A Clerk's Story

Dilip Kumar Translation by Padma Narayanan
01 August, 2012

ABOUT THE STORY: What explains the persistent power of the salesman as a figure in literature? Salesmen represent the drudgery, anonymity and powerlessness of modern life, but perhaps also all the inchoate yearnings that lie beneath the prosaic business of selling mass-produced goods and obeying orders. Behind the forced obedience of every salesman one hears a whisper of Herman Melville’s great, inscrutable clerk Bartleby, patiently muffling every order with a “I would prefer not to.” Counting salesmen in literature, one thinks of Tommy Wilhelm in Saul Bellow’s Seize The Day and Morris Bober in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant; and closer home, the unnamed shoe salesman in Altaf Tyrewala’s No God In Sight, crawling around his tiny shoe loft “like a prawn”, and Ramchand, the salesman in Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop.

Mehboob, the salesman in the Tamil writer Dilip Kumar’s story, works, like Ramchand, in a clothes store. He lives a highly ordered, clocklike life, represented by the writer’s decision to structure the story by marking the minutes and the hours. But within these soul-crushing structures we find Mehboob a nimble romantic, marshalling a love of love, song, children, friendship, and even God to raise his days into something resembling a life well lived. Particularly striking is the narrator’s use of the word “you” when describing Mehboob’s life–a device that allows for both distance and intimacy – and his eye for the small but pleasurable details of business (Dilip Kumar worked in a store himself when very young). What might overwhelm a life that has after so many tribulations worked out a resilient peace? Dilip Kumar’s vision comprehends not just the peaceful anonymity of the lives of small people but also, more sorrowfully, the vengeful and arrogant anonymity of the mob in recent Indian history.

THE CLOCK SHOWS 06.03. Your name is Mehboob Khan;

you are, as yet, sleeping.

Kovai is steeped in the peace of early morning. A dilapidated building on Variety Hall Road; if you open the small front door placed between two huge thinnais—raised platforms—you see a narrow passage. On both sides of this passage are six small rooms, the habitat of three Muslim families. Your family occupies two rooms, one on the left and the other on the right side of the passage, just opposite each other. Your family—very much like your habitation—is small. Your mother Fathima is known as Ammijan. Your wife, Taj Begum. (She has now gone to her mother’s place in Kozhunjivadi. You have been married for 20 years now; you have no children.) Your nephew, Iqbal.

You are now 42 years old. You are short, complexion fair. You have a protruding tooth, a long nose, large eyes—but tiny irises. You always wear a knee-length Liberty cut, a cream-coloured shirt and loose pants folded at the ankles. Your education: eighth class. You are employed as a sales clerk at an apparel shop, Fashion Palace, on Raja Street at a salary of 1,800 rupees per month. Your working hours are from nine in the morning to nine at night. You get a break from one to three in the afternoon. Sunday mornings you iron clothes at TipTop Drycleaners at piece rate to augment your income. You know a smattering of Urdu, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. You are a hard worker, and one who can speak humorously and make others laugh. You smoke ten Mangalore Beedis a day and drink four cups of tea. (Three at the shop, one at home.) You go for your midday prayers when you find time for them.

Moreover, you are also endowed with a half-baked philosophical attitude. So you like poetry. On Sundays you compose poems along the lines of Hindi film songs of the fifties and sixties. All your songs inevitably include some of these words: zindagi (life), jaam (wine goblet), Rab (God), ishq (love) vakth (time) dil (mind, heart) pyaar (love), javani (youth), tanhayi (loneliness) and mauth (death). The fans who appreciate your poems are Leeladhar, Nandu, Arjun Das and Veeru, your co-workers at the shop. They are all Sindhis with some knowledge of Hindi and Urdu. Just like you they are school drop-outs. You launch your compositions in front of them during lunch time when the manager of the shop Tikam Das is not around. When you recite your poems, you start with your right hand placed on your chest and with wave-like motions nearly brush the noses of your listeners. The ones in front of you will encourage you with their pronouncements of “Vah, janab,” or “Masha Allah, kya baath hai.” You bow your head and put your palm to your forehead three times, doing salaams, acknowledging their praise.

You are now lying down curled up like a question mark. Your front teeth peep out of your darkened lips. Your face displays supreme peace. In deep slumber, you look like an innocent, helpless being, a sight that induces and seeks great love from any beholder.

