ABOUT THE STORY Tarun, a young man—a new member of India’s vast urban professional class—returns home for Diwali to Muzaffarnagar, the small north-Indian town notorious for its communal violence. He brings with him some of the hopes and regrets shared by many young Indians today who cannot reconcile their values and realities with the expectations of their families, and who must wall parts of their lives off from their elders if they are not to wage war on themselves. But in Muzaffarnagar, Tarun discovers that new currents are seething even in this backwater. And yet the old world, even if there is something hapless about it, also asserts its rights in a strident voice, just like the grandfather in the story. On Diwali evening, Tarun begins to see his family—those who came before him, and those who have come after—in a new light, and is led to a new deal with himself.
IT WAS THE DAY OF DIWALI, close to three in the afternoon. I was in the toilet, the common toilet between my parents’ bedroom—where they haven’t slept together for fifteen years—and the room that houses my ailing grandfather. I was masturbating thinking of Anne-Marie, and I was close. I was looking at her Facebook pics, the ones I had taken in a hotel room in Nusa Dua, Bali, when the call came. “Little Bro calling…” showed on the screen. I cut it and went back to my business. But then he called again and I had to swipe right.
“Bhaiyya…” my brother Kanu said. He was sobbing.
“I had an accident. A little one.”
On the day of Diwali, I thought. “Are you hurt?”
There was a pause in which I pulled up my pants and flushed. The sound of the water receded slowly. A different voice spoke on the phone then. “Bhaiyya, we hit a motorbike,” it said. This was Kanu’s best friend, a thin, sickly boy named Arun.
“How badly?” I said, washing my hands and looking into the mirror above the washbasin. I saw my upturned shoulder meet my tilted neck, the phone lodged in between. There was no alarm on my face.
“He is asking for money,” Arun said.
“Ok. So…” So pay it, was my immediate thought. “How much is he asking for?”
“And he beat us bhaiyya,” Arun said.
“I am coming,” I said, and cut the call.
I got out of the toilet on the bedroom side. Then it hit me that I didn’t know where they were exactly. So I called back on Kanu’s number.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“We are at the Circular Road chauraha. Near Soojdo Choongi.” It was Kanu on the phone now. Less sobby. But wasn’t he was supposed to get sweets and crackers from Shiv Chowk, on the opposite side of town? Soojdo Choongi, where he was, was a Muslim village just outside town.
“Sorry bhaiyya,” he said, anticipating my thoughts. “Don’t tell Mummy Papa.”
I cut the call. I passed through the verandah outside the bedroom and entered the living room on the right, where my parents were sipping tea and watching Baba Ramdev’s contortions on television. They never try any of that stuff themselves.
“Kanu is in trouble.” I announced straight away.
The idea of going to my brother’s rescue alone did cross my mind for a second. But I was not going to be the one to fight on the road. And what if the motorbike guy turned out to be a Muslim? This was Muzaffarnagar. Riot-prone-piece-of-shit town.
“What happened?” father asked.
“I think he crashed with someone. Not a big deal. But the man is asking for money now.”
“Hain?” my mother exclaimed, rising from the plastic chair she was sitting on. The chair fell to the floor. “Is he all right? Where is he?”
“He is OK,” I said. “He is at the Circular Road chauraha. Near Soojdo Choongi.”
“Let’s go,” my father said immediately.
WE TOOK THE OTHER SCOOTER, me going pillion, my hands holding on to the spare tire behind my back. I can only drive scooters which don’t have gears, like the Honda Activa I gifted my brother last Diwali, the one that he crashed. It was a ten-minute ride from our house to the chauraha, during which I and my father didn’t exchange a single word. But this was normal. Papa doesn’t talk much. Except when he is drunk, which was happening on a daily basis this week. He would hide his liquor in the closet beside the main bedroom, and after nine he would go there with a large glass. A couple of swigs, and he would emerge from the closet having shed the disappointment that his sober self felt with us. In his inebriation, he abused the qaum of Muslims, recalling how during the recent riots he had had to stay awake with a loaded rifle in his hands. It was unnecessary, I could have told him; the rioting never really reached the town proper. But, well, panic and prejudice make one do things.
At the scene of the accident, Kanu and Arun stood timidly, like blades of grass after a storm. The scooter and the motorbike, perpendicular to each other, leaned on their stands like workers in repose. A woman dressed in an elaborately embroidered red sari stood next to the motorbike. She had her pallu over her head, and had tucked a small part of it into her mouth. No way was she the assaulter. But the pallu told me that they were Hindus, which was a good thing.
