After years of hammering away on typewriters, Kapoor’s fate came to be linked with that of an Honourable Minister of the Central Government. Overnight his status was elevated from plain and simple Kapoor to Kapoor Sahib: Personal Assistant to the HM (Honourable Minister).

In those few hours his chest expanded visibly by a couple of inches. When he strutted down the office corridors, his breast puffed out like that of a crested bantam cock, it seemed as if the corridors were not broad enough for him. Peons who usually sat on their stools chewing betel leaf or nodding with sleep, would spring to attention and salute him as he passed.

The metamorphosis took place a few days before the year was to end. In the long years that Kapoor had been a clerk, he had never as much as thought of such trifles as New Year’s eve or New Year’s day. It had never occurred to him that the year which had been young a little while ago had aged and would soon give up the ghost.

The 31st of December was no different from the 30th or 31st of other months: days of penniless penury. The 1st of January was like the 1st of any other month when he received his month’s salary, paid off his debtors, fulfilled his children’s oft-postponed demands for new exercise books, new textbooks, new pairs of socks to replace the old riddled with holes, school uniforms, pencils, etc.

While doing all those things he experienced a strange mixture of sensations: an imperious feeling of lording over other people’s destinies as well as a diminution of stature which came with the realisation that before half the day was over, more than half his salary would be eaten up.

After Kapoor was transformed to Kapoor Sahib, his lifestyle changed.

How the transformation came about was very simple. A businessman—to be more exact, an industrialist—who had some business with Kapoor’s minister, arrived at the ministerial residence armed with a New Year’s gift.

The date: December 31. 

The time: 8 a.m.

Kapoor was ensconced in a room in the outer verandah and seated in the chair of the personal assistant to the hon’ble minister.

The minister took one look at the packet and remarked: “Sorry, I have given up drinks. You must know what the Prime Minister’s views on the subject are. She has ordered….”

The industrialist muttered a curse under his breath which referred to the minister’s shady relations with his own mother. At the same time he felt apprehensive that the bugger might be trying to slip out of his grasp.

However, he bared his entire dentures in a broad smile and replied: “Not at all, sir, I’ll bring something else tomorrow or the day after. But this is New Year’s eve and I mustn’t leave without an offering for you.” He opened his briefcase, took out a diary and placed it on the table before the minister. It was a miserable little specimen printed in the government press. However, tucked in between its pages was a wad of other papers also bearing the imprint—of the Government of India. The minister opened the diary, felt the thickness of the wad of notes and remarked: “You needn’t have taken the trouble! It wasn’t really all that necessary for you to go out of your way to do all that.”

“No trouble at all, sir,” sniggered the industrialist. “This is only to buy sweets for the children.”

It can be established that as a person rises in the world, his children’s appetite for sweets and candies also increases. The candy box in the diary was worth more than a confectioner’s shop crammed with goodies.

The minister gave a wan smile baring two-and-a-half of his dentures, and quietly slipped the diary in the drawer of his table.

The industrialist sighed with relief. It had been a touch-and-go affair.

As he stepped out of the minister’s office he handed the parcel he had brought for the minister to Kapoor. The personal assistant to the minister too had to be kept happy. All this happened so quickly that Kapoor was neither able to protest nor as much as utter a word of thanks. It was the first time in his life that someone had considered him worthy of a gift of any kind.

He was somewhat ill at ease but the industrialist’s voice, as he left with a triumphant smile, was most reassuring: “It’s a small gift for the New Year.” Kapoor’s hands shook as he put the bottle in a drawer of his table. He felt hot all over his body.

Vashisht, the typist, shared the room with Kapoor. He had been the minister’s typist and had sat in the same corner for many years. On the very first day when Kapoor came to occupy his new chair, Vashisht introduced himself with a reassuring smile: “Don’t you worry, sir. I will show you all the ropes. Ministers come and go; their jobs are not permanent. But your humble servant has been confirmed in his post for years and is quite familiar with the goings-on that take place in this room. I will see to it that no trouble comes near you.”

