THE man’s nostrils quivered, blasted by stench. As soon as he alighted from the bus, his nose collided with the smell, while his eyes met the form of a man lying naked in the distance. Was there a relationship between the two? He thought about it for a moment, but it was hard to make a connection because the odour—whether of rotting flesh or soured milk—was coming from the opposite direction.
The bus stand was quite deserted. The wind was exceedingly cold; the man shivered despite his warm coat. Of their own, his hands sought out the warmth of his trouser pockets, only to quickly re-emerge to tighten his rust-coloured muffler. Romila had insisted on wrapping it around his neck as he left, the same way she sometimes put her arms lovingly around him. His conscience stirred, and he wondered why he was always in a fault-finding mood with her. It depressed him.
He wanted to wrap the muffler around his ears—it would surely have brought him some relief—but he couldn’t. People who wore mufflers around their ears were looked down on in the city; he would be jeered at with shouts of “Hey Bihari! Oye Bihari!”, which was yet another way of making people feel inferior. He preferred suffering the piercing wind to being branded a muffler-bundled Bihari.
It was well past nine in the morning, but because of the heavy fog, it seemed like night was gathering. The sun’s rays could not penetrate the dense fog. There was just enough illumination to see as far as one’s hands, but it was a drowsy light, not a lively one. A damp gleam was settling in all directions as though a big furry brown cat had stretched itself out.
There were only a few days left for spring, but this year the winter had shown no sign of relenting. All the newspapers and TV channels said the cold this season had broken a thirty-year record—the Meteorological Department’s forecast had been proved wrong once again—and, interspersed with dispirited offerings of “chewing-gum news”, the channels were packed with ads for various national and international products to keep you from the cold. In one, a slender, beautiful girl hides her boyfriend from her father in a large fridge, where he is discovered happily eating ice cream. The cold doesn’t bother him in the least because he wears the thermal undergarments the advertiser is promoting. A rival manufacturer shows how a young girl’s devotion to a flabby old man causes his youthful nephew much heartache, upon which the man vainly and indecently leers that it is an “inside” matter. A tonic advertisement features honeymooners raving about a saffron-containing product and the “heat” it generates. This is a man’s world, where women are treated like objects and men are deluded into believing themselves to be the consumers. In this game, it is hard to know who the product is and who the customer; everyone is stirred around in the same pot.
If he lowered his eyes a bit, they snagged on the naked man again. Was he dead? The question smouldered. He picked up his suitcase and walked in the man’s direction. He stared straight ahead.
“Take a seat, darbar,” a voice broke his reverie.
A man at a roadside tea stall was watching him as he set an aluminium pot on a big stove. The stove was fired up and emitted a low, hissing sound, its flames making the blackened pot even blacker. The wayfarer shifted his attention from the pot with effort, his glance transfixed instead by a big chunk of fresh ginger lying on some greasy sacks near the man’s fat, filthy feet.
Inwardly, he smiled when the shopkeeper called him “darbar”. The man knew that this form of address was reserved for the thakur landlords of the region. Perhaps the shopkeeper had assumed him to be one, going by his tall stature and broad frame. Or was it his thick moustache? Or perhaps it was a marketing strategy to flatter potential customers. But then why would a customer be gratified at being called “darbar”?
“Tea,” said the traveller, surprising himself. Given how filthy the place was, how could he drink tea here? His own voice sounded alien to him. At home, he upbraided Romila for kneading dough without washing her hands after closing the bathroom door—a comparatively small matter. Romila’s retort was that she had already washed her hands with soap in the bathroom washbasin, so why the fuss?
“You don’t care for hygiene!” he would shout to cover his discomfiture. “And you’re obsessed with cleanliness!” she would squawk like a chicken in a coop.
The shopkeeper crushed some ginger and put it in the black water seething in the even blacker pot.
“I shouldn’t watch this,” he thought and looked in the other direction. After all, he wanted to drink tea. Having taught for ten years at a famous university in the metropolis, he had acquired a special kind of pride and refinement. A short distance away from this stall was another, and then a third and a fourth, each with small black pots mounted on black stoves.
There were two puppies at the opposite stall that were keeping warm by wrestling each other. This entertained him, and he began to take an interest. The brown puppy, who was a little skinny but extremely feisty, sometimes pulled the white puppy’s ear, or bit his tail, or stuck his teeth into his neck. The white pup was plump and dignified, and had a long mark like a saffron tilak on his forehead. He ran a little distance, whining kuun-kuun ghoon-ghoon , but then he got annoyed, flipped the skinny brown pup over, and stood on him. Some devout soul had tried to erase the difference between the two by putting a saffron tika on the brown puppy’s forehead as well, but it was very light, and you could only see it if you looked hard enough. Across the way, their mother lay dozing.
