The brother-in-law is a traditional figure of fun in folk literature, and popular
films. There was nothing funny at all in Sharmaji's brother-in-law. He always
brought problems that led to other problems. He would drop in at around seven-
thirty in the evening, when Sharmaji was about to settle down in front of the TV
to watch his favourite serial, and begin to talk endlessly about his office, the
hostility he faced, the strange thing that had happened in the street that morning,
and so many other annoying things, before he broached the problem. Then he
would wait, drinking the third cup of coffee that Mrs Sharma served up, in full
expectation that Sharmaji would solve it, and indeed would be happy to do so.
Sharmaji's evening would be ruined, the TV serial left unwatched, leaving
Sharmaji anxious moments that night wondering whether the heroine was able to
escape the clutches of the villain, or the calumny cast on her by her sister-in-law,
or teach her competitive female friend a thing or two in match-making, or
whatever.

This evening was no exception. His brother-in-law sat lightly poised on a straight
backed chair, balancing a cup of coffee in one hand and a lurid journal in the
other, brought as a peace offering. Sharmaji was back in the bosom of his family
midweek, in his large, untidy, third floor city flat, and he was already feeling hot
and sticky. His village SERVICE centre was so orderly, totally under his
command, where he was treated with great respect, almost verging on fear,
though he was the most democratic and fatherly of leaders. But here in his own
flat he was just an ageing husband, father, or brother-in-law, suspected of eking
out a livelihood by means that could almost be termed shady. None in his family
cared to understand that he, with vision, daring, and sacrifice, had built up an
NGO, considered a jewel in the comity of world civil society organizations.

" I understand, your need, Prasad," he said wiping his bald head with a
handkerchief already greying in the city dust, " and believe me, your daughter,
dear Meena, is like a daughter to me. But how can I raise thirty thousand rupees
by Monday to pay for her admission to this IT College? Can you not raise money
through a chit fund, or the bank? I believe banks are giving educational loans
liberally."

" Bawa garu, I have tried everything. The banks want collateral, gold, or my
house, which is already mortgaged to pay for the housing loans. If I don't find the
money by Monday, the College will offer the seat to someone else. The Principal,
who is the cousin-brother of my friend, is actually doing us a favour," said Prasad,
making it sound like Sharmaji's own problem.

" But what can I do," went on Sharmaji gamely. " My small salary just about pays
for our monthly frugal needs. Many others in important positions, like mine, take
huge salaries, but I said, No! I am a servant of the people, and must live like them.
I have no cash. I cannot raise money on this flat, for I am still paying off a loan
incurred for sending my son Ashok to study abroad. I am helpless!" He pumped
his arms, and spread out his hands in a gesture of anguish.


Prasad said something about whether there might be a possibility with SERVICE,
but Sharmaji cut him short. " Consider my position, it is a position of trust. I am
in charge of a respected institution following in Gandhiji's footsteps." He paused
impressively on mentioning the sacred name.

Mrs. Sharma came out of the kitchen. She was a large woman, a few inches taller
than her husband, and not in the mood to mince words. " You took money very
easily from your Society, when you got your sister's daughter married. Not a few
thousand rupees, but two lakhs, I remember very well. Take from the Society now
also. Everyone is doing it."

Sharmaji was embarrassed at his wife bringing up that matter. She had never let
him rest after that, always suggesting he could draw money at will from
SERVICE, for all sorts of frivolous reasons, like buying her a new set of gold
bangles. She had never understood that on that occasion he had behaved with
most scrupulous propriety. By an act of intellectual daring, equalling the
perspicacity of Lord Maynard Keynes himself, he had found the money for his
sister's daughter's wedding, as was his duty. For the dowry, and the marriage
feast and function, his sister had needed two more lakhs. She had come to him.
What was he to do? If the money had not been produced, the marriage might have
been called off, and that too to a software engineer on the point of setting off for
Silicon Valley.

SERVICE had just then received fifty lakhs into its bank account from the Dutch
Catholic Water for the World Mission, to undertake training of fifty communities
in rain-shadow areas. By shear chance, his cousin, the Secretary of an IT major,
had dropped in from Bombay, and over the simple lunch that Sharmaji could
afford had told him of the IPO about to be launched by his company. Everyone
knew those days that the price of IT shares would take a quantum jump once they
came on the market. He put his bold idea before his cousin as they were sitting
fanning themselves after lunch, not failing to remind him that Sharmaji's sister
was like a sister to him also. Surprisingly, his cousin made no difficulties. He had
not applied to the full limit of his quota, for frankly he didn't have that much
money. He would take five lakhs from Sharmaji and invest it in his own name.
Having set out on this path, there was nothing for it but to carry it off with
aplomb. Next day in the office, Sharmaji surprised his accountant's officer,
Gupta, by demanding five lakhs as imprest cash, which he would personally
distribute to all the grassroots NGOs involved.

" This is a very important project," he had announced loftily. " I want to make
sure personally that every project head understands what he must do. It is the duty
of the State to provide safe drinking water to all the people, but have they done
so? No! It is now our responsibility. Gandhiji," he paused as usual out of respect,
" would have wanted me to shoulder the task. It does not matter that it is hot. I
shall go to every town, by bus or bullock cart, if necessary."