Vashisht sensed Kapoor’s predicament and casually walked up to him as he took a betel leaf out of a wrap of paper. “Congratulations, Kapoor Sahib! The first gift is like the ceremony of removing the nose-ring of a bride. You must entertain your humble servants with this bottle and thus ensure the grace of God. We will always pray for your health.”

Kapoor was a novice at the game. He immediately realised he could not drink a whole bottle of Scotch all by himself and was relieved that now someone was there to share it with him. “ Sure! Why not?” he replied.

“Fine! This evening we’ll welcome the New Year at your home as all the burra sahibs do in big hotels. Singing and embracing each other’s wives at the midnight hour. If you don’t mind, may I invite Gupta on your behalf?” Gupta was the second typist. He sat in another room which he shared with some other clerks. Besides typing, Gupta’s duty was to receive and sort out the mail which was then passed on to someone else for despatch.

“Sure!” replied Kapoor expansively.

Kapoor came home a little earlier than usual carrying the bottle of Scotch in his briefcase. Not anticipating what the reaction of his wife would be, he was not prepared for the tongue-lashing she gave him. “Did you have to bring this destroyer of families into your home? And drink the evil stuff in the presence of the children! New Year? What the hell is this New Year? Today is the 31st—and there is neither a vegetable nor a scrap of a biscuit or anything else to eat in the house. I am ashamed of asking the grocer for another loan. Only yesterday I told him I would not be buying anything more this month and asked him to make out our bill so that I could clear his account by the 1st. We already owe him 983 rupees. If we take another loan your guests will eat it up. They will go back merrily to their homes but what will we live on? You want us to eat at the free kitchen in the gurudwara all of the next month? New Year indeed! These fads are for the idle rich; people who frequent five-star hotels. We have barely enough to fill out bellies and never a naya paisa to spare. Only I know how I count every paisa and stretch it out over 30 days!”

What was poor Kapoor to do? If you put your head in the jaws of a crocodile, you cannot hope to escape without a scratch! He tried to explain in his softest tone: “My good woman! This New Year is an English festival, exactly like our Baisakhi or Diwali.” But the good woman was beyond reasoning and refused to understand.

Exactly at 7.45 p.m. the two men arrived accompanied by their wives and their brood of children. The women and children went into the inner room. Normally, children could be expected to create an uproar, but being clerks’ offsprings they clung to their mothers’ aprons and whimpered like little pups. In any case, it was a very cold evening, and their mothers could not get rid of them by ordering them to go out to play.

Men gathered around the bottle of Scotch and started nibbling salted peanuts with their drinks. Sitting in another room, their womenfolk compared the prices of potatoes.

“In any event Kapoor Sahib owed us a treat for his promotion,” remarked Vashisht. Kapoor expanded like an inflated balloon. However, he pulled a long face and replied: “What kind of promotion, yaar! Promotion means increase in one’s salary. All I have got is more work. I used to get to the office at 10.30 in the morning and leave at 4.30 in the evening. Now I have to report at the minister’s residence at 7.45 a.m. and stay up to 8 or 9 p.m. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you all this!”

“To hell with the work, Mr. Kapoor! Your sphere of influence has expanded; your status risen to new heights!” remarked Gupta.

“Lots of things happen to people who occupy your chair. You recall that fellow called Sood? Narinder Sood was his full name. He used to sit in the same chair. It must have been about eight years ago when a licence applied for by a Bombay firm got stuck somewhere in the files of the ministry. The firm’s chaps had been going round and round for weeks but the minister was like a duck which would not let a drop of water stay on its back. Utterly defeated, these Bombay Johnnies came to Sood’s house and fell at his feet. This Sood fellow performed such jugglery that before the month was over, the licence was cleared. It was entirely Sood’s handiwork. The Bombay people worked out that each visit to Delhi cost them Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 20,000. So why not employ Sood to do the work for them? They persuaded him to resign his job, and made him their resident executive director in Delhi. They gave him an air-conditioned office and a spacious apartment. Now Sood and his pretty private secretary travel in a chauffeur-driven car. They make the rounds of different offices handing out invitation cards for dinners. He dines out every night with officials at swanky hotels like the Oberoi, the Taj or the Maurya. Every month lakhs of rupees pass through his hands; every day he wears a new suit made of imported material,” Vashisht narrated the story of Sood’s achievements as though they were blood-brothers.