We inspected the damage. Mudguard to mudguard, it seemed. A dent and a little bend to either vehicle.
“Where is he?” father asked the lady. She stayed silent.
“Where is your husband?” father asked again. Again no answer from the woman.
I went close to my brother and saw fear in his eyes. I put a hand on his shoulder. He tried to shrug it off. Arun, meanwhile, smiled at me wistfully while pressing his head with his palm.
We waited at least five minutes for the assaulter to arrive. He had apparently gone to say hello to a friendly policeman somewhere nearby. There ensued a small conversation, in which he explained how the crash was the boys’ fault. Kanu and Arun were in no state to refute anything.
The man asked for a thousand rupees to repair the damage to his motorbike. For a second I felt like reminding him about his mandatory two-wheeler insurance policy, which could easily cover such damages. But something told me it wouldn’t work here in Muzaffarnagar. It barely works in Mumbai, where I work.
“But it doesn’t look like it will need a thousand rupees,” father argued.
“Bhaisaab, it is Diwali time,” the man said. “My festival has been ruined.”
So father took out his wallet and checked—only a couple of hundred-rupee notes in there. He looked at me. I didn’t have enough to make it a thousand either. It was clear that someone would have to go to a nearby ATM, for which I, badly needing relief from the situation, volunteered. I took Kanu’s Activa, which gave no hint of having been involved in an accident.
During my five-minute round-trip, my feeling was one of helplessness. But I had no conception of how the situation could pan out differently. I was angry too—I didn’t know why—at Kanu and father.
When I returned, the man was not at the scene again. I tried giving the money to the woman but she refused to touch it. She was biting a different part of her pallu now. My father was looking away, a grimace on his face. We had to wait again for a few minutes.
The man came back and took the money from me without any expression. Then he turned, kick-started his bike, waited for the few seconds it took his wife to mount it, and sped off.
All of a sudden, father regained control of the situation. “You and Kanu go home. I will drop Arun to his house and come.”
ON OUR WAY BACK I asked Kanu what he was doing with Arun on that side of town. He chose not to answer, and I chose to repeat the question in a harsher voice. I was still angry.
I would have bought the sweets and crackers later,” he said gruffly.
Yes, but what were you doing with him?” I asked. I heard something in the engine rattle unpleasantly. Was he the one driving?
“Maybe yes. Maybe not. So?” Kanu said.
“So? You let others ride the scooter I bought for you? You want me to tell Mummy Papa?”
“You anyway tell them everything.”
I thought about this. Not true, actually. After the break-up with Anne-Marie, I hadn’t told my parents that I still harboured hopes of returning to the French girl of my dreams and their nightmares. They were content thinking that I had realised my mistake after four stupid years, and would now settle for a traditional Indian girl. Presently, though, as regards my brother, I thought I would not divulge any further information to our parents. But I couldn’t resist asking him about Arun.
“So why did you let him tag along?”
Kanu didn’t answer. We were not far from our house now, a slight breeze had picked up, and the wind in my hair made me forget the question. This was late October, and the afternoon air was cool and pleasant. Mumbai can never match Muzaffarnagar in this.
“I like him,” my brother said then. “He was with me because we like each other.”
My mind circled a long time around the word like.
IN THE HOUSE we saw a departure from the norm—grandfather was sitting in the living room, watching a news channel on television. The volume was up close to maximum.
Seeing us, mother started her monologue. “He has created such a mess. Passed urine on his bed. I gave him new pyjamas and helped him get here. I am not going to clean the bed. Let your father do it. It’s his father after all. For ten years now I have been taking care of this old man and none of your uncles has given us a penny. Your uncles have all made their mahals. And all your father has done is bound this old man to my neck.”
There was no risk of grandfather hearing any of this. The man was ninety-four, and had been edging ever closer to deafness since grandmother died, which happened the same year I was born, almost twenty-eight years ago now. I was sure he was not getting much from the news show either. But he could talk, argue, manipulate. He was in that class of oldies who have screwed-up bodily functions but irritatingly high mental agility. We were all tired of him. Even my father, I suspected.
“Congress is screwing this country,” he said then, loudly, as only a deaf man can.
It made Kanu laugh, which brought Mummy’s attention to him.
“And what were you doing getting yourself into an accident?”
He immediately looked down at the floor. Wrong move, I wanted to tell him. He should have answered back, been aggressive. Now there would be a barrage of questions.
“Why do you ride so fast? You could have died, don’t you know? There are so many rash drivers on the road. You need to take care not only of your mistakes but of others’ mistakes as well. Show me, are you hurt anywhere? Is the other man hurt? And how much did your father have to pay?”