With the money in hand, he raced to the airport to give the cash in person to his
cousin. There should be no bank transactions, he had been warned. The next two

weeks he took to his bed, with a sudden attack of influence. He was too weak to
shave, or bathe, and could drink only rasam, every now and then. His staff came
to visit him in his darkened bedroom, and he assured them that even death could
not stand between him and his duty, but his wasted body kept him tied to his bed.
The very first day the shares came on the market, his five lakhs had been turned
into eight lakhs. Fear and anxiety choked him, whether Murthy, his cousin, would
keep all the money to himself, and deny ever having received any cash from him.
What a fool he had been not to see through Murthy's transparent ploy he should
have insisted on sending the money through the bank. Then, at least, Murthy
would have been shamed in front of the family for sending Sharmaji to jail for
doing his sacred duty by his sister. His bowels gave way and he had to run to the
toilet three times that day. On purpose, the Municipality released no water that
day, and he felt like an Englishman, having wiped himself with a torn piece of
newspaper. He smelt in his bed, the sheets of which he had not permitted to be
changed for two weeks, in any case. But Murthy, good fellow, an ornament to the
family, was as good as his word. Seven lakhs were sent to him in a sealed package
by courier what a risk, in case the plane had crashed, there were so many rich
people flying around whose karma deserved death and Sharmaji was out of bed
in a jiffy, cured of his debilitating flu at long last. However, he was in no state to
travel to villages, everyone agreed, and he asked Gupta to go in his place, and
disburse the five lakhs. Well, God's blessings, and his own cleverness, had helped
him to get his niece married off without a hitch to a Silicon Valley software
engineer. Murthy had made a lakh out of the transaction thought up by Sharmaji
Murthy had only played the role of a postman, so to speak and he could at least
have shared that extra lakh fifty-fifty, but what do you expect with business types,
what do they understand of service to society?

His wife had whisked herself back to the kitchen, though he knew that her ears
were tuned to every word that was said in the living room. There was no point in
explaining to her, or Prasad, that the chance that helped him get his niece married
does not come round every day. He must think of some other way out, for his wife
was an irresistible force when it came to her family and their needs. God had to
show the way. Thinking of God gave him an idea.

" How many days leave can you take?" he asked.

" I have ten days casual leave," said Prasad promptly.

" There is a project, a very important project," Sharmaji started weightily.
"Christians Everywhere have asked us to undertake a study on slum living
conditions, collect and tabulate data, and draw inferences for a typical slum. You
are a Commerce graduate, but you took Sociology as a subject, and I can pay you
post-grad going rates, say, Rupees three thousand a day, rather high, but we want
quality work very quickly, so that would be justified."

Prasad looked totally dismayed. " Bawa garu, " he remonstrated, " whatever I
studied long ago, I have forgotten. I could never do statistics. And one would
need assistants to interview these people, who are drunk most of the time. They

are also goondas who could beat you up. Bawa garu, the people living in slums
these days are terrible people, and their drains overflowing with shit, I tell you, it
is hell in there!"

Sharmaji frowned thoughtfully. "I started serving people twenty years ago under
that good man, Dr. Barclay, of Goodnews Friends. You know, I took a great risk,
I left my permanent Government post to do it," he said fiercely, his Section
Officer's job in the Land Records Office being given by time the aura of an IAS
Secretary's post. " We never worried about dust, or pain, or inconvenience, or
even grave risk to our lives. But what can I expect? Everyone is not made like me.
Anyway, under Dr. Barclay's personal direction, Goodnews Friends had
completed a comprehensive study of the Keechudgally slum. A copy of that study
I should still have among those files in the top shelf over the dining table. Let us
use it; how do facts change in twenty years?"

" I am going to serve dinner any minute now, so don't throw dust all over my
table," shouted Mrs Sharma from the kitchen. " Who serves all these people doing
service all over the world? Me, I have to clean up, as if I was a harijan."

Prasad intervened to pacify his sister. He tied one of Sharmaji's dhotis to two
chair-ends, as a screen protecting the dining area, climbed up on to a stool, and
after some coughing, and mutterings about useless paper, brought down a large
yellowing file.

" This is the study," said Sharmaji triumphantly. " Photocopy it neatly, maybe
make a few corrections to bring it up to date. Oh, and bring along your bio-data,
we would need that for our files."

Next morning, Sharmaji sat frowning over a fresh photo-copy of the study in his
office, as Gupta hobbled in, dragging his game leg behind him. " Gupta, you
know that slum study required by Christians Everywhere?" he said. " Well, I
know one Mr. S.V. Prasad, a Sociologist, who has intimate knowledge of the
Keechudgally slum, really the archetypical slum in our city. I said, ` Do, the
Study, but I will not pay you!'" He looked up at Gupta for effect, and noted that
his assistant was suitably impressed. " `If your study is of quality, I will consider
suitable payment.' This is the study. I am satisfied, though, mind you, if I had
undertaken it myself, it might have been better, much better, but with all this
work, where do I have the time? What are the going rates, say, for ten days work,
though Prasad said he spent almost a month on it?"

Gupta suggested Rupees two thousand a day. " No, no, not for a study of this
standard. We must be fair. Let us make out a check for Rupees thirty thousand."
Then, something caught his eye. " But I must make my observations also. Bring
me a whiteout." Prasad, the lazy oaf, had not even obliterated the date, or the
Goodnews Friends logo from the pages. Grumbling that all the hard work had still
to be done by him alone, Sharmaji carefully corrected each page.