CLEANING WITH A DIRTY CLOTH…A SHORT STORY

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All characters, names and places in this story are fictional. However, the story may bear some resemblance to reality. 

We hear and see this happening day after day; yet it does not bother us. If people wish to dust their house, they say “Bhai, ek ganda kapda dena. Ghar saaf karna hai.”   It is fine if we clean the house with a dirty cloth. The dust gets moved from one place in the house and settles in another corner. The cloth gets dirtier in the process and so does the house. We use the same cloth to clean the same house day after day. The house gets increasingly dirtier and we begin accepting that this accumulating filth is normal.

Pratap Dutta, having superannuated after a long and satisfying service of four decades in the armed forces, decided to relocate from Ananthagiri to Gobindapur. Having done so, his wife Pramila and he decided that it was time that Pramila’s mother, Shanti Devi, now pushing eighty and the only surviving parent on both sides, should come and live with them. Shanti Devi owned a sprawling ground floor apartment in a bustling area of the capital, Indraprastha, where she had lived for the  last twenty-five years. With a little convincing and accepting the practical difficulties of living alone, she consented to move to Gobindapur. Pratap and Pramila decided to go to Indraprastha and help Shanti Devi relocate. After all, it is quite a task, from disposal of the property, car, furniture, household goods and bidding the final farewell to folks in Indraprastha.

The property was in Sarathi Nagar, just a gully beyond the upmarket residential area of Shahjahan Enclave. However, there was quite a difference between the two colonies, as Pratap quickly gathered. Shanti Devi’s grand-aunt, Saroj Bala Devi, had acquired a tract of land in Sarathi Nagar several decades ago. Sarathi Nagar was then, and still is, a part of Kishanpur Village, which used to be agricultural land before the farmers started getting pushed out of Indraprastha due to growing urbanisation. The Indraprastha Municipal Corporation (IMC) files still record it under a different category from regular residential areas with different governing rules. Pratap learnt that Kishanpur fell under the ‘Kesari Dhaga’ area, whatever that meant. Saroj Bala Devi died in the early 1990s and willed her property to her heirs, of whom Shanti Devi was one. In a few years, all of them had entered into collaboration agreements with builders to develop these land parcels into multistoried apartments.

Pratap was new to the ways of working in Indraprastha and considered it prudent to engage the services of Ramji Verma, a property broker, operating in the area where Shanti Devi resided. A hardened professional and a fair judge of people, Ramji quickly understood that there is some money to be made here. He assured Pratap of finding a buyer and getting a good deal through in a few weeks. Pratap and Pramila, having seen the world from close quarters, also understood the broker’s urge to make a quick buck and did not grudge him that, as long they had a good, clean deal. Shanti Devi, too, did not mind getting a value lower than the ‘market rate’, as she neither had  the need nor the conscience to handle black money. Several prospective buyers  came and went with most of them unable to produce ‘clean’ money. Those who could do so even in part, quoted ridiculously low sums and were summarily rejected.

In a few weeks, a deal was struck with a young businessman, Fateh Mohammad, who ran a trading firm in South Indraprastha. This 40-something fellow and his wife Tasneem, were pleasant people and a clean deal was struck, with Pratap interlocuting on behalf of Shanti Devi. Fateh was keen to acquire the house since Tasneem, who was recovering from a life-threatening disease, had trouble negotiating stairs. A ground floor house would be good for her. All payments were to be made by cheque or bank transfers. So far, so good. Fateh commenced making his scheduled payments to Shanti Devi. Pratap and Pramila decided that it was time to fly out to Indraprastha to wrap things up and one sweaty September evening, they arrived at the capital and headed for Shanti Devi’s house. They bought return air tickets for themselves and Shanti Devi two weeks later by which time the deal would be concluded.

All was going well till Fateh suddenly realised that he was falling short of funds and applied for a bank loan. The bank flatly refused in the beginning since they were unsure of title claims in the Kesari Dhaga areas. Enter Ramji Verma once again. He smelled some money here too. Ramji assured Fateh that getting a loan from a bank was child’s play and he would organise it within days. Quite obviously, ‘conditions’ would apply. Banks, however, have their own ways of working and verification of property titles and credentials. Fateh was at his wits end, trying to get all title and history documents for the bank. Fortunately for Pratap, all documents, including copies of Saroj Bala Devi’s registered Will, no objection certificates from other heirs, original IMC documents related to the purchase  and collaboration with the builder were available. A relieved Fateh submitted all necessary proof to the bank.

