Friday, March 18, 2005

This story (Item number 1 in my list posted Feb 11th) has been lying around my computer for nearly four months. Finally, shubh muhurat aa gaya. :) Part of the reson for the delay was that this was written for a competition, but then it went way above the word limit.

Pawar Guest House: Chapter 8

She said :

Starting a new job is like adjusting to a foreign country. The guest house already had its own hierarchy, its quirks, its in-jokes, and the people working there had the measure of each other to some extent. It took me quite a while to understand all of it. And the job itself kept me busy all day – besides mopping the floor, dusting, and washing the laundry, I was mess cooks helper too. A full days work for a 16-year-old girl like me. Joshi saheb promised that I would be full-time cooking help once he got another maid for cleaning up, but of course that never happened, and I would go to my little shack behind the guest house bone tired every night.

There was a whole row of these shacks along the back of the guest house building. The first one belonged to the cook, Hari – he was the only one who had a shack to himself. Everyone called him Hari kaka. The two peons shared the next shack, and me and Jeejabai, the old washerwoman, slept in the third one. There were two other men in the fourth shack, I never knew much about them because they worked at Joshi Sahebs office on the ground floor. The two other maids, Kamala and Sita, were in the next shack. Kamala was the other kitchen help. The shack after theirs – the last one – always remained closed from the inside. I’d never seen anyone go in, but there was usually a light burning inside in the night when I finished work and prepared to sleep. I asked Jeejabai about it one night. She replied petulantly – because she’d already changed and was ready to fall asleep - “It’s Laxman Rao, the housing society’s night-watchman. He sleeps all through the day and starts his rounds of the streets in the night after we’re asleep.”

As it happened, Kamala fell ill the next day, and I had to do part of her work. Around sunset, Hari kaka called me and handed me a covered plate of food. “Laxman Bhau should be awake by now, give him this food. Just knock at his door and call out that you’ve brought food, otherwise he won’t open up. Remember to go back to his room after half an hour to take the bring back the plate.”

The light was already on in his room, the radiance seeping out through the cracks in the thin wooden walls. It occurred to me that this was the only room with a fluorescent light in it. We were supposed to pay for our bulbs and electricity ourselves, so that meant Laxman Rao made more money than we did.

I knocked at the door, and called out, “I’ve brought dinner!” For a moment, there was no response. I was about to call again when a gruff voice spoke from within, “Wait a minute.” I heard the latch being opened, and the door opened about a foot. A hand reached out, and the voice said, “Give me the plate.” I put the plate in his hand. The hand withdrew and the door slammed shut. It was all done in a few seconds, and I never saw he looked like. The same thing happened when I returned to take the plate.

Jeejabai told me the reason that night for this strange procedure. “Laxman Rao was a schoolteacher in his village. He was caught in a fire in his home, some years back. His face was scarred so badly no one wanted to even look at him. He came here because he’s Hari kaka’s distant cousin. Hari kaka got him his job of night watchman, and the shack here on rent. I’ve seen him when he goes out at night to do his rounds – wears a monkey cap and a scarf summer and winter, so that no one can see his face. He finds the job very convenient, I’ve heard – hardly meets anyone at night, and he does some sort of paper-work early in the morning before going to sleep for the day. He asks me to post some letters for him every now and then. Must be to his village – I cant read, anyway.”

Now in those days I was an eager teenager, just arrived from my village, thirsting to get ahead in the world, learn new things. I was looking around for some night school or vocational courses that I could join. It occurred to me that perhaps Laxman Rao was doing some sort of studying too. He might be able to find me a school. Joshi Saheb wasn’t here the past few weeks, so I had no one else to ask, anyway. Hari kaka had already said he didn’t know of these “bookish” things.

I volunteered again the next evening to take Laxman Rao his food. Kamala didn’t mind anyone doing her work for her, of course. But it didn’t help. I called out to him after he’d taken the plate – he didn’t respond at all. The incident piqued my curiosity. Was he so convinced of his ugliness, so sure he would scare me away?

Well, he was supposed to be the night watchman. That meant he would come out in the night and do his rounds. All I had to do was to stay awake until then.

It was a little after ten o’clock, and Jeejabai was fast asleep. I had nodded off a couple of times, but snapped awake when I heard the sound of his door opening. I hurriedly wrapped a shawl around myself, and went out.

