I was at Mondy’s one quiet evening with Andy and Rummy, when Old Jack hijacked the party and forced himself onto the tiny fourth chair at the table. He went straight to the point and we immediately called for a fresh pitcher and chilly cheese toast in his honour. He talked about the falling dollar rate, rising numbers of Nigerians in Bombay, stagnant work on the airport flyover and all the hara-kiri Bal Thackeray’s nephew is committing to see himself in national newspapers everyday.
Seeing Old Jack in a talkative mood, Andy seized an opening and squeezed in his favourite question. ‘For your birthday this year Jack, we’ll go to Alibagh and go snorkelling. Some time in May it is, isn’t it? Which year did you say you were born in?’
Old Jack caught the trick early, scratched his nose in a bored fashion and said, ‘Me? Why, let me see! It was in the year when the trouble started in Jerusalem, when those Arabs killed those poor Jewish scholars’
‘Why, you old drunkard, that happened just four days ago!’ I said. ‘That suicide bomber in Jerusalem, that is what you are talking about, aren’t you?’
Old Jack was offended and snapped, ‘Oh, shut up, you silly goof! Don’t irritate me with your ignorance! I’m talking about the year when the Arabs invaded Jerusalem. They didn’t start the Crusades until another four centuries later, but like it is said in the Holy book, better late then never!’
‘You mean you were born in the 7th Century?’, I asked, ever the historian ready with my details.
Old Jack ignored my question and cribbed about the quality of beer these days and how branded beer ruined the concept of local flavour. He always wanted his beer brewed fresh, and the only way you could get that anywhere in India is a beer factory. So he settled down for tap beer that came to the cafe in refrigerated tankers.
He took a big gulp and started, ‘Talking of fine beer, a long time ago I was sitting in an inn in England. My nephew Anthony, a friend of mine called Fredrick and a young playwright called William were at the inn table, enjoying the finest ale brewed in whole England and served by a fine lass called Lizzy.’ He took a minor pause at the mention of Lizzy, sighed and continued, ‘Anthony wrote speeches for the rising politicians, Fredrick was in the business of trading tea leaves and William had just started out on the stage. Willy was pretty hot on the theatre scene those days and he thanked a rich guy - I keep forgetting the name - a little too often for inspiring him. Ofcourse, those days such things were hardly noticed. The Patents office of Americans hadn’t established its jurisdiction yet, and a copyright was considered to be a spelling mistake.
Lizzy started flirting with me outrageously and I saw that the rest of the gents were getting jealous. Before they think of me as a rude man, I decided to include them in the conversation. So I asked Willy what he thought of love. He replied dreamily, ‘I think Love is divine!’ In a second, he had a paper out from his pocket and immediately noted down that line, no doubt to use in some play he had in mind.
Fredrick was pretty drunk on the excellent ale by that time, and started chasing Lizzy’s hand on the inn table. Lizzy did a pretty good job of keeping herself clean of all available contamination that night, so Fredrick eventually decided to degrade himself by offering money for pleasure. He fished out a five shilling coin and said to Lizzy, ‘Kiss me beautiful angel and take this Crown!’ She smiled politely and said no, withdrawing herself to a safe distance.
Anthony was then telling us about his foreign travels and how Egypt especially conquered his heart. Fredrick ignored Lizzy for a few moments, listened to the story intently, but turned around again and begged her to atleast take the Crown. The virtuous lady declined even that offer.
Anthony, who had moved on to Italy by that time, was a bit irritated that his story was being interrupted, but composed himself and continued telling us about a play he had seen in Rome, in which Romans, the urban folk make fun of the rustic habits of their country folk. Before the story reached its climax, Fredrick turned around again and shouted at Lizzy to take the Crown or face his wrath. Lizzy frowned and said, ‘Hush, Mr. Fredrick! You are waking up the entire village! You should be ashamed of yourself for rousing so much noise, that too so late in the night!’ Just then the church bell struck two, and she said in a distressed tone, ‘At two! Brute!’
Fredrick rose on his feet, made a vain attempt to jump over the table towards Lizzy and sobbed, ‘I want to kiss her! Seize her, seize her!’
Anthony was now thoroughly annoyed. He rose too, forced Fredrick back to his seat, and made a spontaneous speech. ‘Friends, here I was, telling a story about Romans and Countrymen! But this honourable man keeps interrupting me! Thrice he offered her the Crown, and thrice she declined. Is she ambitious? No! But our honourable friend kept worrying her. ‘Seize Her!’, he says! Seize her? Is that the language used by honourable men?’
We all clapped, paid for the ale and retired for the night. Young Willy kept scribbling down most of what was said that evening, but none of us took notice. It was several years later when I saw a bestseller book that I realized what William had done. Why, that son of a stingy farmer copied every word that was said that evening and made it into a play and no doubt, made a lot of money selling it! And he never shared with us a single penny of the earnings too!’ finished Old Jack smacking his lips.
The rest of the party had fallen asleep already and I too was just listening to catch a clue for Old Jack’s age. But I couldn’t stop myself saying, ‘That was a pretty dull story if you ask me. I don’t think anybody could make money out of it. What book did he write?’
Old Jack gave me a sarcastic look and said, ‘Dull story indeed! Willy changed it a bit here and there, and added a bit of a colour. But most of it was there, I tell you. I read the book myself whenever I am bored. Just for old times sake! I think I have a copy somewhere. Let me show you!’ He ransacked his dirty old sling-bag and placed an ancient small hardbound book on the table. The borders were yellow and dog-eared and the red cloth binding was fading. But the neat gold embossed title was still prominent and stared out at me:
The tragedy of
A play by William Shakespeare