A Full Night’s Thievery

By Mitra Phukan

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The Rings

The office peon brought in the afternoon mail. Harish Babu stretched his arms and yawned. This was the time when his energy levels flagged and his concentration wandered. He wondered if he should ask for another coffee to be brought in, then decided against it. Acidity, heartburn, gastric problems—at sixty, Harish Babu was fighting what seemed to be a losing battle with them. Going easy on the caffeine had been on the cards for a while.

He reached out for the bundle. Several letters, two pamphlets and a rather luridly coloured magazine vied for Harish Babu’s attention. His somewhat bored expression brightened perceptibly as his eyes fell on the cover of the magazine. He had been dictating an important letter, but now Harish Babu sent his secretary away. ‘Hold back all calls and visitors,’ he told her. ‘On no account am I to be disturbed.’

Pushing aside the letters and pamphlets as well as the papers he had been working on, he took up the magazine eagerly, and, tearing off its wrapper, began to read it. No matter how busy he was, Harish Babu always set aside all his other work when this fortnightly journal on astrology arrived, giving it his undivided attention. Of all the magazines of this kind that flooded the market, Harish Babu counted this as the best. Not only were their calculations of the movements of celestial bodies perfectly accurate, their forecasts and prognoses, too, were exact. Of course he did subscribe to several other such journals, too, but Astrological Fortnightly was his favourite.

What did the stars foretell for him that fortnight?

For the next thirty minutes, all that could be heard in the room was the quiet hum of the air-conditioner, and the rustle of the magazine’s pages. Occasionally, a frown would crease Harish Babu’s placid, moon-like face. Often, his large frame seemed to tremble with distress. Finally, he looked up, and closed the magazine. A sigh escaped him.

No longer did Harish Babu look like the successful businessman that he was, a pillar of the local Chamber of Commerce and various industrial associations, a shrewd, highly respected gentleman whose opinions were analyzed endlessly on the business pages of the national journals, the strength of whose forecasts had the power to send the Sensex and other financial indices either shooting up or plummeting down by several points. Indeed, he looked, just then, like a man in deep despair. As, indeed, he was.

With his head in his hands, Harish Babu thought over what he had read. ‘My stars!’ he muttered sadly to himself. ‘Shani is as grumpy as ever—no sign of him moving away or smiling on me from another house. Brihaspati is behaving very naughtily as well, casting a malefic eye at Venus. Rahu is sulking all alone by himself as usual, and Chandra is at loggerheads with the Sun once more.’ He shook his head again, and, casting caution to the winds, rang for a cup of coffee to calm his nerves. ‘My horoscope is a battleground for all the planets, it seems. They have been at war with each other ever since I can remember. It’s a wonder I’m still standing on my feet.’

He took two antacid tablets from a little box in his pocket, and swallowed them along with the coffee. ‘Send in Som,’ he spoke into the intercom. ‘I’ll be going out for a while, so hold back everything for some time, okay?’

He was already beginning preparations for departure when Som, the second-in-command in Harish Babu’s organisation appeared. ‘I’ll be away for a couple of hours,’ he said, adjusting the folds of the heron-white dhoti that fell smoothly down to his ankles. The sleeves of his creamy kurta were immaculately pleated. As he flicked off an imaginary spot of dust from one of his sleeves, the light caught the jewels that sat, row upon row, on his fingers, in all the colours of the rainbow.

Som looked perturbed. ‘What about the meeting tomorrow?’ he asked. ‘You still have to okay the final papers on it. After all, the meeting is extremely crucial—you should have a look at the papers personally before going to it.’
‘I told you, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’ It wasn’t like Harish Babu to snap so testily at his executives. ‘I’ll have a look at them after I return.’

‘Ratna Bhandar,’ Harish Babu directed his chauffeur tersely as he settled his bulky frame in his spacious new car. Normally, Harish Babu luxuriated in the seat, using his commuting time to catch up on the latest Jagjit Singh ghazal or Anup Jalota bhajan. Today, however, he made the journey to his destination in tense, worried silence.

The proprietor of Ratna Bhandar, a portly man who tended to waddle, hurried up to Harish Babu as soon as the doorman admitted him into the cool, luxurious interior of the shop. Rubbing his plump hands together, he escorted Harish Babu himself to the most comfortable seat in the shop, uttering little exclamations of delight and distress at the same time.

