Saturday, August 08, 2015


He lies down pretending to sleep but sleep will not come. He doesn’t blame anybody, but deep inside him are a great many worries about his daughter Anita. He worries a lot. At night he lies on bed, his hands stretched above his head, thinking, his eyes closed. He questions himself, "What is Anita doing now? Is she lying in the arms of her love, her husband? Is he violating her in any manner? What are they talking? Is there a future for my daughter in this world?” Fathers normally have a lot of plans for their daughters, because they love them. Now her love belongs to another man. A man he hates. When sleep comes, when his hands go slack, when his mouth opens to snore, he would awaken with a start, as if in a bad dream. Even small thoughts gravitate towards some deep depression and imagining of fearful things happening.  

In the morning he tends to the plants in the balcony and again falls asleep. He doesn’t go for a walk in the valley as he used to. He has neglected his body and it shows. Age is catching up with him since he is in his sixties. His well-toned body looks loose and slack now. Rings appear under his eyes, rings one would associate with age and disease. He doesn’t lift weights, proud possessions; or, even look at it. They lie in a corner gathering dust. He starts drinking heavily from morning and comes home every day stone drunk and falls into bed to sleep. But sleep evades him. He will not have dinner at home and would say he has eaten. His wife Maria can’t believe what her husband has become in so short a time. He had dreams for his daughter and his son, but all that is shattered now because of the unthinking act of his beloved daughter. How could she – his precious daughter – not think of him? How could she do this?

It has been going on for six months. Anita married a man of her choice six months ago. She was his first born, whom he loved deeply, as the lucky child. The second was his son, Dominic. Anita was a sweet child spoilt by him, given all the freedoms, unrestrained by barriers. Augustine, Ossie to friends, didn’t put any conditions on his love for her. According to him she is a princess and can have anything.

“You will spoil her with your love. Just you see,” Maria would say. His wife was Konkani from Goa; unlike Ossie, who was a Malayali from the southern state of Kerala. They met at a wedding and fell in love and married.

“No, no. How can I spoil the apple of my eye, the jewel in my crown, my sweetheart,” he would say kissing Anita.

The sweet child grows up to be a moody teenager. Anita goes to music classes and swimming lessons regularly but she has her stages of unpredictability.

“I won’t go for music classes, the teacher is a bad man,” she says one day. She doesn’t say why she thinks the teacher is bad. Did he make a sexual advance,

Maria thinks. Such things happen in this city. Men are increasingly preying on little girls, even infants, she has read in the papers.

When Maria raises this issue with Ossie, he dismisses it. He says the teacher is known to a friend of his, so he can do no such thing. If he did, he would have his knees broken.

But the strange behaviour of Anita doesn’t end there. Some days, she will keep to herself the entire day, either watching television or texting on her cell phone.

“I won’t go to tuition classes,” she says one day.

“How will you pass your exams if you don’t go to tuition classes,” Maria scolds her.

“If I don’t go what will you do?”

Maria is chagrined. She composes herself.

“Nothing, wait till I tell papa.”

One day when admonished for not doing household chores she says, “I will not do it. It’s not my work.”

Augustine will not entertain complaints about Anita. To him Anita is blameless, pure, and a child. Instead he scolds Maria. She burns seeing as to how much he loves his daughter, not her, even to ignore how insolent she has become.

Though she doesn’t study Anita passes the degree exams. She isn’t brilliant, but she manages to receive passing marks in all subjects.

Anita’s graduation brings great joy to Augustine. “You would surely have got a first class if you had studied,” he says.

“How will she get first class if she is watching television and texting on the phone?” Maria says.

"You keep quiet. She is my daughter, aren’t you sweetheart?”

Maria has no reply to that.

After graduating Anita goes to work in a call centre. It’s there she meets Salim, her future husband. She works at night and during the day she sleeps. When Augustine goes to work in his cargo clearing business, she is sleeping. When he comes home, she has already left for work. They don’t see each other for months. Ossie is caught up in his business, his only source of income, and can’t talk to his daughter. Insidiously, they are pulled apart, as if by some force.

They live in a flat near the intersection to a cluster of houses inside the trough of a valley formed by the Parsik Hills. To one side flows the meandering Ulhas river and on the other is the land marked for the new international airport. He hasn’t seen the beauty of the nature of the valley for many months now. He only tends to his plants and looks at them tenderly. He regrets not going for a walk but he can’t do anything about it. He is worried about the growing chasm in his relationship with his daughter. Depression has spread its tentacles deep and he keeps sinking inside.

One day Anita tells her mamma of her decision to get married. Ossie’s and Maria’s son Dominic is in the final year of college then.

“What? Are you mad?”

“No mamma.”

“Who is this person, this price of yours?”

“He is a colleague, we work together.”

“But he is not from our caste, no?”

“I don’t believe in caste and religion. You and Papa are from different castes. You also married for love, didn’t you?”

“Wait till I tell this to your papa.”

For Maria religion is caste, her understanding is such. When Maria tells Ossie about this, he feels faint and almost falls down. It’s as if a lightning has passed through him, head to foot. That night and the subsequent nights he drinks heavily. There is not a minute that he will be sober. Maria decides to take over the work of the forwarding agency and goes to work in his office, which is nearby.

“This man would ruin me, look how he drinks. No shame. What will the parishioners say?”

They attend the St. Mark’s church situated in a corner of the valley.


Maria’s sister comes from Goa for her niece’s wedding. Ossie doesn’t go. He feels it is not necessary. He sits at home and drinks the whole day.

There are only Maria, her son, her sister and her sister’s two daughters from the bride’s side in the wedding. They say it is a grand betrothal, the band plays, and people dance. All Anita’s and Salim’s colleagues from the call centre come for the wedding. Ossie isn’t sure of it; he thinks they are exaggerating to make him jealous.

On the wedding night, Anita, the girl who had grown up in her Papa’s loving care for twenty-two years, moves to a flat with Salim. Ossie cries into his drink day and night.

Anita comes home one day and Ossie is happy to see her. He gives her a cheque of half a million Rupees. He says it is the dowry he has saved for her wedding. Anita is happy. She goes and buys gold jewellery with the money.

Once, Anita brings Salim to meet her parents. He seems like a nice chap, good-looking and has good manners. Ossie is at home and is, as usual, drunk. He calls Salim aside.

“If you give any cause for my daughter to shed tears, I will not spare you.” He warns.


Augustine Fernandes can’t sleep. The pictures of the last few days linger in his mind, his daughter’s visit, the day of the wedding when he sat alone drinking. Maria calls the church priest to come and counsel him.

“Mr. Fernandes, you can’t do this, you have to look to the future, anything else would be disastrous.”

“Father, I am a broken man, understand? How can I show my face to people in church? How can I meet friends? They all know about the wedding, still they are asking me if Anita is married.”

That is true. The whole church community has made a joke of it and is laughing at him. Maria hears sarcastic remarks during mass on Sundays. Ossie doesn’t go to church anymore, he prefers the company of his bottle.

The entire parish says, “Augustine Fernandes can’t sleep.” They repeat it so many times that it assumes the musical quality of a refrain from a hymn.

The priest visits again, with a counsellor. The counsellor speaks to Ossie in private. Nothing is known about what they speak and Ossie will not say what they discussed. They spend two hours together, murmuring to each other in the only bedroom of the flat. The door is closed and even the priest isn’t allowed inside. But that helps. Ossie starts going to office, but he doesn’t resume his daily walk.
More importantly, Maria thinks, the meeting cures his alcohol addiction, though he drinks sporadically.

“Thank God for giving me back my husband,” she prays before the Grotto that Sunday in church.


But that doesn’t last long. Ossie again hits the bottle. It seems he can’t get over his depression about Anita. He keeps imagining things till his thoughts takes on the colour of certitude. He blames himself for letting her grow apart. He imagines things happening to Anita and prepares to go to where she lives. Maria knows if he goes to his daughter’s place there will be a fight. So she physically blocks all his attempts. One day when he comes late after drinking Maria asks where he has been. He is silent. On prodding a lot he replies.

“I went to see my daughter, is it any concern of yours?”

“Did you go to her flat? How is she? Was Salim there?”

“No. I didn’t go to her flat.”


“I stood outside the building till she came back from work.”

“How many hours did you stand there?”

“None of your business. Go to sleep. I had my dinner.”

This way his obsession progresses to something of mania. One day he starts throwing all the things they keep in their bedroom. He throws down the pictures mounted on the walls, the music system, the clothes kept in the cupboard. Maria and Dominic grow alarmed and call Richie Gomes from the building next to theirs. Richie is a nice man, always cheerful and can control Ossie’s anger. He takes him on a walk around the valley, where they sit on a park bench and talk for a long time. Richie doesn’t say what they talk, but that seems to help Ossie resolve his anger and depression. His mind opens up.

