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An Obedient Father
ONEI 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 whileforty 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 intense that 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 graduatedfrom 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. Occasionally--because of my heart attack seven months earlier and the medicines I now took--as I talked with them, I got tired, confused, and sleepyMy 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 hadforced 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 wasfinding 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 causedit 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?""Medicine, Nanaji.""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 switchingabout. 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."
My office is in a low white building that used to be a school. A dirt field circles it and a wall surrounds all this. Lately the wall had been lathered with political posters and painted with the giant lotuses of the fundamentalist Hindu BJP and the open hand of Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party. For those of us who were involved in raising money and votes, the appearance of these signs of the coming election had created a sense of nervous festivity.The building itself is dark and musty. When I entered that morning, the sounds of typewriters and of voices came from departments like Hindi or science, where people were already planning for next year. In the physical education department no one even makes a pretense of working during the summer. We were almost proud of our laziness. We joked, "What can be done today can certainly be done tomorrow."The department's four assistant education officers shared one large room with four desks, four iron armoires behind the desks, and four ceiling fans. Mr. Gupta had his own room down the hall from us.Mr. Mishra was in the office, and he was asleep, bare feet on his desk and a handkerchief over his eyes to block the light."Mr. Mishra," I said, assuming Mr. Gupta's husky voice, "the public expects so little from its servants.""It's finally learning." He tugged the handkerchief off and smiled. There was a graciousness to his round pockmarked face thatreminded me of a silver teapot. "Mr. Karan! I only arrived this morning from Bihar," he said. "Pritam and I were planning to come by the afternoon train yesterday, but we wanted to spend more time with our son. I haven't even bathed." He brought his feet down and sat up."How was your grandson's naming?" I asked, taking the chair from him. Mr. Mishra was very proud of his son, an Indian Administrative Service officer, and took every opportunity to talk of his successes."Amazing! You always think IAS officers are powerful, but it's hard to understand what it means for one man to be head of justice, the police, and the civil service. Two hundred people came. Every person who has any business of importance with the government tried to get invited. And those who didn't, probably worried that my son might be unhappy with them.""I assume your son didn't have to pay for the whole celebration."Mr. Mishra continued smiling, but his voice became irritated at the suggestion of bribery. "It was expensive," he said.I felt embarrassed. Mr. Mishra and I had worked together for many years but became friends only when he visited me in the hospital while I recovered from my heart attack. Because Mr. Mishra did not accept bribes, I had thought he looked down on those of us who did. I also believed he was smarter and more generous than I was, and this made him especially irritating. During the conversations we had in the hospital, I realized that he was one of those people who love to gossip but are too well mannered to initiate such chatter. Our friendship was built on this insight, upon my leading conversations where I sensed he wanted to go but was too polite to go on his own.Mr. Mishra asked, "What news?""Inspections, files, giving grants. Last week a young man, maybe twenty-six, came to me and said he wanted to open a school and needed a thousand square meters of land. I said you have to go to a different department and deposit a hundred forms before you'll get one meter on government discount. So he pushes two ten-thousandrupeepackets toward me." I slid my hands slowly across the surface of the desk toward Mr. Mishra. To delight him, I sometimes exaggerated my crimes. "I had to say, 'Put it away or I'll call the police.' I've never seen him before and he's giving money like that. For a day or two, I was so certain the corruption people were after me, I could hardly eat."Mr. Mishra snorted and shook his head."Oh! Last week a monkey went into the women's latrines," I said. "The ones down the hall. There were three typists inside. They see the monkey and begin screaming. The monkey begins screaming, too." I made the sounds of the women and the monkey screeching. "One woman runs out of the bathroom. And she shuts the door behind her. Shuts it and holds on to the doorknob. By now everyone has come to see what's happening. The screams are still going on." I started laughing. "The monkey has begun flushing the toilets." I pretended I was jerking the toilet chain. Mr. Mishra joined my laughter. "I have to pull the first woman's hands off the doorknob. One of the other women runs out. And she shuts the door and holds on. I tell her to open it and she says, 'If I do, the monkey will bite me.' Now the woman left inside is weeping. I open the door. The woman runs out. She's been bitten on her arm, her leg, her stomach. The monkey didn't leave till the hall was empty.""Human nature," Mr. Mishra said. As he laughed, he leaned over one side of his chair."The needle for the rabies injection is a foot long." In my anxiety to please him, I had been talking faster than normal.When our chortling stopped, Mr. Mishra asked, "Is there an inspection today? My stomach says, 'Feed me.'" Every school we were responsible for had to be inspected twice a year to see if government regulations were being followed. For us, these occasions were something close to a party. The home economics department of the school would spend all day cooking an elaborate lunch for us. Everywhere we went in the school, we would be met with obsequiousness.Mr. Mishra's gentle corruption renewed my confidence in ourfriendship. "Father Joseph's school," I said, and rubbed my hands for him to see. "And tonight is the wedding reception for Mr. Gupta's son. We can fill up for the next three days."
