An Invisible Truth

01 September, 2013

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.

The tantrums were a year old. They came without warning and they whipped at me like a storm, digging out buckets of old mud and flinging it in my face, sometimes even exaggerating my defects. I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was hormonal or something deeper. Something atavistic, karmic, something intrinsically hostile.

My mother-in-law assured me that they wouldn’t last. “Bear up!” she said. “When you are going through those flushes, you don’t quite know what’s happening in there. There’s another being seated in your head, telling you to do things you wouldn’t do otherwise. Besides, your marriage has been through worse, hasn’t it?”

Interpreting the faint smile on her lips, I knew she had the goods on me. From my wife, she knew everything: my long periods of unemployment between jobs; my inability to expand the family assets; my poor judgment of people; my foul luck at the stock market; my dread of investing in the real estate market, of walking into an expensive restaurant and ordering the right things. I wondered if there was anything the two of them did not discuss.

Now tantrums are okay when they are directed at a husband, but a good servant, in this day and age, is a rarity. He must be protected, under a special category.

So after soothing the wife with a patient hearing, I broke the news to her that I was going in search of Amir Chauhan; I was going to get him back. “But warn him,” she said to me, with the accusing finger I so well knew, a finger that had played its part in umpteen legal battles, that had urged the bench to attention, made opponents shiver, made them break down and confess, admit to their crimes of omission, commission; with that finger raised before my eyes, she said to me, “warn him that he had better listen to me when I say I want something done in a particular way. I am not going to take any disobedience or attitude. It’s my way or the highway … you know that, don’t you?”

“Sure, Buttercup! I think I can impress that on him.” I said that with the sense of resignation I so often felt in her presence, the resignation of a man who had relinquished ownership of his life and home.

So, off in search of Amir Chauhan, to the slum where he stayed, behind a shiny new-age mall at Lower Parel. The slum dwellers were helpful with directions, and a boy who was whipping at a bicycle tire, trying to keep it rolling, offered to escort me to Amirbhai’s house. I gathered that Amirbhai had been generous with him, or that I was supposed to show my gratitude in some way, which I did, by tossing him a five-rupee coin once I reached my destination.

Navigating my way up a ladder, I entered a shed, dark and humid, with shelves along the wall, a mattress at the side, and old tin boxes stacked in corners, and there I found Amir Chauhan, seated with his bags. He was packed and ready to leave for his village in Gujarat. There were people with him: three men and a woman, all elderly. They looked like they were discussing an important matter. Or it could have been that they were consoling him, for the atmosphere in the room was thick with tension. My arrival scattered some of that tension.

Amir Chauhan rose and introduced me to his guests. Then respectfully he directed me to the mattress, asking me to wait while he spanked the dust off it vigorously.

No sooner had I sat than the people in the room excused themselves. Hands folded, they ducked their way out of the low, narrow exit. The smiles on their faces told me that Amir Chauhan had spoken well of me; their smiles were warm and approving, but a little wistful, too, as though they wished they could have stayed longer, gotten to know me better.

I could see that Amir Chauhan was both pleased and embarrassed by my visit, pleased that his neighbors were there to witness my arrival, and embarrassed because I now knew that he was planning to leave without saying goodbye.

I was injured and told him so. Yes, it was very, very wrong that memsahib had fought so bitterly with him, but then did he not stop to think of me even for a moment? Did he not think me important enough to meet and talk it over? I looked him in the eye, and at once his eyes lowered and he began to splutter his apologies. Then sorrowfully he spoke.

“You see, sahib, it’s this way. I have always respected memsahib, treated her like my own mother. I have never raised my voice or refused to do any work she gave me. I know sometimes she is tired, from all the important work she does; so she snaps at me without reason, and she wants things done in a particular way only, which creates more work for me, takes up more of my time. And all this I don’t mind; I do it willingly. But then, two days ago, she asked me to do something that was against my religion, against my principles. She asked me to clean the loft in the kitchen, standing on the stool that we keep in the storeroom. And when I was about to climb onto the stool, she insisted that I put a newspaper on it; to which I refused. I told her I couldn’t do that, but she insisted. She said she did not want my dirty footmarks on the stool. It had just been polished, and she did not want it stained. I told her that I would be glad to wash my feet; but she insisted, said, no, I had to keep a newspaper on it, that was an order! And then I too got angry, because it was against my religion, against my beliefs. How could I stand on vidya, on knowledge, the gift of Goddess Saraswati? If I do that, my children will be cursed for life. As it is, I am not educated. My father could not afford to send me to school. But I, I am able to send money home for my children, so they can go to a private school and study. I know that the Goddess is pleased with me. She is helping me to help my children. But if I stand on vidya, on knowledge, I will incur her wrath. My children will never get to enjoy her blessings; never get to receive her grace. I tried to explain this to madam, but she was not prepared to listen. She said I was foolish and ignorant. She said I was a stupid villager and that I would remain where I was because of my attitude, because I was so full of superstition and pride. It is not like that, sir. Some things are important to us. Besides our faith, what do we poor people have? You rich people must understand that, respect that.”