“I paid a thousand rupees,” I said.
“Thousand rupees!” Mummy glared at Kanu. “When will you learn to respect money?”
This was the worst thing one could say to my brother in those days. That summer, he had fared badly in the national-level competitions that determine entry to engineering schools, missing the cut-off for well-reputed—and subsidised—government-run institutions by some margin. This had led to him being enrolled in a private college not far from home, which cost my father a bomb and also barred Kanu from the kind of freedom I had in my college time. He had to take a bus to college in the morning and had to return by another in the afternoon. I had a feeling that he attributed my parents’ vigilance—their not letting him stay in the college hostel, for instance—to my having had a firang girlfriend, whom I had met when I was in a hostel in Ahmedabad, where she was an exchange student. Kanu silently envied me as the suave brother who had extricated himself from the shit of Muzaffarnagar. But it was something that Kanu could never say out loud. For when our father retired from his miserable government job later that year, Kanu’s tuition fee could only be borne by me. Did I like this equation? No. Except perhaps for the fact that it allowed me an upper hand in domestic quarrels, which I had to face no more than twice a year, only during the annual Holi and Diwali holidays when I returned to Muzaffarnagar.
Kanu, as expected, did respond petulantly to my mother. He kicked over the vacant plastic chair next to the one in which grandfather was sitting. “Money money money!” he shouted, “Everyone in this house talks of money!”
Grandfather saw what happened, and I can bet that I saw a smile on his face. Or maybe he even heard something. It was loud enough.
Mother hit her forehead with her palm.
Kanu blustered out of the room. “You had no plans for me!” he shouted from the verandah. “You didn’t even try to get me into a better school. You only had plans for him, and he did everything by himself. You don’t love me because you think I failed.” He suddenly squatted down and started crying in despair, or maybe pretend despair, with his head in his hands and all. “I heard it the other day when Papa said that you two had me too late. You can’t deal with this, right? You can’t deal with my college and his retirement.”
“Even your grandfather can hear everything,” mother hissed. “Don’t shout.”
“I am not shouting!” Kanu shouted.
Mother went to the verandah to provide consolation, the way mothers have to. But such consolation requires hugging, which requires touching the other person’s shoulders. My brother shrugged her off the first few times.
He did relent finally. Though the rage didn’t die down, and even as mother had him in her arms he kept on howling.
“And this old man doesn’t die. Hangs on and hangs on and hangs on. I want this man to die.”
Grandfather showed no signs of having heard that. I agreed with Kanu. So much of our parents’ energy had been sapped by this old man, whose desire for even his kind of depleted life was immense. His ears hardly worked, he had trouble walking, and father definitely had to help him in the toilet. But he still retained his fucking joie de vivre. Every Sunday he would ask for food to be ordered from outside, and father would get him his favourite dishes. Neither I nor Kanu remembered ever being pampered this way by our father.
I guess it was this identification with my brother’s feelings that made me go closer to them. I had to say something, but, unclear of my own feelings, I ended up talking of money. “You don’t have to worry about money, Kanu. That’s between me and Papa. You just have to study hard.”
This was earnest advice. To study, to learn something about the world that could be used to earn some money—that was the only way to escape the pettiness of Muzaffarnagar. I got out by studying hard enough to get into an engineering school in Jaipur. Then I got further away by getting into a management school in Ahmedabad. Then I moved to Mumbai, for employment. Also to live with Anne-Marie in a city that was beyond my parents’ reach.
But the explicit logic of my exit from Muzaffarnagar could only alienate me further from my brother. He was seventeen, with hormones gushing through him like drugs, a body of rage and urges.
“Griha yuddh,” grandfather shouted from the living room. The literal meaning in Hindi is “domestic war” but the term is used to refer to civil wars. There was something about Iraq on the television.
Mother and Kanu stood up. “I am so useless,” Kanu said softly then. “I cause so much loss.” Contrition following rage—this was a common thing with him.
Mother answered predictably. “No. You’re not useless. You’re the star of my eye.”
Except the cacophony from the television, things calmed down almost instantaneously. Kanu went to the other toilet, the one at the end of the verandah, to wash his face. Mother and I moved to the main bedroom, where I flopped down on the bed. She sat with her back against the headboard. Kanu joined us a couple of minutes later and lay down next to me, with our bodies parallel, both of us gazing at the still ceiling fan.
I thought of evenings with friends where Anne-Marie would accompany me, looking the best among the girls. Our male friends would envy me. I would hold her by the waist and we would dance to slow tunes. I would smell Summer by Kenzo on her. The fragrance always made me delirious. Six months now, I counted.
