A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my terrace garden, minding my own business, getting a bit of wintry sun on my back with a dash of Vitamin D thrown in for good measure, when my mobile phone went off shrilly. I must add that I was at the time reading Pelham ‘Plum’ Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the Springtime for the fourteenth time, and enjoying a particularly hilarious passage and I was not overly thrilled with the rude mobile interruption. ‘Gosh, not Amazon or Flipkart at the gates again,’ I expostulated, ‘this time bearing a consignment consisting of two packets of cream crackers and four tubes of Pepsodent G toothpaste.’ I tend to shore up on my brand of toothpaste as they get stocked out frequently on these online portals. In the event, it was neither of those two aggregating giants who were storming the gates while giving me advance telephonic warning, but a voice that sounded like a teenage girl fresh out of college. Again, my antenna was up as were my hackles.
‘Good morning Sir, am I speaking with Mr. Subrahmanyan?’ cooed a bright, young, honey-coated voice. At least, that’s how it sounded.
‘You know you are. Who else would you be speaking to? What is this about?’ As you might have gathered, I was somewhat peremptory. I do not appreciate people interrupting me when I am savouring Wodehouse. Not that I would have felt any different had I been ploughing through Salman Rushdie. When I say ploughing, I am not suggesting Sir Salman’s novels are a tough grind. Merely that his books are usually extremely long and that you have to be prepared for, at the very least, a half-marathon full of unexpected twists and turns. Unlike Sir Pelham’s slim volumes which you can race through in a couple of days, while laughing all the way at the crazy antics of the Master’s aristocrats, landed gentry, well-heeled idlers, butlers and sundry crooks.
‘If you are busy now Sir, I can always call later. I have your number,’ she continued.
‘Yes, indeed you have my number, in more ways than one, and there’s not a lot I can do about it. No, dear lady, I shan’t avidly wait for another call from you. Say what you have to say now, and make it snappy.’ I was hoping she got the message.
‘You have a funny way of talking, Sir. A bit old school, but it’s nice. I am sorry for this disturbance, but I will take only a few minutes of your valuable time.’ I must say she did not lose her composure despite my rather brusque manner. I continued in the same brusque m.
‘Listen young lady, flattery will get you nowhere unless you are damning me with faint praise. Anyhow, get this. I do not wish to invest in mutual funds, I am quite happy with my current internet service provider, I have already given my feedback to the garage that serviced my car, that they robbed me blind, I have donated liberally to associations catering to the blind and the hard-of-hearing, gave away some of my finest shirts, shoes and trousers to orphanages and more donations to a variety of disadvantaged groups and my love for dogs has been amply demonstrated by my frequently extending a helping hand to CUPA and similar animal shelters. So, I don’t think there’s much you can touch me for, seeing as I have covered most bases. By the way, on a matter of principle I am not very charitable towards religious organizations and political parties. More often than not, they are one and the same thing.’
‘Thank you, Sir. I can see you are a very generous man. And since you have taken so much time to explain all the noble works that you have been involved in, as well as your bêtes noires, I would like to trouble you for just a few more minutes. What I wish to talk to you about has nothing to do with any of the things you have so meticulously listed.’ She was gently persistent, this girl, and her vocabulary was better than most people who pester me with sales talk over my mobile phone.
‘I must concede, young lady, that you have a gentle persistence with a surprisingly wide vocabulary. Most people in your line of work won’t know what “meticulously” means, much less slip it into casual conversation. Are you reading off from a prepared text?’
‘Thank you for your compliments, Sir. No, I am not reading from a script. I am a student of English Literature and can handle myself comfortably with the language. May I come to the point now Sir, as I am sure you are a busy man and I have no wish to detain you longer than necessary.’
She was clearly oblivious of my deliciously lazy lifestyle. Still, it was good to know she thought I was a busy man. ‘By all means. Go ahead, young lady, I appear to have misjudged you. English Literature eh? What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Sorry, that was just my light-hearted way of putting you at ease. I say, you are not by any chance, trying to sell me bound volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, are you? Or the complete works of Shakespeare? I mean, student of English Lit and all that?’
‘Not at all, Sir. I am sure someone of your erudition will already have adorned his bookshelves with those impressive volumes. My purpose in calling you is something entirely different. If you must know, I am not representing any charitable organization and this is not a sales pitch of any kind. Since you have already spent nearly 8 minutes on the phone with me, I crave your indulgence for a further 5 minutes.’
