Lala Debendra Nath or Debu Lala (as he was popularly known) was a distant royal who smartly shifted his family business to money lending when the government politically integrated all the princely states, much to the annoyance of his father. Money lending as a business was so fruitful that in a short span of time he accumulated wealth beyond accountability. But that was a long time ago when Debendra Nath was young and enterprising. In the later years Debendra Nath handed over the business to his educated & efficient sons, who invested money overseas and were now settled with their families out of the country.
He once had a wife, the mother of his three sons but she died nearly thirty years ago, while giving birth to his third son. Debu Lala barely remembered her face or name. He had been so busy in his business all his life that his children were practically raised by governesses & boarding schools. But the children respected him as he was always omnipresent in their lives.
After handing over majority of his wealth to his sons, Debendranath continued money lending to a different class – Politicians. And though he had least interest in politics, he enjoyed the attention and power associated with it. He was the prime look out at every high profile gathering and an invitation to his party was sought by everyone who wanted to be known across town. So even though Lala Debendra Nath had retired, he continued to be a busy man.
Between all the business of life, Lala Debendra Nath had time to indulge in the one thing that was his vice – Wine.
Debu Lala was not a drunkard, but he did like his wine. He was fond of collecting wine from different parts of the world and some of his finest collection was made in the years when he traveled extensively. Now that he travelled less frequently. His friends happily obliged him and brought him the choicest of wines from various places. Even his sons ensured that their father got the finest liquor for his collection. Debendra Nath was very mindful about his wine collection and he had a special cellar made to preserve it.
There was a long & wide stair case that led up to his front door. Beneath the staircase was his world class cellar specially made for storage of his exquisite wine collection. And if rumors were to be believed, Debu Lala’s Wine Cellar if was actually costlier than the whole town itself.
Though Debu Lala frequently visited his wine cellar, he never really climbed the staircase over it. He did not need to as the architect of his palatial house had smartly included an elevated motor-able road that led up to his front door just where the staircase ended.
Debu Lala’s retired life was going exquisitely fine until one evening he fainted during a party. Initially the guests thought Debu Lala had slipped and then someone shouted, “Debu Lala has a heart attack!!”
There was a commotion among the crowd but Debu Lala’s efficient servants immediately took him to the nearest five star hospital. The head Cardiac Surgeon was at the entrance had been alerted and he was almost waiting to greet Debu Lala.
By the time he gained consciousness, it was already dawn. The nurse called the surgeon, who walked in and greeted, “Namaskar Lalaji, how are you feeling now?”
“I am feeling sleepy Doctor.” replied the very drowsy Debu Lala.
“That is because of the relaxants we have injected.” replied the doctor, but Debu Lala was fast asleep once again. It was afternoon, when Debu Lala came to senses. His secretary informed him that his sons were already en-route to meet him. Debu Lala shook his head in disapproval. “Does anyone even know what happened? Why did you ask my sons to rush? Call the doctor, now!” he ordered.
Within no time the doctor with his team was present before Debu Lala for briefing. But before Debu Lala posed any question, another senior doctor arrived into the room.
“What is this Debendra Nath? I go on a vacation for just a week and you wreak havoc in town!” he exclaimed as he reached Debu Lala and checked his pulse. The hospital doctor seemed relieved on the senior doctor’s arrival.
“Oh! So they reached out to you as well, Dr. Tyagi. Do you know, this stupid secretary of mine even called my sons in a hurry.” said Debu Lala in annoyance.
“Don’t worry; I discussed your situation with the doctor here and informed your eldest son Sunil that it was just gastric pain. He alone is coming, Sushil & Suril have canceled.”
“Gastric pain, all this theatrics for gastric pain.” exclaimed Debu Lala.
Dr. Tyagi smiled, “Well, fainting was definitely a theatric, Debendra Nath. Now all you have to do is exercise regularly.”
Debu Lala grumbled but Dr. Tyagi ignored.
A few days later Debu Lala started on an exercise routine suggested by Dr. Tyagi, but could not follow it daily. He even changed instructors. Since everybody was in awe of Debu Lala, nobody could be strict with him. Dr. Tyagi was annoyed. He firmly reiterated, “You are not supposed to instruct the instructors, Debendra Nath. You are supposed to follow their instructions.”
Debu Lala was standing by his window, when an idea dawned on him. He turned towards Dr. Tyagi and said, “I don’t need any instructor for regular exercise, when I have this.” and he pointed out towards the window. Dr. Tyagi looked out of the window. There was a man cleaning the staircase leading to Debu Lala’s front door. It was the staircase beneath which his famous Wine Cellar existed.
And it was decided, Debu Lala would walk up his stairs every day.
The next day onwards, Debu Lala woke up early and walked towards his wine cellar, but this time he walked above it. Debu Lala started climbing the stairs. He must have climbed 20-25 steps, when he stopped to catch a breath. He turned around and saw a lean dark man in a faded dhoti quietly cleaning each stair from one end to another with a cloth. The staircase was wide and the man was moving with ease humming an old folk song. He did not notice Debu Lala until he reached the twentieth step. He paused for a minute and then nodded his head in greeting and continued with his work. Debu Lala stood up and climbed the staircase. After twenty steps, Debu Lala again stopped to rest. It was after all his first day and in all these years Debu Lala had never climbed the staircase. He turned back only to find the cleaner near his feet.
“Is he really cleaning the staircase properly? He caught up with me fast.” thought Debu Lala. But the man unaware of this scrutiny continued his work. This time Debu Lala followed him. It took Debu Lala twenty minutes more to reach the elevated road at the end of the staircase. The cleaner had left by then.