Laxman Rao was a short, heavyset figure. He’d heard me coming out, and began to hurry away to avoid me. But I called after him, “Saheb! Saheb!” The sound startled him and he slowed down a little, and looked back. In the faint glow from the halogen street lights, I could just make out his maroon monkey cap, which hid his entire face except for a narrow opening across his eyes. I caught up with him, panting.

“What is it?” he asked brusquely.

“I need some help.”

“You’re the new kitchen maid, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I studied till 10th standard in my village school, then I had to come here to the city. But I want to study more.”

“So study. What can I do?” But he’d noticed that I didn’t seem afraid of him, so he was talking less brusquely now.

“Jeejabai told me you too do some studying and paperwork every day. I thought you could tell me where I can go to study. I want to join a night school.”

He paused for a moment, studying me. His eyes were deepset, contemplative; one was misshapen because of a scar touching the outer edge and wrinkling the skin. I could see parts of other scars above his eyebrows and just under his eyes.

“There’s a school two streets away. They teach up to the Higher Secondary level and also some vocational courses. I’ve seen students going and coming in the night. I’ll check the times for you, there’s a signboard outside.” His voice sounded rusty, as if he hardly ever spoke. This was probably the longest speech he’d made in a while.

I smiled at him. “Thank you.” He nodded and walked off.

The next evening when I took Laxman Rao his dinner, he took the plate, then held out a slip of paper. “Here. This is the address, and the timings. Go talk to them.” I was a bit disappointed that he hadn’t called me in. “I will. Thank you.”

Hari kaka was unwilling to let me off an hour-and-a-half early; but I promised to finish chopping the vegetables and kneading the dough before I left. The timings of the school matched with my schedule well; I went there at about half past seven, and finished by ten. I’d joined the school about a month into the studies, so I had to sit by myself for an hour after I got back, studying to catch up, eating the leftovers from dinner. It would leave me even more tired than before, but then I couldn’t be a kitchen helper all my life.

The time I got back from school was about the same time Laxman Rao started on his rounds, so I was seeing him more frequently now. I usually just waved to him, said Namaste, and he would respond. He even raised his hand in greeting when he saw me approaching, once or twice.

Jeejabai grew crabby when she found out I was going to be keeping the light on to study till eleven every night. “When do I get to sleep? Cant you find some other place to take your books? As it is, you’re helping me less these days.” This was after I’d been going to the school for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t think of any place to go to. I asked Joshi saheb. He wasn’t too co-operative; as it is, he hadn’t been too enthused by the news that I’d joined this school. I thought of asking Laxman Rao again; he seemed to be the only one who’d liked the idea of me studying.

I kept an eye out for him as I returned from the school. He had just started his rounds, and had reached a few houses away from the guest house. “Namaste!” I said as I reached him. He nodded back.

“Are your studies going well?” He asked.

“Yes, Kaka. I have almost caught up with the course, and the teacher says I am one of the smarter girls in the class.” I paused, then took the plunge. “I – er - wanted your suggestions with something.”

He looked at me curiously.

“Jeejabai is complaining about my studying till late. She says she cant sleep because of the light. If she tells Joshi Saheb, I wont be able to study at all. Could you – er – talk to Hari kaka or someone to let me study in the night?”

“ Yes, of course, you need to study more. But...” The prospect of talking to those people seemed to unnerve him more than anything else. Then his face brightened. “You can study in my room, after I leave. That is...” His hand stole up to his cheek and traced out a scar under the woolen mask. “If you don’t feel awkward about it.”

“Are you sure? I mean, thank you, but wont it be a problem for you? I’ll be in your way.”

“No, no, that is all right. I have an extra key to my lock. Um, I will give it to you tomorrow.”

Jeejabai mentioned casually the next morning that Laxman Rao seemed to be celebrating Diwali early – he was doing some cleaning out of his room, sweeping up a dust storm and he even seemed to have hung out washed sheets to dry.

When I came back from the classes that night, Laxman Rao was standing outside his shack, waiting for me. He fumbled in his pocket when he saw me coming, then pulled out a key on a brass key ring. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Study as long as you want, and make sure you lock the door when you leave. Don’t disturb anything.”

