Ulahannan was his name. The name meant, in normal parlance, John. It is quite probable that the original name of John the Baptist was Ulahannan in Aramaic – the language spoken by Jews of Jesus’ time. That’s what Ulahannan, who came to be called Ullu, told me. As time passed, the shorter name stuck. That Ullu meant Owl, a bird known for its wisdom in the West, but for stupidity in India, Ullu did not seem to mind, even if he found out the real meaning.
Ullu had come to Delhi as a Pentecost preacher. Whether he was sent by a church in Kerala or came on his own, I never learned. He only knew Malayalam then, no other language. Most of the Malayalee nurses, secretaries, wiring girls and many of the factory workers were Christians of different denominations. Ordinary Christians did not particularly like the holier-than-thou Pentecost version of their religion. Anyway, the idea of preaching to the converted about the mercies of Jesus and His Father and the Holy Ghost did not enthuse Ullu. What was worse, he received no donations in the name of God since he had no audience and he knew no language other than his own.
So one day Uahannan the Ullu came seeking a job in my small electronic factory. He was a short, thin, languid man with a sad face. Luckily for him, I was then looking for someone who could help Tiwari, the man who prepared harnesses for radio-tape recorder sets that we made and were popular those days. Tiwari knew only Hindi, so I guessed Ullu would learn enough Hindi in his company to manage around in the North-Indian city.
I guessed right. Within a few months, Ullu learned to speak Hindi without gender verbs – the version spoken in Malayalam films. But that was good enough to tell the wiring girls the stories of Jonah, of David who roamed around with Goliath’s head after killing him with a catapult, how Jesus narrated the story of the Good Samaritan, and so on. He spoke without looking up, possibly because of a warning in the Sermon on the Mount, concentrating, as he spoke, on twisting wires around nails on the template boards. His jobs were neat and nearly flawless. I suspect Tiwari had begun to envy him when he came up to me one day and said:
“Put Ullu on some other job. He talks too much and distracts the girls”.
Tiwari was a good and trusted worker; there was no question of putting him off. So I gave Ullu the job of a collector of dues. Now that he knew the language passably well, and his arithmetic was good (he could add up all the ages of Adam to Joseph plus 2000 and tell you how old the earth was), he did a fine job. He was polite and patient. When he was told by the dealer that the day’s collection was not good enough, or that he had to check the balance with the bank, so come the next day or the day after, he did. He did not have to be prodded to make repeat calls on a difficult dealer.
Mr. Mallik, who bought my products on bills and sold them for black money to Afghan Pathans, Pakistani smugglers as well as Chennai wholesalers, liked him. So did Punjwani from Bangalore. Ullu invariably came up with 50 to 60% of the collections planned for the day. That nearly equalled the Tally of Mehta, the tall, handsome Punjabi with a powerful voice and upturned mustache who left me when he got the job of a policeman – I guess on account of his rather fearsome looks rather than his poor academic records..
“Does Ullu try to preach to you,” I asked Punjwani once.
“Oh, yes. He does. When he began with a Bible story I told him I schooled in Bishop Cotton, and I knew all stories from the Bible. He said Bishop Cotton is for Catholics and Catholics are anti-Christians, that the Pope is Antichrist. I gave him a bottle of Coca- Cola to make him shut up and said I didn’t understand much Hindi and much less Malayalam.”
Mallik said he too shut him up with a bottle of Coca-Cola with a warning that no religion was to be spoken in the premises of his shop.
“Why do you call him Ullu?” Mallik once asked me. “He still managed to put in a word or two to frighten the hell out of me by describing what could happen to anyone in hell whom Christ did not favour. I couldn’t sleep that night. If he does it again, I will hit him”.
I warned Ullu not to preach to Mallik, who weighed two tons and was once a champion wrestler.
Yet I discovered that Ullu managed to put the fear of God into many hearts – most of them already Christians and just one curious Sikh – to attend a Sunday prayer meeting in his one-room house. He spoke about God and His mercy that put all non-believers and Catholics in the charge of the devil. Most Nurses were Catholics, so they stopped attending.
The new flock of attendees was jobless young men and women who had come to Delhi in the hope that their agents would send them to Dubai as soon as they parted with fifty thousand rupees. Once the money was paid, the agents disappeared. Ullu, full of Christ-like mercy, promised them jobs in my small factory, in Mallik’s somewhat shady Import-export-and-Wholesale office, in Punjwani’s house-come-office, or with some of the minor retailers.
