|The second step|
With a start, Kasturi Lal Brahman realised it was time for Ramayana to be telecast on Londonís Indian channel. He reached for the television remote on the headboard of the bed. But when he pressed the button, a BBC channel appeared on the screen. He pressed the button again, but the channel stayed put. A few days back, the mechanic had explained to him that whenever he tuned a channel, he needed to press the memory button to set it, but he always forgets. Never mind the television memory button, he seems to have forgotten the button of his own memory. It is years since his wife died but even now, when he finds his shirt missing a button, he calls out for her. As though she were still standing there at the kitchen sink, doing the dishes.
"Look, my button is gone."
"May the buttons of your enemies be gone!" Lilavati piled every problem that faced her husband, no matter how small, onto the ledger of his enemies. "Come, I shall sew a new button onto your shirt."
But now it is Mrs Wood, not Lilavati, who stands at the kitchen sink, doing the dishes. She laughs and says, "Iíve told you so many times not to talk to me in Hindustani."
"Which language should I speak in, Mrs Wood? You donít seem to understand my English either."
"Well, I understand some of it."
Three or four years earlier, Kasturi Lal Brahmanís only child, Amritt Lal Bremen, along with his memsahib and her two children from her first marriage, had moved out. On his sonís advice, he had rented out the spare bedroom of his flat to Mrs Wood. The middle-aged Mrs Wood and old Mr Brahman had drawn so close to each other in the past few months that Mrs Wood had begun to feel that he was as helpless as her own husband had been. Out of affection and compassion, she began to cook for him. And he, too, quite forgot to ask Mrs Wood for the rent. If the thought happened to cross his mind, he would be incredulous: Ask Mrs Wood for the rent? His own Mrs Wood?
"Mrs Wood, your cooking is good and wholesome," Brahman often said half in jest, "but it is somewhat bland."
"My Jekyll liked spicy food too." Mrs Wood always referred to her late husband like this. "So he was happy to manage the kitchen. But you find it difficult even to lay out the tea things when I get home from work."
"In truth, our women spoil us, Mrs Wood."
But the truth is, whenever Brahmanís late wife had asked him to help her out in the kitchen, he had bluntly retorted that housework was her job and if she were to go out and earn a living, he would happily become her wife and work in the kitchen. Now, of course, he has retired and is alone at home all day. Mrs Wood, on the other hand, goes to work. Then he laughs ó Mrs Wood is not his wife, after all. She is, she isÖ he finds it difficult to tell himself that she is just a tenant. The thought shames him. "How can I ask for the rent from my own Mrs Wood?"
The BBC programme continues on the TV. A few English speakers are in such animated discussion on the British Way of Life that they seem to be trying to convince themselves, rather than the invisible audience.
Brahman has spent a lifetime in London, but he has always felt that the English do not really think of him as human ó merely something resembling a human being. He, too, has always felt that the English are not an authentic people, but only project a certain image of themselves. All except for Mrs Wood. She is different. He could see the sweet berries of his childhood, left behind in his village in north India, clustered on her wrinkled face.
Kasturi Lal Brahmanís village was popularly known as the Ber wala Gaon ó the Village of Berries. Even the blessings and curses of the old folk looked to the ber for a metaphor: "May your ber be evergreen!" Or, "May your ber tree dry up.í From every courtyard, the branches of the ber trees rose over the mud walls and swung down into the neighboursí houses. Children swung from branch to branch to get into their friendsí homes. In fact, they used the front door so infrequently that when they did, their mothers were disconcerted. "Hai, the water in the pond is so high now. Curse them, they may have gone that way!"
When he was a boy, Kasturiís mother had made sure that he did not go near the pond for fear that he would drown. Then she proudly saw him grow into a tall lad who need never fear of drowning in a mere village pond. She had no idea that one day he would grow so tall that heíd drown himself in the ocean. He left home with a friend and travelled to landís end in search of work. And when he couldnít find it even in Bombay, he unhesitatingly waded into the sea. His old friend Rahamatullah, who was in London, had assured him work if he gathered the courage to travel to English shores. "Whatever will be will be," Kasturi told himself and plunged into the deep. When he touched the shore and found his footing on firm, dry land, he decided to send for his bride Lilavati and his son Amriti ó Amrit Lal, who was born after he left home ó as well as his old parents. They would live together in England.
Lilavati and Amriti did come but for his ageing parents, London was a faraway fairyland. So they sent him blessings without number and lay themselves down beneath the wilting ber trees in their courtyard, waiting for death. It may be hard to believe but when, a few months after their daughter-in-law and grandson left home, they died within days of each other, Kasturi not only saw their shadows in his rented flat but even heard them coughing.
Kasturi Lal Brahman sat on his bed, his head bent low, as an agitated Englishman asked the other participants, "Which British way of life are you talking about? Are you talking about the way of life that has already been driven off the streets by hordes of Africans and Asians and now finds refuge only in the home?"
Usually, Brahman just laughs away his anger. What a strange nation! When he had come here forty-five or fifty years ago, these people had been singing the very same tune. Come now, how is the British way of life threatened by us? May it blossom and flourish ó we have no quarrel with it. We have drifted to your shores in search of work. Our forefathers worked for you in our country and now we work for you in your country. He smiled to himself. Why donít you understand this? When our stomachs are full, we open our mouths only to thank you in our bad English. And then we get carried away and babble so much that you smell danger to your British way of life.
At the table, Brahman often gets so involved in trying to convince Mrs Wood of the serene and tolerant nature of his community that he neglects his food. Mrs Wood feels sorry for him. "Donít talk while youíre eating, Kasturi. Never mind all this. Eat up."
"One does not use oneís mouth only to eat, Annie." They call each other by their first names these days. "A man must fulfil his need for conversation too, or he would grow as thin as a reed."
In his final undergraduate year, Kasturi Lal Brahman had won a gold medal in the oratory contest, and he had mentioned this fact in every job application that he made out in India. And the job always went to someone else. Thanks to Rahamatullah, he had found a toehold in England. Before every interview, Rahamatullah had told him not to talk big, but only to state what was strictly necessary. And so, at his third or fourth interview, he landed the job of a junior assistant cashier in a bank. Years later, he retired respectably as a cashier. And now he lives happily on his pension and his social security, in his own flat.
But is this happiness?
Joginder Paul is one of the most captivating innovators in contemporary Urdu fiction.
He lives in Delh