• 10 Aug - 16 Aug, 2019
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

It was the only coat he had. He didn’t bother to think what he was going to wear. The sweeper salaamed him, called down God’s blessings upon him, and was off. He put up with the cold for some days. Before that he used to go for a walk every morning, but now he gave up doing that. But it’s a strange temperament God has given him. He’s not ashamed to go about in rags. If people laugh at him, let them. He doesn’t care. I could die of shame, but he doesn’t even notice. In the end I couldn’t bear it any longer and I got a coat made for him. It was the last thing I wanted to do. I felt like making him put up with the cold, but I was afraid he might fall ill; and then we’d be in even worse trouble. After all, he’s the breadwinner.

In all these years he’s never – of his own accord – bought me a present. I grant you, when I’ve asked for something he’s never once objected to going and buying it for me – provided that I give him the money for it. He’s never felt inspired to pay for it himself. It’s true that he never buys anything for him either, poor fellow; he’s quite content with what I get. But after all a man does sometimes fancy something. I see what other men do. They’re always bringing something for their wives – jewellery, clothes, make-up. But with us that practice is forbidden. I don’t think he’s even once in his life bought sweets, or toys, or a trumpet or anything like that for the children. It’s as if he’d sworn not to. So I say he’s mean, dried up a man who has no enthusiasm for anything. And his generosity to others I put down to the fact that he’s simpleton; he’s greedy for approval, and likes to show off. He’s so weak and modest that he doesn’t mix with any of the people who hold any position in the office where he works. It’s against his rules to pay his respects to them, let alone give them presents. He doesn’t even call on them at their homes. And it’s he who reaps the consequences. Who else? Other people are given paid leave. His leave is unpaid. Other people get promoted. He is simply ignored. If he’s even five minutes late for work he’s asked for an explanation. The poor man works himself to death, and yet if anything difficult or complicated comes up it’s him who’s given the job of sorting it out and he never objects. People in his office make fun of him and call him ‘the drudge’. And no matter how difficult the task he’s coped with, it’s written in his fate that he’ll get the same dry grass at the end of it. I don’t call that modesty; it’s a simple ignorance of the ways of the world. And why should anyone be pleased with him? It’s tolerance and consideration that gets you by in this world. And once they take a dislike to you then of course that shows itself in office relationships. Subordinates who take care to keep their superiors happy, who make sure that their superiors get some personal advantage from them, and whom their superiors can depend upon are sure to win their superiors’ regard. Why should they feel any sympathy for a man who wants nothing from them? After all they too are only human. How is their desire independent? Everywhere he’s worked, he’s been dismissed. He’d never lasted in any office for more than a year or two. He’s either quarrelled with his superiors or gone and complained that they’ve given him too much work to do.

He claims that he looks after his relatives. He has several brothers and nephews. They never so much as ask after him, but he is always thinking of their needs. One of his brothers is a tashildar now, and it is he who looks after all the family property. He lives in style. He’s bought a car and has several servants, but it never even occurs to him to write to us. Once we were in desperate need of money. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you ask your munificent brother?’ He said, ‘Why should I bother him? He too has got to make ends meet, and he won’t have much left over.’ It was only because I kept pressing him that he wrote. I don’t know what he said in the letter, but there was no money coming from that source, and we got none. After some days I asked him whether his illustrious brother had deigned to answer his letter. He was annoyed and said, ‘It’s still only a week since he’ll have got it. How can you expect a reply yet? Another week went by, and then what? He never gave me the chance to say any more about it. He looked too happy for words. He’d go out and come back in great form, always with something amusing to tell me. He was constantly flattering me, and praising my family. I knew very well what he was up to. Saying all these things to please me so that I wouldn’t have the chance to ask about his munificent brother. Expounding national, financial, moral and cultural questions, and in such detail, and with such a commentary that it would have astonished even a professor. And all this for no other reason than that he didn’t want to give me a chance to ask about the matter. But that didn’t stop me. When another two full weeks had passed and the date to send money to the insurance company was approaching as inexorably as death, I asked him, ‘What’s happened? Has your esteemed brother deigned to open his blessed lips? We’ve still heard nothing from him. After all, we too have a share in the family property, don’t we? Or are you the son of one of the family’s maidservants? It was earning a profit of five hundred rupees a year ten years ago. Now it must be earning at least a thousand. But we’ve never even got a bad penny of it. At a rough estimate we should have had two thousand. If not two thousand, one thousand; and if not one thousand, five hundred; or two hundred and fifty; or if nothing else at any rate the amount of the insurance premium. A tahsildar earns four times the amount we do. And he takes bribes. So why doesn’t he pay us what he owes us?’ He began humming and hawing. ‘The poor man is having his house repaired. He has all the expense of entertaining his relatives and friends.’ Wonderful! As though the property’s there for the sole purpose of earning the money for these things! And the good man is no good at making up excuse. If he’d asked me I could have provided him with a thousand. I’d have said that his house, and everything in it had been completely destroyed by fire; or that he’d been burgled, and the burglar had taken everything; or that he’d bought grain for 10,000 rupees, but had had to sell at a loss; or he’d been involved in a lawsuit, and it had bankrupted him. But the best excuses he can think up are really lame ones. That’s the best his imagination can do for him and he calls himself a writer and a poet. I bemoaned my fate and left it at that. I borrowed money from a neighbour’s wife and that’s how we got by. And even then he signs the praises of his brothers and his nephews. It makes me furious. God save us from brothers like his! They’re as bad as Joseph’s brothers.