Mother interrupted my thoughts. “What is my life worth?” she said. “What is my life worth if the two of you act like this? Talk like this? If you two are unhappy? I have done nothing else in my life except take care of you. Of all you men.”
I didn’t turn to look in her direction. What she said was true, and a few years back it might even have pained me, but now I felt like asking her, “Why didn’t you do things differently, Mummy? You should have done something for yourself. Maybe we would have been better off.”
Kanu, meanwhile, had moved closer to her. I kept staring at the ceiling fan, but from the corner of my eye I could see them hugging. Roles reversed!
“Tarun,” mother told me, “you should be closer to your brother.”
“Do we have crackers for the night?” I asked Kanu.
“No,” Mummy answered for him. “Where has your father gone?”
“He went to drop Arun home,” Kanu said.
“I hope he goes to the market,” I added.
Just then my cell phone started vibrating in my pocket. I took it out and checked the screen. “Love calling…” it said. It was a call I had been desperate for, for months. But lying on the bed now, with my mother and my brother looking on curiously, I realised that it was a call that I dreaded as well.
I took the call without changing my position on the bed.
Anne-Marie wished me and my family a happy Diwali. I realised that this could actually be the only reason for the call. Then she updated me about her life. She was somewhere in Switzerland, at a place called Interlaken. She asked me if I would visit her. She said she would love it if I did.
“Yes. Maybe. I will let you know.” I didn’t know what to say. The awareness of the geography of this phone call—from Interlaken to Muzaffarnagar—somehow saddened me.
I think mother sensed my feelings. When the call was cut she said, “You wasted four years with her in Mumbai. You were miserable when she left. Why do you talk to her now?”
“She called to wish Diwali, Mummy,” I said. “That’s all.”
“This is not a small matter. I can see this is not a small matter.”
I rose up from the bed. “Believe what you want.”
“She is white. European. Haven’t you thought of how many men she must have had in these months?”
“Stop giving me this,” I said in anger. It was tough enough to deal with this question privately. I went to the adjacent room to escape the conversation. This was my brother’s study room—and had been mine earlier. I busied myself with a carton full of books, one of the many I had hurriedly dispatched to Muzaffarnagar after Anne-Marie left Mumbai and I was forced to move to a smaller apartment. They were all in this room, the cartons, all stacked below a cot.
A few minutes passed in peace. Then I heard father enter through the gate that separated the verandah from the backyard.
“Did you bring the pooja material and the crackers?” mother asked him.
“I didn’t get the time,” father said.
“You didn’t get the time! What happened?”
“Ask him,” father said loudly, pointing at Kanu.
I stepped out into the verandah.
Father then told us how Arun had vomited as soon as they reached his house. His head had hit the asphalt in the accident. There was no external injury, but he had needed to be admitted to a hospital. Definite clotting in the brain. Father said that Arun would be under observation for a few days.
“It’s my fault,” Kanu said softly.
Mother asked father if he wanted some tea and he grunted his assent. Then he went to the living room and reduced the volume on the television, which roused my grandfather from a nap.
“I gave Arun’s family two thousand rupees,” father shouted from the living room. “The MRI will cost them five. I had to contribute.”
“The CIA is behind the crash, Harbir,” grandfather spoke aloud. “They are behind all mischief.”
“Let me and Kanu go and get the stuff,” I offered.
“Yes, go,” mother said. “And slow on the roads, please.”
I started Kanu’s scooter. It rattled loudly, but still worked. As I rode with Kanu behind me, I wondered how long it would take mother to reveal that grandfather had pissed on his bed. And that she hadn’t cleaned it.
DURING OUR EXCURSION to Shiv Chowk, Kanu and I talked only when necessary. He did show a marginal interest in the quantity of crackers we bought. Otherwise, we were both too busy with our own thoughts.
I was thinking of what it must be like to clean a urine stain on a mattress. Was it even possible? Papa couldn’t afford a nurse or a maid or whoever to take care of such things. I could, but that never crossed anyone’s mind. It seemed that only our parents were expected to provide for our grandfather’s welfare. I and Kanu were not expected to do a thing, not even to serve him food. We were only expected to do our things well. To study well, to marry well, to be safe from accidents, to make our lives outside Muzaffarnagar, and to ideally avoid any unpleasant incidents too if we could help it.
But would we be expected to do similar work when Mummy and Papa got really old?
I tried to imagine cleaning my father’s faeces. Or my mother’s. It made me shudder.
It was getting dark outside when we came back. The scooter’s front wheel felt a bit wobbly by now.
Mother was the only one in the living room. She was watching a soap, one where a large family was celebrating Diwali, dancing to songs and bursting crackers. Even the vamps had let go of their meanness and were enjoying the festival of lights. Inside our house, there were lit diyas in every corner. I hoped that we would act like the family on television for the rest of the evening.
Seeing us, mother said, “We haven’t even done pooja and they are drinking. They try especially hard to displease the gods on festival days.”
I reached grandfather’s room, where he and father each held a glass of whisky in hand. Father asked me to sit on a chair. Then he poured me a drink.
I took a sip. This felt like a set-up.
Grandfather raised his hand and gestured me to come closer, which I did.
“What are your thoughts about marriage?” he shouted into my left ear.
“I have no thoughts about marriage,” I shouted into his right ear.
He closed his eyes and nodded; I knew this was in disapproval. Then he looked at my father. “Harbir, I love Tarun the most among all my grandchildren.” There were ten of us—the grandchildren. I had eight cousins from four uncles and an aunt. “And my last wish is to be alive for Tarun’s marriage.”
Hearing this, I finished my drink in a gulp and asked to be poured another. It unsettled father slightly, and I guess that is what I wanted.
“It would be best, Tarun beta,” grandfather addressed me now, “if you were to marry within the caste. Marry a jaat girl.”
This inflamed me. I wanted to say that I had fucked a white woman more than a thousand times over the past four years, that caste didn’t mean shit to me, that their world didn’t make sense to me and it probably already didn’t make sense to Kanu. And I wanted to tell my grandfather that his last wish should be nothing else but to die in his sleep, without pain.
But I stayed silent.
“There is a proposal from a very good family,” father said.
“What kind of family?” I asked.
“Her father and her brother are top bureaucrats. In the Central government. Delhi.”
“You are not a top bureaucrat,” I said, almost instinctively.
“But you are a top MBA. They are very interested.”
I sighed. What else? I also thought about Delhi—if I lived there, I would be within my parents’ grasp. Just three hours away.
Then mother entered the room, following the script almost perfectly. She stood behind father’s chair, looking at me as if she were certain that I was on the cusp of a decision.
“What do I have to do?” I asked them.
“You have to meet her,” mother said. “At a neutral place. It’s going to be easy. Just see if your thoughts match.”
Kanu also came in. I don’t think he was part of the script. He probably just didn’t want to be alone in another room. Get out of this shithole, I wanted to tell him. “So when do we burst the crackers?” I asked instead.
“I don’t want to,” Kanu said.
“Why?” mother asked.
Kanu remained silent.
“Arun will be fine,” father said then. “He is under observation. Nothing will happen.”
“But still,” Kanu said.
“Don’t you like girls?” I found myself saying. This shocked Kanu, and he stared back at me like he wanted to kill me. The expressions on my parents’ faces also changed.
“Let’s have the pooja,” mother said, trying to scuttle the suggestion I had planted. “And you brothers are going to burst the crackers. There is no need to talk silly stuff.”
“Pooja!” grandfather shouted. “Let’s have the pooja.”
All of us then got out of the room and walked to the little temple that mother had assembled just outside the kitchen. Father had to help grandfather get there. There were many diyas lit at the temple—all mother’s labour. The idols sparkled in the diyas’ quivering light. Mother put marigold petals and some rice in our hands. These pooja rituals were among my earliest memories of my family. But now the gods had little to give, and I wondered if any of us that Diwali really believed that a prayer could answer anything. We anyway sang the hymns that every Hindu family knows how to. I looked at Kanu and felt a pang of guilt for what I had done.
Grandfather spoke aloud when the last hymn ended, “May such Diwalis come every year.” We threw the petals and the rice on the idols.
Sensing the irony, Kanu gave out a little snort, and because I wanted to apologise I looked at him and smiled. He stared back. I felt ashamed.
This was the point when I decided that I wouldn’t go to Interlaken, that Anne-Marie was a mirage that my world had to close its eyes to.
I never talked to her again.
Two days after Diwali, I would travel to Delhi to take a flight back to Mumbai. In Delhi, I would meet the girl whose family had members in the bureaucracy. She wouldn’t impress me much, and I would tell my parents so. But even in this rejection they would find a silver lining. I was on the right track, they would say. That I felt defeated, that I almost cried in front of that bemused girl—it wouldn’t matter even if I told them.
Upon landing in Mumbai I would receive another phone call from my father. He would tell me that Arun had died in the hospital. He would tell me that my brother was in a fit of rage and was throwing the Activa to the ground repeatedly.
Father would not say it, but I would know that he wanted me to come home.