Narayan, the driver I always used, was sitting on the building's front steps drinking tea from a glass and reading a Spider-Man comic book. He was a short Brahmin in his late thirties who shaved his head and wore a blue uniform every day, even though drivers aren't required to wear a uniform."Narayanji, we are ready to go," Mr. Mishra said."Is the thief coming?" Narayan asked, glancing up at me standing beside Mr. Mishra.Neither of us answered for fear it would encourage his insults. Mr. Mishra bent and adjusted the rubber bands that held up his socks. Narayan finally stood and walked ahead of us to the jeep.Narayan and I had been friendly till I became Mr. Gupta's man. We still shared a small business of renting out the education department's jeeps at night and on holidays. Our friendship ended because Narayan had expected to grow rich from my new position, but since nearly all the benefits the position bestowed flowed directly to me, he felt cheated. He relieved this disappointment by insulting me whenever he could. Lately he had begun to claim falsely that I owed him fourteen hundred rupees from some complex embezzlement of the education department's diesel.Our office is near Delhi University, and on our way to the inspection, we went through Revolution Square, where last winter several college students had set themselves on fire to protest V P. Singh's increase in caste quotas.As we entered the square, Narayan snorted and said, "Rajiv Gandhi's sons." The outrage over their deaths had led to Rajiv Gandhi's overthrow of V P. Singh and Chandrashekar becoming Prime Minister. This was the first thing he had said since we got in the jeep, and I think he said it because he knew how much I had been moved by the actions of those foolish boys."Be kinder," I said, leaning over the front seat. "They didn't know better.""How smart do you have to be? Even I know a few thousand government jobs don't matter.""Don't be an animal," I said. "Laughing at young boys dying.""Call me an animal, and I'll make you walk."In the way that some people get religious with old age, over the last few years I had become sentimentally political. The young men's actions reminded me of the days when I cut telegraph wires to slow the British."They sacrificed themselves like Mahatma Gandhi, like the Independence leaders who went to jail." My throat began tightening with emotion."Mahatma Gandhi was crazy, too," Narayan answered, waving a hand near his ear where my mouth had been. "He thought sleeping naked but chaste with young girls gave him special powers. These boys probably thought dying would create new jobs out of nowhere, like magic, like my son thinks being bitten by a spider will let him climb walls."Mr. Mishra leaned forward also and said, "Still, Narayanji, respect the dead.""Now Rajiv Gandhi wants to take control directly, so Parliament has to be dissolved.""Narayanji, we should at least do what we can," Mr. Mishra replied."You and I both eat Rajiv Gandhi's salt," I said."I am too far from power to eat anyone's salt," Narayan said.Mr. Mishra opened a newspaper. I looked out at the colonial-style university buildings that we passed. They were white turning yellow, with verandas and broad lawns. Perhaps the thought of the boys who immolated themselves shamed me into trying to be better than myself. "Narayanji, I will give you the money you were speaking of."Narayan honked his horn and reached over his shoulder to take my hand. I had bribed him and now, I hoped, Father Joseph would bribe me.
Two or three rows of students in blue shorts and white shirts were lined up doing jumping jacks in front of Rosary School's main building. The steel pole that had defeated Father Joseph was gone.Narayan stopped the jeep before the steps of the main entrance. We got out and stood beside the jeep and waited for our presence to be recognized. A peon came, greeted us, and went to tell Father Joseph. After a few minutes, the head physical education teacher, Mrs. Singla, a heavy woman with hennaed hair and a widow's white sari, came down the front steps smiling. "You should come see us even if there isn't any work reason," she said, pressing her hands together in namaste.Mrs. Singla led us along a gallery that had classrooms on one side and was open to the sun on the other. A peon in khaki shorts and shirt sat on the floor outside Father Joseph's office. Mrs. Singla said, "I'm sure we meet all your requirements." The peon stood and opened the door.Father Joseph was behind his desk reading a man's palms. Father Joseph looked up, said, "One minute," in English, and motioned Mr. Mishra and me to a sofa along the wall. We sat down. There were rugs on the floor, and the walls were lined with bookcases made of glass and curved steel. An air conditioner chilled the room with barely a hum. This school is rich, I thought."You have to fight your selfishness," Father Joseph said."I try," the man said. He was in his early twenties and might have been a teacher."The palm you were born with shows that you have a small heart. But the palm you have made shows that you can change."Mrs. Singla stood near the sofa. "Sir, one day, will you read my hands?""Someday," he answered with his eyes on the man's palms. Father Joseph twisted his lips. "I won't tell you everything now," he said, and released the hands. "Some things only suffering can teach.""Thank you, sir," the man said, and stood.Father Joseph got up from behind his desk. He had on black pants and a white short-sleeved shirt which revealed thick arms with veins like garter snakes. Mrs. Singla and the man left.Father Joseph moved to a chair across from us and crossed his legs. There was a mannered quality to his gestures. Like some other Christian priests I've