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I needed to force money from Father Joseph, and it made me nervous. He had bribed me once before, for a building permit, soon after he became principal of Rosary School. Also, he had admitted my granddaughter, Asha, into his school without our having to make the enormous donation usually required. But Father Joseph was strange and unpredictable.
Several months ago, his school, in a posh part of Old Delhi, had given a dinner party to introduce him. Because of my work for the Delhi municipal education department, I was invited. During the party Father Joseph demonstrated his expertise in karate. The party was in the school's front field. A steel pole had been cemented upright several meters from the buffet tables. Father Joseph, short, and heavy with muscle, wearing the white robe of a karate teacher, beat at the pole for half an hour with his bare feet and fists while forty or fifty people watched and ate. Sometimes he would step a few feet from the pole and groan at it. Near the end of his demonstration, he became so tired that there were pauses as long as a minute between blows. Because this was so odd, and because Father Joseph had spoken to me in English when the party started, at first I thought the display might be an example of a foreign affectation. After he was done, still dressed in the robe, Father Joseph spent the rest of the night meeting his guests. He kept clenching and unclenching his hands from soreness.
It was morning. The sky was a single blue from edge to edge. I had just bathed and was on my balcony hanging a towel over the ledge. The May heat was so intensethat as soon as I stepped out of the flat, worms of sweat appeared on my bald scalp. In the squatter colony behind our compound several women crouched before their huts, cooking breakfast on kerosene stoves. Two men wearing only shorts and rubber slippers stood next to a hand pump, soaping their bodies. On the roof of a nearby building, a woman was bathing her daughter with a tin bucket and a bowl. The naked girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, kept slipping out of her mother's grasp and running about the roof.
I had been Mr. Gupta's moneyman for a little less than a year and was no good. It did not take me long to realize this, and once I did, unwilling to give up the increased pay, I tried to delight in having achieved a position that exceeded my ability. I enjoyed believing that I had tricked Mr. Gupta into giving me a place near all the illegal money that poured through the education department. This pleased me so much that I pictured myself weeping in the middle of negotiations with some school principal and calling myself a "whore" while I kept a hand over my heart. But on the mornings before bribe collections, these fantasies came involuntarily. Now, instead of making me laugh, they made me feel threatened, as if I were crazy and out of control.
The principals I extorted were better educated than I was and generally far more competent and responsible. I had never graduated from higher secondary, and my job as a junior officer in the physical education department officially involved little more than counting cricket bats and badminton rackets and making sure that 4 percent of a school's land was used for physical education.
My panic in negotiations was so apparent that even people who were eager to bribe me became resentful. At the meals they were custom-bound to serve with the bribe, they joked about my weight. "You're as good as two men," they might say as I piled food on my plate, or would remark, "Have you been fasting?" With principals who appeared even more uncertain than I was, I sometimes grew angry to the point of incoherence. Occasionallybecause of my heart attack seven months earlier and the medicines I now tookas I talked with them, I got tired, confused, and sleepy.
My general incompetence and laziness at work had been apparent for so long that I now think it was arrogant of Mr. Gupta to pick me as his moneyman. I am the type of person who does not make sure that a file includes all the pages it must have or that the pages are in the right order. I refuse to accept even properly placed blame, lying outright that somebody else had misplaced the completed forms or spilled tea on them, even though I was the last one to sign them out or had the soggy papers still on my desk. All this is common for a certain type of civil servant who knows that he is viewed with disdain by his superiors and that he cannot lose his job. My predecessor as moneyman, Mr. Bajwa, used to lie even about what he had brought for lunch. He would rather eat on the office roof than not lie. Mr. Bajwa, however, had incredible energy. He also had a compulsion to court everyone who came near him. Many times he had told me that I was one of his best friends, even though it was apparent that he did not like me.
He had to be replaced because, when V. P. Singh defeated Rajiv Gandhi and became Prime Minister in the last elections, the Central Bureau of Investigation wanted to show its loyalty to the new rulers by attacking the Congress Party and its supporters. They brought corruption charges against Mr. Bajwa. Since then, Rajiv Gandhi had forced out V. P. Singh and put Rajiv's pawn Chandrashekar in power. And the upcoming elections might make Rajiv Gandhi Prime Minister again.
When the mother finished bathing her daughter, I went inside.
