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The Pleasure Seekers
By Tishani Doshi
Copyright © 2010 Tishani Doshi
All right reserved.
Chapter One Departures and Depositories of Deceit
In the early hours of 20 August 1968, the morning of his son's departure, Prem Kumar Patel succumbed to a luxury he had never, in all his forty-seven years of living, experienced before: he had a dream. It was a long, terrible dream that seemed to take him back to the coils of his mother's womb and hurl him to the end of his life, to a valley submerged in ice. In this dream Prem Kumar was climbing mountains, trying to find his wife and four children. They were lost to him in a strange kingdom where men carried the ghosts of ancestors on their backs and women hid in trees, throwing poison-tipped arrows. Prem Kumar, standing in front of a great wooden doorway, could hear his children screaming. Babo, especially; his eldest, who was cold and wanted extra blankets to sleep, who wasn't used to this bite in the air that was making him turn from a dark shade of walnut to a pasty pistachio. Babo kept calling out to Prem Kumar, Why did you send me here? Why did you send me away? And the other children — Meenal, Dolly and Chotu, cried in chorus after him, Why did you send him away? Why did you send our brother away?
All morning, while on the other side of the world Soviet tanks invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Prem Kumar Patel lay corpse-still on his back in Madras, South India, watching as his entire life passed before him in a series of silvered, fleeting scenes. He saw his white-haired mother on the front steps of her house in Ganga Bazaar, peeling mangoes for grandchildren that hadn't been born yet. He saw jackals roaming the rubble-strewn streets of a city laid to waste. He saw burnings and soarings, a celestial aeroplane descending from the sky. He saw things that couldn't possibly have happened but bore a resemblance to reality that frightened him so much he had to turn to his wife lying beside him and suck on her breasts of wondrous light. He wanted to ask what these portents meant, but Trishala, slapping her husband's mouth irritably away, wanted nothing to do with it. 'Get off, get off,' she said. 'What's the matter with you? Bothering me so early in the morning.' And she pulled the sheets from him, wrapping them around the large mass of her body, preferring to stay cocooned in a dreamland of her own making.
When Prem Kumar finally woke to the event of Babo's leaving, it was with dark circles under his eyes and the wide expanse of his nose rutted with a rash of mosquito bites. From the distance, he could hear his neighbour Darayus Mazda's daily morning balcony diatribe: Oh! They are breaking me into pieces. My family is breaking me into pieces. They want to send me to the Towers of Silence before my time. Won't someone save me from their wickedness ... And on and on and on, till Prem Kumar, for the first time in their neighbourly association, wanted to walk over and reassure his Parsi kinsman in suffering that no one was trying to do away with him; that in fact, it was he, Prem Kumar, who was the target of a far greater suffering.
Prem Kumar was not a sentimental man, but he was religious, and he believed in retribution. For him, this event of Babo's departure was much more than just an investment in the Patel family future. It was about his personal dharma, his responsibility. Babo, who had graduated with honours in chemistry from Jain College, was going to be the first member of their community to further his education by studying abroad. Babo, at the breathtaking age of twenty-one, was also going to be the first person in their immediate family to fly on a plane all the way to London.
At the beginning of the year, Prem Kumar had written to the offices of Joseph Friedman & Sons in London, from whom he imported coloured cement and raw materials, asking if his son, who was going to be taking evening classes at the City & Guild Borough Polytechnic, could get some practical training under their auspices during the day. Fred Hallworth, who was the man in charge of exports, had written back saying that they would be delighted to have young Dharmesh Patel working at their offices in Wandsworth, that they could offer him a weekly salary of £10 15s and would furthermore be able to give him Wednesdays off so he could finish his course at the Polytechnic sooner.
These provisions are more than adequate, Prem Kumar replied, And I can only hope that with this new venture, our partnership will grow from strength to strength. A month later, a letter arrived from the Chairman's office saying that a work permit was being organized for Babo, and that if anything else needed to be arranged, the company would be more than happy to help.
All this was cause for a great swelling in Prem Kumar's chest. Ever since the Indian government had banned imports on finished products in an effort to encourage home industry, Prem Kumar had been dreaming of opening his own specialized paint factory: Patel & Sons, where Babo, with his foreign-acquired knowledge, and Chotu, under his brother's guidance, could steer the Patel family towards a stable, lucrative future. Prem Kumar had already raced ahead in time. He could see it now: the labels on the paint cans, the logo, the motto, the workers scurrying in and out noiselessly like ants, filing cabinets filled with account books in his careful, crested handwriting, showing rising profits year after year.
