Fiction / October 2017 (Issue 37)


Comings and Goings

by Nidhi Arora

Bahadur came to the Sharma household on Narender's tails. He wore a black t-shirt and a navy blue trouser that was too big for him, which was kept in place with a brown canvas belt. He carried a small satchel which looked almost empty. His light brown eyes were narrow, and puffy and he hardly spoke. By general consensus, his age was pegged at ten years.

"Do you know how to make rotis?" Sheela, the lady of the house, asked him.

He nodded silently.

"He makes very good rotis, memsaab, rounder than the full moon. Even at home, he was the one who made rotis, although he has three sisters," Narender filled in for the boy. Narender was the colony's chowkidar, the night watchman. Like most chowkidars in this locality, he came from Nepal. He had come to South Delhi twenty years ago, and had been working in Vasant Kunj for almost fifteen. Besides patrolling their lanes through the night, he cleaned residents' cars in the morning and ran errands throughout the day. No one really knew when he slept, if he ever did. Once in a while, he doubled up as an employment agent, bringing in boys from his village to work in Delhi.

"You will have to listen to us and do as we say, do you understand? We don't want any trouble," added Sheela's mother-in-law. The children and almost everyone else called her Dadi, or grandmother.

Bahadur nodded again.

"If there is anything, you tell me, dadiji. He is my responsibility," said Narender.

The arrangement was that the boy would stay with them and help with all and sundry household chores under Sheela's grumbling tutelage, in return for food, lodging and a salary of one thousand rupees per month. The cash would be handed over to Narender, who would send nine hundred rupees to Bahadur's family and keep the remaining for the boy. Bahadur was, in all likelihood, not his real name. But it was what most Nepali boys were called and settled on everyone's tongues naturally. He was given a small mattress and a triangular space under the staircase to call his own.

Bahadur settled in quietly. He swept and mopped the floors, dusted, washed dishes and cleaned bathrooms on alternate days. He listened to Sheela's incessant instructions silently and surprised her with his tenacity to follow them. Sheela belonged to the tribe that had committed its life at the altar of the gears of domestic life. She lived a state of permanent displeasure, wallowing in the sweet pain of being crushed by the wheels, big and small. So much so that if sometimes things ran smoothly, it upset her delicately balanced world.

Soon Bahadur learnt that she was incapable of rising out of bed in the morning before downing a cup of tea. Within a week, he learnt how to make her tea and pack school lunches for the children, Tina and Sahil, and absolved her of having to wake up early in the mornings. The extra sleep suited her. Mornings became a shade quieter, her bickerings with life content to simmer on a low flame for a few hours, coming to a boil only around noon. 

Her husband, Mr. Sharma, was a ghost member of the family. He ran a successful and growing car dealership and made an appearance at home mainly at dinnertimes. He suffered from high blood sugar, and so long as he got his food on time, he preferred not to get involved in the day-to-day running of the house.

Bahadur also figured out Dadi enjoyed getting her legs and feet massaged before retiring for the night. She called upon her two grandchildren on alternate days for the "opportunity to deposit credit in their pool of karma" in the earnest belief of payback sometime in the future. They however, believed in more immediate gratification. They negotiated for stories in return, but their flimsy massages lasted only as long as the stories did.

One night, after Sahil had run to his room, leaving Dadi dissatisfied with her massage as well as her progeny, Bahadur offered to do it. She grunted him permission. He kneaded her ample thighs, putting his weight behind every press of his hands and stopped only when he heard her snoring softly.

He did all this without a sound. Sheela could not tell whether he was happy to be in their house or not. The only time he smiled was when he played with Tina. Tina was eight years old, and he indulged her like a younger sister. After she returned from school, they played doll games. He cut a Marie biscuit into four exactly equal quarters and served her doll family in the miniature tea set. He gently convinced her to take off the supporting wheels from her bicycle. He started waking up even earlier so that he had time to braid her hair for school. He oiled her hair slightly and tied it into two tight pigtails which stayed firmly in place even after a full day in school. The first day that he made them, Dadi immediately asked Tina, "Who did your hair?  The parting is so straight and sharp, it can cut your eyes just to look at it."