06.33. You open your eyes. Your movements wake Fathima up. She has been doing this, unfailingly, for the past 42 years. She gets up and switches on the light. The two-foot tubelight shows Iqbal lying on his chest, clearly revealing his stump legs. (Seven years ago, the bus that was driving from Kovai to Tarapuram and a lorry coming from Tarapuram to Kovai had a head-on crash, resulting in the instantaneous death of 20 of its passengers. Among those victims were your sister Khathija and her husband Saiyad. The polio-stricken Iqbal had stayed back in Kovai and so is alive today.) You let out a sigh, “Yah Allah!” You go to the backyard, ease yourself, brush your teeth, wash your face and come back. Like any other day, you wear your shirt, pick up the brass mug, set out for Mubarak Tea Stall on Nawab Hakim Road to buy “parcel” tea. (You can bring it home and do not have to drink it on the spot.) Karim Thatha is wriggling on the thinnai, half awake. He asks you the same question that he asks every day, “Kidhar? Chai lakkane?” Where are you off to? To fetch tea?

Nawab Hakim Road is enveloped in a dreamy sort of calm, covered as it is in fog. An old Hindi film song wafts down from the speaker placed in a corner of the Mubarak Tea Stall. You walk looking up at the sky. Your heart brims with strange emotions. The pale moon and the emerging clouds spit out a melancholy beauty.

07.15. You listen to Bhoole Bisre Geet on the radio. Suraiya, Begum Akhtar and Talat Muhammad are making your heart melt. Today, you get to hear two of Begum Akhtar’s ghazals, one after the other. She torments you with her “Ey mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya/ Zindagi kuch bhi nahin phir bhi jeeye jaatey hain.

You have seen Begum Akhtar’s photo. Her broad forehead and deep-set eyes flit before your mind. She is no mortal. Allah seems to have turned all the sorrows of the world into nerves and placed them in her throat, you feel.

07.30. Iqbal goes crawling to the backyard and then calls out to you, “Mamu! Mamu!” You wash his bottom and put his shorts on him. Iqbal’s lifeless legs feel cold to the hands, like dead lumps. You remember Ammijan telling you that there was no wheat in the house. You have to borrow 50 rupees from Dhasthagir next door, who works as a mechanic.

07.45. You peep into Dhasthagir’s house and see him brushing his teeth, his mouth frothing with toothpaste. He sees you and, with just the lift of his eyebrows, asks, “What do you want?” You hesitate for a minute; your eyes fall on the newspaper Daily Thanthi on the table.

You manage to drawl, “Kuch nahinakhbaar.” Dhastagir bends down, picks up the newspaper and stretches it out towards you. You come back to the thinnai with the Daily. You read on… Has the popular actress got married secretly? … A lorry knocked against a bullock cart … Daring daylight robbery… Piteous death of the bride… Andiyar’s musings… Kerosene prices go up from tomorrow… Kannitheevu… People’s Forum… A letter complaining about the smelly glasses at the tea shops, because they have not been washed properly… Karthik clashes with Rambha… You decide that now you have to borrow the 50 rupees from Leeladhar, Nandu or Arjun Das at the shop.

08.15. You go to have your bath at the common bathroom in the backyard. You have a good wash after a vigorous rub of Lifebuoy soap. You like everything to be clean, spic and span. You always have your nails all clipped and shining. “It might not be possible to keep one’s mind free of dirt; so at least let the body be clean,” is your motto. For days after your nikah—your marriage—you bathed using only Rexona soap. Taj Begum loved Rexona soap. The entire house smelled of it when she came out of her bath. That was how much soap she used. But she had a tendency to sweat a lot. She was always covered in sweat. Those days, she bathed once at night as well. The smell of her sweat mixed with the aroma of Rexona soap made you go nuts. You pushed your nose between her breasts that looked like two large pears, inhaled the scent and laughed. Taj Begum enjoyed your adoration of her, but would pout in pretence, pat your cheek fondly and say, “Yeh kya badhthaameezi?” But now everything has changed. I will write a letter to Taj Begum today, you decide.

