This story first appeared in the third issue of UnBound magazine, released on Taylor Swift Day, 2016. It was published under the by-line 'Percy Wadiwala'. The magazine features stories by a number of fantastic writers, including Anon-i-am, Galina Trefil and Archana Sarat, and can be purchased here.
Hormuz Patrawala and the Fate of the Disbeliever
The people of the small hamlet of Dhoparwadi were unaccustomed to much by way of excitement. Theirs was a calm life, a gentle life, centred around fishing and working on the sprawling chikoo farm on the Dorabjee estate. So for years afterwards, the story of the water-drenched young man with torn trousers who had run, screaming all the way, through the village towards the highway would be told over steaming hot cups of tea at the Dhoparwadi Tea Stall, making September 17, 2016, rather a red-letter day in the town’s history.
The circumstances of the events that unfolded encompass a wide range of issues, magical, mundane, literary and corporate, but thankfully, by tracing them backwards in time, we can try to make some sense of them, perhaps even finding some pleasure in their recounting.
So without any further ado, let us begin:
September 17, 2016 (earlier the same day)
The white sedan rolled up the hill from the village of Dhoparwadi towards the heavy wrought-iron gates. ‘Dorabjee Chikoo Farms’, read the nameplate on the pillar, and as Bhavin Dedhia, Chief Manager at DCTMR Bank, turned into the gate, he wondered just how big these estates were. He had barely driven a few feet further when a man walked onto the road a few meters ahead of him and waved him to stop.
“Well ‘ollo, if it ain’t young Miss Rocky,” said the man, as she lowered the window.
“Farid, you look frail and shrunken. Haven’t you been eating your vegetables?” said Roxanne ‘Rocky’ Colabewala, Bhavin’s colleague and Secretary to his boss, jumping out of the car. Dedhia swallowed nervously. Farid was at least six feet tall and nearly as broad. He seemed not to have shaved in at least a decade, and wore a shirt that was outsized even for him.
“I’ve been all right, Miss Rocky. Come this way.”
They began to walk down a dirt track. Dedhia was not pleased. Despite the fact that he was wearing his Weekend Special Rocky Seduction Pink Shirt, she had steadfastly been ignoring him during their drive up from Mumbai.
“Hey! What about me?” he called out.
“Oh I’m so sorry. This is Mr Dedhia, he’s driven me here.”
Farid looked Dedhia up and down as though examining a particularly distasteful specimen of rotten chikoo.
“Right. Park the car there and come along.”
‘There’ was a garage off to the right where Dedhia could see two cars, and a bored-looking horse. He parked the car as far from the horse as possible and returned to where Rocky and Farid stood waiting for him. He followed them until they arrived at a horse-cart. Or rather, what would have been a horse-cart had there been a horse to drag it.
“All right, come on then,” said Farid, and climbed onto the driver’s seat.
“What? Where? There’s no…,” began Dedhia, wondering if that horse he had seen was going to trot over and tether itself, but Rocky had already hopped on behind the big man. Dedhia shuffled over to the side of the cart where she was sitting and said in an urgent whisper, “Is the fellow mad? Is he yeda? Why are you getting on this horseless carriage? Are you just humouring him?”
“Don’t stand there yapping,” said Rocky, ignoring his words and moving to the right. “Come on up, and give me that car key, or you’ll drop it jumping in.”
Mentally uttering multiple curses in his mind about the madness of Parsees, he obeyed her, tearing his trousers on a bent nail in the process. The cart gave a jerk and began to move. Dedhia stifled a cry as it wound its way through the dirt track, tall chikoo trees on either side, eventually joining the concrete road. They moved at a steady pace, while Farid held the traces as though there actually were a horse riding ahead of them.
“What’s going on?” he finally managed to whisper.
“Oh, thestrals,” she said. “Winged horses, but invisible. Commonest mode of short-distance transport in our world, you know.”
Dedhia sat quietly in his seat for the rest of the journey, but his teeth did chatter occasionally for reasons that had nothing to do with the bumpy road. Rocky seemed less and less like the hottest chick in office and more like some sort of horrifying, Godless witch. He found himself wondering whether even her stupendous charms outweighed her apparent devotion to the dark arts like fiction-reading and magic.
After a fifteen-minute ride, they reached the house, a massive brick structure with a wooden door and a tall fountain with naked nymphs outside. It was an imposing structure, three storeys tall. Had Dedhia been more knowledgeable, he would have identified it as an example of Gothic revival architecture.
The shriek made Dedhia jump, and when he saw who had uttered it – a little fellow in a black robe and conical hat, holding a foot-long wooden twig in his hand and wearing round spectacles on his eyes, he nearly fainted. This looked too much like a little demon-child for his comfort. Then an old man emerged into the light, even larger than Farid, with a wealth of white hair and a thick beard of the same colour, wearing a purple robe with stars embroidered on it.
“Come in, come in, Rocky,” he said.
“Always glad to visit, Uncle Soli.”
“And who’s this?” the old apparition asked.
This time Dedhia felt himself surveyed as though he were a worm crawling out of a rotten chikoo.
“He drove me here,” explained Rocky, and they all went in.
As they walked through a dark corridor and hall, Dedhia could vaguely make out the furniture, massive wooden desks and tables and candlesticks and wood-framed oil paintings.
“Can we have some light, Hormuz?” came the old man’s voice.
The boy nodded, waved his twig at the ceiling, and in an instant, electric light flooded their sight. Dedhia shuddered. This was darkness. The light was darkness. Evil magic abounded, he could just feel it. But now they had arrived at a sitting-room, and the white-haired men motioned to them to sit. Dedhia found himself on a sofa next to Farid, while Rocky and her nephew sat on another opposite them. Uncle Soli sat in solitary splendour on a rocking chair.
An awkward silence ensued, with Rocky and her nephew’s chatting the only sound. Dedhia could not make out much of their conversation, hampered as he was by Uncle Soli’s gimlet eye fixed firmly upon him. He caught a few stray snatches of words but they seemed utter gibberish – ‘Hogwarts’ was one, ‘Owlery’ was another and at one time he thought he heard ‘Wandlore by correspondence’ but he could not have sworn to it.
“Uncle Soli, why don’t you show Mr. Dedhia around the house while Hormuz and I pack his stuff for the journey home?” suggested Rocky.
Dedhia cursed under his breath as the huge old man laboured to his feet. He had no choice but to get up too, and as soon as he did, Uncle Soli slapped him on the back, no doubt meaning to be friendly. To Dedhia, it seemed as though someone had exploded a grenade in his back. He staggered at Uncle Soli’s side as they went through a dining room, up a set of stairs, around several rooms full of portraits, writing desks, antique tea-sets, mementos of ancestors of Uncle Soli and eerie statues of elves, orcs and the occasional unicorn. All the while, the old man spoke in a sort of polished, Victorian English that Dedhia understood very little of, telling little stories of how ‘Grand Uncle Shapoor used to make chikoo wine in the backyard’ and ‘Aunt Bikaji could consume a whole litre of Johnny Walker and not totter a degree from the perpendicular’.
When they finally came back downstairs, Rocky and Hormuz were sitting in a room that Uncle Soli called the ‘library’. This, Dedhia thought, clearly showed how mad these people were, because the only library he knew was SuperStar Video Library at Charkop, and this room full of books, and nothing but books, inside a private home was not that at all.
He found a cushioned chair and began to fiddle with his phone, resting his elbow on a handsome, leather-bound copy of a book by some guy called George Eliot. Minutes passed, and he fell into a doze even as Rocky and her nephew’s words permeated through to his brain. Once again they seemed to speak some strange foreign language, talking about things like ‘Wolfsbane’ and ‘Bezoars’ and ‘Transfiguration’ and ‘dealing with the bat-bogey hex’. As he dozed off, he felt transported into another world, a world where rules did not apply, and the only boundaries were those set by your own imagination. It was a world where magic was real, unicorns existed, men could speak with snakes, women could turn into cats, and boys and girls soared high above in the clouds on wooden broomsticks.
But even in his dream, Dedhia was aware it was not a world he could be a part of, hobbled as he was by an imagination that had been boxed-in for years by the rectangular lines of textbooks, where popcorn was more real than unicorns, where snakes were what he ate with evening tea, cats were unclean creatures to be driven away, and broomsticks had plastic handles, rendering them incapable of flight.
He woke up to Rocky patting his back, saying ‘Lunch’.
The table was set for four. He sat next to Rocky, while the kid sat opposite, and Uncle Soli at the head of the table. It was while he was spooning down the last helping of pudding that the kid, who had finished a while back and was fidgeting visibly, asked,
“Aunt Rocky, what is your driver’s name?”
“I’m not her…,” he began, but Rocky cut him off.
“Death Eater,” she said, before correcting herself and adding in an inexplicably softer voice, “Dedhia, I mean. Bhavin Dedhia.”
Dedhia had no idea what a Death Eater was, but it made the kid go berserk. He vaulted onto the table and pointed that twig of his at Bhavin, screaming ‘Reducto’. At the same time, the chair seemed to break under him, and he found himself sprawled on the floor on his back.
“Hormuz, what did I say about using dangerous curses on guests?” said Uncle Soli mildly.
“I’m sorry, Uncle S,” the boy sounded forlorn.
“Ok, one more spell,” said Rocky, with a gracious smile. “A mild one, nothing too harmful.”
“Aguamenti,” said the boy, but his heart did not seem to be in it. Not that it made a difference. The skies seemed to have opened – or rather, since they were indoors, the ground-floor-ceiling seemed to have opened – and a stream of water sprinkled down onto Dedhia’s Weekend Special Rocky Seduction Pink Shirt.
It was the last straw. Sputtering, soaking, shivering, Bhavin Dedhia crawled out of range of the spell and sobbed.
“This is what I do to Death-Eaters!” proclaimed the nasty devil-spawn child, waving the twig again. Before he could cast another spell, however, Dedhia took to his heels, racing towards the door.
September 12, 2016 (five days earlier)
“What are you reading, eh? Anything interesting?”
Roxanne cast a glance from her stunning dark eyes over the book she was reading at the speaker, a certain Bhavin Dedhia, Chief Manager, all five-feet-eight inches of him.
“Madame Bovary,” she said crisply. It was International Banking Conference week and most of the Big Chiefs of the Bank were in Moscow, leaving the ordinary braves of the tribe to read books (as Rocky was doing) or flirt with hot girls (as Dedhia was doing), but that did not mean she enjoyed the interruption in the slightest.
“Eh, fiction? What’s it about?”
Rocky had resumed reading, but put aside the book once more, only the slight twitch of her exquisite nose betraying her irritation.
“It’s about the young wife of a country doctor whose search for fulfilment leads her down a path of adultery and moral degradation.”
“Eh, what nonsense you read! Some new author?”
“Gustave Flaubert, 1856.”
“I don’t know how you people can read fiction, men.”
If Dedhia’s eyes had been on Rocky’s dainty feet rather than her superb figure, he would have noticed that she was tapping the right one on the carpeted floor.
“And what do you read?”
“Oh I read non-fiction, you know. Like, autobiographies and management books and all.”
“Like Seven Habits and Napoleon Hill?”
“Yeah yeah, and biographies of great people.”
“Fascinating. Great people like whom?”
“You know, Modiji and Trumpji and so on.”
The smile on her face was dazzling. Dedhia basked in it. It would have taken a more perceptive observer than him to realise it was a very strained stretching of the lips.
“Carry on, then,” she said.
But Dedhia was not one to take a hint.
“It’s not real you know, fiction.”
“No, it isn’t. I’m sure the biographies you read are completely factual though. Now did you need something from me, or…?”
“What stupid things there are in fiction, men. Fantasy stuff, childish stuff. You take this guy JK Rowling…”
“Woman. She’s a woman.”
“Yeah yeah, right. So this Harry Potter book she’s written, I mean really, kya nonsense hai yaar. Wizards going to some magic school? Like what the eff, eh?” he flailed his arms about to indicate just how ridiculous he thought the premise was, knocking over Rocky’s souvenir miniature Eiffel Tower by mistake. “As if such things are real, eh?”
“And is it so wrong to have a bit of the child in us?” asked Rocky, looking up into his eyes, searching for a trace of hope for his soul.
“Bah, what Wizards and magic! Childish fake stuff, give children such stupid ideas. My younger sister teaches in a school and one of the kids came dressed up in a black robe and conical hat on his birthday saying he was Harry Potter. How stupid is that?”
Once again Rocky smiled at Dedhia. This time the most perceptive observer would have been hard-pressed to detect the contempt behind it.
“What are you doing this weekend, Bhavin?” she asked in a breathless whisper.
“I…what? Oh, there’s a program, you know, like, girl-seeing, for marriage, my parents have fixed up something with these people in Ghatkopar…”
“I was hoping you could take me on a drive? Saturday? I have to go to Dahanu to fetch a nephew of mine back to Bombay. If we leave at eight, we should be able to catch lunch at my relative’s farmhouse and be back by evening.”
“I…eh…you mean you and me? Seeing girl, you know, for, but I mean, like no I can?” Dedhia felt a combination of ecstasy, arousal and disbelief that rendered him spectacularly inarticulate.
“My car’s in the repair shop, and I did promise to do this, and who else would I turn to?” Rocky bent forward to pick up the fallen Eiffel Tower as she spoke. Still leaning forward, she looked up at him with an imploring gaze. This movement brought Rocky’s torso in Dedhia’s line of sight, and as she had herself once said, what her breasts lacked in size, they more than made up in shapeliness.
“Oh yes of course, I’ll pick you up at the Highway. Will cancel that program. Heh heh. Sure, Dahanu trip. Yes. Uh I’ll step away now, I think I…umm…need to sit down,” he said, and disappeared.
Rocky sat back in her chair and picked up Madame Bovary again. She was a woman who could get what she wanted out of men with an arrow shot from her eyes, but in this instance, she thought, the need to get rid of his odious presence rather justified the use of the heavy artillery.
July 26, 2016 6:15 pm (six weeks earlier)
“Oye, Hormuz. Letter for you!”
As Hormuz Patrawala walked into his house, dragging his miniature genuine replica McLaren F1 car through the layer of dust that was customary in all houses in Andheri, these words fell on his ears like sweet, angelic music. Discarding the car upside-down on the floor, its wheels still rotating, he rushed - not towards where his father held out the letter towards him, but towards the calendar. The Patrawala’s wall calendar, a gift from Kaizaad Daruwala and Sons, Wine Merchants, had pictures of liquor bottles on it, something that had always piqued the boy’s interest (and made his father think back wistfully to the time before he had been asked to lay off the alcohol by Doctor Golibaar). But today, for a change, Hormuz was concentrating on the dates and not the alluring picture above it of a bottle of Beefeater’s Gin.
It was the 26th of July, 2016. His idol, Harry Potter, an orphan just like himself, had also received his letter of admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at the end of July. Hormuz sighed. His happiness, beginning somewhere near his pinky toes, worked its way up his spine and let itself off through his mouth as a whoop of joy so loud that his father dropped his tea-cup, spilling the brown liquid all over the tablecloth, and made his mother drop an egg into the frying pan without breaking it first. The resultant dish was not as bad as she had feared, but Ternaz Patrawala’s culinary genius is a story for another time.
“It’s here! I knew it, I knew I had magic!” screamed Hormuz, and ran again. Sohrab held out the letter in his hand, but his son raced straight past him towards the bedroom.
“I say, is the boy all right?” asked Sohrab in a low voice, addressing his wife.
“Oh, he’s just got an overactive imagination,” replied Ternaz, shaking her head.
“I know, I know. But sometimes I do wonder. After all, his mother…”
“Hush!” she said, as their son emerged from the room clad in a black cloak, a Wizard’s hat and holding a twig in his hand. It had been his birthday gift, a complete set of Wizarding Clothes brought from the Harry Potter store in Universal Studios by his Uncle Berry from Florida.
“Can I have my letter now, please?” he asked, in as grave a voice as his eleven-year-old’s vocal chords could produce.
“There you go,” said his father.
He read it once. And twice. And thrice. It was not exactly what he expected, but then, the ways of teaching young Wizards magic in India would surely be different than in England. His Aunt Rocky had hinted at something like this. Well, two weeks was not the same as spending the whole year in a marvellous residential school, but he would make sure he learned as much magic as he could. He was nothing if not a determined kid, was Hormuz Patrawala.
July 26, 2016, 5:45 pm (earlier that day)
“Well, what’s this, then? A letter for Hormuz!” said Sohrab Patrawala, mild-mannered accountant with Contractor Constructions, looking at the plain white envelope in his hand.
“For our son?” asked his wife Ternaz, wiping her hands as she emerged from the washroom of their two-bedroom Andheri flat.
