The third and last story in the Tales of Thambi by Shalini Srinivasan.
Thambi was grumpy for a whole week after Aravidu Narasimha conned him into paying so much money for some lousy straw. Which is why he didn’t just smile and write off the loss when Mani, editor of the Basavakere Bugle wandered into the shop, grinned, picked up a packet of Marie biscuits and wandered out again.
“Hey! Mani!” yelled Thambi.
Mani jumped. He liked to think that the press was entitled to being fed by the general public, every now and then. His mind needed nourishment. But Thambi wasn’t in the mood to humour young Mani.
“That biscuit is one rupee twenty-five paise,” said Thambi firmly.
Mani ruefully turned out his kurta pockets, dropping a dirty hanky, a small notebook, a piece of murukku, some orange peel and three grubby ballpoint pens. The ballpoint pens were from Thambi’s shop, unpaid for. Thambi looked at them with loathing. No one respected him, that was the problem, he decided. He was too nice. And so people like young Mani taunted him in his own shop by stealing his things.
“Ah yes, I wasn’t going to say anything, but I know you don’t like to feel indebted to anyone … you also owe me for the ballpoint pens,” Thambi said nastily. “Altogether you need to pay me four rupees and twenty-five paise.”
Mani tried the cheery smile that had worked on angry shopkeepers when he was in school and college. He stuck his largish teeth out and crinkled his eyes in what he imagined was a merry and engaging grin. But Thambi’s heart was still stony and bitter and no amount of teeth could make him feel better.
But he did feel a little worse when he saw the grin fade off poor Mani’s face. “My trough has stopped getting presents,” he said in a friendlier voice. “It’s not that I am ungenerous to the press, but I am a little worried about money these days. You know how it is.”
Mani did know how it was – publishing is a dicey business, and the denizens of Basavakere were a bit hazy about time, so they didn’t think of a newspaper as a thing to read on the day it came out. Instead, they bought the Bugle cheap a week or two after it was printed, and read it as fiction, in the same spirit as they read a book or a comic. Mani had often heard Thambi and Sita the bookstall lady compare the newspaper to books. Sita’s shop was part bookshop, part magazine stand, part lending library, and part raddhi shop. Almost all paper in Basavakere went via her at some point in its existence. Sita was a bright and cheery person who read everything in her shop before she let anyone else buy it. So she took a deep interest in what people bought.
“I’ve read that Agatha Christie,” Thambi would say sadly. “Isn’t there a new one?”
“No new Agatha Christies. Try the Bugle from 5th December 1967,” Sita would say. “It has some good stories.”
“No, I want a murder,” Thambi’d reply.
“Ahh, there was one in Devanahalli in, let’s see 23rd September ….” Sita would say, rummaging in a stack, while Thambi beamed. “And they solved the crime two months later. The Bugle carried the crime articles by special reprint from the Mysore Messenger, you know. There’s some nice investigative writing in the time between these two issues, if you want to read the whole thing.”
Thambi did always want to read the whole thing, buying up an entire two months worth of newspapers at a time, unlike the sneakier people who just read it standing in Sita’s shop so they wouldn’t have to pay for it. Mani generally felt a bit kinder towards Thambi than he felt towards the rest of Basavakere. But he was hungry and had no pity to spare for anyone who was not himself. If Thambi had been a nicer person, thought Mani, he wouldn’t need to take things without paying for them. After all, he was an honest and upstanding citizen all the time when he wasn’t in Thambi’s shop. In fact, decided Mani, it was all Thambi’s fault he was stealing at all.
Mani glared into Thambi’s face.
“I thought you were a kind man,” Mani said nastily.
“I thought you were an honest one,” said Thambi, stung.
They looked at each other, appalled. Why were they behaving like this?
“If you give me food I’ll pay you back by writing about you,” said Mani, struck by a brilliant idea.
“Eh! What for?” said Thambi puzzled.
“A profile on a prominent citizen,” said Mani warming up. Thambi looked flattered, and Mani’s quick mind raced ahead in time. In his head he was already calling several people ‘prominent citizens,’ in exchange for some free plumbing, cheap printing, some firewood, some coffee powder and milk, maybe some new trousers, and other necessities of a discerning journalist’s life.
“I don’t know,” said Thambi.
“Come now,” said Mani who couldn’t bear his idea not working. “I have long wanted to write about the distinguished service that you provide to our town. I’m saying this out of the deepest respect. I’ve seen you read sixty editions of the Bugle in one go. I know you are someone who appreciates good writing. How can you even think I would say unfair things about you?”
“No no,” Thambi assured him. “Nothing like that. You’re a nice young man, I’ve always said. I don’t mind if you take the occasional biscuit and all, but you must tell me no?”
“I know,” said Mani. “You are generosity itself. I see my headline already: The Karna of Basavakere.”
Thambi made a face. “I always thought that Karna was one paltry fellow. If he had thought properly about the price he wouldn’t have simply given off his things like that.”
Mani’s grin collapsed but only for a second. “Lakshmi” he said. “You bring wealth and prosperity to our town.”
“Not a proper goddess,” said Thambi. “I’m sure Lakshmi is a fine lady, and speaking for myself I would be honoured. But … as it is the children make fun of me when I try and impart some mild moral lessons. They call me stodgy and laugh at my pink socks. Horrible creatures, but isn’t there someone a bit less godly? I need those kids to keep spending their pocket money here.”
“Hmmm,” said Mani. “Oh I know! Kubera! You can be the Kubera of Basavakere.”
Thambi was thrilled. “Kubera! That is too much Mani. I am only one man. I stock what I can get only.”
Mani waved away his protests, which is just what Thambi wanted. “No no Thambi. You’re too modest!”
“No no Mani, you are too kind.”
There was a slight, embarrassed silence. Thambi wondered if he’d protested too much, and Mani wondered if he had sounded like a suck-up.
Then they both laughed. Of course not! “Have you tried these lovely cashew biscuits, Mani?” said Thambi, offering him a packet.
“Lovely lovely,” mumbled Mani, stuffing them into his mouth and spraying crumbs everywhere. “You’re a true benefactor Thambi.”
After Mani left, Thambi swept away the crumbs smiling. The Kubera of Basavakere, oh my. That would show that slimy Aravidu Narasimha!