08.45. You are walking along Oppanakkara Street on your way to the shop. Buses are blaring out movie songs and two- and four-wheeled vehicles have begun to race helter-skelter across the road. As the day advances, the smoke and sound will increase. The road seems to have shrunk from what it was before. You say salaam to all the familiar faces you come across and continue towards your destination. From his perch at the till, Ganashyam, the proprietor of Hotel Kailash, calls out, “Kya pehelwan, sab khairiyath tho hai na?”and continues with his counting of money.

Nandu crosses the road to join you just as you reach the shop. The manager, Tikam Das, is expected only at 10 o’clock. Nandu is the one to open the shop. Nandu does not have any shoulder problem, yet he always walks with his right shoulder raised a little, as if he had a catch there.

Nandu has a prominent nose on his broad face. So, behind his back, people refer to him as Garuda, the holy vulture. When you bend down along with him to raise the shutters of the shop, the stench of the Charminar cigarette that he has just smoked assails you.

09.15. The shop boy Shanmugam is done with his job of sweeping the shop. Nandu waves lighted camphor in front of the pictures of Lakshmi, Guru Nanak and Siva, gets done with the job of propitiating them for the day. Nandu, Arjun Das, Veeru are all at their respective counters. Now the boxes have to be taken off the racks one by one, dusted and kept ready for inspection by the buyers. You are in charge of the “Ladies and Children” section. All the lower-middle class customers and those who come from the nearby villages get sent down to you. Your simple appearance will put them at ease and make them talk to you without any inhibitions. They are certain to fall for your engaging talk and buy some gown or underskirt. Leeladhar, Arjun Das or Veeru will be attending to the upper-class, urbanised, fashionable customers. Your manager Tikam Das thinks you have neither the ability nor appearance to handle such high-end customers.

Today is the day when the showcase decorations have to be changed and a new arrangement set up. You are assigned to that job. Shanmugam will assist you. This will take up three to four hours of your time. One by one, you remove the dresses displayed last week and empty the showcase. Shanmugam enters the showcase-cubicle and begins to rub the glass doors—after first sprinkling water on them—with scraps of Malai Murasu newspaper. You instruct him, insisting that he should remove all the insect droppings that make tiny dots all across the glass. Even as he is busy getting the showcase clean, you neatly fold the clothes you have taken out. Then you enter the showcase again and give Shanmugam a packet of sacred ash, Kanda Vilas vibhoothi. You tell him to make a paste of the vibhoothi, rub it all over the glass, leave it on for some minutes and then wipe the glass clean. You choose the dresses that are to be put out on display this week.

After Shanmugam finishes his work and makes his exit, you set up the background with some dupattas that are part of salwar-kameez suits and blouse pieces. You then quickly go about hanging different kinds of baba-suits and other men’s clothes everywhere. The black mannequin who adorns the centre of the showcase was dressed in a salwar-kameez last week. So this week you choose a nightdress made of translucent material. The pale pink nightie you drape on that doll with nipple-less breasts and a void between her thighs fits her perfectly. You playfully pinch her hole-less marble nose.

By the time you step out of the showcase, clothes are spread out on all the counters. A good many customers must have visited the shop.

It is 13.00 hours. You hasten to the mosque. Though the heat is not severe, you are not able to walk as fast as you used to. You had hydrocele before your marriage; like two huge palm fruits your testicles would toss and make walking difficult for you. Yet you could walk faster than now.

13.45. Iqbal is drawing pictures on an old notebook with a sketch pen. Iqbal can draw very well. Today he has drawn a cottage with a wicker fence, surrounded by a vast expanse of grassland in which there roams a young deer under clouds in the sky, a few birds and in a corner, the sun. Everything looks nice except that the deer’s face looks like a dog’s.

“What price have you set on this villa, janab?”

“We don’t sell this for anything less than a thousand rupees. Since you are my Mamu, I shall give it to you for one rupee.”

“Does that include the price of the little deer as well?”

“NO. The little one is not for sale.”

“Why so, janab? Is there any ban on selling it?”

“We are not allowed to sell the little deer.”

“What do we do then? From whom should we get the permission to buy it?”

“We have to take the little one’s mother’s permission.”

“That can be done; but where is the mother?”

“I have yet to make her.”

“Shall I come back tomorrow?”

“No, come next Friday.”