“Only Hormuz I know” pointed out Sohrab, holding the envelope up in his hand. “It’s from…your Uncle Soli.”
There was a long silence as husband and wife looked at each other.
“Ought we to open it?” she asked, pushing back a stray strand of dark-brown hair from her forehead.
“It is for him,” her husband muttered.
“We don’t know what’s in it. What if the old man’s written something about his mother?”
Sohrab tapped the envelope on the table.
“The boy knows he’s adopted.”
“But not that his mother…” her voice trailed off, and she looked meaningfully at Sohrab.
“Well, won’t know until we find out,” said Sohrab, and carefully pried the envelope open. He read through the two-page letter slowly and then handed it to Ternaz.
“He’s inviting Hormuz to stay with him for a couple of weeks in the mid-term vacation in September.”
“But after all these years, why would Soli Dorabjee suddenly remember that he has a grandson?” wondered Ternaz. “We used to call him Big S, you know, because he was so tall and strong. But what happened to Shireen…it broke him. Do you think he wants to make up for it or something?”
“Maybe he just wants to meet Hormuz,” said Sohrab. “He hasn’t been to Mumbai since your cousin died, has he? That’s the last time he saw the boy?”
“Yes, he signed the adoption papers, said the boy needed to stay in Mumbai if he wanted to go to a good school and he was happy to see him adopted by his favourite aunt.”
“Isn’t your sister Rocky his favourite aunt?”
“That’s because I’m his mother now, you idiot!”
“Er yes, of course. I guess I can drive him to Dahanu…”
“He should enjoy himself. The estate is huge – I’ve only been once, but it’s…well, huge.”
“At any rate, it isn’t a bad thing if he knows his grandfather better, you know. After all someone has to inherit the chikoo farms…”
And for a moment, as they sat in their matchbox-sized Andheri apartment, Sohrab and Ternaz Patrawala allowed visions of a family estate and acres of farmland in Dahanu to float before their eyes.
“Damn,” said Sohrab suddenly. “I can’t go to fetch him back, I have to go onsite to Nasik for some work that weekend.”
“I’ll tell Rocky to go, she loves taking her little Nano for a spin anyway, and she’s quite a favourite with Uncle Soli.”
“How did that happen?” wondered Sohrab.
“Rocky looks a lot like Shireen,” said his wife with a sad smile. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this was all her idea. Well, put the letter back in the envelope. Let Hormuz open it himself.”
“The way he’s been looking through the letters when he comes home from school, you’d think he was expecting an Income-tax refund,” chuckled Sohrab. “Wonder what’s with the kid sometimes.”
“Children can be weird, Sohrab. Don’t you remember what you were like as a boy?”
Sohrab Patrawala thought back to his own childhood in sailor suits, reciting ‘O Captain My Captain’ before assembled droves of relatives, and thanked the Heavens that he had grown up.
Farid Mohammed, who works on the Dorabjee estate, claims to have overheard a strange conversation between old Soli Dorabjee and his niece, the beauteous Roxanne, as she started up a white Hyundai sedan to take little Master Hormuz home. The boy had gone to say good-bye to Tony the horse and Farid had been loading his luggage in the backseat.
This is how he recounts it:
“Did we overdo it?” the old man asked.
“Oh no, got what he deserved, I say,” she had replied.
“It was mostly for little Hormuz, you know, the motorized horse cart and the remote-controlled lights.”
“I know, Uncle Soli, it was really darling of you. He does love Harry Potter so much!”
“That chair’s leg being broken was a co-incidence though, and that fire sprinkler malfunctioning.”
“Yes, of course. A co-incidence.”
“Rocky, did you have anything to do with it?”
“Uncle Soli, are you implying I sawed through a leg of that chair and kicked it the exact moment Hormuz swung his wand?”
“Rocky, you’re an evil, evil girl.”
“Hardly, Uncle S. I just think a man who has completely forgotten how to be a child can do with an occasional, violent reminder that magic is real,” she grinned, looking rather a child herself.
“How did you manage the sprinkler, though?”
And here, Farid swears to anyone who asks, the young woman held out her hand, showing a tiny ball of fire about the size of a marble that danced from finger to finger, and said,
“That, Uncle, was really a co-incidence.”