|The second step 2|
The day he retired from the bank, Lilavati developed a severe pain in the chest, which could not be controlled despite every effort. She had lung cancer. It was terminal, and there wasnít much to do but pray.
"Didnít your wife complain of pain in the past year or two?" The doctor was puzzled, for the disease must have taken hold long ago.
"Oh! She would almost die if any of us had even a minor ailment but in her ownÖ"
The English doctor cut him short: "Everyone dies of their own ailments, Mister, not anotherís. Iím sorry, but donít make a pious confusion!"
The truth was that Brahman had been very indecisive before Lilavatiís cancer was finally detected. Sometimes, he would find her smiling through a mist of pain, and he would be worried. But he would shake his head the very next moment, dismiss it as an imaginary anxiety, and start telling her yet again about his day at the bank.
Towards the end, Brahman brought his wife home from the hospital. Lilavati was on sedatives and when the pain became unbearable, she was given an injection of pethidrine to help her sleep. All the while, Brahmanís motherís shade walked around the flat. Lilavati was always either asleep or drugged and he sat at the foot of her bed, his eyes brimming over with tears. And a hand would emerge from his motherís shade to stroke his back and he could hear her voice, "Be patient, Kasturi, my son, all will be well."
All did get well and his ever-smiling Lilavati passed in her stupor through the torment of pain to the far shore. And her son? Well, that was another story.
When her body was taken to the crematorium, a Pakistani friend of his sat beside the African driver of the van, while Brahman sat in the back with the corpse. The van started with a jerk and sped away, and no one in the neighbourhood even got to know that someone had died. If they did, they might have said, "His wife had cancer, but the old man did not bother to get her treated in time. They seem to be like us, but they are not. Come, why should we bother about them?"
In the discussion on the BBC channel, a speaker was telling other participants precisely this ó that they should try and understand black and yellow folks in the light of their black and yellow values.
"But the fundamental human values are universal." The speakerís accent was foreign. Definitely European.
"They arenít! Ask an anthropologist and heíll tell you so."
"Well, I actually teach anthropology at one of your universities."
Bored with the discussion, Brahman wonders if, since he got the BBC when he pressed the button for the Indian channel, he might get the Indian channel on the BBC button. But no, it is the BBC all over again ó the very same discussion. Looking at the white faces of the participants, Brahman recalls Lilavatiís words: "Why have you brought me into the midst of these foreigners. They all look alike. You mistake one for the other." Brahman relished his wifeís observations as much as he did her cooking.
"Do you know why these foreigners look so white and cold?"
"Because they only think. They do not feel. If they were to feel, they would ripen and go brown like us, and then they would not all look alike. I went over to offer my sympathies to the woman whose daughter had eloped. Big mistake. You know what she did? She blocked her doorway and asked me, whom did I want to meet? How can one ever get to know so cold a race?"
But whatís the point? Brahman sighs. After all, even those who know each other intimately do not remain together forever, do they?
As junior assistant cashier, he counted currency notes in the bank all day and got home late. Overtime meant double wages, so he did not quite mind. But he was tired and even as his wife was telling him about her day, she would find him snoring. It exasperated her, but she liked to imagine that he listened to her even in his sleep. Sometimes, sheíd angrily shake him awake and he would repeat the whole story as though he had actually heard it. She would laugh and say, "All right. Youíve come home tired tonight, but after you retire you will have to sit right there in front of me, day and night, listening to my stories."
Brahman loved Lilavati most for her patter. He had carefully stashed away his days of retirement, just as he stacked bankrolls of the British sterling all day, in separate wads of months and years. Treasured in his heart and soul, they were to be filled out with Lilavatiís stories. But now she was gone and he did not know how to spend his lifeís savings. Who would he spend them on?
On his son Amritt Lal Bremen? Bremen had added a final Ďtí to his first name and Europeanised the last. As a baby, he had been round and luscious like the amriti sweet, and so he was called Amriti. Cute, chubby and cuddly, everyone just had to reach out to pat his cheeks. He had come to London in his motherís lap. Brahman was thrilled when he took his bonnie baby in his arms but felt guilty for having snatched his sweet Amriti from the home of his grandparents, leaving them with only their memories as they slowly drifted into sleep beneath their withered ber tree.
Not only did Amriti look English, he began to laugh and weep in English while still in his cradle. When he joined pre-school around the age of four, British children followed him in reciting Twinkle, twinkle little star, as though they were learning their own language from him. His mother was forever kissing and cuddling him. And gazing adoringly at him, his cashier father stashed thousands of bankrolls in his heart and locked them away.
But you canít hold on to fleeting moments of happiness for a lifetime. Within a few years the British son of Indian parents grew up and went to university as Amritt Lal Bremen. And he began to find his parents a bit strange. For instance, there were his fatherís regular bouts of obsessive behaviour, when he searched all of London for those Indian berries called ber. "No, Dad, no! I can no longer stand your Indianness."
Kasturi Lal Brahmanís mother strokes her ageing sonís bent back with trembling, shadowy hands and reassures him. Suddenly, a loud voice from the BBC show snaps him out of his reverie and brings him back to the present. An elderly Englishman is saying, "You shouldnít feel threatened by the growing population of Asians and Africans; youíre quarrelling needlesslyÖ"
"Everything will be all right. Their children have been born here, and they have been brought up here. They have no choice but to move away from their parentsí alien way of lifeÖ"
Joginder Paul is one of the most captivating innovators in contemporary Urdu fiction.
He lives in Delh