You gather Iqbal in your arms. Both of you burst out laughing.

After you have changed, Ammijan serves both of you food. You eat whatever there is of the rice to which she had added some seasoning and a boiled egg. Your hunger is not appeased. You drink some water and lie down on the mat.

15.05. Tikam Das has gone away to have his lunch. Nandu stands near the counter, one shoulder raised a little. Leeladhar, Arjun Das and Veeru sit in a corner on wooden stools, listening to some folk songs on the radio. They perk up on seeing you.

Leeladhar, “Have you eaten, Mehboob?”

Mehboob, “Don’t we eat every day?”

Arjun Das, “Don’t be so forlorn. Is your wife still away at her mother’s place?”

Mehboob, “I am not sad or anything.”

Leeladhar, “When is she coming back?”

Mehboob, “Next week.”

Leeladhar, “How does your Begum get through her nights without you?”

Mehboob, “Chee! What kind of talk is this?”

Leeladhar, “What ‘chee chee’? You don’t know them! These vixens might act as if they have no desires at all. You have to be smart and get the job done properly. You have to make them moan, “Enough! Enough!” As soon as your joru comes back this should be your priority. I have gone through it all, so listen to me.”

Leeladhar was fond of going to the late-night movies. He would go to a second show at least four days in a week. Somehow Leeladhar’s wife got involved with an auto driver. That man “who knew all the routes” would arrive the minute Leeladhar left the house. One day Leeladhar came home early because he could not get a ticket to watch the movie and the wife and auto driver were caught red-handed. The issue became serious and led to the threshold of divorce. Everything got sorted out only after Leeladhar’s father-in-law begged him to forgive his daughter and forget the incident. Leeladhar’s wife, Sheelu, was short and very fair complexioned. If you saw her you would think that this cat would never even want to taste a little milk. Her face was deceptively innocent.

The conversation takes different directions and veers all round. Suddenly, Arjun Das says, “Let all that be. You recite some poem, Mehboob.”

Mehboob, “What fancy poetry do I know? Everything I know is old, nothing new.”

Arjun Das, “That’s alright, old means old, so be it. Recite any one of them.”

Mehboob, “Naa Baba! I have to write a letter.”

Arjun Das, “To whom?”

Leeladhar, “Who else would it be but his wife?”

Veeru, “Stop making all this fuss. Recite one poem and then go write your letter.”

You give it some thought and get ready with some preliminary actions necessary to recite a poem.

No hold have I on life

Neither any grievance

I am not a simpleton to hate it

But today

At the evening of my youth

I stand on one bank of silence.

Merciless time flows in spate

To rest in centuries

On the other bank loneliness comes down in rain

My dear friend, Mehboob asks, what

else is life if not loneliness and silence?

Even as you are reciting the last line, those around you begin to cry out, ‘Wah! Wah!’

16.00. “Bhen chod” Bhagavan Das arrives asking, “Has Tikam Das come yet?” The Hindi phrase “bhen chod” means “sister fucker”. But Bhagavan Das is not the kind to do anything like that; moreover he is 75 years old. It is just that he is in the habit of using the term, “bhen chod” on an average of once every ten seconds, so it has become the prefix to his name. The man, who lives in Ainthmukku, has a readymade garments factory in Uppara Street. On his way to the factory he registers his presence at this shop day after day. He is very close to our proprietor Kishan Chand and the manager Tikam Das. He comes and sits for awhile, keeps up a monologue unmindful of whether anyone listens to him or not.

Today his topic is a certain sales tax officer.

“Bhen chod! Tax you must, who can refute it? You specify the amount and I pay it. But do you have to be flinging the accounts ledgers all around? You want some bribe? I agree to give it. Bhen chod! Ministers, MPs, MLAs… all have their share of the loot. So you want some of it as well. Bhen chod, that is fair. But don’t dare say that my accounts are cooked up. I fled from Pakistan in just my torn pajamas. In 1948, I sold pepper pappads in Colaba, bhen chod, to climb my way up. If I’m lying, bhen chod, God will not forgive me.”

With one shoulder raised, Nandu is listening to him with a smile. After a while, Bhagavan Das calls out to Shanmugam, “Boy! Get me a glass of water. Bhen chod, this heat…” and gets up from his chair.