The last twelve months had been long and sorrowful. They began with my wife, Radha, finally dying of cancer. A few months later, I had a heart attack that woke me in the middle of the night screeching, "My heart is breaking," so loudly that my neighbors kicked open the door of the flat to see what was happening. More recently, my son-in-law Rajinder had died when his scooter slipped from beneath him on an oil slick. And then Anita, my daughter, and eight-year-old Asha had come to live with me, bringing with them a sadness so apparent that sometimes I had to look away.
Asha was asleep on my cot with one knee pulled up to her stomach. My room is a windowless narrow rectangle, and the little light from the balcony and kitchen, funneled through the common room behind me, was a handkerchief on her face. Asha sometimes fell asleep on my cot while she waited for me to leave the bathroom. I knelt beside the cot to wake her gently. Her eyelids were trembling.
When Rajinder was alive and Anita used to bring Asha with her on visits, I would ask Asha how school was and offer her round orange-flavored toffees that, despite her laughing denials, I claimed grew on a small tree in a cupboard. Nothing else was expected from me. Since they had moved in two months ago, misery as intense as terror had drained all the fat from Asha's body, making her teeth appear larger than they were and her fingers impossibly long. This made me try to say more, but when I asked her about herself, I felt false and intrusive.
As I kept looking at Asha, I noticed it was possible to see her as pretty. Her face was almost square and her hair chopped short like a boy's, but there was something both strong and vulnerable about her. She had long eyelashes and a mouth that was too large for her face and hinted at an adult personality. I wondered whether I was finding beauty in Asha because her youth was a distraction from my own worries, like turning to a happy memory during distress. I put a hand on Asha's knee. It was the size of an egg and its delicacy made me conscious of her lighter-than-air youth and of my enormous body pressing down on my scarred heart.
In the squatter colony a hand pump creaked and someone made clucking sounds as a horse stomped. I heard Anita's sari sighing as she moved about the kitchen. The municipality gave our neighborhood water in the morning for only three hours. "Wake up," I said. "The water will go soon."
Asha stepped out of the bathroom into the common room. She wore her school uniform, a blue shirt and a maroon skirt. The common room is nearly empty and has pink walls and a gray concrete floor. In a corner a fridge hums, because the kitchen is too small to hold it. Along a wall crouch a pair of low wooden chairs. On the bathroom's outside wall are a sink and a mirror. Asha looked in the mirror and combed her hair. The prettiness she had had while sleeping was still there. I could take care of Asha, as I had by arranging her admission to Rosary School. The idea of purpose soothed me.
Father Joseph was going to be difficult and disorderly. I had no subsidized land or loan to offer in immediate return for the money I needed to collect. The funds were for the Congress Party's parliamentary campaign, and the favors earned by donating would have to be cashed in later. Also, this was the second time in twelve months that Parliament had been dissolved and elections called. Most of the principals I handled for Mr. Gupta, the supervisor of Delhi municipality's physical education program, were resisting a second donation. Besides, I had to collect enough to impress the Congress Party officials who reviewed Mr. Gupta's efforts, but I could not take so much that Father Joseph would later resist giving when the money was for those of us who worked in the education department.
Asha went onto the balcony and hung her towel beside mine on the ledge. In comparison, hers looked little bigger than a washcloth. When she returned, I asked, "Do you want some yogurt?" The only time Asha ate anything eagerly was when she thought that the food was in some way special. Asha normally got yogurt only with dinner. I ate yogurt twice a day because the doctor had suggested it.
For a moment she looked surprised. Then she said, "Absolutely."
"Get two bowls and spoons and the yogurt."
Asha brought these. I was too fat to fold my legs and so usually sat with them open in a V. She knelt before me and, placing the bowls between my legs, began spooning yogurt into them. I was wearing just an undershirt and undershorts, as I normally do around the flat. But that morning, because I had seen Asha as pretty for the first time, I felt shy and tried pulling in my legs. I couldn't, and a bright blossom of humiliation opened in my chest.
Anita stepped to the kitchen door. "What are you doing?" she asked. Anita was wearing a widow's white sari. For a moment I thought she was asking me.
"Nanaji said I could have some yogurt," Asha answered.
Anita considered us. Her forehead furrowed into lines as straight as sentences in a book. She was short, with an oval face and curly hair that reached her shoulder blades. Anita turned back into the kitchen. I believed she felt her presence was a burden on me. When I offered to pay for Asha's schoolbooks, Anita refused, even though Rajinder had not left her much. She also gave me detailed accounts of what she bought with my money.
