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The Chameleon

January 14, 2014 | By

As he drifted off to sleep, there was in his mind a lurking suspicion that something about the Swami wasn’t quite right.

Sahil was feeling very excited. His exams were over and the holidays were beginning tomorrow. He would be leaving for his grandpa’s place early next morning.

Sahil’s grandfather – Mr. Dinabandhu Jain had retired as Chief Engineer in the State Government. After his retirement he had settled down in his ancestral house in Jaynagar, a small town a hundred kilometres from Sahil’s city Hindpur.

Sahil would be catching the six o’ clock bus and would reach Jaynagar by ten. His grandpa lived in a two storey house called ‘Aashray’ quite close to the main road. Just behind ‘Aashray’ was a lake.

short story

He simply loved the calm and serene atmosphere of the lake which was so different from the hustle and bustle of the city.

During Sahil’s last trip his grandpa had purchased a small boat for him and he had also learnt to row it. Right in the middle of the lake was a tiny island.

Sahil would row over to the island, spend an hour or two and then row back. He simply loved the calm and serene atmosphere of the lake which was so different from the hustle and bustle of the city.

In winter a number of migratory birds visited the lake. Sahil was a nature lover and would get up early morning and using his binoculars spent hours watching the birds.

He was really looking forward to an exciting stay at ‘Aashray’. He could, however, never have imagined how really exciting it would turn out to be!

*****

As the bus came to a halt Sahil jumped down and started walking briskly towards ‘Aashray’. It was only half a kilometre away and in fifteen minutes he was knocking on the door.

It was opened by a new face. Sahil walked in and rushed into the arms of his grandpa who was waiting in the living room.

“Who is this new recruit Nanaji?” asked Sahil. “And I don’t see Madhav your old servant around?”

“Madhav went to his village to get his daughter married five months ago. He will be coming back after two weeks. This new fellow is Nandu, his nephew.”

“Does it take around six months to get some one married?”

“The marriage is over. Madhav has taken his wife to Amarnath and Badrinath on a pilgrimage. That is why it is taking him so long.”

Sahil spent the next two hours telling Nanaji about his school, friends and home. Later, after they had their lunch and were relaxing in the living room, Nanaji dropped the bombshell.

“Sahil, I have decided to sell ‘Aashray’.”

“Wha… what? Sell Ashray?” Sahil couldn’t believe his ears.

“Yes, beta.”

“B…but why?”

“It is going to prove very unlucky for me.”

“How do you know?”

“An astrologer told me that if I don’t sell this house within the next three months – that is by the 15th of April a great misfortune will befall me.”

“Great misfortune? I don’t understand?”

“The astrologer – his name is Swami Parmananda – said that if I continue living here after 15th April some one close to me would…..,” he hesitated and then blurted out, – “would die”.

“Come on Nanaji, I wasn’t aware that you believed in this kind of mumbo-jumbo.”

“Sahil, I have never considered astrology or palmistry as mumbo-jumbo, even though I never met an astrologer or palmist who impressed me. Most of them were frauds. But Swamiji is really very talented.

You will find it difficult to believe the accuracy with which he has told details about my past life. And every time he was bang on target. This man is a genius. And not paying heed to his advice will prove disastrous.”

“Nanaji, you were born and brought up in Jaynagar and it is a small town. He could have always asked around and collected bits of information. These bits he would have pieced together and retold to impress you.”

“Come on, Sahil. Don’t make me out to be so naive. He told me few incidents which no one other than I could know.”

“Such as what?”

“Once when your mother was very sick I had gone to the temple. I had taken a vow that if she recovered I would make an anonymous donation of Rs. 5,000 which was a very big amount in those days, to the orphanage run by the Temple Trust.

And this fact was known only to your grandmother. And surely your Naani is not going to come down from heaven to whisper in the years of Swamiji?

Secondly, when your Mama wanted to got the USA I refused point blank. After a lot of fretting and fuming he sat on a hunger strike. I relented but only after two full days and a lot of tears shed by your Naani.

This fact too was known only to me and Naani. Your mother too is unaware because she was in the hostel when this little drama took place. It is really quite incredible how Swamiji managed to relate both these instances to me.

Sahil, there is really no doubt that Swamiji is gifted. And you know something, Swamiji has not charged me anything for advising me. He just gave me two rings and took eleven rupees for each ring.

