(From Window Seat: Rush Hour Stories from the City)

When I look back I see one household morph into the other –
   Smiling joint families fade into grim bachelors who dissolve to old mother-daughter couples and domestics ordered to show prospective buyers around the master’s house. Empty apartments merge with overcrowded rooms and wooden benches run into leopard print sofas. Orange kitchens melt into pink-tiled bathrooms, marble flooring turns to mottled grey-green mosaic.
     We had seen close to a hundred apartments.
Mr. Pinto, the real estate agent said we were displaying signs of ‘Confused Property Buyer’s Syndrome’. Stay home, go on holiday, meet some friends, then come apartment hunting with me, he advised as he handed us his business card. Or at least look at pictures of flowers and babies – it will clear your mind, make it a clean slate, a blank wall, he said. And you’ll be ready to go flat hunting once again. It’s like smelling coffee beans when buying perfume.
    My husband and I were ‘townies’ or typical South Bombay residents to whom anything beyond Worli was a blur called the ‘burbs. Until marriage and increasing rent transformed us into creatures who pored over property ads on weekends and whose social life was eventually confined to empty apartments and that magical breed called real estate agents. 
   We had stumbled upon his number during our latest weekend pursuit. It was in the property supplement of a trashy newspaper that we had read,

Why run helter-skelter when we can get you shelter?
Good deals, great rates!
Call Jude Housing – 9869001414.
Bandra/ Khar/ Santacruz (E/W).
1, 2, 3 BHK Flats/ Offices/ Outright/ Rental.

  Jude Housing Agency. Since 1969 – read his white calling card with a cherub on the top right hand corner embossed in blue.
Why Jude, we asked. Named after my father, he replied. He’s the reason I’m in the business. Got cheated by a builder and I had to help him out of the mess. Decided to stay on.
      We resumed our quest after the suggested break.
     We were proudly shown around what resembled a gangster’s den or an aspiring dance bar owner’s paradise. Chandeliers swung from ornate false ceilings and velvet drapes clung to ostentatious maroon walls. Cheap paintings framed in gold and a statue of a Rubenesque woman in white plaster of Paris danced alongside twisted pillars adorned with fake flowers and plastic ivy.
The family’s emigrating and the apartment comes with wall-to-wall carpet, super-sized cupboards and electronic items including a Plasma TV, he informed us. It’s a wonder they’re not providing people along with it as well, Mr. Pinto chuckled. 
     The owner smiled patronizingly. Two crores, all-inclusive except for that lady’s statue. Sentimental value, he said.
     Look, Mr. Pinto, explained my husband when were out of earshot, this is not our style.
    I know, he grinned. But sometimes, it helps to begin the search with the worst option.
     Like most real estate agents, Mr. Pinto was a talkative man. Not the young, smooth wheeler-dealer type who speaks into his hands-free mobile every minute he isn’t conversing with you. On the contrary he was an elderly gentleman with dark glasses resting on a thick crop of hair dyed jet black, who sometimes needed help when calling from his new mobile phone.
    Gifted by my daughter who’s settled in Dubai, he would say apologetically. I’m yet to get acquainted with its features. And then, he would go on to network, in his old-fashioned way:  Prakashbhai, I have a new buyer. Young couple, no issues. Looking for a 2 BHK in the area – he would inform owners and other agents even as he cautioned us not to show too much interest lest they ‘jack the rate’.  
      In fact, so incessant were his conversations that it often seemed as though he was talking to himself, his life an endless soliloquy as he rode his shiny green scooter or trundled up the stairs of strange new buildings, narrating his experiences with builders, agents, apartment owners.
    Sharing with us his stories of strange homes and their even stranger occupants:

See that building there? Owned by dreaded gangster Bada Babu. He bought over the residents in the area with just one lakh each, can you believe it? Today, each flat here costs nothing less than five crores. The residents gave away their little wadis and cottages for a pittance. And quite willingly, mind you.  Bada Babu had a bada strategy. Asked his men to deliver the money in wads of ten-rupee notes. That day there were thousands of suitcases brimming with money said Mr. Pinto. All brought in a Mercedes Benz. The simple wadi folk hesitantly accepted the suitcases. Count the money, Bada Babu’s man said to them, magnanimously. They counted their newly acquired wealth with trembling fingers. So many fresh, crisp notes. Took them a couple of hours, I tell you. Bada Babu had arranged for snacks and drinks. They had never seen this sheer volume of money in their lives. Thought they had hit a jackpot, when all they had was several wads of ten- rupee notes. We Catholics, I tell you. We are fools.
   It’s a shame that the old cottages and gaothans are disappearing, said my husband.
   What rubbish, said Mr. Pinto. If people want to live in gaothans, let them go back to their gaon, he said vehemently. Coming to the city and blocking space, these buggers.
     Just as he got to the bit where Bada Babu bumped off a fellow broker, we entered the third floor apartment of the neighbouring building.

As we took off our shoes to inspect the place, the elderly mother of the owner offered us a glass of water.  The kitchen has a sea view, she said. We peered over the dal-stained gas burner only to be met with the full frontal view of a man defecating on the rocks. A path lined with hutments and garbage piles led to the dirty creek that lent the area a dour odour reminiscent of a smelly fart. We thanked them for their time on a Sunday afternoon and made a hasty exit.
     All the hutments and rubbish will go, assured Mr. Pinto. The area right up to the creek has been bought over by Suresh Builders. The new flyover will soon be constructed and there’s a metro station planned nearby.
      So, why do they want to sell? we asked.
      The old lady has arthritis, finds it difficult to climb three floors. Mother and son. The father died a few years ago. They say the boy is gay, he whispered, looking over his shoulder as he shared the neighbourhood gossip. His mother is sick of him sitting locked up in his room with strange men on weekends. They say he was married once but that the marriage was never consummated. The girl filed for divorce when she caught him in bed with another man, and milked him dry with alimony. I don’t know how you young people deal with all these new anxieties. Life was simpler in our time. Tough, but simple, mind you, he wagged a finger at us.
We gazed at the newly constructed buildings in the vicinity while Mr. Pinto waved to a young man on a motorbike and at an elderly woman bargaining busily with the local vegetable vendor. The motorcyclist screeched to a halt and greeted him cheerily. The two were absorbed in hushed conversation before the man gave us a friendly smile and zoomed off. An old client, we were informed. If I tell you how much I got him his current flat for, your eyes will pop out, said Mr. Pinto proudly. Two-bedroom with terrace for fifty lakhs. Only three years ago. He wants to sell it for three crores today.
  Mr. Pinto caught us eyeing a particularly pleasing building. He smiled, Tip-top apartments, sparkling new. I know the builder personally – want to meet him? He offered to introduce us to his builder friend although the apartments were far beyond our budget.
    We were introduced to the builder’s son, Suresh, after whom the company was predictably named. Dad’s out of town, said the cordial young man, and asked his assistant to show us a vacant flat. An Italian floor with a state-of-the-art kitchen, just as the brochure described. A balcony that overlooked the neighbour’s kitchen and a bathroom that enjoyed a luxurious bathtub. Unused flat, sir, brand new, announced the assistant. Although the packets of condoms and cigarettes that were discreetly kicked behind the door, told another story.
     On our way out, Mr. Pinto thumped the boy on his back, telling us fondly that this bright young man had an even brighter future. His father and I were classmates in school – langoti yaar. We’ve stolen guavas from the gardens of the same cottages that he’s turned into buildings today, he said as the boy smiled politely.
     His father was saved by a whisker last year, we were informed as soon as we stepped out of the office. Got calls from Chota Vakeel or Fakeel or whatever he’s called, said Mr. Pinto. Extortion demands and death threats. Went and got himself a gun for protection. A Beretta .92 pistol. A gleaming black and silver beauty that would put Naomi Campbell to shame. And then, his son decided to show it off to a friend. Accidentally pulled the trigger. Bugger would have killed his father on the spot. Luckily, the old man had just had his lunch of kadi-chawal. He should thank his wife for having saved his life. The meal was so heavy that he dozed off and rested his head on the table. The bullet whizzed past the top of his head. If he had been sitting in the upright position, he would have been a goner.  In his case, the saying couldn’t be truer. Wife is life, guffawed Mr. Pinto.
      Anyway, when the family had sufficiently recovered from this shock, he asked his assistant to record the threatening phone conversations so they could hand over the tapes to the police. Son accidentally taped some love songs over it for his girlfriend. So the cops listened to two hours of love songs, he cackled.
      But the cops handled it well, eventually. We have to give it to the paandus.
       Alright, so we will meet next weekend, Mr. Pinto ended the conversation abruptly. I have some beautiful flats lined up for you, he promised as he mounted his scooter and disappeared into a mist of pollution and concrete.
Over time, as our search intensified, we got to know each other better. The apartments too seemed to get better with time. Mr. Pinto, we discovered, was a seasoned veteran in these parts of the town. I started out on a bicycle, he told us emotionally. Forget it, Peter, the other brokers told me. Tried so hard to dissuade me. This line is not for you, they said. But I held on – I’ve stayed in this business longer than any of them.