Prem Kumar indulged in this dreaming even as he sat solemnly beneath the sign that he had lovingly tacked above his current desk in his early idealistic years:
PLEASE TALK OF BUSINESS, FINISH YOUR BUSINESS, AND LEAVE THE MAN TO ATTEND TO HIS BUSINESS.
Only later, much later, on the day of the dreaded telegram, nine months after Babo left Madras on that nearly rainy day in August 1968, would Prem Kumar begin to understand the dangerous implications of his idle daydreaming. He'd realize that he was being punished for his own duplicity: for dreaming of the future when he should have been attending to the present.
On the morning of Babo's departure, when Prem Kumar hauled his struggling body out on to the veranda to join the rest of his family, he kept quiet about his dream. He didn't tell Trishala about it — not in the months of silence during her illness, not even when she lay delirious on her deathbed, demanding to know the ways in which he'd been unfaithful to her. Because Prem Kumar didn't believe in superstitions or spiritly visitations. After Trishala died, of course, he found he couldn't sleep at nights; he was restless, doomed to listen to religious songs blaring into his ears from his Walkman because he missed his wife's extravagant presence beside him, and because, after his first and only dream, he dreaded the consequences of another.
Prem Kumar had to live with the guilt that if only he'd shared his dream with his wife, she would never have allowed their son to fly away on that fateful day. But as it was, he stood with the rest of the family, watching Babo as he walked out in his new, over-starched Jamal's suit, smiling at all the world with his jhill mill gleaming teeth, completely innocent of the tumultuous changes his departure was going to bring upon them all.
The drive to the Madras Meenambakkam Airport was mostly sullen. Chotu, Prem Kumar's youngest child, sat squeezed in the front seat between his father and the driver, sulking furiously because he was about to lose one of the things he was most passionate about — his older brother, (the other being the more steadfast game of cricket). In the back, Trishala and Babo occupied places of importance by the windows, while the girls, Meenal and Dolly, tried to find comfortable positions between them. Once in a while, Prem Kumar would yell, 'Watch out! Can't you see where you're going?' or 'Mind the cow!' to the taxi driver, but otherwise, it was all silence.
Babo, looking out of the window, was watching the patterns the recent puddles had made in the streets. It had been raining in Madras for two weeks, but this morning the sky seemed to be holding its breath, as if in reverence to this momentous occasion.
'Papa,' Babo said, as if the thought had just occurred to him, 'In England, when people ask me what caste I am, what shall I tell them?'
'You'll explain exactly what you are — that you are the son of Prem Kumar Patel, grandson of Shantilal Kumar Patel, great-grandson of Kunthinath Paras Kumar Patel.'
'And if they ask me what religion I follow?'
'Then you'll tell them that you are a dedicated and practising Jain. And just like the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi, you are a believer in ahimsa, and in the equality of all souls.'
Yes, Babo thought, that is what I will tell them if they ask.
'Chotu,' he said, reaching over to pat his eleven-year-old brother on the head, 'Do you think one day you too will go to England to study?'
'Of course, bhai. I'm going to grow up and become a paint maker just like you and papa.'
With that settled, Babo leaned back in his seat, smiling, thinking things were exactly as they should be. As they drove through the tree-lined avenues of Madras, Babo noticed how the flower-sellers were already out, stringing jasmine and marigold for the housewives who would come by after their chores to offer morning prayers at the temple. The coffee and tea makers in the little shanty stands like Balaji Snacks and Hot Point were busy too, as were the newspaper sellers and the early morning walkers. Madras was alive, singing and dancing like the oil on the surface of the low-lying puddles, quivering with delicate rainbows. Babo saw a young girl riding on the back of her father's bicycle. She wore a bright pink dress with silver anklets around her bare feet, and to Babo, she looked like a princess being guided by a troubadour through the deep forests of morning.
He watched her as he watched everything, knowing it would be a long time before he saw any of it again. But after half an hour of mustering up such an intense look of concentration on his face, Babo felt himself being assailed by a great and sudden need for sleep.
Prem Kumar, still irritated with his sleepless night, noticed with distaste that the dashboard of the Ambassador was cluttered with pictures of gods: Baby Krishna, Jesus Christ, Guru Nanak, Gautham Buddha, even Lord Mahavir — the twenty-fourth thirthankara and Great Hero of the Jain religion; they were all lined up, side-to-side, shimmering in gaudy benevolence. The taxi driver, who was obviously trying to cover all bases by appeasing the gods simultaneously, had already infuriated Prem Kumar by smoking bidi after bidi at the gates of Sylvan Lodge, leaving poor Selvam, their half-blind watchman, to pack the luggage in the car. Clearly, he was a fellow who completely lacked any grasp of Right Thought, Right Action or Right Understanding — the basic tenets of the Jain faith that Prem Kumar had tried to instil in all his children but particularly in Babo.