The next day Ossie goes for a walk in his beloved part of the valley where he admires the trees and the sound of birds. He wonders why he hasn’t been coming here often. It is morning and the sun hasn’t risen. He stands before the majestic hills that form the valley and raises his hands towards the sky. The strong wind tousles his hair. Immediately thereafter the sun rises and bathes him in its golden light, he becomes animated and starts dancing, an uninhibited dance. He screams loudly and the noise reverberates in the green hills, and scares the birds, groups of which flies over him into the dense trees. He feels a weight lifting off him. He runs up and down a path leading into the forest.

From that day he vows never to drink and goes for work and returns at his usual time. He also starts sleeping normally. Anita comes on Sundays when she has a holiday and he talks to her. The next Sunday Maria stands before the Grotto in St. Mark’s church and offers another prayer.

"Lord, don’t rob him of his sleep," she implores.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Artist of Artists' Village


Rajendra is an ambitious man. He is also an artist, the only artist I know in Artist Village where I live. I knew it from his talk when we met on walks in morning in the hills surrounding Artist Village. He was always talking of big things, a little beyond his ken. He talked of making movies, holding grand art exhibitions, and being invited to chair huge literary festivals. His achievements were considerably less than his dreams. An intensely spiritual man with long hair and a beard, he looked like an ascetic who would be found in the forests around Himalaya, wearing saffron robes, foreheads smeared with ash. He had a small business taking up landscaping contracts, employed a few people, and he was doing well. What happened in his life seemed disastrous enough to make me want to write this story.

“I want to leave something for the world. I want to be known to have lived as an artist, not just a man who is greedy for money,” he told me once.

In the year 1975 and 1980 two children were born to him and his wife Rajni. The boy who was older he named Chandra and the girl was named Chandrika. He had high hopes for both of them wanting to make them excel in some artistic field. Both his children were given much love and much freedom in their childhood. Rajendra believed this to be essential to artistic expression. They could go anywhere, choose their friends, eat anything, and say anything, without much rebuke from Rajni and Rajendra. However, contrary to what he had imagined, they cultivated bad friends and grew up to be specimens of uncontrolled aggression and needless insistence. Instead of being artistic like him they turned out to be uncontrollable teenagers who existed only to torment their parents.
By the time Rajendra realised this, it was too late. Rajendra wrote and produced plays and acted in them. He also wrote poetry. His aim was to engage enough people in his artistic endeavours and thereby get ahead in life. He was too preoccupied to know what changes had happened to his own wife and children. His much coveted aim was to be a sought-after literary star, an icon of the young, a leading literary personality of the nation.

His house, whenever I would visit him, was filled with knick-knacks of his theatrical profession, sculptures, paintings, et cetera. The house looked the part of an artists’ residence, artistically cluttered with books, brushes, and paint cans. One day he invited Rajni and his children to his play being shown at the local theatre. During the play he was totally immersed in his role and, even afterwards, he had a discussion with his actor friends about what had gone wrong and what had gone right with their performance. Rajni and the children didn’t understand his talk and felt ignored.

“Why is baba speaking to that girl?” Chandra asked.

“Why is baba not coming to us and speaking to us?” Chandrika asked.
Rajni had no answers to these questions, so she took the children home, a bit chagrined at her husband’s behaviour.

At home she confronted him.

“Aho, last night you were busy talking to that girl Manisha. You didn’t even glance towards us.”

“But, aho, the profession itself is like that. It’s like that in the theatre world. When you are acting you have to talk about theatrical nuances. Otherwise the play would be a disaster.”

“The children didn’t like it. They were complaining.”

“I will make them understand, you don’t worry. These are simple matters they should not worry about. Can’t they see how hard I am working for them?”

Unfortunately, no occasion arose in which Rajendra could apologise to the children or to explain things. Slowly the distance between them grew into silence, and then blossomed into an unexpressed hostility. Seeing the children so upset and uncommunicative, Rajni also started ignoring Rajendra. To some extent the children poisoned her mind against their father. She became jealous. When Rajendra came home late she imagined he was with the other girl, Manisha, and wouldn’t give him dinner. When he left early in the morning she supposed that he had gone to pick up Manisha, so she didn’t ask him if he wanted tea. These things snowballed into a serious situation that Rajendra couldn’t understand or set right. The poison of hatred had entered his wife’s and his children’s minds and there was nothing he could do about it.

It was January and the cold had not receded. Artist Village shuddered and slept late, as it was colder in the valley surrounded by the Parsik Hills. The birds sang in the trees, there was dew on leaves in the garden of their modest house in the village. It was also the month Chandra got a job in a call centre nearby. The income was good and he rented a flat close to the Village. He decided that his mother and sister should leave his father and come and live with him.

One day Chandra hired a truck and, without asking his father, shifted all the accessories of their life in Artist Village to his new flat. This included the refrigerator, cooking utensils, and the furniture. That day when Rajendra came home, he unlocked the door to find the house empty. There wasn’t even a bed he could sleep on. Chandra and Rajni had taken everything with them.

“How? How can they do this to me, after all I have done for them?” Rajendra cried. This was something he couldn’t understand. I tried to pacify him as best as I could.

Slowly days passed. The wounds dried and became scabrous. Rajendra was living alone now. He felt a new kind of loneliness. By some strange coincidence, the neighbours stopped speaking to him in the moment of crisis. This pained him. I realised he was a wronged man and was sympathetic. I would visit him and talk to him and would tell him that things would be alright. I could see that he had bought the essential utensils and furniture needed for his survival. The theatre props were gathering dust in the corners of his rooms. I could see his misery. Except for commiserating with his plight I could do nothing. I didn’t want to see him disintegrate like this. We had come to live in Artist Village at the same time. An earlier batch of residents had died. We had joined hands in fighting for water, electricity, and transport for our Village. And now in a cruel twist of fate his life became knotted and it wasn’t easy undoing it. All Rajendra’s ambitions lay in tatters as he watched is personal life turn into a tragic drama that he couldn’t even imagine directing in one of his own, often tragic, plays. He was distraught at the thought that fate would be so cruel to him. His life was spinning in an orbit he had never imagined. He stopped writing plays and poetry. He would spend his days singing bhajans and praying. It seemed the artist in him had died.


It was in January of the next year that Chandrika got married to her long-time boyfriend, Arun, a Malayali, from South India. Before the wedding Arun’s parents approached Rajendra for a dowry, saying it was a custom among Malayalis. Rajendra sold a farm house he had in Khopoli and gave rupees two million as dowry to Arun’s father in a cloth bag he bought for the purpose. It was spring when the wedding was conducted by a priest in the local Malayali temple. Rajendra didn’t attend it to bless his daughter whom he dearly loved. His heart had hardened by now and he began seeing Manisha more often and, sometimes, brought her home.

This relationship, too, was doomed to fail. For some time Rajendra, being depressed, didn’t write any more plays. It seemed as if the creative juices had dried, and he couldn’t create characters and plots. Manisha, his lover, who was an actress wasn’t getting enough roles outside the ones she did in his plays. Her foray into television was also unsuccessful. The only role she got had two lines of dialogue. Thereby, the distance between the lovers grew. Manisha also realized the age gap between them and, egged on by her mother, started seeing less of Rajendra.

Rajendra had bought a car with a little financial help from Manisha. She had willingly contributed a few thousand rupees. One night Manisha came with her brothers and drove away in the car. Rajendra woke up the next morning to find his car gone.

“How can she do this to me? Everybody is out to humiliate me,” he told me on our morning walk, fingering his long beard. “When a man is down fate hits him harder; take it; take it; is it fair?” I had no answer. I could see that the separation from Manisha was a big blow Rajendra couldn’t handle. Sometimes he didn’t come for walks and spent several hours worshipping in a special room he had created for the purpose. When his art should have come to his aid, he couldn’t think about doing anything artistic. His ambitions of becoming a big literary star lay in tatters.

Arun’s father, who lived close by, dropped in one day. He said it was a courtesy call, but of his actual purpose Rajendra became aware. Arun wanted to buy a flat and was falling short by a million Rupees. Rajendra was categorical in his stand that he didn’t have any money and had paid them all he had.

This didn’t satisfy Arun’s father. He and his wife started harassing Chandrika saying her father was unkind to them. Arun didn’t intercede on behalf of his wife. This led to a fight between Chandrika and Arun.

“This is not good. You should speak up against them and support me.”

“But Chandrika, they are my parents, I have my responsibility towards them.”

“I knew this. You will always side with your parents. I knew this,” she cried.
“What can I do?”

So one December night in 2005 when the cold had settled over the Village in a cloud-like miasma, when the dogs were loudly fighting their nocturnal battles, she came back to Rajendra’s house. Rajendra was at home when she knocked. He opened the door and found his daughter standing on the threshold. He said he had no place for her and told her to go to her mother.