Just imagine only twenty two rupees for all this guidance. This proves that he is a simple soul with no greed for either money or power.”

*****

That night Sahil couldn’t sleep. His grandpa’s words kept echoing in his ears. He couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to ‘Aashray’ forever. He was also completely confused by the Swami’s so called talent. He had neither faith in palmistry nor in astrology. Yet the Swami’s accuracy had him stunned.

The more he thought of it the more puzzled he became. As he drifted off to sleep, there was in his mind a lurking suspicion that something about the Swami wasn’t quite right.

Th next morning as he was taking his bath an idea struck him. There could be a rather simple explanation for Swamiji’s ‘divine’ powers.

At the breakfast table Sahil asked his grandpa – “Nanaji, last time when I was here you had started writing your autobiography. Have you completed it?”

“Yes, it’s almost over. I’ll give it one final reading and then hand it over for typing.”

“Have you shown it to anyone?”

“No.”

“Does anyone know you are writing it?”

“No, apart from you no one else knows. Not even your parents or your Mama. But why do you ask?”

“No, I just thought….”

“I know exactly what you have been thinking. You feel that Swamiji must have read the manuscript and promptly quoted from it to impress me. No, son you are wrong. There is no way he could have come to know of it let alone read it.”

Sahil kept silent. He was disappointed. After a few minutes he asked his grandpa, “Nanaji, when are you planning to sell the house?”

“The estate agent will be coming the day after tomorrow with all the relevant papers. We’ll finalise the deal the same day.”

“How did you manage to locate the agent so quickly.”

“I didn’t have to locate him. He actually approached me around two months ago. He was representing a fairly big hotelier who was planning to buy ‘Aashray’ and convert it to a small luxury hotel. He offered me almost one and a half times the market price but I refused.”

“He must have been upset.”

“He was. He tried his best to convince me but I didn’t relent. I explained to him that ‘Aashray’ was my ancestral home and I had a sentimental attachment to it. There was no way I would part with it. But then of course I hadn’t met Swamiji and didn’t know about the ill luck the house could bring me.”

“Did this agent again pursue you?”

“No. He had left his number with me. After Swamiji’s visit I contacted him. I told him I had changed my mind. We fixed up the 29th of this month, which is the day after tomorrow, for signing the contract.”

After breakfast Sahil asked Nanaji, “Can I read your autobiography now? I had read only the first few chapters and I am eager to complete it.”

“Of course and if you spot any errors of grammar or punctuation do not hesitate to correct them.”

Nanaji got up, opened his almirah and took out a thick diary and handed it over to Sahil. The autobiography was written in a neat and legible writing in long hand. Sahil went to his favourite spot beside the lake and started reading. After he had read a few chapters he stopped to think.

The Swami’s appearance from nowhere soon after Nanaji’s refusal to sell the house to the Estate Agent appeared too much of a coincidence. The more he thought about it the more he got convinced that there was something fishy about the whole affair.

Suddenly an idea struck Sahil and he quickly walked towards Nehru Chowk around which was situated the main market of Jaynagar. He went straight to ‘Perfect Xerox’, the only photocopying shop in the town. The shop also comprised a reading library and had a good stock of novels, magazines and comics.

Whenever he was at Jaynagar Sahil visited the library regularly. Its owner Fazal Ahmed was a short, stockily built man of around forty with a round jovial face. He and Sahil had become friends. Ahmed called Nanaji Bade Nawab and Sahil Chote Nawab.

As soon as Ahmed saw Sahil a bright smile lit up his face and coming forward he said, “Adaab, Chote Nawab. When did you come to our little town?”

“Just yesterday Ahmed Bhai. Got any new books for me?”

“Yes, ofcourse. Last time you were looking for Enid Blyton’s mystery series. I have managed to get four new titles. But Chote Nawab this library business is going down very rapidly. Kids don’t want to read books. They come asking for comics or CDs and DVDs.”

“I know but I really hope you won’t close the library. Some of the best books that I have read have come from here, ” Sahil said and after looking around whispered, “Ahmed Bhai I want to ask you something in confidence. Can we go to a quieter place?”

“Yes why not? Let us go the Irani Hotel which is right round the corner,” Ahmed replied and turning to his assistant he yelled, “Munna, I am coming in ten minutes, take care.”