Sometimes it seemed to Prem Kumar that Babo came from a different family. He never openly mocked his father or disagreed with him, but Prem Kumar knew for a fact that his son did not pray, did not recite Navkar Mantra thrice a day (which was the minimum number prescribed), did not believe in ideas of penance and certainly didn't believe in the idea of denying the self pleasure.
Once, when Babo was twelve, he rounded up all the neighbourhood children and his siblings (including two-year-old Chotu, whom he carried on his back), and walked them five kilometres to Marina Beach, thinking it would be a grand idea to go out to sea with the fishermen in their catamarans, and to swim with dolphins. When Trishala returned to Sylvan Lodge from her shopping to find her children disappeared, she began a stupendous wailing at the gates with all the other neighbourhood mothers joining in, thinking that demons and asuras had collectively carried their children away. Hours later, when Babo finally returned like Alexander the Great crossing the River Jhelum to conquer King Porus with an army of brown-faced children burned by the midday sun — their clothes wet from sea water, their pockets full of shells — Prem Kumar, who had been summoned back from work, took his son upstairs and gave him the whipping of his life. Trishala went to him later of course, with soft words, saying that as Babo was the eldest, he was the vehicle for all Prem Kumar's aspirations; it was his responsibility to guide the younger ones, not to tickle their fancies and imaginations. She tried to feed him the samosas she'd prepared for him tenderly with her fingers, but Babo became a wall of stone. He bore his grudges like a turtle — for ever. He'd pretend to shrug them off and carry on as if everything were normal, but inside he never forgot things, especially actions that were charged against him unjustly. There were stores of memories just like this one, that he kept locked inside his chest, which remained like fresh wounds on the surface of his body.
Despite all their differences, though, Prem Kumar knew his son was a good boy. That at least he believed in ahimsa — nonviolence to all living beings, and the idea of truth — because it was the most important idea of all. According to Prem Kumar, everyone had to find their own truth, for without it, life would remain a useless circle of deception and conflict. If one had the wisdom to follow this truth, then one could hope to break the bonds that tied one to the suffering of this world, and attain moksha — the final liberation. But the problem with the young, thought Prem Kumar, was that they were unwavering in the idea of their own invincibility.
Prem Kumar glanced back at Babo, who was on his way to finding out all these things, whose head was nodding against the glass of the window — knock knock knock. And in an extraordinarily open gesture of love, he looked at his sleeping son and smiled.
At the airport the family disembarked, carrying their allotted pieces of luggage. Dolly and Meenal stood in matching green checked maxis and blouses, holding the getting-ready-for-camera gear: talcum powder, comb, mirror, hand towel. Chotu stood separately with the basket of snacks and tea flask, staring at the ground so he would not shame himself by crying in public like his sisters. Trishala was pushing through the crowds in her new maroon sari and matching maroon glasses, balancing rose garlands in one hand and puja tray in the other, hollering at the girls to hurry behind her and stay close. Prem Kumar, pulling crisp notes out of his wallet, was lecturing the taxi driver on the ill consequences of smoking, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for another lazy, unreliable man — Lilaj-bhai, who had been hired to take photographs of Babo's going-away ceremony.
Babo was being preened, made to stand in the light for the photograph session. Meenal was fussing with his hair, trying to get his curls to stay in place. Meenal: second in line, quietest of all four children, given to short bursts of emotion and long periods of introspection, weeping copious tears, as was the tradition of all Patel women when it came to interactions with their men.
'You won't forget about us, will you, bhai?' she said, picking up his hand and stroking the chunky gold ring on his left finger, which she'd given him the night before on Trishala's instruction.
'Don't be silly,' said Babo, just as he'd said the night before when Meenal had found him on the terrace, sneaking his last fag of the day. 'I wish I could forget about you,' he'd said, 'but I've lived with you for nineteen years now, so it looks like we're stuck for life, doesn't it?'
When he saw Meenal's well-powdered face shrink like a deflated balloon, he'd immediately reached out to pull her plaits and said, 'Oy, sour puss, why all this drama bazi? Didn't I promise to write to you?'
'And to Falguni,' Meenal replied, tittering.
Babo had been thinking of Falguni when Meenal had burst in on him. He had fallen in love with her during the festival of Navratri, when for nine consecutive nights, all the people of their community, young and old, gathered in a large hall to celebrate and worship the three supreme aspects of the Goddess Durga. The religious significance was lost on Babo. For him, it was enough to celebrate. It was also one of the few legitimate ways to meet a girl.
Excerpted from The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi Copyright © 2010 by Tishani Doshi. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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