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A Penny for Mrs. Ramballi

By Richard Rupnarain

All the major companies that lined both sides of the Avenue of the Republic immediately south of the Georgetown Public Library and the Bank of Guyana edifices declared a common objective: To bring to citizens’ awareness the uncertainty of life and to offer them an insulation against the financial reverses of such uncertainty. These elegant buildings were homes to the major insurance companies.

It was Monday, December 07, 1970. The trees along both sides of the Avenue were still soaked with overnight dew and certain parts of the street were still under a cloud of mist that so far had managed to defy the sharp rays of the morning sun as it rose imperceptibly in the orange hued eastern skies. Traffic on the roads was beginning to slow to a trickle as most workers were already in their places of employment and, apart from the sounds of horns and whistles, it was relatively quiet, though not for long, as stereograms from the record bar at the intersection of Regent and the Avenue would soon commence their non-stop blast of pop, reggae and calypso music.

The office of the Mutual Life assurance Company was opened since 8:00 a.m. but was also relatively quiet for a Monday morning. In fact, when Bashir Sharma walked into the musky foyer he was surprised to see just one woman ahead of him in the line to the service counter. She was a pretty woman, teasingly dressed in a low cut mini yellow dress stamped with large hibiscus patterns, and bedecked with several layers of gold chains around her neck, matching sets of earrings and bangles, and a heavy gold brooch on her dress with a map of Guyana so badly crafted that it looked like Venezuela had made good on their territorial dispute threat. She wore her hair in a double layered bun held together with hairpins and an almost invisible hairnet. Her fair cheeks were well layered with rouge, her eyes shadowed and lashed in dark tones, and her rather thin lips were made prominent with bright red lipstick that matched the Cutex on her nails. Her gait and modicum took Bashir aback as he was not accustomed to seeing Indian women like her and he began to wonder as to her identity, discreetly peeking into he purse whenever she opened it for a handkerchief or her lipstick case, hoping to catch a glimpse of some document that may solve the mystery. She kept looking out into the parking lot where a lone grey Morris Oxford with the name Baby Girl roughly painted next to its number plate was parked, its engine still idling as could be seen from the cloud of whitish blue smoke that rose from its tail pipe. The driver was still inside the vehicle, smoking and intermittently exchanging glances and smiles with the woman in front of the line. In the back seat, preoccupied with a model truck, was a young child, a boy, whom Bashir estimated could not have been more than three years old.

The mutual life building was a converted three-storied wooden colonial mansion, painted white with green trims and with a logo that was visible from afar. On the topmost level of the building were the executive offices, the middle floor housed the canvassers and agency managers, and the ground floor hosted the claims and payroll departments. The small parking lot behind the building was more than enough for the very few employees who could afford a car. On entering the ground floor, policyholders were greeted with a musty odor, a mixture of damp and decaying greenheart and of freshly waxed linoleum floors. An L-shaped wooden counter, shiny with years of activity, and cold to the naked skin, separated customers from the office. Adjacent to the counter was a wire-meshed cage, about five feet square, that housed the main cashier. He was a bearded dark skinned man with pale lips and more hair coming out of his ears than all of the hair on Bashir’s head. Strapped to his head with a shoe lace was a huge pair of black bone-framed glasses which had the effect of magnifying his eyes ten times over. That morning he was thumbing through papers that from afar looked like receipts, and, every few seconds he would pound on the keys of an antiquated green adding machine on his desk and give it a crank. After a few rolls of the drum he would rip off the bit of machine tape and check his totals. He seemed oblivious to the activities around him and never once looked up at the customers waiting in line. The clock on the wall behind him said it was 9:55 am.

The ground floor was about forty feet wide and sixty feet deep. The room was dimly lit and its dark green and yellow walls and unpainted ceiling, that had become home to spiders and roaches, did little to alleviate the dullness of its ambience. The left section of the office housed the rows of desks at which the claims clerks computed loans, claims and surrender values of policies. Bashir wanted a loan and surmised he would soon be talking to one of those clerks. He wondered who it would be. The man at the head of the row was Portuguese, slightly balding, with a dark moustache upturned at the ends that made him look like a musketeer. But he seemed friendly. He was sipping coffee from stained green teacup while fumbling in his drawer for pens and other supplies. The nameplate in front of him said, “Patrick Gonsalves, Claims Clerk.”

Sitting quietly behind Mr. Gonsalves was Mr. Looknauth Ramsingh. His name was written on the plate in smaller letters to accommodate the full spelling and it indicated that he was a claims clerk, just like Mr. Gonsalves. Bashir figured he must be a Christian as he had a small stack of tracts headlined Jesus Saves under a paper weight beside the rusting wire in-tray. He wondered who might be more senior of the two men, the one in front or the one behind.

