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Stories. 
The Price Tag
by Ramendra Kumar
Do you know what guru-dakshina is?” asked Kailash Chaddha, the class teacher of VIII A. He was a tall, well built man with thick, unruly hair, bushy eyebrows, a beak of a nose and a wide mouth.

Anup the class topper raised his hand.

“It is the present which a student gives his teacher for imparting knowledge to him.”

“Good. This was a very common practice in ancient times with even kingdoms being given away as guru-dakshina. In modern times too  there is an  occasion where you can practice this ancient value. Can you tell me what this occasion is?”

 This time Shahid, the class monitor, raised his hand.

“Teacher’s Day – the birthday of our country’s second president –  Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan.”

“Excellent Shahid. Teacher’s Day is on 5th September – that is tomorrow,” Chaddha grinned.

‘He looks like a wolf that has had its fill but wants more,’ Vishesh thought as the bell rang and Chaddha Sir walked out of the class.

“I have never seen such a greedy fellow in my life,” mumbled  Hari who shared the same bench with Vishesh.

“We should go to the Principal and complain,” Vishesh said.

“Are you crazy? Do you think any of the other guys will join us? We’ll get singled out and will have to face the music. You don’t know about Chaddha Sir. He was teaching at Saint Gregory’s before he joined our school  earlier this year. My cousin studies there. He was telling me Chaddha Sir can be very vindictive.”

“What gift are you planning to get him?” Vishesh asked.

“I haven’t thought about it. I’ll ask my dad. Believe me there will be a  keen competition in our class – with each guy trying to out do the other in buying a costlier gift.”

“This kind of thing makes me wild,” Vishesh said, gnashing his teeth.

***

Next day in the first period itself the gift giving ceremony started. Anup gave him a beautiful Parker Pen while Shahid presented him with a wallet. A few books, ties, belts, mobile stands, watches – there was a great deal of variety. With each gift  Chaddha Sir’s grin widened.

‘At this rate he’ll fracture his jaws,’ thought Vishesh.

Finally the ceremony was almost over. Only two students had not gone up to Chaddha Sir with the guru-dakshina – David who was absent and Vishesh.

Chaddha Sir turned his gaze on Vishesh.

“Yes, Vishesh, what have you brought for your favourite teacher?”

Vishesh got up and looking at Chaddha Sir straight in the eye said, “I did not bring anything Sir.”

Chaddha Sir got up and slowly lumbered towards Vishesh.

“You don’t believe in our heritage, our values. You have become that modern, is it?”

“I do believe in our cultural values Sir. The school fee we are paying is nothing but the guru-dakshina you are talking about. But what you are asking, almost demanding from us is a kind of bribe.”

“What did you say, you scoundrel,” Chaddha Sir’s face darkened. His bushy eyebrows formed a thick hairy line above his eyes. “You are accusing me, Kaliash Chaddha, of taking bribes?”

“Sir, do you really think any of my class mates is giving you these gifts out of respect for you. They are only doing it either out of fear or to please you. ”

“You rascal, I think I have been too kind and gentle with you. Boys like you don’t need words, they need blows.” Chaddha Sir raised his hand and whacked Vishesh on his head sending him crashing in to his desk.

“If your father is such a big miser that he can’t afford a gift worth a few rupees as a token of respect and gratitude  to you teacher,  why does he send you to a fancy school like this? He should put you a school run by a municipality.”

Vishesh steadied himself. His eyes were blazing and he spat out, “You have no right to call my father a miser. And anyway I am here on a scholarship.”

“I  thought as much. That means your father is too stingy to part with his money,” Chaddha  jeered.

“My father is dead and he was a far, far better human being than you can ever hope to be. He had pride and self respect and did not go around black mailing and forcing anyone for paltry gifts.”

“What did you say you scoundrel? You called me a black mailer,” Chaddha sprang forward and started  slapping  and hitting Vishesh  with uncontrolled fury.

Vishesh could take it no longer and pushed Chaddha with all his might. He lost his balance and fell back  on the desk. Vishesh picked up his school bag and ran out of the class. He crossed the school grounds and went straight home.