With that, Amir Chauhan began to weep. He wept because he had been asked, no, ordered, to insult his Goddess, to tread on all that she stood for. And of course he had no clue what he would have actually stood on: murder, loot, arson, rape; match-fixing, poll-rigging, insider trading, drunken driving; beyond that, the wiles of a politician, the guiles of a builder, the stories of men who were busy selling themselves or selling their country.

But, of course, Amir Chauhan didn’t know that. In his eyes, he had stood up for his Goddess, and for his act of devotion he had to listen to all sorts of offensive accusations.

Realizing that no amount of reasoning would get him to change his mind, I started asking him about his life in the village, about how he came to the city; if he missed village life, preferred it over life in the city. Yes, in that little room of his, I wanted to know more about him, and my curiosity was genuine.

“Where to start, sahib,” he said. “If there is one thing that brought me here, it is Destiny. Or perhaps it was the will of the Goddess. My father was once a rich farmer. This was till I was five years old. We had our own land, our own cattle. We used to grow palak and jowar and rice and corn, and we used to get fifteen to twenty quintals from each crop, which was sufficient to feed us and left us with enough stock to sell in the market.

“Then one day, a strange worm got into our fields. Not just ours, our neighbors’ fields too, and no one could tell what kind of a worm it was, for they had never seen it before. It would destroy a crop within days; it wouldn’t give the crop a chance to grow. We tried one pesticide after another and only after ten to twelve sprayings did the wretched thing perish. But, by the end of it, the soil was ruined; it turned dry and arid; and overnight our land was reduced to a dustbowl.

“My father tried everything to revive the soil. He spent a lot of money to dig a deep borewell right next to our land and he installed a powerful pump to draw out the water and he raked at the soil and watered the fields day and night. He also had various pujas performed by priests from out of town. Powerful priests. But, no, the land was stubborn and unyielding.

“Now some of our neighbors had problems with the borewell; they found it was affecting the groundwater level and reducing the water supply in the main village well, too. Without telling us, they took up the matter with the village panchayat, who ruled that my father should remove the pump and refill the well, which he did promptly.

“Our fields now useless and infertile, my father became a daily-wage worker; he began to till the land of rich farmers. Where once he had others working for him, he now worked alongside them, seeing the smirks on their faces, hearing their gibes, and swallowing the pride that had been his strength all along. Even then he made up his mind that one of his sons would study, at least one of us would go to town and make his life there. And that was to be my elder brother, Laxman. He was twelve years old then, and more adventurous and outgoing than me. So my father sold two of our bullocks and three of our goats and from that money he sent Laxman to town, to a school that had a hostel, and he, my father, worked extra hard to make money for Laxman’s education, and after a while my mother, too, joined him in the fields.

“Laxman studied up to the twelfth grade, and after that he joined the police force as a constable. Visiting us, he would come in his uniform, and would get us expensive gifts: clothes, utensils, tools, sweet fragrant soaps and perfumes, and tasty pickles; and he would make us enjoy, he would make us laugh with his stories about drunks and pickpockets and tantric priests and with his imitations of actors and politicians. How we used to wait for him to come! And so did all the villagers, who were so fond of him. And, of course, the proudest among them all was my father, for now even the panchayat members would invite us for a meal and sometimes they would ask Laxman’s opinion on a matter. On one such visit home, Laxman took himself a wife, a tall, fair woman, who would bear him three children, two sons and a daughter.

“Once, during his visit, my father suggested to Laxman that he take me to town and enroll me in a night school. But my brother had his problems. With three children, life was expensive, he said. He didn’t want any additional burden.

“Not that I felt bad. I understood him completely. And besides, I loved his children, and they too had a special place in their hearts for me.

