13th June, 2020
The day that we feared has come — the economic shockwave triggered by the Covid crisis has caught up with us. D’s school has announced swingeing pay cuts for all employees and the kids’ play centre in Thane, where she moonlights as a consultant, has also told her she won’t be getting her full pay until it reopens. Meanwhile, my writing assignments have been coming in dribs and drabs and clients have been slow in paying up.
As a result of this financial squeeze we had little choice but to go cap in hand to our landlord today asking for a rent reduction, as several of our friends and acquaintances have already done.
Our landlord, S, was initially not keen on the idea. He told us instead that he’d let us live rent-free for a month on the condition that we vacate the flat when the month is up. The curtness of his response took us by surprise. Though S is a canny businessman, he and his wife, G, have always treated us like family rather than tenants in the four years that we’ve been renting this place — taking care of repairs in a timely fashion, offering friendly advice on financial management, and sending round tubs of sweet kheer and dry fruits during Muslim festivals. They’ve always protested at any hint that we might move house and even waived the annual rent increment that Mumbai landlords usually insist upon. So we had expected them to be more understanding of our current predicament.
But S soon came round to our point of view once D had explained our situation more clearly. She pointed out that moving house is difficult under the current circumstances; that we are only asking for a temporary rent reduction; that the school pay cut is technically a deferment and she expects to receive the deferred amount at the end of the year; and that we will continue paying rent at the usual rate as soon as possible. S agreed to lower our rent by 10 percent but, in order to keep his financial records in order, he insisted that we electronically transfer the usual amount each month and take the 10 percent from him in cash. He invited me to pick up two-months’ worth of cash this afternoon.
S and G live in an apartment complex owned by the Nizari Ismaili, a small Muslim sect which gained a fearsome reputation in the Middle Ages as the Hashishim, the original Assassins. Today Nizaris are known for their high tolerance of other religions — inter-faith marriages are permitted and increasingly common in the community.
There is a large mosque within the walls of the residential complex and portraits of Aga Khan IV, the Portugal-based Imam of the sect, adorn foyer walls and elevator interiors.
S and G welcomed me warmly as usual. S was ensconced on the sofa dressed in a plain white cotton kurta, a gold chain peeking above the collar, watching rolling stock market news on the TV. G sat at the dining table on the other end of the airy, sunlit living room dressed in a brightly coloured salwar kameez.
Hobbled by arthritis, S didn’t get up to greet me. He instead gestured for me to take a seat on the sofa next to him. I asked him how he was doing and he pointed with a vitiligo-marked hand to three pouches lined up beneath the glass surface of the coffee table — his diabetes medication — and grumbled about having to take three insulin shots per day. He is fully aware of the irony of his life — despite all the wealth he has amassed over the years he is largely housebound due to poor health. Once or twice, waxing philosophical, he has proclaimed to me that “money is useless,” even while stock prices continue to flash up on the TV screen.
S is a self-made man and proud of it. He grew up in poverty — “I didn’t even have enough money to buy chappals (slippers),” he says. Now he owns several properties in prime locations in Mumbai and Pune and his children have migrated to the United States. He has made a name for himself within the local Nizari community — once, when we casually mentioned a minor dispute we’d had with the family on the floor below us, who also happen to be Nizaris, he told us that “they are afraid of me” and that he’d have a word with them if necessary. When we first met him he spoke matter-of-factly about his past shady dealings when he was a young hustler. But now, perhaps confronted with his own mortality or perhaps because he has more to lose, he prefers to play by the book — unlike the many Mumbai landlords who take a portion of their rent payments in cash in order to minimise their tax liability, S insists that all payments be done electronically. “I’ve made enough black money in my life,” he told us, “now I only want white money.”
S instructed G to give me the envelope containing the promised cash. She also handed me a bag containing mangoes and a box wrapped in newspaper. S eagerly explained that the mangoes were the kesar variety — “nice and sweet” — and had come all the way from Gujarat, his home state. He had written the name of the mango variety on a post-it note so that I could Google it later. “The mangoes are for D,” he said with a grin, “and the box is for you.” I had a good idea of what the box contained but I didn’t open it until I got home. G also offered me chocolate-coated dates from Dubai and wrapped up a few for me to give to D.
The gifts were, I presume, some kind of peace offering after the misunderstanding on the phone. S and G reiterated that they like having us as tenants. “You are like our children,” they said. I told them, in turn, that they have always been good to us and that it is largely due to their kindness that we have stayed on in their property for four years.
“Somehow I understand you well,” S said. “Not like Americans — I can never understand their accent.” He and his wife used to communicate mostly with D, not being confident in their English fluency. But nowadays we are able to talk at length without any issues.
“You Britishers have a long history in India,” he added, pausing to frame his point delicately, “maybe that’s why we can understand each other.”
We chatted for several minutes about the usual topics — S’s investment portfolio and his grievances with the society that manages our building. Most of the society’s members are Catholics and look down on him because he is a Muslim, he says. He has an especially hard time with the secretary of the society who he accuses of soliciting bribes for the redevelopment of the building. “See, there is no bad religion,” he says, “only bad people.”
When I eventually made a move to leave S asked whether I was going to walk or take a rickshaw. I told him I would walk. He urged me to be careful as Bandra has seen a spate of robberies in recent days. He made sure I folded the envelope of cash and stuffed it in my pocket and told me to hold the bag of goodies tightly.
When I got home I unwrapped the box. Knowing S’s fondness for an evening tipple and noting the glint in his eye when G handed me the bag, I knew, more or less, what to expect. Even so, I was a little taken aback when I peeled away the newspaper to discover a large unopened bottle of Chivas Regal whiskey.
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