The Burma Treasure

Chapter 1

Ram doesn’t like being broke. But it was too late, and he did not have a choice. A series of bad decisions by his father had brought the family to its knees with only ten thousand rupees remaining in their bank accounts – a meager sum that would help the family run the household for another two months.

“What do we…”

Ram’s mother tried to speak, but tears got the best of her. She blew her nose with her saree pallu.

Ram placed his hands on her shoulders, hoping it would make a difference. It didn’t help a lot but calmed her enough to finish the rest of the sentence.

“What do we do now?” she stared at Viswanathan, her husband. The man who was the ‘head of the family’ on paper.

Viswanathan sat on his favorite cane chair without any reaction. He looked at both Ram and Sulekha who were sitting on the floor but didn’t say anything. Cigarette smoke kept coming out of his nose. It looked like he didn’t care anymore.

Ram was angry. He was angry about so many things. For being born in the family when their parents were in their early forties. For often getting caught in the middle when his parents fought due to their incompatibility. For living in Avadi, which is the retirement haven for government employees and had zero girls his age. And, for studying environmental engineering, a course nobody seemed to love or cared about. And, to top it all, the family is bankrupt.

Ram looked at his parents. They didn’t speak for a while. Sulekha was expecting Viswanathan to say something. Say that he has a plan to save the family. But, Viswanathan didn’t have a plan. There was complete silence in the room. The only sound anyone could hear was the electric whirring of the fluorescent lamp.

Ram wanted to fill the silence. He wanted to say he would get a job. He wanted to say a few hopeful words. But, he had recently realized that environmental engineering was a scam and has zero job prospects in the country. With every country recovering from the recession, it was still hard for graduates to get a job even at high attrition places like call centers.

Ram wanted to say something, but he didn’t because he knew his parents too well. He knew that anything he says will be used against him. They might even say that he was the reason they went bankrupt. So, he stayed silent and decided to observe.

Viswanathan crushed the already dying cigarette in his steel ashtray and uttered the words that his family was hoping he would never say.

“We’ll have to sell the house.”

Sulekha let out a shriek and started crying. It felt like someone died in there. It was the hope the family had.

But, it was nobody’s fault. Ram’s father worked from his early teens till his mid-sixties. He had helped so many people among his family and friends. But, none returned the favor when he needed it the most. With no one else to support, the family was running on the reserve savings Viswanathan had in his bank account. Things were going well, but a couple of faulty business ideas drained the rainy day fund sooner than they thought. With the business in ruins and Ram without a job, the family is forced to sell off the one thing that was dear to them – Ram Nivas. The house Viswanathan built as soon as Ram was born.

The place was filled with so many memories. Selling the house would sort out all the family’s problems. It would give them enough money to buy a new apartment and enough funds to run the household for ten to twelve years. But, selling the house is like selling a part of the family.

“We don’t have a choice.” Viswanathan lighted up the third cigarette for the evening.

“We did. I told you that setting up a photo studio in the age of digital photos is a bad idea. But, you did not listen…You never listen!”

Viswanathan was furious.

“I thought digital would be a fad. Who knew it would take off like crazy and burn the business to the ground.”

“If we had had that money, we would have been better off for a few more years. And Ram would’ve gotten a job by then”

Sulekha looked at Ram, expecting him to say something.

But, Ram was silent.

Don’t say anything! Don’t say anything!

“You’re speaking as if I blew the money on alcohol or gambling. I thought it could be our break”

“Break! You say this all the time. But, we never get a break. And, now we’re broke and we’ll have to….we’ll have to sell…”

Sulekha broke into tears.

Viswanathan couldn’t take it anymore. He got up and stormed out of the house. It wasn’t new to Ram. Viswanathan walked away whenever he couldn’t handle a situation. A pretty neat trick. Worked most of the time.

“Where are you going! I’m not done with you” Sulekha screamed at the door.

There was no answer.

“Ma! Calm down! He’s gone already”

Ram tried to calm his mother.

“How can I calm down, Ram! You’re seeing where he’d gotten us today. Ten thousand rupees. Ten thousand rupees is all we have now. If the motor stops working, it will take 2000 rupees just to fix that.”

Ram nodded in agreement. Running a household can be tricky. Every month one thing or the other comes our way and drains the extra money we were hoping to save. It will take different forms – viral fever, property tax, temple trips, a broken motor, or even a gift for a close relative’s wedding. So Ram understood how quickly this money will vanish from their accounts.