“Here you are, darbar,” the shopkeeper’s voice penetrated the man’s intense concentration the way a spider enters its web, stalking its prey. When the shopkeeper repeated “Darbar, tea” in a brisk voice, the man turned his attention towards him. The shopkeeper had a dusky, oily face that sported a vermilion tilak. His rotten teeth were stained black by paan masala. The man’s attention moved to the streamers of poisonous paan masala and tobacco packets hanging in the shop.
“This is how the English turned the Chinese into opium addicts.”
“What?” The shopkeeper could make no sense of the man’s utterance.
“Nothing. So, how did you know…” he paused.
“…that… I’m a darbar.” He turned his gaze from the shopkeeper’s face and took a sip.
“Oh, that’s easy, darbar. Seeing your coat and pants, and your commanding presence, anyone would know,” his voice was sycophantic.
“Are you one too?”
“No, not at all.” He was embarrassed. “I’m a mali, darbar, a saini.” His hands were joined as though seeking forgiveness.
The traveller turned his head and started to drink his tea. His attention once again turned towards the roughhousing puppies and their mother, who had now lifted her head and was taking pleasure in her pups’ wrestling.
He recalled the conversation he’d had with his father the night before he left home. “No, even if you repeat it a hundred times, I still won’t accept it… money changes everything… village, city, town… all of it.” He saw his father’s emotional upheaval. “You’re wrong, thinking that we could ever live well without it.” He rubbed his finger and thumb together, signifying hard cash. “Only with forbearance and piety—my foot! Is this so-called piety meant only for us?” He stamped angrily. “All these righteous souls crave worldly possessions, which only come from hard work and are bought with money.”
“Still, be careful, everything is just as it was there… the change that money has wrought is the change you see on rocks in a riverbed.” A father is anyway weakened in the face of a grown-up son. The position of a young, salaried son is like a young lion’s. His father inevitably starts to quietly accept the new order, like an old lion must.
“No, Papa, money changes everything.” His voice was firm.
“Hey, shoo! Get out of here!” The shopkeeper yelled, and the man snapped back to the present. The shopkeeper was chasing the puppies that had slipped under the tables set outside his stall.
“What’s the population of this village?” he looked towards the shopkeeper.
“Which one? There are three villages, that’s why this place is also called Tigaon, Tri-village. One is Vanla ki Dhani, then there is Rajgarh, and the third is Kiratgarh. Which one are you asking about?”
““There are about three thousand houses… there must be about twenty-five thousand people.”
“Twenty-five thousand…” he gaped. “It’s a pretty big village.”
“Yes, darbar, they say that three or four hundred years ago, it was the biggest trading hub of the area… now it’s become a poor village.” The shopkeeper put his hands on his knees and stood up, then stepped down from the stall. He drew a long bamboo pole from under the stall, hung a fat electrical wire on it, and attached it to the government power cable above the stall.
“What is this?” the man laughed.
“Connection…” The shopkeeper simply shrugged his shoulders, came back inside and squatted down as before. He reached for a portable television set lying at the back of the stall, brought it forward, and switched it on. An ad came on with an aged film actress making a living selling a brand of chips.
“Do you have those?” the man asked the shopkeeper, cocking an eyebrow at the screen.
“Which, the chips or the heroine?” the shopkeeper snickered. The man disliked his lascivious joke and laughter.
The shopkeeper read the disapproval in his face. “I have them!” He took down a basket hanging at the back of the stall, in which there were several kinds of chips—Kurkure, Bingo. “Can’t stock everything up front.” The shopkeeper hung the basket on a protruding nail at the entrance to his stall.
“There’s mineral water too,” he gestured towards the bottled waters arranged there and muttered, “Have you come to see the fort?” The shopkeeper was inclined to chat. In this cold, he didn’t have any other customers. The man was the only traveller to get off the bus here.
The shopkeeper’s question went unheard. On the television set, an international channel was now showing pictures of Saddam Hussein. American soldiers had arrested him in a bunker and were interrogating him, forcing him to open his mouth. The channel showed this scene over and over. America was making him an example to the world, issuing a warning of how they would similarly go after anyone who crossed them.
“You’ve come to see the fort, darbar?” The shopkeeper repeated his question.
“No, I’ve come for a wedding.” He took a sip of tea.
“At whose place?” The question got trapped in his eyebrows, the way a fly thrashes about when it is caught in someone’s hair.
“Dharm Singhji’s place.” The man straightened his back.