“But I want to live with you, here,” Chandrika said and Rajendra’s heart melted. After all, she was his daughter and he forgave her.
Days passed. When Rajendra was away Rajni would come to meet Chandrika. They would be a happy pair washing vegetables and cooking meals for him. Though she didn’t say it to her daughter, Rajni was repentant and wanted to come back to her husband. Children say cruel things because they are innocent which should not be taken seriously. Chandra was a good boy but he had his own life, his own friends, and a girl friend. Lately, he spent very little time at home and Rajni was feeling lonely.

I could detect a marked improvement in Rajendra’s life after Chandrika moved in. His life improved under the care of his beloved daughter. He started writing plays again and his play, “Bindast Bol” (say with courage) was a big hit with the people of the surrogate city of New Bombay that lay on the outskirts of the great city. His ambition also had returned. A critic had called the story, “A comeback vehicle for the talented Rajendra Phadke.”

Chandra meanwhile announced to his mother that he was going to marry his girlfriend Swati. Chandra invited Rajendra for the wedding, which he attended. Here Rajendra blessed Chandra.

It was Diwali season then, the year after Chandrika had returned to Rajendra’s home. The festival of lights was going on in all its splendour and glory and Rajendra had hung a multicoloured lantern above his house. Chandrika made sweets to be exchanged with neighbours and Rajni also came to help her. It was then that mother and daughter hatched the plot to melt the coldness that had come into their relationship with Rajendra.

Rajni brought her son and his wife Swati to Rajendra’s house. Rajendra was at home, dressed in his trademark kurta and churidar and spread around the house were the props of the play Bindast Bol.

“What made you come back? You had decided to leave me.”

“I am sorry about what I have done,” Rajni said.

“Now you realize what the truth is? Say with courage, what you feel.”

“Yes. Forgive me. Children are children, they can make mistakes because they are innocent.”

“Aai, don’t say that, remember that day, the day of the play, he had completely ignored us?”

Rajni remembered but could do nothing about it. She had forgotten the artistic nature of her husband. Perhaps, she realised it was cruel to ignore him and not serve him food.

“There were mistakes from both our parts. I realise I, too, made mistakes. I am willing to take back all of you. I have no hard feelings.”

“No I will not be a part of this compromise,” Chandra said and walked out of the house.

That day on Rajni started living in her house, the one belonging to her husband. Chandra lived with Swati in their rented home. It was nearby and Swati would drop in, once in a while, to help Rajni and Chandrika.
Rajendra was not troubled by his son’s behaviour. He became determined to enjoy his Diwali. He bought Rajni and Chandrika gifts and saris. He bought a sari for Swati also. But Chandra didn’t come to wish his father and take his blessing during the worship of the Goddess of wealth, an important event during Diwali. He couldn’t be mollified by what his mother and sister said.

“He is young and hot blooded. He will return to me some time. Let’s give him a chance. I know him, he is my son.”

That was a great Diwali for the entire neighbourhood. The whole place had a look of gaiety and crackers were burst in plenty. I was happy to see peace returning to Rajendra’s family. I knew he was a good man and would overcome his problems with forbearance and patience. The artist of Artist Village had made his comeback.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Luke was Sri Lankan. He loved to drink, because of which he is no more. That was the general impression. People said he died of a heart attack, fell on the road and died. Like a dog, or, cat, or, a furry gutter rat. The place he lived was Artist Village tucked in a corner of the great city of New Bombay, where he was well know as a craftsman who could do any repair work. No job could beat him and he did everything with finesse. He put a premium on his work and was a good businessman. However, he didn’t put his business interest over honesty and was therefore well liked.

Luke came to Artist village through Matilda auntie or “Matchstick Auntie” as people called her. Fact was nobody in Artist Village could pronounce Matilda and called her the next best euphemism that came to mind. That’s because her legs, peeping under her skirt, were like matchsticks: etiolated, thin, and white as a matchstick. Luke called Matilda sister. Of course, everybody knew she wasn’t his real sister. How can she be, as he was Sri Lankan and she was Goan. But they shared one thing. That was language. Luke’s English was euphemistically called Polkudu language in Sri Lanka and Matilda spoke the Indian Mack English, both marked by their brokenness and social unacceptability.

Luke re-built Matilda’s house in Artist Village. He used his skills to erect a proud structure, one among the first to raise it head over the row of nearby houses built resembling those of an Indian village. So Matilda and her Muslim husband Mustaq, who was a shippie – he worked in a ship –, were grateful to him and gave Luke place to live. The room was on the terrace and was small and wide enough for one cot. Luke was happy, though. Thereafter Luke became a part of the house, a provider in times of trouble, a repairer of broken things, and of broken hearts.

He became Matchstick Auntie’s fetcher and help in the kitchen. He could fix tea or coffee or dinner when Auntie was having a terrible day and needed rest. She would lie in the living room rattan couch and order him around and poor Luke would do as she said. He would also help her substantially from his earnings.

When Matilda’s eldest son Javed married a Muslim girl who used to work as a maid in his house Luke was in the thick of the brawl that followed. It became known that the girl was pregnant before young Javed married her.

Mustaq had a standard response, “Get out of my house, you haramzada.”

“How could you do it to a servant girl, men, when you deserve the best, my baba? You have brought us all down, baba, too bad. All our standing in society is now gone. Who will speak to us after church now? Nobody. Who will invite us for first holy communions and weddings?”

It was a scandal that had the neighbours jabbering for hours and which marked Mustaq as an outcaste in the neighbourhood of straight-laced Maharashtrian families. Matilda was similarly ostracised from church activities and not invited to games of raffles and potluck lunch the women organised. The scandal faded swiftly from memory and the social consequence was swifter.


As I said earlier Luke liked to drink. He had only one meal a day after he finished work and that was when he called all his friends from the neighbourhood into the bar and ate, drank, and partied till late. Usually Luke ended up paying the bill. Matilda told him to change his ways if he lived with her but he couldn’t.

“Your change your wayward habits if you want to live here. This is not Sri Lanka, but India. Here people go yak, yak, yak, every bleddy time. All they know is to flap their lips.”

“How can a big guy who does heavy-heavy work, lift and carry big big things during day change his habit?”

“Someday it’s going to kill you, that’s all I say, for your own welfare, no?”

“That leave it to me. Nothing will happen. You’ll see.”

But what happened was just like Matilda had predicted. He fell down and died. A big man, he fell like a tree trunk, with a thud.

It was during such a drinking binge that Luke lost it. Usually, cool and calm, he lost it completely when a boy drinking with him called him an outsider.

“Luke is Sri Lankan. He is an outsider.”

Luke loved India and he considered himself Indian and this upset him. He punched the boy and threw him out of his group. He never talked to the boy again. After that nobody would enter into argument with the big man with large hands of wiry muscles.


Luke was born in Negombo, a small town to the north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I had in my international peregrinations strayed into this territory. He was surprised to learn this. It was beautiful country, just like my native Kerala in south India. There were swaying coconut palms, whisper waves in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean and plenty of sunshine. I knew about the booming tourist industry in Negombo. I stayed there in Hotel Golden Sands with a lot of Dutch tourists and played beach volleyball with them. It was December and they were there to escape the bitter European cold and bask in the sun. They spent the whole day in the sun: reading, swimming, and getting their bodies massaged. I noticed the trinket sellers, exotic precious stone sellers, the panhandlers, the massage parlours, the discotheques that stayed open till late.

He said he had done much work in the hotel and its environments and that his brothers – three of them – were well settled and prosperous. He was the only one who had gone to the Persian Gulf and then came to India on a visit because he loved India. On this visit he met Matilda and decided to make India his home. He never wrote to his family about his whereabouts, but they came to know. They wrote long letters about how much they loved him and wanted him back. His dad was dead but mom was alive and she was asking for him virtually every day.

His brothers didn’t take kindly to the decision. They came to extradite him, bought him a ticket and took him as far as the airport. They said he belonged to Sri Lanka and that they wanted him back. But Luke thought otherwise. At the airport he ran away. He ran away, boarded a train to New Bombay, and was back in Matchstick Auntie’s home in Artist Village in hours.


Luke was catholic and religious. He would go to mass every Sunday and in addition to Wednesday and Saturday Novenas. He would stand in the last pews in his trade-mark short pants and round-necked tee-shirt. He would pray for everyone he knew including his mother in Sri Lanka. He would then spend a long period in quietness at the grotto in front of an image of Mary and child Jesus. What he thought about nobody knew. Was he missing his mother? Was he homesick?

When Javed went to live with his Muslim wife to a nearby slum Matilda was pained. She didn’t eat for two days. Mushtaq had asked him to get out after an argument and he had taken all his clothes and moved to a rented hut in a slum nearby, on the slope of a hill. Luke went and brought him back along with his wife.

“Your place in your home only, they love you, whatever you did. Cos of you they be in pain, no, must understand, no? Don’t you think? And you their only son doing suchlike. You supposed to look after them when old,” Luke reasoned.

“Then why dad taunting me all the time?”

“That only for your good. Cos he loves you.”

“I feel so insulted in front of my wife, and all.”