Tina told her and Dadi asked Bahadur, "Where did you learn this?

"My elder sister taught me." He ran to his room and came back with a photograph. It was a grainy coloured picture of his family standing in front of the pyramids, clearly shot in a studio. His parents and a teenage girl stood while Bahadur and two younger girls sat on a bench in front.

"What are their names?"

"Rani, Tara and Diti. I had a little brother, too. But he died when he was three months old. His name was Khem."

"What happened to him?" Tina asked.

"He got very high fever and started vomiting. He died before my father could bring the doctor home."

Everyone was silent. "A week later, a neighbour brought a baby rabbit to us. We kept him and called him Khemu."

"Is he still there?"

"No. After a few months, he ran away," he replied matter-of-factly and went back into the kitchen.

The only person who resented Bahadur's presence in the house was Sahil. Sahil was thirteen. Between his books and cricket, he had little time for anything or anyone else. Recently, he had been introduced to the vicious pleasure of tobacco by his friends. He and Tina shared a room on the first floor that opened into a small balcony facing the main gate of the house. Sahil was in the habit of studying in the dead of the night, in a dark room under the light of his study lamp, while Tina slept. That was also the time when he sneaked out to the balcony for a puff. In the morning, he picked up the butt and burnt matchstick from the garden before getting into his bus. Tina caught him red-handed one night when she was roused from sleep by the opening of the balcony door. He promised to stop soon and some kind of sisterly loyalty held her from telling their mother. A few days after Bahadur arrived, Sahil realised that someone was clearing away the droppings of his crimes for him. Rather than grateful, this made him bitter, like he had lost a battle even before he had agreed to fight it. He generally ignored Bahadur's presence in the house, and whenever he was compelled to speak to him, he was rude.

One evening after dinner, Sahil was in a state panic. He had forgotten about a craft project that he had to submit in school the next day. Bahadur came to their room to drop off their ironed uniforms and found Sahil rummaging through his drawers for anything that might even remotely qualify for submission.

"What are you looking for?" he asked.

"What is it to you? Go do your work." Sahil barked.

"He is looking for the coloured glazed paper. We can make some origami out of it."

"What needs to be made?"

"Anything. Just something I can submit tomorrow. I just need the grade, there are no marks for craft," he said, slumping on his bed.

"Shall I make something?"

Sahil dismissed Bahadur and his offer with a sideways jerk of his head. But Tina took him up on it and together they sprinted down the stairs to his triangular abode. They collected old copies of the glossy India Today and Femina. Bahadur carefully selected the coloured pages and cut out petals of different shapes. His fingers danced nimbly and turned these into a rose, a marigold, a poppy and a special purple flower that Tina had not seen before.

"This is called makhmali," he said beaming. "It stays alive for weeks even after it has been plucked." He tied the flowers to pieces of wire and tied them together with a twine and presented the colourful bouquet to Tina.

"In our village, sisters give it to brothers, for long life."

"You give it to him," she said.

He shook his head and gently pushed her out. "Sleep quickly, it is very late." 

Narender visited them at the end of every month to collect his and Bahadur's salary. Sometimes they used to stand at the iron gate of the house and chat. Narender was one of the oldest Nepalis in the area and was well-connected. Whenever someone arrived from their village, he would visit Bahadur and fill him in on the latest news. Sometimes he brought clothes for the boy, a well-used pair of jeans or t-shirts, that he received from his other patrons in the colony.

It went on like this for over a year. One day, Narender came for his monthly visits, accompanied by another boy. Sheela gave him the salaries at the gate and went inside, while Bahadur stayed at the gate. The three spoke for almost an hour. When Bahadur came inside the house, his face looked hard and his eyes angry. He went about his work in silence.

"What did Narender say? Is everything alright?"

"Ji," he nodded.

"Who is that other boy? Do you know him?"

"Ji."

"Everyone is OK at home?"

"Ji."

Empathy did not come easily to Sheela. She had already overextended herself by asking three times, and Bahadur's monosyllabic responses and stoic silence pricked her composure.

"Ji, ji, ji! Why this face if there is no problem? If you are not happy here, you are free to leave. I will not have a black face roaming around in my house," she screamed, decibels rising with every word.

