'What is the price of the source of life?', asked Swami on the dry Republic Day evening, sipping chai at Teligalli corner. I looked around to check if there's a cop nearby, and whispered, 'Today's price would be double the normal. But I didn't know you started again!'
'Oh no,' he says, 'I just meant air! I was wondering, if we had to pay for air, how much should it cost.' He finished the last gulp and we started walking towards his Chawl. 'You know that guy, Govind who lives in the room next to mine? He just made us all pay for using his air without his permission. I just wanted to know if I paid the right amount.'
'It was the chawl panchayt', he continued, as we stopped outside his gate and sat on a cement bench put there for idle evenings. 'They said we were using Govind's air and made us pay the compensation for it.'
I saw a story coming, and said something about a friend who is waiting in Jogeshwari, but Swami launched into his monologue already and when he does that, there's no scope for further negotiation.
'It all started a few months ago,' he started, 'Govind lived in that house for many years as a tenant and bought the house from his landlord recently. He painted the house immediately, scrubbed the floor, lighted some incense sticks and invited everyone for lunch and made a lot of noise in the form of a tape-recorder playing item songs. He told everyone how he always dreamt of owning the house and how he did double-shifts as a tailor to achieve his dream. His neighbours patted his back, packed some sweets in their hand-kerchieves and some sentimental ones said he achieved so much in life only because he walked to Siddhi Vinayak temple every other week.'
'All in all, it was a good lunch and the chawl forgot about it in about seven minutes after they came out of his house, when a boy on the first floor put his finger in a running cycle's wheel to see what it feels like. Life went on as usual for all of us, but Govind seemed to have taken his house-owner status a bit too seriously. In the coming weeks, he saved money by smoking less and bought a lot of decorative stuff for the house. Now that I think of it, it was funny, the way he took to loving his house.'
'No one minded him, until he started picking up fights with the neighbours for stains on his door and the noise the kids made by running across his roof. But we live here too, we protested, and shouted him down whenever he complained. His wife tried to make up with the women folk, but the strain remained. One day, he went to the chawl panchayat and complained that his neighbours are driving too many nails into the walls, the family above him is throwing heavy things on the floor and the one below put up a ceiling fan that cracked his floor tiles a bit.'
'The panchayat's job was to resolve petty disputes and decide who'll get our votes every five years, but this was a new complaint for them. So they sat down on a sunday and gathered us all to hear out Govind. He got a bit emotional, said something about sweat and blood, the money that went into buying the house and asked people for compensation for damaging his life's dream.'
'Everyone gave their views, mostly through titters and laughs, and the panchayat finally decided that he can't get any compensation because whatever we did, it was on our side of the wall. And no one bought exclusive rights for the walls.'
'Govind got sarcastic and asked, "If I didn't buy the walls, and I didn't buy the land since it is common for all, what did I buy the house for? What is it that I paid so much money for?"'
'Pandu kaka, the old barber who heads the panchayat, scratched his bald head and said, "The air! The air that is in your house belongs exclusively to you and when somebody steals it from you, come to us and we will get you compensation. But not the walls. We can't ask your neighbours to stop using their side of the walls. You can also use your side of the wall whatever way you want, nobody has an objection!"'
'Govind went back dejected and stopped talking to people after that. People were amused about the whole thing and everyone forgot about it after a while.'
Swami paused and opened a pan masala packet, and I squeezed in a question, 'But why did you have to pay him money?'
He got up and I followed him. Swami lived on the second floor of the four-storeyed standing chawl. We walked up the stairs slowly, avoiding children who were running around, enjoying the last hours of their holiday and the women folk were taking back dry clothes from the clothes lines. Swami's house was the first door on the left and we entered. There was a small portion on the top of the right side wall, which was newly plastered and unpainted. The patch stood out awkwardly.
I turned towards Swami, and he said, 'Govind came home at noon one day and put exhaust fans near the ventilators in the wall. You know how chawls are, we have a lot of air vents for people to breathe. His exhaust fans blew pleasant smell into our houses, as he kept spraying a lot of room freshener into the fans. No one understood why he was doing that. When we complained about the fans, he said he stopped cooking at home and the only thing coming out of the fans is fragrance – he asked us to put up barricades on our side. We just laughed at his antics, and enjoyed the smell of the exotic fragrances for a week. The children even brought their friends to the house to show off how great the smell was!'
'The next sunday, that was a week ago, Govind called for the panchayat and we all went to see what it was this time. Govind asked us if we smelled the pleasant air coming from his house. We realised immediately what he was upto, and tried to shout him down. But he was adamant and insisted that the panchayat make us pay compensation for the air we breathed that belonged to him. He said he'll bring the kids and the neighbours who came to our houses for the smell, to prove that we even showed it off.'
'The panchayat was cornered and tried to reason out with Govind. But Govind was stubborn and kept repeating what Pandu Kaka said that day - he had exclusive rights on the air inside his house! He could send it in any direction he wanted, but nobody should use that air without his express permission... he even asked us to put up barricades, but we didn't!'
'Panchayat agreed with him finally and made us pay Rs.50/- each for the air we used. I spent another 100/- closing that ventillator.'
I looked around the small room that is Swami's house and saw the wall clock that someone gifted him the day before. The clock was hanging on the wall opposite to the patch. Swami saw me looking at it, and said, 'Oh! I put that on the opposite wall. Just in case...'