Five minutes later they were sitting in the restaurant sipping tea.

“Now tell me what is it you want to know.”

Sahil showed him the diary.

“Ahmed Bhai, has anyone ever come to take a photocopy of this diary.”

Ahmed looked at the diary carefully, turned its pages and after thinking for some time said,”Chhote Nawab, If I remember right this diary was photocopied in my shop. It must have been around three to four weeks ago.”

“Do you know the person who came to photocopy it?”

“No, he was a stranger. Not from our town.”

“How can be you so sure?”

“Come on Chote Nawab. I know each and every person in this town. After all I have been in this business for the last twenty years.”

“If you see him will you be able to recognize him.”

“Yes I think I would. I remember him quite clearly because he had made an unusual request.”

“What kind of request?”

“He wanted to do the photocopying himself since the dairy contained confidential information. Normally I would never allow any customer of mine to touch my machine but since he was willing to pay me double the rate, I agreed. After five minutes he came out of the Photocopy room and requested me to do the photocopying.”

“Why?”

“Photocopying a diary of this unwieldy size is not an easy task. He was unable to make the right adjustments and I had to do the whole thing again. That is why when you showed me the diary I had no difficulty in recognising it. But tell me Chote Nawab what is the whole mystery about?”

Sahil hesitated for a moment and then told him about his conversation with his grandpa and his suspicions. I have a plan Ahmed Bhai. Will you help me.”

“Why not?”

Sahil leaned forward and began telling him……

*****

On his return Sahil asked his grandpa, “Nanaji, will you please do something for me?”

“Sure. What is it?”

“On 29th when the agent comes please tell him that though Swamiji has told you that the house has to be sold before the 15th of April he has not given the auspicious date on which the sale is to be made. Hence it will not be possible for you to sell the house till you contact Swamiji.”

“But why?”

“Please Nanaji, have faith in me and do exactly as I say. Also tell him that since you don’t have Swamiji’s address with you the deal has to be kept in cold storage till you are able to establish contact with him.”

Sahil’s grandpa hesitated and then seeing the earnest expression on his face relented. “Okay, beta as you say. But I am still not sure what you are up to.”

*****

On 29th at the appointed time the agent Manoj Arora appeared. He was a fair, slim man, with thick curly hair and a handsome face. He was sporting a French beard and had a gruff voice.

Sahil quickly raced on his bike and informed Ahmed. Twenty minutes later Ahmed was peeping from the living room window of ‘Aashray.’

“No, Chote Nawab, he is not the fellow who came to my shop for photocopying the diary.”

Sahil’s face fell. “Ar… are you sure Ahmed Bhai?”

“Ofcourse miaan. I have a great memory for faces. This fellow is not the same chap. There is no doubt about it.”

Sahil was really disappointed but there was little he could do. When Arora left the house, on an impulse, Sahil decided to follow him. Around fifteen minutes later Arora entered a small apartment which was in the middle of a cluster of houses. It had a compound wall around it with an iron gate.

Sahil waited outside not knowing what to do. He was hoping Arora would come out and lead him to the Swami or someone else who could give a clue. After more than thirty minutes of waiting Sahil lost patience.

He decided to knock on the door and invite himself in. There was a faint hope that he might be able to get a lead of sorts that would confirm what he had been suspecting all along.

He very gently opened the gate and was about to enter the compound when the door opened and an old man came out. He must have been around seventy years of age with white thinning hair and a deeply lined grouchy face. He was carrying a walking stick. He locked the door from the outside and as he turned back he saw Sahil.

“What do you want?” he barked. He had a thin rasping voice. Sahil backed away seeing the scowl on his face.

“I…I..can I meet Mr. Arora, the estate agent?

“There is no Arora-Sharora here. This house belongs to me. And you fool do I look like an estate agent? My name is Professor C.R.G. Tyagrajan and I am a retired astrophysicist. Now get out from here before I spank you.”

Terrified Sahil turned back and ran. He went straight to Perfect Xerox and told Ahmed about his strange encounter with the Professor.

“Ahmed Bhai, I can swear that I saw Arora entering that house.”

“Come on Chote Nawab. He must have gone into some other house. The old man wouldn’t lock him up from outside and then tell you stories.”

