Kabir Street

Print edition : August 09, 1997

I had planned a sequel to The World of Nagaraj in twenty chapters, but it would not progress that way, following a course unanticipated by me, and concluded itself in five episodes. The writer has no choice but, like an amanuensis, puts down on paper whispers reaching his ears.

I have to avoid repetition of Nagaraj I. However, a brief resume will make sense of what is ahead.

Nagaraj and his wife Sita lived in 14 Kabir Street, a vast rambling house which extended from Kabir Street to the river Sarayu flowing beyond the wild garden in the backyard. Nagaraj's brother was a farmer in the village. His son Tim, who had been Nagaraj's favourite as a child, grew up in his home, practically adopted by him. Nagaraj bore with patience his erratic ways. While Tim's wife plays a monstrous harmonica and fills the house with cheap music, his noisy gang of friends rehearse a play.

Nagaraj tolerates the nuisance long enough. When his patience reaches breaking point, the following episodes begin.

NAGARAJ had begun to have doubts about his standing in his ancestral home, 14 Kabir Street. He was the titular head of the family, his wife, Sita, being the real ruler of the empire extending from the street to the lichen-covered backyard wall with a door opening on to the sands of the River Sarayu.

The river had provided water for their domestic needs, till a well was dug, when the traffic towards the river ceased, and the back door, through disuse, got welded to the frame with ancient rust and dust. Otherwise the backyard remained unchanged with its tin-roofed bathroom and toilet beside the well. Four tall coconut trees loomed challengingly, in addition to guava, jackfruit, pomelo and a spreading tamarind, shedding leaves which remained unswept amid a jungle of wild vegetation.

Nagaraj's nephew Tim commented on the wild state of the backyard whenever he saw it: "Too bad! Uncle, you must get a couple of men to clear the jungle."

"Yes, yes," Nagaraj would say. "I have asked them to come," inwardly wondering who "they" were.

Sita was more emphatic. "If they can't get anyone, tell me plainly, I will do something. Cobras may be living under the fallen leaves. What a lot of trouble your father used to take to keep the place clean! You are indifferent."

"Naturally, not being my father," he retorted silently, but aloud, "Sita, leave it to me."

"Cobras," she began again, but he cut her short. "Nonsense! Cobras have better business than counting dead leaves."

"Not only your father, but your mother was cleaning and clearing."

"She was a busybody - all the time sweeping and dusting..."

"That was why everything was so tidy." "Why don't you follow her example?"

This could only be a brief exchange while he passed from the puja room into the kitchen.

After lunch Nagaraj dressed in a silk jibba, white dhoti and an upper cloth dyed in ochre (as ordered by a swami he had met in the park long ago), surveyed himself in their ancient oval mirror and set off with a brief, "I'm off. Shut the door."

Sita moved into the kitchen, muttering. "No use talking to him. He doesn't care. Must find someone to clear the jungle."

Nagaraj went down Kabir Street, paused for a second at the archway to the market to greet his friend Jayaraj, the photo-framer, who was hunched over some coloured prints of gods and nailing gilt frames around them. His next stop was the corner stall, where he held out his palm while his friend Kanni placed on it a couple of betel leaves and a pinch of scented areca nut, which he popped into his mouth and chewed contentedly, saying, "Put it on my account."

"No need to say it," muttered Kanni as a routine formula.

Crossing Market Road, Nagaraj reached Margosa Avenue and then Coomar's Boeing Sari Emporium. Coomar had not come yet. A couple of attendants were stacking up saris in showcases. Nagaraj settled in his usual corner, took out the ledgers and scanned the columns.

He asked loudly, addressing no one in particular, "Where is the proprietor?"

"Sent word he will be late."

"Thank God," Nagaraj said to himself, feeling relieved. He glanced through the columns on a page or two and put away the ledger, got up on an impulse and while passing the manager murmured, "I'll be back," whispering under his breath, "no need to count Coomar's profits today."

He stepped out and went down the street without any plan. He paused at the junction. If he went straight ahead, his steps would lead him home. "I don't need to go home and face Sita's endless questioning. I want to be a free man at least for a couple of hours. Home is not the best place at the moment." Tim and his wife Saroja had moved in permanently. Saroja was always playing her harmonium, and Tim had taken up amateur dramatics. Now he and his gang would be there - as usual - rehearsing Harischandra. If the moral of the famous story affected the unwashed, unshaven ruffians even slightly, things would not be so bad. But they were an untidy lot whose touch would contaminate. How dare they usurp his seat on the pyol.

Sita should be advised to scrub the place and wash it with phenol. But it was unlikely she would take it in the right spirit, since she constituted herself champion of Tim in every misdeed. She was a good wife but a muddle-headed aunt. Last evening the lounging fellows ignored him as he stood there glaring at them to convey his distaste for the whole lot.

They were chattering away while another set was singing to the accompaniment of Saroja's harmonium. He wondered for a while, "Why not push them off the pyol on to the street?" but retreated to Sita's room with the intention of shouting at her. She was lying on the bare, cool cement floor reading a magazine.

He felt tongue-tied in her presence. Plucking up courage, he said, "I can hardly hear my own voice in this house." She lowered the magazine, looked at him over the frame of her spectacles and asked, "What is it that you want to say?"

Nagaraj muttered himself, "She looks owlish with the spectacles over her nose," but said aloud, "Nothing really... I don't even know where I can sit."

She pulled off her spectacles, obviously getting ready for a duel, and said: "With so many rooms built by your worthy forefathers! You don't even know who built this house!"

"I could tell you a lot when we have a little silence."

"You always have a grudge against Tim and his friends. After all, you were the one to pamper him, separating him from his parents."

This angered Nagaraj, but he could only say, "Well, if you are going on that line... I don't know... I don't know how to live in this house!"

"As we have always done. What is special now?"

"I have no place to sit quietly and watch..."

"Watch what? The street? To watch mongrels fighting in the dust or the drunken engineer tottering homeward? You lose nothing by not watching. You speak as if you were missing a royal procession."

"I don't know where to sit."

She laughed at his complaint. "Second time you are complaining. Could it be that you have suddenly assumed giant proportions, like the Vamana avatar of Vishnu who appeared like a pygmy at first?"

"I know the story; you don't have to repeat it."

She was adamant and continued her narrative. "He appeared as a pygmy and asked Bali, the demon king who had to be destroyed, for three paces of the Earth as gift. King Bali, who never refused an appeal, readily granted it. Vamana assumed a giant stature..."

"I know the story," repeated Nagaraj weakly.

"Vamana's first stride spanned the whole Earth, the second spanned all Heaven. 'Where is the space for my third?' asked Vamana, and the King bowed down and offered his head, and the God placed one foot on it and pressed him down to extinction."

"Why?" asked Nagaraj.

"You said you knew the story. Why don't you conclude it?" teased Sita. "Why don't you throw away all those notebooks in which you have scribbled notes about Narada and sit down to write the story of Vamana?"

"Excellent advice," Nagaraj cried in joy, and hugged her after making sure no one was watching.

After this she said, "Follow me," and led him to the veranda pyol where the rehearsal group had fallen asleep, leaning on each other. She clapped her hands, and when they woke up, she ordered them out. "You may all go. Tim won't be back." They scrambled to their feet and made their exit.

She turned to Nagaraj and said, "There, I have found space for your first step... for your second and third we will also find space."

At this point Saroja's harmonium ceased. She appeared at the door to declare with some heat, "Tim said they should wait for him."

"At the street corner, I believe," Nagaraj said with a chuckle. Saroja retreated to her room grumbling.

R. K. Narayan

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