Short Stories

Nawab Sahib: by Banaphool

I saw Nawab Sahib thrice. Once, in person; and twice, in my head. Even the face-to-face meeting wasn’t a long one, lasting not more than five minutes. Let me tell this story first.

I was the local doctor.

One day I was told that some of the rich gentlemen in the area had decided to invite Nawab Sahib to tea. A few of the local inhabitants would be invited too, to give him company. I was to be one of them. The bearer of this information asked, ‘Your house is still empty, doctor, when is your family arriving?’

‘Not for another month or so.’

‘Then it would be of great help if you allowed us to use your house for the preparations for the tea. None of us can offer so much space in our houses, and from what we hear…’ he stopped.

‘What is it you hear?’

‘Inviting ordinary people like you and me to tea would not have needed such elaborate arrangements. But it’s different when it comes to Nawab Sahib. His own people will cook for him – one head-cook and three general cooks. They will state their requirements in advance, and be here a day earlier to prepare the kitchen. They will arrive at dawn on the day of the tea-party and start cooking. Lots of details to be attended to. Your house is both large and empty, so we were wondering…’

I wasn’t particularly keen on such an invasion, but I couldn’t quite turn down the request. ‘Very well, I have no objections,’ I was forced to say. ‘But I don’t understand why Nawab Sahib was suddenly invited to tea.’

My guest arched his eyebrows in a prolonged display of astonishment. ‘Do you know what a privilege it is to host Nawab Sahib for tea? He never honours such invitations – we have been requesting him for four years. We don’t know why he agreed this time…’

I was silent for a few moments. Then I asked, ‘I suppose all of you know him very well…’

‘He’s one of our biggest debtors.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘We lend him thousands of rupees. He informs us whenever he’s in need of money – we visit him and hand it over.’

It was my turn to be astonished. I had always known the borrower to be immensely grateful to the lender. But this was just the opposite.

‘I suppose he borrows a lot.’

‘A lot.’

‘Does he pay you back on time too?’

‘He does, but not on time. We never take IOUs from him – we just lend him the money. Then, when we hear he’s come into some cash, we bow to him and say, on such and such date we had offered on your order such and such amount for your service. It would be of imemense help if we could get it back now. He issues instructions at once to his treasurer. We always get the entire amount we ask for. If we were to ask for ten thousand rupees in return for a loan of five thousand, we would get that too. He never questions us. A genuine nawab.’

I was silent, for there was nothing to say. But I grew eager to meet him.

I had heard a great deal about him earlier too, but had never set eyes on him. I was a recent import to the area.

‘When is he coming?’

‘In four days. At five pm on Wednesday. His cooks will be here tomorrow.’

The cooks arrived as planned. I was flabbergasted to see them. While I had no idea what the real nawab would be like, each of them was a minor nawab in his own right. One of them had henna on his beard; another was dressed in velvet slippers; a third had on a velvet jacket over his kurta; and the ring on the finger of a fourth seemed to hold a genuine diamond. The head cook was dressed in immaculate western clothes, and spoke perfect English. I was told he had lived abroad. Mughlai, Pathan, English, French, Italian, Goan, German, Chinese – he was an expert in many different cuisines. His salary was five hundred rupees a month.

Overwhelmed by all this, I welcomed them warmly and offered seats. They greeted me with dignified deference too. Only the head cook took a seat, while the other three remained standing. One of the rich gentlemen who were hosting the tea party for the nawab was present too. He took a chair. The head cook asked him in English, ‘What do you propose to offer Nawab Sahib?’

‘We have invited him to tea. But naturally that is not all we will serve. There will be some pulao, some mutton, and anything else you see fit. Bread, cake, biscuits, jams and jellies have been ordered from Firpo’s. Some crockery too. Someone from Firpo’s will bring everything…’

‘But can they supply gold crockery?’ asked the head cook. ‘Since you’re hosting Nawab Sahib…’

He looked at the representatives of the host with a smile. The host’s expression suggested he was perspiring profusely.

‘How many guests?’

‘About ten.’

‘Is that all? I will bring the gold crockery in that case.’

‘Should we say no to Firpo?’

‘Let them bring what they will. We’ll need the cups and saucers. Now give me a piece of paper, let me make a list.’ I handed him a writing pad. ‘Ten guests?’