met, Father Joseph had an air of condescension, as though we were still in the Raj and Christianity were still the religion of the powerful. He leaned forward and pointed at some papers on the table between us. "I've looked at your forms and I've personally made sure everything is right.""Much of the inspection report depends on our impressions," I said, also in English. Mr. Mishra giggled at seeing the jousting start. Father Joseph glanced at him. "We have to see how the teachers teach," I said. To have to lie and justify myself without any introductory chatter made the conversation feel out of control. Also, for me, speaking in English was like wearing too-tight clothes. I had to plan all my motions or a seam might give.Father Joseph shifted back in his chair. "Will you have something cold to drink or something warm?""Why don't we have something cold while the tea is being made," Mr. Mishra said. He was grinning.After the peon had been sent to bring drinks, it was hard to start a conversation. Father Joseph appeared both aloof and firm. He took a pack of cigarettes from a pants pocket.I moved forward on the sofa and knitted my fingers together. Normally, whoever had come with me would leave to examine the school after we had our drinks and I would be able to talk to the principal alone. But I had the feeling that Mr. Mishra wanted to push our new friendship and stay as long as possible.I watched Father Joseph smoke for a moment and then asked if he thought Rajiv Gandhi would be a better leader for having lost the prime ministership. He knew I was raising money for the Congress Party and politeness should have made him say that Rajiv Gandhi had benefited from losing his title."Does a lion's nature improve from fasting?" Father Joseph asked, arching an eyebrow.I became flustered. The peon entered with three Campa Colas and three teas on one tray. "Still," I said, immediately feeling the need to defend Congress and through it my authority, "the Congress Party is the only party that can rule India. What other party has ever been able to hold power for long. They are the only ones who have appeal all over the country. They are the only ones who have people in the villages.""Would Congress say something else?" Father Joseph smiled at me. "We'll see how many seats they get in the new elections." I don't think he had any strong political affiliations.I accepted the tea with one hand and the Campa Cola with the other, and having both hands full simultaneously made me feel greedy and crass. Mr. Gupta raised money for Congress because Congress had controlled Delhi when he started in education. Currently the BJP was very strong. To keep Mr. Gupta from defecting, Congress had given him more and more freedom. Mr. Gupta was able to grant favors to principals by carefully bribing whoever might oppose him in the BJP.Mr. Mishra slurped his Campa Cola loudly. Father Joseph glanced toward him, and Mr. Mishra smiled, revealing his teeth."Rajiv Gandhi thinks that India is his family estate. The Nehru family has controlled the Congress Party for too long. Jawaharlal Nehru, then Indira Gandhi, then Rajiv. How much longer?" Father Joseph spoke too quickly for a conversation, but not quickly enough to be obviously argumentative."And before Independence and Jawaharlal there was Motilal Nehru," Mr. Mishra said. "And every night on TV now, you see Rajiv Gandhi's daughter handing out blankets to the poor, as though she's already started campaigning for her seat." Father Joseph and Mr. Mishra both looked at me as if waiting for an answer. My helplessness began churning into anger."The Nehrus gave birth to India.""And they've been taking advantage of their child for a hundred years," Mr. Mishra responded."This is Jawaharlal's centennial anniversary," Father Joseph confirmed. "At least for one hundred years, the Nehrus have run Indian politics."I felt surrounded. "Would you rather have the BJP win?" I asked, putting my empty Campa bottle on the table. I had accepted the fact that these negotiations were going to be more about force than about delicacy. "They are the only party other than the Congress that can win the central government, and the BJP is full of Hindu fanatics. If they had their way, they would make every non-Hindu leave the country."Father Joseph shrugged and took a sip of tea. "That's not going to happen. There are too many non-Hindus in India." He paused, thought for a moment, and, as if ending the conversation, added, "What do I know about politics. I am just an ordinary headmaster."We finished our tea in silence. I did not know what to do or say to show my strength."Shall I send for more tea?" Father Joseph asked. I thought his English sentence was hiding the Hindi slang for bribe. I became outraged. He smiled broadly and I knew that he had mocked my bumbling delicacy. I cleared my throat and casually spat a clot of phlegm on the bit of rug beside my foot.Father Joseph looked at me in shock. I glanced at him and said in Hindi, "I know how much you charge students to get in here. I know the land we give you for one rupee a meter you then draw loans on for one hundred rupees a meter. You are a priest. What kind of religion do you follow?" I settled back on the sofa. Mr. Mishra had stopped smiling. "Why be greedy when there is so much.""At last," Father Joseph said, now in English."At last what? Are you still a baby after all you've done?" I asked from where I was on the sofa. "We don't sell toys."Father Joseph said nothing. He put his teacup on the table.Father Joseph had not drunk his Campa. To highlight my greed Iasked, "Can I drink yours?" He nodded and I gulped it down. "At last, little baby," I said, and stood. "Take some time and think while we go look at your school."
