Over the last few years, Sharmaji had started a rather painful early morning
routine, having been sufficiently scared by his doctor. His paunch had been
developing, and he could no longer thrust himself into his trousers without feeling
constricted, and slightly out of breath. He had tried to go for gentle walks in the
evening, accompanied by Revathi, who had replaced Rukmini, the earlier
coordinator of SERVICE WIDS, discussing new ideas for women's
empowerment, but such walks had only given him a healthy appetite, and he
would finish the evening with a sumptuous meal. Not only his girth grew, but
nights became disturbed and uncomfortable with flatulence. The suppressed joke
of the campus was that his explosions sometimes reached Point 6 on the Richter
scale. He had consulted his doctor back in the city, who had wanted a complete,
very expensive check-up to be carried out. The news had not been good. His bad
cholesterol was too high, and his doctor said, we don't want an event, do we? A
brief early morning work-out under supervision in a gym was recommended.
He had begun a routine of walking his way to a nearby gym before six every
morning, feeling rather proud of the figure he cut in shorts, tee shirt and white
Adidas, which his wife cleaned every afternoon, when she was through with
housework. He would cycle for ten minutes, chat with the coach for fifteen, while
drinking cups of sugary coffee from the gym's dispenser, and then under prodding
from the coach, try standing exercises for another five minutes. By six-forty-five
he would be back home, feeling virtuous, and would loudly demand a fresh cup of
home-filtered fresh coffee from his wife. If he was feeling peckish, he might even
ask her for a plate of upma right then and there, served with potatoes. He did not
seem to lose much weight to his surprise, but he was able to struggle into some of
his clothes, though the way he bulged in tiers round the middle added a note of
cheer to schoolboys waiting for the bus near his flat.
On the January morning in question, he was late going to the gym, feeling grumpy
because of over-indulgence the previous night. His wife was a gifted cook, even
he acknowledged that, and the previous night, her brother and his wife had
dropped in for a meal. Sharmaji, despite the warning looks given by his wife, had
not been able to restrain himself. So, his grumpiness was understandable to
himself, and refusing all conversation, he concentrated on his cycle in the gym.
Gas seemed to rise in bubbles up his throat, and every now and then he would
stop cycling, and belch and fart loudly. He also tried drinking some coffee, and
cycling again, but he was not comfortable. He slowly began to realise that
everyone in the gym was looking at him in a rather peculiar manner. He
surreptitiously checked to see if his fly was open, but it was not. Perhaps, there
was a tear in the seat of his pants, and he tried to feel if it was so, but his arm
could not stretch that far round his backside. Peeved, he left the gym with a curt
nod at the coach. These fellows, who were they? Nobody. Waiting for jobs they
would never get, envious of big men like himself. They had no culture in any
case, so if was not surprising they gave him such stares. But still he felt
uncomfortable.

As he walked past the line of small shops that lined the street leading to his
locality, he noticed, now that he was aware something was wrong, that shop-
keepers paused in the process of getting their shops ready for business, and craned
round to look at him. What the devil was the matter? It could not be anything to
do with his clothes. It must be some rumour everyone had heard. Anxiety gripped
his heart. Everyone was always trying to ruin his reputation; no one, not even his
wife, despite all the good he had done everybody, was grateful to him. He knew it
was human nature. He would follow only the dictates of his conscience, his duty
to God, the nation, and society. Let dogs bark, it was their nature to do so. None
could touch those under God's special protection.
But still, it was worrying. What had these rascals heard? It could not be the matter
about that accounts slip-up at SERVICE. He had had an anxious two weeks at the
Income Tax Department. To be called up for what happened a few years ago was
atrocious, but these fellows tried to trap you, and extract money. He had been
threatened with legal procedure, leaving him ill and perspiring. He had explained
how his staff, inefficient and lazy, had let him down. How could he afford
properly trained accountants, when every penny had to be saved in the interests of
the poor? No, there should have been no muddle about the travel expenses. The
donors who had invited him the only delegate from India at the International
Conference on Sanitation for Poor Countries, in Paris, it should be noted the
donors themselves seeing his poor health had made all arrangements for a two-
week rest cure in the south of France. How could he show any letters from them?
It was an ad hoc, last minute intervention on their part. In fact, they had insisted,
kidnapped him in fact on his way to the airport, when he was desperately trying to
get back to his project in rural India. No, there was no doctor's report either, for
the French are very strict about medical confidentiality. Anyway, the matter was
settled one way or the other, Gupta, that rascal who had got him into this trouble,
greasing some palms no doubt. God knows, he and the poor were being swindled
at every turn.
On second thoughts, it could not be the Income Tax matter, for nothing had come
out, Gupta had seen to that; he would have fired Gupta on the spot if he had not
patched up the whole matter, he didn't care how it was done. It was something
else, but what was it? He was very sensitive now, and was aware of locality
people, people he never even talked to, coming to their windows to look at him as
he walked back. Oh, my God! They all knew something. The city must be agog
with some filthy rumour! He had returned to his flat only late last night, and gone
straight to bed without waking his snoring wife. That woman! How he had been
cheated by that uncle of his into marrying a penniless woman without family. And
now she was faithless. Why had she not stayed awake to tell him what everyone
was gossiping? Is this how a loyal wife should behave? Perhaps, she had heard
about that incident with Revathi. A cold hand gripped his heart. Yes, that was it!
All these immoral scoundrels, who sleep with each other's wives all the time
how he had to put up living in the midst of this steaming filth; but how could he
afford to live in a locality befitting his stature, when every penny was to be

