Is it time to go? These days, I’m sure I need to, and I get up in the night, and get outside to the latrine, but I find I have difficulty beginning.
There’s a sense of urgency, but it’ll start, then stop. During these excursions, still dreaming I suppose, I believe that I am at home. I mean the house where I grew up. A boy, stumbling into moonlight. In the room where I slept as a child, the walls smelled of ash and cow dung, smoky and rich. If you haven’t been in a room plastered in gobar I can’t explain. It’s sweet, but catches in the back of your throat. Now, in the rains, the smell alters, a growing thing.
My brother and I slept in the corner. His knee in my leg, my sole on his calf, his snoring. The light from the window, and shadows moving near us. Sometimes we listened to our parents’ soft noises. He stirred earlier, unclouded; I had to be shaken awake, confused, often angry.
My younger daughter-in-law tells her son, Rohan, to love his brother, to look after him. My brother and I were never told such things. When we fought, if it wasn’t out of sight, we were beaten for giving trouble. When we hated each other, which was often, we still slept entangled, resenting it, my knee in his back, his bony elbow in my ribs. There was no sentiment between us, but we would have died for each other.
I remember the offcuts we were given to play with. Small, oddly formed pieces. We learned to plait the leather, or stamp out a flower.
This morning I was polishing the ends of the chappals, varnishing them, checking them. Everything should be perfect. Why so much care for something a man will put between his feet and the ground? But the chappals will be his constant companions. He’ll spend more time with them than with his wife. One side of the sole may wear out more, depending on how he walks, so that you could pick up his chappals and observe that he leans a little into his centre, or a little out towards the world. Some people walk quite evenly, but not many, I’ve noticed, not many. Most of us shuffle along in our own strange way, not giving it attention.
The thing I make is with a man when he’s alone, unnoticed. I like that. And he can rely on it. Our chappals aren’t like the manufactured ones, stuck with glue; ours will be with you for a long time.
I’ve never made the perfect pair. There’s always something. The scorpion’s tail on top of the belt curves differently on one side; there’s an asymmetry in the point of the toe, or the design around the upper lining.
I could say it doesn’t matter; no one will notice. I could say the only perfect thing is a dead thing, that each pair is like a husband and wife: their imperfections complement each other. At first it’s uncomfortable to wear our chappals. They have to be lived with. They will harass the skin between your big and middle toes. You will dip them in water and let them dry in the sun. The varnish will take a while to come off the sole. You’ll wear them in, slipping around. Like a tool used over years by the same man, or a child raised by a certain woman, they’ll bear the imprint of your habitual bias.
My elder son, who makes the manufactured chappals, has heard all this and isn’t interested. They came this Sunday, without Anil, who had a cricket match. My daughter-in-law brought til laddoos for us to take to Pune.
Can you even remember how to make a proper chappal? I asked my son. I don’t know why I feel the need to have these conversations with him.
He nodded and waved one hand slightly. His face is smooth, this son of mine, and his eyes slide around. He’s darker than I, looks more like my brother.
Do you remember how? I persisted.
He smiled, but he looked irritated.
What will you teach your son? I asked.
His eyes slid up to mine, then he looked away. He exhaled. I thought I smelled last night’s alcohol. His teeth are red, too much gutka.
My wife came with tea and fritters. She put her small hand on his shoulder. He looked up and smiled and his face changed, from sly and angry to abashed, open.
If Prakash had been better in school he would have been like his brother Deepak, I thought, pouring hot tea down my throat. I watched him eat, his fingers shiny with oil. He’s strong, taller than I am. He likes his work, in the workshop with the other men, and drink, and songs on the radio. I don’t know what else he gets up to. His wife is a practical woman, she wouldn’t complain. And their Anil? He’s not like my other grandsons in the city, but he’s a good boy, straightforward. When his cousins come here he shows them things: the pond to swim in, or they take the bus to the fort. They look up to him, but they also turn their heads to each other and smile. His mother is always with him. They on the other hand live alone in a way. They go to school in a bus. They have their uniform, their routine. They are city children, more fearful, but sharper.
From the cooking I smelled methi, besan, oil.
I thought about the two brothers, so different. My second son is like a version of me projected into the future. He’s industrious, always wanting to get ahead, without knowing where. He has his mother’s softness, her intelligence.
There’s something about us that neither of them has. But not every bit of material can be used.
Come on, she said.
Just a minute, I said. I checked again in the bag.
Did you bring the . . . But I couldn’t come up with a word. A towel? I said.
Her eyes, lighter than mine, golden almost, were intelligent, not quite pitying. I pulled up the zip. All right, I said. Wait – I paused, wondering if I needed to go. No, I said, it’s all right. No, wait, I’ll just be a minute.
In the bus she gazed out of the window, as though the road was telling a story. I looked across her: a stall selling neera, another bus stop, people waiting in their dhotis and a man in a cap; kids in a four-wheel drive; those new hotels springing up, all glass and signs. Everything depressed me.
What happened? I felt like asking Deepak when they met us at the bus stand.
Sujata is at home, he said, finishing lunch. The boys beamed. I thought of embracing my son, and didn’t. I’d shrunk. Or had he grown taller? He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, that material with holes in it. His moustache was neatly trimmed. His mother hugged him. She never looks out of place.
You can rest while you’re here, Deepak said, as he opened the door. Relax, take it easy.
The flat was as I remembered: white floor tiles, fans in every room. Sohan, the littler one, gave me his hand.
Do you always use the fan? I asked.
He nodded, but looked as though he wasn’t sure how to answer.
What if it’s cold? I said.
Then we use a sheet or a blanket, Rohan said.
There were extra mattresses, rolled up, for them to sleep on because we were there.
Baba’s put the geyser on, Rohan told me, in case you want a bath.
I said nothing. Geysers make me uneasy; I don’t like objects that do things in an unseen way.
I shambled into the bathroom and caught sight of myself in the mirror, an intruder with white ear hair.
In the kitchen we sat around the table, which was covered with a shiny cloth, patterned with bright fruit: bananas, apples, tomatoes, purple plums. There were vade and tea.
You don’t need to cook while you’re here, Sujata told my wife. The bai comes in the morning.
My wife nodded. Then she said, Unless I make something for the boys when they come home?
Sabudana vada! said Sohan.
My daughter-in-law smiled tightly. They don’t need to eat something big, she said. They normally have milk and biscuit.
Sohan squirmed onto my lap. I put an arm around him. My son looked at me, then more closely at his mother. She was flexing her knuckles, pushing at those of the left hand. Certain joints give her pain until they warm up. Her eyes, always so clear, are clouding slightly.
In the main room I read the newspaper. I like to see the children, and my son amid his life, which seems to fit him better than the one he had growing up. Then he was patient, watchful. But perhaps that had to do with my drinking.
It isn’t that I love to be at home. But being there is no effort, so I can go anywhere. Often that means returning to my childhood. The things around me are less real, but the past is immediate. When I was young I was always aware of the future, like a road ahead. The road is still there; there’s a journey to be made. But this will be the last journey, one without return.
Even the past is incomplete. My mother, for instance, comes back not as an image but a collection of sensations. The hard, warm palm of her hand against my shoulder. The smell of her neck as she bent over me; smoky like a wood fire, maybe from cooking, but also her sweat. A little sweet, like a water flower. When she was angry her voice rang out like a clay pot that’s struck – a note of metal. The rhythms of her speech were an ongoing complaint, a river without variation. Not that she was always complaining. That’s just how it sounded. My father’s sister was more theatrical. She laughed loudly, sat with her legs loosely crossed and chewed supari. Even the things she did just for herself, like sneezing, or breathing, were amplified. She wore thick toe-rings and heavy silver anklets. In her presence I was delighted, reduced to nothing.
My father was a big man, with a big voice. He didn’t speak much, unlike my aunt, but around her he became more talkative, more smiling. I dreamed of him the other day. He was standing in near darkness on the road, holding one chappal. He looked confused when he saw me.
Where are you off to? I said.
I’m going home, he said. But – where’s your brother?
I felt the usual disappointment.
Is he all right? he asked. His face was full of anxiety. Better you don’t tell anyone you saw me, he said, and hurried away.
When I was drinking the world became a crazy circus, entertaining and hilarious, or annoying and to be battled.
How often I saw my room, the bed, the calendar, the blue wall, the cupboard swim around me. I was extremely mobile, enamoured of my agility.
If I could just be alone. I’d think about it while I was working, hands busy, but mind elsewhere. While I was eating, or standing outside watching my sons run around, I thought of the future, a time when they would be older, there’d be a little more money, and I’d be free, to do something I still hadn’t thought of.
One afternoon I went to the workshop to drop off some finished pairs. It was the same as usual, the radio on; around the corner I saw the cracked feet of old Kadam who always took a nap after lunch.
Pawar! said a short fellow near the door. Borkar is a little younger than I but he was already bald. He looks foolish, which offsets that sly cast to his eyes, so that he resembles a slightly cunning baby.
We never see you, he said.
I’m there to be seen, I said, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure.
Come out some evening, he said.
Out? I said.
Satpute sat a couple of places from Borkar. He had hair then, thinning but crow-black, a wizened face. He was thin except for a slackness at the stomach, a weak but enduring sort of man. He put down his needle and made a tipping gesture towards his mouth.
Oh, I said. The truth is I was at a loose end. I hadn’t thought of myself as having spare time, before my affair with Ratna. My world had been hermetic: the family, and work. But I’d made time for those excursions and now the seal was broken. I felt a little expectant all the time, a little disappointed. Maybe, I said. When?
Tonight, Satpute said.
Tonight, Borkar agreed. At sunset. We’ll meet here.
There is a sort of chowk, outside the workshop, just before the area where most of these people live. Our house isn’t far but is off the main road. We are a little separate.
Sunset? I said. We normally ate just after then.
In the evening I told my wife I’d be going out.
Now? she said.
I have work, I said. You all go ahead and eat. I’ll eat later. I left. I was annoyed with her for making me feel awkward. Had I no freedom? Things had come to a pretty pass. I shrugged it off and got to the workshop. There was no one there but a pale pi-dog outside. I loitered next to the dog. Pages of an old calendar blew about. It was dusk, summer, and still very warm.
After a time, feeling let down, I squatted near the dog. I was hungry. I’d go home soon. I imagined our room as though I were looking in, saw under the electric light my wife and sons sitting down, my wife giving them rice and dal and maybe some mutton.
The dog sighed, and licked his balls. I got up.
Borkar and Satpute sidled down the road. Where have you been? I wanted to ask, but I’d lost confidence.
Come, we’ll go to the bottle shop, Satpute said. You have money?
Obviously, I said. I felt the notes in my pocket.
Three Santra, he said at the liquor shop. He nodded at me.
We take turns, Borkar said at my other side.
I paid, and felt a pain in my stomach. When did I ever hand over money in this way? Every week I gave my wife the money for groceries, and otherwise we kept it in a tin in the cupboard. Sometimes there was a bit spare, but often there was something coming up – school books, shoes, expenses. I was a working man, I reasoned. I could spend my money as I saw fit.
Borkar reached out a hand for the paper bag. We walked off.
Where are we going? I asked.
We know a good place, quiet, Satpute said.
There were no lights around the old godown. Under the tree, near the tiny Datta temple, I felt as though I was back in Miraj. The air smelled like fields. I heard crickets.
Borkar had a bag with him. He took out three tumblers. The first bottle was opened. I’d drunk alcohol as a young man, but only a taste. I hadn’t enjoyed it. I swigged as much as the others, and my stomach began to burn. The orange flavour was intense, like cheap perfume. I thought of Ratna and felt mild nostalgia, as a man of many experiences.
Borkar said, This is better than sitting at home.
Satpute agreed. I looked at his drawn yellow face and thought, I am just seeing what this is like, I won’t do it regularly.
A warm breeze sighed in the leaves of the banyan tree and tickled my neck. I relaxed. Perhaps I’d spent too much time alone.
What are you chewing over? Borkar said. There was an insensitivity about him, but a humanity too, a warmth. I made these assessments as my father would have, my father who was it seemed so upright. I never saw any doubt or uncertainty in him.
It’s new to me to be among other men, I said. Not since I was much younger, before I was married almost.
Don’t you get bored, at home? Satpute said.
Bored, I said. I don’t know. I felt the instinct to defend my family. And was it boredom, or fear – the fear of being responsible, day after day, but with no idea how to go about things?
Leave him alone, Borkar said. He waved a fat paw at me.
There’s no need to be uncomfortable, Satpute said. He smiled and showed his browning teeth.
What about that woman of yours? Borkar said.
I started, but it was Satpute who shrugged. It’s going on, he said. Sometimes.
He too? It was confusing. The remaining light was orange, that orange dusk. Bats wheeled about the godown and the tree.
It’s eerie here, I said, a little ghostly. This light.
They laughed. Pawar is a sensitive soul, Satpute said.
I laughed too, uneasily. A friend of my grandfather’s told us a story when I was younger, I said. A man was walking home along a dark road near a forest.
Where was this? Satpute interrupted.
Bengal, I said, picking the name out of the air.
Bengal? How would you know a story from Bengal?
I drank some more. Are you going to let me tell the story or not? I said.
He gave a dry laugh. Tell, tell, he said.
He had no light and was afraid of ghosts. But a fellow traveller with a lantern came along and kept him company. The first man felt relieved.
Of course, Borkar said.
Satpute laughed. Were you there too, in Bengal?
Satpute, don’t be an idiot. Who wants to walk alone near a forest?
I said, They talked and got to know each other. After a while the first man told the man with the lantern that when they met on the road he’d been afraid in case the other man was a ghost.
Oho! said Borkar, pouring more Santra for all of us. I took my tumbler and put it against my foot so I’d know where it was. It was nearly dark now. Even the bats were hardly visible, sudden cinders against the darkness. It was silent. The city lights seemed far. I thought of the field temple I used to walk to as a boy, its blunt found idols of Narsoba and his wives. I must be tipsy; I felt detached from the physical world, sliding away at some oblique angle.
Then what happened? Satpute said. He was a rough voice, a few feet away in the darkness.
Oh. Then the first man said he remembered it was all right because ghosts who take human form have feet that point backwards.
Ah, of course, Borkar said, as though this was well known.
I paused. Then the man carrying the lantern laughed, pointed it at his feet and disappeared, I said.
Ah! So he was a ghost? Borkar said.
What do you think? I said. In the silence I heard the crickets.
We should have had boiled peanuts, Satpute said. Something.
I was hungry too. Next time I’ll bring something savoury, I said. My wife makes good chivda.
Chivda! We should have meat. Kebabs.
A confusion of acid moved in my stomach. My head began to float.
At first I enjoyed the uselessness of these evenings. We were like children, smutty children, it’s true, but there was an innocence to it. I enjoyed being drunk, I discovered, the way things would loom closer, suddenly, and then swim back. It was like the way you get to know someone, as getting to know Ratna had been, those overwhelming moments of too much proximity, then retreating into distance.
Chaturthi was on a Sunday, and after we went to the temple with the children to see the idol, which I didn’t care about at all, the rest of our stay was quiet. Mukta bai came in the morning to cook. The house smelled of phenyl for hours after she’d cleaned. At lunch my wife would make the bhakris. Then she’d watch television, and I’d rest. I’m not used to sleeping in the afternoon, but in the city it’s possible to feel tired without doing much.
Two days before we were leaving I lay on Sohan’s bed and felt myself slipping into unconsciousness. I stayed there a long time it seemed, on the boundary between two worlds. Here in this house, and my near-dream state, the furniture of my life fell away. My things at home – the cupboard, the bed, Tuka with his orange fur and green eyes, the cracked bucket – seemed to be part of an old dream. Like scraps of leather, oddly shaped, things from life, people and sayings and objects, found themselves spliced together. My father walking past me, holding one chappal. My brother, stolid, next to me outside the old house. In the dream he and I were talking about his daughter. He wants to get her married this winter. She’s nineteen, a bright, calm girl.
She’s studied enough, he said.
But she’s intelligent, I said. If she trained for something. She could work in the city, in a call centre.
Her husband will want her to help him. That’s the main thing.
Yes, I said.
I woke up and went to the bathroom. Amid the white tiles I began without incident, but couldn’t complete. I started again, a trickle. Then stopped, before I felt I’d stopped. Head still heavy, bladder still irritated, I went to the kitchen for tea.
We’ll take a walk, she said, before the boys come home? I want to make sabudana vada for them.
Groggy, I sat at the table, reassembling the world, which wasn’t mine. Tablecloth with pictures of fruit, ceiling fan, salt shaker. Photographs on a board behind the table. Pictures of the children, round-faced, serious in Rohan’s case, smiling in Sohan’s. None of it real. Did I have to go? Yes – no, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps not yet.
We walked up the lane and turned right up another lane. We looked different from other people around, she in her nine-yard sari, I in my shirt and dhoti. Or perhaps it wasn’t what I was wearing. There aren’t many people of our age in this area, and few people around in the daytime at all. Everyone’s working or at school. She smiled at a watchman we’ve passed before, and at a man selling sukha bhel.
How do you know all these people when we’ve just been here a few days? I grumbled.
I don’t walk around pretending the world doesn’t exist, she said.
Sometimes I think I’m the one who doesn’t exist, I said. My penis twinged. I couldn’t need to go again.
Oh, you exist, she said drily.
Sanjay wants to marry off Sangita, I said. Why, he should let her study a bit longer, let her work.
Work as what?
Something. She said she might want to train, work in a beauty parlour. What’s the point of just marrying her off ? I said. Half my mind was on my dream, half on the probably misleading urgency I was experiencing.
A koel screeched in a tree we passed.
Quiet! I said.
She started laughing.
The koel screamed louder and louder.
These city birds are deranged, I said.
You don’t think she should be married? she said.
What’s the hurry? I said. Of course she should. But why now? She’ll just be an add-on to her husband’s life. What’s the value of it, what’s the point?
I was sure now: I did need to go. Let’s go back, I said.
She stopped. It seemed to me suddenly that she was trembling. But I don’t want to go back yet, she said.
Come on, I urged. I need to get back. Don’t delay.
She stood irresolute.
Or take your time, if you want. Give me the key, I said. I hurried back, past the screaming koels. When I got to the bathroom, I leaked a few hot drops. She had returned too, but when I went to the kitchen where she was frying the vada, she didn’t look at me.
I keep thinking about death, as though death were the answer to life, an answer that removes the uncertainty. Perhaps simply being answered is consoling.
She knows this, and when she is angriest with me she says nothing. The timing is confusing. It’s not straight after I’ve done something I shouldn’t. For example, nothing happened after the episode with Ratna, though my wife didn’t, I think, know about it, but she might have, for superstitiously I find it hard to believe she doesn’t know everything I do and think and then, by moments, when I realize I can pass unnoticed, get away with things, I become callous to my fear, and think I don’t need her approval. That’s when she stops paying me attention, and I suffocate. It’s not even that she stops talking to me, or stops cooking, nothing obvious. She doesn’t sound angry or depressed. I just stop existing.
It’s a living death. She is still there, but the invisible current that irritates me, the thread between me and her, is not only gone but it’s as though it never had been.
The first time it happened, after Ratna, I watched myself, as though I were my own ghost; I pitied my lumpy existence as I shambled from my room to the kitchen. This poor fool, this clod of matter – truck horns outside, noisy in their indifference. What could he do? He had just enough spark of consciousness to suffer from the hostility of everything that was not him.
Even now, I did what I could to irritate her, to get a reaction. I made a noise when getting up that night. I banged the bathroom door, I dropped the toothpaste, I talked to myself.
What’s the matter? I said loudly the next afternoon when she was sitting silently, in front of the television, which wasn’t on, the newspaper next to her, not reading it.
She looked at me absolutely without anger.
What’s the matter with you? I approached her, put my face close to hers, felt her forehead roughly. You seem ill, I’m worried about you! I said. I peered into her face. What’s wrong?
After we had been home a day she relented. I knew it was nothing to do with my manoeuvres. I didn’t care. All that mattered was that she relented. It’s not that she is unable to maintain her solitude, or that she gets angry – that would be a victory.
I think what happens is that her belief in her rightness wavers. She isn’t sure whether she should, after all, feel sorry for me. Her compunction, her being a good person, or is it weakness, I don’t care, it gives her doubt, it creates a chink. After all, I saw her consider – the fair part of her, which is enormous, which has shaped all our lives – after all, perhaps I should come back. Perhaps he needs me.
In this way she never gets whatever it is that she needs; she is always brought back to earth, to the ugly world of truck horns and the plastic bucket with the rusty handle and the crack; to the groove in the latrine floor that never looks clean; to our pots and pans that are blackened and wearing out; to my inadequacies, which never come to a final crisis, but simply limp on. I do it to her every time. And then I breathe again, and am comforted, and insensitive, as before.
Artwork © Radhika Khimji, An Imprint, 2013, from the Red Stitching series