The head cook sank into thought for about a minute, his eyes closed. Then he said, ‘I don’t think the arrangements need to be very elaborate. Let there be two kinds of pulao, and four kinds of white and zarda kababs. Curries won’t work with tea. I am making the list accordingly. You could arrange for some namkeen, kachauri, and samosas too. Is good ghee available here? If not, I’ll get it myself. I can also provide some excellent flour from my larder. We get ghee from Kashmir for Nawab Sahib, the women make it with their own hands there. The flour comes from Punjab…’

‘Very well, do get the ghee and flour then, we will pay,’ said the host.

‘Pay? We are not grocers, babu sahib.’

A respectful smile appeared on the head cook’s face.

‘Forgive me,’ the host said quickly.

‘Please procure everything that I’m putting on the list. I shall come again on Tuesday morning. We need a couple of servants tomorrow to clean the yard; and a mason to make the oven. Ramzan Ali, you shall personally supervise the making of the oven.’

‘Ji huzoor.’ Ramzan Ali, who was wearing a diamond ring, accepted the order with a salaam.

Then the head cook instructed Ghafoor Khan, ‘You shall decorate the kitchen. Flower-pots, flower vases, carpets, chairs – tell babu sahib here what you need, he will arrange for everything.’

Greeting the host, Ghafoor Khan said, ‘Two dozen flower-pots, an elegant flower vase, a carpet, and an armchair. Two small tables on either side of the armchair. A container for ittar, an ashtray, and an overhead marquee…’ I was not a little surprised at the requirements for the kitchen.

‘You need all these things just to cook?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ answered the head cook in chaste English with a smile. ‘How will the cooking be perfect unless the cooks are in a pleasant frame of mind, unless the environment is joyous? Mustn’t the surroundings in which food is prepared for Nawab Sahib be pleasing?’

‘Yes, certainly,’ the rich gentleman butted in quickly. But he still seemed to be perspiring.

‘Let me draw up the list now. Ten guests, you said?’

‘Yes, ten.’

The head cook sat frowning for some time. Then he said, ‘Never mind, I will go back now and send the list shortly. I might miss out on some items if I draw it up here. Someone will deliver this soon. I shall leave now. Please arrange for everything on the list. Abid Mian, you shall come here tomorrow to decorate the room that Nawab Sahib will eat in. I hope there are chandeliers.’

‘There are,’ said the rich gentlemen. ‘How many do you need?’

‘If the hall is a large one, about a dozen.’

‘Very well, it shall be taken care of.’

Abid Mian, the third cook, saluted and stepped aside. The head cook bade everyone farewell and left. The other three followed him, promising to be back the next morning. The rich gentleman took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face, brow and neck. ‘We had expected to manage with two hundred or so,’ he said. ‘But it seems to me that it will require rather more. Naturally, a tea-party for Nawab Sahib is no laughing matter. I should be going too. If they send the list to you, please pass it on.’

‘All right.’

He left.

A couple of hours later the list was delivered to me. I was amazed to see its contents. Was the man mad, I wondered. There would only be ten guests, and the list said: seven goats (each between seven and ten kilos in weight), 15 kilos of fine rice (tulsi majari or katari bhog) for the white pulao, 15 kilos of Peshawari rice for the zarda pulao. Five kilos each of twenty different spices for the pulao, except the saffron, of which only five kilos were needed. Ten kilos of onions, ten of garlic, five of ginger – and five kilos each of raisins, almonds and nuts. Incredible! Anyway, I sent the list off to the gentleman who had come to my house – let the hosts decide for themselves what to do. Why should I rack my brains over it! I would simply turn up at the appointed hour and meet Nawab Sahib. Despatching the list, I went off to visit patients.

Ramzan Ali, Ghafoor Khan and Abid Mian arrived the next morning. So did a mason and two porters. They had brought bricks and cement too. Showing them to the open space behind the house, I went out on house calls.When I returned at two in the afternoon, I discovered the place transformed. The entire area had been weeded and cleaned, a clay oven had been set in place, flower-pots were arranged on the sides, and a beautifully-patterned marquee had been set up – even the bamboo posts of the marquee were wrapped in red fabric. A canvas armchair and a couple of low tables stood on one side. The flower-vase, ittar-pot and ashtray had all been sent. A folded carpet lay on the ground.

‘The carpet, tables and armchair will be needed on Wednesday morning, huzoor,’ Ramzal Ali told me deferentially. ‘The flower-vase, ittar-pot and ashtray too. I’m putting them in one of your rooms.’

‘What will you do with all this?’ I asked.

‘Noor Mohammad sahib, our head-cook, will use the armchair. We’ll place it on the carpet, with the tables on either side. One for the ittar-pot and flower vase, the other for the ashtray.’

