'Have I the honour of speaking to the new Lord Padamsey' I asked on the phone.
'Come off it, Ashok,' M replied, 'I know your voice. Besides, you are ringing the wrong friend. I have got a Bhushan.'
'I can't believe it, M!' I said, 'What crime did you commit to deserve it'
'You know, that is what I thought too for a while,' said M.
'I was only joking, M! I cannot imagine any act of yours that could be called worthy of this honour.'
'Thank you, Ashok; you are full of compliments as usual. But I did have a scare when these two police types turned up early one morning. They started asking me all kinds of personal questions ' what was my name, what was my mother's name, what was my wife's name, and so on. They had me really worried. When I told them I did not have a wife, they asked if I lived all alone in my big house. I was afraid they had come to throw me out of my house.'
'Goodness! You are a brave man, M. What did you do then'
'I asked them who they were. They said they were from the home ministry, and had come about someone called Padma. I have never had anything to do with any Padma; but then hope sprang up in my heart. Maybe they wanted to offer me a wife called Padma. That would be a surprise, whether delightful or not I did not know. But I was intrigued. 'Tell me more about this Padma.' So they said, it was Padma Bhushan. I hadn't heard of any Padma Bhushan. So I asked them who she was, whether she came from a good family, whether she had any brothers and sisters, and whether her teeth were intact.'
'Look, M, marriage is a serious matter; you should know. You shouldn't make a joke of it.'
'Yes, they too looked a bit scandalized, and said that they had not come about any girl, but that the government had decided to award me a Padma Bhushan. I started wondering if some girl would get interested in me because of a Padma Bhushan. But how would she know I had one' I asked them how one wore it ' in a crown, or in a ring, or in an earring, or what.'
'I bet they were not amused. How did they stop your jokes'
'They said that this Padma would be pinned on my chest by the President, but that most people took it off once they got out of the hall; that it was not common for people to go about wearing a Padma Bhushan.'
'That must have been a disappointment. Still, how did you celebrate your elevation'
'I didn't get much time to celebrate. Early on the 26th I started getting phone calls. There was one from SU, the industrialist; he congratulated me for having become an industrialist. I asked him what he was talking about. 'Haven't you read the papers, Professor' You have been awarded the Padma Bhushan as an industrialist. Welcome to the ranks.' 'I would rather have your wealth than your rank, S,' I said.'
'Are you a Bhushan or a Vibhushan, M'
'You mean Ratna; no I am not a Ratna. I am not dead yet, Ashok!'
'How disappointing! I mean ' that you didn't get a Ratna. Sorry. I mean, what a relief that you are alive! I mean ' I don't know what I mean.'
'Well, you are not the only one who was disappointed. There was this former student of mine who rang up from Bombay to congratulate me. Then she said, 'But it was disappointing about Shah Rukh Khan.' 'Why' Did his horse lose in the races, or what' I asked her. 'No, I mean he got only a Padma Shri,' she said. 'And what is wrong with that' I asked. 'Well... it is a bit sad that you got a Padma Bhushan and he got only a Padma Shri, don't you think' After all, he is so popular, he has broken so many women's hearts, so many girls scream and faint at his sight. You are not quite in the same league, are you' she asked. I told her that I had put more students to sleep than she could count. She had to admit that Shah Rukh Khan would never match me on that score.'
'So did you celebrate at all, or did you just sit at home and take calls from miseducated ex-students'
'Well, both, sort of. You see, soon friends started dropping in. And I had given my cook leave since it was Republic Day, so there was no one to make tea. So what to do with them' I took out whatever bottles I had and started offering them drinks. And I had to drink with them. So by the evening I was pretty high.'
'So you had a good sleep at least, then!'
'Well, not quite. I kept dreaming about discussing the turnpike theorem with B. The next morning I wondered if I had drunk too much. B is in America; surely I could not have discussed the turnpike theorem with him last night' Or did he actually turn up' I was really worried; maybe I was going gaga. So I rang up B's father, and asked him if B had been in Delhi the night before. His father said no, but that B had rung me up from America to congratulate me, and that instead of saying a thank-you I had got into an argument with him over a paper of his I had read. He was worried: was I quite all right, or what'
'Well, that was a nice finale to your celebrations, I guess!'
'No, it wasn't. Then a reporter from a Bengali newspaper rang up; he wanted to interview me on the phone. He kept asking me if I was a leftist or a rightist. I told him I was neither, but he wouldn't give up. He had to know which I was ' leftist or rightist. So I told him, this left-right divide is a relic of communism, and was forgotten once the Soviet Union collapsed. The world has moved on; only Bengalis continue to live in a bygone bipolar world. The next day, his newspaper carried banner headline: honoured economist says that Bengalis are aborigine dinosaurs!'
'M, you are great! I can now believe you have deserved your Padma Bhushan. And don't worry about Padma; maybe one will follow when she gets to know about your prize.'
'Well, the problem is, how would she know' Do you think I should start writing Padbhu before my name, Ashok'
The authorship of the above story is mine, and I may have invented some of it. But the best jokes come from Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, my favourite Padma Bhushan.