“But then it appeared that life had other plans for us…

“One day Laxman had gone to a friend’s wedding, where he had given a speech that had made everyone laugh, and then he had got up and started to dance, persuading others to join in. He was the life of the occasion, you could say, and the only time he was quiet was when he was eating, for he enjoyed his food immensely.

“That day, however, in the middle of the meal he started choking, started turning blue in the face, and everyone thought that it was a heart attack. But, no, it appeared that a fishbone had got stuck in his throat. They rushed him to the hospital, where they tried to remove it, but couldn’t, for it was stuck at a funny angle in his food pipe.

“Within twenty-four hours an infection set in, and they had to drain almost a liter of pus from his throat. Remember, sahib, this was a small town, not a city, so the doctors were not experienced enough, nor confident enough to operate on him.

“By the time we arrived, me and my father, our Laxman had passed away, and there was nothing we could do but bring back his body. It was said one of the tantric priests he had arrested had done some black magic, he had cast a spell on him. But who is to know, really, who is to tell? Our Laxman was gone, snatched away from us. His wife was in total shock, his children dazed and fearful.

“Their support gone, Laxman’s family moved back to the village, where I started looking after them. Unfortunately, my brother had not saved any money. He was a spendthrift, he liked to enjoy. Besides, he had this weakness for online lottery, and his luck never did him any favors. My own income wasn’t much too. Where, sahib? I wasn’t even qualified. I hadn’t been to school, couldn’t read and write. So I would only get temporary jobs like road-paving or canal construction or working in the fields during the time of the harvest.

“Laxman’s children became greatly attached to me, and I did everything to see that they did not miss their father. I would take them swimming in the river, to the forest to collect firewood and useful plants, to the grand fair, when it came to our district. Seeing this, the sarpanch in our village suggested to my father that I should take my brother’s widow as my wife.

“At first I was shocked. I felt great sadness. I thought I would be committing a big sin; my brother’s spirit would be disturbed, angry. But the village elders got together and convinced me. The priest too said it was okay. He said I would only be completing my brother’s work on earth; I would be creating good karma and fulfilling my duty, my dharma.

“So I took the marriage rounds with my brother’s widow and, surprisingly, she did not seem to be offended. She just went with the elders’ decision, went through the rituals calmly.

“But, as time went by, I realized that she liked me in a different sort of a way, not in the way a woman likes a man, and she kept telling me to get away to the city—she said there were great opportunities there for someone as hardworking as me. She would look at me in an amused sort of a way and say the city would help me to grow up, make a man out of me. That would make me angry, for I knew that she thought me to be a boy still, I being many years younger than her.

“I tried to impress her, tried to change her opinion of me. So in front of her I would pick up great loads of firewood. And I would participate in all the inter-village competitions, where I won prizes in kushti and kabaddi. I even got myself a good body, all muscle. And yet I would see the smile in her eyes. No, it wasn’t spiteful or mocking, just amused.

“But whenever I would approach her at night, to fulfill my duty as a husband, she would draw away. She would say she was not in the mood, or would make the excuse of her children, saying she did not want to disturb their sleep, and then I would turn from her and cry, cry silently in the dark, wondering whether I was being punished for having committed a sin, for having married my brother’s widow.

“My parents would keep asking me about my plans to start a family of my own. Why it was taking so long, why no news as yet? My friends would tease me; ask me whether I was capable of producing a child. And what to tell them, sahib? How to share with them my burden?

“Then one night, when we were getting ready for sleep and I had my back to her, she drew up to me, placed an arm around me, and whispered that she was afraid, afraid that if we had children of our own I would stop loving her children. I tried to turn and face her, but she held me in grip. ‘No, stay!’ she said. Her voice was firm, her grip even firmer. So I spoke with my back to her, saying how could that be possible; these children were mine too, my own blood, the blood of my dear brother, whom I missed like crazy, and then I was glad I had my back to her, for I felt so misunderstood, so helpless, and I felt the tears come rushing to my eyes…

“Then, suddenly, she sat up, upright, and said that she would be mine if I could prove to her that I’d do anything for her children, and I said, yes, anything, and then she asked me to go to the city, go there and earn, so that our children could be educated, they could stand on their own feet someday, not depend on anyone.

“And then she lay down and slept, her back to me, and I knew what she was trying to say. She wanted a freedom for her children that she herself did not have. She, too, did not want to depend on a person she did not love. But she had to! For the sake of her children, she did! And if I wanted her love I would have to prove that I could take care of her children, give them a life of their own. And that’s why, sahib, I am here.”