***

That evening Hari came home.

“Vishesh you are in real trouble yaar.”

“What happened after I left?” Vishesh asked, his heart beating wildly.

“When Chaddha Sir fell on the desk,  his head hit the edge. There was a gash and he was taken to the school dispensary. He created a lot of drama and went to the Principal Sir. From what I gathered later, he told the Principal Sir that when he had questioned you, you  had been rude. He had then shouted at you and you had insulted him. He had lost his temper and pulled your ears. You had then pushed him violently and run out of the class.”

“What nonsense! You know Hari all this is  pack of lies. You were there in the class, you saw what happened.”

“I know Vishesh, but Principal Sir, didn’t call me. He called Anup and  Shahid and those two chamchas  repeated exactly what Chaddha Sir had said.

“Then I am in a real soup.”

“Yes, yaar,” Hari nodded gloomily. “There is a rumor that they are chucking you out of the school on disciplinary grounds.”

“B…but Hari, that is absurd. They can’t do this to me for no fault of mine. And moreover this is the middle of the session I will not get admission anywhere else. And what about my scholarship……” Vishesh was shaking with rage and frustration.

“I’ll go and meet Principal Sir. I am sure he’ll see reason when I explain things to him.”

“It’s no use Vishesh. I came to know today that Chaddha Sir’s Uncle is the Chairman of our School’s Governing Council. No one is going to listen to you.”

***

Kailash Chaddha was sitting in the Principal’s office of Navjyoti High School. Today he had completed two years as the Principal and he was quite happy with himself. He had built a two bed room house in a decent locality of the city, drove a Maruti Zen and went for his annual holiday to a hill station. He had managed to get his wife  a job as a music teacher in the same school and his only son was studying Mechanical Engineering in a Private Engineering College. After his son failed to get admission on merit Chaddha had paid a hefty donation and got him a seat in the branch of his choice.

There was a gentle knock on the door.

“Come in,” snapped Chaddha. He didn’t like to be disturbed when he was sitting in his office planning new schemes for making money.

A young man of around thirty years entered. He was tall, slim with wavy hair a sharp nose and probing eyes.

“I am not in mood to see book sellers or their agents. Come sometime next week, Chaddha said, waving his hand in dismissal.

“Mr. Chaddha I am Khanna, the Inspector of Schools,” the young man handed the Principal his visiting card.

Chaddha’s eyebrows shot up almost disappearing into his hairline. He jumped to his feet.

“S…sorry Inspector saab, I thought it was one of those pesky booksellers. Please take a seat. And tell me what can I do for you?”

“I have come to have a look at your school.”

“B…but Mr. Khanna how come there was no advance intimation of your coming? I would have kept everything in readiness for you.”

“Doesn’t matter Mr. Chaddha, I like to see things as they normally are,” Khanna smiled. His smile was  warm and pleasant but did not reach  his eyes.  The inspector’s gaze  never left Chaddha’s face making him shift uneasily.

“Yes, yes, but first won’t you have something – tea, coffee, cold drink….”

Khanna raised his hand.

“Don’t trouble yourself. Just ask your secretary to show me around.”

***

‘Khanna seemed quite a pleasant fellow – a bit too young perhaps for an Inspector of schools – but otherwise a decent sort. He would be able to handle him quite easily’, thought Chaddha.

At around one Khanna appeared with Chaddha’s  Secretary John Kutty in tow.

Khanna handed Chaddha a paper.

“Mr. Chaddha, on this paper I have written down a few queries. I would be grateful if you could get me the answers along with relevant documents,  By four this afternoon,” with these words Khanna turned and left the room.

Chaddha scanned through the list quickly and then slumped in the chair, the color draining from his face.

“What is it sir? Anything serious?”

“No, nothing serious. Khanna was merely asking me the price of cabbages in Kalahandi!” Chaddha snapped and then glaring at Kutty continued, “This Khanna fellow is turning out to be a nuisance. He is smart and very shrewd. I could make this out from his eyes. In the two hours he spent in going through our records he has learnt quite a bit about the way we work?”

“What does he want to know boss?”