By the grace of God we have two sons and two daughters. They’ve all got too mischievous for words. But this good man will never so much as look disapprovingly at any of them. Eight o’clock at night and our eldest son is out somewhere and hasn’t come back home. I’m worried. He’s sitting there calmly reading the paper. I get cross, snatch the paper from his hand and say, ‘Why don’t you go and look for him? See where he’s got to, the brat? Don’t you feel anxious? You don’t deserve to have children. This time when he comes home give him a real dressing down.’ Then he too gets angry. ‘Isn’t he back yet? He’s really gone to the bad. This time I’ll pull his ears off! I’ll flay him!’ He goes off in a real rage to look for him. But it so happens that he’s only just gone out when the boy comes home. I ask him, ‘Where have you been? Your father, poor man, has gone out to look for you. Just you see what he does to you when he gets back! You’ll never do it again. He was gnashing his teeth. He’ll be back any minute now. He’s got his stick with him. You’ve got so unruly that you take no notice of anything we tell you. Well, today you’ll learn to take notice. You’ll learn what’s good for you.’ The boy is frightened. He lights the lamp and sits down to study.

It’s almost two hours later when his father comes back, worried and distressed and not knowing what to do. The moment he gets in he says, ‘Is he back?’ I want to make him angry. I say, ‘Yes he’s back. You go and ask him where he’s been. I’ve stopped asking him. He won’t say anything.’

He thunders, ‘Munna, come here!’

The boy goes out into the courtyard trembling in fear and stands there. The two girls go off and hide themselves inside the house, wondering what terrible thing is going to happen next. The little boy is peeping out of the window like a mouse out of its hole. Their father is beside himself with rage, and his stick is in his hand. Even I, when I see his angry face, begin to regret having complained about the boy. He goes up to the boy and then, instead of hitting him with his stick, lays his hand gently on his shoulder and, pretending to be angry, says, ‘Where did you get to, sir? You’re forbidden to do things, and you take no notice. If ever you come home so late again, watch out! Boys who behave themselves come home in the evening, and don’t go roaming about all over the place.’

I’m thinking, ‘That’s the preamble. Now he’ll start on what he has to say. Not a bad preamble.’ But it’s both the preamble and the conclusion. He’s calmed down. The boy goes off to his room and is probably jumping for joy there.

I raise my voice in protest. ‘Anyone would think you’re afraid of him. You might at least have given him a clout or two. This way you’ll make him worse. Today he came in at eight. Tomorrow it’ll be nine. What do you think he’s thinking now?’

He says, ‘Didn’t you hear how I scolded him? He’ll have been scared to death. You’ll see, he won’t come home late again.

‘Scold him? You didn’t scold him. You dried his tears for him.’ He’s got hold of a new idea, that punishment is bad for a boy. He thinks boys should be free, and not subject to any kind of restriction or pressure. He thinks that restrictions hinder their development. That’s why they get out of control.

They won’t sit still for a minute to open a book. Sometimes he’s playing tip-cat, sometimes it’s marbles, and sometimes it’s kites. And his honour joins in. He’s past forty now, but he’s still a boy at heart. In my father’s presence none of my brothers would have dared to fly kites or play tip-cat. He’d have had their blood. Every morning he’d sit down and start teaching them, and as soon as they were back from school he’d sit them down again. Half an hour’s free time in the evening, and that was all. Then they’d again have to buckle to. That’s how it was. He wouldn’t be reading the newspaper while his sons roved around the backstreets.

to be continued...