“When difficulties come you face it like man. Not run away like coward.”

This would have applied to Luke much more than Javed.

“Okay, then I will come home. But the taunting has to stop.”

“That I no guarantee-guarantee. I only help, in your family matters, cos you like my son, no?”

Javed returned. Matchstick Auntie breathed easy and began eating again.

So went life in the Mustaq household.


I remember the last job Luke did for me. It was a door leading to my terrace. The wood had rotted and the ply had come loose, leaving a gaping hole in the centre. He supervised the entire job for me, standing with the carpenter the whole day. It is a smooth and professional piece of work which I admire often. I painted it a dark green and it blended nicely with the surrounding greenery. The craftsmanship was evident; the focus was constantly on getting the work done with excellence. I guess it is something in the work ethics and sincerity to one’s profession. These are attributes one rarely finds in local craftsmen, who are wayward, vacillating and distracted by addiction, which reflects perversely on their work.

But not so with Luke. He could be trusted to do a job with a high degree of competence. Which led me to ask people about why he was reluctant to go back to Sri Lanka. Then I heard from our maid that he was in love with a neighbour’s daughter in Negombo. Her parents were against the match and she was married to another man when he was in the Persian Gulf. This made him hate going back to Sri Lanka. He was so sensitive that he couldn’t stand the prospect of meeting his former lover again.
So, after all, it was that imposter love that made him hate Sri Lanka and love India.

Luke may your soul rest in peace. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sabrina: the Bangladeshi


In the valley Sabrina is known as the Bangladeshi. She doesn’t know why. She has been called that since she was born. Perhaps because she speaks Bangla with her parents and people here assume everyone who speaks the language is Bangladeshi. But then she can’t write the language. She only speaks it. Haltingly. Why are people teasing me always? She would ask in a petulant voice. She is as Indian as anyone living in the valley, as she was born in India, owns an Indian birth certificate, and has her name in an Indian ration card.

She also has a voter’s card, and an Adhaar card, too. Wasn’t this enough to certify her as a bonafide Indian? Still people continue to call her a Bangladeshi because her parents were illegal immigrants from Bangla Desh, the beautiful country of rivers and estuaries to the East of India. What’s their problem? Why are they so cruel? She would ask in frustration.

Her parents had come to the valley thirty years ago when it was a barren piece of land. The Artist Village had not even been built at that time. Her Abba, a mason and an odd-job man, had erected a hut from a few bamboos and plastic sheets. He had found work in a housing complex being built to the east of the valley. Though he could build neat brick walls, lay tiles, and do a decent layer of plaster; his home remained the crudest of structures. This was always the case with artisans: tell an artist to paint something for his wall and he would create the worst painting of his life. Tell him to do something for a sum of money and he would unravel his best work so far. He considered this – his hut – comfortable enough because in his country most poor people lived in such structures. The hut had enough space for three people to sleep in the night. There was a small kitchen area and a small verandah. All their belongings were stacked against the walls of corrugated iron sheets. There weren’t many huts in the slum colony and one could appropriate any space one wanted.

During the day when Abba was away at work Ammi found work as a maid in the nearby houses in a housing complex to the east of the valley. Sabrina grew up without proper education. She was sent to school, studies up to fourth standard, but that was for the free mid-day meal. She was rather attractive, with a shapely plump face, thick hair, which was why Abba didn’t want her to go to school. Suppose some boy abducted her? These things happen in the strange country he had made home for thirty years. Abba told her that she only had to learn a bit of reading and writing and a little arithmetic to get along in life. Sabrina could read and write Hindi and a bit of English.

He told her that henceforward she would help Ammi to do the housework of the colony to the east of the valley. There was work in plenty and therefore Sabrina learnt to sweep, swab, wash clothes, cook, dust, and generally do all work in a household. She did it with speed also. The housewives complained that she was like a toofan, a whirlwind, when she did her work: she would move furniture around, fold the carpets and forget to return them to their space, forget to return utensils to their places, left swabs of dirt in the toilet floor unscrubbed, and was out of the house in a few minutes.

“I am there to help with their work. They also should do some work, not leave it entirely to me. What if I didn’t show up?” She would complain. In fact, complaining came easily to her.

When Sabrina was around ten the Artist Village came up in the middle of the valley. Though meant as an exclusive residential area for artists and writers, the houses made of rough jungle wood rafters and tiled roofs found no takers in the said community. Then the authorities relaxed the ownership to include people who weren’t artists. The new residents tore up the one-storeyed houses and built ugly concrete structures to suit their living requirements.

Sabrina worked for a musician and a writer in this community. The bald musician would play the guitar everyday and his wife – gifted with a good voice - would sing. They had a band that played old Hindi film songs in a show which they named “Surtaal.” The man, who used to sell medicines, was laid off and spent the whole day sleeping or playing the guitar while his wife was away working in a bank. Since the woman was tired when she came from work Sabrina had to cook two meals, in addition to sweeping, swabbing, and washing of clothes. They had two children.

The writer’s story was indeed sad. Hailed as the next great writer in Marathi, her latest novel was panned by all who read it. They said it contained gratuitous sex and therefore didn’t suit their sensibilities. Disappointment led to depression and she was unable to even cook food for herself and her husband. It was rumoured that she had run away from home to marry the man who is now her husband. He, a government employee, who dabbled in writing film scripts, had also left his wife to marry the writer. None of his scripts had been converted into a movie, at least, not yet. The two writers lived a life of unfulfilled dreams, unwashed clothes, and unclean living quarters until Sabrina swept, swabbed, and cooked for them. The writer spent her days locked up in her room, looking out of the window, hardly speaking to her husband. The husband had retired from a government corporation, and having failed in script writing, spent most of his time fetching whatever Sabrina asked to be bought for the kitchen.

One day Sabrina’s Abba fell down from the scaffolding of the housing project and had to be hospitalised. Luckily, he broke only a leg and had a few scratches on the other. The hospital put his broken leg in a cast and sent him home, asking him to come for periodic checkups. He would spend his days at home complaining about not having enough space and it being hot. He would talk about going back to Bangladesh, his golden land. “Amar Sonar Bangla,” he would say often, revealing the mind of a frustrated poet hidden inside his hard exterior.

To this Ammi would say, “What will Sabrina do there? She can neither speak Bangla well, nor write.”

“She will live like us, in that golden land of ours.”

“She can go on living here. She is a citizen of this country.”

“You mean she will live here all alone?” He loved his only child.

“You find her a good man, who will take care of her and then go wherever you want.”

So the search began for a man for Sabrina. Many came through Abba’s friends but were rejected by Ammi as being too short, too dark, too silent, or, too voluble.

“You are being too choosy, all men aren’t as virtuous as they once were,” Abba teased.

“I will find her a good man, unlike the one I got.”

“Then you will have to wait for eternity, woman?” Abba would yell in anger from the cot, the only piece of furniture in the house.

“Fate has destined a man for her. Let it decide.”

So the days went. Till Abdul came into their lives. He said he was a mason by profession and an Indian from Hyderabad. He wasn’t too tall or too short; he didn’t talk too much or too little. Most importantly, he wasn’t too dark. He wore his shirt inside his trousers, held together by a belt. His hair was a bit long but was well combed and maintained. His feet were well shod with expensive-looking leather. He carried himself well, imitating the mannerisms of movie star Shahrukh Khan, whom he liked. Come to think of it, his features, too, resembled the star’s.

The wedding was quick and uneventful. Sabrina wore a red sari with lot of gold filigree and lot of glass bangles. Abdul had no family in the city, so nobody came except a few friends, whom he introduced as roommates. Abba and Ammi had very few friends who came including the Bengali housewife. The musician and the writer didn’t come. They gave Sabrina a cash bonus for the wedding. The Nikah was conducted by the Kazi of the nearby mosque and the reception was held in a hall hired for the occasion. There was no pomp, celebration, dancing, or music. Just eating the food, taking a few pictures, and then going home. Abdul slept in Sabrina’s hut, Abba slept in a neighbour’s hut, which was empty, and Ammi slept on the floor of the musician’s living room for a few days. It was then Sabrina realised the trauma of being married to a man whom she barely knew and for which she was least prepared. Nobody had told her about sex, and she found it too crude and repulsive: the touching of bodies, the smell, the stickiness, the feeling of being violated. When Ammi came home in the morning she wept on her shoulder. “Everything will be alright, everything will be alright,” Ammi said. Abba pretended not to notice, as he talked to Abdul.

A few days later Abba told Sabrina that Ammi and he were going back to Bangladesh. They had enough of living in a foreign country and wanted to rest in their own golden land. They bundled whatever they had into two wooden trunks that Abba had had made by a carpenter friend. They carried some essential utensils with them in a plastic bucket. The day they were to leave, Sabrina and Abdul went with them in a taxi to Kurla Terminus. It was a sad day for Sabrina as she said goodbye on a platform that smelled of urine, orange peels, and the strange smell of distances.

“How can I live without you?” she sobbed on Ammi’s shoulder, her wrap covering her face.

“Abdul is a good man, he will take care of you,” Ammi said.

“How do you know he will?” She blew her nose.
“Trust Allah!”

When the train left, as she watched the last bogie disappear into the distance and become small lines and dots, she hadn’t removed the wrap, and kept sobbing. The next day Abba’s call came on her cell phone informing her that they had reached Silguri from where they would be transported illegally to Bangla Desh by an agent. The voice crackled, buzzed, and then grew silent.

Sabrina was now working in homes Ammi had worked before, so her work load had increased. The money also came which she kept in a bundle, in a plastic bag, under the mattress. Marriage and work had changed her and she was no longer a young and attractive girl. The glow had gone from her face. She became fat and her face looked puffy. Abdul would go somewhere on the pretext of finding work and would come early saying nobody had hired him. Some days he came home smelling of alcohol, didn’t eat, dropped on the bed and went to sleep. Some days he wouldn’t go at all.

One day when Sabrina came back from work she found the door unlocked. She looked around but Abdul was not to be seen in the neighbourhood of the slum. His wallet, his watch, the few coins he kept on the bed were gone. Tremulously she raised the mattress. Blood pounded in her head, her heart seemed to thud against her jaws, her breathing grew heavy. The plastic bag was there! Relief flooded her. When she lifted it to examine the contents, she discovered most of her savings were gone. Flown! Out of the ten thousand rupees she had, she had only a thousand left.

“Unfaithful man, cheat, why didn’t you take that also?” she wailed as she told the Bengali housewife what happened, “He didn’t even speak a few dozen words to me.”

“Why don’t you complain to the police?” The Bengali housewife asked.

“They will say I am a Bangladeshi. Besides, I don’t want to go to the station. I have seen it once when Abba was arrested for being an alien. I don’t want to stare into their cruel eyes.”

“But you are an Indian, born in India; you have a ration card, a voter’s card to prove it.”

“What’s the use now?”

After Abdul left her, the harassment began. It was as if the world had turned against her. She was stared at wherever she went. Small pebbles began landing on her corrugated roof with a thud. At night she couldn’t sleep because of the noise. It seemed everyone considered throwing pebbles on her roof as the new hobby. She would cower on the cot, apprehensive, waiting for the next “thud” sound. Nights became unbearable.

Neighbours started saying all kinds of things about her, now that there was no man in the house. They started calling her a “Bangladeshi” more often. They threw their garbage and litter in the small verandah in front of her house when she was away working. They started finding ways of humiliating her.

Then the police came. They frightened her with their guns and supercilious attitude. They said they were checking for illegal Bangladeshis. She protested that she was born in India and had a ration card, a voter’s card, and an Adhaar card. They wouldn’t listen. The only alternative was to buy their silence. She knew they could be bought and paid them all the cash she had with her.

Now all her money was gone. She ate at the musician’s house and pruned her expenses to the bare minimum. She was able to maintain herself till the next pay day when the money came. Meanwhile the pebbles didn’t stop dropping on her hut. Her nights became tormented. She would cover her head with her blanket and try to sleep. But the “thud”, “thud”, “thud”, wouldn’t stop.

“I will report you to the police,” one night she came out and shouted at them when she could bear it no longer.

“Have you no shame behaving with a woman thus?”

They laughed. In the darkness she couldn’t see who they were. The stones rained. It rained through the night. Stones and intermittent sounds of laughter. Inside the hut she trembled in terror. It was worse than being attacked by a wild animal. She thought she would become sick, or, go mad.

She asked for permission to sleep on the floor of the musician’s bungalow in Artist Village. They were kind people and allowed her to sleep in their house.

Then one day Abba called on her cell phone. She wept and told him about Abdul and the harassment from neighbours. She said she couldn’t bear it any longer. Then Ammi came on the phone.

“Ammi you said Abdul will take care of me. Where is he?” She said between sobs.

“Allah’s wish! What can I say? I didn’t know he was a scoundrel, a thief.”

Abba came back on the line. He was crying, a grown man’s tears. His voice was broken, deliberate, and full of concern. He told her she doesn’t have to live like that anymore.

“Sell the hut. You will get a good price for it, at least fifty thousand rupees. Then come to Siliguri, I will come there to get you.”

When she reached her hut that night, a neighbour told her the police had come again. They wanted her to come to the station. She didn’t go. She took some clothes and went to sleep at the musician’s house.

Before going she told the neighbour the hut was for sale. Word spread very fast. People started coming to her with offers.

“Twenty thousand,” “thirty thousand,” “forty thousand,” they said.

“Nothing less than fifty thousand,” her voice was firm.

A man came with a big bundle of notes, “here’s fifty thousand,” he said. She didn’t know a hut in a slum would fetch so much money. He said the hut must be empty by the next morning. She said she will empty it just then and he could consider the hut as his. She gathered all her belongings in an iron trunk, even her bridal sari. She left the cot and utensils for the new owner. By then a crowd had gathered. She didn’t say goodbye to any of them. Inside she burned with anger and disgust at their behaviour.

Carrying the trunk on her head and with the money safe inside her blouse she went to the musician’s house. She ate and slept there for a few days. The musician helped her buy a railway ticket to Silguri. On the day of departure he dropped her to the Kurla Terminus in his car. Sabrina didn’t cry when she waved at them from the departing train. She only smiled.

That was the last the valley saw of the Bangladeshi.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lalla: the Eunuch

He wakes everyday to toll of temple bells, ring of church bells, and call of Azan in the valley. He doesn’t know if he is a Christian, a Hindu, or, a Muslim. But he prays at all these places. He knows the pujari of the temple, the reverend father of the church and the kazi at the Masjid. Nobody knows how Lalla came to the valley. But he appeared one day at his master’s door asking for a job. His master is a retired civil servant living in a bungalow with a small garden in the valley. The valley lies in the outskirts of the great city and is free from the hubbub and turmoil of its streets. His master is a kind man. It is the master’s second marriage after his first wife died and the mistress’ second one, too.

Lalla looks majestic as he is tall and has an erect posture. His long hair is tied into a bun at the top of his head. Apart from this he has little body hair, hardly any facial hair. His body is muscular and strong having strong musculature around the chest, thighs and calves. Looking at him anyone would assume he is a wrestler or a boxer. He can always be found watering plants in his master’s garden, or, washing his car, light tasks he did diligently. He is not paid a monthly salary as other servants but a weekly allowance. He says he has had primary education and can read and write. He is often seen reading a Hindi newspaper.

In the morning he brushes his teeth with a neem stick and then eats the breakfast which the cook keeps at the door in an aluminium plate. Then he waters the plants in the garden and then he washes the car before he has a bath. His bath is situated in the garden behind a few bushes. At night he is the bungalow’s guard watching over his master’s house. In the night there are intruders from the slums, a short distance away. The bungalow stands in a cluster of similar houses in a valley formed by two knots of hills. They call it the Parsik Hills. The slum had sprouted on the outer side of the valley, and was making a steady growth up the hills on one side. The slum people come and take whatever is left outside the house: the garbage bin, the car tyre, the music system of the car, and sometimes, entire patches of tiles from the sidewalk. The car is usually parked outside the garden as the gate isn’t big enough to let it enter.

“Lalla have you washed the car? Have you watered the plants?” His mistress would shout from the first floor bedroom dressed in her crumpled house clothes. He thinks she looks haggard in the morning without a bath and make up. But when she is made up and properly dressed she looks nice, even, pretty.

From as far as he knows he has been called Lalla, meaning little child. He has no surname. When his master asked his name he said “Lalla.” The eldest person in the eunuch’s colony had called him Lalla. Only he knew who Lalla’s real parents were because he had brought him to the colony. His name was Lalloo and he died one day. With that hopes of finding Lalla’s real parents waned. Soon after Lalla had to leave the colony where he lived, as he wanted to work for himself and not beg for alms.

Thereafter, he kept no score of his age or the years he has worked for different masters. He doesn’t know the names of his masters and mistresses and only knows them from their appearance. Though he knows six languages in their colloquial form – Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Bengali – he only knows how to write in Hindi and English.

When he had first come to the valley his master had immediately recognized his gender. He was getting on in age and wanted somebody as a guard of his house and of his young wife, the mistress, when he was away. The master owned a Skoda Octavia vehicle and Lalla maintained it in a spotless condition washing it every day. The driver of the car was young, a not bad looking youth, and bossed over him. When the master would ask the driver to fetch the morning newspaper, or, milk, he would tell Lalla to do it. He would do it with some resentment. “Why can’t he do his own work,” he would say.

The driver is a devious man and would scold Lalla for petty reasons. He assumes the role of the manager of the house and would send him on errands to procure grocery and vegetables. Sometimes he would be absent for days during which he would be driving tourist around the country for travel agencies. This he told Lalla as a secret and admonished him not to tell anyone. Once he had shown him a computer which he said a tourist had gifted him.