16.30. You begin to a write a letter with your head bent over a white sheet of paper at the “Socks and Ties” counter.

To my dearer than life Taj, endowed with the softness of a thousand roses and the charm of a thousand moons, here is your slave Mehboob penning this missive. We are well here. May Allah keep you and your people well there.

The house seems empty without you. But in a way, it is good that you are not here now. The condition in our house is nothing to boast about. I have not had my ironing job for the past couple of weeks. Rice, dal and wheat have all been used up. Yesterday Ammijan had gone to Kottaimedu to visit Noor Chithi. She sent us some two dozen eggs and some fish. Other than that we have been just about managing, borrowing five or ten rupees from Karim Thatha. Today I have borrowed 50 rupees from Leeladhar. Only after we have been paid our salary the day after tomorrow will we get some breathing space.

Iqbal is well. He assists Ammijan in so many little ways, crawling as he has to, all around the place. Yesterday, heedless of Ammijan’s remonstrations, he ironed my pants and shirt. He has drawn a picture of Abbajan, with a photo to guide him. It is Iqbal who misses you the most, even more than I do. He keeps constantly moaning with a sorrowful face asking, ‘When will Mamijan come?” Though he did not come out of your womb, he is very much your son. Every time I see his legs, my heart trembles, lamenting, “Should Allah’s darbar mete out such justice?”

It is very clear that Ammijan is not able to cope with all she has to do. But she stoically manages to carry on. Last week I had taken her to the “Big Hospital” for a check-up. They made her take many tests because they suspect she may have cancer of the uterus. The test results will be given to us only on Monday. Whatever they are, the doctors say that it is better to remove her uterus. If you return soon, we can begin to make arrangements for the surgery. Unable to bear the pain in her lower abdomen, she curls up on the floor ever so often. It is heart-rending to see her lying all bundled like a baby. She will be 65 next month.

How is your Abbajan’s health condition? I hope he has his sugar levels under control. I also hope that your brothers are all doing well.

My salaams to your Abbajan and my love to all others.


Mehboob Khan

16.45. It is time for the manager to return. Nandu lights a clump of incense sticks and takes them around the shop waving it in front of all the pictures of gods, the till, all the counters and racks. The customers trickle in.

19.30. Having sold some 16 vests with sleeves, 7 underskirts, 6 panties, a dozen handkerchiefs, 2 baba-suits and 5 frocks to different customers, you go out to have a tea. After a cup of tea at Nambiar’s teashop, you light up a beedi. Puffing at it, you go into the big bazaar, past the wholesale sellers of potatoes and onions right up to the end where the grocery shops are. You walk back, tossing a smile to Mahendran Chettiar standing at the entrance of Rajeswari Hall.

20.00. Not many customers are around at the shop; it is all very quiet. You go to the shirt counter to help Leeladhar fold the shirts that have been unfolded for customers’ inspection. As on all other days, the proprietor Kishan Chand—followed by his wife in a white nylon sari and a white sleeveless blouse—comes into the shop carrying a bag full of vegetables.

Tikam Das gets up from his seat. After they both sit opposite each other at the payment counter, Shanmugam, as usual, brings them glasses of water. Kishan Chand lights up a beedi even as he turns the pages of the accounts book.

20.30. Crushing the butt of his third beedi into the ashtray, Kishan Chand gets up from his seat. A few minutes later, the shop-lights are switched off. Nandu begins to enter the figures of the bill book into the adding machine at the cash counter.

You send Shanmugam to the KK block to get a masala vadai for the mouse trap. There are some three or four rats in your shop. Thieves and traitors all!

20.45. The day’s sales have fetched 18, 437 rupees. Not worth any mention. Kishan Chand always says that the daily sales should be 0.75 percent of the total value of stocks in the shop. You turn off the showcase lights and begin to take down the sample garments hung high up facing the entrance.

Suddenly, you see Bhagavan Das standing inside the shop. He tells the manager, “Did you hear the news, Tikam? Some serious riot in Ukkadam. Seems someone stabbed someone else. Close the shop quickly, before some trouble flares up. This country will never come up, bhen chod, only a military regime will set things right.”

