He woke up before first light, his stomach churning, his mind asking the same question over and over – what if they found out? There was no doubt that the ring belonged to Chhote Sahib’s family. The pawnbroker would certainly think it important to tell them that he, Mehramji, their servant, had pawned a diamond ring! It was a valuable piece of jewelry – no one would believe that it was his. Wouldn’t it be better if he returned it to them? They were bound to reward him. He pulled out the ring and looked at it longingly. The diamond seemed to smile at him tempting him to think otherwise. But they are kind people, he reasoned, they would compensate him for his honesty.
Perhaps it would not be enough to fulfill all his dreams, but at least enough to pay off his loan. And it was the debt that worried him the most. His wife and he would not sleep for days before and after the moneylender’s visit. And every time he came, the interest would be a little more.
Mehramji decided to return the ring. He did not tell his wife anything. He was scared she would sway his decision. He got off the charpoy slowly and went to wash near the well.
The sun was out, but the sky was overcast in the distance. The air smelled like wet earth. Mehramji put on a clean shirt and trousers. He placed the ring in his pocket, massaging it through the fabric as he walked to the front of Chhote Sahib’s house. He climbed the three steps to the covered verandah that wrapped itself around the structure, stopping to rest his hand against the cool cement of the archway.
He rang the bell. The housemaid came to the door.
“Call Sahib,” Mehramji said.
She walked away. A few minutes later Chhote Sahib came out on to the porch. The silk of his paisley patterned robe contrasted starkly with the white of his linen pajamas as he walked across the shining mosaic floor.
“Mehram, this early in the morning, is everything alright?” he asked as he settled into a rattan chair at one end of the verandah. He did not look worried.
Mehramji pulled out the ring from his pocket and squatted on the floor near Ranbir. It lay flat on his palm, the diamond catching the slanting rays of the early morning sun as the grey clouds rolled lazily toward it.
“I found this on the terrace yesterday Chhote Sahib,’ Mehramji said in a low tone. “It was stuck in one of the rain traps.”
Chhote Sahib was quiet as he picked the ring up with the thumb and index finger of his left hand. A cool breeze had begun to blow as the sky turned darker.
“Did you steal the ring Mehram?” he asked.
Mehramji’s face lost colour. He had not expected the question. He was being truthful by returning it, he had faltered but he had not stolen. “No, no Chhote Sahib, I would never steal from you. I could not dare! You and Memsahib have been so kind. I am telling the truth. I found it yesterday. Memsahib sent me up to clean out the traps and it was there, stuck in one of the drains with the rotting leaves.”
“Then why did you not return it yesterday itself?”
Mehramji was quiet. He looked up to speak but could say nothing.
“I am disappointed, Mehram,” Chhote Sahib continued. “I will not tell Memsahib because she will be very upset. She really cared for you and your family. You have worked for us for many years but I cannot tolerate dishonesty and there is no place for thieves in my house. I am sure you know what you have to do.”
Chhote Sahib got up from his chair and walked back into the house. He had pushed the ring down to the knuckle of his left thumb.
Mehramji stayed on his haunches. The rain clouds had made their way to the estate, dark and grey. A single tear journeyed down his cheek as a roll of thunder sounded above him. The moneylender would be visiting next week.
© Ayesha Sindhu 2013