‘Arrey, Harishji!’ he exclaimed, ‘It is my fortune, my extreme good fortune, that my humble shop has been graced by the dust from your feet today. But really, why did you bother to come? It’s so hot and dusty outside… I would have sent one of my boys to you, along with whatever you needed…’

A little flurry of excited assistants left off whatever they were doing, and hovered around Harish Babu, leaving several hapless customers unattended. One whisked off invisible flecks of dust from the counter in front of Harish Babu, another brought a small footstool for his feet, yet another placed a pad of thick black cloth on the counter before him. They urged him to have either something cold to soothe his parched throat, or a hot cup of ginger tea to revive him, or perhaps an espresso coffee from that new shop across the street? And he simply couldn’t leave without tasting some of the excellent burfis that he liked so much from the halwai’s shop around the corner. ‘No, no,’ murmured Harish Babu, sinking into the chair, ‘nothing for me, thank you…not today…I don’t feel like eating anything…’

‘And how are the planets behaving, then?’ asked the proprietor, offering Harish Babu a fresh green paan wrapped in complicated folds that were held in place by a clove and covered with silver foil. He nodded to the scurrying assistants, who melted away discreetly.

‘Not well, not well at all…’ confided Harish Babu, spreading out his hands in a despairing gesture.

With the movement, the bright lights of Ratna Bhandar were suddenly reflected in the many precious stones that adorned Harish Babu’s fingers. Red, blue, green, yellow—all the colours of the rainbow seemed to have been caught on the fingers of his two hands.

‘Just now,’ continued Harish Babu, letting his bright hands fall helplessly to his side, ‘just now I’ve learned that Brihaspati is actively working for the downfall of my business. And the other planets are conspiring to help him. This very business that I’ve worked so hard to build, brick by brick, rupee by rupee…you know how it’s been, haven’t you?’

The proprietor nodded, too occupied with chewing his own fragrant paan to say anything. His face, however, had a concerned look.
‘Malefic effects of one planet can be cancelled if the positions of other planets are satisfactory,’ continued Harish Babu dolefully. ‘But me, I’m getting no benefit from a single one of them! As for Shani, that rascal is occupied in keeping my family life unhappy. It’s all becoming too much for me,’ he ended dolefully.

The jeweller shifted the wad of paan to his cheek, and spoke soothingly. ‘Now, don’t worry. Just leave it in our hands. Things are never that bad. We can block the evil designs of even the most powerful planet, you know that. After all, haven’t we been doing that for the last so many decades that you have condescended to grace our shop? Remember the time when the astrologer said that you would have an accident for sure, and break at least your leg or arm, if not your head, unless you wore a cat’s eye of many carats on your left index finger? Well, the inauspicious time came and went, but with my jewel on your finger, did even a scratch fall on you?’

His words made Harish Babu’s face brighten a little.

‘There’s a gemmological cure for every astrological disease, a jewelled solution for every planetary problem,’ continued the shop-owner. ‘What are we here for? I’ll have our resident astrologer go through your chart once more. An adjustment of a few carats here or perhaps there, may be all that’s necessary. And while you’re sitting here, perhaps you would care to look at a new consignment of rubies that’s come just this very morning… Rubies suit your horoscope, a few more carats can only help, never harm…’

Hours later, Harish Babu left the shop. He had been fitted with two more jewels as a new line of defence against the mighty planetary forces that seemed bent on destroying his life and career. It was most unusual for any jeweller to deliver anything so quickly. But Harish Babu was special. Two gold rings ordered by other customers were stripped of their jewels, and new ones, suggested by the astrologer, were put in their place. The proprietor himself slipped them onto Harish Babu’s already laden fingers, while the astrologer and two assistants hovered helpfully nearby.

‘Thank you,’ said Harish Babu as he stepped into his waiting car. ‘Send the bill to my house, as usual, then. I feel much easier in my mind now.’
‘Yes, yes, what are we here for if not to ease your mind?’ said the jeweller soothingly. He had left the air-conditioned confines of his shop and come outside to the dirty street, even risked soiling the zari-bordered edge of his pearly silk dhoti, in order to see off his most valued customer personally.
‘No, you don’t understand,’ said Harish Babu earnestly. Normally he hardly spoke of his business to others, preferring to keep his cards close to his chest. Today, however, relief had made him garrulous. ‘I have a big meeting, a very important meeting, you know, tomorrow. It’s about a tie-up between my own firm and a national giant. A kind of collaboration, in fact, not a buyout at all.’