Bahadur gave a little nod and continued with his work.

Dadi waddled out of her room to see what the commotion was about. "What is the matter?"

"As if my own family is not enough, I have to put up with tantrums of servants also."

"I am sure he has had some news from home. Give him some time to digest it," she said.

Bahadur went about his work as usual. Every evening, he went to the local market to purchase milk, fresh vegetables and other things that the house had run out of. He had been given Sahil's old bicycle for running errands. Sometimes Tina used to go with him on the cycle. It had neither a carrier nor a passenger seat, but she was content on sit sideways on the bar between the handle and the seat, balancing her bony frame with ease. Over the next few days, the incident about the visitor was forgotten.

It was on one evening nearly a week later, that Bahadur went to the market and did not return. When he did not show up after an hour, Sheela's mercury started rising.

"Be nice to them and this is how they repay you," she grumbled.

Dadi and Tina were more concerned about his well-being. "I hope to God nothing untoward has happened," Dadi said. She called Sahil to come down from his room into the living room.

"Have you seen Bahadur anywhere?" she asked.

Sahil did an exaggerated visual survey of the room, shook his head and laughed at his own joke.

"This is not the time to be cheeky. Go look for Bahadur in the market and bring him home."

"I don't have time for all this. If he has gone, it is all for the better."

"What is your problem with him?" Tina asked.

"All he does is butter up you all," Sahil replied.

"Enough talk. Do as Dadi says," Sheela said with a note a finality.

"Fine," he said and bounded up the stairs, ascending two at a time, to put on his shoes.

"Can I come with you?" Tina called after him. 

Within a minute, he was back. Tina spotted a rectangular bulge in his pocket as he left the house and realised that to Sahil, this was merely an opportunity to have a puff in some corner outside. He pretended not to hear her question, but she already knew there was no room for her on that bicycle. He came back in ten minutes, alone, chewing a tell-tale chewing gum. He had left word with another chowkidar to send Narender to their house when he came for duty that evening.

Narender showed up around half past seven. He looked sad but not surprised.

"What can we do, memsaab," he said. "He did not say anything to me."

"What am I going to do now?" Sheela said, her hands on her waist.

Narender knew Sheela's worry was less about the missing ten-year-old boy and more about the hole he left in her life.

"There is another boy that I can give you. I will bring him tomorrow morning, you can talk to him."

The next morning was Sunday, and everyone was at home when Narender rang the doorbell. He had with him the same boy who had come the week before.  His name was Nirmal and he was about fifteen years old. When he stood, he leant backwards, and his walk had a swagger. He surveyed the room with an eye of one who is getting back something owed to him. He spoke cheerily.

"Can you make rotis?" she asked him.

"Not roti, but I can make samosas."

Sahil's face lit up at the mention of samosas, and the boy noticed.

"Once I fried one hundred and fifty samosas in a day. For a wedding," he continued, grinning at Sahil. There was a little gap between his two front teeth that gave him a look of someone who knew things. Sheela could not make up her mind as to whether he was stretching the truth to impress her or plain pulling her leg.

"Is he from your village?" Sheela asked Narender.

"Ji."

"Did you know Bahadur?" Tina chimed in.

"Oh yes. I know his family very well. They work on our land."

"Have you worked in a house before?"

"No, memsaab. I just arrived last week."

"Is everything fine with his family?" Dadi asked.

"Very fine. His sister got married last month."

"To whom?" Tina asked. The answer would not mean anything to her, but she was hungry for any information related to Bahadur.

"To me!"

"Narender, if he does any hanky-panky, you will be responsible," Dadi said, sternly.

"Ji," he replied.

With that, Sheela took her new helper inside.

Like Bahadur, Nirmal too was quick to learn the fault lines in the members of the Sharma family. But while Bahadur had worked to fill these hollow spaces with his dedication and goodwill, making them whole, Nirmal saw them as crevices to wedge his foot and climb up the rungs of the world.

While Bahadur had diligently served Mr. Sharma's tea with two tablets of Sugarfree on the side, Nirmal wormed into his diabetic heart by adding a spoon of sugar.