Mrs. Singla led us around the school. I noticed as I walked through the halls that I was holding my shoulders back and letting my arms swing free. Mr. Mishra had never seen me behave this way, and I kept catching him looking at me. I began to feel contemptuous of him. I imagined myself as ruthless and powerful. I thought of finding Asha's classroom and in front of her letting Asha's teacher know our relationship. Mrs. Singla took us to a storeroom where cricket bats and field hockey sticks lay in mounds. I asked Mrs. Singla if there were any extra badminton rackets, because I wanted to give Asha a gift. I picked up a leather cricket ball there and kept flipping it from hand to hand for the rest of the afternoon.Eventually Mr. Mishra and I were left to wander by ourselves. The school has a lift, and I like lifts very much. We rode it up and down several times. Mr. Mishra went into various classrooms and asked children random questions. "What is a binary star?" or "What does D.C. mean in Washington, D.C.?" When someone answered, he might say, "Is that what you think?" I found this hilarious.Early in the afternoon Mr. Mishra was walking down a hall about thirty or forty meters ahead of me. I called out to him. When he turned around, I held up the cricket ball and mimed bowling it. He crouched and brought his hands together as though he were a wicket keeper. I don't know what made me stop miming, but I sent the ball shooting toward him. The ball hit the ground with a loud clap and Mr. Mishra was too surprised to catch it. Each time the ball hit the ground, there was the same loud clap. The classes all along the hall became quiet. The pride which had filled me evaporated. The surprise let me feel my ridiculousness.We roamed the halls till a bell dismissed the classes. Because it was summer, the school day was shorter than normal. The childrenlined up in the front field for their buses and we went to have lunch with Father Joseph.Mrs. Singla joined us for the meal. I remained quiet. Girls from the home economics department had remained after class to serve us. There was chole bature, malai kofta, nan, rice, kheer, gajar-kahalva. Once the food was in front of us, conversation ended. Father Joseph ate with knife and fork, but everyone else used bare hands. Mr. Mishra chewed so loudly it sounded as though he might be trying to say something. Mrs. Singla ate steadily, with her head bowed. Every now and then she looked up at the ceiling, shook her head, and moaned. I yearned to stuff myself, to eat until all my blood went to my stomach and getting up would make me dizzy, but my doctor had warned me against rich foods and I barely touched the various dishes.When we were ready to leave, Mrs. Singla gave me two badminton rackets and a tube of shuttlecocks. She offered Mr. Mishra a similar set, but he said no. Mr. Mishra stood as he refused her. Then he and she moved out into the hall. I moved back to the sofa I had sat on earlier.Father Joseph went to his desk and took out two small newspaper-wrapped bundles. "Forty thousand," he said, putting them at the edge of the desk. I had only expected him to pay twenty-five or thirty. Father Joseph, I thought, was one of those people for whom money is not real, and once he had surrendered in the bargaining, he gave up completely. I picked up the packages. I pretended to weigh the money. The heft of it and the feeling of victory removed the embarrassment I had been feeling. I asked for a plastic bag."Do I need to bring a gift to Mr. Gupta's party?" Father Joseph asked and laughed as I left.
On our way back, I fell asleep. I dreamed of Radha and Anita, and when I woke I was grinding my teeth, though I could not remember the details of my dream. The back of my shirt was sticking to the seat and I had a slight headache from the sun.Mr. Mishra was looking out the window. He had finished the inspection report without my asking and it was on his lap. We were nearing my home. We had passed the Old Clock Tower and were beside the Old Vegetable Market's layers of stalls. The jeep was moving in slow shudders. Pollution had created a blue haze on the road."You don't notice it till you're away, but Delhi is so polluted it's like living inside an oil tanker," Mr. Mishra said.The dream and the money in my lap made me feel unworthy of his friendship. "Why do you think your son is so successful?" I asked him."I don't know," he said, continuing to look out the window. "Children are born with personalities. He was born determined to be successful. And he's smart.""I have a daughter who is a scientist in America. I have a son who has a Ph.D. in history. The fact that Anita never studied wasn't my fault." Saying this made me feel as though I was pleading. "My daughter Kusum has met the American President." Mentioning Kusum's achievements made me feel that perhaps she had accomplished them because she had stayed mostly outside my influence.Mr. Mishra turned toward me. "Of course not," he said.I think I was still dazed from my dream, for I kept going. "The things I do for Mr. Gupta ... I do them only because I never had a wife who works, like yours." Mr. Mishra didn't respond. "Mr. Bajwa deserved to be caught. He had a wife who worked, but he was still Mr. Gupta's moneyman. As the Gita tells, possessions possess you. To achieve peace, let go of desire and seek only to fulfill your duties." When Mr. Mishra still did not say anything, I became angry at him. "You were lucky. Your first child was a boy and you could stop right there. I had two girls and only then a boy. How could I have supported five people on my salary?"Mr. Mishra shrugged and kept quiet. We neared the temple where I was going to get the pundit for Radha's prayers. I told Narayan to stop in front. As I climbed out of the jeep with my badminton rackets and shuttlecocks, the plastic bag full of money dangling from a wrist, Mr. Mishra said, "Once we get this old, Mr.Karan, there is no longer time to make up for our mistakes. We must try to forget them."There are four or five steps up to the temple gates. To one side of the doors is a little space where a fat unshaven Brahmin with a little ponytail sits most days selling prayer pamphlets, flowers, and coconuts. When I entered the temple, he was asleep on his back, with a brick wrapped in sackcloth under his head as a pillow.The temple is set at the end of a long, narrow hallway: an open courtyard with a marble floor and walls painted saffron. There is a tulsi bush in the center. Alcoves with statues of God Ram, Hanuman, and Krishna line the wall. There was no one in the courtyard. I bowed before each of the idols and asked them to take care of Radha's soul and guard Anita and Asha. I tried asking forgiveness from God Ram, but when I attempted to name specific sins, my mind would not form the words. I put a rupee in the collection box and the silliness of this offering made me feel a sudden keen grief for Radha.After I finished praying, I knocked at a narrow blue door in a corner of the courtyard. After a moment or two, the pundit's wife, a thin seventeen-year-old named Shilpa, unchained the door. Shilpa, like the pundit, was from my village, and I had known her all her life. "Namaste, Ram Karanji," she said."Is Punditji in?""He's gone to the village. He'll be back tomorrow night, probably.""Wednesday is the first anniversary of Radha's death and I would like Punditji to pray at my home in the morning," I said. Shilpa didn't answer, and I wondered whether she thought I was neglectful for coming this late to her husband and whether she would gossip about this. "Tomorrow night he'll be back?" I asked. If the pundit turned out to be busy, I would have only Wednesday morning to find a priest.Shilpa stared at me and then, half smiling, said, "An ice-cream factory is starting in Beri and he's gone to pray for it." As she spoke, her smile opened fully. It was as though she was bragging that thepundit had moved up from blessing new scooters and new rooms in houses to blessing whole factories."I'd like him to pray at my house Wednesday morning.""I'll tell him."As I walked to our alley, I considered hiring some other pundit to pray for Radha, but Radha had believed that the prayers of a pundit who did not know the person on whose behalf he was appealing were ineffective. The idea of letting some stranger pray for her made me sad. Then I felt disgusted with my sentimentality. When she was alive, I visited prostitutes two or three times a month. It was only the trauma of the heart attack and Radha's slow death from cancer that had sapped my desire for sex.Going up our alley, I held the badminton rackets upright in one hand like a bouquet of flowers. I passed the flour mill with its roar and smell of grain burning. I passed the booth of the watch repairman, who was asleep on his stool, his head resting on the plank where he performs the repairs. Entering the dark archway that leads into our compound, I thought that all these details were part of Asha's life as well as mine, and this gave everything a purpose.