Days passed quickly. Late on Friday morning, the week before Pratap’s planned departure from Indraprastha, a frantic Ramji, with a hassled Fateh in tow, announced to Pratap that the bank, upon examining IMC records, had found a notation of ‘unauthorised construction’, booked about twenty years ago, against the premises number of Shanti Devi’s building. A closer scrutiny of this notation revealed that the name against whom the objection was raised was that of a known builder, Vivek Rathore, who had constructed the adjacent building. The description of the ‘unauthorised construction’ also appeared to match the adjacent building. However, the premises number in the IMC record was that of Shanti Devi’s building. No notice was ever received by Shanti Devi or any other resident of the building, notifying any such unauthorised construction in more than two decades.

That was not all. Pratap and Fateh were also rudely shocked to be informed by Ramji that properties which were booked for unauthorised construction had associated problems while registering sale deeds. Such sale deeds were red-stamped with an ‘unauthorised construction’ seal which had implications for subsequent sale of the property, including depreciation of its value. Avoidance of this stamp on the sale deed was therefore critical, more for Fateh, who was staking his hard-earned savings and seeking a bank loan for acquiring this property. Ramji added that even this could be  ‘managed’ for a consideration but the official responsible for registering sale deeds was being investigated for corruption and was, therefore, being extra careful. That meant that the bribe would have to be heftier.

Less than four full days were left for Pratap, Pramila and Shanti Devi to return to Gobindapur with an intervening weekend. One and a half working days. Pratap decided to pay a visit to the IMC Zonal Office and have a chat with the Deputy Commissioner. The Deputy Commissioner, an IAS officer, was on leave. His respectful Private Secretary heard Pratap out and informed him that that this was a ‘very difficult’ case and any unauthorised booking, once entered in IMC records, could take years to get resolved, if at all. Pratap also gleaned from the whispering corridors there that such practices by builders are common where they get wrong premises numbers booked by paying bribes to remain in the clear. Since Pratap insisted that he wanted to speak to ‘somebody with authority’, the Private Secretary fixed up a meeting with Shashank Agarwal, the Executive Engineer responsible for handling such cases. Agarwal was courteous but diplomatically conveyed that such matters are best settled amicably at the Registration Office and that the official procedure was too tedious to pursue. He added that Shanti Devi could file an application if that was any consolation to her, which she did.

There was another great revelation that resulted from this brief meeting. It emerged that there are hundreds of such colonies in Indraprastha that are termed as ‘Unauthorised Regularised’ colonies or something to that effect. The nomenclature itself, is a contradiction in terms. If a colony was ‘regularised’, how is it ‘unauthorised’ any longer? There are ownership papers, the properties are mutated, all residents pay house and property taxes, water and electricity bills, are connected with piped cooking gas and comply with every guideline of the civic administration. Another eye-opener was that hardly any multistoried building in these areas have a plan that has been sanctioned by the IMC. Builders have flouted every norm and created more than twice the number of dwelling units than what is authorised by regulation. The extra money earned from this illegal construction is pocketed by the builders after paying off authorities that could create impediments in ‘smooth’ construction and disposal of the dwelling units.

Friday passed in animated discussion and frayed nerves but with little progress on ground. Pratap decided that it was time to issue ultimatums. The Monday morning flight bookings had to be cancelled and re-booked for Wednesday. Ramji was told to get the sale deed through by Tuesday or else the sale would be called off. Hell or high water, Pratap, Pramila and Shanti Devi would be on the flight to Gobindapur on Wednesday morning. Ramji realised that his handsome brokerage fee could be slipping away. By Friday night, things changed miraculously. Monday appointments with the Registrar being filled up, an early Tuesday appointment was made for conclusion of the sale deed. On Tuesday morning, at the appointed time, both parties, brokers and intermediaries met at the Registration Office and the deal went through like greased lightning. Heavily ‘greased’ lightning. Ramji had even got Fateh to purchase a box of laddus in anticipation, which was offered to everyone in celebration.

Through this harrowing experience, Pratap and Fateh got this uneasy feeling that Ramji Verma knew everything from the beginning and the ensuing drama was scripted and directed by the broker.  All for a few extra bucks for himself and unscrupulous officials. Though all parties got rid of the dirt, the grime remains and increases every time we try to dust it off. Not just that, the grime gets hardened with every greasing. It is time to use clean dusters and resort to some deep cleaning.

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