But it was obvious that he’d “disturbed” almost everything in the tiny room in preparation for my arrival. A little table was set up next to the bed, ready for me. There was a bigger desk and chair at one corner, which was clumsily covered with an old saree rather than cleaned up. Clumped dust at the corners testified to the long gap between sweepings. He had forgotten to dust the rows of books on the shelves behind the tables.

I smiled to myself as I pulled out my books and prepared to work. It was good to find a friend in this town, good to know there was someone willing to take pains for my sake. And for all his strangeness, he seemed to be really a decent sort of man. Perhaps I could find time to talk more to him. I decided to try reaching home a few minutes early.

The rest of the staff eyed me with curiosity and a measure of repulsion the next morning. “Why do you want anything to do with that crazy man?” Jeejabai asked me. “Because you can’t sleep when I study,” I told her rather nastily. Kamala was even more frank in her disapproval of him. “Just to see the scars on his neck gives me the creeps. Why doesn’t he go away someplace else?”

That night I reached his shack just in time to meet him. “Thank you again for your help,” I said, “It is much better than studying with Jeejabai complaining.”

He smiled under his mask. “You’re welcome. I used to be a teacher once, so I always like seeing people interested in studying.”

“Oh! Then maybe you could help me when I get stuck?”

He was silent for a moment. Perhaps he was alarmed at how fast this friendship was progressing, or –

“I don’t know if I’ll have the time for that.” He turned away. But as I began to walk away he spoke again. “Thank you for cleaning up my bookshelf.”

I remembered his words as I sat in his room, a couple of days later, looking up at the books. I knew hardly any of the writers or titles, except – there were complete poetry sets of Byron, Shelley, whom I’d read a poem or two of, a guy named Neruda whose name sounded familiar, and several others I didn’t know. All the other books were – I stood up and examined a few – were also poetry collections, by Indian authors I didn’t know. Almost half a bookshelf was taken up with books by some guy named ‘Veebhats’; this name also sounded a bit familiar.

I remembered where I’d heard the name, the next morning. There had been an article in the newspaper about this anonymous poet. Contrary to his odd pen name, he was popular for writing touching paeans to loneliness and the crushing burden of living. Loneliness...that would explain why Laxman Rao was so fond of this poet.

“May I borrow and read a book from your collection?” I asked him that night. “Our teacher says we should be doing more general reading, not just the text books.”

In the past few days we had been making some small talk every night; he was always interested in what happened at my school and in what I wanted to do in life. Initially he had been reticent about himself; he still was reluctant to talk about his old life and the accident that had disfigured him. But he told me several stories about his current job and the guest house; I particularly remember his tales about stone gargoyles on the gutter spouts. He agreed readily enough to lend me a book, but when we entered his room to choose, he seemed to be a quandary about which book I should take. Finally I settled on a slim book by ‘Veebhats’. Again he was reluctant to give me that one, but could offer no alternative, so that was the one I took.

This was the first time I was in his room with him, and both of us felt our acquaintance had crossed some invisible boundary; this space was not his alone now, it was a place where he could expect a visitor – me – who was willing to talk with him, in fact who wanted to talk with him.

The poems were difficult. It took me a fair amount of time to read the book. I wasn’t even sure I’d understood the point of the book. But I thought I understood a little better the way Laxman Rao felt. Feeling alone was... a bit like being trapped. Though I hadn’t had anyone to talk with after I came to the town, I’d always thought of it as a temporary phase, a short period which would end any moment. But loneliness was knowing you could never be able to communicate, knowing that there was some fundamental difference between you and everyone else. When I was finally able to articulate the feeling to myself, it robbed me of sleep. I recognized it; I’d seen it in Laxman Rao’s eyes all along but never understood it.

I almost ran from the class the next evening, so as to have more time with him.

“I finished reading this book.” I said as I handed it to him. “And it made me think of something. Can I ask you a question?”

He nodded slowly.

“When you look at me, do you think I’m pretty?”

The question threw him. He stuttered, “Of...of course, you are pretty...but...I mean, not really – I mean, you’re a nice girl, but I don’t think of you that way at all – I didn’t mean to – I mean, you’re taking me wrongly...””