    Not only did we discover that Mr. Pinto, as he had introduced himself to us, also had a first name, we knew now that he had three sons and a daughter – all of whom lived abroad. They want their father out of their hair, he laughed. All well settled, he told us proudly. Youngest is in Dubai and the others in the States, Canada and Australia. All in different corners of the world. Who will look after my property, God alone knows, he grumbled.
    Mr. Pinto’s building had just been considered for redevelopment and he was to have a four bedroom flat by Christmas. It’s my Christmas gift, he said. And he continued to lead us to apartments like a schoolteacher leading her schoolchildren to class. From one shiny floor to another. From rusting balcony grilles to leaky walls. From March to July, August to December. 
     He paid us a surprise visit one day and discovered our artistic side. I’m scared to show you any flats now, he joked. You creative people are a difficult lot to please. We were now shown around more tastefully designed apartments. As we stumbled, bleary-eyed one Sunday morning, into what used to be a filmmaker’s home office, Mr. Pinto shook his head. Working late last night or partying? Really, you creative people have a crazy lifestyle.
    We were told that the filmmaker had made his first film. And his first crore. He’s buying a larger office in the vicinity, said Mr. Pinto. It was a nice enough apartment. A mosaic terrace yawned over a forgotten park. There were little alcoves in which I could imagine flickering candles. However, it was a trifle small.
    So what do you think? asked Mr. Pinto.
    We voiced our concerns.
     It’s a superb flat. But up to you, of course. If I had the money, I’d invest in it with my eyes closed and lease it out, he said. There are enough models and airhostesses who would kill for this. And throw parties on the terrace.
   I think I should get some pretty models and airhostesses as paying guests once I have my large four-bedroom apartment, he joked as we left the apartment. Even my wife will be away.