21.10. The shop is closed. You are on your way home. You notice a sudden spurt of uneasiness on the street. The doors of the shops are being shut one by one in quick succession. The streets suddenly look deserted. Shanmugam and you begin walking faster. Shanmugam lives in Perur. He has to go up to the B1 police station and take a bus from the stop there. Oppanaikkara Street looks deserted. You use the fifty rupees borrowed from Leeladhar to buy a full-sized bread and some dry chops. Variety Hall Road seems comparatively less affected. Karim Thatha, who is sitting on the thinnai, says, “I heard there was trouble at Ukkadam.”

“Nothing seems to be the matter on our side. Yet the shops have all been closed.”

21.45. As always, Iqbal is waiting to have his dinner with you. Ammijan has made some chapattis and potato kurma. Together with the chops that you brought home, the three of you finish your dinner. You give the forty rupees that is left in your pocket to Ammijan and come out to the thinnai to have a smoke.

22.30. You close the front door and come in. Iqbal is asleep. You go lie down by his side. After a couple of minutes you hug him close.

The next day.

08.45. You sit outside on the thinnai browsing over Dhastaghir’s newspaper. Iqbal sits by your side watching the happenings on the street. Dhastaghir has gone off to his mechanic’s shop. His parents are expected to return from their village this afternoon. Ammijan is inside the house. Karim Thatha is having his bath. You wonder if at least today you will get to iron clothes at Tip Top dry cleaners. Since it is a Sunday, there is not much activity on the road. Everything is so peaceful.

09.15. Some loud noises are heard from the western side. You hear sounds as if people are hitting at and breaking down the shutters of all the closed shops. You also hear frenzied voices. You hurry to the street climbing down from the thinnai. You see a huge mass of people entering your street from the Oppanakkarai street junction.

Raising fearsome slogans the crowd walks slowly onto your street. Each one in that crowd is carrying something in his hand—sticks, rollers, kerosene cans. You are bewildered.

Seeing you standing in the middle of the street, the crowd runs in your direction, shouting all kinds of foul words and abuses.

What has happened? Who are these people? Why are they in such frenzy here? You stand there totally confused. All you realise is that you are in some danger. You run to pick up Iqbal. You think that you can escape the mob if you run to Nawab Hakim Road. But before you can do that, the crowd is all around you. Iqbal is clutching your neck tightly.

Many in that crowd have come all bathed and clean shaven. They are in sleeved vests and khaki half pants. They hoist their sticks and rods up above their heads and shout slogans. A young, fair-complexioned man with broad shoulders and a thin moustache, frowning with his forehead and brows wrinkled, gnashing his teeth,

is running towards you with his baton raised in his hand.

The first blow descends on the nape of your neck. You break out into a cry, “Amma!” Your breath comes faster. Your senses are sharpened. You lose your balance and slide forward. The next blow is on the centre of your head. Blood gushes forth from your head. Somebody snatches Iqbal and flings him away. Screaming, he falls somewhere in the distance. You raise your head. Your forehead is all covered in blood. Your eyes roll; another blow is aimed at your neck and left cheek. Your left cheek is torn and the flesh is hanging out; blood is bubbling out of here as well. Unable to bear the pain you fall down raising a scream. Even before your body touches the ground, more hard blows are showered on you. You have been completely knocked down now. Many legs stamp on you. Many more attack you with their rods and boards. You have fainted.

You realise you are very close to death. No other thought is in you in that moment when you are in the presence of death.

Have they killed Iqbal?

What is going to happen to Ammijan, cooking in her kitchen?

Will they burn Karim Thatha alive even while he bathes?

Will they smash up Dhastaghir’s house?

How is Taj Begum?

You just die, without any thought for the young deer that Iqbal had drawn, Fashion Palace, Shanmugam, Veeru, Nandu, Arjun Das, Leeladhar, Tikam Das, Kishan Chand, Bhagavan Das, Tip Top Dry Cleaners, Mubarak Tea Stall, Mangalore Ganesh Beedi, Begum Akthar, Suraiyya, your as yet unwritten poems… You die without any of this coming up in your consciousness.

You are dead.

Dilip Kumar , whose mother tongue is Gujarati, is a well-known short-story writer in Tamil with several awards to his credit. He lives in Chennai, where he runs a bookshop.

Padma Narayanan is a Chennai-based writer, and the translator of eight books of Tamil fiction.