“I didn’t ask you whether I was. I asked you if, when you look at me, as you are looking right now – does the thought of my prettiness or ugliness come to your mind?”

“Huh?” he stared at me.

“When you saw me coming back from class, and realized that we would have a few minutes to talk today, what was your first thought?”

“Um...I think I thought about the homework you had trouble with last night – whether you were able to finish it on time.”

“That’s what I meant. And I’m sure that after, perhaps, the first two or three times you met me, you never even thought about what I look like. I’m a familiar face for you now, you see.”

“Yes, but...”

“Sorry if I sound silly...but I felt sad about all those poems about being different and suchlike, in that book. No one’s really that different once you get to know them well. I mean, no one cares if you look strange, once they know you well enough.”

He was lost in thought. Once or twice he started to say something, then looked at me and subsided. Finally he nodded gruffly, looked at his watch and said, “I need to go.”

I wondered if I’d been too blunt. But the next morning as I came back from my bath, Laxman Rao was out in the back yard, hanging up wet clothes, still wearing his monkey cap. He’d always done this task before sunrise – when there was no one in the yard. The other staff was torn between curiosity and fright, watching him around the corner of the building, not daring to go out into the open. Jeejabai was supposed to wash the laundry at the tap in the yard, but she was reluctant to go. “Why don’t you start the job, I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said to me.

I made sure I showed not the slightest fear or unnaturalness as I marched down, buckets of washing in hand, to the tap. “Namaste ji!” I called out to Laxman Rao, as he finished hanging up his clothes at the other side of the yard. He half turned, raised a hand in salutation, turned back to his work as if we met each other here everyday and it was nothing special.

I bent down to work. Out of the corner of my eye I watched as Jeejabai crept up to the tap, nervously watching Laxman Rao. He took no notice of her, kept at his work. She gingerly squatted down next to me and began the washing. As the minutes crept by and Laxman Rao did nothing terrifying, she began to relax. Still, she seemed more at ease once he finished his work and went into his shack.

He was out in the yard in the early evening, too, taking his clothes off the line. Then when Kamala knocked at his door at night to deliver his dinner, he shouted from within for her to leave the plate on the table. She looked in, he was sitting at the table in the far corner, writing. He casually motioned towards the little table next to the bed. Kamala put the plate there and fled.

It is much harder to think a man a monster when he himself doesn’t believe it. It was only a matter of a few weeks before everyone at the guest house counted Laxman Rao as one of their own. As for Laxman Rao himself, he was finally getting the share of human contact he had been denied for so long, and he thrived on it. His natural gregariousness came to the fore and the haunted look in his eyes began to fade. He had dinner with us in the mess hall, and us girls were calling him Kaka. He began to persuade Kamala gently into joining the school, along with me. When Jeejabai came back from a few days’ visit to her native village, she got a packet of Prasad from the temple for Laxman Rao, too.

One morning, Laxman Rao waited till I was alone in the yard. He came up to me diffidently, and said, “I wanted to talk to you about something...”

“Yes, Kaka?”

“Do you...think I could do a normal day job, at a shop or something?”

“Why not? But Kaka, you’re much older than me, I am sure you will be able to decide these things better.”

He smiled, and patted my head. “Of course, of course. And you’re going to say that my rejoining the world was all because of my old man’s wisdom, too, eh?”

“But of course,” I said cheekily.

But more than the small job he found in a grocers store nearby, Laxman Rao counted the tuition classes his greatest step forward. Starting those classes for kids meant that people around accepted him for his ability to teach, and not for his appearance. He told me later that having again a crowd of young eager faces looking up at him made him feel as if the accident had never happened. Maybe soon, he said, I could join him as his assistant.

One evening, several months after the classes had started, I went to his room to call him to dinner. The door was closed. As I raised my hand to knock on it, I heard a muffled sob from within. “Kaka, Kaka! Are you all right?” I called.

There was a sniff, and the sound of someone walking across the room. The bolt was drawn back, and Laxman Rao opened the door. His eyes were red and watery. I felt a surge of concern.

“What happened? Did someone say something to you?” I asked.

He shook his head, but stood aside to let me in. I sat on the little table next to the bed. He was still standing at the door, looking out. “Remember that night when we first talked about your school?” he asked.