Behind Mr. Ramsingh sat the supervisor. His nameplate said “Horton Jones, Supervisor.” He was a mixed-race gentleman of about forty years of age, stocky, and almost as fair in complexion as Mr. Gonsalves. He sported a thick lock of curly hair held in place with a healthy application of Bryl cream and like Mr. Gonsalves he too grew a moustache. He was on the telephone for a while, listening, as evidenced by the movement of his eyes, but not saying or doing anything, other than poking his pudgy finger up his flared and flattened nostrils and turning it like an augur to clear the vents. Bashir figured that since he was the one in charge he would have something to say about his loan application.

Seated in the row parallel to Mr. Jones was a stoic Chinese gentleman. His nameplate was turned to the side but Bashir figured he was a supervisor like Mr. Jones. He was dressed in a white shirt, with black trousers and a black tie pinned to his shirt with a gold shield, a replica of the company logo. Bashir could not tell whether he was asleep or awake as his face never changed expression and he had not moved a muscle in the last five minutes.

As he pondered the fortune of the Chinese man a good looking girl entered the department and like flies to light everybody shifted their gaze in her direction. She was of Portuguese descent, solidly built, and attractive, at least from a distance and with the cooperation of the low-wattage lighting. She came out of the filing room and deposited a pen and pencil on the desk of the Chinese gentleman. He never acknowledged her presence and Bashir became convinced that the man was asleep, frozen solid in the same posture like a gargoyle on the roof of an ancient Buddhist temple. As the girl made an about turn for the supplies room a keyed up black clerk seated immediately in front of the Chinese gentleman, unable to control his hormones and the stream of clear liquid that dribbled from his well developed bottom lip after he lowered his sights to the girl’s ultra skimp mini skirt and her thick stocking legs, stuttered like a motor bike with holes in its muffler.

"Loo Loo…looking good, girl!" he complimented.

"Look, don't tek you eyes pass me, yeh? I bigger than you! Must know you size!" she snapped back.

"Why you showing so much passion, girl? I just telling you that you look nice," he explained apologetically.

"Well, tell it to your woman. Don't play mannish wid me."

And with that outburst she retreated into the filing room. Bashir was shocked, but only for a moment that is, until he heard the other employees snickering, including the black fella, and the mumbling of the cashier. "Dem boys this terrible!" the cashier chuckled, "they know the girl is the boss mistress and whenever they pay her a compliment she thinks they getting fresh. But dem na larn, especially that black one. He bruk stick in he ears."

The lady in front of Bashir then began to fidget, making half turns as if she wanted to say something to him, but all she managed to do was suck her gold teeth with annoying frequency. She was becoming more impatient by the minute and began to list from side to side as though she wanted to use the washroom, her heavy handbag changing arms every minute, in synchronicity with the sucking of her lipstick smeared front teeth.

“Is what tekking dem so lang?” she finally said, looking at Bashir but not expecting an answer, “Dem this tink I have time to waste like them? I is an important woman. I have important bizness to look after. Me husband dead and left me with all this mess.”

Mr. Gonsalves approached just in time to abort another of her annoying suck teeth.

“Yes, maam, how can I help you?” Mr. Gonsalves asked.

“Look, I come to settle the insurance policy my husband left for me,” she replied.

“I assume your husband passed on?”

“Pass what side? No! He crap out! Just like dat! He fall down bra-dam at the wukplace and by the time them carries him to Public Haspital them say he done dead already. Dem say is hypertension but me knows different. The man had high blood pressure."

Bashir was shocked when he heard the woman speak. How could such a sophisticated looking woman be so ignorant? And how can a woman of the city do such injustice to language, not just the King's English, which she butchered mercilessly, but to the sacrosanct dialect of the creoles? Mr. Gonslaves interrupted his ponderings.

“So you need to settle the proceeds of the insurance. Okay! Can I see some ID and the death certificate, please?”

“Here!” she said and she placed a red driver's license and a crumpled piece of paper on the counter, “Is na good ting a follow me mind and bring dat paper?”

“Okay, maam, have a seat and I will be a minute!”

She reluctantly backed into the cold wooden bench in the waiting area and watched intently as Mr. Gonsalves took a few steps towards a rusted filing cabinet and began to scan the letters on the labels pasted to the front of each drawer. He opened the drawer labeled R, shuffled through hundreds of white 4x4 cards and then plucked out the one he wanted.

“Karran Ramballi?” he turned to her and asked, holding the card aloft in her direction.

“Who? Me? No! I is Elsie Ramballi. Karran is me husband,” she was quick to point out.

Mr. Gonsalves, normally stoic, cracked a smile and returned to his seat but not before he pointed her to the wooden chair beside his desk. As she made her way through the opening in the counter Bashir noticed everyone in the department had momentarily stopped their duties to stare and that some of them were chuckling behind ledger sheets. Infected with their laughter, and at the same time embarrassed because he did not know what was the basis for his own laughter, he turned to the cashier and asked, “Is what all you laughing at?”