“Oh, I see, I had no idea there was a wedding at the darbar saheb’s place.” He struck his forehead with his hand theatrically. “Darbar saheb, my wife is right when she says I am so wrapped up in my work that I have no idea what’s going on around me. Now, you tell me, what’s a man to do? I leave the house in the morning and come back late at night. I slave away the whole day for two pieces of roti… and what do women do? They live off our earnings, they idly eat and sleep. On top of this, they complain, ‘We have to do the cooking. If you’d have to cook you’d know.’ I tell you…”
He stopped for a moment and started again. “Believe me, when his elder daughter was married, I slogged real hard… I was young then.” He twirled his moustache. “I even gave five cots and eight copper pots for the wedding party’s stay… my whole family slept on the ground for five days… I mean, why not? After all, she’s the daughter of the village. Her honour is ours… you have to think of every little detail.”
“Hmm.” The man was staring determinedly at the TV and trying to shut out the shopkeeper’s chatter.
“You have to maintain the rules and customs of the village,” the shopkeeper jabbered on.
“Hmm,” said the man downing the last of his tea and putting the glass on the table.
“Dharm Singhji hasn’t said a word about his daughter getting married,” the shopkeeper muttered quietly. “How strange.”
“Not his daughter, his son.” The man took out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth.
“His son?” The question shot up through his eyebrows. “Which Dharm Singhji are you talking about?”
“Dharm Singhji of Rajgarh,” the man’s voice was soaked in indifference.
“But he doesn’t have a son. God only gave the poor man two daughters,” the shopkeeper’s voice was clammy with sorrow.
“Arrey, no, it’s his son’s wedding… the wedding party will go to Jivangarh tomorrow… today is the bhat, the rice ceremony.” This time the man’s voice had a glimmer of apprehension. He was hoping he wasn’t in the wrong place.
“You’ve got it wrong somehow.” There was harshness, conviction, and authority in the shopkeeper’s voice. “Not just Dharm Singhji, I know the entire village. There must be a mix-up.”
“Doesn’t he work in the waterworks department?” The man got irritated.
“Oh no! You’re talking about Dharma Harijan, the operator,” the shopkeeper slapped his forehead. “As if there could be a wedding in the village without my knowing!” The shopkeeper’s voice was distant and rude.
“How much do I owe you?” Noting the shift in the shopkeeper’s tone, the man pulled out a hundred-rupee note.
“Three rupees. But, brother, first wash the glass.” This in the shopkeeper’s rudest tone yet.
“Why?” The man felt as though a bucket of water had been dumped on him. His own voice seemed to come from the bottom of a well.
“Why?! This is the custom of the village,” the shopkeeper shouted for any bystander to hear. “A rise in status does not put an end to custom.”
The man stepped down from the stall. He suddenly thought of his father. He saw the naked man lying in the distance. He saw the puppies wrestling. A few people had gathered. It was as if he were naked among them. Their gaze scorched him.
“What’s going on, Banwari?” a face from the crowd tossed out the question.
“See, Chaudhari, I had taken him to be a good man… it’s not as if it’s written on someone’s forehead who is what. He could have told me at the outset that he has come to Dharma Harijan’s place,” the shopkeeper answered rudely.
There was some hesitation among the bystanders when they saw the man’s clothing and impressive stature. The shopkeeper’s next question was meant to clinch the issue. “Should I serve you tea now in a harijan glass?”
“And if I hadn’t told you …?” Under the weight of the insult, the words emerged with difficulty.
“If you hadn’t said anything, the sin would have been on you. You don’t drink from a cup once you’ve spotted a fly in it,” the shopkeeper shouted, raising his hands.
“Why are you being stubborn, brother? Just wash it, this is the custom here,” a man came forward.
“Why make an issue of it?” another asked.
“Do you wash it too?” He turned toward the voice and asked haughtily.
“Why should I?” The man was offended.
“So then why should I?” came the retort.
“He’s going to get thrashed. The bastard’s exposed.” The shopkeeper’s war cry was not lost on the man.
“How much for this glass?” His jaw clenched in anger.
“Why?” The shopkeeper was surprised.
“Tell me how much it is.” His brows were drawn together.
“Ten … no, twenty rupees,” the shopkeeper inflated the price.
“Take this,” he thrust the hundred-rupee note at the shopkeeper. The father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was smiling on the note, wrapped in a shawl. The shopkeeper quickly grabbed the money.
“Change.” His eyebrows were stretched taut.
The man took the change from the shopkeeper, put it in his pocket. Picking up the glass, he smashed it against the chabutra, the platform under the trees on which village folk sat for tea and chit-chat. Chanaak —shards of glass flew in all directions. Startled by the noise, the mother dog jumped away, and the naked man suddenly sat up.
The man bent down, picked up his suitcase, and started towards the village. A smile bloomed on the shopkeeper’s face, a smile not unlike Gandhiji’s on the note.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan.