Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Waking Up The Neighbours
Waking Up The Neighbours
A fabulous tale by Danny l. Travasso
Domnic Fernandes, a dusky-complexioned Goan in his early forties, maneuvered the tray past the curtain of shells and entered his living room. His guest, Mr. Rao, looked up with a smile from the couch he was stationed on. "Horribly warm, isn't it?" he ventured. "Goa usually is, this time of the year." remarked Domnic, setting the two Cokes on the table.
"Even though I've been working in the Gulf for almost 16 years, I sometimes get taken aback at how hot this place can get." "So," Rao took his glass. "your family is in Dubai currently?" Domnic sat with his Coke. "They've more or less settled down there. My missus is a nurse, so getting leave is a bit of a hassle for her, and the kids are both in school, so this year I decided to make the trip to Goa alone. Besides this old house, we have a large property out in Betul; lots of coconuts and cashews. And since I'm the only one left since my mother passed away last year, it's all in my hands now." He took a sip, and picked up Rao's business card from the table top. "So you're into real estate?"
Rao put down his glass, nodding. Time to get down to business. "I'm a director for KLM Constructions. Since you haven't been around, you might not have heard about us. But you can make enquiries; you'll hear that we're a medium-sized firm who deals with community projects mainly in and around Aquem and Davorlim. My job is basically that of a scout, you could say. Judging from the recent news of an upswing in Mumbai real estate, we're anticipating a corresponding rise in prices this side too, and planning accordingly, our intentions are to have as many completed projects available to put on the market as possible within the next twelve months. So, I've been going around this area, looking for properties which fit our criteria. Yours is one such, which is why I've dropped in on you today." He took out a file from his briefcase. "In your case, taking into the account the area of your plot... here, this is the house we're in: a single floor edifice of old Portuguese-era construction. As per regulations, we could knock this house down and in its place put up a three-storey building, containing 6 double-bedroom flats and 6 shops. You stand to get a flat and 2 shops, each 14m2 in area, not facing the road. The project would be ready within a year. You needn't even be here; everything would be handled by us." He closed the file and slipped it back into his case. "There is, however, one small problem, something that we cannot help. Bank lending rates are expected to go up shortly, and in the sums that we borrow, that means a lot more interest that we have to end up paying them; so, our policy is to take out a loan before this happens, maybe even within a few days from now. Having taken the money, we can't sit around with it, we have to put it to use. So, time being of the essense, I cannot afford to give potential clients the luxury of unlimited time to think this over. You'll notice that I haven't asked your opinion, not even whether you're interested; we believe it's not right to apply pressure. The decision has to be yours. So I'll simply leave it at this: if I don't hear from you within 10 days, I'll assume that you won't or can't do business with me; needless to say, you will never see me again." He clipped his mobile phone to his belt and got up.
Domnic looked thoughtful. "I am interested. It would be nice to have a flat to stay when ever we come down on vacation, something that's easy to maintain, and a shop would be good too in the long run. But, I have a problem." He got up. "Come, I'll show you." He led the way through the kitchen and stopped at the exterior doorway. He pointed. Rao looked, and his shoulders slumped in dismay. "Tenants."
Domnic nodded gravely. "The chawl has four sections, each with a family. My grandfather built it, for some extra income I suppose, and they've been here ever since." Rao sighed. "This is a matter you'll have to deal with on your own, I'm afraid. Our proposed building on this site is a small one; we can't afford to hand each family one flat or shop. And that chawl will have to go, if we are to observe the 3-meter gap between building and compound wall."
Domnic nodded again. "No damn way I'm going to be able to evict them; these people know their rights." Rao looked sympathetic. "I understand. There's no harm trying though; but I'd advise you to make no mention that a builder is interested in the plot. Tenants can be parasites." He stepped out into the open and held out his hand. "Nice talking to you, Mr. Fernandes. And good luck." Domnic shook his hand. "How do I get in touch with you?" Rao snapped his fingers. "Of course!" He pulled out another card, and scribbled a number on the back. "This is my mobile number. I really hope we can do business together." He smiled. "It's been a pleasure..."
"Rao? Yeah, I've met him. KLM Constructions, right?"
Domnic was at his cousin's place, and an after-dinner smoking session in progress. "He's made me a decent offer. Came home this morning, around ten, made his proposal; I'll receive a flat and 2 off-the-road shops."
"Push for a shop on the road. KLM's got a good rep; they mainly take up projects in Aquem."
Domnic sighed. "Road-side or off-road, it won't make a bloody difference, thanks to my grandfather's tenants. I spoke to them this afternoon. They all say the same thing: they don't mind pushing off - none of them are from Goa anyway - but they want money to vacate. I don't have any proper leave-and-license papers, bless you grandpa, and I can't afford to drag this matter into court. This offer is time-bound."
"How much are they asking?"
"The price of the flat that they will obviously be giving up." said Domnic flatly. "For one tenant, that might be reasonable, but for four of them..." His cousin winced. He lit another cigarette and stared out into the night. "I have a friend. He once got rid of a tenant of mine through pure trickery. No one got hurt or offended, and it didn't cost me more than a couple of thousand, and that was to cover his expenses. His name's Daniel; I wonder if he might be able to help you..."
Daniel struck at exactly 1 in the morning. The advantage, he later told Domnic, was not just psychological, but also because there was less chance of interference from external elements at such an hour.
He came, with four friends, in uniforms that looked stunningly similar to the ones Goan policemen wear, and in a jeep marked POLICE on both flanks.
He stopped outside the chawl and honked once. His 'officers' got out. From the back, two labourers emerged, bringing some tools.
The doors of the chawl began opening, one by one, and frightened faces were peering out as lights came on inside. Daniel strode to the first door. "I'm Inspector D'Souza. We are here on a criminal investigation and have reason to suspect that a body may lie buried beneath the floors of one of these tenements. Step aside." His men crowded in with him, and he issued instructions to them: "Start taking name of all the tenants. Photograph the floors of all rooms before we dig it up." By this time, all 12 tenants had been roused and were listening, mouths agape and aghast, to Daniel. His men began complying, pulling out notepads, pens and a camera. Daniel indicated the main room of the first tenement to the labourers. "Start digging here. If we find nothing, move to the next room, and so on, till we find the skeleton." So complete was their subjugation that no one even thought of objecting. The duo attacked the clay floor with pick-axes.
By 1.50 am, the labourers had reached the bedroom of the last tenement. The tenants themselves were huddled together in one of the other rooms. Even the children were silent, as if aware of the precariousness of their situation.
The labourers 'found' the bones almost at the stroke of 2, and alerted the 'cops' with a shout. Daniel, impatiently awaiting the signal, rushed into the room, and in his haste, roughly brushed aside one of the male tenants who hit a bench and toppled backward with a cry. Daniel did not look back.
His men began photographing the bones which one of the labourers had planted in the pit only moments ago. Aware that the tenants had followed him, Daniel climbed down inside and with latex gloves, picked up a skull.
He examined it closely. "This man was murdered." He declared, and looked at the tenants. "This has now officially become a murder case, and all of you are suspects. We will return here at 10 am to interrogate you. Keep all your documents ready for inspection and verification. Needless to say, none of you are permitted to report for work or to leave the premises tomorrow till we arrive."
Ten minutes later, the 'cops' were gone.
Daniel phoned Domnic before 10 next morning. "What's the situation like?"
"The good news is that 3 families have given notice and vacated the premises; you really put the fear of God into them with that murder-story. The bad news is that one of the tenants, Mr. Shah had broken a leg after you pushed him last night." He heard Daniel swear. "He stays with his wife, and after you left, she came here, begging me to find a rickshaw to take them to the hospital, which I did.
"They got back around 8. The x-rays show a fracture, and they've applied a plaster cast around his left leg. He looks like hell. She says the doctor wanted him to get admitted, but they don't have enough money for the bills."
Daniel sounded worried. "I remember pushing him aside. Damn, why was I so rough? He's an old man; I should have realized his reflexes would be slow.
Did I really push him that hard?"
"Like you said, he's an old man, and old men have brittle bones. It doesn't take much to cause a crack. Anyway, the doctor says he has to take bed-rest for the next couple of weeks. Shah has no choice but to stay now, and I need to close this deal in 10 days. I don't have weeks."
"Doesn't he have any family? Sons or daughters?"
"His whole family is up North, Orissa or someplace. Mrs. Shah looks so scared, poor thing; she expects the cops to come, and even if she wants to pack up and run North she can't because of her husband's leg." He made an angry noise. "What a unique situation: I've got tenants who are probably ready to vacate unconditionally but aren't because of an injury."
"What if you get a vacate-notice from him, and then put him in a hospital, at your cost?"
Domnic pursed his lips. "What the hell, anything's worth a try!"
Mrs. Shah opened the door when he knocked, and she stepped aside so he could come in. He could see that she had been crying. Turning, he saw Mr. Shah lying down on the bed. He looked at Domnic silently, a sixty year old man who life had done a great wrong to. Domnic decided to get directly to the point. "Mr. Shah, you shouldn't be here, lying about in a place where there is no expert medical care available. I realize you have some financial troubles," he paused. "If I were to pay for your medical bills, would you go to a hospital?"
His wife looked at Shah, who sat up. "That is very kind of you, my son.
Would you really do that for us?"
Domnic looked uncomfortable. "Uh, in return for this uh, service, I ask only that you give me due and proper Notice of vacating the premises. Once that is done, I'll get a van here and we'll transfer you out immediately to a good nursing home."
Shah looked troubled. "But most of my friends say that it is foolish for any tenant to leave the premises without getting some compensation, if not some new premises, then a sum of money. Maybe you can make us an offer.
With the money you give to us, we would easily be able to cover my medical bills."
Domnic looked surprised. He hadn't expected Shah to be so quick on his feet. Perhaps this would not be so easy as he'd thought. "What you say has some merit." he admitted. "How much money are you thinking about?"
"What would a new flat constructed on these premises be worth? After all, that is what we would be giving up, is it not? Two-thirds that amount would be fair." He mentioned a figure.
Domnic exhaled slowly. "That's a lot of money."
"It is. But you have to look at it this way: is it worth paying me that amount in order to get this problem out of your way once and for all? Or would it be money wasted?"
That's what it did boil down to, realized Domnic. If Shah took the money and scooted, the project could go ahead, and he would get a flat and two shops. For that, he would have to shell out several lakhs. If he refused, and Shah stayed put, the deal could go cold simply because the deadline expired. Shah seemed a shrewd man. He made up his mind. "Okay. I'll phone my bank manager and take a loan against my FDs. I'll ask him to keep the cash ready in his branch cabin. We'll go there together to collect it, and there, with him as witness, you sign the Vacate-Notice."
Shah nodded. "That sounds fair. I'll start writing the Notice. You call the manager."
Domnic stepped out of the house and stopped, shocked. Shah was walking toward him agilely. There was no sign of any plaster. "What-" began Domnic, but Shah held out a hand to silence him. "Please, Domnic, Mr. Fernandes: I think you should hear what I have to say first." His expression was one of regret, as though this were a task he would rather not be performing. "I was faking, there is no fracture. My wife took me to a private hospital and we paid a doctor to apply the cast over my leg. You're no doubt wondering why I did this." He shrugged. "I had always realised that one day we would have to leave this place, that you would think in terms of developing it.
It has been my wish to finally return to my native place, but I was determined to get something, some financial remuneration in order to give this chawl up to you. Is it greed? Perhaps, yes just a little. But then, I looked at what you would be getting if you built flats here, and I told myself that you would be able to afford it.