Anyone who ‘craves my indulgence’ gets a receptive ear from me. I relaxed a tad. Truth to tell, she had also aroused my curiosity. No sales talk, nothing commercial? What did she want? ‘Go ahead, young lady. I am all ears. By the way, do you have a name?’
‘Thank you, Sir. The name is Shanta. I have come to know through sources that you are a senior citizen, probably retired but quite active otherwise. I have also come across many of your blogs, which are in the public domain, and arising from those blogs that you are of a humorous disposition. Am I going well, Sir?’
‘Extremely well, Shanta. In fact, I am getting just a wee bit alarmed. What else do you know about me?’ I was now beginning to wonder if this smooth-talking Eng. Lit. babe was not some kind of polished blackmailer trying her luck with whoever might fall neatly into her deceitful web.
‘Now, now Sir, there is no cause for alarm. As long as you have not been involved in any wrongdoing.’
She now had my complete and undivided attention. ‘Who said anything about being alarmed? And what wrongdoing? What are you getting at? I have a good mind to disconnect. I am not sure I like the direction in which this conversation is heading.’
‘I wouldn’t do that, Sir. Disconnect, I mean. I can always call you back again. I have all your coordinates. This conversation is being recorded and I can make a case out that you were flirting with me. You wouldn’t want that, would you now, Sir?’
‘Coordinates? What kind of language is this? And you accuse me of flirting? We were talking about the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Shakespeare, for crying out loud. I don’t see anything flirtatious in that.’
‘Hmm Shakespeare,’ mused this modern-day Jezebel. ‘He wrote some pretty hot stuff in his time. Try these on for size. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate – this from one of his sonnets. Here are a couple more. I have immortal longings in me – Anthony and Cleopatra. Thou art a flesh monger, a fool and a coward – Measure for Measure. I can turn all that round to my advantage. What’s more, even EB has some blue passages in it, Sir.’
I was now completely lost, and perspiring freely. Uncle Fred in the Springtime fell to the floor from my nerveless fingers. For the life of me, I could not imagine what awful truths about me this teenager was hiding. ‘What awful truths about me are you hiding, you, you…’ For a man with a wide vocabulary, I was stumped for words.
I could hear peals of laughter from the other end. Not just from this Shanta Gawdelpus but joined by a gaggle of other females. ‘My sincere apologies, Mr. Subrahmanyan. I work for the Income Tax Department, and we found from your assessment files, that you owe the Government a sum of Rs.23.50 p after all calculations and statutory deductions were taken into account. Even this I am authorized to write off because of your unblemished past record and our new policy of ‘friendly and prompt service.’ Sorry to have needlessly worried you. My colleague and I just decided we will have some fun with a few assessees, selected purely on a random basis. Our lives are deadly dull otherwise.’
I was not sure whether to be hugely relieved at this candid and brazen confession or be deeply offended. As a Wodehouse aficionado, I felt I must show that I can take a joke and decided to brush it off. I spoke to her in a bluff, hearty manner I did not feel.
‘Ha, ha very funny. Please do not try this again, Ms. Shanta, if that is indeed your name. You might be responsible for sending someone or the other with a weak heart to an early grave with your pranks. How come the Income Tax department employs giggling teenagers like you? There ought to be a law.’
‘Sir, who said anything about teenagers, giggling or otherwise? That is your own imagination running wild. I trust you are not one of those Shakespearean characters secretly nursing ‘immortal longings.’ I am 54 years old and plan to retire next year. I felt I had to sign off by doing something crazy and reckless after nearly thirty years of mind-numbing, paper-pushing drudgery, trying to catch people out on some tax dodge or the other. Just so you know, I am happily married with two grown up children. Good day Sir, and you have my word, you will not be troubled again.’
So saying, the not-so-young lady, alias Shanta, disconnected. The joke was clearly on me and I took it on the chin. Whether it was a hoax call or not, I could not say. On the whole I was relieved and if it was not a hoax, I developed a grudging admiration for the caller knowing that we have people slaving away in staid, old government offices who are not above some harmless leg-pulling. Not to mention their knowledge of Shakespeare.
My nagging doubts about the authenticity of that call were cleared a week later, when I received an official letter in a buff envelope from the I.T.O. informing me that my tax dues of Rs.23.50p had been written off as a gesture of goodwill. Clearly, this is one Government department that not only works, but has a good laugh while doing it. Would that there were more such.