dedicated to the poor? yes, these fellows must have heard about what happened
with Revathi. It was all innocent, mind you, as she herself had explained to the
rest of the staff. She had come to `his unit' on campus in the evening, as was her
duty, to discuss project matters. Despite his headache he had reluctantly agreed to
go through the files. His headache being intolerable, she had gone into the kitchen
to make him a soothing infusion. He had followed, and blinded with pain, had
tripped at the door, and falling had clutched on to her, bringing them both down
on the durrie. Badly winded, he was struggling to get up, when both Venkat and
Gupta came in carrying more files. It was only when he saw their astonished look
that he noticed for the first time that his hand which he had held out for support
was on Revathi's breast.
So, that was it. How filthy minds were ready to believe that even the God-fearing
were as filthy as themselves! He would never cease to be amazed at people's
depravity. So, they were all trying to bring him down. No doubt that Venkat, and
that Gupta wanted to seize control of his NGO. He would see them in hell first. A
new suspicion dawned. Maybe that whore Revathi was an accomplice! How he
had been mistaken in promoting her. He had been beguiled by her smiles, and her
pliant manner. He remembered now how she would deliberately sway towards
him, not wearing any bra, but lifting her large breasts shamelessly to his face. He
was so nave, so innocent! He should have known she was a practised whore,
egged on by those snakes in human form, Venkat and Gupta, to ruin him. But he
would not be ruined. He had nothing to fear. The donors, government officials, all
good men, knew him for what he was, a patriot, a tireless worker for people's
welfare. Brushing aside the grinning lift-attendant, who came forward to insinuate
something, he slammed the gate shut and went up to the third floor all by himself.
For one awful minute, he feared a retinue of neighbours on that floor would be
waiting for him, but mercifully the corridor was empty, and he shot into his flat
and bolted the door with relief.
He sat in his easy-chair grimly, perspiring, without calling out to his wife. He
would be stern and dangerous, and cow her into silence. In time this miserable
episode would be forgotten. Maybe he would buy her those new gold bangles she
was always pestering him about. She was an old woman, how could she complain
if he, a virile man, had manly needs?
"Good morning, Padmashree, Sir," he heard at his elbow, and there was his wife,
smiling fondly, bearing a steaming cup of coffee, some freshly-made vadas, and
the local morning newspaper on a tray. He was confused and agitated; he didn't
know what was going on, till his eye fell on the folded newspaper. There was his
photo on the front page, not taken from the best angle, but undoubtedly it was
him. `Vedavyas Sharma Awarded Padmashree for Social Service,' proclaimed the
headlines. He had been included in the Republic Day Honours List!
The next several minutes were too confused for him to remember later. He had
patted his good wife, and promised to buy her gold bangles as part of the

celebration. Not four, they could not afford so many, but two he could buy. He
must buy new clothes for the investiture. He could not go to the Rashtrapati
Bhavan looking like a beggar. He would get himself a good quality black suit, no
not a European jacket, but a closed coat, as befitted a nationalist. And yes,
Florsheim shoes, nothing less. There would of course be a Press Conference at the
SERVICE campus. He had read somewhere that the Sixth Nizam at the Delhi
Durbar had been similarly attired in severe black, and had called his ministers his
jewels. He would do the same. After all, those splendid fellows, Venkat and
Gupta, deserved praise. They had their way to make in the world. What did he
care for such gewgaws? He cared only to serve humanity. And he would not
forget poor Revathi either. He himself would call her to the stage and help her up,
being careful not to brush against those breasts of hers. Sharmaji, Padmashree! He
savoured the title. In a way the President was honouring himself by honouring a
simple servant of the people as himself.