“He wants information about the purchase of lab equipment and air conditioners last June, the computerization project, the expenditure incurred on the extension of the rear wing of our school etc, etc.”

“B…but sir, if you give him the details and show him the documents won’t he come to know everything?”

“Of course he will. There is no question of showing him anything. I’ll handle him myself.”

“How boss? He looks a very strict fellow. You might find it difficult to soften him up.”

Chaddha’s response was a wolfish grin.

“You mean to say I can’t bribe him. He is too honest for that! Listen Kutty I  have learnt one thing in my life. Every one has  a price tag. We only have to estimate correctly.

***

Sharp at four Kutty led Khanna inside. He sat down and smiled.

“Yes, Mr. Chaddha, I hope you have the answers and the supporting documents ready for me.”

“Yes, yes,” Chaddha said handing over a bulky file to Khanna.

Khanna untied the ribbon around the file and opened it. Inside there were no papers – only bundles of hundred rupee notes neatly stacked and spread.

“What’s this?”

“An answer to all your questions,” Chaddha said with a smile that was more a smirk.

“Are you trying to bribe me?”

“No, no, my God Mr. Khanna I wouldn’t  dream of doing anything of that sort. That would be demeaning you as well as myself. This is just a small gift of fifty thousand rupees.”

“A gift!”

“Okay if you prefer, we can term it your  consultation fees?”

“What do you mean by my consultation fees?”

“Mr. Khanna as both of us know there are a lot of wrinkles in my records. With your expertise I can iron out those wrinkles. This fees is a simply a token amount in recognition of the efforts you are going to put in.”

“I see. And if I refuse to take this gift or consultation fee as you put it?

“But why would any one shut the door on the face of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth? Of course, if you feel the gift is not up to your standards I can add five or even ten thousand more.”

Khanna closed the file and walked up to the door. He then opened it and quietly said, “Come in please.”

A short, balding man with the shoulders of a professional boxer entered.

“Mr. Chaddha I am Sartaj Mohammad from the anti-corruption bureau and you are under arrest.

“I…..I…” Chaddha sprang forward to seize the file. But before he could even touch it Sartaj showing exceptional agility picked it up.”

“You….you have no proof.” Chaddha looked from one to the other like a trapped animal.

Khanna removed  a small object, which looked like a diary from his pocket.

“This is a tape recorder – a very sensitive one. It belongs to my friend Sartaj. I have our little conversation taped here.”

“Kutty, your partner in progress,  has already confessed to me,” Sartaj added.

“So you see Mr. Chaddha your goose is cooked nice and tender,” Khanna said his eyes reflecting contempt.

Chaddha collapsed in his chair, his face crumpling.

“Please let me go. My career will be ruined. My entire life will become a mess. Please, I beg you. I’ll give you five times the amount I offered earlier – much, much more than either of you can earn in a year.”

Khanna smiled, “Mr. Chaddha, you feel everyone has a price tag don’t you? But you are wrong. There are some people like Sartaj and I who do not have one. We are not for sale.”

Khanna looked at Sartaj and continued, “You know Sartaj Mr. Chaddha or should I call him Chaddha Sir, and I are old friends. He was desperate that I offer him his guru-dakshina. And when I refused he bashed me up and got me expelled on trumped up charges. Isn’t it true Chaddha sir?”

“You…you…are…”

“Yes, I am Vishesh Khanna. After you had me thrown out I couldn’t get admission  anywhere else. I worked in a bakery during the day and studied during the night. I appeared my class ten exam as a private candidate. After clearing it I continued with my studies and well as the job in the bakery. I did my graduation and joined the government service. And as you can see here I am today at your service.”

Khanna got up. Chaddha was still sitting in the chair staring goggle eyed at him.

“And Chaddha Sir, the trap that I set for you and in which you so conveniently fell is my guru-dakshina for you. I know it has come late but I am sure you will remember it for a long, long time.” With these words Vishesh nodded to Sartaj and walked out leaving behind an ashen faced Chaddha who looked as if he had seen a ghost.

Image under license with Gettyimages.com

19-Jan-2009
 
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