He paused. Deep worry lines clouded his brow. Collecting his thoughts, he continued.

“You asked me if I like it here, in the city. How can I? Who would like to stay in this kind of a room, where one can barely breathe? Who would like to wake up at four in the morning and plead with the tankerwallahs for a bucket or two of water? Who would like to defecate in the open, with rats and pigs and a hundred eyes watching? Who would like to stay in a place where there are fights everyday, fights for things no human being should fight for, and where death and disease are your neighbors? If I go back now, my wife will not say anything, but her eyes will torture me. She will humiliate me with her silence. But what to do? Madam has said such harsh things to me that I don’t think I can forget easily. Maybe she was right. Maybe I am not right for the city. Maybe I am too simple, too stupid, I should have stayed put in the village.” He looked crushed, downcast, defeated. I could see that my wife had struck well. She had been convincing.

Pausing to inhale deeply (it was warm and stuffy in here), I said, “You can’t go back now, Amir Chauhan. Not as someone who has lost, who has given up on what you set out to achieve. Why didn’t you tell us all this earlier? Perhaps you did not know, but your memsahib, too, is very fond of children. Long back, she wanted three of her own, and if she hears this, hears of your sacrifice and devotion, you will find her a different person. You will see her kindness, the largeness of her heart. You don’t know this, but she does honorary work for a company that funds children’s education. I will speak to her and make sure you get a grant, for all your children. From now on, I want you to leave the education of your children to us. At least till they complete their schooling. And I don’t want to hear any more talk of you leaving, except for that one time in a year when you shall visit your family. And when you do return, return like a hero. Like your brother, in smart clothes and with gifts in your hand. With love flowing from every pore in your body.”

Amir Chauhan began to cry—this time from gratitude, from guilt, from disbelief in his luck, from a squall of emotions he was finding tough to digest. I waited for him to stop. A cloud of darkness had filled the room, a void that separated us. From below, in the slum, I could hear the sound of vessels being scrubbed, children being ordered in by their mothers, ordered in harsh voices, and I could smell the pungent fumes of kerosene stoves, lit and aflame.

Alone with my thoughts, I could not help but wonder if Amir Chauhan was not a bigger man than me. Bigger for sharing, bigger for wearing his heart on his sleeve and allowing me to see the emotions that brewed and boiled within. And yet, within me, was the pride of a victor. For I had won the lifelong devotion of one who was diligent, honest, unspoiled by the city, and anxious to win over his wife, and now, perhaps, with a bit of luck, I could conquer my wife’s tantrums, too.

How? How was I to manage that?

Well, I would tell her Amir Chauhan’s story, about his struggles, about his need to prove himself to an older woman, a tough-as-nails wife. Yes, I would tell her about the three children he had taken as his own, and how he was working to give them a future, and that way I would appeal to the mother in her, the mother that she had years ago decided to bury in a gynecologist’s office, when she had been told that she couldn’t conceive, no, never, when, after a good cry, a silent, heaving cry, lurching sobs that rose from the pit of her being, from some place deep in her stomach, and too big and too bilious for her yearning maternal heart, after that, she had wiped away her tears, wiped them herself, firmly, decisively, rejecting any show of kindness on my part, the comfort of my arms, the consolation of my words that reassured her that we had each other, a love that would suffice, support, endure, see us through, and then, dry-eyed and pert-lipped, she had decided to concentrate on her career, instead, on fighting battles in court, long, hard battles that stretched endlessly, that tested her strength, her stamina, her capacity to carry other people’s crosses and show the world that she could win.

But all that was history, long forgotten and long buried. We never spoke of it, never referred to it. It was as if it did not exist: her child-bearing dream, her maternal craving. Perhaps what my wife needed now was Amir Chauhan’s story—to end her own battle against life. To convince her that it wasn’t always about forgetting or about winning, as much as about trying to recognize and understand the invisible within the visible. The fact that we find ourselves through others, we mend ourselves through them. And where once was a dustbowl, there could be water and life again.

Murzban F Shroff Murzban F Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. His fiction has appeared in over 50 literary journals in the United States and United Kingdom. He is a recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award, and has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. His short-story collection Breathless in Bombay was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and rated by The Guardian as among the ten best books on Mumbai. His novel Waiting for Jonathan Koshy, published in December 2015, was a finalist for the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize.