The Man Next Door
When I moved into the house, it was the children that I noticed first. They were playing cricket in the maidan facing the backyard. Quite good cricket, with makeshift wickets and a tennis ball. I shouted at them because the ball kept coming into my garden, messing up the newlydug flower beds. I was careful of my hedge. Distance is important to me. I like neighbours to remain that way.The youngest boy was sent in to retrieve the ball. He said, 'Sorry Aunty', in a nasal voice. His manner was pleasant so I was appeased, though I hate this 'aunty'business, a term or address the serving classes have picked up. I guess they want to be like us without really understanding what it takes. The layers of conditioning that would peel off like cabbage if we were to be stripped!
Off and on, I lectured to some, like this chokra at the bania´s or the paper boy. Why not didi, or bahen. I´d ask. Why this ´unkel´ and ´antee´? Why this disfigurement, this hotchpotch, this mismatch of terms? You see, I am an English-language teacher. But it´s more than that. I´m from UP, people these uncouth Delhi Punjabis and Haryanvis call ´bhaiyajis´ because they have no understanding of anything beyond the grab and push which makes this city tick. Unfortunately, they have set the tone for Delhi, so we don´t hear the sweet language that gave us Rahim, Abul Fazl and others, but just this crude jargon of these Westernised rustics who race metallic-coloured Marutis with stickers screaming ´Pappu di gaddi´ and ´Munna de pappa di gaddi´, sporting hip-hugging Levis and Raybans, a la Miami Vice. And think they´re the cat´s whiskers. Horrible! But my efforts to make them see culture always end as a lecture to myself. This is the authentic urban wild frontier and those boys playing cricket living in servants´ quarters—well they want to be upcoming Delhi cowboys as well.
To get back to the boys. There must have been half-a-dozen in all, wearing loose baggy trousers and with slicked-back hair sporting little tails. Smarmy! It is amazing how particular they are about clothes nowadays. Not much different from us except for a certain something which doesn´t quite go. Not that I´m trying to be superior. I´m all for the upliftment of the masses. And cast is one thing I hate. I myself have been to a missionary school and we gave generously to the Poor Fund and always make it a point to mix with the poor Christian children whose fathers were bearers or cooks in embassies or something.
But the boys, I was telling you about them. When 1 first noticed the father of those kids from the privacy of the veranda-window blinds it was his gleaming white vest that caught my eye. I remember thinking how sparkling white it was and wondering how his wife did it. I have two servants but the laundry never comes out looking like this. The vest looked fine against his olive skin. It had a luminescent oily shine, the skin I mean. Slender and graceful of body, he didn´t immediately come across as the father of the brood. I noticed him often after that. You see, I am a part-time artist andcolours catch my eye. Rich brown skin, black hair and white gleaming teeth. Thought it was his clothes that had attracted my attention, I began to notice the way he walked. With a swagger as if he was in a constant slow-motion dance, a jingle playing in his head, moving it rhythmically this way and that, quite aware of its own perfection. I sometimes forgot it was the servants quarters he lived in, and stopped whatever 1 was doing to admire him. Naturally 1 don´t like the idea of admiring these sorts. Something not quite proper in it. It did irritate me that the man tried to look so much like a a sahib, when, let´s face it, he simply wasn´t. Why did he try so hard?
On Sundays, he would loll about on a folding cot that his boys dragged out for him. Kabadiwallas and vendors would stop by and salaam him, have a chat and move on. He never rose, but lay stretched out as they paid him what seemed like homage. His boys, there must have been half-a-dozen, hovered around him as though he was a prima donna. Except for the youngest, who stood a little aloof, with a constant cold, clinging to the folds of his mother´s saree, snivelling and wiping his nose with his hand. I´m talking of the one who had said ´Sorry Aunty´.
Most days, a man on a motorcycle would come. White Vest would clamber on and sit astride riding pillion, his head cocked in the air, a king. His sons flocked around him when he returned, dragging out his cot, massaging his head, taking off his shoes, etc. Often, a fancy white imported car drove up, the kids doing a thorough clean-up job, while a liveried driver lolled with the father on plastic knitted garden chairs, dragged on to the maidan under a giant pipal tree that cast its branches out like an awning; the wife would serve them hot tea in small glasses, entertaining in style, like us.
It was a while since we had settled in before I called the youngest—the one who clung shyly to his mother´s skirts. I liked the child perhaps because I noticed that the father was rough with him. I thought I´d teach him English. He came eagerly with his books. The lessons his teacher had given him— abysmal! The corruption and inefficiency that allowed the government to run this mockery of a school, and yet headlines lauded the sanction of more funds to these state-run schools! The boy came once or twice. I set him to work. He never came again. The father didn´t like it, his mother apologised. He said that the kitaab-shitaab business was for the impotent. Let the boy learn manly work, he had reprimanded her.
I couldn´t understand why the father should behave like this. I thought he would be grateful, my taking an interest and all that. But no, he swaggered past our house, his head up in the air, as if he couldn´t care less. I put it out of my mind after that, though, I must admit, his attitude rankled.
It was my cleaning woman who told me, good riddance. She hadn´t dared put me wise before because word got around, but Memsaab, he´s a bad lot, she warned. Dirty man, she called him. I was surprised because he looked so… spruce always.
Bhagwanti´s chance remarks indicated to me that he was feared. I make it a point to call Bhagwanti by her name, not ´Jamadarin´. I feel it isn´t right, though some women continue to call their servants by their caste names.
Bhagwanti does six houses in our row so she knows all the gossip. Who gets along with whom and so on. At first, she had shifted to the Madnagir Resettlement Colony where these squatters were given free plots when they were summarily removed during the Emergency. Remember Turkman Gate and Sanjay Gandhi´s time? But she found the commuting too much. Especially since she has this backward child. Munna Raja, she calls him. So she´s given her jhuggi on rent and lives in another neighbour´s servants´ quarter, just around from here,Bhagwanti usually talks of whatever is uppermost in her mind. And as the days went by White Vest was.
Did you hear about what he did the other day? Drunk as a fish! Leering after the dhobi Jagjiwan´s woman, calling her randi and foul names like that. His wife pulled him back, or God knows what Jaggu would´ve done. He would kill him if he could. Only he´s neckdeep in debt to him and everyone knows it. How the bastard´s wife stands him, I don´t know. Eyeing the girls like he was one of his boys. He probably gives it to her good at night and makes up for the scoundrel that he is. I don´t like her getting too loose-tongued in my presence. I scolded her immediately. You never know where it will end. I learnt that most of her spite came from the fact that her son trailed after his children. It was natural. They made him do the things they were loath to do—pick, fetch and carry. It made him feel important. Adults never treated him normally. How could they? He was a spastic. But the children never gave it a thought. It rankled, because the child got along better with them than with her, though they made him run errands in return. She loved and hated that child. He was the only blood relation she had. Her husband had left her a long time ago.
Mopping the floor one day, she confided: people say he assembles country-made guns. They must be right or tell me where does he get all that money from? Some say he´s a go-between in all this bomb-baazi. Tell me, Memsaab, what kind of a man makes money out of misfortune? He certainly has enough money to lend!
Another time, she told me he dealt in stolen goods. There had to be something for he never held a regular job and yet he had everything: a cassette-recorder, a cooler, a colour TV. Don´t you see the clothes he wears? And his children strut around in jeans and jackets like heroes. And not only Jaggu, but all the servants around are in debt to him. And what interest he charges! Demands a bottle of liquor too. If he fancies anyone´s woman, he makes lewd remarks. Kalu and Hira owe only three thousand each, but they would pay to have him murdered if they could.
But there must be something to the man. After all, his dog follows at his heels, I interjected. I don´t know why I took up for him. Dogs, dumb creatures, what do they know, she scoffed. And this one was a vilayati and therefore more stupid. True, it wasn´t the usual brown mangy mongrel that servants kept, the rather nice pom of mixed lineage.
The dog engrossed us the next few days. Expecting a litter, Bhagwanti announced. It had been lying idle for some time. The boys had lined an abandoned carton with gunny bags and straw. One early morning, we saw the pups. Sweet balls of cottonwool that tumbled about. The children of the neighbourhood would play with them, running away when White Vest came home. Pestering chokras, he would yell. Soon the pups were distributed. The motorcyclist took one. The fancy car driver took another. And so they went. Except one. A little fluff called Maxi whom no one picked up because it was slow. Bhagwanti´s son took to it. Now that he´s stopped trailing after them, he trails after the pup instead, she complained.
Munna Raja sat by the pub for hours, letting it suck milk off his fingers which he kept dipping into a cup. As it grew a bit, he fed it masticated rotis. Later he tied a string to its neck and made it follow him till I went and got a proper collar, getting a shy smile in return.