"Then, yesterday, you came around asking us if we would vacate. The same night, at 1 in the morning, some policemen come, with a story of a body buried. It was too much of a coincidence to be true. I told my wife that somehow you had hired the policemen to get rid of us so that you wouldn't have to pay. She was scared, and so was I. If you were ready to involve the police, who knew what scare-tactics they might be willing to use to get us out? I wanted out, but a part of me was still determined to get something out of you.
"So I came up with this scheme to make it look like I could not vacate the premises. The idea that a cop was responsible for my injury seemed to be a bonus; I thought they would hesitate to be rough if they thought they were responsible for my fracture." He shrugged again. "I apologise; I deceived you and your sentiments must have been hurt. But before you erupt in anger, and renege on this deal, let me remind you to look at it this way: nothing else has changed. If you let your anger cloud your emotions and call this off, I will have no choice but to stay in my room, and I will phone all the other tenants and tell them how you were responsible for hounding them off the premises. I imagine that might create some problems for you. This way, however, you end up paying only me, following which the chawl becomes yours. I keep my mouth shut and go home." He crossed his arms. "Your call, Mr. Fernandes."
For a long moment, Domnic stared at him, then said gruffly: "Come on, let's go to the bank; the manager's waiting."
The formalities were complete soon, and Shah took possession of the bundles of money, and he signed the Notice which was witnessed by two officers of the bank staff. Domnic studied the document stiffly. It had cost him, this sheet of paper. He hoped it was worth it. Shah stood up. "I'll be leaving."
Domnic got up, and together they left the bank. Outside, a taxi van was waiting for Shah. Mrs Shah was at the back. She looked remarkably composed for a woman who had been weeping her eyes out not even an hour ago. Domnic shook his head ruefully; taken in by an elderly couple. She handed Shah a key. He gave it to Domnic, who looked surprised. "Already packed?" Shah nodded, then got into the van and slid the door shut. "Goodbye, Mr. Fernandes."
When Domnic returned home, he found his cousin and Daniel waiting there, standing near his verandah. "Hi, what are you guys doing here?" Daniel shrugged. "I came to see if I could help. I feel bad about that old man's leg."
Domnic chuckled. "Don't. Nothing's wrong with his leg. He fooled us both." He went on to explain. They both looked stumped. "What a schemer!" His cousin exclaimed.
"No bigger than Daniel." pointed out Domnic.
"So you paid him in the end, huh."
"I can't help feeling a little bad about that because if he hadn't been so smart, I could have simply scared him off without shelling out anything at all."
"Still, better you pay one than all four. Think of how much you'd have had to have shelled out if all four of them had been there. I'd say you got off lightly, Domnic. Now, you can go ahead and call Rao."
Domnic nodded. He held up Shah's key. "I'll just make sure the power and tap are both turned off." All three of them headed for the chawl. They went through the other three tenements, then entered Shah's.
Like the others, the ground was still a mess, with dirt piled in one corner. Domnic stepped passed the pit, checked that the tap was off and the back door shut, then turned to leave.
"Left this behind." It was Daniel. He was holding something. "Family photo; guess they won't be needing it." He handed it to Domnic. "Pa Shah, ma Shah, and I suppose that the two gents standing behind them are the sons; they certainly look like old man Shah."
Yes, thought Domnic Fernandes, as he stared at the picture. Placed together in one frame, you could see the resemblance. "What does Mr. Rao look like?"
He asked his cousin suddenly.
"What? Oh let's see.. he's tall, fair-skinned, wears glasses-" Domnic let out a sigh and sat down heavily. "Gentlemen, I've been suckered, well and truly suckered." He pointed at the shorter son in the photo. "This is the man who came to me yesterday morning; the man who introduced himself as Mr. Rao, a builder interested in developing this property."
[Yes, Goa Today magazine issues were archived at one time by gaspar almeida
at goa-world.com website in 2000]