We soon knew all there was to know about Mr. Pinto. We discovered that he still cycled around the area every morning, for fitness and for old times’ sake. That he bought fish on his way back and was waiting for his wife to return from Canada so she could make him some Goan fish curry and rice. He met his clients in the mornings and evenings. Afternoons were strictly for susegaad – the Goan state of inactivity. And like any true blue Goan he liked his peg of rum at night. 
     We found ourselves exchanging recipes with Mr. Pinto and he invited himself over for dinner a few times. Complaining that Chung Fa made the lousiest Chinese food ever. Or that Indian Tandoor made the worst tandoori chicken in the world.  There was nothing like home-cooked food, he said, as he belched appreciatively by the washbasin. Can’t wait for my wife to return, he said. He awaited the completion of his building just as eagerly as his wife’s return. And he couldn’t stop talking about it every time we met. We fuelled his excitement whenever we enquired about its progress and were subjected to various lengthy details: ‘The angles have gone up today’, ‘The beams are up now’, ‘Would you go with vitrified tiles or ceramic?’, ‘Ordinary doorways or arches?’, ‘The white cement has been applied’, ‘The painting has begun!’
In the meanwhile, we had shortlisted a few apartments that we had liked and initiated discussions with their owners. In the process, we had met a son out to usurp his mother’s property, a couple desperate to sell an apartment that had been locked since their three- year-old fell off its balcony, a young woman hoping to make hay while the sun shone, but without the required property papers in hand.
   And Mr. Pinto urging us to quicken our pace or the suburbs would leave us behind.
     How can I buy my family their Christmas presents unless you give me mine, he joked. Reminding us of the brokerage fees that were due to him.  He had planned a surprise Christmas party for his wife and relatives. After midnight mass, of course. With a large and magnificent Christmas tree that would put any Canadian Christmas tree to shame.
   I’ve asked my wife to persuade my son and his family to come down with her as well. I haven’t met my grandchildren in six years, he said. Now there’s enough space for them to play chor-police around the house.
     We helped him plan his party. We organized cheap alcohol for him with help from our friends in the navy and helped choose a menu befitting a Goan party. What’s a party without feni and Pork sorpotel, he laughed. And we downloaded the music of his choice from the internet so he could play it on the new CD player he had got his wife as a Christmas gift. Harry Belafonte and Pat Boon. Engelbert Humperdinck and the Beach Boys. And some good old-fashioned carols by Elvis Presley.
    In return, I asked for Christmas sweets - marzipan and marshmallows.
Eventually, we found our dream home. Not as grand as the one we had envisaged but a pleasant one, nonetheless. It was as tastefully constructed as any building could be in this city, and although the apartment was a wee bit smaller than what we had imagined, it was airy. And I knew we would make it look beautiful. The day we concluded our deal with the previous owner, was the day Mr. Pinto’s new four-bedroom apartment was ready.
    It was the week before Christmas.
    It’s a happy day for all of us, we said to Mr. Pinto as we handed him his fees and thanked him for his services.  Don’t forget to invite us to your party, we teased him. That’s when he told us quietly, that he was going to be alone that Christmas: My son no, always busy. Works too hard, the bugger. Can’t come because of work, and my wife has decided to stay on with him in Canada. I’ve cancelled the party.
    That night, with the keys of our new home in hand, we escorted him home.

    It was a brightly coloured building that exuded a comforting warmth in that rare Bombay winter. A salute by the old security guard brought a smile to Mr. Pinto’s face. We entered the newly arched doorway of his dimly lit home. Pink walls and a red Christmas star lamp gave the bare living room a soft, crimson glow. Between two maroon sofas stood a resplendent Christmas tree adorned with golden baubles and red ribbons. Tiny stars of gold and silver tinsel shone through its pine-green needles. A nativity scene had been carefully arranged on the side, alongside a Santa with reindeer. Five Christmas presents, neatly wrapped, lay at the foot of the conifer. The speakers lay in unopened cartons that had been too tedious to wrap. Fairy lights twinkled on newly powder-coated arched iron grills, like tiny snowflakes in the dark.
    Mr. Pinto showed us around the house like a proud grandfather who had just been asked about his grandchildren. Not seeming to care that the elegant marble floor looked awkward with the old mica-covered dining table and steel cupboards. Or that three of the four bedrooms were unfurnished and bare. Somewhere in the building Elvis was crooning Silent Night.
    We shared his happiness and insisted that it called for a celebration. A double celebration. That night, Mr. Pinto had his nightcap at our place. We chatted late into the night, discussing property and politics, Goa and Dubai, cricket and football. He returned home only when we asked him to spend the night in our spare room.
    We hosted our housewarming party on Christmas Eve. Our guests were offered the cheap navy alcohol and Goan food arranged for Mr. Pinto’s party. We played Harry Belafonte and Pat Boon, Engelbert Humperdinck and the Beach Boys. On the CD player gifted to us by Mr. Pinto, along with a man’s leather jacket, a woman’s woollen shawl and two little toy cars.
    When Mr. Pinto arrived, just in time for dinner after midnight mass, he was carrying the Christmas tree.





© Janhavi Stories 2009