“I felt so happy to find that you weren’t afraid of me, on the first day. The next day, I found you were interested in studying, and I felt even better to find we had a common interest.

“You know what? Jeejabai loves talking about her village; it isn’t very far from mine. And Hari and I both like Konkani food. Kamala’s Ishtaa-Dev is Vitthala, just like me. All of us have something or the other in common, I am...what do they say, mixing well with everyone.

“I am pretty much a part of you all now. I have similar hopes, fears, dreams.”

And with this he sat down on the bed, close to me, and stared at me until I blinked. “Do you understand? like you all now. No different. Just an ordinary man.” His eyes said, I am not special any more.

Abruptly he sat back, and pulled out an envelope from his kurta pocket. “Here,” he said, “Read this.”

It was a letter from a publishing house. Dear ‘Veebhatsa’, it read – I looked up at him at that – It has been our great privilege in publishing your poetic works over the years. The ethos embodied in them has struck a chord in millions of readers. You had mentioned in your last letter that you would be unable to submit the manuscript of your newest book, Prabhat Kirana, by our previously agreed publishing deadline. We of course, respect your artistic integrity and realize that poetry cannot be hurried. However, if possible, I would like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss any problems you might be facing. We have never met face to face; if you so wish, we can talk over the phone. I would be honoured if I can help you facilitate your work in any way possible. Please let me know how you would like to talk.

It was signed Pradeep Karnik, Editor, Poetry Department.

“They’re worried their profits this year are going to drop,” Laxman Rao said, and there was a hint of hysteria in his voice. “Because I’m overdue with my poems.

“But do you want to know the truth?

“I don’t have any poems ready. I burnt them all. They seemed too silly, so artificial. All that talk of distances and loneliness and nights – I couldn’t go on with it.

He stood up. “I’m not a real poet, you know. I’m not one of those people who see the world better than others and describe it nicely. All I am – all I was – was a lonely man, unable to express his feelings to anyone. These poems I wrote are childish, compared to others. But my need to cross the gap between my world and your world was so great it came out in those childish poems, too. And perhaps many people felt as I do.

“Now, of course, there is no gap.” He smiled. The hysteria was on his face again. His eyes lost focus and he spoke now to the world at large. “I’m just like you all! I’m an ordinary man now! There’s nothing special in me any more, the world already knows the things I have to say now!”

Abruptly he noticed me, took a step back. “But I cant be...” he whispered to himself, “...just like them! I used to be a hero, a mascot! I was a stranger, an oddity, something different, something to be respected! And now I live with...them!”

“Is having friends that bad? That wasn’t respect you had, that was fear! Did you enjoy being feared?” I appealed to him, in spite of myself. I was an ordinary person, he’d said. Ordinary. Was he right?

“Huh?” He took another step back. His eyes darted from me to the writing table behind me, then back. He wiped the sudden beads of sweat from his forehead. I had to pull him out of this.

“Come on, worry about this later. Dinner is ready, and we’re all waiting for you.” I said gaily, and walked out of the room. I took a few steps out, until he could just barely see me, then turned and looked for him.

He was still standing in the same spot, looking at the table. “Come on!” I said. He half turned, looked at me, then back at the table.

I walked further away, then turned and went on back to the rest of my friends. As I rounded the corner, I gave him a final glance. He was still standing there, looking first in my direction, then back at the table, unable to decide.


Anjana Talapatra said...

I love the way you write. I've always wondered while reading english literature by non-Indian authors about whether it is possible to write effectively in English and still be your sankaal Vs shackle dilemna in The 65 Lakh Heist. I have tried to read a lot of books by Indian authors in English trying to figure whether the foreign element can be completely discarded. I loved this owned the language completely.

Sudarshan said...

Thanks for the comments, Anjana. I'm reading this particular story after a long time, and I'd forgotten how much I used to like it.

There are many 'flavours' of English which become apparent only after reading through a lot of the stuff. It's more the skill of the writer that makes the story - the best ones use the 'foreign element' to add the distinctive taste to it. Mario Puzo, for example, has his own Italian accent.

As Indians, we don't need to be ashamed of having our own way of speaking. It'd be better to wear the desi badge proudly and incorporate the rhythms of our language - our English - into our stories.