Asha squinted when she opened the door. "I woke you?" I asked, stepping into Asha and Anita's bedroom. The bedsheet was wrinkled on one side. She could have been home only an hour."What do you have?" Asha said, closing the door to keep out the heat. The only light now came through the living room."For you," I said, giving Asha the rackets and shuttlecocks."Thank you. Thank you," Asha said in Urdu as she took the gift. Asha's choice of switching to a formal language surprised me. It suggested an inner life of which I knew nothing and made me aware that all day I had been imagining her only as a witness.I sat down on their bed and took off my shoes. Asha stood before me and began swinging a racket."Maybe you can play with some of the compound children," I said. Asha laughed and nodded. "Get me some water."Asha went to the common room carrying a racket in each hand. Anita came into the bedroom doorway. She was wearing her black rectangular eyeglasses, which meant that she had been unable to nap and had been reading the paper in the kitchen. "Couldn't sleep?" I asked as I unbuttoned my shirt. When I reached the top two buttons, my hands trembled.Anita shook her head no."I went to the temple." I paused and tried thinking of a way to hide my mistake of going this late to the pundit. "Punditji's gone to Beri.""What happens now?" she said with panic in her voice."He'll be back tomorrow night.""He could stay in Beri. People might come and there'd be no pundit." Anita's body had become stiff and the lines on her forehead were sharp and deep. "Think of the shame." Although Anita had most of the responsibility for the ceremony, the strength of her response made it appear affected."I can get someone else," I said softly. "Don't worry." It took a moment for Anita's body to loosen. When the lines on her forehead had eased, I said in a light joking voice, "You're like me. Under pressure we stop thinking." Anita didn't reply.Asha came back with the glass of water. "How was school?" I asked."Good."She looked at me as I drank and I could tell that already our morning conversation and this gift had shifted our relationship. I put the glass on the ground and asked, "Your teachers don't bother you, do they?""No. I have good teachers.""It's bad to hit children." I felt silly for saying something this obvious, so I tried hiding my inanity with more words. "When I was in higher secondary, the untouchables sat in the back of the class.The teachers couldn't slap the untouchables because then they would be touching them. The untouchables knew this and would always be talking. Sometimes the teachers became very angry, and to shut up the untouchables they threw pieces of chalk at them. And the untouchables, because all the students sat on the floor, would race around on their hands and knees, dodging the chalk."When I churned my arms to show how swiftly the untouchables crawled, Asha laughed and said, "My teachers only hit with rulers." She was quiet for a moment and then spoke eagerly: "I had something happen. There's a girl in school who last week got one of those soft papers you blow your nose on. Those papers that rich people use instead of handkerchiefs in advertisements. She's been using it all week. She doesn't have a cold, but she keeps putting it in her nose. I told her today the paper was ugly. She said, 'If I throw it away, you'll take it.' I said I wouldn't, so she threw it onto the floor and waited. Two girls tried grabbing it. The one who got it blew her nose in it all day."I laughed at Asha's attention to detail and tried tickling her stomach. Asha jumped away, smiling. "Do you want to come with me to a wedding reception tonight? Since I can't eat much, I should bring someone who can." I said the last sentence because I felt I had to wheedle Anita's permission to do this. The possibility of taking Asha out of the sadness of her life and showing her all the people who knew me had come to me as I left Rosary School with the bag of money."This is Mr. Gupta's?" Anita asked."I can show her off to everybody I know.""Will there be ice cream and Campa Cola?" Asha said."You can just eat ice cream if you want."Asha giggled at the idea."How is Mr. Gupta?" Anita inquired.Mr. Gupta's son had eloped with a Sikh and this wedding party was coming after many tears and curses. "He keeps wanting to know what he did wrong." Anita sat down on a chair across from me. "I tell him it's all written in the stars.""It'll be late when you come home. Asha has school tomorrow.""We'll take an autorickshaw."Anita looked at Asha beating the air with a badminton racket. Asha was moving from side to side and talking to herself as she played an imaginary opponent. "You can't beat me."