Bhagwanti reprimanded me. Why was I wasting money on that man´s dog? She scolded her son, but he had already run off. That boy, she grumbled. He will be the death of me. I´m sure he was the reason his father ran off. Couldn´t bear the sight of him. But what can I do, Memsaab, he´s my flesh and blood. See the way he runs. One day he´ll come under a truck, and then?
The dog and the little fellow were inseparable. He sat long hours with it on his lap. Bhagwanti would scold, he has no brains and now he´s sold what´s left for a pup. Why don´t you get the man to gift the pup, 1 asked her, then he won´t be sitting in their house so often. She snorted. That man would want something in return! Businesswalla hai, pucca businesswalla.
It happened on the night of Diwali. Festive lights were put up all around, and the noise of crackers exploding intermittently filled the air along with the acrid smell of smoke. The man had been seen swaggering about a little more than usual. It seemed he had got a Diwali bonus, sold some more guns and bombs. His firecrackers, sneered Bhagwanti. Peeping out of the veranda-windows, she spied her son flitting in and out of White Vest´s quarters. I dare not say anything before that Munna ka baccha or he´ll repeat it. The fellow has a brain like a sieve. What goes in comes out.
White Vest had been drunk three nights in a row. A lot of rowdy men with well-oiled hair and bodies had been coming and going. They played cards on Dhanteras. His boys gambled with them. Chhi-chhi, said Bhagwanti, what father gambles and drinks with his own sons looking on? And that wife! She herself serves liquor to his friends! Aisa kya pyaar? I used to tell my husband. If you want to drink, don´t expect me to sit with your friends in your drunkenness. A woman should have some shame!
It was late in the night when we heard the ruckus. I had put my new steel utensil on the puja thali with the flowers, and kheel-batashas. Not that I am religious, but I manage a little something. I was going to light the incense when I heard the fight. A quarrel? On Diwali night? We came out on to the veranda to peep through the blinds. There must have been twenty or so young men. Pulling and pushing in the darkness, their shadows boxing in the light of the
street lamps. It was just a lot of noise at first, but I felt the tension grow. It became frightening. They were cornering someone, hurling abuses even as he ineffectually tried to hit back. Then he ran. But in the thick folds of the chaotic shadows cast by the huge pipal tree, it was difficult to see which direction he took. Raised voices! In my own backyard, between clumps of bananas! It was then that we heard the piercing yelp, like a cry of excruciating pain, which raised the hair on my neck and arms. We heard a whimpering and then nothing. Then a shot. And then another. Then a woman´s terrified scream.
He is bad, that man is bad, Munna sobbed to his mother later. White Vest had kicked his pup, had mangled its soft white body into a pulpy mass. Something beat in Munna´s heart, rage like a strong bird flapping its wings till he became hot and a cauldron inside boiled over. If he didn´t do something, he would burst. He had to put an end to the whimpering. It had to stop. His pup was in pain. He had seen where they kept it and he had seen it being cleaned. He ran in and got the gun out of its hiding place behind the TV. When he came out, he let it off. After he shot the pup, the gun was still in his hands.
White Vest raced towards him, mouth foaming in fury even as the crowd kept up its screams of cheat, cheat! Munna stared, still as an idol. He held the gun with both hands and let it off again.
It´s a month later now. Everything is quiet. Bhangwanti has left with her son. She couldn´t stay here any more after the police let him off. Luckily it was a country-made gun, they told her, so it just maimed. The new cleaning woman works better. She does the corners carefully, but I miss Bhagwanti. You see, this one doesn´t talk much, nor does she live here to know what´s happening.
As for White Vest, yes he´s still around, but he doesn´t come out that much. Except in the afternoons, when the back street is quiet. And all the kabadiwallas and vendors have gone. His boys are too busy to drag out his cot any more. The eldest son got a job as a part-time painter and the second works in a garage. They took the cooler away, and the cassette-recorder. It was on hire, his wife told the neighbours. The garden chairs too have gone.
As for him, his vests, they don´t seem to glow that way anymore. Or may be it´s his skin. It´s begun to hang on his body. Or is it the swagger that´s gone out of his walk?
He leans on his wife as she guides him outside. Then he settles on his charpoy. He lies on it all afternoon. The neighbours pass by uncaringly. They don´t acknowledge him, and the vendors behave as if he doesn´t exist. Who´s afraid of a blind man, anyway?