“It is my fate to marry this man and suffer like this…I was born into a well-off family you know. My father was a smart man. He didn’t do business and lose all the money like your father. He took a salaried job. And, he did really well. A few years into the job, he built his own house, had a car, and was also running a taxi business with four taxis on the side. That’s the example of a self-made man.. “

Ram heard about his grandfather before. He knew the family history. His mother’s family was well off until one point when things started going South. When his mom was in her teens, his father lost everything, became poor, and eventually died of a heart attack, leaving the family in shambles. But Ram never knew the fact he made all that money from a salaried job.

“He sounds like a great man. What did he do for a living any way? Was he an engineer or something?”

Ram tried to divert his mom’s attention. He knew talking about her father would take his mom’s mind off of everything that happened that evening.

“Engineer! My father didn’t even have a proper education. He never went to college. I don’t think he completed his schooling either. He was lucky. He joined a small import and export company as a clerk and soon became a manager. He made good money.”

Wow! Whatte man!

“But none of that money stuck around. We lost it eventually. I guess that’s my fate. Where ever I go, people end up being broke. Maybe it’s me”

Sulekha started crying.

Ram felt he needed a break. He had heard too much crying for the last couple of days.

“Don’t think like that ma. Life is filled with ups and downs. We’ll get out of this. Trust me.”

He hugged her and patted her back. It calmed her a bit.

She wiped her tears.

“I didn’t even ask you if you’ve eaten anything since you came home. Sorry, Ram. Come. I’ll make you dinner.”

“Okay. But only if you have dinner with me.”

Sulekha went silent.

“I’m not asking you to not be sad, ma. We all should be. But, don’t spoil your health as well. Like you used to say often…we can’t afford to get sick.”

His mom forced a smile and went to the kitchen to make dinner.

After dinner, Sulekha sat in front of the pooja room for some time. Ram did not want to disturb her. He wasn’t much of a believer. But, he thought if his mother’s prayers were answered, he wouldn’t mind being back to believing in God. Maybe he was an opportunist. 

At nine, Sulekha went to the bedroom to sleep. She looked tired. 

“Your father hasn’t come yet. Must be hanging out with his useless friends. Can you wait for him until he’s back?” Her voice was feeble. 

“I’ll take care, ma. Get some rest.”

Ram sat on the steps and looked at his phone. He couldn’t afford a data plan so he looked at the pictures he had taken with his friends when they all visited the mall the previous weekend.

It’s 2013 and data packs haven’t gotten any cheaper.

At ten, Viswanathan entered the house.

“Where have you been? Mom was worried”

Vishwanathan said nothing. He looked inside the house. 

“She went to sleep”

“Good for me. “

“Where have you been, Pa? We were worried.”

“Didn’t run away. Don’t have the money for it. Was just walking around…trying to come up with a solution.”

Viswanathan sat next to Ram and lit a cigarette.

“It’s not your fault you know…” said Ram.

Viswanathan looked at him in surprise.

“What!? What will you do if the business failed? It’s not like you deliberately burnt it to the ground. Things change and running a business has its risk. And, it’s not you. Every photo studio is going to go out of business.”

“Well, say that to your mom”

A puff of smoke filled the atmosphere around them.

“Right! I don’t want to make things worse.”

“Yeah”

“Did you find a solution?”

“There is no other solution. Selling the house is our only way out, Ram.”

Ram was silent.

“Ram. I know things haven’t been great lately. But, we’ll try and come out of it.”

“I know, Pa. I wish the house stayed with us.” Ram couldn’t finish his sentence. He wanted to say so much. But, he couldn’t speak. 

“Don’t you think I want that, Ram? I built this place in your name.”

Ram could see his father’s eyes well up in tears.

“I understand, Pa.”

Viswanathan wiped off his tears before they fell off.

“Sometimes I wonder if things would’ve been different if your mother had inherited some of her father’s wealth. The one she often talks about…it would’ve helped us now…when we’re in need”

“I guess. But, it’s not like we had a choice.”

“I know! Just saying. Even thinking about the possibility made me feel good for a second. Alright, Ram. I’m going to bed. Lock up the gate and come inside.”

Viswanathan slept in the living room and Sulekha slept in the master bedroom. Ram went to his room where he studied, slept, and danced to Srikanth Deva songs. The AC/DC and Pink Floyd posters on his room were decoys. 

It was 1 AM and Ram couldn’t sleep. He tried. But the situation in front of him was too big to ignore. He ran the events of the evening in his head and one thing stuck out for him. It was what his mom told him about his grandfather. He kept thinking about the man. 

How come someone who had no education made so much money, built his own house, buy a car and manage a taxi business. And that too all this from a salaried job! Must be some kind of luck! I wish I had a job like that!