The sun had set forty minutes earlier, and the sidewalks and road were soaked in the same even gray light. I had been so afraid of having nothing to say to Asha that ever since we got in the autorickshaw I had been unable to stop talking. "Mr. Gupta's son had gone with a friend to look at a used car and the man selling it had a daughter who gave them water. Ajay fell in love immediately," I shouted over the beating of the engine. The boy driving the three-wheeler ground gears as he sought the narrow channels of movement which kept appearing and disappearing in the traffic. "I've never seen her, but Sikh women are either very beautiful or very ugly." Asha was looking out of the autorickshaw and I wanted her to listen to me. "I actually predicted this. Long ago, when he was about to go off to college, I read his horoscope and predicted it. And then one day Mr. Gupta comes crying to me: 'Oh, Mr. Karan! I have gone bankrupt.'" Asha held her folded hands between her legs and stared at the traffic. She appeared stunned to have left the flat and to be on the way to a party. Asha wore olive shorts and a white shirt. I saw again how small her kneecaps were. I wore a blue shirt that stretched so tight across my stomach that the spaces between the buttons were puckered open like small hungry mouths. I was using cologne and wondered if Asha had noticed. "I told him, 'What use is it to cry. Pretend everything happened with your permission and that way your nose won't be cut off before everyone. People always say bad things anyway.'" As I spoke, I actually began feeling as though I were Mr. Gupta's friend. We passed through the Old Vegetable Market. The vendors were lighting the kerosene lamps, which look like ironstemmed tulips. "I am only a junior officer," I said, "but Mr. Gupta always turns to me for advice. I spend as much time in his room as I dobehind my own desk. If only Mrs. Chauduri would retire, I could be senior junior officer. She's had cancer for six years. She's worked hard. She deserves her rest. She doesn't even come into the office much. Sometimes she sends her son to pick up her files."I tried thinking of something that might interest Asha. Making cheese had become illegal a few weeks ago when the heat started and cows began giving less milk. "There are going to be cheese dishes, I'm sure. Mr. Gupta has only one son and he's a rich man. He's not going to wait for the rains to come so he can have cheese at his son's wedding reception. You want to bet how many cheese dishes there are going to be? Three? Five?"After a pause, Asha unenthusiastically guessed, "Four.""I'll bet five." When the conversation didn't move from there, I said, "There's going to be so much ice cream. Did your father buy you ice cream often?"Asha didn't answer for a moment. Then she said, "No, but I like to think he did. I like to think he would come to me from his office during recess and take me with him to drink Campa Cola."This answer struck me not as just pitiful but as frightening. To slip into fantasy like this seemed the first step into madness. Looking at Asha at that moment I felt as if I had entered my bedroom late at night and found a strange man sitting quietly on my cot. "You're imaginative," I murmured. I was silent for several minutes. We had passed Kamla Nagar and were speeding down a straight road. Lights shone from the houses and shops on either side. "Thinking these things might hurt you in some way," I told her and, putting one arm around her shoulders, pulled her to me.Strings of red and green lightbulbs fell three stories from the roof and covered the front of Mr. Gupta's house. There were cars parked on both sides of the street. There was a large fenced green across from his home. Because it is so dirty in the Old Vegetable Market that your spit always holds black grains, this park is what I always associated with Mr. Gupta's wealth and power.When Mr. Gupta joined the education department twelve yearsago, each education subject had collected its own political donations. The physical education program had always had more influence than other departments because the physical education teachers, like the captains of Calcutta's athletic clubs, have access to large pools of hooligans. Only when Rajiv Gandhi lost the prime ministership was Mr. Gupta able to consolidate fund-raising under himself in return for continued loyalty to the Congress Party.Mr. Gupta was standing at his gate, receiving visitors. The veranda behind him was crowded with guests. Waiters in red turbans and white jackets and pants moved among them carrying trays. I took Asha's hand in mine and walked up to Mr. Gupta. He was wearing a handsome blue suit and a tie flecked with yellow and blue. "This is my granddaughter, Asha," I said after he had thanked me for coming.He bowed and shook Asha's hand. "You do my house honor," he said. Asha was so surprised by his formality she moved behind me. Mr. Gupta is tall and muscular, with delicate features and hair that is just turning gray. "We have all this ice cream and cold drinks and so few children," he said seriously. "Children are the only ones who can really appreciate ice cream. Don't you think so, Mr. Karan?""I'll eat a lot," Asha promised."I know you will," Mr. Gupta said, and prodded Asha's stomach with a finger. "You're so thin you look as though you could die right here." He looked at me. "If you could, you'd bring your entire family to eat." Mr. Gupta laughed.Sisterfucker! I thought. He reached around me to shake someone's hand. Without knowing it, I put my hand on Mr. Gupta's shoulder and shouted, "Happy?" He appeared surprised. "Happy?" I bellowed again to fluster him. Mr. Gupta looked embarrassed and I felt powerful. "A gift," I said, and from my pants pocket pulled out an envelope with a hundred and one rupees."Very kind." He smiled and wrote my name on the envelope with a small pencil."Any booze tonight, Mr. Gupta? We should celebrate. Guesswhat Father Joseph gave. I will only drink foreign whiskey, though." I let my voice ring with a village accent to remind him that we were both small corrupt bureaucrats.Mr. Gupta looked confused but kept smiling. He tried leaning around me and shaking a hand. I moved into his way to tell him how much