When Sahil reached home Nanaji told him, “Beta, I have done my bit. I have told Arora everything exactly as per our discussion. Initially he was quite dejected. Later, he remembered that one of his friends has a real passion for astrology.

He knows almost every astrologer in the land. He was confident with the help of his friend he would be able to contact the Swamiji and communicate my message.”

*****

Two days later at around eleven, there was a loud knock. Nandu had gone to the market and Sahil opened the door. Outside was a dark man with shoulder length hair and buck teeth. He had a long flowing beard and was clad in saffron robes.”

“Young man, you are Sahil aren’t you,” he declared in a squeaky voice which was quite jarring. Without waiting for a reply he barged in and plonking himself on the sofa declared, “Sahil, go and tell your grandfather Swami Parmanand has come to bless him.”

Sahil went inside, told his grandpa and then raced out on his bike to inform Ahmed.

Once again Ahmed came to ‘Ashray’ to have a look at the guest.

“Sorry Sahil, this Swami too is not the man who came to my shop.”

Sahil had now all but lost hope. He went and slumped on the sofa in the living room. The Swami was holding forth on the position of the stars in the various constellations on the milky way.

“Today is Wednesday, the coming Sunday is a very auspicious day. The stars are favourable and you should dispose off this house that day.”

Just then the door was pushed open and a Police Inspector entered, with two constables in tow. Seeing them the Swami jumped up, colour draining from his face. The Inspector looked at Swamiji and said, “Kalakaar Mangal you are under arrest.”

“Whaa… what are you talking Inspector I am no kalakaar-valakaar. My name is Swami Parmananda Maharaj of Veda Gyaan Peeth, Mathura.”

The Inspector turned to the constables and issued a terse order, “Arrest this scoundrel.”

The Swami backed away shouting – “You just can’t arrest me like this. Where is the proof? Where is your warrant?”

“I have all the proof I need,” the Inspector said and taking out a piece of paper from his pocket dangled it in front of the Swami’s eyes. “And here is the warrant.” He then turned to Nanaji who was staring from one to the other completely baffled.

“I am sorry Mr. Jain for barging in like this. My name is Irfan Jaffar and I am incharge of the Jaynagar Police Station. The police of our state has been after this rascal for the last six months or so.”

“B… but isn’t he Swami Parmananda?” asked Nanaji.

“He is nothing of the sort. Let me tell you all the facts that I know about him,” Irfan took a seat and continued. “This man’s name is Satish Mangal. He was working in a drama company. He is a master of disguises and a real chameleon.

In this little drama itself he has enacted four parts – estate agent Arora, the man who photocopied the diary in ‘Perfect Xerox’ shop, the old astrophysicist whom Sahil met and the present one of Swami Parmananda.

It is this genius of changing identities that has won him the nickname ‘Kalakaar’. He was a very popular actor and was doing real well when he got into bad company and was thrown out. Since then he has been going around changing appearances and swindling people.”

“Sahil’s friend Fazal Ahmed, the owner of Prefect Xerox, is my cousin. A few days ago Ahmed came home and mentioned about Sahil’s predicament. Out of curiosity I asked him the details and when Ahmed repeated whatever Sahil had told him I started getting suspicious.

The incident of the old astrophysicist sort of confirmed my suspicions. I was quite certain the central part in this drama was being enacted by Kalakaar. Last evening, when Kalakaar had gone out we quietly entered his house and found enough evidence to nail him.

The finger print samples which I had rushed to the headquarters confirmed that he is Kalakaar. Ten minutes ago Ahmed rang me up and told me that Swami Parmananda was at ‘Ashray’ and I immediately rushed to nab him.”

“But the estate agent told me he was working for a hotelier who was planning to convert ‘Aashray’ into a hotel…..” stammered Nanaji a look of utter bewilderment on his face.

“That was all a big lie. He would have bought this house, given you cheques that bounced and quickly sold it to someone else. And before anyone realised the fraud he would have vanished from the scene, taken on another identity and started looking for a new quarry,” Irfan said.

“But Inspector there is still one little thing which remains unexplained. How did he know that Nanaji was writing an autobiography and more important how did he manage to get hold of the diary?”

“Why don’t you ask him? The inspector said and turning towards Kalakaar asked, “So, Mr. Spoilt Genius will you honour this young man’s request.”