“And banda parwar (protector of the poor), you must know that every currency note has a little glue stuck to it. As they are passed along from hand to hand, some get stuck to one hand, some to another. You are a man of the world, you must know all this,” said Gupta.

Kapoor’s third eye was beginning to catch a glimmer of light.

“My good friend, all I know is one basic fact. These 84 lakh forms of existence that our holy books talk of are in fact one—that of a clerk. A clerk goes through all the incarnations: cat, dog, scorpion, turtle, jackal, pig, and everything else. And just as a person goes through the 84 lakhs of incarnations before he takes birth as a human to rule the world, so once in a millennia a clerk is fortunate enough to be appointed personal assistant to a minister.” Vashisht was well-versed in holy texts.

“That may well be so,” conceded Kapoor with a half-hearted laugh, “but there is no escaping from the fact that the workload becomes much heavier. Your sister-in-law (my wife) has been scolding me for the last ten days.”

“She shouldn’t treat a man of your standing like that!” sniggered Gupta.

“Why don’t you put some sense in her head? Tell the good lady that by the grace of the chair you occupy, all the four horizons will soon light up. Then she will prepare halwa full of dry fruits and glasses of milk laced with almonds before she sends you to your office,” Vashisht roared happily.

“This bottle of Scotch is the first ritual—the sort of gift you give a bride when she first unveils her face,” added Gupta.

The two men treated Kapoor like a neophyte about to have his ears pierced before he is accepted by a guru as his disciple.

“When my wife looked at this bottle, it seemed all hell would break loose,” said the new convert Kapoor.

Vashisht interrupted him by pleading in a mewling voice, “Please, please, explain all this to our bhabi. Put some divine wisdom into her head.”

Gupta lent his voice in support, “Tell her how everyone in the Customs is eager to be posted at Palam or Sahar airport and gets all sorts of influential people to speak for him. Every traffic constable, every sales-tax officer does his level best to be posted in Chandni Chowk, Sadar or Chawri Bazar. How many shoes do they have to polish with butter before they get these postings! What’s more, in these big hospitals, when a doctor is put in charge of the wing reserved for VIPs, his colleagues are burnt up with envy. Such posts do not go abegging. The workload is undoubtedly doubled. But just think: the bigger the head, the bigger the headache.”

“Now take the case of the Prime Minister,” said Vashisht. “The poor thing works 18 to 19 hours every day. During the elections she runs from one village to another. What booby prizes does she get for all this trouble?”

“Quite right! All these ministers and leaders of political parties do not run around for the heck of it. With time all your troubles will be over,” said Gupta laughing.

The bottle was nearly empty. The peanuts had been nibbled away. Gupta glanced at his watch. “Friends, it is nearly 9.30. Let us have something to eat. We will not get any buses after 10.30. And we are not ministers who can order our cars….”

Kapoor got up and went inside. A little later Kapoor’s children trooped in, carrying bowls full of lentils cooked in onions and potato curry. The three men ate in the outer room; their wives and children in the other room inside.

Kapoor’s wife was busy baking chappatis; her children ran up and down the two rooms serving them hot to the guests.

By 10.15 the guests departed.

Kapoor felt like a criminal. He started making the beds in the two rooms. He could hear his wife grumbling away as she rinsed the cooking pots and plates. “New Year indeed! To hell with such festivals in this biting cold. They may suit white people. We have our own Diwali and Baisakhi, both in fair seasons. Only Lohri is in winter and people light bonfires to warm themselves. And here I am, rinsing all this garbage with icy cold water. To hell with this New Year.”

At long last the lights were switched off. The children were fast asleep. But Kapoor’s wife went on nagging and grumbling. After a while she said: “New Year be damned! Why doesn’t it fall on the 2nd of January? By then you would have drawn your salary.“

His wife’s voice flitted about in the dark like a bat going round and round the room. And then found a perch on some wall.

At the hour of midnight, when lights in all the five-star hotels were dimmed so that men could embrace and kiss other men’s wives and burst into singing Auld Lang Syne to usher in the New Year, the Kapoors were fast asleep with their backs to each other.

Translated by Khushwant Singh