Quite an arrangement! I let them put everything inside. The other items on the list appared the next day. Seven plump goats began to bleat in front of my house. The rice and spices turned up. And Noor Mohammad arrived a little later with the ghee from Kashmir and the flour from Punjab. I saw that he was accompanied by the rich gentleman. It was time for another surprise. Noor Mohammad began to circle the goats, examining each of them carefully. Then he told Abid Mian to lift one of them in the air by its middle. Abid Mian complied with his order.

Scrutinising the goat from every side, Noor Mohammad proclaimed himself satisfied. ‘Keep this one,’ he said, ‘send the rest back. We won’t need the entire meat. I will choose three kilos…’

Turning to Ramzan Ali, he said, ‘You can start now. I need two kilos of each of the two varieties of rice. Every grain must be undamaged and ripe. That’s what all the extra rice is for. Two of you can work on the rice, and then on the spices. You have to be meticulous. The clove, cardamom and pepper must be picked with great care, so that there isn’t a single bad grain. Pick the dry fruits with the same care – they often mix impurities into the raisins and almonds. Remember, each grain must be plump and pure, not a single one should be rotten…’

‘Ji huzoor.’

Saluting, Ramzan Ali approached the basket of rice. The head-cook left for the day after these orders, telling us that the cooks would pick and wash the best portions of the rice and spices, and that he would be back the next day. The other three got down to work after he left, toiling till nine at night to finish everything. They took back most of the rice, spices and dry fruits. Only the best portions were left nehind.

Noor Mohammad arrived early next morning. Ramzan, Ghafoor and Abid followed his orders. All he did was lie back in his armchair, smoking expensive cigarettes and issuing instructions. The fragrance of their cooking spread everywhere. Noor Mohammad had to put in a little physical labour only when the pulao was being made. A mixture of spices and ghee had been added to the rice, with a suitable amount of stock, in a pot and its mouth sealed with a paste of flour. Noor Mohammad rose from his chair occasionally to hold a stethoscope against the side of the pot and listen to the sounds inside, so that he could decide whether the flame needed to be turned up or down. Just as doctors use a stethoscope to gauge the condition of the heart, Noor Mohammad too could make out from the bubbling sounds within the pot how much longer the pulao needed to be cooked. I was flabbergasted.

Nawab Sahib arrived in his car at precisely five in the evening. His kurta and tight pajamas were a spotless white, while a white lace cap perched on his head. He didn’t seem so much a man as a dazzling sword. He had blue eyes and a gentle smile. Greeting each of us with an adaab, he took his seat. Each of his hosts said a few words in their exuberance. He listened to all of them with a tilted head, smiling, nodding now and then.

The food was served in plates of gold, followed by the tea. Nawab Sahib only accepted a cup of tea, taking one or two sips. He didn’t touch the food. Drinking half a cup of tea, he rose to his feet. ‘Please excuse me,’ he said courteously. ‘I have to go somewhere else.’

He left after bidding farewell to everyone.

My second encounter with Nawab Sahib took place in a different way. I was treating the son of a poor paan-seller. He couldn’t afford my fees. His dilapidated hut and little shop were all he had – the poor fellow could barely buy all the medicines. A few months later he gave me another call. This time it was his wife who was ill, but I discovered that his fortune had changed for the better – he now lived in a two-storied house. This time too, he tried to pay me a smaller fee than usual. ‘You seem quite well-off now,’ I said, ‘you have a two-storied house…’

‘I’m as poor as ever, doctor,’ he said. ‘Nawab Sahib gave me this house to live in.’

‘Nawab Sahib?’

‘Yes, doctor. I am a fortunate man, which is why his car had a puncture in front of my shop one day. I gave the driver a hand in changing the tyre. I bowed to Nawab Sahib too. With a smile, he asked, “Do you live here?”’

‘Yes, huzoor,’ I said. ‘That’s my house there.’

He left after a look at my ramshackle hut. An engineer arrived the next morning. ‘Nawab Sahib has ordered me to build a two-storied house for you.’ He began work the same day, and we had a two-storied house in no time…’

I seemed to see Nawab Sahib in my mind’s eye. Fair, blue-eyed, smiling gently…

I heard recently that Nawab Sahib had died. Not of an illness, but by falling into the sea. Many people say it was deliberate. Because his will was rather unsual. It said, ‘I hereby bequeath all my property for the betterment of the poor. I do not have a penny left now. How will I pass the rest of my life?’

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