He was good with any kind ball game and gave a solid cricket practice to Sahil, who seemed to have finally found one worthy ally in the house.

Tina went back to Dadi for her hair in the morning. "Why, Nirmal doesn't know how to do it?"

"He is a bit strange."

"Meaning?"

"The way he looks at me is strange."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. As if he is seeing something that I can't see. Anyway, he is always busy with Sahil."

It had been three days since Bahadur disappeared. Tina was swinging on the iron gate in the afternoon, looking out the street when a stray dog walked up to her. He had light brown eyes like Bahadur's, that looked straight into hers. Tina stared at him in a stupor. The dog gave a half nod and walked away. Their lane had many stray dogs, but she was sure she had never seen that one before. That night at dinner she asked her father if there was any news of Bahadur.

"Nah," he said, dismissing the possibility. "I have filed a missing person's report, but the police don't care who comes and goes." Sheela was making fresh rotis in the kitchen, and Nirmal was ferrying them to the dining area one by one, as they were ready.

"But what if something bad happened to him?" Tina asked.

"Nothing will happen," said Mr. Sharma.

"What if he is dead?" she asked, as Nirmal placed a roti in her father's plate and went back for the next one.

"Shouldn't we write to his family?"

"Let Narender do all that. He is gone, let him go. How is the new one?" he asked Dadi in a hushed tone, looking over his shoulder to make sure Nirmal was out of earshot.

"More smart than needed."

"Whatever you may say, his tea is excellent. Much better than the previous one's."

The next afternoon, Tina waited at the gate with a slice of bread for the new dog to show up. She cut it into four quarters as neatly as she could and put it on the pavement. The dog examined the pieces and ate three that were perfect squares. The fourth one had an irregular edge. He looked at Tina and walked away, leaving the last piece untouched. Tina felt the full force of this gentle, silent reprimand for her shabby craftsmanship. She was convinced that Bahadur was dead and had come back as a dog. Another dog, who had been waiting at a distance, strolled over and partook the leftover bread. That night, she lay in her bed with her eyes closed, but unable to sleep. It was past ten and everyone else was already asleep, except Sahil, who sat at his desk, studying. She heard a gentle tap on the door. Through the slits of her eyes, she saw Sahil look at her to check if she was asleep, open the door and let the late night visitor in. From under his almirah, he dug out something, and she saw him and Nirmal go into the balcony. They returned shortly, bringing with them the familiar sick, burnt smell. Nirmal left the room straightaway, and Sahil went to brush his teeth and eliminate evidence. That night, Tina felt too weak to sit up and counsel him and drifted into sleep.

When the month ended, Narender came over to collect his own and Nirmal's salary. He said to Sheela, "From next month, you can give his salary in his hands."

"Why?! He is a young boy. He will spend it all."

"I can't do anything about it, memsaab. It is to be like this," he said and went to Dadi, who was reading the newspaper on the patio.

"Any news of Bahadur?"

"People in the village are facing some problems, dadiji. Some of the boys from our village who work in Kathmandu were injured in some fight with the police. Some people want to remove the king."

"Hmmm. Chalo, it is good that you are here, it doesn't affect you," said Sheela.

"Everything effects everybody, memsaab."

A few days later, Sahil's new Casio watch went missing. Sheela was livid. She brought the house down screaming at Sahil for his carelessness. They turned everything over looking for it. Nirmal looked the hardest, went through every nook and corner, but he too came back empty handed.

Sahil became a quiet person. He spent more time sitting around with the family, although he was still aloof and hardly spoke. The nightly escapades to smoke ended abruptly. His cricket became infrequent, too. One day he surprised everyone by cleaning up his almirah without being asked to. He took out two almost new t-shirts and asked Sheela to give it to someone as he had outgrown them. Nirmal took them with a look that was closer to approval than gratitude.

One afternoon when they returned from school, they found Narender in conversation with Sheela and Dadi. He was going back to his village in a month.

"I hope the Resident' Association finds a replacement before you go," said Sheela.

"Why don't you get some one? There must be someone, some cousin, nephew, neighbour?" Dadi asked.

"No dadiji, no more of that for me."

"But why are you going?" Tina asked.

"My son wrote to me, babyji. For the first time in twenty years. The landlords have reduced wages for the farmers. Riots are happening in the nearby villages. My family are scared. I need to be there with them in this hour."

Narender had been a part of Tina's life ever since she came to her senses. It surprised her to learn that he belonged to another world.

"This āune-jāne is a part of life, babyji. We come and go."

"Will you meet Bahadur?"

"But Bahadur is dead, isn't he?" They had not realised when Nirmal had come into the room.

"Why don't you do your own work," Sahil spoke up, to everyone's surprise. Nirmal glared at him. He was smart and knew that Narender's departure meant he was on his own in this house.

"Nirmal, do you want to send some money home with Narender?" Dadi asked.

"Why should I? I didn't come here to support them. I just came to see the world.  Anyway, looks like they are saving quite a bit if what he says is true," he said, pointing at Narendar and left the room.

"What will we do with this boy if you leave?" Sheela asked.

"Forgive me, memsaab. Do what you think is right," he said, folding his hands in apology.

Sheela felt suddenly exposed. As if someone had yanked away a warm blanket from her on a winter night. She shuddered as her mind went on a freewheel, imagining the day Nirmal would move on, and she would have no one to turn to for a replacement. Her entire being dangled precariously close over a putrid swamp of household drudgery, hanging by a delicate thread that threatened to snap at any moment. She walked around the house like an over-filled balloon ready to burst. Dadi, Tina and even the cocky Nirmal, avoided getting in her way, but Sahil went to her in the living room. He spoke in a hushed tone, but Nirmal could hear him saying that he wanted to tell her something about the missing Casio. Nirmal grew tense and followed him on the pretext of asking Sheela something. But she asked him to come back later and close the door behind him. He knew his time in this house was all but over. Then he saw Tina going over to the gate with a slice of bread. The waves that were about to submerge his world did not so much as make a splash in hers. It rankled him to see her share this moment with Bahadur in his dog avatar. He followed Tina, picked up a stone and threw it at the unsuspecting dog. The dog yelped in pain and surprise and ran away.

"How dare you hit Bahadur?" Tina screeched loudly.

"It is a dog," he replied.

"You hit him," she said.

"I did not hit Bahadur. I am the one who came to his rescue when his family was dying of starvation. Do you know how much his father owed my father? Twenty-seven thousand rupees! Even if he worked here for his whole life, he would not be able to repay the loan. It was I who offered to marry his elder sister in return for waiving the loan. He is a free man now."

"So he is alive? Where is he? Tell me now." Tina demanded.

"I don't know, but he must be enjoying life where he is. And he must be thanking me."

"He would have never wanted his sister to get married to someone like you," Tina said in anger and ran towards him. He ducked and Tina fell onto the grass, grazing her elbow. Her hair had come undone and covered most of her face. Nirmal laughed softly at her sight.

Sheela and Sahil arrived. "What is going on? Look at yourself. Go get cleaned up. And for God's sake do something about your hair."

"How will this princess do it? How about I do your hair for you," Nirmal said, leerily. 

"That's enough from you," Sheela ordered.

Angry tears rolled down Tina's face. She looked accusingly at Sahil as she walked past him. He quietly followed her into Dadi's room.

Sahil sat on the edge of her bed while Tina gave a teary account of what had transpired. Dadi braided her hair and this calmed her down. Then she got up and pulled out a square box from her almirah.

"Sahil, this evening, I want you to find Narender and give this to him. Tell him it is for Bahadur."

"What is it?"

"It is a watch. It came free with the refrigerator last year. I was saving it for the boy."

"But why? You never liked him."

"Oh, I did. And he knew it. Do you know where Narender lives?"

"Yah, somewhere in those shanties behind the hospital. I'll ask around."

"I also want to send something for Bahadur," Tina said in a tired voice.

"Bring it," Sahil said.

She did not have a gift saved up like Dadi. She went through her belongings and came across the miniature tea set that she and Bahadur had played with so many times. She put in a plastic bag, along with a piece of paper on which she wrote: "For your sister Diti".

She handed it to Sahil.

"Come with me, let's find him together," he said. "Can you sit on the bar?"

 

 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2017
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.