Manu stared at his wife of three weeks. “Are you crazy?” Sejal refused to be cowed down. “If you don’t believe me, come home in the afternoon and see for yourself.” Manu smote his forehead and looked heavenwards for help. They were standing at the bus stop. Luckily, at this time of day, there weren’t too many people around.
He spoke clearly and slowly, as if speaking to one of his particularly slow students. “Are you trying to tell me that my mother… Maniben Parekh, who’s 62 years old, who’s been a widow for the last 30 years and who hasn’t stepped out of the house for God knows how many years, is entertaining a man in the house every afternoon?”
Manu shook his head in disbelief at his wife’s wiles. “Look, Sejal,” he tried to reason with her, “I told you that we would go on a honeymoon as soon as I can afford it.”
“He calls her Bibijaan. Every Thursday afternoon, she makes sheer kurma. And she doesn’t give me any.”
“You mean he’s a…?”
A triumphant Sejal hefted her bag and leaned more assuredly against the railing. She knew she had her husband’s attention now. Manu, the young and promising secretary of the Gujarat Yuvak Bajrang Dal, looked like he had been whacked across the face with a folded parasol.
“You aren’t joking?” Manu’s voice was weak and hoarse, but hopeful. Sejal shook her head and was about to reveal some more details about his mother’s afternoon escapades when Manu stopped her with a desperate gesture. He looked around for a quiet place to sit down. He needed to think. By himself. Without Sejal’s smirking face crowding his thoughts.
Manu Parekh taught ninth standard elementary physics at the Shishugriha Vidyalaya in Ahmedabad. Not a particularly bright young man, he was nevertheless a reasonably popular teacher. His neatly parted black hair, ascetic features and polite voice never failed to make an impression on the parents of his students. And this was also why they sent their children to him for ‘tuition’, and not to the gruff, pock-marked and impatient Joshi Sir.
Joshi was far more intelligent and a much better teacher, but it was Manu who made the extra 400 rupees every month. Teaching Boyle’s Law and Archimedes’ Principle to coy, simpering 13-year-olds who giggled at everything he said, even as his mother frowned at them from behind the kitchen door.
Manu’s mother frowned at everything. She frowned while lighting the lamp in front of her dead husband’s photograph every evening. She frowned at the milkman who always managed to spill a few drops outside the door. She frowned at the neighbour’s children who ran up and down the corridor, rattling the shaky window frames with their fingers.
So when Manu walked into the house on the evening of March 3, 2002, carrying a largish brown box, she looked at his feet and frowned.
“Your chappal is broken. Why didn’t you get it mended on the way?”
“Huh? Oh, yes.” Manu looked around for a place to put down the box. His mother, still frowning, cleared away her sewing and watched impassively as her son pulled up the cardboard flaps, lifted out a television set and put it on the bed.
She peered at it for some time and then shuffled into the kitchen to look to her kadi. That night, as she gathered the washing, she noticed that the brown shirt Manu had been wearing that day had a long, black, sooty smear down the left sleeve. It came off on her thumb, and she frowned.
The next day, the milkman did not come. Manu stayed home. So did a lot of people from the chawl. There was much whispering in the corridors, punctuated by bursts of raucous laughter. Young boys would suddenly run out of the chawl and just as suddenly rush back in. A blackboard with some digits had been put up on the ground floor. And the numbers kept rising through the day.
Every now and then, Manu’s friends from the chawl dropped in to see the television set. As his mother watched disapprovingly, they nudged and backslapped Manu, who revelled in their admiration. After Manu had gone out with his friends, his mother finally mustered up enough courage to switch on the TV set.
The screen flickered for a few seconds and then the face of an old Muslim man about the same age as Manu’s mother filled the screen. He was in the traditional Muslim cap and was weeping bitterly.
Manu’s mother frowned and tried to change the channel. But the Muslim fellow wouldn’t go away. A little perturbed, but not too much, Manu’s mother switched the TV off and went into the kitchen to cook. When she switched the TV on again in the afternoon, the Muslim man was still there, crying. She sat down on the bed, puzzled.
After a while, the man stopped weeping and looked up. “I’m thirsty. Can you give me a glass of water?”
Manu’s mother simply stared at him. He burst into tears again, mumbling incoherently about ingrates who took TV sets from his shop but denied him water. Manu’s mother got up, closed the two windows that opened into the corridor and then handed him water in the cup she reserved for Damu, the chawl’s odd-jobs man.
When the man handed back the cup with some water still in it, Manu’s mother pursed her lips. “Drink it up. I don’t like to waste water.”
“Sorry,” the man said with streaming eyes, “I always left some for Nafisa. She insisted on drinking water from my glass… My granddaughter. Nafisa. She was five. I had taken her along to my shop. Ya Allah, will He ever forgive me?” And he started crying again.
Manu’s mother frowned.
“You cry too much for a man.”
“Bibijaan, you would cry too if you had seen what they did. They came with lists and kerosene cans. I begged and pleaded, but they destroyed my TV shop, looted it, then locked Nafisa and me in the back room and set us on fire. I screamed. How I begged, ‘Let my grandchild go. Take everything, but let her go.’ But they only laughed. And Bibijaan, they even fought with each other over who would take the bigger TV sets.”
Manu’s mother was silent. Then she said: “Don’t call me Bibijaan.”
The man wiped his runny nose on his sleeve.
“OK, I won’t.”
In the evening, as usual, Manu came back and watched the news, MTV and a bit of Star Plus.
The next day, after he had left with his friends, Manu’s mother switched on the TV set. The Muslim man was reading the Quran. “Salaam Walekum. Shall I read it out loud?”
Manu’s mother frowned.
“OK, OK,” the man said quickly. “I won’t. Don’t switch it off.”
There was an awkward silence. To fill it up, the man leaned forward and cleared his throat.
“Shall I tell you about my family, then? How my forefathers settled down in Porbandar and started their business…”
Manu’s mother was intrigued. Her parents were also from Porbandar. She had grown up there. She had spent a happy, idyllic fourteen years there before coming to Ahmedabad to stay with Manu’s father’s family. She had never liked Ahmedabad. Not then, not now. These days, standing in her dark kitchen, she found herself thinking more and more about her maternal home in Porbandar. The open courtyard. The crooked neem tree. The swing made from her grandmother’s blue and pink checked godadi.
p. 1 p. 2
Shilpa Paralkar worked briefly in advertising. Originally from Bombay, she now lives in Bangalore.
This is her first published story (2003)