Sweating and puffing, Debu Lala entered his house. His manservant was ready with fresh juice. His secretary stood ready to give messages and take orders. “Sunil Sa’ab called to inform that he has reached New York, he will call again tomorrow.” the secretary informed.
Debu Lala took a sip of juice and asked, “Who is this man cleaning the stairs?” The secretary was taken aback. He had never noticed anyone cleaning the staircase. The manservant standing close by answered, “He is the cleaner sir. He has been cleaning the stairs for nearly fifteen years now. Is he disturbing your exercise Sa’ab? I can ask him to come at a different time.”
“No, no … don’t bother. I just asked because I saw him for the first time.” said Debu Lala and went ahead with his daily routine.
The next day, Debu Lala again started his trek up the stairs. Nearly twenty steps later he heard the singing. Debu Lala turned around and saw the cleaner. He was kneeling down and cleaning the stairs and only noticed Debu Lala by the time he reached the twentieth step. The cleaner stopped singing and greeted Debu Lala with a nod. Debu Lala watched the cleaner for a while and then continued his climb. He crossed the cleaner but as he stopped for the second time the cleaner was already at his feet, humming a melody and quietly taking over Debu Lala in an un-declared race.
This sequence of events went on for some days and each & every time, the cleaner reached the end of the staircase before Debu Lala. “Is he not afraid of losing his job? Maybe he doesn’t even realize that I am racing with him.” he wondered.
Debu Lala was a very rich man but he did not carry a false ego. He did not react on the cleaner in any manner even after losing the self assumed race every day. In fact, he quite enjoyed the daily challenge along with the stair cleaner’s singing.
One morning, the cleaner did not come. Debu Lala was anxious but did not mention it to anyone. After all, he could not involve himself in issues like servants taking offs. He had a long chain of hierarchy to manage his affairs. Moreover, he did not want the cleaner to get into any trouble. Next day, the cleaner arrived on time. Debu Lala smiled continued his routine climb. When he paused the second time, Debu Lala turned and called out the cleaner, “What is your name, fellow?”
And to Debu Lala’s shock, the cleaner replied, “Debendra Nath, Sir, but people call me Deba.”
For a minute Debu Lala did not know what to say. He paused, coughed a little and asked, “Do you know whose bungalow is this?”
“Yes, it belongs to Lala Debendra Nath.” said the cleaner.
“I am Debendra Nath.” said Debu Lala.
In a moment the cleaner, fell on Debu Lala’s feet. “Pardon me sir, if I have been impertinent. I did not recognize you.”
Debu Lala understood the turmoil of the cleaner. “Don’t bother Deba. You have been a good companion all these days during this tedious climb up the stairs. In fact I look forward to your singing. You have a very melodious voice.”
The cleaner was still scared but Debu Lala’s kind words put him at ease. From that point started a unique companionship between Debu Lala and his namesake. They never spoke beyond the morning routine. In fact their paths never crossed beyond the morning routine. But even during this small window of time the two people from entirely different worlds managed to develop a special bond. They never crossed their social barrier. Nor was any money donated or transferred. But mere conversations, music and comfortable silence were the constituents of this unobserved yet exceptional friendship.
From then onwards, Deba now used to stay a step behind as a mark of respect to his employer. If Debu Lala noticed he never commented. The social demarcation was so strongly woven in the society that had Debu Lala treated him as an equal, Deba would have felt more embarrassed than comfortable.
One morning both the men were climbing up the stairs when Debu Lala mentioned a politician who was seeking funds for a project. “I am not sure if I should fund his plans. The idea is relevant but it seems, not many people like the man.”
“I don’t know much about business Lalaji but often when a politician is disliked by his peers; it is because he is trying to do some honest work for public. May be you can judge him on the basis of who dislikes him…” said Deba.
A few days later Debu Lala informed Deba that he had decided to fund the politician’s plans. Deba just nodded. Both the men now looked forward more to their morning conversation. Their camaraderie became a topic of discussion between the servants and Debu Lala’s employees who frequented his house for work.
One day Debu Lala asked Deba, “How much do the pay you for cleaning the stairs.” Twenty Rupees per day” replied Deba. “I am a Baul singer by profession. It pays enough to keep me going.”
“You are a talented singer Deba. Listening to the folk songs you hum makes my climb easier.” said Debu Lala.
“Did you know beneath this staircase is a world class wine cellar, storing some of the most exotic wines in the world?” he further asked.
Deba shook his head, “No Sir, I have heard about the cellar but I did not know it was right beneath these stairs.”
Debu Lala looked at Deba and said, “Deba, tell me honestly, don’t you sometimes question the irony of life? We both share the same name yet such different fortunes. I have wealth to the extent of extreme indulgence, whilst you work so hard to earn a meager salary of twenty rupees per day. It is not even one rupee per step.”
Deba smiled as he continued cleaning the step. Debu Lala had now paused for rest. “Tell me Deba, don’t you question God’s unfair ways?” he asked again.
“Lalaji I am too small a man to question God’s ways but from where I see it, me & you have similar fates. Your debauchery for wine made you spend money to build this grand staircase. And whatever I earn out of this staircase helps me sustain through my indulgence for singing. You climb these stairs so that you can keep good health and go through your day without any problems. I climb these stairs so that I can earn some daily money that helps me go through the rest of day with ease.” replied Deba.
Not expecting such an answer, Debu Lala thought for a moment and then responded, “Yes we do share the same fate Deba, my man. Today we will celebrate our indulgence. I will treat you with the finest wine I have and you treat me with the most melodious song. You are right my man, we do share the same fate.” And he laughed out loud.
- Vibha Lohani