Lalla is given a small watchman’s cabin made of waterproof material. This cloistered and dingy place is his home and he lives and sleeps in it. He doesn’t sleep much except a few hours in the afternoon. In the evening he empties the garbage can, waters the plants, and then sits in his cabin for the long vigil of the night. His toilet is in the forest that surrounds the valley.

On his long watch that night he falls asleep. He usually doesn’t sleep at night but that particular night he did. May be, he was too tired, or, he was drugged. In the morning he is awakened by the mistress’ shouting.

“Oh, God, what happened, oh God why did this happen to me?”

He could hear a long monologue from his master, which seemed as if he was trying to pacify her. But she isn’t calmed and keeps wailing and blabbering.

When Lalla enters the house to see what is wrong she showers him with curses and abuses.

“Oh you inauspicious one, where were you, what were you doing?”

“Mistress I fell asleep.”

“How could you? How could you be so careless?”

All the gold jewellery the mistress keeps in the ground floor cupboard has been stolen. She has many tolas of jewellery which she keeps in the unlocked cupboard so that she could change them often, for reasons only known to her.

His master gestures to him to go away till she calms down. The cook who sleeps in the kitchen says he hasn’t heard anything.

Then Lalla, quite disturbed, goes and sits on a park bench under a tree in the neighbourhood. It was about time he watered the plants and washed the car. But he does neither. He goes and prays at the temple, the church and the mosque. People in the valley begin accusing him of theft saying he was responsible; after all, he is an eunuch. The accusation of theft is one Lalla cannot stand. Never in his life has he been accused of theft. He weeps holding his head in his hands. People begin looking suspiciously at him.

The driver comes later that day and drives the master to the police station to lodge a complaint. Lalla remembers the master asking the driver to make two duplicate keys of the bungalow’s front door.  The driver had said then:

“Lalla, give these keys and the balance money to master, I got to go to pick up mistress from her Yoga classes.”

He had looked at the bill and noticed that the driver had made three keys. He probably thought that Lalla was dumb and uneducated and wouldn’t notice these things. But Lalla reads all bills delivered at the house and even the Hindi newspaper. What did he do with the extra key? Lalla’s suspicion grows stronger. He knows his master doesn’t remember these trivial things and would not even look at the bill.

He tells his master about this and advises him of its importance in the investigation. The police enquire with the local jewellers. A man fitting the description of the driver had walked into a jewellery shop in the valley wanting to sell some gold which he said belonged to his wife. The jeweller had declined to buy the jewellery.  He identified the driver from a photograph.

Then the police goes to the driver’s residence to arrest him. He is nowhere. He has escaped knowing that the police is after him.

News spread in the valley that the driver has run away and that Lalla is innocent. From the neighbours police get the name of the driver’s friend who lives a few kilometres away. He doesn’t know about the crime but knows the driver’s address in a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh. A police team is sent there to arrest him.

Meanwhile Lalla tells his master that he wishes to move away to another place since he has lost the right to show his face in the valley. The mistress has also doubted him and he would never be able to forget it when he speaks to her. The master being a kind man says:

“Lalla, forget that all this happened. You are a member of this family. I would like you to stay on with us.”

“No master, you are very kind but I want to go away, somewhere.”

“I will talk to my wife. I will convince her of your innocence.”

He does as he said. His wife, an uncompromising, wronged woman who had gone through a divorce, initially disagrees. She says Lalla shouldn’t have slept on guard duty. In the end the master convinces her to keep him as the guard once more and to forgive him.

The next day the mistress shouts from her room upstairs to enquire whether Lalla has washed the car and has watered the plants. But nobody replies.

Lalla is nowhere to be seen. Nobody in the valley has seen him leave. His cabin, where he kept his things is empty.

Lalla had moved on.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Death of a Novelist

The Death of a Novelist

“I can’t write, I can’t write, I can’t write,” Bernard Barboza woke up thinking the words that appeared in the nightmare of last night. “No, not at this age. What would people say?” The sun was risen outside his window and he had spent a sleepless night after having stayed awake till 1 a.m. trying to write. He lay on his bed listening to the sound of birds and thinking, “I think I should give this up, it’s not working. Hopeless. Why am I doing this when my wife and my whole bunch of friends are against this? They say I am mad to write, that I will waste a lot of time and money which they could have selfishly desired for themselves. After writing will I get published? Even that is not sure. But what could I do when a story has already formed in my mind and is constantly needling me for attention, pricking my conscience, pushing me towards my laptop, making my throat grow dry in irritation at doing nothing to tell my story. Or, is my story important when there are more traumatic and horror-inducing stories in circulation? Am I relevant at all? What makes me think I can write when so many talented writers have failed?”

He was a clerk in the railways making reports and statements for his boss the chief commercial superintendant of Central Railways for the past thirty years. He liked the Central Railways; working in it gave him the satisfaction of being in a secure job with many days of leave and the company of good friends. When he was a child – in the days before independence – he had undertaken a journey on the then The Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) to Karachi, now in Pakistan, because Karachi was from where his father Diego Barboza originated. It was an arduous journey wherein he had to change trains several times. It was this story he wanted to write about. Diego Barboza worked in the railways as a guard and he was able to explain in minute detail about how the railways worked: how the train made crossings, how the signalling system worked, what exactly were a guard’s duties. He even took him to the engine of the train and had the driver explain the working of the old steam engine, which had men shovelling coal into a furnace that generated steam.

“But I am old, I don’t know if I have the energy left in me to write about all this. But I grew up believing my story had to be shared, that it is important to tell my story to the world.” He retired a few years ago at the age of fifty-eight and his body had been going slow since then. He had difficulty waking up in the morning, spent long hours in front of the television watching inane games and reality shows. He had plenty of time and nothing much to do except buy groceries and pay the bills. His wife Piedade was against his new pursuit, resenting him spending a lot of time on a laptop he bought with his provident fund money. She saw him type (he could type very fast for he was a typist before he became a clerk) and then sit back and look blankly at the ceiling. He created a desk for himself from an old discarded table, which creaked when he leaned his weight against it. A retired English teacher, Piedade wanted to visit churches: Velankanni Church, Nasik Church, and the healing centre at Pota, Kerala. But he spent most of his time hunched on his typewriter writing. “God alone knows what he is writing, hope it is nothing about me,” she would mutter. Their only son was an engineer and had migrated to the US, so they lived alone in a small flat in New Bombay.

At school he was good in English composition. His teachers praised him and told him his writing had flow and a voice. “A special talent to be nurtured, my son,” Fr. Boniface Dias, his principal, had said. But then getting into a government job killed all that. The daily drudgery, the travel to work, the need to keep up with his office friends, the weekly drink parties at the nearest beer bar all kept him from writing and before he knew it he was fifty-eight and about to retire. He went into a panic. Feverishly he started reading again, a collection of the world’s best short stories. He attended literary meetings and book launches, and became a fixture in the books and poetry circuit. He brought out some moth-eaten suits and wore them above his shirt to hide his paunch and took to wearing a fedora to look the literary type. In a literary meeting he read out his short story, “The Train to Karachi,” a shorter version of the novel he intended to write. It wasn’t warmly received. He knew it wouldn’t be because all those who attended were writers themselves and ardently jealous of each other. There were the usual comments, “It lacks crispness and is long winded,” “the ending is not good, you should change it,” “The beginning was nice, but will need a lot of re-writing.” All standard, all very pat, all said because the writer wanted his voice to be heard in a group of writers, without giving specific examples. A pretty young thing named Neha Murjani met him after the reading and said that his story about a journey on the old GIP railways moved her. Her parents were Sindhis from Karachi.

“Did they tell you stories about Karachi, how travel was in those days?” he asked.

“Yes they did.”

“Well I was there myself, before the partition of India into India and Pakistan; I travelled to Karachi on a train through the now Atari border.”

“That’s the border of India and Pakistan.”

“You must remember India was one then, there were no check posts or visas in those days.”

“And how did you find Karachi?”

“A lot like Bombay.”

“You mean it’s as crowded?”

“Yes, it was in those days.”

He liked to say “in those days” because none of the people he talked to knew of the days of the forties in which he was born. He considered himself to be privileged to born in that age. He was a freedom man, a midnight’s child.

This short interaction with Neha Murjani made him want to write his novel. Nobody knew anything about rail travel in India in those days: the steam engines, the coal furnace, the hoot of the engines as it approached, the sudden expulsion of steam. It was all very romantic. And besides the journey through arid Rajasthan and then through the fertile Indus valley was filled with sighted he had enjoyed as a small pre-pubescent boy. “I must write this novel,” he told himself. But how? He read a lot of articles on writing novels. He joined discussion forums where the work-in-progress was read out and critiqued. There was no time for creative writing courses, so he had to make the best use of the books he could borrow from the American Centre Library.

Piedade got very angry when she was left out from all these activities. She became quite lonely and stopped talking to him.