Kalakaar shrugged his shoulders. “Why not? Can I take a seat please?” he said looking at the inspector for permission. Irfan nodded and Kalakaar sat down.

“Normally I would never squeal on a fellow conspirator. But I feel he let me down by not warning me in time. And it is this foolishness of his which is now forcing me to reveal all.”

Kalakaar stopped and looked at Nanaji. “My accomplice in this venture was Mr. Jain’s servant Nandu. After Mr. Jain refused to sell the house I decided to find out a little bit more about him with the hope of getting some information which might help me change his mind. I got hold of Nandu and began talking to him. I don’t know think Jain Saab is aware that Nandu is quite fond of booze.

Once I realised this I invited him to my room. I always keep some good whisky with me for such occasions. After a few rounds he opened up. I managed to extract quite a bit of information regarding Mr. Jain from him.

He told me that his master used to keep writing in his diary for hours together. I asked him to let me have a look at the diary. Initially he was reluctant but whisky can be very persuasive, you know.

Next day when I got my hands on the diary I left Nandu with a bottle of whisky for company and slipped out to get the photocopy done. I read through the entire thing. The next step was relatively easy. I created Swami Parmananda and the rest of the story you already know.”

“So it was Nandu was it? What are you going do with him now Nanaji?” asked Sahil.

“I’ll throw him out right away,” Nanaji said.

Irfan gestured to the constables to take Kalakaar away. As he was being led out Sahil asked him, “Kalakaarji, you may be a swindler but I still have great admiration for your talent. You are truly a genius. Can you please tell me whether is this the real You or….”

“Good question Sahil. I have a couple of photographs with me and I can assure you that he is far more handsome than this gargoyle standing in front of us,” Irfan said chuckling.

“Kalakaarji, can we have a look at the real you,” Sahil requested.

Kalakaar raised his handcuffed hands and looked pointedly at Irfan. The inspector nodded to the constables and the handcuffs were unlocked.

“Now young man close your eyes for a just one minute,” Kalakaar told Sahil.

Sahil closed his eyes, counted till sixty and opened them. Standing before him was a slim, fair and handsome young man. He was clean shaven and had way black hair. He looked as different from the Swami as a swan would look from an ugly duckling.

On the table in front of Sahil were lying the remnants of Swami Parmananda – a wig, false teeth and a beard. Sahil clapped his hands. “Wow Kalakaarji, you are truly terrific.”

Kalakaar took a bow.

“It is a real pity Kalakaar. You could have put your talent to such good use but unfortunately you have messed up your life,” the inspector said and signalled to the constable to take him away.

Nanaji thanked Irfan profusely.

“More than me you should be thankful to your grandson. If it wasn’t for his perseverance and intelligence you would have lost your house as well as the money. I think you should give Sahil a special reward.”

“My greatest reward is that ‘Aashray’ will continue to be mine at least till the next Swamiji comes along,” quipped Sahil.

His grandfather laughed and pulling him close said, “Beta ‘Aashray’ will be yours forever. I will never sell this house let a thousand Swamis come.”

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Learning and Creativity publishes articles, stories, poems, reviews, and other literary works, artworks, photographs and other publishable material contributed by writers, artists and photographers as a friendly gesture. The opinions shared by the writers, artists and photographers are their personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Learning and Creativity emagazine. Images used in the posts (not including those from Learning and Creativity's own photo archives) have been procured from the contributors themselves, public forums, social networking sites, publicity releases, Morguefile free photo archives and Creative Commons. Please inform us if any of the images used here are copyrighted, we will pull those images down.

Ramendra Kumar (Ramen) is a children’s writer with 35 books to his name. He has won 31 awards in the competition for writers of children’s literature organised by Children’s Book Trust (CBT), over the years. This tally is the highest by any writer and is thus a national record. He also dabbles in satire, poetry, fiction and travelogues. His works have been translated into several Indian and foreign languages. Being an inspirational speaker and storyteller, he is a regular at leading seminars and literary festivals. He is the father of two children who are bonsai celebrities in their own right. While Ankita is a youth icon and a travel blogger with an instagram following of 34K, Aniket creates cool Apps and designs covers for his Dad's books. Website: www.ramendra.in
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