The jeweller looked suitably impressed though, truth to tell, he hadn’t a clue what Harish Babu was talking about. All he knew about the work life of his client was that he was a person who had built up his business from scratch. An engineer by training and education, he ran, thought the jeweller, some high-level engineering firm, which, he had heard, produced very sophisticated equipment. What that equipment was, the jeweller hadn’t a clue. But it must be something quite in demand, for Harish Babu never demurred over paying for any of the many jewels that he bought from him on a very regular basis.

Harish Babu returned to his office, where Som was waiting for him, an anxious look on his face. ‘Come now, Som, don’t look so worried,’ said Harish Babu. His tone, his very step was different from what they had been when he had left the office a few hours ago. His irritability had disappeared. He was not just genial now, he positively exuded confidence. ‘We’ve worked hard for this, you and I, for the past so many months now. All the spadework is done. A few final details tomorrow, then…aah!’ Putting an avuncular arm around Som’s shoulder, he led him gently into his chamber. ‘Call the others of the team, we’ll go through the papers one last time…’

It was quite late by the time Harish Babu returned home. But he didn’t feel tired at all. Indeed, his new rings seemed to have given him an extra edge of confidence. He was sure things would work out for him tomorrow.

He had sent word home that nobody was to wait up for him. He had already had a simple dinner at the office. Quietly, without disturbing his sleeping wife, he slipped into bed. He decided not to tell her of his latest visit to the jeweller’s that afternoon. Though Rina supported him in everything that he did, and had stood by him uncomplainingly during all those difficult years when he had struggled to set up his factory, in this one area of astrology they had had many differences of opinion. Many times, she had said that it hardly suited him, an engineer who had modern views on everything, to believe all that stuff about, firstly, the bad influences of planets, and then, secondly, those same bad influences being deflected by the wearing of jewels. He wondered, as he got ready for sleep, what being an engineer had to do with believing or not believing in astrology… He felt the heavy weight of the new stones on his fingers, and was comforted. He held up his fingers before his eyes. In the semi-darkness of the shadowy room, they gleamed and glistened in all the colours that one could think of.

Harish Babu fell asleep with their colours dancing in his mind’s eye.

Indeed, next morning, Harish Babu looked cheerful and confident as he stepped out of his house for the meeting. The new stones certainly seemed to have given him that extra something that he needed so desperately.

His meeting that day was with Rathin, the fourth-generation part-owner of a giant heavy-engineering manufacturing concern. Harish Babu hoped that his firm would be able to bag a lucrative contract for supplying some vital components to the larger concern. If the bid succeeded, it would mean that his worries about marketing his products would be over, for the big manufacturer would need whatever Harish Babu’s firm could produce. In fact, Harish Babu would probably need to plan for a lot of expansion, in order to be able to keep pace with the big manufacturer’s growth. The spadework was done, and all that remained was the final nod.

And now, thanks to his new rings, it seemed that things were moving along satisfactorily. Rathin appeared to be quite amicable about the deal. ‘Of course,’ he was saying, ‘all this is subject to my father’s approval, but I think we can safely shake hands on the deal.’
Harish Babu sighed with satisfaction. Lovingly, he caressed the rings on his fingers.

The movement attracted Rathin’s attention. He had been too busy with the facts and figures presented in the papers before him to notice anything else so far. He now checked his words in mid-flow, and gazed wonderingly at the older man’s hands.

Why, they were like a shelf in a jeweller’s shop! Gems of all colours winked and sparkled at Rathin. He could barely see the older man’s fingers, they were that heavily encrusted with gems. Trying not to seem as though he was staring, he looked at them. Emeralds, rubies, topazes, garnets, diamonds, sapphires, corals, pearls—yes, they were all there. Not just one of each kind, but several, in various shades of the same colour. Never before had Rathin seen such a dazzling collection on one person.

He covered up the long pause with a feigned bout of coughing. Waving his hand at Harish Babu to signify his apologies for the interruption, he took a long sip of water from the glass before him. ‘Of course,’ he resumed smoothly, ‘you must understand, Harish Babu, that there are many other considerations besides our own wishes and ideas in this matter. We shall let you know of any further development.’ Standing up, he ushered the older man courteously out of his office.

It was Rathin’s habit to discuss the day’s happenings at work with his father in the evenings. He used the older man as a kind of sounding board, and valued his decades of experience in running this firm that had been set up by his, Rathin’s, great-grandfather. Through the generations, the firm had grown by leaps and bounds, till it was now one of the leaders in several fields of manufacturing and commerce.

