ABOUT THE STORY Probably more than any other Indian fiction writer in English today, Murzban F Shroff markedly prefers the short story to the novel and writes what in another time (when fiction and periodicals needed one another much more than they do today) would be called the classic magazine story. Shroff’s narrators, on the evidence of his excellent book of stories Breathless in Bombay, are generally middle-class, genial, and somewhat stressed by ‘a situation’, one that generates the story. But their gaze travels a long way around Mumbai’s neighbourhoods and classes, and they make, like old friends, great narrative companions, able to speak fluently in their own voices and to ventriloquise those of others. Here the narrator describes a problem that might be seen, when the history of our time is written, as emblematic of the neuroses of the Indian middle-class: that of the relationship between household help and furniture. A dispute over where a man’s feet can and cannot go leads the narrator, for the first time, to a view of how the other half lives. Shroff’s empathy for both protagonists of the story, and optimism about the power of well-meaning persons to rebalance the world’s iniquities, shines through the writing. When the narrator speaks of “trying to recognize and understand the invisible within the visible”, we see that this may also be a way of thinking about fiction’s reading of life.
An Invisible Truth
MY WIFE, THE LAWYER, five years older than me and no longer the object of my admiration, no longer the prized jewel of my youth, during my absence and in the throes of a menopausal fit, sacked my manservant, a goodly man named Amir Chauhan, slow and dimwitted but an excellent worker, a plodder, you could say, and obedient to boot: never a harsh word or a rude retort, never an item missing from the kitchen or an untoward request for a loan. So naturally I was distressed, I was disturbed. More than anything else, a bit of panic set in. It would not be easy to find a manservant like Amir Chauhan. Clean and methodical, he knew my drill; he knew my pedantic ways. This was a man I could trust with my bank books, my Noritake crockery, my Chinese vases, my Persian carpets, my wall clocks, my paintings, my mahogany bookcase, my marble-top tables. If he got delayed coming to work in the morning—an accident on the railway tracks or a water shortage in his slum—he would call from a phone booth at his own expense. Yes, he was a good man, Amir Chauhan, and I had kind of got to see him in the role of permanent, which is more than what I could see for my tantrum-wielding wife.
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