Anita came out of the kitchen with our breakfasts. She and Asha sat across from me. We all had a glass of milk and a salty paratha. Asha ate her yogurt first and quickly. When she could no longer gather anything from the inside of the bowl with the spoon, she licked it.
"We should buy more milk so you can make more yogurt for her," I told Anita. I was carefully scraping my bowl to get the last drops. I held the bowl at chest level and dipped my mouth down to suck on the spoon, because bringing my hand up to my neck caused it to tremble. The yogurt's sourness made my shoulder muscles loosen and made even this indignity bearable.
"She wouldn't eat it."
"I would," Asha said.
"She'd eat it two days, Pitaji, and then stop."
Asha stared into her lap.
After a moment Anita contemptuously added, "Milk is going up every day. I ask why and the milkman says, `Tell America not to fight Iraq.'"
"His cows drive cars?" My voice came out loud and Anita's face froze. "Let's try it for two days, then," I added softly, feeling sorry that Anita thought I could turn on her.
Anita gathered our plates and stood. She went into the kitchen and squatted beneath the stone counter that runs around the kitchen at waist level. She turned on a tap. It gave a hiss, but only a few drops fell out. Anita sat down and looked at the plates for a moment. Beneath the counter were several tin buckets full of water.
"Thank God we had water this long," I said.
Anita turned to me, and she appeared so intent I thought she might be angry. "We should thank God for so little?" She did not wait for me to answer. Anita began washing the dishes with ashes and cupfuls of water from a bucket.
Often I felt Anita was acting. She wore only white and always kept her head covered as if she were a widow in a movie. These details, like many others about her, appeared so exactly right, they felt planned.
"We should buy a water tank," I said. "Ever since I became Mr. Gupta's man, I make so much money I don't even know how to hide it." Anita did not respond. My guilt thickened. The kitchen is tiny, yet Anita spent most of her days there, even reading the paper while crouched on the floor. I think Anita did this because she filled the kitchen completely and this comforted her.
I asked Asha to get me a glass of water from one of the clay pots in the corner of the room. When she brought it, I held up the pills I must take every morning and asked, "Do you know what these are?"
"Yes, but they are of three different kinds. This one is a diuretic," I said, lifting the orange one with my thumb and forefinger. "It makes me get rid of a lot of water so that my heart doesn't have so much to move. This one"I pointed to the aspirin"thins my blood, and that also means my heart works less. And this one," I said, referring to the blue one with a cross etched on it, "is called a beta blocker." I said beta blocker twice because it sounded dramatic. "This keeps my heart from getting excited."
I had not meant to start the explanation, but the quick self-pity and anger it evoked made me realize guilt was irritating me. I continued talking and the feelings eased. I was glad I had found an opportunity to reveal some part of my life, because it would make my asking Asha questions feel more natural. I held the pills out for a moment and then swept them into my mouth.
Asha wandered to the living room and turned on the television. Before leaving for school, she would move more and more slowly, so that it took her ten minutes to put her books in their bag. Asha was taking classes in May, even though most schools were closed, because she had missed many days when her father died. Rosary was one of the few schools that had government approval for a summer program and that was why I had had her admitted there. I went into the living room to watch the television news. Eventually Asha shuffled into the bedroom she and Anita shared. Through the doorway I saw her putting on white ankle-length socks and small black shoes. At a quarter past eight, she slung a satchel full of books around one shoulder and came to her mother in the kitchen to say goodbye. Anita kissed both of Asha's hands and her forehead. I saw this from my room, where I was dressing, and felt sad and guilty again. The first anniversary of Radha's death was in two days.
Half an hour later, when I left for the office, Anita was on her knees mopping the floor of their bedroom. She had a fold of her sari over her head and held it in place by biting it. The bed she and Asha sleep on almost completely fills the room. Flies were switching about. The sight of Anita kneeling and the formality and shyness of the covered head made me think of how badly I had used my life.
"Talk to the pundit," Anita said, looking up at me. I had yet to arrange the pundit for Radha's prayers. Although Anita had told me to do this several times over the week, there was nothing accusatory in her voice. Suddenly I was angry. I glared at her, until she turned her head down. Then I said, "Why are you always covering your head? You aren't at your in-laws'. People will think you're afraid of me."