Father Joseph had given. But Mr. Gupta stopped smiling and snapped, "Just ask the waiters and they'll get it from the back."I moved onto the veranda. I stopped a waiter and asked for a whiskey and a Pepsi Lahar for Asha. Asha peered around. Her hand was so small in mine that I felt enormous.More men than usual were wearing traditional kurta pajamas instead of suits in anticipation of a BJP victory. There were perhaps a dozen Sikh men with their beards tied beneath their chin. All the Sikhs wore suits. After the thousands of Sikhs who had been set on fire and macheted to death in the riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination, some of these men must carry a constant sense of physical danger with them. What did they feel, I wondered, at seeing all these Hindus so adaptable to the possibility of BJP power?My whiskey came and I drank it in two gulps. The force of it made me shake. "Acid," I said, grinning at Asha. She was sucking her Pepsi Lahar through a straw. After she finished, she asked if she could save the straw and take it home. I felt embarrassed for her. "I'll buy you a box of straws tomorrow." I ordered another whiskey and a cold drink. "A full glass of whiskey," I said."Of course, sahib," the waiter said, and I knew he would want a tip.I saw Mrs. Chauduri moving around the veranda. She was talking and eating a samosa from a little plate and looking as if she could live forever. "Hello! Mrs. Chauduri," I shouted at her. I towed Asha behind me as I moved through the crowd. Mrs. Chauduri was wearing a purple sari that made her look like an eggplant. "What a nice sari," I said, feeling the slight anger of sycophancy and the sly joy of lying. "I hope you are better." She had had her second breast removed recently and I wondered whether her husband wasunhappy about this or whether he found some strange pleasure at seeing a scarred woman beneath him."It is as God wills," she answered, shrugging. "I have to live for my husband and sons." Whenever she talked of her illness, her voice became soft and slightly vain. The voice made me think of how when Mrs. Chauduri was a school principal she nearly ended up in jail for secretly selling ten thousand rupees' worth of her science department's mercury."God is only testing you, Mrs. Chauduri. I am sure you will be fine." She nodded and sipped her cold drink. I noticed that I was slightly aroused at the idea of what her chest, creased by the surgery, must look like. This was the first time in several months that I had had such feelings.The waiter came with my whiskey. "Reward, sir, reward," he said. "You are rich. I am poor."I avoided his eyes and praised Mrs. Chauduri for her bravery. Then I introduced Asha and asked, "Have you seen Mr. Mishra?" She hadn't. Mr. Mishra didn't like Mr. Gupta and I was glad to know that he had been brave enough not to come.Mrs. Chauduri moved closer to me. "Mr. Gupta's son is passed out drunk. That's why he isn't out shaking hands. And they can't show the girl without him." Noticing my surprise at her bitter voice, she added, "The girl's family is here. Why should their friends not get to see their daughter?" After Mr. Bajwa was charged with corruption, Mrs. Chauduri should have become Mr. Gupta's representative, but she had been passed over because she was a woman. Now she was always presenting examples of injustice against women.Asha looked bored, so we left Mrs. Chauduri and wandered through the crowd. I have no resistance to alcohol and the second drink pushed me into drunkenness. The world and my mind appeared to move at two different speeds. When I turned my head, the people before me also shifted. I introduced Asha to several people. "Isn't she beautiful?" I would challenge them. Asha smiled whenI demanded praise for her. I felt as if I could do anything and it wouldn't matter.I ordered another drink and moved with Asha into the room where the buffet was laid out. "Oh!" she said. The walls were lined with tables covered by trays laden with food. On one side of the room there were ice chests full of ice cream. As we moved around the tables, we counted the cheese dishes. Nine, not including desserts. Asha filled her plate so high, food overflowed it and dripped down her wrist. At first I felt embarrassed by her greed; then I saw a fat woman with a ring on every finger and a heavy gold necklace picking cubes of cheese out of a tray.Asha and I stood in a corner of the room and ate. It was very hot and sweat kept slipping into my eyes. But the food was so good that neither of us wanted to leave the room. I ate only a little bit, but chewed every mouthful for a long time. "Don't eat so much that you have no space for ice cream," I said to Asha.She laughed and said, "Don't worry." Asha went back for a second plate. Her blouse was tucked in and I noticed how tiny her waist was. I put my plate down. I wanted to live a long time.In the middle of the second plate, Asha suddenly turned pale. I took her to the bathroom to vomit. Then I got her a bottle of Campa Cola to rinse her mouth with. "Spit it out," I said, cupping the back of her head in my hand, "you're rich tonight."I ordered another whiskey and drank it standing beside Asha while she ate plate after plate of ice cream. There were colored sprinkles for the ice cream. "Clown dandruff," Asha called them at some point. The strength of her imagination made her appear even more valuable. I put one hand on her shoulder and pulled her next to my leg. I was so drunk I expected to feel nauseous.At some point Mr. Gupta entered the room, leading Mr. Maurya behind him. Mr. Maurya wore a plain white kurta pajama that made his black skin appear shiny I noticed that he kept pulling up his left sleeve to better display a heavy gold watch. "Then just make your mouth sweet before going," Mr. Gupta was saying. I smiled in preparationfor shaking Mr. Maurya's hand and felt myself getting nervous. I had known Mr. Maurya long before Mr. Gupta met him, when Mr. Maurya's only business was collecting used paper and turning it into bags."No, no," Mr. Maurya said, his voice loud and easy. "My doctor says I have to eat very simple things. No salt or sugar." When Mr. Maurya's eyes swept the room, they snagged on mine. He smiled and turned his