When he asked for hot water for his bath Piedade wouldn’t say anything. She didn’t prepare hot water for his bath through she knew he would catch a cold if he bathed in cold water. She wouldn’t warm his food when he came home late from a literary meeting or book launch. In fact, she wouldn’t even stay awake for him to come back; she would close the door, loop the chain across it so he could unchain it from outside and go to sleep.

“What’s wrong with you woman? This is what I wanted to do all my life. I wanted to be a writer, writing novels and holding a mirror to the society, celebrating its joys, decrying its shortcomings, its grossness, its injustices. Now what have I to lose? I have a pension which is enough for both of us and our son sends us money. Why shouldn’t I do what I have wanted to do all my life? Besides if the novel sells well, we will be rich and then I will take you to London and Paris not Nashik and Velankanni.”

She wasn’t pacified by all this. Like all women she considered her husband with contempt about his ineptitude to get even a vessel of water heated on the gas stove. “Then what novel will he write? Hehn? As if he is Shakespeare and Tolstoy, they were people who dedicated to writing all their lives, not like him, a clerk in a government office, writing nothing but notes to his bosses.” She being an English teacher before she retired knew a bit about literature to understand what Bernard was up against. While he sat bent over his typewriter she had to take over the jobs a man had to do: going to the market to buy groceries and vegetables, paying the electric and phone bill, and paying the property tax. All this tired her.

“Tell me when will this novel of yours get over?”

“I have to finish writing it and then I have to edit it so that it’s perfect before it reaches an agent or publisher. These days they expect the writer to do all these.”

“That means it will never get over,” she muttered as she went back to chopping her vegetables, “watch it, he will go crazy or ill writing it. Then I will have to run around.”

He did fall ill. He didn’t know how. He considered himself a healthy man who will never fall ill, but suddenly the doctor said he had high blood pressure, and diabetes. He couldn’t believe it. The world of his dream crashed around him like some of those buildings felled by explosives he had seen on television. “I knew it will come to this,” Piedade said. For days he couldn’t write anything. He spent his days lying on bed contemplating his fate and what would happen to the novel. Time kept on marching inexorably unconcerned by his affliction. His voice became a croak, he couldn’t bring himself to sit on his desk for even fifteen minutes.

“God, what happened to me, I was such a healthy person. I never smoked, I gave up drinking after I retired, I never had all spicy biryanis and tandoori chicken like my friends in office do, yet I am sick and they are enjoying life. God, God, save me, this is unreasonable, rescue me God, I will go to mass every Sunday and say the “Hail Mary” ten times at the grotto. I will say my confession too, like the short fling I had with the stenographer Maria Carvalho from the office. God, I only took her to a movie once and held hands, is that a sin? If it is, forgive me God.”

Piedade heard all these lamentations and muttered, “Now he is going crazy. I knew it. I knew it.”
Obviously he was. His room was cluttered with clothes. His desk was overflowing with various drafts of his novel, corrected proofs, the coffee stains on his desk were not cleaned for days, his hair was growing wild and long, his beard likewise was not trimmed. He presented a grim picture. She was ashamed when relatives visited their house. As such she didn’t go anywhere with him and let him handle the appointments with the doctor himself. She was ashamed of being seen with him.

Days passed, so did the years. Bernard was sixty-five and yet his novel hadn’t come out. He had done a total of ten years of writing but there was nothing to show. His life was looking bleaker than ever: sick, depressed, demoralized, demotivated, and unable to get up and do his own chores.

Then as if by force of will he stood up tottering, and in another great act of courage made himself sit before the computer for an hour each day, writing. He somehow pulled at all his resources, the veins and sinews of his body, his every aching muscle to complete the novel. Then he set about editing it with fiendish concentration. He re-wrote parts he was not satisfied with and deleted whole irrelevant chapters.
“There he goes again, the idiot. The fool I have for a husband. This time is the final time before he pushes himself into his own grave,” Piedade muttered.

Bernard heard this and said, “I heard what you said. Don’t you know, you a teacher of English, how important novels are in the development of society, culture, of young minds? How can you speak disparaging of what gave you such a good livelihood? You ungrateful woman.”

Then he began making submissions to publishers and agents. One by one rejection letters started trickling in till his desk was filled with rejection letters, written on fancy letterheads of publishers and agents. One rejection letter he remembered because on the first three chapters they had returned to him were written the words, “what crap.” This pained him. Mostly they said that they would let it pass as their list was full. They also said a novel is subjective, so submit it to another publisher who might like it. This offered no consolation. He was distraught and wept over these rejection letters. He received offers from vanity publishers saying they can publish his novel if he agreed to buy a hundred copies of the novel for a price. He knew this was a trap and had read about it. “They would then print a hundred copies and pocket my money, the crooks.”
“That man is stark raving mad, look at him, the fool, look how he weeps over those letters he gets, shedding crocodile tears for nothing,” Piedade said without compassion.

A new British publisher was beginning its operation in India. Bernard eagerly submitted his novel “Train to Karachi” to them. The publisher liked the theme of railway journey in British India and showed interest. He was overjoyed. But the print run would be small and there would not be any advance, the reason being that they are just testing the market. This disappointed him, because he had thought he would get a big advance and a lot of royalty after that. He signed the contract not knowing all the clauses and conditions it contained, assuming that he should be lucky to be published at all. As a clerk he had gone through all words in documents minutely, but in this great incident in his own life he signed and gave away his novel to the first publisher who showed interest.

The novel took another year to be published. By now Bernard was seventy. Doctor said his diabetes and blood pressure were under control. But Bernard wondered if he would ever write a novel again. The day of the book launch was announced and he dressed in his best three-piece suit and put on his fedora. He made Piedade wear her best silk sari, the one she wore for her son’s wedding.

At the book launch a Bollywood celebrity, Imran Khan, a screenplay and story writer himself, was present. Neha Murjani, who had triggered his interest in writing the novel, was also there. All the media’s attention was focused on Imran Khan and they took his pictures and not Bernard’s. Bernard was ignored and sat with his head on his chest as if he didn’t belong there at all. The fedora hid his face from public view and he was glad to have its cover. It was his book launch and they – the publisher and the Bollywood celebrity – hijacked it. They got all the publicity and he and his book didn’t. Bernard fumed to Piedade later, “I don’t believe this! I am the reason he was there in the first place, but they kept photographing him. What’s the sense in all this madness? Are those people crazy? Don’t they know I am the author of the novel? Do they know I spent fifteen years writing this book? What was the point in inviting him to my book launch?” The next day’s newspapers carried pictures of Imran Khan in the society pages with the caption, “Imran Khan at a book launch in town.”

He read an excerpt from his novel and then the floor was open for questions from the audience. Most of them were want-to-be writers themselves who asked him stupid questions like, “Sir, I too want to be a novelist, it’s a good profession, isn’t it? But I don’t have really hard-hitting content. Where do I get it? Can you help me, sir?” So they call writing fiction as content these days, eh, Bernard wondered taken aback by the question and the abrupt way in which it was delivered. He was a content writer, perhaps, in one of those twenty-four-hour call centres. And they want hard-hitting content and wondered if what he wrote was hard-hitting enough. To this mere boy sporting a goatee beard, whose combed-straight-up-and-gelled-hair looked like uncut grass, he replied, “I didn’t write content, in fact I don’t write content, I wrote a story, a novel. As for getting your stories, stories are always around, look around you.” Then he signed copies with a flourish, always remembering to address the book-purchaser by name.

On the way home in a taxi he said to Piedade, “See, I always told you I will be a novelist. Now what do you have to say, my dear woman?”

She turned around to him fixed him with an incomprehensible stare and said, “See if you remain a novelist for long.” Prophetic words.

The publisher arranged for him to tour Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai, major Indian cities, for book launches and readings. The reviews from newspapers and magazines trickled in. All of them didn’t have anything positive to say about the novel on which he had spent fifteen years of his life.

“The author somehow can’t take the story forward, add those little details that are so important to a novel are somehow missing, you read it with a sense of incompleteness,” said a north-Indian newspaper review.
“The author and his style are too old fashioned to suit the needs of the modern generation brought up on television and Chetan-Bhagat-style novels, the pace is slow and humdrum,” another rag said.
“Don’t waste your money on this piece of bad writing. The author can’t get his story going, which is bad news for all of us,” wrote a books editor of a magazine.

“This novel should be thrown with great force, into the fire or out of the window. It’s that boring and unreadable,” a bitchy author-socialite wrote in her newspaper column.

“Oh, God! Oh God! Oh God! I can’t believe this, I really can’t.” Bernard groaned and despaired as he read the last review when he was in Calcutta for a reading. “Is it for this that I worked hard for fifteen years? Don’t they have any respect for writers who spend so much time and energy on writing a work that documented a forgotten time; held a mirror, however unclear, to what a railway journey on the Great Indian Peninsular Railway was then – the excitement, the fervour, the novelty? Do they care for history, insensitive as they are even for the present, here and now?”

The reviews upset him. The tour kept him busy through the day and he had forgotten to take his medication on some days feeling too tired to do anything. He came back from his book tour sicker than he was. The next day he died of a heart attack in his sleep. He was seventy one.

Some kind people from his literary forum organized a condolence meeting where they were all praise for his novel and writing style. “Train to Karachi is a sensitive portrayal of a troubled era when freedoms were curtailed and India was on the cusp of its freedom struggle,” one of those present said in a burst of eloquence. “He was a true friend, a noble human being, a great writer,” another who didn’t know him too well said.

The bitch author-socialite whose review triggered his decline wrote in her column, “Not many tears were shed for reclusive author Bernard Barboza. He went unsung, unheralded, his talent unrecognized. He preferred anonymity rather than rarefied atmosphere of authordom. He died a recluse. May his soul rest in peace. In his passing we have lost a writer who had great potential, a true master of the craft as it was practiced in gentler days. The ways of the literary world are cruel, indeed.”

“I told him, I told him, I told him, writing a novel will kill him. But, he would never listen. Now, look what he has gone and done, leaving me all alone,” sobbed Piedade Barboza hugging her son after the funeral.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Roads of Artist Village

I came to live in Artist Village somewhere in the beginning of the eighties. At that time it was conceived as a commune for artists, writers, actors and, well, anyone of an artistic persuasion. The chief attraction of living in Artist Village, to me, was that it was set in a valley and was surrounded by hills. The houses were designed by the renowned architected Charles Correa and had tiled roofs. The rafters were made of rough unpolished wood and the eaves were fashioned out of similarly unpolished planks. There was a pond from which an artificial stream coursed through the Village giving it the proper look of an Indian village. The village was created on the model of clusters of huts opening on to a central courtyard as was the custom in Indian rural areas. The houses were so positioned that residents couldn’t see inside each others’ homes. It later became an embarrassment when sound couldn’t be similarly banished. Due to some strange acoustics and, may be, because Artist Village was situated in a valley, what was spoken in homes could be heard by the neighbours.

The design was good from an architect’s point of view. However, when the harsh rain hit the valley like a deluge of hail, the tiled roof started leaking and the rafters became wet and soggy. The eaves all but disappeared, falling down by bits. Moisture hung in the air like a thick blanket cordoned by the hills on either side and rain fell like sleet. Swarms of mosquitoes converged on the village from somewhere and people fell sick including me. The months of monsoon were feared in Artist Village. After all, nobody wants to live in a house that has a leaky roof. I realized I will have to make changes to the house to protect my family and reconstructed a two-storey structure, after obtaining the requisite permissions from the Corporation.

I particularly like walking and hiking and perambulating every morning in the open. It keeps me alert and in good health. My preferred time for walking is early morning and late evenings. On weekdays before going to work I would walk around the pond and return home invigorated by breathing the fresh air. The Village offered immense hope for exploring the nearby hills, which became my preoccupation on holidays and Sundays. However, the roads of Artist Village were not laid when I came to live there when my son Ronnie was aged one.

As was my habit I wrote letters to the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (I will call it the Corporation from now on) detailing the state of the roads. This was the only letter to which I received a reply. It was typed on cheap government stationery and had the signature of an Assistant Engineer of the Corporation. As a consequence, so I believe, the Corporation laid the roads and fixed the paths between houses with rough tiles of what provenance, I don’t know. They are popularly known as Dholpuri stones, may be, because they are mined in a place called Dholpur.


Then came the elections to the Corporation when my son was in Class I of the local school. The roads were now cratered by four rains and were resurfaced. A lot of the aggregate were left behind and weren’t cleared. The Dholpuri tiles also became crooked and broken. The new Corporator in his enthusiasm raised the level of the paths and relaid the tiles. However, the debris was not cleared and it lay there along with the aggregate left behind by the road resurfacing. I wrote to the Corporation about this, as it was becoming an impediment in my daily walking. My shoes became coated with dust and walking had become arduous and not at all a pleasure. I explained all this in my letter, but received no reply. I contented that all was being done in the name of progress and dismissed it as such.


When my son was in class III the roads were dug again to lay storm water rains. Overnight multi-armed JCBs converged on our roads and tore them up day and night with monster-like whining and screaming. The persistent sound of the mighty machine echoed in the hills and I became disoriented with its insistent caterwauling. I sighed in relief when the work was over. But more travails were to follow. The roads lay devastated as if a giant leviathan had run his fingers through it. Again, I wrote letters to the Corporation. After three months the roads were laid again.


The second Corporation election came when my son was in Class V. By now I knew the Corporator. He was a genial and rather pudgy-looking individual who dressed as the occasion demanded. If Id-ul-fitr was being celebrated he would wear a skull cap and white kurta and pyjama. If Ganesh Utsav, the festival wherein idols of Ganesha were worshipped, was being celebrated he would wear a white garrison cap and white clothes according to the local tradition. When I met him one evening – dressed in a garrison cap and local traditional dress – I told him that the debris left during the digging for storm water drains was not cleared. These were creating unseemly mounds on the road and I had lost all hope of seeing an Artist Village that had nicely laid out roads and pathways.

He told me that ‘the needful will be done.’ Indeed, it was done. The roads of Artist Village were cleared of debris and as a bonus a playground was leveled and given to the children of the Village. This was good news! Ronnie now had a place to play football and cricket with his friends. Children created a big racket in the evenings when they played on this ground. I didn’t mind that as long as my son was one of the people who was enjoying himself.


When Ronnie reached Class VIII, the Corporation, out of the blue, decided via ducts had to be created to empty the water collecting in the residential areas into the artificial stream. Again, the JCBs got into action and a barrage of sounds started offending me at all times of the day. On my daily walks I had to skirt many mounds of dirt and stones. The tar and aggregate would lie around as if no one was responsible for them. I wrote letters to the Corporation, received no reply, and was, in general, disappointed by the way things were going. I decided that the Corporator, though an amiably man, wouldn’t get my vote in the next Corporation election.

This seemed of no consequence because a slum sprang up on a strip of forest land on one of the hills. Apparently the sponsor, or, guardian, of this slum colony was the Corporator himself. On my morning walk I would see this ugly outcropping of huts on the slope of the hill through the early morning mist as the sun cast blue shadows on the massed trees of the hills. Men and women in a vivid spectrum of coloured clothes would be walking to their places of work most of them carrying their tools like mallets, trowels and planers with them. I had nothing against them but they were occupying the land illegally and paying no taxes. This chagrined me. I wrote a letter to the Corporation with a copy to the Corporator pointing out that the rubble from digging for the storm water drain was still not cleared and that a slum had come up in Artist Village, which had to be uprooted without delay. Slums have a habit of proliferating and this slum was growing day by day into around forty hutments.


In the Corporation election I didn’t vote for the Corporator. I didn’t vote for anybody. Still the Corporator won because he had the vote of the people living in the slum sponsored by him. Soon after he was elected the Corporation decided the storm water drains were not big enough and set about removing the old pipes and replacing them with newer and bigger ones. Rumour was that the Corporator had spent ten million rupees to entertain the slum-livers with liquor and food to gain their votes and had to regain this amount as soon as possible. The new contract was a means towards this purpose.

One day, I met the Corporator as I was coming back from my evening walk and, somehow, all my complaints poured out in one litany of grouses. At that time he was wearing a Mundu and shirt as he was returning from a function of the Ayyappa temple. I had harboured my complaints for long and I wanted to be rid of them and who better than the Corporator himself? He listened patiently to my spiel, smiled, and assured me that ‘the needful will be done.’

Days later, during the Christmas season, a man came and delivered a cake at my residence. This was the Corporator’s way of buying peace. A bribe! I returned the cake to the man and said I didn’t want it. I also pointed out that I had bought enough cakes for Christmas to want his measly offering.

Now my son is in Class XII. Several heaps debris mar the road leading to my house. The playground has been dug up for laying some new set of drainage pipes for the people living in the slums. They pay no taxes to the Corporation, use stolen electricity, and now, are given drainage pipes too. At my cost! My tax money paid for all these! My umbrage didn’t find a suitable outlet so I shut up.

The Dholpuri stone tiles that were laid when my son was aged one had disappeared beneath these mounds. In places where it showed it was chipped and broken. The dirt that was dug up to lay the storm water drains still lay and obliterated the stone dividers on the side of the roads. There was aggregate and stone lying around everywhere. By now my dream of seeing a serene, foliated, debris-free Artist Village had faded and I began taking life as it comes, without much expectation, without any preconceived notion. Garishly constructed concrete bungalows were replacing the old tiled-roofed huts. I was becoming old and my health didn’t permit me to write long-complaining missives to the Corporation. I had decided that writing letters to the Corporation was of no use and stopped that habit. After all, why waste money on stamps and stationery when ‘no action was being taken’? What I had thought of as progress hasn’t been progress at all because, I think, progress also means a betterment of the quality of life.