Ullu actually managed to make me employ a man and his alleged niece. When the niece got pregnant, Ullu feared some of the sin would visit on him and so went on a fast for a couple of days. He demanded that I fire the sinner and the sinned, which I declined.
“None of my business,” I told him.
“Everything is God’s business. God watches the sinners and those who help them”.
Ullu also made me make a monthly donation to a Pentecost Church in Kottayam, which money, I later learnt, came back to him, tripled, as a token of appreciation for his work in spreading the Good Word.
Then one day Ullu came to me and said that the sales were going up because of his spreading the Good News about our radio-tape recorders. I said products were spreading the good news by themselves.
I suggested that he restricts his work to what was his assignment – collection of cheques. Many retailers had complained that he would take their customers aside and preach to them. It affected their sales, they said. Many clients, they feared, thought that their shops were running a conversion racket.
Ullu’s fortunes were high. He told the other employees how difficult it was to drink all the Coca-Cola that the dealers had offered him. “No one – certainly not that Punjabi or Sa’ab himself – got so many Coca-colas,” he boasted.
The Punjabi, having joined the police and being busy collecting haftas (weekly bribes) was not there to prove him wrong or otherwise. So the listeners shrugged their shoulders in assent.
It came to a pass that complaints from the dealers grew; I had to tell Ullu that if he did not stop his preaching while at work, I would fire him.
Ullu threw his collection bag on my table.
“I am firing you,” he said. “I earn so much respect in Mallik’s place, in Punjwani’s place. They think that I am the best collector of dues that anybody – why only you – ever had. They never let me go without Coca-Cola and biscuits. They even offer me lunch, which I accept for your sake I bring hundreds, thousands of rupees to you every day. If I take a couple of hundreds you wouldn’t even know! I am not corrupt because I have no family and I know God’s ways. And what do I get in return? No respect. Half the salary you pay to that no-good, Godless Communist supervisor of yours.”
Then he shot the punch line: “Has any collector of yours brought so much money asI have done?”
I didn’t tell him that his collection was just about OK, but he certainly was not even the second best. The rule of the game was just this: they always paid you for the previous supply of goods. You stop, or they stop, the final payment wouldn’t see the light of the day. I wasn’t going to tell him all that – why compete with the man who ranked nineteen among my twenty-odd employees?.
The girl who doubled as my typist and accountant counted out the money that was due to him, and an extra month’s salary for the bonus that was due in Diwali next month.
Ullu Picked up the money and said:
“So that’s it? Not a word to try and stop me? ”
I smiled and said no, thanks.
He paused at the door and turned around. “I will not pray that you go to hell. I don’t have to. But I will surely tell Mallik, Punjwani and all others that I have nothing to do with you. I won’t even be sorry when they stop buying from you or even paying you.”
Next morning, an hour after I opened my office, Mallik called me.
“Have your fired this guy – Uluhan-Uluhan– Ullu?”
“Uluhannan is his name if we are speaking of the same guy”, I said. “Actually, he fired himself though I was wishing that he would go”.
“Good riddance,” said Mallik. “He was beginning to get on my nerves as well”.
“Didn’t you offer him Coca-Cola?” I asked rather mischievously.
“Pagal Ho? Are you mad? Why would I spend a good rupee on one who has nothing to do with my business?”
A couple of hours later, Punjwani told me just about the same story over the phone. I asked him if he gave him Coca-Cola.
“He actually told me he was thirsty and hungry. My man gave him a glass of water”.
All that day I kept receiving calls from my dealers. A couple of them told me that he said my products were selling because of his efforts and now that he had fired me, my small factory would soon go down the drain.
A week later, a jobless Ullu met Narayan, my Supervisor and offered to pray for him if he would recommend that I take him back in gratitude for all that he had done for me in the past. Narayan told him to talk to me directly.
Ullu didn’t come to me either because he was too embarrassed, or he thought I was too much of a sinner in God’s eyes to take him back.
Last heard, Ullu had gone back to Kerala to preach.
Why do I recount this story? Mr. Modi got a grand reception among the Indians in San Jose and New York. Overwhelmed, and short of knowledge in history, he pronounced that no Indian leader had got the kind of reception that he did.
I remembered Ulahanan’s claim of Coca-Cola reception.