Rathin was the only child of his parents, and had been regarded as the heir apparent to the office of CEO from a very young age. Like his father before him, he had been groomed to take over the mantle of leadership. In keeping with the changing needs of modern times, he had been educated at one of the best schools in the country, then a prestigious engineering college, after which he had been sent to an Ivy League college in the US for his MBA degree. He had done brilliantly in all his examinations. Gradually, over a period of several years, his father had passed on the reins of management to Rathin. And under him, the business was poised, now, to become a multinational. Yet, in spite of his degrees and training, Rathin found, many a time, when he was floundering in a confused maze, looking for a solution to a tricky problem, that his father’s words provided him with just the right clue to the correct solution.

That evening, however, while talking to his father over dinner, Rathin sounded emphatic. It was obvious that he had already made up his mind. ‘We shouldn’t have anything to do with Harish Babu, Father,’ he said.

The older man was surprised. ‘Why?’ he asked, but he was careful to keep his tone mild. ‘He has a reputation for dependability, honesty, and for manufacturing quality products. Besides, he’s a very experienced hand in this field. He’s built up his business over a lifetime, I hear. In fact, I’ve heard you extolling the virtues of his product many times. I thought you favoured him.’ He looked at his son, and asked, ‘You were scheduled to have the crucial meeting with him today. What went wrong, then?’

Rathin hesitated. ‘Dependability and experience are not everything,’ he said slowly. He looked up from his plate and said, ‘Father, you should see the number of precious stones he wears on his fingers!’

If the old man was surprised at this apparent change of subject, he did not show it. In any case, he knew that among his son’s many hobbies, the study of astrology ranked quite high. He had long ago ceased to be surprised at Rathin’s passion for astrology, even though he himself was indifferent to it. Still, he had wondered, many a time, how a young person who had been educated in the Western way, and, indeed, in the West itself, had become so well versed in the intricacies of this subject.

‘So?’ he asked patiently.

‘It seems every planet worth its name is against Harish Babu!’ blurted out Rathin. ‘He wears a large ruby on his left hand. This can only mean that his financial state is not nearly as solid as it’s made out to be. I suspect his health is bad, though I was taken in at the beginning of our meeting with his glowing appearance. How do I know it? Because he wears two corals on his fingers to propitiate Mars. He sports a large emerald, too. He’s most likely to be hypertensive, which is why he’s trying to keep Mercury happy.

‘That’s not all. His marriage is not what it seems. He’s got pearls and sapphires of many carats to keep the Moon and Saturn out of harm’s way. I may not be an expert in these matters, but, as you know, I do have some knowledge about the effects of planets on mortal beings. And as far as I can make out, he’s involved in some litigation. I saw a large cat’s eye bound in silver on his middle finger. And that’s only the beginning. His fingers are so thick with precious stones that it’s a wonder he’s not been mugged on the streets and relieved of them yet… The stones must cost a fortune!’

Pausing to chew on a mouthful of daal-rice, he continued, ‘I wish I had met him earlier on, while the negotiations were at the preliminary stage. I wouldn’t have allowed the discussions to continue to this level at all. Though our teams have been meeting regularly, he and I met only today, as you know. Still, it can’t be helped—we can’t have anything to do with Harish Babu. Father, that man’s a walking disaster! At any moment he may get a stroke, or get clapped into prison. He may even get divorced from his wife. At his age! Think of the scandal! Our company shouldn’t get involved with him. Not only will he sink, poor man, but all those adverse planets would drag us down as well, if we associate ourselves with him in any way. How can we defeat the combined forces and malefic effects of the Sun, Moon, and all the planets together?’

His father looked at Rathin, being careful to keep his expression as neutral as possible. Over the past few years, he had made it his policy to allow his son freedom in most business matters. Believing as he did, that experience was the best teacher, he allowed Rathin to make his own mistakes, so that he could learn from them. To be fair to his son, however, he had made very few business blunders so far. As for this matter of astrology—he himself didn’t believe in any of it. But he was the old guard, in the process of passing on the baton of leadership to his son…

The older man took a bunch of grapes from the table before him. He snipped off a luscious drop, the colour of perfect Chinese jade. Popping it into his mouth, he said thoughtfully, ‘You’re probably right.’

A few days later, Harish Babu got the news that the deal had fallen through. He was philosophical. ‘With so many planets stacked against me, what else can one expect? I’ll go this very evening to the jeweller’s shop again. Somebody recommended a garnet to me the other day…’

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