi went about next day to execute his plan. He bought some sweets and laced them with sleeping pills and sent a boy to offer these to the security guard. He waited in the bushes nearby. The unsuspecting guard ate the sweets and fell asleep. It was already late into the night when Bansi came out of the bushes, and went to the gate. He dropped the acid carefully. It was taking longer than he expected and the night was getting colder. Finally, there were holes in the wood and the hinges were lose now. He lifted the gate as quietly as possible. It was too heavy and took all his strength to move it. His hands began to bleed from the weight of the gate, but he ignored it as the reward was too big. The glass case was easy to open and finally the umbrella was his. He couldn’t keep it in his home so he ran to the bus stop, but had to hide in the cold all night as the first bus to Delhi left at 5 in the morning. With the umbrella secured in a sack, he mounted the bus, all the while hoping Hiralal had not found out about the missing umbrella. Nobody came as the bus moved to Delhi.
Bansi was very happy. ‘I will get enough money now and can finally buy my own vegetable cart.’ He ignored the pain in his hands from picking that heavy gate, sitting next to the window seat he was very satisfied, not an iota of guilt anywhere. He hadn’t been to Delhi ever and kept roaming around the markets keeping the umbrella close. He hadn’t eaten anything all day, he just wanted to sell the umbrella and go back home. Finally, he saw what looked like a shop selling old and antique stuff.
He promptly went inside, and proudly declared he had something of great historical importance. The lady in the shop looked at him intrigued. “Why are you making so much noise? What do you have?” “You will be surprised. I have an umbrella of Mao Zedong, an envoy who had gone to China sold it to me.” The lady’s mouth fell open. ‘If this man is really telling the truth, then I have hit a jackpot.’ “OK! Let’s see what you have.” Bansi pulled out the red oil paper Chinese umbrella carefully and laid it on the table. She picked I up carefully and began examining it. ‘This can’t be happening. It is indeed a Chinese umbrella.’ She opened it with great care turned it around, and began to laugh. “You have been fooled my man. Look here,” she said pointing to tiny printed letters. Made in India.
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