“Shhh! You don't know that lady?” he asked with a certain degree of incredulity.

“No! She is not knowingst at all. Is who she?” Bashir replied.

“She used to hang out with them bad girls at Cambridge hotel. Is deh where she ketch da mook Karran.”

“You mean Karran, dat fat coolie man with all them jewelry stall at Stabroek market? That old man married she?”

"Well you know them old man like young girls. Them say young gal a mek dem feel young. De gal just sweet talk the man and he think she like him for real. But dat gal is only after one thing – he money. A same thing she do Lalman who been own cloth store on Regent street.”

“Maybe she turn good. You never know. People does change, you know.”

“Good? Da gal? Ha! Yah! You see that man sitting in that hire car outside? He name Jagram. That is her boyfriend!"

"You mean the same Jagram who does drive short drop taxi?"

"Yes, man. And that lil bai in the back seat...?"

"Is her son?"

"Yes, but is not Karran son. Is Jagram pickney. You na see how them favor one another."

"You just mekking up story."

"Look! You na believe me. See that boy sitting next to the Chinee man? His name is Rohit. He say he see them together many times. She does go home when she want and sometimes she does sleep by Jagram. Na mek she fool you. Is she kill the man. Is not no heart attack. Dat girl na deh down here. Me hear she don't cook and clean and when the man come home he gat fo do homan wuk. A so she drive out the man son from the house too. The bai, Baldeo I think is his name, was only fifteen but she tell him he is big man and he should be on his own. Now the poor boy working at Diamond estate in the spray gang and he mixing up wid dem drunk man at Basil rum shop."

“And you mean Karran never said anything?”
“Nah! He frighten the woman bad. Dem boys say when they tell him he should stan up for heself he always say he gon get the last laugh!”

“Well, look like he wrong again. He dead and gone and de woman spending he money wid Jagram.”

Back at his desk, Mr. Gonsalves seemed equally perplexed. With the index card pinned between thumb and middle finger he pushed back his chair and side-stepped over to Mr. Jones’ desk.

“Boss,” he stooped down and whispered, “I think you should look at this!”

“What’s the matter?” Mr. Jones asked as he took the card and peered over his bifocals while twirling his handlebar moustache. "Hmmm!" he said, looking perplexed. Then he got up from his chair and came over to Mrs. Ramballi who by now had sensed something was wrong.

“Wha happen? Na tell me something wrang now.”

“Mrs. Ramballi, we will double-check with our legal department, but if the information on this card is correct, I am sorry to inform you that you have nothing to collect.”

“What? Is what you telling me mister? Me husband gat big insurance and he crop out and now me can’t get the money? Tell me what the problem is?”

“According to this card, Mr. Ramballi assigned all his insurance money to his son. Well, except a penny.”

“What you mean except a penny?”

“He left you a penny, Mrs. Ramballi.”

“You a tell me he lef all de money for the lil baby? How de baby gon spend money, eh? Tell me! Is not me gat to spend it for him?"

"No, maam! It says here very clearly, "To my only son, Baldeo Ramballi, I assign all my worldly goods, including the proceeds of my insurance, save for a penny, which I bequeath to my wife."

"He give all the money to dat good-fuh-nuthin lungera drunkin son what he gat deh? Karran know I have a lil baby to mind. How he can do this to me? Dis na done here. Me going and see Sita lawyer son.”

By then the entire department had begun to snicker and the Chinese supervisor finally moved as though some evil spell over him had been broken. Mrs. Ramballi was overcome with embarrassment and so filled with rage that her lips trembled but produced no sound other than the chattering of her teeth that could be heard all the way to the door. Then she stopped momentarily, turned back towards Mr. Jones and cried, “A lie you tell me, say is a lie.”

“Sorry, maam,” Mr. Jones consoled.

Unable to bear more humiliation she scrambled her papers, stuffed them in her handbag and stomped out of the building in a rage typical of one on a path of revenge. No one bothered to remind her that Mr. Ramballi was already dead and buried. As she charged out of the building the black payroll clerk could not help but blurt out to Mr. Gonsalves, "Patrick, alyou think Ramballi stupid? The man bust she back!" and with that they began to laugh aloud, all of them, including the Chinese supervisor.

“So,” the Chinese supervisor pointed out, “looks like Karran did get the last laugh.”

They laughed again. An hour later Bashir made his exit from the building. The sun was up in its full glory and the mist has disappeared by the time he crossed the street to the Bank of Baroda to cash his check. He did not get the amount of money he needed to buy the car as his policy was just a few months over two years old and had not yet accrued a loan value of any significance. At first he was angry at having paid thousands of dollars into a policy and not being able to get anything back but the more he commiserated on the fancy lady who received just a penny, and who at this time was engaged in a furor with the man in the taxi, the more he became thankful. At least he received two hundred and fifty dollars.

Richard Rupnarain lives in Toronto.

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