attention back to Mr. Gupta. I felt myself swelling with rage. I had been the one who got Mr. Maurya appointments with school principals so that he could convince them to sell him their paper."One gulab jamun, then," Mr. Gupta said."It's only just, Mr. Maurya," I called out, "that after eating so much all our lives, our bodies stop letting us eat." My words were slurred and I couldn't even tell if they all left my mouth. Mr. Gupta glanced coldly at me. Sisterfucker! I thought, I'm the one who can go to jail. "Mr. Maurya, I hear you're the biggest textbook publisher in Delhi now.""I didn't see you, Mr. Karan," Mr. Maurya said.I walked up to him and shook his hand. "As long as one of us sees the other." Mr. Maurya was a small man. I put my hand on his shoulder and left it there. "Why don't you call me anymore?""You're drunk, Mr. Karan," Mr. Maurya said. For some reason I had expected Mr. Maurya to pretend I wasn't drunk. His words made me realize that I was unimportant.Mr. Maurya took my hand off his shoulder and held it between his two hands. He looked into my eyes. I knew he thought me a buffoon, and I knew then that the decision to have me murdered would involve for him all the emotion of changing banks. "What I meant, sir," I immediately said, "is that you should honor me with more work." I backed away, nodding my head. "It was so nice to meet you again, sir." I pulled Asha after me.I walked out of the room and out of the house. My fright had made me almost sober. I stood at the edge of the road and tried toempty my head so that I could think. Asha was leaning quietly against me. I caressed her hair and taut neck to let her know that everything was all right, but her face remained pulled in. I knelt and kissed her cheeks and neck. Her body slowly relaxed. I hugged her and looked up. The moon was full, yellow, and so low it looked as if it were wedged between two roofs. It appeared helpless and mournful. I shivered with fright.By the time we found an autorickshaw, the drunkenness had crawled back into me. Now it made me sad, not giddy. The recent embarrassment bobbed in and out of my consciousness and my stomach began turning. I wished I had drunk another whiskey.There was little traffic on the road and soon we were out of Model Town and on the main road back to the Old Vegetable Market. It was nine-thirty, but already homeless people had placed their cots along the edges of the road. The grassy swaths of land which divide the road were spotted with the stoves and dung fires of more homeless people. I pulled Asha next to me. "Did you enjoy yourself?" I asked."Yes," she said softly."Sit on my lap," I said. I put my arm around her waist. I blew softly on her neck. "Tomorrow I'll buy you some ice cream," I said. Then I was quiet for a little while. "Our house is so sad. We should be happy. I don't know why your mother wants to be so unhappy, but you and I can be happy." I kissed her neck. "I love you, my little sweet mango, and I want you to have a happy childhood. Making your childhood happy is the last thing I want to do before I die." Thinking of the nearness of my death, I felt my eyes tearing. "I wish I could watch you grow into a woman. You will be a beautiful woman."We got out of the autorickshaw and walked up our alley holding hands. There were no lights and we had to be careful not to step on dogs sleeping in the middle of the alley "Do you love me?" I asked."Yes," she said."I am such a sad bad man. Other than you no one loves me." I began sobbing gently. I picked her up and held her for a moment."You're my little mango." Asha also began crying. "I've tried to do the best I can, but I am a weak man.""I love you," Asha said."But I am such a sad bad man."I put her down and entered the courtyard of our compound. People were sitting on cots playing cards. The English news was playing on televisions. Crying all the way, we climbed the narrow stairs to the second-story gallery.When Anita opened the door and saw us, her face flattened with alarm. "What happened?""Nothing," I said. Asha stood crying softly beside me. "I began thinking of Radha and that made me sad. Asha is such a good girl she began crying with me."I left them and brushed my teeth and washed my face. I wished I had drunk more. I took off my pants and shirt, and wearing just my undershirt and undershorts, I went and sat on my cot and waited.When Asha walked past my room, I told her to get me some water. She came into my room with a glass. She was wearing a purple nightgown that went to her ankles. Her eyes were red. I was excited and even happy, but the alcohol kept me slightly removed from the moment. I took Asha's wrist in one hand as she handed me the water. "Such a good girl you are," I said. I took a sip and put the glass on the floor and pulled her toward me. I turned her to face away from me and made her stand between my legs. I kissed her neck lightly and placed my erection against the small of her back. Asha's body was relaxed, as if she didn't sense anything wrong. "I love you," I said. I brushed my penis lightly against her. Nervousness and excitement rubbed with each other. I took an earlobe between my lips. "You're my little sun-ripened mango."Suddenly Anita was in the doorway with her toothbrush clenched in one hand. For a second I panicked. I felt as if I had been kicked in the chest, and there was a rushing in my ears. But then I thought, Anita couldn't see anything. I wasn't doing anything wrong. I was not naked. Asha didn't know what I was doing. All I was doing was touching her, and without Asha knowing, I couldn'tbe doing something wrong. Anita couldn't see. I continued leaning over Asha's shoulder. "What a nice daughter you have," I said to Anita.There was no emotion on Anita's face as she stared at me. "What are you doing?" she asked me."Giving Nanaji water," Asha said.She stared at us a moment and then motioned for Asha to come to her. "Brush your teeth." Asha left me and went past her mother into the common room. Anita stayed in the doorway. I wondered whether she remembered. How could she remember after decades of silence? She kept looking at me. "I'm drunk," I said in case she remembered.Anita stepped out of the doorway and out of my sight.Copyright © 2000 by Akhil Sharma